Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 22, 2013

A Rabbi Who Can’t Tell the Difference Between Iran and America

Absent the ability to make moral distinctions, ethics is a meaningless concept. Indeed, if you can’t tell the difference between, say, a despotic theocracy and a genuine if flawed democracy, you are in a poor position to claim any moral authority, let alone speak for a great religious tradition grounded in the Torah and the work of countless generations of Jewish scholars. Yet that is the position that CLAL—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership finds itself in today. Founded in 1974 by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, CLAL’s main initial focus was to forge a sense of Jewish unity in an American community divided by bickering denominations and a vast array of political and religious disputes. If today, 16 years after Greenberg retired and was replaced by Rabbi Irwin Kula, many of its efforts often might be mistaken for a faint shadow of whatever liberal conventional wisdom recently came down the pike, its slogan “The Hebrew word for inclusive” still highlights a brand that is rooted in the idea of bringing together a diverse Jewish community.

Kula has never been mistaken for Greenberg, whose centrism was not just a pose but also a genuine conviction (he was fond of saying that no matter which denomination you belonged to, you had something to be ashamed of). Rather than tell each segment of American Jewry hard truths, Kula has specialized in telling liberal Jewish audiences what they want to hear. But while there has never been much doubt that he is a figure of the left, something he posted on his official Facebook page on Tuesday that claimed Iran’s faux elections are little different from America’s democratic system calls into questions not only his judgment, but his moral compass.

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Absent the ability to make moral distinctions, ethics is a meaningless concept. Indeed, if you can’t tell the difference between, say, a despotic theocracy and a genuine if flawed democracy, you are in a poor position to claim any moral authority, let alone speak for a great religious tradition grounded in the Torah and the work of countless generations of Jewish scholars. Yet that is the position that CLAL—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership finds itself in today. Founded in 1974 by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, CLAL’s main initial focus was to forge a sense of Jewish unity in an American community divided by bickering denominations and a vast array of political and religious disputes. If today, 16 years after Greenberg retired and was replaced by Rabbi Irwin Kula, many of its efforts often might be mistaken for a faint shadow of whatever liberal conventional wisdom recently came down the pike, its slogan “The Hebrew word for inclusive” still highlights a brand that is rooted in the idea of bringing together a diverse Jewish community.

Kula has never been mistaken for Greenberg, whose centrism was not just a pose but also a genuine conviction (he was fond of saying that no matter which denomination you belonged to, you had something to be ashamed of). Rather than tell each segment of American Jewry hard truths, Kula has specialized in telling liberal Jewish audiences what they want to hear. But while there has never been much doubt that he is a figure of the left, something he posted on his official Facebook page on Tuesday that claimed Iran’s faux elections are little different from America’s democratic system calls into questions not only his judgment, but his moral compass.

The post (hat tip to Alan Luxenberg of the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute) read as follows:

Of course there is a difference and yet there is something strangely parallel how in Iran you have to be vetted by the guardian council of clerics to run for president while in the United States, while you don’t have to be vetted by clerics, you have to be vetted by concentrations of private capital. With very rare exceptions unless you pass their filter, you don’t enter the political system. I guess one way or another it is always clerics…the only question being just what religion they are peddling, using, distorting? to preserve and expand their power…yes yes yes i would rather live here than in Iran…

While we’re glad that Kula prefers to dwell in the American theocracy of “private capital” to the pleasures of life in an Islamist state where Jews are demonized, that is about the only thought here that makes any sense. Suffice it to say that there is nothing remotely analogous about the process by which American politicians seek to raise money from citizens and groups and a system that rules as ineligible for inclusion on a ballot anyone who diverges even a smidge from the ideology of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Some on the left may lament the fact that Americans of all stripes and convictions can individually or collectively mobilize their financial resources to promote political speech or candidates as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. They may prefer a system in which all candidates are restricted to public funds. That would restrict the ability of citizens to express their opinions and preferences as well as to reinforce the influence of the mainstream liberal media. But to pretend that a system that provides opportunity for all comers to test their popularity and the strength of their ideas are also no different from the fake elections conducted in Iran is beyond absurd.

As an example of political insight, Kula’s rant ranks somewhere between the musings of a Marxist high school sophomore and the product of an Occupy Wall Street tent city seminar conducted in a haze of marijuana smoke. But what is really troubling about it is not so much an inane argument for campaign finance laws as is his not-so-subtle effort to legitimize the regime in Tehran or at least to defuse support for action against Iran.

At a time when Iran’s theocratic regime that has threatened genocide against Israel and the Jewish people continues to work toward the creation of a nuclear weapon to accomplish that despicable goal, for someone who claims the mantle of leadership to be making such specious analogies is a blow to efforts to push for Jewish unity on the issue of Iran. That CLAL would tolerate this type of behavior from its head speaks volumes about how far the group has fallen since Greenberg’s day.

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Merkel at Dachau: Europe at the Brink

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit yesterday to the site of the Dachau concentration camp was criticized by the German left. The Green Party, among others, blasted Merkel for using the site of Nazi horrors as a campaign stop during the run-up to Germany’s scheduled parliamentary elections. The fact that her next stop after the appearance at the museum commemorating the victims of the Third Reich was a speech at a beer tent in the nearby town that bears the same name as the camp was seen by some as exposing the crass nature of her motivation in going to Dachau. But while it remains to be seen as to whether this event will help her as she cruises to reelection, Merkel deserves praise not just for being the first German chancellor to visit the Dachau camp but for articulating a call for tolerance at a time when the future of European civilization seems to be hanging in the balance.

To speak of the stakes of a speech about the specter of extremism in Europe today in such terms may strike some as hyperbole, but that is not the case. As Michel Gurfinkiel wrote this month in Mosaic, we are living at a moment when a rising tide of anti-Semitism may wipe out the remnants of European Jewry. With hate for Jews, often masquerading as mere disagreement with Israeli policies, having its biggest comeback in Europe since 1945, at no time since then has it been as important for a major European leader to make such a statement. By going to Dachau at this moment to warn the continent and the German people that they must turn away from hate, she may not be able to reverse this trend, but she has set an example that other European leaders must emulate.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit yesterday to the site of the Dachau concentration camp was criticized by the German left. The Green Party, among others, blasted Merkel for using the site of Nazi horrors as a campaign stop during the run-up to Germany’s scheduled parliamentary elections. The fact that her next stop after the appearance at the museum commemorating the victims of the Third Reich was a speech at a beer tent in the nearby town that bears the same name as the camp was seen by some as exposing the crass nature of her motivation in going to Dachau. But while it remains to be seen as to whether this event will help her as she cruises to reelection, Merkel deserves praise not just for being the first German chancellor to visit the Dachau camp but for articulating a call for tolerance at a time when the future of European civilization seems to be hanging in the balance.

To speak of the stakes of a speech about the specter of extremism in Europe today in such terms may strike some as hyperbole, but that is not the case. As Michel Gurfinkiel wrote this month in Mosaic, we are living at a moment when a rising tide of anti-Semitism may wipe out the remnants of European Jewry. With hate for Jews, often masquerading as mere disagreement with Israeli policies, having its biggest comeback in Europe since 1945, at no time since then has it been as important for a major European leader to make such a statement. By going to Dachau at this moment to warn the continent and the German people that they must turn away from hate, she may not be able to reverse this trend, but she has set an example that other European leaders must emulate.

