Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 12, 2013

No Need to Say Kaddish for a Jewish State

Despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to revive it, the Middle East peace process remains dead in the water with almost no one believing the former presidential candidate has a prayer to succeed where all of his predecessors failed. But whereas such setbacks might have been treated as big news in the past, the secretary’s efforts and the Palestinians’ indifference to his entreaties is being greeted in Israel with more boredom than anguish. And that is something that bothers the American Jewish left.

Sounding a note that has become a familiar refrain among Jewish liberals in recent years, the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier became the latest to claim that if the conflict with the Palestinians wasn’t solved pronto, “there will not be a Jewish state for very long.” Speaking to the Associated Press prior to receiving a lucrative award from Tel Aviv University, Wieseltier echoed the title of his 1998 book Kaddish about Jewish mourning rituals by claiming that doom awaits Israel unless it somehow forced the Palestinians to make peace with it. Wieseltier may present a more serious intellectual critique of the Netanyahu government than other liberal American critics like Peter Beinart, yet the disconnect between his attitude and that of most Israelis tells us less about the country’s future than it does about the lack of insight on the part of its critics.

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Despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to revive it, the Middle East peace process remains dead in the water with almost no one believing the former presidential candidate has a prayer to succeed where all of his predecessors failed. But whereas such setbacks might have been treated as big news in the past, the secretary’s efforts and the Palestinians’ indifference to his entreaties is being greeted in Israel with more boredom than anguish. And that is something that bothers the American Jewish left.

Sounding a note that has become a familiar refrain among Jewish liberals in recent years, the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier became the latest to claim that if the conflict with the Palestinians wasn’t solved pronto, “there will not be a Jewish state for very long.” Speaking to the Associated Press prior to receiving a lucrative award from Tel Aviv University, Wieseltier echoed the title of his 1998 book Kaddish about Jewish mourning rituals by claiming that doom awaits Israel unless it somehow forced the Palestinians to make peace with it. Wieseltier may present a more serious intellectual critique of the Netanyahu government than other liberal American critics like Peter Beinart, yet the disconnect between his attitude and that of most Israelis tells us less about the country’s future than it does about the lack of insight on the part of its critics.

Given the Palestinians’ failure to accept three offers of statehood since 2000 and their boycott of peace talks since 2008, as well as the strength of the Hamas rulers of Gaza, the Israelis can hardly be blamed for giving up on their quest for a two-state solution. As last January’s election proved, the overwhelming majority of Israelis understand that a resolution of the conflict is not going to happen in the foreseeable future. Despite their desire for peace, they know their only option is to stay strong and to concentrate on making the Jewish state a better place for its citizens rather than to continue to make concessions and beating their heads against a wall of Palestinian intransigence.

But for many American Jews this realistic attitude isn’t acceptable. For some, especially on the left, the obstacles erected by the Palestinians have always been irrelevant to their desire to make Israel conform to their notions of what a Jewish state should be. Thus, rather than accept the fact that peace cannot be forced on the Palestinians they continue to claim that a Jewish state cannot long survive.

The left has always been right to point out that the anomalous nature of the status quo harms Israel’s international image as well as frustrating both sides of the conflict. But if the Israeli right’s desire to hold onto all of the territories has proved to be impossible, the left’s belief that the Palestinians were prepared to make peace and accept a two-state solution is equally discredited. Twenty years of peace processing and Israeli concessions has not brought the region closer to peace. Instead, it has led to the empowerment of terrorists in Gaza and a kleptocracy in the West Bank that is unable to make peace even if it were willing to do so.

Wieseltier acknowledges that the Palestinians are also to blame for the lack of peace, but claims “one of the most shameful aspects of the Netanyahu government has been to succeed in taking the Palestinian question off the table.” But the current lack of interest in dealing with the Palestinians is the result of the decisions of Yasir Arafat, his successor Mahmoud Abbas and his Hamas rivals, not any clever scheme on the part of Netanyahu. Were the Palestinians ever to return to the negotiating table and demonstrated that they would end the conflict and accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn they would find most Israelis and their government—no matter who led it—ready to deal.

But the main problem with Wieseltier’s predictions of doom isn’t so much that they are divorced from political reality as the way they underestimate the tenacity and the viability of the Jewish state he is consigning to perdition.

It is true that Israel suffers from international isolation and the abuse thrown at it by its opponents. However, the false apartheid charges won’t be any more factual in the future than they are today. Israelis will never accept incorporation of the Arabs of the West Bank into the Jewish state just as the Palestinians won’t accept a state alongside Israel. That creates a standoff that leaves the Palestinians in limbo. But it is the fruit of their own addiction to a nationalism that defines itself solely by rejection of Zionism rather than a positive vision of Palestinian identity. Perpetuation of this situation into the future may seem impossible, but it should be remembered that few in 1967 (when Israel came into possession of the West Bank and united Jerusalem) would have believed that the status quo would have lasted 46 years. At this point, the assumption that it cannot last any longer underestimates both the ability of Israelis to hang on despite criticism and the willingness of Palestinians to go on shooting themselves in the foot. Peace will have to wait until a sea change occurs that will enable the Palestinians to live with Israel. Until then there is no reason why the current situation in which Israel remains a thriving democracy with a solid Jewish majority will be altered by demands for a binational state that will never happen. 

