Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 10, 2013

Deft Wall Compromise Will Never Happen

Natan Sharansky was asked by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to come up with a solution to a seemingly intractable dispute over the right of non-Orthodox Jews to hold egalitarian services at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. To the surprise of no one who has followed the career of a man who has embodied both integrity and principle since his days as a Prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Union, the head of the Jewish Agency did not fob off the assignment by coming up with a plan for further study or some other tactic for avoiding the controversy. Instead, he actually produced a proposal that would end the Orthodox monopoly over the national shrine by calling for the expansion of the Western Wall Plaza to encompass the little used section known as Robinson’s Arch, where non-Orthodox services could be held without harassment or police interference.

It’s a brilliant idea, but there’s only one problem with it. Even if, as expected, Netanyahu endorses the project, the chances of it being implemented are about as close to zero as you can imagine. It’s not just that the Orthodox establishment will cry foul and use all of their influence to ensure that it never happens. Nor will the enormous cost of such a scheme be the primary obstacle. Instead it will be a group that seemingly has no skin in the game over who controls the Kotel that will spike a plan that could go a long way toward promoting Jewish unity. Anyone who thinks the Muslim religious authorities who control the Temple Mount will consent to a course of action that will involve construction around the area and moving the ramp that allows access to the area isn’t thinking clearly.

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Natan Sharansky was asked by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to come up with a solution to a seemingly intractable dispute over the right of non-Orthodox Jews to hold egalitarian services at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. To the surprise of no one who has followed the career of a man who has embodied both integrity and principle since his days as a Prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Union, the head of the Jewish Agency did not fob off the assignment by coming up with a plan for further study or some other tactic for avoiding the controversy. Instead, he actually produced a proposal that would end the Orthodox monopoly over the national shrine by calling for the expansion of the Western Wall Plaza to encompass the little used section known as Robinson’s Arch, where non-Orthodox services could be held without harassment or police interference.

It’s a brilliant idea, but there’s only one problem with it. Even if, as expected, Netanyahu endorses the project, the chances of it being implemented are about as close to zero as you can imagine. It’s not just that the Orthodox establishment will cry foul and use all of their influence to ensure that it never happens. Nor will the enormous cost of such a scheme be the primary obstacle. Instead it will be a group that seemingly has no skin in the game over who controls the Kotel that will spike a plan that could go a long way toward promoting Jewish unity. Anyone who thinks the Muslim religious authorities who control the Temple Mount will consent to a course of action that will involve construction around the area and moving the ramp that allows access to the area isn’t thinking clearly.

Sharansky’s proposal calls for creating a space for prayer along the remnant of the Second Temple that will reportedly allow the egalitarian movements an area that is around the same space devoted to the existing men’s and women’s sections in the Wall Plaza. The Women of the Wall, a non-Orthodox group whose members wear prayer shawls and read from the Torah, have faced harassment and expulsion by the police from the women’s section of the Wall, which is operated as if it were an Orthodox synagogue rather than a national shrine for all Jews.

As Haaretz reports:

Under the proposal, sources said, the area now known as Robinson’s Arch on the southern end of the Wall will be greatly expanded to create a prayer space roughly equivalent to the existing men’s and women’s sections. Egalitarian prayer is currently permitted at the Arch, which is an archaeological site, but that prayer is only available at limited times and with an entrance fee. The expectation is that the enlarged space would be free and open around the clock, as the Kotel is now, but that could not be confirmed.

The plan also calls for the plaza surrounding the Wall to expand, so that visitors approaching the site in the Old City could clearly chose between praying at the egalitarian section, or the existing sections reserved only for men and for women. Still under discussion is governance of the new prayer area, but several sources said that they thought it would be run by something other than the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the ultra-Orthodox organization that currently controls the Kotel.

This would create a sense of equality for all Jewish denominations at the Wall even though few Israelis support the Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist movements. This would have to proceed despite what will be furious Orthodox complaints and the likelihood of demonstrations and other disruptions by Haredim who may see this as a chance to exercise their not-inconsiderable clout in the capital. However, the absence of the ultra-Orthodox political parties in the current Israeli government may give Sharansky the room to get it approved by the Cabinet.

Finding the money for the new Wall section may be difficult in a time of government budget cuts, but given a will to see this through on Netanyahu’s part and the likelihood that some of the funds for it could be raised in the Diaspora, cash won’t be the primary obstacle.

But anyone who has any memory of the reaction of Muslims to the seemingly inoffensive opening of an entrance to the Western Wall tunnels in 1996 (during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister) knows that it is the Wakf that has the ultimate veto power over the idea.

Though the Wakf has been accused, with good reason, of conducting what is for all intents and purposes a campaign of vandalism on the site of the ancient Jewish temples, it has treated any construction in and around the Kotel as a plot to undermine the Temple Mount. Dozens were killed in rioting when Netanyahu authorized the opening of an entrance to the tunnels. Since then, similar threats have prevented any repair of the ramp leading to the Temple Mount even though Israel’s plans to do so would have primarily benefited the Wakf and non-Jews, since Jews are prohibited from praying there (the one exception to the policy of free access for all faiths at the holy places under Israeli rule in Jerusalem).

The idea that the Wakf will simply allow Israel to move the ramp or rebuild it in such a manner as to prevent it from dividing the sections of the Wall is a fantasy. So, too, is the idea that Netanyahu would risk such violence merely in order to placate the Women of the Wall or a Diaspora that is disgusted by the way the Orthodox govern the Kotel.

All of which is to say that Sharansky might as well have punted on the project. In the meantime, the best we can hope for is that the Orthodox authorities will back off a bit and leave the Women of the Wall alone if they try and pray in the women’s section. In a perfect world, a new and expanded Kotel Plaza might solve the problem. But as we all know, Israel does not exist in a perfect world.

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Obama Embraces Bibi’s “Economic Peace”

The cycle of Western involvement in the peace process usually involves Benjamin Netanyahu proposing an idea, the West rejecting it, trying and failing its own way, and then quietly proposing Netanyahu’s idea while pretending they came up with it. It was certainly that way with the concept of a peace deal built around a land-swap–which Netanyahu proposed in his first premiership during the Clinton administration only to have Clinton ignore him. The land-swap idea eventually became central to final-status negotiations.

The Obama administration may be about to repeat the pattern with regard to Netanyahu’s commonsense–and therefore much maligned–“economic peace.” The concept centers on the fact that since the two sides have not been able to make much progress on the traditional negotiating track, steps could be taken to go around official channels and improve the daily lives of Palestinians. Netanyahu hadn’t received any help from the Obama administration or the government of Mahmoud Abbas to take such action, so he reached out to the Jordanians and worked to encourage foreign investment in the West Bank on his own. It wasn’t just a theory, either; as Daniel Doron wrote in 2011, the concept of “economic peace” is the only strategy with a proven track record of success:

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The cycle of Western involvement in the peace process usually involves Benjamin Netanyahu proposing an idea, the West rejecting it, trying and failing its own way, and then quietly proposing Netanyahu’s idea while pretending they came up with it. It was certainly that way with the concept of a peace deal built around a land-swap–which Netanyahu proposed in his first premiership during the Clinton administration only to have Clinton ignore him. The land-swap idea eventually became central to final-status negotiations.

