Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 1, 2013

Hillel’s BDS Battle and Anti-Semitism

To listen to the arguments put forward by Harvard students to create what they call an “open Hillel,” their fight with the national Hillel group is about the right of young Jews to free association. The students say that rules mandating that the organization not partner with groups that support BDS—the anti-Zionist campaign that aims to boycott, disinvest and sanction the State of Israel—or host speakers that advocate such measures are unfair and limit their ability to have dialogue with Palestinians. To the thinking of the Progressive Jewish Alliance that is, according to the Forward, organizing the campaign against Hillel, such rules “stifle discourse” and discriminate against those who disagree with Israeli policies.

But this controversy isn’t about the deadening hand of a Jewish establishment determined, as leftists claim, to silence dissenters. Any Hillel branch that regards groups that are struggling to destroy Israel in this manner would in essence be declaring their neutrality not only about the continuation of the Zionist enterprise but that they can no longer be counted among those prepared to bear witness against the discriminatory ideology at the heart of the drive for BDS. Those who wage war on one people and deny the same rights they readily concede to any other group are advocating a form of bias. Such a bias when directed against Jews has a name: anti-Semitism.

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To listen to the arguments put forward by Harvard students to create what they call an “open Hillel,” their fight with the national Hillel group is about the right of young Jews to free association. The students say that rules mandating that the organization not partner with groups that support BDS—the anti-Zionist campaign that aims to boycott, disinvest and sanction the State of Israel—or host speakers that advocate such measures are unfair and limit their ability to have dialogue with Palestinians. To the thinking of the Progressive Jewish Alliance that is, according to the Forward, organizing the campaign against Hillel, such rules “stifle discourse” and discriminate against those who disagree with Israeli policies.

But this controversy isn’t about the deadening hand of a Jewish establishment determined, as leftists claim, to silence dissenters. Any Hillel branch that regards groups that are struggling to destroy Israel in this manner would in essence be declaring their neutrality not only about the continuation of the Zionist enterprise but that they can no longer be counted among those prepared to bear witness against the discriminatory ideology at the heart of the drive for BDS. Those who wage war on one people and deny the same rights they readily concede to any other group are advocating a form of bias. Such a bias when directed against Jews has a name: anti-Semitism.

Were Hillel to back down on this issue it would not be a victory for free speech or free association. Rather, it would mean the most important Jewish campus organization would be signaling that the war on Israel is neither hateful nor worth opposing. BDS is, after all, not just a point of view about the settlements or borders or the peace process. It is an economic war on Israel whose purpose is not an alleged reformation of its policies but a desire to bring it to its knees and hasten its destruction. It is an attempt to deny to the one Jewish state in the world the right to self-determination and self-defense in the face of armed foes who threaten it with terror and violence.

It needs to be understood that this is a very different argument from those that have divided many Jews in this country about the peace process. Groups like J Street and other left-wing critics of the current Israeli government may take a point of view about the country that is harmful as well as based in a poor understanding of the realities of the Middle East. Those who think Israel should be pressured from abroad in order to make concessions that are opposed by the country’s democratically elected government and the vast majority of its citizens are doing something shameful. But so long as they continue to support the right of Israel to exist and to defend itself and oppose those who seek to wage war on it, such groups must still be considered as having not crossed an important line between legitimate dissent and actions that are beyond the pale of communal conduct.

This debate is illustrative of the fact that there is a point of view prevalent in contemporary Jewish life that views any attempt to draw lines between those inside the community and those outside it as illegitimate. It values inclusiveness above Judaism, Jewish values and even Jewish survival. It fetishizes dialogue with all comers as the supreme good even if such encounters serve only to legitimize forces that are serve as fronts for those who wish to destroy the Jewish state.

The increasing acceptance of this frame of reference about Jewish life is a dangerous development for an American Jewish community that has spent the last two generations faltering in its effort to maintain itself against the ravages of assimilation. While the idea of welcoming everyone fits in nicely with our pluralistic American ethos, a community that is defined primarily by inclusiveness is one that stands for nothing. Such a community is not only unsustainable; it may not be worth saving.

But the application of the principle of inclusiveness to BDS supporters takes this trend to a new low. It is one thing to say Jews may believe anything about their faith or support any political point of view. It is quite another to say that there is nothing amiss with a nominally Jewish group that is neutral about the war on the Jewish state.

Any student who believes that being “progressive” requires them to be open to working with BDS supporters fundamentally misunderstands not only liberalism but the intent of Israel’s foes. Neutrality toward BDS is no different than neutrality toward beliefs that stigmatize Jews. What these students don’t understand that is that their fight for an “open Hillel” means giving a pass to hate.

It is up to Hillel to resist this attempt to transform a Jewish campus group into a beachhead for those who make common cause with these anti-Semites. Inclusiveness is not an excuse for acquiescing to an ideology of hatred. There is no alternative but for Hillel and its supporters to stand their ground and to help Jewish students find the courage to stand up against the enemies of their people.

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The Untold Story of the Illegal Immigration Debate

While I favor a (difficult but achievable) path to legal status and citizenship for illegal immigrants in America, it also seems to me to be a good idea to build a fence/wall on the southern border, both for substantive and symbolic reasons. That is, I believe doing so would make crossing the border to America both more difficult (as it should be) and signal to undocumented workers that America is a sovereign nation that takes its sovereignty seriously.

Still, we need to bear in mind what the facts of the situation are when it comes to illegal immigration. And here Linda Chavez’s recent essay in COMMENTARY is helpful, including this:

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While I favor a (difficult but achievable) path to legal status and citizenship for illegal immigrants in America, it also seems to me to be a good idea to build a fence/wall on the southern border, both for substantive and symbolic reasons. That is, I believe doing so would make crossing the border to America both more difficult (as it should be) and signal to undocumented workers that America is a sovereign nation that takes its sovereignty seriously.

