Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 24, 2013

Don’t Ignore Olmert’s Lesson in Futility

Those who choose to absolve the Palestinians of any responsibility for their own plight are faced with a difficult dilemma. After 20 years of peace processing that have included enormous concessions on the part of Israel, including the empowerment of the PLO in the West Bank and Gaza via Oslo, the withdrawal from Gaza and three separate offers of an independent Palestinian state that the Palestinian Authority rejected, it ought to be impossible for an objective observer to argue that Israel has not tried to make peace. But that hasn’t the stopped the Arab and Muslim worlds as well as American and Jewish apologists for the Palestinians from still trying to portray them as the victims of an intransigent Israel. When confronted with the chance for statehood they were given in 2000, 2001 and 2008, they argue that the offers were insufficient even if it isn’t clear what, short of Israel’s dissolution, would satisfy them.

These are important facts to remember as Secretary of State John Kerry tries to restart the peace talks the Palestinians have boycotted for four and half years. Though the political realities of Palestinian life—the most stark of which is the fact that the Islamists of Hamas control Gaza and exercise an effective veto over peace—make it clear his effort is a fool’s errand, Kerry and those inclined to blame Israel for the lack of peace are hoping to get the Palestinians back to the table and to agree to what they’ve already repeatedly rejected. It is in that context that we should understand the importance of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recollections of his 2008 attempt to make a deal with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert gives a detailed accounting of his negotiations with Abbas in an interview in The Tower, which is important not just as a matter of historical detail and the curious fact that he and Abbas sketched out the proposed borders of a deal on a napkin and then on a piece of stationery. By explaining just how far-reaching the Israeli offer was, Olmert demonstrates just how empty the Palestinian excuses for their refusal to make peace really are.

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Those who choose to absolve the Palestinians of any responsibility for their own plight are faced with a difficult dilemma. After 20 years of peace processing that have included enormous concessions on the part of Israel, including the empowerment of the PLO in the West Bank and Gaza via Oslo, the withdrawal from Gaza and three separate offers of an independent Palestinian state that the Palestinian Authority rejected, it ought to be impossible for an objective observer to argue that Israel has not tried to make peace. But that hasn’t the stopped the Arab and Muslim worlds as well as American and Jewish apologists for the Palestinians from still trying to portray them as the victims of an intransigent Israel. When confronted with the chance for statehood they were given in 2000, 2001 and 2008, they argue that the offers were insufficient even if it isn’t clear what, short of Israel’s dissolution, would satisfy them.

These are important facts to remember as Secretary of State John Kerry tries to restart the peace talks the Palestinians have boycotted for four and half years. Though the political realities of Palestinian life—the most stark of which is the fact that the Islamists of Hamas control Gaza and exercise an effective veto over peace—make it clear his effort is a fool’s errand, Kerry and those inclined to blame Israel for the lack of peace are hoping to get the Palestinians back to the table and to agree to what they’ve already repeatedly rejected. It is in that context that we should understand the importance of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recollections of his 2008 attempt to make a deal with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert gives a detailed accounting of his negotiations with Abbas in an interview in The Tower, which is important not just as a matter of historical detail and the curious fact that he and Abbas sketched out the proposed borders of a deal on a napkin and then on a piece of stationery. By explaining just how far-reaching the Israeli offer was, Olmert demonstrates just how empty the Palestinian excuses for their refusal to make peace really are.

The offer was every bit as far-reaching as previously reported. Olmert was not just prepared to sanction Palestinian independence in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem. He was also prepared not just to partition the capital; He agreed to relinquish Israeli sovereignty over the center of Jewish religious and historical memory: the Old City of Jerusalem. Though the only period in history in which Jews or members of all faiths have had full access to the holy sites has been the 46 years that it has been under Israel’s control, Olmert was prepared to abandon that in favor of a special committee made up of representatives from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United States, Israel and the Palestinians that would jointly administer the Old City. He also agreed to take thousands of Palestinian refugees into Israel as a symbolic bow to the Palestinian “right of return.” In order to keep some of its major settlement blocs in the West Bank, he was also prepared to hand over large chunks of Israel to make it an even swap.

But Abbas couldn’t take yes for an answer.

Indeed, the Palestinian leader wouldn’t even initial the hand-drawn map of the deal. Nor did he ever dignify this generous offer with a response. As Olmert puts it, he’s still waiting for a phone call from Abbas with his answer.

The reason for that is not exactly a secret. Abbas could not say yes because doing so meant recognizing the legitimacy of the Jewish state that would remain in the parts of the country Olmert had agreed to give up. And that is not something he could do and survive in the violent world of Palestinian politics. Since Palestinian nationalism was founded out of the desire to reject Zionism, it is simply impossible for it to make its peace with a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn.

Olmert’s proposal is vulnerable to criticism because it creates a new divided Jerusalem that would be an unbearable mess. So, too, would his limited right of return for Palestinians and the tunnel he wanted to dig between Gaza and the West Bank. But the real problem is that, like Ehud Barak, who also tried to give the Palestinians almost everything they said they wanted, he got nothing in exchange for offers that compromised Israel’s rights.