The Obama administration may be about to repeat the pattern with regard to Netanyahu’s commonsense–and therefore much maligned–“economic peace.” The concept centers on the fact that since the two sides have not been able to make much progress on the traditional negotiating track, steps could be taken to go around official channels and improve the daily lives of Palestinians. Netanyahu hadn’t received any help from the Obama administration or the government of Mahmoud Abbas to take such action, so he reached out to the Jordanians and worked to encourage foreign investment in the West Bank on his own. It wasn’t just a theory, either; as Daniel Doron wrote in 2011, the concept of “economic peace” is the only strategy with a proven track record of success:

For the first 20 years of its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza—from the 1967 war to the 1987 intifada—Israel generally followed a laissez-faire economic policy in the territories. It kept open bridges with Jordan and did not interfere in Palestinians’ internal affairs. Israel’s maintenance of law and order facilitated rapid economic growth, and its introduction of technical innovations revolutionized Palestinian farming. Crowds of Israelis ate and shopped in Arab towns and markets. During this time, the real income of Palestinians nearly quadrupled. Enhanced wealth created social mobility, loosening the grip of clan and family. Education levels rose, and so did health levels. Palestinian women were the greatest beneficiaries of these changes.

There were remarkably few terrorist attacks during this period. The few that happened were mostly perpetrated by Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) hirelings. Not that the Palestinians were enamored of Israeli occupation: No one likes an occupation. But, realizing the economic benefits it had brought them, many Palestinians found the occupation a lesser evil than oppressive Jordanian and Egyptian rule.

The first intifada brought an end to the goodwill, and the Oslo process empowered Yasir Arafat. The terrorist Arafat needed Palestinian misery to justify his transformation of the Palestinian polity in his image, and so he wasted no time bringing about such misery.

The Oslo process put an end to the hopes of the actual Palestinian moderates by ludicrously applying the label to the murderous Arafat and his henchmen. Israel’s repeated attempts to make peace with Arafat’s thugs were met with a second intifada destined to be more violent than the first. That’s the legacy of those who shunned economic peace in favor of symbolic and pound-foolish handshaking ceremonies in front of the cameras.

Though Netanyahu’s penchant for historical lecturing irks those who think he’s talking down to them, perhaps what really bothers them is that they prefer their mythmaking not be undercut by the historical record. Even those who favored then, and who still favor now, the discredited Oslo strategy should at least be willing to admit the obvious humanitarian appeal of “economic peace” initiatives. But when Netanyahu first announced this track, Fadle Naqib, then director of the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute, told Bitterlemons that it “contains an element of racism.” That is, Palestinian economic professionals rejected proposals to improve the Palestinian economy and the quality of life of Palestinians in the West Bank on the basis that suggestions that Palestinians may want the living standards enjoyed by their neighbors was nothing more than cultural bias.

But Netanyahu has always understood that such attitudes go a long way toward making real peace impossible. When the New York Times Magazine recently published a cover article calling for a new intifada against Israel, it focused on a village leader in Nabi Saleh who has a no-show job from the Palestinian Authority and uses his free time to agitate against Israel. Anyone who thinks such a system of governance can foster an atmosphere of peace is delusional.

If the offer of improved living standards bothered people like Naqib when they came from Netanyahu, just imagine how furious they are going to be when they read today’s Wall Street Journal:

The Obama administration is mapping out an economic strategy in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank, using both U.S. government funds and private-sector involvement, in a bid to restart direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians….

The Obama administration is betting that economic improvements will encourage Palestinians to view peace talks positively. It plans to pair the investment with a focus on allowing greater freedom of movement by Palestinians throughout the West Bank and an easing of Israeli restrictions on business.

Obama may not like Netanyahu’s history lessons, but it does appear the president is finally listening.

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Harvard’s Unbalanced Middle East Program

A former colleague alerted me to this item, a book talk tonight being sponsored by Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative:

Book Talk: Brokers of Deceit

Wednesday, April 10, 6:00-7:00pm

A conversation with Rashid Khalidi about his new book: Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East. Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University.

This event will be moderated by Stephen Walt, Robert and Renee Professor of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School.

Location: Bell Hall, 5th Floor, Belfer Building, Harvard Kennedy School

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A former colleague alerted me to this item, a book talk tonight being sponsored by Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative:

Book Talk: Brokers of Deceit

Wednesday, April 10, 6:00-7:00pm

A conversation with Rashid Khalidi about his new book: Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East. Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University.

This event will be moderated by Stephen Walt, Robert and Renee Professor of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School.

Location: Bell Hall, 5th Floor, Belfer Building, Harvard Kennedy School

Now, make no mistake: Harvard University has every right to sponsor such a talk. Free speech, however, does not excuse imbalance and poor scholarship. Both Rashid Khalidi—a Columbia University professor and former PLO spokesman—and Stephen Walt have, in recent years, substituted polemic for research, sought to score political points by massaging facts to fit theses, and otherwise undercut basic standards of academic integrity.

Tonight’s book talk could be valuable if Harvard—true to its embrace of veritas, truth—encouraged a real debate with professors who hold different views. Hagiography should have no place in the university. Alas, it seems increasingly the most prestigious academic institutions are most reluctant to encourage broad debate in which professors and guests directly challenge each other’s ideas. That was why just over a year ago, Harvard University blessed a remarkably one-sided conference on the region. Any professor with an iota of self-confidence in the quality of his work should not fear challenge. If this event is an indicator, Harvard’s Middle East Initiative has become more interested in indoctrination than education.

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Remembering Iraq’s Liberation Without Revisionism

Because yesterday marked the 10th anniversary of Baghdad’s fall, it is useful to revisit some of the first news reports to emerge from that city, if for no other reason than to remind people that sometimes Washington spin is not accurate. People disparage many supporters of Iraq’s liberation for predicting that Iraqis would greet Americans as liberators, with flowers and candy. That did happen, however. Here, for example, is the Daily Record, from April 10, 2003:

Even the regime’s mouthpiece-in-chief, the cool and cocksure information minister, was nowhere to be seen or heard. Ten days ago, when the war still looked like a contest, Iraq’s deputy premier poured scorn on claims that civilians would greet Allied troops with flowers. Baghdad’s people rammed Tariq Aziz’s sneers down his throat. Hundreds threw bouquets at US tanks as they rumbled through the city. Mothers held up babies for soldiers to kiss. Kids reached out to touch the tanks. The fact of their freedom was hard for many Iraqis to accept. Millions have lived their whole lives under a regime where it was a crime to throw away a newspaper, because Saddam’s face was always on the front page. Some stayed in their homes, astounded and still afraid. But others poured on to the streets to celebrate.