Still, we need to bear in mind what the facts of the situation are when it comes to illegal immigration. And here Linda Chavez’s recent essay in COMMENTARY is helpful, including this:

illegal immigration actually peaked during the boom of the late 1990s, after which it declined almost steadily except for a one-year increase in 2004, after President Bush raised the issue of granting amnesty to illegal immigrants. Today, illegal immigration is at its lowest since 1972. Indeed, more Mexican immigrants are now leaving the country than coming here, with net immigration from Mexico below zero for the first time since the racially motivated mass deportations of Mexicans (some of them U.S. citizens) during the 1930s. And, though conservatives are loath to acknowledge it, President Obama has deported more illegal immigrants than any president in modern history.

The Obama administration in fact deported a record 410,000 people in 2012–an increase of more than a quarter from 2007.

The largely untold story of the immigration debate, then, is that in the last few years–thanks to the efforts first of President Bush and now President Obama, as well as border state governors–we’ve seen a massive increase in border enforcement. The southern border is as protected as it has ever been. That development, along with a weak economy, has led to a net outflow of people from the U.S. to Mexico. That hasn’t happened in 40 years.  

I mention all that because if you listen to some critics of comprehensive immigration reform, they speak as if (a) nothing has been done to secure the border and (b) the flood of illegal immigrants to America has never been higher. That simply isn’t true. The situation, in fact, is more nearly the opposite.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take reasonable steps to do even more to secure our border. But the debate would be helped if it were informed by the reality on the ground, not claims firmly rooted in mid-air.

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Report: Security Cameras Not Working When Embassy Attacked

According to the Hurriyet Daily News:

Security cameras were not recording at the moment of the blast due to a power outage in the area, according to claims. It is not clear whether or not the embassy building was the only building experiencing the outage, Hürriyet reported on its website. Officials from the company that is responsible for the the capital’s power are reportedly at the scene as well.

It is surprising–and a significant vulnerability–that security cameras would be dependent upon the local power supply, rather than an independent source. Benghazi revealed serious flaws which had developed in embassy and consulate security during the past four years and perhaps before. It seems, however, that Benghazi exposed only some of the complacency which has developed.

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According to the Hurriyet Daily News:

Security cameras were not recording at the moment of the blast due to a power outage in the area, according to claims. It is not clear whether or not the embassy building was the only building experiencing the outage, Hürriyet reported on its website. Officials from the company that is responsible for the the capital’s power are reportedly at the scene as well.

It is surprising–and a significant vulnerability–that security cameras would be dependent upon the local power supply, rather than an independent source. Benghazi revealed serious flaws which had developed in embassy and consulate security during the past four years and perhaps before. It seems, however, that Benghazi exposed only some of the complacency which has developed.

It is fortunate that no Americans were killed in the attack–although two Turkish security guards were reportedly killed and a Turkish journalist wounded. That we got relatively lucky, however, should not stop senators from asking what good are security cameras when they are only as reliable as local power and when terrorists could very easily cut the lines.

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An Inadequate Contraception Compromise

Last year’s Supreme Court decision declaring ObamaCare constitutional ensured that the massive expansion of government power would go forward, but it did not remove all legal challenges to the legislation. Religious organizations rightly objected to the bill’s mandate that even those who objected on religious grounds had to pay for services that violated their beliefs. Opponents of the mandate were falsely portrayed last year as taking part in a Republican “war on women” that helped whip up support for President Obama and the Democrats. Yet Church groups and others who opposed being compelled to pay for abortion drugs and contraception services rejected those slurs and challenged the mandate in court with lawsuits that were proceeding with mixed success.

But after today, some of those suits will be dropped after the White House announced a limited retreat on the issue. According to reports, the administration will no longer insist that religious non-profits observe the mandate or be in any way made to pay for services that offend their consciences. This is very good news for church institutions that were not previously exempted. But it is by no means the end of the story. Under the revised rules, individual business owners—such as those who run the Hobby Lobby store chain—who similarly object on religious grounds, are still liable to ruinous penalties amounting to millions of dollars. This amounts to a cribbed definition of religious freedom that limits its expressions only to non-profits and houses of worship, but forces all others to bend to the dictates of the federal government even at the cost of their right to practice their faith.

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Last year’s Supreme Court decision declaring ObamaCare constitutional ensured that the massive expansion of government power would go forward, but it did not remove all legal challenges to the legislation. Religious organizations rightly objected to the bill’s mandate that even those who objected on religious grounds had to pay for services that violated their beliefs. Opponents of the mandate were falsely portrayed last year as taking part in a Republican “war on women” that helped whip up support for President Obama and the Democrats. Yet Church groups and others who opposed being compelled to pay for abortion drugs and contraception services rejected those slurs and challenged the mandate in court with lawsuits that were proceeding with mixed success.

But after today, some of those suits will be dropped after the White House announced a limited retreat on the issue. According to reports, the administration will no longer insist that religious non-profits observe the mandate or be in any way made to pay for services that offend their consciences. This is very good news for church institutions that were not previously exempted. But it is by no means the end of the story. Under the revised rules, individual business owners—such as those who run the Hobby Lobby store chain—who similarly object on religious grounds, are still liable to ruinous penalties amounting to millions of dollars. This amounts to a cribbed definition of religious freedom that limits its expressions only to non-profits and houses of worship, but forces all others to bend to the dictates of the federal government even at the cost of their right to practice their faith.

It needs to be restated that one needn’t share the views of the Catholic Church about contraception or abortion to understand that what is at stake here is a principle of religious freedom that ought not to be sacrificed. The notion of universal and free contraception insurance coverage may be popular and even desirable for those who have no qualms about the government’s intrusion into this sphere of the economy or the consequent ruinous costs to both the taxpayers and the healthcare system. But however much the idea of free contraception appeals to some people, it is not a constitutional right. Nor is it a value that ought to trump the primary guarantees of the First Amendment that protect liberty of faith.

The White House retreat on the issue to the extent of exempting church institutions including schools is a sign of progress. It’s also intended to separate the church from individual believers whose rights will not be protected by this compromise. The church has been wrongly portrayed as trying to thwart the availability of contraception even though it is doing no such thing. The point of the administration’s campaign on this issue was not, as they claimed, to protect the health of women but to demonize those who stood up for their rights. But however much this retreat will be welcomed, it should not cause those who have fought this mandate to back down from their efforts to ensure that all believers and not just those registered as non-profits are allowed to opt out of a system that tramples on their faith.

