Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 4, 2013

What Part of No Preconditions Do American Jews Not Get?

In the aftermath of President Obama’s ringing affirmation of Zionism and Jewish rights during his visit to Israel last month, many of his liberal Jewish supporters are justifiably feeling vindicated. But after years of backing Obama and sniping at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, some of them are having a little trouble fully understanding the administration’s moves. While the president also called on Israeli students to pressure their government to make peace, he also reversed course on one of the key elements of his Middle East policy during his first term. When speaking with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, Obama pointedly said that settlements were not the obstacle to peace and that no preconditions should be expected of the Israelis in order to entice the PA back to the negotiating table.

These comments, which received far less play than the president’s Jerusalem speech about peace, represented a significant policy shift. After four years of demanding Israel freeze settlements as well as make other concessions prior to talks, Obama put himself on the same page as Netanyahu when it came to the question of Israel being asked to ante up and virtually guarantee that it would abandon its bargaining chips prior to negotiations. Yet somehow many of the president’s backers haven’t quite assimilated this message.

That was made clear in a letter to Netanyahu organized by the Israel Policy Forum that rounded up many of the usual liberal suspects who have periodically urged Obama to save Israel from itself. While respectful and, for a change, not containing any specific criticisms of Netanyahu’s government and even throwing him a bouquet for his phone call with Turkey’s leader (which they foolishly accept as a “rapprochement” even after the Turks have already reneged on their promises to normalize relations), the group of 100 prominent American Jews did call on Jerusalem to make “concrete confidence building steps designed to demonstrate Israel’s commitment to a ‘two-states for two peoples’ solution.” In other words, in spite of the signals from Obama that the ball is in the Palestinians’ court as far as resuming talks, the IPF’s signees are still reflexively attempting to put the onus on Netanyahu.

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In the aftermath of President Obama’s ringing affirmation of Zionism and Jewish rights during his visit to Israel last month, many of his liberal Jewish supporters are justifiably feeling vindicated. But after years of backing Obama and sniping at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, some of them are having a little trouble fully understanding the administration’s moves. While the president also called on Israeli students to pressure their government to make peace, he also reversed course on one of the key elements of his Middle East policy during his first term. When speaking with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, Obama pointedly said that settlements were not the obstacle to peace and that no preconditions should be expected of the Israelis in order to entice the PA back to the negotiating table.

These comments, which received far less play than the president’s Jerusalem speech about peace, represented a significant policy shift. After four years of demanding Israel freeze settlements as well as make other concessions prior to talks, Obama put himself on the same page as Netanyahu when it came to the question of Israel being asked to ante up and virtually guarantee that it would abandon its bargaining chips prior to negotiations. Yet somehow many of the president’s backers haven’t quite assimilated this message.

That was made clear in a letter to Netanyahu organized by the Israel Policy Forum that rounded up many of the usual liberal suspects who have periodically urged Obama to save Israel from itself. While respectful and, for a change, not containing any specific criticisms of Netanyahu’s government and even throwing him a bouquet for his phone call with Turkey’s leader (which they foolishly accept as a “rapprochement” even after the Turks have already reneged on their promises to normalize relations), the group of 100 prominent American Jews did call on Jerusalem to make “concrete confidence building steps designed to demonstrate Israel’s commitment to a ‘two-states for two peoples’ solution.” In other words, in spite of the signals from Obama that the ball is in the Palestinians’ court as far as resuming talks, the IPF’s signees are still reflexively attempting to put the onus on Netanyahu.

It bears remembering that, as even the president pointed out in his peace speech, Israel has already demonstrated its willingness to make what the letter called “painful territorial sacrifices for the sake of peace.” As the IPF and its backers know all too well the reason why political parties that focused their platforms on the peace process were marginalized in the January election is that the overwhelming majority of Israeli voters understand what happened after Oslo and the withdrawal from Gaza and have no interest in repeating these experiments in the West Bank, let alone Jerusalem.

All of which should cause one to wonder why such a gaggle of presumably well-meaning American Jews are still acting as if the absence of peace is the result of Israeli decisions. Like Obama’s speech, their preaching about confidence building was addressed to the wrong leader.

Should the Palestinians ever decide to accept a peace settlement that would, as President Obama rightly insisted, recognize Israel as a Jewish state and definitively end the conflict, they would find that most Israelis would be willing to make great sacrifices to achieve such an end.

But with Hamas-run Gaza—the independent Palestinian state in all but name—continuing to be a base for rocket attacks on southern Israel and with the supposed moderates of the Fatah-run PA continuing to spew hate for Jews on their official media while avoiding peace talks for years, expecting confidence building measures from Netanyahu to make a difference requires a certain tunnel vision that is impervious to reality. Urging Israel, as this letter seems to do, to release more terrorists with blood on their hands from prison, make concessions on settlements or Jerusalem — the sort of measures that are usually considered appropriate to building Palestinian “confidence” — prior to even sitting down will only encourage more intransigence from Abbas, not peace moves.

With Secretary of State John Kerry heading to the region on yet another diplomatic fool’s errand, advice from Americans about how Israel should be demonstrating its peaceful intentions is the sort of absurdity that we have come to expect from IPF and its ilk. With even President Obama demonstrating that after four years in office he’s starting to catch on to the facts of life about the Middle East, would it be too much to ask that some of his Jewish supporters do the same?

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Germany Again Betrays Iranians’ Human Rights

It’s hard to believe German politicians truly understand what is at stake in Iran. Back in 2008, a German diplomat in Tehran attended—and so gave diplomatic legitimacy—to one of the Islamic Republic’s “Death to Israel” rallies. Last year, several German companies paid money to a sanctioned Iranian bank in order to reserve booths at an Iranian investment fair in Tehran. More recently, the head of the German Green Party high-fived an Iranian diplomat, never mind the Greens’ rhetorical embrace of human rights, women’s rights, and civil society.

Now, according to Germany’s Stop the Bomb campaign, a German federal ministry is subsidizing a conference in Germany hosted by the Evangelische Akademie Loccum which will feature Iranian official Ali Reza Sheikh Attar. As Stop the Bomb explains:

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It’s hard to believe German politicians truly understand what is at stake in Iran. Back in 2008, a German diplomat in Tehran attended—and so gave diplomatic legitimacy—to one of the Islamic Republic’s “Death to Israel” rallies. Last year, several German companies paid money to a sanctioned Iranian bank in order to reserve booths at an Iranian investment fair in Tehran. More recently, the head of the German Green Party high-fived an Iranian diplomat, never mind the Greens’ rhetorical embrace of human rights, women’s rights, and civil society.

Now, according to Germany’s Stop the Bomb campaign, a German federal ministry is subsidizing a conference in Germany hosted by the Evangelische Akademie Loccum which will feature Iranian official Ali Reza Sheikh Attar. As Stop the Bomb explains:

Sheikh Attar is accused to being directly responsible for numerous killings in the Kurdish areas of Iran. Michael Spaney, spokesperson for STOP THE BOMB Germany, asks the Evangelische Akademie to follow the example of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Saxony and the Neuhardenberg Foundation, which have canceled similar events with the Iranian ambassador due to protests.

