Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 19, 2013

Accepting Responsibility Would Blow Obama’s Circuits

Barack Obama, speaking to a crowd in Baltimore on Friday, said, “I know it can seem frustrating sometimes when it seems like Washington’s priorities aren’t the same as your priorities. I know it often seems like folks down there are more concerned with their jobs than with yours.”

Earlier in the week, when speaking about the IRS scandal, Obama said, “I’ve reviewed the Treasury Department watchdog’s report, and the misconduct that it uncovered is inexcusable. It’s inexcusable, and Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it. I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency, but especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives.”

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Barack Obama, speaking to a crowd in Baltimore on Friday, said, “I know it can seem frustrating sometimes when it seems like Washington’s priorities aren’t the same as your priorities. I know it often seems like folks down there are more concerned with their jobs than with yours.”

Earlier in the week, when speaking about the IRS scandal, Obama said, “I’ve reviewed the Treasury Department watchdog’s report, and the misconduct that it uncovered is inexcusable. It’s inexcusable, and Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it. I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency, but especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives.”

Cleaning up Washington’s various corruptions and insular, out-of-touch ways would make a powerful platform if he was preparing to run for president one day. The problem for Obama is that he is president and has been for four years and four months. In our modern-day system of government, he is first among equals when it comes to having responsibility for “Washington’s priorities.” And he certainly has responsibility for an agency which is part of the executive branch, which he after all oversees.

Mr. Obama has shown himself to be a chronic blame-shifter, whether he’s pointing fingers at his predecessor, ATMs, the Arab Spring, tsunamis and earthquakes, Europe, the GOP, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Super PACs, the Supreme Court, the Chamber of Commerce, and countless other people and organizations. He simply is unable to take responsibility for the problems that have occurred on his watch.

My guess is that the reasons are rooted in cognitive dissonance. Mr. Obama views himself as a transformational, world-historical figure. But as his failures mount one atop the other–from the Affordable Care Act and his stimulus package, to the worst economic recovery on record, to the collapse of his foreign policy, to mounting scandals–the president simply cannot process it. To accept responsibility would blow his circuits. And so he seems to have developed several coping mechanisms–including blaming others and pretending that what is happening in Washington has nothing at all to do with him.

But back here on Planet Earth, it does. Mr. Obama could be at the stage where he is simply unable to accept reality; it may be that the president now disassociates himself from his actions. This condition is not something you want to find in any individual; it’s one that’s particularly alarming to find in a chief executive.

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Why the al-Dura Blood Libel Still Matters

Nearly 13 years ago, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak journeyed to Camp David to end the conflict with the Palestinians. With the approval of President Clinton, he offered Yasir Arafat an independent Palestinian state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and in part of Jerusalem. Arafat said no. A couple of months later, the Palestinians put an exclamation mark on that refusal by launching the terrorist offensive that came to be known as the second intifada. Yet in spite of the fact that it was the Palestinians who had rejected peace and who were engaging in terror attacks on Israeli targets that would cost more than 1,000 Israeli lives, they were still portrayed in much of the Western media as the victims. While the process that brought about this perplexing reversal was complex, one particular incident became the symbol of this vicious distortion: the Muhammad al-Dura affair.

The story promoted at the time by the Palestinian propaganda machine was that Israeli army fire killed a small boy while he and his father were seeking shelter from fighting near a Gaza checkpoint. Film footage provided by French TV made this tragedy an international cause célèbre and an official Israeli apology reinforced the Palestinian narrative and helped turn al-Dura into the poster child for Israeli beastliness and their own suffering. Yet soon doubts began to surface about the veracity of the claim of Israeli responsibility and the discrepancies and falsehoods in the Palestinian narrative were exposed in various Western outlets. Over the years, the initial story has been debunked in a variety of places. A German documentary proved that the shots that killed the boy could not have come from Israeli positions and French gadfly Phillipe Karsenty, who pointed out the original report was false, was sued in the courts by prominent journalist Charles Enderlin (who had broadcast the initial lie) but ultimately vindicated. Now it appears the Israeli government has finally caught up to the problem and issued what may be a definitive report that comes to the harshest possible conclusion about the al-Dura myth. As Haaretz reports:

Thirteen years after an exchange of fire in Gaza appeared to have resulted in the death of a Palestinian boy at the start of the second intifada, an Israeli investigative panel has found “there are many indications” that Mohammed al-Dura and his father, Jamal, “were never hit by gunfire” – neither Israeli nor Palestinian – after all.

