Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 24, 2013

Is Bush Fatigue Real or Imagined?

This is a big week for the Bush family as the opening of George W. Bush’s presidential library and museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University has brought the 43rd president’s legacy into focus. The debate over his record has been fierce but, as Peter Wehner noted yesterday a Washington Post-ABC News poll gave Bush supporters some long-needed comfort as it showed his approval rating was roughly equivalent to that of his successor. Some are interpreting this result as an indicator that the day Republicans had waited for had finally arrived as the public finally realizes Bush’s worth while catching on to Barack Obama’s shortcomings.

The GOP celebration may, however, be a bit premature. One poll does not constitute a trend and one would think that the last presidential campaign would have cured Republicans of their habit of placing their faith in polls that produced results that pleased them. The timing of the survey, which was taken last week in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, may also have influenced the numbers as it highlighted the one issue—homeland security and terrorism—on which President Bush always scored relatively well even when his popularity was its nadir.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that what we’re seeing in the WaPo poll is at least the beginning of a shift in public opinion about Bush 43. As I’ve written before, the opprobrium with which his presidency has been treated since he left office is largely undeserved. He made his share of mistakes but, as Bush supporters are pointing out this week, his defense of the homeland after 9/11 was his greatest achievement and the keynote of his presidency. If the worm is turning on Bush, this might mean the path is clearing for a third member of the family to try for the White House. That’s the conceit of much of the recent coverage of Jeb Bush, whose obvious interest in a 2016 run is also being highlighted by the big party in Dallas. But any assumptions that the uptick in his brother’s poll numbers mean that there is no Bush fatigue in the country are probably unfounded.

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This is a big week for the Bush family as the opening of George W. Bush’s presidential library and museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University has brought the 43rd president’s legacy into focus. The debate over his record has been fierce but, as Peter Wehner noted yesterday a Washington Post-ABC News poll gave Bush supporters some long-needed comfort as it showed his approval rating was roughly equivalent to that of his successor. Some are interpreting this result as an indicator that the day Republicans had waited for had finally arrived as the public finally realizes Bush’s worth while catching on to Barack Obama’s shortcomings.

The GOP celebration may, however, be a bit premature. One poll does not constitute a trend and one would think that the last presidential campaign would have cured Republicans of their habit of placing their faith in polls that produced results that pleased them. The timing of the survey, which was taken last week in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, may also have influenced the numbers as it highlighted the one issue—homeland security and terrorism—on which President Bush always scored relatively well even when his popularity was its nadir.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that what we’re seeing in the WaPo poll is at least the beginning of a shift in public opinion about Bush 43. As I’ve written before, the opprobrium with which his presidency has been treated since he left office is largely undeserved. He made his share of mistakes but, as Bush supporters are pointing out this week, his defense of the homeland after 9/11 was his greatest achievement and the keynote of his presidency. If the worm is turning on Bush, this might mean the path is clearing for a third member of the family to try for the White House. That’s the conceit of much of the recent coverage of Jeb Bush, whose obvious interest in a 2016 run is also being highlighted by the big party in Dallas. But any assumptions that the uptick in his brother’s poll numbers mean that there is no Bush fatigue in the country are probably unfounded.

As former Republican Party chair Haley Barbour told Politico today, the calculations about Jeb’s presidential hopes are inextricably tied up with the whole notion of Bush fatigue. Barbour is probably right when he says, “If Jeb’s last name was Brown instead of Bush, he’d probably be the front-runner for the Republican nomination.”

As a successful former governor of crucial state with a strong conservative record and a history of appealing to Hispanics, he fits the profile of exactly what the GOP is looking for in 2016. Even more than that, as one of the party’s most thoughtful voices on issues like education and immigration, he’s well prepared to make a strong case for himself as someone linked to the party’s future rather than its past.

But as Barbour says, Jeb’s name is Bush, not Brown. And his belief that there is no such thing as Bush fatigue is profoundly mistaken.

No matter how qualified Jeb Bush may be, Republicans understand that, like it or not, his presidential candidacy would inevitably become a referendum on his family’s place in American history. His own statements, both this year and last, defending his brother make it abundantly clear that the issue will follow him around wherever he goes even if he wants to talk about everything else.

Bush fatigue may be declining as the years pass and Bush 43’s accomplishments are recognized and Katrina, the Iraq War and the financial meltdown are no longer in the news. But a Jeb Bush candidacy will serve as an excuse for the left and the media to double down on their past attacks rather than allowing them to fade from our collective memory. Anyone who thinks the same elements that largely control the mainstream media and popular culture that buried the second President Bush under an avalanche of vituperation are not prepared to renew their attacks is underestimating the hatred that he engendered on the left.

During a week when George W. Bush is finally getting a little credit after years of being wrongly slammed as the man who lied us into war and crashed the economy, it may be possible for his family to dream of an unprecedented presidential trifecta. But Republicans should be wary of their ambitions. No matter how strong their arguments about Bush 43’s virtues, one poll doesn’t change the fact that his presidency is still associated with a hurricane, missing weapons of mass destruction, a bloody and inconclusive war and the bailout of Wall Street as the economy tottered. Sadly, Bush fatigue is not a figment of a hostile media’s imagination. GOP hopes in 2016 depend on convincing the American people their party is the hope of the American future after eight dismal years of Obama. Another Bush candidacy is a recipe for GOP disaster.

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Triumph of the Slippery Slope Argument on Gun Control?

One of the often-quoted pieces of advice about modern politics is: first you win the argument, then you win the vote. On gun control, President Obama thought he did the former, and assumed he’d then achieve the latter. In reality, he did neither.

Yesterday, I criticized the way Obama conducted the argument over gun control, as well as the excuses some of his supporters made for why his favored gun control bill failed: he’s too nice to threaten, too proud to beg, his government too poor to bribe (a great, if unrelated, argument in favor of austerity, perhaps). And I did so on the grounds that Obama has been overstating, or overestimating, the public support for gun control. Today, the Washington Post reports on its new poll on gun control. Was the country as furious at the failure of the gun bill as the president was? According to the Post:

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One of the often-quoted pieces of advice about modern politics is: first you win the argument, then you win the vote. On gun control, President Obama thought he did the former, and assumed he’d then achieve the latter. In reality, he did neither.

