Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 2013

ObamaCare, Religious Liberty, and a Crucial Supreme Court Showdown

The fact that the Supreme Court will hear a religious freedom-based challenge to the ObamaCare contraception mandate is the kind of story that possesses significance likely beyond any volume of coverage it will receive. Indeed, while liberal activists will repeatedly try to cast this in the mold of the fictional “war on women,” their own arguments reveal just how far-reaching a definitive ruling on this would be for American religious and political practice.

Thus it is instructive to listen to how the left frames the debate. To do this, it will be important to look beyond the “corporations aren’t people” argument that the left typically employs when asking the courts to remove First Amendment rights from individuals who coordinate their activities through an organized group. This argument is exceptionally weak; as Ilya Shapiro explained in the wake of the liberal hysterics over Citizens United, no one argues that companies don’t have, say, Fourth Amendment or Fifth Amendment rights.

So the left moves then from explicitly trying to revoke the constitutional rights of those with whom they disagree to the claim of protecting their own rights. This is when the left is at its most revealing, for liberals have a curious definition of rights. Last night, the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney debated birth-control activist Sandra Fluke on MSNBC on the topic. Carney said that if the government wants to claim a compelling interest in the provision of free birth control, they also must argue there was no less intrusive way to provide it. There are obviously less intrusive ways than this ObamaCare contraception mandate.

Fluke responded that one less-intrusive way would be to have the government simply provide birth control directly, but complained that conservatives are cutting back on funding for such public programs. Then, as Ryan Moy pointed out after the broadcast, Fluke said this:

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The fact that the Supreme Court will hear a religious freedom-based challenge to the ObamaCare contraception mandate is the kind of story that possesses significance likely beyond any volume of coverage it will receive. Indeed, while liberal activists will repeatedly try to cast this in the mold of the fictional “war on women,” their own arguments reveal just how far-reaching a definitive ruling on this would be for American religious and political practice.

Thus it is instructive to listen to how the left frames the debate. To do this, it will be important to look beyond the “corporations aren’t people” argument that the left typically employs when asking the courts to remove First Amendment rights from individuals who coordinate their activities through an organized group. This argument is exceptionally weak; as Ilya Shapiro explained in the wake of the liberal hysterics over Citizens United, no one argues that companies don’t have, say, Fourth Amendment or Fifth Amendment rights.

So the left moves then from explicitly trying to revoke the constitutional rights of those with whom they disagree to the claim of protecting their own rights. This is when the left is at its most revealing, for liberals have a curious definition of rights. Last night, the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney debated birth-control activist Sandra Fluke on MSNBC on the topic. Carney said that if the government wants to claim a compelling interest in the provision of free birth control, they also must argue there was no less intrusive way to provide it. There are obviously less intrusive ways than this ObamaCare contraception mandate.

Fluke responded that one less-intrusive way would be to have the government simply provide birth control directly, but complained that conservatives are cutting back on funding for such public programs. Then, as Ryan Moy pointed out after the broadcast, Fluke said this:

So there’s an attack on allowing employers to be required to provide this insurance coverage on insurance that employees pay for, at the same time that there’s an attack on public availability through clinics.

One more time: there’s an attack on allowing employers to be required to provide this insurance. To the left, there is no freedom without government coercion. This is either incoherent or Orwellian, or both. But that’s the argument the left is running with: they want you to be forced to provide the funding for even their most private activities; only then will you be truly free.

But Fluke isn’t the only one making this argument. Mediaite has the video of an MSNBC roundtable on the issue, in which the panelists are panicked at the thought of affording Americans full religious liberty because, essentially, it’s then a slippery slope to protecting all constitutional rights. And then–mayhem, or something:

“This is another reason why we should have moved toward a single payer system of health coverage, because we’re just going to end up with one challenge after another – whether it’s in the courts or outside of the courts – and I just don’t see an end to this,” Herbert submitted.

“We’re already on the slippery slope of corporate personhood,” he continued. “Where does it end?”

“Where does it end” is the attention-getter in that comment, but I think Herbert’s plea for single-payer health insurance is just as telling. Put the government in charge of the country’s health care, Herbert argues, because then it will be much more difficult for Americans to “challenge” the government’s infringement on their freedom. It’s not just legal challenges either. Herbert says those challenges can be brought “in the courts or outside of the courts,” the latter perhaps an allusion to the shady world of participatory democracy.

So this is much more than a fight over birth control, or even health insurance. It’s about two fundamentally different views on American constitutional freedoms. Conservatives want those freedoms to be expansive and protected, as the Founders did. Liberals want those freedoms to be curtailed lest the citizenry get greedy or the democratic process imperil the state’s coercive powers.

The Founders saw religious freedom as elemental to personal liberty in America. But they were not alone in thinking that unimpeded religious worship was a guard against an overly ambitious or arrogant national government. As Michael Burleigh writes about the role of religion in post-French Revolution European politics, with a supporting quote from Edmund Burke:

The political function of religion was not simply to keep the lower orders quiescent, as has been tiresomely argued by generations of Marxists, but also to impress upon those who had power that they were here today and gone tomorrow, and responsible to those below and Him above: ‘All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust, and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great Master, Author, and Founder of society.’

Religion was not the “opiate of the people,” intended to keep them in line. It was, rather, to keep the government in line. This was not a revolutionary idea; it predated the American Constitution, certainly. As Francis Fukuyama writes in The Origins of Political Order: “The existence of a separate religious authority accustomed rulers to the idea that they were not the ultimate source of the law. The assertion of Frederic Maitland that no English king ever believed that he was above the law could not be said of any Chinese emperor, who recognized no law other than those he himself made.”

A battle over the constitutional protection of religious liberty is not an abstraction nor, as in cases like the birth-control mandate, a minor social-issue front in the culture war. Such battles go to the heart of how we seek to govern ourselves and how we understand the fundamental documents that serve as the explication of our national political identity. Americans should watch this case closely and take its implications seriously.

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Desperate Measures in Venezuela

The other day, I asked a leading Venezuelan opposition figure what he thought was the main difference between Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan comandante, and his successor, Nicolas Maduro. “If Chavez was Frank Sinatra,” came the reply, “then Maduro is the guy in the karaoke bar singing an out of tune version of My Way.”

The point here is not that Chavez was a preferable alternative to Maduro; as Roger Noriega correctly points out in the New York Post, Chavez’s “divisive, illegitimate regime polarized society and devastated the economy.” It’s that the uncharismatic, foul-tempered Maduro has, during the seven months that he’s been in power, exposed the totalitarian tendencies implicit in the ideology of chavismo, with the result that he’s fast losing support among those segments of Venezuelan society, like the three million Venezuelans now living in extreme poverty, who regarded Chavez as a savior not so long ago.

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The other day, I asked a leading Venezuelan opposition figure what he thought was the main difference between Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan comandante, and his successor, Nicolas Maduro. “If Chavez was Frank Sinatra,” came the reply, “then Maduro is the guy in the karaoke bar singing an out of tune version of My Way.”

The point here is not that Chavez was a preferable alternative to Maduro; as Roger Noriega correctly points out in the New York Post, Chavez’s “divisive, illegitimate regime polarized society and devastated the economy.” It’s that the uncharismatic, foul-tempered Maduro has, during the seven months that he’s been in power, exposed the totalitarian tendencies implicit in the ideology of chavismo, with the result that he’s fast losing support among those segments of Venezuelan society, like the three million Venezuelans now living in extreme poverty, who regarded Chavez as a savior not so long ago.

The crisis facing Maduro’s regime has coincided with a bitter political campaign around the upcoming municipal elections on December 8, which the opposition MUD coalition is billing as a referendum on the country’s future. One recent opinion poll indicates that 48 percent of electors intend to vote for opposition candidates, as against 41 percent for the ruling party, but that is not necessarily a reliable guide to what will happen on the day. Maduro can always do what he did during the April presidential election: deploy chavista thugs to hector voters arriving at the polling stations, or even rig the result in his favor.

Maduro’s behavior over recent weeks suggests that he has chosen the path of intimidation as the key to his political survival. With inflation running at 54 percent, the highest in the Americas, and a constant shortage of basic household goods like cooking oil and sugar, on November 19 Maduro railroaded through a Ley Habilitante, or Enabling Law, which allows him to bypass the National Assembly and rule by decree. Claiming that Venezuela is the victim of an “economic war” waged by the United States and its local allies, Maduro’s new powers will assist him in prosecuting what his vice president, Jorge Arreaza, delightedly calls “class warfare.”

So far at least, the regime’s offensive against those it labels “speculators” and “bourgeois parasites” has manifested in two ways. Firstly, harassment of the opposition: last weekend, just hours before an MUD election rally, military intelligence officers beat up and arrested Alejandro Silva, a senior aide (or “fascist henchman,” in the words of Andres Izarra, one of Maduro’s ministers) to opposition leader Henrique Capriles. Secondly, it has begun targeting the entire business community, from large retail chains to small merchants, with state-enforced price controls.

Mindful of the potential electoral benefits to be gleaned from the approaching Christmas holiday, Maduro has abruptly ended the long-established practice of selling consumer goods at the black market rate for U.S. dollars–currently ten times the official rate. Initially, this resulted in open looting of stores belonging to retailers like the “Daka” electronics chain. In the days that followed, police officers turned up at other stores demanding that their owners immediately reprice their wares. A video being circulated by opposition activists shows a devastated Lebanese immigrant merchant in the eastern city of El Tigre begging for sympathy: “I bought at 60 thousand Bolívares [Venezuela's currency denomination],” he wails, as he stands helplessly in front of his goods. “I can’t sell at 6 thousand!”

The main result of these measures, which have similarly impacted thousands of other merchants, will be to ruin the retail sector, since owners cannot possibly hope to recover their initial outlay if they are compelled to cut prices so radically. Further, they demonstrate the painful absence of any long-term strategy on Maduro’s part to address Venezuela’s capsizing economy.

Instead, the beneficiaries of Maduro’s policies are principally found among Venezuela’s military elite. As the constitutional lawyer Asdrúbal Aguiar observes in an interview with El Universal, military officers are now running key institutions like the Interior Ministry and a shadowy new intelligence body known as “Cesspa” (Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Motherland). Consequently, as Roger Noriega summarizes the situation:

Virtually every Venezuelan is infuriated by the daily fight for survival. The anti-chavistas are fed up with the harassment by an illegitimate and incompetent one-party state. All sides in the military are busy weighing their options.

Any act of repression, street brawl, electoral fraud or corruption scandal could unleash all the fury built up over the regime’s 15 years. Tragically, the sight of military units squaring off in the streets of Caracas is not a distant memory.

Noriega concludes from all this that the U.S. “must act urgently to prevent a Syria scenario on our doorstep.” Another equally depressing comparison can be drawn with Zimbabwe, whose dictator, Robert Mugabe, embarked on a similar price-controls crusade in 2007. Either way, the prospect of a bloody denouement cannot be ruled out.

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A Welcome Show of Strength from Obama

Perhaps this is what the Pacific pivot means. The Obama administration is telegraphing weakness, indecision, and retreat in the Middle East but is showing some welcome spine in the Far East.

This past weekend China had the temerity to proclaim an Air Defense Identification Zone over much of the East China Sea, including islands disputed by Japan and South Korea. If recognized, this would serve to extend China’s effective sovereignty and could lead to a dangerous confrontation with its neighbors, since China’s new air-defense zone overlaps with those of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. But the Obama administration rightly said it would not recognize the Chinese power grab, and to underline the point a pair of B-52s flew into the disputed air space without notifying Beijing.

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Perhaps this is what the Pacific pivot means. The Obama administration is telegraphing weakness, indecision, and retreat in the Middle East but is showing some welcome spine in the Far East.

This past weekend China had the temerity to proclaim an Air Defense Identification Zone over much of the East China Sea, including islands disputed by Japan and South Korea. If recognized, this would serve to extend China’s effective sovereignty and could lead to a dangerous confrontation with its neighbors, since China’s new air-defense zone overlaps with those of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. But the Obama administration rightly said it would not recognize the Chinese power grab, and to underline the point a pair of B-52s flew into the disputed air space without notifying Beijing.