Wieseltier is also remarkably naïve about what would happen even if another peace accord were signed. As he well knows, the war on Israel has never been about borders or settlements but the Jew-hatred that runs deep in the Arab and Muslim world. If Israel’s future is to depend on being loved by its neighborhood, his warnings of its demise might well be true. But as much as Israelis have always longed for peace, their survival has always been a function of their ability to persist and thrive despite the conflict.

Israelis would be better off if there were peace, but as they have demonstrated in the last two decades, the lack of an agreement hasn’t prevented the growth of their economy. Nor has it, despite similar predictions of doom, caused an estrangement with the United States where bipartisan support for Israel remains solid.

Rather than enhancing the chances of peace, people like Wieseltier, who claim Israel cannot long survive under these circumstances, are actually making it less likely since such talk encourages the Palestinians to remain intransigent and to cling to fantasies of Israel’s destruction. Palestinians need to understand that Israel has a bright future with or without peace and that it is up to them if they wish to share in the prosperity. Unlike Wieseltier’s foolish pronouncements, such a message isn’t just what most Israelis think; it’s the truth. 

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Is Reid Bluffing on Border Security?

The bipartisan immigration reform seems to have gathered momentum in recent weeks, but the path to eventual passage is by no means clear. As Seth noted again yesterday, President Obama continues to walk the fine line between cheerleading for the legislation and statements that could be aimed at alienating potential Republican supporters for the bill. But Obama’s histrionics, such as his completely unnecessary dog-and-pony show for the media yesterday, may not be the real problem. As the Senate prepares to debate the measure and consider amendments, the real obstacle could turn out to be Harry Reid. The majority leader weighed in today on the bill and issued a warning that should worry the gang of eight that produced the reform package more than its opponents.

As Politico reports:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid indicated on Wednesday that he would not allow the Gang of Eight immigration bill to require stricter border security measures merely in order to attract Republican votes.

“Our goal now is to pass the strongest legislation possible with as many votes as possible while staying true to our principles,” Reid said.

Staying true to principles is one thing, but a refusal to negotiate in good faith with Republicans who are looking to find a way to support the measure is quite another. Reid is on record calling Texas Senator John Cornyn’s amendment that would include a “hard trigger” on enforcement before illegal immigrants can hope for citizenship a poison pill. But unlike Reid, gang leader Chuck Schumer is keeping quiet while making it clear that he is ready to talk to GOP senators who remain on the fence and to come up with a compromise that will strengthen enforcement. Schumer is intent on getting a bill that will have the kind of broad-based support that will give it a chance of passage in the House of Representatives while Reid seems more interested in a result that would ensure it fails in the other body so as to give Democrats a chance to blame the GOP for failure.

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The bipartisan immigration reform seems to have gathered momentum in recent weeks, but the path to eventual passage is by no means clear. As Seth noted again yesterday, President Obama continues to walk the fine line between cheerleading for the legislation and statements that could be aimed at alienating potential Republican supporters for the bill. But Obama’s histrionics, such as his completely unnecessary dog-and-pony show for the media yesterday, may not be the real problem. As the Senate prepares to debate the measure and consider amendments, the real obstacle could turn out to be Harry Reid. The majority leader weighed in today on the bill and issued a warning that should worry the gang of eight that produced the reform package more than its opponents.

As Politico reports:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid indicated on Wednesday that he would not allow the Gang of Eight immigration bill to require stricter border security measures merely in order to attract Republican votes.

“Our goal now is to pass the strongest legislation possible with as many votes as possible while staying true to our principles,” Reid said.

Staying true to principles is one thing, but a refusal to negotiate in good faith with Republicans who are looking to find a way to support the measure is quite another. Reid is on record calling Texas Senator John Cornyn’s amendment that would include a “hard trigger” on enforcement before illegal immigrants can hope for citizenship a poison pill. But unlike Reid, gang leader Chuck Schumer is keeping quiet while making it clear that he is ready to talk to GOP senators who remain on the fence and to come up with a compromise that will strengthen enforcement. Schumer is intent on getting a bill that will have the kind of broad-based support that will give it a chance of passage in the House of Representatives while Reid seems more interested in a result that would ensure it fails in the other body so as to give Democrats a chance to blame the GOP for failure.

Reid has a point when he says that Cornyn’s insistence on a 90 percent illegal border apprehension rate is probably unrealistic. Nothing short of a great wall that stretches along the length of the border accompanied by massive patrols would be enough to ensure that rate. But, as even gang member Marco Rubio has stated, the bill can stand to have its enforcement mechanism strengthened. What’s needed now is a willingness on the part of both sides of the aisle to compromise on a measure that would make the trigger provisions harder while not making them so tough so as to make it impossible to achieve.

