Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 26, 2013

GOP Shouldn’t Fear Standing Up to Obama

With the sequester all but certain to go into effect at the end of the month, the only suspense associated with the topic is whether the Democratic expectation that the public will blame it all on the Republicans will be vindicated in the coming weeks. So far, polls show them to be largely correct, and should the administration’s predictions of post-sequester doom and gloom come true it may not be possible for the GOP to resist the pressure to give in to the president’s demands for more tax increases.

This belief in Republican defeat on the sequester is based in part on the experience of the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling deadlines, when the House majority believed it had no choice but to fold or face the wrath of an outraged nation. It may be that sequester-related chaos at the airports and the border–to cite two particular departments whose secretaries took to the airwaves in recent days to play Chicken Little–will be enough to stamped the GOP again. Of course, many Republicans are also rightly worried about the impact of the draconian across-the-board cuts on national defense. But integral to the idea that the party give in is the thesis that this confrontation will lead inevitably to victory for the Democrats in the 2014 midterms. But as Stu Rothenberg points out in Roll Call, this is a rather weak argument for those urging Republican sequester surrender.

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With the sequester all but certain to go into effect at the end of the month, the only suspense associated with the topic is whether the Democratic expectation that the public will blame it all on the Republicans will be vindicated in the coming weeks. So far, polls show them to be largely correct, and should the administration’s predictions of post-sequester doom and gloom come true it may not be possible for the GOP to resist the pressure to give in to the president’s demands for more tax increases.

This belief in Republican defeat on the sequester is based in part on the experience of the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling deadlines, when the House majority believed it had no choice but to fold or face the wrath of an outraged nation. It may be that sequester-related chaos at the airports and the border–to cite two particular departments whose secretaries took to the airwaves in recent days to play Chicken Little–will be enough to stamped the GOP again. Of course, many Republicans are also rightly worried about the impact of the draconian across-the-board cuts on national defense. But integral to the idea that the party give in is the thesis that this confrontation will lead inevitably to victory for the Democrats in the 2014 midterms. But as Stu Rothenberg points out in Roll Call, this is a rather weak argument for those urging Republican sequester surrender.

Let’s concede that the sequester is a terrible idea (thank you Obama White House) and the consequences will be awful. The GOP, like the Democrats, was wrong to agree to it in order to get out of the 2011 debt ceiling impasse and they are paying a price for that mistake. But Republicans are right not to allow themselves to be bullied into submission only weeks after being bludgeoned into voting for tax increases with the idea that future deals would be about budget cuts, not more revenue being fed to the federal leviathan. Since President Obama has no credibility when it comes to promises about the entitlement reform that the country so desperately needs, or about making tough choices to reduce expenditures, GOP resistance to his pressure is justified.

But even if this means some bad poll numbers and public pressure, there is no reason to believe that this guarantees anything close to a Democratic takeover of the House next year.

First of all, whatever happens in the coming weeks isn’t likely to seriously impact what happens in November 2014. Twenty months is a lifetime in politics, and there’s no assurance that what seems like a matter of life and death today will motivate voters or even affect turnout then.

Like Rothenberg, I don’t think the GOP can count on historical trends, which almost always show the party that controls the White House losing seats in the midterms, bailing out House Speaker John Boehner and company, but there is also no clear path for the Democrats to give back the gavel to Nancy Pelosi. Partly, this is because there just aren’t many swing seats that present a reasonable hope for the Democrats. Having won almost every seat that was within reach last year, it’s hard to see how they better that showing by 17 seats in the next go-round.

Democrats are arguing that last year’s presidential election decided the question of which party was right on taxes and spending. But House Republicans can claim with justice that they were re-elected too, and their voters aren’t any more interested in increasing the size of government via more taxes and the president’s laundry list of new entitlements and programs to fund than they were a year ago.

The coming weeks may be rough sledding for Republicans, but any talk of the impact of the sequester on 2014 is, at best, premature. If they are inclined to stand their ground, as I think they should, the midterms ought not influence that decision. 

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Anti-Semitism Is Still Not a Joking Matter

Viewers of this year’s Oscars ceremony who were unfamiliar with the work of Seth MacFarlane were probably shocked or even offended by some of the host’s irreverent and off-color attempts at humor. In particular, many Jews were outraged by the scripted comedy routine in which the animated teddy bear “Ted” (whose voice is spoken by MacFarlane) told actor Mark Wahlberg that “if you want to work in this town” you had to be Jewish. The bear went on to say that his claim of Jewish identity and contributions to Israel might earn him a private plane after the next “secret synagogue” meeting. These lines earned MacFarlane a stiff rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League, which inveighed against the use of age-old anti-Jewish stereotypes even if the intent was purely humorous.

But the problem with any such complaint, even one as measured as that of the ADL, is that in contemporary American popular culture ethnic and religious slurs, such as those that are spewed on MacFarlane’s long-running animated show “Family Guy,” are par for the course. Anyone who watches that show knows that its author will make fun of any individual or group in pursuit of a cheap or even clever jibe. The whole point of “Family Guy” is to push beyond every conceivable boundary in an effort to lay all our foibles, prejudices and even sacred beliefs bare in order to laugh at them. Any outrage directed at him, no matter how egregious his jokes might be, merely serves his purpose. Remonstrating with MacFarlane about his insensitivity and bad taste just makes the complainer sound like a whiny fool whose feathers ought to be ruffled.

