Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 2013

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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Hillary the Inevitable … Again?

All throughout the 2012 presidential campaign season, we heard complaints from those covering the election about how nasty and trivial the campaign had become. It would often be compared wistfully to a bygone era of American politics before social media brought the twin plagues of pettiness and excessive informality on the unsuspecting American voter. And while it can be fun to take a stroll down memory lane, the youthful political press is indulging its nostalgia in an odd way: by reprising the 2008 election.

At least that’s the impression one gets reading the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s effect on the emerging field of Democrats seeking to succeed Barack Obama. Politico reports today:

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All throughout the 2012 presidential campaign season, we heard complaints from those covering the election about how nasty and trivial the campaign had become. It would often be compared wistfully to a bygone era of American politics before social media brought the twin plagues of pettiness and excessive informality on the unsuspecting American voter. And while it can be fun to take a stroll down memory lane, the youthful political press is indulging its nostalgia in an odd way: by reprising the 2008 election.

At least that’s the impression one gets reading the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s effect on the emerging field of Democrats seeking to succeed Barack Obama. Politico reports today:

Since it is really too early to ask this question, let’s do it: Can anybody stop Hillary? 

Can any of the other Democrats in the race stop Hillary Clinton from getting the nomination? Who? And how?

Sorry–that was Politico reporting in 2007. Here’s Politico reporting today:

But even as they eye a move from the statehouse to the White House, there’s broad recognition among the chief executives that the next generation of Democrats may have to wait longer than four more years to take their place as Barack Obama’s heir….

Among the Democratic governors who descended on Washington this weekend for the National Governors Association winter meeting, the only difference of opinion when it came to Secretary Clinton was whether she would clear the 2016 field entirely or merely loom colossus-like over the race until, and upon entering, the campaign.

To Politico’s credit, they acknowledge that this all sounds a bit familiar: “Clinton wasn’t supposed to lose the nomination in 2008, either; that is, until a freshman senator from Illinois came along with a message of Hope and Change.” But on the other hand: “she’s in an even stronger place today than she was then, coming off a stint as Obama’s loyal Secretary of State and showing up in polls as the most popular political figure in America.”

Maybe. High approval marks for secretaries of state are common and bipartisan–and don’t usually translate into anything more than a pat on the back. There’s also the possibility that part of Clinton’s high approval numbers at Foggy Bottom had something to do with the fact that voters much preferred her there to being in the White House, which is why she didn’t win her party’s nomination despite her supposed inevitability.

There’s no denying that Clinton would be a strong candidate in 2016. Her name identification will of course help, as will her ability to raise money. Not only will she have one former president on the campaign trail with her in her husband, but she’ll probably have at least the tacit support from Obama as well. But the most telling bit of the story–and easily the most frustrating to the other Democratic contenders–was this:

It’s an unprecedented scenario, noted some of the governors: a first lady-turned-senator-turned-presidential candidate-turned Secretary of State with 100-percent name ID and deep popularity who would, oh yes, make history as the nation’s first female president.

Even the most impressive health care delivery reforms and far-reaching gun control restrictions pale by comparison.

Translation: identity politics still rule the Democratic Party. That doesn’t mean a Clinton campaign would be nothing but empty sloganeering and personality cult politics, as Obama’s was in 2008. He was always more of an ideologue who still can’t seem to get out of campaign mode long enough to govern. Clinton’s strengths are in the policy arena; she’s detail-oriented, tireless, and a formidable debater.

Nonetheless, as Democrats see it, her biggest strength may be that if Obama’s second term sputters, as so often happens, Clinton is the kind of candidate who could run to succeed Obama without having to defend eight years of Democratic policies coming out of the White House because she could raise the argument above discussion of policy altogether. Just look at the two issues, for example, that the Politico story brought up: guns and health care reform. Obamacare is not now and has never been popular, and by the time Obama leaves office it may very well be even less so. And gun control has been a losing issue for liberal Democrats on the national stage for quite some time.

Democrats would really like to keep passing relatively unpopular legislation and not have to own it or be punished by the voters for it going forward. It would be a neat trick; ironically, nominating one of Obama’s high-profile Cabinet members may be the their best chance to pull it off.

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Obama’s Hypocritical Access Sale

To say that Barack Obama has never practiced what he preached about campaign finance reform is the understatement of the century. The president rode to office and then was re-elected with the help of a massive influx of private cash, all the while saying that money was the root of all political evil. He routinely denounces the wealthy and the influence of big business while taking their money and selling access to the White House to the same Wall Street moguls to whom he accuses Republicans of being in thrall.

Even when practiced at such Olympian levels, hypocrisy is not against the law. Thus the news that a new pro-Obama 501(c)(4), organized by the rump of the Obama re-election campaign, is gearing up to not only advocate for the president’s policies but to reward donors with access to the White House and the president himself is not so much a question of legality but a matter of setting a new low in ethical standards. As even the New York Times noted in an article published this weekend, the access sale being conducted by the president’s Organizing for Action group crosses a line that most groups that similarly label themselves as educational rather than political don’t:

Giving or raising $500,000 or more puts donors on a national advisory board for Mr. Obama’s group and the privilege of attending quarterly meetings with the president, along with other meetings at the White House. Moreover, the new cash demands on Mr. Obama’s top donors and bundlers come as many of them are angling for appointments to administration jobs or ambassadorships. …

Many traditional advocacy organizations, including the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association, are set up as social welfare groups, or 501(c)(4)’s in tax parlance. But unlike those groups, Organizing for Action appears to be an extension of the administration, stocked with alumni of Mr. Obama’s White House and campaign teams and devoted solely to the president’s second-term agenda.

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To say that Barack Obama has never practiced what he preached about campaign finance reform is the understatement of the century. The president rode to office and then was re-elected with the help of a massive influx of private cash, all the while saying that money was the root of all political evil. He routinely denounces the wealthy and the influence of big business while taking their money and selling access to the White House to the same Wall Street moguls to whom he accuses Republicans of being in thrall.

Even when practiced at such Olympian levels, hypocrisy is not against the law. Thus the news that a new pro-Obama 501(c)(4), organized by the rump of the Obama re-election campaign, is gearing up to not only advocate for the president’s policies but to reward donors with access to the White House and the president himself is not so much a question of legality but a matter of setting a new low in ethical standards. As even the New York Times noted in an article published this weekend, the access sale being conducted by the president’s Organizing for Action group crosses a line that most groups that similarly label themselves as educational rather than political don’t:

Giving or raising $500,000 or more puts donors on a national advisory board for Mr. Obama’s group and the privilege of attending quarterly meetings with the president, along with other meetings at the White House. Moreover, the new cash demands on Mr. Obama’s top donors and bundlers come as many of them are angling for appointments to administration jobs or ambassadorships. …

Many traditional advocacy organizations, including the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association, are set up as social welfare groups, or 501(c)(4)’s in tax parlance. But unlike those groups, Organizing for Action appears to be an extension of the administration, stocked with alumni of Mr. Obama’s White House and campaign teams and devoted solely to the president’s second-term agenda.

The intermingling of money and power is nothing new. Indeed, the myth that campaign finance reform laws can eliminate this nexus is itself a problem because it has led to more and more such legislation that has only made the problem worse, as donations have become less accountable and transparent.