In Olmert’s view the only conclusion to be drawn from this failure is that Abbas is, “no hero.” He’s right about that, but the lesson from this episode goes deeper than Abbas’s lack of heroism. If a Palestinian leader couldn’t bring himself to take an offer like that—one, I might add, that gives up far more in Jerusalem than most Israelis thought acceptable—than what this shows is that the 36 meetings Olmert had with Abbas was a charade. The only point of this process for the Palestinians is to use any concessions they get as the floor for future negotiations and demands. The result is that Israel continues to abandon its rights—including not just West Bank settlements but the most sacred places in Judaism—while getting neither peace nor security.

Olmert says he’s proud of his efforts, but all he really accomplished was to demonstrate once again that real peace with the Palestinians remains an illusion for the foreseeable future. 

Those expecting Kerry to improve on this record are in for a disappointment. 

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Weiner’s Wife Is the One to Watch

It’s been more than 48 hours since the Anthony Weiner reboot began, but so far the indications are that the plight of the middle class in New York City is about the last thing anybody is talking about. Instead, the main topic of discussion about Weiner’s candidacy is what everyone who hasn’t been in a coma for the last two years always knew it would be: the bizarre sexting scandal that forced his resignation from Congress in 2011.

It should be no surprise that we’re still talking about the fact that Weiner’s career was buried under a deluge of national derision about his habit of sending lewd pictures of his body parts to women and the disgust over his weeks of lies and false accusations that his political opponents had concocted the story in order to discredit him. After all, it’s not just the tabloids like the New York Post and the New York Daily News that are engaging in an orgy of front page headlines with puns at Weiner’s expense. Even the ultra-liberal public radio station WNYC was quizzing him about his problems. Fellow New York Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo summed it up for most members of his party as well as the citizens of Gotham when he replied to a reporter’s suggestion that Weiner might win by simply saying that if so, “Shame on us.”

But what is just as interesting as the circus freak atmosphere of Weiner’s campaign is another angle of it that was explored this morning by the New York Times. Rather than just being the suffering yet faithful spouse in this drama, the Times claims Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin is the driving force behind his attempted comeback. Indeed the paper claims the main reason why some Democratic consultants have even considered joining his campaign is because they feel doing so will give them access to Abedin and a leg up toward a job with the next presidential campaign of her personal patron and surrogate mother, Hillary Clinton. That means that rather than merely being a prop in her husband’s soap opera whose presence is intended to deflect outrage about his personality defects, it is Abedin who is actually the more interesting subject for scrutiny.

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It’s been more than 48 hours since the Anthony Weiner reboot began, but so far the indications are that the plight of the middle class in New York City is about the last thing anybody is talking about. Instead, the main topic of discussion about Weiner’s candidacy is what everyone who hasn’t been in a coma for the last two years always knew it would be: the bizarre sexting scandal that forced his resignation from Congress in 2011.

It should be no surprise that we’re still talking about the fact that Weiner’s career was buried under a deluge of national derision about his habit of sending lewd pictures of his body parts to women and the disgust over his weeks of lies and false accusations that his political opponents had concocted the story in order to discredit him. After all, it’s not just the tabloids like the New York Post and the New York Daily News that are engaging in an orgy of front page headlines with puns at Weiner’s expense. Even the ultra-liberal public radio station WNYC was quizzing him about his problems. Fellow New York Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo summed it up for most members of his party as well as the citizens of Gotham when he replied to a reporter’s suggestion that Weiner might win by simply saying that if so, “Shame on us.”

But what is just as interesting as the circus freak atmosphere of Weiner’s campaign is another angle of it that was explored this morning by the New York Times. Rather than just being the suffering yet faithful spouse in this drama, the Times claims Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin is the driving force behind his attempted comeback. Indeed the paper claims the main reason why some Democratic consultants have even considered joining his campaign is because they feel doing so will give them access to Abedin and a leg up toward a job with the next presidential campaign of her personal patron and surrogate mother, Hillary Clinton. That means that rather than merely being a prop in her husband’s soap opera whose presence is intended to deflect outrage about his personality defects, it is Abedin who is actually the more interesting subject for scrutiny.

As the Times article and other reports make clear, Bill and Hillary Clinton are appalled at the idea of being dragged into the Weiner free-for-all. They have said they won’t endorse any candidate in the Democratic primary and the consensus is that both the former and the would-be future president both think of Weiner with the same contempt that many parents view the spouses of their children. But their affection for Huma is apparently so great (Weiner’s wife is also a close friend of Chelsea Clinton) that she will continue working for Hillary even while her husband dives head first into tabloid hell with Abedin’s encouragement.

That makes Abedin a clear asset to Weiner, especially as he attempts to raise more money from the Clinton campaign base (the Times lets drop that the Mr. and Mrs. Weiner are currently living in a fabulous Park Avenue condo that is owned by a donor to the Clinton campaigns). But while her political smarts that are so valued by her boss Hillary are also being put to good use by Weiner, the extra attention won’t necessarily be helpful in terms of attracting votes.

Abedin came under fire last year when Rep. Michele Bachmann and some other Republican members of Congress sent a letter to the secretary of state that, among other things, noted the ties that some members of the Clinton staffer’s family had close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. That accusation, which was part of a paper that actually raised serious questions about State Department policy that deserved a discussion, was drowned in a backlash against Bachmann that was driven by the affection many in Washington have for Abedin, including prominent Republicans like Senator John McCain.