Thus, the ADL will probably garner more brickbats than applause for criticizing the routine. But the ADL nevertheless had a point about the audience for the show that goes to the heart of the problem.

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Viewers of this year’s Oscars ceremony who were unfamiliar with the work of Seth MacFarlane were probably shocked or even offended by some of the host’s irreverent and off-color attempts at humor. In particular, many Jews were outraged by the scripted comedy routine in which the animated teddy bear “Ted” (whose voice is spoken by MacFarlane) told actor Mark Wahlberg that “if you want to work in this town” you had to be Jewish. The bear went on to say that his claim of Jewish identity and contributions to Israel might earn him a private plane after the next “secret synagogue” meeting. These lines earned MacFarlane a stiff rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League, which inveighed against the use of age-old anti-Jewish stereotypes even if the intent was purely humorous.

But the problem with any such complaint, even one as measured as that of the ADL, is that in contemporary American popular culture ethnic and religious slurs, such as those that are spewed on MacFarlane’s long-running animated show “Family Guy,” are par for the course. Anyone who watches that show knows that its author will make fun of any individual or group in pursuit of a cheap or even clever jibe. The whole point of “Family Guy” is to push beyond every conceivable boundary in an effort to lay all our foibles, prejudices and even sacred beliefs bare in order to laugh at them. Any outrage directed at him, no matter how egregious his jokes might be, merely serves his purpose. Remonstrating with MacFarlane about his insensitivity and bad taste just makes the complainer sound like a whiny fool whose feathers ought to be ruffled.

Thus, the ADL will probably garner more brickbats than applause for criticizing the routine. But the ADL nevertheless had a point about the audience for the show that goes to the heart of the problem.

The group acknowledged that “insiders at the Oscars” knew the joke “should not be taken seriously.” Many viewers would point out that the definition of “insiders” should be expanded to mean anyone in the television audience who was familiar with the popular comedian’s work. That means most Americans got the joke and realized it was not to be taken any more seriously than his song about which actresses had exposed their breasts in their movies.

It may be hard for us to accept the idea that nasty stereotypes such as those uttered by “Ted” are just jokes. In fact, they aren’t–and can help spread the lethal virus of anti-Semitism. However, in the context of an America in which the barriers to Jewish achievement that were once both widespread and impenetrable are gone, it might be possible to treat the old “Jews control Hollywood” meme as merely humor when performed in such a manner as to lampoon hate.

But the problem here is that the Oscars show is viewed by more than a billion people around the world. While the abuse hurled at Jews and other groups in a “Family Guy” episode isn’t worth complaining about, the same thing must be understood differently when placed in the context of international opinion.

As the U.S. State Department noted last year in its annual report, anti-Semitism is on the rise around the globe. Crude and hateful traditional stereotypes about Jews mixed with anti-Israel propaganda are gaining more of an audience throughout the globe. Jew-hatred has become a principle export of the Arab and Muslim world, and Europe is seeing a revival of anti-Semitism that has not been seen on such a scale since the Nazi era. Just as they were once singled out for dissenting from the views of the majority about religion, now the Jewish people are once again marked for hatred and violence because of the belief that Israel has no right to exist or to defend itself.

To date, these offensive views are confined to the fever swamps of the far right and the far left in America, though they are gaining a foothold on college campuses with the BDS movement that seeks the destruction of Israel.

But for those inclined to tell the ADL to get a life, it’s important to remember that one of the most-watched television mini-series broadcast in the Muslim world in recent years was based on the premise that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was real and not an anti-Semitic forgery, and that anticipation is keen for another such show in production that will celebrate a seventh-century genocide of Jews.

That is why MacFarlane’s equal opportunity offender defense of his use of anti-Semitic stereotypes falls flat. Perhaps in a more perfect world, in which such hatreds were just heard on the margins of society, there might really be nothing wrong with poking at these old wounds with the comedian’s sharp stick. But in one where Jew-hatred is the engine driving an international movement whose goal is the elimination of the one Jewish state in the world and the slaughter of its people, the joke doesn’t seem quite so funny.

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Bloomberg’s Balancing Act

Yesterday, Jonathan mentioned the money-in-politics hypocrisy of President Obama and his supporters on the left, as the president announced ramped-up efforts to sell access to the White House. The other side of the left’s hypocrisy on the evils of buying political influence concerns the spending of “outside money” on congressional and gubernatorial elections. Yet while the Koch brothers are subjected to all manner of threats and verbal abuse for taking part in the political process, the same cannot be said of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to spend millions on individual races to support anti-gun rights politicians, such as in the Democratic primary being held today to replace Jesse Jackson Jr.

As expected, Bloomberg’s target, Debbie Halvorson, isn’t happy about the mayor’s money tour and Bloomberg’s attempts to make an example of her today. After Bloomberg’s check-signing spree occasioned some changes in the composition of the race, Halvorson accused Bloomberg of trying to buy the election. Perish the thought, responded Bloomberg: “I’m part of the public. I happen to have some money, and that’s what I’m going to do with my money — try to get us some sensible gun laws.” Bloomberg is, of course, absolutely right that he’s doing nothing wrong by involving himself in the political process on behalf of candidates and causes he supports. But the most interesting aspect of this story may be that Bloomberg is less dedicated to being a single-issue one-man super-PAC than he seems at first blush.