Yesterday, I criticized the way Obama conducted the argument over gun control, as well as the excuses some of his supporters made for why his favored gun control bill failed: he’s too nice to threaten, too proud to beg, his government too poor to bribe (a great, if unrelated, argument in favor of austerity, perhaps). And I did so on the grounds that Obama has been overstating, or overestimating, the public support for gun control. Today, the Washington Post reports on its new poll on gun control. Was the country as furious at the failure of the gun bill as the president was? According to the Post:

Not so much, according to a new Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll. Yes, a plurality (47 percent) describe themselves as either “angry” or “disappointed” about the failure of the gun legislation, but 39 percent call themselves “relieved” or “happy” about what happened. That’s a far cry from the 90-ish percent support that expanding background checks — the centerpiece of the proposed legislation — enjoyed.

And, among those who said they were “very closely” keeping tabs on the vote, the split was even closer; 48 percent said they were angry/disappointed while 47 percent were relieved or happy. (That piece of data is indicative of the passion gap on the issue between those supporting gun rights and those pushing for more restrictions.)

A key argument of the president’s supporters after the bill failed was that this was a case of democracy denied. The president says the country agrees with him, therefore the Congress should vote accordingly. But it turns out to be more complicated than that. Obama was right that background checks had broad support among the general population, but he seems to have lost the argument that those background checks would not be part of either a slippery slope or an extended effort to limit gun rights. As the Post explains:

Viewed broadly, the new Post-Pew poll numbers suggest that, in the end, the Senate vote last week wound up functioning in the minds of most Americans as a sort of stand-in for how they feel about gun rights more generally as opposed to the specifics (background checks in particular) of the legislation.

So, not surprisingly, those who were most angry about the failure of the gun bill were reliably Democratic groups such as those with postgraduate degrees and those living in the Northeast.

Democracy worked, in other words. This should have been obvious, because members of Congress are generally attuned to the opinions and habits of their constituents. That doesn’t mean they never cross those voters, or that they always vote for what the majority of their constituents want in any given case. But if, as Obama had said repeatedly, 90 percent of voters backed the gun legislation, something else would have to have been at play in the minds the senators who voted against it.

Could mere partisanship explain it? Doubtful, since the vote failed to rally key Democrats as well, so there was bipartisan opposition to the bill (just as there was bipartisan support for it). Obama likes to believe that NRA fearmongering was to blame. But if the public was overwhelmingly on one side of the issue, what power would a lobbyist hold over an individual lawmaker by putting the lobby on the wrong side of public opinion?

The answer is, the argument Obama lost was not over limited background checks but on the role of the federal government when it comes to regulating guns. There’s a good reason for this: Obama originally and publicly pushed for a so-called assault weapons ban, but the votes for it weren’t there–not even close. The White House’s response to the failure of the gun ban was not to accept public opinion on it but rather to promise (threaten?) they would be back later for the gun ban, and would not back down. Thus Obama communicated quite clearly to the public that the background checks were, if the president got his way, only the beginning of the administration’s renewed efforts to chip away at gun ownership.

The Post report concludes:

To their credit, the president and his White House tried like hell to emphasize that the proposals in the bill were ones that drew support across party lines. But, their failure to make that case effectively speaks to the entrenched views much of the country holds on guns. The conclusion? Most people simply weren’t really listening to the argument President Obama was trying to make.

That’s only partly true. They were listening to the argument Obama was trying to make in the context of the wider argument he has been making all along. The public and their representatives didn’t ignore the president. On the contrary, they listened carefully, and voted accordingly.

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When Terrorists “Act Alone”

Law enforcement officials are touting news that the Boston Marathon bombers acted alone. The source for their conclusion? Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has averred from his hospital bed that he and his brother had no links to any terrorist organization. This may or may not be true; it’s possible that even if Dzhokhar is sincere he may not have known about links cultivated by his brother during Tamerlan’s sojourn to Dagestan last year. But even if it’s true that their bombing was not directed by foreign terrorist organizations, it was certainly inspired by them.

In seeking to explain their heinous actions, Dzhokhar cited an alleged war against Islam waged by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming that U.S. troops have been responsible for most civilian deaths in those countries. This is blatantly not true (the Taliban, al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Islamist groups have killed far more civilians and they have done so deliberately, not accidentally as in the case of most “collateral damage” caused by U.S. forces). But it is a standard al-Qaeda propaganda line that the brothers swallowed–along with the more general al-Qaeda justifications for making war on “infidels.” More than that, it appears that the brothers may have gotten bomb-making instructions from Inspire, the English-language magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

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Law enforcement officials are touting news that the Boston Marathon bombers acted alone. The source for their conclusion? Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has averred from his hospital bed that he and his brother had no links to any terrorist organization. This may or may not be true; it’s possible that even if Dzhokhar is sincere he may not have known about links cultivated by his brother during Tamerlan’s sojourn to Dagestan last year. But even if it’s true that their bombing was not directed by foreign terrorist organizations, it was certainly inspired by them.

In seeking to explain their heinous actions, Dzhokhar cited an alleged war against Islam waged by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming that U.S. troops have been responsible for most civilian deaths in those countries. This is blatantly not true (the Taliban, al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Islamist groups have killed far more civilians and they have done so deliberately, not accidentally as in the case of most “collateral damage” caused by U.S. forces). But it is a standard al-Qaeda propaganda line that the brothers swallowed–along with the more general al-Qaeda justifications for making war on “infidels.” More than that, it appears that the brothers may have gotten bomb-making instructions from Inspire, the English-language magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Even if no further links with al-Qaeda or related groups (such as the Caucasus Emirate) are discovered, it is still not correct to claim, as so many media outlets now do, that the brothers were “self-radicalized.” They were radicalized and trained by al-Qaeda–whether in cyberspace or outside of it. It is also likely, moreover, that older brother Tamerlan, the ring leader, came into contact with influential individuals in either Boston and/or Dagestan who guided his intellectual development toward becoming a jihadist. Whether those individuals formally belonged to a terrorist organization or not, they were doing its bidding as long as they were urging violence against the West.

In short, while we need to be worried about “lone wolf” terrorists, we must not lose sight of the fact that they are not entirely autonomous individuals. There is still a terrorist support structure that exists in Dagestan–and other places in the Muslim world such as Yemen and Pakistan–which is closely connected with acts of terror in the West and that needs to be dismantled.

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Obama’s Planned Parenthood Payoff

Even in an administration as skilled in manipulating the media as that of Barack Obama, there are still some things that are more greatly valued than a finely crafted piece of political spin. One of those is the need to pay back supporters for their efforts in the president’s re-election campaign. That’s why President Obama will be addressing Planned Parenthood in Washington on Friday. Given the prominent role that PP President Cecile Richards played last year as surrogate speaker for the president, and the organization’s central part in promoting the idea that Republicans were waging a “war on women,” Obama’s decision to speak at the event seems only natural. But the timing of his appearance at a Planned Parenthood conference couldn’t be worse.