While this may seem like the usual partisan jockeying back and forth that accompanies every legislative challenge, how each side handles the issue of border security is a true test of their sincerity on wanting a solution to a broken immigration system.

For Democrats, a willingness to toughen the measure will answer the question as to whether their goal here is to actually pass a bill or, as many Republicans have long suspected, an attempt to orchestrate a process by which the GOP can be blamed for failure. Schumer understands that while he has the votes for Senate passage, in its current form, the gang’s bipartisan compromise will have little chance in the House. While the two bodies are certain to pass versions that will be different and require delicate negotiations in conference, if the Senate version includes a tougher enforcement mechanism, a deal will be possible.

On the other hand, Republican motives are likewise suspect. If Republicans won’t agree to enforcement mechanisms that contain realistic goals, they will be rightly suspected of merely attempting to sabotage the bill. Just as Democrats act at times as if they are merely trying to maneuver the bill to failure, some conservatives appear to be more interested in preventing the passage of any bill that will allow illegals a path to citizenship than they are in actually fixing a broken system.

As Rubio has repeatedly stated, the talk about “amnesty” from the right is empty rhetoric. The real “amnesty” is the status quo that may not give illegals a way to citizenship but also offers no hope of resolving an untenable situation where more than 11 million persons are in legal limbo. The loose talk among conservatives that immigration reform will merely facilitate the legalization of millions of new Democratic voters merely worsens the Republican Party’s already dismal appeal to Hispanics. If House and Senate conservatives aren’t willing to compromise and accept a tougher enforcement regime in exchange for legalization, it will be possible for Democrats to claim their only goal was denying citizenship to illegals.

The rule of law that right-wingers claim to be defending in this debate isn’t enhanced by votes that will preserve the status quo. Likewise, Democrats who say they want to help resolve the dilemma of 11 million illegals must compromise on enforcement if their campaign is to be viewed as anything but a 2014 election maneuver. Right now, Harry Reid needs to prove that he really wants immigration reform and be willing to change the bill to toughen it up. If that happens, Republicans will face a similar test.

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Richard Falk Thinks He’s the Victim

When UN rapporteur Richard Falk blamed the Boston Marathon bombing on Israel and on America’s “global domination project,” it renewed a longstanding debate. Was Falk the worst possible person for the United Nations to put in charge of a special investigating office dedicated solely to Israel’s supposed crimes? Or was Falk, as a conspiracy theorist with a penchant for blaming all the world’s ills on Israel, in fact the perfect representative of the UN in the Middle East?

It certainly depends on how you view whatever is left of the UN’s credibility. One group that does not want to give up quite yet on the UN is UN Watch, an NGO that holds the world body accountable to its own stated values. The organization blasted Falk’s remarks, and Falk responded by trying to force the closure of UN Watch. The U.S. on Friday said enough was enough, and called for Falk’s resignation. Naturally, though Falk has been trying to put his critics out of a job, he is painting himself as the victim. The Times of Israel reports:

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When UN rapporteur Richard Falk blamed the Boston Marathon bombing on Israel and on America’s “global domination project,” it renewed a longstanding debate. Was Falk the worst possible person for the United Nations to put in charge of a special investigating office dedicated solely to Israel’s supposed crimes? Or was Falk, as a conspiracy theorist with a penchant for blaming all the world’s ills on Israel, in fact the perfect representative of the UN in the Middle East?

It certainly depends on how you view whatever is left of the UN’s credibility. One group that does not want to give up quite yet on the UN is UN Watch, an NGO that holds the world body accountable to its own stated values. The organization blasted Falk’s remarks, and Falk responded by trying to force the closure of UN Watch. The U.S. on Friday said enough was enough, and called for Falk’s resignation. Naturally, though Falk has been trying to put his critics out of a job, he is painting himself as the victim. The Times of Israel reports:

A United Nations special investigator said his reputation was being smeared and he wouldn’t resign, despite calls for his ouster over provocative remarks on terrorism, the United States and Israeli policy.

Richard Falk, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, told reporters Tuesday in Geneva that he was only doing his job and “it’s important to distinguish criticism from this kind of smear campaign.”

Considering his obsession with anti-Israel propaganda and that his UN mandate excludes criticism of the Palestinians to focus solely on Israel, Falk’s entire job description could be considered a “smear campaign.” It is quite literally what he does for a living.

Falk has signaled his appreciation for 9/11 conspiracy theories, compared Israel to Nazi Germany, and two years ago republished a blatantly anti-Semitic cartoon on his personal blog. He even ran afoul of the Palestinian Authority for criticizing them for going too easy on Israel. Being too anti-Israel for Mahmoud Abbas should be a sign that Falk perhaps can’t be expected to present an evenhanded view of the facts. But that, as he told the Forward, misunderstands his mission. As he explained when denied entry to Israel to conduct a report:

“My role is less presenting the facts than interpreting their legal significance,” said Falk. “That doesn’t depend on me having access. It would be humanly helpful to, but it wouldn’t alter my basic analysis or conclusion.”

