Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 18, 2013

China’s Problem: Freedom Is Infectious

Pity the leaders of China’s sclerotic Communist government. They thought they had learned the lessons of the breakup of the Soviet Union and managed to allow a degree of economic freedom without giving up a smidge of political power. Many, though not all, Chinese are allowed now to make money in a booming economy that has helped finance a debt-ridden West. But as much as China has made extraordinary economic progress in the last generation, its society still labors under the burden of tyranny that limits its advancement. As is the case with all forms of tyranny, the all-powerful government acts with impunity, encouraging corruption and rendering the rule of law an empty promise. Personal incomes have gone up but the absence of freedom still lingers, as does the Chinese gulag where those who dissent are still sent.

The Communists know all this and by scaling back some of the most onerous restrictions on freedom they hope to not only keep the Chinese people quiescent but to retain their absolute hold on power for yet another generation. That’s why they are considering lifting the infamous “one child” policy in some instances. But, as the New York Times reports today, as popular as the abolition of this despicable law would be, doing so even if only for parents who are both only children is not going to be easy. The problem is that once you start allowing some freedom, the people are bound to want more.

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Pity the leaders of China’s sclerotic Communist government. They thought they had learned the lessons of the breakup of the Soviet Union and managed to allow a degree of economic freedom without giving up a smidge of political power. Many, though not all, Chinese are allowed now to make money in a booming economy that has helped finance a debt-ridden West. But as much as China has made extraordinary economic progress in the last generation, its society still labors under the burden of tyranny that limits its advancement. As is the case with all forms of tyranny, the all-powerful government acts with impunity, encouraging corruption and rendering the rule of law an empty promise. Personal incomes have gone up but the absence of freedom still lingers, as does the Chinese gulag where those who dissent are still sent.

The Communists know all this and by scaling back some of the most onerous restrictions on freedom they hope to not only keep the Chinese people quiescent but to retain their absolute hold on power for yet another generation. That’s why they are considering lifting the infamous “one child” policy in some instances. But, as the New York Times reports today, as popular as the abolition of this despicable law would be, doing so even if only for parents who are both only children is not going to be easy. The problem is that once you start allowing some freedom, the people are bound to want more.

Any discussion of the one child policy must begin with the fact that it has never been some antiseptic commonsense attempt to cope with over-population. The notion that this law is all that stood between China and some “Soylent Green” style Malthusian nightmare is a myth that Beijing apologists have often successfully foisted onto the American imagination. All too many Americans, especially those liberals who have always been willing to give China’s tyrants the benefit of the doubt, have been prepared to accept the notion that one child made sense in China. Even Vice President Joe Biden publicly endorsed it when, in the course of trying to draw a bogus comparison between liberal U.S. economic policies and Chinese dictates, he said:

You have no safety net.  Your policy has been one which I fully understand — I’m not second-guessing — of one child per family.  The result being that you’re in a position where one wage earner will be taking care of four retired people.  Not sustainable.

Aside from Biden’s characteristically fractured grammar, what he left out of that equation was the reality of mass forced abortions, forced sterilizations and a skewed sex balance that devalues women in a culture which prizes male offspring. One child is at the heart of the terror state that persists in China since it limits a basic human right that not even Stalinist Russia ever directly challenged. While a case could be made that China had to do something to deal with the imbalance between its resources and a growing population, the correct answer to this problem was not less freedom but more. Centralized planning is no match for the benefits of human creativity aimed at expanding wealth and resources. Even in an era in which it has allowed some limited freedoms in its economy, Beijing still seeks to impose the heavy hand of tyranny on the most personal of decisions.

The Communists’ problem is the same as that of every tyrant who seeks to loosen their strangleholds on the lives of their subjects: freedom is infectious. Let it loose in one area and there’s no telling where it will lead. They had thought allowing people to own property would compensate for their lack of say over anything else but sooner or later, human beings will not be satisfied with the crumbs of liberty their masters allow them. While Chinese President Xi Jinping would like to let some families have a second child, once the floodgates are open, it’s not clear that they could be closed.

Ever since President Nixon normalized relations with China, apologists for détente with Beijing have told us that the Chinese people don’t value or don’t want freedom and that discussion of human rights in the planet’s largest tyranny is pointless or unnecessary. But they have always been wrong. China’s freedom fighters have gone to nameless deaths in the laogai but the notion that Communism can suppress a people’s nature longing for freedom even in a culture that values community is a myth. Sooner or later, one child is doomed and the country’s leaders know it. But they also may understand that once the threat of forced abortions and sterilizations is removed, something beyond the population figure will increase in China. Once you give a person back that sort of personal autonomy, there’s no telling what they will ask for, and more will be swept away in the tide that will eventually follow than restrictions on family size.

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The Media Struggles to Explain Netanyahu

At the height of anti-Bush hysteria, the president’s most vociferous critics were afflicted with a fair degree of cognitive dissonance: to them George W. Bush was somehow both a doltish junior partner to his vice president and a diabolical mastermind whose assault on the nation’s conscience could not be stopped. There are moments when the news coverage of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu evokes similar confusion.