And here is The Boston Globe, from the same day:

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Because yesterday marked the 10th anniversary of Baghdad’s fall, it is useful to revisit some of the first news reports to emerge from that city, if for no other reason than to remind people that sometimes Washington spin is not accurate. People disparage many supporters of Iraq’s liberation for predicting that Iraqis would greet Americans as liberators, with flowers and candy. That did happen, however. Here, for example, is the Daily Record, from April 10, 2003:

Even the regime’s mouthpiece-in-chief, the cool and cocksure information minister, was nowhere to be seen or heard. Ten days ago, when the war still looked like a contest, Iraq’s deputy premier poured scorn on claims that civilians would greet Allied troops with flowers. Baghdad’s people rammed Tariq Aziz’s sneers down his throat. Hundreds threw bouquets at US tanks as they rumbled through the city. Mothers held up babies for soldiers to kiss. Kids reached out to touch the tanks. The fact of their freedom was hard for many Iraqis to accept. Millions have lived their whole lives under a regime where it was a crime to throw away a newspaper, because Saddam’s face was always on the front page. Some stayed in their homes, astounded and still afraid. But others poured on to the streets to celebrate.

And here is The Boston Globe, from the same day:

“We have control of Baghdad,” declared Colonel Daniel Allyn, commander of Third Brigade, Third Infantry Division. Lieutenant Colonel John Charlton, who commands a tank and infantry task force, advanced yesterday morning into a neighborhood near the Mother of All Battles mosque, where he had expected to find stiff resistance. Instead, Charlton said, his troops found hundreds of smiling, cheering Baghdad residents. “We came in ready to attack with a tank company and an infantry company,” Charlton said. “Instead, it was a celebration. “The civilians all came out and were overjoyed to see us,” said Charlton, 43, of Spokane, Wash. “I was surprised that a lot of them spoke English and had relatives in the United States. They were thanking us for our help and denouncing Saddam and the regime.” Residents, Charlton said, were helping the troops locate ammunition caches and hideouts. Still, for some US soldiers in Baghdad, the continuing dangers remained more vivid than any celebration. Rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and small-arms fire continued to bedevil some US forces, and Allyn predicted that Ba’ath Party and Fedayeen guerrillas would remain a problem for an indefinite period. “People are giving Cokes and candy to soldiers, but only 100 meters away, someone is taking a pot-shot at them,” Allyn said.

As Allyn says, the situation was nuanced. But to suggest that Iraqis did not cheer their liberation was nonsense.

Likewise, many revisionists suggest that the United States got it flat-out wrong when it came to Saddam Hussein hosting terror training camps. Take, for example, Salman Pak, a town 15 miles south of Baghdad which reportedly housed an airplane in which terrorists would practice. Many revisionists dismissed the claims in the wake of Iraq’s liberation. Here is the account of The Australian on April 7, 2003 from a battle at Salman Pak:

“Some of these fighters come from Sudan, Egypt, other places, and we have killed a number of them and captured a number of them,” Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks told a briefing at US Central Command in Qatar last night. There was evidence of military “training activities” inside Iraq that “show the links between Iraq and external terrorist groups”. Brigadier-General Brooks said a raid was carried out on Saturday night on facilities at Salman Pak “in response to information gained from foreign fighters, not Iraqis”.  “We believe this complex was used to train foreign fighters,” he said. “It is now destroyed. The nature of the work being done by some of those we captured … gives us the impression there was training going on at Salman Pak.” Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudis and Syrians were fighting alongside Iraqi troops against US forces moving on Baghdad, using tactics including suicide bombings that left two Marines dead, other US officers said earlier yesterday. One with the 1st Marine Division said US troops fought a 10-hour battle with hundreds of such fighters southeast of Baghdad on Friday. “We were ambushed twice and there were four suicide car bombings against tanks,” the officer said. “There were nine casualties, including two Marines killed.” The officer said initial contact was with 150 black-clad fighters but by the end of the battle, about midnight, 300 to 400 of the enemy had been killed. “They kept bringing them in by the busload,” he said. “It’s a whole conglomerate of Islamic freedom fighters.”

Perhaps, however, those black-clad Syrians, Saudis, and other jihadis were just conducting counter-terrorism training on the mock-up airplane fuselage, as some Senate Democrats suggested. Occam’s Razor would suggest otherwise.

The problem in Iraq was not liberation—no one should ever apologize for liberating 20 million-plus Iraqis, nor should they apologize for not restoring dictatorship. Iraqis have had their chance and—more than 10 years on—they appear to be progressing, the whining from some of those former Baathists now dispossessed of national power notwithstanding. Rather, it was the ill-considered decision to occupy the country and expend billions of dollars on ineffective development. Projects may sound grand on paper, but they merely fed a plague of corruption from which Iraq has yet to emerge. Historians must be honest, however. Perhaps as the initial reports suggest, the problem was not freedom but rather the subsequent decision to feed the Washington bureaucratic beast on the backs of Iraqis.

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Note to Weiner: NYC Isn’t South Carolina

As Seth notes, Anthony Weiner’s hopes for a comeback got a major boost from a sympathetic profile in this coming Sunday’s New York Times Magazine that was made available online this morning. There is plenty of material in the piece that should make readers squirm as the hopelessly adrift Weiner tries to worm his way back into the good graces of the public by talking about how he has made amends with his wife Huma Abedin after his astonishing sexting scandal. Yet Weiner is calculating that the creation of what he calls a “second narrative” via his friends in the liberal press can not only begin his rehabilitation but actually him elect him mayor of New York City this year. With millions in his campaign war chest and a weak field, Seth’s optimistic evaluation of his chances seems reasonable. After all, if former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford can be on his way back to Congress after a scandal that involved actual, rather than virtual, infidelity, then why can’t Weiner do as well with the presumably far less moralistic electorate of the Big Apple?

It’s true that, as the Times feature shows, Weiner can count on the sympathy of the mainstream media, has a huge campaign war chest and the current frontrunner for mayor—City Council Speaker Christine Quinn—is a relatively weak candidate who can’t count on much support outside of Manhattan. But Weiner may be miscalculating if he thinks he can pull off the same trick as Sanford. New Yorkers may not be as prudish as the rest of the country about sex, but I think they are far less likely to buy into a redemption campaign.

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As Seth notes, Anthony Weiner’s hopes for a comeback got a major boost from a sympathetic profile in this coming Sunday’s New York Times Magazine that was made available online this morning. There is plenty of material in the piece that should make readers squirm as the hopelessly adrift Weiner tries to worm his way back into the good graces of the public by talking about how he has made amends with his wife Huma Abedin after his astonishing sexting scandal. Yet Weiner is calculating that the creation of what he calls a “second narrative” via his friends in the liberal press can not only begin his rehabilitation but actually him elect him mayor of New York City this year. With millions in his campaign war chest and a weak field, Seth’s optimistic evaluation of his chances seems reasonable. After all, if former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford can be on his way back to Congress after a scandal that involved actual, rather than virtual, infidelity, then why can’t Weiner do as well with the presumably far less moralistic electorate of the Big Apple?

It’s true that, as the Times feature shows, Weiner can count on the sympathy of the mainstream media, has a huge campaign war chest and the current frontrunner for mayor—City Council Speaker Christine Quinn—is a relatively weak candidate who can’t count on much support outside of Manhattan. But Weiner may be miscalculating if he thinks he can pull off the same trick as Sanford. New Yorkers may not be as prudish as the rest of the country about sex, but I think they are far less likely to buy into a redemption campaign.

