Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 19, 2013

Israel, the Palestinians, and Decency

Blaming Israel appears to be in fashion these days. During his most recent trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear that he blamed Israel for the continuation of the conflict with the Palestinians without so much as a mention about the latter’s ongoing refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn. That trend extends even to the discussion about negotiations with Iran as the administration is making it clear that it is more worried about Israel’s position on the nuclear threat than it is about Tehran’s deceptive diplomacy, a position that many of Kerry’s cheerleaders in the media (like Fareed Zakaria of Time Magazine and CNN) is picking up. But three stories that managed not to make it into the New York Times and other major international media outlets give you a better sense of the nature of the conflict than any of those involving Kerry or the back and forth between Washington and Jerusalem.

First, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, the blameless side of the peace talks according to Kerry, did not just welcome the terrorists freed by Israel as part of the price paid to get the PA to come back to the peace table as heroes. It now turns out that every one of these murderers was given at least $50,000 as well as a government salary and jobs.

As the Times of Israel reports:

Issa Abd Rabbo, the most veteran of the prisoners released, received a $60,000 bonus, with the PA reportedly also offering to foot the bill for a wedding should he choose to marry. He was convicted of murdering two Israeli hikers south of Jerusalem in 1984, after tying them up at gunpoint and placing bags over their heads.

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Blaming Israel appears to be in fashion these days. During his most recent trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear that he blamed Israel for the continuation of the conflict with the Palestinians without so much as a mention about the latter’s ongoing refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn. That trend extends even to the discussion about negotiations with Iran as the administration is making it clear that it is more worried about Israel’s position on the nuclear threat than it is about Tehran’s deceptive diplomacy, a position that many of Kerry’s cheerleaders in the media (like Fareed Zakaria of Time Magazine and CNN) is picking up. But three stories that managed not to make it into the New York Times and other major international media outlets give you a better sense of the nature of the conflict than any of those involving Kerry or the back and forth between Washington and Jerusalem.

First, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, the blameless side of the peace talks according to Kerry, did not just welcome the terrorists freed by Israel as part of the price paid to get the PA to come back to the peace table as heroes. It now turns out that every one of these murderers was given at least $50,000 as well as a government salary and jobs.

As the Times of Israel reports:

Issa Abd Rabbo, the most veteran of the prisoners released, received a $60,000 bonus, with the PA reportedly also offering to foot the bill for a wedding should he choose to marry. He was convicted of murdering two Israeli hikers south of Jerusalem in 1984, after tying them up at gunpoint and placing bags over their heads.

Elsewhere, Palestine Media Watch reports that the Palestinian who murdered an Israeli soldier in September had used PA TV to send a cryptic message to a brother, jailed by Israel for terrorist activities, informing him that a plan to kidnap a soldier and ransom the body for his release would soon be launched. Though the plot to use the dead body of the Israeli was foiled, the killer had used a popular official PA TV program devoted to honoring imprisoned terrorists to alert the brother to the plot.

These two stories tell you pretty much everything you need to know about the nature of the Palestinian Authority. Though Kerry continues to act as if the PA is a non-violent and well-intentioned peace partner for Israel, it remains committed to perpetuating the conflict and fomenting hatred against Israel and the Jews.

But the same week that the Palestinians were celebrating terror, Israel was once again proving its humane values:

The granddaughter of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was evacuated to an Israeli hospital in critical condition Sunday afternoon, but was returned to her family in Gaza Monday after her condition was deemed incurable, an Israeli military spokesman said Monday. Aamal Haniyeh, 1, was suffering from severe inflammation of the gastrointestinal system affecting her nervous system, doctors in Gaza said, according to the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram.

In case you were wondering, this was the same Ismail Haniyeh who used the anniversary of the Gilad Shalit ransom deal last month to call for more “armed struggle against Israel” and has repeatedly vowed never to recognize Israel and to continue to work to destroy it. It comes as no surprise that no mention of the younger Haniyeh’s hospitalization was reported by Hamas media sources in Gaza.

