Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 19, 2013

Scandals? Yes. Conspiracy Theories? No.

After the last couple of months of scandals, it’s hard to blame Americans who wonder exactly how far our cynicism about big government should go. With the Internal Revenue Service discriminating against conservatives and Tea Party groups, the Justice Department spying on journalists and unanswered questions still lingering about the Benghazi terror attack and the lies the Obama administration told about it, the government’s credibility has nose-dived along with trust in our institutions. These cases deserve to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb by Congress, and those who seek to minimize or rationalize the outrageous behavior we’ve learned about are sacrificing their own reputations for what appears to be partisan motivations. But even in this season of scandal, it’s necessary for thinking citizens to resist the temptation to believe every conspiracy theory that comes down the block or to impute the most evil motives to the government in every possible circumstance.

Understanding the difference between legitimate government scandals and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories is not always easy. That’s why so many Americans are assuming the worst about the National Security Agency’s accumulation of data about everyone’s phone calls. That’s especially true since many conservatives—most of whom were fierce defenders of the equally broad though perhaps not quite so transparent information gathering conducted by the Bush administration—have good reason not to trust the Obama administration. Yet that doesn’t relieve them of the obligation to assess the revelations of leaker Edward Snowden by the same criteria they did Bush’s actions. The same is true when we look at the latest conspiracy theory to float up to the top of the news cycle: the allegations in a new documentary that the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 that killed 230 people was no accident but rather the result of some external explosion that was subsequently covered up by the government. In both these cases, we do well to look closely at the charges of conspiracy but should not buy into unsubstantiated conspiracy theories just because we’re in a doubting mood about the government and the people who run it.

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After the last couple of months of scandals, it’s hard to blame Americans who wonder exactly how far our cynicism about big government should go. With the Internal Revenue Service discriminating against conservatives and Tea Party groups, the Justice Department spying on journalists and unanswered questions still lingering about the Benghazi terror attack and the lies the Obama administration told about it, the government’s credibility has nose-dived along with trust in our institutions. These cases deserve to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb by Congress, and those who seek to minimize or rationalize the outrageous behavior we’ve learned about are sacrificing their own reputations for what appears to be partisan motivations. But even in this season of scandal, it’s necessary for thinking citizens to resist the temptation to believe every conspiracy theory that comes down the block or to impute the most evil motives to the government in every possible circumstance.

Understanding the difference between legitimate government scandals and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories is not always easy. That’s why so many Americans are assuming the worst about the National Security Agency’s accumulation of data about everyone’s phone calls. That’s especially true since many conservatives—most of whom were fierce defenders of the equally broad though perhaps not quite so transparent information gathering conducted by the Bush administration—have good reason not to trust the Obama administration. Yet that doesn’t relieve them of the obligation to assess the revelations of leaker Edward Snowden by the same criteria they did Bush’s actions. The same is true when we look at the latest conspiracy theory to float up to the top of the news cycle: the allegations in a new documentary that the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 that killed 230 people was no accident but rather the result of some external explosion that was subsequently covered up by the government. In both these cases, we do well to look closely at the charges of conspiracy but should not buy into unsubstantiated conspiracy theories just because we’re in a doubting mood about the government and the people who run it.

The NSA intercepts sound ominous. But the closer one looks at the metadata collection, the harder it is to lump it together with the other scandals that have seized our attention this spring. The information obtained by the government is far reaching, but it is clearly intended as a way to monitor phone calls by known terrorist targets to people in the United States. Put simply, unless you’re getting calls from al-Qaeda operatives, the government won’t be tapping your phone or seeking to listen to your calls or read your emails. Given that Congress and the FISA court supervised the project it isn’t possible to argue that it was used to target political enemies of the administration or to unreasonably intrude upon the lives of ordinary Americans. Moreover, given the testimony from security officials about the way it helped stop more than 50 terror plots on the United States, it’s also difficult to argue that it was an extraneous fishing expedition which did not save lives.

One can, of course, dismiss those accounts of foiled plots, but unless you are willing to believe that al-Qaeda and its affiliates are really as dead as President Obama was fraudulently claiming during his re-election campaign, it is reasonable to assume that such plots did happen and—unlike the Boston Marathon bombers who slipped through the cracks of the system—were stopped. Suspicion of the government is as American as apple pie, but in wartime—and we have been at war with Islamist terrorists since before 9/11—we have no choice but to put our trust in the institutions set up to protect the homeland. Since it is clear those agencies have done a good job of preventing another 9/11 under both Bush and Obama, it is neither fair nor reasonable to treat them as if they were the Cincinnati office of the IRS. Conspiracies may exist, but they must have some rhyme or reason and be able to be proven. In this case, the theories about the use of this information being a nefarious plot doesn’t pass the smell test.

The same may well be true in the TWA Flight 800 case.

I haven’t seen the new documentary and will reserve full judgment about it until I do. But I have to confess that reports about the film and the comments from those who were tasked with the investigation about the theories it promotes leads me to be highly skeptical about its claims. I’m no expert about the case or about plane crashes. I’m agnostic about its specific claims about whether the plane could have gone down in the way that government agencies ultimately said it did. But I do know a thing or two about conspiracy theories.

They generally crop up because human beings always prefer to believe that senseless acts have not only a sensible explanation but also one that fits into their views about the world in general. That’s why liberals and left-wingers still claim that right-wingers killed John F. Kennedy even though there’s no evidence to back up that charge and the murderer was actually a Communist. Such theories help make an otherwise random and hard-to-understand world easier to live with.

In the TWA 800 case, the conspiracy theory doesn’t look like it will pass the smell test. The so-called whistle-blowers not only can’t explain how a missile could have hit the plane (since the pet theory about a U.S. Navy training exercise gone awry was sunk long ago) but why an FBI investigative team that was predisposed to think it an act of terrorism would have covered up such a conclusion. The only way to buy into the film’s thesis appears to be based on a blind distrust of government that doesn’t seem based in any hard proof. But it does give us a villain to blame that an accident based on faulty wiring doesn’t provide.

