Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 2013

Obama, Syria, and the Errors of an Amateur

Barack Obama is once again learning the hard way that governing is harder than campaigning. And America is once again learning that Mr. Obama is much better at campaigning than he is at governing.

The most recent example is Syria. We have a situation in which America has been a virtual non-actor in the conflict–“leading from behind,” in the memorable words of a top Obama adviser–and the results have been catastrophic: upwards of 70,000 Syrians dead, more than a million people displaced, the increasing destabilization of the region (including our close ally Jordan), and opposition to the Assad regime cozying up to Islamist forces after having been denied sufficient aid by America. 



I don’t pretend for a moment that the options we had, and have, in Syria are easy or self-evident. The range of options includes only difficult ones, with each course of action presenting possible downsides. Of course, that’s usually the case when it comes to presidential decision-making. As for Mr. Obama, he is continuing to learn that the world is an untidy place, largely immune to either his words or his wishes, and that there are costs to inaction as well as to action. What is astonishing is that these truisms never seemed to dawn on Obama when he ran for president in 2008. Back then, he convinced himself that the world would bend to his will. He was, after all, a man who declared he would heal our planet and slow the rise of the oceans and repair America’s image in the world.

It turns out it wasn’t quite that easy after all.

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Barack Obama is once again learning the hard way that governing is harder than campaigning. And America is once again learning that Mr. Obama is much better at campaigning than he is at governing.

The most recent example is Syria. We have a situation in which America has been a virtual non-actor in the conflict–“leading from behind,” in the memorable words of a top Obama adviser–and the results have been catastrophic: upwards of 70,000 Syrians dead, more than a million people displaced, the increasing destabilization of the region (including our close ally Jordan), and opposition to the Assad regime cozying up to Islamist forces after having been denied sufficient aid by America. 



I don’t pretend for a moment that the options we had, and have, in Syria are easy or self-evident. The range of options includes only difficult ones, with each course of action presenting possible downsides. Of course, that’s usually the case when it comes to presidential decision-making. As for Mr. Obama, he is continuing to learn that the world is an untidy place, largely immune to either his words or his wishes, and that there are costs to inaction as well as to action. What is astonishing is that these truisms never seemed to dawn on Obama when he ran for president in 2008. Back then, he convinced himself that the world would bend to his will. He was, after all, a man who declared he would heal our planet and slow the rise of the oceans and repair America’s image in the world.

It turns out it wasn’t quite that easy after all.

And where Mr. Obama has made a terrible, unforced error–the error of an amateur–was in his statement last August that if the Assad regime used chemical weapons it would be crossing a “red line” and it would constitute a “game changer.” To translate from the language of diplomacy to the language of the real world: If Assad used chemical weapons, the United States would retaliate with military force. That is what crossing a “red line” means. The president said what he said because, as an Obama official told the Washington Post last August, “there’s a deterrent effect in making clear how seriously we take the use of chemical weapons or giving them to some proxy force.”

Except that the deterrent effect doesn’t appear to have worked. The British, the French, and the Israelis now say chemical weapons have been used–and the president is backtracking as fast as he can. (Even Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has admitted that the U.S. government believes, “with varying degrees of confidence,” that chemical weapons have been used.)

It appears that the man who said “as president of the United States, I don’t bluff” was, in fact, bluffing. And the entire world–our allies and our adversaries–know it. And each of them, in their own way, will adjust accordingly. Our allies will (rightly) consider Mr. Obama weak and unreliable–and our adversaries will (rightly) consider Mr. Obama weak and irresolute. The former will distance themselves from us while the latter will challenge us down the road. The Iranian regime must be getting a good chuckle out of the president’s claim that he won’t allow them to acquire a nuclear weapon. (If the president does, in fact, respond in a commensurate way to Assad crossing Obama’s “red line,” I’ll be delighted to revise my judgment.)

Even former Clinton administration and Obama administration diplomats are openly criticizing the president for his manifest and multiple failures related to Syria. The words of Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served as Obama’s director of policy planning at the State Department from January 2009 until February 2011, are worth quoting extensively:

even against the reported recommendations of his advisers, Obama has shown little interest in intervention in Syria beyond nonlethal assistance to some opposition forces, diplomatic efforts with Russia and the United Nations, and political maneuvering to try to unify the opposition.

But the White House must recognize that the game has already changed. U.S. credibility is on the line. For all the temptation to hide behind the decision to invade Iraq based on faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, Obama must realize the tremendous damage he will do to the United States and to his legacy if he fails to act. He should understand the deep and lasting damage done when the gap between words and deeds becomes too great to ignore, when those who wield power are exposed as not saying what they mean or meaning what they say… Standing by while Assad gasses his people will guarantee that, whatever else Obama may achieve, he will be remembered as a president who proclaimed a new beginning with the Muslim world but presided over a deadly chapter in the same old story.

The world does not see the complex calculations inside the White House — the difficulty of achieving any positive outcomes in Syria even with intervention, the possible harm to Obama’s domestic agenda if he plunges into the morass of another conflict in the Middle East. The world would see Syrian civilians rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, dying by the thousands while the United States stands by.

Mr. President, how many uses of chemical weapons does it take to cross a red line against the use of chemical weapons? That is a question you must be in a position to answer.

Even the White House seems to be aware of the magnitude of the mistake the president has made. “I can tell you there is regret about that red line comment,” NBC’s Chuck Todd told David Gregory. Mr. Todd went on to say, “They didn’t want to go public last week that they had this early evidence [about the use of chemical weapons] yet. They weren’t ready. And yet they knew Congress was going to get this briefing and it was all going to get out, so they decided to go public with it last week because they felt they had no choice, that it was all going to start leaking out … But they’re not ready. There is no good answer.”



“They’re not ready.”



“There is no good answer.”

Welcome to the real world, Mr. Obama.

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U.S. Public Is Cautious, Not “Isolationist”

“Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak,” the New York Times reports, one sentence before thoroughly refuting its own claim. That’s the way the Times opens its story on its latest poll on American attitudes toward intervention in Syria and North Korea. But then the Times follows that claim with this one: “While the public does not support direct military action in those two countries right now, a broad 70 percent majority favor the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries.”

The national conversation on foreign affairs is a bit muddled, in part because the Republican Party is in the wilderness and searching for its post-Iraq identity, and in part because Barack Obama, the current Democratic president, ran on the supposed amorality of George W. Bush’s foreign policy and then relied on Bush’s strategy and tactics once he won election. So neither Democrats nor Republicans can say for certain where their party stands on some of the thorniest of foreign policy issues. And the Times is clearly confused by this; I doubt, for example, that countries subject to abundant drone strikes supported by 70 percent of Americans would suggest that U.S. voters are “isolationist.”

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“Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak,” the New York Times reports, one sentence before thoroughly refuting its own claim. That’s the way the Times opens its story on its latest poll on American attitudes toward intervention in Syria and North Korea. But then the Times follows that claim with this one: “While the public does not support direct military action in those two countries right now, a broad 70 percent majority favor the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries.”

The national conversation on foreign affairs is a bit muddled, in part because the Republican Party is in the wilderness and searching for its post-Iraq identity, and in part because Barack Obama, the current Democratic president, ran on the supposed amorality of George W. Bush’s foreign policy and then relied on Bush’s strategy and tactics once he won election. So neither Democrats nor Republicans can say for certain where their party stands on some of the thorniest of foreign policy issues. And the Times is clearly confused by this; I doubt, for example, that countries subject to abundant drone strikes supported by 70 percent of Americans would suggest that U.S. voters are “isolationist.”

Nonetheless, the American people do seem to be opposed to an American invasion of Syria and North Korea. There are, however, some important caveats. One is that respondents aren’t exactly tuned in to the Syrian conflict. The poll shows that only 10 percent say they are following the conflict “very closely,” and that number is actually on a steady decline from past polls. As Shmuel Rosner notes, yesterday’s Pew poll found Americans similarly disengaged from the conflict, and suggests correctly that this lack of interest should factor in whatever conclusions we draw from the polls.

Rosner also says that if the public paid more attention “we might discover that by paying attention it becomes less keen on involvement, not more.” That may be true–the more the public learns about who would likely take over for Bashar al-Assad, the less people might want to facilitate that end. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that whatever opportunity the U.S. had to dramatically alter the shape of Syria’s future government should be spoken of in the past tense. The big wild card is whether the public believes that the use of chemical weapons at some point makes our increased involvement a moral obligation whether they like it or not.

But by tuning in they may also learn more about the horrific death toll and hear the popular comparisons to the Rwandan genocide and the Clinton administration’s inaction at the time. They also may become convinced that the evidence that Assad’s crew used sarin gas is compelling enough to have violated President Obama’s “red line.” But that brings us to the other wild card in all this: the president’s own rhetoric.

As I’ve written before, the president moves the needle on public opinion when it comes to foreign policy, especially matters of war, and Obama is no exception. The public’s red lines on Syria mirror the president’s, and Obama had the same luck with Afghanistan, boosting support for the war effort when he needed to rally the public to his plan to increase troop levels there during his first term. Past presidents have generally had the same experience. This is probably even more the case when the public isn’t paying close attention to an issue, and thus the president’s argument is among the few–and often the most forceful–they hear.

At the same time, however, if they tune in now to hear the president talk about red lines and the Syrian conflict, they will hear a president understandably wary of intervention. Obama may have painted himself into a corner by setting red lines, and one gets the sense momentum is building in the administration toward some sort of increased involvement. But there will be no clamoring for “boots on the ground,” and probably no appetite for it among the public. That’s unlikely to change, especially without support for such action in the White House, even if Americans finally start tuning in.

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Too Many Too-Big-to-Fail Banks

I was at a banking conference in Dallas over the weekend, and among the speakers was Harvey Rosenblum, the vice president and director of research at the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank. Dr. Rosenblum’s topic was too-big-to-fail banks and the Dodd-Frank legislation that is supposed to cure the problem.

There are currently 5,582 banks in the United States. That is a very great many by the standards of the rest of the world, but it’s way down from the peak number of banks, which was over 30,000 in 1920. But the total number doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Of the total, 5,500 banks are so-called community banks, with banking assets of under $10 billion. Then there are 70 mid-size banks, with assets of between $10 billion and $250 billion. Finally, there are 12 megabanks with assets between $250 billion and $2.3 trillion.

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I was at a banking conference in Dallas over the weekend, and among the speakers was Harvey Rosenblum, the vice president and director of research at the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank. Dr. Rosenblum’s topic was too-big-to-fail banks and the Dodd-Frank legislation that is supposed to cure the problem.

There are currently 5,582 banks in the United States. That is a very great many by the standards of the rest of the world, but it’s way down from the peak number of banks, which was over 30,000 in 1920. But the total number doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Of the total, 5,500 banks are so-called community banks, with banking assets of under $10 billion. Then there are 70 mid-size banks, with assets of between $10 billion and $250 billion. Finally, there are 12 megabanks with assets between $250 billion and $2.3 trillion.

