Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 3, 2013

Reverse Course on Intermarriage?

There has been no more astute observer of the American Jewish community’s response to intermarriage than Jack Wertheimer. Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has been writing incisively about this topic and others for many years principally in the pages of COMMENTARY. He has taken up the issue again in this month’s issue of Mosaic where he argues that the organized American Jewish world’s defeatism about intermarriage is unjustified. Wertheimer provides a brief yet definitive history of the last 20-plus years of Jewish communal debate about intermarriage, and his analysis of the data leads him inexorably to the conclusion that most of what has been done has been utterly useless, if not completely counterproductive. He rightly believes the overwhelming emphasis on outreach and inclusion of intermarried families has done little or nothing to increase the chances that their children might choose to affiliate with the Jewish community in the future. Even worse, he understands the impulse to avoid any taint of a judgmental attitude about intermarriage, and that the desire to welcome those who choose to marry a non-Jew and their spouses and children has only helped to engender greater acceptance of a trend that threatens to drastically reduce Jewish numbers in the future and to undermine the community’s ability to maintain vital institutions.

Wertheimer laments this trend as being “abnormal if not a preposterous response” when placed in the broad scope of history in which endogamy is honored as a key Jewish value. But what bothers him just as much is the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jewish groups in this country think there’s nothing they can do about it. He sees this point of view as not only wrong in and of itself but also based on a false reading of what affiliated Jews believe is right. In response to this mistake he urges organized Jewry to take a more assertive approach to the problem that would reject the emphasis on outreach and instead place more effort on encouraging conversion and trying to convince single Jews to marry within the community.

I think he’s completely right on the facts and in his conclusion. This article should be must reading for all rabbis, communal professionals, and interested laypeople. It should be spoken of in synagogues around the country during the High Holidays in the coming week and I would hope that it would provoke a spirited debate in both the pews and the boardrooms. But I must also say that a career spent covering Jewish life in this country leads me to believe the chances of his advice being heeded are virtually nil. Having spent the last two decades bending over backwards to undermine any notion of meaningful boundaries between Jews and non-Jews, most of the organized Jewish world is simply incapable of reversing course on intermarriage. Doing so would require it to admit error. That is hard enough. But it would also require the sort of courage that is in short supply in a community that works primarily on the principle of consensus that has elevated inclusion to a core principle that trumps every other value.

Read More

There has been no more astute observer of the American Jewish community’s response to intermarriage than Jack Wertheimer. Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has been writing incisively about this topic and others for many years principally in the pages of COMMENTARY. He has taken up the issue again in this month’s issue of Mosaic where he argues that the organized American Jewish world’s defeatism about intermarriage is unjustified. Wertheimer provides a brief yet definitive history of the last 20-plus years of Jewish communal debate about intermarriage, and his analysis of the data leads him inexorably to the conclusion that most of what has been done has been utterly useless, if not completely counterproductive. He rightly believes the overwhelming emphasis on outreach and inclusion of intermarried families has done little or nothing to increase the chances that their children might choose to affiliate with the Jewish community in the future. Even worse, he understands the impulse to avoid any taint of a judgmental attitude about intermarriage, and that the desire to welcome those who choose to marry a non-Jew and their spouses and children has only helped to engender greater acceptance of a trend that threatens to drastically reduce Jewish numbers in the future and to undermine the community’s ability to maintain vital institutions.

Wertheimer laments this trend as being “abnormal if not a preposterous response” when placed in the broad scope of history in which endogamy is honored as a key Jewish value. But what bothers him just as much is the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jewish groups in this country think there’s nothing they can do about it. He sees this point of view as not only wrong in and of itself but also based on a false reading of what affiliated Jews believe is right. In response to this mistake he urges organized Jewry to take a more assertive approach to the problem that would reject the emphasis on outreach and instead place more effort on encouraging conversion and trying to convince single Jews to marry within the community.

I think he’s completely right on the facts and in his conclusion. This article should be must reading for all rabbis, communal professionals, and interested laypeople. It should be spoken of in synagogues around the country during the High Holidays in the coming week and I would hope that it would provoke a spirited debate in both the pews and the boardrooms. But I must also say that a career spent covering Jewish life in this country leads me to believe the chances of his advice being heeded are virtually nil. Having spent the last two decades bending over backwards to undermine any notion of meaningful boundaries between Jews and non-Jews, most of the organized Jewish world is simply incapable of reversing course on intermarriage. Doing so would require it to admit error. That is hard enough. But it would also require the sort of courage that is in short supply in a community that works primarily on the principle of consensus that has elevated inclusion to a core principle that trumps every other value.

I should note in passing that I come to this issue with some history of my own. More than 18 years ago, when I was serving as editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger newspaper, I stumbled into a major controversy when I wrote a column explaining the policies of that paper regarding the announcement of intermarriages. My decision to reaffirm the existing policy of the paper not to include such events in the paper’s free page commemorating notable events in the community and to place it in the context of the broader debate about the community provoked a spirited–and at times, angry–discussion that soon spread to the mainstream press. It culminated in a New York Times article about the issue that generated a deluge of hate mail and death threats aimed at the paper, as well as vocal support.

In retrospect, the whole controversy seems almost quaint not only because the focus of the dispute seems so unimportant in the great scheme of events but also because it is virtually impossible to imagine anyone outside the Orthodox world taking a similar stance today. Most of us now understand that intermarriage is just a symptom of a broader trend involving assimilation and the decline of a sense of Jewish peoplehood. While few would dispute my arguments about the implications of intermarriage, the boat had probably already sailed on the issue at the time and that is even truer today.