More to the point, we also know that the original promoter of the conspiracy theorist was a crackpot. Former White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger’s much publicized accusations of a cover up was based on recycled lies culled from the Internet, not, as he claimed, a government intelligence report.

The point about government misconduct is that sooner or later our democratic system and free press will ferret out the truth. We do well to be cynical about any government, but blindly assuming that everything it says is a lie is even more irrational than taking administration spin at face value. But merely assuming that the real world that we live in mirrors the fictional world of Hollywood conspiracy theory movies, in which the powers that be are always out to kill and cover up and everything we think we know is a lie, is not a reliable guide for understanding complex events. It is, in fact, a psychosis, not a blueprint for government accountability.

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EU Effort to Blacklist Hezbollah Fails

Here’s an interesting headline’s role reversal:

“The EU lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organization”–plausible but false.

“The Gulf Security Council designates Hezbollah as a terrorist organization”–implausible but true.

Europe’s failure to list Hezbollah as a terror organization is a byproduct of its inability to change its world view on the Middle East even after the harsh reality check of the last two years.

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Here’s an interesting headline’s role reversal:

“The EU lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organization”–plausible but false.

“The Gulf Security Council designates Hezbollah as a terrorist organization”–implausible but true.

Europe’s failure to list Hezbollah as a terror organization is a byproduct of its inability to change its world view on the Middle East even after the harsh reality check of the last two years.

As if to embarrass the EU more, there’s also Egypt’s President Mohammad Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, who after breaking diplomatic relations with Syria last week stated that “Hezbollah must leave Syria; there is no place for Hezbollah in Syria.”

The Arab world’s more decisive action may not have been determined by either moral clarity or a principled stance–not, at least, in the way we would understand those terms to be. Still, the Sunni powers can tell friend from foe; know the price of losing; and are prepare to put their money where their mouth is.

Europe can’t even do that.

Is it any wonder that, foreign aid aside, the EU matters little in the Middle East?

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Alice Walker’s Undisguised Jew Hatred

The attitude of author Alice Walker toward Israel and Jews has become a key point of contention in the debate about the connection between anti-Semitism and the boycott-Israel movement. Twice in the last year, Walker’s hostility to Israel gained notoriety. Last year, she publicly refused to allow The Color Purple—her most famous work—to be translated into Hebrew as a protest against Israel and Zionism. Then last month, she took her act to New York where the 92nd Street Y hosted her in an event that was bitterly criticized by many Jews. But each time, Walker’s critics—including this writer—accused her of anti-Semitism, the writer’s defenders claimed that such charges were overblown or an attempt to blur the difference between reasonable disapproval of Israeli policies expressed via the BDS movement and Jew hatred.

I’ve written about how the BDS movement is inherently prejudicial, but Walker’s case is one that doesn’t require us to resort to theoretical arguments. Jonathan Kay added some insight to our knowledge of Walker’s belief earlier this month when he pointed out her embrace of a book that put forward bizarre conspiracy theories involving UFOs and Jew hatred. But apparently Walker is not satisfied with applauding other writers’ wacky anti-Semitism. As the Anti-Defamation League writes in a report on her new book The Cushion in the Road, Walker has crossed the line between any notion of legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. She doesn’t merely rationalize Palestinian terror, trash the state of Israel and compare it to Nazi Germany. She also blasts Judaism and traditional Jewish beliefs (for which she blames any alleged misbehavior by individual Israelis or the state itself) and writes of Israelis in terms that are undeniably anti-Semitic.

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The attitude of author Alice Walker toward Israel and Jews has become a key point of contention in the debate about the connection between anti-Semitism and the boycott-Israel movement. Twice in the last year, Walker’s hostility to Israel gained notoriety. Last year, she publicly refused to allow The Color Purple—her most famous work—to be translated into Hebrew as a protest against Israel and Zionism. Then last month, she took her act to New York where the 92nd Street Y hosted her in an event that was bitterly criticized by many Jews. But each time, Walker’s critics—including this writer—accused her of anti-Semitism, the writer’s defenders claimed that such charges were overblown or an attempt to blur the difference between reasonable disapproval of Israeli policies expressed via the BDS movement and Jew hatred.

I’ve written about how the BDS movement is inherently prejudicial, but Walker’s case is one that doesn’t require us to resort to theoretical arguments. Jonathan Kay added some insight to our knowledge of Walker’s belief earlier this month when he pointed out her embrace of a book that put forward bizarre conspiracy theories involving UFOs and Jew hatred. But apparently Walker is not satisfied with applauding other writers’ wacky anti-Semitism. As the Anti-Defamation League writes in a report on her new book The Cushion in the Road, Walker has crossed the line between any notion of legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. She doesn’t merely rationalize Palestinian terror, trash the state of Israel and compare it to Nazi Germany. She also blasts Judaism and traditional Jewish beliefs (for which she blames any alleged misbehavior by individual Israelis or the state itself) and writes of Israelis in terms that are undeniably anti-Semitic.

As the ADL notes:

What is shocking, however, is the extremely vitriolic and hateful rhetoric employed by Walker, the author of The Color Purple and a poet and activist. Her descriptions of Israel and Israelis can largely be described as anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic.

On the very first page of the “On Palestine” section, Walker details her disillusionment with Black churches whose leaders recount Biblical stories about the Israelites’ various triumphs and travails to inspire their congregations.

Walker also shows a blatant lack of respect for ancient Jewish values and beliefs. She disputes the quintessential Jewish precept that the land of Israel is holy, arguing instead that all Earth is holy “but you can’t make any money off of that idea!”

She also, on several occasions, seems to indicate that the purported evils of modern day Israel are a direct result of Jewish values.

Walker’s descriptions of the conflict are so grossly inaccurate and biased that the uninformed reader would almost certainly come away thinking that Israel is committing the greatest atrocity in the history of the world.

Walker is careful to step on just about every possible rhetorical mine, even condoning terrorism against Israeli civilians.

