Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 10, 2013

Free Speech Can’t Be Redistributed

In the midst of a lengthy press conference rant earlier this week about his refusal to negotiate with Republicans about the government shutdown or the debt ceiling, President Obama took time out to ride another one of his favorite hobby horses: anger at the Supreme Court’s evisceration of restrictive campaign finance laws. The president sounded the usual liberal cries of alarm about the possibility that citizens or groups won’t be stopped from articulating their views in reaction to the Supreme Court’s deliberations on Tuesday. The high court’s 2010 Citizens United decision took down the McCain-Feingold regulations that effectively restricted political speech rights by independent groups and citizens. But the court’s ruling on McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission could similarly strike down efforts to hamper the ability of individuals to contribute directly to political candidates and party committees.

According to the president and his cheering section at the New York Times editorial page, the likelihood that the conservative majority will rule in favor of McCutcheon’s plea to eliminate specific limits on contributions to candidates and parties is legalized corruption. They believe political speech should be severely limited because free spending will result in the rich or powerful “buying” elections. But at the heart of the campaign finance law impulse is not a defense of democracy but a desire to squelch it. Unrestricted free speech is not inherently Republican or Democratic, conservative or liberal, but what supporters of the current laws want is to make it harder for independent voices to be heard. The campaign finance laws are set up to make it easier on incumbents of all parties and to reinforce the power of establishment media outlets like the Times, which can use its constitutionally-protected bully pulpit to promote ideas and candidates it prefers as much as they like. Just as important, the convoluted web of campaign laws at the heart of the McCutcheon case constitutes a barrier not only to speech but further actual corruption by taking elections out of the hands of the only political players that are truly accountable: candidates and parties.

Read More

In the midst of a lengthy press conference rant earlier this week about his refusal to negotiate with Republicans about the government shutdown or the debt ceiling, President Obama took time out to ride another one of his favorite hobby horses: anger at the Supreme Court’s evisceration of restrictive campaign finance laws. The president sounded the usual liberal cries of alarm about the possibility that citizens or groups won’t be stopped from articulating their views in reaction to the Supreme Court’s deliberations on Tuesday. The high court’s 2010 Citizens United decision took down the McCain-Feingold regulations that effectively restricted political speech rights by independent groups and citizens. But the court’s ruling on McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission could similarly strike down efforts to hamper the ability of individuals to contribute directly to political candidates and party committees.

According to the president and his cheering section at the New York Times editorial page, the likelihood that the conservative majority will rule in favor of McCutcheon’s plea to eliminate specific limits on contributions to candidates and parties is legalized corruption. They believe political speech should be severely limited because free spending will result in the rich or powerful “buying” elections. But at the heart of the campaign finance law impulse is not a defense of democracy but a desire to squelch it. Unrestricted free speech is not inherently Republican or Democratic, conservative or liberal, but what supporters of the current laws want is to make it harder for independent voices to be heard. The campaign finance laws are set up to make it easier on incumbents of all parties and to reinforce the power of establishment media outlets like the Times, which can use its constitutionally-protected bully pulpit to promote ideas and candidates it prefers as much as they like. Just as important, the convoluted web of campaign laws at the heart of the McCutcheon case constitutes a barrier not only to speech but further actual corruption by taking elections out of the hands of the only political players that are truly accountable: candidates and parties.

As Politico noted yesterday, the main beneficiaries of a victory for McCutcheon would be both the Republican and Democratic National Committees. Since the law specifically restricts the ability of donors to contribute to these national political institutions, money instead flows to unaccountable independents like those protected by Citizens United. There is nothing wrong with independent groups having their say, and the McCain-Feingold effort to stop them was an offense to democracy and, as the court rightly noted, an unconstitutional infringement of free speech. But if those interested in politics are able to give more to the national party committees and the candidates themselves, the result will be that the players in elections can have a greater say in campaigns and therefore be more accountable for what is said on their behalf.

Stopping wealthy individuals from giving more to parties and candidates won’t keep money out of politics. Nothing will do that, especially when you consider that the real corruption in government comes from the ability of politicians to use earmarks and other legislative tricks to dole out goodies to their allies or favored constituencies. The smart way to attack that problem is not by starving non-incumbents who have more problems raising funds than incumbents or making it difficult for others to donate to multiple candidates. Limiting the ability of Congress to play that game with earmarks and other legislative tricks will do more to keep the system honest than 40 years of campaign finance laws have done.

But at the heart of this case is the fundamental drive on the part of the political left to treat political speech as a commodity that can be regulated like interstate commerce. They don’t trust the ability of the people to sort out the varied political messages with which they are bombarded. Instead, they want to dole out political speech in small packages. Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said from the bench on Tuesday that limits on contributions give the “little people” more say. But what she really wants to do is limit everyone’s speech. The Constitution protects the right of all citizens, rich or poor, to speech. The law cannot favor some at the expense of others. Income may be redistributed via the tax laws if the Congress wills it, but free speech cannot be handled in the same manner. That is especially true when one considers that a citizen who spends money on an independent committee has no such restrictions but that one who gives to a candidate or a party is severely limited. Elections are influenced by campaign expenditures just as they are by many factors, but the notion that an office can be bought is given the lie by the failure of many well-funded or wealthy politicians.

The campaign finance laws have created a powerful bureaucracy and a set of laws that force politicians and even private citizens who wish to speak up to hire lawyers if they want to avoid being prosecuted for minute violations of arcane regulations. This does nothing to enhance democracy. The court should follow up on the blow it struck for free speech in Citizens United in McCutcheon. If it does, the only real losers will be those liberals who fear an unrestricted debate of the issues.

Read Less

Why We Separate Church and State

The struggle to explain the motivations of statecraft through history often gets mired in the difficulty of differentiating between economic self-interest and cultural prime movers. As with the kerfuffle over Mitt Romney’s comments about Palestinian culture last year, the debate can easily devolve into a chicken-or-egg spiral: even if you believe institutions matter more than culture, isn’t culture a determining factor in when and where those institutions get built in the first place?

Because journalists and academics so often dismiss religion–a dominant feature of cultural identity–as superstitious nonsense, their efforts to endow religion with a rationality they can relate to often comes across as well meaning but ultimately condescending. That is the case with a working paper from two economists at the University of Connecticut, which Slate’s Joshua Keating called attention to yesterday. The Connecticut economists set out to demonstrate why theocracies emerge, and have settled on a theory:

Read More

The struggle to explain the motivations of statecraft through history often gets mired in the difficulty of differentiating between economic self-interest and cultural prime movers. As with the kerfuffle over Mitt Romney’s comments about Palestinian culture last year, the debate can easily devolve into a chicken-or-egg spiral: even if you believe institutions matter more than culture, isn’t culture a determining factor in when and where those institutions get built in the first place?