They hypocrisy of a president and an administration that continues to portray itself as being as pure as the driven snow is bad enough. The stench of this sort of brazen behavior ought to shock both the press and the public, but the double standard by which the president always seems to be given a pass for everything he does seems to apply to this as well.

But the problem with selling access to this particular White House is that for all of its high-flown rhetoric about ethics, it seems as malleable to the whims of big contributors as any of its less highly regarded predecessors. A quick look at the list of companies that benefited from the president’s first-term stimulus boondoggle reveals a roster of Obama campaign contributors. We should expect that this latest example of administration venality would increase the number of Solyndra-style “investments” by the Treasury.

This is not the first White House for sale, as both Republicans and Democrats have often played the same game. But the industrial level of this kind of access sale makes the use of the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House as a motel for Democratic cash cows and celebrity donors by the Clintons look tame.

The solution to this sort of thing is not more laws that will only create ever more subterfuges and even less accountability, just as past efforts have done. What is needed is a vigorous press keeping close watch on the administration and prepared to treat future Solyndra-type scandals as major stories–as they would were George W. Bush playing such a cynical game–rather than footnotes. But given the president’s ability to play puppet master to the press, that is about as likely to happen as Laura Bush being asked to announce the Best Picture Oscar.

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The Sequester Airport Shakedown

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been under fire the past few days for his role as one of the leading front men for the president’s effort to scare Americans about the sequester. There are good reasons to fear the impact of these across-the-board spending cuts, especially to defense, as Max wrote last week. But the manner in which the administration is attempting to claim that the country’s business will grind to a halt is prompting some skepticism about the sequester as well as the government’s credibility.

There’s no doubt the sequester will inflict real pain on the Department of Transportation and other government sectors. But Republicans are publicly wondering whether that pain will be disproportionately applied to services that will directly affect the public as opposed to other, far less vital expenditures that might well be eliminated without creating the sort of havoc that the White House has been warning us about. Who is right? We’ll find out soon enough, as at this point either side of this argument can say anything it wants without fear of being proven wrong. But once the sequester starts going into effect it will be possible to see whether the government is being straight with the public or not. That’s the danger for the White House.

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Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been under fire the past few days for his role as one of the leading front men for the president’s effort to scare Americans about the sequester. There are good reasons to fear the impact of these across-the-board spending cuts, especially to defense, as Max wrote last week. But the manner in which the administration is attempting to claim that the country’s business will grind to a halt is prompting some skepticism about the sequester as well as the government’s credibility.

There’s no doubt the sequester will inflict real pain on the Department of Transportation and other government sectors. But Republicans are publicly wondering whether that pain will be disproportionately applied to services that will directly affect the public as opposed to other, far less vital expenditures that might well be eliminated without creating the sort of havoc that the White House has been warning us about. Who is right? We’ll find out soon enough, as at this point either side of this argument can say anything it wants without fear of being proven wrong. But once the sequester starts going into effect it will be possible to see whether the government is being straight with the public or not. That’s the danger for the White House.

Up until this week, the contest to see who will get the lion’s share of the blame for the sequester has been the main event in Washington. Part of that was involved in the White House’s effort to disavow the paternity of this awful idea. But now that Bob Woodward has blown that up, they are back to their main task of arguing that any suffering or inconvenience that stems from the measure will be due to the GOP refusing to accept the president’s demands and raise taxes. While talking about the long-term impact of layoffs or lower allocations for programs can certainly drive the argument about the sequester, Democrats also know that the way the cuts impact the daily life of Americans will be even more influential.

That’s why the focus this week has been on things like the possible travails that travelers will experience at airports when the sequester goes into effect. In theory that ought to create tremendous pressure on Republicans to give in to the president, evoking the spectacle of aggravated passengers as canceled flights and long security lines bring air travel to a grinding halt.

But if it comes out that these delays have been as much the result of manipulative decisions by the authorities that are geared toward maximizing inconvenience rather than just cutting expenditures, it could cause some real blow back for the administration. Figures such as LaHood need to be very careful in the way the sequester is administered. As much as the president is the beneficiary of a largely complacent press corps, any monkey business aimed at making things look even worse than they are could erase any temporary advantage the president might get from this dustup.

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In Praise of Bob Woodward

I want to add to what Jonathan wrote about Bob Woodward calling out the White House for misrepresenting its role in sequestration and “moving the goalposts” in order to get its way.

Mr. Woodward is clearly sympathetic to President Obama’s approach; he’s said as much. (“Obama’s call for a balanced approach is reasonable,” Woodward writes, “and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more.”) But Woodward has enough integrity as a journalist not to allow a willful distortion to go unchecked and unchallenged.

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I want to add to what Jonathan wrote about Bob Woodward calling out the White House for misrepresenting its role in sequestration and “moving the goalposts” in order to get its way.

Mr. Woodward is clearly sympathetic to President Obama’s approach; he’s said as much. (“Obama’s call for a balanced approach is reasonable,” Woodward writes, “and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more.”) But Woodward has enough integrity as a journalist not to allow a willful distortion to go unchecked and unchallenged.

Many in the elite media–NBC’s Chuck Todd prominently among them—have made a concerted effort to downplay the role of paternity when it comes to the sequestration idea. (Todd declared, “Of all the dumb things Washington does, this ‘who started it’ argument has proven to be one of the dumber ones, especially since we’re so close to the actual cuts going into place.”)

But this is a ludicrous position. Any journalist worth his salt must know that for a president to eviscerate a “brutal” idea that his own White House championed and that the president himself approved of is a big story. And you can be sure Chuck Todd would think so, and treat it as such, if the president was George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan instead of Barack Obama. 

In any event, we only know about the White House’s role because of Woodward’s book The Price of Politics. And now Woodward himself is holding the White House accountable for disfiguring the truth.

I don’t always agree with Mr. Woodward’s judgments, and I’ve expressed those differences publicly. I’m also aware of the fact that it’s fashionable among some, including some conservatives, to disparage Woodward. But the truth is that he’s a monumentally important figure in the history of journalism. His books have genuine historical value. He’s not afraid to take on either Republican or Democratic presidents. And whatever his own political views are, he is first and foremost a reporter, and an awfully good one. Which he’s showed once again, in this most recent dust-up with the White House.

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Why the Syrian Rebels Don’t Trust Kerry

In January, as the Syrian civil war closed in on its second anniversary, news broke that was tantalizingly close to a game-changer. Josh Rogin reported that a State Department cable indicated the strong belief that Bashar al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons. The next day, Rogin reported a stern denial from the State Department. In the fog of war, the two claims seemed to have roughly equal credibility. But the Obama administration’s denial raised some eyebrows, since President Obama had declared the use of chemical weapons a clear red line that would necessitate intervention in the conflict. Was he moving the red line again, as he had appeared to do just months before, to avoid taking action?

The perception that President Obama was far too willing to find any excuse not to increase help to the Syrian rebels was especially unhelpful for the administration since the president had recently sent another dispiriting message to the Syrian opposition: the announcement of the nomination of John Kerry to be his next secretary of state. Kerry was, of course, one of the least perceptive American senators with regard to the cruelty of the man he called—as aides cringed—his “dear friend” Assad and bought hook, line and sinker the idea that the bloodthirsty tyrant might be ready to reform and moderate his behavior. So it’s not a complete surprise that, as Kerry seeks a meeting with them, the rebels are wondering whether they have any reason to let Kerry use them as props for a photo op to be almost certainly discarded thereafter. CBS News reports:

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In January, as the Syrian civil war closed in on its second anniversary, news broke that was tantalizingly close to a game-changer. Josh Rogin reported that a State Department cable indicated the strong belief that Bashar al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons. The next day, Rogin reported a stern denial from the State Department. In the fog of war, the two claims seemed to have roughly equal credibility. But the Obama administration’s denial raised some eyebrows, since President Obama had declared the use of chemical weapons a clear red line that would necessitate intervention in the conflict. Was he moving the red line again, as he had appeared to do just months before, to avoid taking action?