What’s scary is that the community banks, 98.5 percent of all American banks, have only 12 percent of the banking assets. But the megabanks, only .21 percent of all banks, have 69 percent of all banking assets.

These are the too-big-to-fail banks. Their failure would ripple throughout the economy and could well cause a financial contagion that would be hard to stop. And Dodd-Frank doesn’t do a thing to solve that problem. Dodd-Frank is 893 pages of legislation and, so far, 9,000 pages of regulation (with 2/3 of regulations yet to come). Regulations, of course, don’t stop bank failure. They don’t stop the moral hazard created by a bank being too big to fail. They don’t stop the competitive advantage that being too big to fail gives the megabanks, with other institutions willing to lend to them at lower rates, knowing that the government will have no choice but to rescue them from failure.

What massive new regulation does do is give the megabanks yet another advantage because they can absorb the costs of new regulation much better than the small community banks. That, of course, is why the megabanks didn’t lobby against Dodd-Frank. So this is classic crony capitalism, Washington and the big guys ganging up on the small guys in the name of protecting the people.

It also almost guarantees another banking crisis in the future.

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How Today’s Events Explain the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Today’s violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories contains some uncomfortable truths for Israel’s detractors, but also serves as a helpful microcosm of the larger conflict. A 30-year-old Israeli man, Eviatar Borovsky, was stabbed to death at a bus stop at Tapuach Junction by a Palestinian man, who was captured by border guards and taken into custody. A few hours later in Gaza, Haitham al-Mishal, a Palestinian involved in the production of rockets, was killed in a targeted strike by the IDF.

But the details that fill in the rest of the picture are a useful guide to the behavior of both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

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Today’s violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories contains some uncomfortable truths for Israel’s detractors, but also serves as a helpful microcosm of the larger conflict. A 30-year-old Israeli man, Eviatar Borovsky, was stabbed to death at a bus stop at Tapuach Junction by a Palestinian man, who was captured by border guards and taken into custody. A few hours later in Gaza, Haitham al-Mishal, a Palestinian involved in the production of rockets, was killed in a targeted strike by the IDF.

But the details that fill in the rest of the picture are a useful guide to the behavior of both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Who was killed? The Israeli victim was a father of five waiting at a bus stop. The Palestinian victim was reportedly a manufacturer of rockets for use against Israeli civilians and employed by Hamas, according to the terrorist group itself. He was, according to the press here and in Israel, involved in the recent rocket attacks against the Israeli city of Eilat.

Who carried out the violence? The Palestinian perpetrator at Tapuach Junction is reportedly a repeat offender of acts of violence against civilians, having been released from prison in Israel about six months ago. On the Israeli side, the military was employed to take out a military target in Gaza.

Why did they do it? The IDF was responding to rocket attacks from enemy territory against its own civilian population. The Palestinian attacker at Tapuach Junction has a history of violence against Israeli civilians, and his brother is apparently in a Palestinian prison, having been accused of cooperating with Israeli authorities.

How did they do it? The IDF carried out a targeted strike designed to kill an active terrorist and avoid collateral damage and civilian casualties. The Palestinian assailant at Tapuach Junction carried a knife unchecked to the bus stop after the Israeli government removed a checkpoint near the area to allow Palestinians in the West Bank more freedom of movement. This was not the first such attack on an Israeli civilian at that location since the checkpoint was removed; an Israeli teenager was stabbed by a Palestinian at the junction in January.

What happened next? The Palestinian assailant at Tapuach Junction tried to kill Israeli border police, but was apprehended. Hamas promised more violence from Gaza. Israeli settlers gathered at Tapuach Junction and threw stones at a Palestinian bus, and reportedly set a field on fire. Israeli police arrested the settlers and put out the fire.

What does all this tell us about the official policy of the respective governments? The Israeli government’s policy is very clearly demonstrated here: it will not initiate hostilities, but it will respond to them and protect Israeli civilians from terror campaigns. It will also protect Palestinian civilians by not only shielding them from Israeli strikes but also by arresting Israelis who attempt to harm them or their property. The Israeli government will remove checkpoints over the objection of settlers to enable Palestinian freedom of movement despite the fact that Palestinians respond by exploiting the openings to commit acts of terrorism, which is why the checkpoints were established to begin with.

The Palestinians here are represented by two governments: Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. Hamas’s policy, as demonstrated here, is to target Israeli civilians indiscriminately and deliberately put their own citizens in harm’s way. Fatah’s policy is to arrest and target Palestinians they suspect of working together with Israelis, and to enable the violence perpetrated at Tapuach Junction which was claimed, according to one report, by Fatah.

What will the media learn from this? Almost certainly nothing they don’t already know and ignore in order to further the false narrative of Israeli culpability for the diplomatic impasse.

What will Secretary of State John Kerry learn from this? See previous answer.

Where do we go from here? Most likely, around and around in a circle of Israeli concessions, Palestinian violence, and pressure from the “international community” on Israel to give in to the extortion.

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Blame Obama, Not Israel for Syria Push

For those who like to blame Israel for every aspect of American involvement in the Middle East, the debate about Syria must be frustrating. Despite being next door to the chaos in Syria, Israel’s government is making it clear that it doesn’t have a dog in the fight over whether the United States ought to intervene in some manner in the civil war tearing that country apart. Today at a New York conference sponsored by the Jerusalem Post, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Cabinet stated the obvious: It’s not Israel that’s pushing the United States to take action on Syria. Yuval Steinetz, who holds the odd-sounding title of minister of strategic and intelligence affairs and international relations told an audience:

We never asked, nor did we encourage, the United States to take military action in Syria. And we are not making any comparison or linkage with Iran, which is a completely different matter.

Israel’s position on Syria is, if anything, even more complicated than America’s. Their main interest is in keeping the border with a state that is still technically at war with them quiet. Though Bashar Assad was a butcher whose regime has slaughtered tens of thousands of his own people just like his father Hafez was before him, Israel has stayed aloof from the conflict in that country. Assuming Bashar does actually fall some day, most Israelis are far from confident that the next Syrian government will be any less hostile than that of Assad. Indeed, with al-Qaeda-allied elements, it may be even worse.

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For those who like to blame Israel for every aspect of American involvement in the Middle East, the debate about Syria must be frustrating. Despite being next door to the chaos in Syria, Israel’s government is making it clear that it doesn’t have a dog in the fight over whether the United States ought to intervene in some manner in the civil war tearing that country apart. Today at a New York conference sponsored by the Jerusalem Post, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Cabinet stated the obvious: It’s not Israel that’s pushing the United States to take action on Syria. Yuval Steinetz, who holds the odd-sounding title of minister of strategic and intelligence affairs and international relations told an audience:

We never asked, nor did we encourage, the United States to take military action in Syria. And we are not making any comparison or linkage with Iran, which is a completely different matter.

Israel’s position on Syria is, if anything, even more complicated than America’s. Their main interest is in keeping the border with a state that is still technically at war with them quiet. Though Bashar Assad was a butcher whose regime has slaughtered tens of thousands of his own people just like his father Hafez was before him, Israel has stayed aloof from the conflict in that country. Assuming Bashar does actually fall some day, most Israelis are far from confident that the next Syrian government will be any less hostile than that of Assad. Indeed, with al-Qaeda-allied elements, it may be even worse.

Steinetz is right to state that Iran and Syria are two different questions, but if there is any linkage it was put there by President Obama, not Netanyahu or American supporters of Israel. It was he who stated that Syrian use of chemical weapons constituted a red line that warrant American action. It was he, and not the Israelis, who publicly expressed the belief that Assad had to go. If, even after the White House admitted proof existed of the use of deadly poisons like sarin, the United States does nothing, it will effectively destroy his credibility.

The White House might be more worried about the fact that, as the New York Times noted today, President Obama’s job approval rating on foreign policy is down in recent polls. But they should be more concerned with how the president’s dithering on Syria is playing in Iran, where the ayatollahs are counting on the administration being more concerned about a war-weary American public than they are of the mass murders going on in Syria to save their ally.

Friends of Israel are watching to see what happens when a foreign leader crosses what President Obama defined as a red line, as he did in Syria. If the answer is nothing, they’ll have a better grasp of what they can expect out of the administration on Iran.

But there should be no doubt about who set this red line about what is going on in Damascus. It wasn’t Israel, Netanyahu or the pro-Israel community in the United States.

The impetus to take a stand on Syria came from a president who was eager to place himself on the side of Arab Spring protesters against authoritarian regimes. No one was more vocal than Obama when it came to supporting the ouster of dictators, especially in Egypt, even when doing so brought little comfort to either Israeli or American strategic interests. Though these revolutions have brought either chaos or the rise to power of Islamist parties, the president has not recalibrated his rhetoric. He remains a firm believer in the wave of change in the Middle East as his continuing embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt illustrates.

Obama’s stand on Syria was in the context of a “lead from behind” strategy that involved few risks for the United States even in Libya, where we joined a Western intervention. But no one in Israel was twisting his arm to talk about red lines on Syria, especially when he has refused to set them on the far more dangerous Iranian nuclear threat. He did so on his own hook just as his rhetoric about Assad was the function of his Arab Spring sympathies rather than any neoconservative plot.

Mass murder in Syria and the use of chemical weapons is something that ought to concern the civilized world. But having put his own credibility on the line there, the issue now is inextricably tied to that of the president’s reputation. If he succumbs to his fears on this issue, it will complicate Israel’s strategic dilemma, but it will be Barack Obama’s legacy that will be fatally compromised. 

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Housing Collapse Has a Lesson for the Ages

Earlier this month the New York Times ran a feature on the newest discipline to come to college campuses: capitalism. Major universities in the United States are now going to start devoting some class time to learning about it. Which is another way of saying they will learn about America.

Conservatives often complain that liberals talk about conservatism as if they’ve only heard vague rumors about this bizarre species, mostly because it’s easy to avoid conservative opinion if you want to. But they’ll also justly complain that major liberal institutions, like the mainstream media and universities, don’t understand capitalism, and don’t seem to want to. Yet these institutions shape young minds.

There are many choice quotes in the Times article about the sudden interest their own country, but this one stands out:

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Earlier this month the New York Times ran a feature on the newest discipline to come to college campuses: capitalism. Major universities in the United States are now going to start devoting some class time to learning about it. Which is another way of saying they will learn about America.

Conservatives often complain that liberals talk about conservatism as if they’ve only heard vague rumors about this bizarre species, mostly because it’s easy to avoid conservative opinion if you want to. But they’ll also justly complain that major liberal institutions, like the mainstream media and universities, don’t understand capitalism, and don’t seem to want to. Yet these institutions shape young minds.