Looking back on the experience and the subsequent year or two during which I was a frequent guest speaker at intermarriage outreach group events (those invitations were probably extended in the expectation that I would be the moral equivalent of the guy in the dunking booth at fairs, but most of the encounters were actually quite thoughtful), I learned a few things about the way the issue could place pressure on Jewish institutions. As an independent journalist, I didn’t have much to lose in asking people to draw a distinction between their personal inclinations and what was necessary to preserve the Jewish future. But others were not so fortunate. Moreover, even though virtually everyone—including intermarried couples—agreed that some lines should be drawn (we just disagreed on where they should be), the dynamic of the debate was such that any action that could be depicted as hurting the feelings of those who had made such a choice or saying no to them was impossible for non-Orthodox institutions.

As I wrote back then and Wertheimer noted in his Mosaic piece, intermarriage is the product of American freedom and the wide acceptance of Jews into American society. For most of those Jews who are not religious, that means adhering to endogamy requires a conscious decision to swim against a cultural tide that not only breaks down most distinctions between people but also wrongly regards any insistence on sticking to your own group as illegitimate if not racist. No one disputes that intermarried families interested in being part of the community should be welcomed. But with intermarriages now estimated to constitute more than half of those unions involving Jews, the trend has a built-in constituency that sees anything but complete acceptance of them as a litmus test of affiliation. While some optimists have claimed that the large number of families with feet in both the non-Jewish and Jewish communities is an opportunity for Jews to increase their numbers, as Wertheimer reports, the statistics point in the opposite direction. Yet even though a generation of emphasis on outreach has produced little but evidence of good intentions, Jewish groups aren’t likely to take Wertheimer’s advice and stand up for principle.

However, the primary obstacle to such a decision isn’t only the potential hurt feelings of the intermarried and their relatives and the way they have abandoned institutions—like the Conservative movement of Judaism—that refused to acquiesce to all of their demands. Just as important in understanding the failure of Jewish groups to face facts is the way the cult of inclusion has become enshrined in Jewish life. As those involved in debates about Israel and the BDS movement that aims to destroy it know all too well, asking communal institutions to draw a line in the sand about anti-Zionism is sometimes even more controversial than opposing intermarriage. With increasing numbers of communal professionals having grown up in an atmosphere in which increasing the size of the big tent is the primary value they’ve been taught to respect, asking them to look inward rather than outward is tantamount to suggesting that this overwhelmingly liberal population embrace pro-life stands rather than support abortion rights. It isn’t going to happen.

Wertheimer is right that those who form the core of the Jewish community already agree with him. Since it this group—which is statistically more likely to have had a serious Jewish education, gone to a Jewish camp and/or visited Israel among other factors—which will make up an increasingly larger percentage of the community in the years to come as the children of the intermarried drift away, perhaps Wertheimer’s views will eventually be heeded. But while I applaud his stand and hope his article marks the beginning of a reassessment of acceptance of intermarriage, I think we are still many years away from that point. Until then, any such initiative is almost certainly doomed.

Read Less

Assessing the Facts on the Ground in Syria

In an earlier post I wrote that there’s a real difference of opinion, including among conservatives, about whether an effective show of force against the Assad regime that would alter the balance of power would be worthwhile. I said this:

Some military analysts, like (retired) General Jack Keane, believe the more moderate and secular rebel forces (like the Free Syrian Army) are in fairly strong shape and, if given the training and arms they need, could emerge as a powerful force in a post-Assad Syria. Others, like Colonel Ralph Peters, believe the rebel forces that are strongest in Syria right now and most likely to emerge as dominant in a post-Assad Syria are al-Qaeda affiliates like Jabhat al-Nusra. I will admit it’s unclear to me–and I suspect fairly unclear to almost everyone else–what would happen if Assad left the scene. Which makes knowing what to do, and what to counsel, difficult.

With that in mind, I wanted to call attention to this op-ed by Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, and which was published in the Wall Street Journal. Ms. O’Bagy has made numerous trips to Syria over the last year and she’s spent hundreds of hours with Syrian opposition groups ranging from Free Syrian Army affiliates to the Ahrar al-Sham Brigade. She writes this:

Read More

In an earlier post I wrote that there’s a real difference of opinion, including among conservatives, about whether an effective show of force against the Assad regime that would alter the balance of power would be worthwhile. I said this:

Some military analysts, like (retired) General Jack Keane, believe the more moderate and secular rebel forces (like the Free Syrian Army) are in fairly strong shape and, if given the training and arms they need, could emerge as a powerful force in a post-Assad Syria. Others, like Colonel Ralph Peters, believe the rebel forces that are strongest in Syria right now and most likely to emerge as dominant in a post-Assad Syria are al-Qaeda affiliates like Jabhat al-Nusra. I will admit it’s unclear to me–and I suspect fairly unclear to almost everyone else–what would happen if Assad left the scene. Which makes knowing what to do, and what to counsel, difficult.

