Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 13, 2013

Red Line Crossed—Now What?

After months of trying to deny the undeniable—namely, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons—the White House finally ended its equivocating today and admitted it. 

Today’s official White House statement says:

Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.  Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information.  The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date.

Moreover, the White House lays blame for the use of these weapons squarely at Bashar Assad’s door. “We believe that the Assad regime maintains control of these weapons,” the statement goes on. “We have no reliable, corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition in Syria has acquired or used chemical weapons.”

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After months of trying to deny the undeniable—namely, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons—the White House finally ended its equivocating today and admitted it. 

Today’s official White House statement says:

Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.  Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information.  The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date.

Moreover, the White House lays blame for the use of these weapons squarely at Bashar Assad’s door. “We believe that the Assad regime maintains control of these weapons,” the statement goes on. “We have no reliable, corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition in Syria has acquired or used chemical weapons.”

The statement also reiterated what Obama had previously said: “The President has been clear that the use of chemical weapons—or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups—is a red line for the United States, as there has long been an established norm within the international community against the use of chemical weapons.” But Obama has never said what he would do if Assad crossed this red line, and today’s statement does not provide much new information.

Here is what the Obama administration announced by way of concrete actions: “the President has augmented the provision of non-lethal assistance to the civilian opposition, and also authorized the expansion of our assistance to the Supreme Military Council (SMC), and we will be consulting with Congress on these matters in the coming weeks.”

That’s it? No announcement of air strikes on chemical-weapons stockpiles or other government targets. No imposition of a no-fly zone. Not even an announcement that emergency shipments of arms would be rushed to the rebels.

All Obama is doing in response to the crossing of the red line is providing more “non-lethal assistance” and also authorizing an unspecified “expansion” in U.S. assistance to the rebel military command. Administration officials say that means arms will indeed be provided but what kind, how many, or how quickly–all remain unknown.

This rethinking of Obama’s opposition to helping the rebels is welcome. But based on the administration’s dilatory track record on Syria, there is cause to fear that U.S. support to the rebels will not be sufficient to stop the onslaught by Assad and Hezbollah forces, assisted and financed by Iran, that has already reclaimed the town of Quasayr and now threatens to retake Aleppo too. 

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A Devastating Portrait of Anthony Weiner’s Time in Congress

Politicians whose careers get sidetracked by sex scandals often find their way back to political redemption in part because voters tend to compartmentalize the officeholder’s legislative responsibilities and his personal life. The two aren’t always so separable; Republican former South Carolina governor and now Congressman Mark Sanford’s infidelity was matched by the irresponsibility of his skipping out of the state unannounced to meet his girlfriend.

Voters in New York have yet to decide if they’re ready to let Democratic former congressman and current mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner come in from the cold after his own sex scandal precipitated his resignation from Congress. Voters may be considering whether the scandal is relevant to Weiner’s political qualifications. It is. And for a more fundamental issue than Weiner’s penchant for dishonesty and blaming others. The New York Times, in a devastating analysis today, explains why:

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Politicians whose careers get sidetracked by sex scandals often find their way back to political redemption in part because voters tend to compartmentalize the officeholder’s legislative responsibilities and his personal life. The two aren’t always so separable; Republican former South Carolina governor and now Congressman Mark Sanford’s infidelity was matched by the irresponsibility of his skipping out of the state unannounced to meet his girlfriend.

Voters in New York have yet to decide if they’re ready to let Democratic former congressman and current mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner come in from the cold after his own sex scandal precipitated his resignation from Congress. Voters may be considering whether the scandal is relevant to Weiner’s political qualifications. It is. And for a more fundamental issue than Weiner’s penchant for dishonesty and blaming others. The New York Times, in a devastating analysis today, explains why:

When President Obama needed every Democrat in Congress to back his health care plan in 2009, Representative Anthony D. Weiner threatened behind the scenes to torpedo the package in favor of a more sweeping measure. He backed off after he was promised a bigger share of the spotlight during the highly watched debate.

The previous year, when advocates of immigration reform invited Mr. Weiner to a round-table discussion with business leaders and more senior New York City members of Congress, he demanded to turn it into a hearing, featuring himself in a gavel-wielding role. Rebuffed, he failed to show up.

In 12 ½ years in Congress, he sponsored and wrote only one bill that he steered to enactment: a measure pushed by a family friend who gave his campaigns tens of thousands of dollars in donations.

And those are just the first three paragraphs. Anthony Weiner’s boundless self-regard and complete lack of self-control combine to make him a volatile, nasty, and particularly ineffective legislator. He had become in some quarters a liberal hero for his grandstanding and his yelling on the House floor. And he may have meant it. But he was not there as a representative of the people or their interests; he was there because that’s where the cameras could catch his one-man reality show.

The Times article includes speculation from those who worked with Weiner that all this attention-getting was about raising his profile to eventually run for mayor of New York City. That is unproven, but certainly believable. Had he stayed in Congress scandal-free, he would have been the favorite in this year’s election. He is, in New York political parlance, “from the boroughs”–a reference to his ethnic outer-borough roots and a major advantage in the world of New York City identity politics over the current frontrunner, Christine Quinn of Manhattan. It was generally assumed that he wanted to be mayor more than he wanted to be a congressman.

And that might explain, though not excuse, his disinterest in his congressional day job. He was biding his time. But the more likely explanation is that Weiner must feed his ego. As one former colleague, Ohio Democrat Zachary T. Space, told the Times: “It was like he had a megaphone surgically attached to his mouth.” Aides complained about his temper and colleagues about his disloyalty. He drove people crazy and he drove them away.

Put simply, it’s a temperament issue. The sex scandal was the seemingly inevitable product of the same temperament that made him a poor representative of the people of New York the last time they elected him. Recasting himself as a family man won’t change that.