Because journalists and academics so often dismiss religion–a dominant feature of cultural identity–as superstitious nonsense, their efforts to endow religion with a rationality they can relate to often comes across as well meaning but ultimately condescending. That is the case with a working paper from two economists at the University of Connecticut, which Slate’s Joshua Keating called attention to yesterday. The Connecticut economists set out to demonstrate why theocracies emerge, and have settled on a theory:

Specifically, we have conjectured that theocracy is more likely to emerge, all else equal, as the religion market becomes more monopolized, as religion becomes more monotheistic, and as the ruler becomes weaker.

This is a logical thesis, but the authors are motivated by a desire to use hypotheses that are statistically verifiable, so they get stuck in a correlation-versus-causation sand trap. For example, one of the major propositions of the paper is that “A monopolistic religion market is more conducive to theocracy than is a competitive religion market.” This makes logical sense, but the authors are interested in economic factors, so in testing the proposition, they write the following (q represents a “religious good”):

We now turn to the case of theocracy, which we define to mean a merged church and state. As noted, we do not distinguish here between a state that takes over the church and a church that takes over the state, focusing instead on the behavior of the merged entity once it is under the control of a single decision-maker, whom we shall refer to as a “theocrat.” We will argue that there are two possible benefits from such a merger. The first, implied by the preceding discussion of the pacifying function of religion, is that the theocrat can now choose the level of q to serve its own ends. Specifically, it can choose q to maximize net taxes rather than church profits or consumer welfare. Second, we assume that the religious leaders, now allied with the state, can possibly confer legitimacy on the theocrat and thereby lower the cost of collecting taxes.

Now, it’s certainly true that corruption of the religious authority is one danger of the merger of church and state. But that doesn’t mean that financial success should be equated with true organizational and political power. The great innovation of the American project was that religion would be advanced, not weakened, by decentralizing its power. As Alan Ryan writes in On Politics:

The Americans had contrived a surprising device for making religion a powerful social force. They had written the complete separation of church and state into the Constitution. Unlike ancien regime France, America had no alliance of wealthy and useless clergy with wealthy and useless aristocrats. Whatever reasons Americans might have for disliking their government could not turn into anti-clericalism; conversely, if they were disaffected from whatever church they belonged to, they could move to another or set one up from scratch. The pre-Revolutionary French union of church and state implicated each in the unpopularity of the other.

What protected and nurtured the power of the church was that it was not aligned with the state. It’s true that the competitive market meant there were also various options within (and beyond) Christianity in America, but as we see from the thoughts of the founders, more important than variety was independence.

This causation/correlation issue surfaces elsewhere in the paper. Another main proposition of the authors is that “When the church is independent of the state, the ruler prefers a competitive rather than a monopolistic religion market.” Again the authors pitch this as based on “net tax revenue,” asserting that the state benefits financially from the church’s existence even if the two are independent. A competitive religion market, therefore, produces more revenue for the state.

But surely there is a more relevant explanation for this proposition. A ruler might suppose that a competitive religion market produces no religious leader that speaks for the majority of citizens. He might therefore want competition among the churches so he faces less competition from the churches. Indeed, the modern secular project seeks the steady expansion of the reach of the federal government into the lives of the citizenry. At a certain point, the government becomes far too intrusive for some groups, but only risks political defeat if those groups are large enough to exert electoral pressure on the party in power.

The Obama administration’s birth control mandate was a perfect example. The left believes it is the government’s place to force the public to pay for everyone else’s contraception. This violates Catholic doctrine, and Catholics protested. The president, however, could not possibly have cared less that Catholics were having their religious liberty infringed upon by his signature legislative achievement, and ignored their concerns. There are about 75 million Catholics in America, and they made up about a quarter of the 2012 electorate. Could the president have dismissed their rights so easily if they had a religious monopoly and they made up 100 percent of the 2012 electorate?

Thus does it become clear that a “ruler” (that is the term the Connecticut economists use, though it feels a bit heavyhanded in the context of an American president or other democratic head of state or government) desires to either coopt religious authority or see it frayed by internal divisions not because of tax revenue but because of governing power. For what happens when religious leaders unite against the “ruler?” That is a question that was answered in large part by this nation’s very founding. As Andrew Preston writes in Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith:

Unlike any other cohort or profession in society–certainly not the bulk of the Patriot leadership–the clergy could command a vast, captive audience on a weekly basis (and sometimes more often). While the Patriot leaders drew on support from the cities and the aristocratic rural gentry, the clergy’s audience cut across almost all forms of identity: the backcountry as well as the coast, villages and farms as well as cities, poor as well as rich. Even though some churches remained silent–most notably the Lutherans of backcountry Pennsylvania–in general, support for the Patriots drew on nearly all Protestant denominations, too, including among Anglicans.

The separation of church and state, and certainly the lack of an actual theocracy, is an indispensable component of modern political liberty. (After all, when many of the colonists protested against the crown’s arbitrary power they had in mind the Church of England.) This is done primarily through monotheistic faiths and to weaken the “ruler”–two of the conditions suitable for the establishment of a theocracy according to the Connecticut economists, but which instead now act to prevent such a concentration of political power.

Read Less

If Only Obama Cared As Much for ObamaCare As He Did About Reelection

After the 2012 election, a great deal of time was spent discussing the wide technical gap between the capabilities of the Romney and Obama websites as well as their respective get-out-the-vote efforts. While Romney had entrusted a deeply flawed system called Orca with his Election Day strategy, the Obama reelection team relied on a robust website that many have attributed, at least partially, to his victory. It’s too bad that the Obama administration didn’t use that technological acumen to build a website that was at least half as sound for its signature piece of legislation, ObamaCare.

The launch of the ObamaCare exchanges had long been slated for October 1 of this year. The Obama administration had three years to build the website and almost half a billion dollars at its disposal to make it not only functional, but also secure. From the morning of October 1, however, stories of its utter failure have reverberated through the normally Obama-friendly media. Even CNN’s own Wolf Blitzer yesterday stated on air that if the exchanges weren’t ready, the administration should have delayed the rollout of the exchanges for a year, as many Republicans have suggested. CBS has called the launch “nothing short of disastrous.” A new poll shows how the news has impacted Americans’ view of the rollout, with only seven percent of those polled stating that the debut of the government’s health-insurance marketplaces went “extremely well” or “very well.” 