What Walker has proven is that it is not her critics who have confused legitimate criticism of Israel for anti-Semitism. It is she who has taken the Middle East dispute and used it as an excuse to vent her personal hatred for Judaism, a belief that apparently has been influence by her first marriage to a Jewish civil rights lawyer. It is possible to criticize Israeli policies. Israelis do it every day. But Walker’s problem is not about where the borders should be drawn but whether the nation has any right to exist and whether its people and their faith are worthy of respect.

Any movement that treats one nation differently than any other and denies it—as BDS advocates do of Israel—the same right to exist and to self-defense that are not in question elsewhere is advocating prejudice. That’s why BDS, which advocates economic war against Israel and routinely calls for its destruction, is a form of anti-Semitism. But one needn’t resort to such arguments when it comes to Walker.

Alice Walker’s hatred of Jews, Judaism and Israel is so open and so vicious that there is no way even for those who are unsympathetic to Zionism to avoid the conclusion that the author is an anti-Semite. That’s why it is incumbent on those who have embraced her in the past as well as those institutions, like the 92nd Street Y, that have welcomed her as an honored guest and voice of reason to condemn her statements in an unqualified manner and to apologize for their role in promoting her crackpot theories. More to the point, she is an example of exactly why BDS advocates do not deserve to be treated as legitimate voices that deserve a place at the table either in the Jewish community or in public discussions of the Middle East.

Walker should no longer be treated as an honored voice of feminism or the civil rights movement. She has descended into the worst kind of hate speech and deserves the same disdain that we accord other inhabitants of the fever swamps of the far right and far left.

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Bureaucracy Versus Democracy

On May 20, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that gave federal agencies increased deference as to their own scope of authority at the expense of Congress. It was only the latest win, law professor Jonathan Turley wrote in the Washington Post later that week, for the “fourth branch” of the federal government, “an administrative state of sprawling departments and agencies that govern with increasing autonomy and decreasing transparency.”

We often talk about the growth of the federal government and especially the bureaucracy associated with it, and those topics are getting even more attention as the IRS scandal develops. But Turley put his argument in numbers: according to one study, “in 2007, Congress enacted 138 public laws, while federal agencies finalized 2,926 rules, including 61 major regulations.” With the growth of the state came the creation of administrative courts tied to agencies to relieve the judiciary of regulatory cases. As a result, Turley writes, “a citizen is 10 times more likely to be tried by an agency than by an actual court.”

It’s easy to understand why agencies of the administrative state behave as if they are above the law: in many cases, they very nearly are. They have put themselves (often with lazy congressional collusion) beyond the oversight of the other branches of government. They are unelected, and therefore unaccountable–and in many cases their employees are impossible to fire. But beyond the abuse of power and undemocratic nature of this “fourth branch” are the costs. Taxpayers are on the hook for the generous salaries and lavish benefits of corrupt and incompetent bureaucrats. But they are also, as Niall Ferguson writes today in the Wall Street Journal in discussing a new study from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, paying the compliance costs.

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On May 20, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that gave federal agencies increased deference as to their own scope of authority at the expense of Congress. It was only the latest win, law professor Jonathan Turley wrote in the Washington Post later that week, for the “fourth branch” of the federal government, “an administrative state of sprawling departments and agencies that govern with increasing autonomy and decreasing transparency.”

We often talk about the growth of the federal government and especially the bureaucracy associated with it, and those topics are getting even more attention as the IRS scandal develops. But Turley put his argument in numbers: according to one study, “in 2007, Congress enacted 138 public laws, while federal agencies finalized 2,926 rules, including 61 major regulations.” With the growth of the state came the creation of administrative courts tied to agencies to relieve the judiciary of regulatory cases. As a result, Turley writes, “a citizen is 10 times more likely to be tried by an agency than by an actual court.”

It’s easy to understand why agencies of the administrative state behave as if they are above the law: in many cases, they very nearly are. They have put themselves (often with lazy congressional collusion) beyond the oversight of the other branches of government. They are unelected, and therefore unaccountable–and in many cases their employees are impossible to fire. But beyond the abuse of power and undemocratic nature of this “fourth branch” are the costs. Taxpayers are on the hook for the generous salaries and lavish benefits of corrupt and incompetent bureaucrats. But they are also, as Niall Ferguson writes today in the Wall Street Journal in discussing a new study from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, paying the compliance costs.

Though Ferguson writes that “final rules” emanating from the regulatory state in the last decade “have outnumbered laws passed by Congress 223 to 1,” that number seems slightly misleading if only because some congressional laws (alas, too many) create via the democratic process multiple new regulations or the necessary regulatory authority. Nonetheless, Ferguson writes:

The cost of all this, Mr. Crews estimates, is $1.8 trillion annually—that’s on top of the federal government’s $3.5 trillion in outlays, so it is equivalent to an invisible 65% surcharge on your federal taxes, or nearly 12% of GDP. Especially invidious is the fact that the costs of regulation for small businesses (those with fewer than 20 employees) are 36% higher per employee than they are for bigger firms.

Next year’s big treat will be the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, something every small business in the country must be looking forward to with eager anticipation. Then, as Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) warned readers on this page 10 months ago, there’s also the Labor Department’s new fiduciary rule, which will increase the cost of retirement planning for middle-class workers; the EPA’s new Ozone Rule, which will impose up to $90 billion in yearly costs on American manufacturers; and the Department of Transportation’s Rear-View Camera Rule. That’s so you never have to turn your head around when backing up.

Ferguson ties the growth of the regulatory state to the concurrent decline in “American associational life,” that essential communal space between government and the individual.

The existence of a stable federal bureaucracy has its advantages–to a point. It enables the government to retain institutional memory and train and prepare its workers to ensure that each new Congress and presidential administration is not starting the project of American governance from scratch. The frustrating inability to clean house when faced with institutional decay can also protect against partisan witch hunts or the accumulation of too much power within any one administration.