The perception that President Obama was far too willing to find any excuse not to increase help to the Syrian rebels was especially unhelpful for the administration since the president had recently sent another dispiriting message to the Syrian opposition: the announcement of the nomination of John Kerry to be his next secretary of state. Kerry was, of course, one of the least perceptive American senators with regard to the cruelty of the man he called—as aides cringed—his “dear friend” Assad and bought hook, line and sinker the idea that the bloodthirsty tyrant might be ready to reform and moderate his behavior. So it’s not a complete surprise that, as Kerry seeks a meeting with them, the rebels are wondering whether they have any reason to let Kerry use them as props for a photo op to be almost certainly discarded thereafter. CBS News reports:

The Syrian Opposition may boycott their first opportunity to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry, despite his efforts to broker a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria and the Obama administration’s longtime support of a political transition away from the Assad regime.

That’s a lot of spin for one opening paragraph, giving the Obama administration credit for hoping Assad spontaneously combusts. But perhaps the reporter misses the obvious point that the rebels’ skepticism might not be despite, but rather because of, Kerry’s “efforts to broker a diplomatic solution to the crisis,” which the rebels might suspect means giving up their fight for freedom in return for a superficial personnel change at the top of the regime.

Kerry certainly has done nothing to earn any credibility from the rebels in Syria or elsewhere, and so he won’t be granted it. But at the end of the day, as terrible a spokesman as Kerry is for the cause of freedom, it’s Kerry boss the rebels are speaking to by dissing Kerry. As we learned recently, Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, as well as David Petraeus and Leon Panetta, wanted to intervene in Syria on behalf of the rebels. Obama turned them down. Kerry, therefore, wasn’t selected as secretary of state to set diplomatic policy but rather because he was the perfect representative of the administration’s policy already in place.

Though the analogy is imperfect, the conflict’s trajectory has been reminiscent of another such rebellion: the insurgency sparked in Chechnya and which spread across the Caucasus, especially to Dagestan and Ingushetia. The first Chechen war was one of independence, as the Chechens were eager to exploit the breakup of the Soviet Union and claim a form of long-awaited retribution for the abuses inflicted upon them by the Russian empire–especially under Stalin–and go their own way. They defended themselves from Russia’s troops more ably than expected, and eventually incurred the wrath of Vladimir Putin, who was eager to make a name for himself with the second Chechen war.

But by that time five years later, the nature of the Chechen insurgency had had begun a dramatic change. The cause of Chechen independence would be effectively hijacked by an Islamist core that would go on to found the Caucasus Emirate and lead a band of insurgents easily able to replicate Putin’s brutality. The world could be forgiven for wondering just who they were supposed to be rooting for and turning their attention elsewhere.

The Syrian rebellion formed as part of the Arab Spring, but when the West refused to play favorites and get involved, others–notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia–did. Money and weapons started flowing ever faster to terrorist groups like the al-Nusra Front and other Islamist radicals. The West throws up its hands. And so Ricochet’s Judith Levy’s interview with the journalist Jonathan Spyer, who has reported from Syria throughout the conflict, contains this exchange:

Judith: So is it a foregone conclusion that a victorious rebellion will mean an Islamist Syria?

Jonathan: Well, I think it is more and more looking that way now. I’m not sure if that was the case right at the beginning. To some degree, what’s happened now — and I stress to some degree, I don’t want to say this is the whole picture, but to some degree what’s happening now is the result of Western policy.

It’s a Western policy that Clinton and others opposed, to no avail. And it’s a policy that John Kerry is perfectly suited to carry out, something of which the rebels seem to be well aware.

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Last Call for Accountability on Hagel

There isn’t much doubt Chuck Hagel will finally be confirmed as secretary of defense this week when the Senate reconvenes. Some Republicans have abandoned their support of delaying the nomination. Meanwhile, Democrats–even those who have reputations as stalwart friends of Israel–have closed ranks behind President Obama’s choice. The result is that a man who was widely ridiculed for his incompetent performance during his confirmation hearing and who has a long record of troubling stands on Israel, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah will soon be running the Pentagon. As Pete wrote earlier today, having a “dim-witted” secretary of defense who isn’t up to the task of helping to set policy is bad for national security. There is also good reason to worry that whatever influence Hagel does have will be used to downgrade the alliance with Israel and to act as a brake on efforts to isolate Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.

But before the book on the Hagel confirmation fight is closed, it’s worth re-examining one of the excuses used by some Democrats in refusing to stand up against such an unsuitable nomination. Many of those who otherwise count themselves as staunch friends of Israel—and who almost certainly would have gone to the barricades to oppose a similar candidate had he been put forward by a Republican president—have defended their support of Hagel by saying that it was impossible for them to speak out on the issue when Jewish and pro-Israel groups were silent. While many Jewish groups did keep quiet about Hagel, the initial reluctance of others went out the window in the last weeks as more information came to light about Hagel’s past statements about Jews and Israel. Earlier this month, Abe Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, said Hagel’s statements were disturbing and called for an explanation. 

The latest to do so was B’nai B’rith International. On Friday, it said it was troubled by Hagel’s record as well as by his statements and urged the Senate to re-examine his record before voting. In doing so, it joined the American Jewish Committee, another large mainstream and generally liberal organization, in calling for a halt to the rush to confirm Hagel.

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There isn’t much doubt Chuck Hagel will finally be confirmed as secretary of defense this week when the Senate reconvenes. Some Republicans have abandoned their support of delaying the nomination. Meanwhile, Democrats–even those who have reputations as stalwart friends of Israel–have closed ranks behind President Obama’s choice. The result is that a man who was widely ridiculed for his incompetent performance during his confirmation hearing and who has a long record of troubling stands on Israel, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah will soon be running the Pentagon. As Pete wrote earlier today, having a “dim-witted” secretary of defense who isn’t up to the task of helping to set policy is bad for national security. There is also good reason to worry that whatever influence Hagel does have will be used to downgrade the alliance with Israel and to act as a brake on efforts to isolate Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.

But before the book on the Hagel confirmation fight is closed, it’s worth re-examining one of the excuses used by some Democrats in refusing to stand up against such an unsuitable nomination. Many of those who otherwise count themselves as staunch friends of Israel—and who almost certainly would have gone to the barricades to oppose a similar candidate had he been put forward by a Republican president—have defended their support of Hagel by saying that it was impossible for them to speak out on the issue when Jewish and pro-Israel groups were silent. While many Jewish groups did keep quiet about Hagel, the initial reluctance of others went out the window in the last weeks as more information came to light about Hagel’s past statements about Jews and Israel. Earlier this month, Abe Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, said Hagel’s statements were disturbing and called for an explanation. 

The latest to do so was B’nai B’rith International. On Friday, it said it was troubled by Hagel’s record as well as by his statements and urged the Senate to re-examine his record before voting. In doing so, it joined the American Jewish Committee, another large mainstream and generally liberal organization, in calling for a halt to the rush to confirm Hagel.