The Obama administration has placed the blame on the difficulties experienced by the sites on the fact that they are so popular among the American people. That popularity hasn’t seemed to translate into Americans actually signing up for the exchanges, with estimates of enrollees from states like Iowa currently in the single digits over a week after the exchanges’ launch. Even if the failure of the site was due to its extreme popularity (a claim that has justifiably been called into question by many IT experts), the question is: why? A technical blog explained just how stable the Obama campaign’s fundraising platform was in the lead-up to the 2012 election:

Read More

After the 2012 election, a great deal of time was spent discussing the wide technical gap between the capabilities of the Romney and Obama websites as well as their respective get-out-the-vote efforts. While Romney had entrusted a deeply flawed system called Orca with his Election Day strategy, the Obama reelection team relied on a robust website that many have attributed, at least partially, to his victory. It’s too bad that the Obama administration didn’t use that technological acumen to build a website that was at least half as sound for its signature piece of legislation, ObamaCare.

The launch of the ObamaCare exchanges had long been slated for October 1 of this year. The Obama administration had three years to build the website and almost half a billion dollars at its disposal to make it not only functional, but also secure. From the morning of October 1, however, stories of its utter failure have reverberated through the normally Obama-friendly media. Even CNN’s own Wolf Blitzer yesterday stated on air that if the exchanges weren’t ready, the administration should have delayed the rollout of the exchanges for a year, as many Republicans have suggested. CBS has called the launch “nothing short of disastrous.” A new poll shows how the news has impacted Americans’ view of the rollout, with only seven percent of those polled stating that the debut of the government’s health-insurance marketplaces went “extremely well” or “very well.” 

The Obama administration has placed the blame on the difficulties experienced by the sites on the fact that they are so popular among the American people. That popularity hasn’t seemed to translate into Americans actually signing up for the exchanges, with estimates of enrollees from states like Iowa currently in the single digits over a week after the exchanges’ launch. Even if the failure of the site was due to its extreme popularity (a claim that has justifiably been called into question by many IT experts), the question is: why? A technical blog explained just how stable the Obama campaign’s fundraising platform was in the lead-up to the 2012 election:

The centerpiece of the whole Obama campaign was its fundraising capabilities, without which all of the other applications may have been moot. The 2012 campaign’s online donation system was a complete rebuild from the 2008 effort, VanDenPlas said, “a multi-region, geolocated, three facility processor capable of a per second transaction count sufficiently high enough that we failed to be able to reach it in load testing. It could also operate if every other dependent service had failed, including its own database and every vendor.”

The Obama campaign’s websites were also hosted on Amazon and hardened. The campaign’s engineers built an application that created static HTML snapshots of the sites stored in Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (S3); in the event of a Web server failure, requests would be instantly directed to the latest snapshot.

All of that redundancy was given an extra workout in the week before the election as Hurricane Sandy approached the East Coast. VanDenPlas said that a “complete hot replica of our entire infrastructure” was deployed to Amazon’s primary West Coast data center in under 24 hours as a precaution.

Compare this feat of technological knowhow to that of the ObamaCare websites, which the non-partisan technology blog Silicon Angle called “the biggest tech gaggle ever.” Silicon Angle lays out the many individual failures of the website, from its improper coding to the fact that contractors have had to reset the passwords of every single user. Today a Twitter user, Charlie Johnson, reportedly discovered an incompetent contractor working on the site had posted the server source code on an online forum for Java users less than a month before the site’s launch asking for crowd-sourcing assistance to fix a basic component of the site–a component which should have been in place months prior. This week the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration was aware of the many pitfalls of the exchanges before the launch: 

Two allies of the administration, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the controversy surrounding the rollout, said they approached White House officials this year to raise concerns that the federal exchange was not ready to launch. In both cases, Obama officials assured them there was no cause for alarm.

Johnson also reported how much of the source code on the website is, even as of today, in beta form, not ready for a website post-launch. When programmers build websites they often use the standard Latin phrase “Lorem ipsum” as a text placeholder until copy is written to take its place. Johnson highlights how the source code on Healthcare.gov has twenty examples of this Latin phrase still present on the live site. The way in which this source code was written (and then made public) could also serve as a massive security risk to those who have already imputed their information into the site. The creator of McAfee Anti-Virus software, John McAfee, called the structure of the exchanges’ website into question, stating that millions of Americans are at risk for identity theft using the website. 

Outside of the political considerations surrounding ObamaCare, it’s impossible to deny that those in charge of implementing and overseeing the launch of the ObamaCare exchanges have a duty to explain to the American people why over half a billion dollars was spent on an utterly flawed website. When the Obama administration turned to the private sector to create a functional website capable of sustaining massive influxes of traffic while processing financial donations, it produced a technological work of art. In contrast, when a government bureaucracy led by the Obama administration contracted a site with three years’ prior notice and a budget of over $600 million, it produced a monstrosity so big that many have argued it needs to be totally scrapped and rebuilt from scratch. In light of this experience, it’s a wonder that the Obama administration can still believe that bureaucrats, not the private sector, are best equipped to administer the healthcare of millions of Americans.

Read Less

Euros Signal They’re Ready to Appease Iran

Up until now, Iran’s diplomatic charm offensive has focused on getting the West to think differently about the Islamist regime now that it has a new front man. But Tehran’s efforts are about to cut straight to the heart of the dispute that has made it an international pariah. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran was readying a new offer about its nuclear program intended to persuade the West to drop or at least to scale back the economic sanctions that have crippled its economy. But lest there be much doubt about how gratefully the Iranian proposal will be received in Western Europe, according to a report in Haaretz, French and British diplomats are already telling Israel to be prepared for an interim deal that could give the ayatollahs exactly what they have been asking for all along.

The P5+1 negotiating group, consisting of the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany, will meet with the Iranians next week in Geneva to receive the Iranian proposal. This group has tried and failed repeatedly to get the Iranians to at least pretend they were interested in a nuclear agreement for years and has consistently failed. But the appearance on the scene of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is enough to convince all the parties, some of which were beginning to concede that the chances of an agreement were remote after the last P5+1 fiasco earlier this year, that a new accord is a real possibility. So long as the discussion was merely about the need for more diplomacy, those in favor of a new round of engagement with the Islamist regime had a strong position. But the decision of the Europeans to tell Israel in advance of the Geneva gathering that an “interim agreement” that could conceivably scale back sanctions may happen is a sign that there is more going on here than just giving diplomacy a last chance. The talk about accepting Iranian promises to cut down on their enrichment of uranium and easing sanctions in return is not merely weakening the West’s negotiating position. It is a clear sign that Rouhani’s outreach efforts are causing the Europeans to adopt a policy of appeasement that may well lead to the realization of a nuclear threat they have long feared.