Today, for example, if Netanyahu were to check in with the East Coast commentariat he would learn that the press has come to some very different conclusions about what drives him. Over at Foreign Policy, Dan Drezner says Netanyahu is “wigging out.” It’s a highly sophisticated term, but hey–Netanyahu went to MIT, so he’s probably familiar with such hefty terminology. Drezner’s post paints Netanyahu as an unruly ward of the West, who is acting out in lieu of being able to exercise real control over the Iranian nuclear negotiations, and doing so against his country’s interests.

But Netanyahu doesn’t have to accept this harsh judgment. Like the old joke about the Jewish man who reads the Soviet newspapers because they are filled only with good news–no pogroms, just exciting declarations of Jewish global influence–the prime minister can head over to National Journal, where he can read the ego-boosting revelation that he tells the president of the United States, the leader of the free world, what to do.

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At the height of anti-Bush hysteria, the president’s most vociferous critics were afflicted with a fair degree of cognitive dissonance: to them George W. Bush was somehow both a doltish junior partner to his vice president and a diabolical mastermind whose assault on the nation’s conscience could not be stopped. There are moments when the news coverage of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu evokes similar confusion.

Today, for example, if Netanyahu were to check in with the East Coast commentariat he would learn that the press has come to some very different conclusions about what drives him. Over at Foreign Policy, Dan Drezner says Netanyahu is “wigging out.” It’s a highly sophisticated term, but hey–Netanyahu went to MIT, so he’s probably familiar with such hefty terminology. Drezner’s post paints Netanyahu as an unruly ward of the West, who is acting out in lieu of being able to exercise real control over the Iranian nuclear negotiations, and doing so against his country’s interests.

But Netanyahu doesn’t have to accept this harsh judgment. Like the old joke about the Jewish man who reads the Soviet newspapers because they are filled only with good news–no pogroms, just exciting declarations of Jewish global influence–the prime minister can head over to National Journal, where he can read the ego-boosting revelation that he tells the president of the United States, the leader of the free world, what to do.

That’s the assessment of the situation from the paper’s Michael Hirsh, who claims Netanyahu has offered President Obama something of a diplomatic Sophie’s choice: “It’s either an Iranian deal or a Palestinian deal, he seems to be telling the president, but not both.”

It should be noted, in fairness to Drezner, that his post has a good handle on the facts from which his conclusion, however flawed, is drawn. Hirsh’s piece, on the other hand, appears to be describing an alternate universe with marginal resemblance to reality. But it’s to Planet Hirsh we go, because his thesis is constructed on some false conventional wisdom that helps explain why the media gets its coverage of the Middle East so wrong.

Hirsh writes that the fact that Netanyahu and Obama don’t trust each other “explains the Israeli prime minister’s fulminations last week in blasting, from afar, a temporary deal being negotiated in Geneva that would have frozen Iran’s uranium-enrichment program,” before constructing a sentence that really deserves to be set apart from the usual nonsense: “But if Netanyahu exacts revenge, it may not be on the Iranians. It may well be on the Palestinians.”

That is a museum-worthy relic of leftist Beltway opinionating. It’s not that the Israeli prime minister may feel cornered by the events that put his nation in danger, according to Hirsh; it’s that Netanyahu will simply take “revenge” on someone–Hirsh isn’t exactly sure who the victim will be–because the Americans signed a deal he didn’t like. Just before the brave Michael Hirsh takes a shot at Netanyahu’s recently-deceased father, he explains:

Ever since he first met then-candidate Obama in mid-2008, Netanyahu has lumped the Iran and Palestinian issues together and insisted they be solved sequentially—Iran first, peace and statehood second. “If Iran became nuclear it would mean the victory of the militants in Hamas and Hezbollah and undercut the moderates,” Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s then-national security adviser, explained in an interview at the time. So now Netanyahu, in his umbrage, has an excuse to put off the issue of Palestinian statehood yet again—and, frankly, the Israeli-Palestinian talks are going so poorly that not too many Israelis would blame him.

The Netanyahu administration is not opposed to “solving” the Palestinian statehood issue; it is skeptical toward the prospects for peace with the Palestinians while the Iranian threat looms because of Iran’s ability to disrupt the negotiations, preventing the conflict from being solved all the while distracting the West from its nuclear program. Netanyahu is, of course, undeniably correct.

But if you’re an American commentator and you want to use Netanyahu’s opposition to the Iranian deal as proof of nefarious intent and not rational thinking, you have a problem: the deal was scuttled by the French, not the Israelis. But here too Hirsh is ready for you:

Paris gets piqued when it’s not fully consulted on major Middle East issues, especially since it has taken a muscular lead in addressing recent flash points from Libya to Mali. And French President François Hollande is still fuming over the way Obama suddenly spurned military action against Syria a day after Hollande endorsed it, making the latter look a little foolish at a time when he is already deeply unpopular at home. Gallic pride is sorely in need of a patch-up.

This sort of technique is very useful for the left, because they never have to actually tangle with the arguments of their opponents. But the fact of the matter remains that, like it or not, the Palestinian quest for statehood is not being thwarted by Netanyahu’s veto. The Palestinians have been offered a state several times, and they keep walking away completely. Secretary of State John Kerry’s major diplomatic breakthrough thus far was getting an agreement from the Palestinians–not to end negotiations, but to begin them.