That Israel would offer medical aid to the relative of a man who is actively working to kill Jews and destroy their state doesn’t make it perfect or above scrutiny. But it shows that despite the drumbeat of incitement against it throughout the world, Israel’s government and its institutions remain committed to decency in its interactions even with its most bitter foes. These are just three items amid hundreds that happen every year that tell much the same story. The so-called moderates of the Palestinian Authority are honoring terrorists and using their media to promote terror. But somehow it is only Israel that is singled out for pressure by the United States. Irrespective of what you may think about settlements or where Israel’s borders should be, these stories illustrate the vast cultural gulf that exists between the Jewish state and those who lead their Palestinian neighbors. Anyone who ignores this element of the Middle East conflict knows nothing about what the real obstacles to peace are.

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Our National Camelot Overdose

Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This means that all things JFK are back in vogue from ghoulish rehashing of the details of his murder (what Mona Charen aptly termed “assassination porn”), to the generally moronic conspiracy theories about the events of 11/22/63 as well as fierce debates about the legacy of the 35th president.

To some extent this is understandable. Kennedy’s death was probably the single most traumatic event for most Americans in between the attack on Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Moreover, as we have already been told endlessly and at length in just about every publication online or in print, Kennedy’s death while still young and handsome and before his successor’s administration was mired in Vietnam and the turmoil of the late 1960s has transformed him into a symbol of an earlier, less cynical era. But while conservatives and liberals are fighting over Kennedy and baby boomers are wallowing in Camelot nostalgia, some perspective is in order. Though he ranks high among our presidents in terms of symbolism, even in a week such as this it is not out place to point out that the obsession about his 1,000 days in office is completely disproportionate to his historical significance. If this anniversary is probably the last time anyone will make much of a fuss about Kennedy it is because once the generation that remembers where they were when they found out he was shot is gone, few will care about him.

To note this fact is not to dismiss Kennedy or to insult his memory. It is due to the fact that his presidency must, at best, be given a grade of incomplete simply because it was cut short by Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullets. But unless we, as Kennedy apologists are wont to do, play the “what if” game and assume that if he had lived he would have altered course and avoided escalation in Vietnam (as Lyndon Johnson operating under the influence of Kennedy Cabinet holdovers did not) and emphasized civil rights (as Johnson did), the argument for him as anything other than a transitional figure with slim accomplishments is not very convincing. If Kennedy’s presidency is remembered for anything other than the tragic manner in which it ended once the baby boom generation is no longer around, it will be because it was the first in which style was more important than substance as the magic of JFK’s charisma was conveyed to the nation via the magic of television.

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Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This means that all things JFK are back in vogue from ghoulish rehashing of the details of his murder (what Mona Charen aptly termed “assassination porn”), to the generally moronic conspiracy theories about the events of 11/22/63 as well as fierce debates about the legacy of the 35th president.

To some extent this is understandable. Kennedy’s death was probably the single most traumatic event for most Americans in between the attack on Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Moreover, as we have already been told endlessly and at length in just about every publication online or in print, Kennedy’s death while still young and handsome and before his successor’s administration was mired in Vietnam and the turmoil of the late 1960s has transformed him into a symbol of an earlier, less cynical era. But while conservatives and liberals are fighting over Kennedy and baby boomers are wallowing in Camelot nostalgia, some perspective is in order. Though he ranks high among our presidents in terms of symbolism, even in a week such as this it is not out place to point out that the obsession about his 1,000 days in office is completely disproportionate to his historical significance. If this anniversary is probably the last time anyone will make much of a fuss about Kennedy it is because once the generation that remembers where they were when they found out he was shot is gone, few will care about him.

