Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 12, 2013

Let Us Now Praise Public Morality

By the time New York’s Democrats voted in their primary this week, the issue that transfixed the chattering classes earlier in the year had virtually disappeared. As it turns out, both of the disgraced celebrity politicians who sought redemption in this year’s municipal elections were soundly thrashed. The prospect that the political careers of both Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer are over is a source of understandable grief to headline writers and the bottom lines of New York’s tabloids, but the rest of the nation surely breathed a sigh of relief at the demise of the hopes of that unholy duo. That should cause those of us who wondered about what the ability of such figures to survive personal scandals meant for America to not be quite as shy about putting forward a case for public morality in the future.

The idea that public figures should be held to a standard of moral conduct is widely ridiculed by most of the chattering classes these days. It’s not that they approve of aberrant or immoral behavior, they tell us, but when those in the cross hairs of scandalmongers are either useful or popular, especially if they are liberals, then we are told not to confuse private conduct with public duties. The notion that there can be any link between immorality and qualification for high office is generally considered to be either passé or downright perverse. But it is also possible that after Weiner and Spitzer flopped at the polls, what we are seeing is that many voters, even in cosmopolitan New York, expect more from those they entrust with public honors than pop stars. If so, then that is something we should not only welcome but also encourage.

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By the time New York’s Democrats voted in their primary this week, the issue that transfixed the chattering classes earlier in the year had virtually disappeared. As it turns out, both of the disgraced celebrity politicians who sought redemption in this year’s municipal elections were soundly thrashed. The prospect that the political careers of both Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer are over is a source of understandable grief to headline writers and the bottom lines of New York’s tabloids, but the rest of the nation surely breathed a sigh of relief at the demise of the hopes of that unholy duo. That should cause those of us who wondered about what the ability of such figures to survive personal scandals meant for America to not be quite as shy about putting forward a case for public morality in the future.

The idea that public figures should be held to a standard of moral conduct is widely ridiculed by most of the chattering classes these days. It’s not that they approve of aberrant or immoral behavior, they tell us, but when those in the cross hairs of scandalmongers are either useful or popular, especially if they are liberals, then we are told not to confuse private conduct with public duties. The notion that there can be any link between immorality and qualification for high office is generally considered to be either passé or downright perverse. But it is also possible that after Weiner and Spitzer flopped at the polls, what we are seeing is that many voters, even in cosmopolitan New York, expect more from those they entrust with public honors than pop stars. If so, then that is something we should not only welcome but also encourage.

It must be admitted that each such case of a transgressor seeking redemption is different. The free pass much of the nation gave—and continues to give—President Clinton for his lies about sex and dalliances with a White House intern in the Oval Office led some, like William Bennett, to lament “the death of outrage” and to rightly point out the deleterious impact this would have on society as a whole. Perhaps if Weiner or Spitzer had not both been generally despised as obnoxious political loners even when they were riding high, they, too, might have been quickly forgiven and their detractors ostracized as Puritan hypocrites. Perhaps also the nature of some of these offenses has something to do with it as straight-forward adultery, such as that committed by former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, was more easily understood by voters in a society where divorce is commonplace than the bizarre doings of Weiner or Spitzer’s money-laundering that enabled his patronage of prostitutes.

Indeed, in Weiner’s case, it was, as was true of Clinton, the lies that were most damnable. Perhaps the time has not yet arrived when Americans will think nothing of a member of the House of Representatives tweeting photos of their genitals to strange women, but I doubt there will ever be much tolerance for those who do such things and then claim that the journalists (like the late Andrew Breitbart) who reported it were perpetrating a hoax. Nor will the public ever accept a politician who claims he’s reformed and then is revealed to have continued his mad behavior long after he said he went straight, as Weiner did.

But in a country whose worst problems are caused in no small measure by social pathologies such as illegitimacy and the breakdown of the family, can we really afford to be blasé about those who aspire to lead the nation whose personal immorality becomes a matter of public record?

To praise public morality doesn’t mean that we should be putting politicians who can’t behave in the stocks. We all make mistakes and those who are not reticent about casting the first stone should remember what happened to the political careers of adulterous House Republicans who impeached Clinton on charges relating to sexual impropriety. Neither party has a monopoly on morality or truth.

But it does mean that we should not treat these matters as lightly as many in the media would have us do when their favorites are not the targets of the tabloids. Outrage about wrongdoing doesn’t mean we must chain those who sin to a rock. A nation with high moral standards need not be a nation of saints, but it is one that knows the difference between right and wrong. Heaven help us if we ever become a country where not knowing that difference is no longer a political problem. The idea that there is no connection between loose morals and public integrity is a theory that admirers of John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and others adhere to. But that is a case that is hard to make for most ordinary politicians whose honesty is usually a fungible commodity.

Earlier this year, Mark Sanford ran for and won a congressional seat by apologizing endlessly for his misdeeds. That played well in a religious state where belief in redemption is widespread. Weiner and Spitzer’s apologies were perfunctory and quickly abandoned and they found out that in sophisticated New York, not so many people love a former sinner as in the south. Let’s hope their defeats will serve as an example that will help remind our leaders that their belief that they have impunity to misbehave says more about their egos than it does public opinion.

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Rand Paul’s Growing Burden: Dear Old Dad

Last month I noted that Senator Rand Paul’s rapid ascent to the status of a probable first-tier presidential candidate in 2016 had one real obstacle: the man who inspired his career. Ron Paul may have retired from active politics and passed on the family’s presidential campaign franchise to Rand, but he is far from silent and that’s going to be a continuing problem for the Kentucky senator. The latest instance of paternal foot-in-mouth disease came yesterday as the nation paused to commemorate the 9/11 attacks. Here’s what Ron Paul posted about that on his Facebook page:

We’re supposed to believe that the perpetrators of 9/11 hated us for our freedom and goodness. In fact, that crime was blowback for decades of US intervention in the Middle East. And the last thing we needed was the government’s response: more wars, a stepped-up police and surveillance state, and drones.