They are now, quite predictably and having pocketed the twisted concessions they received, attempting to find an excuse to walk away from the talks yet again. If President Obama wants a deal with Iran, Netanyahu can’t stand in his way–though that doesn’t mean he’ll give up trying to prevent an Iranian bomb. And if Obama wants a deal on Palestinian statehood, he knows exactly who he has to convince: the Palestinian leadership.

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The Brotherhood Waves the White Flag

A few weeks ago I wrote about the capture of a Muslim Brotherhood leader by Egypt’s military government and observed that the bloodbath and popular revolution that many observers expected after last summer’s coup hadn’t materialized. Today comes news that seems to make plain what was just an informed guess in October: the Brotherhood knows it is beaten. As Haaretz reports,

A Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition of organizations in Egypt announced Saturday that it wants to engage in dialogue with the interim government in order to put an end to the current political impasse.

The call by the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy is the first formal proposition by Morsi supporters, who have organized near-daily protests demanding his return to office since he was removed in a popularly supported military coup on July 3. It also marks the first time the group has not demanded Morsi’s return to power.

In other words, the organization is conceding that ousted Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi is never going to be president of Egypt again and that if they want any say in their country’s future it will have to be on the military’s terms. This is big news for Egyptians, since it signals that a repeat of Algeria’s decade-long bloody civil war after that country’s army ousted an Islamist government is now off the table. This puts to rest the argument often heard in this country calling for a stern U.S. response to the coup since it was thought in some quarters to not only a guarantee a long terrorist war but suppression of a legitimate point of view that could count on the support of a critical mass of Egyptians. But if the Brotherhood is waving the white flag and appealing for the tolerance of the government, if not peace with it, it is as strong an indication as we are likely to get that the group knows it’s licked.

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A few weeks ago I wrote about the capture of a Muslim Brotherhood leader by Egypt’s military government and observed that the bloodbath and popular revolution that many observers expected after last summer’s coup hadn’t materialized. Today comes news that seems to make plain what was just an informed guess in October: the Brotherhood knows it is beaten. As Haaretz reports,

A Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition of organizations in Egypt announced Saturday that it wants to engage in dialogue with the interim government in order to put an end to the current political impasse.

The call by the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy is the first formal proposition by Morsi supporters, who have organized near-daily protests demanding his return to office since he was removed in a popularly supported military coup on July 3. It also marks the first time the group has not demanded Morsi’s return to power.

In other words, the organization is conceding that ousted Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi is never going to be president of Egypt again and that if they want any say in their country’s future it will have to be on the military’s terms. This is big news for Egyptians, since it signals that a repeat of Algeria’s decade-long bloody civil war after that country’s army ousted an Islamist government is now off the table. This puts to rest the argument often heard in this country calling for a stern U.S. response to the coup since it was thought in some quarters to not only a guarantee a long terrorist war but suppression of a legitimate point of view that could count on the support of a critical mass of Egyptians. But if the Brotherhood is waving the white flag and appealing for the tolerance of the government, if not peace with it, it is as strong an indication as we are likely to get that the group knows it’s licked.

Let’s specify that the process by which the army has repressed the Brotherhood was based on repression, not debate. The military has killed Brotherhood protesters and done everything possible to hinder their ability to organize opposition to their rule. But their victory was made possible by something that many critics of the coup did not understand or sought to deny: the toppling of Morsi’s government was as much an expression of the will of the Egyptian people as the movement that led to the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime.

Tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets of Egyptian cities in the last days of the Morsi government calling for it to cease its drive for total power and to allow the people a vote on whether it should hold onto power. But if the military had not stepped in, there is little doubt that Morsi not only would have stayed in office but that he would have continued his efforts to ensure that he could never be defeated by fair means or foul. Though it had been able to call on the support of many Egyptians in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster and won an election, the year of Brotherhood rule that followed convinced many of those who voted for them they had made a mistake. Though some Western journalists were fooled into thinking the Brotherhood had no intentions of transforming the country into an Islamist state, the Egyptian people were not fooled.

That is why when some Brotherhood leaders vowed vengeance after the coup and sought to create an uprising, few supported such a move. The Islamists were not only intimidated by the military’s show of force; they were rejected by the people among whom they had thought to hide in plain sight, as is the case with successful guerrilla wars. Egyptians understood, even if many Americans did not, that democracy was not an option and that if they had to choose between the military and the Brotherhood, there was no doubt which was the more preferable option.

It is in this context that the Obama administration’s aid cutoffs to Egypt should be viewed. While it is proper for the U.S. to encourage a turn to democracy in Egypt, it must be on terms that will make it impossible for a totalitarian movement like the Brotherhood to win back power.

The Obama administration has foolishly downgraded ties with Egypt and even acted as if it wished for a return of the Morsi government that it had for a time embraced. This shortsighted policy has left an opening for Russia to seek to revive an alliance with Egypt that was ended by Anwar Sadat. But the moral of this story remains clear: while some in the West seemed to accept the Brotherhood’s claim that Islamism was the wave of the future in the Middle East and that they could not be defeated, the military and people of Egypt have proved the contrary to be true. Islamists can be beaten. That’s something the U.S. should be celebrating, not condemning.

