Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 2013

Of Course America Spies on the UN

The American agency directed to collect foreign intelligence for the United States government is currently collecting foreign intelligence for the United States government. If that doesn’t sound like much of a bombshell, it’s because it isn’t. Or, conversely, it’s because you are just a government “tool,” as Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg would describe you. That duality of extremes is ever-present in the world of the transparency activists trying to take down American spy networks.

In the New York Times Magazine profile of Laura Poitras, the activist working with Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, the author describes Greenwald as being “hailed as either a fearless defender of individual rights or a nefarious traitor, depending on your perspective.” In the world of the Times–and certainly that of Greenwald, Poitras, and Snowden–there is no other choice, just as to the self-aggrandizing Ellsberg you either believe he is the hero in his own saga and that Snowden is the hero in his, or you are giving up on the battle to keep your inner totalitarian at bay.

Pollsters fall into this trap too. As I wrote in July, Quinnipiac polled respondents on the following question: “Do you regard Edward Snowden, the national security consultant who released information to the media about the phone scanning program, as more of a traitor, or more of a whistle-blower?” Traitor or hero, traitor or hero–lather, rinse, repeat. But the truth, as always, is more complicated than that: in fact, Snowden most likely qualifies as neither a whistle blower nor a traitor. And sometimes the truth is downright mundane, as in the item with which I led off this post. This “revelation,” that spies spy, comes to us via Poitras, writing in Der Spiegel:

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The American agency directed to collect foreign intelligence for the United States government is currently collecting foreign intelligence for the United States government. If that doesn’t sound like much of a bombshell, it’s because it isn’t. Or, conversely, it’s because you are just a government “tool,” as Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg would describe you. That duality of extremes is ever-present in the world of the transparency activists trying to take down American spy networks.

In the New York Times Magazine profile of Laura Poitras, the activist working with Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, the author describes Greenwald as being “hailed as either a fearless defender of individual rights or a nefarious traitor, depending on your perspective.” In the world of the Times–and certainly that of Greenwald, Poitras, and Snowden–there is no other choice, just as to the self-aggrandizing Ellsberg you either believe he is the hero in his own saga and that Snowden is the hero in his, or you are giving up on the battle to keep your inner totalitarian at bay.

Pollsters fall into this trap too. As I wrote in July, Quinnipiac polled respondents on the following question: “Do you regard Edward Snowden, the national security consultant who released information to the media about the phone scanning program, as more of a traitor, or more of a whistle-blower?” Traitor or hero, traitor or hero–lather, rinse, repeat. But the truth, as always, is more complicated than that: in fact, Snowden most likely qualifies as neither a whistle blower nor a traitor. And sometimes the truth is downright mundane, as in the item with which I led off this post. This “revelation,” that spies spy, comes to us via Poitras, writing in Der Spiegel:

The internal NSA documents correspond to instructions from the State Department, which then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed off on in July 2009. With the 29-page report called “Reporting and Collection Needs: The United Nations,” the State Department called on its diplomats to collect information on key players of the UN.

According to this document, the diplomats were asked to gather numbers for phones, mobiles, pagers and fax machines. They were called on to amass phone and email directories, credit card and frequent-flier customer numbers, duty rosters, passwords and even biometric data.

When SPIEGEL reported on the confidential cable back in 2010, the State Department tried to deflect the criticism by saying that it was merely helping out other agencies. In reality, though, as the NSA documents now clearly show, they served as the basis for various clandestine operations targeting the UN and other countries.

Experts on the UN have long suspected that the organization has become a hotbed of activity for various intelligence agencies. After leaving Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cabinet, former British Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short admitted that in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003 she had seen transcripts of conversations by then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The article details Poitras’s claim that the U.S. conducts surveillance on the EU and the United Nations. The UN is a dictator’s playground through which Western interests are relentlessly targeted and undermined and genocidal maniacs the world over are shielded from the consequences of their murderous depravity. This is all done while furthering anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and weakening sanctions regimes. The UN does this largely from its perch on American territory and with the help of billions of dollars of American taxpayer money. Of course the U.S. collects intelligence there.

But to those who are instinctively suspicious of the American government, even basic practices of modern statecraft take on a nefarious frame. There’s an interesting nugget along these lines in the Times Magazine profile of Poitras, when the author relayed a question to Snowden about Poitras:

In response to a question about when he realized he could trust Poitras, he wrote: “We came to a point in the verification and vetting process where I discovered Laura was more suspicious of me than I was of her, and I’m famously paranoid.”

Snowden was surprised to encounter someone more paranoid than he is. Together, these birds of a feather joined Greenwald.

There is another point worth making here. The American public has been fairly sensible throughout this NSA saga, uncomfortable with the sense that the NSA’s broad power has been abused (NSA employees spying on love interests would–and should–make most readers squirm) but unwilling to jettison the program. A poll late last month found, for example, that 70 percent thought the NSA data was being used for purposes other than combating terrorism, yet 50 percent still approved of the surveillance program.

Revelations about spying on the UN is unlikely to change that. Americans seem to be broadly comfortable with spy agencies conducting foreign surveillance. And they don’t tend to think too highly of the UN’s problem-solving capability. The idea that the U.S. spied on the UN’s nuclear watchdog, for example, will probably be encouraging to most Americans as the U.S. works to stop Iran and others (like Syria) from obtaining nuclear weapons. If Poitras, Snowden, and Greenwald want to turn public opinion against the American government, defending the UN’s sullied honor is probably not the best way to do so.

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Public Opinion, Obama, and Syria

How does a president who came into office decrying foreign interventions rooted in fear of weapons of mass destruction lead a war-weary country and a Congress that is more suspicious than ever of executive power into a complicated conflict in Syria? The answer is clear: Very carefully.

With reports swirling around the Internet predicting U.S. strikes on Syrian targets before the end of the week, it’s clear that the administration’s decision-making process has gone past the point where they were debating whether they would finally do something about Syria. After three years of talking about the Assad regime’s violations of human rights and the president predicting his fall, the use of chemical weapons last week was apparently the final straw. The White House knows that it must act lest the president’s talk of red lines become the epitaph for the failure of its approach to foreign policy. But with one poll showing that 60 percent of Americans think we should not intervene in Syria even if Assad is proven to have used chemical weapons, and with a considerable portion of both parties in Congress also showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the idea, a policy shift on the issue is going to be a tough sell for the administration.

But as problematic as this sounds, the comparisons being floated in some circles between Obama and Bush aren’t accurate. Barack Obama will not become a focus of anti-war protests over Syria for two reasons: one is that he is Obama and Democrats are always in a far stronger position to go to war than Republicans. The other is that it is probable that the Syrian strike will be a tactical rather than a strategic move. Even though a symbolic strike that leaves Assad untouched and the balance of power in Syria unchanged would be meaningless, Obama is probably still far more concerned about committing the country to another conflict than he is about Assad’s atrocities or the long-term costs of allowing this Iranian ally to survive.

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How does a president who came into office decrying foreign interventions rooted in fear of weapons of mass destruction lead a war-weary country and a Congress that is more suspicious than ever of executive power into a complicated conflict in Syria? The answer is clear: Very carefully.

With reports swirling around the Internet predicting U.S. strikes on Syrian targets before the end of the week, it’s clear that the administration’s decision-making process has gone past the point where they were debating whether they would finally do something about Syria. After three years of talking about the Assad regime’s violations of human rights and the president predicting his fall, the use of chemical weapons last week was apparently the final straw. The White House knows that it must act lest the president’s talk of red lines become the epitaph for the failure of its approach to foreign policy. But with one poll showing that 60 percent of Americans think we should not intervene in Syria even if Assad is proven to have used chemical weapons, and with a considerable portion of both parties in Congress also showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the idea, a policy shift on the issue is going to be a tough sell for the administration.

But as problematic as this sounds, the comparisons being floated in some circles between Obama and Bush aren’t accurate. Barack Obama will not become a focus of anti-war protests over Syria for two reasons: one is that he is Obama and Democrats are always in a far stronger position to go to war than Republicans. The other is that it is probable that the Syrian strike will be a tactical rather than a strategic move. Even though a symbolic strike that leaves Assad untouched and the balance of power in Syria unchanged would be meaningless, Obama is probably still far more concerned about committing the country to another conflict than he is about Assad’s atrocities or the long-term costs of allowing this Iranian ally to survive.

As a liberal Democrat, Obama has an advantage in this situation that no Republican or conservative would possess. Though his party has always had an isolationist left-wing faction, Democrats are, by and large, inclined to support wars or interventions initiated by their party that they would probably oppose if they had been the responsibility of a Republican. Since most Republicans are always ready to follow the flag and support just about any war, even those with little connection to U.S. national interests, that gives a Democratic president something close to carte blanche for starting wars that no Republican could ever claim. That means that no matter how badly things go for the U.S. in a putative Syrian entanglement, the chances of there being massive liberal street protests against the decision are virtually nil.

Since, as Elliott Abrams writes in the September issue of COMMENTARY, Obama came into the presidency with a constrained view of America’s role in the world and its right to defend its interests and values, it is particularly awkward for him to wake up nine months into his second term of office leading a foreign crusade against a tyrant employing weapons of mass destruction. But the juxtaposition isn’t merely ironic. It’s also why the American response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons is likely to be less decisive than it should be. Given the president’s fears of getting stuck in Syria, few believe his response, no matter how noisy or theatrical it may seem at first glance, will involve action that will alter the tide of war or push Assad out.

The Syrian civil war is a mess with bad guys on both sides of the conflict. A rebel victory that placed Damascus into the hands of allies of al-Qaeda would be disastrous. But, after predicting Assad’s fall and warning that his use of chemical weapons would generate consequences, Obama is in no position to throw up his hands and do nothing. Doing so would establish a precedent that the use of chemical weapons brings no consequences from the international community. Even more to the point, an Assad victory would not only show that a dictator could gas his own people with impunity, it would also be a strategic triumph for Iran and Hezbollah, which are heavily invested in the regime’s survival. As such, a failure to act now in Syria would more or less guarantee that Tehran would have no reason to take President Obama’s warning about their development of nuclear weapons seriously.

For all of the skepticism about involvement in Syria, President Obama may have more leeway than he thinks. Though many on the right will instinctively oppose anything he does and some on the left are always leery of foreign interventions, he has the political leeway he needs to do far more than merely lob a few missiles into Assad’s strongholds or knock down some empty buildings. The question today is whether he has the courage to use it. 

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The Left’s Ongoing Epistemological Closure

I recommend you listen to this relatively short but highly illuminating interview (courtesy of Mediaite) between radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt and his guest, MSNBC’s Karen Finney.

Mr. Hewitt opened the segment by playing a clip of Ms. Finney comparing Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s rhetoric to the “paranoia” and “fear-stoking” of Joseph McCarthy. 