But it requires a durable system of transparency, oversight, and accountability or it will insulate itself from the trappings of democracy and do what all bureaucracies do instinctively if not consciously (though often both): act in service to its own perpetuation. That means problems will go deliberately unsolved and a defensive paranoia will seep into the system. The IRS’s targeting of groups named after the most famous antitax protest in American history is a pristine example of this kind of bureaucratic self-preservation that is so corrosive to the authority, credibility and, most important, balance of power represented by the three federal branches it has too often supplanted.

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The Taliban’s Real Goal in Doha

Well, that didn’t take long. Yesterday I predicted that peace negotiations with the Taliban would not make much progress. Today I woke up to the news that President Karzai had pulled out of the talks even before they had begun because he was concerned that the Taliban were opening a government in exile in Qatar, complete with a big banner proclaiming the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”—the name the Taliban had used for their reviled and discredited state while in power. Karzai was so perturbed that he suspended Washington-Kabul negotiations on an agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan.

While suspending U.S.-Afghan talks was an overreaction he is sure to walk back in the days ahead, Karzai is right to be worried. The Taliban appear to be playing up the opening of negotiations to confer international legitimacy on themselves. As one news account noted:

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Well, that didn’t take long. Yesterday I predicted that peace negotiations with the Taliban would not make much progress. Today I woke up to the news that President Karzai had pulled out of the talks even before they had begun because he was concerned that the Taliban were opening a government in exile in Qatar, complete with a big banner proclaiming the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”—the name the Taliban had used for their reviled and discredited state while in power. Karzai was so perturbed that he suspended Washington-Kabul negotiations on an agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan.

While suspending U.S.-Afghan talks was an overreaction he is sure to walk back in the days ahead, Karzai is right to be worried. The Taliban appear to be playing up the opening of negotiations to confer international legitimacy on themselves. As one news account noted:

Opening their Doha office with a lavish ceremony that included a ribbon-cutting and the playing of the Taliban anthem, insurgent officials said they intended to use the site to meet with representatives of the international community and the United Nations, interact with the news media, “improve relations with countries around the world” and, almost as an afterthought, meet “Afghans if there is a need.” They did not mention the Afghan government.

One suspects that the Taliban are far more interested in using these “peace talks” to enhance their credibility and standing than they are in actually negotiating any accord that would result in their disarmament. And why should they make any real concessions when President Obama has already promised that American combat troops will leave in less than 18 months? From the Taliban’s perspective, the advantage on the ground will shift in their favor once the Americans are gone.

Their only incentive to sign a deal is to ensure that the U.S. abandons Afghanistan completely after 2014—just as the U.S. abandoned South Vietnam after signing a deal with Hanoi in 1973—thereby making it easier for the insurgents to take over. Significantly, the Nixon administration excluded the Saigon government from negotiations over its fate. This time around, to its credit, the Obama administration has pledged to include Kabul in the peace talks. As a result, U.S. officials were scrambling yesterday to entice Karzai back into the talks by getting the Taliban to tamp down their gloating in Qatar.

Why bother? The odds of talks succeeding are remote. This is only an exercise in wishful thinking on the part of an administration that is determined to find a fig leaf to cover the departure of U.S. troops. As I’ve noted before, there is nothing inherently wrong with talking, but in this case proceeding with the talks when there is no sign of the Taliban making any significant concessions risks furthering the Taliban’s narrative that the U.S. is abandoning Afghanistan and that the Taliban are destined to take over once again.

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Ryan v. Levin on Immigration Reform

On Tuesday Representative Paul Ryan was interviewed by radio talk show host Mark Levin on immigration reform. It’s a very good interview. Mr. Levin, a harsh critic of immigration reform, asks direct and informed questions. Representative Ryan answers them in a precise and knowledgeable way. He is clearly in command of the issue. 

It’s fair to say, I think, that Levin simply doesn’t believe any bill under consideration will do what needs to be done–that claims of increased border security and e-verify screenings are illusory. We’ve been promised them before, and they have never come to pass. Mr. Ryan, on the other hand, argues that even if immigration legislation is imperfect, the right policies, if written into law and enforced, would dramatically improve the current situation (in which we have, among other things, de facto amnesty). 

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On Tuesday Representative Paul Ryan was interviewed by radio talk show host Mark Levin on immigration reform. It’s a very good interview. Mr. Levin, a harsh critic of immigration reform, asks direct and informed questions. Representative Ryan answers them in a precise and knowledgeable way. He is clearly in command of the issue. 

It’s fair to say, I think, that Levin simply doesn’t believe any bill under consideration will do what needs to be done–that claims of increased border security and e-verify screenings are illusory. We’ve been promised them before, and they have never come to pass. Mr. Ryan, on the other hand, argues that even if immigration legislation is imperfect, the right policies, if written into law and enforced, would dramatically improve the current situation (in which we have, among other things, de facto amnesty). 

As Ryan laid things out, he favors a House bill that includes (a) objective and enforceable border triggers; (b) a genuine verification system that has to be in place before proceeding with changes in the status of undocumented workers; (c) a legal immigration system that takes some of the pressure off the southern border, which will lead to greater security; and (d) a way to get the economy the labor it needs in order to achieve greater economic growth.

Whichever side one is on in the immigration debate, this discussion is a good (and civil) one, and it’s worth listening to.

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Syria Spurs A Few Arabs to Rethink Israel

One surprising side effect of Syria’s civil war is that it’s causing a few people in the Arab world to question their society’s accepted view of Israel as evil incarnate. These people are still very much a minority: The majority’s attitude is exemplified by the Syrian rebel commander who, without batting an eyelash, last month espoused the delusional theory that “Iran and Hezbollah are cooperating with Israel” to support Syrian President Bashar Assad. Nevertheless, two notable examples of a rethink have surfaced recently.