The national panel of inquiry further claims that contrary to the famed report carried by the France 2 television network on the day of the incident, September 30, 2000, 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura appears to be alive at the end of the complete footage captured of the event.

The response to this report is predictable. The Muslim and Arab world will reject any investigation into it that will not accept their narrative. But more troubling will be the answer from many in the West and even in Israel who will ask why anyone should bother with such an old story. We should, they will assert, care about how to end the conflict, not who killed al-Dura. For Israel or its friends to spend any time on this issue is a diversion of effort from the peace process that will only anger Palestinians who will say that any argument about the incident demonstrates insensitivity, even if the facts are correct. But anyone who doubts the importance of debunking what has become a new version of the old Jewish blood libel is the one who is wrong.

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Nearly 13 years ago, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak journeyed to Camp David to end the conflict with the Palestinians. With the approval of President Clinton, he offered Yasir Arafat an independent Palestinian state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and in part of Jerusalem. Arafat said no. A couple of months later, the Palestinians put an exclamation mark on that refusal by launching the terrorist offensive that came to be known as the second intifada. Yet in spite of the fact that it was the Palestinians who had rejected peace and who were engaging in terror attacks on Israeli targets that would cost more than 1,000 Israeli lives, they were still portrayed in much of the Western media as the victims. While the process that brought about this perplexing reversal was complex, one particular incident became the symbol of this vicious distortion: the Muhammad al-Dura affair.

The story promoted at the time by the Palestinian propaganda machine was that Israeli army fire killed a small boy while he and his father were seeking shelter from fighting near a Gaza checkpoint. Film footage provided by French TV made this tragedy an international cause célèbre and an official Israeli apology reinforced the Palestinian narrative and helped turn al-Dura into the poster child for Israeli beastliness and their own suffering. Yet soon doubts began to surface about the veracity of the claim of Israeli responsibility and the discrepancies and falsehoods in the Palestinian narrative were exposed in various Western outlets. Over the years, the initial story has been debunked in a variety of places. A German documentary proved that the shots that killed the boy could not have come from Israeli positions and French gadfly Phillipe Karsenty, who pointed out the original report was false, was sued in the courts by prominent journalist Charles Enderlin (who had broadcast the initial lie) but ultimately vindicated. Now it appears the Israeli government has finally caught up to the problem and issued what may be a definitive report that comes to the harshest possible conclusion about the al-Dura myth. As Haaretz reports:

Thirteen years after an exchange of fire in Gaza appeared to have resulted in the death of a Palestinian boy at the start of the second intifada, an Israeli investigative panel has found “there are many indications” that Mohammed al-Dura and his father, Jamal, “were never hit by gunfire” – neither Israeli nor Palestinian – after all.

The national panel of inquiry further claims that contrary to the famed report carried by the France 2 television network on the day of the incident, September 30, 2000, 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura appears to be alive at the end of the complete footage captured of the event.

The response to this report is predictable. The Muslim and Arab world will reject any investigation into it that will not accept their narrative. But more troubling will be the answer from many in the West and even in Israel who will ask why anyone should bother with such an old story. We should, they will assert, care about how to end the conflict, not who killed al-Dura. For Israel or its friends to spend any time on this issue is a diversion of effort from the peace process that will only anger Palestinians who will say that any argument about the incident demonstrates insensitivity, even if the facts are correct. But anyone who doubts the importance of debunking what has become a new version of the old Jewish blood libel is the one who is wrong.

There have been many good accounts of this affair, including this piece by Nidra Poller published in COMMENTARY in September 2005. I’ve also written about it on our blog several times, including this piece from last year about the French court case. Yet even before those were published one of the first Western accounts of the al-Dura affair got to the heart of this problem. James Fallows’s June 2003 article in the Atlantic, “Who Shot Mohammed al-Dura?” pointed out not just the fact that there was good reason to doubt the initial version of the story but that the facts wouldn’t change anyone’s mind because of the iconic status of the photo allegedly depicting the boy and his father. Indeed, he seemed to suggest in a deconstructionist spirit that objective truth was itself impossible since both sides sought to create their own facts in order to prove they were right.