There are many choice quotes in the Times article about the sudden interest their own country, but this one stands out:

While most scholars in the field reject the purely oppositional stance of earlier Marxist history, they also take a distinctly critical view of neoclassical economics, with its tidy mathematical models and crisp axioms about rational actors.

That about sums it up. They may not like the “purely oppositional” (read: given to mass murder) nature of Marxist history, but they don’t like the rationality of capitalism either. They have now designed the perfect course for those students who have an interest in economics but don’t like numbers or genocide.

But one thing conservatives have been known to repeat ad nauseam about capitalism is that it is truly race-blind. In a market economy, the basic trade principle of mutual benefit based on rational self-interest dominates. And attempts to distort the market in favor of one racial or ethnic group can end up helping that group marginally in the near term while hurting that group in the long term. On that note, those college professors just starting to explore capitalism might want to take a look at today’s New York Times report on the housing bust and the recession:

The Urban Institute study found that the racial wealth gap yawned during the recession, even as the income gap between white Americans and nonwhite Americans remained stable. As of 2010, white families, on average, earned about $2 for every $1 that black and Hispanic families earned, a ratio that has remained roughly constant for the last 30 years. But when it comes to wealth — as measured by assets, like cash savings, homes and retirement accounts, minus debts, like mortgages and credit card balances — white families have far outpaced black and Hispanic ones. Before the recession, non-Hispanic white families, on average, were about four times as wealthy as nonwhite families, according to the Urban Institute’s analysis of Federal Reserve data. By 2010, whites were about six times as wealthy….

Many experts consider the wealth gap to be more pernicious than the income gap, as it perpetuates from generation to generation and has a powerful effect on economic security and mobility. Young black people are much less likely than young white people to receive a large sum from their parents or other relatives to pay for college, start a business or make a down payment on a home, for instance. That, in turn, makes their wealth-building prospects shakier as they move into adulthood.

The Times explains why minorities are suffering more during the current economic downturn:

Two major factors helped to widen this wealth gap in recent years. The first is that the housing downturn hit black and Hispanic households harder than it hit white households, in aggregate. Many young Hispanic families, for instance, bought homes as the housing bubble was inflating and reaching its peak, leaving them saddled with heavy debt burdens as house prices plunged in places like suburban Phoenix and inland California.

Black families also were hit disproportionately by the housing collapse, because heading into the recession housing constituted a higher proportion of their wealth than for white families, leaving them more exposed when the market crashed. Higher unemployment rates and lower incomes among blacks left them less able to keep paying their mortgages and more likely to lose their homes, experts said.

And the housing bubble and bust were brought about in part by well-intentioned presidents from both parties trying to expand home ownership. But George W. Bush’s attempts to rein in the lending practices of the government-sponsored lenders and improve federal oversight were stymied, most effectively by Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank.

That housing slump will forever be a major part of Frank’s legacy. And as the Times story notes, the widening of the wealth gap, especially during a down economy with high unemployment, can have lasting effects by constricting the generational transfer of wealth and enabling the wealth gap to persist or widen further even as the economy recovers.

Of course, leftist ideologues would love for this to be a tale of rapacious capitalists bent on profiting by stealing the wealth of minorities. The reality is that the government was only trying to help, and ended up doing lasting damage. It’s a familiar story with an important lesson that American academia’s newly minted professors of capitalism will have a hard time avoiding.

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Holder’s Post-9/11 Backlash Myth

Attorney General Eric Holder left out an important detail from his speech today in which he scolded Americans about not repeating their alleged bias toward Muslims after 9/11. He was on firm ground when he rightly denounced any “misguided acts of retaliation” against Muslims after the Boston Marathon bombing. But in resurrecting the myth that Arabs and Muslims suffered a post-9/11 backlash by an America that was driven to prejudice by terrorism, the top law enforcement official in the nation forgot to tell a gathering of the Anti-Defamation League that attacks against Muslims have been statistically insignificant after 2001 and remain far below the level of reported attacks and incidents involving anti-Semitism.

Ironically, the head of his host organization—which is celebrating its centennial—pointed this out in an interview just this past weekend in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper. Foxman effectively debunked Holder in advance when he said the following:

“There are ten times as many acts directed against Jews as there are against Muslims,” Foxman says. “That doesn’t mean that there isn’t animosity toward Muslims, but even after Boston, you’re not seeing attacks against mosques, you’re not seeing people demonstrating in the streets. That’s something very unique in this country. It’s almost a miracle. It would never happen in Europe.”

He continues, “When people applauded in Boston that the terrorists were captured, there was no negative [repercussion]. The same thing happened after 9/11 – we were so concerned at the time that we took out an ad in the New York Times: ‘You don’t fight hate with hate.’ But it didn’t happen. And it’s not happening now. And that drives the Islamophobes crazy. It drives them nuts.”

Foxman’s right. It didn’t happen after 9/11 and it’s not happening now, which makes the disapproving tone of Holder’s diatribe somewhat suspicious. As I pointed out in an article in COMMENTARY in 2010 on the impact of the post-9/11 backlash myth on the Ground Zero mosque controversy, though the idea of a wave of discriminatory attacks against Muslims has been mentioned so often in the media that it has become an accepted truth, it isn’t borne out by the record. Every subsequent release of FBI hate crime statistics tells the same story: attacks against Jews far outnumber those against Muslims and Arabs even during the periods when the latter were supposedly under siege.

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Attorney General Eric Holder left out an important detail from his speech today in which he scolded Americans about not repeating their alleged bias toward Muslims after 9/11. He was on firm ground when he rightly denounced any “misguided acts of retaliation” against Muslims after the Boston Marathon bombing. But in resurrecting the myth that Arabs and Muslims suffered a post-9/11 backlash by an America that was driven to prejudice by terrorism, the top law enforcement official in the nation forgot to tell a gathering of the Anti-Defamation League that attacks against Muslims have been statistically insignificant after 2001 and remain far below the level of reported attacks and incidents involving anti-Semitism.

Ironically, the head of his host organization—which is celebrating its centennial—pointed this out in an interview just this past weekend in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper. Foxman effectively debunked Holder in advance when he said the following:

“There are ten times as many acts directed against Jews as there are against Muslims,” Foxman says. “That doesn’t mean that there isn’t animosity toward Muslims, but even after Boston, you’re not seeing attacks against mosques, you’re not seeing people demonstrating in the streets. That’s something very unique in this country. It’s almost a miracle. It would never happen in Europe.”

He continues, “When people applauded in Boston that the terrorists were captured, there was no negative [repercussion]. The same thing happened after 9/11 – we were so concerned at the time that we took out an ad in the New York Times: ‘You don’t fight hate with hate.’ But it didn’t happen. And it’s not happening now. And that drives the Islamophobes crazy. It drives them nuts.”

Foxman’s right. It didn’t happen after 9/11 and it’s not happening now, which makes the disapproving tone of Holder’s diatribe somewhat suspicious. As I pointed out in an article in COMMENTARY in 2010 on the impact of the post-9/11 backlash myth on the Ground Zero mosque controversy, though the idea of a wave of discriminatory attacks against Muslims has been mentioned so often in the media that it has become an accepted truth, it isn’t borne out by the record. Every subsequent release of FBI hate crime statistics tells the same story: attacks against Jews far outnumber those against Muslims and Arabs even during the periods when the latter were supposedly under siege.

To note this is not to sanction bias against Muslims. No one should hold any individual responsible for the actions of the ethnic or religious group to which they belong, let alone crimes committed by a small minority, as is the case with American Muslims. Hate crimes of any sort are despicable and deserve severe punishment. But the false narrative of anti-Muslim discrimination fostered by radical groups that purport to speak for that community is intended to do more than squelch bias. The purpose is to forestall any effort to bring those sectors of the Muslim community under scrutiny for their role in the growth of Islamist extremism and homegrown terrorism on our shores.

Holder, who never mentioned that the Tsarnaev brothers were Muslim in his speech, is doing neither the country nor Muslims any favor by playing this card. Falsely labeling all investigations of Islamist groups and mosques in this country as nothing more than prejudice has become a standard trope in the aftermath of every instance of terror conducted by radical Muslims in the United States. In doing so, those promoting this distorted version of history have hampered counter-terror operations and made it more difficult for the responsible and law-abiding Muslim majority to reject the radicals in their midst.

The only way to end this cycle of extremism is for the government and the media to stop being so frightened of being labeled as bigots and to empower American Muslims to cast out the Islamists in their midst. Until that happens, we will continue to rerun the same tired script with the same tragic consequences.

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Is Gillibrand Dems’ Best Backup?

If you listen to some Democrats, you’ll walk away thinking the race for their presidential nomination in 2016 will be about as exciting as a matchup between the Super Bowl champions and a team from the Little Sisters of the Poor. Hillary Clinton is not just the favorite to be their next standard-bearer. Those who claim her entry will clear the field of serious challengers are probably right. The odds facing any Democrat who would dare take on the Clinton machine will be long and raising money for such a challenge will not be easy. Having patiently waited her turn after being derailed by Barack Obama in 2008, Clinton is in position to portray any Democrat who stands against her as someone who is attempting to prevent the country from electing its first female president. Clinton will not have as easy a time in the general election, but barring the emergence of another Obama-like phenomenon (something that only happens once in a generation, if that often), it’s hard to envision anyone else as the Democrats’ nominee.

But what happens if Clinton doesn’t run? That would open the field to the likes of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, not to mention Vice President Biden, whose lust for the Oval Office appears to have only grown with his proximity to the top job in the last four years. Yet those who assume that one of those three, or someone like them, will rise to the top are forgetting why all of them were assumed to have no chance against Clinton: they’re widely considered to be duds. So if for some as-yet-unforeseen reason Clinton decides to pass on another “inevitable” race for the presidency, Democrats will be looking around for another choice. And one of them will undoubtedly be the senator that her colleagues dubbed “Tracey Flick” during her introduction to Congress: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

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If you listen to some Democrats, you’ll walk away thinking the race for their presidential nomination in 2016 will be about as exciting as a matchup between the Super Bowl champions and a team from the Little Sisters of the Poor. Hillary Clinton is not just the favorite to be their next standard-bearer. Those who claim her entry will clear the field of serious challengers are probably right. The odds facing any Democrat who would dare take on the Clinton machine will be long and raising money for such a challenge will not be easy. Having patiently waited her turn after being derailed by Barack Obama in 2008, Clinton is in position to portray any Democrat who stands against her as someone who is attempting to prevent the country from electing its first female president. Clinton will not have as easy a time in the general election, but barring the emergence of another Obama-like phenomenon (something that only happens once in a generation, if that often), it’s hard to envision anyone else as the Democrats’ nominee.