Read More

Up until now, Iran’s diplomatic charm offensive has focused on getting the West to think differently about the Islamist regime now that it has a new front man. But Tehran’s efforts are about to cut straight to the heart of the dispute that has made it an international pariah. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran was readying a new offer about its nuclear program intended to persuade the West to drop or at least to scale back the economic sanctions that have crippled its economy. But lest there be much doubt about how gratefully the Iranian proposal will be received in Western Europe, according to a report in Haaretz, French and British diplomats are already telling Israel to be prepared for an interim deal that could give the ayatollahs exactly what they have been asking for all along.

The P5+1 negotiating group, consisting of the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany, will meet with the Iranians next week in Geneva to receive the Iranian proposal. This group has tried and failed repeatedly to get the Iranians to at least pretend they were interested in a nuclear agreement for years and has consistently failed. But the appearance on the scene of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is enough to convince all the parties, some of which were beginning to concede that the chances of an agreement were remote after the last P5+1 fiasco earlier this year, that a new accord is a real possibility. So long as the discussion was merely about the need for more diplomacy, those in favor of a new round of engagement with the Islamist regime had a strong position. But the decision of the Europeans to tell Israel in advance of the Geneva gathering that an “interim agreement” that could conceivably scale back sanctions may happen is a sign that there is more going on here than just giving diplomacy a last chance. The talk about accepting Iranian promises to cut down on their enrichment of uranium and easing sanctions in return is not merely weakening the West’s negotiating position. It is a clear sign that Rouhani’s outreach efforts are causing the Europeans to adopt a policy of appeasement that may well lead to the realization of a nuclear threat they have long feared.

President Obama and other administration figures have defended the decision to revive the P5+1 talks as merely a case of the West doing its due diligence to see if diplomacy deserved another chance after several years of humiliating failures. In theory, that’s a reasonable point of view. But with European diplomats already warning Israel that their governments are prepared to accept a deal that stops way short of ending all Iranian enrichment of uranium, the effort is taking on the appearance of a decision to back away from pressure on Iran rather than merely a last gasp of diplomacy before sanctions are tightened and the threat of force is contemplated.

The Iranian proposal strikes a familiar chord with those who have been following the farcical series of negotiations with Iran that started more than a decade ago. The Iranians have often talked about accepting limits on how much uranium they could enrich or even about agreeing to transport some of it out of the country only to always renege at the last minute. That was the tactic when Rouhani headed his country’s nuclear negotiating team and he has bragged about his success in hoodwinking the West on the issue.

It is bad enough if President Obama and his European partners allow themselves to be sucked into another dead-end process that could drag on for months if not longer and therefore give Iran another year to get closer to its nuclear goal. But if, as the Euros are signaling, the P5+1 group is prepared to accept a deal that will allow Iran to retain its nuclear capability–albeit with restrictions that will supposedly make it impossible for them to build a bomb–the problem is even bigger than that.

A decision to leave Iran’s nuclear program, and even its enrichment process, in place will be justified as a measure that will still prevent them from getting a bomb. But as the West learned to its sorrow when dealing with a far less powerful or dangerous opponent like North Korea, such agreements can be evaded. Anything less than a complete shutdown of the enrichment process is more or less a guarantee that, like the North Koreans, sooner or later Iran will be able to get its bomb.

Just as serious is the possibility of loosening sanctions in exchange for such unsatisfactory halfway measures.

It should be remembered that it took years for Congress to pressure President Obama into agreeing to and then implementing tough sanctions on Iran as well as years for him to persuade the international community to back watered-down versions of the U.S. sanctions program. Once they are loosened, it will be difficult if not completely impossible for them to be revived. The Europeans have little appetite for this conflict and are desperate to find a way out of it. The same may well be true of President Obama, despite the tough rhetoric he continues to employ against Iran. But even if he doesn’t buy into the Iranian offer, if it results in a breakup of the West’s solid front on Iran, the Iranians may be home free either way.

Neither the president nor the Europeans wish to be accused of waving the white flag on Iran. But neither do they appear to have the will to resist the temptation offered by Rouhani’s PR efforts and to instead keep their promises on Iran. Whether next week’s talks result in a weakening of sanctions in exchange for Iranian lies or merely the wasting of more weeks and months, the scene appears to be set for Western appeasement of the ayatollahs.

Read Less

Egyptians on Obama’s Aid Decision

Both Jonathan Tobin and Max Boot have offered up their thoughts on the U.S. cutoff of military aid to Egypt, and I agree that the cutoff of aid is a mistake, especially as the interim Egyptian government now has a process to rewrite a constitution with adequate checks and balances, and appears to be ready to hold elections in June 2014. The United States would have better used its leverage if it ensured that those elections were observed by credible, independent, and international groups.

It is one thing to suggest that the Obama administration has harmed U.S. credibility, it is another thing to demonstrate it. In that context, a compilation put together by the BBC Monitoring of both English and Arabic-language Egyptian press and tweets commenting on the White House decision is worth considering. While there is no direct link available, the following excerpts are reflective of the larger compilation:

Read More

Both Jonathan Tobin and Max Boot have offered up their thoughts on the U.S. cutoff of military aid to Egypt, and I agree that the cutoff of aid is a mistake, especially as the interim Egyptian government now has a process to rewrite a constitution with adequate checks and balances, and appears to be ready to hold elections in June 2014. The United States would have better used its leverage if it ensured that those elections were observed by credible, independent, and international groups.