Fallows had a point about the intractable nature of this debate. But the problem here is that the lie about al-Dura isn’t peripheral to the widespread misperceptions about the overall conflict. If, as I wrote last month, a mainstream media figure like CNN and Time magazine’s Fareed Zakaria can assert that Israel has never offered peace to the Palestinians, and get away with it, there is something profoundly wrong with the way our culture has accepted Palestinian lies as either reasonable assertions or even truths. It’s not just that the Israelis didn’t kill al-Dura; it’s that the fault for the continuation of the conflict at the moment in history when he was supposedly slain rests almost completely on the people who have elevated him to sainthood and used his mythical spilled blood to justify boycotts of Israel.

This story matters not because the truth can help undermine efforts to isolate Israel. It’s important because so long as the Arab and Muslim world clings to its blood libels all talk about peace is futile. The “Pallywood” productions, of which the al-Dura hoax is the most prominent, haven’t just deceived the West. They’ve also reinforced the Palestinian myths about themselves. As such, they’ve done more real damage to the prospects of peace than any Israeli settlement. Unless and until the Palestinians give up their campaign of incitement against Israelis and Jews and stop seeking to depict this conflict as one in which they are only the victims of a violent Zionist plot, there is no hope for any solution, let alone the two-state solution most in Israel and the West believe in. 

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Pfeiffer’s Hypocrisy: IRS and Abu Ghraib

Speaking on Face the Nation, White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer tried to deflect blame for the brewing IRS scandal by arguing that the only way the scandal might have involved President Obama is if the president had actively sought to interfere in the IRS inspector general’s report. According to Politico.com’s coverage:

Pfeiffer said that the administration followed the “cardinal rule” of all White Houses. “You do nothing to interfere with an independent investigation and you do nothing to offer the appearance of interfering with investigations,” Pfeiffer said. Once informed, the White House officials responded after they had the facts, he said. Obama has come under fire from Republicans and others for being slow to respond and for saying that he learned only recently of the investigation into IRS officials targeting tea party groups. “What we waited for were the facts,” Pfeiffer said. “It’s important to get out there fast, but it’s important to get out there right.”

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Speaking on Face the Nation, White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer tried to deflect blame for the brewing IRS scandal by arguing that the only way the scandal might have involved President Obama is if the president had actively sought to interfere in the IRS inspector general’s report. According to Politico.com’s coverage:

Pfeiffer said that the administration followed the “cardinal rule” of all White Houses. “You do nothing to interfere with an independent investigation and you do nothing to offer the appearance of interfering with investigations,” Pfeiffer said. Once informed, the White House officials responded after they had the facts, he said. Obama has come under fire from Republicans and others for being slow to respond and for saying that he learned only recently of the investigation into IRS officials targeting tea party groups. “What we waited for were the facts,” Pfeiffer said. “It’s important to get out there fast, but it’s important to get out there right.”

To be fair, Pfeiffer is right that much of what we know about the scandal is because the inspector general’s office at the IRS was doing its job, although the bipartisan outrage has resulted from realization of just how corrupt the IRS became under Obama’s watch.

However, where Obama’s hypocrisy shines through is when Pfeiffer’s answer to this question is juxtaposed with the manner in which many partisans treated the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq. Here is Slate.com’s Fred Kaplan, for example:

The White House is about to get hit by the biggest tsunami since the Iran-Contra affair, maybe since Watergate. President George W. Bush is trapped inside the compound, immobilized by his own stay-the-course campaign strategy. Can he escape the massive tidal waves? Maybe. But at this point, it’s not clear how. If today’s investigative shockers—Seymour Hersh’s latest article in The New Yorker and a three-part piece in Newsweek—are true, it’s hard to avoid concluding that responsibility for the Abu Ghraib atrocities goes straight to the top, both in the Pentagon and the White House….

That scandal was not uncovered by investigative reporters but, in parallel to today’s IRS scandal, when the internal Defense Department investigation leaked to the press. Yep, that’s right: The Pentagon had learned about the abuses, had investigated them, and moved to shut them down. It was only after the abuses ceased that The New Yorker and Sixty Minutes II published word of what went on at Abu Ghraib. Make no mistake: the abuses at Abu Ghraib were inexcusable. Frankly, I wish Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld had heeded the policy recommendation the policy shop in which I had worked had put forward: dynamite Abu Ghraib as soon as control over Iraq is consolidated, because the prison was already a symbol of the worst excesses of Saddam Hussein’s rule. With the report’s damning findings, Rumsfeld rightly offered to resign. Twice. Whatever Rumsfeld’s faults, he did not view accountability as a dirty word.

With all due respect to Mr. Pfeiffer, that the IRS inspector general identified the abuse is neither here nor there, just as with Abu Ghraib. The fact of the matter is that the abuse occurred, and the IRS sought to use its powers to play politics, and then apparently held the report until after the elections in order to further insulate Obama’s team from public accountability.