The problem stems from the admission on the part of an official of the group’s Southeastern Pennsylvania affiliate reported last week by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Speaking with Gloria Steinem at the group’s annual Spring Gathering at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center, Dayle Steinberg said Planned Parenthood was aware of problems at the infamous abortion clinic operated by Kermit Gosnell:

Steinberg said that when Gosnell was in practice, women would sometimes come to Planned Parenthood for services after first visiting Gosnell’s West Philadelphia clinic, and would complain to staff about the conditions there.

“We would always encourage them to report it to the Department of Health,” Steinberg said as she sat with Steinem before Tuesday’s events.

While this doesn’t make the group responsible for the atrocities that were allegedly committed by Gosnell, it does raise questions as to why an organization avowedly dedicated to protecting the health of women chose not to take any action on its own or to investigate what was going on. As Wesley J. Smith noted at National Review yesterday, it does remind one of the old saying, “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Coming as it does, in the aftermath of a damaging comment by a Florida Planned Parenthood official who thought whether clinic personnel should render medical assistance to a baby born as a result of a botched abortion was an open question, the comments about the ongoing Gosnell trial might have made the group politically toxic. But President Obama owes Planned Parenthood too much to pass on a chance to embrace them.

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Even in an administration as skilled in manipulating the media as that of Barack Obama, there are still some things that are more greatly valued than a finely crafted piece of political spin. One of those is the need to pay back supporters for their efforts in the president’s re-election campaign. That’s why President Obama will be addressing Planned Parenthood in Washington on Friday. Given the prominent role that PP President Cecile Richards played last year as surrogate speaker for the president, and the organization’s central part in promoting the idea that Republicans were waging a “war on women,” Obama’s decision to speak at the event seems only natural. But the timing of his appearance at a Planned Parenthood conference couldn’t be worse.

The problem stems from the admission on the part of an official of the group’s Southeastern Pennsylvania affiliate reported last week by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Speaking with Gloria Steinem at the group’s annual Spring Gathering at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center, Dayle Steinberg said Planned Parenthood was aware of problems at the infamous abortion clinic operated by Kermit Gosnell:

Steinberg said that when Gosnell was in practice, women would sometimes come to Planned Parenthood for services after first visiting Gosnell’s West Philadelphia clinic, and would complain to staff about the conditions there.

“We would always encourage them to report it to the Department of Health,” Steinberg said as she sat with Steinem before Tuesday’s events.

While this doesn’t make the group responsible for the atrocities that were allegedly committed by Gosnell, it does raise questions as to why an organization avowedly dedicated to protecting the health of women chose not to take any action on its own or to investigate what was going on. As Wesley J. Smith noted at National Review yesterday, it does remind one of the old saying, “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Coming as it does, in the aftermath of a damaging comment by a Florida Planned Parenthood official who thought whether clinic personnel should render medical assistance to a baby born as a result of a botched abortion was an open question, the comments about the ongoing Gosnell trial might have made the group politically toxic. But President Obama owes Planned Parenthood too much to pass on a chance to embrace them.

The increased coverage given the Gosnell trial as a result of criticism of the major media blackout of the story should have put Planned Parenthood in the cross hairs of the controversy after Steinberg’s statement. But the same outlets that were doing their best to ignore Gosnell are not saying much, if anything, about Steinberg’s admission. The reason for this is obvious, even for those who support abortion rights. While groups like Planned Parenthood assert that Gosnell’s crimes make the need for quality health care, such as the services they provide, even more important, the trial’s revelations about the cavalier way late-term abortions are carried out seems to make many people in the “pro-choice” community—a term that includes much of the media—uncomfortable.

Planned Parenthood retracted their Florida representative’s statement about babies born after attempted abortions and now they need to answer some questions about Gosnell. But none of this is likely to affect an Obama White House that sees the group as integral to their struggle to depict their opponents as hostile to women’s health care.

Whatever one may think about the charge that Republicans were waging a war on women (a canard that was boosted by the stupid comments of former Representative Todd Akin about abortion and rape), Steinberg’s statements give the impression that Planned Parenthood was indifferent to the war Kermit Gosnell was waging on women and babies at his West Philadelphia clinic. That might have caused a president less beholden to them to stay away from them. But the debt the president owes the group is far greater than any questions that might be asked about his presence at their event.

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Venezuela Answers Fraud Charges with Threats

One of the Hugo Chavez-era ministers retained in the new cabinet of Nicolas Maduro is Iris Varela, who holds the portfolio for Venezuela’s rotting prison system. This morning, she repaid Maduro’s vote of confidence in her by threatening to incarcerate Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who has been doggedly insisting that the votes cast in the April 14 presidential election, which Maduro won by a razor-thin margin of 1.8 percent, should be recounted.

In the days immediately following the vote, Venezuela was convulsed by protests alleging electoral fraud. Seven people were reported to have died and more than 60 injured in clashes the chavista regime immediately blamed on the opposition. Maduro himself accused opposition supporters of attacking health clinics run by the government, as well as the home of Tibisay Lucena, the president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), who called the election for Maduro in record time and then declared the results to be “irreversible.”

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One of the Hugo Chavez-era ministers retained in the new cabinet of Nicolas Maduro is Iris Varela, who holds the portfolio for Venezuela’s rotting prison system. This morning, she repaid Maduro’s vote of confidence in her by threatening to incarcerate Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who has been doggedly insisting that the votes cast in the April 14 presidential election, which Maduro won by a razor-thin margin of 1.8 percent, should be recounted.

In the days immediately following the vote, Venezuela was convulsed by protests alleging electoral fraud. Seven people were reported to have died and more than 60 injured in clashes the chavista regime immediately blamed on the opposition. Maduro himself accused opposition supporters of attacking health clinics run by the government, as well as the home of Tibisay Lucena, the president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), who called the election for Maduro in record time and then declared the results to be “irreversible.”

Capriles repeatedly pointed out on his Twitter feed that no evidence was produced to support these or similar claims. He also called off a rally outside the CNE’s headquarters in Caracas, citing his concern that government supporters would “infiltrate” the crowd and stir up violence that the opposition would then be held responsible for. In the end, Capriles settled for a partial recount of the vote that the CNE has already said will not change the election’s outcome.