It is one thing to suggest that the Obama administration has harmed U.S. credibility, it is another thing to demonstrate it. In that context, a compilation put together by the BBC Monitoring of both English and Arabic-language Egyptian press and tweets commenting on the White House decision is worth considering. While there is no direct link available, the following excerpts are reflective of the larger compilation:

  • Al-Tahrir daily leads with the following headline above its masthead: “Let the US aid go to hell.” Following the main headline, it carries other headlines, quoting economic and military experts as saying: “Washington uses the aid to pressure the army and Egypt should reject it now and immediately … Egypt will become stronger after the aid stops and the foreign market will be open for it to import weapons … World press: Cutting aid not to affect Egypt.”
  • The editorial of privately-owned Al-Yawm al-Sabi [is] entitled: “Let the US aid go and independence stay.”
  • Egyptian Channel 1 TV quoted the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Badr Abd-al-Ati, as saying that Egypt rejects the use of US aid as a “tool to exercise pressure” on internal decisions. “The US decision is wrong and the US side has to reconsider it,” he added.”The Egyptian government is committed to implementing the roadmap to satisfy the Egyptian people rather than Washington,” he also said.
  • Leftist activist Kamal Khalil who has 69,187 followers tweeted in Arabic: “Down with US aid. O White House, you are low. We are a people that do not yield.”
  • Famous TV Presenter Jihan Mansur, who has more than is 65,000 followers tweeted in Arabic: “The USA has no right to suspend military aid stipulated in Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement as long as Egypt is committed to it.”
  • Coptic activist @MichaelMeunier tweeted in English: “The US is on the losing end of this battle as it continues to support the terrorist organization the Brotherhood.”
  • Editor-in-chief of private Al-Watan daily, @Magdi-ElGalad said: “Late president Jamal abd-al-Nasir said aid is on my shoe [Egyptian saying that aid is less important than a shoe] and we [Egyptians] are telling them [USA]: You, aid and the Brotherhood are under our shoe.”

 The compilation then turns to Muslim Brotherhood acolytes, who supported Obama’s decision and called on Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathizers to publicly support Obama before Congress. I guess it’s only a matter of time, then, before the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) comes out with its full-throated embrace of a position to return Egypt to Muslim Brotherhood domination, regardless of what tens of millions of Egyptians feel and believe.

Read Less

Another Dem “No” Could Be a Big Mistake

After weeks of heeding the calls to confrontation from their most hard-line members, the House Republican leadership has taken a step toward at least a partial settlement of the current fiscal standoff. The question is: can President Obama and the Democrats get off their high horse and accept this olive branch? Leading up to today’s meeting between the president and a group of Republicans, every indication is that the answer is no.

Democrats will argue that the Republican proposal, which would grant a six-week extension of the debt ceiling (with no spending cuts) while setting in place a process for resolving the other conflict over the budget that has led to a government shutdown, doesn’t satisfy the president’s demands. It leaves the government shutdown in place and obligates the president and his Democratic allies to negotiate with the GOP over both the budget and the debt. As such, they may well turn it down and demand either a one-year debt extension offered by Senate Democrats or simply hunker down and stick to their ultimatum requiring a complete Republican surrender on both the shutdown and the debt before the White House will deign to negotiate about anything else. Such a response would be consistent with the administration’s belief (backed up by opinion polls) that they are winning the shutdown and that all that is needed for the president to complete his triumph is just to stick to his position and wait for House Speaker John Boehner and his allies to give up.

But ten days into the shutdown, it’s time for the president to start re-evaluating his position. As much as the Democrats are getting less of the blame for the mess in Washington than the Republicans, the president’s 37 percent job approval rating should remind them that although the GOP is getting battered, nobody is winning in this fight. And if the president can’t find a way to accept the Republicans’ debt ceiling extension offer, then he may discover that the political fallout will start to even out.

Read More

After weeks of heeding the calls to confrontation from their most hard-line members, the House Republican leadership has taken a step toward at least a partial settlement of the current fiscal standoff. The question is: can President Obama and the Democrats get off their high horse and accept this olive branch? Leading up to today’s meeting between the president and a group of Republicans, every indication is that the answer is no.

Democrats will argue that the Republican proposal, which would grant a six-week extension of the debt ceiling (with no spending cuts) while setting in place a process for resolving the other conflict over the budget that has led to a government shutdown, doesn’t satisfy the president’s demands. It leaves the government shutdown in place and obligates the president and his Democratic allies to negotiate with the GOP over both the budget and the debt. As such, they may well turn it down and demand either a one-year debt extension offered by Senate Democrats or simply hunker down and stick to their ultimatum requiring a complete Republican surrender on both the shutdown and the debt before the White House will deign to negotiate about anything else. Such a response would be consistent with the administration’s belief (backed up by opinion polls) that they are winning the shutdown and that all that is needed for the president to complete his triumph is just to stick to his position and wait for House Speaker John Boehner and his allies to give up.

But ten days into the shutdown, it’s time for the president to start re-evaluating his position. As much as the Democrats are getting less of the blame for the mess in Washington than the Republicans, the president’s 37 percent job approval rating should remind them that although the GOP is getting battered, nobody is winning in this fight. And if the president can’t find a way to accept the Republicans’ debt ceiling extension offer, then he may discover that the political fallout will start to even out.

Boehner’s strategy is fraught with danger for both parties. Though the House leadership appears willing to try and start finding a way out of the current impasse, many hard-line GOP conservatives are still reluctant to compromise and might actually vote against Boehner’s proposal if it came to a vote because there are no conditions attached to the debt limit extension. That would set up a theoretical situation in which the House leadership would be dependent on Democratic votes and therefore allow the president’s allies to scuttle the compromise and embarrass Boehner.

Just as troubling for Boehner is a scenario in which the president turns him down and forces him to get closer to the artificial debt deadline of next Wednesday. That would, as the president hopes, probably increase the pressure on the House to bend to the president’s demands.

But blindly sticking to his position of no negotiations until the House gives in on both the debt ceiling and the shutdown may be more dangerous for President Obama than he thinks.

So long as the public’s focus has been on Tea Party leaders like Senator Ted Cruz and their unrealistic (if justified) demands that ObamaCare be scrapped in exchange for a continuing resolution to fund the government, the White House wins. But once the spotlight shifts irrevocably to the affable Boehner and his compromise efforts, all the rhetoric emanating from the White House and Democratic leaders about hostage taking and extremism begins to sound a bit hysterical. It also makes the president’s refusal to negotiate sound that much more shrill and partisan.

Today’s compromise proposal may not be the beginning of the end of this battle. But it may be, to use one of Winston Churchill’s lines, the end of the beginning. At some point, the president is going to realize that not talking and demanding surrender are unattractive to most of the American public. As a second-term president with mounting problems at home and abroad, he’d be wise to find a way out of this mess before the turning point arrives and more Americans start blaming him, as they perhaps should have done all along.

Read Less

Russia to Proceed with Iran Missile Sale?