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The Russians Are Happy with John Kerry

Last week John Kerry went to Moscow to persuade the Russians to play nice with the rest of the international community on Syria. While he would have liked to have them join in the effort to force the Assad regime out of office, his hope was to at least get the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin to not further strengthen their Syrian client. The only bone Putin was prepared to throw Kerry was backing a proposal to hold a peace conference on Syria next month. But within a few days, the Russian contempt for the Obama administration and its new secretary of state was made all too clear with the news that they were shipping advanced missiles to Damascus that would be perfectly suited to threaten any Western ships or bases in the region that might resupply the Syrian rebels or enforce a no-fly zone in the country. In other words, the Russians demonstrated that when it comes to Syria, they have more in common with Iran and Hezbollah than the United States.

This ought to have been understood to be a sobering development for the administration that calls into question not just Kerry’s competence but a strategy that envisions leveraging a reset of relations with Russia into progress on Syria as well as dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. But as the New York Times reports, Kerry is undaunted by the evidence of his failure and is instead concentrating on making friends with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. The result is, as the Times says, a “change in tone” in the relations between the two countries even if it has not actually advanced American interests.

While there is a case to be made for diplomats keeping the lines of communication open, what recent events have shown is that Kerry is not so much keeping the Russians informed of American positions as he has signaled to them that the U.S. is ready to bow to Moscow’s will. The news that, as the Times makes clear, the Russians are well pleased with Kerry ought to set off alarms in Washington.

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Last week John Kerry went to Moscow to persuade the Russians to play nice with the rest of the international community on Syria. While he would have liked to have them join in the effort to force the Assad regime out of office, his hope was to at least get the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin to not further strengthen their Syrian client. The only bone Putin was prepared to throw Kerry was backing a proposal to hold a peace conference on Syria next month. But within a few days, the Russian contempt for the Obama administration and its new secretary of state was made all too clear with the news that they were shipping advanced missiles to Damascus that would be perfectly suited to threaten any Western ships or bases in the region that might resupply the Syrian rebels or enforce a no-fly zone in the country. In other words, the Russians demonstrated that when it comes to Syria, they have more in common with Iran and Hezbollah than the United States.

This ought to have been understood to be a sobering development for the administration that calls into question not just Kerry’s competence but a strategy that envisions leveraging a reset of relations with Russia into progress on Syria as well as dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. But as the New York Times reports, Kerry is undaunted by the evidence of his failure and is instead concentrating on making friends with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. The result is, as the Times says, a “change in tone” in the relations between the two countries even if it has not actually advanced American interests.

While there is a case to be made for diplomats keeping the lines of communication open, what recent events have shown is that Kerry is not so much keeping the Russians informed of American positions as he has signaled to them that the U.S. is ready to bow to Moscow’s will. The news that, as the Times makes clear, the Russians are well pleased with Kerry ought to set off alarms in Washington.

The premise of the Times feature is quite clear. While Kerry’s predecessor Hillary Clinton worked hard to butter up the Russians and get them to play ball, Putin and his minions were displeased by her occasional willingness to speak up about human rights violations as well as her assertive statements about Iran and Syria. But in Kerry Moscow has found its perfect American secretary of state: a man willing to both appease them on policy as well as one determined not to offend their sensibilities. As the Times notes, Putin and Lavrov like Kerry a lot more than they did Clinton, let alone her predecessor Condoleezza Rice.

Lavrov appears to have Kerry’s number. It is hardly surprising that Kerry, who once embraced Assad as a moderate, would turn out to be a spineless secretary of state on this front. Sweet-talking the secretary and appealing to his delusions about his diplomatic skill have enabled them to double down on their efforts to strengthen Assad without incurring much American outrage. Kerry is so happy with the idea of a conference where he can play Metternich that he doesn’t seem to have noticed that the plans for this conclave are serving to delay any American action to punish Assad for crossing President Obama’s red lines about the use of chemical weapons. And Assad is using the time the Russians have helped buy him well, as his forces have gained considerable ground in recent weeks making it more likely than ever that Obama and Kerry’s predictions about his fall were wrong.

Yet Kerry seems satisfied by what, as one source told the Times, is his rapport with Lavrov. We are told the two have bonded over “their mutual love for hockey and the grace of the older school style.”