In conducting an investigation on Israel, actually going to Israel would not change his “basic analysis or conclusion.” That is how Falk has always seen his responsibility: not to get the story right, but to write up a paranoid screed blaming Israel for everything under the sun from wherever he happens to be at the time. Why would he need to enter Israel, when he already knows what he’s going to say?

It’s that kind of honesty from Falk that has been both refreshing and maddening. Refreshing, because at least no one has to spend time or energy arguing over his motives, and maddening, because the United Nations cannot espouse moral influence on the many very pressing human-rights crises around the world while vesting Falk with the authority to act in its name.

As long as Falk remains at his post, the UN’s reports on Israel will lack even a hint of legitimacy. After all, even Falk acknowledges that we already know what they are going to say.

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Snowden’s Quest Isn’t About Civil Liberties

Renegade NSA techie Edward Snowden apparently seems to be extending his campaign to do as much damage as possible to America’s national security. It’s not bad enough that he blew two highly classified programs designed, with considerable safeguards to protect civil liberties, to monitor telephone calls and Internet traffic. Now in an interview with the South China Morning Post, a newspaper in Chinese-controlled Hong Kong which is owned by the pro-Beijing billionaire Robert Kuok, he has disclosed what he describes as U.S. government efforts to penetrate computer networks in China and Hong Kong.

After an extensive interview with him, the Post reported:

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Renegade NSA techie Edward Snowden apparently seems to be extending his campaign to do as much damage as possible to America’s national security. It’s not bad enough that he blew two highly classified programs designed, with considerable safeguards to protect civil liberties, to monitor telephone calls and Internet traffic. Now in an interview with the South China Morning Post, a newspaper in Chinese-controlled Hong Kong which is owned by the pro-Beijing billionaire Robert Kuok, he has disclosed what he describes as U.S. government efforts to penetrate computer networks in China and Hong Kong.

After an extensive interview with him, the Post reported:

Snowden said that according to unverified documents seen by the Post, the NSA had been hacking computers in Hong Kong and on the mainland since 2009.

One of the targets in the SAR, according to Snowden, was Chinese University and public officials, businesses and students in the city. The documents also point to hacking activity by the NSA against mainland targets.

Snowden believed there had been more than 61,000 NSA hacking operations globally, with hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and on the mainland.

“We hack network backbones – like huge internet routers, basically – that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one,” he said.

This is very useful information–for Chinese authorities. What wider purpose it could possibly serve in Snowden’s self-styled war for American liberties is hard to say. None of this hacking was directed against American citizens, after all; it was directed, assuming his account is accurate, against a rival state that itself engages in extensive hacking of American computer networks. Constitutional protections certainly don’t apply to citizens of foreign states. One wonders what further information is contained in the “unverified documents” he handed to the Post; whatever it is, it’s a safe bet that it is harmful to America’s security and that it is now in the hands of Chinese intelligence.

Whatever other information Snowden possesses (and he claims to have taken many more Top Secret documents with him than have so far been published) will undoubtedly wind up in Chinese hands too. That’s inevitable given that Snowden has chosen to hide out on Chinese territory; Hong Kong’s supposedly separate political system, which is in fact increasingly compromised by Beijing’s heavy-handed authoritarianism, will not for a minute stop Chinese intelligence agents from seeking to learn what he knows. His computer and cell phone undoubtedly have been downloaded by Chinese authorities already, with or without his permission. It would not be surprising if intelligence operatives seek to interrogate him as well–and if he refuses to talk he could face the threat of extradition and the likelihood of a long prison term in the United States.

Snowden looks less and less like an overzealous civil libertarian and more and more like someone driven by the same kind of anti-American animus which inspires Julian Assange, the accused rapist and WikiLeaks founder. Snowden is now objectively serving the interests of the People’s Republic of China–not the people of the United States.

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In Praise of Brooks’s Conservative Vision

David Brooks’s most recent column on Edward Snowden is powerful and beautifully calibrated. Brooks refers to Snowden, who leaked top-secret information on the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, as the “ultimate unmediated man.” He appears to be the product of one of the more unfortunate trends of our age:

the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments… Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.

Brooks goes on to list the people and things Snowden betrayed–a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures, honesty and integrity, his oaths, his friends, his employers, the cause of open government, the privacy of us all, and the Constitution. 

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David Brooks’s most recent column on Edward Snowden is powerful and beautifully calibrated. Brooks refers to Snowden, who leaked top-secret information on the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, as the “ultimate unmediated man.” He appears to be the product of one of the more unfortunate trends of our age:

the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments… Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.

Brooks goes on to list the people and things Snowden betrayed–a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures, honesty and integrity, his oaths, his friends, his employers, the cause of open government, the privacy of us all, and the Constitution. 

Brooks is not only right in what he says; he has articulated a deeply conservative vision of society, social arrangements, authority and the (invisible) bonds that hold us together. It seems to me that among conservatives this whole way of looking at things has been lost, or at least partially obscured, in recent years, as a libertarian impulse gains greater and greater velocity within the conservative movement.