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Yesterday, Jonathan mentioned the money-in-politics hypocrisy of President Obama and his supporters on the left, as the president announced ramped-up efforts to sell access to the White House. The other side of the left’s hypocrisy on the evils of buying political influence concerns the spending of “outside money” on congressional and gubernatorial elections. Yet while the Koch brothers are subjected to all manner of threats and verbal abuse for taking part in the political process, the same cannot be said of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to spend millions on individual races to support anti-gun rights politicians, such as in the Democratic primary being held today to replace Jesse Jackson Jr.

As expected, Bloomberg’s target, Debbie Halvorson, isn’t happy about the mayor’s money tour and Bloomberg’s attempts to make an example of her today. After Bloomberg’s check-signing spree occasioned some changes in the composition of the race, Halvorson accused Bloomberg of trying to buy the election. Perish the thought, responded Bloomberg: “I’m part of the public. I happen to have some money, and that’s what I’m going to do with my money — try to get us some sensible gun laws.” Bloomberg is, of course, absolutely right that he’s doing nothing wrong by involving himself in the political process on behalf of candidates and causes he supports. But the most interesting aspect of this story may be that Bloomberg is less dedicated to being a single-issue one-man super-PAC than he seems at first blush.

In a perceptive and fascinating piece in Capital New York, Reid Pillifant tells the story of Rep. Elizabeth Esty, “a pro-gun control Democrat who represents Newtown, Conn. She’s a member of the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, and a proud advocate for tougher gun control laws, including a robust new version of the federal assault weapons ban.” Despite all that, Bloomberg spent more than $1 million to help defeat her.

That’s because, as Pillifant shows, Bloomberg is caught between his sense of mission on two causes that often conflict: his “no labels” self-styled centrism and his anti-gun agenda. Though Bloomberg’s strategy is still in its early stages, he appears to favor his Save the Moderates campaign if and when he is forced to choose:

Case in point, in a district that was to take on enormous symbolic importance on the gun issue because of Sandy Hook: Bloomberg’s Independence USA PAC spent $1.1 million to back Republican Andrew Roraback against Esty, with television ads touting Roraback as a “rare moderate” based on non-gun issues including abortion rights, campaign finance reform, and environmental protections.

The ad’s only mention of guns was a quote from newspaper story saying Roraback supports “better enforcement of existing gun laws,” but the narrator skipped over the word “existing.” And the ad didn’t cite the next line from the same story, when Roraback told the Record-Journal, shortly after the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado: “I don’t think that more gun control is the answer.”

Around the same time, the mayor hosted a fund-raiser for Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, even though Brown was the more gun-friendly candidate in his race against Elizabeth Warren.

And, in Illinois, Bloomberg backed Robert Dold, a moderate Republican who touted his work with Bloomberg to close the gun-show loophole, against a Democratic opponent who was more comprehensively for gun control.

This will be interesting to watch because it’s a tacit admission that Bloomberg’s political passions aren’t really all that moderate. Whether it’s gun control, global warming, comically obsessive regulation or nanny-state, paternalistic experiments in social engineering, Bloomberg gets quite animated over causes that don’t quite win over the center–and often force him to either abandon those causes or run against the centrist candidates. (Just how animated does Bloomberg get over these issues? Last year, he suggested that the NYPD should perhaps go on strike and give the city a taste of punitive anarchism until politicians elsewhere pass gun control legislation to the mayor’s liking.)

As Politico reported in January, the perceived centrism is actually very important to the massive lobbying campaign he has begun. He explained to Politico that he uses his perch as mayor of New York to do the things that really interest him, and his willingness to back politicians of both parties gives him credibility with a wide swathe of the American body politic:

“The mayor of the city of New York gets great visibility,” Bloomberg said. “Being sort of nonpartisan gives you an access to both sides. Being willing to do fundraisers and give money is not without its benefits. I can’t tell you that they all jump when I call, but they do take the call. And you can go and give them a presentation and make your case. And then some I support because I respect them as human beings even though I don’t agree with them at all.”

That “sort of” modifying his description of himself as “nonpartisan” is crucial to understanding the dynamic at play in the Illinois race today, and hints at the challenges Bloomberg will face in supporting moderate politicians but not moderate policies.

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CPAC Adds Christie to Its “No” List

CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, has been making news with its proposed agenda and sponsors list for its upcoming conference next month. Unfortunately for the American Conservative Union (ACU), the group that organizes CPAC, the news has been all about who isn’t invited to the conference–namely the gay conservative group GOProud and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. In both instances it appears that the group is trying to set the parameters for which groups and individuals are welcome in the conservative movement, and which should be excluded.

The GOProud ban is nothing new for CPAC, as this is the second straight year that the group has been prohibited from participating in the conference as sponsors. In 2010 and 2011 GOProud were co-sponsors, but after a dust-up between ACU and other groups with more high level sponsorships, GOProud was dropped from any and all official CPAC events. National Review‘s Dan Foster has a great post arguing the group should be welcomed to the conference and, more broadly, into the movement. While Foster’s points are all well argued and valid, I would argue they are somewhat unnecessary. One conference’s decision has no bearing on GOProud’s membership in the conservative movement on the whole. GOProud’s exclusion from CPAC has given it an incredible amount of exposure and free publicity, raising its profile throughout the movement. 