Iranian-German activist Saba Farzan is absolutely correct when she writes, “To pretend that this conference is designed to strengthen the Iranian civil society is a mockery of the young Iranian generation and their courage.” In his first Nowruz (Persian New Year) message to the Iranian people, Obama broke with tradition to conflate the regime with the people. The Iranian regime’s crushing of the 2009 post-election protests should have put an end to the illusion that the regime had anything to do with civil society. Why the Germans refuse to learn that lesson probably has less to do with ignorance and more with a cynical drive to ingratiate themselves to Iran’s leadership in the hope of making a quick buck, consequences be damned. Even if that is too cynical an interpretation, this conference shows the notion that either the German government or the Lutheran church (which owns the Evangelische Akademie Loccum) care about human rights is risible.

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It’s Not Only the Colleges that Weren’t Honest with Suzy Weiss

Michael Rubin is probably right that the schools that rejected Suzy Lee Weiss made the wrong call, though it says something about the admissions process on the whole that the esteemed colleges are only finding out about her poise, sharp wit and independent mind after having rejected her applications. I was also struck by one sentence early on in the op-ed in which she writes: “For years, they—we—were lied to” by the college administrators who told applicants to just be themselves.

Years ago, when I was a local newspaper reporter, we did a story series on getting into college. We covered every aspect of the process, and that included talking to admissions officers and college guidance counselors. University deans may not be honest about what it takes to get admitted to their school, but guidance counselors were certainly honest–at least with us. I don’t know what high school juniors and seniors are being told today, but the guidance counselors and admissions officers were crystal clear: if the school needs a goalie for its lacrosse team, that goalie is getting in instead of hundreds, maybe thousands, of applicants with better grades and test scores. We were told the schools keep track of everything, right down to the opening at tuba player on the marching band. You didn’t just need extracurriculars, in other words–you needed to match your extracurriculars with the schools’ needs. That introduces a great deal of luck into a process already low on meritocratic prioritization, and breeds even more frustration on the part of some high-schoolers.

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Michael Rubin is probably right that the schools that rejected Suzy Lee Weiss made the wrong call, though it says something about the admissions process on the whole that the esteemed colleges are only finding out about her poise, sharp wit and independent mind after having rejected her applications. I was also struck by one sentence early on in the op-ed in which she writes: “For years, they—we—were lied to” by the college administrators who told applicants to just be themselves.

Years ago, when I was a local newspaper reporter, we did a story series on getting into college. We covered every aspect of the process, and that included talking to admissions officers and college guidance counselors. University deans may not be honest about what it takes to get admitted to their school, but guidance counselors were certainly honest–at least with us. I don’t know what high school juniors and seniors are being told today, but the guidance counselors and admissions officers were crystal clear: if the school needs a goalie for its lacrosse team, that goalie is getting in instead of hundreds, maybe thousands, of applicants with better grades and test scores. We were told the schools keep track of everything, right down to the opening at tuba player on the marching band. You didn’t just need extracurriculars, in other words–you needed to match your extracurriculars with the schools’ needs. That introduces a great deal of luck into a process already low on meritocratic prioritization, and breeds even more frustration on the part of some high-schoolers.

It isn’t just the high-profile sports, in other words, that receive colleges’ targeted recruitment, though they get most of the scholarships. (I was captain of my high school chess team and received chess-related mailings from schools. I was also captain of our basketball team, but somehow eluded the scouts on that one.) Again, speaking to reporters on the record, guidance counselors and other officials were very clear about all this–and it was infuriating to some parents who quite understandably didn’t relish the suggestion that their burden wasn’t enough, and they had to add to it a reverse-recruitment microtargeting campaign to find a suitable college for their child.

If Weiss wasn’t told any of this, she has reason to feel aggrieved. What were her school’s college guidance counselors telling the kids? That their winning smile and the right attitude were sure to get them into Stanford?

The best part of Weiss’s appearance on the “Today Show,” by far, was when host Savannah Guthrie reads back the diversity part of Weiss’s op-ed to her and waits for a reaction that isn’t coming. Weiss wrote:

had I known two years ago what I know now, I would have gladly worn a headdress to school. Show me to any closet, and I would’ve happily come out of it….

I should’ve done what I knew was best—go to Africa, scoop up some suffering child, take a few pictures, and write my essays about how spending that afternoon with Kinto changed my life.

Guthrie then looks at Weiss and says: “I mean, for one thing, some people read this and they say you are being very cavalier about the importance of diversity.” Weiss dismisses the attempted shaming by saying the piece was satire. But here Weiss isn’t giving herself enough credit. The problem with the section of Weiss’s op-ed about diversity was that it wasn’t an exaggeration: had Weiss followed her joking suggestions, she very well might have been accepted by any number of universities whose admissions officers probably cringed at the op-ed because Weiss was describing actual applicants they happily accepted over Weiss.

Guthrie may have seen Weiss’s words as cartoonish, but here’s the point: they accurately describe the attitudes of the deans at America’s top universities. Weiss didn’t lampoon them so much as expose them to a wider audience.

As Michael notes, there is a lack of intellectual diversity at these universities–but not only intellectual diversity. When we did that story series, it became quite clear that schools’ desire to accept more minorities did not result in nearly enough increased opportunity. The schools merely accepted suburban, middle-class high-achieving minority teenagers from decent schools and stable homes instead of white teenagers that fit the exact same profile. Minorities from crime-ridden inner-city neighborhoods and broken homes and failing schools had the door shut on them just as quickly as the door shut on Weiss.

Liberals talk a lot about inequality. It’s a shame they do so much to perpetuate it.

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Responding to Joe Klein on Drug Legalization

Earlier this week I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post opposing drug legalization. In response, TIME magazine’s Joe Klein, who favors it, has written a dissent, critical but serious, which you can read here. Some responses to Klein follow:

1. “Most of [Wehner’s] arguments against dope come from a different era. He assumes a bright line between alcohol and ‘drugs.’ He assumes that marijuana is the entry drug on an inevitable path toward addiction. (He also seems to infer that marijuana is addictive.) Most of these arguments seem ridiculous to anyone who has inhaled.”

What I actually argue is a bit more nuanced and up-to-date than Klein’s characterization, and my claims happen to be true. Marijuana is much more potent than in the past. (In the 1970s, marijuana was at most 2-3 percent tetrahydrocanabinol, or THC. Recent Drug Enforcement Agency seizures were 7-10 percent. In Colorado and California, the marijuana dispensaries go as high as 15-20 percent or more.) Heavy use of marijuana does adversely affect brain development in the young. And the vast majority of people who are addicted to harder drugs start by using marijuana.

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Earlier this week I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post opposing drug legalization. In response, TIME magazine’s Joe Klein, who favors it, has written a dissent, critical but serious, which you can read here. Some responses to Klein follow:

1. “Most of [Wehner’s] arguments against dope come from a different era. He assumes a bright line between alcohol and ‘drugs.’ He assumes that marijuana is the entry drug on an inevitable path toward addiction. (He also seems to infer that marijuana is addictive.) Most of these arguments seem ridiculous to anyone who has inhaled.”