My colleague Leon Aron has pointed out, based on Russian press reports, that it appears that Vladimir Putin now plans to move ahead with the sale of a missile network more advanced than the cancelled S-300 anti-aircraft system to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Over at AEI-Ideas, Aron explains:

Former President Dmitri Medvedev annulled the original $800 million sale of five S-300 missiles after the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran in 2010. Recent reports have indicated that Russia may supply Iran with the more modern Antey-2500 systems, which are said to be more advanced than the originals, with a target range almost doubled from 150 kilometers [93 miles] to 250 kilometers [155 miles]. Given the trajectory of Vladimir Putin’s domestic and foreign policies, the sale, if it is finalized, ought to surprise no one. Putin seems to be applying the “Syrian formula,” which the Russian president so successfully tested last month, again. As it did in regard to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Russia continues to deny that Iran is enriching uranium to make a bomb. And, just as with the Syrian case, Russia provides diplomatic cover for the offending regime by ensuring that no use of force will ever be authorized by the Security Council in the event of non-compliance (all the while supplying weapons to its authoritarian pal). Putin’s dealings with Syria and now with Iran can be explained by the Russian president’s objectives:  to recover the Soviet Union’s position as a key player in the Middle East; to prevent or impede a victory of, or even concession to, US diplomacy; and, most importantly, to avert regime change, or even a compromise with the political opposition, anywhere or under any circumstances, especially if the country in question is a former Soviet (or current Russian) ally and client.

Aron is correct in his reading of Russia, and has consistently been so. Obama’s more partisan cheerleaders may praise his first-term “reset” and second-term “breakthrough” on Syria, but the fact remains that this White House and both the Clinton and Kerry State Departments have consistently misread Russian intentions (to be fair, so did George W. Bush when he said he could see Putin’s soul).

Read More

My colleague Leon Aron has pointed out, based on Russian press reports, that it appears that Vladimir Putin now plans to move ahead with the sale of a missile network more advanced than the cancelled S-300 anti-aircraft system to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Over at AEI-Ideas, Aron explains:

Former President Dmitri Medvedev annulled the original $800 million sale of five S-300 missiles after the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran in 2010. Recent reports have indicated that Russia may supply Iran with the more modern Antey-2500 systems, which are said to be more advanced than the originals, with a target range almost doubled from 150 kilometers [93 miles] to 250 kilometers [155 miles]. Given the trajectory of Vladimir Putin’s domestic and foreign policies, the sale, if it is finalized, ought to surprise no one. Putin seems to be applying the “Syrian formula,” which the Russian president so successfully tested last month, again. As it did in regard to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Russia continues to deny that Iran is enriching uranium to make a bomb. And, just as with the Syrian case, Russia provides diplomatic cover for the offending regime by ensuring that no use of force will ever be authorized by the Security Council in the event of non-compliance (all the while supplying weapons to its authoritarian pal). Putin’s dealings with Syria and now with Iran can be explained by the Russian president’s objectives:  to recover the Soviet Union’s position as a key player in the Middle East; to prevent or impede a victory of, or even concession to, US diplomacy; and, most importantly, to avert regime change, or even a compromise with the political opposition, anywhere or under any circumstances, especially if the country in question is a former Soviet (or current Russian) ally and client.

Aron is correct in his reading of Russia, and has consistently been so. Obama’s more partisan cheerleaders may praise his first-term “reset” and second-term “breakthrough” on Syria, but the fact remains that this White House and both the Clinton and Kerry State Departments have consistently misread Russian intentions (to be fair, so did George W. Bush when he said he could see Putin’s soul).

Russia sees diplomacy as a zero-sum game. While Russia is simply an adversary and not by any means a rogue regime, the notion of winner-take-all diplomacy is a common element of the rogue regime mentality. Alas, Obama refuses to recognize that he is getting played and, in doing so, putting American allies in a perilous position.

Read Less

Delayed Egypt Aid Decision Causes Concern

Context matters in international affairs, as in other areas. That’s why, although I understand why he acted as he did, I’m troubled by the impact of President Obama’s decision to cut off some military aid to Egypt.

If he had taken this action when the military first staged their coup back in July, that would have been one thing. He could have cited U.S. law that forbids providing aid after a military coup and the world would have understood if not necessarily agreed with him. But by waiting and dithering for three months, his decision is harder to explain or defend because it is happening in the context of other U.S. actions that are alienating all of our traditional allies in the Middle East.

Read More

Context matters in international affairs, as in other areas. That’s why, although I understand why he acted as he did, I’m troubled by the impact of President Obama’s decision to cut off some military aid to Egypt.

If he had taken this action when the military first staged their coup back in July, that would have been one thing. He could have cited U.S. law that forbids providing aid after a military coup and the world would have understood if not necessarily agreed with him. But by waiting and dithering for three months, his decision is harder to explain or defend because it is happening in the context of other U.S. actions that are alienating all of our traditional allies in the Middle East.

Obama has won hosannas from many Americans for refusing to stage air strikes on Syria and instead striking a deal with Bashar Assad to supposedly eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. He has won even more praise for his now-famous phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his willingness to strike a deal with Iran. But, whatever the merits of those policies (and, in defense of Obama, it must be said that it is possible that the deal with Assad could succeed and that, even if the Iranian deal doesn’t work out, it is one that any president would have to explore), they are not being greeted warmly in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait City, Jerusalem, Amman, and other American-allied capitals. Neither is the partial cutoff to the Egyptian military that will encompass only “nonessential” aid (e.g., F-16 fighters, Apache helicopters) while allowing crucial spare parts and counter-terrorism aid to flow.

America’s allies believe they are locked in an existential struggle with both Sunni and Shiite theocrats—al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood on one side, Hezbollah and the Quds Force on the other. They are in favor of suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and in favor of bombing the Iranian nuclear program. That doesn’t mean that the U.S. has to adopt their policy preferences. But we need to be aware of them, and to be aware, moreover, that the dominant perception of the U.S. in the region is of a superpower in retreat–a superpower that refuses to uphold red lines and that wants to pursue diplomatic deals of dubious reliability as a cover for full-scale disengagement.

Unfortunately the partial Egypt military aid cutoff–part of an Obama tendency to split the difference on difficult foreign-policy decisions (remember the Afghan surge timeline?)—will only feed that narrative. On the merits, Obama’s decision is defensible; indeed, after initially opposing an aid cutoff, I reluctantly came around to supporting it. But now I’m having second thoughts. I’m afraid the consequence of announcing the aid pullback now is that it will reinforce the tendency of our allies to be a lot less willing to rely on us and to listen to us. They may well wind up taking actions that Washington argues against—in the case of Israel, bombing the Iranian nuclear program; in the case of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have already provided billions in aid to the Egyptian military despite a lack of American support, pursuing their own nuclear programs; in the case of Iraq, Turkey, and Qatar, cozying up to Iran; and so on. A couple of commando raids in Libya and Somalia will not dispel the impression of an America in retreat; it may even reinforce that view by showing how the U.S. prefers to engage in hit-and-run raids rather than in deeper engagement.

