Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 22, 2013

Don’t Involve Pollard in Peace Talks

As I wrote earlier, it is nothing less than a disgrace for the Obama administration to be pressuring Israel to release 82 Palestinian terrorists, including many mass murderers, in order to entice the Palestinian Authority to take part in peace talks. It is even more atrocious for Washington to be ignoring the pain of the families of these killers’ victims when you consider that the PA has made no secret about the fact that any deals they might theoretically sign are a ruse and not a genuine attempt to make peace. But as bad as this story is, it just got worse. Israeli newspapers are reporting that as part of the negotiations over the peace talks, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu asked the United States to free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.

Netanyahu is right to regard Pollard, a man who has served 27 years of a life sentence in federal prison for illegal acts done on behalf of the state of Israel, as his country’s responsibility. As I wrote in a COMMENTARY feature on the issue, there is a good case to be made on behalf of mercy for Pollard after all these years in spite of the terrible damage that he did. But if the spy has a shred of decency or is the Israeli patriot that he claims to be, he ought to refuse to be part of any prisoner exchange in which he would be swapped for terrorists, let alone serve as a sweetener aimed at convincing Netanyahu to agree to join the negotiations. That a man that supposedly sacrificed his freedom in order to strengthen Israeli security should be used as bait to weaken the country is a bitter irony.

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As I wrote earlier, it is nothing less than a disgrace for the Obama administration to be pressuring Israel to release 82 Palestinian terrorists, including many mass murderers, in order to entice the Palestinian Authority to take part in peace talks. It is even more atrocious for Washington to be ignoring the pain of the families of these killers’ victims when you consider that the PA has made no secret about the fact that any deals they might theoretically sign are a ruse and not a genuine attempt to make peace. But as bad as this story is, it just got worse. Israeli newspapers are reporting that as part of the negotiations over the peace talks, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu asked the United States to free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.

Netanyahu is right to regard Pollard, a man who has served 27 years of a life sentence in federal prison for illegal acts done on behalf of the state of Israel, as his country’s responsibility. As I wrote in a COMMENTARY feature on the issue, there is a good case to be made on behalf of mercy for Pollard after all these years in spite of the terrible damage that he did. But if the spy has a shred of decency or is the Israeli patriot that he claims to be, he ought to refuse to be part of any prisoner exchange in which he would be swapped for terrorists, let alone serve as a sweetener aimed at convincing Netanyahu to agree to join the negotiations. That a man that supposedly sacrificed his freedom in order to strengthen Israeli security should be used as bait to weaken the country is a bitter irony.

This is not the first time Pollard’s name has come up during the course of peace talks. Netanyahu tried to get Bill Clinton to throw Pollard’s freedom into a 1998 negotiation for an Israeli territorial withdrawal on the West Bank. Clinton might have gone along with it but the idea of springing Pollard sent the U.S. security establishment into conniption fits and the president backed down. Since then, neither of Clinton’s successors has dared challenged the spooks on Pollard and the spy’s chances of release under almost any circumstance seem dim.

Most Israelis probably approve of Netanyahu’s request and his effort should not be construed as anything but an honorable effort to gain clemency for someone who, however misguided or ill considered his actions, did act on the behest of Israeli officials. But trading murderers for Pollard cannot put a gloss of legitimacy on an immoral swap. However bad Pollard’s crimes were, placing it on the same moral plane as acts of cold-blooded murder cheapens the suffering of the victims of Palestinian terror. As unlikely as Obama acceding to the request might be, should he defy his intelligence chiefs and agree to it, it would only place Israel under further obligation and cast Israel’s latest futile sacrifices for peace in an unsavory light. Though granting clemency to Pollard after so many years of punishment is probably the right thing for Obama to do, it should be kept separate from the peace process.

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Releasing Palestinian Terrorists for a Ruse

Even most of his sternest critics are giving John Kerry credit for good intentions in his efforts to reconvene Middle East peace talks. The prospects for success are minimal and the consequences of almost certain failure are awful to contemplate. But few would deny that Kerry means well. But there is one aspect to the American participation in what is likely to be yet another in a long list of failures that cannot be spun as a worthwhile risk taken in the name of the cause of peace. Along with other absurd Palestinian demands that Israel concede the substance of the talks prior to the beginning of negotiations is one particular condition that Kerry should never have been a party to: the release of terrorist murderers.

In order to avoid the blame for the failure of Kerry’s quest, Israel has been reportedly forced to agree to the release of 82 terrorists imprisoned since before the 1993 Oslo Accords as part of a package of concessions aimed at enticing the Palestinian Authority to rejoin the talks they’ve been boycotting for the last four and a half years. According to the Times of Israel, the Israeli Cabinet is scheduled to vote on the release prior to the start of the event Kerry has stage-managed. Among those to be released are believed to be a large number convicted of cold-blooded murders of Israeli men, women, and children. Even if you concede Kerry’s good intentions, this outrage is not something that should be done in the name of the people of the United States even if the supposed object is the achievement of peace. That the release of unrepentant murderers should be the result of U.S. policy is not merely painful for Israelis—especially the families of the victims—it is a disgrace. That this is being done to further a process that even officials of the PA agree is nothing more than a ruse rather than a genuine pursuit of peace is doubly disgraceful.