Capriles’s decision to opt for prudence won him no favors with the regime. As Iris Varela made clear today, Capriles is being held personally responsible for the post-election violence. “We are preparing a cell for you (Capriles) where you will pay for your crimes,” Varela growled ominously during a press conference.

Whether Varela’s threat against Capriles will be implemented remains unclear. Its underlying purpose, though, is to intimidate the opposition into silence; and what better way to do so than by dangling the prospect of a prison sentence? As Julie Turkewitz reported in the Atlantic in February, Venezuelan prisons are known to be the worst in Latin America, plagued by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, and frequently run by brutal gang leaders. No opposition supporter entering one of these penitentiaries could reasonably hope to come out alive, let alone unharmed.

Another worrying signal for the opposition is the appointment of Miguel Rodriguez Torres as interior minister. Rodriguez Torres was most recently the head of SEBIN, the much-feared, Cuban-trained political police. Like Maduro, Rodriguez Torres is an orthodox chavista who brooks no dissent. His goal now will be to crack down not just on the current round of protests, but on the protests that Maduro’s government is likely to face in the coming months as the economy continues to crumble.

Herein lies Capriles’ main achievement: he has made a compelling case that any elections held under the auspices of the chavistas will be inherently unfair, and he has prepared the ground for a reinvigorated opposition that was thrown into despair last December, when the chavistas triumped in state elections. 

At the same time, Capriles is wary of giving Maduro any opportunity to portray the opposition as American stooges, which may well explain why he hasn’t called for international support. Since the election, Maduro has consistently accused the U.S. of “financing” the “violent acts” of the opposition. His foreign minister, Elias Jaua, has also warned that any sanctions that might be imposed by Washington on Caracas would be met in kind–but given that Venezuela desperately needs the revenue it receives from its export of 900,000 barrels of oil per day to the U.S., it’s hard to take Jaua’s comments seriously on this point.

As for the future of U.S. policy toward Venezuela, that remains an open question. President Obama’s decision to call for a “constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government” following the death of Chavez disappointed many in the country’s opposition circles, particularly as Maduro’s assumption of the post of acting president was of questionable constitutional legitimacy. Yet in the aftermath of the election, the U.S. has been the only foreign government of any note to have withheld recognition of Maduro’s government because of the more than 3,000 instances of electoral fraud documented by the opposition–among them the 564 polling stations where chavista activists were witnessed entering polling booths to “assist” voters, thus impacting around 1.5 million votes out of a total of 15 million­­­.

Washington will be mindful that it is already isolated on Venezuela. Maduro’s inauguration last Friday was attended by a slew of foreign leaders, among them Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, Argentine President Christina Kirchner, and Chavez’s close friend (and notorious electoral fraudster) President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. In backing Maduro, all these leaders have signed up to the party line that any regime change in Venezuela will be the result of CIA interference. In the meantime, chavismo will step up its conquest of the institutions of a country that was, for much of the post-Second World War period, among the more democratic in Latin America.

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Marathons and Media Bias in the West Bank

When the news broke last week that Israel had prevented Gazan runners from participating in the West Bank’s first marathon, my initial reaction was to wonder why Israel had done something so stupid. Granted, Gaza is an enemy quasi-state that routinely launches rockets at Israel, and most countries don’t let enemy nationals enter or transit their territory; hence Israel’s refusal to allow Gazans to do so (aside from humanitarian cases like the many Gazans treated in Israeli hospitals) is usually perfectly justified. But exceptions are routinely made for international sporting events; that’s why Israel rightly objects when its own athletes are barred from international tournaments in Arab countries. Hence this ban, which was reported worldwide, could only hurt Israel’s image.

But it turns out Israel was perfectly justified in barring the Gaza athletes–because the marathon’s Palestinian organizers had barred Israeli participants. Clearly, no country should be expected to facilitate an “international” event that bars its own athletes from participating. That this justification was absent from last week’s news reports thus speaks volumes about both the incompetence of Israel’s public relations and the biases of international reporting on Israel.

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When the news broke last week that Israel had prevented Gazan runners from participating in the West Bank’s first marathon, my initial reaction was to wonder why Israel had done something so stupid. Granted, Gaza is an enemy quasi-state that routinely launches rockets at Israel, and most countries don’t let enemy nationals enter or transit their territory; hence Israel’s refusal to allow Gazans to do so (aside from humanitarian cases like the many Gazans treated in Israeli hospitals) is usually perfectly justified. But exceptions are routinely made for international sporting events; that’s why Israel rightly objects when its own athletes are barred from international tournaments in Arab countries. Hence this ban, which was reported worldwide, could only hurt Israel’s image.

But it turns out Israel was perfectly justified in barring the Gaza athletes–because the marathon’s Palestinian organizers had barred Israeli participants. Clearly, no country should be expected to facilitate an “international” event that bars its own athletes from participating. That this justification was absent from last week’s news reports thus speaks volumes about both the incompetence of Israel’s public relations and the biases of international reporting on Israel.

The Palestinians’ hypocrisy on the issue was hardly subtle. Samia al-Wazir, spokeswoman for the Palestinian Olympic Committee, protested the ban on Gaza athletes by declaring, “The Israelis should look at this purely as a sporting event. It has nothing to do with politics.” Yet Palestinian Olympic Committee member Itidal Abdul-Ghani subsequently told an Israeli paper that “Israelis weren’t welcome to join the marathon while their military occupies Palestinian lands.” Needless to say, it can’t be “purely a sporting event” where Gazan athletes are concerned but a political protest where Israeli athletes are concerned; it’s one or the other. And once the Palestinians chose to make it political by barring Israeli athletes, Israel was completely justified in returning the favor by barring Gazan athletes.

Yet instead of making this point, which any fair-minded person could understand, Israeli spokesmen simply repeated the usual platitudes: that Gaza is ruled by a terrorist organization, and Gazans are therefore permitted to enter or transit Israel “only in exceptional humanitarian cases.” As noted, that’s a perfectly valid argument in most cases–but not in the case of an international sporting event, and not when a much more compelling argument was available.

Israel’s incompetence, however, doesn’t excuse the international media’s decision to report only the ban on Gazans, and not the ban on Israelis. By any objective standard, the latter was actually more newsworthy. After all, Hamas-run Gaza is openly at war with Israel, but the Palestinian Authority is supposedly Israel’s “peace partner.” Shunning one’s “peace partner” is surely more noteworthy than shunning an enemy. Yet only the Israeli media deemed it worth mentioning.