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CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, has been making news with its proposed agenda and sponsors list for its upcoming conference next month. Unfortunately for the American Conservative Union (ACU), the group that organizes CPAC, the news has been all about who isn’t invited to the conference–namely the gay conservative group GOProud and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. In both instances it appears that the group is trying to set the parameters for which groups and individuals are welcome in the conservative movement, and which should be excluded.

The GOProud ban is nothing new for CPAC, as this is the second straight year that the group has been prohibited from participating in the conference as sponsors. In 2010 and 2011 GOProud were co-sponsors, but after a dust-up between ACU and other groups with more high level sponsorships, GOProud was dropped from any and all official CPAC events. National Review‘s Dan Foster has a great post arguing the group should be welcomed to the conference and, more broadly, into the movement. While Foster’s points are all well argued and valid, I would argue they are somewhat unnecessary. One conference’s decision has no bearing on GOProud’s membership in the conservative movement on the whole. GOProud’s exclusion from CPAC has given it an incredible amount of exposure and free publicity, raising its profile throughout the movement. 

The decision not to invite Christie, especially in light of his headlining CPAC Chicago as recently as last summer, seems to be a purposeful statement on what the ACU sees as Christie’s role in the movement after the governor’s high-profile work with President Obama following Superstorm Sandy. Conservatives have been wincing every time the governor has spoken lately, whether by comparing himself to his Democratic New York counterpart Andrew Cuomo, or buckling on the Obamacare Medicaid expansion. Conservatives have legitimate concerns with the governor, but there are also valuable contributions that a Republican governor of a state as blue as New Jersey could make–for example, with regard to his work on school choice and education reform, which have both been instrumental in his record high approval ratings. 

A year like this, in which the conservative movement debates its future in light of a stinging electoral loss, isn’t an appropriate time to  dismiss popular figures and shrink an already defeated movement. It is not up to the ACU or any other group to determine who can maintain their conservative credentials. While the ACU may be trying to marginalize Christie and GOProud, they may be marginalizing themselves instead. Conservative commentator S.E. Cupp announced today that she would not be attending CPAC this year over the GOProud flap after liberal MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes did the same, which some conservatives, including NRO’s Foster, begrudgingly cheered. Many other conservatives, while perhaps still attending and speaking, are coming to the conclusion that the ongoing conversation on conservatism’s future may not be taking place at CPAC this year. If that’s the case, the ACU only has itself to blame.

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Palestinian “Moderates” Rely on Violence

The firing of a single rocket from Gaza today is easy to dismiss as just an isolated incident unworthy of much notice. The rocket was fired at the city of Ashkelon, but fortunately landed in an open field and did not lead to the activation of the Iron Dome defense system. But the attack, which was the first missile launched from Gaza since the cease-fire that ended Operation Pillar of Defense last November, may tell us more about the violent intentions of the so-called moderates of the Palestinians than it does about the Hamas rulers of the strip.

As I noted on Sunday, the Palestinian Authority’s plans to launch a new intifada prior to President Obama’s visit to Israel isn’t exactly a secret. The recent outbreak of violent demonstrations in the West Bank isn’t so much a natural response to anything Israel has done as it is an orchestrated attempt to get the world to focus on Palestinian complaints. Thus it is not exactly a surprise to note that the group that claimed responsibility for today’s rocket wasn’t Hamas or any of its Islamist rivals but the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is part of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party.

The Al Aqsa group’s rocket launch is a reminder to foreign observers that their assumptions about the peaceful intent of Abbas and Fatah is based on willful ignorance and forgetfulness about the last time the PA decided to play the intifada game.

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The firing of a single rocket from Gaza today is easy to dismiss as just an isolated incident unworthy of much notice. The rocket was fired at the city of Ashkelon, but fortunately landed in an open field and did not lead to the activation of the Iron Dome defense system. But the attack, which was the first missile launched from Gaza since the cease-fire that ended Operation Pillar of Defense last November, may tell us more about the violent intentions of the so-called moderates of the Palestinians than it does about the Hamas rulers of the strip.

As I noted on Sunday, the Palestinian Authority’s plans to launch a new intifada prior to President Obama’s visit to Israel isn’t exactly a secret. The recent outbreak of violent demonstrations in the West Bank isn’t so much a natural response to anything Israel has done as it is an orchestrated attempt to get the world to focus on Palestinian complaints. Thus it is not exactly a surprise to note that the group that claimed responsibility for today’s rocket wasn’t Hamas or any of its Islamist rivals but the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is part of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party.

The Al Aqsa group’s rocket launch is a reminder to foreign observers that their assumptions about the peaceful intent of Abbas and Fatah is based on willful ignorance and forgetfulness about the last time the PA decided to play the intifada game.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, after all, was created by Abbas’s predecessor, Yasir Arafat, in order to compete with Hamas. In the upside-down world of Palestinian politics, a group or a leader’s credibility is based on how many Jews it kills, not how much it can do to help the plight of their people. That’s why genuine moderates like PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is so well liked in the West, have virtually no constituency.