With that in mind, I wanted to call attention to this op-ed by Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, and which was published in the Wall Street Journal. Ms. O’Bagy has made numerous trips to Syria over the last year and she’s spent hundreds of hours with Syrian opposition groups ranging from Free Syrian Army affiliates to the Ahrar al-Sham Brigade. She writes this:

The conventional wisdom holds that the extremist elements are completely mixed in with the more moderate rebel groups. This isn’t the case. Moderates and extremists wield control over distinct territory….  Contrary to many media accounts, the war in Syria is not being waged entirely, or even predominantly, by dangerous Islamists and al Qaeda die-hards. The jihadists pouring into Syria from countries like Iraq and Lebanon are not flocking to the front lines. Instead they are concentrating their efforts on consolidating control in the northern, rebel-held areas of the country… Moderate opposition forces—a collection of groups known as the Free Syrian Army—continue to lead the fight against the Syrian regime. While traveling with some of these Free Syrian Army battalions, I’ve watched them defend Alawi and Christian villages from government forces and extremist groups. They’ve demonstrated a willingness to submit to civilian authority, working closely with local administrative councils. And they have struggled to ensure that their fight against Assad will pave the way for a flourishing civil society.

Ms. O’Bagy goes on to add, “a punitive measure undertaken just to send a message would likely produce more harm than good.” She argues that the ultimate goal should be destroying Assad’s military capability while simultaneously empowering the moderate opposition with robust support, in order to change the balance of power in Syria. Otherwise the conflict will engulf the entire region.

I haven’t shifted in my view that Syria, thanks in part (but not in whole) to President Obama’s incompetence, is a very complicated challenge. But this much I do know: Thinking through what policy to pursue always has to begin with an honest assessment of the facts on the ground. And it seems to me that Elizabeth O’Bagy’s op-ed is a very good place to start.

Read Less

Why the Syria Resolution Remains Vague

The Obama administration has over the last week made its case for military action in Syria both publicly to the American people and privately to members of Congress. Today, the administration fused the two by sending top Cabinet officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, to publicly implore the Senate to support strikes on Syria. But one of the curious aspects of this plea is that it remains unclear what, exactly, Congress would be authorizing.

The administration wants to strike at Assad for stepping over President Obama’s chemical-weapons red line. But he doesn’t intend to topple Assad or specifically help the rebels–indeed, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the administration clearly has cold feet about its previous promises to arm the rebels. That is reasonable–the rebel factions have become increasingly characterized and led by extremist elements. But it is creating some confusion as to the goal of this proposed military action in Syria. In terms of getting congressional authorization, the administration has two options. The two are very different, however, both in their execution and in what they will tell us about American partisan politics.

Read More

The Obama administration has over the last week made its case for military action in Syria both publicly to the American people and privately to members of Congress. Today, the administration fused the two by sending top Cabinet officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, to publicly implore the Senate to support strikes on Syria. But one of the curious aspects of this plea is that it remains unclear what, exactly, Congress would be authorizing.

The administration wants to strike at Assad for stepping over President Obama’s chemical-weapons red line. But he doesn’t intend to topple Assad or specifically help the rebels–indeed, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the administration clearly has cold feet about its previous promises to arm the rebels. That is reasonable–the rebel factions have become increasingly characterized and led by extremist elements. But it is creating some confusion as to the goal of this proposed military action in Syria. In terms of getting congressional authorization, the administration has two options. The two are very different, however, both in their execution and in what they will tell us about American partisan politics.

The president is not interested in ordering a ground invasion into Syria, and the Congress has no interest in approving one. But aside from that, it may not get any clearer before the resolution goes before Congress. That’s because the president wants the resolution to pass more than he cares about the details of it–within certain parameters, of course. So option No. 1 is to lob essentially a blank page at Congress and, through committee drafts and accepted amendments, let the members of Congress who support military action against Syria steer the resolution through the House and Senate.

The advantages to this strategy are obvious: if the president loses the vote, as did the British prime minister, it will be a colossal embarrassment. Passing something avoids the agony of defeat. Since President Obama knows that Congress won’t hand him back an authorization for a ground war in Syria, he doesn’t have much to lose, but plenty to gain: he will have bipartisan buy-in for whatever action he ends up commanding, sparing him further political isolation.

In this scenario, he gets most of the credit, as presidents usually do, if the mission is deemed a success. After all, he was the one who set the red line and pushed for action. And while he’ll also shoulder the lion’s share of the blame should it go sour–again, he set the red line–he can argue not only that both parties and the two immediately relevant branches of government stood behind the act, but that Congress pretty much wrote the resolution.

Additionally, he gets the benefit (at least as supporters of action in Syria will see it) of getting assistance and guidance from congressional hawks in the guise of honoring the separation of powers and deferring to congressional consent. Since Obama has indicated that he is motivated at least in part by a desire to save face here, the process is important to him.

There is another aspect of Obama’s decision on the resolution to consider, and it is potentially far more interesting. If Obama lets Congress decide the wording and extent of the authorization of the use of force in Syria, it will be greatly influenced by the Republicans he needs on board. That means the next round of “GOP civil war” stories will be just around the bend. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and any others vying to lead their party going forward will have to do more than just vote on the resolution. They will debate the future of the party’s foreign policy, at least in the near term. The resolution that emerges from the process will be, to some degree, a statement of GOP priorities with regard to foreign affairs.

If instead the president retains control over the wording of the resolution, then Congress will be debating the Obama Doctrine. The president will get his up-or-down vote on it, but he’ll own the final product and will saddle his potential Democratic successors with it. That is the riskier, and therefore less likely, route for the president and his party. But the president is still taking a risk by leaving it up to Congress to map out the details, because the split could produce a resolution that is more activist in its military response and therefore less likely to pass in the end.

It’s doubtful many in the GOP saw this coming, but a casual threat about a red line from a Democratic president may end up spurring the formation of the current Republican Party’s foreign-policy identity. If that’s the case, this debate will have implications far beyond Syria.