What I actually argue is a bit more nuanced and up-to-date than Klein’s characterization, and my claims happen to be true. Marijuana is much more potent than in the past. (In the 1970s, marijuana was at most 2-3 percent tetrahydrocanabinol, or THC. Recent Drug Enforcement Agency seizures were 7-10 percent. In Colorado and California, the marijuana dispensaries go as high as 15-20 percent or more.) Heavy use of marijuana does adversely affect brain development in the young. And the vast majority of people who are addicted to harder drugs start by using marijuana.

2. Does this mean that everyone who uses marijuana will become addicted to drugs like heroin and cocaine? Of course not. But it does mean that most of those who are addicted to cocaine and heroin started out by using marijuana. This hardly seems coincidental. Nor is there any credible evidence that I’m aware of that supports Klein’s sweeping claim that “Those who move on to harder drugs—and the infinitesimal minority who get hooked on harder drugs—would do so if marijuana were legal or not.”

Think about it like this: Some appreciable percentage of the population has a susceptibility to addiction (genetic factors account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction). Under legalization, the pool of those exposed to marijuana will certainly increase by a significant factor; and the result will be that the number of those at considerable risk of moving to addiction on heroin or cocaine likewise grows.

Government surveys found that of those age 12 and above, 22.5 million were current illicit drug users (18.1 million of whom used marijuana) and 133.4 million were current users of alcohol. More than 20 million of these people suffered from dependence or abuse: 14.1 million for alcohol alone, 3.9 million for drugs alone, and 2.6 million for drugs and alcohol.

What can we reasonably expect the drug problem to look like if we increase the number of illicit drug users to, say, 50-60 million? You will get significantly more addiction–and significantly more shattered lives.

3. We know from Monitoring the Future studies, conducted by the University of Michigan since 1975, that the rate of marijuana use in youths is inversely related to “perceived risk” and “perceived social disapproval.” Legalization would lead to decreased perceived risk and decreased perceived social disapproval; the result would almost certainly be greater drug use. (See Figure 1 from this article by Drs. Herb Kleber and Robert DuPont.) On the flip side, treating drugs as unlawful acts as a deterrent, which is one reason we criminalize behavior in the first place.

4. Many legalizers assume that past efforts to reduce drug use have been failures. But the assumption is flawed. For example, William Bennett was President George H.W. Bush’s director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Under his strong leadership, we saw substantial decreases in overall drug use, adolescent drug use, occasional and frequent cocaine use, and drug-related medical emergencies. Student attitudes toward drug use hardened. In fact, the two-year goals that were laid out in Bennett’s first ONDCP strategy were exceeded in every category.

John Walters, who was President George W. Bush’s “drug czar,” also experienced impressive success during his tenure. Anti-drug policies have shown far more success than, to take just one example, gun control laws. (Two different studies–this one by the Centers for Disease Control, which reviewed 51 published studies about the effectiveness of eight types of gun-control laws, and this one by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine–found that the evidence is insufficient to determine whether firearms laws are effective.)

5. Several times Klein compares marijuana to alcohol, arguing that “it is simply illogical for alcohol to be legal and pot not.” The rejoinder is fairly obvious, and it goes like this: Alcohol has deep roots in America in ways that marijuana and other illegal drugs do not. I readily conceded that alcohol abuse is problematic and destroys many lives (estimates are that there are 80,000 alcohol-related deaths each year). The question is whether we want to compound this damage by increasing marijuana use as well. And to throw the argument back at Klein: Would he favor legalizing cocaine and heroin based on the argument that alcohol kills many more people than those two drugs do? Alcohol kills many more people than automatic weapons would if they were legalized. Does Klein therefore, in the name of an allegiance to logic, believe we should legalize ownership of M-16s? I rather doubt it.

Governing involves making prudential judgments that take into account complexities, nuances, and even inconsistencies in a polity’s views and attitudes. Human actions cannot be reduced to mathematical formulations. Edmund Burke’s discussion of “prejudice” in the context of his concerns with the French Enlightenment and its devotion to Reason are apposite here.

Where Klein and I do agree is that, in his words:

legalization of marijuana would compound the cascade of society toward unlimited individual rights—a trend that can be catastrophic if there isn’t a countervailing social emphasis on personal and civic responsibility. It might well accelerate the trend toward the couchification of American life; it certainly would not be a step toward the social rigor we’re going to need to compete in a global economy… if, in the mad dash toward pleasure and passivity, we lose track of our citizenship and the rigorous demands of a true working democracy, we may lose the social webbing that makes the pursuit of happiness possible.

Having found common ground with Joe Klein, New Democrat, I will happily pitch my tent there.

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The High Cost of Diplomatic Nicety

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of addressing the World Affairs Council of Houston on the question of Turkey. My basic theme was that there has been a transformation in Turkey, and so it is important that U.S. officials recognize that when discussing Turkey as a model. In the question-and-answer session which followed, a young diplomat from the Turkish consulate who was unhappy with both the choice of speaker and the speech pushed back on one part of my talk, in which I suggested that the United States was unhappy with Turkey’s support for the Nusra Front in Syria.

I’ve discussed previously at COMMENTARY both the Nusra Front and its designation as a terrorist group by the U.S. government, as well as Turkey’s willingness to arm the radical Islamist group in the belief that an al-Qaeda affiliate controlling territory in Syria is better for Turkey’s national security than the secular but Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD) doing likewise. When challenged in parliament about Turkish support for Nusra Front, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s increasingly shrill foreign minister, castigated negative descriptions of the Nusra Front as the work of “neo-cons and pro-Israelis in America,” his code-word for Jews.

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Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of addressing the World Affairs Council of Houston on the question of Turkey. My basic theme was that there has been a transformation in Turkey, and so it is important that U.S. officials recognize that when discussing Turkey as a model. In the question-and-answer session which followed, a young diplomat from the Turkish consulate who was unhappy with both the choice of speaker and the speech pushed back on one part of my talk, in which I suggested that the United States was unhappy with Turkey’s support for the Nusra Front in Syria.

I’ve discussed previously at COMMENTARY both the Nusra Front and its designation as a terrorist group by the U.S. government, as well as Turkey’s willingness to arm the radical Islamist group in the belief that an al-Qaeda affiliate controlling territory in Syria is better for Turkey’s national security than the secular but Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD) doing likewise. When challenged in parliament about Turkish support for Nusra Front, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s increasingly shrill foreign minister, castigated negative descriptions of the Nusra Front as the work of “neo-cons and pro-Israelis in America,” his code-word for Jews.

Lest anyone have any illusions about for what the Nusra Front stands, here is an excerpt from their latest press release, which SITE Monitoring has translated: “Praise be to Allah, who made jihad in His Cause to be the pinnacle. Peace and prayer be upon the one sent with the sword to raise the banner of Islam….”

The diplomat said that U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford had recently talked to Turks and had nothing but praise for the Turkish position. Ergo, the diplomat suggested, suggesting that Washington was concerned with Ankara’s position on the Nusra Front was off-base.

Now, it’s quite possible—even likely—that Ford praised Turkey publicly. Obviously, a Turkish diplomat jotted down Ford’s comments and circulated them in a cable sent to various Turkish missions. Privately, however, there is real concern—expressed reportedly by Ford and many others—about the Turkish support for al-Nusra and its increasing radicalization.