Sanford may still wind up losing a safe congressional seat for the Republicans in the general election after his primary win. But even if we assume that he will be returned to Congress, it needs to be understood that his appeal is predicated on the existence of a large group of voters who are moralistic enough to be disgusted by his behavior but religious enough to be deeply affected by his talk of asking for God’s forgiveness.

While there are plenty of religious Christians in New York, as well as lots of observant Jews, the sort of redemption tactic Sanford is trying to employ in South Carolina won’t wash there. Instead, Weiner must convince voters that: a. his transgression was no big deal; b. he’s really sorry about it; and c. he’s still the best candidate for the job of mayor. His chances of selling them on “a” and “c” seem fair. But the sorry part may lead to an unfortunate discussion that Sanford’s religious psychodrama has avoided.

Absent the faith-driven grace that Sanford is extracting from his voters, all Weiner is left with is his own repellent personality. While New Yorkers may have not cared much about him being, in Seth’s admirable phrase, “a geyser of spite and malice” prior to the incident because he was competent, the “ick” factor that stems from his sending pictures of his private parts to strangers lingers. South Carolinians may forgive Sanford for being a sinner, but what Weiner needs is for a city full of cynical, tough-minded New Yorkers to forget that he made a laughingstock of himself. Being a fool for love, as Sanford proved to be, is one thing. Being a fool on the Internet is another. The notion that Christians must forgive the repentant won’t win any elections in the five boroughs.

Let’s also remember one crucial aspect of these two scandals. Sanford’s “Appalachian Trail” fibs were pathetic but once his affair was made public, he owned up to it. Weiner’s problems stemmed not only from his bizarre behavior (which is still harder for people to understand than falling for a South American beauty) but his aggressive lies about it in the weeks that led up to his resignation from Congress two years ago.

The Times’s puffy profile of Weiner had many flaws, but none was as bad as the fact that it failed to discuss just how “beefy” he got with reporters. The piece didn’t mention Weiner’s slandering of the late Andrew Breitbart when he falsely claimed that the conservative journalist “hacked” his Twitter account. While opponents will probably stay away from the sexting, his brazen lies and bullying of the press won’t be forgotten.

Contrary to his own evaluation in which he believes he must come back now or give up all hope, I think he might have done better to start another career and return only after showing some success in another field. But the Anthony Weiner portrayed in the Times is a desperate man. Having never held an honest job in his life, he is ill-equipped to face life after politics and clings to the hope of a comeback in no small measure because he can’t imagine doing anything else. Neither can his wife or anyone else. Indeed, it’s clear that right now his only options are a return to his former career as a guttersnipe politician or remaining home playing “Mr. Mom” while Abedin plots Hillary Clinton’s next political move. It’s hard to see that desperation playing well with a New York audience that prizes competence and toughness.

Weiner always liked to pose as the quintessential New Yorker, but his problem may be that he’s simply appealing to the wrong constituency. For all of the contempt that he often displayed for the hicks in the rest of the country, he’d probably be better off trying to win their love than attempting to do so in his hometown. Perhaps I’m prejudiced about the citizens of my native city, but my guess is that New Yorkers aren’t going to buy Weiner’s second act.

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What is the Kerry Doctrine?

The record of any senator—be they Democratic or Republican—is often at contradiction with itself for a number of reasons: The sheer number of votes cast; the bundling of unrelated issues into a single bill; and the tendency of senators to vote more upon poll numbers than principle. John Kerry typified this in his 2004 presidential run when he explained he was for the Iraq war before he was against it.

As secretary of state, Kerry may already be defining his legacy. Alas, it appears to prioritize the superficial over the substantive. His early travels—which come despite demands for better management back home—suggests Kerry wants to set the record for secretarial travel, rather than craft–let alone preside over–a coherent strategy.

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The record of any senator—be they Democratic or Republican—is often at contradiction with itself for a number of reasons: The sheer number of votes cast; the bundling of unrelated issues into a single bill; and the tendency of senators to vote more upon poll numbers than principle. John Kerry typified this in his 2004 presidential run when he explained he was for the Iraq war before he was against it.

As secretary of state, Kerry may already be defining his legacy. Alas, it appears to prioritize the superficial over the substantive. His early travels—which come despite demands for better management back home—suggests Kerry wants to set the record for secretarial travel, rather than craft–let alone preside over–a coherent strategy.

Now, there are signs that when confronted with a diplomatic problem, Kerry would rather sweep it under the rug to preserve the optics of success, rather than tackling the substance of the problem. Hence, the “compromise” in which Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will delay his visit to the Gaza Strip until after he meets with President Obama at the White House on May 9.

“Erdoğan’s statement came a few days after he met U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Istanbul. Kerry advised the Turkish side to reconsider the timing of the prime minister’s planned visit to Gaza,” Hürriyet Daily News reported.

Erdoğan does not support the Palestinian Authority per se, but rather is a partisan of Hamas. While many U.S. diplomats are prone to describing Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a moderate Muslim movement, the fact remains that the AKP and Hamas share the same Muslim Brotherhood roots. U.S. policy opposes bolstering Hamas, as Hamas’s rejectionism not only surpasses that of the Palestinian Authority, but also because Hamas refuses to recognize any of the diplomatic agreements with Israel which the Palestinian Authority have already signed. Erdoğan, however, seeks not peace but populism regardless of its impact on regional security.

Kerry—and Obama—might have told Erdoğan to decide whether he wants the meeting with President Obama, or if he wants to tour the Gaza Strip. He shouldn’t get both. Kerry’s compromise, however, is simply to ask Erdoğan to delay his rejectionism by a couple weeks so that the Obama team need not deal with the reality of their partner. So what is the Kerry doctrine? Alas, it appears it is to log as many miles as possible while simultaneously using slight-of-hand to avoid the tough work of diplomacy.

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The Media Can’t Bury McConnellgate

Is it ever okay to bug an opponent’s political headquarters? Even those who are too young to remember what happened when officials connected with Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign unleashed an incompetent band of dirty tricksters on the offices of the Democratic National Committee in Washington’s Watergate complex, one would think the answer to that question is an emphatic no. While the Watergate scandal may have been more about the cover up than the crime, the line crossed by Nixon’s henchmen has always appeared to be a bright line that no one—not even liberals who can generally count on favorable media treatment—dare cross in this country. Yet someone or some group may have done so in Kentucky, and if that explanation of what happened at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Louisville office holds up what follows will be an interesting test of the media’s integrity.

The provenance of the tape of a discussion during a meeting between the senator and his campaign aides at his office is currently unknown. Since this was not a fundraiser held at someone’s home where guests or waiters could have taped the remarks—as was the case when President Obama was taped talking about Americans clinging to their bibles and guns or when Mitt Romney dropped his “47 percent” bomb on his own campaign—there are only two possible explanations for the tape. One is that one of the senator’s high-level aides made the tape and sent it to Mother Jones magazine. The other is that one of the senator’s political opponents was running their own version of Watergate and found a way to bug his private conversations. While one cannot exclude the possibility that the former is the case, it seems unlikely. If the latter is true, then we’re going to find out whether liberals can get away with the sort of thing for which they once took down Tricky Dick.

