Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 29, 2013

Blame Obama, Not Israel for Syria Push

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Housing Collapse Has a Lesson for the Ages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Holder’s Post-9/11 Backlash Myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is Gillibrand Dems’ Best Backup?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Problem with Iran Sanctions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Mahan Air.

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

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

Or is it?

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

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

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

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

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Red Line or Punch Line?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Salman Rushdie and Moral Courage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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America’s Schizophrenic Views Toward the Nanny State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

America can sometimes be a most curious country.   

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The Embittered Sarah Palin

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

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

palinscreenshot

 On her Facebook page Palin added this:

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

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

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

palinscreenshot

 On her Facebook page Palin added this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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