Prior to this, the Zionist Organization of America had made its negative views about Hagel very clear. The Republican Jewish Coalition had also been doing its best to galvanize opposition to the nomination. But since neither group can be said to represent the views of most liberals, it was possible for Hagel’s defenders to say they didn’t represent most Jews. But with ADL, AJC and B’nai B’rith speaking up, that just isn’t possible anymore.

There should be no misunderstanding, heading into the final debate about Hagel, about the insincerity of his confirmation conversion in which his past positions on Israel and its foes were abandoned. Israel-bashers are confident that the process by which Hagel morphed into a supposed ardent backer of the alliance with the Jewish state will be forgotten once he is ensconced in the Pentagon. But the willingness of so many pro-Israel Democrats to turn a blind eye to Hagel’s shortcomings in an effort to please President Obama is a shocking abandonment of principle. This is a not insignificant point that deserves to be brought up whenever some of the Democrats, like New York’s Chuck Schumer, who will vote for Hagel this week, parade their pro-Israel credentials in an effort to garner support and raise funds. It may be too late in the game to expect these politicians to behave in a manner that is consistent with their past statements, but, like Hagel, they should be held accountable.

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The Oscars, the Obamas and Camelot

No one who decided to go to bed or just switched the channel sometime before the end of a spectacularly boring Oscars show last night should be blamed. But if you did, you missed more than the identity of the winners of the major awards. In a night full of not particularly funny jokes or entertaining production numbers, and winners that most of the movie pundits predicted, the biggest surprise came when First Lady Michelle Obama appeared live from the White House to help Jack Nicholson present the Best Picture Award that capped the evening. Mrs. Obama is as graceful, attractive and well dressed as most of the film stars present at the ceremony. But the decision to include her at its conclusion illustrated a salient fact about the advantages her husband has been given and why the laws of political gravity do not seem to apply to him.

In the last year I have often written about how conservatives have underestimated President Obama’s political appeal as well as the kid glove treatment he gets from the media. The full explanation of his ability to escape the sort of critical scrutiny his recent predecessors have received is multifaceted, but I believe the most important aspect of this phenomenon is what I call the “Camelot” factor. The Obamas are the beneficiaries of a media whose liberal bias is beyond doubt. They also have a skillful staff that is ruthlessly manipulative and takes full advantage of social media and creative tactics. But mere bias and smart tactics don’t fully explain it. No president or presidential family has been treated by the mainstream media with the sort of deference if not reverential awe the Obamas get since John F. Kennedy and his beautiful wife were in the White House.

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No one who decided to go to bed or just switched the channel sometime before the end of a spectacularly boring Oscars show last night should be blamed. But if you did, you missed more than the identity of the winners of the major awards. In a night full of not particularly funny jokes or entertaining production numbers, and winners that most of the movie pundits predicted, the biggest surprise came when First Lady Michelle Obama appeared live from the White House to help Jack Nicholson present the Best Picture Award that capped the evening. Mrs. Obama is as graceful, attractive and well dressed as most of the film stars present at the ceremony. But the decision to include her at its conclusion illustrated a salient fact about the advantages her husband has been given and why the laws of political gravity do not seem to apply to him.

In the last year I have often written about how conservatives have underestimated President Obama’s political appeal as well as the kid glove treatment he gets from the media. The full explanation of his ability to escape the sort of critical scrutiny his recent predecessors have received is multifaceted, but I believe the most important aspect of this phenomenon is what I call the “Camelot” factor. The Obamas are the beneficiaries of a media whose liberal bias is beyond doubt. They also have a skillful staff that is ruthlessly manipulative and takes full advantage of social media and creative tactics. But mere bias and smart tactics don’t fully explain it. No president or presidential family has been treated by the mainstream media with the sort of deference if not reverential awe the Obamas get since John F. Kennedy and his beautiful wife were in the White House.

It almost goes without saying that it is impossible to imagine any other recent First Lady being invited to present the Best Picture Oscar. Mrs. Obama’s many fans will argue that she is the most stylish and perhaps attractive of recent presidential wives, and perhaps they have a case to make in that regard. But you don’t have to be a conservative or a Republican to realize that with the Obamas the already obvious political preferences of the arts world–and the film industry in particular–have crossed a new boundary.

While all presidents, including some of the most revered like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, have always been subjected to abuse in the political arena, popular culture had always tended to treat presidents with deference. But ever since Kennedy, that salute-the-flag way of looking at our political leaders has gone out the window. Since then all denizens of the White House have been subjected to the same cynical and sarcastic treatment accorded everybody else in contemporary American culture. Though liberals were certainly treated better than conservatives, they were not exempt. Not, that is, until Barack and Michelle Obama.

President Obama’s historic status as our first African-American president grants him the sort of edge that no other contemporary politician or any of his successors can ever hope to acquire. But the strength of his position is not just a function of a lapdog liberal media that is so easily led around by the nose by White House flacks. The Obamas are not just the leading figures in our politics; they are treated by popular culture as the uncrowned king and queen of America.

In parliamentary political systems the duties of head of state and head of government are separated. In the United States they are combined, but in the last half-century presidents have not been able to step out of their politician role in the way that their predecessors might once have done. Not so the Obamas, who are subjected to less mockery and more courtesy than even the queen of Great Britain is given in her own realm.

Part of this is seen in the way the first lady and the Obama children are held exempt from the sort of nasty criticism that has been the normal fare of every presidential family since Jacqueline Kennedy, Caroline and John-John were the darlings of the press. The children of even liberal presidents such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were the butts of jokes–but not the Obama kids.

But the ability of the Obamas to preside over American culture like apolitical monarchs while simultaneously taking part in some of the most bitter, partisan and demagogic political warfare against their opponents gives the president an enormous advantage in everything he does, whether it is conducting a re-election campaign or bullying Congress to raise taxes.

Prior to the Oscars, it was understood that politics had torpedoed the chances of the superior “Zero Dark Thirty” from winning the top award. But Mrs. Obama’s presence in the ceremony told us more about the intersection of culture and politics than even that travesty.

Republicans have spent much of the last few months since their defeat at the hands of President Obama engaged in an orgy of introspection and recrimination. A good deal of that is justified. But as much as they need to rethink their approach to some issues, as well as their messaging, they would be foolish to think that their losses in 2008 and 2012 are unconnected to their bad fortune in being matched up against a Camelot presidency.

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Why a Dim-Witted Defense Secretary Matters

Much has been said, and rightly so, about Chuck Hagel’s dismal confirmation hearing, his noxious statements about Israel, his alarming attitude toward Iran, and his eagerness to gut the Defense Department.

But what Dan Senor has done better than anyone else is to explain, in a specific and accessible manner, what a secretary of defense does, what the job entails, and why competence in that Cabinet post, more than any other, matters. Mr. Senor’s article in the Weekly Standard can be found here

In the wake of Senator Hagel’s dim-witted performance in his confirmation hearing, his supporters were forced to argue that Hagel is acceptable precisely because he won’t really be in charge. “After all,” said Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, “the president is the one who sets policy.” Mr. Hagel himself, in order to allay concerns of his critics, actually said, “I won’t be in a policy-making position.”

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Much has been said, and rightly so, about Chuck Hagel’s dismal confirmation hearing, his noxious statements about Israel, his alarming attitude toward Iran, and his eagerness to gut the Defense Department.