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Is it ever okay to bug an opponent’s political headquarters? Even those who are too young to remember what happened when officials connected with Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign unleashed an incompetent band of dirty tricksters on the offices of the Democratic National Committee in Washington’s Watergate complex, one would think the answer to that question is an emphatic no. While the Watergate scandal may have been more about the cover up than the crime, the line crossed by Nixon’s henchmen has always appeared to be a bright line that no one—not even liberals who can generally count on favorable media treatment—dare cross in this country. Yet someone or some group may have done so in Kentucky, and if that explanation of what happened at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Louisville office holds up what follows will be an interesting test of the media’s integrity.

The provenance of the tape of a discussion during a meeting between the senator and his campaign aides at his office is currently unknown. Since this was not a fundraiser held at someone’s home where guests or waiters could have taped the remarks—as was the case when President Obama was taped talking about Americans clinging to their bibles and guns or when Mitt Romney dropped his “47 percent” bomb on his own campaign—there are only two possible explanations for the tape. One is that one of the senator’s high-level aides made the tape and sent it to Mother Jones magazine. The other is that one of the senator’s political opponents was running their own version of Watergate and found a way to bug his private conversations. While one cannot exclude the possibility that the former is the case, it seems unlikely. If the latter is true, then we’re going to find out whether liberals can get away with the sort of thing for which they once took down Tricky Dick.

Liberal talking heads are trying to pooh-pooh Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s complaint that the left has engaged in dirty tricks against him and are instead trying to divert public attention to whether it was appropriate for a politician and his advisors to discuss in private whether a potential opponent’s record could be against her. The opponent was, of course, actress Ashley Judd, who at the time of the conversation was actively considering challenging McConnell.

According to this view of the incident, we are supposed to be shocked and outraged that a senior legislator would sit and listen as his aides happily contemplated doing opposition research against a rival. To say that McConnell’s people were confident they could take down Judd is an understatement. The phrase that one person in the conversation uses to describe how easy it would be to find foolish statements by Judd—“a haystack of needles”—will, no doubt, enter the country’s political lexicon regardless of the source of the tape. However, liberals seem to be saying that the only decent thing for McConnell to do was to leave the room or perhaps even fire those chuckling about Judd’s personal foibles.

This is, of course, hypocrisy on an Olympian scale. After a year in which Barack Obama’s campaign spent much of its time trying to falsely portray Mitt Romney as a heartless murderer and tax cheat, Democrats are in no position to cry foul about Republicans discussing the possibility of working over Judd.

But the real question here is not liberal hypocrisy about McConnell. The issue is the practice of taping private political conferences between a candidate and his staff. Unless one of McConnell’s aides went rogue and gave up his boss to, of all publications, the far-left San Francisco-based Mother Jones, what happened in Louisville was a criminal act of the sort that American politicians were supposed to understand had been conclusively placed beyond the pale by Nixon.

McConnell has earned the resentment of liberals both for his skillful leadership of Senate Republicans and by being an unabashed advocate of conservative principles. But since when does that give opponents the right to tape his private conversations? Had a similar incident happened to Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi or any prominent Democrat, the mainstream liberal media would be leading with this topic in every broadcast and front page with each story drenched in Watergate analogies instead of the focus on a candidate “plotting” against a rival, as has been the case with accounts of McConnell’s tape.

No matter what turns out to be the true story behind this tape—if indeed we ever do find out the truth—liberals and conservatives should both be condemning the taping of private political conferences in this manner. A consensus that these sorts of tactics could never again be tolerated followed Watergate. But if McConnell’s enemies can get away with it, no party and no individual will be safe from political espionage.

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Mayor Anthony Weiner?

When a popular Democratic politician leaves office under the cloud of scandal and disgrace, the foremost question on his mind is when–not if–the media will begin reconstructing his career for him. There was the lionized Bill Clinton, who was impeached. Then there was former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, whose rehabilitation included a CNN show and a regular spot in Slate, where he proved to be an utterly conventional polemicist and shallow political thinker.

And now we have the effort by the New York Times to resuscitate Anthony Weiner, whose congressional career was marked by erratic public temper tantrums and an inability to control himself or the volume of his voice. He left Congress after being caught in a sex scandal involving a college girl, and then falsely accused conservatives like Andrew Breitbart of making the story up. At every step in the scandal Weiner chose the least honorable path. Before the scandal ended his congressional term, Weiner was considered by some to be a favorite for the next New York City mayoral election. Now, two years after the scandal, he says he still wants to be mayor, and may in fact run for the Democratic nomination this year for the fall general election. Could he actually win?

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When a popular Democratic politician leaves office under the cloud of scandal and disgrace, the foremost question on his mind is when–not if–the media will begin reconstructing his career for him. There was the lionized Bill Clinton, who was impeached. Then there was former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, whose rehabilitation included a CNN show and a regular spot in Slate, where he proved to be an utterly conventional polemicist and shallow political thinker.

And now we have the effort by the New York Times to resuscitate Anthony Weiner, whose congressional career was marked by erratic public temper tantrums and an inability to control himself or the volume of his voice. He left Congress after being caught in a sex scandal involving a college girl, and then falsely accused conservatives like Andrew Breitbart of making the story up. At every step in the scandal Weiner chose the least honorable path. Before the scandal ended his congressional term, Weiner was considered by some to be a favorite for the next New York City mayoral election. Now, two years after the scandal, he says he still wants to be mayor, and may in fact run for the Democratic nomination this year for the fall general election. Could he actually win?

The forces working against Weiner are well known. He is a charmless boor, a bully and an egomaniac and a tactless geyser of spite and malice. But there are also forces working in his favor that seem to give him a chance.

As the Times article notes, Weiner has a campaign war chest of $4.3 million plus the $1.5 million in public matching funds he would get if he runs. But even more beneficial to Weiner’s chances is the weak field currently in the race, especially on the Democratic side. The presumptive favorite is City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. But current Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been sending the clear message that he would prefer someone with more stature and perhaps a national profile, and has been undermining Quinn from the very beginning.

A bigger weakness for Quinn is geographical: Quinn represents the Manhattan neighborhoods of Chelsea, SoHo, and Greenwich Village. In the world of New York City identity politics, she might as well represent Guam. Ever since Weiner left the stage, there has been chatter about an opening for a candidate “from the boroughs”–New York-speak for an ethnic outer-borough candidate who can appeal to minorities. Weiner was presumed to be that candidate, being a Jewish congressman representing a district in Brooklyn and Queens. (Weiner’s old seat was won in a special election by a Republican after the intervention of Ed Koch on his behalf.)

A look back at the last half-century or so of New York mayors tells you that Quinn would be an outlier. Bloomberg came from the business world. He was preceded by the Brooklyn-born Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani was preceded by David Dinkins, a Manhattanite but one with deep ties to the city’s black community. Before Dinkins came the late Ed Koch, who was born in the Bronx and served four terms in Congress representing the Westchester suburbs. Koch was preceded by Abe Beame, a product of the Brooklyn political machine. Before Beame was the liberal Republican John Lindsay, the first truly post-Tammany city mayor who won a three-way race that included William F. Buckley.