This is precisely the sort of action that a liberal superpower needs to take to maintain freedom of the skies and the seas. It, indeed, recalls the Reagan administration using force in the 1980s to challenge Libya’s power grab off its coast and Iran’s power grab in the Persian Gulf. Of course challenging China–a superpower in the making–is a lot more perilous an undertaking than challenging regional powers such as Libya or Iran. So it is all the more to Obama’s credit that he did not flinch from what could be a potential confrontation.

In reality China has made plain that, while it is happy to bully lesser states such as the Philippines, it has little appetite yet for an open confrontation with the United States which can still–but for how much longer?–bring overwhelming naval and air assets to bear in the western Pacific. By stepping forward, the U.S. is actually reducing the chances of a much more dangerous confrontation between Japan and China which might have ensued–and still may–were Japan’s nationalist new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to send his own aircraft to challenge China’s air defense claims.

This is yet another sign of why the world needs a strong and vigorous American military that can keep the peace, as it has done for the most part since 1945. That capability, sadly, is now imperiled by imprudent defense cuts. Ten years from now, China may be able to not only assert wide-ranging territorial claims but make them stick, because by that point the U.S. may be too weak to resist.

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Iran Deal and Munich: A Fair Comparison?

Since Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama announced the nuclear deal with Iran on Saturday, outrage over what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly termed a “historic mistake” has been intense, especially among supporters of Israel. That has led some observers to invoke comparisons with the 1938 Munich agreement in which the Western powers betrayed Czechoslovakia in an attempt to appease Adolf Hitler’s Germany. While invective along these lines has been flying around the Internet and Twitter, the question of whether Munich should be mentioned in the same breath as the agreement signed this past weekend in Geneva was discussed this morning by Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal. According to Stephens, the deal Obama is claiming as a triumph for diplomacy is “worse than Munich.”

Is he right? There are those who will claim it is impossible to compare any event with one that is associated with the Holocaust and still win an argument. But whether you think the deal is as bad as Stephens thinks or whether the price of a mistake with Iran is as costly as the West’s miscalculations about Hitler, the real answer depends on whether Iran betrays Obama.

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Since Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama announced the nuclear deal with Iran on Saturday, outrage over what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly termed a “historic mistake” has been intense, especially among supporters of Israel. That has led some observers to invoke comparisons with the 1938 Munich agreement in which the Western powers betrayed Czechoslovakia in an attempt to appease Adolf Hitler’s Germany. While invective along these lines has been flying around the Internet and Twitter, the question of whether Munich should be mentioned in the same breath as the agreement signed this past weekend in Geneva was discussed this morning by Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal. According to Stephens, the deal Obama is claiming as a triumph for diplomacy is “worse than Munich.”

Is he right? There are those who will claim it is impossible to compare any event with one that is associated with the Holocaust and still win an argument. But whether you think the deal is as bad as Stephens thinks or whether the price of a mistake with Iran is as costly as the West’s miscalculations about Hitler, the real answer depends on whether Iran betrays Obama.

As to the merits of the Iran deal, the facts are very much with Stephens in terms of the feckless nature of this diplomatic endeavor. The agreement loosened sanctions and handed over billions in frozen cash to the Islamist regime while tacitly legitimizing the Iranian nuclear program and its drive for a weapon even as it claims to do the opposite. While administration supporters can claim that the sanctions relief involves a fraction of the existing restrictions, neither can they claim that Iran’s supposed concessions do anything to roll back the nuclear progress Tehran has made in the last five years. Instead of making the world, and even Israel, safer, as Obama and Kerry have insisted, it makes it more likely that Iran will get a nuclear deal in the long run as well as heightening the chances of a Middle East arms race involving Saudi Arabia and new outbreaks of violence involving current and perhaps future Iranian allies like Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

While there is no direct analogy between Britain and France’s decision to carve up the Czechoslovak homeland in order to appease Germany’s territorial demands, should Iran get a nuclear weapon the comparison with Munich may be apt. While one can make an argument that the Iranian regime isn’t crazy enough to actually use a nuke on Israel, given the genocidal threats they’ve made against the Jewish state, dismissing their desire to perpetrate a second Holocaust after some of their leaders have spent years denying the first one, should Iran go nuclear in the future, the deal will be thought of as being as every bit as much of a betrayal of Israel as Munich.

Stephens also makes an important point when he speaks of Obama’s desire for détente with Iran as being far less defensible than British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s decision to trust “Herr Hitler.” Britain and France were weak in 1938. It can, as Stephens points out, be argued that delaying the war with Germany by a year, during which Britain built up its military forces, hurt Hitler even if it did result in the annihilation of the Czechs. Though appeasers might have been justified in thinking they had no better option in 1938 than to give in to Hitler, there is no comparable excuse available for Obama and Kerry. Iran is weaker than the West and its economy is, thanks to the sanctions that Obama opposed and delayed implementing, in tatters. Yet, the U.S. negotiated with Iran as if it was the weaker party. Like Chamberlain and French President Edouard Daladier, Obama sued the ayatollahs for peace while saying that the only alternative to appeasement was war. Though no one wants a war with Iran, the alternative was to toughen the sanctions and to increase pressure on Iran and to, at least, demand that it begin dismantling the nuclear program. Like the appeasers of 1938 who thought Hitler couldn’t be persuaded to back down and therefore must be given what he asked for, Obama gave in to Iranian demands because they insisted on them.

Iran is not the hegemonic power that Nazi Germany was. Nor can it attack the West on equal or superior military terms as Germany did. But the assumption that Iran has no capability or desire to commit genocide is merely a matter of faith. Once they get a nuke, and it can be argued that the Iran deal is a bridge to a containment policy rather than one aimed at prevention, genocide or at least a war with incalculable consequences becomes a possibility.

But as bad as the Iran deal was, the real analogy to Munich is the way in which Obama and Kerry not only ignored the concerns of the nations endangered by an Iranian nuke—Israel and Saudi Arabia—but also excluded them from the negotiations. Like the Czechs who were told by Chamberlain that they had no choice but to accept the dismemberment of their country, Israel and the Saudis have been callously told they can either like the deal or lump it.

Yet the problem for many people with any Munich problem is not so much the differences between the two situations but with the entire idea of appropriating any event that is part of the World War Two timeline to describe another conflict. It is an iron rule of debate that the first person to invoke the Holocaust usually loses and in the eyes of some any talk about Munich is always going to be viewed as over the top no matter how strong the analogy might be.

That may be so, but the flipside of this argument is that the problem with the Iran deal is not what it means for the world today but what will follow from it. Opponents of the appeasers of 1938 like Winston Churchill were unable to convince grateful Britons who were overjoyed that war had been averted no matter what the cost to listen to their warnings. They could point to the probable consequences, but until Hitler marched into Prague and then invaded Poland despite promising Chamberlain that he wouldn’t, it was just talk. So, too, are the critics of appeasing Iran powerless to do much to stop Obama’s policy until the Iranians prove them right.

Until that happens, Obama’s defenders can accuse Stephens and others like him of hyperbole and hysteria. But once Iran cheats on the deal and uses its weak terms to get closer to its nuclear ambition, they will sound a lot more credible even to liberals who are trying their best to ignore this debate. At that point, as the world trembles before a nuclear-armed state sponsor of terror run by Islamist fanatics, Stephens’s suggestion that Obama and Kerry are the same as the appeasers of Hitler, “minus the umbrellas,” will seem tame.

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Revisiting Obama’s Complaints About Press “Equivalence”

During the 2012 presidential election, President Obama was becoming increasingly agitated by the press coverage. Something was different this time around: reporters were occasionally writing stories that legitimized the Republicans, as if their opinions were, from time to time, worth hearing out. It manifested in a misleading balance, the president told a gathering at the Associated Press luncheon in April of that year.

The press-critic-in-chief lectured, bordering on exasperated: “I guess another way of thinking about this is — and this bears on your reporting.  I think that there is oftentimes the impulse to suggest that if the two parties are disagreeing, then they’re equally at fault and the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and an equivalence is presented — which reinforces I think people’s cynicism about Washington generally.”

In fact the president, in telling the mainstream media to be even more biased in his favor, was repeating an opinion that had become popular among many in the media as well. The sentiment gave rise to the so-called “fact checkers,” who were liberal opinion columnists masquerading as referees. In one of their most famous rulings, the “fact checker” PolitiFact rated the conservatives’ talk of “death panels” in ObamaCare as its 2009 “Lie of the Year.” The president’s “keep your plan” falsehood was, by contrast, labeled “half true.” Yet now some mainstream journalists are singing a slightly different tune:

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During the 2012 presidential election, President Obama was becoming increasingly agitated by the press coverage. Something was different this time around: reporters were occasionally writing stories that legitimized the Republicans, as if their opinions were, from time to time, worth hearing out. It manifested in a misleading balance, the president told a gathering at the Associated Press luncheon in April of that year.

The press-critic-in-chief lectured, bordering on exasperated: “I guess another way of thinking about this is — and this bears on your reporting.  I think that there is oftentimes the impulse to suggest that if the two parties are disagreeing, then they’re equally at fault and the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and an equivalence is presented — which reinforces I think people’s cynicism about Washington generally.”

In fact the president, in telling the mainstream media to be even more biased in his favor, was repeating an opinion that had become popular among many in the media as well. The sentiment gave rise to the so-called “fact checkers,” who were liberal opinion columnists masquerading as referees. In one of their most famous rulings, the “fact checker” PolitiFact rated the conservatives’ talk of “death panels” in ObamaCare as its 2009 “Lie of the Year.” The president’s “keep your plan” falsehood was, by contrast, labeled “half true.” Yet now some mainstream journalists are singing a slightly different tune:

Mark Halperin raised the specter of the notorious Obamacare “death panels” during an interview on Monday.

Halperin was speaking to Newsmax host Steve Malzberg when the subject came up.

“You believe there will be rationing, aka death panels?” Malzberg asked.

“It’s built into the plan,” Halperin said. “It’s not like a guess or like a judgment. That’s going to be part of how costs are controlled.”

Halperin clarified, tweeting:

In Mon intv I did not say “death panels” nor do I believe ACA contains them. Was speaking of political/policy challenge of IPAB cuts. My bad

Of course there won’t be anything actually called “death panels,” but Halperin isn’t backing off the inevitable rationing to help control costs while at the same time his magazine has a cover story on ObamaCare’s “Broken Promise.” It’s a good indication that were the press to really push back against a supposed false balance, it might have challenged obviously false claims by the president as much as it did the theatrical critiques of his health-care plan by Republicans.

And the recent exposure of all these falsities explains why this White House has been so obsessive in its attempts to control the press, and so paranoid as to spy on reporters’ parents. The press is now pushing back not only by reporting more honestly about ObamaCare but also by confronting the president over his controlling, propagandist impulses.

Those impulses tend to spiral out of control if left unchecked–which they were. And so they resulted in, as Jonathan noted last week, the White House deciding it didn’t need pesky press photographers hanging around when the administration could simply take and distribute its own propaganda photos. National Journal’s Ron Fournier described the moment of confrontation:

New York Times photographer Doug Mills strode into Jay Carney’s office Oct. 29 with a pile of pictures taken exclusively by President Obama’s official photographer at events the White House press corps was forbidden to cover. “This one,” Mills said, sliding one picture after another off his stack and onto the press secretary’s desk. “This one, too–and this one and this one and …”

The red-faced photographer, joined by colleagues on the White House Correspondents’ Association board, finished his 10-minute presentation with a flourish that made Carney, a former Moscow correspondent for Time, wince.

“You guys,” Mills said, “are just like Tass.”

Comparing the White House to the Russian news agency is a hyperbole, of course, but less so with each new administration.

The protest has picked up momentum. Noah Rothman reports that USA Today is joining Tacoma’s News Tribune in a new policy: outside of “extraordinary circumstances,” no White House handout photos.