But what happens if Clinton doesn’t run? That would open the field to the likes of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, not to mention Vice President Biden, whose lust for the Oval Office appears to have only grown with his proximity to the top job in the last four years. Yet those who assume that one of those three, or someone like them, will rise to the top are forgetting why all of them were assumed to have no chance against Clinton: they’re widely considered to be duds. So if for some as-yet-unforeseen reason Clinton decides to pass on another “inevitable” race for the presidency, Democrats will be looking around for another choice. And one of them will undoubtedly be the senator that her colleagues dubbed “Tracey Flick” during her introduction to Congress: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

The comparison of Gillibrand with the protagonist of the scathing 1999 satire “Election” in the feature on her possible candidacy by Politico today is unfair, but it’s not hard to see why the nickname stuck during her early years in Washington. Like the type-A overachiever played in the movie by Reese Witherspoon, Gillibrand is driven, ruthless and charming when she wants to be–not to mention pretty and blond. But while she is still a relative newcomer to the political big leagues and is vulnerable to charges of being a flip-flopper, Gillibrand is perfectly positioned to take up the feminist torch from Clinton. Nor should her potential opponents underestimate her skill in fundraising as well as willingness to take any position she needs to in order to win votes.

Successful presidential candidacies are often the product of good luck, and a Gillibrand run to the nomination would invite comparisons to the runs of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton had the guts to run in 1992 when more credible Democratic frontrunners (like Andrew Cuomo’s father Mario) didn’t run. Her rise is also reminiscent of Barack Obama’s path to 2008. Obama won an Illinois Senate seat in 2004 largely because the Republican who was assumed to have an easy path to victory was torpedoed by revelations about his divorce. In 2006, Gillibrand faced a double-digit deficit in a long-shot race an upstate New York House race with only a few weeks to go, but won in a walk after newspapers ran stories about her incumbent Republican opponent being involved in a domestic violence incident. A little more than two years after that, she was unexpectedly tapped to replace Clinton in the Senate by former New York Governor David Patterson after the trial balloon floated by Caroline Kennedy crashed and burned.

Gillibrand was a pro-gun moderate in the House, but she was quick to get with the program set for her by mentor Chuck Schumer as she flipped on guns and shifted left on other issues. Some liberals will hold her previous apostasy against her, but if she is the sole woman in the race in 2016, don’t bet on her past deviations from liberal doctrine being an obstacle to lining up solid feminist support. Moreover, her ability to raise money on Wall Street (with Schumer’s backing) will make her a formidable contender in a race in which there will be little ideological diversity.

Anyone who thinks she will listen if told to wait her turn behind fellow New Yorker Cuomo hasn’t followed Gillibrand’s career. Nor is there any reason for her to defer to Biden, who flopped twice as a presidential candidate in the past.

At the moment, there’s no reason to believe Hillary Clinton won’t run for a nomination that is hers for the asking. But if she doesn’t run, Biden, Cuomo and O’Malley should be worrying more about Gillibrand than each other.

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The Problem with Iran Sanctions

In Today’s National Post, Sara Akrami and Saeed Ghasseminejad highlight the challenge of Western sanctions policy–those in charge in Tehran are still largely getting away with murder:

Iran’s continuing progress toward a nuclear bomb should have made it clear to the West that the current sanctions regime simply isn’t going to cut it. When it comes to the nuclear program there are two important decision makers: the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. While there has been some progress in targeting the IRGC with sanctions, Khamenei himself has yet to receive much attention from the international community.

Akrami and Ghasseminejad are right: sanctions must be much broader and more aggressive if the West is to make a dent in Iran’s nuclear posture before it is too late (and there isn’t much time left).

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In Today’s National Post, Sara Akrami and Saeed Ghasseminejad highlight the challenge of Western sanctions policy–those in charge in Tehran are still largely getting away with murder:

Iran’s continuing progress toward a nuclear bomb should have made it clear to the West that the current sanctions regime simply isn’t going to cut it. When it comes to the nuclear program there are two important decision makers: the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. While there has been some progress in targeting the IRGC with sanctions, Khamenei himself has yet to receive much attention from the international community.

Akrami and Ghasseminejad are right: sanctions must be much broader and more aggressive if the West is to make a dent in Iran’s nuclear posture before it is too late (and there isn’t much time left).

But the problem with the sanctions regime is much broader. It is not just a question of whether sanctions will convince the regime in Tehran to change its cost-benefit analysis on the nuclear program. After all, so far all the signs go in the opposite direction, since Iran, despite the pain that sanctions have inflicted on its economy, is still defiantly marching on. It is not just a question of adding new measures to the already sweeping set of restrictions on Iran’s economy, its procurement networks and its financial institutions.

The problem with sanctions is that, even assuming they are the right tool to bring Iran’s nuclear quest to a halt, their main failure starts with poor implementation. Let’s face it, despite hundreds of designations, executive orders, European Union Council decisions, and other Western governments’ measures against Iranian companies, individuals and even entire sectors of Iran’s economy, Iran is going about its business as if nothing much happened.

Take Mahan Air.

The U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned Mahan Air shortly after Iran’s plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington in October 2011. It sanctioned all its fleet for having transported Revolutionary Guards troops to Syria to aid Syria’s attempts to suffocate the two-year old popular uprising. The U.S. Department of Commerce has further restricted a number of entities linked to Mahan Air that procure for the company overseas. The U.S. government briefly succeeded in blocking delivery of several Boeing 747 planes to Mahan Air back in 2008. But success was short lived (here is one, no longer impounded as of February 2009).

As headlined at the time of sanctioning the airline, “your ticket with Mahan Air is cancelled.”

Or is it?

The Norwegian ambassador to Iran did not seem particularly enthused with American sanctions. He recently met with Mahan Air’s CEO, Hamid Arabnejad. The Business Year gave Arabnejad a glowing interview in January. Mahan Air launched a new China route days before being sanctioned in September 2011. Your ticket may be cancelled, but they are still flying there and adding destinations.

What about spare parts–an ongoing sore point in U.S.-Iranian relations since the Islamic Revolution? Well, if the Department of Commerce feels compelled to slap restrictions on Iranian companies trying to buy American-made spare parts for their planes thirty-something years after sanctions on airplane spare parts were introduced, that says something about how effective sanctions have been. All of Mahan Air’s companies in Europe that are under restrictions seem to be still fully active. Some of Mahan’s operations in Germany are not even mentioned in U.S. sanctions’ lists–a sign that Iranian middlemen are still way ahead of the game.

And this is just a relatively small private airline with connections to the Revolutionary Guards. Just imagine then, how many hundreds of other tricks Iranian procurement agents are pulling out of their hats to keep their regime’s business afloat.

If sanctions are to make any dent in Iran’s nuclear procurement, Western governments must rethink both their policy and its implementation. It is not enough to put a few companies on the black list–sanctions must be sweeping to the point of a total economic embargo. And it is not enough to put rules in the law book–unless sanctions are truly enforced, Iran will continue to elude restrictions.

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Red Line or Punch Line?

Let me see if I’ve got this straight: U.S. intelligence agencies are reported by the Los Angeles Times to be in agreement “that Syrians have been exposed to deadly sarin gas in recent weeks,” but they refuse to blame the Syrian regime “because of the possibility — however small — that the exposure was accidental or caused by rebel fighters or others outside the Syrian government’s control.”

If the Times is to be believed, this, apparently, is the fig leaf that President Obama is using to justify his inaction even after it is clear to the entire world that Bashar Assad has flagrantly violated the “red line” laid down by the president. Are we seriously to believe that rebels somehow have taken chemical weapons out of Assad’s stockpiles and are using it on Syrian civilians themselves? If you believe this, then I have some fine beachfront property in Syria to sell you.

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Let me see if I’ve got this straight: U.S. intelligence agencies are reported by the Los Angeles Times to be in agreement “that Syrians have been exposed to deadly sarin gas in recent weeks,” but they refuse to blame the Syrian regime “because of the possibility — however small — that the exposure was accidental or caused by rebel fighters or others outside the Syrian government’s control.”

If the Times is to be believed, this, apparently, is the fig leaf that President Obama is using to justify his inaction even after it is clear to the entire world that Bashar Assad has flagrantly violated the “red line” laid down by the president. Are we seriously to believe that rebels somehow have taken chemical weapons out of Assad’s stockpiles and are using it on Syrian civilians themselves? If you believe this, then I have some fine beachfront property in Syria to sell you.

Instead of doing something about Assad’s war crimes, Obama prefers to ask for a full United Nations investigation, which could take years–if ever–to reach a definitive finding.

This is rapidly turning the U.S. into a global joke: the superpower that issues ultimatums it has no intention of enforcing. But the consequences of inaction are no joke because they are, as former U.S. army officer Joseph Holliday argues, a virtual invitation for Assad, now that he has seen the world will do nothing, to expand his use of chemical weapons.

By preferring to look the other way, Obama is repeating the experience of the 1990s when the Clinton administration ignored the genocide in Rwanda–something that Bill Clinton subsequently said he regretted.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former official in Obama’s own State Department, offers a devastating critique of the president’s inaction in this op-ed, which draws a comparison with the risible efforts of a State Department spokeswoman in 1994 to differentiate “acts of genocide”–which, she admitted, had occurred in Rwanda–from “genocide” pure and simple, which might actually demand an American response.

Obama set up the Atrocities Prevention Board a year ago precisely to avoid similar inaction in the future. “Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States,” Obama said. Yet this vaunted board has been as silent as the rest of the administration in the face of Assad’s mass atrocities. Perhaps the administration can now explain why Assad’s actions constitute “acts of atrocity” rather than “atrocities” themselves.

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Salman Rushdie and Moral Courage

Salman Rushdie had quite the megaphone this weekend: the New York Times Sunday Review op-ed section and its 1,200-word space from which to preach. And Rushdie used that space to make quite the pronouncement: the world–the West included–was sliding back into dangerous territory, in which patience for the wisdom of dissidents was running low, and our willingness to let those men and women dissent running low along with it.

It must be said that Rushdie, as the famous target of the Islamic world’s fatwa for his book The Satanic Verses, knows firsthand about the danger to artists and intellectuals who cross those willing to do violence. And it can also be said that politicians who found Rushdie to be an insufferable troublemaker didn’t give him all the support he might have deserved. But Rushdie’s column in the Times shows that while he survived the fatwa on his head thus far, his judgment did not.

Rushdie seems incapable of distinguishing between true dissidents and useful idiots or puffed-up rabble-rousers. Everyone who crosses the government is speaking truth to power, to Rushdie. And his column is useful not for its intellectual value but because this mindset has so infected the world of the arts and academia that its roster is unable or unwilling to realize that the problem is not how we treat genuine dissidents but that the global left has diluted the meaning and the cause by calling clownish poseurs by that name.

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Salman Rushdie had quite the megaphone this weekend: the New York Times Sunday Review op-ed section and its 1,200-word space from which to preach. And Rushdie used that space to make quite the pronouncement: the world–the West included–was sliding back into dangerous territory, in which patience for the wisdom of dissidents was running low, and our willingness to let those men and women dissent running low along with it.