Read Less

The Gap Between Kerry’s Rhetoric and Obama’s Plans

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry put forth a compelling and at times eloquent argument on behalf of U.S. action in Syria. But as was the case with Kerry’s statements last week that seemed to be the prelude to swift and decisive U.S. action in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, the secretary’s remarks to the committee seemed out of proportion to what the administration seemed to be promising if Congress acceded to the president’s request for an authorization of force.

If American credibility is on the line in Syria now that Assad has used chemical weapons, as Kerry rightly noted, what the administration is failing to adequately explain is how a military plan that would leave the dictator in place and with his armed forces largely intact is commensurate with the secretary’s ringing neoconservative rhetoric about the need for action. The problem is that having established a rationale for action about chemical weapons and repeating that President Obama’s policy was that “Assad must go,” how can the administration pretend that a shower of missiles will be enough to match Kerry’s “never again means never” stance. Any military response—even a purely symbolic one—would deny Assad the “impunity” that Kerry correctly fears would be the result of American inaction. But the administration’s attempt to justify a course of action that would avoid any American casualties and could not be interpreted as a full-fledged intervention and would not do much to destroy Assad’s main forces seems to be disconnected from the principles the secretary articulated.

Read More

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry put forth a compelling and at times eloquent argument on behalf of U.S. action in Syria. But as was the case with Kerry’s statements last week that seemed to be the prelude to swift and decisive U.S. action in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, the secretary’s remarks to the committee seemed out of proportion to what the administration seemed to be promising if Congress acceded to the president’s request for an authorization of force.

If American credibility is on the line in Syria now that Assad has used chemical weapons, as Kerry rightly noted, what the administration is failing to adequately explain is how a military plan that would leave the dictator in place and with his armed forces largely intact is commensurate with the secretary’s ringing neoconservative rhetoric about the need for action. The problem is that having established a rationale for action about chemical weapons and repeating that President Obama’s policy was that “Assad must go,” how can the administration pretend that a shower of missiles will be enough to match Kerry’s “never again means never” stance. Any military response—even a purely symbolic one—would deny Assad the “impunity” that Kerry correctly fears would be the result of American inaction. But the administration’s attempt to justify a course of action that would avoid any American casualties and could not be interpreted as a full-fledged intervention and would not do much to destroy Assad’s main forces seems to be disconnected from the principles the secretary articulated.

Part of the explanation for the yawning gap between Kerry’s words and the sort of minimal U.S. action indicated by the various leaks coming from administration sources about the details of the proposed attack lies in the fact that the secretary of state seems to have little influence with the president. After all, Kerry’s speeches last week seemed to promise swift action on Syria only to be followed by the president’s public agonizing and ultimate decision to shift responsibility for the attack to Congress rather than taking action on his own.

The chain of events that led up to today’s hearings left Kerry open to the most acute embarrassment as it was revealed that he had little influence with the president and seemed to be out of the loop when it came to the White House’s decision-making process. That places Kerry’s major policy initiative—the revived Middle East peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians—in a troubling perspective that ought to worry those who have urged Israel to gamble its security on America’s credibility.

But the main question raised by Kerry’s soaring words is whether an action that is limited to “degrading” Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons and to “deter” him from future use, while avoiding any mention of regime change, can be squared with an argument on its behalf that seems to promise dire consequences should the butcher of Damascus survive Obama’s offensive.

The administration’s main priority is obvious: not do anything that could be interpreted as a new war or “tipping the scale” in the Syrian civil war against Assad. Given the widespread unpopularity of any such intervention, this reluctance is understandable. But despite the verbal gymnastics of Kerry, Secretary of Defense Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Dempsey, in which they have sought to differentiate their proposal from a military solution, logically there is no way to achieve the president’s goals by the kind of action he is proposing. After waiting so long to act and then to put on a spectacle of a debate in which the growing faction of isolationists in Congress will be able to further undermine any notion of national unity on this question, it’s hard to see why Assad should fear Kerry’s threats. After all, the dictator is far more assured of continued backing from Iran and Russia (which has prevented a United Nations seal of approval) than Obama is of an American consensus on behalf of his position.

As dangerous as a congressional vote to refuse an authorization of force against Syria would be, it’s hard not to avoid thinking about the consequences of a brief U.S. missile barrage that does nothing to alter the tide of war that has seemed to swing inexorably in favor of victory for Assad. This resolution may be the best Obama can do now that he has hesitated and turned to Congress for authorization rather than acting decisively, as he could have, on his own authority. But if a year from now we look back on Kerry’s words and ponder a Middle East in which Iran has secured the survival of its ally Assad, the gap between words and action will seem even greater.

Read Less

U.S. Credibility, Not “Israel Lobby” Will Decide Syria Vote

There was never much doubt that sooner or later any debate about U.S. action on Syria would get around to an effort to drag the “Israel Lobby” canard out of the closet. While some on the right are wrongly characterizing the case for striking the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons as Obama’s war for “al-Qaeda in Syria,” some on the left are back to riding their own favorite hobbyhorses and blaming the whole thing on Israel. That’s the upshot of a piece published on the Atlantic’s website in which James Fallows posted a lengthy quote from William R. Polk in which the author and former State Department staffer seeks not only to claim that the proof of chemical weapons was cooked up by Israel but that the Jewish state used chemical weapons in Lebanon and Gaza. Suffice it to say the former charge is contradicted by the large body of evidence about what happened in Syria that has been made public in the last week as the impact of the most recent use of chemical weapons by Assad became clear. The latter charges are simply lies.