It seems ironic that the president who galvanized millennial support by utilizing social media while mocking his 2008 opponent’s lack of computer skills (due to his war injuries–a particularly low moment for the Obama campaign) would work so hard to lock out the press, but in fact it’s appropriate. Obama revels in going around the media and delicately managing his image, aware of the way new media can magnify any photo or sound bite.

It may be petty to shut photographers out of routine events, but when it comes to an overwhelming distrust of anyone not on the payroll, nothing is too petty for this administration. As the reporting on ObamaCare and the photographers’ rebellion indicate, Obama may wish for the days of “equivalence” and regret asking the media to cast a more discerning eye on the events of his presidency.

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FBI Stats Again Belie Islamophobia Myth

When it comes to the question of America’s alleged Islamophobia, there is a consensus in the American media: American Muslims have been under siege since the 9/11 attacks. Every attempt on the part of law-enforcement agencies to probe the growth of homegrown terrorism and the possible incitement to hate and violence being conducted at some mosques, as well as by community groups influenced or controlled by Islamists, is branded as more proof of the allege persecution of Muslims and Arabs. The fact that no proof of discrimination or systematic violence other than anecdotal claims is ever brought forward is disregarded so as not to impinge on the need for Americans to feel guilty about the treatment of Muslims.

But with the annual release of the FBI’s hate crime numbers, statistical proof is once again available for those who are interested in the real answer as to which groups are subjected to the most attacks. This year’s numbers, like those of every other previous year since they began compiling such statistics, are clear: Jews remain the No. 1 target of hate crimes in America and no other group comes even close. Incidents involving Muslims, who are, according to the unchallenged meme that is central to every story or broadcast about the subject, the prime targets actually suffer only a fraction as much as Jews. Is it too much to ask reporters who regurgitate the same tired, unproven story lines about Muslims in the coming year to take these facts into account?

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When it comes to the question of America’s alleged Islamophobia, there is a consensus in the American media: American Muslims have been under siege since the 9/11 attacks. Every attempt on the part of law-enforcement agencies to probe the growth of homegrown terrorism and the possible incitement to hate and violence being conducted at some mosques, as well as by community groups influenced or controlled by Islamists, is branded as more proof of the allege persecution of Muslims and Arabs. The fact that no proof of discrimination or systematic violence other than anecdotal claims is ever brought forward is disregarded so as not to impinge on the need for Americans to feel guilty about the treatment of Muslims.

But with the annual release of the FBI’s hate crime numbers, statistical proof is once again available for those who are interested in the real answer as to which groups are subjected to the most attacks. This year’s numbers, like those of every other previous year since they began compiling such statistics, are clear: Jews remain the No. 1 target of hate crimes in America and no other group comes even close. Incidents involving Muslims, who are, according to the unchallenged meme that is central to every story or broadcast about the subject, the prime targets actually suffer only a fraction as much as Jews. Is it too much to ask reporters who regurgitate the same tired, unproven story lines about Muslims in the coming year to take these facts into account?

As in previous years, Jews top the figures for hate crimes, which the FBI claims are down from previous years. Of the 1,340 incidents of anti-religious hate crimes reported, 674 or 62.4 percent were anti-Jewish in nature. Only 130 incidents or 11.6 percent involved Muslim victims. These figures are not much different from those assembled by the government for previous years. In virtually every year, the number of anti-Semitic incidents is a multiple of those involving Muslims.

It is possible that some anti-Muslim attacks might be categorized as an ethnic issue involving Arabs rather than a religious one. But even if we were to try and take some attacks involving national origins, again the enormous gap between the anti-Semitic incidents and those about Muslims is not bridged. The total number of those attacks involving that category that were not about targeting Hispanics (which make up over 60 percent of that total) was 283 and it is likely that, at best, only some of those were about Muslims or Arabs.

It is true that the Anti-Defamation League has criticized the FBI report for trumpeting the overall decline in hate crimes. The ADL rightly points out that hate crimes reporting isn’t mandatory in parts of the country and that the number of agencies funneling figures to the FBI actually declined from 14,500 to 1,3022 in 2012. So it’s likely that there wasn’t any real decline in the number of hate crimes.

But there is no proof or any logical reason to believe that this flaw would lead to any underreporting of anti-Muslim crimes since the percentage of such incidents in 2012 is essentially the same as in previous years.

What does this all mean?

First, as much as we should decry all hate crimes and urge those responsible to be prosecuted and harshly punished, no matter who their victims might be, there is no epidemic of such incidents directed at any single group.

Though Jews are the most likely victims of religious crimes, no reasonable person can claim that they are under siege or that Jewish life is under attack in any manner in this country. Indeed, as the Pew Survey on American Jews that I discussed in the November issue of COMMENTARY reported, less than 20 percent of Jews have even experienced an anti-Semitic remark, let alone an attack. Anti-Semitism is on the rise around the world and particularly in Europe, but in a nation where a tenth of the U.S. Senate and a third of the U.S. Supreme Court are Jews, its impossible to argue that there are any genuine obstacles to Jewish achievement, let alone a wave of Jew-hatred.

Yet, we are asked by the mainstream media to believe that a group which claims to have roughly the same small slice of the national population as the Jews but which, at best, suffers only a fifth of the hate crimes incidents as Jews, is actually laboring under a grievous and discriminatory wave of bias attacks. It not only makes no sense, it is not even remotely congruent with the facts.

America isn’t perfect. Hate still exists against religious and ethnic groups, and religious minorities. Yet once again the annual release of FBI statistics debunks the notion of a post 9-11 backlash against Muslims. But don’t expect the liberal mainstream media to notice this or to take it into account when they resurrect the same misleading story lines in the coming year.

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Returning Politics to Its Rightful Place in American Life

While appearing on The News Hour last Friday, David Brooks was asked about how America changed as a result of the Kennedy presidency and his assassination.

Brooks argued they changed the way we define presidents and politics, that if you read President Eisenhower’s farewell address, it provides a very limited and modest sense of what government can do. “Kennedy comes in with that inaugural, and promises to bear any burden, pay any price, to end disease,” Brooks went on to say. “It becomes much more utopian. And that sort of utopian sense that politics can really transform life is underlined by his charisma, the charisma of an office, and then it’s underlined even more by the martyrdom, and by the mystique of Camelot that grows up.”

The effect of that, Brooks went on to say, is “the enlargement of politics” and the “subsequent disappointment when politics can’t deliver that sort of Camelot dream … And so it’s perversely, I think, inflated politics, created a much more image-conscious politics, but then led to disillusionment, as politics can’t live up to that sort of mirage of sort of religiosity.”

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While appearing on The News Hour last Friday, David Brooks was asked about how America changed as a result of the Kennedy presidency and his assassination.

Brooks argued they changed the way we define presidents and politics, that if you read President Eisenhower’s farewell address, it provides a very limited and modest sense of what government can do. “Kennedy comes in with that inaugural, and promises to bear any burden, pay any price, to end disease,” Brooks went on to say. “It becomes much more utopian. And that sort of utopian sense that politics can really transform life is underlined by his charisma, the charisma of an office, and then it’s underlined even more by the martyrdom, and by the mystique of Camelot that grows up.”

The effect of that, Brooks went on to say, is “the enlargement of politics” and the “subsequent disappointment when politics can’t deliver that sort of Camelot dream … And so it’s perversely, I think, inflated politics, created a much more image-conscious politics, but then led to disillusionment, as politics can’t live up to that sort of mirage of sort of religiosity.”

There’s much wisdom in these observations. For Kennedy and liberals in general, politics is the means through which idealism is pursued. Conservatives tend to be somewhat resistant to that outlook, believing politics is the way we should solve public problems–but believing as well that idealism should be pursued much more in our private lives, outside of the political arena.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean politics can’t take on special significance at particular moments in time. And it isn’t to downgrade the importance of politics in the least. But it is to say that when politics is done right and well, it allows the space for a free people to pursue excellence.

And of course the more grandeur and utopian hopes we invest in politics, the more likely it is that people will turn against it, as politics and government fail to produce the wonders and miracles we’re told to expect. For more, see Obama, Barack (2008), and promises like these.

One of the chief contributions of conservatism is to help people to understand the limitations of politics, to place more modest expectations on it, and to return politics in its rightful place in American society.  

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SCOTUS Gives Religious Freedom a Hearing

Finally, after three years of debate and litigation, the nation will get an answer. The Health and Human Services Department’s ObamaCare mandate that forces all employers to pay for abortion drugs has been challenged by religious believers in courts across the nation since the passage of the president’s signature health-care legislation in 2010. The federal district and appellate courts have handed down mixed verdicts with some saying that the owners of companies must pay for coverage of services that violate their religious beliefs and others holding that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects their rights to refrain from supporting acts that violate their conscience. But now that the Supreme Court of the United States has agreed to hear appeals of two such cases in which the appeals courts handed down contradictory rulings, the issue will be settled once and for all.

But more than just the fate of two companies–one an Oklahoma City-based crafts store chain owned by Catholics and the other a Pennsylvania custom furniture manufacturer owned by Mennonites–are at stake in the legal battle that will probably be decided next spring. If the HHS Mandate is overturned by the high court, it will mark a signal victory for religious liberty over the efforts of the Obama administration to keep faith off the public square and out of public life. Liberal defenders of the government say the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation are wrong to say their personal First Amendment right to religious freedom extends to their business. But the plaintiffs and their supporters rightly maintain that what HHS is doing is to strong-arm these business owners into compliance with ObamaCare via a rule that will force them to choose between their faith and the survival of their enterprises. If the HHS Mandate is upheld, it will create a new, cribbed definition of religious freedom that will effectively mean that faith is only something to be practiced in private.

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Finally, after three years of debate and litigation, the nation will get an answer. The Health and Human Services Department’s ObamaCare mandate that forces all employers to pay for abortion drugs has been challenged by religious believers in courts across the nation since the passage of the president’s signature health-care legislation in 2010. The federal district and appellate courts have handed down mixed verdicts with some saying that the owners of companies must pay for coverage of services that violate their religious beliefs and others holding that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects their rights to refrain from supporting acts that violate their conscience. But now that the Supreme Court of the United States has agreed to hear appeals of two such cases in which the appeals courts handed down contradictory rulings, the issue will be settled once and for all.

But more than just the fate of two companies–one an Oklahoma City-based crafts store chain owned by Catholics and the other a Pennsylvania custom furniture manufacturer owned by Mennonites–are at stake in the legal battle that will probably be decided next spring. If the HHS Mandate is overturned by the high court, it will mark a signal victory for religious liberty over the efforts of the Obama administration to keep faith off the public square and out of public life. Liberal defenders of the government say the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation are wrong to say their personal First Amendment right to religious freedom extends to their business. But the plaintiffs and their supporters rightly maintain that what HHS is doing is to strong-arm these business owners into compliance with ObamaCare via a rule that will force them to choose between their faith and the survival of their enterprises. If the HHS Mandate is upheld, it will create a new, cribbed definition of religious freedom that will effectively mean that faith is only something to be practiced in private.

Liberals are mocking the claim that these business owners have any rights to refuse to fund abortion drugs or even contraception. But the constitutional right to religious freedom is not just about the ability to choose which house of worship to attend or to say private prayers without government interference. Government has no right to tell individuals that they must fund practices that violate their conscience or faith.

Even more contemptible is the attempt by the government and its leftist cheering section to claim that these business owners are imposing their beliefs on their employees, an assertion made by the New York Times earlier this month when it lamented that an appeals court had upheld religious freedom in a related case. The company owners are not requiring their employees to believe as they do or to refrain from having abortions. But they are within their rights to say that if an employee wishes to have one, they should not look to their employers for a subsidy for that act. If the mandate is upheld, then it is not freedom of conscience that is being protected but instead a dubious right to free abortion pills or contraception that cannot be found in any fair reading of the Constitution. It is faith that is under siege in these cases, not abortion rights.