It must be said that Rushdie, as the famous target of the Islamic world’s fatwa for his book The Satanic Verses, knows firsthand about the danger to artists and intellectuals who cross those willing to do violence. And it can also be said that politicians who found Rushdie to be an insufferable troublemaker didn’t give him all the support he might have deserved. But Rushdie’s column in the Times shows that while he survived the fatwa on his head thus far, his judgment did not.

Rushdie seems incapable of distinguishing between true dissidents and useful idiots or puffed-up rabble-rousers. Everyone who crosses the government is speaking truth to power, to Rushdie. And his column is useful not for its intellectual value but because this mindset has so infected the world of the arts and academia that its roster is unable or unwilling to realize that the problem is not how we treat genuine dissidents but that the global left has diluted the meaning and the cause by calling clownish poseurs by that name.

Rushdie’s column is titled “Whither Moral Courage?” But that question should be asked of Rushdie, as it should of anyone who writes the following:

America isn’t immune from this trend. The young activists of the Occupy movement have been much maligned (though, after their highly effective relief work in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, those criticisms have become a little muted). Out-of-step intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and the deceased Edward Said have often been dismissed as crazy extremists, “anti-American,” and in Mr. Said’s case even, absurdly, as apologists for Palestinian “terrorism.” (One may disagree with Mr. Chomsky’s critiques of America but it ought still to be possible to recognize the courage it takes to stand up and bellow them into the face of American power. One may not be pro-Palestinian, but one should be able to see that Mr. Said stood up against Yasir Arafat as eloquently as he criticized the United States.)

There is much to unpack here. When he says America isn’t immune from this trend, he means the trend of suffocating dissent, and puts the United States in a category that, by his own description in the essay, includes the Soviet Union and modern Pakistan. Rushdie may think he is being provocative, but such nonsense deserves to be laughed out of the room.

Yet Rushdie continues the thread. If America is Soviet Russia or Islamist Pakistan, his brave dissidents here are akin to Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Aung San Suu Kyi, Salman Taseer. And who are these heroes? First, there is the Occupy Wall Street movement, who not only weren’t oppressed by the government but left alone to squat on land in downtown Manhattan. Women in these camps were shocked at the lengths to which Occupy leaders would go to protect rapists who prowled the camps, because they were worried not for the safety of innocent women but for their own reputations. The camps were responsible for harming local small businesses, and the Occupiers’ simmering resentment targeted Jews and other supposed symbols of Western society hated by these pseudo-anarchist mobs. If Rushdie is worried about intellectuals, he need not shed a tear for the fate of Occupy Wall Street; roving rape camps are not incubators of high intellectual pursuit.

As for Chomsky, Rushdie must be kidding when praises the “courage” it takes to shout Khmer Rouge propaganda in the face of American anti-Communists. And is Chomsky sitting in Guantanamo or a gulag? Of course not. Chomsky’s vile stupidity only discredits his supporters; his opponents have nothing to fear from him. It would have been nice of Rushdie to at least include a reference to the dissidents of the despicable Cambodian regime to balance out Chomsky, but that would have made plain the irrationality of his argument.

And what of Said? Rushdie says it’s absurd to accuse him of being an apologist for Palestinian terrorism. (Sorry–“terrorism.” Rushdie’s moral relativism requires him to dismiss reality as open to interpretation. Magical realism is not realism, after all. One wonders if that same Islamic violence that threatened Rushdie’s life and hounded him for decades deserves scare quotes, or only that violence which is launched against others.)

But of course that’s exactly what Said did. Here he is, for example, during the Second Intifada claiming that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza “is the source of violence.” He goes on to make clear his opposition to Arafat was where he felt Arafat was too willing to engage in the Oslo peace process, and he says that every time a Palestinian official is asked about the conflict he should say that “Occupation with tanks, soldiers, checkpoints and settlements is violence, and it is much greater than anything Palestinians have done by way of resistance.” That was Edward Said, in his own words, claiming that the mere existence of a Jewish village is “much greater” than horrific bombing campaigns directed at innocent men, women, and children. That’s not moral courage, and it’s to our credit as a society that we reject it.

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The “Next Tamerlan” Doesn’t Care About Background Checks

Riding a wave of media-driven indignation and fueled by polls that showed broad popular support for background checks, gun control advocates are claiming they won’t wait until after the next election to try again to pass another version of the Manchin-Toomey amendment. It’s an open question as to whether their arguments will resonate with the red state Democrats who crossed the aisle to vote with the majority of Republicans against any gun bill, or whether they can persuade some in the GOP caucus to flip. But exploiting the Boston Marathon bombing the same way they’ve relentlessly waved the bloody shirt of the Newtown massacre won’t do the trick.

Guns did play a role in the Tsarnaev brothers’ crimes. And since Tamerlan Tsarnaev had already been placed in the database of the FBI, theoretically a background check on a prospective weapons purchase by him might have triggered an intervention by law enforcement authorities before the tragedy occurred. That’s what motivated Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York to take to the floor of the House on Friday to argue that Boston gives us another reason to pass a background checks law with the inflammatory style we’ve come to expect from the anti-gun crowd:

The pro-gun lobby insists that the next terrorist should still be able to buy all the assault weapons they want and all the 100-round magazines they need, no problem, no background check necessary. And the next terrorist and the next Tamerlan thinks they’re absolutely right.

The problem with Representative Maloney’s argument isn’t just that it’s despicable of her to accuse groups like the National Rifle Association of supporting terror (though that’s a line that probably went down well with most of her Upper East Side constituency), it’s that the facts of the case flatly contradict the pro-gun control narrative. As I wrote last week, the guns the Tsarnaevs used to kill one police officer and wound another did not have legal permits. Neither did their pressure cooker bombs.

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Riding a wave of media-driven indignation and fueled by polls that showed broad popular support for background checks, gun control advocates are claiming they won’t wait until after the next election to try again to pass another version of the Manchin-Toomey amendment. It’s an open question as to whether their arguments will resonate with the red state Democrats who crossed the aisle to vote with the majority of Republicans against any gun bill, or whether they can persuade some in the GOP caucus to flip. But exploiting the Boston Marathon bombing the same way they’ve relentlessly waved the bloody shirt of the Newtown massacre won’t do the trick.

Guns did play a role in the Tsarnaev brothers’ crimes. And since Tamerlan Tsarnaev had already been placed in the database of the FBI, theoretically a background check on a prospective weapons purchase by him might have triggered an intervention by law enforcement authorities before the tragedy occurred. That’s what motivated Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York to take to the floor of the House on Friday to argue that Boston gives us another reason to pass a background checks law with the inflammatory style we’ve come to expect from the anti-gun crowd:

The pro-gun lobby insists that the next terrorist should still be able to buy all the assault weapons they want and all the 100-round magazines they need, no problem, no background check necessary. And the next terrorist and the next Tamerlan thinks they’re absolutely right.

The problem with Representative Maloney’s argument isn’t just that it’s despicable of her to accuse groups like the National Rifle Association of supporting terror (though that’s a line that probably went down well with most of her Upper East Side constituency), it’s that the facts of the case flatly contradict the pro-gun control narrative. As I wrote last week, the guns the Tsarnaevs used to kill one police officer and wound another did not have legal permits. Neither did their pressure cooker bombs.

I happen to think the Manchin-Toomey background check legislation was a reasonable suggestion that would not infringe on Second Amendment rights. If its advocates could have argued that it would prevent another Newtown, it might have passed. But it is also true that it wouldn’t prevent another Boston.

The Marathon bombing is yet another example that proves that criminals generally aren’t prepared to jump through the hoops that a law-abiding citizen is willing to endure. They prefer to either use legal weapons that were procured by those who would not be prevented from purchasing them or illegal guns that no background check or assault weapons ban can prevent from being sold.

The point here is not so much whether background checks are a good idea in principle. It is that claims they will prevent crimes are utterly bogus. Representative Maloney can Mau-Mau the NRA all she likes, but nothing in Manchin-Toomey or even the more stringent versions of the bills Democrats have drafted on guns in the wake of Newtown could have stopped the Tsarnaevs from amassing the arsenal of illegal weapons they used to shoot it out with Boston-area cops. The “next Tamerlan” won’t care about background check laws because—like his predecessor—he will not try to buy a legal gun that can be traced back to him.

Since scoring points aimed at a right-wing piñata with a sound byte that made it onto a local news broadcast (and repeated this morning on MSNBC) was the objective of Maloney’s speech, I’m sure the inaccuracy of her pitch doesn’t bother her much. But what she—and others who share her gun legislation goal—should understand is that the more they flood the airwaves with misleading rhetoric and false arguments the less likely it is that any background check law will ever be passed.

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“Explanations” of Islamic Jew-Hatred Reveal Media’s Own Prejudices

The Islamic world’s rampant Jew-hatred, as I noted last week, is often simply ignored by the journalists and academics who should be bringing it to public attention. But no less troubling is the fact that on the rare occasions when they do report it, they frequently try to explain it away. These “explanations” offer little insight into the actual sources of Muslim Jew-hatred. But they offer a very disturbing insight into opinion leaders’ motives in concealing this hatred.

A good example is an article published by the New York Times in January that described two cases in which Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi made virulently anti-Semitic remarks. In one, he said Egyptians should “nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred” for Jews and Zionists; in another, he described Zionists as “these bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.”

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The Islamic world’s rampant Jew-hatred, as I noted last week, is often simply ignored by the journalists and academics who should be bringing it to public attention. But no less troubling is the fact that on the rare occasions when they do report it, they frequently try to explain it away. These “explanations” offer little insight into the actual sources of Muslim Jew-hatred. But they offer a very disturbing insight into opinion leaders’ motives in concealing this hatred.

A good example is an article published by the New York Times in January that described two cases in which Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi made virulently anti-Semitic remarks. In one, he said Egyptians should “nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred” for Jews and Zionists; in another, he described Zionists as “these bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.”

Both of these statements, wrote reporter David Kirkpatrick, “date back to 2010, when anti-Israeli sentiment was running high after a three-week conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza the previous year.”

The obvious implication for readers who don’t have the dates of every Mideast war at their fingertips is that the conflict probably took place in late 2009, while Morsi’s comments were made in early 2010; hence these were anguished outbursts made in the first raw throes of grief–a time when nobody should be judged too harshly for violent language. Kirkpatrick even strengthened that impression by erroneously dating both speeches to “early 2010,” when in fact, as a subsequent correction noted, one was made in September of that year.

But even without this error, the implication is ridiculous, because the aforementioned conflict ended in January 2009–which Kirkpatrick, as the Times’s Cairo bureau chief, should certainly have known. In other words, these speeches were made at least a full year after the war ended, and in one case, almost two years later. Thus, far from reflecting the first raw throes of grief, they were the deliberate product of more than a year’s reflection. As such, either they genuinely represented the deepest beliefs of the man who is now Egypt’s president, or they were cynically calculated to appeal to Morsi’s audience–an equally disturbing possibility.