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Why Palestinians Block Wall Changes

As I predicted two months ago, the prospects that Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky’s fair-minded plan for changes at Jerusalem’s Western Wall will be implemented have run into an impassable obstacle. Sharansky’s plan was to create a third section of the Kotel that would create a space for egalitarian services that would remove a source of conflict between Orthodox and non-Orthodox worshipers. It has been met with generally good reviews among both Israelis and Diaspora Jews who don’t like the way this sacred place has become for all intents and purposes an open-air Orthodox synagogue rather than a place of pilgrimage for all Jews. But as nasty and as bitter as the infighting between Jewish factions may be, the real conflict in the city remains the one between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Jerusalem Post reports today that the Palestinian Authority’s religious affairs minister has said it will not permit Israel to change the entrance to the Temple Mount—which adjoins and looks down on the Wall Plaza—in order to expand the area where Jews may worship at the remnant of their ancient holy place. But the motivation of this veto isn’t pure spite. Just as they have used their power to set off violence and riots to protest even the most harmless alterations to the area in the last 20 years, Palestinian leaders are determined to stop Sharansky’s scheme in its tracks because they regard all of the Old City as not only theirs by right but a place that will be theirs in the event of any peace deal. Rather than this issue being a purely internecine conflict between women who wish to wear prayer shawls and read Torah and those Orthodox adherents who want to prevent them from doing so, the question of who is in charge at the Kotel still shrinks in significance when placed in the context of the Palestinian struggle to return to a period of history when Jews had no rights in Jerusalem.

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As I predicted two months ago, the prospects that Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky’s fair-minded plan for changes at Jerusalem’s Western Wall will be implemented have run into an impassable obstacle. Sharansky’s plan was to create a third section of the Kotel that would create a space for egalitarian services that would remove a source of conflict between Orthodox and non-Orthodox worshipers. It has been met with generally good reviews among both Israelis and Diaspora Jews who don’t like the way this sacred place has become for all intents and purposes an open-air Orthodox synagogue rather than a place of pilgrimage for all Jews. But as nasty and as bitter as the infighting between Jewish factions may be, the real conflict in the city remains the one between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Jerusalem Post reports today that the Palestinian Authority’s religious affairs minister has said it will not permit Israel to change the entrance to the Temple Mount—which adjoins and looks down on the Wall Plaza—in order to expand the area where Jews may worship at the remnant of their ancient holy place. But the motivation of this veto isn’t pure spite. Just as they have used their power to set off violence and riots to protest even the most harmless alterations to the area in the last 20 years, Palestinian leaders are determined to stop Sharansky’s scheme in its tracks because they regard all of the Old City as not only theirs by right but a place that will be theirs in the event of any peace deal. Rather than this issue being a purely internecine conflict between women who wish to wear prayer shawls and read Torah and those Orthodox adherents who want to prevent them from doing so, the question of who is in charge at the Kotel still shrinks in significance when placed in the context of the Palestinian struggle to return to a period of history when Jews had no rights in Jerusalem.

The problem is that in order for Sharansky’s plan to be implemented, alterations must be made to the Mugrabi Bridge that provides access to the Temple Mount from the Wall Plaza. Israel has sought to renovate the bridge in recent years, a move that would only benefit Muslims and the foreign tourists who visit the mosques on the hill (Jews are forbidden to pray there), but it has been prevented from doing so by the demands of the Muslim Wakf which administers the Temple Mount.

The issue here isn’t just preservation of an ancient site in pristine condition since the Temple Mount has already been the scene of massive vandalism committed by the Wakf, which is determined to ignore or bury the evidence of the Jewish origins of the place. The Wakf claims the Kotel is theirs and rejects Jewish sovereignty over any part of it or the city that surrounds it as well as any association with Judaism or the history of the Jewish people. Palestinian Authority leaders and their media have repeatedly claimed that the ancient temples were not built on the Mount where Muslim conquerors subsequently built mosques, just as they deny the associations of the Jews with the rest of their ancient homeland. The rejection of the Sharansky plan is a function of the desire of the PA to exercise control over the entire Old City.

The PA and the Wakf don’t want to stop the expansion of the areas where people can pray at the Wall only because they wish to discomfit the Jews but because they envision administering it themselves in the future.

The dispute between the Women of the Wall and Orthodox authorities is a significant issue that can poison the relationship between Israel and the vast majority of American Jews who affiliate with non-Orthodox denominations. But the PA’s pronouncement is a reminder that the real fight in Jerusalem is not between Jews. So long as Palestinians are determined to reverse the verdict of history and return Jews to a subordinate status in their ancient capital, the spat between Jewish factions will have to wait.

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Congress Can’t Weasel Out of ObamaCare

During the course of the long, contentious and often under-handed battle to pass ObamaCare, Congress did do one honorable thing: it included the Grassley Amendment in the legislation that ensured that the government could not offer members of the House and Senate and their staffs any insurance plans but those created by the bill or those that were part of the exchanges set up in association with it. The principle was clear. If Congress, acting at the behest of President Obama, was going to shove this unpopular idea down the throats of an unwilling nation, those involved in making the law were going to have to live with it the same as the rest of the country. But three years later and with only six months to go before this provision goes into effect, it appears a new bipartisan consensus has emerged in the Congress about the misnamed Affordable Care Act: they want no part of it.

Though Democrats have mocked the more than three dozen attempts by House Republicans to repeal the act, the party leadership views the impending deadline with horror since the prospect of being forced into ObamaCare insurance has set off a mass exodus of members and their senior staffs. As Politico reports, there could be a surge in resignations before December 31 since doing so will allow representatives, senators and other congressional employees to retain their old federal insurance plans. That has led the same Democrats who pushed for the passage of ObamaCare to demand that it be changed to let the inhabitants of Capitol Hill of the hook. But even though Republicans have just as much incentive to want to amend the bill to save their own members and their staffs, their answer should be no. If Congress doesn’t want to cope with the far higher costs and poorer coverage that ObamaCare will ensure, they can scrap the entire misbegotten bill rather than just change it to suit their own interests.