Perhaps the problem was that reporting the ban on Israelis would have spoiled the neat “Israel as villain” plotline. After all, the race’s main sponsor was a Danish nonprofit. And it’s hard to paint Israel as the Grinch who stole the marathon from would-be runners when enlightened Europeans were complicit in the same crime–with far less justification.

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Why Rand’s Drone Flip-Flop Matters

Last month Rand Paul energized conservatives with a filibuster on the Senate floor that allowed a broad national audience to see him as a principled politician who was willing to fight for beliefs rather than go along with Washington’s business-as-usual culture. Some of us thought the rationale for his moment of glory—concerns about possible use of drones on U.S. soil as well as his general opposition to what he called a “perpetual war” against Islamist terrorists—were not justified. But even critics like myself thought his exhibition demonstrated that there is room for the sort of high-minded approach to public policy that was once considered normative in the U.S. Senate but which is now quite rare. But it didn’t take long for all of Paul’s speechifying about drones to be revealed as somewhat hypocritical.

Though the Kentucky senator spent 13 hours on his legs explaining to the Senate why there could be no conceivable justification for the use of government drones against American citizens on March 6, yesterday he took a position on Neil Cavuto’s show on Fox News that those of us who disagreed with him in the first place were advocating:

PAUL: Here’s the distinction, Neil. I’ve never argued against any technology being used when you have an imminent threat, an active crime going on. If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and 50 dollars in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him. But it’s different if they want to fly over your hot tub or your yard just because they want to do surveillance on everyone and they want to watch your activities.

CAVUTO: What if, in pursuit of a crime, they discover something else that looks bad?

PAUL: We shouldn’t be willy-nilly looking into everyone’s back yard into what they’re doing. But if there is a killer on the loose in a neighborhood, I’m not against drones being used to search them out, heat-seeking devices being used, I’m all for law enforcement, I’m just not for surveillance when there’s not probable cause that a crime’s been committed. So, most of the time, you get a warrant, but if someone’s actively running around with a gun, you don’t need a warrant. That’s the way the system works.

That sounds reasonable. But it’s not what he was saying seven weeks ago, when he held up the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan because Attorney General Eric Holder would not foreswear the possibility that there was any circumstance under which the government would use a drone against an American in the United States.

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Last month Rand Paul energized conservatives with a filibuster on the Senate floor that allowed a broad national audience to see him as a principled politician who was willing to fight for beliefs rather than go along with Washington’s business-as-usual culture. Some of us thought the rationale for his moment of glory—concerns about possible use of drones on U.S. soil as well as his general opposition to what he called a “perpetual war” against Islamist terrorists—were not justified. But even critics like myself thought his exhibition demonstrated that there is room for the sort of high-minded approach to public policy that was once considered normative in the U.S. Senate but which is now quite rare. But it didn’t take long for all of Paul’s speechifying about drones to be revealed as somewhat hypocritical.

Though the Kentucky senator spent 13 hours on his legs explaining to the Senate why there could be no conceivable justification for the use of government drones against American citizens on March 6, yesterday he took a position on Neil Cavuto’s show on Fox News that those of us who disagreed with him in the first place were advocating:

PAUL: Here’s the distinction, Neil. I’ve never argued against any technology being used when you have an imminent threat, an active crime going on. If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and 50 dollars in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him. But it’s different if they want to fly over your hot tub or your yard just because they want to do surveillance on everyone and they want to watch your activities.

CAVUTO: What if, in pursuit of a crime, they discover something else that looks bad?

PAUL: We shouldn’t be willy-nilly looking into everyone’s back yard into what they’re doing. But if there is a killer on the loose in a neighborhood, I’m not against drones being used to search them out, heat-seeking devices being used, I’m all for law enforcement, I’m just not for surveillance when there’s not probable cause that a crime’s been committed. So, most of the time, you get a warrant, but if someone’s actively running around with a gun, you don’t need a warrant. That’s the way the system works.

That sounds reasonable. But it’s not what he was saying seven weeks ago, when he held up the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan because Attorney General Eric Holder would not foreswear the possibility that there was any circumstance under which the government would use a drone against an American in the United States.

Subsequent to his appearance on Cavuto, Paul’s office issued a statement that claimed that there had been no flip-flop. As Politico reports:

In his statement Tuesday, Paul clarified his remarks, saying that drones should only be “considered in extraordinary, lethal situations.”

“Armed drones should not be used in normal crime situations. They only may only be considered in extraordinary, lethal situations where there is an ongoing, imminent threat. I described that scenario previously during my Senate filibuster. Additionally, surveillance drones should only be used with warrants and specific targets,” Paul said in the statement.

Paul may claim, and his legion of followers who think he can do or say no wrong will agree, that this does not contradict his filibuster stand. But it does.

The whole point of the filibuster, which he repeated many times on the floor of the Senate during the course of his memorable performance, was that though he didn’t believe the Obama administration would use its power to suppress dissent or kill innocent Americans, some future government might do so. That’s why he took the position that the use of drone attacks here was simply off the table as unconstitutional–no matter what the circumstances.

Though I am no fan of Eric Holder, it was precisely the possibility of an “ongoing, lethal situation” that caused him to be reluctant to say that drones could never be used against a U.S. citizen at home. Paul tried to distort that position into one that posed the possibility that a future U.S. government might use a drone to knock off its political opponents or a Jane Fonda-style dissident, but that was an absurd interpretation of an entirely reasonable unwillingness to rule out the use of lethal force against a dangerous terrorist or criminal.

Paul may pretend there is no parallel between what he endorsed on Cavuto and the use of government force that he declared in the Senate to be a threat to our liberties, but it is a distinction without a difference. Lulled by a desire to show how tough he was on terrorists and criminals to say something about Boston, Paul committed a gaffe that illustrated the inconsistency of his position.

This kerfuffle won’t necessarily impact his run for the presidency in 2016, but it does illustrate that his drone obsession had more to do with his foreign policy views than a defense of the rule of law. The idea of using a theoretical drone attack on Americans in the U.S. as the point of the filibuster was a brilliant tactical decision since it allowed him to take the moral high ground that even attracted the support of some liberals. But Paul’s willingness to admit that there are scenarios where government can or even must use this power demonstrates that his oratory was all for show.

Rand Paul’s real problem with drones isn’t about their use in legitimate law enforcement activities at home but about their employment overseas against al-Qaeda terrorists. In his neo-isolationist view, the “perpetual war” against Islamists isn’t a good idea, and he wants it shut down even if the other side isn’t necessarily willing to call a cease-fire. There is good reason to believe that such views are becoming more popular in our war-weary nation, even with some Republicans. But his drone flip-flop yesterday makes it clear that his attempt to link that critique with possible abuses of civil liberties at home is more the product of science fiction or conspiracy theories than practical politics.