As the New York Times reports:

“How could Germans go so far as to deny people human dignity and the right to live based on their race, religion, their political persuasion or their sexual orientation?” she said in a somber ceremony on the wide plaza where inmates once assembled daily for roll call. “Places such as this warn each one of us to help ensure that such things never happen again.”

Merkel is right, but what has happened in Europe is, as Gurfinkiel noted, a threat not just to Jews and minorities, but also to the European idea of modern civilization. Many are in denial about the situation, yet as I wrote in response to his piece, his prediction that catastrophe lies ahead is a reasonable response to a steady drip of incidents and trends that have called into question whether the postwar revival of Jewish life in Europe is at an end.

Neo-Nazis grow in numbers and influence in places like Greece as well as in Germany. Intolerance for foreigners along with the importation of Islamist prejudices via the large number of immigrants from the Muslim world has created a toxic mix of hatred that makes Europe dangerous for Jews and other minorities. This is felt not only in the growing number of anti-Semitic incidents but the willingness of allegedly liberal Europeans to consider banning Jewish religious practices such as circumcision and kosher slaughter.

Moreover, the widespread revulsion expressed toward Israel and the delegitimization of Zionism is not merely a variant of traditional anti-Semitism. It is an effort to erase the memory of the Holocaust by falsely casting Jews as the new Nazis. As such, it is not merely a distortion of the truth about the Middle East conflict but a blatant case of Holocaust revisionism.

While Merkel should be applauded for speaking out when so many persons of influence are silent, her visit to Dachau will have no meaning at all if it is seen as only a necessary effort to remember the Holocaust. Europeans have worked hard in recent years to memorialize the victims of the Nazis. But since this has happened at the same time that the efforts of living Jews to defend themselves have been viciously attacked, it’s far from clear that these memorials have much meaning. What we have learned in recent years is that a Europe that abandons Israel will inevitably begin to abandon its own Jewish citizens as well as others. It can only be hoped that Merkel’s warning is a sign that there is still time for a critical mass of European opinion to reverse this ominous trend.

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Stop and Frisk vs. Gun Control

Few issues divide self-described libertarians from self-described conservatives quite as consistently as those related to security and defense. As we’ve seen with the debate over the NSA’s data collection, it isn’t just about foreign intervention either. And the recent ruling on the NYPD’s stop and frisk tactic is the latest episode demonstrating how far apart the two factions can be on policing.

I’ve written numerous times in defense of stop and frisk, and did so again after Judge Shira Scheindlin’s legally incoherent ruling against it. Reason magazine’s A. Barton Hinkle has written a response to one of my recent posts on the topic as well as those of Heather Mac Donald, National Review, and others. Hinkle’s libertarian perspective on the issue is thoughtful and it’s a constructive contribution to the debate, most significantly for his essential reminder that the ends don’t automatically justify the means; when individual liberty is at stake, the means themselves must be just.

I also appreciate that libertarians like Hinkle argue the case on the facts instead of taking the left’s approach to this debate, which is to assume racial animus on the part of anyone supporting the police. But I think Hinkle misfires on a couple of points, which are worth delineating. The title of Hinkle’s column is “Stop and Frisk: How the Right Learned to Love Gun Control,” and he explains early on that conservatives have accepted and parroted the “liberal logic of gun control,” which he defines as follows: “Government should infringe, or even abrogate, the rights of millions of law-abiding people in order to stop a minuscule fraction who use guns to commit mayhem.”

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Few issues divide self-described libertarians from self-described conservatives quite as consistently as those related to security and defense. As we’ve seen with the debate over the NSA’s data collection, it isn’t just about foreign intervention either. And the recent ruling on the NYPD’s stop and frisk tactic is the latest episode demonstrating how far apart the two factions can be on policing.

I’ve written numerous times in defense of stop and frisk, and did so again after Judge Shira Scheindlin’s legally incoherent ruling against it. Reason magazine’s A. Barton Hinkle has written a response to one of my recent posts on the topic as well as those of Heather Mac Donald, National Review, and others. Hinkle’s libertarian perspective on the issue is thoughtful and it’s a constructive contribution to the debate, most significantly for his essential reminder that the ends don’t automatically justify the means; when individual liberty is at stake, the means themselves must be just.

I also appreciate that libertarians like Hinkle argue the case on the facts instead of taking the left’s approach to this debate, which is to assume racial animus on the part of anyone supporting the police. But I think Hinkle misfires on a couple of points, which are worth delineating. The title of Hinkle’s column is “Stop and Frisk: How the Right Learned to Love Gun Control,” and he explains early on that conservatives have accepted and parroted the “liberal logic of gun control,” which he defines as follows: “Government should infringe, or even abrogate, the rights of millions of law-abiding people in order to stop a minuscule fraction who use guns to commit mayhem.”

He closes the column on a similar note:

In fact, stop-and-frisk is not a tremendous success but a tremendous failure, because such stops turn up contraband only 2 percent of the time. In other words: 98 times out of 100 the officer’s suspicion is unjustified.

If any other program had a 98 percent failure rate, conservatives would hold it up as a shining example of everything that’s wrong with big government. That they’re so eager to defend a failing program when it happens to target minorities makes their professed concern for “the most vulnerable” ring a trifle hollow.

There are a few important points here in response. First, the point of stop and frisk is not ultimately to confiscate guns, and thus its success should not be measured by a target at which it most certainly is not aiming. That is not to say gun confiscation is irrelevant to stop and frisk. But the tactic is not a guessing game to locate guns; it is an evidence-based procedure to prevent crime.

To the extent that there is some form of gun control involved, there is a crucial difference: the police are seeking to control the use of illegal guns, not the possession of legal guns. One can, therefore, support both stop and frisk and a robust respect for the Second Amendment. Yet it is the Fourth Amendment that seems to trouble Hinkle more anyway, and here we get into the thorny issue of profiling. Hinkle writes:

By the same token, just because most perpetrators in New York are black or Hispanic does not mean most blacks or Hispanics are perpetrators. After all, most homicides are committed with guns – but that does not mean most gun owners commit homicide.

Quite right. Then Hinkle adds:

The NYPD’s defenders also contend the police did not stop and frisk minorities at random; they stopped those who acted suspiciously. This is true only if you consider perfectly normal behavior suspicious.

This again omits a crucial aspect of the tactic. “Suspicious” behavior doesn’t mean someone looks like they’re about to commit a crime, however that would look. It also includes people who match the descriptions of suspects. This was something Scheindlin and the press learned when those subjected to the stop and frisk tactic began testifying, ostensibly for the plaintiffs. When they told their stories, a different picture began to emerge, as the New York Times reported in April:

One man was stopped and frisked because of his expensive red leather jacket — similar to one that a murder suspect was wearing in a wanted poster. Another man was stopped after a woman complained to the police that he was following her. Still another was stopped by officers who had watched him jostle the door of a home, trying to get in.

This is basic police work. Take the second case, for example: a woman complained to police that a certain man was following her. The police stopped the man to question him. Hinkle’s grading system rates that stop a “failure” because the man presumably didn’t have an illegal gun on him. Scheindlin made similar mistakes in her finding, which is one reason the city is challenging the ruling.