What may be happening now is, however, a reversal of roles as the PA attempts to bolster its support with violence while Hamas stands pat. Instead of Hamas using terrorism to upstage Fatah in the West Bank, what may be unfolding is a series of events in which it will be the alleged moderates–to whom Israel is being told to make concessions–looking to draw the Islamist rulers of Gaza into a new cycle of violence. The rocket firing was supposedly in retaliation for the death of a Palestinian demonstrator and must be seen in the context of an effort to provoke retaliation that will, they hope, galvanize international condemnation of Israel.

With the West Bank security fence making another campaign of Fatah-funded suicide bombings extremely difficult, and the Iron Dome system making missile attacks on Israel less of a threat, the Palestinians lack effective military options. But they do hope to create enough of a disturbance in order to make President Obama push Israel to do something to appease them. Yet since nothing–not even a settlement freeze–was enough to push Abbas to return to peace talks, there is very little reason for Obama to waste any of his political capital on a spat with Israel that he knows won’t advance the cause of peace.

The last intifada also started with what we were told was a spontaneous outbreak of popular protests, but which were actually instigated by Arafat and followed up with a murderous offensive sponsored by the PA. Fatah may think their interests are best served by heightening tensions with Israel and spilling some blood in order to gain attention. But if they were truly interested in peace or even independence, all they have to do is accept Prime Minister Netanyahu’s offer of peace talks. Until that happens, even an administration as friendly to their cause as that of President Obama is not likely to reward them for inciting violence.

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Can the Saudis Be Trusted in Syria?

What to make of news that the Saudis are providing Croatian surplus arms to the Syrian rebels?

It sounds, at first blush, like a throwback to the 1980s, when the Saudis worked with the CIA to acquire surplus military hardware from all over the world–including in Warsaw Pact states such as Poland–and then deliver them, via the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, to Afghan rebels fighting the Red Army. We know from that experience that, even with extensive CIA involvement, the Saudis and Pakistanis conspired to provide the bulk of their aid to hard-line Islamist commanders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalalludin Haqqani rather than to more moderate mujahideen commanders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud.

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What to make of news that the Saudis are providing Croatian surplus arms to the Syrian rebels?

It sounds, at first blush, like a throwback to the 1980s, when the Saudis worked with the CIA to acquire surplus military hardware from all over the world–including in Warsaw Pact states such as Poland–and then deliver them, via the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, to Afghan rebels fighting the Red Army. We know from that experience that, even with extensive CIA involvement, the Saudis and Pakistanis conspired to provide the bulk of their aid to hard-line Islamist commanders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalalludin Haqqani rather than to more moderate mujahideen commanders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud.

And today? New York Times reporters C.J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt claim: “The [Saudi] weapons’ distribution has been principally to armed groups viewed as nationalist and secular, and appears to have been intended to bypass the jihadist groups whose roles in the war have alarmed Western and regional powers.”

Maybe so, but I’m skeptical. The Saudis, who are after all Wahhabis, have a natural ideological predisposition to favor other hard-line Islamic groups rather than democrats and secularists, in whom they have no interest in taking power in any country in the Middle East.

The only reliable method of helping truly moderate Syrian rebel factions would be if the U.S. were to get more directly involved. It is possible that there is some covert American military aid being provided. But if so, that would represent a significant turnaround from the hands-off policy that the Obama administration has self-destructively followed in Syria over the past two-plus years even as the death toll has climbed north of 70,000.

It is still not too late for the U.S. to get more actively involved in breaking this stalemate, pushing Bashar Assad out of power, and trying to buttress more moderate elements at the expense of al-Qaeda affiliates. But that will require a major rethink of the administration’s “lead from behind” policy, whose only effect–in the eyes of ordinary Syrians–has been to keep Assad in power.

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The Day the War on America Began

Exactly 20 years ago on this date, a terrorist attack at the World Trade Center took the lives of six people and injured more than a thousand others. The tragedy shocked the nation but, as with other al-Qaeda attacks in the years that followed, the WTC bombing did not alter the country’s basic approach to Islamist terrorism. For the next eight and a half years, the United States carried on with a business-as-usual attitude toward the subject. The lack of urgency applied to the subject, as well as the disorganized and sometimes slap-dash nature of the security establishment’s counter-terrorist operations, led to the far greater tragedy of September 11, 2001 when al-Qaeda managed to accomplish what it failed to do in 1993: knock down the towers and slaughter thousands.

All these years after 9/11 and the tracking down and killing of Osama bin Laden, are there any further lessons to be drawn from that initial tragedy? To listen to the chattering classes, you would think the answer is a definitive no. Few are marking this anniversary and even fewer seem to think there is anything more to be said about what we no longer call the war on terror. But as much as many of us may wish to consign this anniversary to the realm of the history books, the lessons of the day the war on America began still need to be heeded.

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Exactly 20 years ago on this date, a terrorist attack at the World Trade Center took the lives of six people and injured more than a thousand others. The tragedy shocked the nation but, as with other al-Qaeda attacks in the years that followed, the WTC bombing did not alter the country’s basic approach to Islamist terrorism. For the next eight and a half years, the United States carried on with a business-as-usual attitude toward the subject. The lack of urgency applied to the subject, as well as the disorganized and sometimes slap-dash nature of the security establishment’s counter-terrorist operations, led to the far greater tragedy of September 11, 2001 when al-Qaeda managed to accomplish what it failed to do in 1993: knock down the towers and slaughter thousands.