As Appeals Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown wrote in a related case, “The Framers of the Constitution embraced the philosophical insight that government coercion of moral agency is odious.” She went on to write that the mandate is a “compelled affirmation of a repugnant belief” and therefore an unconstitutional burden on free exercise of religion. The Supreme Court will therefore not be deciding the right to abortion or contraception but whether the government’s belief that employers must pay for such services can supersede an employer’s right to free exercise.

Though the fate of ObamaCare will not be decided in these cases, it must be understood that the legislation’s vision of government making decisions about health care practices and policies is integral to the mandate’s attempt to abrogate fundamental constitutional rights. As wrongheaded as Congress was to impose governmental fiats on health care in this manner, the government’s attempt to trample on the rights of religious believers in this fashion is even more offensive. One need not agree with conservative Christians on either abortion or contraception to understand that the underlying principle in this case is the protection of the religious liberty of all Americans. It is to be hoped that the hearing and the decision rendered by the Supreme Court will check the efforts of the federal government to impinge on religious liberty in the name of universal health care. 

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NAF Puts Anti-Zionism on the Table

The New America Foundation (NAF) is one of the most prosperous and influential think tanks in Barack Obama’s Washington. It’s run by Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was director of policy planning in the Obama State Department from 2009 to 2011. Its executive board is chaired by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and is filled with luminaries of the world of finance like Steve Rattner (Obama’s “car czar”), media stars like Fareed Zakaria, public intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama and even a token centrist like Walter Russell Mead as well as the likes of George Soros’s son Jonathan. In other words, it’s about as connected to the pulse of the Obama-era capital as you can be outside of the West Wing. While the NAF’s positions are predictably liberal, it has tried to position itself as a new age, high-tech group that is in the business of selling the world post-partisan answers to the country’s problems that emphasize “big ideas, impartial analysis and pragmatic solutions.” That generally is translated into programs promoting liberal ideas about education, jobs, investment, and the future of Afghanistan, just to cherry-pick some of the topics explored at events sponsored by the group in November. But next month, the NAF will put something different on the agenda: anti-Zionism.

The occasion is a December 4 book event at the foundation headquarters featuring Max Blumenthal, author of a risible anti-Zionist rant titled Goliath that was brought to our attention by an excellent article by historian Ron Radosh at Pajamas Media. We need not waste much time rehashing the book’s complete lack of intellectual merit or integrity. Suffice it to say its purpose is to libel the State of Israel as not merely an apartheid state but as a successor to the Nazis. His goal is not to force its withdrawal from the West Bank or to reform it in any matter but to work for its abolishment and replacement with a new Arab state in which those of the six million Jews who care to say will be forced to assimilate into Arab society rather than maintain a separate national identity. As I wrote earlier this month, even a virulent left-wing critic of Israel as Eric Alterman dismissed it in the pages of the Nation as the “‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook” and speculated that it would make a worthy choice for publication by “the Hamas Book of the Month Club (if it existed),” though lamentably it was put in print by his own magazine’s publishing arm.

Fortunately, most serious reviewers of books, including those on the left, have ignored Blumenthal’s trash. That is as it should be, not because bad ideas should be suppressed but because hatred and bias such as that advocated by Blumenthal do not deserve to be treated as a serious intellectual proposition up for debate. Yet that is exactly what the NAF is doing by inviting Blumenthal with the sort of breathless prose that is in the announcement on their website, calling the book “an unflinching, unprecedented work of journalism.” That means the issue here isn’t whether Blumenthal is an Israel-hater but how it is that a well-heeled and highly influential organization like the NAF has decided that anti-Zionist screeds are what they want their members to discuss. The point is not that Blumenthal will, even with the NAF’s help, persuade Americans to support dismantling Israel, but what it says about liberal elites that they think this is the sort of thing that should be on their agenda.

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The New America Foundation (NAF) is one of the most prosperous and influential think tanks in Barack Obama’s Washington. It’s run by Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was director of policy planning in the Obama State Department from 2009 to 2011. Its executive board is chaired by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and is filled with luminaries of the world of finance like Steve Rattner (Obama’s “car czar”), media stars like Fareed Zakaria, public intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama and even a token centrist like Walter Russell Mead as well as the likes of George Soros’s son Jonathan. In other words, it’s about as connected to the pulse of the Obama-era capital as you can be outside of the West Wing. While the NAF’s positions are predictably liberal, it has tried to position itself as a new age, high-tech group that is in the business of selling the world post-partisan answers to the country’s problems that emphasize “big ideas, impartial analysis and pragmatic solutions.” That generally is translated into programs promoting liberal ideas about education, jobs, investment, and the future of Afghanistan, just to cherry-pick some of the topics explored at events sponsored by the group in November. But next month, the NAF will put something different on the agenda: anti-Zionism.

The occasion is a December 4 book event at the foundation headquarters featuring Max Blumenthal, author of a risible anti-Zionist rant titled Goliath that was brought to our attention by an excellent article by historian Ron Radosh at Pajamas Media. We need not waste much time rehashing the book’s complete lack of intellectual merit or integrity. Suffice it to say its purpose is to libel the State of Israel as not merely an apartheid state but as a successor to the Nazis. His goal is not to force its withdrawal from the West Bank or to reform it in any matter but to work for its abolishment and replacement with a new Arab state in which those of the six million Jews who care to say will be forced to assimilate into Arab society rather than maintain a separate national identity. As I wrote earlier this month, even a virulent left-wing critic of Israel as Eric Alterman dismissed it in the pages of the Nation as the “‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook” and speculated that it would make a worthy choice for publication by “the Hamas Book of the Month Club (if it existed),” though lamentably it was put in print by his own magazine’s publishing arm.

Fortunately, most serious reviewers of books, including those on the left, have ignored Blumenthal’s trash. That is as it should be, not because bad ideas should be suppressed but because hatred and bias such as that advocated by Blumenthal do not deserve to be treated as a serious intellectual proposition up for debate. Yet that is exactly what the NAF is doing by inviting Blumenthal with the sort of breathless prose that is in the announcement on their website, calling the book “an unflinching, unprecedented work of journalism.” That means the issue here isn’t whether Blumenthal is an Israel-hater but how it is that a well-heeled and highly influential organization like the NAF has decided that anti-Zionist screeds are what they want their members to discuss. The point is not that Blumenthal will, even with the NAF’s help, persuade Americans to support dismantling Israel, but what it says about liberal elites that they think this is the sort of thing that should be on their agenda.

Let’s specify that NAF has not explicitly endorsed Blumenthal’s ideas. As Radosh notes, it’s doubtful that their board was consulted about the decision to host his book tour. But all the disclaimers in the world won’t change the fact that by choosing to associate their institution with a book that smears Israelis as Nazis and calls for its destruction, the NAF has crossed a line that no decent individual or group should even approach. Moreover, by doing so they are also sending a dangerous signal in the world of D.C. ideas that talk about doing away with Israel is no longer confined, as it should be, to the fever swamps of the far left or the far right. Instead, thanks to the Nation and its friends at the New America Foundation, open hatred against Israel and the campaign to delegitimize Zionism have now been given an undeserved veneer of respectability in Barack Obama’s Washington.

In one sense, it is hardly surprising that Slaughter’s group would embrace Blumenthal’s book at the same time that the current head of the State Department is counseling Congress to “ignore” Israeli concerns about Iran and betraying its democratic ally with deals that legitimize Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But policy disagreements are one thing; putting anti-Zionism on the agenda as a worthy discussion point is quite another. Just as it would be a scandal if some conservative think tank of comparable stature hosted an author of an openly racist book or one advocating the virtues of slavery, there is something shocking and fundamentally indecent about NAF’s decision to host a writer who is the moral equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan’s David Duke. It may be too much to hope that board members speak up and seek to cancel this event. But if they don’t, the NAF will lend its prestige to a disreputable author and cause and find itself tainted as an aider and abettor of anti-Israel hate.

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The Most Nonsensical Attack on Israel (Yet)

Twitter has been accused of helping to coarsen the culture, increase partisan rage, and further erode the line separating the personal and the political. But there is at least one advantage for writers: Twitter can be an outlet for a curious or ironic observation that has no shelf life and no coherence beyond 140 characters. Some thoughts are tweet-appropriate and nothing more.

Which means there is really no excuse for the New York Times’s decision to publish today’s installment of its ongoing Jodi Rudoren experiment. Rudoren has earned her share of corrections for false claims that editors really should have caught, but everyone makes mistakes, and being dropped into the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the education beat perhaps deserves an adjustment period. But today’s story is not one that gets a few facts wrong or leans heavily toward the Palestinian side of the issue. It’s based on a nonsensical thesis that makes the paper look so desperate to attack Israel that it will throw everything it can find at the Jewish state.

Under the headline “Israelis See Ticking Clock, and Alternate Approaches, on Iran and Palestinians,” Rudoren discusses the supposed hypocrisy on the part of Israel’s government because it opposed the interim deal with Iran but supports interim deals with the Palestinians. (As a side note, this is a lesson the Israelis learned the hard way: they will be criticized for striking agreements and criticized for not striking agreements. It almost literally, as Joe Biden might say, doesn’t matter what Israel does in the opinion of the Western press.)

I’ll let the Times put forth this thesis in Rudoren’s own words:

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Twitter has been accused of helping to coarsen the culture, increase partisan rage, and further erode the line separating the personal and the political. But there is at least one advantage for writers: Twitter can be an outlet for a curious or ironic observation that has no shelf life and no coherence beyond 140 characters. Some thoughts are tweet-appropriate and nothing more.

Which means there is really no excuse for the New York Times’s decision to publish today’s installment of its ongoing Jodi Rudoren experiment. Rudoren has earned her share of corrections for false claims that editors really should have caught, but everyone makes mistakes, and being dropped into the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the education beat perhaps deserves an adjustment period. But today’s story is not one that gets a few facts wrong or leans heavily toward the Palestinian side of the issue. It’s based on a nonsensical thesis that makes the paper look so desperate to attack Israel that it will throw everything it can find at the Jewish state.

Under the headline “Israelis See Ticking Clock, and Alternate Approaches, on Iran and Palestinians,” Rudoren discusses the supposed hypocrisy on the part of Israel’s government because it opposed the interim deal with Iran but supports interim deals with the Palestinians. (As a side note, this is a lesson the Israelis learned the hard way: they will be criticized for striking agreements and criticized for not striking agreements. It almost literally, as Joe Biden might say, doesn’t matter what Israel does in the opinion of the Western press.)

I’ll let the Times put forth this thesis in Rudoren’s own words:

Israeli leaders on Monday condemned the interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program as an exercise in appeasement by the Western powers and a delaying tactic by Iran. Yet many of them see the same strategy of interim confidence-building steps as the only realistic route to resolving their long-running conflict with the Palestinians.

Israel is outraged that, under the deal signed Sunday, Iran is not required to stop enriching uranium or to dismantle centrifuges while negotiating a final agreement with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany. At the same time, Israel continues to build West Bank settlements while negotiating with the Palestinians, prompting similar outrage from the international community.

Easing economic sanctions against Iran, Israel argues, will only remove the pressure that brought Tehran to the table in the first place. Yet Israel — as well as the United States — sees initiatives to improve the Palestinian economy as a critical companion to the political and security discussions.

Because so much gets written about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and because of the media’s blatant left-wing bias, consumers of news on the Middle East are often bombarded with exceptionally dimwitted thoughts. It’s more than just the Bibi Derangement Syndrome that makes even rational liberals lose their grip on reality when Benjamin Netanyahu is involved. It’s a propensity on the part of some news organizations to erase the line between the news and editorial pages and go on the attack any time Israeli officials have the temerity to speak up for their country’s interests.

And yet, today’s Times piece is something of a landmark achievement. It gets everything wrong: the history of the peace process, the Iran deal, international law. There is not a word that redeems the paper’s decision to publish this assault on reason.