One involved a seriously wounded Syrian treated at an Israeli hospital this month. He isn’t the first Syrian to be treated in Israel, but he was the first to arrive with a note from the Syrian doctor who treated him initially. “To the honorable doctor, hello,” it began, before launching into a description of his symptoms, his treatment to date and suggestions for further treatment. “Please do what you think needs to be done,” it concluded. “Thanks in advance.”

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One surprising side effect of Syria’s civil war is that it’s causing a few people in the Arab world to question their society’s accepted view of Israel as evil incarnate. These people are still very much a minority: The majority’s attitude is exemplified by the Syrian rebel commander who, without batting an eyelash, last month espoused the delusional theory that “Iran and Hezbollah are cooperating with Israel” to support Syrian President Bashar Assad. Nevertheless, two notable examples of a rethink have surfaced recently.

One involved a seriously wounded Syrian treated at an Israeli hospital this month. He isn’t the first Syrian to be treated in Israel, but he was the first to arrive with a note from the Syrian doctor who treated him initially. “To the honorable doctor, hello,” it began, before launching into a description of his symptoms, his treatment to date and suggestions for further treatment. “Please do what you think needs to be done,” it concluded. “Thanks in advance.”

The Syrian doctor who wrote that note clearly didn’t view Israelis as enemies, but as colleagues who could be trusted to give his patient the care he himself couldn’t provide. It indicates that word has filtered out to at least parts of Syria: Good medical care is available in Israel, and patients who need it can safely be sent there.

Perhaps even more remarkable, however, was a Friday sermon given earlier this month by a cleric in Qatif, a Shi’ite-majority city in Saudi Arabia. Discussing the conflict in Syria, Sheikh Abdullah Ahmed al-Youssef informed his congregants that more Muslims have been killed by fellow Muslims than were ever killed by Israel.

That isn’t news to anyone familiar with the facts. As I noted last month, the Syrian conflict alone has killed more than five times as many people in just two years as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has in all of Israel’s 65 years of existence. And that’s without even mentioning the ongoing Muslim-on-Muslim carnage in places like Iraq (almost 2,000 killed in the last three months) or Pakistan, much less historical events like the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, which killed more than one million people.

But most Arabs aren’t familiar with the facts, having been fed delusional atrocity tales about Israel for decades by their media and their political, religious, cultural and intellectual leaders. Thus for a cleric to stand up in the mosque and tell his congregants this home truth borders on the revolutionary.

If this attitude spreads, it would benefit not just Israel, or even the elusive quest for Mideast peace, but above all, the Arabs themselves. This isn’t merely because Israel has much to offer Arab countries on a practical level (like water management technologies essential for agriculture in a drought-stricken region), but mainly because Arab society’s biggest problem has always been its habit of blaming outsiders–Israel and the West–for all its ills. By so doing, they not only absolve themselves of responsibility, but also nourish the belief that these ills are beyond their control, and hence beyond their own power to fix.

By recognizing that Israel is not the monster of their own imagining, Arabs can begin the process of recognizing that their problems are of their own making rather than the product of malign outside intervention. And only then can they begin the long, hard work of fixing them.

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The Shallow Musings of Jeffrey Lord

Over the years I’ve been involved in a lot of debates and the subject of a fair amount of attacks. But rarely have the attacks been quite as shallow as the one leveled at me by Jeffrey Lord of the American Spectator.

Let’s start with Lord’s suggestion that he should have titled his reply to my post criticizing Herman Cain and Sarah Palin as the “Wimpy Wussings of Wehner.” Perhaps that’s what qualifies for wit these days at the American Spectator. Mr. Lord’s comment qualifies him as the Oscar Wilde of the second grade.

Then there’s Lord’s claim, laughable to anyone who is familiar with my views, that I am a “collectivist conservative.” I guess I qualify as one of those one-in-a-million “collectivist conservatives” who was critical of Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann for her lukewarm support of free-market reforms for Medicare. As I wrote with Yuval Levin in 2011:

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Over the years I’ve been involved in a lot of debates and the subject of a fair amount of attacks. But rarely have the attacks been quite as shallow as the one leveled at me by Jeffrey Lord of the American Spectator.

Let’s start with Lord’s suggestion that he should have titled his reply to my post criticizing Herman Cain and Sarah Palin as the “Wimpy Wussings of Wehner.” Perhaps that’s what qualifies for wit these days at the American Spectator. Mr. Lord’s comment qualifies him as the Oscar Wilde of the second grade.

Then there’s Lord’s claim, laughable to anyone who is familiar with my views, that I am a “collectivist conservative.” I guess I qualify as one of those one-in-a-million “collectivist conservatives” who was critical of Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann for her lukewarm support of free-market reforms for Medicare. As I wrote with Yuval Levin in 2011:


A posture of bold fiscal conservatism is simply not compatible with timid evasions on Medicare reform. The combination may be politically convenient, but it is substantively incoherent. And it’s not just Mrs. Bachmann who has done this—most of the GOP presidential candidates have as well. Virtually every speech they give is laced with promises to tame our deficit and debt, to scale back the size, scope, reach and cost of government. Yet they have little to say when it comes to fixing the fundamental structure of our health entitlements. They want to will the ends but not the means to those ends. And that just won’t do.

I was also a fairly active presence both privately and publicly when it came to urging the GOP House leadership to embrace Representative Paul Ryan’s budget, including his advocacy for premium supports in Medicare. All of which leads me to wonder if Mr. Lord even understands what collectivism actually is.

And then there’s Lord’s anger at my comments about Mr. Cain and Ms. Palin, which he considers to be unfair. But Lord never actually refers to the comments made by Cain and Palin that triggered my criticisms. Perhaps that’s understandable, since Cain declared America is “running full speed down the tracks towards socialism and towards communism” and Palin insisted that the United States is “becoming a totalitarian surveillance state.” 

The comments by Cain and Palin were silly and hyperbolic, for the reasons I laid out in my post; but if Lord wants to defend them, and if he thinks this kind of rhetoric is the way to the political promised land, he should make that case.