That such weak and nasty stuff should get an airing at the Atlantic is troubling. But it is just as unfortunate to read accounts in other mainstream outlets such as the New York Times that the Obama administration appears to be counting on supporters of Israel to pull the president’s chestnuts out of the fire on Syria. While Israel certainly has an interest in the survival of American influence in the Middle East, the idea of shifting the discussion from one that revolves around America’s credibility and national security to one that seeks to parse the decision as either good or bad for the Jewish state is a profound misreading of the administration’s problem. No endorsement from Israel or AIPAC can substitute for the ability of the president and his team to articulate a case for the sort of action that they know they must take.

Read More

There was never much doubt that sooner or later any debate about U.S. action on Syria would get around to an effort to drag the “Israel Lobby” canard out of the closet. While some on the right are wrongly characterizing the case for striking the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons as Obama’s war for “al-Qaeda in Syria,” some on the left are back to riding their own favorite hobbyhorses and blaming the whole thing on Israel. That’s the upshot of a piece published on the Atlantic’s website in which James Fallows posted a lengthy quote from William R. Polk in which the author and former State Department staffer seeks not only to claim that the proof of chemical weapons was cooked up by Israel but that the Jewish state used chemical weapons in Lebanon and Gaza. Suffice it to say the former charge is contradicted by the large body of evidence about what happened in Syria that has been made public in the last week as the impact of the most recent use of chemical weapons by Assad became clear. The latter charges are simply lies.

That such weak and nasty stuff should get an airing at the Atlantic is troubling. But it is just as unfortunate to read accounts in other mainstream outlets such as the New York Times that the Obama administration appears to be counting on supporters of Israel to pull the president’s chestnuts out of the fire on Syria. While Israel certainly has an interest in the survival of American influence in the Middle East, the idea of shifting the discussion from one that revolves around America’s credibility and national security to one that seeks to parse the decision as either good or bad for the Jewish state is a profound misreading of the administration’s problem. No endorsement from Israel or AIPAC can substitute for the ability of the president and his team to articulate a case for the sort of action that they know they must take.

Does Israel benefit from U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war, as Polk claims? In principle, the answer to that question has always been no. Israel has no friends in Syria and no matter which side wins that struggle it will be on its guard. But, like every other friend of the United States across the globe, the Jewish state cannot look on at the spectacle of impotence and indecision on the part of President Obama last week with anything but dismay. If the White House requires a congressional vote to get up the nerve to keep his word about a “red line” on chemical weapons, it’s no surprise that many Israelis, like its President Shimon Peres, who is a dedicated fan of Obama, hope he will get it.

It is also true that friends of Israel are deeply worried that if President Obama is unable to respond to a direct challenge in Syria there is little hope he will ever do so on Iran, even though his promises to stop Iran have left him no wriggle room on the issue. As such, many are hoping he will show that when he makes a threat about a weapon of mass destruction, it’s not mere rhetoric as many of the president’s defenders have treated his original “red line” comment. However, there is no guarantee that even if Obama eventually orders a strike on Syria that he will ever act on Iran, even after his latest feckless attempts to engage the ayatollahs inevitably fail. The president’s willingness to keep his word on Iran is as much up in the air as his ultimate intentions in Syria.

But the question of American credibility and influence is bigger than Israel and everyone in Washington knows it. It is not only Jerusalem that should tremble at the dispiriting abdication of responsibility by the president. Those who try and shoehorn this issue into the familiar arguments and myths about the power of the “Israel Lobby” are missing the real issue: whether the United States can effectively go on defending its national interests if the word of its president is allowed to be so flagrantly flaunted by a Middle East butcher like Assad or frustrated by the stacked diplomatic deck at the United Nations. A congressional vote won’t resolve those doubts. Doing so will obligate the president to lead and to make his case for action on its own merits rather than to put the blame on Israel and its friends.

Read Less

Congress Can’t Fill Obama’s Leadership Void

In recent decades, many political observers and historians have often lamented the creation of an “imperial presidency” whose power was virtually unchecked by other branches of the government. Concerns along these lines have grown in the last five years as President Obama seemed even less concerned with respecting the limits the Constitution placed on the executive branch than most of his predecessors as he sought to enlarge the scope and the power of the federal government on domestic issues, especially with regard to his signature health care legislation, ObamaCare. But as we have learned in the last week, when it comes to foreign policy this is a president who has gone in a completely different direction.

As John, Peter, and Max noted over the weekend, the president’s vacillation over whether to respond to Syria’s crossing of the “red line” he had enunciated last year over the use of chemical weapons culminated in a last-minute decision to postpone a strike on the Assad regime and to instead wait for unnecessary congressional approval. In doing so, he made a laughingstock of America’s credibility and caused allies and enemies to question whether this administration had the will to act or could be trusted to keep its word. Optimists may say that the president’s efforts to sell Congress on backing his plan for limited strikes as well as the statements of some congressional leaders will undo the damage done by the White House’s Hamlet act. But it must be understood that not even decisive statements, like that of House Speaker John Boehner offering support this morning to the president, cannot save the situation.

Read More

In recent decades, many political observers and historians have often lamented the creation of an “imperial presidency” whose power was virtually unchecked by other branches of the government. Concerns along these lines have grown in the last five years as President Obama seemed even less concerned with respecting the limits the Constitution placed on the executive branch than most of his predecessors as he sought to enlarge the scope and the power of the federal government on domestic issues, especially with regard to his signature health care legislation, ObamaCare. But as we have learned in the last week, when it comes to foreign policy this is a president who has gone in a completely different direction.