This is familiar stuff for those who have followed the elder Paul’s bizarre rants on foreign policy which bear a closer resemblance to the positions of the far left than to the isolationism of some on the right, let alone mainstream conservatism. But every time Ron pipes up in this obnoxious manner, it’s going to cause a distraction for his son who must answer questions about whether he disassociates himself from such awful stuff. As Politico notes, when queried about this today, Rand’s response was more in the style of traditional Washington insiders than the straight-talking image he has cultivated:

“What I would say is that, you know there are a variety of reasons and when someone attacks you it’s not so much important what they say their reasons are,” Paul said. “The most important thing is that we defend ourselves from attack. And whether or not some are motivated by our presence overseas, I think some are also motivated whether we’re there or not. So I think there’s a combination of reasons why we’re attacked.”

This shows that after nearly three years in the Senate, Paul can doubletalk like a veteran. But if he thinks he can just shrug off his father’s extremism while attempting to chart a path to the sort of mainstream acceptance that it would take for him to win the 2016 GOP nomination, he’s dreaming. Sooner or later, he’s going to have to place more distance between himself and his father, if he’s serious about being more than a factional candidate.

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Last month I noted that Senator Rand Paul’s rapid ascent to the status of a probable first-tier presidential candidate in 2016 had one real obstacle: the man who inspired his career. Ron Paul may have retired from active politics and passed on the family’s presidential campaign franchise to Rand, but he is far from silent and that’s going to be a continuing problem for the Kentucky senator. The latest instance of paternal foot-in-mouth disease came yesterday as the nation paused to commemorate the 9/11 attacks. Here’s what Ron Paul posted about that on his Facebook page:

We’re supposed to believe that the perpetrators of 9/11 hated us for our freedom and goodness. In fact, that crime was blowback for decades of US intervention in the Middle East. And the last thing we needed was the government’s response: more wars, a stepped-up police and surveillance state, and drones.

This is familiar stuff for those who have followed the elder Paul’s bizarre rants on foreign policy which bear a closer resemblance to the positions of the far left than to the isolationism of some on the right, let alone mainstream conservatism. But every time Ron pipes up in this obnoxious manner, it’s going to cause a distraction for his son who must answer questions about whether he disassociates himself from such awful stuff. As Politico notes, when queried about this today, Rand’s response was more in the style of traditional Washington insiders than the straight-talking image he has cultivated:

“What I would say is that, you know there are a variety of reasons and when someone attacks you it’s not so much important what they say their reasons are,” Paul said. “The most important thing is that we defend ourselves from attack. And whether or not some are motivated by our presence overseas, I think some are also motivated whether we’re there or not. So I think there’s a combination of reasons why we’re attacked.”

This shows that after nearly three years in the Senate, Paul can doubletalk like a veteran. But if he thinks he can just shrug off his father’s extremism while attempting to chart a path to the sort of mainstream acceptance that it would take for him to win the 2016 GOP nomination, he’s dreaming. Sooner or later, he’s going to have to place more distance between himself and his father, if he’s serious about being more than a factional candidate.

Last month, I compared Rand’s situation to that of Barack Obama’s problem with his longtime pastor and mentor Rev. Jeremiah Wright. That brought a ferocious response from some Paulbots who bristle at any comparison between the America-hating Wright and the longtime libertarian standard-bearer. But, in fact, the comparison of the pair’s radical views on foreign policy is quite apt.

Isolationism is a growing trend within the GOP as some Tea Party groups like FreedomWorks have now shifted their attention from tax and spending issues to opposition to intervention in Syria. But there is a big difference between the impulse to stay out of foreign entanglements and Paul’s view that America had it coming on 9/11. A generation ago, Republicans cheered when Jeanne Kirkpatrick lambasted Democrats for being the party of those that “blame America first” in every controversy. Though the GOP has changed since then, patriotism and revulsion against Islamist terrorists who do hate American freedom has not gone out of style among Republicans.

It is almost impossible to imagine Ron Paul ever shutting up, as Wright did once his congregant began running for president. Nor will the press give Paul the same sort of pass for this association that the liberal mainstream media gave Obama about Wright. Nor should it. But even Obama realized that he had to start distancing himself from Wright’s positions and did so, albeit in such an artful way that he wound up getting credit for the episode rather than having to account for sitting in the pews for 20 years and listening approvingly to hateful sermons.

The same questions apply to Rand Paul’s tacit approval for his father’s statements and associations with racist and anti-Semitic publications and groups. Ron Paul was never really damaged by these issues because he was always a marginal presidential candidate, albeit one with a dedicated and noisy following. If Rand wants to truly go mainstream, his father’s baggage is going to have to be jettisoned.

Doubletalk may suffice for now, but as we get closer to 2016, the questions will get sharper and the danger that his father’s big mouth represents to his presidential hopes will only get worse. Anyone who is serious about being president will have to make a choice about this sort of problem. Given the close ties between father and son, this won’t be easy for Rand. But if he really wants to be the GOP nominee, he’s going to have to be more forthright about what he thinks about his father’s views.

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New Olympics Chief an Israel Boycotter

The history of the Olympics movement has long been marred by a persistent strain of anti-Semitism and bias against Israel. But those who thought the unhappy memories of Berlin in 1936 and Munich in 1972 should not influence our opinion of this behemoth of global sport were just sucker-punched by the election of a new head of the International Olympic Committee. German lawyer Thomas Bach won the presidency of the IOC on a second-ballot vote in Buenos Aires yesterday and began his reign over the sports empire by pledging neutrality in the political disputes that are part and parcel of the Olympics landscape. That notion was undermined by the fact that the first congratulatory phone call Bach received was from Russian President Vladimir Putin who is counting on the IOC head to protect the 2014 Sochi Winter Games from being derailed by protests over Russia’s anti-gay laws. But the pious talk about respecting the Olympic Charter and inclusion is also given the lie by a key fact about Bach’s biography.