If Paul wants to talk about drones in the future, he should limit his comments to his views about the conflict with Islamist terrorists, which unfortunately opened up a new front in Boston last week. But after his appearance on Cavuto, Americans should have no patience with any further attempts on his part to claim their use at home is a matter of any real dispute.

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The Consequences of Ignoring Human Rights Violations

After 9/11, there was an explicit question at the heart of much of the security apparatus put into place at the federal level, as well as the efforts to streamline intelligence analysis, foster cooperation between agencies, and put an administrative umbrella over the process in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Why, we wondered, didn’t the government “connect the dots,” and how could we connect them in time in the future?

These were appropriate questions to ask, and they were asked again after the 9/11 anniversary attacks in Benghazi and now are being asked after the Boston Marathon bombings. Of particular concern is a trip to the Russian Caucasus taken by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the deceased older brother of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, both of whom are accused of carrying out the bombing and planning others. Tamerlan apparently spent much of 2012 in Chechnya and Dagestan, hotspots of Islamic extremism and home to Doku Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate, a breakaway Islamist authority and terrorist group. Early reports claimed Tamerlan caught the attention of the Russian security services, which alerted the FBI. Today, the Boston Globe reports that the Russians seemed particularly concerned about Tamerlan:

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After 9/11, there was an explicit question at the heart of much of the security apparatus put into place at the federal level, as well as the efforts to streamline intelligence analysis, foster cooperation between agencies, and put an administrative umbrella over the process in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Why, we wondered, didn’t the government “connect the dots,” and how could we connect them in time in the future?

These were appropriate questions to ask, and they were asked again after the 9/11 anniversary attacks in Benghazi and now are being asked after the Boston Marathon bombings. Of particular concern is a trip to the Russian Caucasus taken by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the deceased older brother of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, both of whom are accused of carrying out the bombing and planning others. Tamerlan apparently spent much of 2012 in Chechnya and Dagestan, hotspots of Islamic extremism and home to Doku Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate, a breakaway Islamist authority and terrorist group. Early reports claimed Tamerlan caught the attention of the Russian security services, which alerted the FBI. Today, the Boston Globe reports that the Russians seemed particularly concerned about Tamerlan:

Russian authorities contacted the US government with concerns about Tamerlan Tsarnaev not once but “multiple’’ times, including an alert it sent after he was first investigated by FBI agents in Boston, raising new questions about whether the FBI should have paid more attention to the suspected Boston Marathon bomber, US senators briefed on the inves­tigation said Tuesday.

The FBI has previously said it interviewed Tsarnaev in early 2011 after it was initially contacted by the ­Russians. In their review, completed in summer 2011, the bureau found no ­evidence that Tsarnaev was a threat. “The FBI requested but did not receive more specific or additional information from” Russia, the agency said last week.

Following a closed briefing of the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday, Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said he believed that Russia alerted the United States about Tsarnaev in “multiple contacts,” including at least once since October 2011.

It seems quite possible the FBI too easily dismissed clues, but there’s really more to this story, in defense of the FBI. Eli Lake touches on it at the Daily Beast, in which he discusses the fact that the corruption of the Russian security services, the FSB, is so thorough, and Vladimir Putin’s tactics used to pacify the Caucasus so brutal and heavy-handed, it’s difficult to know when to trust the FSB and when to assume the FSB is trying to get others to do its dirty work.

The truth is, however, it’s about more than just the Chechen conflict. And a perfect example of this is taking place today, as Russian opposition blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny’s trial begins. Navalny has brilliantly exposed official corruption in Russia, and less brilliantly allied himself with anyone opposed to Putin, including xenophobic nationalists. But he is a credible leader of the protest class and represents a threat to Putin in the political sphere. (He is charged with embezzlement, but a local investigation had already cleared him.)

Navalny’s case raises a question: his trial is infinitely more significant to Russia’s near-term political future (and to Putin’s) than the trial of the female punk group jailed for hooliganism for stomping around a Moscow cathedral. The girls earned benefit concerts as far away from Russia as New York City, and became a cause célèbre among their fellow musicians (though calling them “musicians” or “artists” is being a touch too kind to a group of masked vandals). Why doesn’t Navalny, who actually matters, get nearly the same attention?

Getting even less attention than Navalny will be the “Bolotnoye affair,” in which a large group of anti-Putin demonstrators will go to court in what opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov calls analogous to Stalinist show trials. Though it doesn’t speak well of the West to express its love of liberty only when it doesn’t really matter, there is more at stake to all this, and the Boston Marathon bombing should call our attention to it. Put simply: we should care about Russian political repression and human rights violations because they erode our own ability to protect ourselves. Human rights policy has national security implications. The Putin regime may tell us that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is a dangerous potential criminal–but they’ll say the same about Navalny the blogger or a punk rock protest group.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed Robert Amsterdam, who was for a time one of the attorneys representing Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch who challenged Putin politically and who now sits in a jail cell because of it with his assets claimed by the government. The Khodorkovsky case, and the Putin government that behaves like a criminal syndicate, represents a “tremendous danger for those people who want to deal with Russia, and it’s a tremendous danger for the United States, which has set up a policy of opportunism with Russia, that they call the reset,” Amsterdam had told me.

Though when we spoke he was no longer representing Khodorkovsky, Amsterdam clearly isn’t impartial in the matter. But it’s difficult to say he was wrong on the merits. Putin’s corruption, criminality, and dishonesty are not simply an internal matter. They have consequences, and we ignore them at our peril.

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The Misleading Fayyad Blame Game

The political demise of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad continues to drive much of the discussion about the dead-in-the-water Middle East peace process in the media. Thus, it’s no surprise that Fayyad’s No. 1 fan at the New York Times would weigh in today on the paper’s op-ed page to perform his own postmortem on the death of “Fayyadism.” Thomas Friedman, who modestly takes credit for coining the term, writes today that there is plenty of blame to go around for his favorite’s failure. He rightly notes that both PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party and their Hamas rivals always wanted to get rid of Fayyad–the factor that I wrote last week was the main reason Fayyadism was doomed from the start. But Friedman also puts forward a theory about the American and Israeli responsibility for Fayyad’s failure.