As John, Peter, and Max noted over the weekend, the president’s vacillation over whether to respond to Syria’s crossing of the “red line” he had enunciated last year over the use of chemical weapons culminated in a last-minute decision to postpone a strike on the Assad regime and to instead wait for unnecessary congressional approval. In doing so, he made a laughingstock of America’s credibility and caused allies and enemies to question whether this administration had the will to act or could be trusted to keep its word. Optimists may say that the president’s efforts to sell Congress on backing his plan for limited strikes as well as the statements of some congressional leaders will undo the damage done by the White House’s Hamlet act. But it must be understood that not even decisive statements, like that of House Speaker John Boehner offering support this morning to the president, cannot save the situation.

The implications of the congressional debate that will ensue on the future of American foreign policy are clear. Given the growth of isolationism on the right and the left, Obama’s decision to punt on Syria has opened the gates for those who have advocated for an American retreat from global responsibilities to gain more influence. Even if, as it is to be hoped, a majority of both houses of Congress vote to back American action in Syria, it’s not likely that the result of what will follow in the coming days will convince the world that America is still prepared to lead. Although there are good reasons to worry about any intervention in Syria, the arguments for inaction are unpersuasive. Given the stakes involved in letting Assad survive in terms of increasing the power of his Iranian and Hezbollah allies and the precedent set in terms of allowing the use of chemical weapons, the case for action in Syria is powerful.

Boehner deserves credit for speaking up after meeting with the president and making it clear the leadership of the House of Representatives is not prepared to bow to the growing chorus of politicians who are more concerned with placing limits on the executive or opposing Obama at every turn than the need to stand up against genocidal dictators. Given the refusal of many Republicans to stand up to the Rand Paul wing of their party, it is refreshing for the normally cautious House speaker to show his willingness to put the national interest above partisan concerns.

But no matter what Boehner or people like John McCain or Peter King say this week, there is no substitute for presidential leadership. As I wrote last week, it is axiomatic that liberal Democrats are far better placed to convince a majority of Americans that military action is needed in any circumstance than a conservative Republican. Though the left is just as uncomfortable with the assertion of American power as many on the right, there is little doubt that the president is far better placed than his predecessor was or any Republican might be to rally the country behind a policy that would draw a line in the sand about weapons of mass destruction. But with Obama faltering, no one should labor under the illusion that a divided Congress can either stiffen his spin or step into the leadership vacuum he has left.

The implications of the president’s bungling of Syria for the Iranian nuclear threat are clear. Even if the president actually does intend to keep his word to prevent Tehran from gaining a nuclear weapon, his ability to deter Iran or to get them to take his threats seriously has been materially damaged in the last month. For all of the often-justified worries about the dangers of an unchecked “imperial presidency,” there is no substitute in our system for a president who is willing to lead in the midst of a foreign crisis. Until President Obama leaves the White House, that is a handicap this nation and the world that looks to the United States for leadership cannot overcome. 

Read Less

Why the Russian “Reset” Failed

Today’s New York Times eulogy of the Russian “reset” is a worthwhile read, as would be expected from veteran reporter and Russia watcher Peter Baker. The piece tells the story of the ill-fated reset from start to finish, though the two points arguably occurred simultaneously. That is, the reset never really got off the ground, because Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin had no interest.

It wasn’t so much that Putin found President Obama to be unlikeable or offensive. It’s that he seems to have viewed Obama’s Kumbaya quest much the way the rest of the world viewed it–and, it’s worth adding, the way it deserved to be viewed. It was both utterly meaningless and quite literally a waste of time. Putin never understood why exactly he was supposed to invest time and energy in pretending to care that Obama pretended to like him.

Read More

Today’s New York Times eulogy of the Russian “reset” is a worthwhile read, as would be expected from veteran reporter and Russia watcher Peter Baker. The piece tells the story of the ill-fated reset from start to finish, though the two points arguably occurred simultaneously. That is, the reset never really got off the ground, because Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin had no interest.

It wasn’t so much that Putin found President Obama to be unlikeable or offensive. It’s that he seems to have viewed Obama’s Kumbaya quest much the way the rest of the world viewed it–and, it’s worth adding, the way it deserved to be viewed. It was both utterly meaningless and quite literally a waste of time. Putin never understood why exactly he was supposed to invest time and energy in pretending to care that Obama pretended to like him.

Putin’s impatience was bottled up during the administration of Dmitry Medvedev, when the Kremlin pretended Putin wasn’t in charge. But that bottle was uncorked the moment Putin retook the throne. Baker’s piece begins with a story about how, days before Putin was to formally resume his presidency in 2012, Obama’s national security hand Tom Donilon was dispatched to Moscow for a face-to-face meeting with him. Putin opened the discussion with a question: “When are you going to start bombing Syria?”

Baker was savvy enough to lead off his piece with this incident presumably because he understands the degree to which that one sentence sums up the rocky relationship between Obama and Putin. The two leaders have at least one personality trait in common: they both devote an inordinate amount of attention to appearances. But it’s this shared concern that sabotages the bilateral ties. Obama wants to present the appearance of a man who prioritizes thoughtful engagement and cross-cultural understanding. Putin wants you to know he just shot this Siberian tiger.