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During the course of the long, contentious and often under-handed battle to pass ObamaCare, Congress did do one honorable thing: it included the Grassley Amendment in the legislation that ensured that the government could not offer members of the House and Senate and their staffs any insurance plans but those created by the bill or those that were part of the exchanges set up in association with it. The principle was clear. If Congress, acting at the behest of President Obama, was going to shove this unpopular idea down the throats of an unwilling nation, those involved in making the law were going to have to live with it the same as the rest of the country. But three years later and with only six months to go before this provision goes into effect, it appears a new bipartisan consensus has emerged in the Congress about the misnamed Affordable Care Act: they want no part of it.

Though Democrats have mocked the more than three dozen attempts by House Republicans to repeal the act, the party leadership views the impending deadline with horror since the prospect of being forced into ObamaCare insurance has set off a mass exodus of members and their senior staffs. As Politico reports, there could be a surge in resignations before December 31 since doing so will allow representatives, senators and other congressional employees to retain their old federal insurance plans. That has led the same Democrats who pushed for the passage of ObamaCare to demand that it be changed to let the inhabitants of Capitol Hill of the hook. But even though Republicans have just as much incentive to want to amend the bill to save their own members and their staffs, their answer should be no. If Congress doesn’t want to cope with the far higher costs and poorer coverage that ObamaCare will ensure, they can scrap the entire misbegotten bill rather than just change it to suit their own interests.

If a Democratic leader like Connecticut’s John Larson thinks it’s unfair to expect his employees to be put in the same boat as his constituents, then maybe he should rethink the entire measure that he played a pivotal role in passing when his party controlled Congress.

Most Americans, who already think little of Congress, will shed no tears for the travails of these servants of the people. Nor will they think the surge to the exits on the part of members and staff will do the country much harm. But, to be fair, if the kind of turnover that Politico discusses today really happens, a brain drain of experienced staffers and veteran politicians will make the Hill an even more dysfunctional place than it already has become.

That’s not good, but the answer to this mess simply cannot be for the Congress to allow its own members and employees to opt out of the catastrophe that is about to land on the necks of their fellow citizens. Republicans may be as miserable as Democrats about this mess, but they need to understand that if they vote for a fix that will exempt Congress they are signing their own political death warrants. Any Republican that votes for such a “fix” will be betraying the voters and the political principles of their party. Losing their staffs (who provide much of the expertise and institutional memory of this branch of government) may be a disaster, but Congress must suffer along with the rest of us if they are to retain even a shred of credibility. 

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Free Trade and EU Cultural Protectionism

Talk of a U.S.-European Union free trade agreement has been building for some time, getting a boost from lagging Western economies and the obvious benefits of opening up new global markets for expanding companies. But negotiations could very well end before they begin. The issue, as is often the case with large free trade deals, is protectionism.

Despite the fervent hopes of the utopian Eurocrats, the EU isn’t one large country–it’s 27 of them, each with its own industries it would like to protect from free trade. Additionally, the protectionist sticking point is not merely a technical or financial issue, but one sensitive enough to threaten the entire project: culture. France is concerned about what boils down to Yankee cultural imperialism. The Wall Street Journal reports:

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Talk of a U.S.-European Union free trade agreement has been building for some time, getting a boost from lagging Western economies and the obvious benefits of opening up new global markets for expanding companies. But negotiations could very well end before they begin. The issue, as is often the case with large free trade deals, is protectionism.

Despite the fervent hopes of the utopian Eurocrats, the EU isn’t one large country–it’s 27 of them, each with its own industries it would like to protect from free trade. Additionally, the protectionist sticking point is not merely a technical or financial issue, but one sensitive enough to threaten the entire project: culture. France is concerned about what boils down to Yankee cultural imperialism. The Wall Street Journal reports:

As television and movies are increasingly delivered over the Internet, France particularly opposes talks that might limit how European governments impose taxes on technology companies to fund those subsidies.

“The feelings and imagination of each nation are expressed through these services,” Henri Weber, a French member of the European Parliament, told reporters. “Each country has the right to support its creators and authors. This has nothing to do with trade and commerce.”

It actually has everything to do with trade and commerce, and it does not bode well for this trade deal if the nations involved cannot agree on the meaning of the word “trade.” It also calls into question France’s definition of European Union. But that’s part of the illogic of the EU project in the first place, and why it has faltered so predictably. There is no such unified concept as “Europe.” It is a continent of countries each with its own distinct language, culture, and–this one’s important too–national borders.

The EU was supposed to do its best to eliminate those borders in theory if not reality by enabling migration and trade across the continent. But then it turned out that European countries weren’t so keen on the migration part, and now don’t seem to have much desire for trade either. That doesn’t mean they don’t or won’t trade–it just means the creation of the EU hasn’t done much to change the way they do so. They want to trade as individual nation-states, not part of a single unified entity.

There is another rather humorous contradiction in the French objection as well. Industries only need government protection when they cannot thrive on the open market on a level playing field. Sometimes this is done to create jobs to ease worries about outsourcing in a globalized world. Other times it is done to protect important national-security information, as with weapons manufacturers and defense contractors. But the French concern is about culture: that is, the people of France prefer American culture by and large, even though they don’t like saying so. They vote with their wallets. The Journal explains:

U.S.-produced content accounts for more than 60% of TV and radio programs and movies across Europe, despite a patchwork of state subsidies that supports—and possibly protects from extinction—the kind of work that stands little chance of receiving Hollywood backing, becoming a global hit or even turning a profit.

Even in France, the most popular television shows are some of the same U.S.-made police fare that has become the meat-and-potatoes of American prime-time television, including the Mentalist, Criminal Minds and CSI: NY. Medical dramas—such as House and Grey’s Anatomy—also rank near the top.

