Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 16, 2013

Rising Tide of Hate for European Jews

Earlier this month I wrote about the new Pew Research Center study that detailed the demographic challenges facing an American Jewish community that is losing touch with religion and key elements of Jewish identity. I have a lot more to say about it and the way America’s embrace of Jewry has led to trends that threaten the future of non-Orthodox and especially secular Jews that will be published in the November issue of COMMENTARY’s print edition. But the positive news coming out of their survey focused on the pride felt by most American Jews, even if they were indifferent to core Jewish values and not raising or educating their children to carry on Jewish tradition and faith. At the heart of the comfort felt by American Jews is the fact that few had experienced even the mildest forms of anti-Semitism in the form of a social snub let alone violence.

But that is not the case with European Jewry.

As a survey of European Jews conducted by the European Union reveals, a large percentage of them are not only conscious of anti-Semitism but live their lives in such a way as to try to avoid being the victims of anti-Semitic violence. Across the continent, one in four Jews say they are afraid to wear a kippah or any symbol of Jewish identity in public, figures that rise far higher in countries such as Sweden, France and Belgium. This shows just how dangerous Europe is becoming for Jews and how deadly the revival of Jew hatred around the globe — undoubtedly the worst since the Holocaust — has become.

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Earlier this month I wrote about the new Pew Research Center study that detailed the demographic challenges facing an American Jewish community that is losing touch with religion and key elements of Jewish identity. I have a lot more to say about it and the way America’s embrace of Jewry has led to trends that threaten the future of non-Orthodox and especially secular Jews that will be published in the November issue of COMMENTARY’s print edition. But the positive news coming out of their survey focused on the pride felt by most American Jews, even if they were indifferent to core Jewish values and not raising or educating their children to carry on Jewish tradition and faith. At the heart of the comfort felt by American Jews is the fact that few had experienced even the mildest forms of anti-Semitism in the form of a social snub let alone violence.

But that is not the case with European Jewry.

As a survey of European Jews conducted by the European Union reveals, a large percentage of them are not only conscious of anti-Semitism but live their lives in such a way as to try to avoid being the victims of anti-Semitic violence. Across the continent, one in four Jews say they are afraid to wear a kippah or any symbol of Jewish identity in public, figures that rise far higher in countries such as Sweden, France and Belgium. This shows just how dangerous Europe is becoming for Jews and how deadly the revival of Jew hatred around the globe — undoubtedly the worst since the Holocaust — has become.

The poll conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights was taken online over the course of the last year in Sweden, France, Belgium, Britain, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Romania and Latvia. It will be published next month but the Jewish Telegraphic Agency obtained the results. Though the fact that it is Internet-based diminishes its credibility and once the raw numbers are released it will have to be given a thorough analysis. But the figures are still startling in that they show just how many Jews are worried about being the victims of anti-Semitic violence.

Among the most disturbing responses is the fact that 49 percent of the 800 respondents (by no means a small sample size) say they “avoid visiting places and wearing symbols that identify them as Jews for fear of anti-Semitism. Forty percent of French Jews and 36 percent of those in Belgium feel the same way.

Also alarming is the fact that, in contrast to the American experience, a majority of Jews in some countries are convinced that anti-Semitism is on the rise.

In Hungary, 91 percent of more than 500 respondents said anti-Semitism has increased in the past five years. The figure was 80 percent or above in France, Belgium and Sweden. In Germany, Italy and Britain, some 60 percent of respondents identified a growth in anti-Semitism, compared to 39 percent in Latvia.

Figures for people who said they had experienced an anti-Semitic incident in the 12 previous months were 30 percent for Hungary, 21 percent for France and 16 percent in Germany.

Just as interesting is the fact that those who have experienced such incidents are almost equally split on the identity of the anti-Semites:

Twenty-seven percent of respondents said the perpetrators were Muslims; 22 percent blamed people with “left-wing views”; and 19 percent said the people responsible had “right-wing views.”

But an even better indicator of the tone of European society is revealed in the question about reporting such incidents:

More than 75 percent of respondents said they do not report anti-Semitic harassment to police and 64 percent said they do not report physical assaults, with 67 percent saying that reporting incidents was either “not worth the effort” or otherwise ineffectual.

If Jews don’t think it is worth it to report even physical assaults, it can only mean one thing: that they believe such behavior is no longer considered beyond the pale or even frowned upon by mainstream European opinion. Given the drumbeat of incitement against Israel, which serves as a thinly veiled excuse for traditional anti-Jewish attitudes, throughout Europe, it is little surprise to see that this is being reflected in such incidents.

After a period during which Jewish life revived there in the aftermath of the Holocaust, it is obvious that much of the continent is in the process of reverting to its pre-World War Two attitudes. At the very least, surveys like this call into question the future of Jews in Europe. At worst, it portends worse to come. But either way, the lack of security for Jews in supposedly enlightened Europe makes the defense of Israel all the more important.

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The Right’s Epistemic Closure

In a story in the Washington Post, we read this:

And despite what most see as a debacle for Republicans, a core group of conservatives insisted Tuesday that they are winning their battle to force concessions from Democrats on fiscal issues.