Far more disturbing than what this says about Egyptian prejudices, however, is what it says about those of Kirkpatrick and his editors at the Times–because neither he nor they evidently saw any problem in “explaining” Morsi’s vile anti-Semitism on the grounds that he was still overset by grief (“anti-Israel sentiment was running high”) over a war that ended more than a year earlier. In short, like too many other journalists, Kirkpatrick and his editors are convinced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root of all evil in the Middle East, and push that theory on their readers.

Unfortunately, this theory isn’t supported by the facts: As one Egyptian cleric helpfully explained, Jews “aren’t our enemies because they occupy Palestine; they would be our enemies even if they had not occupied anything.” And if readers were made aware of the true extent of Islamic Jew-hatred, they might well figure that out for themselves.

One can’t help suspecting that this is precisely why many journalists prefer to let this hatred go unreported: Facts that don’t fit their pet theory of Israel’s guilt are better left unmentioned.

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America’s Schizophrenic Views Toward the Nanny State

In a recent Pew Research Center poll, we’re told:

Even as public views of the federal government in Washington have fallen to another new low, the public continues to see their state and local governments in a favorable light. Overall, 63% say they have a favorable opinion of their local government, virtually unchanged over recent years. And 57% express a favorable view of their state government – a five-point uptick from last year. By contrast, just 28% rate the federal government in Washington favorably. That is down five points from a year ago and the lowest percentage ever in a Pew Research Center survey.

In examining the partisan breakdown, the Pew poll shows that there has been a steep decline in the share of Democrats expressing a favorable opinion of the federal government since Mr. Obama took office, from 61 percent in July 2009 to 41 percent currently. Favorable opinions also have fallen among Republicans over this period, from 24 percent to 13 percent—the lowest ever favorable rating among members of either party.

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In a recent Pew Research Center poll, we’re told:

Even as public views of the federal government in Washington have fallen to another new low, the public continues to see their state and local governments in a favorable light. Overall, 63% say they have a favorable opinion of their local government, virtually unchanged over recent years. And 57% express a favorable view of their state government – a five-point uptick from last year. By contrast, just 28% rate the federal government in Washington favorably. That is down five points from a year ago and the lowest percentage ever in a Pew Research Center survey.

In examining the partisan breakdown, the Pew poll shows that there has been a steep decline in the share of Democrats expressing a favorable opinion of the federal government since Mr. Obama took office, from 61 percent in July 2009 to 41 percent currently. Favorable opinions also have fallen among Republicans over this period, from 24 percent to 13 percent—the lowest ever favorable rating among members of either party.

About this poll I have an observation and a question. On the former, I would guess the poll reflects, at least in part, the damaging effects of liberalism on the public’s views toward government. What liberalism has done, in the person and presidency of Barack Obama, is take a theoretical debate about the Nanny State and make it real. And unpleasant. It’s worth pointing out that confidence in government rose under President Reagan, who tried, with some success, to re-limit it. But it’s not simply the unprecedented size of government that is eroding confidence in the federal government; it’s also incompetence. See the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus package for more.

As for the question: Why exactly do Americans continue to vote for politicians and support policies that entrusts more and more power to the federal government? As Powerline.com’s John Hinderaker asks, “Why do voters whose instincts are seemingly conservative nevertheless vote for liberal politicians?”

It may be that in general the public is skeptical of the federal government, yet on individual issues people are persuaded that it will do things better and more effectively than state and local governments. Or it may be something else. Whatever the case, the public is investing more and more authority into an institution in which it has less and less confidence, which is not a terribly good thing for a self-governing nation. One might think that Republicans should be able to leverage the public’s skepticism toward the federal government in a way that advances their interests. Of course, that should have been the case in 2012, too–and what the GOP got instead was a drubbing.

America can sometimes be a most curious country.   

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The Embittered Sarah Palin

For the most part I stay away from commenting on Sarah Palin, in part because she has very nearly become a non-factor in American politics. But once in a while she’ll do something that is worth commenting on, if only because it provides a cautionary tale.

Take her comments on this weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, in which she tweeted: “That #WHCD was pathetic. The rest of America is out there working our asses off while these DC assclowns throw themselves a #nerdprom.”

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 On her Facebook page Palin added this:

Yuk it up media and pols. While America is buried in taxes and a fight for our rights, the permanent political class in DC dresses up and has a prom to make fun of themselves. No need for that, we get the real joke.

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For the most part I stay away from commenting on Sarah Palin, in part because she has very nearly become a non-factor in American politics. But once in a while she’ll do something that is worth commenting on, if only because it provides a cautionary tale.

Take her comments on this weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, in which she tweeted: “That #WHCD was pathetic. The rest of America is out there working our asses off while these DC assclowns throw themselves a #nerdprom.”

palinscreenshot

 On her Facebook page Palin added this:

Yuk it up media and pols. While America is buried in taxes and a fight for our rights, the permanent political class in DC dresses up and has a prom to make fun of themselves. No need for that, we get the real joke.

Now I’m not a particular fan or particular critic of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. It is something of a Washington ritual, a night in which comedians and presidents deliver comments that are often funny and sometimes clever. The evening is harmless and quickly forgotten. It’s hard to get worked up about it either way. Unless you’re Sarah Palin.

Set aside the fact that in 2008 Ms. Palin tried very hard to become part of the political class in D.C. she now despises. And forget about the fact that as this report shows, in 2011 Palin appeared at both the Vanity Fair and MSNBC after-WHCD parties. (Her daughter, Bristol, went to the dinner.) From the pictures, she appeared to be yucking it right up with the elite media and politicians. Or that in 2009 then-governor Palin was scheduled to attend the dinner but canceled her plans due to emergency flooding back in Alaska. (Her husband Todd attended the D.C. ass-clown event in her place.) 

The point I want to make is that Palin’s faux populist appeal is merely a convenient cover for what appears to be a consuming bitterness–rooted, I suppose, in her bad experiences and bad memories from the 2008 campaign.

To be fair, Ms. Palin was treated unfairly by many members of the press corps, though it also needs to be said many of her problems were caused by being ill-prepared and out of her depth on the national stage. (The Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson interviews were devastating not because they were “gotcha” interviews, but because she foundered even when asked basic questions, like which newspapers and periodicals she read.) It should be said, too, that many politicians have been savaged by the press, including George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, yet they never lost their grace or dignity.

Sarah Palin is an example of what can happen when a person is consumed by bitterness and grievances. It has a corrosive effect, and over the last several years she has, if anything, become even more brittle and embittered. From a human standpoint it’s a shame. And from a political standpoint it’s precisely the countenance and bearing conservatism and the GOP need to avoid. 

The American people aren’t usually won over by angry politicians, and Sarah Palin is one angry individual. Fortunately, she’s also a marginal one.

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The Difference Between Newtown and Boston

One crime was committed by a person motivated by no cause or political interest and driven only by personal demons. Another crime was committed by two people whose actions were clearly driven by their religious and political beliefs. Under these circumstances, which of these terrible tragedies do you think would be considered an incident that could only be properly understood as something that ought to spur the nation to specific political actions?

If you answered the latter, you clearly know nothing about our political culture.

The former is, of course, the Newtown massacre in which a crazed, lone gunman murdered 20 1st-graders and six teachers at a Connecticut elementary school. The latter is the Boston Marathon bombing that took the lives of three spectators and wounded nearly 200, to which the toll of one police officer murdered and another wounded during the manhunt for the terrorists must be added. Though the first was a random act of personal madness and the second was just the latest in a long string of terrorist acts motivated by Islamist hatred for the West and America, there has never been any doubt about which of the two our chattering classes would consider as having undeniable political consequences and which would be treated as an unknowable crime about which intelligent persons ought not to think too deeply.

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One crime was committed by a person motivated by no cause or political interest and driven only by personal demons. Another crime was committed by two people whose actions were clearly driven by their religious and political beliefs. Under these circumstances, which of these terrible tragedies do you think would be considered an incident that could only be properly understood as something that ought to spur the nation to specific political actions?

If you answered the latter, you clearly know nothing about our political culture.

The former is, of course, the Newtown massacre in which a crazed, lone gunman murdered 20 1st-graders and six teachers at a Connecticut elementary school. The latter is the Boston Marathon bombing that took the lives of three spectators and wounded nearly 200, to which the toll of one police officer murdered and another wounded during the manhunt for the terrorists must be added. Though the first was a random act of personal madness and the second was just the latest in a long string of terrorist acts motivated by Islamist hatred for the West and America, there has never been any doubt about which of the two our chattering classes would consider as having undeniable political consequences and which would be treated as an unknowable crime about which intelligent persons ought not to think too deeply.

We can debate the rights and wrongs of restrictions on gun ownership or calls for more background checks. But the desire to use public grief about Newtown to push for passage of these measures was not rooted in any direct connection between the crime and legislation. Yet almost immediately Newtown was treated as an event with obvious political consequences. Indeed, the desire by gun rights advocates to speak of the issue outside of the context of Newtown was treated as both inherently illegitimate and morally obtuse.

But the reaction to Boston has been very different. Once it became apparent that the perpetrators were “white Americans”—in the memorable phrase employed by Salon.com—but could not be connected to the Tea Party, Rush Limbaugh or any other conservative faction or cause, most liberals have taken it as their duty to squelch any effort to draw the sort of conclusions to which they had almost universally rushed when blood was shed in Newtown. Many in our chattering classes who thought it was patently obvious that the actions of a lunatic should be blamed on the weapons he employed in Connecticut seem deathly afraid of what will happen if we discuss the actual motives of the Boston terrorists.

Why?

Because while they consider anything fair game if it can help restrict gun ownership, they are just as eager to avoid any conclusion that might cause Americans to link terrorists with the religious ideology that led them to kill. For them the fear that this will lead to a general wave of prejudice against all Muslims justifies treating a crime that can only be properly understood in the context of the general struggle against radical Islam as if it were as motiveless as Newtown.

In the last week we have been offered all sorts of explanation for the behavior of the Tsarnaev brothers except the obvious answer. Talking heads on MSNBC and elsewhere have condemned any effort to focus on political Islam in spite of the growing body of evidence that points to their faith as being the cause of their decision to commit mayhem. Even a normally sober commentator such as the New York Times’s Frank Bruni sought to downplay the religious angle, preferring to diffuse our outrage as well as our comprehension of the event and the many other attacks carried out by adherents of radical Islam:

Terrorism isn’t a scourge we Americans alone endure, and it’s seldom about any one thing, or any two things.