One French film executive told the Journal frankly that if they had to compete on a level playing field many of the independent French films would never make it to the screen. Many of the films shown at the Cannes festival were, apparently, beneficiaries of government subsidy. The Journal closes by explaining what essential French culture would be lost to the world:

Hollywood studios might be unlikely to back a good number of them, including this year’s winner, La Vie d’Adèle, a love story that features an extended scene of graphic lesbian sex, Mr. Lamassoure said.

And what kind of heartless capitalist monster would seek to deprive audiences of such tasteful French pornographic cinema? Surely they can understand the desire to scuttle an entire free trade agreement over the threat posed by boorish American hillbillies and their inability to grasp the cultural gift that is extensive French nudity.

But of course France isn’t alone in wanting to protect its favored industries. Other European states are supporting France on this because they can’t wait to open the floodgates of protectionism. Neither can the U.S., which has been reminding European negotiators that American companies should be excepted from the rules if European companies are. Fair is fair.

And France’s intransigence can derail the trade talks even without others in their corner because EU rules give each country veto power over the process even before it begins. Demanding preconditions based on veto threats available to 27 countries sets a fairly dangerous precedent. It also makes it clear that the cause of free trade is ill served by the EU, which is a union in name only.

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A Syria Policy Clear as Mud

The administration is now in the tenth month of its Benghazi investigation, with no signs of it ever ending. Nine and a half months ago, President Obama told the UN the Benghazi attack was an “assault on America” and that he would be “relentless” in bringing the killers to justice, but so far no action has been taken. The administration’s investigation into Assad’s game-changing, red line-crossing use of chemical weapons in Syria is entering its third month, while Hezbollah and Iran threaten to end the game before the investigation is complete.

At yesterday’s State Department press conference, a reporter noted that a week ago France had provided additional evidence of Assad’s use of chemical weapons and asked spokesperson Jen Psaki for a response. That produced a remarkable colloquy:

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The administration is now in the tenth month of its Benghazi investigation, with no signs of it ever ending. Nine and a half months ago, President Obama told the UN the Benghazi attack was an “assault on America” and that he would be “relentless” in bringing the killers to justice, but so far no action has been taken. The administration’s investigation into Assad’s game-changing, red line-crossing use of chemical weapons in Syria is entering its third month, while Hezbollah and Iran threaten to end the game before the investigation is complete.

At yesterday’s State Department press conference, a reporter noted that a week ago France had provided additional evidence of Assad’s use of chemical weapons and asked spokesperson Jen Psaki for a response. That produced a remarkable colloquy:

MS. PSAKI: Well, I don’t have any new updates for you. I can say that it is because we take chemical weapons and their potential use so seriously that we need to fully investigate, and why we’re taking every step to do just that. You’re familiar with the steps we’re taking, of course –

QUESTION: I’m not familiar. What’s exactly you are doing right now? It has been two months that you have been using this exact same line when you are asked about the chemical weapons.

MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s never been about a deadline self-imposed by you or by anyone else. This is about – been about finding the facts and getting to the bottom of the facts, [blah, blah, blah for 82 more words].  

QUESTION: So it’s been a week now since you got the French evidence and you’re saying that you’re still not done, you’re still not satisfied? …

MS. PSAKI: We’re not going to evaluate it in public, but if there was a change in our policy –

QUESTION: No, no, I’m not asking you to evaluate … I’m just saying you still haven’t made that determination?

MS. PSAKI: There has not been a change in our policy.

QUESTION: Okay. So then logically, we should infer that you guys looked at the French stuff and said, “Eh, not — ”

MS. PSAKI: I wouldn’t – I would caution you against inferring anything.

QUESTION: Well, then you want to tell us where you stand? … And you will recall that it wasn’t just the French that came out and said they had incontrovertible evidence.

MS. PSAKI: That’s true.

QUESTION: It was also the Brits.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: So if you guys have taken a look at the evidence which you have – you’ve had now for a week, and … I think that the observer is left to conclude that you have decided that the evidence that you got from the French wasn’t – didn’t hit the mark.

MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, you’re making a lot of conclusions. There’s no change in our policy. I’m not going to read out what we think of the information we received from the French or the British or any other country. This is being analyzed, of course, and looked at seriously by a team internally, but I have no change in policy or approach to announce.

QUESTION: Okay. But … correct me if I’m wrong – the approach still is that if chemical weapons use can be – is proved to a certainty or to a degree with which you’re confident that it is – that is accurate, that that is a game-changer –

MS. PSAKI: Correct.

QUESTION: — and that a game-changing means a policy shift, correct?

MS. PSAKI: That is – the President said it is a redline, it is a game-changer. What that means in terms of the options, as you know, I will leave that to them to discuss.

QUESTION: Well, does changing the game mean – I mean, to me, that means that – that would signal – it would be a harbinger of a policy shift. Am I incorrect?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t want to get ahead of where we are, which is we’re not at that point.

QUESTION: So a game-changer doesn’t necessarily change the game. Is that what you’re saying?

MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, the President himself –

QUESTION: Because I don’t get it then.

MS. PSAKI: The President himself, and the Secretary has repeated, have said – let me just finish – that this is a redline, that if it’s crossed there are a number of options for them to consider. But we’re not at that point yet, so I don’t want to get ahead of what it means when we’re not at that point yet. We haven’t crossed –

QUESTION: Okay … you seem to be implying that one of the options is to do nothing, is to change nothing. Is that an option?

MS. PSAKI: Again, I’m not going to analyze the President’s options. They’re expansive. They’re – he’s asked his national security team to look into them.

QUESTION: All right. I understand. But it seems to me the Administration has been about as clear as mud on this, on what it means. And I just want it –

MS. PSAKI: Some mud is clear.

The colloquy may serve as a summary of some of the premises underlying the administration’s policy: some mud is clear; some red lines aren’t red; some game-changers don’t change the game; some sets of options include the option to do nothing; some investigations never end; sometimes keeping all options on the table means never having to choose one; and sometimes people who say they don’t bluff, bluff.  