It’s conceivable that even a badly flawed candidate from the boroughs could give Quinn a run for her money. But aside from whether he would win, a run for mayor would be a logical move. On this, Weiner benefits from what would seem to be a weakness: he doesn’t really know how to do anything else. From his perspective, he isn’t exactly flush with career options, so taking a shot at public redemption has quite the upside.

Additionally, as the article notes, if Weiner runs and loses, he could always run again having already used this election to repent his sins and excise the stench of scandal. Of course, there is always the possibility that an unlikable, obnoxious politician with a history of dishonesty and self-destruction like Weiner would just get right back in his own way, further embarrassing his family and cementing his reputation as a toxic has-been.

If Weiner decides the rewards far outweigh the risks of running, Quinn shouldn’t get too confident: often the most dangerous opponent is the one who thinks he has nothing to lose.

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Air Force Hit Hard by Sequester

Sequestration isn’t much in the news anymore, as hopes of repealing the cuts have faded. Instead, Congress passed legislation that gives the Defense Department some more discretion in allocating the cuts, which amount to more than $40 billion in this fiscal year alone. Perhaps, you figure, that means that the issue has been dealt with and we don’t have worry about the impact of sequestration on our armed forces.

Actually, the relief provided by Congress has been minimal. The operations and maintenance budget must still take a significant cut and that means that the armed services unfortunately are being forced to trim back their readiness to respond to national security threats. The severity of these cuts is made clear by the Air Force’s announcement, which has not received the attention it deserves, that roughly a third of all combat aircraft are being grounded because of budget woes.

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Sequestration isn’t much in the news anymore, as hopes of repealing the cuts have faded. Instead, Congress passed legislation that gives the Defense Department some more discretion in allocating the cuts, which amount to more than $40 billion in this fiscal year alone. Perhaps, you figure, that means that the issue has been dealt with and we don’t have worry about the impact of sequestration on our armed forces.

Actually, the relief provided by Congress has been minimal. The operations and maintenance budget must still take a significant cut and that means that the armed services unfortunately are being forced to trim back their readiness to respond to national security threats. The severity of these cuts is made clear by the Air Force’s announcement, which has not received the attention it deserves, that roughly a third of all combat aircraft are being grounded because of budget woes.

As Stars and Stripes notes: “The Air Force’s budget for flying hours was reduced by $591 million for the remainder of fiscal 2013, which makes it impossible to keep all squadrons ready for combat.” Even those aircraft that are kept operational will have reduced flying time, which means that their pilots will be less prepared for combat.

This is a particularly wretched time for such an announcement given the increased tensions on the Korean peninsula. But, frankly, there is never a good time to let our guard down–there are always hot spots that the U.S. armed forces must be prepared to deal with and if they display a lack of readiness, that is an invitation to aggression for our enemies. Let’s just hope that Kim Jong-un doesn’t read Stars and Stripes.

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Will Liberals Torpedo the Background Check Compromise?

Has common sense prevailed on gun legislation in Washington? That’s one way to look at the compromise proposal on background checks on gun purchases that is being announced today by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey. The pair, a moderate conservative Democrat and a hard-line fiscal and social conservative Republican, bridge the gap between the two parties and have probably arrived at the only gun measure that has a prayer of passage. Whatever else it will achieve, the plan will almost certainly end any hope of a filibuster of gun legislation in the Senate that had been threatened by Marco Rubio and a dozen other members of the GOP.

The announcement will leave us with three questions.

The first is whether Manchin and Toomey have come up with an amendment to the gun bill that is reasonable. The second is whether it will pass the House of Representatives. But the third, and more interesting, point is whether this is the end or the beginning of a long campaign of efforts by gun control advocates to restrict Second Amendment rights. It is on the answer to that question that reaction from conservatives will hinge. If, rather than seeing this an effort to conclude a divisive debate with something most people can live with, the House Republican caucus believes the expansion of background checks is the thin edge of the wedge in a long-term liberal plan to ban guns, Manchin and Toomey will have achieved nothing.

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Has common sense prevailed on gun legislation in Washington? That’s one way to look at the compromise proposal on background checks on gun purchases that is being announced today by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey. The pair, a moderate conservative Democrat and a hard-line fiscal and social conservative Republican, bridge the gap between the two parties and have probably arrived at the only gun measure that has a prayer of passage. Whatever else it will achieve, the plan will almost certainly end any hope of a filibuster of gun legislation in the Senate that had been threatened by Marco Rubio and a dozen other members of the GOP.

The announcement will leave us with three questions.

The first is whether Manchin and Toomey have come up with an amendment to the gun bill that is reasonable. The second is whether it will pass the House of Representatives. But the third, and more interesting, point is whether this is the end or the beginning of a long campaign of efforts by gun control advocates to restrict Second Amendment rights. It is on the answer to that question that reaction from conservatives will hinge. If, rather than seeing this an effort to conclude a divisive debate with something most people can live with, the House Republican caucus believes the expansion of background checks is the thin edge of the wedge in a long-term liberal plan to ban guns, Manchin and Toomey will have achieved nothing.

As to the nature of the Manchin-Toomey proposal, their agreement to expand background checks to gun shows is bound to strike everyone but the leadership of the National Rifle Association as fairly reasonable. It’s not just that polls show overwhelming support for the idea. If you think existing background checks on the purchasers of firearms in gun stores are a sensible precaution, then having them cover sales at gun shows is only logical. As long as this exempts sales or exchanges of guns between family members, it’s hard to argue that such a measure would be too burdensome or be an infringement of Second Amendment rights.

Can such a measure pass Congress? That’s far from clear. Assuming that the liberals who run the Senate have the sense to embrace the Manchin-Toomey amendment, it should get through the upper body. Having a solid conservative like Toomey be the sponsor will help persuade some in the House GOP caucus to put aside their fears about any gun bill. If even a sizeable minority of House Republicans embrace it, that should be enough to allow its passage with solid Democratic support.

But that will hinge on the answer to the third question.

Some on the right are echoing the NRA in opposing any bill that will mean more record keeping about gun ownership, even if it is aimed at preventing criminals and the mentally ill from obtaining weapons. They do so not because they want such persons to get guns, but because they think any registry of weapons or gun ownership is the first step toward a government ban of all weapons–notwithstanding the incessant disclaimers from President Obama and other liberals about their support for the Second Amendment and their promises about not taking away anyone’s guns.

Those fears may sometimes be expressed in a manner that sounds unreasonable, but anyone who has been listening to liberals talk about guns for the last few decades understands that banning guns is exactly what many if not most of them really would like to do if they could. The fact that almost all of the gun proposals put forward by the administration in the wake of the Newtown massacre would have done nothing to prevent that tragedy only feeds the suspicion that it has been exploited to advance a left-wing agenda that will trash gun rights.

The Manchin-Toomey compromise is good politics for both parties, in that it will allow President Obama to tell his base that he achieved something on guns while giving Republicans the opportunity to pass a bill that could take a liberal talking point out of circulation without actually infringing on the Second Amendment. But if liberals trumpet background checks as the beginning of a new struggle to ban guns rather than an end in itself, it will be extremely difficult to persuade more House Republicans to support it. It remains to be seen whether the left will allow Manchin and Toomey to allay the fears of the right or will instead torpedo it in order to keep waving the bloody shirt of Newtown in 2014.