The president, they say, has been forced into a negotiation, even though he has said he will cede nothing in exchange for opening the government and raising the debt ceiling. The nation’s attention has been focused on problems with the health-care law. And, they say, making Boehner move to the right is itself a victory.

“People said, ‘Don’t dare shut the government down, because the American people will hate you.’ And we’ve got resolve,” said Rep. John Fleming (La.). Fleming backed Boehner’s approach Tuesday morning.

“We’ve won in a lot of ways,” he said. “There are a lot of barriers we’ve broken down here.”

That’s not all:

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) said conservatives have succeeded in exposing problems with the health-care law.

“Oh my gosh, we’ve lit up Obamacare for the whole nation,” he said, describing what his wing of the party had won in the shutdown. “Look, the rollout was atrocious, this is a fundamentally flawed plan, and we have made it crystal-clear to the American public that we stand with them on Obamacare.”

This is fairly extraordinary. The results of the approach first championed by Senators Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, and embraced by a significant number of House Republicans, resulted in (a) no substantive changes to the Affordable Care Act; (b) an increase in its popularity; (c) diverting attention away from the epically incompetent roll out of the new health care exchanges; (d) the GOP’s popularity dropping to the lowest point for either party since Gallup began asking the question in 1992; (e) more than washing away the gains Republicans had made on the issues over the course of this year; (f) reviving the Obama presidency, which until the shutdown was drifting and suffering a terrible year; and (g) set back GOP prospects in the 2014 mid-term elections.

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In a story in the Washington Post, we read this:

And despite what most see as a debacle for Republicans, a core group of conservatives insisted Tuesday that they are winning their battle to force concessions from Democrats on fiscal issues.

The president, they say, has been forced into a negotiation, even though he has said he will cede nothing in exchange for opening the government and raising the debt ceiling. The nation’s attention has been focused on problems with the health-care law. And, they say, making Boehner move to the right is itself a victory.

“People said, ‘Don’t dare shut the government down, because the American people will hate you.’ And we’ve got resolve,” said Rep. John Fleming (La.). Fleming backed Boehner’s approach Tuesday morning.

“We’ve won in a lot of ways,” he said. “There are a lot of barriers we’ve broken down here.”

That’s not all:

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) said conservatives have succeeded in exposing problems with the health-care law.

“Oh my gosh, we’ve lit up Obamacare for the whole nation,” he said, describing what his wing of the party had won in the shutdown. “Look, the rollout was atrocious, this is a fundamentally flawed plan, and we have made it crystal-clear to the American public that we stand with them on Obamacare.”

This is fairly extraordinary. The results of the approach first championed by Senators Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, and embraced by a significant number of House Republicans, resulted in (a) no substantive changes to the Affordable Care Act; (b) an increase in its popularity; (c) diverting attention away from the epically incompetent roll out of the new health care exchanges; (d) the GOP’s popularity dropping to the lowest point for either party since Gallup began asking the question in 1992; (e) more than washing away the gains Republicans had made on the issues over the course of this year; (f) reviving the Obama presidency, which until the shutdown was drifting and suffering a terrible year; and (g) set back GOP prospects in the 2014 mid-term elections.

Apart from that, it was a huge success.

People like Representatives Fleming and Harris are living in a closed world, a fantasy land, a fairy tale. They seem to be impervious to evidence — even overwhelming evidence — that contradicts what they believe. And so they have convinced themselves that the disaster engineered by a significant group of House Republicans, following the lead of Ted Cruz & Company, was a success.

Is what we’re seeing simply ludicrous spin, or something else that goes deeper? Is it a species of delusion that is rooted in epistemic closure? Neither explanation is good, but the latter is, from the perspective of one who deeply cares about conservatism, much more worrisome. And I suspect that it is, unfortunately, a good deal closer to the truth. 

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Partisan Media is a Bipartisan Problem

I agree with liberal political strategist and talking head James Carville that listening and reading only to those who agree with you is a colossal bore. My reaction to such a prospect is the same as his. Rather than suffer such a fate, “just shoot me.” But Carville’s analysis of the polarization in the media illustrates the same fallacy that is at the heart of the trend he laments. Writing in The Hill yesterday, Carville says that what’s wrong is that:

Conservatives never seem to tire of one another. They love to reinforce their beliefs, day after day.

In other words, liberals are open to all points of view and read, listen and watch conservative outlets while it is only conservatives who insulate themselves from opposing points of view. Perhaps that is true on some other planet in the universe, but here on Earth, liberals are just as guilty of this fault as anyone on the right, as evidence by the loyalty to a wide array of liberal newspapers, radio and TV outlets while shunning conservative publications, Fox News and conservative radio talkers as if they had the plague. If anything, they are worse since they think those who tell them what they want to hear are objective while those who disagree are not. Nothing better illustrates the dialogue of the deaf on this issue than attitudes such as those illustrated by Carville.