The Obama White House was naïve; to their credit, some in the administration are willing to admit this, even if anonymously–though you have to wait to the end of the article for it:

But Obama aides say they oversold the reset, both to the public and maybe even to themselves; it was never meant to transform Russia into an American-style democracy or eliminate all areas of friction. “We probably overestimated the shared-interest angle,” said one official.

The goal now is to keep it from sliding much further. “I don’t think it’s going to get any better any time soon,” said a former administration official. “In fact, I think the potential for something worse is pretty high.”

In their attempt to fool the public they fooled themselves instead, though they never fooled Putin for a moment. Elsewhere, Baker writes: “The arrival of [Edward] Snowden in Moscow, coming on top of anger over a new Russian law against pro-gay ‘propaganda,’ was nothing more than a final death blow to the reset.” The reset had been dead a while, but apparently the president was the last to know.

Being nicer to the Kremlin in public didn’t win Obama any good will from Putin because Putin doesn’t believe in notions like good will having any place in international affairs. Do you have something he wants? Does he have something you want? Those are questions he has time for. Anything else is nonsense. Putin is nobody’s therapist and he’s nobody’s pen pal. He has a state to run, human rights to violate, and a major asset in the Middle East that is embroiled in a nasty civil war. By the way, that reminds him: when are you going to bomb Syria?

This doesn’t mean that Putin is a realist–he is an authoritarian thug. But neither is Obama a realist–the reset was plainly and transparently a fantasy. White House aides in the story talk up the “successes” of the reset, the latest START treaty foremost among them. But START was a bland distraction from the real nuclear proliferation-related issues and thus a waste of political capital. In Obama’s limited defense, though, it’s clear his lack of experience and nonexistent relationship with Congress meant he had no idea he’d have to spend political capital on it in the first place. As Baker reports:

The highest-profile victory was their treaty called New Start, paring the legal ceilings for deployed strategic warheads by a third and launchers by half. But it proved to be more of a slog than Mr. Obama and his team expected. “We thought Start was going to be easy, we really did,” said a former official. “And it turned out to be very, very hard.”

This also raises the question of how much credit the reset can take for even modest, debatable “successes.” Here is the lasting legacy of the reset, from the administration’s point of view:

Obama advisers argue it worked in a way by restoring relations after the rift over the Georgia war. There are areas of cooperation even now. Moscow has not reneged on the New Start treaty or the Afghanistan supply route.

This is when defending the reset begins to veer from naïve to delusional. If you think Moscow cooperated on Afghanistan because Obama was nice to Putin and not because it meant having coalition forces bear the responsibility for containing the Afghan tribal wars and drug trade, you haven’t paid much attention to Putin’s policy in Central Asia.

And perhaps neither had Obama, but that appears to have changed. Administration advisors–named and anonymous, current and former–may argue over the details, but no one seems to be making the case that the reset is still in play. Baker’s article represents the administration’s acknowledgement of reality, a welcome shift in perspective–though it remains to be seen if it also heralds a change in policy.

Read Less

Peace Through Profits? Palestinians Say No

Journalist Richard Behar thought he had discovered the real road map to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. In the August 12 cover story of Forbes magazine, Behar wrote about the way Israeli high-tech businesses were striving to work with Palestinian counterparts. The result of this cooperation was not only helping to create much-needed development in the West Bank. It was also creating a larger potential constituency for peace. The relationships as well as the business ties that this movement was driving could help transform Palestinian politics, moving it away from confrontation and violence and giving rise to a middle class with an interest in peace. In particular, the efforts of companies like CISCO to bridge the gap between the two peoples in pursuit of a common business goal seemed to be a model that could be expanded upon that gives genuine hope for an end to the conflict.

But in the aftermath of the publication of his article, Behar has learned an interesting lesson. As he writes in a follow-up article in Forbes, Palestinian businessmen named in the piece as working with Israelis were horrified about what he had written. They were happy about their businesses being highlighted in a prestigious business magazine, but any mention of working with Israel or, even worse, promoting peace, was regarded as treason to the Palestinian cause. They were soon demanding that the piece be retracted or taken down from the Forbes website. The very idea of “Peace Through Profits,” as the original Forbes headline read, exposed these businesspeople to being ostracized as “collaborators” or even exposing them to violence. Ironically, rather than discovering the path to peace, Behar has illustrated why the chances for an agreement to end the conflict are virtually nonexistent right now. So long as the culture of Palestinian politics is focused almost entirely on hostility and hatred toward Israel, neither top-down negotiations nor economic cooperation will make it possible for leaders or businessmen to do anything to move the region toward peace.

Read More

Journalist Richard Behar thought he had discovered the real road map to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. In the August 12 cover story of Forbes magazine, Behar wrote about the way Israeli high-tech businesses were striving to work with Palestinian counterparts. The result of this cooperation was not only helping to create much-needed development in the West Bank. It was also creating a larger potential constituency for peace. The relationships as well as the business ties that this movement was driving could help transform Palestinian politics, moving it away from confrontation and violence and giving rise to a middle class with an interest in peace. In particular, the efforts of companies like CISCO to bridge the gap between the two peoples in pursuit of a common business goal seemed to be a model that could be expanded upon that gives genuine hope for an end to the conflict.