At the core of this struggle is the question of whether a government that has given itself more power has the right to run roughshod over the First Amendment in order to satisfy the liberal ambition to move toward a national health care system. Religious freedom does not consist merely of the right to preach in churches or synagogues, but in allowing those who believe to fully participate in society. If the mandate tramples faith by individuals in this manner, it means that faith is no longer welcome in the public square but instead must be segregated and confined to houses of worship. Though the church is happily no longer in peril of such compulsion, others remain in the government’s cross hairs. Their challenge should continue and be rewarded with success in the courts.

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The UNHRC’s Omissions and Assumptions

Evelyn Gordon rightly highlights the unique treatment Israel receives at the United Nation’s Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and she is right that Western governments should “insist that the council’s systemic denial of Israel’s rights come to an end.”

For those who want to see just how skewed the UNHRC’s report is, this AIJAC analysis of the report should be a must read. The whole thing is worth a read, both as a Cliff’s Notes to the report itself, and a rebuttal to some of the more egregious statements and omissions.

Just a few highlights:

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Evelyn Gordon rightly highlights the unique treatment Israel receives at the United Nation’s Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and she is right that Western governments should “insist that the council’s systemic denial of Israel’s rights come to an end.”

For those who want to see just how skewed the UNHRC’s report is, this AIJAC analysis of the report should be a must read. The whole thing is worth a read, both as a Cliff’s Notes to the report itself, and a rebuttal to some of the more egregious statements and omissions.

Just a few highlights:

4. Significant omissions

4.1. Security measures

The Report discusses at length the impact of various measures, such as movement restrictions and the construction of the security barrier in the West Bank. These measures are in place to prevent terrorist attacks against Israelis - a fact that the Report utterly failed to note. In fact, that Israel has been subject to attacks by Palestinians is not mentioned once in the entire document.

4.2. West Bank legal system

A substantial amount of the alleged human rights abuses in the Report are due to the application of the Jordanian legal system in the West Bank, largely as it existed when Israel took control in 1967. The Report does not at any stage explain why Israel is implementing that system - which is in fact required under the laws of belligerent occupation.

Were Israel to cease implementing that system, it would be in breach of its obligations under international humanitarian law. Furthermore, whenever the possibility of Israel substantially amending that system is raised, Israel is condemned for attempting to annex the West Bank by imposing its own legal system. If continuing to apply the Jordanian legal system is against international law, Israel is caught in a Hellerian Catch-22.

5. Direct inconsistencies

5.1. Location of settlements

In some instances, the Report directly contradicts its own findings. For example, at one stage, the Report states that:

‘Settlements are generally located amongst the more vulnerable sections of Palestinian society, predominantly agrarian villages’ (at [18]).

Then in the next paragraph, the Report notes that:

The Mission heard that settlers can broadly be divided into three categories. Those who have moved on quality of life grounds and live in settlements close to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv…

 

8. Incorrect or unverified research

8.1. Water resources

The Report alleges that:

The settlements, including the associated restrictions, impede Palestinian access to and control over their natural resources. The Secretary General has noted that “Palestinians have virtually no control over the water resources in the West Bank” (at [36])…

The reference given for this is a 2012 report by the Secretary-General of the UN, which in turn referred to a 2004 report by the Economic and Social Council…

So in a seven year game of “Chinese Whispers” at the UN, Israel planning to build a barrier in a route incorporating most of an aquifer system that provides 51% of the West Bank’s water became the Palestinians having ‘virtually no control over the water resources in the West Bank’. 

Additionally, the route of the barrier as it currently stands has been substantially altered since the 2004 plan, but the Mission apparently did not think that it was worth checking if the actual route incorporated the same land.

8.3. Israel’s establishment

The Report claims that:

The “Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel” is issued. It equates Eretz-Israel (in Hebrew “the Land of Israel”) to the territory of British Mandate Palestine, in contrast to the provisions of 1947 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 on the partition of the British Mandate of Palestine into two Independent Arab and Jewish States (at p23).

This allegation is unfounded and entirely incorrect. In fact, the Declaration specifically provides that:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL is prepared to cooperate with the agencies and representatives of the United Nations in implementing the resolution of the General Assembly of the 29th November, 1947.

The whole thing is not only worth reading, but should also be in any policymakers’ reference file. Kudos to AIJAC.

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Obama’s Pivot Away from Jobs

It hasn’t been a good week in economic news. Earlier this week we learned that the GDP contracted. John Steele Gordon wrote at the time: “The GDP shrank in the last quarter of 2012, declining a small 0.1 percent. While that is minimal, it is the first negative quarter since the second quarter of 2009 and a sharp slowdown from the 3.1 percent growth in the third quarter.” Today he wrote about the disappointing jobs numbers, which showed low growth and a slightly higher unemployment rate. 

It’s interesting that this week, in light of all of this economic doom and gloom, that the Obama administration has decided to layoff its long-defunct Jobs Council, which was set to expire this week. Don’t worry about these layoffs, however, as the Council was composed of business and labor leaders–they all have day jobs to fall back on. The Council hasn’t met for over a year and served more as a photo opportunity than an actual working group–while photos were quick to emerge from the meetings, recommendations, reports and accomplishments never quite made it out. One member of the Council, Intel’s CEO Paul Otellini, didn’t exactly have much confidence in the president last year, as he publicly endorsed his Republican opponent Mitt Romney.

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It hasn’t been a good week in economic news. Earlier this week we learned that the GDP contracted. John Steele Gordon wrote at the time: “The GDP shrank in the last quarter of 2012, declining a small 0.1 percent. While that is minimal, it is the first negative quarter since the second quarter of 2009 and a sharp slowdown from the 3.1 percent growth in the third quarter.” Today he wrote about the disappointing jobs numbers, which showed low growth and a slightly higher unemployment rate. 