To note this fact is not to dismiss Kennedy or to insult his memory. It is due to the fact that his presidency must, at best, be given a grade of incomplete simply because it was cut short by Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullets. But unless we, as Kennedy apologists are wont to do, play the “what if” game and assume that if he had lived he would have altered course and avoided escalation in Vietnam (as Lyndon Johnson operating under the influence of Kennedy Cabinet holdovers did not) and emphasized civil rights (as Johnson did), the argument for him as anything other than a transitional figure with slim accomplishments is not very convincing. If Kennedy’s presidency is remembered for anything other than the tragic manner in which it ended once the baby boom generation is no longer around, it will be because it was the first in which style was more important than substance as the magic of JFK’s charisma was conveyed to the nation via the magic of television.

As Joe McGinnis memorably wrote in The Selling of the President, Kennedy’s administration wooed the public in a manner that even the most popular of his predecessors had never quite tried: 

We forgave, followed and accepted because we liked the way he looked. And he had a pretty wife. Camelot was fun, even for the peasants, as long as it was televised to their huts.

That pretty much sums it up. The JFK mythmakers’ success was rooted in the way Kennedy appealed to America’s desire for a hero. He looked and sounded the part and though he accomplished relatively little, the tag stuck.

Of course, Kennedy had many outstanding qualities and some attractive elements in his biography. He was a genuine war hero and a man with the sort of grace in public that is a rarity in politicians. His presidency was also not without momentous events. JFK’s legion of admirers in the media and in the ranks of popular historians have elevated the Cuban Missile Crisis into the Gettysburg of the Cold War, but though he deserves credit for avoiding armed conflict, it was not quite the triumph that the Kennedy myth machine made it out to be. It was precipitated by Kennedy’s terrible performance in his first summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that left the latter thinking he was an indecisive pushover. And it would be years before most Americans realized that the deal to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba that was presented as such a triumph for Kennedy was offset by the U.S. withdrawal of missiles from Turkey. Kennedy’s role in the Civil Rights struggle is also a keynote of attempts to lionize, him but the fact was that he did little more than his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower and not nearly as much as Lyndon Johnson.

If both conservatives and liberals wish to claim him, it is not because any of this matters as much as the work of other, more important presidents but because of the genius of the public-relations package his followers managed to sell the country both during and after his time in office. That’s why conservatives and liberals think it worth the bother to fight over him. Author Ira Stoll is right to claim in his interesting new book that Kennedy’s instincts were conservative and that if you transpose his positions on most issues in the late ’50s and early ’60s to today’s political landscape, his fiscal conservatism, belief in tax cuts, and assertion of a vigorous anti-Communism and strong defense fits more comfortably on the right than the left. Would he have shifted left with the rest of his party if he had lived? Who knows? But like lifting any other president out of his historical context, the exercise serves more to show how politics in this country has changed than to tell us what an older JFK would have done. Personally, I don’t think he was much of a conservative or a liberal. He was, instead, a talented political opportunist of the first order who might have been great (like other presidents who grew in the office) if he had been given more opportunity and greater challenges.

The generation that remembers him clings to his memory because inflating an articulate, charming, wealthy, and morally dissolute young man into a legend allows them to relive their youth and to hold onto the dubious notion that the pre-Vietnam America was somehow more pure than the one that followed it. But once they are gone, there will be little reason to worry about JFK’s true political leanings or to try and inflate the Missiles of October into more than one of a few relatively minor Cold War skirmishes that might have gotten out of hand. Nor will there be much more reason for conspiracy nuts to twist the evidence into knots in order to put forward the absurd notion that the act of a Communist malcontent was really the work of right-wing bigots, big business, or the mafia.

So while Americans can indulge in one last binge of Kennedy mania this week, perhaps it’s not out of place to point out that, unlike the assassination of Lincoln, 50 or 100 years from now November 22, 1963 won’t be remembered any more than the day when James Garfield, another young, charismatic, and potentially fine president, was assassinated in 1881. The need to overdose on Camelot is after all, more about the people who loved him than the enduring legacy of the man himself.

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Paul Ryan’s Quiet Anti-Poverty Quest

What should be the goal of conservative anti-poverty programs? The obvious answer is: help those in poverty find their way to some measure of economic security. That, at least, is what the subjects of anti-poverty programs would expect. It is a challenge–more so than Republican politicians seem to appreciate–to convince someone in dire economic straits about the long-term value of the economic process of creative destruction that may have put them in near-term financial crisis. You can’t eat character or life lessons.