But while Abedin’s possible connections to extremists should have raised some eyebrows, it should also be conceded that talk about her as an Islamist Manchurian candidate seems far-fetched. Her marriage to a Jew and support for mainstream Democrats may make perfect sense to conspiracy theorists, but for the rest of us those things make it difficult to portray her as the thin edge of the wedge that would theoretically be seeking to impose sharia law on one of the most secular as well as Jewish cities in the world.

That said, if the press ever does tire of asking Weiner why he sent strangers pictures of his genitals or ferreting out the as-yet-unpublished photos that he has told us are still out there, somebody is bound to start asking him about his wife’s views about Israel, the Palestinians or the current Egyptian government. Whether that forces Abedin to come out of the closet as a Muslim Zionist in order to persuade more New Yorkers to trust Weiner again or merely gives her another opportunity to play a victim, as was the case with Bachmann’s accusations, its hard to see how that discussion helps Weiner or Clinton.

In the meantime, most members of the press continue to focus on Weiner’s gaffes (the picture of Pittsburgh instead of New York on his website that was eventually corrected) and the disgust he generates among many Democrats, rather than his preferred talking point about the middle class. The disgraced former congressman may still be the only candidate in the race who can even pretend to care about the outer boroughs of the city or how those who are neither part of the city’s elites nor the poor are being priced out of Gotham. Unfortunately for him, and the cause of helping the middle class, the hypocrisy of Weiner’s pretense is only accentuated by the attention given to his wife since it reminds voters that he is about as solidly planted among the Manhattan elites as any Park Avenue socialite.

But instead of obsessing about the slim chance that Weiner may become mayor, perhaps the only really interesting thing about his campaign is that it will give us a chance to learn more about the woman who might become the White House chief of staff in 2017. As such, let’s hope Weiner hangs around in the race and that his wife continues to emerge from the shadows long enough for us to get a better handle on her views, whatever they might be.

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Don’t Forget About Scott Walker

In the six months since Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney, the pundits have largely ignored one of the most popular figures in the Republican Party. The people considered to be the obvious leading candidates have dominated the conversation about the 2016 Republican presidential nomination: Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and Paul Ryan. All of them have potentially large constituencies within the party and would be formidable contenders. Nor should the potential of Ted Cruz be dismissed. There is also a case to be made that 2012 holdover Rick Santorum is being underestimated just as he was last time. But why have we forgotten about Scott Walker?

The Wisconsin governor’s appearance at an important Republican fundraiser in Iowa last night got him back on the radar of pundits, and rightly so. It’s not just because Walker teased Republicans with his repeated mentions of being raised in the first caucus state and his close ties to it, though that sort of rhetoric is exactly the sort of thing that seems like a prelude to a presidential campaign pitch. The point about Walker dipping his toe into the Hawkeye State’s early politicking that potential presidential rivals are also engaging in is that he is not just another Republican governor. Though he got lost in the focus on Romney’s defeat and the dramatic rivalry in the Senate that is emerging between Rubio, Paul and Cruz on national issues like immigration, Walker still has a cult following among conservatives that stands him in good stead as GOP senators duke it out on divisive issues and Christie concentrates on winning re-election in a manner that continues to alienate the Republican grass roots.

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In the six months since Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney, the pundits have largely ignored one of the most popular figures in the Republican Party. The people considered to be the obvious leading candidates have dominated the conversation about the 2016 Republican presidential nomination: Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie and Paul Ryan. All of them have potentially large constituencies within the party and would be formidable contenders. Nor should the potential of Ted Cruz be dismissed. There is also a case to be made that 2012 holdover Rick Santorum is being underestimated just as he was last time. But why have we forgotten about Scott Walker?

The Wisconsin governor’s appearance at an important Republican fundraiser in Iowa last night got him back on the radar of pundits, and rightly so. It’s not just because Walker teased Republicans with his repeated mentions of being raised in the first caucus state and his close ties to it, though that sort of rhetoric is exactly the sort of thing that seems like a prelude to a presidential campaign pitch. The point about Walker dipping his toe into the Hawkeye State’s early politicking that potential presidential rivals are also engaging in is that he is not just another Republican governor. Though he got lost in the focus on Romney’s defeat and the dramatic rivalry in the Senate that is emerging between Rubio, Paul and Cruz on national issues like immigration, Walker still has a cult following among conservatives that stands him in good stead as GOP senators duke it out on divisive issues and Christie concentrates on winning re-election in a manner that continues to alienate the Republican grass roots.

It was just a year ago that Walker was actually the center of the Republican universe as he won a smashing victory in the recall election that liberals forced on Wisconsin. Though Rubio, Paul, Cruz and others are all vying for the affection of Tea Party voters, it was Walker who was on the cutting edge of the movement after he took office after the 2010 election and actually began to put its ideas to work. By challenging the public worker unions, he became the focus of an unprecedented attack by the left. Liberals who claim congressional Republicans are obstructing President Obama’s agenda cheered when the Democratic minority in the Wisconsin legislature used illegal tactics to try to stop it from meeting or voting. Union thugs tried to intimidate Republicans in massive demonstrations in Madison. But Walker, who went farther than other reform-minded governors that year, stood his ground and not only won those crucial legislative battles but actually gained a bigger majority when he was forced to face the voters more than two years earlier than scheduled in the recall election. Moreover, he can now boast that the $3.6 billion deficit he inherited has been transformed into a surplus.