Though Bach is being touted as a savvy veteran of Olympic legal tangles including leading anti-doping efforts as well as being a former Gold Medal fencer, the German lawyer’s day job is as chairman of Ghorfa, the Arab-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry. That sounds innocuous enough. But rather than just a straight-forward promoter of trade between Germany and the Arab world, as the Times of Israel reports, according to the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin Ramer Institute, Ghorfa was actually set up in the 1970s in order to facilitate the boycott of Israel:

Ghorfa helps German companies ensure that products meet the import requirements of Arab governments, some of which ban products and services from Israel.

The group continues to issue certificates of German origin for trade with Arab countries. Its earlier practice of certificates verifying that no product parts were produced in Israel stopped in the early 1990s when Germany enacted trade regulations forbidding the use of certificates of origin to enable de facto trade boycotts.

Such a record is hardly unusual in the Olympics hierarchy. Bach, who was a strong supporter of his predecessor’s refusal to hold even a moment of silence to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics at last year’s London Games had strong support from the Arab world in the IOC election.

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The history of the Olympics movement has long been marred by a persistent strain of anti-Semitism and bias against Israel. But those who thought the unhappy memories of Berlin in 1936 and Munich in 1972 should not influence our opinion of this behemoth of global sport were just sucker-punched by the election of a new head of the International Olympic Committee. German lawyer Thomas Bach won the presidency of the IOC on a second-ballot vote in Buenos Aires yesterday and began his reign over the sports empire by pledging neutrality in the political disputes that are part and parcel of the Olympics landscape. That notion was undermined by the fact that the first congratulatory phone call Bach received was from Russian President Vladimir Putin who is counting on the IOC head to protect the 2014 Sochi Winter Games from being derailed by protests over Russia’s anti-gay laws. But the pious talk about respecting the Olympic Charter and inclusion is also given the lie by a key fact about Bach’s biography.

Though Bach is being touted as a savvy veteran of Olympic legal tangles including leading anti-doping efforts as well as being a former Gold Medal fencer, the German lawyer’s day job is as chairman of Ghorfa, the Arab-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry. That sounds innocuous enough. But rather than just a straight-forward promoter of trade between Germany and the Arab world, as the Times of Israel reports, according to the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin Ramer Institute, Ghorfa was actually set up in the 1970s in order to facilitate the boycott of Israel:

Ghorfa helps German companies ensure that products meet the import requirements of Arab governments, some of which ban products and services from Israel.

The group continues to issue certificates of German origin for trade with Arab countries. Its earlier practice of certificates verifying that no product parts were produced in Israel stopped in the early 1990s when Germany enacted trade regulations forbidding the use of certificates of origin to enable de facto trade boycotts.

Such a record is hardly unusual in the Olympics hierarchy. Bach, who was a strong supporter of his predecessor’s refusal to hold even a moment of silence to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics at last year’s London Games had strong support from the Arab world in the IOC election.

The Olympics has consistently refused to commemorate the Munich massacre largely because of the resistance to any mention of the crime on the part of the movement’s Arab and Muslim countries. But Bach’s role in both boycotting Israel and supporting the IOC’s stonewalling of protests about its failure to have even a moment of silence puts him in the grand tradition of his predecessor Avery Brundage, the head of the movement from 1952-1972.

Brundage, the only American ever to head the IOC, helped prevent a boycott of the 1936 Berlin games and has long been suspected of being behind the U.S. team’s decision to keep the two Jewish athletes on the track team—future broadcaster Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller—from competing. Widely accused of anti-Semitism, he closed his career in sports by responding to terrorism in Munich by stating that the “games must go on.”

Since 1972, the Olympics have kept to that motto, ignoring the crime against Israel even while devoting time at its opening ceremonies to other acts of terrorism, such as last year’s commemoration of the attack on London on July 7, 2005.

In that context, Bach’s role in facilitating the efforts of German companies to boycott the State of Israel makes perfect sense. Far from such credentials serving, as they might were the Olympics a movement that was actually dedicated to the principles of equality and justice as it claims to be, to disqualify the German, his discriminatory practices were seen by many IOC committee members as a virtue.

In the past, the Olympics was a noxious mix of extreme nationalism and fake amateurism. But now that it has shed its façade of opposition to professionalism, it is merely a big business that profits from enormous television contracts. Even though most people only care about these events two weeks out of every four years, the Olympics are more popular than ever and any effort to oppose using it to paint despotic regimes in an attractive light are bound to fail since few viewers or advertisers want details about human rights to interfere with their fun or their profits. That was why any effort to shine a light on Putin’s tyranny will be largely ignored just as similar concerns about China collapsed in 2008.

Bach’s election is just one more reason for people of good will, including those, such as myself, who love sports, to ignore the Olympics. Like the United Nations, whose prejudicial practices it mirrors, the reality of the Olympics has little to do with the high ideals it purports to uphold.

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Minding the (Gender) Gap in New York City

Of the several New York Democratic mayoral candidates who lost this week’s primary to Bill de Blasio, only one constituted something of a surprise: City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. It’s not that Quinn was ever considered a shoo-in–far from it. But she had media buzz building for quite some time, a consistent early lead in the polls, and the tentative support of Michael Bloomberg (which probably cost her votes in the end, but gave her candidacy an early boost).