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The GOP’s Moron Factor

Republicans have spent the last several months arguing about the lessons of the 2012 election with both establishment types and grass roots activists mixing it up on a variety of issues. But if there was one conclusion that surely everyone in the party agreed upon it was that GOP candidates and officials needed to avoid mentioning rape, especially when discussing their opposition to abortion. The spectacular idiocy of Missouri senatorial candidate Todd Akin—who publicly doubted that women could become pregnant as a result of rape—didn’t just transform his opponent Claire McCaskill from a certain loser to an easy winner and sink Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock, when the latter said something not quite as foolish. It also allowed Democrats to trash all Republicans as Neanderthal nitwits seeking to abuse women.

But apparently Arizonan Republican Representative Trent Franks didn’t get the memo. Franks demonstrated that yesterday when he claimed during a Judiciary Committee debate that the incidence of pregnancy from rape is “very low.” But Franks had to repeat the assertion even in a later clarification before he realized what he had done. With a single phrase, Franks had handed Democrats on the committee and elsewhere a chance to revive their fake “War on Women” theme that helped mobilize the Democratic base in 2012. Though it can be asserted that they didn’t need any new excuses to try the same tactic in 2014, Franks has made it a lot easier. Just as was the case in 2012, Republicans are learning the hard way that foolish statements—even if they are ripped out of their context or unfairly characterized—allow Democrats to change the subject from serious moral issues to a topic they’d rather talk about: why some Republicans are morons.

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Republicans have spent the last several months arguing about the lessons of the 2012 election with both establishment types and grass roots activists mixing it up on a variety of issues. But if there was one conclusion that surely everyone in the party agreed upon it was that GOP candidates and officials needed to avoid mentioning rape, especially when discussing their opposition to abortion. The spectacular idiocy of Missouri senatorial candidate Todd Akin—who publicly doubted that women could become pregnant as a result of rape—didn’t just transform his opponent Claire McCaskill from a certain loser to an easy winner and sink Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock, when the latter said something not quite as foolish. It also allowed Democrats to trash all Republicans as Neanderthal nitwits seeking to abuse women.

But apparently Arizonan Republican Representative Trent Franks didn’t get the memo. Franks demonstrated that yesterday when he claimed during a Judiciary Committee debate that the incidence of pregnancy from rape is “very low.” But Franks had to repeat the assertion even in a later clarification before he realized what he had done. With a single phrase, Franks had handed Democrats on the committee and elsewhere a chance to revive their fake “War on Women” theme that helped mobilize the Democratic base in 2012. Though it can be asserted that they didn’t need any new excuses to try the same tactic in 2014, Franks has made it a lot easier. Just as was the case in 2012, Republicans are learning the hard way that foolish statements—even if they are ripped out of their context or unfairly characterized—allow Democrats to change the subject from serious moral issues to a topic they’d rather talk about: why some Republicans are morons.

Can it be that conservatives have already forgotten how one ill-considered vulgar insult uttered by Rush Limbaugh diverted the public’s attention from the Obama administration’s attack on the religious freedom of Catholics and others who opposed its Health and Human Services mandate? In the space of a couple of days, instead of a national debate about the way ObamaCare was violating religious liberty and imposing a burden on Catholic institutions to pay for services that violated their consciences we got a full-scale argument about the way Republicans were oppressing women. Liberal activist Sandra Fluke was transformed into a feminist hero instead of being mocked, as she should have been, for her upper-middle-class plea for free birth control.

It is true that this was largely the work of a mainstream liberal media that preferred to demonize conservatives rather than to focus on a threat to religious freedom, but surely Rush and others on the right were already aware that the world isn’t fair and that they must always remember that the media playing field is tilted against them. Anyone who doesn’t already know this isn’t smart enough to be in Congress. It was in the context of that gaffe that Akin’s comments and those of Mourdock became a rallying cry from Democrats last fall.

Franks has done something just as stupid. His remarks came in the middle of a debate about a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks including those as a result of rape or incest. Abortion rights advocates view any attempt to restrict the procedure in much the same manner as the National Rifle Association sees even the most reasonable regulations of guns, and it is to be expected that this measure will be fought tooth and nail. The wisdom of the 20-week bill can be debated, but it is part of a necessary discussion about the morality of late-term abortions in an era when medical advances have changed the way we look at such pregnancies. Yet rather than discuss the fact that babies aborted after 20 weeks are likely to be viable human beings—a fact that was highlighted during the Kermit Gosnell trial—the national discussion has turned again to Republicans and rape.

In his defense, Franks is right to assert that the instances of a rape victim waiting until 20 weeks to have an abortion are probably quite rare. But that wasn’t what he said at first. What he did utter was close enough to Akin’s infamous crack that it ensured that he would be the latest Republican turned into a piñata for liberals. Franks and other Republicans not only need to learn how to discuss social issues without sounding cavalier about rape. They need to remember that if they don’t stick to their moral talking points Democrats looking for another Akin will sucker them into rape comments.

Some would argue the GOP is better off forgetting about social issues altogether but so long as the national discussion is focused on conservative principles, such as the value of life or religious liberty, the Republicans have the high ground. But the moment they start using the words rape and pregnancy in the same sentence they are doomed. The outcome of future elections may well hinge on whether Republicans can remember this very simple rule.

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Even Israel’s Far Left Thinks EU-Kerry Approach Is Wrong

I’ve given up expecting peace-process zealots like Secretary of State John Kerry or the European Union to pay any heed to mainstream Israelis (i.e., the 83 percent who think even withdrawing to the 1967 lines and dividing Jerusalem wouldn’t end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). But recently, even Israel’s far left has become too “right-wing” for these zealots. That begs an obvious question: Since any peace deal requires two sides, how do they expect to close one by adopting positions so extreme even Haaretz columnists won’t support them?