The drama unfolding in Washington on immigration, the budget and the investigation of the various Obama administration scandals has diverted many of those thinking about 2016 from the idea that the strength of the GOP isn’t in the Senate or the House but out in the country with Republican governors. Walker hasn’t just talked about pushing back against the power of the government; he’s done something about it in a way that no individual senator can. He’s also done it in a manner that is far more comprehensive than even Christie’s impressive wins in New Jersey and he’s done it in a state that generally votes for Democrats in presidential elections.

There are steep obstacles to a Walker presidential run.

One is the fact that it is doubtful that Walker and Ryan would run against each other. If Ryan were to demonstrate serious interest in 2016—something that is by no means certain but which would be considered natural as the 2012 vice presidential nominee—that might edge Walker out of the race right there.

Another is the fact that Walker must, as Christie is doing this year, win re-election as governor before even thinking seriously about 2016. Unlike Christie, who has swung to the center in the last year and whose photo ops (including another one today) with President Obama have helped him in New Jersey (though hurt him with Republicans elsewhere), Walker hasn’t trimmed his sails. Democrats, who understand they overreached and alienated many voters who didn’t necessarily agree with Walker’s policies but thought the recall was wrong, will view Walker as one of their top targets in 2014. Though he will go into that race a favorite, he won’t have an easy time of it and will be pressed about whether he will serve out his second term.

Last, as long as events in Washington dominate the headlines, it’s hard for a politician who goes to work in Madison, Wisconsin to get attention. Walker won’t make it onto the radar of the national press unless and until he actually starts running for president.

But anyone who has heard the way Republicans react whenever Walker’s name is mentioned or he appears know that there is no figure in the party that has a tighter grip on the affections of its grass roots. While the big guns blaze away at each other on the cable news stations, it’s important to remember that if Walker runs, he could be a real factor in 2016 and not just in Iowa.

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Kerry’s Purposeless Shawarma Diplomacy

Feeling a bit peckish, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to the Middle East to get some shawarma. At least that’s how Kerry’s trip will seem to those in the region, who probably watched in utter confusion as Kerry made a big deal out of his trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories but spent his time in classic Kerry fashion: mumbling opaque and equivocal platitudes that could have been issued from Washington, just without the shawarma.

Though it’s probably worth pointing out that Kerry reportedly ate turkey shawarma, which of course isn’t shawarma at all but rather a ludicrous shawarma impostor whose proliferation is a terrifying sign of impending total civilizational collapse, and thus Kerry didn’t even accomplish that one goal. (The fault here lies, however, with the Israeli side, not the Palestinian side, as Ron Kampeas explains.) The Washington Post reports on how Kerry summed up his shuttle diplomacy:

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Feeling a bit peckish, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to the Middle East to get some shawarma. At least that’s how Kerry’s trip will seem to those in the region, who probably watched in utter confusion as Kerry made a big deal out of his trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories but spent his time in classic Kerry fashion: mumbling opaque and equivocal platitudes that could have been issued from Washington, just without the shawarma.

Though it’s probably worth pointing out that Kerry reportedly ate turkey shawarma, which of course isn’t shawarma at all but rather a ludicrous shawarma impostor whose proliferation is a terrifying sign of impending total civilizational collapse, and thus Kerry didn’t even accomplish that one goal. (The fault here lies, however, with the Israeli side, not the Palestinian side, as Ron Kampeas explains.) The Washington Post reports on how Kerry summed up his shuttle diplomacy:

“I’m not going to comment on what was asked for or not asked for,” Kerry told reporters at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv at the conclusion of a two-day visit shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He was headed to Ethi­o­pia for the next leg of his overseas trip.

Kerry called on Israel and the Palestinians to refrain from “provocative” actions that could derail U.S. attempts to inaugurate a new round of peace talks. He reiterated U.S. opposition to Israeli settlement building but said the issue should not be a blockade to talks. Settlements, like other long-standing irritants and disagreements, will have to be resolved in a final peace deal, Kerry said….

The United States understands that settlement expansions “can be deemed by some to be provocative, and they are not necessarily constructive with respect to the process” of resuming talks, Kerry said. “So, it is our hope that there will be a minimal effort there.”

Although some building is beyond the direct control of Netanyahu’s government, the timing of other construction is within the government’s power, Kerry said. Avoiding such construction could “make a difference here in the next months,” when substantial negotiations could begin, he added.

“Peace is actually possible, notwithstanding the doubts that some people have because of past disappointments,” Kerry said. “It is our hope that everybody will stay focused on the prize, focused on the goal.”

There was no word on whether Kerry encouraged them to display the eye of the tiger or reminded them that they miss 100 percent of the shots they don’t take. But the Israeli side is probably satisfied with Kerry’s word salad on settlements that can’t be interpreted in any definitive way, and relieved because any time Kerry intervenes in an issue and doesn’t do any real damage is about all you can ask for.