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I agree with liberal political strategist and talking head James Carville that listening and reading only to those who agree with you is a colossal bore. My reaction to such a prospect is the same as his. Rather than suffer such a fate, “just shoot me.” But Carville’s analysis of the polarization in the media illustrates the same fallacy that is at the heart of the trend he laments. Writing in The Hill yesterday, Carville says that what’s wrong is that:

Conservatives never seem to tire of one another. They love to reinforce their beliefs, day after day.

In other words, liberals are open to all points of view and read, listen and watch conservative outlets while it is only conservatives who insulate themselves from opposing points of view. Perhaps that is true on some other planet in the universe, but here on Earth, liberals are just as guilty of this fault as anyone on the right, as evidence by the loyalty to a wide array of liberal newspapers, radio and TV outlets while shunning conservative publications, Fox News and conservative radio talkers as if they had the plague. If anything, they are worse since they think those who tell them what they want to hear are objective while those who disagree are not. Nothing better illustrates the dialogue of the deaf on this issue than attitudes such as those illustrated by Carville.

Carville’s motivation for writing was the same as that of David Carr, the New York Times media columnist whose column on the issue was discussed here on Sunday. Both were flabbergasted to learn that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia avoided liberal newspapers like the Times and the Washington Post as well as NPR Radio, choosing instead to read the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times and to listen to talk radio with special mention to William Bennett’s morning show.

I wrote then that the problem with Carr’s article was that he failed to note his own newspaper’s well-known liberal bias or to acknowledge that prior to the advent of Fox News and conservative talk radio, liberals had a virtual monopoly on the mainstream media in terms of major daily newspapers and television networks.

But Carville’s failing here is even worse than Carr’s omissions. He seems to actually believe that liberals are willing to expose themselves to different viewpoints but that it is only conservatives that don’t.

Is he serious?

Does he think liberals check conservative publications like editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, National Review, the Weekly Standard or even Commentary to get a different perspective from that of the Times? Or those who watch MSNBC are frequently clicking over to Fox to find out what the other side is saying? That NPR listeners tune in even once in a blue moon to Rush Limbaugh or anyone with a conservative frame of reference? Not a chance.

The liberal problem with the proliferation of media outlets that has provided both sides of the political divide with a diverse set of choices that enable them to avoid opinions that upset them is primarily based in their dismay that there is a choice nowadays other than the ones they endorse.

As Carville’s piece indicates, what liberals want is to force conservatives to listen to them. Fair enough. We sometimes learn a lot more from our opponents than our friends. I know I do. But that is not matched by a liberal commitment to listen to conservatives. Media partisanship is a problem. But, contrary to Carville’s spin, it is a bipartisan problem.

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Cruz’s Lack of Surprise is Surprising

Senator Ted Cruz reacted to the collapse of the strategy that he had urged on the Republican Party with remarkable sangfroid today. While saying that he would not seek to block the agreement to end the shutdown, Cruz tacitly conceded that he had lost. But he predictably blamed it all on the weak willed “Washington establishment” that refused to listen to the voice of the people and trash ObamaCare and thereby preserved the “status quo.” There’s an element of truth to that as most politicians could use a little shaking up and where Cruz to limit it his activity to messing up the establishment’s hair on a regular basis rather than bullying his party into suicidal tactics, he would not deserve the opprobrium that is being launched in his direction today. But the key phrase he kept repeating today was that he was “not surprised.”

Oh really, senator?

Wasn’t it Cruz who told Republicans that if they only went along with him and passed a bill funding the government while eliminating money for ObamaCare, that the other side would blink? If he wasn’t surprised that this happened, that means, contrary to what he had been telling us for months, he knew very well that this was the only possible outcome for the shutdown. If he knew this would happen, why did he keep saying that the GOP would win if it held out? As such, instead of railing at the insincerity and corruption of the establishment, Tea Partiers and other conservatives who rightly wish to stop ObamaCare, should be asking some tough questions about Cruz’s cynicism.

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Senator Ted Cruz reacted to the collapse of the strategy that he had urged on the Republican Party with remarkable sangfroid today. While saying that he would not seek to block the agreement to end the shutdown, Cruz tacitly conceded that he had lost. But he predictably blamed it all on the weak willed “Washington establishment” that refused to listen to the voice of the people and trash ObamaCare and thereby preserved the “status quo.” There’s an element of truth to that as most politicians could use a little shaking up and where Cruz to limit it his activity to messing up the establishment’s hair on a regular basis rather than bullying his party into suicidal tactics, he would not deserve the opprobrium that is being launched in his direction today. But the key phrase he kept repeating today was that he was “not surprised.”

Oh really, senator?

Wasn’t it Cruz who told Republicans that if they only went along with him and passed a bill funding the government while eliminating money for ObamaCare, that the other side would blink? If he wasn’t surprised that this happened, that means, contrary to what he had been telling us for months, he knew very well that this was the only possible outcome for the shutdown. If he knew this would happen, why did he keep saying that the GOP would win if it held out? As such, instead of railing at the insincerity and corruption of the establishment, Tea Partiers and other conservatives who rightly wish to stop ObamaCare, should be asking some tough questions about Cruz’s cynicism.