But to listen to Republican legislators, the goal of these programs seems to be to cut the budget, or to reduce dependency on the federal government, or create jobs–all important items on the GOP’s agenda, and all which can, certainly, help alleviate poverty in various ways. But that also means that when conservatives talk, they are often talking about those in poverty, not to them. That was part of the basis for Chris Christie’s reelection strategy, which saw him go into disadvantaged neighborhoods and show reliably liberal voters that Republicans weren’t afraid to be in the same room with them.

But what to do beyond that? This is the question Paul Ryan is grappling with. Ryan’s anti-poverty drive is the subject of a lengthy profile in the Washington Post, which notes that the Wisconsin congressman, who ran as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee last year, was positively mortified by Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment. “I think he was embarrassed,” Bob Woodson, a civil-rights activist who worked with Ryan’s mentor Jack Kemp on poverty issues, told the Post. “And it propelled him to deepen his own understanding of this.”

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What should be the goal of conservative anti-poverty programs? The obvious answer is: help those in poverty find their way to some measure of economic security. That, at least, is what the subjects of anti-poverty programs would expect. It is a challenge–more so than Republican politicians seem to appreciate–to convince someone in dire economic straits about the long-term value of the economic process of creative destruction that may have put them in near-term financial crisis. You can’t eat character or life lessons.

But to listen to Republican legislators, the goal of these programs seems to be to cut the budget, or to reduce dependency on the federal government, or create jobs–all important items on the GOP’s agenda, and all which can, certainly, help alleviate poverty in various ways. But that also means that when conservatives talk, they are often talking about those in poverty, not to them. That was part of the basis for Chris Christie’s reelection strategy, which saw him go into disadvantaged neighborhoods and show reliably liberal voters that Republicans weren’t afraid to be in the same room with them.

But what to do beyond that? This is the question Paul Ryan is grappling with. Ryan’s anti-poverty drive is the subject of a lengthy profile in the Washington Post, which notes that the Wisconsin congressman, who ran as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee last year, was positively mortified by Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment. “I think he was embarrassed,” Bob Woodson, a civil-rights activist who worked with Ryan’s mentor Jack Kemp on poverty issues, told the Post. “And it propelled him to deepen his own understanding of this.”

Ryan faces two obstacles. First, his placement on the ticket implicated him, even if once removed, from Romney’s comments. And second, he is the author of a budget reform plan that aims to shore up the social safety net before it goes bankrupt. Conservatives are virtually alone in their willingness to address the looming entitlements crisis. When Ryan proposed an earlier iteration of his budget, the Democrats ran lunatic murder-fantasy ads depicting a Ryan lookalike throwing an old lady off of a cliff.

Reforming entitlements isn’t the same as addressing poverty, but Ryan is pushing back against the stigma of the Democratic attack ads that emerge, like clockwork, any time the Democrats have an opportunity to scuttle attempts to put those programs on sound economic footing. The Post describes how the Ryan-Woodson collaboration has taken shape:

Ryan had sought Woodson’s help with his poverty speech. The two reconnected after the election and began traveling together in February — once a month, no reporters — to inner-city programs supported by Woodson’s Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. In Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Denver, Woodson said, Ryan asked questions about “the agents of transformation and how this differs from the professional approach” of government social workers.

Like Woodson, the programs share a disdain for handouts and a focus on helping people address their own problems. In Southeast Washington, Ryan met Bishop Shirley Holloway, who gave up a comfortable career in the U.S. Postal Service to minister to drug addicts, ex-offenders, the homeless — people for whom government benefits can serve only to hasten their downfall, Holloway said.

At City of Hope, they are given an apartment and taught life skills and encouraged to confront their psychological wounds. They can stay as long as they’re sober and working, often in a job Holloway has somehow created.