Since President Obama has already lifted his administration’s demand that Israel cease building homes in Jewish neighborhoods as a precondition for peace talks, Kerry’s reaffirmation of that didn’t make any news. What’s the chiddush, as we might have said in shiur. Though the Palestinians are wrong to object to negotiations without preconditions and to push for a settlement freeze, they are right to ask why Kerry made the trip. And in fact, if direct negotiations between the two sides are really the American goal here, Kerry needn’t have flown halfway around the world to say so. You shouldn’t have, Mr. Secretary. No, really, you shouldn’t have.

Though it’s a point we’ve made in this space consistently, it bears repeating if Kerry’s shawarma diplomacy is what he says it is: an indication that we are witnessing the beginning of that hardy staple of second presidential terms–the push for Israeli-Palestinian peace. And that point is that the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one in which the most progress–some might argue the only real progress–was made by the two sides when negotiations were held away from the press cameras and in the absence of an American president looking for a legacy.

There is nothing wrong with American officials encouraging negotiations, but there is something very wrong with negotiating over the prospect of negotiating. If the Palestinians need concessions in order to reject peace in person rather than over the phone, then it is quite obvious they don’t actually want to negotiate, nor do they have any intention of negotiating in good faith. A concession just for showing up makes negotiations conditional upon negotiations, which is more than faintly ridiculous and surely a waste of time and political capital for everyone involved.

Mahmoud Abbas has never shown any real desire to shake up the status quo. If he wants to negotiate, he knows where to find his Israeli interlocutors, who will join him. As for Kerry, there is plenty of good shawarma in the States.

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What Is True Conservatism?

In a recent column, Michael Gerson wrote about modern conservatism’s “two distinct architectural styles.” One approach within conservatism, he said, celebrates those who seek to apply abstract principles in their purest form. The alternative approach is more disposed toward compromise, incremental progress and taking into account shifting circumstances.

What’s worth noting, I think, is that many of those in the first camp consider themselves to be more principled and authentically conservative than those in the second, who are often derided as RINOs and “squishes,” as part of the much-derided “establishment” and who go along to get along. These politicians continually back away from fights like shutting down the federal government, preventing an increase in the debt ceiling, going over the fiscal cliff and filibustering background checks. The failure to engage these battles, and many others, is a sign of infidelity to conservatism.

Now, it’s not as if this critique never applies. There are certainly Republicans who claim to be conservative but don’t have deep convictions, who are in politics not because they care about advancing ideas as much as they care about power and titles. But what is of more interest to me is the divide over what a genuine conservative temperament and cast of mind is. A new book on Edmund Burke, by the British MP Jesse Norman, helps illuminate this matter. Given the contours of the current debate, it’s worth recalling what Burke, whom Norman refers to as “the first conservative,” actually believed.

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In a recent column, Michael Gerson wrote about modern conservatism’s “two distinct architectural styles.” One approach within conservatism, he said, celebrates those who seek to apply abstract principles in their purest form. The alternative approach is more disposed toward compromise, incremental progress and taking into account shifting circumstances.

What’s worth noting, I think, is that many of those in the first camp consider themselves to be more principled and authentically conservative than those in the second, who are often derided as RINOs and “squishes,” as part of the much-derided “establishment” and who go along to get along. These politicians continually back away from fights like shutting down the federal government, preventing an increase in the debt ceiling, going over the fiscal cliff and filibustering background checks. The failure to engage these battles, and many others, is a sign of infidelity to conservatism.

Now, it’s not as if this critique never applies. There are certainly Republicans who claim to be conservative but don’t have deep convictions, who are in politics not because they care about advancing ideas as much as they care about power and titles. But what is of more interest to me is the divide over what a genuine conservative temperament and cast of mind is. A new book on Edmund Burke, by the British MP Jesse Norman, helps illuminate this matter. Given the contours of the current debate, it’s worth recalling what Burke, whom Norman refers to as “the first conservative,” actually believed.

Let’s start with moderation, a word many modern-day conservatives instinctively recoil from but which Burke referred to as “a virtue not only amiable but powerful. It is a disposing, arranging, conciliating, cementing virtue.”

According to Norman, Burke believed the proper attitude of those who aspire to power is “humility, modesty and a sense of public duty.” He was “anti-ideological in spirit,” deeply distrustful of zealotry and believed self-correcting reforms, while certainly necessary, should be limited, discriminating, and proportionate. For Burke, Norman argues, universal principles were never sufficient in themselves to guide practical deliberation. 

“Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect,” according to Burke. “The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.”

“The lines of morality are not like the ideal lines of mathematics,” he wrote elsewhere. “They admit of exceptions, they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are not made by the process of logic but by the rules of prudence.”

A Burkean approach would never insist on absolute consistency in conducting human affairs. Politics is about carefully balancing competing principles, ever alert to the dangers posed by unintended consequences. It involves taking into account public sentiments, what Burke called the “temper of the people.” Nor is politics ever as simple as saying we believe in liberty and limited government and therefore the application of those principles is self-evident. Burke’s view, according to Norman, is that “perfection is not given to man, and so politics is an intrinsically messy business… The function of politics, then, is primarily one of reconciliation and enablement.” What deeply concerned Burke were people of “intemperate minds.” What is required of statesmen is wisdom and good judgment, sobriety, foresight and prudence.