The piece suggests Israel is opposed to the concept of an interim agreement with Iran, when that is false. Israel doesn’t like the terms of this agreement, so it opposes it. Rudoren’s attempt to shame Israel for trying to improve the Palestinian economy in the absence of a deal is more proof that for Israel, no good deed goes unpunished. It’s also difficult to know what Rudoren could have possibly been thinking when she compared Jewish settlements in the West Bank to a genocidal regime’s march toward attaining nuclear weapons.

Similarly, the piece suggests Israel is opposed to the concept of a final-status agreement with the Palestinians–also verifiably false. Israel has repeatedly offered comprehensive deals to the Palestinians. Ehud Barak’s offer was followed by a Palestinian intifada. Ehud Olmert’s offer was followed by Palestinian ceasefire violations and the Gaza war. The Palestinians are now in the habit of requiring minor agreements to even begin negotiations. Blaming Netanyahu for this is typical of the Times, and typically daft.

The Times piece also, in the third paragraph, compares the Palestinian drive for statehood to the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons–the latter being a means to destroy Israel. The Palestinians should be insulted by this, but later in the article Palestinian officials embrace the comparison. Perhaps they agree.

Each time the Western press publishes a delusional attack on Israel based on illogic and false equivalence, serious analysts of the Middle East wonder how it could possibly be topped. But the media, as today’s story shows, will always find a way.

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Iran Deal Undermines U.S. Credibility

Much has already been written about the problematic nature of the interim agreement signed this weekend by Iran and the P5+1. But the damage goes beyond the fact that it weakens the sanctions regime without halting Iran’s multiple nuclear programs (as the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens aptly said, it will “merely reduce their pace from run to jog”). No less severe is the blow to U.S. credibility.

First, there’s what might be called the Hamid Karzai problem. As the New York Times reported last week, the Afghan president has for years “perplexed and dismayed his allies” by accusing Washington of plotting behind his back with Pakistan and/or the Taliban in an effort to force Kabul into a peace deal “in which Afghanistan’s interests will not even be secondary, but tertiary and worse.” Hitherto, such ravings could be dismissed as paranoia. But we now know Washington did exactly that to Israel and Saudi Arabia, by spending months secretly negotiating the current deal with Iran without even informing them of the talks’ existence. In other words, America went behind the backs of its two closest Mideast allies to negotiate a deal with their worst enemy that both consider detrimental to their interests. So how can any U.S. ally not legitimately fear that it will do the same to them?

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Much has already been written about the problematic nature of the interim agreement signed this weekend by Iran and the P5+1. But the damage goes beyond the fact that it weakens the sanctions regime without halting Iran’s multiple nuclear programs (as the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens aptly said, it will “merely reduce their pace from run to jog”). No less severe is the blow to U.S. credibility.

First, there’s what might be called the Hamid Karzai problem. As the New York Times reported last week, the Afghan president has for years “perplexed and dismayed his allies” by accusing Washington of plotting behind his back with Pakistan and/or the Taliban in an effort to force Kabul into a peace deal “in which Afghanistan’s interests will not even be secondary, but tertiary and worse.” Hitherto, such ravings could be dismissed as paranoia. But we now know Washington did exactly that to Israel and Saudi Arabia, by spending months secretly negotiating the current deal with Iran without even informing them of the talks’ existence. In other words, America went behind the backs of its two closest Mideast allies to negotiate a deal with their worst enemy that both consider detrimental to their interests. So how can any U.S. ally not legitimately fear that it will do the same to them?

Indeed, as Seth noted yesterday, Ukraine’s eleventh-hour decision to scrap a deal with Europe that it spent months negotiating and sign one with Russia instead shows that other countries are already absorbing the lesson: The West is unreliable; trust it at your peril. Granted, neither Ukraine nor Afghanistan is vital to Western interests. But what happens when, say, Japan and South Korea conclude that Washington might just as easily sell them out to China?

Then there’s the John Kerry problem. Prior to last week’s talks with Iran, the secretary of state pledged that the interim deal wouldn’t acknowledge an Iranian right to continue enriching uranium. “That certainly will not be resolved in any first step, I can assure you,” he said. After the deal was signed, he again asserted that “This first step does not say that Iran has the right of enrichment, no matter what interpretative comments are made.”  

Yet the deal states explicitly that the “comprehensive solution” the parties will now seek to negotiate “would involve a mutually defined enrichment programme.” So the word “right” doesn’t appear, but the practical implications are the same as if it had: Despite repeated binding UN resolutions demanding that Iran halt enrichment, the P5+1 has already agreed to let it continue enriching in perpetuity. This would be like Israel signing a deal to resettle five million Palestinian “refugees” in its territory and then claiming it didn’t agree to a “right of return” because those three words don’t appear in the text. And if America’s top diplomat can flat-out lie about the deal’s content even after the text has been published for all to see, why would anyone ever trust America’s word again?

Earlier this month, Walter Russell Mead noted that “Past administrations have generally concluded that the price Iran wants for a different relationship with the United States is unsustainably high,” because “to get a deal with Iran we would have to sell out all of our other regional allies,” and “Throwing over old allies like that would reduce the confidence that America’s allies all over the world have in our support.”

That’s the brave new world America has just entered. And it’s likely to be paying the price for a long time to come.

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Obama’s Incompetence Now Twinned to Mendacity

The news for President Obama continues to get worse.

According to a new CNN/ORC International survey, only four out of 10 Americans believe Mr. Obama can manage the federal government effectively. Fifty-three percent don’t view him as a strong and decisive leader. And 56 percent say he does not agree with them on important issues and he does not inspire confidence.

But the numbers on the president’s personal characteristics should alarm the White House most of all. More than half (53 percent) believe he’s not honest and trustworthy, while 56 percent say he’s not a person they admire.

Each of these figures are all-time records for Mr. Obama in CNN polling.

In their fascinating behind-the-scenes book on the 2012 election, Double Down, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann write that the campaign’s research showed “that there was a deep well of sympathy for Obama among voters.” In focus groups after the first debate, they write, “people offered excuse after excuse for his horrific presentation. In Florida, one woman said, almost protectively, ‘I just bet you he wasn’t feeling well.’”

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The news for President Obama continues to get worse.

According to a new CNN/ORC International survey, only four out of 10 Americans believe Mr. Obama can manage the federal government effectively. Fifty-three percent don’t view him as a strong and decisive leader. And 56 percent say he does not agree with them on important issues and he does not inspire confidence.

But the numbers on the president’s personal characteristics should alarm the White House most of all. More than half (53 percent) believe he’s not honest and trustworthy, while 56 percent say he’s not a person they admire.

Each of these figures are all-time records for Mr. Obama in CNN polling.

In their fascinating behind-the-scenes book on the 2012 election, Double Down, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann write that the campaign’s research showed “that there was a deep well of sympathy for Obama among voters.” In focus groups after the first debate, they write, “people offered excuse after excuse for his horrific presentation. In Florida, one woman said, almost protectively, ‘I just bet you he wasn’t feeling well.’”

That deep well of sympathy–that willingness to give the president the benefit of the doubt and the attachment and connection voters felt for Mr. Obama–has been crucial to his success for his entire political life. He has always been viewed as a likeable and decent man, even when his campaign employed fairly ruthless tactics. But the days of broad public faith and trust in this president appear to be over. And no wonder.

The fact that the president knowingly misled the public on such a crucial element of his health-care program so many times, over such a long period of time, with such apparent ease, has penetrated the public consciousness in a way nothing else ever has. Incompetence has now been twinned to mendacity. And not surprisingly, that deep well of sympathy is drying up.

Mr. Obama will discover that trust, once lost, is hard to recover. 

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Scott Walker and the Fight for the Center

The week after Election Day earlier this month belonged to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But last week belonged to another Republican governor: Scott Walker. Walker was unleashed on the Sunday shows and in the days that followed it was hard to avoid the Wisconsin governor on television as he pitched his new book Unintimidated, that tells the story of his successful battle against union thugs and their political enablers. The book tour reinforced the rumors that have been percolating in Republican circles since he beat liberals who sought to recall him in June of 2012 that Walker was interested in the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. And, as I wrote last week, the governor wasn’t shy about volunteering himself for the job. The question is: has the PR effort on his behalf put him into the conversation for 2016 and if so, who benefits and who has the most to lose from his heightened prominence?

The definitive answer as to whether Walker is now in the mix for 2016 came not from a Republican source but from liberals. As Politico reports, American Bridge, a Democratic proxy group that is geared to help clear the way for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, took its first shot at Walker claiming that his goals for creating jobs in Wisconsin haven’t been met. Walker, who criticized Clinton as a product of a dysfunctional Washington political culture, has clearly gotten under the Democrats’ skin. Like Christie, who got his first volleys of criticism from the mainstream media after a year of praise once he started tiptoeing toward the presidency, Walker is now viewed as a Republican Democrats are more than a little worried about.

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The week after Election Day earlier this month belonged to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But last week belonged to another Republican governor: Scott Walker. Walker was unleashed on the Sunday shows and in the days that followed it was hard to avoid the Wisconsin governor on television as he pitched his new book Unintimidated, that tells the story of his successful battle against union thugs and their political enablers. The book tour reinforced the rumors that have been percolating in Republican circles since he beat liberals who sought to recall him in June of 2012 that Walker was interested in the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. And, as I wrote last week, the governor wasn’t shy about volunteering himself for the job. The question is: has the PR effort on his behalf put him into the conversation for 2016 and if so, who benefits and who has the most to lose from his heightened prominence?

The definitive answer as to whether Walker is now in the mix for 2016 came not from a Republican source but from liberals. As Politico reports, American Bridge, a Democratic proxy group that is geared to help clear the way for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, took its first shot at Walker claiming that his goals for creating jobs in Wisconsin haven’t been met. Walker, who criticized Clinton as a product of a dysfunctional Washington political culture, has clearly gotten under the Democrats’ skin. Like Christie, who got his first volleys of criticism from the mainstream media after a year of praise once he started tiptoeing toward the presidency, Walker is now viewed as a Republican Democrats are more than a little worried about.

The reason why they should be worried about Walker became clear in the non-stop interviews he gave last week. While he had been demonized by the left as an extremist during his fight to reform Wisconsin’s budget process and his efforts to prevent unions from bankrupting the state, the real Scott Walker is a politician who is not easily categorized.

While reliably pro-life, Walker made no effort to hide the fact that he is not interested in running on issues dear to the hearts of social conservatives. Moreover, while he was one of the Tea Party’s original favorites, he also made no bones about his dismay about the government shutdown, which he denounced as a destructive maneuver. The fact that Rand Paul has recently said the same thing about an effort that he was part of shows just how unpopular the ill-conceived kamikaze charge led by Ted Cruz has become even on the right.

Walker also wisely stayed on message over the course of the week and refused to be drawn into any controversies about issues that didn’t relate to his reform efforts or his message about how can-do GOP governors offer the nation a clear alternative to D.C. dysfunction. Like Christie, who has largely done the same thing this past month, Walker won’t be able to stay out of the line of fire on issues like immigration or foreign policy indefinitely. But with his reelection in Wisconsin his first priority, there’s no question that he has put down a marker as a potential candidate to be reckoned with.

Walker’s first concerted attempt to inject himself into the national political conversation shows the strength of the Republican bench. The party is rightly pleased with a lineup of successful governors of whom Christie is the most famous but not necessarily the most loved by the party faithful. The subtext of the Christiemania that afflicted the media in November was that although the New Jersey governor was the Republican with the best chance to win the votes of independents and moderate Democrats in November 2016, the animus felt toward him by the Tea Party and other conservatives would doom any effort to win the GOP nomination. But that wasn’t entirely correct. If Christie were to have the center to himself in the 2016 Republican contest, the odds are he could win the nod no matter how much the right hated him in much the same manner that moderates like Mitt Romney and John McCain did in 2012 and 2008.