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Yeshiva’s Self-Inflicted Carter Wound

All eyes are on Yeshiva University this week as they prepare to host a controversial awards ceremony today. Earlier this month the YU-affiliated Cardozo School of Law announced an award whose honoree outraged many in the Jewish community, including a portion of the school’s alumni. Despite a campaign waged by outraged friends and alumni, it appears today Cardozo will be bestowing on former President Jimmy Carter its “International Advocate for Peace Award.”

As our readers are aware, there is no love lost between pro-Israel activists and the former president. If Carter had been chosen to receive this award by any other university in the country, Zionists would have scoffed and chalked the selection up to predictable liberal bias on America’s campuses. The fact that it’s Yeshiva University, a privately funded school with ties so close to Israel that her flag flies alongside its American counterpart outside university offices, is particularly egregious. While the university denies a role in Carter’s selection (they claim to have placed that responsibility on a student group’s shoulders) many of the individuals campaigning against the award wonder why the University didn’t nix the selection before it was announced. 

The situation has become a major black eye for the university. In a form letter sent to an alumni concerned about the award, university President Richard Joel responded:

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All eyes are on Yeshiva University this week as they prepare to host a controversial awards ceremony today. Earlier this month the YU-affiliated Cardozo School of Law announced an award whose honoree outraged many in the Jewish community, including a portion of the school’s alumni. Despite a campaign waged by outraged friends and alumni, it appears today Cardozo will be bestowing on former President Jimmy Carter its “International Advocate for Peace Award.”

As our readers are aware, there is no love lost between pro-Israel activists and the former president. If Carter had been chosen to receive this award by any other university in the country, Zionists would have scoffed and chalked the selection up to predictable liberal bias on America’s campuses. The fact that it’s Yeshiva University, a privately funded school with ties so close to Israel that her flag flies alongside its American counterpart outside university offices, is particularly egregious. While the university denies a role in Carter’s selection (they claim to have placed that responsibility on a student group’s shoulders) many of the individuals campaigning against the award wonder why the University didn’t nix the selection before it was announced. 

The situation has become a major black eye for the university. In a form letter sent to an alumni concerned about the award, university President Richard Joel responded:

While he has been properly lauded for his role in the Camp David Accords of 1978, I strongly disagree with many of President Carter’s statements and actions in recent years which have mischaracterized the Middle East conflict and have served to alienate those of us who care about Israel. President Carter’s presence at Cardozo in no way represents a university position on his views, nor does it indicate the slightest change in our steadfastly pro-Israel stance.

That said, Yeshiva University both celebrates and takes seriously its obligation as a university to thrive as a free marketplace of ideas, while remaining committed to its unique mission as a proud Jewish university.

Even if the school’s students have chosen Carter without the university’s input, one must wonder why Cardozo’s students are unaware of Carter’s record on Israel and other human rights issues. The Washington Free Beacon reported earlier this week

“I can’t imagine a worse candidate for any kind of a human rights award,” Harvard law professor and pro-Israel author Alan Dershowitz told the Washington Free Beacon Monday. “He has more blood on his hands than practically any other president,” Dershowitz said, referring to Carter’s silence in the face of Communist leader Pol Pot’s slaughter of some 2 million Cambodians.

Carter, author of the controversial book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, has met with the terrorist group Hamas and rallied against Israel on the international stage, providing much fodder for the Jewish state’s fiercest critics.

“He has encouraged terrorism and violence by Hamas and Hezbollah,” Dershowitz said, who dubbed students’ desire to award Carter as “immoral.”

Carter “has done more harm to the cause of human rights than anyone I can think of,” Dershowitz said. “It’s a terrible, terrible choice.”

It hasn’t been an easy few years for the school financially, especially after the Bernie Madoff scandal helped to significantly clean out its coffers. In an widely circulated open letter published in the school’s newspaper late last year, faculty members anonymously griped about the dysfunction in the school’s administration. The financial situation at the school is especially troubling:

First and foremost, the finances of the University are much worse than President Joel portrayed them to be.  Yeshiva’s discretionary endowment[i] is nearly zero, and the overall endowment has not only plummeted in value, but has plummeted in relative value.  In 2006, the value of YU endowment was 47th among all universities in the United States, while in 2011 it was 66th. In fact, if one looks up Wikipedia’s “list of colleges and universities by endowment worth more than $1 billion,”[ii] YU is the only university to show a smaller endowment in 2011 than in 2006.  The only one. Moreover, the upswing experienced by all universities in the last three years is less at Yeshiva than elsewhere.

For example, in 2006, Columbia’s endowment was $5.2 billion and it is now $7.9 billion, whereas in 2006 Yeshiva endowment was $1.15 billion and now it is $1.13 billion.  We are running out of money, and there are very painful cuts ahead of us that will go to the muscle of Yeshiva if we are not careful. Denying the terrible mismanagement of the endowment over the last decade, and the errors the University made (that other similar institutions did not make) in response to the Great Recession increases the likelihood that we will never learn our financial lesson.  It is not about the Madoff fraud or the Merkin scandal, rather the whole structure does not work and no real information is shared about why.  No one is speaking about what caused the terrible drain on the endowment and when it will stop. In short, there is no transparency.

With the finances at the school being so precarious, it’s extremely troublesome that the concerns of friends of the university as well as alumni, both large donor bases, have been ignored as the university has clearly decided to go ahead with this event. 

From Carter’s nomination and selection by misinformed or naive post-graduate students to the university administration’s refusal to step in, there are clear and worrisome signs within the country’s most prominent Jewish university. As a former president prepares to receive the award today, the school will now have to face the shame of having to usher him and his entourage past protests of outraged members of the university community, where President Joel will then have to face the man he was forced to repudiate just days ago. Every aspect of how this situation has unfolded should have been obvious to the university’s administration weeks ago. The fact that the situation progressed in this manner should give pause to anyone concerned about the state of Jewish education both at Yeshiva and beyond. 

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“I’m Right. You’re Wrong. Shut Up”

I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that title more or less sums up the response of Peter Maass, a writer for the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine in a recent blog post to this column by Iraqi American intellectual Kanan Makiya in the New York Times entitled “The Arab Spring Started in Iraq.” Now, anyone who has ever contributed an op-ed to a newspaper knows that writers do not pick the headlines. Makiya’s argument is more nuanced than the headline would suggest. Makiya writes:

If the 1991 war was about the restoration of the Arab state system, the 2003 war called into question that system’s very legitimacy. That’s why support from Arab monarchies was not forthcoming in 2003, when a new, more equitable order was on the agenda in Iraq… All the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi was asking for in December 2010 was dignity and respect. That is how the Arab Spring began, and the toppling of the first Arab dictator, Saddam Hussein, paved the way for young Arabs to imagine it.