Now Burke’s interpretation of conservatism was not written on stone tablets delivered on Mt. Sinai–and even if it were, merely to invoke Burke does not mean one is properly applying his insights to the here and now. But it does strike me that as this debate intensifies, and as various people lay claim to being the True Conservatives, it’s worth reminding ourselves what the greatest exponent of conservatism actually believed.

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Boko Haram’s Spirit Comes to London

Details are still emerging about the life and habits of Michael Adebolajo, the Islamist butcher who displayed the blood-drenched palms of his hands to a passing cameraman just moments after he and an accomplice murdered 25-year-old Lee Rigby, a soldier in the British Army’s Royal Fusiliers regiment, on a south London street this week.

As is common with any terrorism investigation, the focus is upon who Adebolajo was mixing with and which organizations he approached. A much-tweeted photo shows a stony-faced Adebolajo standing behind Anjem Choudary, a founder of the now banned Islamist organization Al Muhajiroun, at rally in London. It was Choudary who, in 2010, led a ceremony in which he and other supporters of al-Qaeda burned the poppies which many Britons pin to their lapels every November in commemoration of the British and Allied soldiers who fell in two world wars. And it was the same Choudary who justified Adebolajo’s barbarous act by citing “the presence of British forces in Muslim countries and the atrocities they’ve committed.”

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Details are still emerging about the life and habits of Michael Adebolajo, the Islamist butcher who displayed the blood-drenched palms of his hands to a passing cameraman just moments after he and an accomplice murdered 25-year-old Lee Rigby, a soldier in the British Army’s Royal Fusiliers regiment, on a south London street this week.

As is common with any terrorism investigation, the focus is upon who Adebolajo was mixing with and which organizations he approached. A much-tweeted photo shows a stony-faced Adebolajo standing behind Anjem Choudary, a founder of the now banned Islamist organization Al Muhajiroun, at rally in London. It was Choudary who, in 2010, led a ceremony in which he and other supporters of al-Qaeda burned the poppies which many Britons pin to their lapels every November in commemoration of the British and Allied soldiers who fell in two world wars. And it was the same Choudary who justified Adebolajo’s barbarous act by citing “the presence of British forces in Muslim countries and the atrocities they’ve committed.”

When it comes to contacts with Islamist groups outside the United Kingdom, some press reports have mentioned that Adebolajo traveled to Somalia in the last year to join Al Shabab, a particularly brutal al-Qaeda offshoot in east Africa, and may have even been arrested along the way. No solid evidence has, as yet, emerged to tie Adebolajo–a British citizen of Nigerian descent–with Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist terror organization that has instigated church bombings, pogroms and similar atrocities against the west African country’s beleaguered Christian population.

The prospect of a link with Boko Haram is of interest because Adebolajo was born into a Christian family who were regular attendees at a church in Romford, just outside London. Given the loathing with which Boko Haram regards Christians and Christianity, manifested in the more than 1,500 people killed during the group’s attacks over the last three years, the very idea of a Nigerian Christian joining their ranks is as shocking as the hypothetical (so far, at least) example of a Jew who converts to Islam, joins Hamas and becomes a suicide bomber.

But there is another, perhaps more important, observation to make here. The experience of Nigeria, which Christian rights activists say is now the most dangerous place on earth for Christians, illustrates the flaw of concentrating too narrowly on Islamist organizations, at the expense of the wider influence which Islamist ideas enjoy among the unaffiliated. As Ann Buwalda and Emmanuel Ogebe point out in a compelling study of Boko Haram and its anti-Christian fixations:

While Boko Haram’s bloody terrorist tactics certainly merit serious concern, the focus on this group has overshadowed a pattern of systemic religious violence in Nigeria. It obfuscates the pervasive history of the killing of Christians by Muslims in northern Nigeria going back over a quarter century.

Buwalda and Ogebe argue that Islamist activity in Nigeria has to be understood in the context of three concentric circles: sect (which incorporates Boko Haram), state, and street. Too much attention is paid to the sect circle, they say, and not enough to state policy or public sentiment. For example, the wave of anti-Christian violence that followed the 2011 elections in Nigeria was not orchestrated by Boko Haram, but “was an act of ordinary Muslims across most northern states.” That particular carnage resulted in more than 200 Christians being killed, more than 700 churches destroyed, and more than 3,000 Christian families being driven from their homes.

One can similarly make the case that it doesn’t matter whether or not Michael Adebolajo engaged in direct contact with Boko Haram; like the young Muslims who rampaged against Christians in Nigeria two years ago, he is one of their number in spirit. And now that the killing methods of Boko Haram have come to the streets of London, perhaps Western leaders will pay serious attention to the fact that, alongside Zionism, Judaism and secularism, Christianity has been designated by the Islamists as a transcendental force of darkness–and that Christians across the Muslim world have to live with the consequences of that every day.

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Another Priceless Obama Moment

What a perfect Barack Obama moment.

Yesterday in a major address the president said, “I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable. Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs.” He went on to say he was calling on Congress to pass a media shield law and had raised the issue with Attorney General Eric Holder, “who shares my concern.”