But what Dan Senor has done better than anyone else is to explain, in a specific and accessible manner, what a secretary of defense does, what the job entails, and why competence in that Cabinet post, more than any other, matters. Mr. Senor’s article in the Weekly Standard can be found here

In the wake of Senator Hagel’s dim-witted performance in his confirmation hearing, his supporters were forced to argue that Hagel is acceptable precisely because he won’t really be in charge. “After all,” said Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, “the president is the one who sets policy.” Mr. Hagel himself, in order to allay concerns of his critics, actually said, “I won’t be in a policy-making position.”

Except that he will–and Senor explains all that this means.

In his conclusion, Senor writes:

The most that can be said in favor of Chuck Hagel’s nomination is that his hands will be tied, that he won’t have much scope to affect policy. But no one should be under any illusions: If Chuck Hagel becomes secretary of defense, he will be captain of the Pentagon ship, choosing its crew and charting its course. The decisions he makes on the job will have tremendous consequences for the wars America fights today, and perhaps an even greater impact on the wars which America might fight in the future. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, like every secretary of defense before him, will be a consequential policymaker, for better or for worse.

If Hagel is confirmed it will be, in every important respect, for worse.

These are not going to be easy years for America.

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Arab Filmmakers to Celebrate Genocide

While Jews around the world commemorate the inability of an ancient villain to make good on his threat to wipe out the Jews of Persia with the holiday of Purim, some in the Arab world are preparing to celebrate one such effort that did not fail. In the seventh century, the large Jewish community in the Arabian Peninsula fell victim to the influence of the newborn Muslim movement. The result was that after a futile effort to defend themselves, the three Jewish tribes of the region–the Banu Nadir, the Banu Qainuqa and the Banu Qurayza–were all forced into exile after the battle of Khaiber. The Prophet Mohammed’s followers mercilessly slaughtered the bulk of the latter tribe. This sad chapter of history is little known in the West even among Jews but it is familiar to Muslims who, even today, use the phrase “Khaiber” as a battle cry to rally opposition to Israel and as an indication of their desired fate for the Jews who live in the Middle East today.

But as the Anti-Defamation League’s blog reports, a Qatar-based production company is slated to start filming next month of a multi-millionaire dollar television series focused on the events of Khaiber. The author of the script is Yusri Al-Jindy, whose work has previously depicted Jews and Israelis as bloodthirsty villains.

Arab countries, includ­ing Morocco, Egypt and Jordan, and will apparently feature several well-known Arab actors. Echo Media Qatar has reportedly started build­ing sets with struc­tures similar to the ones inhabited by Jews 1,400 years ago.

A report on Al Jazeera in Ara­bic yes­ter­day described “Khaiber” as “the most important feature of the Islamic-Jewish fight. Muslims always raise its name in their ral­lies against Israel because it constitutes a memory of a harsh defeat for the Jews who lived in the Arabian Peninsula during the time of prophet.”

The story of “Khaiber,” accord­ing to most Islamic sources, ends with the exe­cu­tion of thou­sands of Jews, includ­ing women and chil­dren. Protesters at anti-Israel ral­lies around the world, including the U.S., often evoke this battle in their chants to galvanize supporters.

According to Al Jazeera, Al-Jindy said he wrote the script because “the Zionist movement is currently passing through a turning point as a result of the changes in the Arab world.”

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While Jews around the world commemorate the inability of an ancient villain to make good on his threat to wipe out the Jews of Persia with the holiday of Purim, some in the Arab world are preparing to celebrate one such effort that did not fail. In the seventh century, the large Jewish community in the Arabian Peninsula fell victim to the influence of the newborn Muslim movement. The result was that after a futile effort to defend themselves, the three Jewish tribes of the region–the Banu Nadir, the Banu Qainuqa and the Banu Qurayza–were all forced into exile after the battle of Khaiber. The Prophet Mohammed’s followers mercilessly slaughtered the bulk of the latter tribe. This sad chapter of history is little known in the West even among Jews but it is familiar to Muslims who, even today, use the phrase “Khaiber” as a battle cry to rally opposition to Israel and as an indication of their desired fate for the Jews who live in the Middle East today.

But as the Anti-Defamation League’s blog reports, a Qatar-based production company is slated to start filming next month of a multi-millionaire dollar television series focused on the events of Khaiber. The author of the script is Yusri Al-Jindy, whose work has previously depicted Jews and Israelis as bloodthirsty villains.

Arab countries, includ­ing Morocco, Egypt and Jordan, and will apparently feature several well-known Arab actors. Echo Media Qatar has reportedly started build­ing sets with struc­tures similar to the ones inhabited by Jews 1,400 years ago.

A report on Al Jazeera in Ara­bic yes­ter­day described “Khaiber” as “the most important feature of the Islamic-Jewish fight. Muslims always raise its name in their ral­lies against Israel because it constitutes a memory of a harsh defeat for the Jews who lived in the Arabian Peninsula during the time of prophet.”

The story of “Khaiber,” accord­ing to most Islamic sources, ends with the exe­cu­tion of thou­sands of Jews, includ­ing women and chil­dren. Protesters at anti-Israel ral­lies around the world, including the U.S., often evoke this battle in their chants to galvanize supporters.

According to Al Jazeera, Al-Jindy said he wrote the script because “the Zionist movement is currently passing through a turning point as a result of the changes in the Arab world.”

The filming of “Khaiber” is just the latest instance of major TV productions in the Arab world (which are often broadcast in prime time during Ramadan) being used to promote anti-Semitic themes. Egyptian TV’s “Knight Without a Horse” blockbuster centered on the forged “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” canard. Echo Media Qatar has previously produced a film blaming the Jews for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

But the “Khaiber” film is especially significant because it blends ancient hatreds with contemporary hopes for a similar destruction of the Jews. The goal of such a film is to dehumanize the Jewish people and to delegitimize their rights, especially to self-defense.

The genocide of the Jews of Arabia is a historical fact that speaks to the intolerance of early Islam that need not inform contemporary relations between Jews and Muslims. But the glorification of the slaughter of Arabian Jews more than 1,300 years ago is a not-so-subtle signal that justifies the efforts of those who intend a similar fate for the 6 million Jews of Israel. The embrace of these ideas by a popular Muslim audience is an ominous sign that the sea change in Arab culture that will be required to create a genuine peace in the Middle East is nowhere in sight.

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Obama’s Intifada Welcoming Committee

It’s difficult to say yet what exactly will be on President Obama’s mind when he heads to Israel next month, but an all-out push for another futile try to make peace with the Palestinians may not be on the agenda. It’s likely the president will continue his advocacy for a two-state solution, but after more than four years of failure even this administration appears to have gotten the message that any more effort expended on the peace process will be sunk, as it has every other time, by Palestinian intransigence. But the Palestinian Authority, which has ignored every attempt by the Obama White House to tip the diplomatic playing field in their favor, may be planning its own little surprise for the president.

As journalist Khaled Abu Toameh reports, PA head Mahmoud Abbas is hoping to create an atmosphere in the country in advance of Obama’s arrival that will force him to push Israel for more concessions:

There are many signs that the Palestinian Authority is seeking to escalate tensions in the West Bank ahead of US President Barack Obama’s visit to the region next month.