I believe libertarians have important contributions to make and critiques to offer–but conservatism is a richer and deeper philosophy that better takes into account human life and human experiences. And while conservatism gives appropriate reverence to liberty as a political principle, it understands that a devotion to liberty is not enough to sustain a society, or an individual human life.   

That is, I think, what David Brooks was getting at; and it’s worth careful reflection. 

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Neither Assad nor the Jihadists

After two years of assuming that while “Assad must go” there is no need for Western powers to do anything much to facilitate that outcome, recent events in Syria are bringing into focus the possibility that the opposite result may be in reach. Assad, after all, might stay until the Creator summons him to judgment. That might be a long time, since the man is young and appears to be healthy.

Part of Western reluctance to intervene was predicated upon the distaste for Assad’s alternative–a ragtag coalition of rebels fueled mainly by foreign jihadis and foreign money streaming in to support the ideological preference of those paying–Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

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After two years of assuming that while “Assad must go” there is no need for Western powers to do anything much to facilitate that outcome, recent events in Syria are bringing into focus the possibility that the opposite result may be in reach. Assad, after all, might stay until the Creator summons him to judgment. That might be a long time, since the man is young and appears to be healthy.

Part of Western reluctance to intervene was predicated upon the distaste for Assad’s alternative–a ragtag coalition of rebels fueled mainly by foreign jihadis and foreign money streaming in to support the ideological preference of those paying–Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

That Western powers–now gathering in haste in Washington to charter a new course in light of Assad’s gains–would find themselves out of the game for fear of having to choose between bad and worse is largely a self-fulfilling prophecy. By subcontracting rebel support to three Islamist governments the West ensured that the alternative to Assad would be the least preferred outcome Western governments could hope for.

That leaves policymakers in a pickle, but it adds a sense of urgency on the issue of chemical weapons. For if it is true that ultimately this war is a choice between Iranian proxies and Sunni jihadis that include al-Qaeda proxies, who do we prefer to have chemical weapons in their arsenal when the dust settles? The Syrian regime, whose brutality has been proven to know no bounds? Or al-Qaeda’s affiliates, who, by gaining control of those deadly weapons, could in time supply their transnational Islamist brethren with them?

Now more than ever in the last two years is the time for Western policymakers to realize that, whatever else the calculus may be on who wins and who loses in Syria’s civil war, eliminating Syria’s WMD arsenal with surgical strikes is an urgent imperative. If it is operationally possible, that should be the first order of priority for the U.S. and its allies.

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Obama’s Ethically Challenged Administration

Talk about collapsing standards. When Barack Obama ran for office, his promise wasn’t that he’d simply improve our politics; he would transform them. He would appoint men and women of unblemished integrity who would serve the public interest. Mr. Obama would hold people accountable. He boasted in 2010 that he had put in place the toughest ethics rules in history. His administration would be the most transparent in history. And all of this would restore faith and trust in government. 

That was then. Let me tell you about now. 

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Talk about collapsing standards. When Barack Obama ran for office, his promise wasn’t that he’d simply improve our politics; he would transform them. He would appoint men and women of unblemished integrity who would serve the public interest. Mr. Obama would hold people accountable. He boasted in 2010 that he had put in place the toughest ethics rules in history. His administration would be the most transparent in history. And all of this would restore faith and trust in government. 

That was then. Let me tell you about now. 

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, clearly mislead Congress when in March of this year Clapper was asked by Senator Ron Wyden, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

“No, sir,” Clapper responded.

“It does not?” Wyden asked again.

“Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.”

That statement was false, since we know that the NSA has collected phone records of millions of Americans. 

And so what is Mr. Clapper’s excuse? Try this one on for size. The New York Times reports that in an interview on Sunday with NBC News, Mr. Clapper acknowledged that his answer had been problematic, calling it “the least untruthful” answer he could give. 

That phrase–what Clapper said is “the least untruthful” answer he could give–should live on in scandal lore.

As you might expect, the Obama administration is expressing support for Clapper as criticism of him mounts. “The president has full faith in director Clapper and his leadership of the intelligence community,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told the Guardian.

Of course he does. Why wouldn’t Obama have faith in James Clapper, since his attorney general is Eric Holder (who has misled Congress on multiple occasions)?

Rather than cleanse the political Augean Stables, the president and his administration–with every unfolding scandal, with every misleading statement, with every effort to stonewall and intimidate political opponents–are adding to the filth.

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God and Man in Russia

This week HBO premiered Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, the documentary on the infamous Russian feminist art-punk group imprisoned for “hooliganism” after staging a protest in a Moscow Orthodox church. The film manages one surprise: almost all of those involved, on each side of the issue, come off more sympathetic than intended–except for Vladimir Putin, though in Putin’s brief appearance on screen he outwits a clearly uncomfortable British reporter.

With Putin as the villain, the girls are the intended heroines of the story, but the documentary does them a favor by humanizing them and spending much time with the girls’ families. Despite their juvenile politics, outsized egos, and at times strange choices of targets for their “art,” it becomes difficult not to at least admire their willingness to challenge an authoritarian regime that punishes dissent. Additionally, their jail sentences were far out of proportion to their crimes, their trial is rigged and unfair, and the state’s veiled threats to take away the young child of one of the girls is nothing less than inhumane. And yet despite the seeming simplicity of the stunts and the reactions they provoke, the controversy actually brings to the surface some complex and important questions about Russian society and the state.