Ford—like many diplomats—likes to assuage concerns with politeness and exaggerated praise. This may be what the State Department preaches, but it has a downside: Adversaries will seize on the praise as reason to avoid dealing with fundamental problems. When it comes to al-Nusra, and Turkey’s support for that radical terrorist group, an unwillingness to address the situation directly may ultimately be counted in American lives. Sometimes it’s important to call a spade, a spade, whether or not it adds tension or aggrieves the diplomat across the table.

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School Choice Versus Religious Prejudice

Last week I wrote about the victory scored in Indiana by school choice advocates when a far-reaching bill allowing parents of poor and middle class children to send their kids to private and religious schools rather than a failing public system. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled constitutional a measure that rightly allows a percentage of state education funds to follow the kids to whatever school was best for them. The principle here is that allowing a government monopoly on public education is something that prioritizes the needs of unions and bureaucracies rather than then needs of children. Vouchers create more engagement of families in education and provide much-needed competition for a public system that needs it in order to be forced to improve.

However, there was one argument against school choice that I did not address last week. That is the possibility that public funds could be used to finance private or religious schools that teach hate or undermine democracy. Ironically, the emptiness of that point was underscored by a news story out of Tennessee where Governor Bill Haslam is trying to shepherd his own vouchers bill through the legislature. In contrast to other venues throughout the country where liberal ideologues who wish to defend the government education monopoly are the prime obstacles to reform, in the Volunteer State the problem is a faction of conservatives who have no objection to helping parochial schools, so long as the faith upheld in them is their own.

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Last week I wrote about the victory scored in Indiana by school choice advocates when a far-reaching bill allowing parents of poor and middle class children to send their kids to private and religious schools rather than a failing public system. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled constitutional a measure that rightly allows a percentage of state education funds to follow the kids to whatever school was best for them. The principle here is that allowing a government monopoly on public education is something that prioritizes the needs of unions and bureaucracies rather than then needs of children. Vouchers create more engagement of families in education and provide much-needed competition for a public system that needs it in order to be forced to improve.

However, there was one argument against school choice that I did not address last week. That is the possibility that public funds could be used to finance private or religious schools that teach hate or undermine democracy. Ironically, the emptiness of that point was underscored by a news story out of Tennessee where Governor Bill Haslam is trying to shepherd his own vouchers bill through the legislature. In contrast to other venues throughout the country where liberal ideologues who wish to defend the government education monopoly are the prime obstacles to reform, in the Volunteer State the problem is a faction of conservatives who have no objection to helping parochial schools, so long as the faith upheld in them is their own.

A number of Republican members of the Tennessee state senate have expressed opposition to school choice because they fear that it would mean some children would have the ability to choose a Muslim school. According to reports there is only one such school in the state that would qualify for the plan, but Senator Jim Tracy doesn’t want any money to follow students to any institution where the Koran might be taught. Tracy and other colleagues who share this concern don’t seem to have the ability to distinguish between Islamists who preach jihad on the West and those that do conceive of their faith as a religion of peace. Another senator who sponsored a 2009 bill to ban the application of Sharia law in the state is also willing to end any chance for reform because of his anti-Muslim agenda. Their position is that choice is OK so long as it is not extended to a religion they don’t like.

While there are legitimate issues with Islamist governments elsewhere in the world that persecute the followers of other faiths and support terrorism, any attempt to inject that discussion into one about school policy in Tennessee is an absurdity. The Muslim minority there and throughout the nation has no more power to impose Sharia law on non-believers than Jews can impose halachah—Jewish religious laws—on other Americans. While no religion should be allowed to impose its tenets on others, the position that the law can and should allow for reasonable accommodation of faith is one that most conservatives understand and intuitively support. But when Muslims are involved some people lose their perspective and adopt positions such as the ones espoused by Tracy and his friends that can only be described as prejudicial.

I have long maintained that the allegation that American Muslims labor under a wave of persecution as part of a post-9/11 backlash is a myth. If anything, the government and most Americans have bent over backwards to ensure that Muslims are protected against prejudice and negative images of Islam have been few and far between in our popular culture, despite the best efforts of al-Qaeda and Iran to identify that faith with America’s enemies. But accounts of what is being said in the Tennessee legislature are enough to convince me that while Islamophobia is rare, it is not entirely a figment of the media’s imagination.

But even as we condemn a position that seems to be rooted strictly in a bias against a specific faith, it is important to address the issue as it relates to school choice. Bigots in Tennessee aren’t the first ones to raise the specter of school choice being a boon for schools run by extremists. Liberals worry that they can be used to bolster Christian fundamentalists as much as others don’t want them to aid schools that might promote Islamism.

But the question of extremist schools is a red herring that ought not to be allowed to derail choice in Tennessee or anywhere else.

Public schools may not be the only kind of public education, but that doesn’t mean states don’t have the right and the responsibility to ensure that any institution, be it a public charter, private or parochial adhere to basic standards and teach core curriculum items such as civics. Whether a school is private, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist should not be an issue, provided that it adhere to general standards including instruction in democratic values along with reading, writing, arithmetic as well faith.

It needs to be remembered that prohibitions against public funding of religion-based schools dates back not to the founders of our republic–most of whom considered faith to be an integral part of education–but to the late 19th century. It was then that so-called “Blaine amendments”—named after James G. Blaine, the 1884 Republican presidential candidate—swept the nation fueled by a wave of anti-Catholic prejudice. Their purpose was to hamstring Catholic parochial schools because Protestant bigots saw them as tools of a papist conspiracy that would allow the pope to take over the United States.

Americans should look back on that madness with regret and shame, but it is no coincidence that an effort to undo a Blaine-style ban on funding non-government schools should be derailed by a different variety of the same hateful virus. Radical separationism of the sort that would prohibit allowing government funds to follow children to religious schools isn’t necessarily identical with prejudice, but is unsurprising to see this cause going back to its biased roots.

The cause of school choice is rooted in good public policy and the needs of children who deserve an escape route from a disastrous public school system that has heretofore only been the privilege of the wealthy. It can be defended against misleading charges that it will benefit extremists. But as was the case in our country’s past, it remains vulnerable to ancient hates that continue to resurface.

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When Will Universities Understand Real Diversity?

High school senior Suzy Lee Weiss touched off a debate yesterday with her Wall Street Journal op-ed, “To (All) The Colleges that Rejected Me.” She capped that off with an appearance on the “Today Show” to discuss her piece. Two of the themes she touches upon are resume-padding and the notion of diversity:

For starters, had I known two years ago what I know now, I would have gladly worn a headdress to school. Show me to any closet, and I would’ve happily come out of it. “Diversity!” I offer about as much diversity as a saltine cracker. If it were up to me, I would’ve been any of the diversities: Navajo, Pacific Islander, anything. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, I salute you and your 1/32 Cherokee heritage.