Finally there’s Mr. Lord’s logical fallacy, which is (a) Ronald Reagan was routinely criticized by liberals for being an extremist; (b) I criticized Cain and Palin for irresponsible and careless language; so (c) Cain and Palin are Reaganesque figures. The fact that a person is criticized for being an extremist does not automatically make that person Reagan-like, as both Cain and Palin demonstrate on a fairly routine basis.

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Immigration Foes Don’t Care About CBO

Supporters of the bipartisan immigration reform bill being debated in the Senate got a shot in the arm yesterday when the Congressional Budget Office issued a report that did no more than verify what has always been the commonsense position on the issue. Fixing a failed system that could bring millions of much needed workers out of the shadows and into the federal tax regime will be a net plus for the government’s bottom line. Reform will bring in hundreds of billions in revenue to Washington due to a work force that will be bolstered by a new guest worker program as well as the ability of currently undocumented aliens to take part in economic activity in ways currently impossible. Even in the second decade after adoption of the reform package when currently illegal residents become eligible for government benefits, their positive impact on the country’s fiscal health will outweigh any outlays. As Representative Paul Ryan said today, immigration is vital to America’s future economic health as our population ages, making passage of a reform package—whether the gang of eight’s Senate bill or a House version—imperative.

But don’t expect the CBO to influence the conservative activists deluging Republican senators and House members with messages urging them to defeat the plan. Much of the party’s grass roots are so committed to the idea that any path to citizenship is an outrage that they are not likely to listen to reason about immigration’s impact on the economy any more than they are to those that point out that it is foolish to think the 11 million illegals in the country can be deported. The gang of eight’s bill may not be perfect, but it is rooted in a decision to face reality about our current situation that has not been matched by any compelling points in the responses being mustered against it. Whatever the outcome of this debate, the willingness of so many Republicans to associate themselves with arguments that seem to align them with those who oppose immigration in principle is a huge potential problem for the party. If gang members are reluctant to alter the bill to make it more acceptable to opponents, it’s because it’s increasingly clear that a lot of those complaining about it wouldn’t be satisfied with anything but the construction of a 700-foot-tall ice wall along the border with Mexico just like the one in the popular Game of Thrones show on HBO whose purpose is to keep out zombies.

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Supporters of the bipartisan immigration reform bill being debated in the Senate got a shot in the arm yesterday when the Congressional Budget Office issued a report that did no more than verify what has always been the commonsense position on the issue. Fixing a failed system that could bring millions of much needed workers out of the shadows and into the federal tax regime will be a net plus for the government’s bottom line. Reform will bring in hundreds of billions in revenue to Washington due to a work force that will be bolstered by a new guest worker program as well as the ability of currently undocumented aliens to take part in economic activity in ways currently impossible. Even in the second decade after adoption of the reform package when currently illegal residents become eligible for government benefits, their positive impact on the country’s fiscal health will outweigh any outlays. As Representative Paul Ryan said today, immigration is vital to America’s future economic health as our population ages, making passage of a reform package—whether the gang of eight’s Senate bill or a House version—imperative.

But don’t expect the CBO to influence the conservative activists deluging Republican senators and House members with messages urging them to defeat the plan. Much of the party’s grass roots are so committed to the idea that any path to citizenship is an outrage that they are not likely to listen to reason about immigration’s impact on the economy any more than they are to those that point out that it is foolish to think the 11 million illegals in the country can be deported. The gang of eight’s bill may not be perfect, but it is rooted in a decision to face reality about our current situation that has not been matched by any compelling points in the responses being mustered against it. Whatever the outcome of this debate, the willingness of so many Republicans to associate themselves with arguments that seem to align them with those who oppose immigration in principle is a huge potential problem for the party. If gang members are reluctant to alter the bill to make it more acceptable to opponents, it’s because it’s increasingly clear that a lot of those complaining about it wouldn’t be satisfied with anything but the construction of a 700-foot-tall ice wall along the border with Mexico just like the one in the popular Game of Thrones show on HBO whose purpose is to keep out zombies.

Part of the reaction to the CBO report is based in understandable skepticism. Republicans are used to taking the CBO’s pronouncements with a grain or two of salt and trusting what groups like the Heritage Foundation take as gospel. But there was a reason why Heritage’s report that attempted to claim that immigration reform would bury the government in debt wasn’t taken seriously by most observers. As Seth noted last month, Heritage’s claims—which are being echoed again today by some reform opponents—were mainly an argument about entitlement reform, not immigration. Heritage’s numbers didn’t make sense. There is a reason why the business community has always favored immigration. It’s always been good for the economy and no amount of grousing about the details of this bill or about an entitlement system that is in desperate need of reform changes that.

But, like the unfortunate tendency of some on the right to claim that the real problem with immigration reform is that it will create more Hispanic voters who will become Democrats, the reaction to the CBO is revealing the discomfort that some people have with legal immigration. If, as the Daily Caller reports, some on the right are scared by the idea that reform will create a wave of immigration that they wrongly think would be bad for America, then this debate is turning on sentiments that are neither defensible nor logical.

Reform skeptics have a strong case when they ask for the bill’s provisions on border security to be strengthened. But if this issue is driven not so much by concern that illegal immigration will continue but about the identity of those who are in this country legally in the years to come, then those Republicans who buy into this line will be venturing out onto thin ice.

Let’s be honest, if you are scared by the idea of a large number of immigrants coming to this country in the future, even if the vast majority of them are arriving legally, then it’s time to admit that this dispute isn’t about the rule of law or amnesty, but something else than isn’t nearly as attractive. What Republicans like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio are putting forward is a positive, pro-growth vision of the American economy that has always been part of the GOP vision. If, as seems increasingly likely, Republicans sink immigration reform because of fears about it giving the Democrats a political advantage or because they are just not comfortable with expanding America’s population, then that is both bad policy and bad politics.