But in the aftermath of the publication of his article, Behar has learned an interesting lesson. As he writes in a follow-up article in Forbes, Palestinian businessmen named in the piece as working with Israelis were horrified about what he had written. They were happy about their businesses being highlighted in a prestigious business magazine, but any mention of working with Israel or, even worse, promoting peace, was regarded as treason to the Palestinian cause. They were soon demanding that the piece be retracted or taken down from the Forbes website. The very idea of “Peace Through Profits,” as the original Forbes headline read, exposed these businesspeople to being ostracized as “collaborators” or even exposing them to violence. Ironically, rather than discovering the path to peace, Behar has illustrated why the chances for an agreement to end the conflict are virtually nonexistent right now. So long as the culture of Palestinian politics is focused almost entirely on hostility and hatred toward Israel, neither top-down negotiations nor economic cooperation will make it possible for leaders or businessmen to do anything to move the region toward peace.

This is sobering stuff for those Americans and Israelis who have clung to the vision of a “New Middle East” that Shimon Peres first promulgated 20 years ago at the height of the post-Oslo euphoria. The notion that the region could be transformed into another version of the Benelux countries was also more of a flight of a fancy than a fact-based economic or political plan. The gap between Israel’s Start-Up Nation economy and that of its neighbors was always too great for such plans to be viewed as realistic. But the idea that Israeli expertise could be used to help Palestinians transform their society remains seductive. As Behar reported, there is a genuine desire on the part of many Palestinians for more economic development as well as for releasing their national life from the iron grip of Palestinian Authority corruption and mismanagement.

But the allergic reaction of the Palestinian businessmen he wrote about to the word “peace” tells us all we need to know about the inability of the PA to ever sign an accord that would end the conflict with Israel. As Behar notes in his follow-up, 34 years after Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel, Egyptian professionals and businesses still regard any dealings with Israelis as beyond the pale. That has made for an ice-cold peace between Israel and Egypt, but it is possible for the treaty to survive even in the absence of a breaking down of the wall of hatred toward Israel and Jews that exists in Egyptian society. But Egypt’s national identity exists outside of the context of anger against Israel’s existence. Not so for the Palestinians, whose national movement was born as a reaction to Zionism more than any other factor.

As Behar has learned, the debate among the Palestinians is not so much about peace as it is which tactics will be effective in pursuing their war against Israel. Those who say they reject violence are instead advocating for using economic boycotts and diplomatic isolation to bring Israel to its knees. In that context, cooperation with Israeli businesses undermines their cause even if it means helping to build a rational economy that would actually help ordinary Palestinians. Even those Palestinians who say they are willing to make a deal with Israel in order to force the Jewish state to give up land don’t want to give up their hate for it as part of the exchange.

Long before Peres dreamed of his new Benelux on the Med, Jews have dreamed about development being the path to peace. But today’s high-tech entrepreneurs aren’t being any more realistic than the Labor Zionist socialists who thought Palestinian workers and peasants would embrace peace once they realized the Jews wanted to build the country up for the benefit of all. Though even in his follow-up Behar still finds seeds of hope for cooperation, it must be understood that until a sea change occurs in Palestinian culture that turns away from hatred of Jews, this won’t lead anywhere.

Economics is important, but it doesn’t trump nationalism or religion. So long as Palestinians who work with Israeli businesses are branded as collaborators rather than innovators, peace negotiators are wasting their time and setting the region up for new disappointments and violence.

Read Less

The Price of Vacillation

It is hard to exaggerate the damage to American standing and credibility in the world that President Obama did with his about-face on Syria: In the space of a few hours on Friday he went from signaling that military strikes on Syria were imminent after pro forma “consultations” with Congress to deciding that he would ask Congress to approve the strikes, even though he admitted that such authorization was not needed for him to act.

American allies and adversaries alike were baffled by the about-face. Don’t take my word for it. Just read some of their comments as reported by no less than the New York Times.

Read More

It is hard to exaggerate the damage to American standing and credibility in the world that President Obama did with his about-face on Syria: In the space of a few hours on Friday he went from signaling that military strikes on Syria were imminent after pro forma “consultations” with Congress to deciding that he would ask Congress to approve the strikes, even though he admitted that such authorization was not needed for him to act.

American allies and adversaries alike were baffled by the about-face. Don’t take my word for it. Just read some of their comments as reported by no less than the New York Times.

From a state-run newspaper in Syria: This is “the start of the historic American retreat.” Obama had hesitated because of a “sense of implicit defeat and the disappearance of his allies.”

From Israel: An analysis in Haaretz said “that Mr. Obama’s postponement of a military strike against Syria suggested that he would be less likely to confront Iran on its nuclear program going forward, and that in the Arab world, he would now be ‘seen as weak, hesitant and vacillating.’ ”

From China: “ ‘He doesn’t want to fight; he doesn’t know the outcome,’ said Mr. Yin [Gang], of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. ‘He’s afraid, very afraid.’ ”

This may be an unfair perception, but it is one that is taking root in the rest of the world, and it is not to hard to see why: There is no good explanation for the volte-face that President Obama did after he and his aides, especially Secretary of State John Kerry, spent the previous week breathing fire and brimstone about how retribution for Syria was nigh.

It is perfectly appropriate to debate whether U.S. military action is justified; there are strong arguments against (especially against the kind of tepid and symbolic cruise missile strike that Obama seems to be contemplating). But the time to have that debate is before the president and secretary of state tell the entire world that the U.S. is about to strike.

By failing to strike, and by kicking the decision over to Congress, President Obama is not signaling respect for the constitutional process, since, as he has repeatedly reminded us, he has the power to launch air strikes without formal authorization from Congress–and in fact he did just that in Libya. Instead, he is signaling hesitancy and doubt which is discouraging our allies and undoubtedly encouraging our enemies from Pyongyang to Tehran.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.