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This week HBO premiered Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, the documentary on the infamous Russian feminist art-punk group imprisoned for “hooliganism” after staging a protest in a Moscow Orthodox church. The film manages one surprise: almost all of those involved, on each side of the issue, come off more sympathetic than intended–except for Vladimir Putin, though in Putin’s brief appearance on screen he outwits a clearly uncomfortable British reporter.

With Putin as the villain, the girls are the intended heroines of the story, but the documentary does them a favor by humanizing them and spending much time with the girls’ families. Despite their juvenile politics, outsized egos, and at times strange choices of targets for their “art,” it becomes difficult not to at least admire their willingness to challenge an authoritarian regime that punishes dissent. Additionally, their jail sentences were far out of proportion to their crimes, their trial is rigged and unfair, and the state’s veiled threats to take away the young child of one of the girls is nothing less than inhumane. And yet despite the seeming simplicity of the stunts and the reactions they provoke, the controversy actually brings to the surface some complex and important questions about Russian society and the state.

In Conor O’Clery’s book on the last day of the Soviet Union, he writes of a Moscow Catholic church service attended by 82-year-old Yulia Massarskaya, who has come to her first such service since she was eight years old when the 1917 October Revolution took place. “I have never felt this good,” Massarskaya says. “It is like coming back home.”

Massarskaya was far from alone. There is a scene in A Punk Prayer of a pro-Orthodox protest, in which we hear from those the girls offended–among them women old enough to have lived through decades of Soviet religious repression. “For 70 years, we couldn’t practice,” one of them says. “We drank our faith in with our mother’s milk. For us, this place is sacred. In 1812, people collected coins to build it. And look what they’ve done.” The documentary, to its credit, then reviews the anti-religious policies instituted after the Bolshevik revolution.

That is not to excuse the punishing of “blasphemy”–something the Russian state will do explicitly when two new laws take effect next month. Indeed, outside of the United States the spread of such thought police is truly depressing, especially in Canada and the European Union, which should know better. It is simply to point out that many of those offended by the Riot girls are far from Putinists; some of them make it clear they don’t want the girls spending years behind bars but are pained to have been targeted by the state for virtually their entire lives and now feel targeted by so-called liberals in Moscow. They, the believers would like the girls to acknowledge, are not the enemy.

But that brings us to the most destructive part of the girls’ show trial and imprisonment, and it is easily the most misunderstood aspect to the controversy. Putin is not meting out such punishment to defend or to glorify the church. He is taking a wrecking ball to the church once again, even if only metaphorically. By tying the Russian Orthodox Church to his regime’s repression, he is ruining it in the public consciousness.

Khrushchev promised to “take God by the beard”; Putin wants to enlist God in his crimes and his politics. Communists sought to erase and replace God; Putin wants you to think of God as his prime minister. In A Long Walk to Church, Nathaniel Davis’s essential study of religion in Russia, the author explains the root and logic of the Communists’ assault on the church:

Think of a “City of God” in the Soviet Union, which the communists assaulted in their days of militant atheism. The city’s “temples” might represent the various religious bodies, each one rooted in the earth, where the city could be attacked and where its dimensions on the ground could be measured. Each of the temples also had–and has–a vertical dimension in the realm of the spirit, and no one who stood on the earth could clearly see to the tops of the columns, domes, and towers, as they were shrouded in mist. That is the realm of philosophers and theologians, who are not earthbound. This study will describe the situation on the ground; it is at this level that the communists made their assault, because they too were earthbound. …

The image of an earthbound “temple” is intended only to distinguish the inquiries of the historian and the philosopher, not to describe the churches as inert or the historian’s task as a simple measurement of dimensions and unchanging forms. At its heart a church consists of people; it might better be described as “an army on the march.”

And that army had to be defeated by the conquering power. But it turns out there were two obstacles standing in the Communists’ way: first, that an army of God is not so easily defeated or demoralized; and second, sometimes it is more convenient to allow its uneasy coexistence with the state. Soviet leaders soon figured out an ingenious way to fight both the earthbound manifestations of the church and its spiritual sustenance: infiltrate and co-opt it.

The rest is history, and it explains why Russians felt they were “coming back home” when the Soviet Union fell and they returned to church. They were permitted to practice before the dissolution of the empire, but there was something impure about the church’s unholy alliance with the state. The controversy over Pussy Riot is so difficult for Russia’s Christian believers precisely because Putin is co-opting their church once again.

The Riot girls fanned such flames, but in the minds of the Orthodox the girls were not blameless either. Their atheistic attack reminded churchgoers of the Red atheism that destroyed the church in their youth. It’s not for nothing that in A Punk Prayer one Riot girl’s father tells us that “until the age of four, Nadia was raised by her grandmother, who was a strong-willed Communist, and maybe that’s why we brought up such a little Bolshevik.”