Though Cruz appears to be positioning himself to blame members of his own party — the so-called “surrender caucus” — for the failure of this tactic, let’s have a moment of clarity before the recriminations formally begin.

The shutdown ploy didn’t fail because Republicans failed Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and the rest of the crew that pushed them down this path. The GOP did stick together as he urged them to do through 16 days of a government shutdown as their poll ratings plummeted and the nation grew increasingly uneasy at the spectacle of Washington dysfunction. It failed because, as more sensible conservatives had warned all along, it was a strategy without a path to victory. All the Democrats had to do was to hang tough and wait out the Republicans. Though it took longer than most observers thought it would, that’s what happened. Since even Cruz knows that the GOP can’t countenance anything that even smacks of a defaulting on the national debt, after “fighting the good fight,” House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had to throw in the towel.

The cause for which Cruz and other Tea Partiers labored here was a good one. ObamaCare is a disaster and should be stopped. And if the country hadn’t spent the last two weeks obsessing about the shutdown and the debt ceiling, maybe more of the mainstream media would have been forced to expend their resources covering the fiasco that was its rollout.

Nor are President Obama and the Democrats blameless here. Their refusal to negotiate with Boehner and the Republicans until the latter were forced to surrender almost unconditionally was irresponsible. So, too, were the administration’s efforts to exacerbate the effects of the shutdown.

But the bottom line is that Ted Cruz charted a course for his party that he knew all along would result in a catastrophic failure and never acknowledged that truth or sought to change course. For all of his self righteous anger at the establishment — much of which I would concede is at times entirely appropriate — what he has done is every bit as cynical as anything DC veterans have done.

While the Republican Party will recover from this debacle and live to fight another day on budget issues, entitlement reform, the debt and ObamaCare, it has been materially damaged by the strategy Cruz recklessly advocated. For that he should be held as accountable. For all of his virtues, and they are not inconsiderable, if the GOP is to eventually prevail on these issues in the future one thing is clear: it won’t happen under the leadership of Cruz or anyone like him.

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Iran Talks: Perception Versus Reality

Iran is well pleased by the outcome of yesterday’s revived P5+1 talks and why shouldn’t they be? The convening of a new round of negotiations after previous incarnations of this process were pronounced dead because of Iranian intransigence and obfuscation was a victory in and of itself for them. The renewed enthusiasm for talking to a country that has proved time and again that it only uses diplomacy as a method for deceit and delay when it comes to Western efforts to restrain their drive for nuclear weapons was due entirely to the perception that new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a moderate. That Rouhani has been guilty of playing the same game when he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator is a fact that was ignored even as the U.S. and its European allies headed down the garden path with Tehran again. Just by showing up, the Iranians ensured that the meeting would conclude with announcements for another such rendezvous next month.

But just as important for the Iranians was the fact that theirs negotiating partners were so enthralled by the prospect of a new era of relations with Rouhani that they treated the Iranian proposal for ending the dispute as if it were actually something new and worth talking about. The Iranians appear to have impressed the representatives of the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany with a power point presentation that supposedly demonstrated how they could go on enriching uranium, hold onto their stockpile of nuclear fuel and yet somehow be trusted not to build a bomb. But once the Rouhani-inspired rose-colored glasses are off, it’s more than obvious to objective observers that the Iranians showed up in Geneva with nothing new to say. That raises the question as to whether the President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry understand this and even if they do, are they sufficiently committed to keeping their word on Iran that they will not be pressured into pretending that this is the prelude to a genuine breakthrough.

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Iran is well pleased by the outcome of yesterday’s revived P5+1 talks and why shouldn’t they be? The convening of a new round of negotiations after previous incarnations of this process were pronounced dead because of Iranian intransigence and obfuscation was a victory in and of itself for them. The renewed enthusiasm for talking to a country that has proved time and again that it only uses diplomacy as a method for deceit and delay when it comes to Western efforts to restrain their drive for nuclear weapons was due entirely to the perception that new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a moderate. That Rouhani has been guilty of playing the same game when he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator is a fact that was ignored even as the U.S. and its European allies headed down the garden path with Tehran again. Just by showing up, the Iranians ensured that the meeting would conclude with announcements for another such rendezvous next month.

But just as important for the Iranians was the fact that theirs negotiating partners were so enthralled by the prospect of a new era of relations with Rouhani that they treated the Iranian proposal for ending the dispute as if it were actually something new and worth talking about. The Iranians appear to have impressed the representatives of the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany with a power point presentation that supposedly demonstrated how they could go on enriching uranium, hold onto their stockpile of nuclear fuel and yet somehow be trusted not to build a bomb. But once the Rouhani-inspired rose-colored glasses are off, it’s more than obvious to objective observers that the Iranians showed up in Geneva with nothing new to say. That raises the question as to whether the President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry understand this and even if they do, are they sufficiently committed to keeping their word on Iran that they will not be pressured into pretending that this is the prelude to a genuine breakthrough.