That’s where Walker comes in. As his statements last week demonstrated, though some in the media only think of him in terms of his battle with the left, the governor combines reformist conservative ideology with stands on other issues that place him very much in the center of his party. While the gaggle of candidates competing for Tea Party and social conservative votes may cancel each other out in 2016 as they did in 2012, it now appears that Walker and Christie will be facing off for the voters who gave the nomination to Romney. But since Walker seems to be better liked by those conservatives who abhor Christie for hugging Obama and winning in a blue state, that might make him a far more formidable contender to lead the Republicans than the man who was lampooned as a fat elephant on the cover of Time magazine.

Time will tell whether Walker will stand up to scrutiny in the same way that Christie will be forced to endure years of coverage not as the iconoclast running New Jersey but as the guy who wants to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency. And he also has to first win reelection this year in a state that will never give him the kind of landslide that launched Christie into the political stratosphere this month. While Democrats are already starting to prepare to take out Walker, it’s Christie who should be worried the most about his star turn.

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Obama, Iran, and the Jews Reconsidered

President Obama hasn’t made it easy on his Jewish supporters. Conservative critics—and if polls are right, the majority of Israelis—have always doubted his intentions toward the Jewish state and suspected him of either tilting toward the Palestinians or, as veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller memorably put it, someone who was “not in love with the idea of Israel.” But for the majority of American Jews who remain loyal Democrats and liberals, Obama was, at worst, a satisfactory ally of Israel, and, at best, the misunderstood victim of smears. At times, the president’s penchant for picking fights with the Netanyahu government over settlements, borders, and even a consensus Jewish issue like Jerusalem caused some liberal true believers like lawyer and author Alan Dershowitz to worry about his intentions. But even when the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem was at its worst during the past five years, the president’s supporters could point to the issue of paramount importance to Israel’s security and claim with some justification that he was as solid an ally as could be asked.

That issue was, of course, the Iranian nuclear threat, and from the earliest days of his first presidential campaign, Obama had made it clear that he would never allow them to gain a nuclear weapon. Though he had also mentioned his desire for a rapprochement with Iran in that first campaign, the president’s rhetoric on Iran was consistent and strong. Critics could point to failed efforts at engagement, his slowness to back tough sanctions, and his reliance on a shaky diplomatic process as undermining that rhetoric. Yet administration backers like columnist Jeffrey Goldberg continued to make the case that on this point there could be no doubting the president’s resolve.

But in the wake of this past weekend’s nuclear agreement with Iran and the evidence that the president has not only ignored Israel’s concerns about the deal (as well as those of Saudi Arabia) but appears to want a détente with Tehran that will upend America’s entire stance on the Middle East, it’s fair to say that the president has put his backers into a new and even more difficult test. Liberals may be lining up to take Obama and Secretary of State Kerry at their word that they have not given up their determination to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions and even accept the claim that the deal makes Israel safer. But given the administration’s acceptance of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and its apparent belief that it is unrealistic to think that Tehran can be forced to give up its nuclear program, belief in its bona fides on this issue can no longer be considered anything more than a leap of faith. At this point, American friends of Israel as well as those who understand the grave threat that Iran poses to U.S. interests and security need to face the fact that this president has abandoned them.

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President Obama hasn’t made it easy on his Jewish supporters. Conservative critics—and if polls are right, the majority of Israelis—have always doubted his intentions toward the Jewish state and suspected him of either tilting toward the Palestinians or, as veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller memorably put it, someone who was “not in love with the idea of Israel.” But for the majority of American Jews who remain loyal Democrats and liberals, Obama was, at worst, a satisfactory ally of Israel, and, at best, the misunderstood victim of smears. At times, the president’s penchant for picking fights with the Netanyahu government over settlements, borders, and even a consensus Jewish issue like Jerusalem caused some liberal true believers like lawyer and author Alan Dershowitz to worry about his intentions. But even when the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem was at its worst during the past five years, the president’s supporters could point to the issue of paramount importance to Israel’s security and claim with some justification that he was as solid an ally as could be asked.

That issue was, of course, the Iranian nuclear threat, and from the earliest days of his first presidential campaign, Obama had made it clear that he would never allow them to gain a nuclear weapon. Though he had also mentioned his desire for a rapprochement with Iran in that first campaign, the president’s rhetoric on Iran was consistent and strong. Critics could point to failed efforts at engagement, his slowness to back tough sanctions, and his reliance on a shaky diplomatic process as undermining that rhetoric. Yet administration backers like columnist Jeffrey Goldberg continued to make the case that on this point there could be no doubting the president’s resolve.

But in the wake of this past weekend’s nuclear agreement with Iran and the evidence that the president has not only ignored Israel’s concerns about the deal (as well as those of Saudi Arabia) but appears to want a détente with Tehran that will upend America’s entire stance on the Middle East, it’s fair to say that the president has put his backers into a new and even more difficult test. Liberals may be lining up to take Obama and Secretary of State Kerry at their word that they have not given up their determination to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions and even accept the claim that the deal makes Israel safer. But given the administration’s acceptance of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and its apparent belief that it is unrealistic to think that Tehran can be forced to give up its nuclear program, belief in its bona fides on this issue can no longer be considered anything more than a leap of faith. At this point, American friends of Israel as well as those who understand the grave threat that Iran poses to U.S. interests and security need to face the fact that this president has abandoned them.

The disappointment must be especially acute for Goldberg, who has continued to insist that Obama should be trusted on Iran, even insisting that he would, if push came to shove, order air strikes or do whatever it took to make good on his pledge. Thus, to read the latest Bloomberg column from this respected journalist is to see what happens when leaders cut their supporters off at the knees. Though the president has made Goldberg’s previous defenses of his Iran policy look silly, he is still hoping that the bottom line here won’t be complete betrayal and therefore tries weakly to rationalize or minimize what has just happened.

Goldberg’s position now is that demands for Iran to give up its nuclear program are unrealistic. That’s a new position for him, as he has never doubted that Iran’s goal was a weapon, a point that he doesn’t abandon even in his latest column when he rightly reminds us that, “Iran’s leaders are lying” about being only interested in a peaceful program. But also new is his belief that the crushing sanctions on Iran that he has been advocating for years would never bring about Iran’s capitulation. Thus he finds himself lamely accepting the administration’s excuse that a weak deal that legitimizes Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and does nothing to roll back the tremendous progress it has achieved on Obama’s watch is “the least-worst option.”

He justifies this surrender of principle by assuring himself, if not us, that Iran won’t take advantage of the opening Obama has given them. An even greater leap is his suggestion that after investing so much effort in this diplomatic campaign, the administration “might just have to walk away” from its new relationship with Iran once it realizes than Hassan Rouhani and the supposed moderates aren’t in charge in Tehran. This is absurd because, as reports about the secret diplomatic track that led to this agreement tell us, Obama’s efforts to make nice with Iran preceded Rouhani’s victory in the regime’s faux presidential election.

Equally absurd is his fainthearted attempt to reassure himself that “everything that has happened over these past months may not amount to anything at all.” Having gambled this much on appeasement of Iran, the administration isn’t backing off. No matter what tricks the Iranians pull in the next six months of talks, they know they’ve got the U.S. hooked and won’t let go. The future of the sanctions regime that neither Obama nor the Europeans ever really wanted is much more in question than Iran’s nuclear program. Only a fool would trust Iran’s word on this issue or believe that once they start to unravel, sanctions could be re-imposed.

All this puts American Jewish supporters of Israel like Goldberg in a tough position.

Liberal critics of Israel, like the J Street lobby that was set up to support Obama’s efforts to pressure the Jewish state to make concessions to the Palestinians, will instinctively back the president in any argument with Netanyahu. And it is true that most Americans are not terribly interested in involving the U.S. in yet another foreign conflict and may accept Obama and Kerry’s false argument that the alternative to a weak deal was war.

But mainstream American Jewish groups, and even most of their moderate and liberal supporters, understand what happened this past weekend was more than just another spat in a basically solid relationship. Try as they might, Obama and Kerry will be hard-pressed to persuade most supporters of Israel that they have the country’s best interests at heart as they embark on a road whose only main goal is to normalize relations with Iran.

Though American supporters of the Jewish state loved his rhetoric during his visit to Israel last spring, the president’s goal here has been to isolate America’s sole democratic ally in the Middle East. As Goldberg aptly pointed out, one of Obama’s prime objectives has been to ensure that Israel cannot act on its own or even in concert with some of its unlikely Arab allies of convenience against Iran. Indeed, that appears to be the only American objective that has actually been achieved with this agreement.

That is why Israel’s supporters cannot hesitate about backing congressional efforts to increase sanctions on Iran despite administration resistance. Jewish leaders were lied to earlier this month when senior officials tried to convince them to back off on lobbying for sanctions (an effort that met with at least partial success at first). They also lied to Netanyahu for months while Obama’s envoys were talking to Iran behind Israel’s back.

Obama has worried Jewish supporters before, but never has he so ruthlessly undermined their faith. The choice for the pro-Israel community is clear. It can, like Goldberg has done, redefine its objectives, and concede defeat on stopping Iran and/or pretend nothing has happened. Or it can find its collective voice and speak out against a terrible betrayal that gives the lie to every Obama statement about stopping Iran. If it chooses the latter, these groups will face the usual “Israel Lobby” calumnies from anti-Semites and Israel-haters who will claim they are undermining U.S. interests. But they cannot take counsel of their fears or be silenced. If they do, they will look back on this moment when it was still possible to mobilize congressional action against this betrayal with regret.

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The Proliferating Spheres of Influence

American political commentary was consumed on Thursday with the deployment by Senate Democrats of the so-called “nuclear option” to end the filibuster for their immediate agenda items. Two days later, that was easily outdone by the attention drawn to a more literal nuclear issue: the temporary deal over Iran’s nuclear program. So it was understandable that another piece of news that could prove to be of considerable historical import was overshadowed on Thursday, and its codicil overshadowed on Saturday.

On Thursday, the Guardian reported that Ukraine “abruptly” walked away from its efforts to sign a trade pact with the European Union. “Abruptly” is a good word for it: the two sides were widely expected to sign the deal at a summit in Vilnius on Friday. Throughout trade discussions, Russia has put pressure on Ukraine to convince it that it belongs not with Europe, but with its old friends in Moscow. This would be a symbolic twofer: losing Ukraine back into Russia’s “orbit,” and Moscow’s implicit declaration that Russia is not only not part of Europe but that the two belong to mutually exclusive geographic families.

But the story is far from over. The Ukrainian government is now trying to tamp down days of protests over the decision. Perhaps unavoidably, the conflict is discussed in Cold War terminology, though as Reuters reports, the post-Cold War language of some of the protesters can’t be reassuring to the Ukrainian government either:

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American political commentary was consumed on Thursday with the deployment by Senate Democrats of the so-called “nuclear option” to end the filibuster for their immediate agenda items. Two days later, that was easily outdone by the attention drawn to a more literal nuclear issue: the temporary deal over Iran’s nuclear program. So it was understandable that another piece of news that could prove to be of considerable historical import was overshadowed on Thursday, and its codicil overshadowed on Saturday.

On Thursday, the Guardian reported that Ukraine “abruptly” walked away from its efforts to sign a trade pact with the European Union. “Abruptly” is a good word for it: the two sides were widely expected to sign the deal at a summit in Vilnius on Friday. Throughout trade discussions, Russia has put pressure on Ukraine to convince it that it belongs not with Europe, but with its old friends in Moscow. This would be a symbolic twofer: losing Ukraine back into Russia’s “orbit,” and Moscow’s implicit declaration that Russia is not only not part of Europe but that the two belong to mutually exclusive geographic families.

But the story is far from over. The Ukrainian government is now trying to tamp down days of protests over the decision. Perhaps unavoidably, the conflict is discussed in Cold War terminology, though as Reuters reports, the post-Cold War language of some of the protesters can’t be reassuring to the Ukrainian government either:

“I have turned out for revolution because I have understood that the promises of Yanukovich to go into Europe were just pure comedy,” said Anatoly Gurkalyuk, 33, a builder.