Unlike Anthony Weiner, Quinn didn’t seem to have any skeletons refusing to stay in the closet. Unlike Bill Thompson, Quinn was able to poll a lead when matched up against the entire field of candidates, while Thompson needed a second-round run-off to build a lead. And it must be said that her current speakership and the media attention she received for being openly gay (she married her partner last year) gave her at least a head start on both the late entries and the no-names. Yet she placed third. What happened?

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Of the several New York Democratic mayoral candidates who lost this week’s primary to Bill de Blasio, only one constituted something of a surprise: City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. It’s not that Quinn was ever considered a shoo-in–far from it. But she had media buzz building for quite some time, a consistent early lead in the polls, and the tentative support of Michael Bloomberg (which probably cost her votes in the end, but gave her candidacy an early boost).

Unlike Anthony Weiner, Quinn didn’t seem to have any skeletons refusing to stay in the closet. Unlike Bill Thompson, Quinn was able to poll a lead when matched up against the entire field of candidates, while Thompson needed a second-round run-off to build a lead. And it must be said that her current speakership and the media attention she received for being openly gay (she married her partner last year) gave her at least a head start on both the late entries and the no-names. Yet she placed third. What happened?

A lot of things. But one thing that does not seem to have played a significant role is her gender. That’s one takeaway from today’s New York Times story, “In Quinn’s Loss, Questions About Role of Gender and Sexuality.” But the article seems to answer those questions pretty effectively:

Exit polls showed no gender gap in the results and indicated that Ms. Quinn lost for a number of reasons — her close association with the plutocratic incumbent mayor, her rivals’ ability to outmaneuver her on the issue of stop-and-frisk policing, and her inability to be a change candidate in an election in which voters sought new direction.

Still, her supporters wonder: Why has New York, home of tough, talented women like Eleanor Roosevelt and Anna Wintour, proven resistant to female candidates? And was it simply too much to expect the electorate to embrace a candidate who would be not just New York’s first female mayor, but its first openly gay one, too?

In interviews with allies and opponents, as well as members of the Quinn campaign team, not one person blamed her loss wholly, or even mostly, on gender.

Exit polls showed no gender gap, and neither her supporters (including those who worked for her) nor her opponents thought it made much difference, if at all. But you get the feeling that this article gets written one way or the other. Had there been a “gender gap” in the exit polls, we’d be reading an article about how the fact that Quinn is a woman worked against her in the race. Now that there wasn’t a gender gap, the Times is concerned: why not? That is, why didn’t New York’s women show some solidarity?

The Times has no trouble finding sources who will blame that on Quinn, but the criticism of her in the article is so gobsmackingly unfair as to leave the reader wondering why anyone would put their names to the comments. One explanation is one that is backed up by the exit polls: Quinn–admirably, I might add–insisted on running a campaign on the issues instead of gender identity. “I don’t get up in the morning thinking about how I’ll approach this as a woman or a lesbian; I think about the issues,” she apparently told a room full of accomplished women who wanted to tell Quinn how to run a campaign as a woman.

Identity politics did work against her, though, in two ways. First, New York City identity politics are ethnic and racial. As the Times story notes, there was neither a gay vote nor a women’s vote. Without such a voter base, it was to Quinn’s disadvantage that she represented swanky neighborhoods in Manhattan and was thus somewhat detached from the lives of so many of the New Yorkers whose votes she wanted.

Second, some of those Manhattanites turned on her. And here is where her gender made a difference. From the story:

Critiques of Ms. Quinn’s physical attributes came from many corners, even the wealthy Upper East Side women who helped raise money for her mayoral bid. “Why can’t she dress better?’” they would ask Rachel Lavine, a Democratic state committeewoman who was on Ms. Quinn’s finance committee.

“I might think that St. John is not the end all and be all of fashion,” Ms. Lavine said, referring to the upscale clothing line favored by wealthy, older women. “But that’s what they’re saying. ‘Why isn’t she wearing a size two St. John’s dress?’ There’s that kind of constant commentary.”

Referring to Ms. Quinn’s rival Bill de Blasio, she said, “You don’t hear that about de Blasio — ‘Why can’t he buy better-looking suits?’ ”

Her female supporters badmouthed her because they didn’t like the brand of clothing she wore. It’s to Quinn’s credit that she showed no interest in playing these games, either by trying to disqualify criticism of her as simple prejudice or by changing her appearance. She lost, but she lost honorably–against the advice of many of her supporters.

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Does North Korea Sense U.S. Weakness?

At first glance, the news coming out of North Korea would seem to have nothing to do with President Obama’s dispiriting retreat on Syria. Young dictator Kim Jong-un’s mad regime needs no foreign incentives or influences to impel it toward provocations or abuses. Thus, the news that–in violation of its six-year-old promise to the Bush administration to dismantle its nuclear reactor–steam is emerging from a reconstructed facility is hardly surprising. The North Koreans already have enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons and it will, according to the New York Times, take years for the reactor at the Yongbyon complex to produce more of the material. The conventional wisdom about this is that the cash-starved regime is hoping to entice the West to once again bribe it to desist from further nuclear work. Since such tactics have often worked in the past, it’s hard to blame Dennis Rodman’s buddy from seeing if he can squeeze more concessions out of the United States knowing his country’s status as a nuclear power gives him impunity.

But coming as this does just months after Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test, which was accompanied by bluster threatening nuclear attacks on South Korea and anyone else it can reach if more international sanctions are imposed on it, it might be a mistake to put this down as just business as usual in North Korea. Though most Americans ignore the country except when its goofy leader poses with Western nitwits who come to visit, the heavily armed North is always a hair trigger away from starting a shooting war along the 38th parallel that would immediately involve the U.S. in a conflict that would be the opposite of “incredibly small.” While predicting the actions of a country as crazy as North Korea is impossible, it would be a mistake to think that the basketball fan running it hasn’t been watching the dismaying spectacle of U.S. indecision and impotence on Syria and drawing his own conclusions. Most of us have been rightly worried about the impact of the president’s decisions on Iran’s conduct. But perhaps we should be just as worried about whether Kim Jong-un is thinking such a moment of American weakness is the perfect opportunity for him to stage another provocation along the border or even something more ambitious.