This is a lazy and stupid charge, one that is a frequent rhetorical tic on the left. But where Hewitt was so skillful was to bore in on Finney’s knowledge of history. He first asked her a general question, which is whether any Communists actually did infiltrate the American government. And then he pressed her on whether Alger Hiss was a Communist.

That’s when things get amusing. It’s not clear whether Ms. Finney is just ignorant or rigidly ideological, or both. In any event, she bobs and weaves and ducks the question. Hewitt, in a civil but persistent way, won’t let her off the hook. She says she won’t “go down a rabbit hole” with him and insists, “Hugh, I’m not doing this game with you!” Meanwhile Hewitt just keeps asking her to answer the question so they can go on.

Eventually Ms. Finney hangs up on him.

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I recommend you listen to this relatively short but highly illuminating interview (courtesy of Mediaite) between radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt and his guest, MSNBC’s Karen Finney.

Mr. Hewitt opened the segment by playing a clip of Ms. Finney comparing Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s rhetoric to the “paranoia” and “fear-stoking” of Joseph McCarthy. 

This is a lazy and stupid charge, one that is a frequent rhetorical tic on the left. But where Hewitt was so skillful was to bore in on Finney’s knowledge of history. He first asked her a general question, which is whether any Communists actually did infiltrate the American government. And then he pressed her on whether Alger Hiss was a Communist.

That’s when things get amusing. It’s not clear whether Ms. Finney is just ignorant or rigidly ideological, or both. In any event, she bobs and weaves and ducks the question. Hewitt, in a civil but persistent way, won’t let her off the hook. She says she won’t “go down a rabbit hole” with him and insists, “Hugh, I’m not doing this game with you!” Meanwhile Hewitt just keeps asking her to answer the question so they can go on.

Eventually Ms. Finney hangs up on him.

So why call attention to this exchange? In part because it’s another chance to expose the political demonization that is so common among the left. Liberals don’t like Ted Cruz and so they turn him into a modern-day Joe McCarthy. Can references to Hitler be far behind? 

But more fundamentally, Ms. Finney embodies the epistemological closure that afflicts many liberals (though it needs to be said that it is not confined simply to liberals). The Hewitt-Finney exchange is a fantastic example of a person (Finney) who inhabits a mental world in which facts that are contrary to her philosophy are not only dismissed; they are not even entertained. They are not allowed to penetrate the ideological force field that she has been put in place.

Partisans like Finney are so afraid of a genuine engagement with different ideas that they grow angry–and eventually may even hang up–when calm reason and history are employed against them. And on those rare occasions when some on the left venture outside of their hermetically sealed world and engage an intelligent conservative, we see not just how closed-minded they have become but how ridiculous they appear.

 For more, listen to Hewitt v. Finney.

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Obama’s Three Options in Syria

A week truly is a lifetime in politics. Just a week ago–Tuesday, August 20–there was approximately zero chance that American airpower would be employed against the Assad regime in Syria. The following day, however, Assad’s henchmen employed chemical weapons to kill perhaps 1,000 people on the outskirts of Damascus. Now Secretary of State John Kerry is calling Assad’s actions a “moral obscenity” and vowing: “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.”

Given such remarks by America’s top diplomat, it is little wonder that the conventional wisdom in Washington is that President Obama will soon authorize air strikes in Syria. The only question is what will be the scope and intent of American action. As I see it, there are essentially three options. Call them light, medium, and heavy.

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A week truly is a lifetime in politics. Just a week ago–Tuesday, August 20–there was approximately zero chance that American airpower would be employed against the Assad regime in Syria. The following day, however, Assad’s henchmen employed chemical weapons to kill perhaps 1,000 people on the outskirts of Damascus. Now Secretary of State John Kerry is calling Assad’s actions a “moral obscenity” and vowing: “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.”

Given such remarks by America’s top diplomat, it is little wonder that the conventional wisdom in Washington is that President Obama will soon authorize air strikes in Syria. The only question is what will be the scope and intent of American action. As I see it, there are essentially three options. Call them light, medium, and heavy.

The light option is to employ cruise missiles fired by U.S. and allied warships and aircraft a safe distance from Syria’s shores to blow up a few chemical weapons stockpiles and other regime targets to signal the world’s displeasure with the use of chemicals–a weapon that has carried special opprobrium ever since the dark days of World War I. This would entail a few days of air strikes whose import would be largely symbolic–to “send a message” to Assad without actually trying to topple him or to get rid of all of his chemical weapons stockpiles. This option might even extend to trying to kill Assad himself, but with little likelihood of success–witness failed decapitation strikes on Saddam Hussein in 2003 and (arguably) on Muammar Gaddafi in 1986.

The medium option would to go after the chemical weapons stockpiles in a more concerted manner, employing not just airpower but also Special Operations Forces if necessary. The object of this exercise would be not only to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use but also to ensure that Assad’s chemical weapons are never used again–either in Syria or, heaven help us, outside of it. This would largely obviate the danger of chemical weapons slipping out of Syria amid the chaos that grips the country, but it would increase the degree of difficulty and danger to U.S. forces because such a campaign could not be conducted safely from long range. Even to support limited Special Operations incursions, the Pentagon would likely demand massive conventional forces be mobilized in the vicinity of Syria to safeguard the commandos.

The heavy option would involve months of air strikes to enable rebel forces to topple the Assad regime. The obvious model here is Libya 2011, but this would also carry echoes of Kosovo 2009. In both cases U.S. airstrikes were potent because they were employed in conjunction with ground action by rebel forces.

History suggests that air strikes in isolation are likely to be indecisive. Witness Bill Clinton’s cruise missile attacks on al-Qaeda in 1998 in Sudan and Afghanistan and his Desert Fox bombing campaign of Iraq the same year. President George W. Bush later aptly summed up Clinton’s mistake when he said: “I’m not gonna fire a $2 million cruise missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt.” Of course, from Obama’s perspective, Bush made an even worse mistake–getting the U.S. embroiled in two costly wars on the ground. No one is suggesting, however, the introduction of U.S. ground forces in Syria beyond perhaps some commandos and CIA officers. Obama will be making a mistake if he is so leery of any greater U.S. involvement in the Middle East that he opts for the light option–a few symbolic air strikes that accomplish nothing beyond displaying American pique. This will not enhance American credibility. It will instead send a message of irresolution that predators around the world will sniff out all too clearly.

From a strategic if not political standpoint, I believe the real debate should be between the medium and heavy options. As someone who has been arguing for a U.S. no-fly zone and air strikes in Syria for almost two years, it might be expected that I would automatically opt for the heavy options. The problem is that in the intervening time, U.S. inaction has allowed the jihadists to become the strongest element within the opposition. U.S. action to topple Assad now, before we have properly armed and trained more moderate rebel forces, risks throwing the country into perpetual chaos or allowing jihadists to seize control of significant territory.

The medium option, on the other hand, would allow us to vastly reduce the risk of chemical weapons proliferation without toppling Assad quite yet. The problem is that this would be an option very hard to carry out–it would involve significant intelligence challenges to identify the location of Assad’s chemical weapons and it would involve significant risks for the insertion and extraction of Special Operations Forces. Otherwise, if it relies on airpower alone, this option likely would be ineffective.

So in the end I still think a strategy aimed at regime change–employing American and allied airpower in conjunction with coordinated ground action by vetted and responsible elements of the Free Syrian Army–is the best American response. But I have a lot more qualms about this option now than I had in 2011 when the Syrian civil war was still young and the country had not yet become so polarized.

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Why the World Thinks Jewish Blood Is Cheap

While visiting Israel this week, Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide grudgingly admitted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitment to Israeli-Palestinian talks “sounds increasingly credible.” As proof, he cited Israel’s release of 26 Palestinian murderers earlier this month. But he immediately downplayed the move’s significance: While it was a “first sign,” he said, it “wasn’t an especially big sacrifice.”

This echoes Norwegian and Swedish reactions two weeks ago after Israel’s ambassador to Sweden compared Israel’s feelings about freeing those killers to how Norwegians would feel about freeing Anders Breivik, whose 2011 shooting spree killed 69 Norwegians, mostly teenagers. Outraged Scandinavians lined up to denounce the comparison, asserting that while Breivik was a mass murderer, the Palestinians were freedom fighters. As Jonathan wrote at the time, the general sentiment seemed to be that killers of Norwegians deserve punishment, but killers of Israelis “should be released and honored.” And that seems to be Eide’s view as well: Releasing cold-blooded killers who murdered elderly Holocaust survivors or old men sitting on park benches isn’t “an especially big sacrifice,” certainly nothing like releasing Breivik would be.

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While visiting Israel this week, Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide grudgingly admitted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitment to Israeli-Palestinian talks “sounds increasingly credible.” As proof, he cited Israel’s release of 26 Palestinian murderers earlier this month. But he immediately downplayed the move’s significance: While it was a “first sign,” he said, it “wasn’t an especially big sacrifice.”

This echoes Norwegian and Swedish reactions two weeks ago after Israel’s ambassador to Sweden compared Israel’s feelings about freeing those killers to how Norwegians would feel about freeing Anders Breivik, whose 2011 shooting spree killed 69 Norwegians, mostly teenagers. Outraged Scandinavians lined up to denounce the comparison, asserting that while Breivik was a mass murderer, the Palestinians were freedom fighters. As Jonathan wrote at the time, the general sentiment seemed to be that killers of Norwegians deserve punishment, but killers of Israelis “should be released and honored.” And that seems to be Eide’s view as well: Releasing cold-blooded killers who murdered elderly Holocaust survivors or old men sitting on park benches isn’t “an especially big sacrifice,” certainly nothing like releasing Breivik would be.

But while I agree with Jonathan that this double standard is anti-Semitic, I don’t think the Scandinavians are solely to blame. If much of the world has concluded that (Jewish) Israelis’ blood is cheap, and that their killers don’t deserve the same punishment as those who kill, say, Norwegians, a large share of the blame belongs to successive Israeli governments. For by repeatedly releasing Palestinian murderers under circumstances no other government would contemplate, Israeli governments have shown that they hold the blood of Israeli citizens cheaply. And if even Israel’s government doesn’t view murdering Israelis as a crime that deserves life imprisonment, why should anyone else?

I’m not talking here about lopsided exchanges like the 1,027 Palestinian terrorists Israel freed to ransom kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Though I have consistently opposed such swaps on other grounds, they don’t treat Israeli life cheaply; on the contrary, they reflect just how far Israel will go to save even one life.

But the same doesn’t hold for other prisoner releases. In 2008, for instance, Israel traded five live terrorists–including a particularly vicious killer, Samir Kuntar, whose murders included smashing a 4-year-old’s skull against a rock with a rifle butt–for two dead bodies. What other country would treat the murder of its citizens so cheaply that it would release their killers in exchange for corpses?