There is one point on which both conservatives and libertarians can agree: that a tactic is successful or effective doesn’t make it constitutional. Hinkle is right to warn of the slippery slope such a mindset would lead to, and conservatives shouldn’t be hostile toward such reminders. But sometimes it’s worth pointing that libertarians should avoid the reverse fallacy, and remember that just because something is effective doesn’t mean it’s authoritarian or abusive.

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Is Iraq Nearing its Recovery Tipping Point?

During my research trip earlier this summer to Iraq, I had reported on some glimmers of progress, especially in southern Iraq. Citi Bank is opening an office in Baghdad, and Boeing delivered to Iraqi Airlines the first of several 737s last week. Baghdad has long lagged behind the rest of Iraq, however, as first Iraqi Kurdistan and then southern Iraq began to take off. No longer. Finally, the face of Baghdad is starting to change for the better:

Retail heaven has come to Baghdad. The capital’s commercial district has been transformed with the arrival of Mansour Mall. On Sunday, hundreds of people were walking in droves leading up to the giant structure, in their best dress, with women glammed up in make-up and high heels and ready for a night on the town. It was like a carnival, or a parade. “All of Baghdad is here,” my dad said, chuckling, as we strolled through the place. “In the past, they would drive all the way north to Erbil to go to Majdi Mall…”

There’s electricity and air conditioning, a luxury in central Iraq amid the searing 45°C temperatures. Finally, there is a place where people can hang out indoors and keep away from the summer heat. And for the first time in at least two decades, recognized brands are being stocked in the stores. There’s Koton, LC Waikiki, Ecco, Clarks and Geox, but those stores are alongside a fake “Aldoo”. That goes the same for food: there’s a “Krunchy Fried Chicken K.F.C”. Talk about contrasts: the sham poultry purveyors caught my attention as we walked by a shop that had Rolex and Raymond Weil watches on display….

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During my research trip earlier this summer to Iraq, I had reported on some glimmers of progress, especially in southern Iraq. Citi Bank is opening an office in Baghdad, and Boeing delivered to Iraqi Airlines the first of several 737s last week. Baghdad has long lagged behind the rest of Iraq, however, as first Iraqi Kurdistan and then southern Iraq began to take off. No longer. Finally, the face of Baghdad is starting to change for the better:

Retail heaven has come to Baghdad. The capital’s commercial district has been transformed with the arrival of Mansour Mall. On Sunday, hundreds of people were walking in droves leading up to the giant structure, in their best dress, with women glammed up in make-up and high heels and ready for a night on the town. It was like a carnival, or a parade. “All of Baghdad is here,” my dad said, chuckling, as we strolled through the place. “In the past, they would drive all the way north to Erbil to go to Majdi Mall…”

There’s electricity and air conditioning, a luxury in central Iraq amid the searing 45°C temperatures. Finally, there is a place where people can hang out indoors and keep away from the summer heat. And for the first time in at least two decades, recognized brands are being stocked in the stores. There’s Koton, LC Waikiki, Ecco, Clarks and Geox, but those stores are alongside a fake “Aldoo”. That goes the same for food: there’s a “Krunchy Fried Chicken K.F.C”. Talk about contrasts: the sham poultry purveyors caught my attention as we walked by a shop that had Rolex and Raymond Weil watches on display….

Certainly terrorism remains a problem. The worst thing the United States can do is urge a compromise that will effectively reward extremists for conducting terrorism. And with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani permanently incapacitated mentally and physically from a stroke he suffered in December 2012, many unresolved political and communal issues will remain unresolved until elections next year. Still, in any war-weary country, there is a tipping point to confidence in recovery. And it seems despite the pessimism in the West, resilient Iraqis are pushing their country toward that positive tipping point.

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The Consequences of Syrian Chaos

The firing of four rockets from Lebanon into Northern Israel today immediately set off speculation that Hezbollah might be looking to distract its supporters from the debacle in Syria that many are calling the terrorist group’s “Vietnam.” However, that thesis was soon to be discredited. Rather than the signal for another round of fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, it appears the attack was something else entirely. According to the Israel Defense Forces spokesman, the incident was a “one-time event” rather than the latest chapter in the long history of conflict with Hezbollah. But that news shouldn’t provide much comfort for Israelis or Westerners concerned about the instability in the Middle East.  While some experts are dismissing this as an example of how a small jihadist group fires off a few missiles “to show that they exist,” there is another more sinister interpretation.

If the rockets were the work of a Salafist Sunni terror organization operating out of a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, this may be a sign that Hezbollah’s iron grip on the region may be slipping. While anything that weakens a group that is a vital ally of Iran and a perennial adversary of Israel may be thought of as a good thing, the ability of such a group to act with impunity in this manner may be a sign that the war in Syria isn’t just weakening Hezbollah; the chaos there is spreading with unknown consequences but which is likely to lead to more violence against Israel and more blood spilled on both sides of the border.

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The firing of four rockets from Lebanon into Northern Israel today immediately set off speculation that Hezbollah might be looking to distract its supporters from the debacle in Syria that many are calling the terrorist group’s “Vietnam.” However, that thesis was soon to be discredited. Rather than the signal for another round of fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, it appears the attack was something else entirely. According to the Israel Defense Forces spokesman, the incident was a “one-time event” rather than the latest chapter in the long history of conflict with Hezbollah. But that news shouldn’t provide much comfort for Israelis or Westerners concerned about the instability in the Middle East.  While some experts are dismissing this as an example of how a small jihadist group fires off a few missiles “to show that they exist,” there is another more sinister interpretation.

If the rockets were the work of a Salafist Sunni terror organization operating out of a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, this may be a sign that Hezbollah’s iron grip on the region may be slipping. While anything that weakens a group that is a vital ally of Iran and a perennial adversary of Israel may be thought of as a good thing, the ability of such a group to act with impunity in this manner may be a sign that the war in Syria isn’t just weakening Hezbollah; the chaos there is spreading with unknown consequences but which is likely to lead to more violence against Israel and more blood spilled on both sides of the border.

The rules that once seemed to govern the combatants in the region may be breaking down. As vicious as Hezbollah may be toward both Lebanese opponents and Israelis, it chose to observe the cease-fire that has existed along the border with the Jewish state since 2006. The reason for that is that an organization that was more intent on consolidating its influence in Beirut and aiding Iran’s effort to bolster the Assad regime in Syria understood those interests would be damaged by daring the Israelis to retaliate for attacks on its people. Though Israelis look back at the 2006 Lebanon War as a disaster because of the inept leadership of then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the IDF as well as for the devastating impact of Hezbollah rocket barrages on northern Israel, the Lebanese wanted no rerun of the ferocious Israeli efforts to take out the terrorist group’s infrastructure. Similarly, the government of Syria kept the cease-fire lines with Israel quiet since 1973 lest it be humiliated by the spectacle of yet another defeat at the hands of the IDF.

Though with the help of Iran and Hezbollah, Bashar Assad appears to be winning his war against Syrian rebels, the virtual collapse of that country is breaking down any semblance of stability. As the Times of Israel speculates today, the regime’s use of barbarous tactics against opponents such as the reports of chemical weapons being used outside Damascus could influence Syrian Sunnis and their allies in Lebanon to strike out in any direction in a vain attempt to gain revenge for the atrocity. And that means that “when all else fails, target Israel.”