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Time for European Jews to Leave?

Swedish Jewish activist Annika Hernroth-Rothstein admires her country’s long tradition of offering asylum to those who seek refuge from persecution. She just wishes it also applied to Jews. Hernroth-Rothstein writes today in Mosaic magazine to say that has decided to apply for asylum to her own country. The rising tide of anti-Semitism that is threatening Jewish life throughout Europe is nowhere more virulent than in Sweden, where acts of open hostility toward Jews are commonplace and the parliament is considering bans on circumcision and even the importing of kosher meat (kosher slaughter has been outlawed in Sweden since 1937) with the support of both the political left and the right. In response to this situation, Hernroth-Rothstein thinks the best thing to do is to ask her government for the same protection it routinely extends to others. She writes:

EU statutes provide that asylum be granted to persons with “well-founded reasons to fear persecution due to race; nationality; religious or political beliefs; gender; sexual orientation; or affiliation to a particular social group.” Jews in Sweden meet these criteria, and should be eligible for the same protection and support extended to non-natives.

Hernroth-Rothstein’s application is, of course, a stunt. But it encapsulates a heartbreaking dilemma for European Jews. Well-meaning onlookers in the United States and Israel believe the only answer for European Jews is to leave as soon as they can. But she is understandably reluctant to accept being run out of a home that is supposed to be a haven for free expression merely because she is Jewish. Pointing this disconnect between the EU’s pose as the champion of diversity while Jews are made to feel unwelcome is not so much a matter of irony as it is an ongoing tragedy.

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Swedish Jewish activist Annika Hernroth-Rothstein admires her country’s long tradition of offering asylum to those who seek refuge from persecution. She just wishes it also applied to Jews. Hernroth-Rothstein writes today in Mosaic magazine to say that has decided to apply for asylum to her own country. The rising tide of anti-Semitism that is threatening Jewish life throughout Europe is nowhere more virulent than in Sweden, where acts of open hostility toward Jews are commonplace and the parliament is considering bans on circumcision and even the importing of kosher meat (kosher slaughter has been outlawed in Sweden since 1937) with the support of both the political left and the right. In response to this situation, Hernroth-Rothstein thinks the best thing to do is to ask her government for the same protection it routinely extends to others. She writes:

EU statutes provide that asylum be granted to persons with “well-founded reasons to fear persecution due to race; nationality; religious or political beliefs; gender; sexual orientation; or affiliation to a particular social group.” Jews in Sweden meet these criteria, and should be eligible for the same protection and support extended to non-natives.

Hernroth-Rothstein’s application is, of course, a stunt. But it encapsulates a heartbreaking dilemma for European Jews. Well-meaning onlookers in the United States and Israel believe the only answer for European Jews is to leave as soon as they can. But she is understandably reluctant to accept being run out of a home that is supposed to be a haven for free expression merely because she is Jewish. Pointing this disconnect between the EU’s pose as the champion of diversity while Jews are made to feel unwelcome is not so much a matter of irony as it is an ongoing tragedy.

Last month I wrote about the latest survey of European Jewry conducted by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights that illustrated how dangerous Europe has become for Jews and how pervasive the revival of anti-Semitism there has become. Hernroth-Rothstein told her own story of ordinary Jewish life in Sweden in Mosaic back in August. Her description was blunt. The only way to survive there as a Jew is to “shut up and fade into the woodwork.”

It needs to be understood that the problem in Europe is not merely the rise of radical neo-Nazi groups like Golden Dawn, troubling as they may be. It is the way anti-Jewish attitudes have leached into mainstream opinion finding, as she points out, support throughout the political spectrum. Hatred for Israel has become an acceptable way to openly express traditional anti-Semitic attitudes. At the same time the same people who pose as enlightened liberals seek to ban Jewish rituals as “barbaric,” effectively marginalizing and driving Jews out one law at a time.

Is it possible to shame Europe into seeking to turn back the tide of hate only 70 years after the Holocaust? Hernroth-Rothstein hopes so, but the answer to her question is to be found by one detail that she mentions. When optimists cite the growth of Jewish activities in Europe, she notes:

What I see is that the Holocaust wing at the Jewish Museum is crowded with visitors, while the synagogues are empty. I see cute Woody Allen-ish activities being promoted, and actual Jewish life being banned. The dead, suffering Jew is glorified; the healthy, active Jew is vilified.

What has happened in Europe is that Jews who speak up for Israel or who wish to practice their faith in the public square are endangered:

True: we are not being murdered, and we are not being physically driven out. But our religious observances are being interdicted, our persons are being threatened, our safety is being endangered, and—in short—our human rights are being violated. Why do we put up with it? And why do pundits and politicians assure me that Jews in Sweden are perfectly safe when what they really mean is that we will be safe only so long as we agree to become invisible as Jews and cease to practice Judaism?