Read Less

Prize Legacies: Sakharov vs. Nobel

Congratulations to Malala Yousefzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl and writer who survived a Taliban assassination attempt, for winning this year’s Sakharov human rights award. Malala’s blogging—in order to defend the rights of girls to basic education against the backdrop of a political movement dedicated to making women chattel only—has both been bold and has shaken the Pakistani Taliban to its core, for otherwise they would not have sought to silence her permanently.

While there was some uncertainty about whether the European Parliament would do the right thing, in the end the European Parliament did not belittle the prize and the legacy of its namesake, and they gave it to someone both bold and deserving, a choice which will last long after the waves of the political trendiness of other candidates pass.

Alas, the same generally cannot be said for the track record of the Nobel Peace Prize’s selection committee.

Read More

Congratulations to Malala Yousefzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl and writer who survived a Taliban assassination attempt, for winning this year’s Sakharov human rights award. Malala’s blogging—in order to defend the rights of girls to basic education against the backdrop of a political movement dedicated to making women chattel only—has both been bold and has shaken the Pakistani Taliban to its core, for otherwise they would not have sought to silence her permanently.

While there was some uncertainty about whether the European Parliament would do the right thing, in the end the European Parliament did not belittle the prize and the legacy of its namesake, and they gave it to someone both bold and deserving, a choice which will last long after the waves of the political trendiness of other candidates pass.

Alas, the same generally cannot be said for the track record of the Nobel Peace Prize’s selection committee.

While most Nobel prizes are based on a lifetime’s work and demonstrated achievements, the committee of politicians which awards the Nobel Peace Prize has, in recent years, based its award more on political considerations, symbolism, and the expectation of future action than on a track record of achievement. This was clear in the Nobel’s selection of Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman. The head of the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee at the time told the Associated Press, “Karman belongs to a Muslim movement with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, ‘which in the West is perceived as a threat to democracy.’ He added that ‘I don’t believe that. There are many signals that, that kind of movement can be an important part of the solution.’”

Karman, however, has had a very selective reading of who deserves human rights. She will speak up for Muslim Brotherhood activists—and was quite vocal in the aftermath of the July 2013 Egyptian coup—but she remains noticeably silent when the perpetrators of violence are political Islamists. Hence, she did not speak up for Malala Yousefzai, even when the then-14-year-old was clinging to life, nor has she condemned the Muslim Brotherhood’s targeting of Coptic Christians. Indeed, Karman’s attitude appears to mirror that of her fellow Muslim Brotherhood acolyte Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who has denied that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir could be complicit in genocide, because “A Muslim can never commit genocide.”

Perhaps the Nobel committee can redeem itself this year with its selection, but it has a long way to go to dig itself out of the mockery it has made of human rights and democracy. Certainly, the contrast between the selections of Yousefzai and Karman, their achievements, and the logic behind their awards are a millstone around the neck of the Nobels.

Read Less

No Deal Yet? Blame Obama’s Credibility Gap

This morning House Republicans are meeting to discuss ideas floated by Rep. Paul Ryan to avert a showdown over the debt ceiling. Ryan, who outlined his proposal in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal is, as we have come to expect of him, the leading voice of reason in the GOP caucus, and the White House ought to seize on this opportunity to avert what it keeps telling us is a fiscal catastrophe that will happen on Oct. 17 if the Republicans don’t surrender. But since we already know that President Obama is far more interested in pushing confrontation with the Republicans because he believes it to be in his political interests, there’s little chance of that happening.

While more conservatives are coming to grips with the fact that they are not going to be able to defund ObamaCare, it’s also unclear whether enough House Republicans will get behind Ryan’s scheme that trades off a short-term extension of the debt ceiling along with reform of Medicare and a start on comprehensive tax reform. These are core conservative ideas that are focused on the underlying problems behind the deficit—entitlements and tax unfairness—that are opposed by Democrats who seek to preserve an indefensible status quo.

But if Ryan is having trouble rallying his party behind his proposal it is in no small measure due to the fact that a lot of Republicans just aren’t buying the hype about next week’s debt ceiling deadline. Nor is there any massive public groundswell of fear pushing them to give in as the president says they must. That is causing some in the liberal mainstream media to recycle their “debt denier” slur first trotted out last winter during the fiscal cliff showdown. But, as Politico noted in a feature published today, the reason why Republicans aren’t running scared is what the site aptly terms “Obama’s Chicken Little challenge.” After repeatedly falsely prophesying doom and destruction about the sequester and the government shutdown, the nation, let alone the GOP, just isn’t buying his debt ceiling warnings.

Read More

This morning House Republicans are meeting to discuss ideas floated by Rep. Paul Ryan to avert a showdown over the debt ceiling. Ryan, who outlined his proposal in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal is, as we have come to expect of him, the leading voice of reason in the GOP caucus, and the White House ought to seize on this opportunity to avert what it keeps telling us is a fiscal catastrophe that will happen on Oct. 17 if the Republicans don’t surrender. But since we already know that President Obama is far more interested in pushing confrontation with the Republicans because he believes it to be in his political interests, there’s little chance of that happening.

While more conservatives are coming to grips with the fact that they are not going to be able to defund ObamaCare, it’s also unclear whether enough House Republicans will get behind Ryan’s scheme that trades off a short-term extension of the debt ceiling along with reform of Medicare and a start on comprehensive tax reform. These are core conservative ideas that are focused on the underlying problems behind the deficit—entitlements and tax unfairness—that are opposed by Democrats who seek to preserve an indefensible status quo.

But if Ryan is having trouble rallying his party behind his proposal it is in no small measure due to the fact that a lot of Republicans just aren’t buying the hype about next week’s debt ceiling deadline. Nor is there any massive public groundswell of fear pushing them to give in as the president says they must. That is causing some in the liberal mainstream media to recycle their “debt denier” slur first trotted out last winter during the fiscal cliff showdown. But, as Politico noted in a feature published today, the reason why Republicans aren’t running scared is what the site aptly terms “Obama’s Chicken Little challenge.” After repeatedly falsely prophesying doom and destruction about the sequester and the government shutdown, the nation, let alone the GOP, just isn’t buying his debt ceiling warnings.