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High school senior Suzy Lee Weiss touched off a debate yesterday with her Wall Street Journal op-ed, “To (All) The Colleges that Rejected Me.” She capped that off with an appearance on the “Today Show” to discuss her piece. Two of the themes she touches upon are resume-padding and the notion of diversity:

For starters, had I known two years ago what I know now, I would have gladly worn a headdress to school. Show me to any closet, and I would’ve happily come out of it. “Diversity!” I offer about as much diversity as a saltine cracker. If it were up to me, I would’ve been any of the diversities: Navajo, Pacific Islander, anything. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, I salute you and your 1/32 Cherokee heritage.

Resume padding is always going to exist, although any diligent admissions officer (or employer) should be able to see through it, if not with a Google search than with a few quick phone calls. But diversity is a bigger issue. The sad fact is that universities—both private and public—are essentially racist: They will gladly boil down diversity to the color of skin. Take this story from today’s Yale Daily News:

Upon first examination, the University staff is not significantly less diverse than the student body, with 28 percent of staff employees identifying as ethnic minorities. But the leadership of the University is a different story — during a year of administrative transition, the top two University positions, provost and president, will remain filled by white males. When the groups of staff are broken down by rank, the percentage identifying as ethnic minorities steadily decreases to 17 percent at the managerial and professional level, 12 percent of the top 100 staff positions — which include University officers and those who report directly to them — and 10 percent of the 10 University officers, comprised of the University president, provost and eight vice presidents, all of whom but one are white.

Now, make no mistake: Yale’s administration is not diverse. But the problem won’t simply be rectified by skin color or ethnicity. New York City subways or any urban mall are places where students can be introduced to people from a lot of different cultures. Universities should become places where students can be introduced to a number of different ideas. Alas, this is exactly where they fail, as a quick look at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) website demonstrates.

Conservative ideas are sorely lacking, if not among the student body than among the faculty. Some universities, such as William College, make a special effort to bring more conservative speakers to campus, whereas others simply ignore the problem. Students and faculty may not like conservatives ideas. Indeed, they may think they are wrong. But simply from a pedagogical point-of-view, students must be honestly confronted with them if they are going to learn to rebut them. To wrap students in an ideologically homogenous bubble through their colleges years and then foist them into a job market and broader world that may dismiss the very premise upon which their assumptions are based does them a true disservice.

That rhetorical dedication to diversity and racialist thinking have become directly proportional is truly one of the saddest indictments of universities. And as for Suzy Lee Weiss: Love her piece or hate it, she deserves kudos for challenging assumptions and starting a real debate. Those universities that rejected her will be worse off for not one day calling her their alum.

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What Would Montesquieu Make of Modern New York?

In the wake of the latest New York City corruption scandal, the New York Times convened a panel to answer an interesting question: Mayor Michael Bloomberg remains, to our knowledge, above and disconnected from the sea of corruption around him; it is because rich politicians have less need for the money of others, and are therefore less corruptible?

Leave aside the low expectations–Bloomberg may be many things, but at least he’s no crook–and the liberal goggles through which the Times views the issue–Mitt Romney’s honest wealth makes him cold and out of touch; Bloomberg’s honest wealth makes him honest–and there is actually a very old question here about politics and the ideal nature of republican governance.

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In the wake of the latest New York City corruption scandal, the New York Times convened a panel to answer an interesting question: Mayor Michael Bloomberg remains, to our knowledge, above and disconnected from the sea of corruption around him; it is because rich politicians have less need for the money of others, and are therefore less corruptible?

Leave aside the low expectations–Bloomberg may be many things, but at least he’s no crook–and the liberal goggles through which the Times views the issue–Mitt Romney’s honest wealth makes him cold and out of touch; Bloomberg’s honest wealth makes him honest–and there is actually a very old question here about politics and the ideal nature of republican governance.

Montesquieu believed that because bad laws and their consequences are so difficult to undo or unravel in a democracy, representative government required that its elected practitioners possess virtue. This may sound obvious, but he wasn’t arguing the benefit of virtuous leaders; he was arguing the necessity of them for the system to survive. Virtue, to a monarch, was highly preferable to the alternative but its absence, in his mind, did not fatally undermine the functionality of the government. He also made the seemingly counterintuitive point that men who make laws to which they are not obligated have less need for virtue. (This is highly debatable, and something on which I think he was mistaken. But his underlying point is sound: self-interest begets temptation.)

He restates this explicitly in his collection My Thoughts: “What usually makes a man wicked is that he finds himself in circumstances in which he is more influenced by the utility of committing crimes than by the shame or danger in committing them.” Virtue–offering shame in this case–is a form of rationality. Earlier in that passage Montesquieu also makes an eloquent case for the kind of Western democracy that would later emerge and prove him prescient in the cauldron of the 20th century:

The laws make good and bad citizens. The same spirit of timidity that makes a man exacting in his duties in one republic will make a man cunning in another. The same spirit of boldness that makes a man love his Country and sacrifice himself for it in one State will make a highway robber in another.

The system matters. So, as Montesquieu might say were he to visit modern-day America: What’s the deal with New York? The city, like the state and many others, is high on democracy but seemingly low on virtue. Bloomberg, who governs much like a classic British aristocrat buoyed by his wealth and noblesse oblige, appears to possess the virtue his colleagues lack but is somewhat mystified by the self-rule they practice. What gives?

As one might imagine, the answer is complex. In part, the corruption around the mayor is encouraged, but by no means justified of course, by the distortions to the democratic process; the city might gain from more freedom, not less. State Senator Malcolm Smith, at the center of the current corruption scandal, wanted to bribe his way onto the mayoral ballot which, thanks to campaign finance law, was the destination, not the journey, as Bob McManus explains in the New York Post today:

But the ballot, not the office, was where Smith’s real opportunity lay. Running for office brings access to the city’s six-dollars-for-one, taxpayer-funded campaign-contribution-matching system.

Clearly Smith was in a position to deliver state money to others — see above, Bharara’s complaint — so why not use that influence to attract “contributions” from corrupt favor-seekers? Multiplied by the match, that would create a pot of cash that an imaginative fellow like Malcolm Smith would have no trouble putting to beneficial use.

There is also the question of defining corruption. It’s true that Bloomberg hasn’t been caught doing anything that would land him in prison, but is that where we draw the moral line too? Bloomberg’s vast riches enabled him to skirt the normal party process and shape-shift politically to ease his path to office in the way citizens of more modest means could never hope to. Once in power, he used his private wealth to essentially buy the acquiescence and silence of those who might otherwise be tempted to criticize or challenge him, as Sol Stern and Fred Siegel explained in COMMENTARY in 2011:

The difference is that Bloomberg was able to channel his private philanthropic giving each year to hundreds of the city’s arts and social-service groups with the reasonable expectation that the gratitude these groups felt to their patron would extend to their patron’s political causes. At the very least, it would make the groups and their influential boards of trustees think twice before criticizing the mayor’s policies.

The vehicle for Bloomberg’s gifts was the Carnegie Corporation. During the 2005 election year alone, Bloomberg donated $20 million to Carnegie, which in turn distributed the mayor’s largesse to 400 arts and social-service groups in gifts of $10,000 to $100,000. Officially, the donor to Carnegie was listed as “anonymous,” but as New York Times reporter Sam Roberts pointed out, all the groups were aware that the generous benefactor also had a day job at City Hall. “That Mr. Bloomberg is the source of the Carnegie contributions has long been an open secret and cannot help but benefit the mayor politically,” Roberts wrote.