Russia’s Orthodox thus feel under attack from all sides. The Riot girls self-consciously target “conformists,” but do not come off as openly hostile to religion itself. And they will not bring down the church, nor commit acts of violence against its adherents. At the same time, we can understand why this is such a touchy subject for everyone involved. The wound is not yet healed, and Putin intends to keep it that way.

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Wyden’s Stunt Was Congress at its Worst

On the face of it what happened in March was an example of everything that is wrong with government. When asked a straightforward question about whether the government collects data on millions of Americans, the director of national intelligence said the answer was no. In the wake of the revelation of the PRISM program that we know involves the capture of such data, James Clapper’s answer to Senator Ron Wyden’s question appears to be a big fat lie for which the DNI should pay with his job. Clapper’s deception seems to be just one more instance of governmental misbehavior along with Benghazi, the IRS scandal and the Justice Department’s spying on the Associated Press and Fox News. His dishonest answer is seen by many as little different from Attorney General Eric Holder’s lie when he was asked whether the government contemplated prosecutions of journalists even though he had already signed off on a court document in which Fox News’s James Rosen was labeled a “co-conspirator” and a flight risk.

But though I have little sympathy for Clapper, whose policy positions on the Islamist threat are highly questionable, lumping him together with Holder would not be fair. Far from being an honest probe into what the government was doing, it’s actually yet another example of how congressional grandstanding does the country little good. Wyden, who was already well briefed on PRISM and other intelligence operations, already knew the answer to the question when he asked it. But he also knew that it would have been inappropriate, if not illegal, for Clapper to answer the question honestly since doing so would have required him to publicly reveal highly classified information that ought not to be made available to America’s enemies. Wyden’s purpose wasn’t to shed light but to merely embarrass Clapper and the administration.

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On the face of it what happened in March was an example of everything that is wrong with government. When asked a straightforward question about whether the government collects data on millions of Americans, the director of national intelligence said the answer was no. In the wake of the revelation of the PRISM program that we know involves the capture of such data, James Clapper’s answer to Senator Ron Wyden’s question appears to be a big fat lie for which the DNI should pay with his job. Clapper’s deception seems to be just one more instance of governmental misbehavior along with Benghazi, the IRS scandal and the Justice Department’s spying on the Associated Press and Fox News. His dishonest answer is seen by many as little different from Attorney General Eric Holder’s lie when he was asked whether the government contemplated prosecutions of journalists even though he had already signed off on a court document in which Fox News’s James Rosen was labeled a “co-conspirator” and a flight risk.

But though I have little sympathy for Clapper, whose policy positions on the Islamist threat are highly questionable, lumping him together with Holder would not be fair. Far from being an honest probe into what the government was doing, it’s actually yet another example of how congressional grandstanding does the country little good. Wyden, who was already well briefed on PRISM and other intelligence operations, already knew the answer to the question when he asked it. But he also knew that it would have been inappropriate, if not illegal, for Clapper to answer the question honestly since doing so would have required him to publicly reveal highly classified information that ought not to be made available to America’s enemies. Wyden’s purpose wasn’t to shed light but to merely embarrass Clapper and the administration.

Edward Snowden’s leak about the existence and purpose of PRISM made sure that Wyden’s questioning of Clapper would become a major story, thus giving the Oregon senator the prize he sought. As the clip of Clapper’s lie is shown in a seemingly endless loop on the cable news stations, Wyden is back in the spotlight posturing about the need for “straight talk” from the administration. But the senator, who has carefully built up a reputation as a sober advocate of civil liberties, is the one who is being disingenuous, not Clapper.

Clapper’s attempts to wriggle out of the corner into which Wyden put him are laughable. The attempts to parse his answer to Wyden’s question as being technically truthful don’t work and he should stop trying to claim that he didn’t lie. But a dispassionate view of these circumstances shows that there are times when honesty is not always the best policy.

As guardian of the nation’s secrets, Clapper’s first duty is to ensure that efforts to combat Islamist terror are protected. Whether one likes PRISM or not—and count me among those who regard efforts to depict it as an Orwellian scheme as wrongheaded—the whole purpose of the program would have been undermined had it been made public. Wyden’s goal that day was not to elicit information so much as it was to force Clapper to choose between trashing a legal and necessary security measure and to lie. Though he must have hated doing it—something that showed up clearly in his body language as he told the lie—I can’t blame him for sacrificing his own credibility in order to protect a national secret.

Unlike Holder, who had no security or policy reason to lie about his targeting of James Rosen when he lied to Congress about that issue, Clapper was faced with a real dilemma and probably chose the lesser of two evils.

The real culprit that day was Wyden, who used the bully pulpit of a Senate committee hearing to create a sound byte. His pious declamations about his goals notwithstanding, by asking that question in public, he was seeking to trash a measure that by all accounts has been helpful in defending the nation. Like so many senators and members of Congress who have used hearings to posture more than legislate, Wyden’s question was pure theater. Rather than this episode being an example of administration misconduct, it was actually one that illustrated what happens when a senator gets the chance to grandstand in front of a television camera.