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How Obama Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cold War

It was difficult to escape the too-perfect photo making the rounds yesterday of the G-8 country leaders smiling as a mammoth storm cloud ominously approached. The metaphor was obvious, but it was an appropriate lead-in to the press coverage greeting President Obama this morning on his growing isolation on the world stage. The Europeans are disappointed, it seems, in anything Obama does. The Germans say his NSA snooping is too much a projection of American meddling and militarism abroad, and the French say his lack of resolve on Syria is evidence of not enough American meddling and militarism abroad.

And don’t even get them started on his inability to lower the ocean tides. But it’s not just “friends.” While Obama has spent his time in office deriding Cold War parallels, the New York Times has an extensive story today that touches on why that conflict is suddenly relevant. The Times reports on Obama’s recent time spent “tangling with the leaders of two cold war antagonists,” the presidents of China and Russia, and their newfound refusal to feign warmth. And what’s more, though the president has always been unable to get much cooperation from Russia or China, it seems to be dawning on the White House that there was a subtle shift in attitudes and suspicions somewhere along the way, undetected at the time but undeniable now.

That, too, makes the Times’s historical echoes apt. As John Lewis Gaddis has written about the post-World War II security dilemmas and the expanding mutual distrust:

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It was difficult to escape the too-perfect photo making the rounds yesterday of the G-8 country leaders smiling as a mammoth storm cloud ominously approached. The metaphor was obvious, but it was an appropriate lead-in to the press coverage greeting President Obama this morning on his growing isolation on the world stage. The Europeans are disappointed, it seems, in anything Obama does. The Germans say his NSA snooping is too much a projection of American meddling and militarism abroad, and the French say his lack of resolve on Syria is evidence of not enough American meddling and militarism abroad.

And don’t even get them started on his inability to lower the ocean tides. But it’s not just “friends.” While Obama has spent his time in office deriding Cold War parallels, the New York Times has an extensive story today that touches on why that conflict is suddenly relevant. The Times reports on Obama’s recent time spent “tangling with the leaders of two cold war antagonists,” the presidents of China and Russia, and their newfound refusal to feign warmth. And what’s more, though the president has always been unable to get much cooperation from Russia or China, it seems to be dawning on the White House that there was a subtle shift in attitudes and suspicions somewhere along the way, undetected at the time but undeniable now.

That, too, makes the Times’s historical echoes apt. As John Lewis Gaddis has written about the post-World War II security dilemmas and the expanding mutual distrust:

Because the Anglo-American relationship with the Soviet Union had fallen into this pattern well before World War II ended, it is difficult to say precisely when the Cold War began. There were no surprise attacks, no declarations of war, no severing even of diplomatic ties. There was, however, a growing sense of insecurity at the highest levels in Washington, London, and Moscow, generated by the efforts the wartime allies were making to ensure their own postwar security.

Just an ominous cloud that kept advancing until it was right overhead. And now, it seems, Obama is embracing reality and pushing back. Today he spoke at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, but with a slight adjustment: he spoke from the eastern side of the gate, to revel in the absence of despotism and division. He was joined at the speech by 92-year-old Gail Halvorsen, the former Air Force pilot known as the “original Candy Bomber” during the heroic Berlin Airlift exactly 65 years ago next week. And he paid tribute specifically to the crucial symbolic role played by the West’s willingness to establish in West Berlin the free world’s superior answer to the subjugation of East Berlin:

During that time, a Marshall Plan seeded a miracle, and a North Atlantic Alliance protected our people.  And those in the neighborhoods and nations to the East drew strength from the knowledge that freedom was possible here, in Berlin — that the waves of crackdowns and suppressions might therefore someday be overcome. 

No moral relativism there. What we had was better than what the proponents of dreary and brutal socialism had to offer. Our system was just and theirs dishonorable. Our side was the future, theirs the past. Where once Obama’s rhetoric smacked of “peace dividend” complacency, he told Berlin that “complacency is not the character of great nations.  Today’s threats are not as stark as they were half a century ago, but the struggle for freedom and security and human dignity — that struggle goes on.  And I’ve come here, to this city of hope, because the tests of our time demand the same fighting spirit that defined Berlin a half-century ago.”

The president would like to reduce nuclear stockpiles in a negotiated agreement with Russia, but the prospects for such cooperation aren’t great. And of course he wants to harness this new anti-complacency, in part, to stave off global warming and promote political activism. But he also defended the anti-terror programs currently in the news and when he spoke of Osama bin Laden’s death, he added that “Our efforts against al Qaeda are evolving”–a less triumphal but more realistic approach to understanding and waging the war on terror.

The onset of the Cold War was both disappointing and understated because the world seemed to have been at war for half a century, and many had no desire to accept the reality that war would continue. If you think Americans are war-weary after Iraq and Afghanistan, just imagine how they felt after two world wars. And they got off easy–World War II arguably didn’t really end in Poland when it ended for the West, tyranny having continued seamlessly there.

But reality always intervenes. And it has once again. Obama may not have been interested in the history and lessons of the Cold War, but to paraphrase Trotsky, the Cold War was interested in him. Gone seems to be his dismissive attitude toward the conflict, replaced with a disdain for those who still look east for strength or salvation. It remains to be seen whether this will have any significant implications for the president’s foreign policy, but if it doesn’t, it will be due to stubbornness, not cluelessness.

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Obama Looking for Love in Wrong Places

After a miserable May in which he found himself beset by a trio of scandals, President Obama sought solace in foreign policy this month. But June hasn’t proved to be much better for the president as a disastrous meeting with the president of China was followed by an equally problematic confrontation with Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the G-8 summit in Ireland. Nor was he likely to do better elsewhere in Europe, where he was once held in high esteem. Today’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin only emphasized the contrast between the ecstatic reaction he received there from a huge audience in 2008 and the tepid response he got today to a laundry list of foreign policy proposals including a call for reductions in nuclear weapons that will likely go nowhere. As even the president’s cheering section at the New York Times noted today in an astonishingly frank assessment of the failure of Obama’s foreign policy initiatives, the president has been looking for love in all the wrong places abroad and now finds himself alienated from allies, despised by America’s foes and saddled with friendships with Middle East Islamists that are as embarrassing as they are unproductive.