Here is Maass’ response:

While events in one country can impact other countries, this is a wish-based myth. It demonstrates a sad consequence of the Iraq war: its discredited backers are committing the same error they did in 2003, making dubious assertions without solid evidence… It is the right of Cheney, Rice, Makiya, Dan Senor, Fred Kagan, Joe Lieberman, and other backers of the war to argue as they wish and make whatever connections they wish, no matter how preposterous. But the rest of us are not obliged to keep a straight face; a skewering by Jon Stewart would be a better response than a respectful interview by, say, Wolf Blitzer. On the tenth anniversary of a war that killed more than a hundred thousand Iraqis and Americans, the authors of the catastrophe should do us the small favor of offering their chastened silence rather than their half-baked theories.

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I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that title more or less sums up the response of Peter Maass, a writer for the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine in a recent blog post to this column by Iraqi American intellectual Kanan Makiya in the New York Times entitled “The Arab Spring Started in Iraq.” Now, anyone who has ever contributed an op-ed to a newspaper knows that writers do not pick the headlines. Makiya’s argument is more nuanced than the headline would suggest. Makiya writes:

If the 1991 war was about the restoration of the Arab state system, the 2003 war called into question that system’s very legitimacy. That’s why support from Arab monarchies was not forthcoming in 2003, when a new, more equitable order was on the agenda in Iraq… All the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi was asking for in December 2010 was dignity and respect. That is how the Arab Spring began, and the toppling of the first Arab dictator, Saddam Hussein, paved the way for young Arabs to imagine it.

Here is Maass’ response:

While events in one country can impact other countries, this is a wish-based myth. It demonstrates a sad consequence of the Iraq war: its discredited backers are committing the same error they did in 2003, making dubious assertions without solid evidence… It is the right of Cheney, Rice, Makiya, Dan Senor, Fred Kagan, Joe Lieberman, and other backers of the war to argue as they wish and make whatever connections they wish, no matter how preposterous. But the rest of us are not obliged to keep a straight face; a skewering by Jon Stewart would be a better response than a respectful interview by, say, Wolf Blitzer. On the tenth anniversary of a war that killed more than a hundred thousand Iraqis and Americans, the authors of the catastrophe should do us the small favor of offering their chastened silence rather than their half-baked theories.

Put aside the fact that Maass seems motivated more by spite than analysis, and hence undercuts his argument by cherry-picking (why not also cite Richard Haass, John Kerry, Colin Powell, Al Gore, and Chuck Hagel, all of whom were for the war before they were against it?). To support his view that the Iraq war set back democracy, Maass cites Paul Pillar, a former CIA employee whose history as a prognosticator and policy adviser is questionable at best. Still, Pillar is half right when he writes, “Rather than being inspired by what happened in Iraq after the invasion, Middle Easterners were repelled by it. If the violence, disorder, and breakdown of public services in Iraq were the birth pangs of a new Middle Eastern order, most people in the region wanted nothing of it.”

The reason why Iran and Syria, for example, supported insurgent groups was precisely because they did not want an example to exist of successful democracy taking hold in a neighbor. Maass questions Makiya’s lack of evidence—and, indeed, Makiya’s column can be faulted for being both rambling and light—but evidence does exist. The conversation did change significantly. In 2008, some colleagues and I compiled several essays by Arab scholars and activists looking at the debate regarding dissent and reform in various Arab countries. While many Arabs condemned the Iraq war as liberation turned to occupation, their condemnation was often less about “democracy” and more about what mistakes were made in Iraq, and how to correct them.

In 2005, I was in the Mosul and Sinjar area when elections occurred in Syria. One quip I heard from visiting Syrians was that Syria had had the first free elections in 50 years, but only Iraqis were allowed to participate (as they lined up at the Iraqi embassy in Damascus to vote). Five years later, I heard similar conversations in Kfar Soussa, a Baathist neighborhood in Damascus where Iraqi election posters still dotted walls and lamp posts. Only on American college campuses and perhaps in some European parlor halls do people still believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the end-all and be-all of problems in the Middle East.  

The real problem in Iraq came not with its liberation, but when the “development mafia” transformed the ouster of a horrendous dictator into endless mission creep that expended billions of dollars for little gain. Certainly George W. Bush deserves blame for allowing this to happen. One of the greatest lessons we should learn from both Iraq and Afghanistan should not be that military force against dictators and terrorists is wrong, but rather that too much multilateralism and flooding countries with assistance that do not have the capacity to develop it is.

That is not to diminish Bouazizi and the masses in Tahrir Square who demanded accountability, nor should saturation by satellite and cell phones be dismissed. Still, Paul Wolfowitz is probably right when he writes it is too soon to tell what the Iraq war’s true legacy is. Maass is welcome to his opinion, and he could contribute well to the debate if he based his argument more on evidence than on ad hominem attack. Seeking to shut opponents up for the sin of disagreement is usually a sign that the proposed censor lacks the capacity to win the argument by other means.

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Give Syrian Kurdish Leader a Visa

Salih Muslim is the leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The U.S. government has long considered the PKK a terrorist group, a designation which Secretary of State John Kerry reinforced in his recent swing through Turkey. He has applied for a visa to enter the United States to take part in consultations with officials in Washington, but the State Department has so far been unresponsive.

Denying the PYD leader a visa makes no sense for five reasons:

Salih Muslim is the leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The U.S. government has long considered the PKK a terrorist group, a designation which Secretary of State John Kerry reinforced in his recent swing through Turkey. He has applied for a visa to enter the United States to take part in consultations with officials in Washington, but the State Department has so far been unresponsive.

Denying the PYD leader a visa makes no sense for five reasons:

  • First, there is no specific information about the PYD to tie it to terrorism. Indeed, the PYD has taken pains to distinguish itself from the broader PKK in Turkey.
  • Second, the Turkish government has begun peace talks with the PKK. It is ironic that Washington would do Ankara’s dirty work, when even the Turkish government no longer operates under the pretense that the PKK must be isolated.
  • Third, despite efforts by Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani to assert his control over Kurdish regions in Syria, it is Salih Muslim and the PYD to whom Syrian Kurds overwhelmingly turn. It is the PYD which administers territory, runs schools, and has restored a modicum of normalcy to territory it controls.
  • Fourth, the PYD is a secular movement. Its main opponent—the Nusra Front—no longer hides the fact that it is an al-Qaeda affiliate. By failing to recognize–let alone coordinate with–the PYD, the Obama administration is effectively strengthening a group which, unlike the PYD, is dedicated to killing Americans.
  • Fifth, as soon as the PKK and the Turkish government announced their peace process, the Assad regime reportedly responded by attacking neighborhoods in Aleppo in which Kurds reside and which have a heavy PYD presence. According to one Turkish journalist familiar with the situation, the assault seemed to be Iran’s warning to the Syrian Kurds that Iran would oppose Kurdish empowerment at any cost (Iran has a large Kurdish minority unhappy with the Islamic Republic for both ethnic and sectarian reasons).

Let us hope that the decision to sit on Salih Muslim’s application is just the result of some junior Foreign Service officer who doesn’t know better, and doesn’t have instructions. After all, Kerry is busy traveling and so has yet to get his house in order. Still, it is a pretty sad testament to the lack of any coherent policy in Washington that U.S. policy defaults, in effect, to the same side as both al-Qaeda and Iran.  

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