While the details of the Iranian proposal were not made public the statements they have issued both before and after the meeting indicates that they haven’t actually budged an inch from where they were when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran’s front man. They are still refusing to shut down nuclear plants, to stop enriching uranium or to have their horde of enriched uranium shipped out of the country so as to ensure that it is not used for a weapon. Nor have they shown the slightest interest in halting their parallel plutonium project by stopping their heavy water research.

 For all the talk about the Iranian charm offensive in which Rouhani plays, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aptly put it, the “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” the fact is their nuclear stand is virtually identical to what it was when Ahmadinejad, the “wolf in wolf’s clothing,” was their president. If the West were to agree to their terms it would be merely a matter of time before the Iranians would, as the North Koreans did before them, evade their agreements and present the world with a nuclear fait accompli, secure in the knowledge that no one would be able to do a thing about it.

Given the fact that the real boss of Iran is Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and not Rouhani makes this easily understandable. All Rouhani has done is to change the atmospherics. When it comes to the actual policies of the country, they are unchanged because the real leadership is unchanged.

All that has changed is that for the first time, those in the West who want to find an excuse to back away from their commitments to stopping Iran have a rationale. In the past, Iran’s public leadership had no concerns about catering to Western sensibilities thereby rendering it difficult to make the argument that it was run by rational and sensible persons. Replacing Ahmadinejad with Rouhani allows those so inclined to project their own feelings about nuclear weapons onto Iran even if doing it so is the height of absurdity. But it is on that flimsy basis that Iran is asking the West to relax the economic sanctions that are crippling their economy.

Given the unchanged Iranian position, no one in Washington should be even considering loosening sanctions. To the contrary, this is exactly the moment for strengthening them and making it impossible for Iran to sell its oil or transact any business with the rest of the world. That is the only thing that could, even in theory, persuade Khamenei to authorize real concessions rather than merely recycling old proposals that were rightly rejected as merely slowing Iran’s march toward nuclear capability.

But with yet another round of negotiations scheduled for November, the Obama administration appears anxious to play along with Iran. By not contradicting the Iranians deceptive talk of progress, Washington is playing right into their hands. The more the talks are depicted as progressing, the harder it will be to break them off or to heighten the pressure on Tehran to do more than pay lip service to Western concerns. The result is a perfect storm that suits the ayatollah’s interests. They can play at moderation while their centrifuges keep spinning all winter if necessary. And that’s exactly what they’ll until Obama calls them out. But given the administration’s blind faith in diplomacy, it’s far from certain that moment will ever come no matter what the Iranians do.

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The Future of Afghanistan

Secretary of State John Kerry and President Hamid Karzai met in Kabul this past weekend and emerged to proclaim that they had reached an agreement “in principle” on a U.S.-Afghanistan security treaty that would allow U.S. troops to remain past 2014. Alas we have heard many times in the past that accords had been reached “in principle” only to break down over the details. We’ll have to wait and see if this tentative accord actually gets signed.

Even if it does, however, it will not remove the cloud hanging over Afghanistan’s future, because the accord Kerry and Karzai worked out will almost surely not specify the level of American involvement. Even assuming the “zero option” is really off the table (which I think is a premature conclusion at this point), it matters a great deal how many troops Obama chooses to maintain and how much money he chooses to spend on the Afghan National Security Forces.

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Secretary of State John Kerry and President Hamid Karzai met in Kabul this past weekend and emerged to proclaim that they had reached an agreement “in principle” on a U.S.-Afghanistan security treaty that would allow U.S. troops to remain past 2014. Alas we have heard many times in the past that accords had been reached “in principle” only to break down over the details. We’ll have to wait and see if this tentative accord actually gets signed.

Even if it does, however, it will not remove the cloud hanging over Afghanistan’s future, because the accord Kerry and Karzai worked out will almost surely not specify the level of American involvement. Even assuming the “zero option” is really off the table (which I think is a premature conclusion at this point), it matters a great deal how many troops Obama chooses to maintain and how much money he chooses to spend on the Afghan National Security Forces.

Before he stepped down at Central Command, Gen. Jim Mattis testified that it would be necessary to keep 13,600 US troops in Afghanistan post-2014 along with some 6,000 allied forces. That strikes me as a pretty barebones commitment, given the US need to station forces not only in Kabul but also in southern and eastern Afghanistan so as to continue Special Operations raids against Al Qaeda, Haqqani, and other terrorists.

Yet the leaks emanating from the White House suggest that Obama will dispatch fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops–perhaps many fewer. That, in turn, will have a ripple effect because the European commitment will be contingent on the size of the American commitment: the fewer American troops, the fewer NATO troops.

The Afghan security forces have shown they are capable of holding back the Taliban largely on their own this fighting season, but they are suffering heavy casualties, and they remain dependent on American forces for critical functions such as medical evacuation of wounded personnel. Without medevac on call–along with intelligence, logistics, and other support–there is a real risk that the Afghan forces will crumble under an unrelenting Taliban assault.