Our insistence on patterns and commonalities and some kind of understanding assumes coherence to the massacres, rationality. But the difference between the aimless, alienated young men who do not plant bombs or open fire on unsuspecting crowds — which is the vast majority of them — and those who do is less likely to be some discrete radicalization process that we can diagram and eradicate than a dose, sometimes a heavy one, of pure madness. And there’s no easy antidote to that. No amulet against it.

Bruni is right that there’s no magic bullet or counter-terrorist tactic that will ensure terrorists won’t succeed. He’s also right to shoot down, as he rightly does, those on the far left who have sought to “connect the dots” between American foreign policy (Iraq, Afghanistan and support for Israel) and treat them as justified blowback in which Americans are reaping what they have sown. But while such reactions are despicable, they are largely confined to the fever swamps of our national life.

Far more destructive is this mystifying impulse to look away from the war Islamists have been waging on the West for a generation. While the “radicalization process” to which he refers is not uniform, there is a clear pattern here. The roots of the atrocity in Boston are in the beliefs of radical imams who have helped guide young Muslims to violence around the globe.

To point this out is not an indictment of all Muslims, the majority of whom in this country are loyal, hardworking and peaceful citizens. But the myths about a post-9/11 backlash against Muslims that the media has helped foster—and which continue to be unconnected to any actual evidence of a wave of a prejudice or violence—has led to a situation where some think it better to ignore the evidence about the Tsarnaevs or to focus on peripheral details—such as Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s failed boxing career—than to address the real problem. The fear of Islamophobia is so great that it has spawned a different kind of backlash in which any mention of Islam in this context is wrongly treated as an indication of prejudice.

The contrast between the political exploitation of Newtown and the way in which the same media outlets have gone out of their way to avoid drawing the obvious conclusions about Boston could not be greater. In one case, the media helped orchestrate a national discussion in which hyper-emotional rhetoric about the fallen drove a political agenda. In the other, they are seeking to ensure that no conclusions—even those that are self-evident—be drawn under any circumstances.

Gun control advocates claim that new laws—even those seemingly unconnected to the circumstances of Newtown—are worth it if it will save even one life. That’s debatable, but the same venues that have promoted that view seem averse to any discussion of political Islam, even though it is obvious that more intelligence efforts aimed at routing out radical Islamists and scrutiny of venues and websites where they gather might save even more lives. In the universe of the liberal media, promoting fear of future Newtowns is legitimate and even necessary, but thinking about how to stop future terror attacks apparently is not if it leads us to think about the Islamist threat.

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Eric Holder’s Reckless Assertion

During a speech to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Attorney General Eric Holder said that creating a “pathway to earned citizenship” was a “civil right.” Mr. Holder put it this way:

 

Creating a pathway to earned citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in this country is essential. The way we treat our friends and neighbors who are undocumented – by creating a mechanism for them to earn citizenship and move out of the shadows – transcends the issue of immigration status. This is a matter of civil and human rights. It is about who we are as a nation. And it goes to the core of our treasured American principle of equal opportunity.

As someone who believes in earned citizenship if it’s done in the context of other steps related to border security and encouraging more high-skilled workers coming to America, perhaps I have a bit of standing to say that what Holder said is nonsense. Offering earned citizenship to illegal aliens falls under the category of prudential arguments about immigration reform. There are serious policy arguments on both sides.

But Attorney General Holder’s claim is more than simply silly; it is also pernicious. It attempts to frame this debate not on the merits of granting a pathway to citizenship for those who have violated our laws; it’s an effort to frame it as a conflict between those who support (good people) and those who oppose (bad people) basic human rights. This is an effort, in other words, to demonize those with whom one disagrees, and therefore creates yet more polarization and anger and self-righteousness in a debate that probably needs less of it.

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During a speech to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Attorney General Eric Holder said that creating a “pathway to earned citizenship” was a “civil right.” Mr. Holder put it this way:

 

Creating a pathway to earned citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in this country is essential. The way we treat our friends and neighbors who are undocumented – by creating a mechanism for them to earn citizenship and move out of the shadows – transcends the issue of immigration status. This is a matter of civil and human rights. It is about who we are as a nation. And it goes to the core of our treasured American principle of equal opportunity.

As someone who believes in earned citizenship if it’s done in the context of other steps related to border security and encouraging more high-skilled workers coming to America, perhaps I have a bit of standing to say that what Holder said is nonsense. Offering earned citizenship to illegal aliens falls under the category of prudential arguments about immigration reform. There are serious policy arguments on both sides.

But Attorney General Holder’s claim is more than simply silly; it is also pernicious. It attempts to frame this debate not on the merits of granting a pathway to citizenship for those who have violated our laws; it’s an effort to frame it as a conflict between those who support (good people) and those who oppose (bad people) basic human rights. This is an effort, in other words, to demonize those with whom one disagrees, and therefore creates yet more polarization and anger and self-righteousness in a debate that probably needs less of it.

What Holder said also reveals a fairly common mindset of those on the left, which is to characterize whatever position they embrace not simply as correct but as a basic civil right. In other words, as something fundamental and teleological, as a right that is ours based on our nature as human beings. The idea that a person who violates American sovereignty by illegally crossing our borders should be given a pathway to citizenship as a matter of civil and human rights is therefore indefensible, an invention. The attorney general is employing a very serious concept in a reckless way. And it empties the term of meaning, just as promiscuously accusing those who oppose the policies of President Obama of racism empties that charge of meaning. It really ought to stop, since human rights violations and racism really do exist.

Offering earned citizenship to those who are in America illegally may make sense economically, from a security standpoint, and even morally. Fine; if one believes that, then make the arguments. But words actually mean something — human rights and civil rights as concepts mean something — and so for Holder to make the claim that he did is quite unfortunate. But it is also, alas, quite predictable.

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Kerry Should Forget About ME Summit

Earlier this week, Haaretz reported that “well placed U.S. sources” said Secretary of State John Kerry was planning to convene a summit in June at which the United States, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority would, with the help of Turkey and Egypt, set a new agenda for peace talks. The starting point for this push would be the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and the principle of “two states for two peoples.” But even before the idea had begun to percolate, the administration is publicly backing away from summit plans.

Bernadette Meehan, National Security Council Spokesperson: said “We have seen the media reports of a planned Middle East Peace summit in Washington. These reports are not true. We remain committed to working with the Israelis and the Palestinians to achieve a lasting peace through direct negotiations.”

What’s going on here? It’s hard to say with certainty but it appears that after four years of having a secretary of state who understood that the White House is the only place policy is made in the Obama administration, the switch from Hillary Clinton to Kerry involves a change in attitude as well as personnel. But whether Kerry is trying to slip the leash or not, it’s clear that whoever it is that has vetoed the summit understands the situation better than Kerry. A summit is an invitation to diplomatic disaster, not peace.

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Earlier this week, Haaretz reported that “well placed U.S. sources” said Secretary of State John Kerry was planning to convene a summit in June at which the United States, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority would, with the help of Turkey and Egypt, set a new agenda for peace talks. The starting point for this push would be the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and the principle of “two states for two peoples.” But even before the idea had begun to percolate, the administration is publicly backing away from summit plans.

Bernadette Meehan, National Security Council Spokesperson: said “We have seen the media reports of a planned Middle East Peace summit in Washington. These reports are not true. We remain committed to working with the Israelis and the Palestinians to achieve a lasting peace through direct negotiations.”

What’s going on here? It’s hard to say with certainty but it appears that after four years of having a secretary of state who understood that the White House is the only place policy is made in the Obama administration, the switch from Hillary Clinton to Kerry involves a change in attitude as well as personnel. But whether Kerry is trying to slip the leash or not, it’s clear that whoever it is that has vetoed the summit understands the situation better than Kerry. A summit is an invitation to diplomatic disaster, not peace.

Kerry may think bringing together the Islamist governments of Egypt and Turkey into the process may give PA leader Mahmoud Abbas the diplomatic cover he needs to take risks for peace. But far from helping bring about the goal of a two state solution, having two nations that are allied with Hamas (which governs the independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza) at the table merely makes it clear that Abbas doesn’t have the power to make peace even if he had the will to do so.

President Obama was right when he stated last month during his trip to Israel that direct negotiations between the two parties without preconditions was the only path to an agreement. Yet that is precisely why Abbas has sought to evade such talks. He knows he hasn’t the ability to sell the Palestinian people on a deal that recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. He also knows that the Arab peace initiative which Kerry thinks will draw Israel’s neighbors into the talks is a non-starter because it is antithetical to the notion of two states for two peoples.

Though the Arab initiative speaks of recognition of Israel, it eschews any understanding that Israel is the state of the Jewish people. It specifically insists upon implementation of the so-called Palestinian “right of return” that would swamp Israel with millions of the descendants of Arab refugees from 1948.

What’s so depressing about this idea is not just that it is foolish but that it shows Kerry hasn’t been paying much attention to diplomatic history. There have been a number of summits whose purpose was to broker Middle East peace dating back to Rhodes in 1949, Madrid in 1991 and most recently, Annapolis in 2008. While Madrid could be said to have at least initiated a dynamic where direct talks became imaginable, these gatherings were mostly about photo opportunities and the chance for world leaders to grandstand than any real breakthrough. Even worse by raising unrealistic expectations with a summit, Kerry could be setting the stage for a new round of violence where Fatah and Hamas would again compete for popularity with bombs rather than state building.

The only possible scenario in which a summit might make sense would be if Kerry miraculously achieved an agreement from the PA to start negotiations in advance. But given Abbas’s demands for Israeli concessions in advance as a precondition for talks — something Obama specifically rejected — it’s difficult to see how that happens.

If Kerry really wants to help the situation, he should concentrate on plans for economic development in the West Bank that would improve the lives of Palestinians and, at least in theory, give them an incentive to back peace rather than more conflict. But with the forced exit of PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, pumping more money into the area may do more to enrich Abbas’s corrupt Fatah cronies than to help the Palestinian people. His desire to give the PA control over areas that Oslo designates as solely under Israeli control also raises questions about the motives of this effort.

Doubling down on failure is a loser’s bet but that’s exactly what Kerry appears to be doing right now. His desire for a show that would highlight his pose as a peacemaker who can succeed where every predecessor failed is in keeping with his character. But if President Obama wants to keep the region from blowing up the Israel-Palestinian conflict at a time when he should be concentrating on Syria and Iran, he needs to make sure Kerry doesn’t go off the leash again.

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Gun Control and American “Givenness”

The New York Times reports that gun-control advocates are not dissuaded by their recent failure to get first a gun ban and then a background checks bill passed. They are pressing on with attempts to further regulate gun ownership. As I noted and as the Washington Post explained, Americans basically came to see the Toomey-Manchin bill as representative of the fight to restrict gun ownership, and the attempts by the government to impose such restrictions unnerved them. This bothers supporters of gun control for cultural reasons, and I think it’s worth explaining where gun-rights supporters are coming from.