“Paul wants people to dream again,” Holloway said of Ryan. “You don’t dream when you’ve got food stamps.”

Trips to Newark and Texas are slated for later this month. Woodson said Ryan has also asked him to gather community leaders for an event next year, and to help him compare the results of their work with the 78 means-tested programs that have cost the federal government $15 trillion since 1964.

Ryan’s focus on the effectiveness of these programs vis-à-vis the federal government’s programs strikes me as the key to this experiment. The Democrats’ solution to poverty is to increase dependence on the federal government to bolster its expansion and give politicians ever more control over the public. As such, it cedes plenty of ground to anyone more concerned about helping the poor than about their own quest for power.

Yet the right cedes much of that ground right back by subsuming specific existing anti-poverty programs into the larger fights over the budget or more abstract battles over ideological principles. The ineffectiveness of government programs isn’t enough to discredit them in the minds of politicians looking for votes: otherwise, Medicaid–an expensive failure that is actually expanded under ObamaCare as a wealth transfer–would be a constant target of reform.

These programs often follow the rule that you can’t beat something with nothing. A bad government program easily persists when there is no alternative. If Ryan can prove there are workable alternatives, the Democrats will need more than disturbing attack ads to derail conservative attempts to save the social safety net.

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Slurs Won’t Silence Iran Deal’s Critics

The Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo reported yesterday evening that prominent foreign-policy reporter Laura Rozen had some choice words for a think tank analyst who was saying something she didn’t like about Iran. Rozen, who currently writes for Al Monitor and has earned a considerable following for solid work and good sources, apparently doesn’t like it when people cast doubt on the wisdom of the Obama administration’s current policy aimed at signing a deal with Iran that would allow the Islamist regime to retain its nuclear infrastructure and “right” to enrich uranium. So when she heard the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Mark Dubowitz speak, she tweeted the following:

I do not think Israel is being well served by people they have picked on U.S. side to promote their talking points.”

She followed up that tweet by stating: “Israel notbbeing [sic] well served by folks they picked to push their talking points.” Both tweets were quickly deleted.

Rozen subsequently deleted the tweets and refused comment about what she meant but, as Kredo noted, her support for a deal with Iran and generally critically attitude toward Israel isn’t exactly a secret. But rather than this being just a minor incident in which a reporter showed, at least for a while, a willingness to expose her opinions about the story she’s covering, there is a broader and more important issue at stake here: the extent to which those who are skeptical about the administration are being subjected to traditional slurs about dual loyalty.

No one who supports Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself or who views Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons as a threat that cannot be ignored need apologize for expressing those views. But the notion that the only reason why someone would oppose administration policy on Iran is that they were “picked” by Israel to “promote their talking points” is one that is dangerously close to the toxic Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that also sought to delegitimize supporters of the Jewish state.

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The Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo reported yesterday evening that prominent foreign-policy reporter Laura Rozen had some choice words for a think tank analyst who was saying something she didn’t like about Iran. Rozen, who currently writes for Al Monitor and has earned a considerable following for solid work and good sources, apparently doesn’t like it when people cast doubt on the wisdom of the Obama administration’s current policy aimed at signing a deal with Iran that would allow the Islamist regime to retain its nuclear infrastructure and “right” to enrich uranium. So when she heard the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Mark Dubowitz speak, she tweeted the following:

I do not think Israel is being well served by people they have picked on U.S. side to promote their talking points.”

She followed up that tweet by stating: “Israel notbbeing [sic] well served by folks they picked to push their talking points.” Both tweets were quickly deleted.

Rozen subsequently deleted the tweets and refused comment about what she meant but, as Kredo noted, her support for a deal with Iran and generally critically attitude toward Israel isn’t exactly a secret. But rather than this being just a minor incident in which a reporter showed, at least for a while, a willingness to expose her opinions about the story she’s covering, there is a broader and more important issue at stake here: the extent to which those who are skeptical about the administration are being subjected to traditional slurs about dual loyalty.