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Even most of his sternest critics are giving John Kerry credit for good intentions in his efforts to reconvene Middle East peace talks. The prospects for success are minimal and the consequences of almost certain failure are awful to contemplate. But few would deny that Kerry means well. But there is one aspect to the American participation in what is likely to be yet another in a long list of failures that cannot be spun as a worthwhile risk taken in the name of the cause of peace. Along with other absurd Palestinian demands that Israel concede the substance of the talks prior to the beginning of negotiations is one particular condition that Kerry should never have been a party to: the release of terrorist murderers.

In order to avoid the blame for the failure of Kerry’s quest, Israel has been reportedly forced to agree to the release of 82 terrorists imprisoned since before the 1993 Oslo Accords as part of a package of concessions aimed at enticing the Palestinian Authority to rejoin the talks they’ve been boycotting for the last four and a half years. According to the Times of Israel, the Israeli Cabinet is scheduled to vote on the release prior to the start of the event Kerry has stage-managed. Among those to be released are believed to be a large number convicted of cold-blooded murders of Israeli men, women, and children. Even if you concede Kerry’s good intentions, this outrage is not something that should be done in the name of the people of the United States even if the supposed object is the achievement of peace. That the release of unrepentant murderers should be the result of U.S. policy is not merely painful for Israelis—especially the families of the victims—it is a disgrace. That this is being done to further a process that even officials of the PA agree is nothing more than a ruse rather than a genuine pursuit of peace is doubly disgraceful.

It is true that Israel has often released large batches of Palestinian terrorists in the past. Most recently, the Netanyahu government made the difficult decision to spring over a thousand prisoners, including many with a lot of blood on their hands, in order to purchase the freedom of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The prime minister was bitterly criticized by many on the Israeli right and even many American conservatives who argued, with reason, that giving up so many killers would boost terrorism and merely encourage other attempts to hold Israelis for ransom. Even so, I thought Netanyahu’s decision was justified since the ethos of Israel and public opinion demanded that the government pay virtually any price to redeem a captive rather than to let him or die in the name of principle. Like it or not, that prisoner exchange could not have been avoided.

But there is no such justification for turning loose more terrorists this time.

It is true that winning the freedom of Palestinians convicted of killing Jews is an obsession of the PA and its leadership. PA TV glorifies imprisoned terrorists as “heroes” and regularly highlights their families. Since Palestinian culture glorifies such violence, there is nothing else Abbas could do that would be as popular as forcing Israel to free those Arabs who have committed atrocities.

It is that reasoning that has led Kerry to force Netanyahu to agree to the release. If Hamas gained popularity for the Shalit exchange, Washington thinks a batch of freed terrorists will do the same for Abbas and thereby, at least in theory, boost the chances for peace.

But as the PA has told its own people over and over again, their object in the talks isn’t peace. Indeed, as its religious endowments minister explained on PA TV in a Friday sermon last week, the whole point of negotiations is nothing more than a ruse intended to fool the Jews.

With PA leader Mahmoud Abbas sitting right there as he spoke live, Mahmoud Habbash:

compared the decision of the PA leadership to negotiate with Israel to the agreement of the Prophet Muhammad on a 10-year truce with his rivals in the Quraish tribe of Mecca, known as the Treaty of Hudaibiya, reached in the year 628 CE.

The significance of the treaty is that the prophet reneged on the promise and used the respite to help conquer the Jewish tribe.

That Kerry is treating the fact that Abbas sat right there and listened to this with approval as irrelevant to the prospects of peace, and not a sign that the prisoner release should be canceled, is a sign that Washington has learned nothing since Yasir Arafat made a similar speech about Oslo being merely part of a two-phase effort to destroy Israel in 1994.

President Obama has done his best to exploit the tears and pain of the families of the Newtown massacre in his effort to promote gun control-legislation. But apparently the same pain of Israeli victims of Palestinian killers means little or nothing to him. Whatever one may think of the need for peace talks, we should all be ashamed of the American involvement in letting killers walk in this manner.

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Keeping Friends Close, Frenemies Closer?

It can be confusing enough to make policy according to the creed “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But what happens when the enemy of your enemy is also the enemy of your friend? Or when an entity starts out as your enemy but then becomes the enemy of your enemy? Is there such a thing as a frenemy in international relations? (It does have its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, after all.)

Those are, thanks to the Levant’s general descent into violent chaos, not hypothetical questions. As Emanuele Ottolenghi wrote earlier today, the European Union has finally designated as a terrorist organization Hezbollah’s “military wing.” Though this was a modest–and, quite possibly, ineffectual–step, it was the culmination of years of prodding from countries that already ban Hezbollah, such as the United States. The U.S. considers Hezbollah our enemy. But last week, the lines blurred a bit, as McClatchy reported:

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It can be confusing enough to make policy according to the creed “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But what happens when the enemy of your enemy is also the enemy of your friend? Or when an entity starts out as your enemy but then becomes the enemy of your enemy? Is there such a thing as a frenemy in international relations? (It does have its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, after all.)

Those are, thanks to the Levant’s general descent into violent chaos, not hypothetical questions. As Emanuele Ottolenghi wrote earlier today, the European Union has finally designated as a terrorist organization Hezbollah’s “military wing.” Though this was a modest–and, quite possibly, ineffectual–step, it was the culmination of years of prodding from countries that already ban Hezbollah, such as the United States. The U.S. considers Hezbollah our enemy. But last week, the lines blurred a bit, as McClatchy reported:

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency warned Lebanese officials last week that al Qaida-linked groups are planning a campaign of bombings that will target Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs as well as other political targets associated with the group or its allies in Syria, Lebanese officials said Monday.