Due to anti-missile batteries like the Iron Dome system, Israel’s ability to deal with such attacks is greater than it was in the past. One of the four rockets fired by the jihadists was reportedly shot down by Israel fire. But the kind of chaos that may have produced this incident will also test Jerusalem’s intelligence capabilities and make it harder to know where to deploy the few such batteries. Moreover, the goal of the jihadists is not just to strike blindly at the Jews. They hope to start an exchange of fire that will prompt Hezbollah to escalate the fighting and start another war.

This is just one more consequence of the Western decision not to deal with the Syrian problem two years ago when it could have been resolved cheaply and without ceding half the country to the control of groups that may have links to al-Qaeda. The costs of America choosing to lead from behind may be just starting to add up.

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Wanted: A Republican Governing Agenda

The New York Times reports on a study issued yesterday by two former Census Bureau officials. The study shows that although median annual household income rose to $52,100 in June, from its recent low of $50,700 in August 2011, it remained $2,400 lower—a 4.4 percent decline—than in June 2009, when the recession ended.

According to the Times:

Since the end of the recession … household income has declined for all but a few population groups. Some of the largest percentage declines occurred for groups whose income was already well below the median, like African-Americans, Southerners, people who did not attend college, and households headed by people under age 25.

“Groups with low incomes tended to have steeper declines in income,” said Gordon W. Green Jr., who wrote the report with John F. Coder, a colleague at Sentier Research, which specializes in analyzing household economic data.

Households headed by people ages 65 to 74 were the only group in the study that experienced a statistically significant increase in post-recession income, helped perhaps by the decision of some older workers to remain in the work force or re-enter it.

There are several things to make of these findings, the first of which is that we’ve seen a decline in median income in the aftermath of a recession. During a recovery. That’s a fairly remarkable (and discouraging) development.

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The New York Times reports on a study issued yesterday by two former Census Bureau officials. The study shows that although median annual household income rose to $52,100 in June, from its recent low of $50,700 in August 2011, it remained $2,400 lower—a 4.4 percent decline—than in June 2009, when the recession ended.

According to the Times:

Since the end of the recession … household income has declined for all but a few population groups. Some of the largest percentage declines occurred for groups whose income was already well below the median, like African-Americans, Southerners, people who did not attend college, and households headed by people under age 25.

“Groups with low incomes tended to have steeper declines in income,” said Gordon W. Green Jr., who wrote the report with John F. Coder, a colleague at Sentier Research, which specializes in analyzing household economic data.

Households headed by people ages 65 to 74 were the only group in the study that experienced a statistically significant increase in post-recession income, helped perhaps by the decision of some older workers to remain in the work force or re-enter it.

There are several things to make of these findings, the first of which is that we’ve seen a decline in median income in the aftermath of a recession. During a recovery. That’s a fairly remarkable (and discouraging) development.

As for President Obama’s response to all this, a recent editorial by the Wall Street Journal gets it quite right: “For four and a half years, Mr. Obama has focused his policies on reducing inequality rather than increasing growth. The predictable result has been more inequality and less growth… The core problem has been Mr. Obama’s focus on spreading the wealth rather than creating it.”

Mr. Obama, then, is not only not up to confronting the problems of this era; he is exacerbating them. But even those of us who are critics of the president should admit that the problems afflicting the American economy–including (but not exclusive to) wage stagnation among the middle class, less social mobility among the lower class, and increased inequality–predate the Obama presidency. They are complex and defy simplistic partisan explanations.

Depending on which trend we’re talking about, they are rooted in deep cultural shifts (including a weakening marriage culture), globalization and advances in technology (which have moved us toward an economy that favors skilled over unskilled labor), a decline in workforce participation rates, rising health care costs, educational mediocrity (and downright awful education for the underclass), the structure of our entitlement programs (our transfer payments are increasingly regressive and benefit households headed by older adults, who tend to be wealthier than young adults), a byzantine tax code, and slow growth (the post-2008 recession growth rate has been roughly 2 percent).

In the face of America’s deep cultural and structural problems, assembling an agenda–including a comprehensive social-capital agenda that equips Americans, especially poor Americans, with the skills, values and habits that will allow them to succeed in a modern, free society–is a hugely complicated task. It will require a thoroughgoing reform agenda focused on entitlements, education, immigration, our financial system, and our tax code. A lot of good work is being done by policy experts and public intellectuals, by governors, and some members of Congress. (At a later date I’ll lay out what I think would constitute the broad outlines of an agenda, but for starters it might be worth reading thisthis, and this.)

For the most part, however, Republicans and conservatives sound out of touch, their solutions stale, as if they fail to take into account new circumstances. And it is no wonder that Republican policies seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those offered up by the party more than 30 years ago. I’ve argued before that “For Republicans to design an agenda that applies to the conditions of 1980 is as if Ronald Reagan designed his agenda for conditions that existed in the Truman years.” It doesn’t help, of course, that prominent Republicans occupy their time pursuing tactics that are unworkable and qualify as primal screams (e.g., threatening to shut down the government unless the Affordable Care Act is defunded).

The public is in the process of concluding that President Obama and the Democratic Party, the embodiments of reactionary liberalism, are intellectually bankrupt. They are overmatched by events. This affords an opening for Republicans to put forward a positive governing vision. The elements of a conservative reform agenda certainly exist. But for the GOP to win over new hearts and minds will require the party to embrace that agenda more fully than it has; to overcome some old (bad) habits, to put a new frame on events, and to convince the public that they are the party of modernization, reform, and renewal.

It still has some distance to go. 

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Obama’s Chemical “Never Again” Expired

I’ve already mentioned the Halabja chemical weapons attack once, but before this National Security Council statement goes down the memory hole, it’s worth reproducing in full:

“Statement by NSC Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden on the 25th Anniversary of the Halabja Massacre”

March 16, 2013

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the horrific massacre by Saddam Hussein’s regime of over 5,000 innocent civilians in a chemical weapons attack on the city of Halabja, in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. At least 10,000 people were blinded and maimed. This terrible crime was but one of many in Hussein’s Anfal Campaign, in which tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis were slaughtered. On this solemn occasion, we honor the memories of the husbands, wives, sons, and daughters who perished at Halabja and throughout the Anfal, as we continue our efforts to prevent future atrocities, and help ensure that perpetrators of such crimes are held accountable.

Let us see whether President Obama and UN Ambassador Samantha Power still believe that they should hold the perpetrators of such crimes accountable.

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I’ve already mentioned the Halabja chemical weapons attack once, but before this National Security Council statement goes down the memory hole, it’s worth reproducing in full:

“Statement by NSC Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden on the 25th Anniversary of the Halabja Massacre”

March 16, 2013

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the horrific massacre by Saddam Hussein’s regime of over 5,000 innocent civilians in a chemical weapons attack on the city of Halabja, in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. At least 10,000 people were blinded and maimed. This terrible crime was but one of many in Hussein’s Anfal Campaign, in which tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis were slaughtered. On this solemn occasion, we honor the memories of the husbands, wives, sons, and daughters who perished at Halabja and throughout the Anfal, as we continue our efforts to prevent future atrocities, and help ensure that perpetrators of such crimes are held accountable.

Let us see whether President Obama and UN Ambassador Samantha Power still believe that they should hold the perpetrators of such crimes accountable.