It’s interesting that this week, in light of all of this economic doom and gloom, that the Obama administration has decided to layoff its long-defunct Jobs Council, which was set to expire this week. Don’t worry about these layoffs, however, as the Council was composed of business and labor leaders–they all have day jobs to fall back on. The Council hasn’t met for over a year and served more as a photo opportunity than an actual working group–while photos were quick to emerge from the meetings, recommendations, reports and accomplishments never quite made it out. One member of the Council, Intel’s CEO Paul Otellini, didn’t exactly have much confidence in the president last year, as he publicly endorsed his Republican opponent Mitt Romney.

James Pethokoukis, a leading economics blogger for AEI, discussed the decision to close the Council yesterday, highlighting several charts that showcase why the mission to improve the employment picture is far from accomplished. As Pethokoukis shows, beyond the GDP and jobs numbers, there are a number of indicators that the economy is stagnating at best. What is inexplicable is why the Obama administration has decided to pivot from the precarious economic situation for millions of Americans to instead focus on immigration and gun control. 

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Why We Should Care About the Menendez Scandal

This ought to have been a happy time for New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. The Democrat who was re-elected easily last November is succeeding John Kerry as chairman of the important Foreign Relations Committee. That should afford him the opportunity to continue to cement his role as a major player in the Senate. Given Menendez’s strong support for Israel and his willingness to stand up to the administration on issues like Iran sanctions, his elevation was seen as an improvement over Kerry even by many Republicans. But instead of basking in the glow of his rise to new prominence the senator is spending his time dodging the press and refusing to answer questions about his efforts to help the business of a wealthy donor and his alleged participation in sex parties with prostitutes that were hosted by his friend.

The story mixes the more mundane ethical questions about how far politicians are prepared to go to help their donors and the free stuff they get in return–including flights and vacations in the Dominican Republic that Menendez has already been hounded into paying for. But when the free stuff includes sex with underage prostitutes, as the Daily Caller has reported, then it becomes a toxic mix of good government concerns and tabloid sensationalism.

All this places Menendez in the soup and makes his otherwise charmed existence a living hell so long as the press is interested in pursuing the story. But, if there are no real consequences, either in terms of prosecution or political retribution for the senator, it is entirely possible that once the dust settles he will remain in his seat and continue on as if nothing had happened. If so, is this just a matter of political business as usual and a partisan press dredging up a salacious story to embarrass a public figure? That may be what Menendez and those spinning for him will tell us, but there is more here at stake than his fate. Though there are many examples of the public giving ethically challenged politicians a pass, that doesn’t mean we should tolerate this sort of behavior.

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This ought to have been a happy time for New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. The Democrat who was re-elected easily last November is succeeding John Kerry as chairman of the important Foreign Relations Committee. That should afford him the opportunity to continue to cement his role as a major player in the Senate. Given Menendez’s strong support for Israel and his willingness to stand up to the administration on issues like Iran sanctions, his elevation was seen as an improvement over Kerry even by many Republicans. But instead of basking in the glow of his rise to new prominence the senator is spending his time dodging the press and refusing to answer questions about his efforts to help the business of a wealthy donor and his alleged participation in sex parties with prostitutes that were hosted by his friend.

The story mixes the more mundane ethical questions about how far politicians are prepared to go to help their donors and the free stuff they get in return–including flights and vacations in the Dominican Republic that Menendez has already been hounded into paying for. But when the free stuff includes sex with underage prostitutes, as the Daily Caller has reported, then it becomes a toxic mix of good government concerns and tabloid sensationalism.

All this places Menendez in the soup and makes his otherwise charmed existence a living hell so long as the press is interested in pursuing the story. But, if there are no real consequences, either in terms of prosecution or political retribution for the senator, it is entirely possible that once the dust settles he will remain in his seat and continue on as if nothing had happened. If so, is this just a matter of political business as usual and a partisan press dredging up a salacious story to embarrass a public figure? That may be what Menendez and those spinning for him will tell us, but there is more here at stake than his fate. Though there are many examples of the public giving ethically challenged politicians a pass, that doesn’t mean we should tolerate this sort of behavior.

In the past few years, there are some examples of politicians who paid with their careers for misbehavior. Eliot Spitzer felt compelled to resign when his patronage of high-end prostitutes was revealed. Representative Chris Lee, a Western New York Republican, was more or less thrown out of Congress by John Boehner after he was outed for doing some online philandering, including a shirtless photo. More memorably, Anthony Weiner resigned after his bizarre practice of sending naked photos of himself to women via Twitter was uncovered.

Of the three, only Lee could be said to have lost his career simply because of misconduct. Spitzer’s attempts to cover his tracks involved money laundering. Had he been on the other side of the bar in this case, the former prosecutor would almost certainly have insisted on indicting anyone who did the same; but fortunately for him, the authorities contented themselves with his resignation. Weiner’s weeks of public lying about the case and his false accusations that the late Andrew Breitbart concocted the story was more culpable than his strange doings.

Others have been luckier. Louisiana Senator David Vitter was twice linked to prostitution but refused to resign. That may have something to do with his state’s somewhat liberal approach to ethics, and the Republican is actually contemplating a run for governor after Bobby Jindal leaves office.

As for cases that were just about corruption without any sex, New York Representative Charles Rangel broke laws and evaded taxes, but few in his district or his party seem to care and he remains a much-liked institution within the House Democratic caucus.

Menendez is certainly hoping to get the Vitter or Rangel treatment, and maybe he will if evidence uncovered by the FBI (which recently raided the offices of his donor and friend Dr. Salomon Mengen) or the Senate Ethics Committee aren’t able to prosecute or censure him.

In an era where the public’s cynicism about Congress has risen to alarming levels, there is a tendency to react to any ethical violation with an “everyone does it” attitude. A country that not only forgave Bill Clinton’s lies and disgusting behavior but regarded his critics as worthier of criticism than the former president may think any story involving sex is, almost by definition, not worth getting worked up about.

But there are good reasons to care about the Menendez story.

The first is that if Menendez has involved the Senate in a business transaction between the United States and the Dominican Republic in order to benefit a friend there are obvious legal implications. Politicians do favors for friends and donors all the time and label it constituent service. But the favors being thrown around by Mengen to his favorite senator do raise questions about Menendez’s motives.