Israel has also freed thousands of prisoners over the years as “goodwill gestures” toward the Palestinian Authority, and though most weren’t actually murderers, they generally were involved in anti-Israel terror. Other countries free terrorists only under formal peace agreements, not as mere “goodwill gestures” to facilitate talks; thus again, this teaches the world that Israeli governments don’t consider anti-Israel terror so terrible.

But the nadir was Netanyahu’s agreement to release 104 Palestinians, almost all of them vicious killers, in four stages (the 26 freed this month were the first), solely to get Palestinian negotiators to talk with their Israeli counterparts. What other country would free murderers who killed hundreds of its citizens just to bribe another party into talks whose sole aim is to give them the land and sovereignty they claim to want?

Norway assuredly wouldn’t release Breivik under such circumstances. And that’s precisely why Norwegians view any comparison of Breivik to Palestinian killers as ridiculous: If Israelis really considered the freed Palestinians’ crimes on a par with Breivik’s, they think, then Israel wouldn’t release them, either.

Thus while there are many reasons to oppose Netanyahu’s decision, this may be the weightiest of all: By freeing those killers, Israel has once again taught the world to view Jewish blood as cheap.

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The Real West Bank Terror War

The Israelis have done it again. After Secretary of State John Kerry managed to drag both parties back to the peace table, the Israelis are doing their utmost to sabotage the talks by provoking the Palestinians with violent incursions into Palestinian towns and villages that have resulted in the indiscriminate use of gunfire by the Israel Defense Forces that led to several deaths of innocent Arabs. If the Palestinian Authority has stayed away from the negotiations in order to protest this, then it is the only way they have of protecting their people against Israeli outrages. Or so we are being told.

The prevailing narrative of the incidents alluded to in the preceding paragraph follow this line in which the presence of Israeli forces in Palestinian areas is not merely a provocation but a standing argument for the need to force the Jewish state to pull back to the 1967 lines. But the problem with this narrative is that it is based on a lie. Incidents like the one that occurred today in Qalandia that resulted in three Palestinian deaths and last week’s confrontation in Jenin do illustrate the problem with the peace process, but it is not the one that the liberal mainstream media and the international press think it is. The idea that Israel is staging these attacks to undermine the talks is false. The fact that the IDF is forced to enter built-up areas in order to track down terrorist suspects shows just how unreliable the Palestinian Authority is as a peace partner. Moreover, the willingness of mobs in these towns to rally to defend suspects and attack the IDF with gunfire and rocks is testimony to how deeply rooted support for terror operations is in a Palestinian population that we are told is ready for an end to the conflict.

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The Israelis have done it again. After Secretary of State John Kerry managed to drag both parties back to the peace table, the Israelis are doing their utmost to sabotage the talks by provoking the Palestinians with violent incursions into Palestinian towns and villages that have resulted in the indiscriminate use of gunfire by the Israel Defense Forces that led to several deaths of innocent Arabs. If the Palestinian Authority has stayed away from the negotiations in order to protest this, then it is the only way they have of protecting their people against Israeli outrages. Or so we are being told.

The prevailing narrative of the incidents alluded to in the preceding paragraph follow this line in which the presence of Israeli forces in Palestinian areas is not merely a provocation but a standing argument for the need to force the Jewish state to pull back to the 1967 lines. But the problem with this narrative is that it is based on a lie. Incidents like the one that occurred today in Qalandia that resulted in three Palestinian deaths and last week’s confrontation in Jenin do illustrate the problem with the peace process, but it is not the one that the liberal mainstream media and the international press think it is. The idea that Israel is staging these attacks to undermine the talks is false. The fact that the IDF is forced to enter built-up areas in order to track down terrorist suspects shows just how unreliable the Palestinian Authority is as a peace partner. Moreover, the willingness of mobs in these towns to rally to defend suspects and attack the IDF with gunfire and rocks is testimony to how deeply rooted support for terror operations is in a Palestinian population that we are told is ready for an end to the conflict.

It needs to be understood that the relative lack of terrorism directed at Israel from the West Bank is not solely the work of the security fence that is reviled by the left for its role in preventing suicide bombings. It is also the function of proactive IDF actions in the West Bank, including checkpoints that make it harder for killers to move about with impunity, and raids such as the ones that have recently led to shootings where the Israelis can arrest those planning or guilty of having committed terrorism.

Going after these terrorists is dangerous work, especially when ordinary Palestinians still venerate those who seek to kill Jews and are willing to risk injury to prevent their arrest. The notion that IDF troops should submit to live fire as well as lethal rock showers without seeking to defend themselves is not a standard that anyone would apply to any other army or police force in the world.

However, the argument that the IDF should forebear from seeking to capture these killers in order to protect the talks is one that is incompatible with their duty to protect the Jewish state’s citizens against terrorism. If the PA and the Palestinian people want such incidents to cease, then they have only to police their own population—as they promised to do in the 1993 Oslo Accords.

The idea that the West Bank should be treated in the same manner as Gaza—a no-go zone where terrorists should be free to live without fear of arrest—represents a peculiar take on peace. Expecting Israel to turn a blind eye to terror while the talks are going on only sets up the process for more trouble since it is unlikely that Israel’s critics would think the Jewish state would be justified if they called a halt to negotiations to protect a successful attack.

Since the peace process is supposed to be predicated in no small part on the cessation of terrorism and a Palestinian commitment to deal with terrorism, it’s difficult to understand why the IDF should be criticized for stepping into the vacuum left by an incompetent and corrupt PA. That members of PA head Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah Party are often responsible for terror, and not just their Hamas rivals, further undermines the rationale for further empowering the PA.

The attitude toward terror on the part of the PA—which is routinely lauded by the United States for its cooperation with Israeli security forces—is a crucial stumbling block to the peace process. If Israel cannot trust the PA to stop terror without having to send its own forces in, it begs the question of what will happen once these towns are safely inside a Palestinian state and therefore immune to IDF action.

Rather than criticizing the Israelis, the Palestinians’ foreign cheerleaders should be increasing pressure on the PA to act on its own to squelch terror. If they don’t, it won’t be fair to blame Israel for acting to defend their populations from Palestinian attacks. That Israel finds itself obligated to go into Arab towns to keep terrorists from killing more Jews is nothing more than the latest evidence that genuine peace is a long way off.

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The Disparate Impact of Holder’s War on Private Schools

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the civil-rights milestone will continue to loom large in the ideological media. The right will talk about how much progress we’ve made, the left will talk about how far we have to go, and the president himself will give a speech marking the occasion this week in which he’ll talk both about the progress and the ground that must still be covered. His speech will be all the more powerful for the obvious symbolism, though the speech text will likely be thoughtful and somewhat moving in addition.

It is also a speech to which the president’s attorney general, Eric Holder, should listen carefully. His latest crusade is to sue the state of Louisiana for giving black students in failing public schools vouchers to attend better schools on the grounds that the voucher program is resegregating Louisiana’s public schools. That is not an exaggeration, and I have to admit to being somewhat hesitant to even write about this for fear that Holder is kidding–because, well, he has got to be kidding.

Here, for example, is the Holder DOJ’s logic, as expressed in a petition to get the district court to enjoin the state from awarding additional scholarships to students from school districts still under federal desegregation orders:

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As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the civil-rights milestone will continue to loom large in the ideological media. The right will talk about how much progress we’ve made, the left will talk about how far we have to go, and the president himself will give a speech marking the occasion this week in which he’ll talk both about the progress and the ground that must still be covered. His speech will be all the more powerful for the obvious symbolism, though the speech text will likely be thoughtful and somewhat moving in addition.

It is also a speech to which the president’s attorney general, Eric Holder, should listen carefully. His latest crusade is to sue the state of Louisiana for giving black students in failing public schools vouchers to attend better schools on the grounds that the voucher program is resegregating Louisiana’s public schools. That is not an exaggeration, and I have to admit to being somewhat hesitant to even write about this for fear that Holder is kidding–because, well, he has got to be kidding.

Here, for example, is the Holder DOJ’s logic, as expressed in a petition to get the district court to enjoin the state from awarding additional scholarships to students from school districts still under federal desegregation orders:

For example, in 2011-2012, Celilia Primary School in St. Martin Parish School District enrolled a student body that was 30.1 percent black, 16.4 [sic] percentage points lower than the black composition (64.5 percent) of St. Martin Parish School District as a whole. In 2012-2013 Celilia lost six black students as a result of the voucher program, thereby increasing the difference between the school’s black student percentage from the district’s and reinforcing the school’s racial identity as a white school in a predominantly black school district.

Got that? The school had a “racial identity” as a white school, and the state of Louisiana awarded scholarships to a group of black students to get them out of the white failing school and into a better private school. According to Eric Holder’s Justice Department, the Louisiana voucher program gave private school vouchers to too many black students. What this means in practice is that Holder would not challenge them on segregation grounds if, merely because of their race, the state allotted fewer vouchers to black students in favor of giving the scholarships to white students.

But the DOJ wasn’t done. The Justice Department wants to appear to be an equal-opportunity offender, crushing the hopes and educational futures of children of all races. So the DOJ found a school that the United States federal government says has too many black students and criticized the voucher program for selecting white students:

Similarly, the Independence Elementary School in Tangipahoa Parish School District enrolled a student body that was 61.5 percent black, which was only 14 percentage points greater than that of Tangipahoa Parish School District (47.5 percent black), but it lost five white students as a result of the voucher program and, thus, increased its black student percentage away from the district-wide black student percentage, again reinforcing the racial identity of the school as a black school.

But of course Holder isn’t an equal-opportunity offender: black students are absorbing the brunt of the Justice Department’s crusade against education. As the state explained:

While the federal petition would let courts approve vouchers in those school systems next year, Brian Blackwell, attorney for the Louisiana Association of Educators, said it likely would take a lot of time, effort and evidence to persuade the judges.

State Education Superintendent John White took issue with the suit’s primary argument and its characterization of the program. Almost all the students using vouchers are black, he said. Given that framework, “it’s a little ridiculous” to argue that students’ departure to voucher schools makes their home school systems less white, he said. He also thought it ironic that rules set up to combat racism were being called on to keep black students in failing schools.

Almost all the students using vouchers are black, according to the superintendent. This is a program largely designed to find ways to get black students stuck in failing schools an education. The government’s public-school monopoly, designed to enrich union bosses, is failing. The Louisiana government, under the leadership of Governor Bobby Jindal, isn’t willing to give up on those students, and is throwing them a rope. The United States Department of Justice, under the leadership of Eric Holder, will do anything to cut that rope.

The left likes to talk a lot about disparate impact. In ruling against the NYPD’s stop and frisk program, Judge Shira Scheindlin even found a new term for it–“indirect racial profiling.” So imagine what Democrats would make of a policy that disproportionately harmed black students trying to get a decent education if the partisan roles were reversed. In some ways, then, it’s appropriate that this incident coincides with the anniversary of a key moment in the fight for civil rights for black Americans. No one watching the behavior of this Justice Department, after all, could claim there are no longer government-sanctioned obstacles in their way.