The unusual warning – U.S. government officials are barred from directly contacting Hezbollah, which the U.S. has designated an international terrorist organization – was passed from the CIA’s Beirut station chief to several Lebanese security and intelligence officials in a meeting late last week with the understanding that it would be passed to Hezbollah, Lebanese officials said. …

The U.S. Embassy declined to comment or to allow the CIA station chief for Lebanon to be interviewed. A CIA official in the United States said the agency would have no comment. Conveying such a warning to the Lebanese government when civilian lives might be at risk would be a normal procedure, people familiar with CIA procedures said.

Hezbollah is our enemy–but so are al-Qaeda and its affiliates. But al-Qaeda and its affiliates are also friends of our friends, and enemies of our enemies, inside Syria. Al-Qaeda has also been known to cooperate with Hezbollah, which would make them the friend of our enemy. Context is everything, I suppose.

The argument that can and has been made is that the U.S. is nervous about the spillover from Syria and the spread of sectarian violence into Lebanon. Fair enough. But the McClatchy report (if correct) notes that the CIA not only sent warnings to Hezbollah but also “other political targets associated with the group or its allies in Syria.” Wouldn’t that include, quite prominently, the Syrian regime and forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad? Isn’t that Hezbollah’s most notable ally in Syria?

Additionally, when the president initially chose to aid the rebels in Syria, the administration did so through Qatari and Saudi intermediaries, who then empowered the more radical Islamist elements. What does it say about the attempt to help the anti-Assad forces that it ended up empowering figures we now consider to be worse than Hezbollah? Entrusting Qatar turned out to have been something of a bad bet. At this point, it very well might be too late to help the moderates take control of rebel forces. But according to Sunday’s New York Times, intelligence officials aren’t so sure:

The comments by David R. Shedd, the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, were one of the strongest public warnings about how the civil war in Syria has deteriorated, and he seemed to imply that the response from the United States and its allies had so far been lacking.

Mr. Shedd suggested that in addition to strengthening the more secular groups of the fractious Syrian opposition — which the Obama administration has promised to arm with weapons and ammunition — the West would have to directly confront more radical Islamist elements. But he did not say how that could be accomplished.

He did not say how it could be accomplished most likely because no one has any idea how it could be accomplished. “Directly confront more radical Islamist elements” is euphemistic language. What it means is: defeat the more radical Islamist elements. A sustained effort to do so inside Syria would probably have us simultaneously supporting the “good” rebels while fighting the “bad” rebels who are fighting against our other enemy, the Assad regime, and a third enemy, Hezbollah.

We would then be protecting Hezbollah from the “bad” rebels while trying to protect other groups, especially in Lebanon, from Hezbollah, all the while working in Europe to blacklist Hezbollah, whom we’re protecting from the friends of our friends in Syria. I admire the optimism, if not the good sense, of anyone who thinks this sounds like something the Obama foreign policy triumvirate of John Kerry, Joe Biden, and Chuck Hagel can pull off.

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The Detroit Disaster

Great disasters are usually the product of a concatenation of happenings that synergistically interact with tragic results.

Had April 14, 1912, not been a moonless night with a completely calm sea (unusual in the north Atlantic), had the binoculars that were supposed to have been in the crow’s nest but were instead locked up in a locker to which no one on board had a key, had the wireless operator on board the Californian not gone to bed, had the captain of the Californian not, out of habit, tried to communicate with a Morse lamp instead of the wireless, and half a dozen other minor matters, the Titanic’s maiden voyage would have been ordinary or, at least, most people would have been rescued.

It’s the same with the great urban disaster of today, Detroit. This once-mighty city, with 1.8 million in population and the highest per capita income of any major American city, is now a waste land, its parks closed, its streets unlit, its crime rate astronomical, its population only a third what it was in 1950. As Michael Barone, a Detroit native, wrote, looking at Hiroshima and Detroit today it’s easy to wonder which country won the war.

What happened? Several things. Here are four:

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Great disasters are usually the product of a concatenation of happenings that synergistically interact with tragic results.

Had April 14, 1912, not been a moonless night with a completely calm sea (unusual in the north Atlantic), had the binoculars that were supposed to have been in the crow’s nest but were instead locked up in a locker to which no one on board had a key, had the wireless operator on board the Californian not gone to bed, had the captain of the Californian not, out of habit, tried to communicate with a Morse lamp instead of the wireless, and half a dozen other minor matters, the Titanic’s maiden voyage would have been ordinary or, at least, most people would have been rescued.

It’s the same with the great urban disaster of today, Detroit. This once-mighty city, with 1.8 million in population and the highest per capita income of any major American city, is now a waste land, its parks closed, its streets unlit, its crime rate astronomical, its population only a third what it was in 1950. As Michael Barone, a Detroit native, wrote, looking at Hiroshima and Detroit today it’s easy to wonder which country won the war.

What happened? Several things. Here are four:

1) Even by big city standards, Detroit’s government has been both wildly corrupt and wildly incompetent for decades. At least in Chicago, the Daleys knew how to run a city.

2) The mainstay of Detroit’s economy, the auto industry, faced so little competition in the decades after World War II, that it became effectively a cartel, and fat, dumb, lazy and uninnovative, as cartels and monopolies always are. It generously shared its easy profits with the workers. But when foreign competition arrived in the early 1970s it proved unable to adapt to the new marketplace, while the UAW refused to surrender benefits that had become unsustainable. The auto industry began to move to the burgeoning, and non-unionized, South.