All these years after 9/11 and the tracking down and killing of Osama bin Laden, are there any further lessons to be drawn from that initial tragedy? To listen to the chattering classes, you would think the answer is a definitive no. Few are marking this anniversary and even fewer seem to think there is anything more to be said about what we no longer call the war on terror. But as much as many of us may wish to consign this anniversary to the realm of the history books, the lessons of the day the war on America began still need to be heeded.

It should be acknowledged that the United States has come a long way in the last 20 years when it comes to awareness of the forces that launched that first attack. The 9/11 attacks changed the government’s priorities and forced those in charge of the security apparatus to make fighting al-Qaeda a priority, which was something that was nowhere on the country’s radar screen even after the atrocity that took place on February 26, 1993. The death of bin Laden in 2011 seemed to signal that the long battle against the Islamists had been fought and won by the U.S., allowing Americans to go back to sleep about terror–or at least to put it in our collective rear-view mirrors.

But as the 9/11/2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya demonstrated once again, the forces that launched the attacks on America are by no means as dead as bin Laden. Indeed, they continue to be a potent force throughout the Maghreb and the Middle East. The Taliban, al-Qaeda’s old allies and hosts, are poised for a comeback in Afghanistan as the United States gradually abandons what President Obama and the Democrats once called the “good war.”

Even more ominously, al-Qaeda’s ideological allies in the Muslim Brotherhood now rule Egypt in place of a secular regime, which, though undemocratic, was a vital ally in the global war on Islamist terror.

Here in the U.S., cases of home-grown Islamist terror continue to crop up as a new generation of Islamists continue to sow the seeds of an unending war against the “Great Satan” of the United States as well as its Israeli ally.

Unlike in 1993, the problem is no longer whether our intelligence and security establishment is serious about fighting terror, but rather whether we as a nation have the will and the patience to go on doing so. The willingness of the Obama administration to embrace the Brotherhood and to go on, as it did after Benghazi, pretending that the war on terror is over, is a sign that our will may be faltering.

It is no small thing that the Islamist government of Egypt that the U.S. has embraced has called for the freeing of Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called “blind sheik” who was the al-Qaeda mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center attack. As we think back on the 20 years since six Americans died as a prelude to the murder of thousands more by the same group, the sympathy for their killer ought to remind us that the fight against Islamism is far from over.

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McDonnell’s Mistake

Conservatives dislike it when politicians on the right are told to be more like Democrats. And they are usually just as suspicious when the political press tells prominent Democrats to be more like certain Republicans. Such is the conservative movement’s relationship with the media that good press is often the wrong press, and that is no less true today of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.

Fresh off of getting slammed in the Wall Street Journal and by Red State’s Erick Erickson for his plan to hike sales and transportation taxes in the state and for opening the door to Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, the Republican governor is, unsurprisingly, now the recipient of stories extolling his supposed moderation. National Journal nudges President Obama in McDonnell’s direction on the willingness to embrace compromise and stand up to his party’s base. McDonnell right now needs such headlines like he needs a hole in the head, but it’s worth noting why. Erickson hints at it when he writes:

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Conservatives dislike it when politicians on the right are told to be more like Democrats. And they are usually just as suspicious when the political press tells prominent Democrats to be more like certain Republicans. Such is the conservative movement’s relationship with the media that good press is often the wrong press, and that is no less true today of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.

Fresh off of getting slammed in the Wall Street Journal and by Red State’s Erick Erickson for his plan to hike sales and transportation taxes in the state and for opening the door to Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, the Republican governor is, unsurprisingly, now the recipient of stories extolling his supposed moderation. National Journal nudges President Obama in McDonnell’s direction on the willingness to embrace compromise and stand up to his party’s base. McDonnell right now needs such headlines like he needs a hole in the head, but it’s worth noting why. Erickson hints at it when he writes:

What tells you that Bob McDonnell isn’t really a conservative is that there was never any interest on the part of his administration in finding funding for roads through cuts or privatizing state services. Contrast this with what a real conservative does, like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker – when a state commission recommended he raise the gas tax to pay for roads, he said he’d sell off state property and privatize other functions to pay for it rather than raise taxes. McDonnell was never interested in doing that.

The emergence, and success, of a genuine conservative reform movement has deprived Republican politicians of an excuse they used to be able to lean on when attacked from their right flank: political necessity. All throughout the Republican primary process last year, the longest shadow of all the Republicans who chose not to run was cast by then-Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. Daniels was considered serious and electable by election watchers on both sides of the isle. But the most powerful case for Daniels was that he, perhaps more (or at least earlier) than anyone else, had proven that conservatives can govern successfully–as conservatives.

This has always been a knock on the modern conservative movement: the right is accused of going so far in its anti-government zealotry that it couldn’t possibly be trusted to govern. It won’t wield the levers of power responsibly; it’ll just start tossing out all the levers. This was encapsulated perfectly in the GOP primaries. When Rick Perry famously forgot the third federal department he would eliminate, what is often lost in the recollection of that moment is Ron Paul’s response on that debate stage: “You mean five!” What kind of big-government bureaucrat, after all, only wants to get rid of three federal agencies?