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The South Carolina Test Case

South Carolina conservatives smell blood. After a year in which Lindsey Graham has been identified with unpopular causes like immigration reform, opposing shutting down the government to defund ObamaCare, and reaffirmed his status as one of the leading internationalists in the Senate, the woods appear to be full of Republicans who think he’s vulnerable. With three candidates having already declared their intention to challenge the incumbent, you’d think Graham would be running scared about the chances of holding onto his seat in a state where the right predominates. But if Graham has spent 2016 acting like a politician desperate to modify his behavior in order to convince the grass roots he isn’t the RINO caricature they claim him to be, he has good reason. Not only does he have an enormous advantage in fundraising, the sheer number of opposing candidates is going to make it difficult for any one of them to break out and turn a GOP primary into a one-on-one contest that a relative moderate like Graham might lose.

These factors complicate what might otherwise be a perfect example of the struggle for the future of the Republican Party that is convulsing the GOP in the aftermath of their 2012 defeat. Graham would seem to be the perfect test case to see if a conservative senator who a) is willing to work with Democrats on some controversial issues like immigration; b) is more interested in preserving his niche as a moderating voice on foreign affairs along with his friend John McCain than in feeding conservative paranoia about government spying, in the manner of Rand Paul and Ted Cruz; and c) refuses to join the suicide caucus in the Senate like Cruz in order to pander to the Tea Party can survive a Republican primary in a conservative state. Though Graham ought to be marked for extinction because of these factors, circumstances and the absence of a single strong opponent may enable him to survive.

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South Carolina conservatives smell blood. After a year in which Lindsey Graham has been identified with unpopular causes like immigration reform, opposing shutting down the government to defund ObamaCare, and reaffirmed his status as one of the leading internationalists in the Senate, the woods appear to be full of Republicans who think he’s vulnerable. With three candidates having already declared their intention to challenge the incumbent, you’d think Graham would be running scared about the chances of holding onto his seat in a state where the right predominates. But if Graham has spent 2016 acting like a politician desperate to modify his behavior in order to convince the grass roots he isn’t the RINO caricature they claim him to be, he has good reason. Not only does he have an enormous advantage in fundraising, the sheer number of opposing candidates is going to make it difficult for any one of them to break out and turn a GOP primary into a one-on-one contest that a relative moderate like Graham might lose.

These factors complicate what might otherwise be a perfect example of the struggle for the future of the Republican Party that is convulsing the GOP in the aftermath of their 2012 defeat. Graham would seem to be the perfect test case to see if a conservative senator who a) is willing to work with Democrats on some controversial issues like immigration; b) is more interested in preserving his niche as a moderating voice on foreign affairs along with his friend John McCain than in feeding conservative paranoia about government spying, in the manner of Rand Paul and Ted Cruz; and c) refuses to join the suicide caucus in the Senate like Cruz in order to pander to the Tea Party can survive a Republican primary in a conservative state. Though Graham ought to be marked for extinction because of these factors, circumstances and the absence of a single strong opponent may enable him to survive.

As the New York Times reports today, the GOP field for 2014 in South Carolina is already crowded. Though Nancy Mace, the first female graduate of the Citadel, would seem to be the perfect alternative to Graham, she is beset by her own problems relating to her connection with a political gossip website that gained notoriety in 2010 when it was part of an attack on Governor Nikki Haley. Neither of the other two, State Senator Lee Bright and Richard Cash, seems to have much on the ball, though it’s far too early to judge them.

But so long as Graham can find safety in numbers on the primary ballot, he may well be able to avoid the fate of other Republicans like Richard Lugar who were perceived as Washington institutions that lost touch with the sentiments of their local party.

That’s an interesting development in a year when we’re supposed to think that the GOP is trending so far to the right that anyone who can be accused of choosing realistic opposition to the Obama administration, rather than to join in the rush to take the party over the cliff, is supposed to be marked for extinction.

That said, Graham is far from safe. South Carolina is also the home state of former Senate colleague and current Heritage Foundation chief Jim DeMint, who has taken to promoting the idea that any Republican that won’t vote to defund the government over ObamaCare should be replaced. Should immigration reform and his internationalist stands become even more radioactive on the right than they are now, it will heighten his difficulties. Moreover, if a viable challenger like Mace emerges from the field, then Graham may be in more trouble than he seems to be in now.

However, a Graham victory in a South Carolina GOP primary, no matter what the circumstances, will be rightly seen as a sign that Republicans are not quite as far gone as the liberal mainstream media hopes them to be.

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Remember Bashar the Reformer?

Bashar al-Assad is in the running for the most dangerous man in the world. There are not too many world leaders who would acquire such reserves of chemical weapons and then seek to use them against anyone, let alone civilians. While the U.S. military conducts lessons-learned exercises all the time in order to learn from their mistakes and make themselves a more effective force, I am not aware of a single time in which the State Department or senior U.S. government officials have acknowledged error and conducted a similar lessons-learned exercise to identify where they went wrong.

Let’s hope that, if they ever start, they consider how the Syrian regime pulled the wool over their eyes. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad may have spent some time in the West, but just because Islamists and autocrats spend time in the West does not mean that they acquire Western values; instead, they learn only how to speak to Westerners and cultivate useful idiots.

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Bashar al-Assad is in the running for the most dangerous man in the world. There are not too many world leaders who would acquire such reserves of chemical weapons and then seek to use them against anyone, let alone civilians. While the U.S. military conducts lessons-learned exercises all the time in order to learn from their mistakes and make themselves a more effective force, I am not aware of a single time in which the State Department or senior U.S. government officials have acknowledged error and conducted a similar lessons-learned exercise to identify where they went wrong.

Let’s hope that, if they ever start, they consider how the Syrian regime pulled the wool over their eyes. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad may have spent some time in the West, but just because Islamists and autocrats spend time in the West does not mean that they acquire Western values; instead, they learn only how to speak to Westerners and cultivate useful idiots.

At any rate, here are some blasts from the past, American officials who for ego or because of animosity toward George W. Bush did their best to end Assad’s isolation. It’s always fun to read their statements reporting Assad’s willingness to solve mutual problems.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.), who took time out to tour the markets to maximum benefit for Syrian state television.
  • Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), more John Kerry, and even more John Kerry. That second story reminds how the Obama administration once went so far as to give Syria spare parts for its planes.
  • Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who seems to have relished his defiance of Bush.
  • The late Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), at the time still a Republican, might have acted as a tour guide: His trip with Nelson and Kerry was his 16th taxpayer-funded trip to Damascus, and it was not his last.
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may not have gone herself, but she used her senate colleagues’ experience meeting Assad to justify her description of him as a reformer. “There’s a different leader in Syria now,” she told CBS’s Face the Nation, explaining, “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”
  • Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) spent nearly $8,000 on two trips to Damascus, while Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) spent nearly twice that, according to Legistorm.
  • Gen. David Petraeus repeatedly asked President George W. Bush for permission to go tête-à-tête with Assad in Damascus; let’s be glad Bush said no, both because it saved Petraeus the embarrassment and denied Assad a propaganda coup.

Perhaps in this age of budget-cutting, it would be useful to ask Pelosi, Kerry, and Nelson—all of whom still serve publicly—about what in hindsight they see as the value of their trips to Syria, and someone might ask Clinton which is more important: the established and brutal record of dictators, or what they happen to tell her colleagues in his palace over tea and coffee.

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Will Obama Finish What He Starts in Syria?

The fact that United Nations weapons inspectors came under fire today in Syria as they attempted to visit the site of last week’s chemical weapons attacks didn’t do much to enhance the credibility of a mission that never had a chance of success. This episode will only make it even likelier that, at long last, the Obama administration will respond forcefully to the latest atrocity committed by the Assad regime. If the noises emanating from Western European capitals are to be believed, what follows may well be a mission with the imprimatur of NATO. If the optimists about President Obama finally having made up his mind to act on Syria after years of dithering are right, then the response may be some sort of concerted air campaign rather than a symbolic yet meaningless strike consisting of lobbing a few missiles that change nothing on the ground.

If true, better late than never will probably be the response of many observers to such a decision. But even if he does shed the restraint he has showed and does something, the question we should be asking right now is not so much whether the president finally makes good on his year-old threat about “red lines” about chemical weapons, but whether the United States is prepared to finish what it starts in Syria. If, as may be likely, a strike on Syria comes under the NATO flag, the credibility of the West won’t be vindicated by symbolism. Having chosen to avoid involvement in the Syrian civil war when Assad might have been toppled without that much trouble, the president must understand that the stakes are far higher today than one or two years ago. With Iran and Hezbollah now heavily invested in the conflict and Russia still committed to keeping Assad afloat, the West probably won’t be able to get away with a repeat of its Libyan intervention or even a more large scale Kosovo-style air offensive and think it will change the tide of war there.

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The fact that United Nations weapons inspectors came under fire today in Syria as they attempted to visit the site of last week’s chemical weapons attacks didn’t do much to enhance the credibility of a mission that never had a chance of success. This episode will only make it even likelier that, at long last, the Obama administration will respond forcefully to the latest atrocity committed by the Assad regime. If the noises emanating from Western European capitals are to be believed, what follows may well be a mission with the imprimatur of NATO. If the optimists about President Obama finally having made up his mind to act on Syria after years of dithering are right, then the response may be some sort of concerted air campaign rather than a symbolic yet meaningless strike consisting of lobbing a few missiles that change nothing on the ground.

If true, better late than never will probably be the response of many observers to such a decision. But even if he does shed the restraint he has showed and does something, the question we should be asking right now is not so much whether the president finally makes good on his year-old threat about “red lines” about chemical weapons, but whether the United States is prepared to finish what it starts in Syria. If, as may be likely, a strike on Syria comes under the NATO flag, the credibility of the West won’t be vindicated by symbolism. Having chosen to avoid involvement in the Syrian civil war when Assad might have been toppled without that much trouble, the president must understand that the stakes are far higher today than one or two years ago. With Iran and Hezbollah now heavily invested in the conflict and Russia still committed to keeping Assad afloat, the West probably won’t be able to get away with a repeat of its Libyan intervention or even a more large scale Kosovo-style air offensive and think it will change the tide of war there.

A lot has changed since President Obama first starting predicting that Assad’s fall was inevitable. Rather than giving up, he has dug in, and with the help provided by Russia as well as the Iranian “volunteers” from Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah reinforcements, he has seized the initiative in the war. While air strikes could cripple his chemical supplies, heavy weapons, and air power, it’s a trifle optimistic to believe a series of bombing raids or cruise missile strikes will defeat Assad.

That means that if President Obama is serious about Syria, he’s going to have to risk a long-term commitment to the conflict. Though he is probably not contemplating putting any boots on the ground, the cost of a prolonged air offensive will not be cheap. Coming at a time when the American people are already weary of war after Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting another one even with airpower alone is quite a political risk.