A few U.S. troops are better than none, but unless Obama is willing to carry out the best advice of his generals and maintain a substantial American contingent after 2014, their usefulness will be limited. Unfortunately Obama hasn’t been much for taking military advice since he decided to accelerate the withdrawal of surge forces in Afghanistan in the summer of 2011 in contravention of Gen. David Petraeus’s recommendations.

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Can a Deadbeat America Stay on Top?

In the 19th century, individual deadbeats could go to prison and countries that defaulted on their debt could be invaded. To choose only two examples of many, Britain invaded Egypt in 1882 and the U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915 because those countries were not meeting their obligations to international debt-holders.

Today we take a far more relaxed view about owing money. The law makes bankruptcy relatively easy and painless for individuals and corporations–at least less painful than the prospect of debtors’ prison. There is no ethic of living within your means; instead we are now encouraged to run up debt, whether via a home mortgage or a credit card bill, and spend, spend, spend. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—we don’t need to return to the Puritanical, anti-debt attitude of the 19th century. There is nothing wrong with a responsible amount of debt, whether for a family or a country.

But we are carrying our easy-going modern-day ethos a little too far when we run the risk of defaulting on the debt of the United States. Odds are we will see an 11th-hour reprieve from this calamity; at least the markets seem to think so, judging by the run-up of stocks in recent days. But, even if we avert the worst today, it is grossly irresponsible and harmful for lawmakers—meaning principally Tea Party hardliners in the House—to have allowed the deadline to come so close.

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In the 19th century, individual deadbeats could go to prison and countries that defaulted on their debt could be invaded. To choose only two examples of many, Britain invaded Egypt in 1882 and the U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915 because those countries were not meeting their obligations to international debt-holders.

Today we take a far more relaxed view about owing money. The law makes bankruptcy relatively easy and painless for individuals and corporations–at least less painful than the prospect of debtors’ prison. There is no ethic of living within your means; instead we are now encouraged to run up debt, whether via a home mortgage or a credit card bill, and spend, spend, spend. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—we don’t need to return to the Puritanical, anti-debt attitude of the 19th century. There is nothing wrong with a responsible amount of debt, whether for a family or a country.

But we are carrying our easy-going modern-day ethos a little too far when we run the risk of defaulting on the debt of the United States. Odds are we will see an 11th-hour reprieve from this calamity; at least the markets seem to think so, judging by the run-up of stocks in recent days. But, even if we avert the worst today, it is grossly irresponsible and harmful for lawmakers—meaning principally Tea Party hardliners in the House—to have allowed the deadline to come so close.

Thankfully the U.S. armed forces are still strong enough—for the time being anyway—to prevent the Chinese military from showing up on our shores to collect the trillions we owe them. (But for how much longer? Given the increases in Chinese military spending and our own across-the-board cuts as a result of the mindless sequestration process, the trends are not favorable when it comes to the shifting balance of power in the Pacific.) But the U.S. cannot rely on military strength alone. Much of our economic strength is underpinned by the fact that the dollar is the favorite reserve currency in the world and by the fact that the U.S. is the favorite destination for foreign investment.

That strong financial position will not be sacrificed overnight. But it will gradually erode if we have too many more perils-of-Pauline flirtations with a sovereign debt default. Already China’s Xinhua news agency is using this occasion to call for the world to “de-Americanize.” Such calls are likely to fall on deaf ears—for now. But we cannot afford to make the world think there is any doubt about America’s ability and willingness to repay its debts. That is a fundamental obligation of government, which, if called into question, will erode our national standing and hence our national security. There is no excuse for the willingness of some lawmakers to drive us so close to the cliff’s edge.

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Credit Ratings and the Debt

Fitch, one of the three credit rating agencies (the other two are Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s), warned yesterday that it has put the federal government on “negative watch” with regard to its credit rating, which Fitch has now at its highest, AAA. Standard and Poor’s lowered the country’s credit rating two years ago, during the last debt ceiling crisis, to AA. Moody’s has not indicated any change in its rating is pending.

It is the job of credit rating agencies to assess the risk in any security, whether governmental or corporate, and reflect that risk in its rating. AAA means that there is virtually no risk of a failure to pay principal or interest. In Fitch’s rating system, the bottom is D, which means that the security is already in default and unlikely to have any worth in the future. Illinois, which has horrendous pension liabilities and a political deadlock on dealing with them, has the lowest rating of any state (A-, with a negative outlook, on Fitch). That’s still investment grade, but a full six notches below the top rating.

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Fitch, one of the three credit rating agencies (the other two are Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s), warned yesterday that it has put the federal government on “negative watch” with regard to its credit rating, which Fitch has now at its highest, AAA. Standard and Poor’s lowered the country’s credit rating two years ago, during the last debt ceiling crisis, to AA. Moody’s has not indicated any change in its rating is pending.

It is the job of credit rating agencies to assess the risk in any security, whether governmental or corporate, and reflect that risk in its rating. AAA means that there is virtually no risk of a failure to pay principal or interest. In Fitch’s rating system, the bottom is D, which means that the security is already in default and unlikely to have any worth in the future. Illinois, which has horrendous pension liabilities and a political deadlock on dealing with them, has the lowest rating of any state (A-, with a negative outlook, on Fitch). That’s still investment grade, but a full six notches below the top rating.