In February, Timothy Noah wrote a perceptive column about how liberals were no longer always talking about liberal policies in “non-liberal language.” But gun control was an exception. “Hunters are understood to be part of an authentic American majority in a way liberals who don’t shoot guns are not,” Noah wrote. “But this ingrained assumption is no longer true. Busily genuflecting before hunters, liberals have somehow failed to realize that they are a new silent majority.”

Noah’s column was headlined “How Liberals Became ‘Real Americans’,” and the example of gun ownership as the outlier–gun owners are the real “real Americans” no matter how many, or how few, of them there actually are–is instructive. As anyone who has been told by gun control supporters that tyranny is not on the agenda and therefore the Founders’ concern for the right to bear arms is just a bit dated can attest, concern about the slippery slope argument on guns is downright puzzling to the left. But it’s actually much easier to understand than it seems.

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The New York Times reports that gun-control advocates are not dissuaded by their recent failure to get first a gun ban and then a background checks bill passed. They are pressing on with attempts to further regulate gun ownership. As I noted and as the Washington Post explained, Americans basically came to see the Toomey-Manchin bill as representative of the fight to restrict gun ownership, and the attempts by the government to impose such restrictions unnerved them. This bothers supporters of gun control for cultural reasons, and I think it’s worth explaining where gun-rights supporters are coming from.

In February, Timothy Noah wrote a perceptive column about how liberals were no longer always talking about liberal policies in “non-liberal language.” But gun control was an exception. “Hunters are understood to be part of an authentic American majority in a way liberals who don’t shoot guns are not,” Noah wrote. “But this ingrained assumption is no longer true. Busily genuflecting before hunters, liberals have somehow failed to realize that they are a new silent majority.”

Noah’s column was headlined “How Liberals Became ‘Real Americans’,” and the example of gun ownership as the outlier–gun owners are the real “real Americans” no matter how many, or how few, of them there actually are–is instructive. As anyone who has been told by gun control supporters that tyranny is not on the agenda and therefore the Founders’ concern for the right to bear arms is just a bit dated can attest, concern about the slippery slope argument on guns is downright puzzling to the left. But it’s actually much easier to understand than it seems.

Exactly 60 years ago, in the April 1953 issue of COMMENTARY, Daniel J. Boorstin wrote an eloquent essay that sheds light on this issue without actually discussing gun rights. The piece was titled “Our Unspoken National Faith: Why Americans Need No Ideology,” and it was adapted from his then-forthcoming book The Genius of American Politics. The purpose of Boorstin’s essay, as indicated in the title, is to explain why Americans have developed such successful political institutions without a tradition of impressive modern political theorizing. Americans are, Boorstin noted, surprisingly uninterested in political philosophy for a country that has experienced such magnificent political achievement.

Boorstin’s aim is to explain what he calls “givenness,” briefly defined as “the belief that values in America are in some way or other automatically defined: given by certain facts of geography or history peculiar to us.” There are three aspects to American “givenness,” according to Boorstin. First, that our values are a gift from the past; second, that we continue to receive our values as a gift from the present; and third, a belief in the continuity of American history, which helps explain how his first and second parts of “givenness” can coexist. “Our feeling of continuity in our history makes it easy for us to see the Founding Fathers as our contemporaries. It induces us to draw heavily on the materials of our history, but always in a distinctly non-historical frame of mind,” he writes.

We haven’t felt the need to invent mythical American prophets because that’s how we see our Founders. And we haven’t felt the need to develop a uniting political theory because we believe the nation was founded on an already complete theory that we happily accepted. One major reason for this is the recency of our founding. Boorstin calls us “primitivistic” in comparison to Europeans, who–for obvious reasons–don’t see themselves in their earliest settlers.

This explains the left-right divide over constitutional interpretation. Both liberals and conservatives have taken to claiming their constitutional righteousness in terms of its “originalism.” Neither side’s leading judicial theorists, however, tend to argue that it doesn’t matter what the Founders thought at the time. “We are haunted by a fear that capricious changes in theory might imperil our institutions,” Boorstin writes. “This is our kind of conservatism.” Later, he adds: “What need has either party for an explicit political theory where both must be spokesmen of the original American doctrine on which the nation was founded?”

Boorstin admits that the second facet of “givenness” is vague, but it boils down to accepting that our founding value system is being constantly upheld and reinvigorated by the simple experience of American life. And here he quotes Frederick Jackson Turner writing about the idealized American frontierland and how we translate that into our value system. Turner’s quote, in turn, provides some perspective on Noah’s remark about “real Americans”:

The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness, that practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier, or called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.

Indeed, Boorstin notes that we admire not extraordinary men but men “who possessed the commonplace virtues to an extraordinary degree.” The third facet of “givenness,” continuity between the first two, is both a goal and a fact of life–though this, too, has much to do with America’s youth and is probably far from a given if the United States reaches in the future the age that Europe is now. American political convention has an authenticity, Boorstin writes, guided by “the axiom that institutions are not and should not be the grand creations of men toward large ends and outspoken values; rather they are organisms which grow out of the soil in which they are rooted and out of the tradition from which they have sprung.” He concludes:

Our history has fitted us, even against our will, to understand the meaning of conservatism. We have become the exemplars of the continuity of history and of the fruits which came from cultivating institutions suited to a time and place, in continuity with the past.

How this applies, precisely 60 years later, to the gun debate is twofold. First, liberals have been frustrated by the fact that lower population states, in conservative and gun-friendly regions of the country, hold disproportionate sway in the Senate thanks to each state having the same number of senators, and thus votes. But they should also keep in mind that this doesn’t bother others nearly as much because these states, as we see from Turner’s description of the frontier in American consciousness, hold disproportionate sway over much of America’s national and cultural identity. Guns are only part of this, but a recognizable part.

Second, unlike many other policy fights, gun rights have special resonance because the right to bear arms is written explicitly. We can, and do, argue over whose right that is and what arms they may bear, but few rights were so clearly declared to exist or jealously guarded by the Founders as this one. And that helps explain how Americans can simultaneously support universal background checks in theory yet seem to suddenly get cold feet when it is time for Congress to vote. They don’t take it lightly when their rights are on the table. That may be frustrating for lawmakers, but it’s part of the genius of American politics.

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Airline Sequester Fix Exposes Dem Hysteria

Our long national nightmare is finally over. After a week of experiencing some delays at many major airports, Congress acted in the last 24 hours and passed a bill that will allow the Federal Aviation Agency to bring back air controllers from the furloughs that were forced upon them by the budget sequester. The legislation gives the secretary of transportation the ability to manage the ample funds left to the FAA to perform essential services. Of course, that is exactly what Republicans have been asking their Democratic congressional colleagues and the White House to do for the entire federal government since the sequester went into effect. Since it would mitigate the effects of the sequester and end any talk of a budget deal that would raise taxes, the president and his party have refused to consider any such commonsense measure. But the idea of forcing their constituents to stand in line at security checks at airports was too terrible to contemplate, and the Democrats finally gave in after a week on this one point.

This episode demonstrates two basic facts about the entire sequester controversy.

One is that the pain being inflicted on some people as a result of across-the-board, rather than targeted, cuts is entirely unnecessary and can almost immediately be remedied by the Democrats getting down off their high horses and agreeing to GOP demands to extend the same courtesy granted the FAA to the rest of the government.

The second is that the white flag the Democrats quickly ran up on the FAA furloughs illustrates they know they’ve failed to convince the country to pressure Republicans to give in on tax increases in order to create a grand budget deal.

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Our long national nightmare is finally over. After a week of experiencing some delays at many major airports, Congress acted in the last 24 hours and passed a bill that will allow the Federal Aviation Agency to bring back air controllers from the furloughs that were forced upon them by the budget sequester. The legislation gives the secretary of transportation the ability to manage the ample funds left to the FAA to perform essential services. Of course, that is exactly what Republicans have been asking their Democratic congressional colleagues and the White House to do for the entire federal government since the sequester went into effect. Since it would mitigate the effects of the sequester and end any talk of a budget deal that would raise taxes, the president and his party have refused to consider any such commonsense measure. But the idea of forcing their constituents to stand in line at security checks at airports was too terrible to contemplate, and the Democrats finally gave in after a week on this one point.

This episode demonstrates two basic facts about the entire sequester controversy.

One is that the pain being inflicted on some people as a result of across-the-board, rather than targeted, cuts is entirely unnecessary and can almost immediately be remedied by the Democrats getting down off their high horses and agreeing to GOP demands to extend the same courtesy granted the FAA to the rest of the government.

The second is that the white flag the Democrats quickly ran up on the FAA furloughs illustrates they know they’ve failed to convince the country to pressure Republicans to give in on tax increases in order to create a grand budget deal.

It should be conceded that the sequester is a stupid idea and one that the White House—which suggested it in the first place and resisted efforts to lessen its effects until now—is right when it says that it should never have been put into effect. As our Max Boot has written many times, its effect on the U.S. military is especially unfortunate and Congress should have acted to exempt the Pentagon from it months ago.

But if most of the public isn’t exactly up in arms about the sequester, as President Obama expected they would be, it also shows they understand that a bloated federal budget needed trimming. The sequester cuts are a mere drop in the bucket attempting to bail out the ocean of government debt. But as some conservative Republicans who have learned to love the sequester are pointing out, it was the only way anyone has found to make actual cuts—rather than reductions in the amount of increase in spending—in recent memory.

The point is every federal agency, including the military, could, if allowed the flexibility given the FAA, reduce expenditures without compromising their ability to perform the basic functions the public expects it to handle. As Rich Lowry pointed out in his latest Politico column the FAA holdup was entirely unnecessary:

The head of the FAA, Michael Huerta, says he has no choice but to disrupt the nation’s aviation in implementing the sequestration. He has to find $600 million in cuts in an agency with a $15 billion budget within a Transportation Department with a $70 billion budget. Only 15,000 of the FAA’s 47,000 employees are air traffic controllers. Yet he is furloughing controllers such that on Monday more than 1,000 flights were delayed. …

The FAA should be able to manage with a little less. Its operations budget has doubled since 1996. The agency got along just fine in 2007, even though it had fewer controllers than today and less money, while handling more air traffic. Even with sequestration, the FAA overall has slightly more funding than under President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget request.

Democrats have been trying to sell the country on the idea that the sequester is an evil that was mandated by the takeover of the House of Representatives by a group of Tea Party extremists. But rather than storming Congress to force them to bow to the president’s demands for more taxes in a grand budget deal, the public has yawned. Whatever they think of Republicans, most people think forcing the government to make do on less—as they have been forced to do in hard economic times—is a good idea. Rather than hurting the GOP, the sequester has helped it.

If the president was counting on the budget helping him lay the groundwork for a Democratic takeover of Congress in 2014, he was mistaken. The hysteria they’ve tried to feed on this issue has fizzled. It’s time for him to acknowledge that error and start negotiating with Congress rather than trying to dictate to it.

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