Count me among those who believe that the U.S. cannot afford to make threats such as those made by Obama and let them slide. But if the U.S. attacks and Assad survives, America’s credibility—and that of the president—will be hurt, not enhanced. At this stage, mere gestures won’t be enough. To the contrary, once the West enters the war, nothing short of Assad’s defeat will be a satisfactory outcome. Indeed, with the administration preparing to engage in another round of diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear project, both the ayatollahs and their sometime allies in Moscow will be measuring the Western response in Syria and judging whether they should worry about continuing to stonewall Washington. A failure to finish what begins this week will leave Iran, Russia and Assad as big winners. Getting into Syria won’t be difficult; getting out with a result that will not make things in the region even worse won’t be so easy. 

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For ObamaCare’s Enemies, the Law

In my discussion recently of the scourge of bureaucratic lawmaking during the Obama administration, I’ve generally focused on federal agencies enacting rules that could not be passed by Congress, thus undermining the democratic process. But another important problem posed by the “rise of the fourth branch” of government, in Jonathan Turley’s phrase, is the treatment of duly passed legislation that simply empowers federal regulators without limiting them.

That’s not necessarily the fault of Congress, though it is a warning to those who seek to pass complex pieces of legislation. In the case of ObamaCare, it is simply the president who has decided that he has the power to suspend and postpone parts of the law at will, or else hand out waivers to favored constituencies. Though the beneficiaries of such governance seem obvious–the president and those who receive the favors they request from him–there is actually a third group whose members benefit greatly: the crafters of the law.

Conservatives often talk about the ill effects of moral hazards in politics. And the Hill reminded us over the weekend that the more complex the law, the more ad hoc its implementation, the more room for its interpretation, and the more troubled its legal groundwork, the more the crafters of the law stand to gain. The worse the governance, the better off its practitioners, at least in certain situations, will be. The members of Congress who voted for ObamaCare may not understand the law, but those who wrote it do–and are cashing in on the regulatory monstrosity:

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In my discussion recently of the scourge of bureaucratic lawmaking during the Obama administration, I’ve generally focused on federal agencies enacting rules that could not be passed by Congress, thus undermining the democratic process. But another important problem posed by the “rise of the fourth branch” of government, in Jonathan Turley’s phrase, is the treatment of duly passed legislation that simply empowers federal regulators without limiting them.

That’s not necessarily the fault of Congress, though it is a warning to those who seek to pass complex pieces of legislation. In the case of ObamaCare, it is simply the president who has decided that he has the power to suspend and postpone parts of the law at will, or else hand out waivers to favored constituencies. Though the beneficiaries of such governance seem obvious–the president and those who receive the favors they request from him–there is actually a third group whose members benefit greatly: the crafters of the law.

Conservatives often talk about the ill effects of moral hazards in politics. And the Hill reminded us over the weekend that the more complex the law, the more ad hoc its implementation, the more room for its interpretation, and the more troubled its legal groundwork, the more the crafters of the law stand to gain. The worse the governance, the better off its practitioners, at least in certain situations, will be. The members of Congress who voted for ObamaCare may not understand the law, but those who wrote it do–and are cashing in on the regulatory monstrosity:

ObamaCare has become big business for an elite network of Washington lobbyists and consultants who helped shape the law from the inside.
 
More than 30 former administration officials, lawmakers and congressional staffers who worked on the healthcare law have set up shop on K Street since 2010….

“Healthcare lobbying on K Street is as strong as it ever was, and it’s due to the fact that the Affordable Care Act seems to be ever-changing,” Adler said. “What’s at stake is huge. … Whenever there’s a lot of money at stake, there’s a lot of lobbying going on.”

The voracious need for lobbying help in dealing with ObamaCare has created a price premium for lobbyists who had first-hand experience in crafting or debating the law.
 
Experts say that those able to fetch the highest salaries have come from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) or committees with oversight power over healthcare.

The most telling quote in the story, and the one that explains why ObamaCare belongs in the discussion of unaccountable bureaucracy usurping congressional authority, is this:

“Congress is easy to watch,” said Tim LaPira, a politics professor at James Madison University who researches the government affairs industry, “but agencies are harder to watch because their actions are often opaque. This leads to a greater demand on K Street” for people who understand the fine print, he said.

The delays and postponements and waivers so far have made it pretty clear that the Obama administration finally understands just how harmful ObamaCare is, but this hasn’t troubled them so much because they don’t feel bound by the law. The administration is the law, with regard to ObamaCare.

What recourse do you have if you are not part of Obama’s favored constituencies to whom the law doesn’t apply? You have the courts. In a sign of how problematic ObamaCare really is, it appears headed back to the Supreme Court because of the law’s unconstitutional abridgement of religious freedom. As the Hill reported late last week:

ObamaCare’s birth control mandate is putting the president’s signature legislative issue on a fast track back to the Supreme Court. 



Lawyers on both sides of the issue say the high court will almost certainly have to rule on the controversial policy, possibly as early as its next term. 



Two federal appeals courts have come down with opposite rulings on an important question related to the policy: whether for-profit businesses and their owners have the right to challenge in court the requirement that businesses provide contraception as part of their insurance coverage.

As Jonathan wrote in June, the high-profile case of the Hobby Lobby, a chain of stores owned by religious Christians, won a key victory this summer, though there have been setbacks in other similar cases. But the Hill story points out just why the battle over the contraception mandate is so important:

“Would an incorporated kosher butcher really have no claim to challenge a regulation mandating non-kosher butchering practices?” the 10th Circuit asked. “The kosher butcher, of course, might directly serve a religious community … But we see no reason why one must orient one’s business toward a religious community to preserve Free Exercise protections.”



The administration’s position, and that of some appeals courts, has been that the religious freedom of the owners of a corporate entity does not transfer to the company itself. That is, there is a separation between the business and its owners, and religious freedom applies to the latter. A company can’t pray, goes the simplistic logic.

Of course, the 10th Circuit judges had it right. The contraception case is important because it will set precedent on the issue, and will determine whether United States law considers religious practice a privilege, not a right, when it conflicts with the government’s agenda. In this way, it won’t be much different from the rest of ObamaCare’s arbitrary and corrupt implementation.

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Jody Bottum’s World-Weariness

Joseph Bottum, formerly the editor of the conservative-leaning religious journal First Things, has written an essay in Commonweal magazine titled, “The Things We Share: The Catholic Case for Same-Sex Marriage.” The essay got a big assist with a story in the New York Times.

Mr. Bottum isn’t saying he personally supports same-sex marriage; he’s saying he believes the Catholic Church should give up its opposition to the government sanctioning same-sex marriages. His shift on the issue has elicited, and will continue to elicit, quite a response, including this insightful one from Rod Dreher. 

I want to set aside for the moment Bottum’s arguments related to same-sex marriage and focus instead on a quote Bottum gave to the Times.

“I’ve given up on politics,” Mr. Bottum said, as we sat on his wide porch after lunch. “I’ll vote Republican, because I’m a Republican. But I don’t believe a change in culture can come from politics. It can only come from re-enchantment with the world.”

I have several reactions to this, starting with this one. What exactly does it mean to “give up on politics”? To give up on the importance of national elections? To give up the battle of ideas in which politics is the arena? To give up on the back-and-forth about matters like war and peace, justice and injustice, and the moral good?

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Joseph Bottum, formerly the editor of the conservative-leaning religious journal First Things, has written an essay in Commonweal magazine titled, “The Things We Share: The Catholic Case for Same-Sex Marriage.” The essay got a big assist with a story in the New York Times.

Mr. Bottum isn’t saying he personally supports same-sex marriage; he’s saying he believes the Catholic Church should give up its opposition to the government sanctioning same-sex marriages. His shift on the issue has elicited, and will continue to elicit, quite a response, including this insightful one from Rod Dreher. 

I want to set aside for the moment Bottum’s arguments related to same-sex marriage and focus instead on a quote Bottum gave to the Times.

“I’ve given up on politics,” Mr. Bottum said, as we sat on his wide porch after lunch. “I’ll vote Republican, because I’m a Republican. But I don’t believe a change in culture can come from politics. It can only come from re-enchantment with the world.”

I have several reactions to this, starting with this one. What exactly does it mean to “give up on politics”? To give up on the importance of national elections? To give up the battle of ideas in which politics is the arena? To give up on the back-and-forth about matters like war and peace, justice and injustice, and the moral good?

Memo to Jody Bottum: Politics is one place–not the only place, but one important place–where we work for the good and health of our earthly city. Politics produced the American Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Civil Rights Act. In the 20th century politics produced leaders like Reagan, Thatcher, Churchill, and FDR. There are many other achievements and individuals one could name. Are we supposed to believe such things simply don’t matter anymore? That we should be indifferent to who our political leaders (and therefore, among other things, our Supreme Court Justices) are? Is politics just one giant game of Trivial Pursuit?

Such a view isn’t intellectual or morally serious–and because Bottum is a serious individual, I assume such statements must be the product of something else. I’ll assume world-weariness for now.

As for Bottum’s claim that “I don’t believe a change in culture can come from politics. It can only come from re-enchantment with the world.” This statement, too, is false. As Michael Gerson and I argue in City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, sometimes culture is upstream of politics–but sometimes politics is upstream of culture. The interaction between the two is constant and ongoing. 

“A polity is a river of constantly changing compositions,” George Will wrote in Statecraft as Soulcraft, “and the river’s banks are built on laws.” The laws of a nation embody its values and shape them, in ways large and small, obvious and subtle, direct and indirect, sometimes immediately and often lasting. The most obvious examples from our own history concern slavery and segregation, but there are plenty of others, from welfare to education, from crime to drug use, to Supreme Court decision like Dred Scott v. Sandford, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, and Roe v. Wade.

Laws express moral beliefs and judgments. Like throwing a pebble into a pond, the waves ripple outward. They tell citizens what our society ought to value and condemn, what is worthy of our esteem and what merits our disapprobation. They both ratify and stigmatize. That is not all the laws do, but it is among the most important things they do.

The welfare system we had for much of the 20th century undermined personal responsibility and upward mobility–and the passage of welfare reform in 1996 started to reverse it. Rudy Giuliani’s policies in the 1990s helped transform New York, not only making it a far safer city but dramatically improving its spirit and ethos.

One final example: In April 1963 a group of eight Birmingham clergy members made an argument about the limits and dangers of political activism. In the Birmingham News, the clergymen criticized civil-rights activism as “unwise and untimely,” and urged Christians to show patience. (Perhaps they even believed the only way to end segregation was to rely on “enchanting” individuals like George Wallace and “Bull” Connor.)

Martin Luther King Jr., then in the Birmingham City Jail, began writing a response. “Frankly,” he said, “I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the views of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.” Dr. King’s counter-argument was simple and convincing: patience for political injustice comes more easily for those who are not currently experiencing injustice. The result was one of the masterpieces in American political thought, King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail.