3) Public service unions, which should never have been allowed in the first place, used their political power to force contracts on Detroit that the economically challenged city could not afford.

4) The suburbanization that followed World War II caused the middle class to leave the old central cities and their population (and tax base) began to decline. Every city that had a major-league baseball team in 1950, which is to say the big cities of the northeast quadrant of the country, has had a significant decline in population since then, except New York (which is always an exception).

Put that together with the tendency of politicians to kick difficult problems down the road so that they become someone else’s problem, and the bond market’s willingness to buy high-coupon Detroit municipal bonds, confident that the state of Michigan or Washington would bail Detroit out, and make them whole, and you have the greatest urban disaster that didn’t involve nature or war.

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Repeating Clinton’s Middle East Mistakes

If there weren’t already enough reasons to be wary of John Kerry’s efforts to convene new Middle East peace process talks this week in Washington, the New York Times just gave us another. Now that his task of pushing parties who already know there’s no chance of an actual agreement being reached into a new round of negotiation has been accomplished, Kerry is prepared to delegate the supervision of this disaster-in-the-making to a subordinate, and his choice is one of the key players in the Clinton administration’s Middle East peace process team. If the job qualifications for the position required experience in presiding over failed peace talks and stoking unreasonable expectations about the Palestinians’ desire for peace while pressuring Israel to make concessions, Martin Indyk is the perfect candidate.

Indyk served as assistant secretary of state and had two separate terms as U.S. ambassador to Israel. As former Israeli diplomat Dore Gold told the New York Times, Indyk certainly has an institutional memory of past efforts and knows the players involved well, though, tellingly, the Times noted that Indyk has “maintained a good rapport with Mr. Abbas, and has also conferred with Mr. Netanyahu.” But Kerry’s selection of one of the grizzled veterans of the crew that piloted the peace process ship and has shown few signs of understanding or even acknowledging all of the mistakes that were made during that time is a sign that Washington is set to be put on course for a repeat of what has already occurred. If Kerry is intent on getting the old band back together that orchestrated the post-Oslo euphoria of the 1990s that culminated in the crackup of the 2000 Camp David summit, he may be setting in motion a chain of events in which that tragedy will be repeated.

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If there weren’t already enough reasons to be wary of John Kerry’s efforts to convene new Middle East peace process talks this week in Washington, the New York Times just gave us another. Now that his task of pushing parties who already know there’s no chance of an actual agreement being reached into a new round of negotiation has been accomplished, Kerry is prepared to delegate the supervision of this disaster-in-the-making to a subordinate, and his choice is one of the key players in the Clinton administration’s Middle East peace process team. If the job qualifications for the position required experience in presiding over failed peace talks and stoking unreasonable expectations about the Palestinians’ desire for peace while pressuring Israel to make concessions, Martin Indyk is the perfect candidate.

Indyk served as assistant secretary of state and had two separate terms as U.S. ambassador to Israel. As former Israeli diplomat Dore Gold told the New York Times, Indyk certainly has an institutional memory of past efforts and knows the players involved well, though, tellingly, the Times noted that Indyk has “maintained a good rapport with Mr. Abbas, and has also conferred with Mr. Netanyahu.” But Kerry’s selection of one of the grizzled veterans of the crew that piloted the peace process ship and has shown few signs of understanding or even acknowledging all of the mistakes that were made during that time is a sign that Washington is set to be put on course for a repeat of what has already occurred. If Kerry is intent on getting the old band back together that orchestrated the post-Oslo euphoria of the 1990s that culminated in the crackup of the 2000 Camp David summit, he may be setting in motion a chain of events in which that tragedy will be repeated.

It’s useful to think back to the era when Indyk and the rest of his old pals were pursuing peace in the 1990s. The Clinton White House and State Department may not have conceived the Oslo Accords, but they were determined to see them implemented in such a way as to create the “New Middle East” that Shimon Peres wrote about at the time. Many Americans and Israelis shared the optimism that Yasir Arafat’s handshake with Yitzhak Rabin on the White House Lawn had engendered. But that optimism was slowly worn down in the following years as the newly created Palestinian Authority repeatedly demonstrated that it was primarily interested in amassing power and money for the Fatah elites that run it. Indyk and his colleagues steadfastly ignored Arafat’s double game whereby he talked peace to the West and war to his own people. The U.S. position was to treat the PA’s fomenting of hatred for Jews and Israelis and connections with terrorism as irrelevant to the goal of brokering peace agreements. They believed if Israel made enough concessions, and if enough foreign aid were funneled into PA coffers, the result would inevitably bring peace to the region and glory to all those involved.

They were wrong. Rather than renouncing terror, Arafat continued to employ it and a steady toll of attacks undermined Israeli confidence in the process. Though Israel’s critics would argue that its reluctance to make more concessions was to blame for Palestinian behavior, it soon became apparent to all but true believers in the peace process that he had no intention of ever making peace. But Indyk and company never caught up to reality. Their catastrophic miscalculation was made obvious in the summer of 2000 when Arafat refused the first of three Israeli offers of statehood including almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem. His response was to launch a terrorist war of attrition known to history as the second intifada, which cost more than a thousand Israeli lives and far more Palestinians.