Since the Citizens United decision freed up individuals and groups to contribute to candidates and causes without federal interference, liberals have acted as if advocacy on issues is corrupt if it involves spending money. But the real corruption doesn’t involve left-wing and media piñatas like Sheldon Adelson, who spend their money to promote their beliefs, but rather traditional influence peddlers like Menendez whose purchase is motivated by strictly pecuniary interests.

Second, the sex angle isn’t just the sort of hanky-panky on the side that is an unfortunate Congressional tradition, but about prostitution. Libertarians may see it as a victimless crime, and perhaps when it is the sort of pricey operation that Spitzer patronized that’s how we should think of it. But what is alleged in this story is something far more sordid and not only because it may have involved under-aged prostitutes.

Human trafficking in countries like the Dominican Republic is a problem that the United States has not always treated as a serious concern. It is a terrible crime against women and girls that goes on throughout the world and draws relatively limited attention from both governments and the press. If a U.S. Senator, especially one that has spoken up in different contexts as a voice for human rights, is guilty of taking part in sex parties where such girls are procured, this is a far greater scandal than a mere conflict of interest case or free trips.

Third, though it is considered a somewhat antiquated concept in our enlightened times, the idea that our political leaders should be held to a high standard of personal conduct is one that deserves more support rather than the usual derision. Public office is a privilege and not a possession even if you are a Democrat in a deep blue state or a Republican in a red one with little fear of political opponents. When our leaders degrade themselves in this manner they do more than provide fodder for the tabloids. They shame our republic and the voters that honored them with office. It is not Puritanism to demand that senators and members of Congress behave in an honorable manner and to avoid bringing their offices into disrepute.

Menendez deserves a presumption of innocence, but if there is some fire behind all this smoke there have to be consequences for him.

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Why Congress Doesn’t Trust Obama on Immigration Reform

One of the reasons conservatives and pro-immigration reform politicians worried President Obama would do something to scuttle a bipartisan compromise on the issue is that it would follow a pattern Obama has set throughout his administration. The president has a habit of not participating in bipartisan negotiations and then harpooning them–or attempting to–from the outside. This was the case when Obama gave his much-derided rally during the fiscal cliff negotiations that seemed designed to kill the deal that was being formed at the 11th hour.

It was also exactly what Obama did with immigration reform last year, when Senator Marco Rubio stepped up to lead GOP efforts to find a compromise and the president preempted any possible deal with executive action. Yet as the Hill reminds us today, if Obama did something to derail immigration reform this time it would actually be the third time he worked assiduously and successfully to kill reform. The Hill notes the story of the ill-fated immigration reform negotiations of 2007. Obama, then a senator, asked to join the bipartisan negotiating group at its core, which agreed to oppose any amendment that could kill the bill even if they agreed with it to ensure the bill would move forward. Obama apparently ignored the negotiating sessions but always showed up for the press conferences, and then both supported and offered his own “poison pill” amendments, including the one that both parties credit with finishing off the reform effort for good:

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One of the reasons conservatives and pro-immigration reform politicians worried President Obama would do something to scuttle a bipartisan compromise on the issue is that it would follow a pattern Obama has set throughout his administration. The president has a habit of not participating in bipartisan negotiations and then harpooning them–or attempting to–from the outside. This was the case when Obama gave his much-derided rally during the fiscal cliff negotiations that seemed designed to kill the deal that was being formed at the 11th hour.

It was also exactly what Obama did with immigration reform last year, when Senator Marco Rubio stepped up to lead GOP efforts to find a compromise and the president preempted any possible deal with executive action. Yet as the Hill reminds us today, if Obama did something to derail immigration reform this time it would actually be the third time he worked assiduously and successfully to kill reform. The Hill notes the story of the ill-fated immigration reform negotiations of 2007. Obama, then a senator, asked to join the bipartisan negotiating group at its core, which agreed to oppose any amendment that could kill the bill even if they agreed with it to ensure the bill would move forward. Obama apparently ignored the negotiating sessions but always showed up for the press conferences, and then both supported and offered his own “poison pill” amendments, including the one that both parties credit with finishing off the reform effort for good:

Obama in 2007 backed an amendment to sunset a guest-worker program that was an essential part of an immigration deal crafted by Republicans and former Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Kennedy opposed the amendment, but Obama — who was then running for president — supported the measure, and it was approved by one vote, 49-48.

The immigration bill then stalled, and the Senate coalition failed to regain enough momentum to push it to final passage.

Obama’s behavior apparently angered even Kennedy, who told the young senator he couldn’t just parachute in to torpedo the work. But that’s exactly what Obama did. As the bill began losing steam, on June 4, 2007 the Washington Post listed the primary obstacles to the compromise, including an amendment from Obama and Robert Menendez. The next day, Obama refused to back down, even if it meant killing the bill, explaining he intended to hold up the process until he could win the presidency. Two days after that, the bill was effectively dead, though for good measure two weeks later Obama would offer another controversial amendment just in case the bill gained any last-minute momentum before that year’s congressional summer break.

That history probably explains why the White House declined to dispute the Hill’s characterization of the events of 2007–they were accurate. And each time, Obama has made the decision to keep the issue on the table for electoral purposes. Before the 2008 election, he sabotaged the immigration reform process and then ran a Spanish-language ad against John McCain distorting McCain’s record on the issue and setting a new low for the campaign’s dishonest advertising and dirty tricks. When Rubio tried to fix the immigration system last year, Obama scuttled that one too, using the issue to help his re-election campaign.

The question now is whether Obama actually wants reform since he no longer needs the votes, or if yet again he’ll stand outside the process while others are working toward a compromise only to destroy the process at the last moment. The latter would, unfortunately, be more consistent with Obama’s history.

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The Jobs Report

Well, another month, another mediocre jobs report. The economy added 157,000 jobs in January while the unemployment rate ticked up a notch to 7.9 percent.

Those who have been unemployed long-term remained at a dismal 4.8 million and were 38.1 percent of all unemployed. There were 8 million people working part-time who would rather be working full-time. That number might well go up in the future as companies adjust their workforces to avoid Obamacare mandates requiring health insurance (or a fine) if there are more than 50 full-time employees.

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Well, another month, another mediocre jobs report. The economy added 157,000 jobs in January while the unemployment rate ticked up a notch to 7.9 percent.