Certainly, not only the Syrians are watching, but also the North Koreans, Iranians, Russians, and the broader international community. Or, perhaps to President Obama, “Never Again” expires after five months.

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They Don’t Want to Be Alone with Livni

There’s supposed to be a news blackout from the reconvened Middle East peace talks going on this week. The Palestinians insisted on that lest their reluctant negotiators be branded as doing something that smacked of legitimizing the Jewish state. But one of their team broke their silence this week in order to complain about the fact that they have been called upon to actually talk one on one with their Israeli counterparts:

“We had an agreement on three-way negotiations. The Americans from the beginning were supposed to be there. I don’t see why the Israelis don’t want the Americans there, as witnesses,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, told The Times of Israel. “These are not two-way negotiations,” she added.

This would seem to be violation of their undertaking to keep quiet about the talks but Ashrawi had an explanation:

“I’m not discussing the details or the facts,” she said. “I’m just telling you it’s the Israelis who don’t want the Americans, even though the Americans are totally biased in favor of Israel.”

Asked why she believed the Israelis would request the removal of a party favorable to them, Ashrawi said “they feel they can exploit their power over the Palestinians.”

In saying this, Ashrawi couldn’t have told us more about the negotiations had she produced a transcript. Nor could she have given us a better indication of just how dim the chances of success for this effort are. The Palestinian fear of being trapped in a room with the people they are supposed to be crafting a deal with has nothing to do with fear of Israeli power. It’s all about the fact that the last thing they want is to actually reach an agreement they’d have to justify to a Palestinian people that is still not ready to accept a Jewish state no matter its borders are drawn.

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There’s supposed to be a news blackout from the reconvened Middle East peace talks going on this week. The Palestinians insisted on that lest their reluctant negotiators be branded as doing something that smacked of legitimizing the Jewish state. But one of their team broke their silence this week in order to complain about the fact that they have been called upon to actually talk one on one with their Israeli counterparts:

“We had an agreement on three-way negotiations. The Americans from the beginning were supposed to be there. I don’t see why the Israelis don’t want the Americans there, as witnesses,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, told The Times of Israel. “These are not two-way negotiations,” she added.

This would seem to be violation of their undertaking to keep quiet about the talks but Ashrawi had an explanation:

“I’m not discussing the details or the facts,” she said. “I’m just telling you it’s the Israelis who don’t want the Americans, even though the Americans are totally biased in favor of Israel.”

Asked why she believed the Israelis would request the removal of a party favorable to them, Ashrawi said “they feel they can exploit their power over the Palestinians.”

In saying this, Ashrawi couldn’t have told us more about the negotiations had she produced a transcript. Nor could she have given us a better indication of just how dim the chances of success for this effort are. The Palestinian fear of being trapped in a room with the people they are supposed to be crafting a deal with has nothing to do with fear of Israeli power. It’s all about the fact that the last thing they want is to actually reach an agreement they’d have to justify to a Palestinian people that is still not ready to accept a Jewish state no matter its borders are drawn.

In one sense, Ashrawi’s desire to keep U.S. envoy Martin Indyk in the room is understandable. Contrary to her claim, far from being inclined to bolster the positions of the Netanyahu government, his clear bias is one that that leads him to push for Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.

But that’s not the real explanation.

It’s not exactly a secret that the ardent desire of Tzipi Livni, the head of the Israeli delegation, is to entice the Palestinians to embrace peace after three times rejecting offers of statehood that would include a share of Jerusalem and almost all of the West Bank. Supposedly that’s exactly what the Palestinians want, although they insist they will never compromise on forcing every Jew out of not only every settlement but the parts of Jerusalem that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967. But the continuing stream of invective about Jews and Israel pouring out of the official Palestinian media and the so-called moderates of Fatah makes it hard to believe they are finally ready to take yes for an answer. Since PA leader Mahmoud Abbas seems no more capable or willing to accept the peace that he rejected in 2008 when he fled negotiations with Ehud Olmert convened by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, his primary fear is not the Israeli intransigence the Jewish state’s critics bewail but that Livni will give him what he says he wants.

The Palestinians never wanted to come back to the table after four years’ absence. But with the U.S. prepared to put the screws to Israel to gratify Secretary of State John Kerry’s desire for the talks, it was impossible for them to say no once the Americans gave them the preconditions they demanded. But that doesn’t mean Abbas wants a happy ending to this negotiation. Not only do the Palestinians want the Americans to do their negotiating for them, but their primary objective is to avoid being trapped in a room with someone like Livni who is obviously desperate to agree to any deal.

While there is no telling for certain what will happen in the upcoming months, this is yet one more indication that the main Palestinian objective in the negotiations is to never be maneuvered into a position where they would have to either say yes to peace or reject it and take the blame. Stay tuned for months of pre-emptive Palestinian efforts to deflect the blame for the futile nature of this fool’s errand that Kerry has embarked upon.

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Kuwait as a Model

The bad news continues to flood in from across the Middle East: Tunisia—the best hope for the Arab Spring—is unstable after political assassinations against leading non-Islamist politicians. While I don’t shed any tears over the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which for decades has inspired terrorism and hatred, at best Egypt faces years of Islamist insurgency and economic life support. The Syrian civil war goes from bad to worse. Bahrain remains tense and what Bahraini police occasion do with rubber bullets, their Saudi counterparts in the Eastern Province do with live ammunition. Iraq is not the basket case many assume, but it has faced a wave of renewed terrorism as bad as anything experienced prior to the U.S.-led surge.

Is there any good news or responsible governance coming from the region? Certainly, Morocco is navigating the waters of the Arab Spring fairly well, with the king seemingly sincere in his reform. So too is Oman, where Sultan Qaboos’s regime has always been an example of moderation and responsibility. But Qaboos has no heir apparent and he’s not going to have one, meaning that the Sultanate of Oman upon which the United States and so many moderate regional states have come to rely may have an uncertain future as Iran and other nearby powers will try to muck about in his succession in order to further their own illiberal interests.

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The bad news continues to flood in from across the Middle East: Tunisia—the best hope for the Arab Spring—is unstable after political assassinations against leading non-Islamist politicians. While I don’t shed any tears over the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which for decades has inspired terrorism and hatred, at best Egypt faces years of Islamist insurgency and economic life support. The Syrian civil war goes from bad to worse. Bahrain remains tense and what Bahraini police occasion do with rubber bullets, their Saudi counterparts in the Eastern Province do with live ammunition. Iraq is not the basket case many assume, but it has faced a wave of renewed terrorism as bad as anything experienced prior to the U.S.-led surge.

Is there any good news or responsible governance coming from the region? Certainly, Morocco is navigating the waters of the Arab Spring fairly well, with the king seemingly sincere in his reform. So too is Oman, where Sultan Qaboos’s regime has always been an example of moderation and responsibility. But Qaboos has no heir apparent and he’s not going to have one, meaning that the Sultanate of Oman upon which the United States and so many moderate regional states have come to rely may have an uncertain future as Iran and other nearby powers will try to muck about in his succession in order to further their own illiberal interests.

I had the privilege of visiting Kuwait last year, my first extended stay in the country for almost two decades. Kuwait has had some rough patches over recent years both because of changing demography but also because the government has pushed forward with real attempts at reform, encouraging real dynamism, and giving women a long-overdue vote. At the same time, the Kuwaitis have had to navigate dangerous sectarian trends as they find themselves wedged between Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. This, they seem to have done masterfully, even as trouble continues to brew on the horizon. At any rate, I’ve delved into the issue of sectarianism in Kuwait and Kuwait’s response to it in this detailed essay, for those who want reassurance that some states actually do try to temper incitement rather than rely on shallow populism for immediate political purposes.