In retrospect some of those involved with the process, like Dennis Ross, eventually admitted that they had made mistakes. But while Ross was right to note that Washington was wrong to ignore Palestinian incitement, terror, and thievery of aid funds, that miscalculation was no aberration. It was based in a fundamental misreading of the goals and the beliefs of Arafat and the entire Palestinian leadership (a group that includes his successor Mahmoud Abbas). The notion that a kleptocracy that based its legitimacy on a notion of Palestinian nationalism that rejected true peace with Israel could ever be persuaded or bribed to do so was a myth. Most Israelis absorbed this lesson as they coped with the after-shocks of the Oslo-era fiasco. But it was one that Kerry and some of the professional peace processors like Indyk seem never to have learned.

The notion that Israelis and Palestinians could simply split the difference between their positions was quintessentially American and hopelessly naïve. But it came with a high price in blood. Almost 13 years ago the Clinton team, assisted by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, blithely pushed ahead with peace talks that set the stage for an unprecedented outbreak of terrorist violence. Though Kerry has labored mightily to get the parties back to negotiations, he has given little indication that he has any idea of how to make them succeed and even less to the consequences of failure. Experience is a virtue, but there is another word to describe those who keep repeating the same behavior while expecting different results, and it isn’t flattering. Enlisting someone who has already made these same mistakes in a previous administration with no sign of having learned from them to help the secretary stage manage a new round of talks is an ominous sign that history could be repeating itself.

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Libertarians in the Limelight

Despite revelations that racist newsletters were produced in his name, as well as the media’s obvious desire to paint the Republican Party as broadly racist, Ron Paul was often the subject of fascination rather than hostility from the political press during the 2012 Republican primary season. The press was reduced to inventing stories of bigotry to tar the reputations of Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum, but seemed far less interested in the low-hanging fruit provided by Paul.

The reason for this is not because the mainstream media possessed any sympathy for Paul’s libertarian ideology; the opposite was (and remains) the case. It is because Paul was never viewed as anything more than an insurgent underdog. Paul also provided something else the media appreciated: an eccentric mascot for the libertarian wing of the GOP. And lastly, the newsletters, to those who supported President Obama, had simply surfaced at an inconvenient time. They would be much more useful to Democrats in a general election, not a competitive primary.

That’s why there was a sense of déjà vu when it was revealed that Ron Paul’s son, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, had hired Jack Hunter, a neoconfederate shock jock known as the “Southern Avenger,” as an advisor. And now Jim Antle reports that after Rand Paul’s initial defense of Hunter, the latter has resigned from Paul’s office. Antle calls attention to the generational echoes of the controversy.

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Despite revelations that racist newsletters were produced in his name, as well as the media’s obvious desire to paint the Republican Party as broadly racist, Ron Paul was often the subject of fascination rather than hostility from the political press during the 2012 Republican primary season. The press was reduced to inventing stories of bigotry to tar the reputations of Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum, but seemed far less interested in the low-hanging fruit provided by Paul.

The reason for this is not because the mainstream media possessed any sympathy for Paul’s libertarian ideology; the opposite was (and remains) the case. It is because Paul was never viewed as anything more than an insurgent underdog. Paul also provided something else the media appreciated: an eccentric mascot for the libertarian wing of the GOP. And lastly, the newsletters, to those who supported President Obama, had simply surfaced at an inconvenient time. They would be much more useful to Democrats in a general election, not a competitive primary.

That’s why there was a sense of déjà vu when it was revealed that Ron Paul’s son, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, had hired Jack Hunter, a neoconfederate shock jock known as the “Southern Avenger,” as an advisor. And now Jim Antle reports that after Rand Paul’s initial defense of Hunter, the latter has resigned from Paul’s office. Antle calls attention to the generational echoes of the controversy.

As I wrote when the news broke, Hunter’s presence in Rand Paul’s office showed the limits of Paul’s efforts to separate himself from his father in the public’s mind. But even more than the questionable judgment on Paul’s part, the scandal over Hunter went mostly ignored by the national press, serving as a warning sign to Paul. He was getting the “kooky libertarian foil” treatment rather than the one he has carefully, and often skillfully, cultivated: poised presidential frontrunner.

This was Paul’s first major stumble; he flirted with exaggeration during his filibuster, but his drone-Fonda hypothetical resonated with a public growing increasingly uncomfortable with the power and reach of the federal government. Rand Paul can easily occupy the space on the debate stage vacated by his father’s exit from the political arena, but he doesn’t want to be a sideshow. He wants to be president. His credibility, therefore, especially this early in his career, is everything.

And because he wants to be president–and soon–the stakes for libertarianism are high. There has scarcely been a time when the American liberal establishment had more to fear from a credible exposition of libertarian ideology. The Democratic Party has made increasing the size of the federal leviathan the animating feature of its modern dogma. It is not a tool to improve policy; it is the goal in itself. The president’s obsession with federal power is reflected by the rank and file of his party. And the disastrous effects of this obsession are clearer every day.

The moment is ripe, then, for a counterargument that puts individual liberty back in focus. But far too many Americans don’t yet know what to think of libertarianism, and they are not helped by the political class. The American left doesn’t know what libertarianism is, but they know they don’t like it. And they are desperate to define it before it goes mainstream. The emergence of Paul Ryan on the national scene, for example, inspired many liberals to pretend they had read the works of Ayn Rand.

I wrote about President Obama’s fumbling and completely unsuccessful attempt to feign knowledge about Rand here, though it was difficult to outdo the New Republic’s inexplicable and unironic designation of “the Randian paradise that is Russia.” More recently, there was Michael Lind’s widely mocked column in which he asked “why isn’t libertarianism discredited by the absence of any libertarian regimes in the real world?” Even the Economist was aghast at the logic at play. Paul Krugman did his best to bail out Lind by publishing an attack on libertarianism just as nonsensical as Lind’s but to a wider audience.