Erickson is right to mention Walker’s reforms in Wisconsin, but the real problem for those like McDonnell is that Daniels pushed for a total change in the way state executives approached management and spending. Andrew Ferguson’s profile of Daniels in the Weekly Standard lays out Daniels’s blueprint:

In fact, the governor’s office has publicized a “Citizens’ Checklist” that people can take to their local school boards to see if school officials have made every possible economy. Citizens in Vincennes need to take that list and get answers, he said. The list is filled with questions. Have the administrators “eliminated memberships in professional associations and reduced travel expenses”? Have they “sold, leased, or closed underutilized buildings”? Have they “outsourced transportation and custodial services”?

[…]

Regulatory agencies track the speed with which permits and variances are granted. The economic development agency has to compare the hourly wage of each new job brought to the state with the average hourly wage of existing jobs. In the case of the [Bureau of Motor Vehicles], the two most important metrics were wait times and customer satisfaction. Now each receipt is stamped with the time the customer arrives and the time his transaction is completed. Wait times have dropped from over 40 minutes to under 10 minutes. Surveys put customer satisfaction at 97 percent.

“But when you meet your goal,” Kitchell said, sitting at his office conference table, “he just moves the goalpost.” He turned to his computer and scrolled to an email the governor had just sent. That morning a transportation official had emailed with the happy news that bids on a new road construction project were coming in 28 percent below projections. No doubt he expected a hearty attaboy for driving a hard bargain to save the taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars. Kitchell read me the governor’s reply: “Shoot for 30 percent.”

As Erickson notes, McDonnell didn’t seem nearly interested enough in finding other ways to pay the bill. This attitude toward spending–you better have a good reason behind every single dollar you want to confiscate in taxes–has been embraced in red states and blue state too, by GOP reform-minded governors. In many ways, though the 2012 election may be over, the long shadow of Mitch Daniels hasn’t gone anywhere.

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Why New Iran Talks Are Doomed to Fail

Iran and the West are participating in a new round of talks this week in Kazakhstan over Iran’s nuclear program. The odds of a breakthrough? Close to zero, for reasons that Iranian-American scholar Hussein Banai ably explains in this Los Angeles Times op-ed. He writes of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that

he is increasingly paranoid about the implications of a “grand bargain” with the United States for his privileged position as the chief interpreter of the ideals of the Islamic Republic.

Simply put, normalization of relations between Iran and the United States would deprive Khamenei and the deeply invested cohort of radical ideologues around him of a powerful justification for their arbitrary rule.

Continued enmity with the United States has time and again proved to be a convenient excuse for silencing the reformist opposition (as in the case of the 2009 Iranian presidential election, which has simply become known as “the sedition”) and managing the increasingly fragmented conservative establishment.

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Iran and the West are participating in a new round of talks this week in Kazakhstan over Iran’s nuclear program. The odds of a breakthrough? Close to zero, for reasons that Iranian-American scholar Hussein Banai ably explains in this Los Angeles Times op-ed. He writes of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that

he is increasingly paranoid about the implications of a “grand bargain” with the United States for his privileged position as the chief interpreter of the ideals of the Islamic Republic.

Simply put, normalization of relations between Iran and the United States would deprive Khamenei and the deeply invested cohort of radical ideologues around him of a powerful justification for their arbitrary rule.

Continued enmity with the United States has time and again proved to be a convenient excuse for silencing the reformist opposition (as in the case of the 2009 Iranian presidential election, which has simply become known as “the sedition”) and managing the increasingly fragmented conservative establishment.

There it is in a nutshell: The current Iranian regime can’t afford to bargain away its nuclear program because it fears that if it does so it will not last long. Whereas if Iran does acquire a nuclear weapon, Khamenei expects that this will act as a guarantor of his survival–much in the way that North Korea’s rulers, Iran’s partner in missile and (probably) nuclear research, have managed to cling to power in no small part because of their possession of WMD. For Khamenei, this is quite literally an existential, life or death issue.

Under such circumstances, it is the height of naiveté to expect that more talks will produce any meaningful result beyond buying Iran more time to put more centrifuges online.

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Religious Persecution and Safe Havens

In recent months, a new consensus has emerged: For the first time in millennia, Judaism has lost its title as the world’s most persecuted religion; today, that dubious honor goes to Christianity. “Christians are targeted more than any other body of believers,” wrote Rupert Shortt in a 54-page report for the London-based Civitas institute in December, which meticulously documented their persecution on a country-by-country basis. Even politicians have begun grasping this fact: German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly deemed Christianity “the most persecuted religion in the world” in November. In short, as one commentator put it last week, Christians have become the new Jews.

There are two reasons why Christianity has displaced Judaism as the world’s most persecuted religion. One, obviously, is increased persecution of Christians, which stems largely from the rise of radical Islam: Though non-Islamic countries like China also repress Christians, only radical Islamists kill them wholesale. The other is that today, Jews face less persecution than ever before in history. And that is entirely due to the existence of the State of Israel.

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In recent months, a new consensus has emerged: For the first time in millennia, Judaism has lost its title as the world’s most persecuted religion; today, that dubious honor goes to Christianity. “Christians are targeted more than any other body of believers,” wrote Rupert Shortt in a 54-page report for the London-based Civitas institute in December, which meticulously documented their persecution on a country-by-country basis. Even politicians have begun grasping this fact: German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly deemed Christianity “the most persecuted religion in the world” in November. In short, as one commentator put it last week, Christians have become the new Jews.