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At first glance, the news coming out of North Korea would seem to have nothing to do with President Obama’s dispiriting retreat on Syria. Young dictator Kim Jong-un’s mad regime needs no foreign incentives or influences to impel it toward provocations or abuses. Thus, the news that–in violation of its six-year-old promise to the Bush administration to dismantle its nuclear reactor–steam is emerging from a reconstructed facility is hardly surprising. The North Koreans already have enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons and it will, according to the New York Times, take years for the reactor at the Yongbyon complex to produce more of the material. The conventional wisdom about this is that the cash-starved regime is hoping to entice the West to once again bribe it to desist from further nuclear work. Since such tactics have often worked in the past, it’s hard to blame Dennis Rodman’s buddy from seeing if he can squeeze more concessions out of the United States knowing his country’s status as a nuclear power gives him impunity.

But coming as this does just months after Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test, which was accompanied by bluster threatening nuclear attacks on South Korea and anyone else it can reach if more international sanctions are imposed on it, it might be a mistake to put this down as just business as usual in North Korea. Though most Americans ignore the country except when its goofy leader poses with Western nitwits who come to visit, the heavily armed North is always a hair trigger away from starting a shooting war along the 38th parallel that would immediately involve the U.S. in a conflict that would be the opposite of “incredibly small.” While predicting the actions of a country as crazy as North Korea is impossible, it would be a mistake to think that the basketball fan running it hasn’t been watching the dismaying spectacle of U.S. indecision and impotence on Syria and drawing his own conclusions. Most of us have been rightly worried about the impact of the president’s decisions on Iran’s conduct. But perhaps we should be just as worried about whether Kim Jong-un is thinking such a moment of American weakness is the perfect opportunity for him to stage another provocation along the border or even something more ambitious.

The details about North Korea’s blatant violations of the nuclear agreements it made with the West are bad enough if viewed only in the context of a divided peninsula that the Communist regime shares with a prosperous and democratic republic in the south. Previous administrations have repeatedly fallen for what former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called Pyongyang’s tactic of selling the West “the same horse twice.” The spectacle of President Obama buying into Russia’s offers to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons may certainly encourage the North to think they should at least try to blackmail an American president who shows a clear aversion to confrontation.

But though this administration has so far refused to play along with that game, the assumption that the North Koreans are all talk when it comes to threats may be proved wrong if an insecure dictator thinks the U.S. is weak. Should he draw the conclusion that an Obama who is unable to get Congress or public opinion behind a limited strike on Syria would be similarly impotent should Korea blow up, the consequences could be catastrophic.

As much as the president and his supporters are trying to spin the Syria fiasco as a limited event that won’t impact his ability to govern, this sort of weakness can’t be contained to one country or even one region. We’ve already seen Russia moving to try to fill the vacuum Obama has created in the Middle East. Don’t be surprised if the maniacal North Korean regime thinks it can play the same game with potentially awful consequences for its neighbors and the world.

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The Collapse of the Obama Presidency

How bad has 2013 been for Barack Obama? Let us count the ways.

In the first year of his second term, the president has failed on virtually every front. He put his prestige on the line to pass federal gun-control legislation–and lost. He made climate change a central part of his inaugural address–and nothing has happened. The president went head-to-head with Republicans on sequestration–and he failed. He’s been forced to delay implementation of the employer mandate, a key feature of the Affordable Care Act. ObamaCare is more unpopular than ever, and it’s turning out to be a “train wreck” (to quote Democratic Senator Max Baucus) in practice. The most recent jobs report was the worst in a year, with the Obama recovery already qualifying as a historically weak one. Immigration reform is going nowhere. And then there’s Syria, which has turned out to be an epic disaster. (To be sure, Mr. Obama’s Middle East failures go well beyond Syria–but Syria is the most conspicuous failure right now).

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How bad has 2013 been for Barack Obama? Let us count the ways.

In the first year of his second term, the president has failed on virtually every front. He put his prestige on the line to pass federal gun-control legislation–and lost. He made climate change a central part of his inaugural address–and nothing has happened. The president went head-to-head with Republicans on sequestration–and he failed. He’s been forced to delay implementation of the employer mandate, a key feature of the Affordable Care Act. ObamaCare is more unpopular than ever, and it’s turning out to be a “train wreck” (to quote Democratic Senator Max Baucus) in practice. The most recent jobs report was the worst in a year, with the Obama recovery already qualifying as a historically weak one. Immigration reform is going nowhere. And then there’s Syria, which has turned out to be an epic disaster. (To be sure, Mr. Obama’s Middle East failures go well beyond Syria–but Syria is the most conspicuous failure right now).

In watching the Obama presidency dissolve before our eyes, there is a cautionary tale to be told. Every presidency falls short of the expectations that the candidate sets. But no man has ever promised more and delivered less than the current occupant of the Oval Office.

All of the extravagant promises and claims–of “Yes We Can!” and “we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for;” of hope and change and slowing the rise of the oceans; of claiming his candidacy would “ring out across this land as a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, make this time different than all the rest”–lie in ruin. (I’d urge you to watch this short video clip from the 2008 campaign  to more fully appreciate the crushing disappointment that results from what Mr. Obama said he would achieve versus what he’s been able to achieve.)

In all of this one is reminded of the wisdom of the Book of Proverbs, which warns that “pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” The president has been shown to be a man out of his depth time and again. But here’s the problem: Mr. Obama’s failures have inflicted great and durable harm on the United States. This may be worth keeping in mind the next time an eloquent community organizer decides he’s ready to be commander in chief.