So if the left has no idea what libertarians think, libertarians have a golden opportunity to define their philosophy and make the case for its mainstream applicability. The rise of the Tea Party and the excesses of the Obama administration have also made the broader conservative movement more receptive to limited government than it has been in decades. In COMMENTARY’s January symposium on the future of conservatism, Jonah Goldberg warned about the “fading of conservatism’s libertarian brand.” Goldberg continued:

For good and bad reasons, liberalism has managed to cover itself with a patina of libertarianism. Some of this stems from changing attitudes about sexuality. Conservative opposition to gay marriage sends a powerful cultural signal that makes the GOP seem Comstockish and scary, at least to the elites who shape the culture and to younger voters.

That argument is familiar enough. But what allows the Democrats to seem more libertarian isn’t just cultural marketing, but a widespread acceptance of the idea that positive liberty is more important than negative liberty.

Given the recent spate of columns from the organs of the left, Goldberg’s argument has renewed relevance: if the Democrats don’t even want to pretend to be libertarians, then the label is up for grabs at a time when the libertarian approach to policy has so much to offer the cause of American liberty.

Rand Paul may not have asked for the responsibility of more fully integrating libertarianism within the conservative mainstream, but in many ways that’s the predicament he finds himself in at the moment. Which means he has both far more to gain and far more to lose than his father did in 2012. And so do the party and the nation he hopes to lead.

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Helen Thomas and Bias in the Press

Longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas is being celebrated today as a trailblazer who showed the way for young female reporters and the avatar for tough-minded journalism. Thomas deserves great credit for making her way against the odds in a man’s world before becoming a fixture as the dean of the White House press corps and a leading member of the once-all male Gridiron Club. Doing so required grit, tenacity, and the kind of work ethic that enabled her to beat out many of her colleagues and win her a place among the elites of the Washington press corps. But even the most laudatory discussion of Thomas’s career must mention its end when she was forced to resign from her last post for an anti-Semitic outburst. In order to maintain the story line of Thomas as trailblazer, obituaries like the front-page article in today’s New York Times, and appreciations like the one in the Daily Beast by Eleanor Clift, must treat it as something that does not detract from her significance or an understandable expression of legitimate opinion that showed she didn’t care what others thought.

But an honest assessment of her legacy requires us to do more than make a token acknowledgement of the “get the hell out of Palestine” statement while lionizing her as a symbol of equal rights for women. Thomas’s prejudice was not a minor flaw. It was a symptom not only of her Jew-hatred but also of a style of journalism that was brutally partisan and confrontational. We want reporters to be tough and relentless in the pursuit of good stories and truth. Yet anyone who watched her use her perch in the front row in the White House press room as if it were a platform for political opposition to administrations whose policies she didn’t like must understand that, along with her symbolic importance, we must also give Thomas her share of the credit for the creation of an ugly spirit of partisanship that characterizes much of the press.

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Longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas is being celebrated today as a trailblazer who showed the way for young female reporters and the avatar for tough-minded journalism. Thomas deserves great credit for making her way against the odds in a man’s world before becoming a fixture as the dean of the White House press corps and a leading member of the once-all male Gridiron Club. Doing so required grit, tenacity, and the kind of work ethic that enabled her to beat out many of her colleagues and win her a place among the elites of the Washington press corps. But even the most laudatory discussion of Thomas’s career must mention its end when she was forced to resign from her last post for an anti-Semitic outburst. In order to maintain the story line of Thomas as trailblazer, obituaries like the front-page article in today’s New York Times, and appreciations like the one in the Daily Beast by Eleanor Clift, must treat it as something that does not detract from her significance or an understandable expression of legitimate opinion that showed she didn’t care what others thought.

But an honest assessment of her legacy requires us to do more than make a token acknowledgement of the “get the hell out of Palestine” statement while lionizing her as a symbol of equal rights for women. Thomas’s prejudice was not a minor flaw. It was a symptom not only of her Jew-hatred but also of a style of journalism that was brutally partisan and confrontational. We want reporters to be tough and relentless in the pursuit of good stories and truth. Yet anyone who watched her use her perch in the front row in the White House press room as if it were a platform for political opposition to administrations whose policies she didn’t like must understand that, along with her symbolic importance, we must also give Thomas her share of the credit for the creation of an ugly spirit of partisanship that characterizes much of the press.

As for Thomas’s line about throwing the Jews out of Palestine, the attempts to soften its impact by her friends still fall flat. The reporter wasn’t talking about Jewish settlers in the West Bank. She was referring to all six million Israeli Jews who, she thought, ought to go back where they supposedly belonged, to Germany and Poland. We are supposed to give her a pass for that because she was either elderly at the time or because she was the child of Lebanese immigrants, who brought their prejudices against Jews with them. Though she subsequently attempted to weasel her way out of the dustup with a statement that expressed her wish for peace, it was clear that she thought such a peace ought to be based on Israel’s eradication. This wasn’t so much, as the Times wrote, an “offhand remark” as it reflected a deep-seated hatred for Israel and its Jewish population that had characterized much of her reporting and writing throughout her career. That her fans are willing to regard this as not germane to the main story about her achievements is to be expected. But let’s ask ourselves how her stature would be affected if her offhand remarks, even in her dotage, had been aimed at African-Americans, rather than Israelis? Rationalizing or minimizing her prejudices for the sake of preserving Thomas’s reputation is intellectually indefensible.