Those who have been unemployed long-term remained at a dismal 4.8 million and were 38.1 percent of all unemployed. There were 8 million people working part-time who would rather be working full-time. That number might well go up in the future as companies adjust their workforces to avoid Obamacare mandates requiring health insurance (or a fine) if there are more than 50 full-time employees.

The terrible figures for teenage unemployment (23.4 percent) and black unemployment (13.8 percent) are little changed.

In sum, the economy is continuing the most dismal recovery since the Great Depression and is now virtually at a standstill. The GDP ticked down last month, unemployment ticked up (and if it ticks up one more notch, it will be back to 8 percent, a significant psychological benchmark, especially as it would have been trending upwards since its September level of 7.7 percent).

The Fed has announced that it will continue its easy money policy, buying more than $90 billion of federal bonds and mortgage-backed securities a month, until the unemployment rate hits 6.5 percent. Judging from the last few months, that means for the foreseeable future.

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Is Turkey Arming Jihadists?

Last week, I noted that Turkey may soon find itself on the Financial Action Task Force’s black list alongside Iran and North Korea because of its failure to take action against terrorist financing. Adam Marx, an avid reader of COMMENTARY and an informal student of Turkey, was kind enough to point out that a new law on Turkey’s books may not be enough, given Turkey’s recent trend not only to finance terrorists in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, but also to arm radical Islamists. If everyone—Chuck Hagel and Obama’s CIA pick John Brennan—agrees that Hamas and Mohamed Morsi represent the worst, most bigoted aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood, then there should no longer be any illusion regarding Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose political roots are in the same movement. Eric Trager’s essay asking why so many Western analysts got the Muslim Brotherhood wrong and addressing the myths which so many still grasp is a must read. But while there is a reckoning with regard to Egypt, Erdoğan and his Western supporters have gotten away with murder.

Greece, for example, last month intercepted a Turkish ship that apparently was part of an effort to arm either Libyan jihadists or, even worse, transit weaponry to al-Qaeda affiliates in northern Mali. Likewise, Yemeni authorities twice last month reportedly seized Turkish arms bound for al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen. Syrian Kurds regularly complain that Turkey is shipping weaponry to the al-Qaeda elements in Syria like the Nusra Front, because Erdoğan would rather have a radical Islamist entity on Turkey’s border than a secular Kurdish canton.

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Last week, I noted that Turkey may soon find itself on the Financial Action Task Force’s black list alongside Iran and North Korea because of its failure to take action against terrorist financing. Adam Marx, an avid reader of COMMENTARY and an informal student of Turkey, was kind enough to point out that a new law on Turkey’s books may not be enough, given Turkey’s recent trend not only to finance terrorists in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, but also to arm radical Islamists. If everyone—Chuck Hagel and Obama’s CIA pick John Brennan—agrees that Hamas and Mohamed Morsi represent the worst, most bigoted aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood, then there should no longer be any illusion regarding Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose political roots are in the same movement. Eric Trager’s essay asking why so many Western analysts got the Muslim Brotherhood wrong and addressing the myths which so many still grasp is a must read. But while there is a reckoning with regard to Egypt, Erdoğan and his Western supporters have gotten away with murder.

Greece, for example, last month intercepted a Turkish ship that apparently was part of an effort to arm either Libyan jihadists or, even worse, transit weaponry to al-Qaeda affiliates in northern Mali. Likewise, Yemeni authorities twice last month reportedly seized Turkish arms bound for al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen. Syrian Kurds regularly complain that Turkey is shipping weaponry to the al-Qaeda elements in Syria like the Nusra Front, because Erdoğan would rather have a radical Islamist entity on Turkey’s border than a secular Kurdish canton.

If there’s one lesson which can be drawn from the past two decades, it is that the strategy of various Middle Eastern states to support Jihadism abroad while crushing terrorists at home backfires. Saudi princes believed that they could fund al-Qaeda abroad, only to have the group start attacking Saudis and foreign workers inside the Kingdom. Bashar al-Assad also believed that he could use al-Qaeda to undermine Iraq and perhaps Jordan, only to find himself fighting a death struggle with the same al-Qaeda alumni inside Syria. If Erdoğan continues down the path of promoting the Muslim Brotherhood and even more radical groups abroad, he may very well set the stage for a terrorist backlash in Turkey in coming years. The terrorists of course will have primary blame for their actions but, when that instability occurs, the Turks—and those who have supported Erdoğan’s religious agenda—will have no one to blame but themselves for such a short-sighted strategy.

UPDATE: Since I wrote this originally, it seems that a suicide bomber has attacked a side entrance to the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. Our thoughts are with the victims. Alas, this will not be the last suicide bombing Turkey experiences.

UPDATE 2: The U.S. tipped off Turkey about the presence of bin Laden’s fugitive son-in-law not only in Turkey, but in a swank section of the capital. Turkey has decided to extradite the fugitive to Iran, rather than hand him over to U.S. authorities.

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Linking Obligations with Rights at the UNHRC

The UN Human Rights Council yesterday released a predictable report deeming Israeli settlements–including huge Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem–a “war crime” and demanding the evacuation of all their hundreds of thousands of residents, thereby throwing every Israeli-Palestinian peace plan ever proposed out the window: All such plans envision Israel retaining parts of East Jerusalem and the settlement blocs. The report would thus seem unhelpful to the “peace process” that Western governments so ardently support. But it’s arousing far less ire among these governments than Israel’s refusal to cooperate with the HRC’s Universal Periodic Review process, under which every country’s human rights record is supposed to be scrutinized every four years. As U.S. ambassador to the council Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe explained, “The United States is absolutely, fully behind the Universal Periodic Review, and we do not want to see the mechanism in any way harmed.”

Yet as Professor Anne Bayefsky pointed out, it’s immensely hypocritical to insist on universality of obligations without universality of rights. And in two important ways, Israel doesn’t enjoy the same rights at the HRC as every other country does. First, it’s the only country whose alleged human-rights abuses are a permanent agenda item: The council has one agenda item for Israel, and one for all the other 192 UN member states. Second, it’s the only country that isn’t a full member of any regional working group. Bayefsky therefore proposed a simple quid pro quo: Israel should promise to uphold the universality of the review process the moment the council upholds the universality of Israel’s rights as a member state.