Although the Palestinian Authority probably does not want an all-out confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis at this stage, some Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah believe that a “mini-intifada” would serve the Palestinians’ interests, especially on the eve of Obama’s visit.

The officials hope that scenes of daily clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians in the West Bank will prompt Obama to exert pressure on the Israeli government to make far-reaching concessions to the Palestinian Authority.

This is why the Palestinian Authority leadership has been encouraging its constituents lately to wage a “popular intifada” against Israel, each time finding another excuse to initiate confrontations between Palestinians and Israel.

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It’s difficult to say yet what exactly will be on President Obama’s mind when he heads to Israel next month, but an all-out push for another futile try to make peace with the Palestinians may not be on the agenda. It’s likely the president will continue his advocacy for a two-state solution, but after more than four years of failure even this administration appears to have gotten the message that any more effort expended on the peace process will be sunk, as it has every other time, by Palestinian intransigence. But the Palestinian Authority, which has ignored every attempt by the Obama White House to tip the diplomatic playing field in their favor, may be planning its own little surprise for the president.

As journalist Khaled Abu Toameh reports, PA head Mahmoud Abbas is hoping to create an atmosphere in the country in advance of Obama’s arrival that will force him to push Israel for more concessions:

There are many signs that the Palestinian Authority is seeking to escalate tensions in the West Bank ahead of US President Barack Obama’s visit to the region next month.

Although the Palestinian Authority probably does not want an all-out confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis at this stage, some Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah believe that a “mini-intifada” would serve the Palestinians’ interests, especially on the eve of Obama’s visit.

The officials hope that scenes of daily clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians in the West Bank will prompt Obama to exert pressure on the Israeli government to make far-reaching concessions to the Palestinian Authority.

This is why the Palestinian Authority leadership has been encouraging its constituents lately to wage a “popular intifada” against Israel, each time finding another excuse to initiate confrontations between Palestinians and Israel.

Like the decision of his predecessor Yasir Arafat to launch the second intifada in 2000 after rejecting Ehud Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state, the whole point of the agitation is to manufacture a sense of crisis that requires U.S. intervention. If the resulting chaos further wounds an already depressed West Bank economy or results in violence that takes the lives of even more Palestinians than Israelis, the PA leadership will still think another intifada a clever idea.

In one sense they are right. Any escalation of violence, no matter how much it is the product of a political decision rather than a popular protest, will generate a lot of negative press for Israel. Even the most restrained measures of Israeli self-defense (such as the security fence that prevents suicide bombings) will be denounced by Europe and by many American liberals as disproportionate or cruel. As has been the case since 1948, the plight of the Palestinians Arabs will ignored as they are used as political pawns in the effort to destroy Israel.

But the Palestinians’ problem is that although they are certainly capable of churning up enough violence and suffering in order to get more attention for their cause, their obvious disinclination in making peace on any terms makes it difficult to sustain the interest of even the most sympathetic of foreign leaders, such as Barack Obama. Their refusal to return to the negotiating table with the Israelis even after Obama had pressured Prime Minister Netanyahu to freeze West Bank settlement building and their decision to abandon the U.S.-led process in favor of a dead-end bid for United Nations recognition may have finally made it obvious even to this administration than any political capital expended on them would be wasted.

Nor, even under U.S. duress, is there much chance that Israel will consent to a West Bank withdrawal that is likely to duplicate the situation in Gaza, where Hamas terrorists used land vacated by the Israelis to create a terrorist state.

All this means that while the Palestinians have the capacity to make themselves troublesome, they do not have the ability to take advantage of the good will felt for them by many in this administration or the zeal of new Secretary of State John Kerry to succeed where all of his predecessors have failed.

Another intifada will be a trial for the Israelis and an annoyance for President Obama, who is far more interested in keeping Netanyahu in check when it comes to forestalling the Iranian nuclear threat than he is in appeasing the Palestinians. But it will be a tragedy for the people of the West Bank. Until they are ready to throw off a leadership that is incapable of ending the conflict or recognizing a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, they will continue to suffer.

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The President’s Sequester Deception

Something interesting happened this weekend in Washington. After weeks of the mainstream media acting as President Obama’s echo chamber when he blamed the impending sequester budget cuts as being solely the fault of the Republicans, an icon of the liberal press finally did what the rest of the capital’s journalists should have been doing all along. The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward has written an op-ed drawing on the research and reporting he compiled when writing his book The Price of Politics. He explains that not only was the sequester the brainchild of the White House and not the GOP, but that in asserting that any deal to avert the draconian cuts it will exact requires new tax increases, the president is making a new unreasonable demand that moves the goalposts of the negotiations. Doing that may be clever politics but it is, contrary to the rhetoric of the Democrats, anything but balanced.

Some in the media have treated the question of who deserves the blame for the sequester as irrelevant or, more to the point, a distraction from the president’s campaign that they support to pressure Republicans to fold and accept more tax increases. But, as Woodward (who supports the president’s liberal line about taxes) points out, determining the origin of the sequester is anything but trivial:

Why does this matter?

First, months of White House dissembling further eroded any semblance of trust between Obama and congressional Republicans. (The Republicans are by no means blameless and have had their own episodes of denial and bald-faced message management.)

Second, Lew testified during his confirmation hearing that the Republicans would not go along with new revenue in the portion of the deficit-reduction plan that became the sequester. Reinforcing Lew’s point, a senior White House official said Friday, “The sequester was an option we were forced to take because the Republicans would not do tax increases.”

In fact, the final deal reached between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2011 included an agreement that there would be no tax increases in the sequester in exchange for what the president was insisting on: an agreement that the nation’s debt ceiling would be increased for 18 months, so Obama would not have to go through another such negotiation in 2012, when he was running for reelection.

So when the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts. His call for a balanced approach is reasonable, and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more. But that was not the deal he made.

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Something interesting happened this weekend in Washington. After weeks of the mainstream media acting as President Obama’s echo chamber when he blamed the impending sequester budget cuts as being solely the fault of the Republicans, an icon of the liberal press finally did what the rest of the capital’s journalists should have been doing all along. The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward has written an op-ed drawing on the research and reporting he compiled when writing his book The Price of Politics. He explains that not only was the sequester the brainchild of the White House and not the GOP, but that in asserting that any deal to avert the draconian cuts it will exact requires new tax increases, the president is making a new unreasonable demand that moves the goalposts of the negotiations. Doing that may be clever politics but it is, contrary to the rhetoric of the Democrats, anything but balanced.

Some in the media have treated the question of who deserves the blame for the sequester as irrelevant or, more to the point, a distraction from the president’s campaign that they support to pressure Republicans to fold and accept more tax increases. But, as Woodward (who supports the president’s liberal line about taxes) points out, determining the origin of the sequester is anything but trivial:

Why does this matter?

First, months of White House dissembling further eroded any semblance of trust between Obama and congressional Republicans. (The Republicans are by no means blameless and have had their own episodes of denial and bald-faced message management.)

Second, Lew testified during his confirmation hearing that the Republicans would not go along with new revenue in the portion of the deficit-reduction plan that became the sequester. Reinforcing Lew’s point, a senior White House official said Friday, “The sequester was an option we were forced to take because the Republicans would not do tax increases.”

In fact, the final deal reached between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2011 included an agreement that there would be no tax increases in the sequester in exchange for what the president was insisting on: an agreement that the nation’s debt ceiling would be increased for 18 months, so Obama would not have to go through another such negotiation in 2012, when he was running for reelection.