The agencies don’t always get it right, of course. They all completely failed to see the risk in mortgage-backed securities and rated them AAA. When the housing bubble collapsed, many of the subprime mortgages lurched into foreclosure. That made the bonds they (along with non-subprime mortgages) collateralized unsellable because no one knew the value of the underlying assets. Unsellable securities are, by economic definition, worthless. Unfortunately, many of the too-big-to-fail banks had loaded up on these mortgage-backed securities because of their AAA ratings and relatively good yields. When the market in those bonds cratered during the crisis, some of those banks became technically insolvent. The Treasury had to ride to the rescue with TARP money lest the entire United States banking system collapse. (Once the dust settled, and the market for mortgage-backed securities came back to life, the banks were able to pay back the TARP money.)

What would a cut in the government’s credit rating mean? Principally, it would be a huge political embarrassment. The United States is, by far, the richest country the world has ever known. The federal government’s annual income from taxes and fees ($2.7 trillion in 2013) exceeds the total GDP of all but five countries. So to have its credit rating knocked down would be an embarrassment perhaps on a par with Warren Buffett having his American Express card declined at a restaurant.

More significant, credit ratings determine relative interest rates. One of the iron laws of economics is that risk and reward must balance (at least in the long term). The greater the risk, the greater the reward, in terms of interest income, must be to get buyers to hold your paper. Since the United States owes $17 trillion, a mere one-percentage point increase in interest costs would add $170 billion to the cost of servicing the debt. (About one-third of the debt turns over every year.) With interest rates likely to begin to creep up as the Fed slowly cuts back on its stimulus, the percentage of federal revenues that have to be used for debt service will rise anyway. Any significant addition to that burden would seriously impact federal spending in other areas.

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Is the Shutdown Caucus Happy Now?

Yesterday’s farcical failure of House Speaker John Boehner to get enough members of his own party to commit to supporting his compromise measure to reopen the government and extend the debt ceiling told us all we needed to know about just how dysfunctional the Republican caucus has become. As I noted yesterday, Boehner’s measure was an acceptance of reality. The GOP has lost the shutdown fight and the only thing that is yet to be determined is the terms of surrender. Boehner tried to give his party a slightly larger fig leaf than the Senate Republicans were able to coax out of Harry Reid. But conservative hardliners were having none of it. Even at this late date and with the debt-ceiling deadline hanging over them, they wouldn’t go along with Boehner forcing him to withdraw his proposal and leaving the field to a Senate bill. That will likely mean that in order to avoid even the theoretical danger of default, Boehner may have to simply let the Senate bill onto the House floor for a vote where it will pass on the strength of Democratic votes along with a minority of Republicans.

In other words, after weeks of suffering the opprobrium of the mainstream media as well as increasing the distrust felt by many Americans for their party, what exactly did the GOP accomplish via the shutdown tactic?

Did trying a government shutdown defund ObamaCare? No. Did it force President Obama to make a single tangible concession to Republicans or give way on something that would help them fight the battle against growing deficits and debt or the ObamaCare fiasco further down the line? No. Did it weaken and further divide the Republican Party? Yes.

That leaves us with one more question: Are those that egged Boehner on to force a shutdown fight happy with these results?

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Yesterday’s farcical failure of House Speaker John Boehner to get enough members of his own party to commit to supporting his compromise measure to reopen the government and extend the debt ceiling told us all we needed to know about just how dysfunctional the Republican caucus has become. As I noted yesterday, Boehner’s measure was an acceptance of reality. The GOP has lost the shutdown fight and the only thing that is yet to be determined is the terms of surrender. Boehner tried to give his party a slightly larger fig leaf than the Senate Republicans were able to coax out of Harry Reid. But conservative hardliners were having none of it. Even at this late date and with the debt-ceiling deadline hanging over them, they wouldn’t go along with Boehner forcing him to withdraw his proposal and leaving the field to a Senate bill. That will likely mean that in order to avoid even the theoretical danger of default, Boehner may have to simply let the Senate bill onto the House floor for a vote where it will pass on the strength of Democratic votes along with a minority of Republicans.

In other words, after weeks of suffering the opprobrium of the mainstream media as well as increasing the distrust felt by many Americans for their party, what exactly did the GOP accomplish via the shutdown tactic?

Did trying a government shutdown defund ObamaCare? No. Did it force President Obama to make a single tangible concession to Republicans or give way on something that would help them fight the battle against growing deficits and debt or the ObamaCare fiasco further down the line? No. Did it weaken and further divide the Republican Party? Yes.

That leaves us with one more question: Are those that egged Boehner on to force a shutdown fight happy with these results?

It still remains to be seen whether Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee will fall on their swords and try to delay or prevent the Senate bill re-opening the government from passing. It is also possible that Speaker Boehner may try one more last, likely futile, parliamentary trick to cook up a deal that will be marginally more favorable to conservative interests. But the odds are, by the end of the week, we’ll be talking about Congress having to clean up the rubble left behind by the brutal battle these two and their House Tea Party friends fomented.