Many people grew to like Thomas specifically because of her unrelenting hostility to the George W. Bush administration and her open opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those stances are seen by some as either prescient or praiseworthy these days, but even if you shared her political position, it’s important to understand that her use of her front-row seat in the White House briefing room to promote those positions represented a disturbing breakdown in civility as well as the way the press views itself.

Thomas made no secret of the fact that she felt the mainstream press gave too much leeway to Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But her decision to fight her own war against the war on terror from inside the White House wasn’t quite the responsible position that many of her backers pretend it to be. Thomas’s point wasn’t so much based on skepticism about whether Saddam Hussein really did possess, as every Western intelligence agency thought he did, weapons of mass destruction as it was on the idea that Islamist terrorists and their allies had legitimate grievances against the United States and the West. In her view, American attempts to defend against these threats or Israeli efforts to protect their people against a bloody terrorist offensive were the real problems.

Moreover, as much as the press needs to always be on guard against a tendency to be played by the president (something that has been crystal clear during most of Barack Obama’s presidency, as much of the mainstream media served as his unpaid cheerleaders), Thomas illustrated the pitfalls of the opposite trend. At times, Thomas appeared to be acting as if she thought the role of the press was to be the mouthpiece for Bush’s detractors. In doing so, she undermined her own shaky credibility more than she cut the president down to size.

Journalists should recognize that Thomas helped paved the way for subsequent generations of women in the working press. But we should also understand that the negative lessons of her career are as instructive as the positive ones. Helen Thomas may have been a pathfinder for women, but her prejudices and poor judgment are textbook examples of how journalists should not behave.

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EU’s Moral Confusion on Terrorism

Today, the European Union decided to put the armed wing of Hezbollah on its terror list. This is a welcome, if belated, step, given that it took the EU a whole year after Hezbollah conducted a murderous operation on European soil to take action.

It is also a sign of the moral confusion reigning over EU Middle East foreign policy.

You will be shocked to know that a Google search for “red brigades” and “armed wing” will not yield much. Same for “IRA” and “armed wing.” Or Baader-Mainhof group and the same. Can you imagine, for example, a 1979 headline from an Italian daily announcing that the European Economic Community (the precursor to the European Union) had finally deliberated, a year after the Italian Red Brigades had kidnapped and murdered a former prime minister, that only their armed wing deserved to be called a terrorist group?

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Today, the European Union decided to put the armed wing of Hezbollah on its terror list. This is a welcome, if belated, step, given that it took the EU a whole year after Hezbollah conducted a murderous operation on European soil to take action.

It is also a sign of the moral confusion reigning over EU Middle East foreign policy.

You will be shocked to know that a Google search for “red brigades” and “armed wing” will not yield much. Same for “IRA” and “armed wing.” Or Baader-Mainhof group and the same. Can you imagine, for example, a 1979 headline from an Italian daily announcing that the European Economic Community (the precursor to the European Union) had finally deliberated, a year after the Italian Red Brigades had kidnapped and murdered a former prime minister, that only their armed wing deserved to be called a terrorist group?

Granted, the EEC powers were more limited back then. But Europeans never found it as difficult to look at terror organizations and call them by their name. They did not waste time in intellectual contortionism and rhetorical hair splitting about what these organizations were–or what their members engaged in. The IRA, ETA, the Red Brigades, and the entire array of murderous groups from the extreme left and the extreme right of the European political spectrum became terrorists the minute they impugned a weapon and sought to achieve their political goals by murdering their adversaries and occasionally killing civilians indiscriminately. That those who gave the orders may have sat in an elected body, worked as members of a respectable profession, or served as the heads of a charitable foundation mattered little.

It took no great wisdom to see that the hand that held the gun and the mind that guided it were one and the same thing–that there was an inseparable, organic link between the ideologues who provided moral, intellectual, and political justification for violence, which in turn guided the violent executioners’ actions.

Similarly, there is no trace in newspaper clips or court proceedings for an “armed wing” of the mob or an “armed wing” of the drug cartels, which are somehow distinct, in terms of “command responsibility” from the rest of the organization. Mob hit man Giovanni Brusca, one of the Corleone clan’s most ruthless killers, did not somehow belong to the “armed wing” of the mafia, where he killed people unbeknownst to the otherwise charitable dons. The Mexican Zetas certainly have a military wing–more like an army of gruesome murderers–and it is certainly integral to the entire organization and its aims. Whether the Zetas or the mob provide a pension to their family members or send them to good doctors is immaterial to the way we understand these groups, their aims, and their methods. Nor are their business interests somehow classified into “legitimate” and “illegitimate.” Whether it’s drug trafficking or money laundering through art and real estate, we call it criminal, because … well, it is criminal.

But the EU sticks to its own imagined distinction when it comes to radical Islamic groups engaged in terrorist activities. Though you will be hard pressed to find reference to an armed wing of Hezbollah within Hezbollah, such references abound in the Western press. It is a convenient way to avoid having to tackle the problem of Hezbollah–a proxy of the Iranian regime whose ideology justifies the use of violence for political ends and whose entire structure thus serves the purpose of carrying out such violence.

All this, of course, is not to make the perfect the enemy of the good–better sanctions against a legal fiction than no sanctions at all, if the former have more real consequences than the latter.