We can only wish her good luck with her brave crusade to try and awaken Europeans or at least Swedes to their responsibility to stand up against anti-Semitism. But given the deep roots of Jew-hatred at the core of European culture as well as the growing influence of Muslim immigrants who bring their own legacy of hate with them, it’s difficult to envision much success. But even if she cannot alter the arc of history with respect to Jewish life in Europe, she is at least helping to expose the hypocrisy of European liberals who profess tolerance and respect for the rights of every people to self-determination except for the Jews.

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Don’t Ignore Riyadh in Iran Talks

In the ongoing debate over whether the interim agreement now being discussed with Tehran will or won’t effectively slow Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. policymakers seem to have overlooked one major issue: Even if they’re convinced that Israeli and Saudi concerns about the deal are unfounded, America’s own interests would be undermined by a deal that leaves Jerusalem or Riyadh too unhappy–and especially the latter. Indeed, an agreement Saudi Arabia can’t live with ought to be every American’s worst nightmare. And nothing illustrates this better than last week’s BBC report that the Saudis have nukes “on order” from Pakistan, ready for delivery whenever they give the nod.

Even if this particular report is false, foreign-policy experts generally agree that if Iran does succeed in obtaining nukes, or even becoming an acknowledged threshold state, Saudi Arabia will swiftly follow suit. As long as the current regime retains power in Riyadh, this would merely be detrimental to American interests: More nuclear states in the Middle East would further destabilize an already unstable region. But as the Arab Spring showed, even in the Mideast, repressive regimes don’t last forever, and when they fall, the people most likely to initially take over are the Islamists, since they are the best organized. And Saudi Arabia’s Islamists happen to be the same people who provided 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11.

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In the ongoing debate over whether the interim agreement now being discussed with Tehran will or won’t effectively slow Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. policymakers seem to have overlooked one major issue: Even if they’re convinced that Israeli and Saudi concerns about the deal are unfounded, America’s own interests would be undermined by a deal that leaves Jerusalem or Riyadh too unhappy–and especially the latter. Indeed, an agreement Saudi Arabia can’t live with ought to be every American’s worst nightmare. And nothing illustrates this better than last week’s BBC report that the Saudis have nukes “on order” from Pakistan, ready for delivery whenever they give the nod.

Even if this particular report is false, foreign-policy experts generally agree that if Iran does succeed in obtaining nukes, or even becoming an acknowledged threshold state, Saudi Arabia will swiftly follow suit. As long as the current regime retains power in Riyadh, this would merely be detrimental to American interests: More nuclear states in the Middle East would further destabilize an already unstable region. But as the Arab Spring showed, even in the Mideast, repressive regimes don’t last forever, and when they fall, the people most likely to initially take over are the Islamists, since they are the best organized. And Saudi Arabia’s Islamists happen to be the same people who provided 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11.

Preventing al-Qaeda from taking over a government with nukes is clearly a supreme American interest. But revolutions tend to happen swiftly, and altering their course is difficult and messy. Thus once a Saudi revolution starts, the chances of America being able to prevent an al-Qaeda takeover drop to near zero.

The easiest way to prevent this nightmare scenario is thus to prevent Riyadh from acquiring nukes in the first place. In principle, that’s not hard; the Saudis have hitherto shown little interest in getting the bomb. But they’ve made it very clear that their calculations will change if Iran’s nuclear program isn’t effectively halted–and on this issue, they aren’t prepared to take Washington’s word for it. Hence a deal with Tehran that leaves the Saudis fuming is liable to have far worse consequences for America than no deal at all.

The ramifications of a deal that leaves Israel unhappy are less severe, but still non-negligible if the Obama administration is serious about wanting to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran. As I’ve written before, Israel’s history proves that if it feels pushed to the wall in the face of an existential threat, it will launch a preemptive strike even in defiance of its major patron. Jerusalem obviously considers Iranian nukes an existential threat, and a deal that it interprets as leaving Iran with a clear path to the bomb could easily make it feel its back is to the wall.

An Israeli strike on Iran obviously isn’t in the same league as al-Qaeda getting the bomb. But since the Obama administration has repeatedly declared that such an attack would be “incredibly destabilizing” (to quote former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen), it presumably has an interest in forestalling such a situation.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who often channels the administration’s thinking, declared last week that “We, America, are not just hired lawyers negotiating a deal for Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arabs, which they alone get the final say on. We, America, have our own interests.” But one of those interests is making sure the deal leaves neither Jerusalem nor Riyadh so unhappy that they are driven to take steps America would rather avoid. And forgetting that could prove a serious blunder.

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Libyan Training Mission Long Overdue

I was gobsmacked to read this New York Times report: “The United States military is considering a mission to train Libyan security personnel with the goal of creating a force of 5,000 to 7,000 conventional soldiers and a separate, smaller unit for specialized counterterrorism missions, according to the top officer at the United States Special Operations Command.”

Why was I startled? Not because I think such a mission is a bad idea but precisely because it is such a good idea that is so long overdue. It’s been more than two years since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and a pro-Western government installed in his place. It is stunning that the U.S. still has done so little to train Libyan security forces capable of keeping order amid the violence and instability created by militias that continue to run amok. Just look at the latest news from that North African nation.

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I was gobsmacked to read this New York Times report: “The United States military is considering a mission to train Libyan security personnel with the goal of creating a force of 5,000 to 7,000 conventional soldiers and a separate, smaller unit for specialized counterterrorism missions, according to the top officer at the United States Special Operations Command.”