The very same day we learned, courtesy of NBC News, that the very same Attorney General Eric Holder signed off on a search warrant that identified Fox News reporter James Rosen as a “possible co-conspirator” in violations of the Espionage Act and authorized seizure of his private emails. Just a week ago the president expressed “complete confidence” in Mr. Holder.

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What a perfect Barack Obama moment.

Yesterday in a major address the president said, “I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable. Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs.” He went on to say he was calling on Congress to pass a media shield law and had raised the issue with Attorney General Eric Holder, “who shares my concern.”

The very same day we learned, courtesy of NBC News, that the very same Attorney General Eric Holder signed off on a search warrant that identified Fox News reporter James Rosen as a “possible co-conspirator” in violations of the Espionage Act and authorized seizure of his private emails. Just a week ago the president expressed “complete confidence” in Mr. Holder.

So we have the president of the United States complaining about leak investigations that may chill investigative journalism at virtually the same moment we learned his attorney general decided to treat routine newsgathering efforts by a Fox News reporter as evidence of criminality. (For the record, the president has shown no concern over past leaks of far more sensitive intelligence information–but information that portrayed him in a flattering light.)

The president speaks as if he’s living in an alternate reality, expressing solidarity with the press even as his administration is engaging in Nixon-like actions against it. 

You can’t make this stuff up. 

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Obama Can’t Have It Both Ways on Terror

The basic conceit of President Obama’s approach to terrorism has been two-fold. On the one hand, he has always tried to pose as the sane, moderate alternative to what he depicted as the cowboy unilateralism of his predecessor that he claimed had destroyed America’s credibility in the world when he first ran for president in 2008. On the other, he also likes to play the tough-guy president who isn’t afraid to track down and kill terrorists, which was the main foreign-policy theme of his re-election campaign in which at times it seemed he mentioned Osama bin Laden as much as he did his running mate.

Both these elements were on display yesterday during his lengthy address at the National Defense University that seemed to combine a striking call for change with what also seemed to be a determination to keep using many of the same Bush administration policies that he had kept in place these last four and a half years. As our Max Boot said yesterday, the “balance between rhetorical versus substantive change” might be said to be tilting toward the rhetoric because of the president’s determination to keep using drone strikes to attack terrorists. The part of the speech defending the use of drones was well said and correct. But I think our John Podhoretz is also correct when he notes in today’s New York Post that other major elements of the speech undermine the president’s rationale for continuing those strikes. Obama’s promise to work for congressional repeal of the Authorization to Use Military Force that was passed on September 14, 2001 may please elements of his base, left-wing critics as well as Republican libertarians like Senator Rand Paul, who share the president’s distaste for the idea that we are locked in an “endless” war against Islamist terrorists. But unless the other side of this equation agrees that the war is over, the president’s declaration that it is finished and that we won it will continue to ring hollow.

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The basic conceit of President Obama’s approach to terrorism has been two-fold. On the one hand, he has always tried to pose as the sane, moderate alternative to what he depicted as the cowboy unilateralism of his predecessor that he claimed had destroyed America’s credibility in the world when he first ran for president in 2008. On the other, he also likes to play the tough-guy president who isn’t afraid to track down and kill terrorists, which was the main foreign-policy theme of his re-election campaign in which at times it seemed he mentioned Osama bin Laden as much as he did his running mate.

Both these elements were on display yesterday during his lengthy address at the National Defense University that seemed to combine a striking call for change with what also seemed to be a determination to keep using many of the same Bush administration policies that he had kept in place these last four and a half years. As our Max Boot said yesterday, the “balance between rhetorical versus substantive change” might be said to be tilting toward the rhetoric because of the president’s determination to keep using drone strikes to attack terrorists. The part of the speech defending the use of drones was well said and correct. But I think our John Podhoretz is also correct when he notes in today’s New York Post that other major elements of the speech undermine the president’s rationale for continuing those strikes. Obama’s promise to work for congressional repeal of the Authorization to Use Military Force that was passed on September 14, 2001 may please elements of his base, left-wing critics as well as Republican libertarians like Senator Rand Paul, who share the president’s distaste for the idea that we are locked in an “endless” war against Islamist terrorists. But unless the other side of this equation agrees that the war is over, the president’s declaration that it is finished and that we won it will continue to ring hollow.

The problem is that, like the president’s repeated declarations that the war in Afghanistan will end when he finished pulling out American troops, the end of the war on terror is not something that can be declared unilaterally. Far from the Afghan war coming to a close when the last U.S. soldier leaves, it is almost certain to heat up as our Taliban foes will view it as an opportunity to make advances that were impossible so long as U.S. and NATO coalition forces were there to stop them. We are entitled to hope that the heroic efforts of those forces will have sufficiently altered the balance of power in the country so as to make it impossible for it to ever revert to the pre-9/11 situation in which Afghanistan was a large Islamist terror base for al-Qaeda. But that is a hope, not a policy. The future there is, at best, uncertain even if Americans prefer not to think about it.

The same is true in Iraq where Obama’s haste to pull all American troops out—something made possible by the victory the U.S. had won there by the end of the Bush administration—has created the possibility that it, too, will sink back into the sectarian warfare that the surge had ended.

The president wants to act as if he has ended unpopular wars as well as unpopular elements of these wars like the prison at Guantanamo Bay. He also wants to reserve the right to keep fighting Islamist terrorists who continue to pop up both in the Middle East and in the West since Americans rightly believe it is his responsibility to keep them safe.