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Ron Paul: His Son’s Jeremiah Wright

One of the most fascinating aspects of the transition from the 2012 presidential campaign to the post-November political alignment is the seamless manner in which Kentucky Senator Rand Paul assumed the leadership of the libertarian movement from his father Ron. The elder Paul was a perennial presidential candidate as well as a Texas congressman. Last year marked his last futile run for the White House and he also decided not to run for reelection, formally ending his political career and informally passing the torch to his son. While Ron was widely regarded as something of a crank because of his extreme views about the Federal Reserve and foreign policy, albeit one with an impassioned following, Rand is a very different sort of politician. Though no less committed to libertarian ideology than his father, Rand has been careful to position himself within the mainstream on most issues and that strategy has paid off handsomely for him: two and a half years into his Senate career, he has become one of the darlings of the Republican base and a probable first-tier candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

That is something his father could never have dreamed of achieving. It is far from clear that Rand can make the next leap from a factional leader to someone who could actually win the nomination and make a credible challenge for the White House. But there is no comparison between Ron’s crazy-uncle-in-the-attic image and the niche that Rand has carved out for himself in the center ring of the American political circus. The ease with which he has bridged the gap between the libertarian fringe and the Republican mainstream has been impressive. But one of the things that made it possible was Ron’s absence from the political stage. The question for Rand and his followers is whether that will continue and if the political baggage of his father’s extremism will start to handicap what must be considered a very realistic shot at winning the GOP nod in 2016.

But unfortunately for his son, the elder Paul has not retired from public life, meaning that his statements and associations are bound to raise awkward questions for his son. A prime example of this is provided by the Washington Free Beacon, which yesterday reported that Ron Paul will be a featured speaker at a conference run by a group with a record of anti-Semitism.

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One of the most fascinating aspects of the transition from the 2012 presidential campaign to the post-November political alignment is the seamless manner in which Kentucky Senator Rand Paul assumed the leadership of the libertarian movement from his father Ron. The elder Paul was a perennial presidential candidate as well as a Texas congressman. Last year marked his last futile run for the White House and he also decided not to run for reelection, formally ending his political career and informally passing the torch to his son. While Ron was widely regarded as something of a crank because of his extreme views about the Federal Reserve and foreign policy, albeit one with an impassioned following, Rand is a very different sort of politician. Though no less committed to libertarian ideology than his father, Rand has been careful to position himself within the mainstream on most issues and that strategy has paid off handsomely for him: two and a half years into his Senate career, he has become one of the darlings of the Republican base and a probable first-tier candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

That is something his father could never have dreamed of achieving. It is far from clear that Rand can make the next leap from a factional leader to someone who could actually win the nomination and make a credible challenge for the White House. But there is no comparison between Ron’s crazy-uncle-in-the-attic image and the niche that Rand has carved out for himself in the center ring of the American political circus. The ease with which he has bridged the gap between the libertarian fringe and the Republican mainstream has been impressive. But one of the things that made it possible was Ron’s absence from the political stage. The question for Rand and his followers is whether that will continue and if the political baggage of his father’s extremism will start to handicap what must be considered a very realistic shot at winning the GOP nod in 2016.

But unfortunately for his son, the elder Paul has not retired from public life, meaning that his statements and associations are bound to raise awkward questions for his son. A prime example of this is provided by the Washington Free Beacon, which yesterday reported that Ron Paul will be a featured speaker at a conference run by a group with a record of anti-Semitism.

 As the Beacon notes:

Former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul is scheduled to give a Sept. 11 keynote address at a conference sponsored by an anti-Semitic organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports.

Also slated to speak at the conference is the president of the John Birch Society, a fringe conspiracy-theorist group that was famously denounced by the late William F. Buckley. …

The Fatima Center’s publications have published columns criticizing the Pope for “kowtowing” to the “Synagogue of Satan,” argued that Jews are attempting to undermine the Catholic Church on behalf of Satan, and claiming that “Zionist billionaires” have been “financially raping” the Russian people. The organization also promotes New World Order conspiracy theories.

SPLC reports that the group’s leader, Father Nicholas Gruner, has attended Holocaust denial conferences. Gruner will speak prior to Paul at the Fatima conference, according to the posted schedule.

As the Beacon also notes, Ron Paul came under fire for publishing newsletters in the 1980s and ’90s with blatantly racist and anti-Semitic material, although he later claimed he wasn’t responsible for the content. If the denials rang false, it was because Paul has always seemed comfortable with the world of conspiracy theories that dovetailed with many of his positions on domestic and foreign issues that resonated in the fever swamps of the far right and left.

Should Rand be held accountable for his father’s views? In the abstract, the answer to that must be no. Rand Paul is entitled to live his own life and must be held responsible for what he does and says, not what his relatives do.

But Ron Paul is not the moral equivalent of the proverbial black sheep younger brother that sometimes pops up in our political history to bedevil the more responsible figures in a prominent family, such as Billy Carter. Given that Rand always supported his father’s campaigns and that his own positions are rooted in the same core beliefs as that of the elder Paul, asking where one man’s position begins and the other’s ends has always been a reasonable query. It will be even more important once Rand starts a presidential campaign that aims for something more than the occasional good showing in a caucus that Ron aimed at. At that point, he is going to have to come to terms with the fact that, like every other realistic presidential candidate, he must either endorse or disassociate himself from controversial statements and actions of those close to him.

Since entering the Senate, this is something that Rand has steadfastly refused to do. To date he has been able to keep some distance between his father’s wingnut pronouncements about the government and foreign policy (which bear a close resemblance to those embraced by the far left) while upholding his own libertarian stands. He has never condemned his father, but he has tried to make it clear that he has his own views. But once he enters the pre-2016 fray as a realistic contender that won’t be possible. Ron Paul will either have to cease and desist his extremist statements and associations or Rand will have to start giving him the same treatment Barack Obama gave Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The analogy in which a politician is asked how a longtime mentor and friend impacted his beliefs is quite apt. If Rand doesn’t back away from his father he will soon find that a media that will be out to get him (in contrast to their refusal to hold Obama accountable), as well as a suspicious Republican electorate that wants nothing to do with that sort of extremism, will sink an otherwise viable presidential run.

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Of Chemical Weapons, Halabja, and East Ghouta

It has been just over a quarter century since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his defense minister Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as “Chemical Ali,” ordered and executed the chemical weapons bombardment of Halabja, an Iraqi Kurdish town in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, along the Iran-Iraq border. At the time, Iran and Iraq were engaged in their brutal war. Many American politicians were willing to blame the fog of war and several suggested that Iran rather than Iraq could be to blame. That was nonsense in the case of Halabja at least, but demanding ever more time to investigate became a good excuse for doing nothing. Many realists argued that Iraq’s containment of Iran should effectively give Saddam Hussein a free pass and, even after the war ended, the United States and Europe did their best to take no action in the face of the chemical weapons use.