Why was I startled? Not because I think such a mission is a bad idea but precisely because it is such a good idea that is so long overdue. It’s been more than two years since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and a pro-Western government installed in his place. It is stunning that the U.S. still has done so little to train Libyan security forces capable of keeping order amid the violence and instability created by militias that continue to run amok. Just look at the latest news from that North African nation.

Item No. 1: “The deputy chief of Libya’s intelligence service was abducted from the parking lot of the airport in Tripoli on Sunday afternoon as a standoff between militias and a general strike against militia rule virtually shut down the city.”

Item No. 2: “At least 40 people were killed Friday in the deadliest violence in Libya’s capital since the end of the bloody 2011 revolution that ousted Moammar Gaddafi, state media reported. Nearly 400 others were injured, the Associated Press reported Saturday, citing Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani.”

And that’s just what is in the news today. Such examples could be multiplied endlessly. This ongoing strife is cause for concern not just for Libyans but for Americans–a fact brought home by the murder of our ambassador in Benghazi more than a year ago which continues to go unpunished. Al-Qaeda and its ilk are taking advantage of this chaos to gain a foothold in a nation that otherwise should be oriented firmly toward the West.

It is simply shameful that the Obama administration, which helped to topple Gaddafi, has done so little to stabilize Libya in the last two years. The initiative to train security forces should have been launched in 2011–and yet it still has not passed beyond the discussion stage. It’s not as if Obama hasn’t seen what happens when the U.S. allows a power vacuum to develop after a dictator’s downfall. Yet for some bizarre reason he appears intent on duplicating in Libya the errors that his predecessor made in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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The Democrats’ ObamaCare Crackup

Democrats spent the past weekend trying to pretend nothing of importance happened on Friday. But despite the brave show they put on, few were buying their spin. The decision of 39 Democrats to cross the aisle and support Republican Rep. Fred Upton’s bill to allow insurance companies to go on selling policies to consumers that were cancelled by ObamaCare was a watershed event in a Congress which has been characterized by a stark partisan divide in recent years. Though it doesn’t necessarily mean that the president’s signature health-care plan is in immediate danger of repeal, it illustrates that a significant portion of the Democratic Party is not only not walking in lockstep on this issue anymore but that those who are most in danger of defeat next year are fleeing from the position of their party’s leader.

The Upton bill is dead on arrival in the Senate and President Obama has vowed to veto it. His administrative fix of the bill that would deal with his lie about people being able to keep their coverage has the same goal, at least in the short term. But the president’s solution (which is arguably unconstitutional and dependent on state insurance commissioners and insurance companies cooperating) is only for the coming year. Though presented as another way to repair a broken piece of legislation, liberals are right that Upton’s fix is more likely a death sentence since without the young and healthy being forced to buy into ObamaCare it will eventually collapse.

But the key point here is that in voting for a bill their leadership vigorously opposed, for the first time vulnerable Democrats are no longer acting as if President Obama was someone to follow and/or to fear. The Upton vote was, if we needed one, a declaration on the part of many of the president’s supporters that he is a lame duck. The ObamaCare crackup of the Democratic Party has officially begun.

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Democrats spent the past weekend trying to pretend nothing of importance happened on Friday. But despite the brave show they put on, few were buying their spin. The decision of 39 Democrats to cross the aisle and support Republican Rep. Fred Upton’s bill to allow insurance companies to go on selling policies to consumers that were cancelled by ObamaCare was a watershed event in a Congress which has been characterized by a stark partisan divide in recent years. Though it doesn’t necessarily mean that the president’s signature health-care plan is in immediate danger of repeal, it illustrates that a significant portion of the Democratic Party is not only not walking in lockstep on this issue anymore but that those who are most in danger of defeat next year are fleeing from the position of their party’s leader.

The Upton bill is dead on arrival in the Senate and President Obama has vowed to veto it. His administrative fix of the bill that would deal with his lie about people being able to keep their coverage has the same goal, at least in the short term. But the president’s solution (which is arguably unconstitutional and dependent on state insurance commissioners and insurance companies cooperating) is only for the coming year. Though presented as another way to repair a broken piece of legislation, liberals are right that Upton’s fix is more likely a death sentence since without the young and healthy being forced to buy into ObamaCare it will eventually collapse.

But the key point here is that in voting for a bill their leadership vigorously opposed, for the first time vulnerable Democrats are no longer acting as if President Obama was someone to follow and/or to fear. The Upton vote was, if we needed one, a declaration on the part of many of the president’s supporters that he is a lame duck. The ObamaCare crackup of the Democratic Party has officially begun.

Through his five years in office, the president’s power has been based on two key factors. One was his hold on the affections of the mainstream media that played a crucial role in his reelection in 2012. That began to fray this year as scandals, including those that involved targeting of the media, alienated portions of his press cheering section. That influenced much of the coverage of the ObamaCare rollout debacle as the unsparing approach to the dysfunctional website extended to the furor over the president’s “incorrect” promise that no one would lose coverage they liked.