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Vladimir Putin’s Trollpolitik

One of Ronald Reagan’s favorite Soviet jokes was the one in which an American man brags that he is free to stand near the White House all day and heap scorn on President Reagan. His Russian friend counters that he is free to do the same: he can stand outside the Kremlin all day and heap scorn on President Reagan as well. The 2013 version might have Barack Obama saying he can take to the pages of the New York Times to denounce American military adventurism, as he did in 2008. Vladimir Putin would respond that he can do the same: he, too, can take to the pages of the New York Times to denounce American military adventurism.

In today’s Times, Putin does that and more. The Russian president, an authoritarian thug with blood-stained hands, lectures President Obama on his militarist posture toward Syria. If left unchecked, Putin says, Obama risks destroying the international system and poisoning the spirit of multilateral cooperation. In a condescending rhetorical flourish, Putin notes that Obama’s plans to strike Syria are opposed by world leaders, “including the pope.” This is concern-trolling at its most contrived and grating, and it is something Putin has relished turning into an art form. It permeates Putin’s disingenuous political posturing to the extent that it’s become a strategy all its own. Call it trollpolitik. Here is some of what Putin has to say “directly to the American people”:

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One of Ronald Reagan’s favorite Soviet jokes was the one in which an American man brags that he is free to stand near the White House all day and heap scorn on President Reagan. His Russian friend counters that he is free to do the same: he can stand outside the Kremlin all day and heap scorn on President Reagan as well. The 2013 version might have Barack Obama saying he can take to the pages of the New York Times to denounce American military adventurism, as he did in 2008. Vladimir Putin would respond that he can do the same: he, too, can take to the pages of the New York Times to denounce American military adventurism.

In today’s Times, Putin does that and more. The Russian president, an authoritarian thug with blood-stained hands, lectures President Obama on his militarist posture toward Syria. If left unchecked, Putin says, Obama risks destroying the international system and poisoning the spirit of multilateral cooperation. In a condescending rhetorical flourish, Putin notes that Obama’s plans to strike Syria are opposed by world leaders, “including the pope.” This is concern-trolling at its most contrived and grating, and it is something Putin has relished turning into an art form. It permeates Putin’s disingenuous political posturing to the extent that it’s become a strategy all its own. Call it trollpolitik. Here is some of what Putin has to say “directly to the American people”:

From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.

No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.

It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”

But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.

This is Putin just taunting Obama, speaking to the president as Obama used to speak to his predecessor. It’s difficult to know which part Obama will find most insulting. “The law is still the law” is a good one coming from the unreformed KGB gangster. The same goes for Putin’s plea for Obama to listen to his people. Then there is his professed concern for America’s allies, in which Putin suggests Obama is gambling with Israel’s safety.

This is a strong contender as well: “We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.” Getting accused of uncivilized behavior by Vladimir Putin is risible.

But of course this is nothing new. The difference, now, is not that Americans think Obama is a warmongering imperialist but that they don’t know what he’s thinking–and neither, it seems, does he. Putin is taking advantage of a sense of confusion not just about what the administration’s policy is but who is making that policy.

It’s useful to point out the hypocrisy in Putin’s op-ed, if only to remind Americans who they’re reading. But for the Obama administration, the point is less that Putin lied in his op-ed but that he’s a liar–that’s who they’re dealing with. Putin’s trollpolitik is not a personality quirk or an annoying habit. Instead, it should be a reminder that the Obama administration cannot trust Putin or treat him as a good-faith actor. He is a con man, and he has decided that the president of the United States is his latest mark.

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Has Obama Left Israel on Its Own?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks yesterday about his country needing to rely on its resources to protect itself against potential threats broke no new ground. At another time, his comments might be considered mere boilerplate material since it has been an article of faith for all Israeli leaders dating back to David Ben Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, that if Zionism means anything, it is that the Jewish state must depend on no one but itself on security matters. But coming as it did the day after President Obama’s shocking retreat on Syria, the statement was highlighted in a New York Times article and got major play in the Israeli media. The juxtaposition of the U.S. accepting a dubious Russian proposal that would ensure there would be no Western attack on the Syrian regime over its use of chemical weapons with the Netanyahu statement left many wondering whether Jerusalem thinks it is now on its own when it comes to other threats, such as those from a nuclear Iran. While it would be an exaggeration to claim Washington has completely abandoned Israel, no amount of White House spin about Obama’s zigzag course on Syria changes the fact that his fumbling has left the Middle East a far more dangerous place than it already was.

The reality after the Syria back-down is one in which the prestige and influence of the United States has declined. The president’s inability to make up his mind has not only gotten Bashar Assad off the hook and convinced Vladimir Putin that there is hope for his long-cherished dream of rebuilding the old Soviet empire. It has also made it difficult to envision the U.S. taking on the even more daunting task of a military confrontation with Iran. Since there is no reason to believe further diplomatic outreach to Tehran will be any more fruitful than past efforts, that leaves Israelis with the unpleasant thought that if Iran is to be prevented from going nuclear by force, then they will have to do it themselves. Under those circumstances, what choice is Netanyahu left with other than to try to send a signal of his own to the ayatollahs?

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks yesterday about his country needing to rely on its resources to protect itself against potential threats broke no new ground. At another time, his comments might be considered mere boilerplate material since it has been an article of faith for all Israeli leaders dating back to David Ben Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, that if Zionism means anything, it is that the Jewish state must depend on no one but itself on security matters. But coming as it did the day after President Obama’s shocking retreat on Syria, the statement was highlighted in a New York Times article and got major play in the Israeli media. The juxtaposition of the U.S. accepting a dubious Russian proposal that would ensure there would be no Western attack on the Syrian regime over its use of chemical weapons with the Netanyahu statement left many wondering whether Jerusalem thinks it is now on its own when it comes to other threats, such as those from a nuclear Iran. While it would be an exaggeration to claim Washington has completely abandoned Israel, no amount of White House spin about Obama’s zigzag course on Syria changes the fact that his fumbling has left the Middle East a far more dangerous place than it already was.