Changing a culture of bigotry required not just waiting for changes in hearts; it required changes in laws. And the important work of instituting the right laws won’t be achieved by the world-weary among us.

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Is the Pentagon Prepared for East Med Gas?

More good news out of the Eastern Mediterranean, as even more gas has been discovered in the Levant Basin between Israel and Cyprus. The last decade has seen new gas and oil fields discovered around the world, but the Levant Basin is special: It is close enough to major markets in Europe to make it easy both to produce and distribute. Eastern Mediterranean gas can bypass Russia, Iran, and Turkey—all sources of regional instability—and also need not transit choke points such as the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab al-Mandab, or the Suez Canal to get to market.

As Eastern Mediterranean gas development continues, and the region becomes increasing strategically important, it behooves the United States to plan ahead to ensure the safety not only of American personnel working in the region, but also of the energy infrastructure. To do so would not simply be to spend American resources to defend the flow of oil and gas to China, as the United States effectively does in the Persian Gulf, but rather to protect an energy corridor which undercuts and diminishes the leverage and income of American adversaries.

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More good news out of the Eastern Mediterranean, as even more gas has been discovered in the Levant Basin between Israel and Cyprus. The last decade has seen new gas and oil fields discovered around the world, but the Levant Basin is special: It is close enough to major markets in Europe to make it easy both to produce and distribute. Eastern Mediterranean gas can bypass Russia, Iran, and Turkey—all sources of regional instability—and also need not transit choke points such as the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab al-Mandab, or the Suez Canal to get to market.

As Eastern Mediterranean gas development continues, and the region becomes increasing strategically important, it behooves the United States to plan ahead to ensure the safety not only of American personnel working in the region, but also of the energy infrastructure. To do so would not simply be to spend American resources to defend the flow of oil and gas to China, as the United States effectively does in the Persian Gulf, but rather to protect an energy corridor which undercuts and diminishes the leverage and income of American adversaries.

German scholar Niklas Anzinger highlights growing threats to the region in an essay he wrote for the American Enterprise Institute:

  • First there’s Turkey: “After Noble Energy Inc. began drilling for oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean in September 2011, Turkey’s European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış threatened to use military force against Cyprus. ‘This is what we have the navy for,’ he declared, adding, ‘We have trained our marines for this; we have equipped the navy for this. All options are on the table; anything can be done.’”
  • Then there’s Russia: “In 1967, Moscow formed the 5th Operational Squadron in the Mediterranean to counterbalance the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the US Sixth Fleet. The 5th Operational Squadron remained in the region until 1992, when it withdrew after the Soviet Union’s fall. In May 2013, against the backdrop of the Syrian civil war, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a new Russian taskforce comprised of 16 warships and support vessels to the Eastern Mediterranean.”
  • Next there’s Lebanon: “While Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations, certified Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the countries’ maritime boundary and 330 square miles of territorial waters remain in dispute… Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament and a close ally to Hezbollah, said in September 2012 that ‘we will not compromise on any amount of water from our maritime borders and oil, not even a single cup.’”
  • Hezbollah, of course, remains a particular problem: “During its 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah crippled the Israeli warship INS Hanit, which was cruising eight to nine miles offshore, with an Iranian version of the Chinese C-802 missile… Hezbollah may also maintain an amphibious sabotage and coastal infiltration unit. Recruits may receive training in an IRGC underwater combat school in Bandar Abbas and in a camp near the Assi River in the northern Bekaa Valley.”

There’s much, much more, and the whole essay is worth reading. Too often, American military planners focus on the last conflict. There is no shortage of discussion about what resources are needed to counter Iranian ambitions, but too little strategic planning about what resources the United States might need to protect interests in the Eastern Mediterranean in the years to come.

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Want to Appease Iran? Demonize Israel

The willingness of much of the foreign-policy establishment and the mainstream media to embrace any opportunity to avoid conflict with Iran has never been much of a secret. Throughout the last five years, the administration has been able to count on unflinching support for its efforts to keep investing precious time and energy in a diplomatic process with Tehran that was dead in the water even before President Obama took office in 2009. After years of “engagement,” and two rounds of P5+1 talks that accomplished absolutely nothing, there’s no reason to believe the Iranians view negotiations as anything other than a clever tactic to buy more time to get close to their nuclear goal. But the election of a new Iranian president in June set off a new round of calls for yet more diplomacy. Hassan Rouhani’s false reputation as a “moderate” isn’t based on much; he’s a veteran of the Khomeini revolution, the regime’s involvement with foreign terror, and someone who has boasted of his success in fooling the West in nuclear talks. But as far as the New York Times editorial page is concerned, it’s enough to put on hold any toughening of sanctions on Iran, let alone talk about the use of force.

That the Times is eager to promote Rouhani as the solution to the nuclear question is not a surprise. But what it is a surprise is just how desperate they are to justify their position. In an editorial published today under the astonishingly obtuse headline of “Reading Tweets From Iran,” the newspaper seeks to treat the Iranian regime’s social media offensive as evidence of a genuine change in Tehran. To invest that much importance in what Rouhani’s staff says on Twitter in posts that are directed solely toward the West is laughable. No journalist at the paper would ever take the tweets produced by the official accounts of American politicians as anything but spin.

But far worse is the Times’s attempt to shift blame for the standoff from an anti-Semitic regime that is directly involved in atrocities in Syria and terrorist attacks around the globe onto Israel and its supporters in Congress. In doing so, the newspaper and the chattering classes whose views it represents are attempting to lay the foundation for President Obama to break his promises about stopping Iran and to treat those who object to such appeasement as opponents of peace. The editorial is right about one thing. If the administration is to betray its principles and appease Iran, it will require it to stop focusing on that regime’s record and instead lash out at those who are pointing out the truth about the threat it constitutes to the region and the world.

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The willingness of much of the foreign-policy establishment and the mainstream media to embrace any opportunity to avoid conflict with Iran has never been much of a secret. Throughout the last five years, the administration has been able to count on unflinching support for its efforts to keep investing precious time and energy in a diplomatic process with Tehran that was dead in the water even before President Obama took office in 2009. After years of “engagement,” and two rounds of P5+1 talks that accomplished absolutely nothing, there’s no reason to believe the Iranians view negotiations as anything other than a clever tactic to buy more time to get close to their nuclear goal. But the election of a new Iranian president in June set off a new round of calls for yet more diplomacy. Hassan Rouhani’s false reputation as a “moderate” isn’t based on much; he’s a veteran of the Khomeini revolution, the regime’s involvement with foreign terror, and someone who has boasted of his success in fooling the West in nuclear talks. But as far as the New York Times editorial page is concerned, it’s enough to put on hold any toughening of sanctions on Iran, let alone talk about the use of force.

That the Times is eager to promote Rouhani as the solution to the nuclear question is not a surprise. But what it is a surprise is just how desperate they are to justify their position. In an editorial published today under the astonishingly obtuse headline of “Reading Tweets From Iran,” the newspaper seeks to treat the Iranian regime’s social media offensive as evidence of a genuine change in Tehran. To invest that much importance in what Rouhani’s staff says on Twitter in posts that are directed solely toward the West is laughable. No journalist at the paper would ever take the tweets produced by the official accounts of American politicians as anything but spin.

But far worse is the Times’s attempt to shift blame for the standoff from an anti-Semitic regime that is directly involved in atrocities in Syria and terrorist attacks around the globe onto Israel and its supporters in Congress. In doing so, the newspaper and the chattering classes whose views it represents are attempting to lay the foundation for President Obama to break his promises about stopping Iran and to treat those who object to such appeasement as opponents of peace. The editorial is right about one thing. If the administration is to betray its principles and appease Iran, it will require it to stop focusing on that regime’s record and instead lash out at those who are pointing out the truth about the threat it constitutes to the region and the world.

The Times concludes its editorial in the following manner:

President Rouhani is sending strong signals that he will dispatch a pragmatic, experienced team to the table when negotiations resume, possibly next month. That’s when we should begin to see answers to key questions: How much time and creative thinking are he and President Obama willing to invest in a negotiated solution, the only rational outcome? How much political risk are they willing to take, which for Mr. Obama must include managing the enmity that Israel and many members of Congress feel toward Iran?

The notion that Rouhani’s tweets and other PR measures intended to deceive the West constitute “strong signals” that Rouhani will abandon a nuclear ambition that both he and the real power in Tehran—Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—are committed to is not a serious argument. If President Obama is going to break his promises to stop Iran’s nuclear program and to refuse to countenance a policy of “containment” of it, he and his cheering section at the Times are going to have to do better than this.

But far more insidious is the way the Times seeks to goad Obama into treating the “enmity” of supporters of Israel toward Iran as the real problem.

Of course, the reason why so many Americans don’t trust Iran isn’t the “enmity” they feel toward the ayatollahs. It is due to Iran’s record of tyranny and anti-Semitism at home and terrorism abroad. But those who are bound and determined to ignore Iran’s record in order to justify not merely another round of diplomacy but a deal that would allow it to continue its nuclear program understand that whitewashing Iran requires demonizing its opponents.

Israel’s efforts to call attention to the dwindling time available to the West to do something about Iran have long been subjected to attack from venues like the Times as alarmist or rooted in some other agenda than preventing a genocidal regime from obtaining a weapon that would give them a chance to put their fantasies into action. But the cries of alarm emanating from Israel and Congress about Iran are not based in mindless hatred, as the Times implies. Instead they are based on a far more realistic assessment of Iran’s behavior and the ideology that drives people like Khamenei and Rouhani. But since telling the truth about Iran doesn’t help build support for more feckless diplomacy, the newspaper brands it as irrational antagonism.

The use of chemical weapons by Iran’s ally Bashar Assad is more proof that Iran represents a cancer in the Middle East. The Iranian regime’s goal is to establish its hegemony over the regime via its Syrian and Hezbollah allies. As much as we might wish it otherwise, there is nothing reasonable about this quest, nor is it remotely likely that the “strong forces” the Times imagines pulling the two sides to a deal will persuade Iran’s leaders to negotiate in good faith. But to those who wish to avoid conflict with Iran at any price, any justification—including blaming Israel for the problem—will do.

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How’s That Reset with Russia Going?

It was during the 2008 Presidential race that Russian forces invaded the Republic of Georgia, and even then-Senator Barack Obama’s advisors were shocked by how weak his reaction was. Still, five years after the Russian invasion, Obama’s drive to better relations between Washington and Moscow has shown few if any results. Obama seems unable to understand that far from seeking to reset relations, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the world as a zero-sum game and seeks to humiliate the United States.

White House attention might be on Russia’s behavior in Syria, especially in light of the Syrian regime’s alleged chemical weapons strike, but Putin’s trip on Sunday to the Russian puppet state of Abkhazia should be seen in the same light.