According to this line of argument, which is rapidly being incorporated into the catechism of Israel-bashers, the cutoff of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority by Congress as well as the withholding of various revenues by the Israelis precipitated Fayyad’s end. In this telling, without the cash to keep the Palestinian economy afloat, Fayyad’s reform agenda and administration rapidly collapsed, allowing his enemies to force him out. This narrative holds that it was these cuts, which were implemented to punish the PA for its decision to go to the United Nations to pursue independence rather than to negotiate for it in peace talks, were counterproductive and ultimately responsible for the exit of the only Palestinian leader who could be said to care about his people or peace.

But while this way of looking at things is convenient for those who always prefer to blame the Israelis and the pro-Israel community in the United States for everything that happens in the Middle East, it is completely illogical.

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The political demise of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad continues to drive much of the discussion about the dead-in-the-water Middle East peace process in the media. Thus, it’s no surprise that Fayyad’s No. 1 fan at the New York Times would weigh in today on the paper’s op-ed page to perform his own postmortem on the death of “Fayyadism.” Thomas Friedman, who modestly takes credit for coining the term, writes today that there is plenty of blame to go around for his favorite’s failure. He rightly notes that both PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party and their Hamas rivals always wanted to get rid of Fayyad–the factor that I wrote last week was the main reason Fayyadism was doomed from the start. But Friedman also puts forward a theory about the American and Israeli responsibility for Fayyad’s failure.

According to this line of argument, which is rapidly being incorporated into the catechism of Israel-bashers, the cutoff of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority by Congress as well as the withholding of various revenues by the Israelis precipitated Fayyad’s end. In this telling, without the cash to keep the Palestinian economy afloat, Fayyad’s reform agenda and administration rapidly collapsed, allowing his enemies to force him out. This narrative holds that it was these cuts, which were implemented to punish the PA for its decision to go to the United Nations to pursue independence rather than to negotiate for it in peace talks, were counterproductive and ultimately responsible for the exit of the only Palestinian leader who could be said to care about his people or peace.

But while this way of looking at things is convenient for those who always prefer to blame the Israelis and the pro-Israel community in the United States for everything that happens in the Middle East, it is completely illogical.

As even Friedman admits, Fayyad was adamantly opposed to the PA’s UN gambit that was nothing more than a way to evade peace talks since Abbas was unable and/or unwilling to ever make a deal with the Israelis. By placing the full force of U.S. policy on the same side as Fayyad, the Obama administration, Congress and Israel were backing up the PA prime minister, not undermining him. The PA remains completely dependent on foreign aid from the West, and using this leverage was the only way for President Obama and the Israelis to convey to Abbas that he should listen to Fayyad rather than make a grand gesture at the UN that would do nothing for the Palestinian people.

Fayyad was, of course, completely right. Abbas’s end run around the U.S.-sponsored peace process did nothing for the Palestinians. Though, after more than a year of effort, they got the UN General Assembly to pass a symbolic measure that upgraded the PA’s observer status at the world body, that did not bring them the independence that could only be won by ending the conflict with Israel.

But instead of admitting that Fayyad was correct, the Fatah Party blamed him for the collapse of the kleptocracy that was funded by foreign money. Palestinian woes were not the fault of Fayyad’s austerity policies but the fruit of a system in which no-work and no-show jobs for a vast army of Fatah backers was the backbone of the West Bank’s economy. For all of Fayyad’s much-praised efforts to improve the PA’s government and to create economic growth, he remained unable to change that fundamental fact of Palestinian life. The so-called “diplomatic tsunami” that was supposed to overwhelm Israel as a result of this debate also fizzled.

Friedman acknowledges that there is no hope for the Palestinians so long as “there is no place” for a man like Fayyad in their government. But he fails to draw the proper conclusions from this point. The Fatah party that had no use for a person who was an obstacle to their corrupt practices sabotaged Fayyad. But the reason why they could get away with this is that Fayyad had no political constituency of his own. That was not just because he was more of a technocrat than a politician. The lack of any appreciable support for Fayyad demonstrates that the Palestinian political culture remains hostile to his message of development and coexistence. Though left-wing critics of Israel continue to pretend that Palestinians want peace, terror-oriented groups like Fatah and Hamas can count on a virtual monopoly of public support in both the West Bank and Gaza.

While Friedman admits that Arab dissatisfaction with autocrats like Hosni Mubarak or Mahmoud Abbas won’t inevitably lead to liberalism, he still holds to the idea that if Fayyad had been given enough foreign support, he might have prevailed. In fact, he did have the support of the U.S. and Israel, but there isn’t enough money in the United States or Israel to buy Fayyad a loyal base of Palestinian supporters. Blaming the pro-Israel community in the United States—Friedman’s favorite whipping boy that he alleges has “bought” Congress—for seeking to hold the PA accountable for its actions is absurd.

If the two-state solution to the Middle East conflict is dead, it is not because some Israelis and Americans have not tried hard enough to help a friendly Palestinian. It is because that favored Palestinian hadn’t the support at home to keep him going. Until there is a sea change in Palestinian culture to allow a Fayyad to succeed, no amount of U.S. aid or Israeli diplomatic concessions will create a viable partner with whom the Jewish state can make peace. 

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WMD Deterrence in Syria

There is one more lesson to draw from Israeli revelations about Syria’s alleged use of sarin gas against insurgents, which Max Boot commented on yesterday. Middle East dictators’ arms procurement, whether through purchases abroad or domestic production, was always geared first and foremost toward enabling their armies to crush internal dissent.

The Assad family always justified its WMD arsenal as a necessary step to achieve strategic parity with Israel in a classic deterrence game. And whether that was all they had in mind vis-à-vis Israel, deterrence worked at the state-to-state level. But regardless of whether Israel’s assessment is correct, when it comes to domestic enemies, nothing will deter a dictator whose life and power are at stake.

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There is one more lesson to draw from Israeli revelations about Syria’s alleged use of sarin gas against insurgents, which Max Boot commented on yesterday. Middle East dictators’ arms procurement, whether through purchases abroad or domestic production, was always geared first and foremost toward enabling their armies to crush internal dissent.

The Assad family always justified its WMD arsenal as a necessary step to achieve strategic parity with Israel in a classic deterrence game. And whether that was all they had in mind vis-à-vis Israel, deterrence worked at the state-to-state level. But regardless of whether Israel’s assessment is correct, when it comes to domestic enemies, nothing will deter a dictator whose life and power are at stake.