Two regular Haaretz contributors and long-time peace advocates wrote columns this month decrying the current approach. First, former Haaretz editor-in-chief David Landau blasted Kerry for treating veteran Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as “settlements.” Next, psychology professor Carlo Strenger explained why the Syrian crisis makes a full West Bank withdrawal impossible.

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I’ve given up expecting peace-process zealots like Secretary of State John Kerry or the European Union to pay any heed to mainstream Israelis (i.e., the 83 percent who think even withdrawing to the 1967 lines and dividing Jerusalem wouldn’t end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). But recently, even Israel’s far left has become too “right-wing” for these zealots. That begs an obvious question: Since any peace deal requires two sides, how do they expect to close one by adopting positions so extreme even Haaretz columnists won’t support them?

Two regular Haaretz contributors and long-time peace advocates wrote columns this month decrying the current approach. First, former Haaretz editor-in-chief David Landau blasted Kerry for treating veteran Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as “settlements.” Next, psychology professor Carlo Strenger explained why the Syrian crisis makes a full West Bank withdrawal impossible.

Much of Landau’s piece restated what has long been obvious: the “indiscriminate lumping together of Jerusalem suburbs with far-flung” settlements has encouraged mainstream Israelis to do the same–and therefore oppose a construction freeze in either–and made it impossible for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate without a total freeze, because he can’t demand less than Washington does. But Landau also added a new twist: “Kerry’s ham-fisted lumping together of Ramot and Gilo with West Bank settlements” has even forced Israeli leftists to side with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against Washington (and, he might have added, the EU as well). It is “veritably forcing myriad moderate Israelis, who long for peace and the two-state solution, to bridle, with the Netanyahu camp, at the entire admonishment.”

Strenger’s piece, however, tackled a broader problem: the ongoing implosion of Syria. Peace activists have long advocated a deal with Syria, he noted, but “most Israelis now shudder when they think what would have happened if Israel had returned the Golan Heights. Al-Qaeda and other extreme Islamist groups would be at the shore of the Kinneret, creating an unbearable security risk.”

This lesson matters for the West Bank, he wrote, because despite his conviction (incidentally not shared by most Israelis) that Abbas truly wants peace, “Israelis ask a simple question: do you have the ability to prevent a takeover of Palestine by extremists?” And the obvious answer is no:  Hamas remains committed to Israel’s destruction, and Abbas can’t guarantee it won’t take power following an Israeli pullout.

“After all, Hamas once won the elections in Palestine,” Strenger recalled. Hamas also routed Abbas’s forces in less than a week when it staged a military takeover of Gaza in 2007–a fact Strenger bizarrely omits, but that most Israelis haven’t forgotten. Hence the inevitable conclusion:

In the Middle East’s current situation no Israeli government will renounce security control of Palestine’s eastern border and no Israeli government will return to the 1967 borders in the foreseeable future, when there are chances that radical Jihadist elements might attack Israel from there.

But another failed push for a deal demanding exactly that won’t merely increase distrust on both sides and thereby reduce the chances of peace in the future–a point both Strenger and Landau make. It also means diplomats aren’t pursuing interim measures that could defuse the conflict and actually increase prospects for future peace–measures that, as political scientist Shlomo Avineri noted in this insightful analysis, are routinely employed in other conflicts where final-status deals aren’t immediately possible, like Cyprus or Kashmir. Thus by pushing a final-status deal now, Kerry and company are actively making things worse at the expense of steps that could make things better.

And if that’s what even Israel’s far left is saying, isn’t it time for international diplomats to start listening?

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Bill Clinton on Syria: Don’t Rely on the Polls

On Tuesday night I attended a benefit dinner in New York for the McCain Institute at Arizona State University. The star attraction was Bill Clinton, in conversation with John McCain. Like other attendees I was startled to hear Clinton come out in favor of aiding the Syrian rebels, but I wasn’t planning to write about it because the event was off the record. However, Politico has obtained a tape recording of Clinton’s talk and posted an article about it.

The article quotes Clinton as follows: “My view is that we shouldn’t over-learn the lessons of the past. I don’t think Syria is necessarily Iraq or Afghanistan — no one has asked us to send any soldiers in there. I think it’s more like Afghanistan was in the ’80s when they were fighting the Soviet Union … when President Reagan was in office [and] got an enormous amount of influence and gratitude by helping to topple the Soviet-backed regime and then made the error of not hanging around in Afghanistan.”

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On Tuesday night I attended a benefit dinner in New York for the McCain Institute at Arizona State University. The star attraction was Bill Clinton, in conversation with John McCain. Like other attendees I was startled to hear Clinton come out in favor of aiding the Syrian rebels, but I wasn’t planning to write about it because the event was off the record. However, Politico has obtained a tape recording of Clinton’s talk and posted an article about it.

The article quotes Clinton as follows: “My view is that we shouldn’t over-learn the lessons of the past. I don’t think Syria is necessarily Iraq or Afghanistan — no one has asked us to send any soldiers in there. I think it’s more like Afghanistan was in the ’80s when they were fighting the Soviet Union … when President Reagan was in office [and] got an enormous amount of influence and gratitude by helping to topple the Soviet-backed regime and then made the error of not hanging around in Afghanistan.”

Clinton also suggested that any president who refused to intervene simply because it would be unpopular to do so is not acting very presidential: “When people are telling you ‘no’ in these situations, very often what they’re doing is flashing a giant yellow light and saying, ‘For God’s sakes, be careful, tell us what you’re doing, think this through, be careful.’ But still they hire their president to look around the corner and down the street, and you just think–if you refuse to act and you cause a calamity, the one thing you cannot say when all the eggs have been broken, is that, ‘Oh my God, two years ago there was a poll that said 80 percent of you were against it.’ Right? You’d look like a total fool.”

The implication is obvious: Obama is in danger of looking like a “total fool.”