The string of foreign policy setbacks on the heels of a domestic meltdown shows that Obama is already deep into the usual second term malaise suffered by presidents who won reelection. But the problem here isn’t just a run of bad luck. As the Times discusses, Obama has trouble relating to foreign leaders and has made some astoundingly bad choices in selecting those to whom he became close. The bad chemistry not only makes for silly photo ops, like the awkward confrontation with Putin that was a clinic in how to read bad body language. Nobody expects an authoritarian like Putin to favor America or its policies. But what we are witnessing again this week is a president who is unable to muster significant foreign support for his policies or to mend fences with friends. That Obama’s election was greeted abroad with joy only makes it that much more noticeable that his former fan base no longer has any use for him. Where once we were told that Obama would end America’s isolation, now even the Times is willing to concede that George W. Bush was a better diplomat:

Mr. Obama differs from his most recent predecessors, who made personal relationships with leaders the cornerstone of their foreign policies. The first George Bush moved gracefully in foreign capitals, while Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush related to fellow leaders as politicians, trying to understand their pressures and constituencies.

“That’s not President Obama’s style,” said James B. Steinberg, Mr. Clinton’s deputy national security adviser and Mr. Obama’s deputy secretary of state.

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After a miserable May in which he found himself beset by a trio of scandals, President Obama sought solace in foreign policy this month. But June hasn’t proved to be much better for the president as a disastrous meeting with the president of China was followed by an equally problematic confrontation with Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the G-8 summit in Ireland. Nor was he likely to do better elsewhere in Europe, where he was once held in high esteem. Today’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin only emphasized the contrast between the ecstatic reaction he received there from a huge audience in 2008 and the tepid response he got today to a laundry list of foreign policy proposals including a call for reductions in nuclear weapons that will likely go nowhere. As even the president’s cheering section at the New York Times noted today in an astonishingly frank assessment of the failure of Obama’s foreign policy initiatives, the president has been looking for love in all the wrong places abroad and now finds himself alienated from allies, despised by America’s foes and saddled with friendships with Middle East Islamists that are as embarrassing as they are unproductive.

The string of foreign policy setbacks on the heels of a domestic meltdown shows that Obama is already deep into the usual second term malaise suffered by presidents who won reelection. But the problem here isn’t just a run of bad luck. As the Times discusses, Obama has trouble relating to foreign leaders and has made some astoundingly bad choices in selecting those to whom he became close. The bad chemistry not only makes for silly photo ops, like the awkward confrontation with Putin that was a clinic in how to read bad body language. Nobody expects an authoritarian like Putin to favor America or its policies. But what we are witnessing again this week is a president who is unable to muster significant foreign support for his policies or to mend fences with friends. That Obama’s election was greeted abroad with joy only makes it that much more noticeable that his former fan base no longer has any use for him. Where once we were told that Obama would end America’s isolation, now even the Times is willing to concede that George W. Bush was a better diplomat:

Mr. Obama differs from his most recent predecessors, who made personal relationships with leaders the cornerstone of their foreign policies. The first George Bush moved gracefully in foreign capitals, while Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush related to fellow leaders as politicians, trying to understand their pressures and constituencies.

“That’s not President Obama’s style,” said James B. Steinberg, Mr. Clinton’s deputy national security adviser and Mr. Obama’s deputy secretary of state.

If Obama can’t get his way on economic issues with China, or on Syria or Iran with Europe, it’s not exactly a surprise. The list of foreign leaders who apparently can’t stand the former apostle of hope and change is getting longer every day.

Obama came into office determined to pick fights with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and succeeded in creating a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations that he has spent the last two years seeking to fix. He has always had problems with Germany’s Angela Merkel but now is also in trouble with France’s Francois Hollande, in spite of the fact that he looked to the new French president as an ally against the German chancellor.

But the real key to America’s foreign policy woes in the age of Obama is not so much the enemies that Obama has made as it is his choice of friends.

As the Times rightly recalls, a big part of the deep chill with Putin—with whom the supposedly confrontational cowboy Bush managed to maintain cordial relations and open communications despite deep differences on the issues—is the way Obama went out of his way to cultivate Dmitry Medvedev, the functionary that Putin put into the Russian presidency while he was term-limited out of the office. Even foreign policy novices knew that Medvedev was a cipher but, as the Times notes, Obama decided he was the man America needed to cultivate:

Mr. Obama spent nearly four years befriending Mr. Putin’s predecessor, Dmitri A. Medvedev, hoping to build him up as a counterweight to Mr. Putin. That never happened, and Mr. Obama now finds himself back at square one with a Russian leader who appears less likely than ever to find common ground with the United States on issues like Syria.

Even a foreign policy neophyte would have known that no good would come of such a foolish initiative but Obama, who even told Medvedev that he would have more flexibility to help Russia after being reelected, now finds himself with a Russian rival that is not only opposed to his policies but bearing a personal grudge.

Similarly, Obama bragged openly that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was his best foreign buddy and thought his close relationship with the Islamist would bear fruit in Middle East peace as well as help on Syria and Iran. But not only has Erdoğan made peace between Israelis and Palestinians even less likely and undermined sanctions against Iran, his repression of peaceful demonstrators protesting the drift to authoritarianism in Turkey gives the lie to Obama’s pose as a friend of freedom. His embrace of Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, whose push for total power for his Muslim Brotherhood government was eased by Obama’s support, is just as much of an embarrassment.

After less than five years in office, it’s not just that European idealists are disillusioned with Obama because he has chosen to continue and even expand Bush’s counter-terrorism policies while still trying to pretend to be different. What we witnessed at the G-8 and virtually every other foreign encounter of this president is a man who is in completely over his head. Far from fixing the country’s problems abroad, he has worsened them with arrogant dismissals of friends, weakness that has encouraged enemies and friendships with leaders that no American president should embrace. Abroad, this isn’t just a case of second term blues; Barack Obama’s incompetence is a problem that keeps getting worse.

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