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The UN Human Rights Council yesterday released a predictable report deeming Israeli settlements–including huge Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem–a “war crime” and demanding the evacuation of all their hundreds of thousands of residents, thereby throwing every Israeli-Palestinian peace plan ever proposed out the window: All such plans envision Israel retaining parts of East Jerusalem and the settlement blocs. The report would thus seem unhelpful to the “peace process” that Western governments so ardently support. But it’s arousing far less ire among these governments than Israel’s refusal to cooperate with the HRC’s Universal Periodic Review process, under which every country’s human rights record is supposed to be scrutinized every four years. As U.S. ambassador to the council Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe explained, “The United States is absolutely, fully behind the Universal Periodic Review, and we do not want to see the mechanism in any way harmed.”

Yet as Professor Anne Bayefsky pointed out, it’s immensely hypocritical to insist on universality of obligations without universality of rights. And in two important ways, Israel doesn’t enjoy the same rights at the HRC as every other country does. First, it’s the only country whose alleged human-rights abuses are a permanent agenda item: The council has one agenda item for Israel, and one for all the other 192 UN member states. Second, it’s the only country that isn’t a full member of any regional working group. Bayefsky therefore proposed a simple quid pro quo: Israel should promise to uphold the universality of the review process the moment the council upholds the universality of Israel’s rights as a member state.

If Israel’s leaders had any diplomatic smarts, they would long since have adopted this strategy. But Israel’s stupidity doesn’t excuse the hypocrisy of the Western governments that are pressuring it to comply with the universal review while making no effort to end these other distortions. By insisting that the council’s violations of Israel’s rights produce no corresponding reduction in Israel’s obligations toward the council, they are essentially saying it’s perfectly fine to deny Israel the rights enjoyed by every other UN member: After all, in other spheres of life, these governments do think that denial of rights reduces obligations. Just for example, does anyone remember “no taxation without representation”?

In short, Western governments are implicitly endorsing the council’s anti-Israel bias even as they publicly claim to oppose it. In fact, they even actively collaborate in it: After all, one of these two distortions–full membership in a regional working group–is in their power to rectify; nobody is stopping them from making Israel a full member of the Western working group.

That’s also why the claim that Israel’s refusal could serve as a precedent for egregious rights violators like North Korea or Zimbabwe is so ridiculous: Unlike Israel, none of these countries are denied the universal rights granted all other UN members states; hence they have no grounds for refusing to honor their obligations.

But since the council has agreed to postpone Israel’s review to allow time for a rethink, Western governments still have a chance to do the right thing: insist that the council’s systemic denial of Israel’s rights come to an end. Once that happens, I’m sure they’ll have no trouble getting Israel to comply with its obligations.

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President Obama’s Staggeringly Incompetent “Soul Mate”

I wanted to second Jonathan’s analysis of yesterday’s testimony by former Senator Chuck Hagel, who is hoping to become America’s 24th secretary of defense. 

It may be that another nominee for a cabinet post has been more inept than Hagel was during his hearing–but if so, I can’t think of who it might be. Mr. Hagel showed himself to be in turn evasive, ignorant, unprincipled, baffled and dim-witted. And those were the high points.

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I wanted to second Jonathan’s analysis of yesterday’s testimony by former Senator Chuck Hagel, who is hoping to become America’s 24th secretary of defense. 

It may be that another nominee for a cabinet post has been more inept than Hagel was during his hearing–but if so, I can’t think of who it might be. Mr. Hagel showed himself to be in turn evasive, ignorant, unprincipled, baffled and dim-witted. And those were the high points.

Perhaps the most alarming thing of all is that according to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, Obama found in Hagel a “soul mate.” Woodward went on to say that the president and Hagel should “mind meld” on defense matters.

That the president would find himself so passionately attached to a man of such staggering incompetence is troubling in any case; but for Mr. Obama to want such a man to run the Pentagon is, to me, a genuinely alarming prospect. 

America’s best and bravest deserve to be led by someone far better than Chuck Hagel. 

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Ed Koch, 1924-2013

Cities decline. St. Louis was the third largest city in the United States in 1900 and now it’s the 58th. Cities die. Detroit had the most well-to-do middle class in the United States in 1960 and is now a lunar landscape. New York could have been one of those cities. In the mid-1970s, it gave every indication of becoming one. It went broke. It was drenched in crime, its transportation system covered in graffiti, its police force stained by corruption, its education system a calamity, its parks more muddy than grassy. And in the summer of 1977, all the horror came together in a blackout in which looters caused what would today be more than $1 billion in damage in a matter of six or seven hours.

Along came Ed Koch, a reform-minded congressman from Greenwich Village, considered to stand on the left of the Democratic Party. In retrospect, his election and assumption of the mayoralty was nearly providential. In one respect, what he did for the city was reasonably simple—he made it clear to the business community, which was fleeing in droves, that he understood how important it was to the city’s present and future, and did what he could within the limits of the day to alter New York’s anti-capitalist climate.

But it was what he did intangibly that really made the difference for a suffering city. He personified its understanding of itself—brash, informal, cheerful, pugnacious, blowhardish, tough, optimistic, and convinced of its own greatness. He seemed to have a mystical sense of how his theatrics might actually help New Yorkers feel better about where they lived, at a time when New York had become a sitcom punchline for danger and dirt and decay. He was as angry as they were about the crime; he was as in love with its energy; he was as disgusted by the kids running wild; and he was as dismayed by the self-destruction of the poorest neighborhoods, especially in the Bronx, where he was born.

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Cities decline. St. Louis was the third largest city in the United States in 1900 and now it’s the 58th. Cities die. Detroit had the most well-to-do middle class in the United States in 1960 and is now a lunar landscape. New York could have been one of those cities. In the mid-1970s, it gave every indication of becoming one. It went broke. It was drenched in crime, its transportation system covered in graffiti, its police force stained by corruption, its education system a calamity, its parks more muddy than grassy. And in the summer of 1977, all the horror came together in a blackout in which looters caused what would today be more than $1 billion in damage in a matter of six or seven hours.