On one level Clinton’s criticism is not terribly surprising since his wife was in favor of aiding the rebels last summer. But Clinton, whatever resentment he may feel toward Obama, has been loyal in public. That he has chosen to break with the White House over Syria is significant. One hopes his comments, which he surely knew would leak, may presage a wider revolt among Democrats in Congress who, like Clinton, are disgusted with Obama’s do-nothing policy on Syria.

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Fight Fiercely Harvard (for the Humanities)

Don’t cry for humanities professors at Harvard. True, their share of concentrators (majors) is down from 21 percent in 2003 to 17 percent in 2012. And more worrying, the share of “would be” humanities concentrators has diminished, from 27 percent entering the class of 2006 to 18 percent entering the class of 2016. But Harvard’s numbers are much better than the national numbers; according to the National Center for Education Statistics, bachelor’s degrees awarded in the humanities nationwide made up only 7.6 percent of the total. It is therefore striking that Harvard’s Division of Arts and Humanities has produced a serious document like The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future, compiled by a committee of faculty this academic year and released at the end of May.

I have argued here before that the challenges now confronting higher education, from skepticism about the value of degrees to enthusiasm for massive open online courses, present an opening for proponents of liberal education to reassert themselves. When parents demand rigor, one can do worse than offer the cultivation of judgment through close examination of and reflection upon great works of philosophy, literature, and art that offer conflicting answers to complex, high-stakes questions. When students ask what residential colleges have to offer that they cannot get online, one can do worse than offer a community of inquiry into such works and questions, in which teachers and students meet face to face scrutinize each other’s arguments and interpretations, and through that experience learn how to address difficult, potentially divisive, questions with the aid of others. But I did not foresee that Harvard, which need not worry about how people perceive the value of its degree, and which seems to have positioned itself reasonably well with respect to online education, would make those arguments.

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Don’t cry for humanities professors at Harvard. True, their share of concentrators (majors) is down from 21 percent in 2003 to 17 percent in 2012. And more worrying, the share of “would be” humanities concentrators has diminished, from 27 percent entering the class of 2006 to 18 percent entering the class of 2016. But Harvard’s numbers are much better than the national numbers; according to the National Center for Education Statistics, bachelor’s degrees awarded in the humanities nationwide made up only 7.6 percent of the total. It is therefore striking that Harvard’s Division of Arts and Humanities has produced a serious document like The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future, compiled by a committee of faculty this academic year and released at the end of May.

I have argued here before that the challenges now confronting higher education, from skepticism about the value of degrees to enthusiasm for massive open online courses, present an opening for proponents of liberal education to reassert themselves. When parents demand rigor, one can do worse than offer the cultivation of judgment through close examination of and reflection upon great works of philosophy, literature, and art that offer conflicting answers to complex, high-stakes questions. When students ask what residential colleges have to offer that they cannot get online, one can do worse than offer a community of inquiry into such works and questions, in which teachers and students meet face to face scrutinize each other’s arguments and interpretations, and through that experience learn how to address difficult, potentially divisive, questions with the aid of others. But I did not foresee that Harvard, which need not worry about how people perceive the value of its degree, and which seems to have positioned itself reasonably well with respect to online education, would make those arguments.

Mapping the Future has several virtues. First, the humanists who put it together are hard on themselves. One of the most damaging statistics in the report, and the one which its writers most emphasize, is that students who come to Harvard intending to study the humanities often change their minds. Eighty-one percent of students who come to Harvard meaning to study the social sciences stick to them, but only 43 percent of Harvard’s would be humanists stick it out. It would have been tempting to blame “philistines” or “pragmatic parents” for the inability of Harvard humanists to keep hold of their young. But in the year of reflection that produced the report, the committee found little reason to place the blame there. “[W]e might do otherwise than blame someone else” and “instead engage in self-scrutiny.” Perhaps one is hearing “the footfall of undergraduate feet away from Humanities concentrations” because humanities professors do not address questions of interest to most undergraduates.

Second, the report proposes to “reaffirm the generalist tradition of undergraduate teaching.” Harvard’s humanities departments have “possibly become too specialized, allowing the research culture of our faculty and graduate constituencies to dominate the general needs of the undergraduate.” Immersion in a discipline, like history or classics, is an important part of undergraduate education, but teachers should teach “beyond their immediate zones of expertise (as some instructors do already)” and even beyond departmentally defined disciplines. Moreover, humanists should cherish the fact that in their classrooms, where learning cannot be completely disentangled from a personal encounter with the text, “the distance between instructor and student” diminishes; “both are on the spot, risking their hands.”

Third, the authors argue that undergraduate teaching can be reinvigorated by revisiting the so-called canon. They appropriately resist simply coronating the “works considered great by tradition,” but affirm that “great art and philosophy will always resist obsolescence.” Our “sense of what constitutes great art will change, but great art itself . . . does not become, better or worse.” The report invites students, whatever their religion, culture, or sex, into the “long and evergreen” tradition of studying great texts, which make demands on our capacity to live with ambiguity and adjudicate disagreements. The authors intimate that such texts are a model for openness from which humanities professors can benefit. Among “the ways we sometimes alienate students from the Humanities is the impression they get that some ideas are unspeakable in the classroom.” There is at least “a kernel of truth in conservative fears of the left-leaning academy.”

While this concession, and the report as a whole, is not by itself grounds for confidence that the present higher education environment favors the case for liberal education, it is grounds for hope. The authors of the report direct their argument primarily to their colleagues at Harvard; but when Harvard talks, people in higher education listen.

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Organ Allocation Should Be Done By Doctors, Not Judges

If you’re an avid viewer of cable news, you’ve likely heard the story of Sarah Murnaghan several times over the past few weeks. Murnaghan is a 10-year-old girl from Pennsylvania who was, until today, dying while waiting for a lung transplant due to cystic fibrosis. The girl’s family has been able to do what few other families with dying loved ones are able to: generate enough publicity to potentially save the life of their daughter. Yesterday Murnaghan underwent surgery to receive a lung transplant that she has been waiting for for the past year and a half.