The reality after the Syria back-down is one in which the prestige and influence of the United States has declined. The president’s inability to make up his mind has not only gotten Bashar Assad off the hook and convinced Vladimir Putin that there is hope for his long-cherished dream of rebuilding the old Soviet empire. It has also made it difficult to envision the U.S. taking on the even more daunting task of a military confrontation with Iran. Since there is no reason to believe further diplomatic outreach to Tehran will be any more fruitful than past efforts, that leaves Israelis with the unpleasant thought that if Iran is to be prevented from going nuclear by force, then they will have to do it themselves. Under those circumstances, what choice is Netanyahu left with other than to try to send a signal of his own to the ayatollahs?

As the New York Times reported:

“The world needs to make sure that anyone who uses weapons of mass destruction will pay a heavy price for it,” Mr. Netanyahu said Wednesday at the graduation ceremony for a naval program. “The message in Syria will also be heard very well in Iran.”

He cited President Obama’s speech Tuesday, in which he said that Israel could defend itself but also had Washington’s “unshakable support,” and quoted a famous saying of the ancient Jewish scholar Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

“The operational translation of this rule is that Israel should always be able to defend itself and will protect itself by its own strengths against every threat,” Mr. Netanyahu told the crowd. “The state of Israel is today prepared to act with great strength.”

In fact Israel has already applied this principle in Syria repeatedly, striking at weapons convoys they feared might be payoffs from Assad to the Hezbollah terrorists in return for the latter’s efforts to boost his side in his country’s civil war. Israel also knocked out Syria’s nuclear reactor back in 2007 over the objections of the Bush administration, a decision that, in retrospect, seems even wiser now than it did then.

However, the current tangle in Syria illustrates both the mutual interests of the U.S. and Israel as well as their differences. While President Obama has been calling for the fall of the Assad regime for years, Israel has no favorite in the confusing fighting in Syria. But the Jewish state and its American friends are invested in the idea of a strong America as a force for stability in the Middle East. That’s why AIPAC and other elements of the pro-Israel community were drawn into the debate on Syria. They were not so much concerned with helping the rebels or punishing Assad (though many sympathize with that effort) as they were with ensuring that a Congress that is increasingly under the influence of isolationist elements didn’t trash American credibility.

Obama’s surrender to the Russians left Israel to ponder a new balance of power in the region in which the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance is stronger than ever and aided by a more assertive Russia, a point that, as I wrote yesterday, was emphasized by the announcement that Putin has approved the sale of advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran.

Despite Israel’s boasts, its armed forces are nowhere near as capable of dealing a crippling blow to Iran as the United States. Moreover, so long as President Obama is pursuing yet another diplomatic initiative with Iran based on the false perception that its new President Hassan Rouhani is a moderate, there is no chance that Israel would attack on its own. That may put any potential strike on hold until long after the Iranians have made it even more difficult to attack their nuclear facilities.

The upshot of all this is not so much that Israel is on its own—something Netanyahu may have already known last year when he was urging Obama to adopt “red lines” on Iran—but that it is essentially helpless to act on that fact. A weaker United States led by a president who is incapable of acting decisively isn’t just a problem for Israel. But right now it looks as if it means there may be no viable option for heading off the threat of a nuclear Iran before it is too late to do anything about it.

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Putin Spikes the Football

More than 100,000 dead in Syria—a figure growing by 5,000 or so deaths every month. Millions more displaced. Chemical weapons used. Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah on the offensive. The United States humiliated and powerless on the sidelines. The situation in Syria is about as grim as you can imagine—and Vladimir Putin is loving every minute of it. That impression comes across very strongly in his New York Times op-ed today in which he takes a typically brazen victory lap after having wrestled global leadership, at least temporarily, away from a confused and hesitant American president.

As usual with Putin, he overdoes it—the man who parades around bare-chested to show off his pecs does not know the meaning of “subtlety.” Putin begins by claiming that only the UN Security Council can authorize the use of military force. Funny, I don’t remember the UN resolutions justifying Putin’s attack on Georgia in 2008 or his homicidal campaign in Chechnya which has killed tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands.

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More than 100,000 dead in Syria—a figure growing by 5,000 or so deaths every month. Millions more displaced. Chemical weapons used. Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah on the offensive. The United States humiliated and powerless on the sidelines. The situation in Syria is about as grim as you can imagine—and Vladimir Putin is loving every minute of it. That impression comes across very strongly in his New York Times op-ed today in which he takes a typically brazen victory lap after having wrestled global leadership, at least temporarily, away from a confused and hesitant American president.

As usual with Putin, he overdoes it—the man who parades around bare-chested to show off his pecs does not know the meaning of “subtlety.” Putin begins by claiming that only the UN Security Council can authorize the use of military force. Funny, I don’t remember the UN resolutions justifying Putin’s attack on Georgia in 2008 or his homicidal campaign in Chechnya which has killed tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands.

He warns specifically that a U.S. strike on Syria “could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.” No doubt Russian arms deliveries to Syria and Iran—including Russian help with Iran’s nuclear program and the rumored sale of a sophisticated air-defense system to Tehran—have been big factors in enhancing Middle Eastern stability.