Whatever we may think of Clapper, he doesn’t deserve the opprobrium he has been getting on this issue. If anyone deserves our disdain here it is the senator who placed his ideological agenda ahead of the country’s national security needs.

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Putin Dooms Obama’s Iran Strategy

With the survival of his Syrian client looking more assured these days, Russian President Vladimir Putin turned his gaze to Iran. In a televised session with his state-run media, Putin proclaimed that Tehran was “adhering to the rules” in its nuclear program and said the United States was wrong for the way it “uses Iran to unite Western allies against some real or nonexistent threat.” Though Putin thought Iran’s threats against Israel are “unacceptable,” he made it clear that he would not support further pressure against the Islamist regime on the nuclear question.

Washington is distracted right now with scandals and events in Syria and Turkey but President Obama should have been paying very close attention to Putin’s statements. So much of the administration’s foreign policy strategy has hinged on his plan for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear question that will allow Obama to avoid ever having to choose between the dangers of containment and the use of military force. But with Putin laying down a marker that makes it clear Russia will never go along with an international consensus seeking to stop Iran’s nuclear quest, the ultimate failure of a U.S. strategy that relies solely on sanctions and diplomacy is assured. As much as Obama may wish to avoid facing the truth, Putin’s talk was a reminder not only of the danger looming ahead in the remaining years of his presidency, but of the consequences of his feckless policy of delay and indecision on Syria.

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With the survival of his Syrian client looking more assured these days, Russian President Vladimir Putin turned his gaze to Iran. In a televised session with his state-run media, Putin proclaimed that Tehran was “adhering to the rules” in its nuclear program and said the United States was wrong for the way it “uses Iran to unite Western allies against some real or nonexistent threat.” Though Putin thought Iran’s threats against Israel are “unacceptable,” he made it clear that he would not support further pressure against the Islamist regime on the nuclear question.

Washington is distracted right now with scandals and events in Syria and Turkey but President Obama should have been paying very close attention to Putin’s statements. So much of the administration’s foreign policy strategy has hinged on his plan for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear question that will allow Obama to avoid ever having to choose between the dangers of containment and the use of military force. But with Putin laying down a marker that makes it clear Russia will never go along with an international consensus seeking to stop Iran’s nuclear quest, the ultimate failure of a U.S. strategy that relies solely on sanctions and diplomacy is assured. As much as Obama may wish to avoid facing the truth, Putin’s talk was a reminder not only of the danger looming ahead in the remaining years of his presidency, but of the consequences of his feckless policy of delay and indecision on Syria.

For much of his first four and a half years in office, Obama’s foreign policy has been focused on trying to build an international coalition that would act to pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear ambitions. Adding Russia to that group was essential to the plan’s success. But though the Russians have joined the P5+1 group that has been trying—and failing miserably—to negotiate with Iran, their presence in the room has been more of an obstacle than a help. Russia not only continues to help Tehran evade sanctions, but it acts as a brake on the efforts of the European Union and the United States to credibly threaten Iran with consequences if it continues to prevaricate on the nuclear question. Though first Secretary of State Clinton and now her successor John Kerry have tried to sweet talk Putin into the camp of those seeking to restrain Iran, he has laughed at their efforts and doubled down on his defiance.

Relying on Russia to make diplomacy work was never going to succeed because the keynote of Putin’s foreign policy will always center around his desire to frustrate the Americans whenever possible. Putin wishes to recreate the Soviet, if not the Tsarist, empire, and that means sticking a finger in the eye of the only real superpower in the world whenever possible.

Obama never had much chance of getting Russia to listen to reason on Iran, but his decision to punt on the question of acting to force Putin’s sole foreign client has significantly complicated things on Iran. Had the U.S. acted decisively during the early stages of the crisis in Syria, Russia might have been chastened and realized that it hadn’t the ability to pursue an independent course bent on obstructing U.S. aims in the Middle East. But instead Obama dithered, giving Russia and Iran the time to bolster the Assad regime with military aid and diplomatic support. While Obama foolishly kept predicting Assad’s inevitable fall, Putin and the ayatollahs worked to keep that from happening. With Assad now on the offensive and the American position on action in Syria having moved from worries about acting too early to an acknowledgement that it is now too late, Putin is justified in crowing about his triumph. The announcement that Russia would deliver missiles to Damascus–which would be aimed at Western forces seeking to enforce a potential no-fly zone in Syria–after Kerry journeyed to Moscow to beg that they forebear from such a provocative move crystallized the collapse of Obama’s Russian strategy.

Having won on Syria, there is now even less reason for Putin to cooperate on Iran. Though the Russian authoritarian wishes that Tehran would stop making statements about their intentions toward Israel that illustrate just how dangerous an Iranian nuke would be, Putin has backed Obama into a corner. For years, Obama has pretended that he could talk his way out of having to act on Iran, but the president must now understand that his choices are limited to force and containment. Both are problematic, but the latter means accepting a permanent strategic threat to U.S. allies that is a formula for future violence. 

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