As an aside, how disappointing it is that the (Iraqi) Kurdistan Regional Government that now governs Halabja has been so silent on the chemical weapons strikes inside Syria. The ethnicity of the victim should not matter: It is the lack of response when the chemical weapons red line is crossed which lowers the threshold to the repeat of history.

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It has been just over a quarter century since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his defense minister Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as “Chemical Ali,” ordered and executed the chemical weapons bombardment of Halabja, an Iraqi Kurdish town in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, along the Iran-Iraq border. At the time, Iran and Iraq were engaged in their brutal war. Many American politicians were willing to blame the fog of war and several suggested that Iran rather than Iraq could be to blame. That was nonsense in the case of Halabja at least, but demanding ever more time to investigate became a good excuse for doing nothing. Many realists argued that Iraq’s containment of Iran should effectively give Saddam Hussein a free pass and, even after the war ended, the United States and Europe did their best to take no action in the face of the chemical weapons use.

As an aside, how disappointing it is that the (Iraqi) Kurdistan Regional Government that now governs Halabja has been so silent on the chemical weapons strikes inside Syria. The ethnicity of the victim should not matter: It is the lack of response when the chemical weapons red line is crossed which lowers the threshold to the repeat of history.

Alas, when it comes to both the targeting of civilians and the lack of U.S. response, it’s déjà vu all over again. The Obama administration seems not to want to upset Russia or China in its response; after all, mightn’t that not upset diplomacy, Secretary of State John Kerry likely argues. And Ambassador Samatha Power—whose claim to fame comes from her book on genocide—has been a Twitter warrior from her seat at the United Nations, but she has not been willing to put her job or ambition on the line. Perhaps someone will someday write a sequel in which she comes off as cynical, detached, and careerist, as did the UN bureaucrats and Clinton administration officials about whom she once wrote.

The world is lucky it has taken 25 years for a madman to again target civilians on this scale with chemical munitions. This does not mean that the United States should arm the opposition or intervene directly in the conflict with boots on the ground—not only would that lead to mission creep, but the organized opposition has radicalized and is really not much better than Assad himself—but there should be symbolic action against the regime if for no other reason than to restore the credibility of red lines and make clear how unacceptable chemical weapons are. U.S. airpower might be used to target Syrian airfields and Bashar al-Assad’s palaces. If the Israelis can strike multiple times into Syria with nary an anti-aircraft battery going off inside Syria, then there is no reason why the United States might not demonstrate the same capability. One thing is certain: the cost of no response may ultimately become an invitation to increase exponentially the use of chemical weapons against civilians.

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Scott Brown Keeps Everyone Guessing

Though it was disappointing to Bay State Republicans, there were several good reasons for Scott Brown to decline to run for the Massachusetts Senate seat opened up by John Kerry’s elevation to secretary of state. Brown had just run two Senate elections in three years, first to successfully vie for Ted Kennedy’s old seat and then unsuccessfully to retain it for a full term. If he wanted to run for Kerry’s seat, he would have to run yet another election this year and then run a year later to retain the seat for a full term.

The prospect of running four Senate elections over that span without even serving the equivalent of a full Senate term seemed physically and financially exhausting. But another reason for Brown to pass on the Senate seat was that he could run for governor instead in 2014. Massachusetts elects Republican governors far more often than the state elects Republican senators. (This is not uncommon in the blue northeast.) Additionally, Brown was thought to have the opportunity to face a weaker opponent for the governor’s mansion. But now Brown has announced he will not seek that office either:

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Though it was disappointing to Bay State Republicans, there were several good reasons for Scott Brown to decline to run for the Massachusetts Senate seat opened up by John Kerry’s elevation to secretary of state. Brown had just run two Senate elections in three years, first to successfully vie for Ted Kennedy’s old seat and then unsuccessfully to retain it for a full term. If he wanted to run for Kerry’s seat, he would have to run yet another election this year and then run a year later to retain the seat for a full term.

The prospect of running four Senate elections over that span without even serving the equivalent of a full Senate term seemed physically and financially exhausting. But another reason for Brown to pass on the Senate seat was that he could run for governor instead in 2014. Massachusetts elects Republican governors far more often than the state elects Republican senators. (This is not uncommon in the blue northeast.) Additionally, Brown was thought to have the opportunity to face a weaker opponent for the governor’s mansion. But now Brown has announced he will not seek that office either:

“For the first time in 15-plus years, I have had a summer to spend with my family. In addition, I have been fortunate to have private sector opportunities that I find fulfilling and exhilarating,” the Republican said in a statement on his Facebook page. “These new opportunities have allowed me to grow personally and professionally. I want to continue with that process.”

MyFoxBoston.com reported that Brown made his initial statement about not running for governor in a radio interview with longtime Boston journalist Dan Rea.

Gov. Deval Patrick, a two-term Democrat, is not running again. Charlie Baker, the Republican who lost to Patrick in 2010, is widely expected to run for the office again in 2014. According to CBS Boston, Brown told Rea he would support Baker if he should choose to run.

Although Brown has obvious political talent and the party had high hopes for signs of Republican life in the northeast, the national party didn’t have nearly as much invested in a Scott Brown gubernatorial campaign. The GOP would of course love to push the narrative of a Republican comeback in Massachusetts to compliment Chris Christie’s popularity in New Jersey. But having Brown in the Senate could impact the party’s ability to shape (or prevent) legislation. As such, the governor’s mansion was a consolation prize, not an equal exchange, for the Senate seat.

The true significance of Brown’s decision not to run for governor is for Brown’s career. It is highly unlikely that a politician could come away from a moment of fame and adulation without any desire to perpetuate or reclaim it, especially someone who, like Brown, does not seem to have a fallback option. (Though Brown had signed on with Fox News, he is obviously much more at home on the campaign trail than in the television studio.)

On that score, two days before he announced he wasn’t running for governor, Brown made a trip to Iowa and dropped some not-so-subtle hints about his political future:

Former Sen. Scott Brown is considering a run for president in 2016, he told a Massachusetts paper Sunday while at the Iowa State Fair.

“I want to get an indication of whether there’s even an interest, in Massachusetts and throughout the country, if there’s room for a bipartisan problem solver,” Brown told the Boston Herald from the early-caucus state. “It’s 2013, I think it’s premature, but I am curious. There’s a lot of good name recognition in the Dakotas and here — that’s pretty good.”

Needless to say, Brown is probably not running for president in 2016 if he is not going to have more on his national resume than a third of a term in the Senate. Running for governor (and winning) would have at least made this a plausible option, though even in that case it would be impractical. What would Brown’s constituency be in the Republican presidential primary? He could run as the mainstream northeast Republican, but Chris Christie would seem to have that role to himself. (Christie is also more conservative than Brown, and thus a more realistic nominee.)

His decision not to try to extend his time in the Senate while heading to Fox News had echoes of Sarah Palin’s recent career trajectory. But the similarities end there. Brown didn’t leave his post; he was defeated. Palin also has higher name recognition, having run as the Republican vice presidential nominee. More importantly, Palin had a massive following among the base, whereas Brown is far from ideologically compatible with the grassroots. While it’s highly unlikely Palin would still be able to attract the loyalty of conservative voters over, say, Ted Cruz or Rand Paul, Brown was never their champion in the first place.