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It was during the 2008 Presidential race that Russian forces invaded the Republic of Georgia, and even then-Senator Barack Obama’s advisors were shocked by how weak his reaction was. Still, five years after the Russian invasion, Obama’s drive to better relations between Washington and Moscow has shown few if any results. Obama seems unable to understand that far from seeking to reset relations, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the world as a zero-sum game and seeks to humiliate the United States.

White House attention might be on Russia’s behavior in Syria, especially in light of the Syrian regime’s alleged chemical weapons strike, but Putin’s trip on Sunday to the Russian puppet state of Abkhazia should be seen in the same light.

In the aftermath of the war, Russia formally recognized both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway regions of Georgia, as independent states. No one but Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru have recognized the two breakaway states, and Nauru only did after Russia gave them a substantial bribe to do so. That Obama cannot even leverage his influence for a U.S. ally when the international community is so firmly on the same side says a lot about how unsuccessful Obama’s strategy has been, and why so many countries have become so reticent to stick their necks out as loyal allies for the United States.

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Boycotting Ariel Not About Justice or Peace

In this week’s Forward, venerable columnist Leonard Fein imagines he will elicit gasps of shock from his readers when he suggests that they should boycott the city of Ariel. He writes that he can do so in good conscience because there is nothing inherently immoral about boycotts and because shunning Ariel, its people, institutions, and commerce is a blow struck for justice and the cause of peace. He’s right that boycotts can sometimes be appropriate if not a moral imperative. But he’s dead wrong about giving a small city filled with ordinary law-abiding Jews, synagogues, schools, and businesses the same treatment previous generations gave Nazi Germany or segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama. Doing so is not only morally obtuse, it also has not the slightest thing to do with peace.

Fein is pushing on an open door when he suggests there’s something controversial about boycotts. Boycotts that are rooted in moral indignation against a specific policy whether it is Nazi racism, American segregation, Soviet refusal to allow Jews to emigrate, or apartheid were all defensible boycotts since they were aimed at highlighting injustice that could be corrected. But boycotts that are themselves the product of a spirit of discrimination are less defensible. For example, the Arab boycott of Israel and the efforts of the BDS campaign—which aims at isolating it via boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions, is rooted in a desire to eradicate the Jewish state, not to reform it.

Those who oppose the building of Jewish communities in the West Bank feel they constitute an obstacle to peace. That is an argument that is undermined by the fact that the Palestinians make few distinctions between the Jews who live in their midst and those in the settlements that were built on the other side of the 1949 cease-fire lines. But if there is to be a two-state solution to the conflict, do Fein and those who agree with him really think peace will be bought by dismantling Ariel? Is he prepared to take the same position about those Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that are also on the other side of the old “green line?” Seen in that light, it’s hard to see his attitude toward Ariel as anything but an expression of political venom directed against Israelis whose politics he doesn’t like. Whatever the merits of his arguments about settlements, such a boycott has nothing to do with justice or peace.

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In this week’s Forward, venerable columnist Leonard Fein imagines he will elicit gasps of shock from his readers when he suggests that they should boycott the city of Ariel. He writes that he can do so in good conscience because there is nothing inherently immoral about boycotts and because shunning Ariel, its people, institutions, and commerce is a blow struck for justice and the cause of peace. He’s right that boycotts can sometimes be appropriate if not a moral imperative. But he’s dead wrong about giving a small city filled with ordinary law-abiding Jews, synagogues, schools, and businesses the same treatment previous generations gave Nazi Germany or segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama. Doing so is not only morally obtuse, it also has not the slightest thing to do with peace.

Fein is pushing on an open door when he suggests there’s something controversial about boycotts. Boycotts that are rooted in moral indignation against a specific policy whether it is Nazi racism, American segregation, Soviet refusal to allow Jews to emigrate, or apartheid were all defensible boycotts since they were aimed at highlighting injustice that could be corrected. But boycotts that are themselves the product of a spirit of discrimination are less defensible. For example, the Arab boycott of Israel and the efforts of the BDS campaign—which aims at isolating it via boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions, is rooted in a desire to eradicate the Jewish state, not to reform it.

Those who oppose the building of Jewish communities in the West Bank feel they constitute an obstacle to peace. That is an argument that is undermined by the fact that the Palestinians make few distinctions between the Jews who live in their midst and those in the settlements that were built on the other side of the 1949 cease-fire lines. But if there is to be a two-state solution to the conflict, do Fein and those who agree with him really think peace will be bought by dismantling Ariel? Is he prepared to take the same position about those Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that are also on the other side of the old “green line?” Seen in that light, it’s hard to see his attitude toward Ariel as anything but an expression of political venom directed against Israelis whose politics he doesn’t like. Whatever the merits of his arguments about settlements, such a boycott has nothing to do with justice or peace.

It should be understood that even those who are most ardent in advocating for the peace process understand that it will not be achieved by insisting that Israel retreat to the old “green line” border. Though the Palestinian Authority is making noises directed at liberal Jews and the Western media that it is ready to end the conflict for all time, there is good reason to doubt they will accept terms they have repeatedly refused in the recent past. But if they do, they know it will involve their having to accept that Israel will retain the large settlement blocs in exchange for some territory inside pre-1967 Israel.

Among those blocs that aren’t changing hands is the city of Ariel. So exactly what point is served by a boycott of a place whose existence as a Jewish community wouldn’t prevent a peace settlement? Ariel’s continued existence inside Israel is not really in question. Does Fein believe that every Jew must be removed from all of the areas that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 in order to create justice and peace for the Palestinian Arabs? If so, is he advocating for a similar boycott of the various Jerusalem neighborhoods and towns and villages that would also be kept by Israel in the event the “agreement whose terms everybody already knows” that fellow leftists keep talking about is signed?

I think not.

Just as calls for the eviction of Arabs from Israel are repugnant, if peace is ever to be achieved, it will have to be on the basis of mutual respect and coexistence, not on eradicating the Jewish presence in parts of the country. But even if some settlements were to be removed, as happened in Gaza, in the event of a peace settlement, why would Fein focus on one that is not in that category except to vent spleen against the settlement movement that is more about Israeli politics than the future of peace?

I understand the arguments of those who believe preserving Israel’s Jewish majority will require the separation of two peoples. Doing so may involve giving up some settlements. But the movement to boycott settlements does more to appeal to the Palestinian belief that all Jews should be evicted from the country than it does to the cause of two states for two peoples. Palestinians may think Ariel’s existence is an injustice and intolerable insult to their sensibilities. But so is every other Jewish village, town, and city inside Israel. In this case, it is the boycott that is the injustice, not the existence of Ariel.

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Turkey Caucus Should Speak Out on Anti-Semitism

I’ve written a number of times about the Congressional Turkey Caucus, the congressional organization which seeks to promote and encourage a strong U.S.-Turkey relationship. While many Caucus members simply join to burnish foreign-policy credentials or qualify for Istanbul junkets, Namik Tan, the Turkish ambassador to the United States, has used membership numbers in the Turkey Caucus to imply U.S. endorsement of Turkey’s foreign and perhaps even domestic policies.

Alas, those Turkish policies run increasingly counter to U.S. interests with regard to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, al-Qaeda, the Eastern Mediterranean, and NATO. The Turkish government has grown more noxious in recent weeks as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or his top aides have blamed Jews and/or Israelis for everything from the protests in Gezi Park to the coup in Cairo to the the alleged use of telekinesis to undercut Erdoğan and his allies. He has promoted films which depict Jews as scavenging Iraqis for their organ, and Mein Kampf has become a best-seller. Anti-Semitism is rife increasingly among Turkey’s civil servants and diplomatic corps, and Erdoğan has suggested that Israel’s existence is a hate crime.

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I’ve written a number of times about the Congressional Turkey Caucus, the congressional organization which seeks to promote and encourage a strong U.S.-Turkey relationship. While many Caucus members simply join to burnish foreign-policy credentials or qualify for Istanbul junkets, Namik Tan, the Turkish ambassador to the United States, has used membership numbers in the Turkey Caucus to imply U.S. endorsement of Turkey’s foreign and perhaps even domestic policies.

Alas, those Turkish policies run increasingly counter to U.S. interests with regard to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, al-Qaeda, the Eastern Mediterranean, and NATO. The Turkish government has grown more noxious in recent weeks as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or his top aides have blamed Jews and/or Israelis for everything from the protests in Gezi Park to the coup in Cairo to the the alleged use of telekinesis to undercut Erdoğan and his allies. He has promoted films which depict Jews as scavenging Iraqis for their organ, and Mein Kampf has become a best-seller. Anti-Semitism is rife increasingly among Turkey’s civil servants and diplomatic corps, and Erdoğan has suggested that Israel’s existence is a hate crime.

When it comes to political theories and Jews, Erdoğan increasingly sounds like a cross between Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi, and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The difference between Erdoğan and those three footnotes to history, however, is that only Erdoğan has 135 congressmen watching his back. How shameful it is that the chairmen of the Congressional Turkey Caucus have not spoken out on Turkish anti-Semitism. Their silence convinces the paranoid and conspiratorial Erdoğan that American congressmen support his theories. Sometimes, diplomacy isn’t simply about making friendships; true diplomacy requires sometimes breaking them as well.

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Can GOP Candidates Ignore Iowa?

With two years to go until the political world converges on Ames, Iowa for the traditional Straw Poll conducted a few months before the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus, Republicans are pondering whether anyone who is serious about winning the presidency should bother showing up. But the meaningless nature of the quadrennial circus in Ames (the fact that Michele Bachmann won the caucus in 2011 shows how absurd the poll can be) is only part of the problem about Iowa. As the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin writes today, the dominance of the state by the far right and libertarian wings of the GOP is causing a great many in the party to wonder not only whether the disproportionate effort that the state attracts from presidential candidates is worth it but whether contenders with mainstream appeal should even compete there.

Those asking these questions are not wrong. Iowa is an odd choice to be a presidential lab test. It is not only unrepresentative of the nation as a whole but also even of a Republican Party that is whiter and less urban than the rest of the country. Moreover, the dominance of libertarian backers of the Ron and Rand Paul libertarian faction and social conservatives in the state party makes it inhospitable for candidates that are likely to win primaries elsewhere in the country, not to mention have a shot at actually winning the presidency in a general election. But it’s going to take more courage than most political consultants are usually able to muster to get any of them to advise serious candidates to shun Iowa in 2016. As much as 2012 was an illustration of Iowa’s irrelevance to the final results that year, ignoring the locus of political attention for months at the beginning of the primary season could be a serious mistake that could wind up damaging a more mainstream GOP candidate like Chris Christie and giving more conservative rivals an even bigger boost than they might otherwise receive.