But also important was his ability to count on a relatively united Democratic congressional caucus. Though some on the left thought him too tame or too unwilling to confront Republicans, the critical mass of their party stayed loyal to their leader and to his biggest liberal project. No Democrats budged when Republicans thought to hold up the funding of the government in a vain effort to stop the implementation of ObamaCare. But now that the program is revealed to have caused considerable pain to millions of the middle-class Americans—and with the real possibility that more is to come for the rest of the country once the impact of the legislation is felt across the board—they vowed to protect, Democrats who are worried about getting reelected in 2014 are heading for the exits.

As analyst Stu Rothenberg noted in Roll Call, 23 of 25 House Democrats who are in trouble in 2014 defected from the president’s position on ObamaCare. While the vast majority of seats held by both parties are not competitive, that slice of the House in districts that only “lean Democrat” understand that taking a stand in favor of a bill that has always been deeply unpopular, but which is now in danger of becoming a millstone around their party’s neck, is not good politics. Though House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi claimed yesterday that her party would “stand tall” on the issue, Friday’s vote was a signal that a key portion of her caucus has no intention of standing or sitting anywhere near something that will further tie them to an issue that could end their careers.

Like many fearful conservatives, the president and his supporters have assumed all along that once more benefits were being distributed to the people, ObamaCare would become not only popular but also bulletproof. They now know that is not going to be the case. Democrats are still hoping against hope that the bill will work well enough to avoid complete disaster, but the embrace of Upton’s poison pill by 39 of Pelosi’s members illustrates that a considerable portion of her party wants insurance against the taint of ObamaCare.

The president understands that this is an indicator of how Democrats in Congress will treat him for the rest of his term. The assumption has always been that any second-term president loses his party’s loyalty after the midterms, but many Democrats are coming to the conclusion that such a schedule is one year too late to do them any good. Upton’s bill may be nothing more than a footnote in the history of the battle over ObamaCare. But it is a turning point in the Democratic crackup and the process by which Barack Obama is being transformed into a lame duck.

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The Decline of Oil

So-called environmentalists never tire of predicting the end of oil. They’ve been talking about “peak oil” for decades, after which annual production would inevitably decline as we drain the world’s finite supply.

In fact, proven reserves (oil that we know is there and is recoverable with current technology and under current law) have been steadily rising, despite the fact that the world pumps 83.9 million barrels a day out of the ground, a 32 percent increase over 20 years ago. New techniques, such as fracking and horizontal drilling, have brought new life to both old fields and new ones whose oil had previously been unrecoverable. And vast new fields, such as the giant finds off the coast of Brazil, have added new reserves.

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So-called environmentalists never tire of predicting the end of oil. They’ve been talking about “peak oil” for decades, after which annual production would inevitably decline as we drain the world’s finite supply.

In fact, proven reserves (oil that we know is there and is recoverable with current technology and under current law) have been steadily rising, despite the fact that the world pumps 83.9 million barrels a day out of the ground, a 32 percent increase over 20 years ago. New techniques, such as fracking and horizontal drilling, have brought new life to both old fields and new ones whose oil had previously been unrecoverable. And vast new fields, such as the giant finds off the coast of Brazil, have added new reserves.

Much of that 32 percent increase in world production has gone to power the fast-rising economies of the developing world, such as China, India, and Brazil. Oil consumption has been rising very slowly in the United States, however, up a mere 8.1 percent in 20 years.

But the U.S. population has risen over 20 percent since 1993, so U.S. oil consumption is down significantly on a per capita basis. We used 24.15 barrels a year per person in 1993; today the figure is 21.6 barrels, a 10.6 percent drop per person. The decline in oil consumption on a GDP basis is even more dramatic. In 1993, the U.S. had $1,096 of GDP per barrel of oil consumed. Today the figure is $2,393 per barrel of oil. Taking inflation into account, GDP per barrel of oil is up a whopping 34.8 percent in the last 20 years.

What accounts for that? There are several things. One is a slow but steady switch to other power sources, such as natural gas. In 1993, natural gas produced 13 percent of total U.S. electricity; today it produces 24.7 percent. Oil, meanwhile, went from producing 3.5 percent of total electricity 20 years ago to a mere 0.7 percent today. Another reason is a steadily increasing efficiency. Space heating took 53.1 percent of home energy consumption in 1993; today it is only 41.5 percent. The nation’s fleet of cars and trucks have much higher average miles per gallon than 20 years ago. A third reason is that GDP growth in recent decades has been centered in non-energy-intensive industries. Manufacturing automobiles is energy intensive. Manufacturing software is not.

Once oil drilling began in 1859, petroleum became ever more central to the world’s economy, first as an illuminant (kerosene) and lubricant. Then, just as electricity began to replace kerosene for home lighting, the internal combustion engine produced a vast new market for petroleum. By the mid-20th century, oil was the world’s most important product and therefore it was a main driver of world politics. The Middle East would have been a backwater, seldom mentioned in the nightly news, had it not sat upon a very high percentage of the world’s then known oil.

We are a long way from seeing the end of oil as a major force in the world economy, but it is steadily losing its centrality. You would think that would be good news for environmentalists. But, of course, nothing is good news for them. Chicken Little runs the environmentalist public-relations operations, which goes a long way to explaining why fewer and fewer non-liberals listen to them anymore.