To acknowledge the president’s credibility gap on fiscal issues is not to ignore the dire possibilities of a default on the national debt. Were that ever to happen, it really would be an economic catastrophe and no one, not even the most ardent advocates of going to the brink with the White House, is saying anything different. However, as Senator Pat Toomey calmly explained on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program yesterday, that isn’t what will happen if there is no deal by next Wednesday:

First of all, there is zero chance that the U.S. government is going to default on its debt. It’s unfortunate that people have conflated this idea of not raising the debt ceiling immediately on October 17 with somehow defaulting on our debt. We bring in tax revenue about 12 times as much money as it takes to pay our interest on our debt. There is no way that any Treasury secretary or administration would willfully choose to have the catastrophic results that would occur if we actually defaulted on our debt when it’s not necessary. So this is pretty well understood in financial circles. You see Treasury prices have barely moved through this entire episode. But I’ve got legislation that would simply codify and formalize the obligation to make sure that under no circumstances we would default on our debt. Interestingly, the White House doesn’t want that legislation. They’ve threatened to veto it precisely because they want to be able to hold the specter of a catastrophe in front of Republicans to cow us and intimidate us into giving the president what he wants, which is a whole lot of additional borrowing authority with no reforms whatsoever, and I think that’s irresponsible.

Toomey’s reality check debunks the administration’s latest “the sky is falling” routine. But even if we accept the notion that a failure to reach a deal on the debt would be problematic, there’s little chance that even those who agree that the government shutdown is more the GOP’s fault than the president’s are going to believe the Democrats’ warnings of imminent danger. After all, we were told the same thing about the sequester cuts only to discover that the republic could survive if government departments were forced to make across-the-board cuts. Nor have the predictions of disaster about the government shutdown that began last week proved true.

That is not to say that the sequester or the shutdown are positive developments. There is long-term damage being done by cuts, especially those to national defense. But the American public saw right through the stunts staged by the administration to illustrate the pain of the shutdown, like closing open-air national monuments. When the president says the country is in danger no one, not even most of his supporters, believe him anymore. They understand every word coming out of his mouth about the standoff with his Republican foes is political in nature and designed to force them to unconditionally surrender on their fiscal demands. Some may support that position, but few believe the doom and gloom predictions that underlie his “no negotiations” stand.

It is to be hoped that as the artificial debt deadline approaches, more Republicans will get behind Paul Ryan’s ideas and that enough Democrats will be willing to talk to avert more damage being done to the economy. But if we do go over the brink, the primary responsibility will belong to the Chicken Little in the Oval Office.

Read Less

What the Saudis Really Care About

As I noted yesterday, the idea that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could help stabilize the Middle East is fatuous. Yet many world leaders continue to espouse it. In his UN address last month, for instance, President Barack Obama proclaimed that while this conflict is “not the cause of all the region’s problems,” it has been “a major source of instability for far too long,” and resolving it would help lay “a foundation for a broader peace.” In August, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius termed the conflict “one of the issues, perhaps the central one, for the region.”

Given that the events of the past few years would seem to have decisively disproved this theory–nobody would seriously argue, for instance, that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would ease the sectarian bloodletting in Syria or Iraq or the feud between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while the Syrian conflict alone has been far more destabilizing to the region than the Israeli-Palestinian one has–the question is why so many world leaders still cling to it. A good place to look for answers is Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented decision not to address the UN General Assembly last week.

Riyadh billed this decision as a protest against the UN’s position “on Arab and Islamic issues, particularly the issue of Palestine that the UN has not been able to solve in more than 60 years, as well as the Syrian crisis.” If you took that at face value, you’d naturally assume that what upsets Riyadh most is the Israeli-Palestinian issue: The bulk of its statement was devoted to this issue, with Syria seemingly thrown in as an afterthought. The problem is that objectively, this makes no sense: After all, by Riyadh’s own admission, the conflict has gone on for 60 years now, yet it never boycotted the UN before. So why now of all times–precisely when Washington has finally succeeded in restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks after a five-year freeze?

Read More

As I noted yesterday, the idea that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could help stabilize the Middle East is fatuous. Yet many world leaders continue to espouse it. In his UN address last month, for instance, President Barack Obama proclaimed that while this conflict is “not the cause of all the region’s problems,” it has been “a major source of instability for far too long,” and resolving it would help lay “a foundation for a broader peace.” In August, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius termed the conflict “one of the issues, perhaps the central one, for the region.”

Given that the events of the past few years would seem to have decisively disproved this theory–nobody would seriously argue, for instance, that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would ease the sectarian bloodletting in Syria or Iraq or the feud between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while the Syrian conflict alone has been far more destabilizing to the region than the Israeli-Palestinian one has–the question is why so many world leaders still cling to it. A good place to look for answers is Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented decision not to address the UN General Assembly last week.

Riyadh billed this decision as a protest against the UN’s position “on Arab and Islamic issues, particularly the issue of Palestine that the UN has not been able to solve in more than 60 years, as well as the Syrian crisis.” If you took that at face value, you’d naturally assume that what upsets Riyadh most is the Israeli-Palestinian issue: The bulk of its statement was devoted to this issue, with Syria seemingly thrown in as an afterthought. The problem is that objectively, this makes no sense: After all, by Riyadh’s own admission, the conflict has gone on for 60 years now, yet it never boycotted the UN before. So why now of all times–precisely when Washington has finally succeeded in restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks after a five-year freeze?

Regarding Syria, however, the UN did just do something that upset Riyadh greatly: At Russia’s initiative, it passed a resolution on disarming the Assad regime of its chemical weapons that not only killed American plans for imminent airstrikes, but essentially guaranteed Assad immunity from Western intervention for the foreseeable future and legitimized him as a partner, thereby effectively reversing two years of Western demands that he step down. For Saudi Arabia, which has backed Syria’s rebels heavily with both money and arms, this was a major blow.

Indeed, anyone tracking Riyadh’s actions rather than its words can easily see which issues it cares about and which it doesn’t: In contrast to its massive support for the Syrian rebels, or the $5 billion it pledged to Egypt’s military government after July’s coup, its financial support for the Palestinians is meager. UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, gets almost all its funding from the West; Saudi Arabia gave it a mere $12 million last year–less than half the sum provided by Holland alone. Western states are also the Palestinian Authority’s main financial backers; Arab countries not only pledge less to begin with, but serially default on their pledges.

There are various reasons why Arabs feel the need to cloak their real concerns behind a façade of verbiage about the Palestinians. The truly puzzling question is why the West hasn’t yet learned to look behind this verbiage to the telltale actions–what Arabs care enough to spend money on, or, as I’ve written before, to put their lives on the line for. But until it does, it will keep right on believing that fatuous claim of Israeli-Palestinian centrality. 

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.