The outcome is heartwarming: Who doesn’t want to see a young girl get a new lease on life? The story, however, raises some serious questions about ethics and best practices in a field that is already fraught with tension over life-and-death decisions. 

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If you’re an avid viewer of cable news, you’ve likely heard the story of Sarah Murnaghan several times over the past few weeks. Murnaghan is a 10-year-old girl from Pennsylvania who was, until today, dying while waiting for a lung transplant due to cystic fibrosis. The girl’s family has been able to do what few other families with dying loved ones are able to: generate enough publicity to potentially save the life of their daughter. Yesterday Murnaghan underwent surgery to receive a lung transplant that she has been waiting for for the past year and a half.

The outcome is heartwarming: Who doesn’t want to see a young girl get a new lease on life? The story, however, raises some serious questions about ethics and best practices in a field that is already fraught with tension over life-and-death decisions. 

Organ transplant list rules are complicated, and vary by the type of organ. Generally, every organ transplant system in the country operates as independently as possible, with a panel of doctors assigning each patient a score based on a number of factors, which then determines their ranking on the list. Because the list of those in need of transplants is far longer than the list of potential organs, impartial panels of doctors blindly determine a patient’s position on the list, which can change depending on if their condition changes. Because of the biological differences between pediatric and adult patients, there are different criteria for each group for lung donation nationwide.

There are fewer pediatric organs available. However, every pediatric lung is first offered to a pediatric patient before it is offered to an adult. Adult patients are given a “lung allocation score,” which was developed by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), whose board decided the criteria used to determine a patient’s position on the lung transplant list. There have been far fewer pediatric lung transplants than adults, therefore the UNOS has assigned different criteria for patients under the age of 12 waiting for a lung transplant as they await further data to accurately determine how to assign a more precise score to children. Computers randomly sort patients, and while pediatric patients’ rank may be disadvantaged on the list according to their score, which is less precise than that of adults, the UNOS favors pediatric patients in other ways in addition to offering pediatric patients first priority for pediatric lungs, such as assigning a priority blind to a patient’s prognosis, a criteria which is factored into the scores of adult patients. Pediatric patients under the age of 12 also have a much wider geographic area from which they can be offered lungs, as compared to adolescent and adult patients, another advantage which is only offered to pediatric patients who may otherwise be disadvantaged. 

Murnaghan was one of several children waiting for a lung at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia alone (there are over 75,000 active individuals waiting for an organ nationwide). As her condition deteriorated, the family contacted Health and Human Service Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and asked for the rules regarding pediatric organ transplants to be waived for their daughter, which Sebelius declined to do. This week the family was able to force Sebelius to allow their daughter to be considered an adult by approaching a federal judge who ruled that the criteria used separating pediatric and adult patients “discriminates against children and serves no purpose, is arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion.” Because of this federal judge’s ruling, the UNOS was forced to create a false record for Murnaghan, a second computer file which listed her as an adult, thereby artificially raising her “lung allocation score” ensuring a higher placement on the transplant list, which ended up securing her a set of lungs today.

While patients, both pediatric and adult, can petition a blind panel of doctors for an exception to their “lung allocation score,” asking for it to be raised based on extenuating circumstances, this workaround that was forced by the federal ruling on the UNOS is highly irregular and would never normally have been implemented, according to a press liaison I spoke with there yesterday. There are avenues built into the system meant to provide recourse for families who would like to see their loved one placed higher on the list. However, blatantly manipulating the computer system in this manner has never before been offered to a patient. Now that it has, the UNOS has been forced to quickly and without due consideration change the way scores are assigned to pediatric patients so that Murnaghan is not unfairly advantaged. While there isn’t necessarily enough data to accomplish this fairly or accurately, the system has now been totally altered not by a panel of experts, but instead by a federal judge. The UNOS is now forced to quickly implement new criteria for ranking pediatric patients in the coming weeks, despite a lack of necessary data and time to do so effectively.

Many opponents of the Obama administration have called Sebelius a “one-woman death panel,” cheering the federal judge’s ruling that forced Murnaghan be considered an adult. Sebelius expressed her apprehension interfering with the organ donation process, and according to Fox News

Sebelius said that such decisions should be made by medical experts and noted that there were three other children at Children’s Hospital alone in the same condition.

This is a sentiment that isn’t often uttered on this blog, but in this instance, Sebelius was correct in deciding not to intervene in this case, and in any other case regarding organ donation.

There are few things in this world more tragic than a young person’s death. One cannot help but feel the utmost sympathy for families like the Murnaghans as they watch, helplessly, as their child suffers. There, are, however, rules in place regarding organ donation and transplantation which were made in order to make the process as successful and fair as humanly possible, especially given the heart-wrenching decisions that organ donation panels are faced with every day. These rules were decided on by panels of unbiased experts who tried, to the best of their limited ability, to make organs available fairly to those who need and would benefit from them most.

Should Murnaghan, a pediatric patient with an illness that, even after transplant, can still significantly lower life expectancy, be artificially raised on the list, thereby bumping another patient a slot lower? Who is the patient that would have received the organ yesterday? A mother or father of young children? Perhaps a college student or a retiree supporting their grandchildren? It’s impossible to know, as a feature of the organ transplant lists is their anonymity: patients are assigned numbers in order to decrease the likelihood that one life would be prioritized over another. While the Murnaghan case is tragic, it’s best to keep in mind that wariness of judicial activism is strong in the conservative movement for a reason. By circumventing the rules that thousands of other families abide by, this federal judge has introduced the very real possibility that the carefully crafted rules regarding organ allocation in this country will now be decided not by trained medical professionals operating under a strict series of guidelines, but instead by judges who have no involvement in the complicated medical and ethical field of organ donation. If federal courts are soon deluged by desperate families seeking exceptions to organ transplant rules, this ruling will, and should be, viewed as what it is: a well-intentioned but misguided opening of Pandora’s Box.

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