His political shape-shifting also meant Bloomberg was less constrained by principle and less accountable for his actions in office. He also was prevented by law from serving a third term, so he simply had the law changed so he could stay in power. That may make him more ethical than Malcolm Smith, but that’s a low bar–and it’s far less clear that Montesquieu would approve.

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Bashing Hollywood Won’t Stop More Newtowns Either

Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown is right when she notes in her Wall Street Journal op-ed today that President Obama’s focus on new gun laws to the exclusion of concerns about violence in movies, television and video games is both hypocritical and partisan. In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, the administration paid some lip service to the obvious fact that the crime might be traced back to questions about mental illness or the influence of violent entertainment. But once that was over with, the sole focus of the president and his allies has been on demonizing the National Rifle Association and trying to use the incident as an excuse to advance, even if only incrementally, the traditional liberal gun control agenda. The result is what she correctly labels a “stale debate,” since having a Democrat target the NRA is as predicable as a Republican bashing Hollywood and requires no more courage.

What Brown wants is for Obama to man up and face down an industry that is a major source of funding for his and other Democrats’ campaigns by telling Hollywood and the video game makers to start policing themselves before the government finds a way to do it for them. She points out that there is a consensus among social scientists that media violence has an impact on children and puts forward a list of suggestions, including restrictions on the amount of violence that children can see on television. But while as a parent I share her concerns about violent images, my reaction to her ideas isn’t much different from the one I felt last December when I heard NRA chief Wayne LaPierre attempt to deflect attention away from guns and onto video games after Newtown: throwing the First Amendment under the bus in a vain effort to save the Second isn’t going to do the Constitution or the country much good.

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Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown is right when she notes in her Wall Street Journal op-ed today that President Obama’s focus on new gun laws to the exclusion of concerns about violence in movies, television and video games is both hypocritical and partisan. In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, the administration paid some lip service to the obvious fact that the crime might be traced back to questions about mental illness or the influence of violent entertainment. But once that was over with, the sole focus of the president and his allies has been on demonizing the National Rifle Association and trying to use the incident as an excuse to advance, even if only incrementally, the traditional liberal gun control agenda. The result is what she correctly labels a “stale debate,” since having a Democrat target the NRA is as predicable as a Republican bashing Hollywood and requires no more courage.

What Brown wants is for Obama to man up and face down an industry that is a major source of funding for his and other Democrats’ campaigns by telling Hollywood and the video game makers to start policing themselves before the government finds a way to do it for them. She points out that there is a consensus among social scientists that media violence has an impact on children and puts forward a list of suggestions, including restrictions on the amount of violence that children can see on television. But while as a parent I share her concerns about violent images, my reaction to her ideas isn’t much different from the one I felt last December when I heard NRA chief Wayne LaPierre attempt to deflect attention away from guns and onto video games after Newtown: throwing the First Amendment under the bus in a vain effort to save the Second isn’t going to do the Constitution or the country much good.

Let’s specify that Brown is right that Obama is uniquely positioned as a liberal icon to use his bully pulpit to campaign against violent entertainment. But the man whose wife presented the Best Film award at this year’s Oscars has no interest in echoing Tipper Gore or Joe Lieberman when it comes to scolding the makers of films, TV shows or video games about the numbing effect of the fake violence they profit from. If he or his glamorous wife wanted to take up this cause they might have the leverage to have some impact on the products marketed to impressionable audiences. That they prefer instead to grandstand about guns and to engage in emotional arguments about murdered children that are generally bereft of any proof that the measures would actually lower the amount of gun violence or prevent another Newtown illustrates their lack of seriousness about the subject. For all of the talk about Congress lacking the courage to stand up to the NRA, the White House’s toadying to Hollywood is every bit as, if not far more, pusillanimous.

But, like some of the president’s gun control suggestions, the fact that Brown’s suggestions about entertainment sound reasonable doesn’t make up for the fact that they lack a tangible connection to Newtown.

It is true that the Newtown murderer appears to have been as obsessed with violent video games as much as with guns. But like past disputes about the level of violence in movies and television, which were blamed for the crimes committed by outliers in past generations, to jump to the conclusion that video games make Adam Lanza kill 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut is no more responsible than blaming the act of an insane person on the legal weapon that he committed the crime with.

The point here is that for Brown and others to use Newtown as an excuse to revive concerns about violence in entertainment is no different from the cynical manner with which gun control advocates have waved the bloody shirt of the massacre to resurrect their own pet schemes to ban assault weapons or otherwise restrict ownership of firearms.

I happen to sympathize greatly with Brown’s concerns. Like virtually everyone else who pays for cable I love her proposal about stopping cable companies from bundling channels to make consumers pay for those that they have little interest in. I, for one, would be quite happy if I could be allowed to only purchase those that broadcast news and sports and let others pay for the ones that show the vast array of trashy reality shows that are a staple of basic cable which we are all obligated to buy.

More importantly, the country would be far better off and our culture less coarse if there were less violence on television and in the movies. But the responsibility for stopping our children from seeing those shows and movies or playing those games belongs to parents, not the government. And the studies Brown cites notwithstanding, I’m not convinced there is any reason to believe that Lanza killed innocents because of video games any more than I am that it happened because the popular weapon he employed to commit his crime was legal.

I have no more problems with public advocacy for less violent entertainment than I do with background checks on gun purchases. But I doubt that either will prevent another insane person from thinking about committing an atrocity or obtaining the means to carry it out if they are determined to do so.

Flawed as it is, making Hollywood the scapegoat for Newtown makes as little sense as doing the same for the equally unpopular leadership of the NRA. Conservatives should be as protective of the First Amendment rights of the former to produce objectionable material as they are of the Second Amendment rights of the members of the latter.

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Should We Be Rooting for Ahmadinejad?

The New York Times devotes considerable space on its front page this morning to a fascinating rundown on the contest to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran. Though this will involve voting and attempts to gain popular support, as Ahmadinejad’s re-election proved in 2009, the Iranian electoral system should not be confused with democracy. Just as the Iranian president is actually subordinate to the grand ayatollah who functions as a permanent supreme leader in terms of governing, the choices and the outcome of the Iranian election are also subject to the dictates of the ruling cleric and his fellow ayatollahs. That doesn’t mean that the infighting within the regime is not significant or that it shouldn’t be monitored closely. The differences between Ahmadinejad and Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are, no doubt, quite real. But they ought not to be interpreted as a sign that the regime is in danger of falling or there is any significant divergence between them and their followers about keeping an Islamist government or maintaining the country’s dangerous nuclear ambitions.