But without the broad, sweeping powers that Congress granted the executive branch and which the president wishes to repeal, it’s an open question as to whether the continued use of drones can be justified. After all, the only effective answer to the critique of the drone strikes articulated by Rand Paul and others is based is the fact that America is still at war with Islamist extremists that believe they are locked in a conflict with the West that will last for generations.

The president seems to think the threat level is sufficiently low that America can go back to a September 10, 2011 mentality where terrorism was treated primarily as police problem rather than a military one. Doing so might prove popular since Americans would prefer to think that ramping down security measures and aggressive counter-terror operations means they really are safe and that they can go back to ignoring the Islamist war on the West. But if the United States is to continue to defend its citizens and the West against an Islamist movement that seeks our destruction, it must continue to keep itself on a war footing with regard to terrorism.

The president may enjoy the praise he is getting today for the characteristically thoughtful nature of his speech in which he seems to be arguing both sides of every argument. But much as he’d like to, President Obama can’t have it both ways on these issues. He can and should continue to use drones to take out terrorists wherever that is feasible. But by beginning the process by which the legal props for that effort are discarded, he will further degrade the government’s ability to effectively defend the homeland. The West’s Islamist foes have been bloodied and weakened by American efforts in the last 11 years and eight months. But they are not yet defeated. Any policy shift based on that faulty assumption is bound to lead to tragedy as well as confusion.

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Israel Treats Palestinians and Syrians–over PA and Syria’s Objections

You couldn’t make this up: As thousands of people in large swathes of the planet, including war-torn Syria, are dying daily for lack of adequate medical care, the one geographic area whose “health conditions” are slated for condemnation at the World Health Organization’s annual conference is, naturally, “the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan.” What makes this surreal isn’t just that the above areas enjoy far better “health conditions” than much of the rest of the world. It’s that the Palestinian Authority (Israel’s “peace partner”), together with Syria and other Arab countries, is seeking to condemn Israel at a time when it is actively providing medical services to both Palestinians and Syrians.

The denunciation of health conditions on the Golan is particularly surreal: Syrians in Syria, where medical care of any kind is often simply unavailable, would be thrilled to get the same state-of-the-art care as their brethren on the Golan–where, as in East Jerusalem, Israeli law applies, entitling residents to the same services as all other Israelis.

But thanks to Israel, some of those Syrians actually are getting such care–which is doubtless Syrian President Bashar Assad’s real gripe. Israel has quietly set up a field hospital on the Golan where dozens of Syrians wounded in the civil war have been treated; others, who need more intensive care, have been transferred to regular Israeli hospitals.

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You couldn’t make this up: As thousands of people in large swathes of the planet, including war-torn Syria, are dying daily for lack of adequate medical care, the one geographic area whose “health conditions” are slated for condemnation at the World Health Organization’s annual conference is, naturally, “the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan.” What makes this surreal isn’t just that the above areas enjoy far better “health conditions” than much of the rest of the world. It’s that the Palestinian Authority (Israel’s “peace partner”), together with Syria and other Arab countries, is seeking to condemn Israel at a time when it is actively providing medical services to both Palestinians and Syrians.

The denunciation of health conditions on the Golan is particularly surreal: Syrians in Syria, where medical care of any kind is often simply unavailable, would be thrilled to get the same state-of-the-art care as their brethren on the Golan–where, as in East Jerusalem, Israeli law applies, entitling residents to the same services as all other Israelis.

But thanks to Israel, some of those Syrians actually are getting such care–which is doubtless Syrian President Bashar Assad’s real gripe. Israel has quietly set up a field hospital on the Golan where dozens of Syrians wounded in the civil war have been treated; others, who need more intensive care, have been transferred to regular Israeli hospitals.

Israel has also offered treatment to some Syrian refugees. Just this month, via Israel’s Save a Child’s Heart program, Israeli doctors saved the life of a four-year-old Syrian refugee with a serious heart condition. Similar treatment was offered to three other Syrian children in Jordan who have similar conditions, but their parents refused: Apparently, they fell victim to their own anti-Israel propaganda. Still, the doctors are hoping they will change their minds once the first girl returns to Jordan healthy and happy.

In the PA and Hamas-run Gaza, health care is also far better than in much of the rest of the world, though admittedly not up to Israeli standards. Of course, any deficiencies are their own fault: Both have had complete autonomy in civil affairs for years; Israel can hardly be blamed if they chose to invest in, say, military training for schoolchildren rather than better health care.

But more importantly, they have an advantage most other countries with similar health-care systems don’t: generous access to Israeli hospitals for any problems their own can’t treat. And you needn’t take my word for it: Just this month, after PA Health Minister Hani Abdeen visited Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Karem Hospital, the official PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida reported that “30% of the patients who are children are Palestinians.” It also reported that Hadassah is now training some 60 Palestinian doctors, who will then return to serve the PA’s own population.

It’s disgraceful that an otherwise respectable organization like WHO would lend its countenance to a farcical resolution like this. But it’s an excellent lesson in why the positions of the “international community” are often deserving of derision rather than respect–especially when it comes to Israel.

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