That the Putin regime thinks the West has more or less left the playing field on these geopolitical tussles is no secret. In fact, the Russian government likes to emphasize the competition they’ve just “won” to maximize the propaganda value. And so after the major powers signed the accord with Iran, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that as the U.S. recedes from the Middle East, it should take its European missile defense system with it: “If the Iran deal is put into practice, the stated reason for the construction of the defense shield will no longer apply,” Lavrov said.

Lavrov was clearly enjoying the moment, but he actually raises a point of which the Obama administration, as it contemplates America’s new role in the world, would do well to be reminded: the illogic and foolhardy nature of the Obama administration’s compartmentalization of world affairs. It’s this mindset that has convinced the administration they can leave the Middle East behind and “pivot” to Asia. But on the day the deal with Iran was struck, China sent its own message on that score:

China established the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone on Saturday, and its Defense Ministry said it would take “defensive emergency measures” against unidentified aircraft that enter the zone.

A map and coordinates published Saturday showed the zone covers most of the East China Sea and includes a group of uninhabited islets whose ownership is disputed by China and Japan.

Secretary of State Kerry raised immediate objections to China following Russia’s lead in marking off its own sphere of influence. The Chinese response to Kerry involved a long walk and a short pier:

But Chinese officials dismissed the U.S. comments as unjustified interference.

American criticism of the air zone announcement is “completely unreasonable,” Col. Yang Yujun, a Ministry of National Defense spokesman, said Sunday.

The United States should stop taking sides on the issue, cease making “inappropriate remarks” and not send any more “wrong signals” that could lead to a “risky move by Japan,” he said.

The “pivot” to Asia always rested on a shaky foundation. As the Economist explained in 2011 when the pivot was gearing up, Obama saw the Pacific as a refuge from “inherited” troubles (mainly in the Middle East) and a way to chart his own path. He could never fully own the twin fates of Iraq and Afghanistan, and he couldn’t bank on striking an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

So the turn to Asia was perfect. He wouldn’t have to accomplish anything outstanding, just be able to take credit for a new strategic posture. His successors would undoubtedly visit the region often enough, but few would have been pompous enough to pretend that this was some sort of innovation. Obama and his foreign-policy team learned early on that all they had to do was come up with a bumper-sticker phrase or slogan and the media would credulously repeat it as if he had just discovered electricity. (This didn’t always work to the administration’s advantage, as it found out with the “leading from behind” debacle.)

The problem is that Obama looked at the pivot as an escape from conflicts that, in the age of the Internet and transnational political and terrorist networks, don’t stay in their box. More importantly, retreat from the major issues of the day sends the wrong message for any power looking to be respected in the far corners of the globe. So as the U.S. starts backing away from the Middle East, Lavrov reminds them to take their presence in Europe with them, and China practically laughs at the idea that they aren’t entitled to their own sphere of influence, as Russia and Iran seem to be. And then where will the president pivot?

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Obama, Iran, and Israel

British member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan, in speaking about President Obama, told Jamie Weinstein of The Daily Caller, “I’m not sure there has ever been a president who cares less about the U.S.’s relations with her traditional friends.” 

That point was underscored and demonstrated again this weekend, with the interim agreement focused on Iran’s nuclear program that the Obama administration agreed to. Jonathan did an excellent job outlining the weaknesses of the deal; so have others (see here and here).

I do find it remarkable that the president, even this president, would put forward a deal that is so manifestly in the interest of Iran and so obviously harmful to both America and Israel. On the latter, I concur with what former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton wrote:

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British member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan, in speaking about President Obama, told Jamie Weinstein of The Daily Caller, “I’m not sure there has ever been a president who cares less about the U.S.’s relations with her traditional friends.” 

That point was underscored and demonstrated again this weekend, with the interim agreement focused on Iran’s nuclear program that the Obama administration agreed to. Jonathan did an excellent job outlining the weaknesses of the deal; so have others (see here and here).

I do find it remarkable that the president, even this president, would put forward a deal that is so manifestly in the interest of Iran and so obviously harmful to both America and Israel. On the latter, I concur with what former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton wrote:

Buying time for its own sake makes sense in some negotiating contexts, but the sub silentio objective here was to jerry-rig yet another argument to wield against Israel and its fateful decision whether or not to strike Iran. Obama, fearing that strike more than an Iranian nuclear weapon, clearly needed greater international pressure on Jerusalem. And Jerusalem fully understands that Israel was the real target of the Geneva negotiations.  

This posture makes sense when you keep in mind that Barack Obama has never been particularly well disposed toward Israel and at times has treated its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, with contempt. But the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program goes beyond not standing with Israel against an existential threat. The president has now entered into a deal that has made Iran’s life much easier and Israel’s life much more difficult and dangerous. We’re witnessing an astonishing moral inversion. 

That there are people who do such things is nothing new; but that such a person would become president of the United States is.

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Why John Kerry Is Always the Last to Know

The search for explanations for the Obama administration’s serially inept diplomacy yielded some clues in the wake of the deal over Iran’s nuclear program. Though Secretary of State John Kerry had emitted an air of desperation in the last couple of weeks, watching the reactions of America’s allies made it clear not only that Kerry’s desperation was not widely shared but also that the Obama administration seems to have stopped listening–indeed, to have completely tuned out voices that may raise dissenting views.

Kerry’s victory tour on the political talk shows was instructive. Kerry repeatedly tried to squelch any talk of “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel on Iran, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was left repeating what he has been saying all week: yes, of course there is daylight between the two. Netanyahu thinks this is a “historic mistake” that will enable Iran to get closer to a bomb and thus put the region in danger. The oblivious Kerry simply ignored that, claiming the Israelis are safer when they say they are not.

Kerry doesn’t hear them, and the Obama administration has a history of claiming to know what Israel’s best interests are, so this is par for the course. The Obama administration is so sure it knows what’s best for Israel, in fact, that it didn’t feel it necessary to keep the Israelis apprised of what they were doing, despite the issue’s obvious impact on Israel and her neighbors. The Wire reports on conflicting claims as to how Israel found out about the U.S.-Iran talks–but neither claim holds that the U.S. told the Israelis what was going on. They apparently found out either through “intelligence” or from the Saudis.

The Saudis, after all, know what it’s like to be ignored by the Obama administration on key issues in the region. As the Washington Post reported earlier this month:

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The search for explanations for the Obama administration’s serially inept diplomacy yielded some clues in the wake of the deal over Iran’s nuclear program. Though Secretary of State John Kerry had emitted an air of desperation in the last couple of weeks, watching the reactions of America’s allies made it clear not only that Kerry’s desperation was not widely shared but also that the Obama administration seems to have stopped listening–indeed, to have completely tuned out voices that may raise dissenting views.

Kerry’s victory tour on the political talk shows was instructive. Kerry repeatedly tried to squelch any talk of “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel on Iran, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was left repeating what he has been saying all week: yes, of course there is daylight between the two. Netanyahu thinks this is a “historic mistake” that will enable Iran to get closer to a bomb and thus put the region in danger. The oblivious Kerry simply ignored that, claiming the Israelis are safer when they say they are not.

Kerry doesn’t hear them, and the Obama administration has a history of claiming to know what Israel’s best interests are, so this is par for the course. The Obama administration is so sure it knows what’s best for Israel, in fact, that it didn’t feel it necessary to keep the Israelis apprised of what they were doing, despite the issue’s obvious impact on Israel and her neighbors. The Wire reports on conflicting claims as to how Israel found out about the U.S.-Iran talks–but neither claim holds that the U.S. told the Israelis what was going on. They apparently found out either through “intelligence” or from the Saudis.

The Saudis, after all, know what it’s like to be ignored by the Obama administration on key issues in the region. As the Washington Post reported earlier this month:

Secretary of State John F. Kerry made what amounted to an emergency fence-mending trip to Saudi Arabia on Monday, reassuring King Abdullah in a rare and lengthy meeting that the United States considers the kingdom a major partner and regional power and that the Obama administration will step up its consultation on issues important to both nations. …

He also denied widespread speculation here that Obama is willing to accept a less-than-ironclad nuclear deal with Iran during the current round of negotiations. “The United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” Kerry said in an airport news conference with the foreign minister before departing.

“Did I give some assurances? Yes, absolutely. Of course I did,” he added.

Those “assurances” don’t seem to have had their intended effect. The Saudis were concerned enough to, apparently, alert the Israelis to Kerry’s desperation for a deal. But the Saudis and Israelis weren’t the only ones effectively talking to a wall when the Obama administration was involved. Everyone, perhaps Kerry most of all, acted pretty surprised when the French scuppered the initial deal in Geneva. But they shouldn’t have been surprised. Had Kerry been listening to European concerns he would have expected what he heard from the French. They had been making an argument nearly identical to the one many on the right have been making here in the U.S.: the sanctions, once eased, are likely to stay that way.

But of course it’s silly to think Kerry is listening to his domestic critics either. The Obama administration has stuck its fingers in its ears, choosing to deal only in straw men and never with reality. It would have benefited them greatly, however, to not be sealed off from anything that deviated from the administration’s groupthink. The French showed up in Geneva and said what many had said before. They wanted a deal with more restrictions on Iran because pausing the sanctions in Europe could be the beginning of the end of the European share of the sanctions regime:

France and other European Union countries, however, face fewer political restrictions on ending their core sanctions, which means any decision to lift them could be more far-reaching. In addition, officials said, the measures would be harder to reinstate should the talks unravel or Iran renege on its pledges.

Those considerations left the Europeans more hesitant to consider easing sanctions than the United States was.

That should have been a surprise to nobody. Instead it was a surprise only to Kerry and the rest of the administration’s crack negotiating squad. And if the Obama administration didn’t want to listen to America’s allies, officials could have at least paid attention to their negotiating partner, Iran. The wording of the deal would be crucial because permitting the Iranians leeway in their interpretation could be the deal’s undoing.

Sure enough, the New York Times reports:

There were already indications that Iran and the West were interpreting crucial parts of the six-month agreement differently. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has asserted that the agreement explicitly recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium. He also said the agreement effectively removed the threat of an American military strike.

Mr. Kerry rejected both of those contentions. “The fact is, the president maintains” the option to use force “as commander in chief, and he has said specifically, he has not taken that threat off the table,” he said on CBS.

Kerry is operating under the assumption that the administration still has reserves of credibility on this issue in the region, which borders on preposterous. But again, how would Kerry even know his credibility is shot? Perhaps the Saudis could let him in on the secret–if he’s willing to listen.

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Only Congress Can Keep Obama Honest on Iran

Judging from the reaction from the White House and its cheering section in the liberal media, the administration is convinced that the nuclear deal it struck with Iran this week is the first step toward a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy. By agreeing to legitimize Iran’s nuclear program and loosening sanctions in exchange for cosmetic concessions from Iran that did not roll back the regime’s dramatic advances toward its ambition to get a bomb in the last five years, President Obama has finally achieved his dream of initiating a détente with the ayatollahs that he first articulated during the 2008 presidential campaign. In doing so, he seeks to change the calculus in the Middle East and swing U.S. policy away from its traditional alliances with Israel and moderate Arab states like Saudi Arabia.

The president thinks this strategy will deter Iran from getting a bomb while also utilizing the help of the mullahs to settle things in Afghanistan and Syria. While defended by his apologists as a realist take on foreign policy, this is exactly the sort of magical thinking about Iran that characterized Jimmy Carter’s disastrous engagement with the ayatollahs. While, as I wrote yesterday, the chances that Iran will keep its word and not use American weakness and gullibility to move closer to a bomb are not zero, they are not much more than that. As for changing the region, by granting Iran a second huge victory (the first being his retreat on Syria that ensured Tehran’s ally Bashar Assad would stay in power), he has set in motion a chain of events that will further destabilize the region, make a nuclear arms race inevitable and emboldened terrorist groups allied with Iran. While this does represent a profound shift in U.S. policy, it is one that will leave the U.S. weaker, less secure, and less able to influence events than it is already.