So when the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts. His call for a balanced approach is reasonable, and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more. But that was not the deal he made.

What needs to be pointed out here is that Woodward isn’t just calling out the White House for their deceptions. The spin coming from the president and his minions is cynical and partisan in nature, but is to be expected. The real problem is the way the mainstream media has punted on its coverage of this vital issue and allowed the president’s disingenuous arguments to go virtually unchallenged.

Democrats keep telling us that the public blames Republicans for the sequester more than they do the president, and polls bear this out. But one of the main reasons that this is so is because the White House can depend on a largely complacent liberal press corps to let their spin be treated as historical fact. When Republicans claim that the president has not negotiated in good faith and has broken its word about taxes time and again, they are depicted as whiny complainers. But, as even a supporter of the president’s agenda like Woodward is compelled to note, the GOP’s assertions about the White House are fundamentally correct.

As I wrote last week, an integral factor in President Obama’s media mastery is based on more than the clever tactics and shameless manipulation that his White House handlers have employed. The liberal bias of so many of the working press has given the president the confidence to believe he can get away with just about anything in this debate and still be portrayed as an honest player in the Washington game.

Woodward’s fact check on the president’s sequester lies may not alter the balance of opinion on the subject. But it is the sort of thing that ought to worry the White House, since Woodward’s willingness to say the emperor has no clothes may encourage others to do the same. The rules may be different for Barack Obama, and there’s good reason to believe his charmed existence–in which he is never held accountable for any disaster or lie–may continue. But eventually even he may find himself subject to the laws of political gravity. It could be that by blithely assuming that the public will always back him against the Republicans, he is setting himself—and the country—up for a great fall as we head back to the brink on the budget.

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Is Turkey’s Arms Industry Changing Equations?

Word out of Turkey is that Roketsan—Turkey’s domestic missile manufacture—has just concluded a nearly $200 million deal with the United Arab Emirates. Turkey has made no secret of its desire to build up its arms industry. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has, for example, beseeched the Obama administration to provide Turkey with drones at the same time that a Turkish armament company was trying to develop Turkish drones for export.

Turkey has taken an increasingly activist approach to the Middle East. It has supported the radical al-Nusra Front, designated a terror group by the Obama administration, because it prefers violent jihadists over secular Kurds. (Last week, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu dismissed those who labeled the al-Qaeda affiliate “Jihadists” as little more than “American neo-cons and Israelis.” The fact that Turkey is willing to arm radical Islamists at odds with U.S. strategic interests certainly marks a new era.

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Word out of Turkey is that Roketsan—Turkey’s domestic missile manufacture—has just concluded a nearly $200 million deal with the United Arab Emirates. Turkey has made no secret of its desire to build up its arms industry. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has, for example, beseeched the Obama administration to provide Turkey with drones at the same time that a Turkish armament company was trying to develop Turkish drones for export.

Turkey has taken an increasingly activist approach to the Middle East. It has supported the radical al-Nusra Front, designated a terror group by the Obama administration, because it prefers violent jihadists over secular Kurds. (Last week, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu dismissed those who labeled the al-Qaeda affiliate “Jihadists” as little more than “American neo-cons and Israelis.” The fact that Turkey is willing to arm radical Islamists at odds with U.S. strategic interests certainly marks a new era.

The Roketsan deal should also raise concern: While the United Arab Emirates is a U.S. ally, it is also the trans-shipment point for contraband heading to Iran. The Turkish government makes no secret of its solidarity with Hamas; the time is not long off that Turkey might supply Hamas with weaponry instead of just cash.

It’s not just U.S. national security at stake. As part of his pre-confirmation conversion on pretty much all his previous positions, defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel has affirmed the importance of Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME). Traditionally, the Pentagon calculates the QME relative to U.S. arms sales to Arab countries. Gone are the days, however, when the United States (and perhaps France and Great Britain) on one hand, and the Soviet Union (and perhaps East Germany and Czechoslovakia) supplied their respective Arab client states with arms. Today, it’s a free-for-all. Turkey supports Islamists and terrorists. Sweden is ready to cash in on the action. When it comes to Israel’s QME, the situation has gone metaphorically from middle school arithmetic to multi-variable calculus.

Alas, while Hagel says he will maintain Israel’s QME, neither he nor Obama have suggested their commitment is going to take into account other regional states that are increasingly willing to flood Arab armies with hi-tech weaponry with little or no regard to what they might mean for Israel’s ability to defend itself.

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Who Will Be the New Ramsey Clark?

In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Ramsey Clark, the son of Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark, to be his attorney general. The young Clark had pedigree, had served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and had previous experience in government.

Clark took his oath of office shortly before his 40th birthday, and played a hand in much of Johnson-era civil right legislation. His real legacy, however, has been in his post-government career. Clark was an unabashed supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution in Iran. In the days after Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy, President Jimmy Carter dispatched Clark to Tehran with a letter for Khomeini (it was never delivered; Khomeini refused him entry, and Clark cooled his heels in Istanbul before heading home). After Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Clark embraced Saddam Hussein. He condemned the U.S. liberation of Kuwait, and accused most of the George H.W. Bush administration of complicity in war crimes.

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In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Ramsey Clark, the son of Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark, to be his attorney general. The young Clark had pedigree, had served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and had previous experience in government.

Clark took his oath of office shortly before his 40th birthday, and played a hand in much of Johnson-era civil right legislation. His real legacy, however, has been in his post-government career. Clark was an unabashed supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution in Iran. In the days after Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy, President Jimmy Carter dispatched Clark to Tehran with a letter for Khomeini (it was never delivered; Khomeini refused him entry, and Clark cooled his heels in Istanbul before heading home). After Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Clark embraced Saddam Hussein. He condemned the U.S. liberation of Kuwait, and accused most of the George H.W. Bush administration of complicity in war crimes.

The Clinton team was no better in Clark’s mind: he blamed the White House rather than Saddam’s behavior for sanctions and accused the United States of complicity in killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. He also sided with Slobodan Milosevic in the wake of the 1999 bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. There is seldom a radical cause that Clark is not willing to embrace; many of his supporters—and perhaps Clark himself—believe the fact that he was the attorney general of the United States adds credibility to his case.

So far, it is a toss-up between Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama for the distinction of being the most left-wing president. When it came to foreign affairs Harold Brown—Carter’s defense secretary—provided some adult supervision, however, talking his boss out of his desire to unilaterally withdrawal forces from the Korean peninsula and other ideological excesses which the Soviet Union and its proxies would have exploited. Bob Gates and perhaps Leon Panetta played much the same role for Obama. But as Obama enters his second term, he has let his foreign affairs ideology shine ever more clearly through. There were, of course, hints as to where Obama stood in his first term. But when push came to shove, Obama was not willing to stand by radicals such as Van Jones, a 9/11 conspiracy theorist whom the president gave an environmental policy perch at the White House until controversy ensued.