No one who supports Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself or who views Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons as a threat that cannot be ignored need apologize for expressing those views. But the notion that the only reason why someone would oppose administration policy on Iran is that they were “picked” by Israel to “promote their talking points” is one that is dangerously close to the toxic Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that also sought to delegitimize supporters of the Jewish state.

Let’s understand that there are reasonable arguments to be made pro and con the Obama administration’s zeal for a deal with Iran. In the wake of the new Iranian charm offensive and the warm response it generated in Washington, we have seen, as Seth noted yesterday, the revival of support for containment of a nuclear Iran, something that indicates that some of those urging diplomacy understand that sooner or later Tehran will talk or cheat its way to a bomb or nuclear capability.

But instead of trying to make the not terribly reasonable case that this is something that is not dangerous, what we seem to be hearing lately is resentment about Israeli complaints about the direction of U.S. policy rather than a coherent refutation of their concerns.

This is outrageous on two counts.

First, the idea that Israel is trying to manipulate American policy for its own purposes and against the best interests of the United States or the West flies in the face of President Obama’s own repeated statements about the dangers from a nuclear Iran. It was the president who has specifically ruled out containment of Iran and said their acquisition of a weapon was unacceptable from the point of view of U.S. security. It should also be pointed out to those who wish to defend an apparent U.S. acceptance of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium or to hold onto its nuclear plants that the president specifically pledged the contrary during the presidential debates in 2012. At the presidential debate on foreign policy with Mitt Romney, Obama said the following:

So the work that we’ve done with respect to sanctions now offers Iran a choice. They can take the diplomatic route and end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we’re not going to take any options off the table.

That does not seem consistent with the Iran deal Secretary of State John Kerry has been promoting.

Second, treating those who speak out about the danger from Iran as Israeli hirelings spouting their “talking points” is an all-too-familiar revival of the old dual loyalty slur against American Jews. The point here is that those who support appeasement or acceptance of a nuclear Iran don’t seem to be able to make their arguments without first attempting to delegitimize opponents.

The existential threat that a nuclear Iran poses to Israel justifies that country’s concerns about diplomacy that seems to be predicated on an abandonment of the president’s promises. But this problem isn’t just about Israel. As the president has stated, it is a threat to the U.S. and the West too. If he is backing away from that stand, he should say so. Those who support this move should be just as honest and also refrain from using slurs aimed at silencing opponents. The administration would like Congress and the American people to ignore their critics, but slamming them as Israeli agents doesn’t pass the smell test.

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Can MSNBC Clean Up Its Act?

The low level of political discourse is a favorite topic for pundits who want to trash our political class. That is especially true on the left, which has often taken the position that conservatives and Tea Partiers are most to blame for coarsening political discussions and demonizing President Obama and liberals. But as anyone who regularly monitors the cable news channels knows, it’s easy to see that this assumption is largely a fiction. MSNBC, which has become the avowed home of leftism on television, has become notorious for having hosts like Chris Matthews and Al Sharpton who regularly plumb the depths with the sort of invective that would embarrass even most gutter politicians. But last Friday, Martin Bashir topped them with a scripted rant that was extreme even for him.

Reacting to a comment by Sarah Palin about the mounting national debt sentencing future American generations to the moral equivalent of “slavery,” Bashir went off the deep end. An argument can be made that slavery is, like the Holocaust, something that should not be treated as a political metaphor but rather a unique crime to which nothing—other than actual enslavement—should be compared. But Bashir wasn’t satisfied with merely reproving Palin or calling her a “dunce,” which he has done before. Instead, he dug up a historical text about the way slaves were treated in the 18th century and said Palin should be subjected to the same atrocity: to be defecated upon and to have someone urinate into her mouth.

Not surprisingly, Bashir’s crude threat did not set off much of a media firestorm. That is due, at least in part, to the low ratings of his show, but also to the notion that Palin is the sort of person about whom one can say virtually anything with impunity. But the protests that did come in forced Bashir to apologize yesterday on his program. As apologies go, it was quite satisfactory. