Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 19, 2013

Of The Great Escape, History, and Collective Amnesia

Earlier this month, I traveled to Zagan, Poland, to talk to a Polish military unit on their way to Afghanistan. I had never heard of Zagan before, but I should have: It was the site of the “Great Escape” memorialized in the 1963 Steve McQueen/James Garner film. On a free day, some colleagues and I went to the site of Stalag Luft III, the prison camp from which the mass escape occurred. The museum commemorating the prisoners of the camp was small, but stellar. While the movie took great liberties—first and foremost, Americans were not present in the camp at the time of the escape—Germans did intern American airmen at the camp at other times, including three veterans of the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo, one of whom has just recently passed away.

The museum historian who provided a personal tour has interacted with many of the former prisoners or their families, and has collected a number of fantastic mementos of the American presence, including sketches done in the camp by an American prisoner of other American prisoners. New discoveries are being made almost weekly, as curators continue to scour the substantial grounds with metal detectors. Not too long ago, site personnel even discovered the remains of another tunnel. Next year, I believe, will be the last reunion for the Stalag Luft III prisoners as old age claims those the Germans did not. In recent years, some German former guards have also joined the reunions, the most recent of which was held in Dayton.

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Earlier this month, I traveled to Zagan, Poland, to talk to a Polish military unit on their way to Afghanistan. I had never heard of Zagan before, but I should have: It was the site of the “Great Escape” memorialized in the 1963 Steve McQueen/James Garner film. On a free day, some colleagues and I went to the site of Stalag Luft III, the prison camp from which the mass escape occurred. The museum commemorating the prisoners of the camp was small, but stellar. While the movie took great liberties—first and foremost, Americans were not present in the camp at the time of the escape—Germans did intern American airmen at the camp at other times, including three veterans of the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo, one of whom has just recently passed away.

The museum historian who provided a personal tour has interacted with many of the former prisoners or their families, and has collected a number of fantastic mementos of the American presence, including sketches done in the camp by an American prisoner of other American prisoners. New discoveries are being made almost weekly, as curators continue to scour the substantial grounds with metal detectors. Not too long ago, site personnel even discovered the remains of another tunnel. Next year, I believe, will be the last reunion for the Stalag Luft III prisoners as old age claims those the Germans did not. In recent years, some German former guards have also joined the reunions, the most recent of which was held in Dayton.

I came across many Holocaust survivors growing up; when I briefly taught at a Sunday school in Connecticut while in graduate school, I brought an escapee from Sobibor to talk to my class. And, of course, growing up I knew many World War II veterans. That so many eyewitnesses to these decisive episodes of history are now dying out is sad. That their stories and an understanding of what they fought for are now diminished if not ignored in high school and university history classes is tragic. So seldom have intellectuals turned their backs on so much history. That a museum such as that in Zagan so enthusiastically chronicle is fortunate; that only a handful of Americans and Europeans will ever see them is a poor reflection on our collective ability to appreciate our recent past.

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RE: Will the Warming Debate Cool Off?

When investigating financial matters, the old adage is “follow the money.” That works in politics very often as well. As John Hinderaker points out over at PowerLine, billions of dollars flow from government to scientists who espouse the mantra of climate change and nearly none to those who doubt it. So it’s not surprising that climate scientists tend to believe in the climate change hypothesis: It’s in their self-interest to do so.

But there’s another reason both government and climate scientists love the idea of anthropogenic global warming: power.

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When investigating financial matters, the old adage is “follow the money.” That works in politics very often as well. As John Hinderaker points out over at PowerLine, billions of dollars flow from government to scientists who espouse the mantra of climate change and nearly none to those who doubt it. So it’s not surprising that climate scientists tend to believe in the climate change hypothesis: It’s in their self-interest to do so.

But there’s another reason both government and climate scientists love the idea of anthropogenic global warming: power.

Let’s accept for a moment the predicate that global warming is a real threat and caused by human activity. That would be a problem that could be addressed by government only. So it would greatly increase the scope of government’s reach into the economy and peoples’ lives. That, in turn, would greatly increase the power of politicians. But politicians would need the help and advice of experts in order to formulate policy. So they would need climate scientists to advise them. Getting to whisper in the ears of the powerful is itself a form of power. And as James Madison explained, “Men love power.” So politicians and climate scientists love the idea of anthropogenic global warming.

The exact same phenomenon happened two generations ago when Keynesian economics swept through the profession and then through government. Keynes advocated having government actively work various economic levers in order to keep supply and demand in balance and thus keep the economy humming along smoothly. But in order for politicians to take on the new and empowering role of being the engineers of the economic locomotive, they needed the advice of economists, who were only too happy to give it. Within a generation the line “We are all Keynesians now” was born. 

So follow the money, but also follow the power.

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Conservatives and the Quest for Political Purification

For some conservatives, using the threat of a government shutdown to defund the Affordable Care Act is an issue with which they have honest differences with other conservatives. For others on the right, however, the “principled” and “patriotic” Republicans support the effort to defund ObamaCare while “pseudo-conservatives”—the spineless, craven, and cowardly types—oppose the effort.

For this group, which includes prominent lawmakers such as Senator Ted Cruz, the defunding strategy has become a litmus test, a true “red line,” a historic moment in which the right-wing wheat and the RINO chaff are once and for all separated. To find a comparable moment in history, think of William Barret Travis at the Alamo (played by Mr. Cruz) and Henry V at Agincourt (played by Senator Rand Paul). “We few, we happy few, we band of Tea Party brothers.”

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For some conservatives, using the threat of a government shutdown to defund the Affordable Care Act is an issue with which they have honest differences with other conservatives. For others on the right, however, the “principled” and “patriotic” Republicans support the effort to defund ObamaCare while “pseudo-conservatives”—the spineless, craven, and cowardly types—oppose the effort.

For this group, which includes prominent lawmakers such as Senator Ted Cruz, the defunding strategy has become a litmus test, a true “red line,” a historic moment in which the right-wing wheat and the RINO chaff are once and for all separated. To find a comparable moment in history, think of William Barret Travis at the Alamo (played by Mr. Cruz) and Henry V at Agincourt (played by Senator Rand Paul). “We few, we happy few, we band of Tea Party brothers.”

What a shame all this melodrama is a mirage, a farce, a game.

The choice is not, and never has been, between those willing to defund ObamaCare and those willing to fund it. That supposed choice is in fact an illusion. To defund the ACA would require the House and Senate to pass new legislation, which Barack Obama would have to sign. And no one, not even Senators Cruz, Paul, Lee and Rubio, believes the president would do that. 

All the posturing that’s being done to present this as a battle between Intrepid Republicans versus the Surrender Caucus is nothing more than political theater.

It also appears that Captain Courageous himself, Ted Cruz, and some of his colleagues are now engaging—at least for now—in a premature surrender. House Republicans are incensed at Cruz for going wobbly on the filibuster he once seemed to favor, putting all the responsibility back on the House.

“For weeks, House Republicans have said the prospects of passing a defund bill in the Senate are grim, and Senators Lee, Cruz, and Rubio have responded by saying nothing is impossible if we fight hard enough. Now they are getting exactly what they asked for, and they issue a press release conceding defeat and refusing to join the fight they demanded in every TV appearance. It’s time they put their money where their mouths are, and do something other than talk,” a House GOP leadership aide told National Review. And Representative Sean Duffy took to Twitter, saying, “House agrees to send ‪#CR to Senate that defunds Obamacare. ‪@SenTedCruz & ‪@SenMikeLee refuse to fight. Wave white flag and surrender.”

There will be plenty of twists and turns ahead, so we’ll have to see how this all plays out. (Mr. Cruz may have to move forward on a filibuster just to save face.) But it does raise the question: How did this silly idea become all the rage?

For some the answer has to do with pent up fury in need of an outlet, and the effort to defund the ACA is that outlet. It also appeals to those who find it satisfying to turn every debate into an apocalyptic clash. And even if Republicans fail, at least they “fought the good fight.” (Ronald Reagan referred to people of this mindset as those who enjoyed “going off the cliff with all flags flying.”)

But there’s also a tendency among some on the right—not all, certainly, but some—to go in search of heretics. They seek to purify the conservative movement—to eliminate from it the defilement, the debasement, and the corruption they see all around them—and they bring to this task an almost religious zeal. They are the Keepers of the Tablets. And they are in a near constant state of agitation. Living in an imperfect world while demanding perfection (or your version of perfection) from others can be hard. 

This is not conservatism either in terms of disposition or governing philosophy. It is, rather, the product of intemperate minds and fairly radical (and thoroughly unconservative) tendencies. Such things have always been with us; and some of the uncontained passions and anger will eventually burn out. The question is how much damage will be done in the process. 

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Do Sanctions Hurt Sick Iranians?

Several pundits and advocacy groups have bought the notion hook, line, and sinker that sanctions are hurting sick Iranians. The problem is that it is not true. Just ask the Iranians: According to Mohammad Reza Naderi, deputy head of Iran’s Customs Administration, 30 tons of medicine have passed through Iran’s main Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKIA) on a daily basis. Between March 21 and September 10 of this year, he said that almost 7,000 tons of medicine worth more than $500 million cleared Iranian customs at IKIA alone. Yearly, medical imports have increased by nine percent.

Saddam Hussein’s government once claimed that international sanctions had killed 500,000 Iraqi children. That figure entered the mainstream debate and became a mantra. The only problem was it was not true. Certainly, after Iraq’s liberation, it quickly became apparent that 500,000 Iraqi children had not died.

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Several pundits and advocacy groups have bought the notion hook, line, and sinker that sanctions are hurting sick Iranians. The problem is that it is not true. Just ask the Iranians: According to Mohammad Reza Naderi, deputy head of Iran’s Customs Administration, 30 tons of medicine have passed through Iran’s main Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKIA) on a daily basis. Between March 21 and September 10 of this year, he said that almost 7,000 tons of medicine worth more than $500 million cleared Iranian customs at IKIA alone. Yearly, medical imports have increased by nine percent.

Saddam Hussein’s government once claimed that international sanctions had killed 500,000 Iraqi children. That figure entered the mainstream debate and became a mantra. The only problem was it was not true. Certainly, after Iraq’s liberation, it quickly became apparent that 500,000 Iraqi children had not died.

Sanctions are no silver bullet, but pressure and coercion are part of any comprehensive strategy. Not surprisingly, dictators do not like sanctions because they make their job more difficult. Dictators will try any number of strategies to mitigate sanctions’ impact, such as cultivating American academics and analysts. Perhaps it’s time to step back and ask why the press so readily and uncritically accepts the sob-stories put out by dictatorial regimes—especially when the import figures put out by Iranian customs show the truth to be far different than the regimes’ claims.

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Commanders-in-Chief Should Command

President Obama may be coming under withering criticism from his own former secretaries of defense for his hesitant and uncertain conduct vis-à-vis Syria. But he has at least a few defenders left who argue—as David Ignatius does today in the Washington Post—that he is simply giving the public what it wants. Writes Ignatius:

Obama has accomplished goals that most Americans endorse, given the unpalatable menu of choices. Polls suggest that the public overwhelmingly backs the course Obama has chosen. A Post-ABC News survey asked Americans if they endorsed the U.S.-Russian plan to dismantle Syrian chemical weapons as an alternative to missile strikes; 79 percent were supportive.  Read More

President Obama may be coming under withering criticism from his own former secretaries of defense for his hesitant and uncertain conduct vis-à-vis Syria. But he has at least a few defenders left who argue—as David Ignatius does today in the Washington Post—that he is simply giving the public what it wants. Writes Ignatius:

Obama has accomplished goals that most Americans endorse, given the unpalatable menu of choices. Polls suggest that the public overwhelmingly backs the course Obama has chosen. A Post-ABC News survey asked Americans if they endorsed the U.S.-Russian plan to dismantle Syrian chemical weapons as an alternative to missile strikes; 79 percent were supportive. 

Have we now become a plebiscitary democracy where great questions of the day are to be decided based on public-opinion polls? What’s next? Are we going to give every American a Xbox-like device that he can use to instantly vote on every bill before Congress and every major decision on the president’s desk?

That’s not how the Founders envisioned this country operating. They created a representative democracy in which the people vote for their leaders and the leaders then are responsible for exercising their own judgment as to what course of action is best for the country. The voters still get a say, but they have to wait two to four years before they can give a thumbs up or thumbs down to their elected representatives. 

The genius of our system is plainly evident in how easily presidents who follow public opinion can be led astray. Americans approved of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by rough similar margins as they approve of the Syria chemical-weapons deal today. That did not get President Bush off the hook when the war went south; public opinion quickly turned. And there was scant sympathy among the president’s critics—including David Ignatius—for the argument that the invasion was right because it was popular.

By 2007 there was virtually no support among the public for the surge. Yet President Bush ordered it anyway, and it worked. As evidence came in of declining rates of violence in Iraq, support for the surge increased. In retrospect Bush had made the gutsiest and best call of his presidency by taking a tough stance in defiance of public opinion. And as events on the ground shifted, so did public opinion.

That’s what we expect commanders-in-chief to do. And it’s not just Bush or Republican presidents who make these tough calls. So do Democrats, ranging from Harry Truman with his support of NATO and the Marshall Plan (neither of which was initially popular) to Bill Clinton, with his support of unpopular interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. Even Obama has defied public opinion to intervene in Libya. There was no more enthusiasm among voters for that conflict than there is now for the one in Syria.

So Obama will find scant refuge today in the argument that public-opinion polls support his stance. Sure, the public is supportive—but then the public hopes that the chemical-weapons deal will be carried out. Perhaps they imagine, as Ignatius does, that the deal forces Russia to collect Syria’s chemical weapons and could foster a political solution to the mess in Syria. If so, Obama may well be vindicated. But the greater likelihood is that the deal will be an excuse for Assad to stall for time, that most of his chemical weapons will never be destroyed, and that the United States will be complicit along with Russia in keeping his criminal regime in power. In that case, the verdict of the public—and history—is likely to turn against Obama.

The president should keep in mind the pearl of wisdom often voiced by embattled sports coaches who are under criticism from the fans and media for not starting player X or not calling play Y: If you let the fans in the stands make your coaching decisions for you, before long you’re likely to join them as a spectator.

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Embrace the Anti-Islamist Backlash

Against the backdrop of Washington’s collective Attention Deficit Disorder, the coup in Egypt is ancient history and the Gezi Park demonstrations in Turkey are forgotten. Neither should be, as they are indicative of a trend that the United States should both recognize and upon which it should act.

The coup in Egypt was against political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood had promised Egyptians accountability and economic development, but ousted President Mohamed Morsi gave the ol’ bait-and-switch and focused on imposing the Brotherhood’s intolerant and religiously conservative social agenda. To convince Egyptians, disgusted with decades of the military’s corrupt and authoritarian rule, to reconsider the military as the lesser of evils took special skill. Read More

Against the backdrop of Washington’s collective Attention Deficit Disorder, the coup in Egypt is ancient history and the Gezi Park demonstrations in Turkey are forgotten. Neither should be, as they are indicative of a trend that the United States should both recognize and upon which it should act.

The coup in Egypt was against political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood had promised Egyptians accountability and economic development, but ousted President Mohamed Morsi gave the ol’ bait-and-switch and focused on imposing the Brotherhood’s intolerant and religiously conservative social agenda. To convince Egyptians, disgusted with decades of the military’s corrupt and authoritarian rule, to reconsider the military as the lesser of evils took special skill.

This summer’s protests in Turkey were also the result of a long-simmering liberal backlash against the ruling party’s autocracy and Islamism.

Now, there are signs that Islamists have jumped the shark in Jordan as well. David Schenker—the best analyst of Jordan (and Syria) in Washington—points me to this story, from the Arabic press in Jordan: An Islamist deputy proposed a bill that would mandate that Jordan’s laws be harmonized with Sharia, Islamic law. Bad news for the Islamists, though: They could muster only 27 votes out of 150. Jordan is by no means a democracy and its elections are far from free and fair, but it does allow Islamists to run and, at times, the Muslim Brotherhood has been effectively the largest parliamentary bloc.

In Tunisia, secularists are also rallying as Islamists increasingly turn to assassination and show their true, anti-democratic colors. In the United Arab Emirates as well, the Islamist al-Islah party is on the defensive, its own coup plot disrupted.

Iranians repeatedly have shown their disgust with the theocrats who have eviscerated their sovereignty in the name of religion.

For too long, the United States has reacted to events without a clear strategy. While George W. Bush articulated a strategy in the wake of 9/11, his national-security staff lacked the will and ability to transform vision into reality and enforce policy discipline on the interagency process.

Democratization is an important—and laudable—goal, but it cannot come instantly, only when the right circumstances are set. This should not be an excuse to embrace the status quo (as too many in the State Department do), but to push the region in a direction where true liberalism is possible. To do so requires defeating the ideology of political Islam, an ideology no less noxious than the various autocratic ideologies which blighted the 20th century. In the current issue of National Review, I argue that the United States should embrace a ‘roll-back’ strategy against the Muslim Brotherhood and, more broadly, political Islamism.

The signs are many that ordinary Arabs, Turks, and Iranians have started to recognize that religion is no panacea for worldly ills. How unfortunate it is that U.S. policymakers are not seizing this opportunity—and even appear willing to seize defeat from the jaws of victory in Iran, Turkey, and across the region.

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