Decades in the Senate may have made John Kerry mainstream in the public mind, but Kerry’s foreign policy instincts have always been far to the left. John Brennan, too, has instincts outside the mainstream, even if he has walked back past statements about cooperating with “moderate Hezbollah.” Chuck Hagel—while socially as conservative as former Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin—has a blind spot toward tyranny and dictatorship as great as Clark’s, be it with Hamas, Kazakhstan, Iran, or Hezbollah. He is not a young man, however, and it is doubtful that he will jet across the globe ever condemning the United States. Hagel’s problem is not disloyalty to the United States—he is most certainly a patriot—but rather the arrogance and bigotry to assume that those who disagree with him harbor dual loyalties. This—and not the distracting debate about “Israel lobby” versus “Jewish lobby”—reflect his latent anti-Semitism. That may be of concern to the Jewish community, but many men harbor prejudice, however hard they seek to conceal it. A greater issue is the fact that—in Senator John McCain’s words—Hagel’s confirmation hearings showed his incompetence for the job. Make no mistake: Hagel will do great harm to U.S. national security, but he is no Ramsey Clark.

As Obama drives farther to the left, however, it is only a matter of time until he, Brennan, or Hagel appoint to a senior post a young radical who will leverage a White House, CIA, or Pentagon credential to encourage moral equivalence or legitimize a new generation of tyrants and terrorists.

I omit Kerry because, alas, too many diplomats have for so long effused moral equivalency and an embarrassment about the legacy of the United States that being a “dissident diplomat” today means being conservative and embracing American exceptionalism.

Still, if there is one lesson from Ramsey Clark’s life story, it is that credentials do not automatically bestow common sense or a love of liberty and freedom. Johnson likely appointed Clark in order to encourage his father to resign from the Supreme Court, enabling the president to replace the conservative elder Clark with a fresh face—Thurgood Marshall. Johnson’s desire to diversify the Supreme Court may have been honorable, but his political maneuverings had a cost which continues to the present. Let us hope that the Congress and press will not abandon their respectively formal and informal oversight roles as Obama and his secretaries combine foreign policy radicalism with cynical political maneuvering.

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The Cylinder and the Jews

In recent years, discussion of the Jewish festival of Purim—whose observance begins Saturday night—has been linked to the nation of Iran. That has had little to do with the fact that the saga of the Book of Esther takes place in ancient Persia or that the places that are believed by some to be the tombs of Esther and Mordechai are located in what is now Iran. Instead, the association with Iran has more to do with the clear link between the exterminationist agenda of Haman, the villain of the Purim tale, and that of Iran’s present day rulers. Both Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who deny the truth of the Holocaust while plotting another genocide of the Jews with their nuclear project, are easily added to the list of evildoers who have been seen as latter-day Hamans throughout the long and often tragic course of modern Jewish history.

But for those who wish to either whitewash the Islamist regime or to dismiss the legitimate fears of their existential threat to Israel (as well as to the stability of the region and the security of the West), the identification of Iran’s tyrannical rulers serves to demonize a great nation that should be understood and not confronted. For veteran Iran apologist and New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, the onset of Purim should cause us to think about other, more appealing Persians. Thus, Cohen devotes a column published today to the ancient Persian King Cyrus, whose famous cylinder is about to leave the British Museum on a tour of the United States. The cylinder that has been dubbed the first bill of human rights is proof, Cohen tells us, of the benign nature of the nation of Iran. The topic makes it possible for him to write an entire piece about the country without once using the “n” word–that in this case is “nuclear” and not a racial insult.

But this attempt to divert us from the deadly threat emanating from Iran is not only disingenuous; it misses a crucial point about the history of the nation that he is so desperate for us to love.

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In recent years, discussion of the Jewish festival of Purim—whose observance begins Saturday night—has been linked to the nation of Iran. That has had little to do with the fact that the saga of the Book of Esther takes place in ancient Persia or that the places that are believed by some to be the tombs of Esther and Mordechai are located in what is now Iran. Instead, the association with Iran has more to do with the clear link between the exterminationist agenda of Haman, the villain of the Purim tale, and that of Iran’s present day rulers. Both Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who deny the truth of the Holocaust while plotting another genocide of the Jews with their nuclear project, are easily added to the list of evildoers who have been seen as latter-day Hamans throughout the long and often tragic course of modern Jewish history.

But for those who wish to either whitewash the Islamist regime or to dismiss the legitimate fears of their existential threat to Israel (as well as to the stability of the region and the security of the West), the identification of Iran’s tyrannical rulers serves to demonize a great nation that should be understood and not confronted. For veteran Iran apologist and New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, the onset of Purim should cause us to think about other, more appealing Persians. Thus, Cohen devotes a column published today to the ancient Persian King Cyrus, whose famous cylinder is about to leave the British Museum on a tour of the United States. The cylinder that has been dubbed the first bill of human rights is proof, Cohen tells us, of the benign nature of the nation of Iran. The topic makes it possible for him to write an entire piece about the country without once using the “n” word–that in this case is “nuclear” and not a racial insult.

But this attempt to divert us from the deadly threat emanating from Iran is not only disingenuous; it misses a crucial point about the history of the nation that he is so desperate for us to love.

Any discussion of Cohen’s writings about Iran and the Jews must begin (and perhaps end) with the mention of the series of columns he wrote in early 2009 in which he set out to prove that the country was a nice place for Jews to live. As I discussed in detail in the May 2009 issue of COMMENTARY, Cohen toured the country and was allowed to speak with some of the remnant of a once great Iranian Jewish community by his government minders. But in the worst tradition of blind Westerners being deceived by totalitarians he fell hook, line and sinker for the line of baloney he was sold. The result was a disgrace that invoked the memory of Walter Duranty, the Times writer who won an undeserved Pulitzer Prize for telling the West that tales of Josef Stalin’s mass murders were untrue. Despite the deluge of justified criticism to which he was subjected for this journalistic atrocity, Cohen continues to pontificate at the Times, where he inveighs against Israel and often criticizes the efforts to rouse the West to isolate the Tehran government that he served so well. Indeed, in his current column he even slams the movie “Argo”—which depicts the Iranian hostage crisis—for promoting “negative stereotypes” about Iran.

One might think his discussion of Cyrus, the Persian conqueror that defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland after their first exile, would be uncontroversial. But any attempt to identify that historical figure with present day Iran is absurd.

As Alex Joffe wrote in Jewish Ideas Daily in 2011, the notion of the Cyrus Cylinder being a Persian Magna Carta is probably more hype than history. But even if we are prepared to buy into the traditional praise given Cyrus, as Joffe points out, the desire of the Iranian regime to identify itself with his legacy is highly offensive. When the cylinder was brought to Iran for a showing, an actor wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh greeted it as part of an effort to appropriate him into the current version of Persian nationalism that is so shamelessly exploited by the ayatollahs.

Though Cohen doesn’t mention this, he plays the same game as he writes of the cylinder being an apt symbol of Iranian culture. But what he fails to mention is that when Islam swept through Persia, it eradicated any trace of the religious toleration that characterized the Cyrus tradition. The reason why the “n” word is so important to any discussion of Iran is because of the intolerance of the regime and the steady stream of anti-Semitic vituperation that flows from its media and permeates its society. It is not just that Iran’s leaders have threatened to wipe Israel off the map while working to create a nuclear option to do just that. It is that this is a government that has made Jew-hatred the singular theme of their foreign policy.

Let us hope that someday we will live to see the ayatollahs overthrown by an Iranian people that will reject their hatred and that wishes to live in peace with Israel and the rest of the world. On that day, we will do well to think of Cyrus. But until then, and especially as Iran draws closer to the realization of their nuclear goal, it will take more than the feeble writing of a Roger Cohen to prevent us from thinking of Haman when we discuss Iran.

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