But unfortunately that is probably the conclusion that many of the Times’s liberal readers will jump to after reading the piece since it brands Ahmadinejad and his faction as the “opposition” to the supreme leader. That may be true in the literal sense but, as even the article points out, that is the result of the fact that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei worked together to wipe out any real opposition to Islamist hegemony in 2009 as the United States stood silent. Like the Kremlinologists who spent decades trying to interpret the factions among the rulers of the Soviet Union before its fall, the point of much of the speculation about dissension among the ruling class in Iran is to try to throw cold water on policies intended to pressure the Islamist government. There is nothing wrong with keeping up on which of the tyrants of Tehran is gaining the upper hand on his colleagues. But the problem is that such discussions inevitably tempt Westerners to imagine that outreach to the supposed doves or liberals inside the regime will ameliorate its differences with the rest of the world. A sober look at the nature of this “opposition” and its goals ought to put an end to such foolishness.

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The New York Times devotes considerable space on its front page this morning to a fascinating rundown on the contest to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran. Though this will involve voting and attempts to gain popular support, as Ahmadinejad’s re-election proved in 2009, the Iranian electoral system should not be confused with democracy. Just as the Iranian president is actually subordinate to the grand ayatollah who functions as a permanent supreme leader in terms of governing, the choices and the outcome of the Iranian election are also subject to the dictates of the ruling cleric and his fellow ayatollahs. That doesn’t mean that the infighting within the regime is not significant or that it shouldn’t be monitored closely. The differences between Ahmadinejad and Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are, no doubt, quite real. But they ought not to be interpreted as a sign that the regime is in danger of falling or there is any significant divergence between them and their followers about keeping an Islamist government or maintaining the country’s dangerous nuclear ambitions.

But unfortunately that is probably the conclusion that many of the Times’s liberal readers will jump to after reading the piece since it brands Ahmadinejad and his faction as the “opposition” to the supreme leader. That may be true in the literal sense but, as even the article points out, that is the result of the fact that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei worked together to wipe out any real opposition to Islamist hegemony in 2009 as the United States stood silent. Like the Kremlinologists who spent decades trying to interpret the factions among the rulers of the Soviet Union before its fall, the point of much of the speculation about dissension among the ruling class in Iran is to try to throw cold water on policies intended to pressure the Islamist government. There is nothing wrong with keeping up on which of the tyrants of Tehran is gaining the upper hand on his colleagues. But the problem is that such discussions inevitably tempt Westerners to imagine that outreach to the supposed doves or liberals inside the regime will ameliorate its differences with the rest of the world. A sober look at the nature of this “opposition” and its goals ought to put an end to such foolishness.

Though, as the Times rightly notes, Ahmadinejad has not budged from the offensive positions that have made him an apt symbol of the aggressively anti-Semitic nature of the Iranian government, he has made a few small gestures that are being interpreted as shifts away from the regime’s Islamist fundamentalism. His public embrace of Hugo Chavez’s mother at the Venezuelan strongman’s funeral was seen as an astonishing break from the rigid separation of the sexes advocated by Iran.

The Times also reports that:

Despite his early advocacy of Islam’s role in daily affairs, the president is now positioning himself as a champion of citizens’ rights. …

In speeches, he favors the “nation” and the “people” over the “ummah,” or community of believers, a term preferred by Iran’s clerics, who constantly guard against any revival of pre-Islamic nationalism. He has also said he is ready for talks with the United States, something other Iranian leaders strongly oppose under current circumstances.

But all this probably has a lot more to do with his maneuverings to gain some leverage against Khamenei than any interest in democracy or even in fighting corruption, another theme he has sounded recently.

It is tempting to imagine that this dissension within the ranks of Tehran’s rulers can serve to loosen up a tyrannical regime or to make a deal with Iran over its nuclear program more likely. But it is important to remind those who succumb to such fantasies that this is, after all, the same Ahmadinejad who is the leading proponent of Holocaust denial in the world as well as the same man who has regularly threatened Israel with extinction and treated the country’s nuclear program as a personal cause to be defended at all costs.

The outcome of any struggle between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei cannot produce a more moderate Iran because both are radical Islamists for whom hatred of the West and of Jews is so integral to their worldview that it is inconceivable that either has the capacity to lead the country to a more rational approach. While it is arguable whether division inside Tehran helps increase Western leverage over the regime, the idea that America and its allies have any rooting interest in Ahmadinejad prevailing in this struggle is absurd.

The true danger here is not the likelihood that Khamenei will suppress any opposition so much as it is the possibility that Western governments, and in particular the United States, will be deceived into believing that strengthening Ahmadinejad will make Iran more democratic or less dangerous to its neighbors, Israel and the West. If President Obama is to make good on his repeated pledges never to allow Iran to gain a nuclear weapon, now is the time for greater pressure, not easing up on Iran in the hopes of helping Ahmadinejad’s “opposition.”

In past generations, there have always been those who clung to myths about missed U.S. opportunities to make friends with tyrants like Ho Chi Minh or Fidel Castro when in fact no such options were ever available. Just because some murderous tyrants sometimes quarrel with rivals for power doesn’t mean there is an opening for rapprochement with the West. That’s a lesson that some people never seem to learn.

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The Other Arab Spring?

Not all “Arab unrest” is equal. Consider these current headlines out of North Africa and try to spot the odd man out: “Libya’s south teeters toward chaos — and militant extremists,” “Egypt Takes Another Step Toward Autocracy—and Instability,” “Tunisia Sees Rising Jihadist Threat,” “Thousands march against Morocco government.” Chaos, autocracy, jihad, and … marching. Today in the Maghreb, where most populations are preyed upon either by unchecked authority or unchecked anarchy, Morocco is different. This is not an accident.

I was recently in Morocco, as a guest of its Institute of African Studies, and the point most Moroccans tried hardest to impress upon me was that their country is fundamentally unlike the failing and convulsed states around it.

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Not all “Arab unrest” is equal. Consider these current headlines out of North Africa and try to spot the odd man out: “Libya’s south teeters toward chaos — and militant extremists,” “Egypt Takes Another Step Toward Autocracy—and Instability,” “Tunisia Sees Rising Jihadist Threat,” “Thousands march against Morocco government.” Chaos, autocracy, jihad, and … marching. Today in the Maghreb, where most populations are preyed upon either by unchecked authority or unchecked anarchy, Morocco is different. This is not an accident.

I was recently in Morocco, as a guest of its Institute of African Studies, and the point most Moroccans tried hardest to impress upon me was that their country is fundamentally unlike the failing and convulsed states around it.

And so it is. The kingdom has a functioning parliamentary system. And in 2011, responding to the sentiments unleashed by the Arab Spring, King Mohamed VI held a referendum on the country’s constitution. The resulting document calls for greater participation of elected parties and a Moroccan prime minister. It also newly enumerates a welcome assortment of rights and freedoms. A large-scale decentralization effort is underway to transfer various responsibilities from the king to elected bodies around the country. Whether the diffusion of power will be mostly genuine or cosmetic, continuous or stalled, remains to be seen. But Morocco is certainly not Libya or Egypt or Tunisia.