With all the hoarding of weapons we have seen over decades in repressive countries like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Assad’s Syria, at the moment of truth, the main use for such weapons (Assad in 1982 against the Muslim brothers in Hama, Saddam in the 1988 Anfal campaign to exterminate the Kurds and 1991 against Kurds and Shi’ites) was against domestic opponents, not foreign enemies.

Whether Syria’s use of sarin gas against its own people still requires conclusive proof, one can be sure that sooner or later, Middle East regimes will always turn their weapons against their own people. As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel tours the region offering weapons deals to U.S. allies, we should take note of that and remember that countries like Saudi Arabia will have less scruples using American weaponry to kill their own internal dissidents if need be than to contain Iran. And that while U.S. weaponry sold to Egypt might not give the Egyptian military a qualitative edge of Israel’s might, it will certainly facilitate the crushing of dissent in future disturbances.

Given that Middle East dictators have only balked at the use of weapons against their own people when the army refused to shoot–not out of any moral qualms–when it comes to WMD arsenals, that also means that unscrupulous rulers should never have access to WMD’s–watch Syria, think Iran.

Pre-emptive action against any further recourse to such weapons is therefore imperative–not just on humanitarian grounds, but also on deterrent ones.

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Metaphysics and Politics in the Modern Age

In a National Affairs essay, my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague George Weigel writes about the importance of metaphysics to our political and social life. 

According to Weigel, “there is a morally significant givenness to reality: a structure of The Way Things Are that can be discerned by reason and that, being known, disclosed certain truths about the way we should live.” He goes on to argue that “public policy that fosters individual human flourishing and the common good must take account of reality, and realities”–but worries that a “post-modern insouciance” about the deep truths embedded in the world and in us is having, and will continue to have, profoundly harmful effects on American society. We live in a time in which everything is up for grabs, in which many people view the human condition as plastic and malleable, and that “in a culture without metaphysics, the one trump card in public life becomes individual willfulness.”

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In a National Affairs essay, my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague George Weigel writes about the importance of metaphysics to our political and social life. 

According to Weigel, “there is a morally significant givenness to reality: a structure of The Way Things Are that can be discerned by reason and that, being known, disclosed certain truths about the way we should live.” He goes on to argue that “public policy that fosters individual human flourishing and the common good must take account of reality, and realities”–but worries that a “post-modern insouciance” about the deep truths embedded in the world and in us is having, and will continue to have, profoundly harmful effects on American society. We live in a time in which everything is up for grabs, in which many people view the human condition as plastic and malleable, and that “in a culture without metaphysics, the one trump card in public life becomes individual willfulness.”

In the similar vein, Ken Myers, host and creator of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, recently interviewed Adrian Pabst of the University of Kent on metaphysics. In the course of their discussion Myers pointed out that “our peculiarly modern disorders are tied to confusion regarding metaphysics.” Politics today typically excludes the question of the nature of things, he argues–and added that we falsely assume we can talk about things like wealth creation, justice, marriage and other matters without talking about what things are real and which are not. “Behind public policy is a vision of the common good,” according to Myers, “and behind a vision of the common good is a vision of the good.” What we need to do is retrieve metaphysics from the shadows if we hope to get things right.

I’m quite sympathetic to these arguments, including for entirely practical reasons. Because the suppositions we begin with determine the lives we lead, the laws we pass, the institutions we build, and the civilizations we create.

And so, for example, the architects of our Republic not only carefully studied history; they made judgments about human nature and designed a constitutional form of government around them. Men are not angels, but they are capable of virtue. We are capable of self-government but not to be trusted with absolute power. Adam Smith, a moral philosopher, believed capitalism depended on taking into account self-interest. It makes a world of difference, then, if we operate on the assumptions of Rousseau or Jefferson, Nietzsche or St. Paul, Marx or Madison.

Now it would be silly to expect ordinary Americans to sound like graduates of the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. At the same time, it really would help our political discourse if we paid a bit more attention to metaphysical premises, if for no other reason than to identify, with some precision, points of intellectual, moral and political departure. Doing this may not resolve our political conflicts, but it would go some distance toward clarifying them. And once having done that, we can then explain, hopefully with care and persuasiveness, that philosophical errors at the beginning can lead to human suffering at the end, just as getting things right at the outset can result in human flourishing and fulfillment.

As a well-known carpenter from the first century put it, you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.

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Julia, Meet Carina

Donald Douglas at the American Power blog highlights a story in the New York Times about Denmark’s welfare-state “rethink.” The Danish government is trying to rein in its celebrated largess in part because a parliamentarian has exposed a particular Danish dependent:

The 36-year-old single mother, given the pseudonym “Carina” in the news media, had more money to spend than many of the country’s full-time workers. All told, she was getting about $2,700 a month, and she had been on welfare since she was 16.

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Donald Douglas at the American Power blog highlights a story in the New York Times about Denmark’s welfare-state “rethink.” The Danish government is trying to rein in its celebrated largess in part because a parliamentarian has exposed a particular Danish dependent:

The 36-year-old single mother, given the pseudonym “Carina” in the news media, had more money to spend than many of the country’s full-time workers. All told, she was getting about $2,700 a month, and she had been on welfare since she was 16.

In an effort to make sure that “people like Carina do not exist in the future,” Denmark is trying to inject a little work ethic into its loafer’s paradise:

About 240,000 people — roughly 9 percent of the potential work force — have lifetime disability status; about 33,500 of them are under 40. The government has proposed ending that status for those under 40, unless they have a mental or physical condition that is so severe that it keeps them from working.

You mean only give disability to people with disabilities?

Instead of offering disability, the government intends to assign individuals to “rehabilitation teams” to come up with one- to five-year plans that could include counseling, social-skills training and education as well as a state-subsidized job, at least in the beginning. The idea is to have them working at least part time, or studying.

“Social-skills training.” The welfare-state experiment has so thoroughly deformed its human lab rats the poor creatures can’t be let back into the general population without teams of trainers to coach them through the reintegration process. Never mind the bit about running out of other people’s money, the deeper problem is that socialism turns the acquisition of dignity into a trauma.

Barack Obama doesn’t see that The Life of Julia is the unavoidable precursor to the no-life of Carina. All it takes to get from one to the other is a generation. Once you’ve established a cohort of cradle-to-gravers who’ve never known the difference between government subsidy and government, everything slides inexorably Carinawards.  

America’s welfare state is growing even as Denmark’s undergoes its emergency liposuction. When Julia and Carina pass each other, two ships in democratic socialism’s long night, hopefully the social-skills training has kicked in and they can wish each other a none-too-awkward bon voyage.

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