But longer term, the EU will prove itself yet again ineffectual in the Middle East unless it is prepared to exercise moral clarity and recognize that the “armed wing” of Hezbollah is not a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand does–more like a case of a division of labor within an organization where the military wing executes the vision of its political leadership.

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The Clean Sea Breeze of the Centuries

One of C.S. Lewis’s main endeavors as a teacher was to persuade young people that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but it is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire. And so, Lewis wrote, a student would do better to read Plato than to “read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.”

But in making the case for reading old books Lewis made another argument that had never before dawned on me.

Every age has its own outlook, Lewis said. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” He went on to say that all contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook–”even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.” And when reading about the controversies of the past, Lewis said, nothing strikes him more than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we would now absolutely deny.

“We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century — the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ — lies where we have never suspected it.”

Lewis went on to write this:

None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

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One of C.S. Lewis’s main endeavors as a teacher was to persuade young people that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but it is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire. And so, Lewis wrote, a student would do better to read Plato than to “read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.”

But in making the case for reading old books Lewis made another argument that had never before dawned on me.

Every age has its own outlook, Lewis said. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” He went on to say that all contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook–”even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.” And when reading about the controversies of the past, Lewis said, nothing strikes him more than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we would now absolutely deny.

“We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century — the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ — lies where we have never suspected it.”

Lewis went on to write this:

None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

I cite Lewis at length for a couple of reasons. One is because I’m interested in the concept of how we bring to every important human subject (theology, philosophy, politics, et cetera) certain biases and prejudices, assumptions and subconscious thoughts that shape our interpretation of reality. “There is, of course, no such thing as a presupposition-less observer,” the Irish historian Eamon Duffy once said. And so we all need help to examine our presuppositions and identify our blind spots.

Old books can also help counteract what Lewis, in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, called “chronological snobbery”–the “uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” For an idea to be out of fashion doesn’t mean it is per se out of alignment with truth and reality. And this period, like all periods, has “its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

I understand that none of us can fully escape the shadows. But I also believe that we can, now and then, rise above ignorance and error; that we can take strides in the direction of the sun; and that great books, and old books, can aid us in that journey. 

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Obama Is Justified in Prosecuting Leakers

There is bipartisan fury today over the Obama administration’s leak investigations, which have included examining the emails of a Fox News reporter and winning an appeals court ruling that a New York Times reporter can be compelled to testify about leaks he received from a CIA source. The mainstream media is in high dudgeon, as expected, and it is joined, unexpectedly, by many on the right who think that this Democratic president is pursuing a vendetta against conservative critics–an impression certainly fostered by the IRS scandal even though there is no evidence of a White House link to the decision to deny Tea Party groups tax-exempt status.

I have no brief for governmental excesses such as those revealed by the IRS, but let’s not lose sight of the larger picture. As the New York Times itself notes, during President Bush’s second term in office, 153 cases of government officials leaking national security secrets were referred to the Justice Department. Not one of those cases resulted in a single indictment. Bush’s reluctance to prosecute leakers is understandable given the firestorm of controversy that has accompanied Obama’s prosecutions–the criticism would have been a hundred times fiercer against prosecutions ordered by a conservative Republican rather than a liberal former law professor. Nevertheless retired Admiral Dennis Blair, former director of national intelligence, is right that this failure to prosecute was “pretty shocking,” and he and Attorney General Eric Holder did what they needed to do by putting more of a push behind leak investigations.

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There is bipartisan fury today over the Obama administration’s leak investigations, which have included examining the emails of a Fox News reporter and winning an appeals court ruling that a New York Times reporter can be compelled to testify about leaks he received from a CIA source. The mainstream media is in high dudgeon, as expected, and it is joined, unexpectedly, by many on the right who think that this Democratic president is pursuing a vendetta against conservative critics–an impression certainly fostered by the IRS scandal even though there is no evidence of a White House link to the decision to deny Tea Party groups tax-exempt status.

I have no brief for governmental excesses such as those revealed by the IRS, but let’s not lose sight of the larger picture. As the New York Times itself notes, during President Bush’s second term in office, 153 cases of government officials leaking national security secrets were referred to the Justice Department. Not one of those cases resulted in a single indictment. Bush’s reluctance to prosecute leakers is understandable given the firestorm of controversy that has accompanied Obama’s prosecutions–the criticism would have been a hundred times fiercer against prosecutions ordered by a conservative Republican rather than a liberal former law professor. Nevertheless retired Admiral Dennis Blair, former director of national intelligence, is right that this failure to prosecute was “pretty shocking,” and he and Attorney General Eric Holder did what they needed to do by putting more of a push behind leak investigations.

The need for such action is clear given how many secrets have been revealed in recent years, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning being only two of the higher-profile offenders that have done great damage to national security and given great aid and comfort to our enemies. It is imperative to send a signal that leaking secret documents–and even more highly classified information–will not be tolerated, and the best way to do this is to make leakers pay. And not just lowly leakers such as Private Manning.

Recent word is that retired Marine General James Cartwright may be indicted for leaking information about the Stuxnet virus used to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program–one of the most sensitive secrets in the entire government. I have no idea whether or not he is guilty, but if there is good evidence of his culpability, he deserves to have the book thrown at him to show that rank is no protection for those who betray their obligation to keep secret information genuinely secret.

However suspicious Republicans may be of Obama’s motives, the anti-leaker prosecutions seem well justified and deserving of bipartisan support.

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