Mohamed VI appears to be a sincere reformer but he is undoubtedly a savvy king. Expanding the space for consensual governance was the best way to preserve the monarchy. A quick glance around the region tells you all you need to know about rulers who swam against the spring tide. And in truth, Morocco’s previous king, the far tougher Hassan II, began a program of very modest reform in the 1990s, long before Arab tweeters celebrated their flash-mob “victory” in Tahrir Square. So today Moroccans occasionally march, in small and peaceful numbers. It is a blessing that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

But while Moroccan achievement deserves praise, it’s no guarantee of long-term stability or moderation. On this, it was my turn to impress the point upon several Moroccans. The topic came up in regard to the Justice and Development Party (PJD), the largest party in parliament and that of the Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane. PJD, you see, is Islamist. And while some Moroccans expressed concern about what PJD members would do if they came to office in future local elections, most were quick to point out that the king and the constitution simply render authentic political Islam a non-starter. Additionally, PJD is widely understood to be that ever-elusive, quasi-mythic giant squid of Middle Eastern affairs—a moderate Islamist party. 

It’s true that in my limited travels I witnessed a good deal of modern and indulgent living, and the Islamists in office cast no shadow on the day-to-day affairs of those with whom I came into contact. I saw many accomplished, uncovered women drinking alcohol and spied only a handful of dour men with fanned beards.

But “It can’t happen here” is an insufficient credo for any people anywhere. It undermines vigilance. And Morocco’s wonders notwithstanding, liberal Moroccans can’t afford to be complacent. The world has yet to see a self-described moderate Islamist party hold to its vow of moderation over the long term. Moreover, within Morocco’s diverse human mosaic reside hundreds of thousands of decidedly non-moderate Islamists. These are the members or associates of the organization Justice and Charity. Unlike PJD, Justice and Charity is non-political. But it wasn’t so long ago that we were assured the Muslim Brotherhood had no designs on the Egyptian presidency.

Historically, the appeal of political Islam owes much to the absence of other compelling political ideas. I thought of this when a Moroccan women’s rights champion explained to me that in her country “politics isn’t connected to values. Politics is about power.” When every other party’s platform is as inspiring as an NFL team playbook, the sincerity and purpose of the Islamists’ can shine in comparison.

This is all to say that King Mohamed VI is threading the eye of an unforgiving needle. He must proceed with democratic decentralization quickly and blatantly enough to satisfy a reform-minded public, but not so recklessly as to give newly empowered parties the means to undermine the largely moderate nature of Morocco.

In the context of the Arab Spring, Barack Obama has talked often about the need for democratic change to come from within a given country. He’s articulated his preference for reform over revolution and has pledged to stand by leaders who show a willingness to move forward on human rights issues. It would seem, therefore, that the president should take a special interest in Morocco.

The most compelling case for American involvement in Morocco, however, rests on national security. For the United States, conflicts in Northern Africa largely go unnoticed—before manifesting as unignorable crises. One such conflict now festers in the Western Sahara and could soon become explosive. Tens of thousands of refugees reside in bare-bones camps in the Algerian town of Tindouf. The camps are controlled by the Polisario Front, an Algerian backed leftist group opposed to Moroccan control of the Western Sahara. That the camps are reportedly run like huge cruel prisons might evoke some Western sympathy. But that they have also reportedly become a recruiting grounds for al-Qaeda-linked groups should spur the United States to action.

As it happens, the action called for is of the very type Obama favors: non-military diplomacy based on mutual compromise. In 2007, Morocco proposed an autonomy plan for the Western Sahara. Broadly speaking, if agreed to, autonomy would mean Western Saharans could govern themselves within the framework of the Moroccan constitution, and the Polisario camps would disappear. American officials have contented themselves with voicing support for the initiative. But without active diplomatic action from the United States it’s doubtful the Polisario and Algeria will take the proposal seriously.  

There’s no guarantee that the application of American diplomacy would bring the decades-old conflict to an end. But with some 50,000 nothing-to-lose desert refugees ripe for jihadist indoctrination, it’s hard to see the downside. Of course, the U.S. can always remain on the sidelines for another Mali- or Algeria-type conflagration to emerge and then watch as our allies try to put it out. Don’t assume, however, that we’ll always have Paris.

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Everyone Still Doesn’t Know What Everyone Supposedly Knows

Earlier this week, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) released a new poll of 1,270 Palestinians. The Jerusalem Post highlighted one of the findings: “poll finds 55% support two-state solution.” The PCPSR has been releasing these polls since 2003, and they always lead to misleading headlines such as the one in the Jerusalem Post–because a “two-state solution” as used in the polls doesn’t mean what you think it means.

In addition to polling whether Palestinians support a two-state solution in general, the PCPSR polls the support for a two-state solution modeled on the Clinton Parameters, described by the PCPSR as involving the following: 

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Earlier this week, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) released a new poll of 1,270 Palestinians. The Jerusalem Post highlighted one of the findings: “poll finds 55% support two-state solution.” The PCPSR has been releasing these polls since 2003, and they always lead to misleading headlines such as the one in the Jerusalem Post–because a “two-state solution” as used in the polls doesn’t mean what you think it means.

In addition to polling whether Palestinians support a two-state solution in general, the PCPSR polls the support for a two-state solution modeled on the Clinton Parameters, described by the PCPSR as involving the following: 

(1) an Israeli withdrawal from more than 97 percent of the West Bank, with a land swap for the other 3 percent; (2) a Palestinian state with a “strong security force” (but no army), and a multinational force; (3) sovereignty over land, water, and airspace, but Israeli use of airspace for training and retention of two West Bank early-warning stations for 15 years; (4) a capital in East Jerusalem, including all Arab neighborhoods and the entire Old City, except the Jewish Quarter and the “Wailing Wall”; and (5) a “right of return” for refugees to the new state of Palestine (with compensation for “refugeehood”). 

In the January 2013 PCPSR poll, only 43% supported that solution. 

Moreover, in every poll PCPSR poll since 2005, that package has failed to generate Palestinian majority support. While a slight majority of Palestinians may support a two-state solution in the abstract, what they mean is a militarized Palestinian state, next to an Israel pushed back to indefensible borders, with retention of an asserted Palestinian “right of return” to Israel. Such a state would “live side by side, in peace and security”® with Israel for about a week–the period it took to turn Gaza into Hamastan after Israel left in 2005. The new PCPSR poll also found that “only 42% support and 56% oppose mutual recognition of Israel as the state for the Jewish people and Palestine as the state for the Palestinian people.” In other words, the Palestinians want a state, but not if it involves recognition of a Jewish one. 

Israel is constantly warned it will eventually be faced with a demand for a “one-state solution” if it does not make the concession du jour to the Palestinians, but the January PCPSR poll found that “despite the belief that the two-state solution is no longer practical, a large majority of 71% opposes the alternative one-state solution” (emphasis added). That is not surprising: the peace-partner Palestinians demand a Judenrein state in Judea and Samaria; the last thing they want is to be in a state with Jews in it. Fatah and Hamas cannot even live side-by-side with themselves. 

It was obvious in 2008 that the assertion that “everyone knows” what a peace agreement entails was false. It was obvious in 2010 that “everyone” did not know what “everyone” supposedly knew. It is obvious today, confirmed again by the PCPSR polls. Perhaps we should stop relying on polls to gauge Palestinian readiness for peace. We will know the Palestinians are ready when they start educating their children for peace; when their media stops demonizing Jews and puts Israel on their maps; when their leaders give a Bir Zeit speech to match Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan one; and when they are able to hold an election in which the person making the speech is elected. 

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