Along came Ed Koch, a reform-minded congressman from Greenwich Village, considered to stand on the left of the Democratic Party. In retrospect, his election and assumption of the mayoralty was nearly providential. In one respect, what he did for the city was reasonably simple—he made it clear to the business community, which was fleeing in droves, that he understood how important it was to the city’s present and future, and did what he could within the limits of the day to alter New York’s anti-capitalist climate.

But it was what he did intangibly that really made the difference for a suffering city. He personified its understanding of itself—brash, informal, cheerful, pugnacious, blowhardish, tough, optimistic, and convinced of its own greatness. He seemed to have a mystical sense of how his theatrics might actually help New Yorkers feel better about where they lived, at a time when New York had become a sitcom punchline for danger and dirt and decay. He was as angry as they were about the crime; he was as in love with its energy; he was as disgusted by the kids running wild; and he was as dismayed by the self-destruction of the poorest neighborhoods, especially in the Bronx, where he was born.

He served a term too long, and had a sad final few years in office, but he tore into his post-mayoral life with the gusto he’d shown in his first two terms. He wrote bad movie reviews; he hosted “The People’s Court”; he had a radio talk show; he did television; and he was courted by both parties because you could never tell where he was going to come down. He wasn’t that much fun to be around, to be honest, because with Ed, everything, and I mean everything, was about Ed. He could not begin a sentence with any other word than “I.” 

But, in the end, there is this to be said about him, and it may be the most important thing: He cared, and cared deeply, about his people, and their homeland, and their future. He fought for them, he fought against those who would wound them, and knew who their enemies were both foreign and domestic (he told Vanity Fair that the living person he most despised was Jimmy Carter).

He died as he lived, a good Jew.

UPDATE: After I posted this came word that Koch had already designed his own tombstone, and had chosen for his epitaph the final words spoken by Daniel Pearl, the journalist slaughtered by Al Qaeda: “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.”

Baruch dayan emet.

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How Does Iran Think?

There’s an unfortunate tendency in Washington to navel-gaze. At the heart of Chuck Hagel’s conceit is that the failure to resolve the Iranian nuclear and terror challenge is because of mistakes in Washington rather than strategy in Tehran. Almost every president—Democrat and Republican—enters the Oval Office blaming his predecessors—rather than America’s adversaries—for the failure of diplomacy. While many American diplomats and politicians may assume the world is reacting to American actions, the dirty little secret that has become so painfully obvious in recent years is that it is the United States—and not our enemies—that has no coherent strategy. Call it “leading from behind” or call it incompetence, but the United States is more often in reactive mode than proactive mode.

Against this backdrop, some analysts asked me to speculate about how Iran develops and executes its strategy, and what aspects of Iranian policy development American officials often miss. It might be a long slog to read, but here’s my crack at the answer.

There’s an unfortunate tendency in Washington to navel-gaze. At the heart of Chuck Hagel’s conceit is that the failure to resolve the Iranian nuclear and terror challenge is because of mistakes in Washington rather than strategy in Tehran. Almost every president—Democrat and Republican—enters the Oval Office blaming his predecessors—rather than America’s adversaries—for the failure of diplomacy. While many American diplomats and politicians may assume the world is reacting to American actions, the dirty little secret that has become so painfully obvious in recent years is that it is the United States—and not our enemies—that has no coherent strategy. Call it “leading from behind” or call it incompetence, but the United States is more often in reactive mode than proactive mode.

Against this backdrop, some analysts asked me to speculate about how Iran develops and executes its strategy, and what aspects of Iranian policy development American officials often miss. It might be a long slog to read, but here’s my crack at the answer.

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What Does Hagel’s Performance Say About His Supporters?

Jonathan Tobin has ably covered Chuck Hagel’s underwhelming performance here and here. Many of his supporters apparently were shocked at how poorly Hagel did under questioning; they should not have been. Senate Democrats may still band together to confirm Hagel, but the whole episode should be a wake-up call for the press not only regarding the former senator’s competence, but also about the motivations of many of his most vocal supporters.

During the Cold War, there were communists, anti-communists, and anti-anti-communists who were much less concerned about the reality of the Soviet Union than about stymying those who were opposed to Moscow. Likewise, in the aftermath of 9/11, there were terrorists, anti-terrorists and, within progressive circles, anti-anti-terrorists who were more consumed with Bush Derangement Syndrome than with Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda. Their rhetoric was marked by sky-is-falling hyperbole regarding Gitmo, the Patriot Act, and Dick Cheney.

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Jonathan Tobin has ably covered Chuck Hagel’s underwhelming performance here and here. Many of his supporters apparently were shocked at how poorly Hagel did under questioning; they should not have been. Senate Democrats may still band together to confirm Hagel, but the whole episode should be a wake-up call for the press not only regarding the former senator’s competence, but also about the motivations of many of his most vocal supporters.

During the Cold War, there were communists, anti-communists, and anti-anti-communists who were much less concerned about the reality of the Soviet Union than about stymying those who were opposed to Moscow. Likewise, in the aftermath of 9/11, there were terrorists, anti-terrorists and, within progressive circles, anti-anti-terrorists who were more consumed with Bush Derangement Syndrome than with Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda. Their rhetoric was marked by sky-is-falling hyperbole regarding Gitmo, the Patriot Act, and Dick Cheney.

Much of Hagel’s support is rooted in the same trend. Many of those signing letters and penning op-eds supporting Hagel make no secret that their concern is less Hagel than an obsession about neoconservatives. Colin Powell, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Peter Beinart, and the good folks at Think Progress may cast aside Hagel’s Neanderthal approach to social issues and they may genuinely think that there is more room for diplomacy with Tehran. There are many competent Democrats and even some Republicans who might agree with them. But to rally around Chuck Hagel was to embrace an incompetence that does not belong in the Pentagon—or at the top of any executive agency—at such troubled times. No one should sacrifice U.S. national security because they have a political axe to grind.

How sad it is that so many progressives define themselves not on ideals and values, but only in opposition to other people.

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