That’s why the Senate made the most sense for him, since he could be excused for his moderation by simply being a Republican beachhead on Democratic turf while still stymieing major liberal legislation (as he tried to do with ObamaCare). Failing that, the governor’s mansion would at least enable him to build his resume with real experience. It’s doubtful, however, that Brown is stepping too far away from national politics. At the very least, every open seat in Massachusetts (and even some in New Hampshire) for which Brown would be eligible will begin the speculation of his return all over again.

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“I Thought So”: Of Turkey and Telekinesis

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, following the path laid down by so many strongmen before him, has become so isolated from reality, surrounded by sycophants, and indulged in his own prejudices and fantasies that he is not only seeming increasingly mad, but down right unhinged: Think Muammar Gaddafi meets Vladimir Zhirinovsky meets Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The latest evidence? The increasing obsession of Erdoğan and those around him that his enemies are using telekinesis to destabilize Turkey. Here, for example is an article reporting on the Prime Ministry’s Inspection Board investigation into a recent spate of suicides at the Turkish military’s research and development arm:

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, following the path laid down by so many strongmen before him, has become so isolated from reality, surrounded by sycophants, and indulged in his own prejudices and fantasies that he is not only seeming increasingly mad, but down right unhinged: Think Muammar Gaddafi meets Vladimir Zhirinovsky meets Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The latest evidence? The increasing obsession of Erdoğan and those around him that his enemies are using telekinesis to destabilize Turkey. Here, for example is an article reporting on the Prime Ministry’s Inspection Board investigation into a recent spate of suicides at the Turkish military’s research and development arm:

The suspicious suicides of four engineers working at the Turkish corporation ASELSAN could have been caused by telekinesis, according to a report by the Turkish Prime Ministry Inspection Board. The report, presented to the Ankara Public Prosecutor in accordance with the ongoing investigation over the 2006-2007 suicides, claimed the victims could have been directed toward the suicides by way of telekinesis, citing the work done by neuropsychology expert Nevzat Tarhan.

As for those protests which stymied the prime minister’s plans to pave over one of central Istanbul’s last remaining green spaces? The answer, according to Erdoğan’s chief adviser, is telekinesis employed by Turkey’s enemies. And here’s that advisor, Yiğit Bulut, arguing on Turkish television that those nefarious Israelis are trying to kill Erdoğan with their mental powers.

On the count of three, we should all direct our telekinesis to Bulut himself. One, two, three: Oops, my horns keep getting in the way.

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Latest Assad Atrocity Demands Response

On August 20, 2012, President Obama said: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is: we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation.”

Now comes news of another chemical-weapons attack by the Assad regime, which has killed as many as 1,000 people not far outside Damascus. Needless to say, there is no “proof” of the use of chemical weapons but the circumstantial evidence is strong: “row after row of corpses without visible injury; hospitals flooded with victims, gasping for breath, trembling and staring ahead languidly; images of a gray cloud bursting over a neighborhood.”

The Wall Street Journal quotes a “senior administration official” as saying, “There are strong indications there was a chemical weapons attack—clearly by the government.”

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On August 20, 2012, President Obama said: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is: we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation.”

Now comes news of another chemical-weapons attack by the Assad regime, which has killed as many as 1,000 people not far outside Damascus. Needless to say, there is no “proof” of the use of chemical weapons but the circumstantial evidence is strong: “row after row of corpses without visible injury; hospitals flooded with victims, gasping for breath, trembling and staring ahead languidly; images of a gray cloud bursting over a neighborhood.”

The Wall Street Journal quotes a “senior administration official” as saying, “There are strong indications there was a chemical weapons attack—clearly by the government.”

The question is what, if anything, the administration plans to do about the latest transgression of its vaunted red line. Previous evidence of chemical weapons use wrung out of a visibly reluctant Obama a pledge in June to provide arms to vetted factions of the Syrian rebels. But those arms still have not arrived, apparently, and now Assad is upping the ante–employing chemical weapons again even as a UN team is visiting Damascus to investigate the previous use of chemical weapons.

Assad is flaunting his disregard for the United States and indeed for the international community. France has understandably said that force is needed in response, but there is no indication that Obama will go along. His chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, appears to be dead-set against greater intervention, thus providing an excuse for Obama to do nothing, even though it would be easy for the U.S. and its allies to launch air strikes on regime targets. It would not even require sending Western aircraft over Syria; Israel has proved how easy it is to launch missiles from outside of Syrian airspace. That could be accomplished by both Western aircraft and Western ships. Of course taking down the remnants of Assad’s air defense network, which no doubt has been degraded by military defections and loss of territory, would not be all that difficult either for the world’s most advanced air force.

A failure to act now will expose the U.S. to ridicule as an ineffectual laughing-stock, a superpower that can be defied with impunity–an impression already created by the U.S. failure to shape events from Libya (where the death of our ambassador remains unavenged) to Egypt (where the military junta defies American advice not to slaughter protesters).

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What Would Scottish Independence Mean for NATO?

In just over a year, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence from Great Britain. At issue is the emotional desire of many Scots for independence versus the realism of other Scots that Scotland gets more financially from the United Kingdom than it contributes: Most paved roads in rural Scotland are a symbol of British largesse that many Scots ignore or forget. Some Scots counter this argument by noting that they stand to gain more in assistance from the European Union if they have full independence than if they are merely part of Great Britain.

Another aspect of devolution could have profound impact on the British navy: Most British submarine bases are in Scotland. This has been discussed in some British papers. Here is an article from The Guardian, for example:

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In just over a year, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence from Great Britain. At issue is the emotional desire of many Scots for independence versus the realism of other Scots that Scotland gets more financially from the United Kingdom than it contributes: Most paved roads in rural Scotland are a symbol of British largesse that many Scots ignore or forget. Some Scots counter this argument by noting that they stand to gain more in assistance from the European Union if they have full independence than if they are merely part of Great Britain.

Another aspect of devolution could have profound impact on the British navy: Most British submarine bases are in Scotland. This has been discussed in some British papers. Here is an article from The Guardian, for example:

The British government is examining plans to designate the Scottish military base that houses the Trident nuclear deterrent as sovereign United Kingdom territory if the people of Scotland vote for independence in next year’s referendum. In a move that sparked an angry reaction from the SNP, which vowed to rid Scotland of nuclear weapons as quickly as possible after a yes vote, the government is looking at ensuring that the Faslane base on Gare Loch in Argyll and Bute could have the same status as the British sovereign military bases in Cyprus. The move would be designed to ensure that the Trident fleet would continue to have access to the open seas via the Firth of Clyde. Under Britain’s “continuous at sea deterrent”, at least one Vanguard submarine armed with 16 Trident nuclear missiles is on patrol at sea at any one time.

If the British military decides to keep the bases as sovereign territory, there is not much the Scots will be able to do about it, but the notion of a diplomatic fight between independent countries over British nuclear weapons and military facilities will quickly sour other aspects of the British-Scottish relationship and could both invite unwelcome diplomatic attention from other European quarters and also raise questions about the many shipyards upon which British shipping depends both for new ships and refurbishments of existing ships.

As President Obama and Defense Secretary Hagel increasingly look to share the burdens of defense, it is important to recognize that the capabilities of some of our staunchest partners in NATO are, at best, uncertain. What happens in Scotland may not be the stuff of headlines right now, but independence and partition within NATO countries—perhaps Turkey will be next should the Kurds there achieve their national desires—will have ramifications far beyond their borders.

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