It’s also likely that they will take no responsibility for this crushing defeat. If anything, we can expect that they will blame their failure to come up with a strategy that had a chance of success or even an endgame that would allow their party a dignified path of retreat, on more reasonable Republicans — wrongly called RINOs by some Tea Partiers — who looked on in horror as they goaded Boehner to take the GOP over the cliff. But let’s make it clear that what is happening now isn’t the fault of those who said all along that this wouldn’t work. It’s the responsibility of a faction that simply wasn’t thinking straight about the best way to advance their goals and wound up doing more damage to the conservative movement than the Democrats could have ever done without their help.

As bad as it looks now, having wasted the country’s time in this manner won’t mean the end of the Republican Party. Like any party that doesn’t control the White House, it will remain divided and prey to factional disputes. But it will survive to fight another day and, with luck, will still be in position to hold onto the House and maybe even challenge the Democrats for control of the Senate next year. Perhaps once the shutdown is over, the nation will turn its full attention to the debacle of the ObamaCare rollout, which is where it should have been all along.

But neither should we forget who were the architects of defeat this week. John Boehner may be the poor soul who will have to preside over the formal surrender to the Democrats who will rightly crow about how they stood up to the Tea Party and defended the president’s signature health care legislation. Cruz and Lee and all those House members who thought this was a good idea owe their party and the country a better explanation than the one we’re likely to hear. And if either ever seeks the leadership of the party in 2016, they should be called to account for what they’ve done.

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Subordinating Truth to Ideology

In her review of Michael Novak’s autobiography Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative, my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Mary Eberstadt writes:

Throughout his writing, he embraces lines of argument and alternative ideas, admiringly turning them this way and that, with an intellectual openness rare to see—especially among intellectuals.

This quality of intellectual openness – in areas ranging from politics and political philosophy to religious faith — is among the more impressive qualities an individual can possess. And among the most rare as well.

I say that because most of us, to one degree or another, struggle to maintain genuine intellectual open-mindedness. By that I mean we approach a subject with a particular point of view — and once we settle on it we’re very reluctant to revisit our judgments and the empirical basis for them.

For example, choose a subject on which you have strong opinions –the Affordable Care Act, the causes of the 2008 financial crisis, same-sex marriage, Roe v. Wade, affirmative action, climate change, educational choice and teacher unions, gun control, tax rates, income inequality, and more – and think about how you react to the best arguments of those with whom you disagree and new evidence that seems to weaken your claims. (Hint: The odds are better than not that it will be negative rather than positive, hostile rather than intrigued, defensive rather than engaged.)
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In her review of Michael Novak’s autobiography Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative, my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Mary Eberstadt writes:

Throughout his writing, he embraces lines of argument and alternative ideas, admiringly turning them this way and that, with an intellectual openness rare to see—especially among intellectuals.

This quality of intellectual openness – in areas ranging from politics and political philosophy to religious faith — is among the more impressive qualities an individual can possess. And among the most rare as well.

I say that because most of us, to one degree or another, struggle to maintain genuine intellectual open-mindedness. By that I mean we approach a subject with a particular point of view — and once we settle on it we’re very reluctant to revisit our judgments and the empirical basis for them.

For example, choose a subject on which you have strong opinions –the Affordable Care Act, the causes of the 2008 financial crisis, same-sex marriage, Roe v. Wade, affirmative action, climate change, educational choice and teacher unions, gun control, tax rates, income inequality, and more – and think about how you react to the best arguments of those with whom you disagree and new evidence that seems to weaken your claims. (Hint: The odds are better than not that it will be negative rather than positive, hostile rather than intrigued, defensive rather than engaged.)

The flip side of this is confirmation bias, the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs and hypotheses. The instantaneous reaction most of us have when our views are challenged is to (a) go out in search of arguments and data to refute those who challenge our views and (b) selectively embrace information that restores and re-validates our pre-existing views.

Now there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, and there can be a lot right with it. The back-and-forth can create a dialectic in which truth can emerge. Nor am I arguing that people should live in a state of perennial doubt and uncertainty when it comes to basic worldviews. We all need to place an interpretive frame around a set of facts, experiences and observations. And of course none of us have the time or energy to research in detail, and on an on-going basis, our views on dozens and dozens of different matters. We often defer to experts whom we trust. What complicates matters even more is that, as the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, emotional intuition is the “elephant” and rational deliberation is the “rider” – with reason usually the servant to one’s own intuitions.

Intuition, it needs to be said, is not only powerful, it’s valuable. It can detect things that are beyond our intellect and help shape our moral sense. “The heart has its reasons which reason itself does not know,” Pascal wrote. The problem is when we hold to a view that actually does require amendment or revision. How open are we to do so; and at what point, if any, are we willing to re-examine what we thought to be true? And do we understand that even the truths we see are only partial truths, that we can see things in part but never in whole?

If we close off the possibility of change, self-reflection, and even self-criticism, then we are subordinating truth to ideology. We will disfigure reality in the service of dogmatism. And there is quite enough of that going on already. 

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