Putin, moreover, claims: “We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos.” Uh, right: That’s why the Russian government is not willing to go along with a UN Security Council resolution threatening Assad with force for failing to disarm—it’s not because Russia is Assad’s ally, it’s because of Putin’s boundless respect for international law! There is, of course, no mention of Assad’s many violations of international law in his war against his own people.

Putin slides from the ridiculous to the comic when he next claims: “No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.” Actually, I think it’s safe to say that Putin and his minions are the only people who claim to believe that sarin was used by the rebels, not the government—and even the Russians can’t possibly believe that: it’s another convenient lie.

As if to rub salt into the wound, Putin ends with a pious denunciation of Americans who might claim that our country is exceptional: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Sure, there are countries such as Russia where the unelected leaders oppress their own people and jail anyone who speaks out against them; then there are countries such as the United States where liberal democratic norms prevail, human rights are respected, and the rule of law is followed. But in Putin’s upside-down moral universe there is no difference between the two—in his relativist telling, they are simply differently democratic.

There is nothing especially surprising about the cynical worldview of this old KGB apparatchik. The only thing dismaying is that President Obama, through his failure of leadership, has allowed this malevolent troublemaker to usurp America’s leadership role in the Middle East and indeed the world. And Putin isn’t about to let us forget it.

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Fethullah Gülen and the Jews

Fethullah Gülen is the U.S.-based Turkish Islamist leader. To his supporters, he is a man who preaches peace and interfaith tolerance, while to his detractors, he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing who seeks to undermine secularism and the interfaith relations about which he so often speaks.

A scholar helpfully brings to my attention a blog post from late last year that until now I had not seen: Dani Rodrik and Pınar Doğan, two Harvard-based scholars, have uncovered some of Gülen’s writings on Jews which should give pause for thought about where the shadowy preacher truly stands. From their “Balyoz Davası ve Gerçekler” (“Sledgehammer Case and Facts”) blog:

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Fethullah Gülen is the U.S.-based Turkish Islamist leader. To his supporters, he is a man who preaches peace and interfaith tolerance, while to his detractors, he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing who seeks to undermine secularism and the interfaith relations about which he so often speaks.

A scholar helpfully brings to my attention a blog post from late last year that until now I had not seen: Dani Rodrik and Pınar Doğan, two Harvard-based scholars, have uncovered some of Gülen’s writings on Jews which should give pause for thought about where the shadowy preacher truly stands. From their “Balyoz Davası ve Gerçekler” (“Sledgehammer Case and Facts”) blog:

Even though they have lived in exile here and there and have led an almost nomadic existence, Jews have been able to maintain their racial characteristics with almost no loss. Moreover, the Jewish tribe is very intelligent. This intelligent tribe has put forth many things throughout history in the name of science and thought. But these have always been offered in the form of poisoned honey and have been presented to the world as such. For instance, Karl Marx is a Jew; the communism he developed looks like a good alternative to capitalism at first sight, but in essence it is a deathly poison mixed in honey… Jews will maintain their existence until the apocalypse. And shortly before the apocalypse, their mission of acting as the coil spring for humanity’s progress will come to an end, and they will prepare their end with their own hands.

Their incurable enmity to Islam and Muslims aside, these people, which look with scorn upon even their own prophets and killed many among them, will finally end up in the position of Nazis and will look for a place to hide in the four corners of the earth. Nevertheless, since dwelling on the true causes and motives related to this topic will both oppose the business of truth and result in raising undue passions, we shall let this pass for the moment. Yes, until Islam comes to be represented to the desired extent, it seems like luck will favor the Jews for some time still.

There is much, much more over at their blog, which is certainly worth a read. While the Gülen movement has been scrubbing anti-Semitic content from online versions of their leader’s writings, that merely shows a disturbing discrepancy between Gülen’s preaching for internal consumption and external use only. Perhaps it is time for some of the state legislators and universities that take Gülen’s largesse to reconsider just where they stand.

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Turkey’s Double-Speak on Al-Qaeda

Yesterday, on the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, released a statement remembering that day and condemning terrorism:

The cowardly acts committed twelve years ago today will always remain as a solemn and tragic reminder of the threat posed by the scourge of terrorism. No cause can justify terrorism, for nothing is more valuable than human life and dignity.

Actions are louder than words and, alas, it seems Tan’s words are empty given the approach the government he represents has taken toward al-Qaeda in recent years.

Yesterday, on the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, released a statement remembering that day and condemning terrorism:

The cowardly acts committed twelve years ago today will always remain as a solemn and tragic reminder of the threat posed by the scourge of terrorism. No cause can justify terrorism, for nothing is more valuable than human life and dignity.

Actions are louder than words and, alas, it seems Tan’s words are empty given the approach the government he represents has taken toward al-Qaeda in recent years.

  • Ahmet Kavas, like Tan a Turkish ambassador, raised eyebrows earlier this year when against the backdrop of al-Qaeda fighting in Mali, he declared, “Al-Qaeda is very different from terror” and that “The word ‘terror’ is a French invention. Not the work of Muslims.”
  • Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the man for whom Tan works, has embraced and continues to support Yasin al-Qadi, designated by the U.S. Treasury Department to be terror financier, having channeled money to al-Qaeda. After it came out that Cuneyt Zapsu, a top Erdoğan adviser, had donated money to Yasin al-Qadi, Erdoğan defended both his aide and Qadi himself. “I know Yasin, I believe in him as I do in myself. He is a charitable person who loves Turkey,” Erdogan told Turkish television.
  • Turkey has in recent years embraced Hamas, and Tan himself has gone above and beyond to defend the flotilla meant to support the terrorist group. The head of the flotilla that Tan defended? Apparently, he has also been involved in channeling money to al-Qaeda.

Tan likes to be all things to all people, but if he’s serious that Turkey stands against terrorism, perhaps he might want to explain the support he, his colleagues, and the government he represents provide toward terrorists.

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