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Another Weak Case for Containing Iran

Sunday’s Kenneth Pollack column on Iran qualifies as another installment in the good news/bad news dynamic of the media’s newfound appreciation for the Cold War. The good news is that the distaste for the “Cold War mind warp,” as the president calls it, has expired. The bad news is that for many on the left, the memory of those decades is a bit fuzzy. Bloomberg View, the news company’s online opinion pages, has become something of a clearinghouse for bizarre takes on the lessons of the Cold War.

In September, it featured a column called “Libertarians Are the New Communists,” perhaps the silliest thing yet written about libertarians, a distinction which remains the only aspect of the column worth mentioning. It followed that a few weeks ago with law professor and former Obama advisor Cass Sunstein’s attempt to explain the Tea Party by comparing it to the Hiss-Chambers case. Sunstein appears to have given up on the idea himself, having finished the column without actually connecting the two. He just seemed to want to take a moment, apropos of nothing, to remind the country that not all liberals are Communists, for some reason.

And now Pollack enters the fray by attempting to explain how, in the words of the headline, “Kennedy Showed How to Contain Iran.” The gist of the piece is that containing Iran could be done successfully by understanding how John F. Kennedy contained the Soviet Union despite the nuclear standoff.

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Sunday’s Kenneth Pollack column on Iran qualifies as another installment in the good news/bad news dynamic of the media’s newfound appreciation for the Cold War. The good news is that the distaste for the “Cold War mind warp,” as the president calls it, has expired. The bad news is that for many on the left, the memory of those decades is a bit fuzzy. Bloomberg View, the news company’s online opinion pages, has become something of a clearinghouse for bizarre takes on the lessons of the Cold War.

In September, it featured a column called “Libertarians Are the New Communists,” perhaps the silliest thing yet written about libertarians, a distinction which remains the only aspect of the column worth mentioning. It followed that a few weeks ago with law professor and former Obama advisor Cass Sunstein’s attempt to explain the Tea Party by comparing it to the Hiss-Chambers case. Sunstein appears to have given up on the idea himself, having finished the column without actually connecting the two. He just seemed to want to take a moment, apropos of nothing, to remind the country that not all liberals are Communists, for some reason.

And now Pollack enters the fray by attempting to explain how, in the words of the headline, “Kennedy Showed How to Contain Iran.” The gist of the piece is that containing Iran could be done successfully by understanding how John F. Kennedy contained the Soviet Union despite the nuclear standoff.

You may notice something right off the bat. Iran–unless Pollack knows something we don’t–is not a nuclear power. The whole point of the current impasse is that the West (hopefully) wants to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. Kennedy never had that choice. He was confronted with a bipolar world in which the Soviet Union had already achieved nuclear capability and thus his only option was to contain Khrushchev and prevent nuclear war.

We don’t know exactly how Kennedy would have prevented the Soviets from getting the bomb if he had the chance. But Kennedy was a proponent of a ban on nuclear testing in part because he had been an outspoken opponent of nuclear proliferation–at times he appeared downright panicked about the possibility of such proliferation. Pollack’s column skips ahead by implicitly accepting Iranian nuclear capability. History suggests Kennedy would have been staunchly opposed to such a development.

Additionally, Pollack argues that Iran wants to avoid war at all costs. He writes:

Like the Soviet Union early on in the Cold War, even a nuclear-armed Iran would be vastly outmatched by the U.S. strategic arsenal. Unlike the Soviets, the Iranians can’t ever hope to match the U.S. Thus, in any crisis, American negotiators will have the upper hand and should be able to compel the Iranians to back down quickly, even accepting significant reversals to avoid a war.

On past occasions when Iran crossed an American red line and was at risk of a U.S. military response — during the Tanker War in 1988, after the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the Iranians have backed down quickly and even made humiliating concessions of their own (such as ending the Iran-Iraq War and agreeing to suspend uranium enrichment) to avert an American attack.

Again, there are a couple of clear weaknesses in this argument. The first is Pollack’s habit of giving Iran too much credit. How much did the Iranians really back down after crossing those “red lines” and risking an American military response? The Khobar Towers bombing didn’t represent the cresting of the wave of Iranian attacks on Americans–as Pollack seems to realize with his referencing the American mission in Iraq. And Iran’s nuclear program hasn’t exactly been shelved–otherwise, what are we talking about here?

The other weakness is that this argument, like many arguments in favor of letting Iran go nuclear, is self-refuting. Pollack claims repeatedly that Iran will make tangible concessions “to avoid a war” with America and to “avert an American attack.” So the American threat of force is a powerful one. That’s a pretty strong case for leaving the threat of force on the table in full view. Pollack here is arguing that if the Iranians really believe the U.S. is willing to take military action against them, they’ll back down.

That may or may not be the case, but it seems ludicrous to allow Iran to go nuclear and then threaten war. If a credible threat of force can change Iranian behavior, then why take that option off the table by letting Iran get what it wants, ultimately making a later threat of force far less credible and far more dangerous? If there is a compelling argument in favor of letting Iran go nuclear, its proponents have yet to advance it.

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