Is there anything that can be done about this? While the president is right to think that no American ally can deter him from pursuing détente with the murderous Iranian regime–as his disdain for both Israel and Saudi Arabia makes clear–there is one factor that could obstruct his misguided attempt to essentially withdraw the U.S. from the Middle East: Congress. Only Congress has the ability to keep Obama honest on Iran.

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Judging from the reaction from the White House and its cheering section in the liberal media, the administration is convinced that the nuclear deal it struck with Iran this week is the first step toward a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy. By agreeing to legitimize Iran’s nuclear program and loosening sanctions in exchange for cosmetic concessions from Iran that did not roll back the regime’s dramatic advances toward its ambition to get a bomb in the last five years, President Obama has finally achieved his dream of initiating a détente with the ayatollahs that he first articulated during the 2008 presidential campaign. In doing so, he seeks to change the calculus in the Middle East and swing U.S. policy away from its traditional alliances with Israel and moderate Arab states like Saudi Arabia.

The president thinks this strategy will deter Iran from getting a bomb while also utilizing the help of the mullahs to settle things in Afghanistan and Syria. While defended by his apologists as a realist take on foreign policy, this is exactly the sort of magical thinking about Iran that characterized Jimmy Carter’s disastrous engagement with the ayatollahs. While, as I wrote yesterday, the chances that Iran will keep its word and not use American weakness and gullibility to move closer to a bomb are not zero, they are not much more than that. As for changing the region, by granting Iran a second huge victory (the first being his retreat on Syria that ensured Tehran’s ally Bashar Assad would stay in power), he has set in motion a chain of events that will further destabilize the region, make a nuclear arms race inevitable and emboldened terrorist groups allied with Iran. While this does represent a profound shift in U.S. policy, it is one that will leave the U.S. weaker, less secure, and less able to influence events than it is already.

Is there anything that can be done about this? While the president is right to think that no American ally can deter him from pursuing détente with the murderous Iranian regime–as his disdain for both Israel and Saudi Arabia makes clear–there is one factor that could obstruct his misguided attempt to essentially withdraw the U.S. from the Middle East: Congress. Only Congress has the ability to keep Obama honest on Iran.

While much of the mainstream media reacted to the Iran deal with relief at an opportunity to step back from the need to confront the nuclear peril, congressional reaction was both sober and appropriately critical. Both Republicans and Democrats rightly pointed out that the agreement the president grabbed was an unsatisfactory retreat from his past promises. Does this matter? In one sense, the answer is no. Congress is powerless to prevent Obama from signing any deal he wants with Iran. His executive powers allow him to release the billions in frozen assets that are being use to bribe the Iranians to sign the piece of paper in Geneva. But the sanctions that have squeezed Iran’s economy cannot be abrogated by presidential fiat. It will take congressional approval to do that, and if Iran is allowed to keep its nuclear toys and go on enriching uranium, that won’t happen.

Thus, despite his urging, it appears that the Senate will move ahead to pass the next round of tougher sanctions on Iran that have already been passed by the House. This bill will tighten the noose on the Iranian economy and make it even more difficult for the regime to go on selling its oil. But far from a breach of faith with Iran, as the administration claimed in recent weeks, passing the new sanctions will be the only thing that can keep the president honest on the subject.

As Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez indicated yesterday, the sanctions will probably be amended to postpone their implementation until after the six-month period during which the administration claims it will be negotiating a follow-up agreement with the Iranians. That will give President Obama a chance to prove that his deal is not merely an effort to appease Iran and that he is still serious about halting their push toward a weapon. But if six months from now the Iranians have still not agreed to dismantle a single centrifuge or given up their stockpile of enriched uranium, the sanctions will not be delayed.

As most members of Congress seem to recognize, the choice here was not between war and an unsatisfactory nuclear deal. They rightly disagree with the idea that Iran is too strong to be further opposed or that it is unrealistic to suppose the West can force the regime to give up their nuclear dream. While the signal of weakness from the administration to the Iranians may have convinced them they need not fear the use of force or continued sanctions, a determined stand by Congress may be the only thing that can act as any sort of deterrent against an Iranian nuclear breakout.

The push to pass sanctions will likely be criticized as the work of the dreaded “Israel Lobby,” and we have already begun to hear calumnies of those pushing to restrain Obama’s appeasement as being merely a function of the Jewish state’s instructions. One such statement came last week from Carter administration National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski who tweeted, “Obama/Kerry = best policy team since Bush I/Jim Baker. Congress is finally becoming embarrassed by Netanyahu’s efforts to dictate US policy.” If “best policy team” means most hostile to Israel, he’s probably right. But the key here is the attempt to brand members of Congress who won’t buy into Iran détente as being, in New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s phrase, “bought by the Jewish lobby.”

But I doubt Democrats like Menendez or Chuck Schumer or Republicans like Bob Corker or Lindsey Graham will be deterred by this kind of slander that borders on open anti-Semitism.

While Congress can’t stop the president from embarking on this potentially disastrous course of action toward Iran, it can make it impossible for him to further reward the ayatollahs if they continue their past policy of deceiving the West. The president may hope that once agreements are signed, the world will stop caring about Iranian nukes. But the House and the Senate should use their power of the purse to obstruct such a craven retreat from American responsibility. They are the only ones who have any hope of keeping Obama honest on Iran. And they should not be intimidated from doing so by anti-Semitic slanders.

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The Unraveling of Iran Sanctions

There are two major, competing alliances in the Middle East: pro- and anti-Iran. The “pro” bloc obviously includes Iran in addition to Syria, Hezbollah, and arguably the Iraqi government. The “anti” bloc includes just about everyone else–from Israel to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has long been seen as the strongest supporter of the “anti” bloc, which is hardly surprising since the Iranian regime has been waging war on the United States since its inception, whether with hostage taking or terrorist bombings.

But that perception is fast changing. First the American pullout from Iraq, then the deal with Syria, now the deal with Iran cast into serious doubt American resolve to stop Iran’s power grab and understandably alarm our allies. It feels as if there is a realignment of power taking place, with the U.S. counting for less and less: Both our friends and our enemies are less respectful now of American power and less likely to defer to us.

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There are two major, competing alliances in the Middle East: pro- and anti-Iran. The “pro” bloc obviously includes Iran in addition to Syria, Hezbollah, and arguably the Iraqi government. The “anti” bloc includes just about everyone else–from Israel to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has long been seen as the strongest supporter of the “anti” bloc, which is hardly surprising since the Iranian regime has been waging war on the United States since its inception, whether with hostage taking or terrorist bombings.

But that perception is fast changing. First the American pullout from Iraq, then the deal with Syria, now the deal with Iran cast into serious doubt American resolve to stop Iran’s power grab and understandably alarm our allies. It feels as if there is a realignment of power taking place, with the U.S. counting for less and less: Both our friends and our enemies are less respectful now of American power and less likely to defer to us.

At least in the case of Syria, one can make the case that we are getting something substantial in return for providing de facto legitimacy to the Assad regime. At least Assad is actually allowing the dismantlement and destruction of his chemical weapons. That is not the case with Iran, which is slightly slowing down–by no more than a few weeks–its pell-mell rush to acquire an atomic bomb in return for at least $7 billion in sanctions relief (and possibly more) along with de facto recognition of its supposed “right” to enrich uranium.

I can understand why the Obama administration reached the deal with Tehran and why so many have embraced it. No one wants a war with Iran–and no one wants an Iranian bomb. It certainly appeared that Iran was on a trajectory to acquire a bomb and that the only thing truly standing in its way was the threat of an Israeli air strike. Given that President Obama long ago sacrificed any credibility in threatening Iran with the use of American force (if he won’t even bomb Syria after the use of WMD, who would imagine he would bomb Iran while it was still trying to acquire WMD?), one can make the case that a deal that delays the Iranian program, however slightly, is worth the price in a few billion dollars in sanctions relief.

The problem is that sanctions were finally, belatedly starting to bite. The Iranian economy has been in freefall since more restrictive economic sanctions were imposed last year. This is the point of maximum leverage–and Obama and Kerry have just taken their foot off the Iranian windpipe. If the Iranians would not agree to a Libya- or Syria-style deal that would dismantle their nuclear complex now, it is hard to imagine they will agree to do so in six months, when their economy will have gotten some badly needed relief. (Already, the Wall Street Journal reports, Western European firms are preparing to rush back into Iran.) The likelihood is that, six months from now, the Iranians will simply extract more concessions for not ramping up their nuclear program once again, all the while maintaining their ability to keep enriching uranium and keep designing and building ballistic missiles capable of carrying  a nuclear warhead.

Confidence in the U.S. among our Middle Eastern allies is plunging to new lows, and no wonder: Countries from Israel to Saudi Arabia, which see Iran as a mortal threat, no longer feel they can count on American protection. This is a dangerous perception because it encourages those states to take actions that no American president would favor–whether bombing Iran (in the case of Israel) or acquiring its own nuclear bomb (in the case of Saudi Arabia). The risk of appearing feckless may be worth running if it actually results in a deal that dismantles the Iranian program. But the odds are that Obama’s high-risk gamble won’t pay off.

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The Conservative Moment

Often in politics one moment sets up another. For example, the violence, disorder, and campus unrest in 1967-1968 opened the way for Richard Nixon’s first presidential win. Watergate created the conditions that allowed Jimmy Carter to emerge victorious in 1976. Mr. Carter’s incompetence led to Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980. George W. Bush prevailed in 2000 by offering a contrast to Newt Gingrich, who by then was viewed as polarizing and unpopular. And the difficulties in Iraq helped Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008.

Something similar may be taking place with ObamaCare.

The Affordable Care Act is the personification of liberalism in terms of its centralization of power, its coercive elements, its nearly unlimited faith in technocratic solutions, and its absolute confidence that the effects of a massive restructuring of our health-care system could be controlled.

The multiple and multiplying failures of ObamaCare may well lead to a more widespread appreciation for certain conservative truths, including the virtues of limited government, the law of unintended consequences, and the fact that change can often lead to disruption. Juxtaposing the glorious things the president said the Affordable Care Act would achieve with its mounting problems is a useful reminder that the world is enormously complicated and the ability of government to carefully order and arrange the pieces of that world is really quite limited.

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Often in politics one moment sets up another. For example, the violence, disorder, and campus unrest in 1967-1968 opened the way for Richard Nixon’s first presidential win. Watergate created the conditions that allowed Jimmy Carter to emerge victorious in 1976. Mr. Carter’s incompetence led to Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980. George W. Bush prevailed in 2000 by offering a contrast to Newt Gingrich, who by then was viewed as polarizing and unpopular. And the difficulties in Iraq helped Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008.

Something similar may be taking place with ObamaCare.

The Affordable Care Act is the personification of liberalism in terms of its centralization of power, its coercive elements, its nearly unlimited faith in technocratic solutions, and its absolute confidence that the effects of a massive restructuring of our health-care system could be controlled.

The multiple and multiplying failures of ObamaCare may well lead to a more widespread appreciation for certain conservative truths, including the virtues of limited government, the law of unintended consequences, and the fact that change can often lead to disruption. Juxtaposing the glorious things the president said the Affordable Care Act would achieve with its mounting problems is a useful reminder that the world is enormously complicated and the ability of government to carefully order and arrange the pieces of that world is really quite limited.

The Obama presidency, before it’s through, will likely cause the American people to be a bit more dubious about the next person who comes along and promises to heal the planet, remake the world, and slow the rise of the oceans; who campaigns on incantations and inspires a cult of personality; and who believes his mere touch is enough to transform things for the better. The Obama presidency may also deepen the public’s appreciation for prudent reforms, actual achievements and what George Will once called (in referring to former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels) the “charisma of competence.”

Barack Obama is the avatar of progressivism. His failure, and most especially the failure of his signature domestic achievement, is producing a legacy of disillusionment and damaged lives. Americans will look to an alternative. Which means a new conservative moment awaits. It’s now up to conservatives to provide the governing vision that will allow them to seize it. 

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