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With two years to go until the political world converges on Ames, Iowa for the traditional Straw Poll conducted a few months before the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus, Republicans are pondering whether anyone who is serious about winning the presidency should bother showing up. But the meaningless nature of the quadrennial circus in Ames (the fact that Michele Bachmann won the caucus in 2011 shows how absurd the poll can be) is only part of the problem about Iowa. As the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin writes today, the dominance of the state by the far right and libertarian wings of the GOP is causing a great many in the party to wonder not only whether the disproportionate effort that the state attracts from presidential candidates is worth it but whether contenders with mainstream appeal should even compete there.

Those asking these questions are not wrong. Iowa is an odd choice to be a presidential lab test. It is not only unrepresentative of the nation as a whole but also even of a Republican Party that is whiter and less urban than the rest of the country. Moreover, the dominance of libertarian backers of the Ron and Rand Paul libertarian faction and social conservatives in the state party makes it inhospitable for candidates that are likely to win primaries elsewhere in the country, not to mention have a shot at actually winning the presidency in a general election. But it’s going to take more courage than most political consultants are usually able to muster to get any of them to advise serious candidates to shun Iowa in 2016. As much as 2012 was an illustration of Iowa’s irrelevance to the final results that year, ignoring the locus of political attention for months at the beginning of the primary season could be a serious mistake that could wind up damaging a more mainstream GOP candidate like Chris Christie and giving more conservative rivals an even bigger boost than they might otherwise receive.

On the face of it, it’s going to be tempting for Christie or someone like him in the 2016 race to ignore Iowa. The Ames Straw Poll is a pointless exercise that a more sensible party would scrap because it is more of a financial transaction (whoever buses in the most people and purchases tickets for them wins) than a genuine measure of political support. But that won’t happen because Iowa Republicans use it as a fundraiser. However, the caucus is also problematic because it is the creature of one wing of the party where those who cannot compete for the most right-wing voters seemingly haven’t much of a chance. What then is the point of a candidate with national appeal but not a favorite of Iowa conservatives expending precious time and money on a state they can’t win?

That’s what Rudolph Giuliani’s campaign thought when he didn’t bother trying in Iowa in 2008. His pro-choice views on abortion rendered him a certain loser in Iowa (as well as with the GOP nationwide) and he hadn’t a prayer of winning the caucus. But his absence from the competition left him dead in the water heading into the other primaries where his ultimately doomed candidacy might have fared better.

If Christie were looking for a better model than Giuliani, it would be Mitt Romney’s decision to try to win Iowa in 2008 even though he appeared out of step with the state’s Republicans. A divided field helped Romney with too many conservatives competing for the same votes. Moreover, had we known on the evening of the caucus that Rick Santorum had won by 34 votes—the ultimate result after all the ballots were counted—rather than thinking Romney had emerged as a narrow victor, that would have made things a bit more uncomfortable for the eventual nominee. But by showing up and competing, Romney demonstrated he intended to be the candidate of the whole party and not just those elements that were more likely to support him.

That’s a lesson Christie and any other Republican who thinks the odds are stacked against him in Iowa should ponder.

Like New Hampshire but only more so, Iowans are under the impression that they are entitled to meet presidential candidates personally and think any contender that doesn’t give them several opportunities to do so isn’t really trying. Conferring such a privilege on Iowans that is not given to the rest of the nation doesn’t make much sense. But since both Iowa and New Hampshire are more or less guaranteed their spots on the calendar, it’s not going to change. No matter how right-wing the Iowa GOP is, it’s like a Monday Night Football game: when nobody else is playing, everybody is forced to watch.

As in 2012, the Republican field will likely be crowded with plenty of competition for social conservative votes as well as the possibility that libertarians will be asked to choose between Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. That leaves plenty of room for a Chris Christie (whose credentials on abortion and other social issues make him far more palatable to most Republicans than Giuliani or someone like him) to go to Iowa and, like Romney, do well enough to avoid embarrassment before moving on to other states where right-wingers won’t be as dominant.

Iowa won’t determine the Republican presidential nominee in 2016 any more than it has done any other year (and if you don’t believe me, just ask Presidents Santorum or Huckabee about it). But whether the national party, the candidates, or the media like it or not, it will be the center ring of the political circus for a few months at the end of 2015. Any candidate who ignores it will be making a mistake.

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What’s Motivating Erdoğan on Egypt?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has become the most outspoken international leader condemning the coup in Egypt and calling for the restoration of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Certainly, part of Erdoğan’s commitment to Morsi is ideological: Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party is, at its roots, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both share an ideological and religious agenda and hope to remake their societies fundamentally.

It would give Erdoğan too much credit to suggest his only motivation is religious. Erdoğan is no saint; he is vain, coarse, and has amassed an amazing amount of money far beyond his salary or religious alms. In the months before Morsi’s ouster, Turkish defense contractors cultivated Egypt. From Hürriyet Daily News:

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has become the most outspoken international leader condemning the coup in Egypt and calling for the restoration of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Certainly, part of Erdoğan’s commitment to Morsi is ideological: Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party is, at its roots, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both share an ideological and religious agenda and hope to remake their societies fundamentally.

It would give Erdoğan too much credit to suggest his only motivation is religious. Erdoğan is no saint; he is vain, coarse, and has amassed an amazing amount of money far beyond his salary or religious alms. In the months before Morsi’s ouster, Turkish defense contractors cultivated Egypt. From Hürriyet Daily News:

An Arab diplomat in Ankara said he expected “difficult times” in Turkish-Egyptian relations, which may disrupt economic relations too, unless Ankara and Cairo prefer to pursue a pragmatic line… In May Turkey granted Egypt a $250 million loan to finance Turkish-Egyptian joint defense projects. The loan, the first of its kind, intends to boost defense cooperation and Turkish defense exports to Egypt. Earlier, Egypt expressed an interest in buying the new ANKA Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicles built by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI). Egypt was one of the pioneers in unmanned aerial systems, fielding the Teledyne Ryan Model 324 Scarab high speed drone and SkyEye tactical UAVs since the early 1980s. The addition of a MALE platform will fulfill the gap offering better persistence, improved imagery and multi-payload capacity. The potential sale of six to 10 ANKA systems to Egypt was discussed during Erdoğan’s visit to Cairo last November… In a separate deal, Ankara had approved the sale to Egypt of six multi-role tactical platforms, MRTP-20 “fast-intervention crafts,” produced by the privately-owned shipyards Yonca-Onuk.

Erdoğan may be angry at the financial hit Turkey took in Egypt, but the episode should also be a wake-up call to the changing military balance in the Middle East. While the United States provides Turkey with high-end military platforms, Turkey has been building up a military industry which potentially can change the military balance in the region. The coup may have voided Turkish military contracts in Egypt, but it is an open question what Turkey has provided to Islamists in other Arab Spring countries.

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Obama Already Waited Too Long on Syria

I agree with our Michael Rubin who writes today that the fuss about a United Nations investigation into the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar Assad regime in Syria is largely meaningless. There’s little doubt which side in the Syrian civil war committed the atrocity, and the Obama administration is right to be signaling that it is unimpressed by Assad’s belated decision to let U.N. inspectors into the area to make a determination. However, the president’s characteristically slow decision-making process as he decides if and how to react to the incident may turn out to be equally irrelevant to the question of whether the tyrant of Damascus is called to account in a meaningful way for the latest evidence of his depravity.

Given the willingness of the administration to speak openly of their certainty about Assad crossing the “red line” that the president established last year about the use of chemical weapons, it’s obvious the White House is calculating some sort of response. What exactly that response will be is still a matter of speculation. If, as many think, the president orders some sort of a strike on Assad’s forces or that of his Iranian and Hezbollah allies that are currently winning the war in Syria by a clear margin, perhaps he thinks he will have vindicated his reputation as a man of his word since he has taken so much heat for letting Assad cross his “red line” earlier this year with impunity. But short of a shower of cruise missiles that would decapitate the Syrian regime and completely change the course of the war there, it’s likely that any American action now would be more about Obama’s self-regard than anything else. Having passed on the chance to deal with the situation in Syria when minimal action might have ended Assad’s reign of terror without opening the gates to the al-Qaeda-related forces that currently play a huge role in the opposition, it’s just too late for a single show of force to make a difference.

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I agree with our Michael Rubin who writes today that the fuss about a United Nations investigation into the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar Assad regime in Syria is largely meaningless. There’s little doubt which side in the Syrian civil war committed the atrocity, and the Obama administration is right to be signaling that it is unimpressed by Assad’s belated decision to let U.N. inspectors into the area to make a determination. However, the president’s characteristically slow decision-making process as he decides if and how to react to the incident may turn out to be equally irrelevant to the question of whether the tyrant of Damascus is called to account in a meaningful way for the latest evidence of his depravity.

Given the willingness of the administration to speak openly of their certainty about Assad crossing the “red line” that the president established last year about the use of chemical weapons, it’s obvious the White House is calculating some sort of response. What exactly that response will be is still a matter of speculation. If, as many think, the president orders some sort of a strike on Assad’s forces or that of his Iranian and Hezbollah allies that are currently winning the war in Syria by a clear margin, perhaps he thinks he will have vindicated his reputation as a man of his word since he has taken so much heat for letting Assad cross his “red line” earlier this year with impunity. But short of a shower of cruise missiles that would decapitate the Syrian regime and completely change the course of the war there, it’s likely that any American action now would be more about Obama’s self-regard than anything else. Having passed on the chance to deal with the situation in Syria when minimal action might have ended Assad’s reign of terror without opening the gates to the al-Qaeda-related forces that currently play a huge role in the opposition, it’s just too late for a single show of force to make a difference.

President Obama’s pitiful performance on Syria over the past three years doesn’t need to be rehashed in depth. Suffice it to say that there isn’t much debate about the fact that had the United States chosen to act when the rebellion first began, Assad might well have been soon toppled without it opening the gates for radical Islamists to replace him. But instead he waited and did nothing except for incessantly predicting that Assad’s fall was imminent. Even a “lead from behind” strategy that was used in Libya might have been better than that because as the chaos in Syria spread, other forces entered the fray, complicating the conflict and reducing America’s options. On the one hand, groups related to al-Qaeda infiltrated the opposition to Assad, making regime change a less attractive option. On the other, Iran and Hezbollah’s entrance into the war raised the stakes in a regional conflict in which possession of Damascus becomes key to Tehran’s hopes for regional dominance that should scare the West more than anything else.

In the coming days we may be treated to the spectacle of a demonstration of American power in Syria. Expect the usual photos out of the situation room in the White House as the president and his team are depicted waiting for news of the strike and the subsequent celebration in the manner which we saw when the president took credit for the heroism of the Navy SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden. But nobody should mistake such theatrics for a coherent policy.

President Obama didn’t create this mess by himself, but he worsened it with rhetoric that he chose not to back up with action. So now that the world turns to the United States and ponders what it will do about Assad’s atrocities three years on, all Washington can offer is a gesture that is unlikely to make a whit of difference in Syria. At this point, even a full-fledged American decision to get involved in the military effort to oust Assad may be too little, too late.

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