There are two reasons why Christianity has displaced Judaism as the world’s most persecuted religion. One, obviously, is increased persecution of Christians, which stems largely from the rise of radical Islam: Though non-Islamic countries like China also repress Christians, only radical Islamists kill them wholesale. The other is that today, Jews face less persecution than ever before in history. And that is entirely due to the existence of the State of Israel.

Were hundreds of thousands of Jews still scattered throughout the Islamic world, as was true a century ago, they would assuredly face persecution no less severe than Christians do. But they aren’t, because most have relocated to Israel. In fact, for the last 64 years, any Jew anywhere who felt sufficiently threatened to want to leave his country has been able to find sanctuary in Israel, and Israel has repeatedly gone to great lengths to try to rescue those who want to leave but can’t.

Many Christians, too, might like to leave places like Egypt or Iraq. But unlike the Jews, they have nowhere to go: No country on earth will automatically open its doors for them–with no questions asked and no numerical limitations–the way Israel does for Jews. And still less would any country do so for Jews if Israel didn’t exist.

A decade ago, at the height of the intifada, a fellow Israeli complained to me that Israel had failed in its mission to be a safe haven for Jews. On the contrary, she charged, Israel today is the most dangerous place on earth for Jews to live.

Technically, she’s correct: A Jew in Israel is far more likely to be killed just because he is Jewish than a Jew in Europe or North America. What she failed to grasp is that this is precisely the measure of Israel’s success: Israel today is the most dangerous place to be a Jew because any Jew living someplace more dangerous can relocate to Israel instead–and almost all of them have. In short, the fact that almost no Jews today live someplace more dangerous than Israel is proof positive of Israel’s success as a haven.

Though there are many reasons why Israel, for all its flaws, deserves support from all decent people, and especially all Jews, this is the most basic of all: If Israel didn’t exist, Judaism would still top the list of the world’s most persecuted religions, and Jews would be slaughtered throughout the Islamic world just as their Christian brethren are today. And nobody who cares about the Jewish people–or about saving human lives in general–could truly think that alternative is preferable.

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David Denby’s Sneering Ignorance

In his piece about the Academy Awards, the New Yorker’s David Denby wrote this:

I can’t give up my feeling that people are approving of their own tears when they respond to “Les Misérables.” After all, Michael Gerson, George Bush’s principal speechwriter, wrote an entire column in the Washington Post about how much he cried at “Les Mis.” But how much did the Bush Administration do for the downtrodden? I can’t think of a better definition of sentimentality—an emotion disconnected from what one actually is and does—than effusions like Gerson’s.

This is a sneering ignorance. Even a liberal film critic should be familiar with President Bush’s 2003 announcement of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the largest program in history to fight a single disease. The plan included a massive increase in funding–$15 billion over five years–to promote prevention, treatment, and compassionate care, mainly in Africa. Many were skeptical that large-scale AIDS treatment was even possible in the developing world. But studies show that PEPFAR is estimated to have saved 1.2 million lives between 2003-2007. The most recent data show that the number of AIDS-related deaths in sub-Saharan Africa has fallen by about a third. 

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In his piece about the Academy Awards, the New Yorker’s David Denby wrote this:

I can’t give up my feeling that people are approving of their own tears when they respond to “Les Misérables.” After all, Michael Gerson, George Bush’s principal speechwriter, wrote an entire column in the Washington Post about how much he cried at “Les Mis.” But how much did the Bush Administration do for the downtrodden? I can’t think of a better definition of sentimentality—an emotion disconnected from what one actually is and does—than effusions like Gerson’s.

This is a sneering ignorance. Even a liberal film critic should be familiar with President Bush’s 2003 announcement of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the largest program in history to fight a single disease. The plan included a massive increase in funding–$15 billion over five years–to promote prevention, treatment, and compassionate care, mainly in Africa. Many were skeptical that large-scale AIDS treatment was even possible in the developing world. But studies show that PEPFAR is estimated to have saved 1.2 million lives between 2003-2007. The most recent data show that the number of AIDS-related deaths in sub-Saharan Africa has fallen by about a third. 

“The substantial life expectancy afforded by widespread access to cART [combination antiretroviral therapy] underscores the fact that HIV diagnosis and treatment in resource-limited settings should no longer be considered a death sentence,” according to Dr. Edward Mills, who helped oversee a large-scale analysis of life expectancy outcomes in Africa for HIV patients. “Instead, HIV-infected people should plan and prepare for a long and fulfilling life.”

“PEPFAR is changing the course of the AIDS epidemic,” according to Dr. Peter Piot, former executive director of the Joint United Nations Programm on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief was among George W. Bush’s finest hours–and for the record, Michael Gerson was one of the main advocates for PEPFAR in the Bush White House.

It takes a particularly confused and cynical individual to dismiss as “sentimentality” one of the most humane and effective enterprises in our lifetime. PEPFAR is certainly a more unambiguous success, and has saved many more lives, than the War on Poverty.

I can’t think of a better example of moral idiocy–of words disconnected from what reality actually is and what people have done–than columns like Denby’s. 

He should stick to movie reviews. 

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