But the main result of all this schmoozing is the stark fact that the bottom line here is that the United States has buckled under to Moscow:

Mikhail V. Margelov, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, said that Russia’s position on Syria had been consistent and that Mr. Kerry had finally accepted it.

John Kerry isn’t the first American to be taken to the cleaners by the Russians, but it’s doubtful that any of his predecessors were fleeced so effortlessly. 

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Curtailing Bangladesh Investment Is Short-Sighted

The April 24 collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza, a building hosting numerous garment factories on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, has now claimed more than 1,100 lives. There is no mitigating the disaster for the families of those killed or maimed, or for the nation of Bangladesh.

I had the true pleasure of spending a week in Bangladesh back in December 2008. After having spent time in Pakistan, Bangladesh is a breath of fresh air. While the specter of extremism, aggrievement, an embrace of terrorism and an obsession with its neighbors permeates Pakistan and Pakistani society, Bangladesh exudes tolerance and a general desire by its people that the fate of their country is in their own hands. Much of the difference between the two outlooks rests in the brutal birth of Bangladesh. Its 1971 independence war claimed upwards of 850,000 lives—far more than in Bosnia or the past two years of Syrian atrocities. Pakistan—which controlled what is now Bangladesh from 1947-1971—sought a state based on religious identity. Bengalis, who generally embraced much more moderate interpretations of Islam, embraced ethnic and cultural identities beyond religion. More than four decades later, Pakistanis who organize around ethnicity or secular ideas are considered traitors, and religious parties reign supreme. The opposite is true in Bangladesh.

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The April 24 collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza, a building hosting numerous garment factories on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, has now claimed more than 1,100 lives. There is no mitigating the disaster for the families of those killed or maimed, or for the nation of Bangladesh.

I had the true pleasure of spending a week in Bangladesh back in December 2008. After having spent time in Pakistan, Bangladesh is a breath of fresh air. While the specter of extremism, aggrievement, an embrace of terrorism and an obsession with its neighbors permeates Pakistan and Pakistani society, Bangladesh exudes tolerance and a general desire by its people that the fate of their country is in their own hands. Much of the difference between the two outlooks rests in the brutal birth of Bangladesh. Its 1971 independence war claimed upwards of 850,000 lives—far more than in Bosnia or the past two years of Syrian atrocities. Pakistan—which controlled what is now Bangladesh from 1947-1971—sought a state based on religious identity. Bengalis, who generally embraced much more moderate interpretations of Islam, embraced ethnic and cultural identities beyond religion. More than four decades later, Pakistanis who organize around ethnicity or secular ideas are considered traitors, and religious parties reign supreme. The opposite is true in Bangladesh.

The shrill reaction in the West to the Rana Plaza disaster risks taking a tragedy and compounding it multifold. The failure to enforce building codes is criminal, and should be punished. But to suggest—as Pope Francis did when he declared, “Living on 38 euros ($50) a month … That is called slave labor,” is nonsense. Many British NGOs, however, are following his lead. Six hundred dollars a year might be a pittance in Italy or Argentina—and it may not make someone comfortably middle class in Bangladesh—but it is a livable wage, and one which can be used to improve one’s family. Bangladesh may be one of the poorer countries on earth—but it is no Haiti, Afghanistan, Nepal, or even Rwanda.

However, in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster, Disney pulled out of Bangladesh. “After much thought and discussion we felt this was the most responsible way to manage the challenges associated with our supply chain,” Bob Chapek, president of Disney Consumer Products, told CNN. Other major chains and brand names may follow suit. To do so, however, would be to compound the problem.

Bangladesh’s greatest asset is its people. To demand that Bangladeshi industry operate by the same standards that developed Western economies do is to take away from Bangladesh its competitive advantage. To pull out of Bangladesh is to punish the hundreds of thousands of people who seek work. In past episodes in which Western do-gooders sought to crack down on underage labor, the result was a huge spike in child prostitution and other illegal and socially corrosive activities. If Bangladeshis are put out of work, they will also become more susceptible to groups like Jamaat-e-Islami which are becoming steadily more aggressive, as well as Saudi charities that seek to make inroads into the country with the fifth largest Muslim population. Few Islamic charities are strings-free.  

Rather than kick the Bangladeshis while they are down, a far better strategy would be to ensure that the government adheres to the workplace safety reforms that were already underway at the time of last month’s disaster. Corporate responsibility should not simply be to react to the politically correct winds of the West’s chattering class, but to also consider what might actually improve the societies and best aid the people in which they operate.

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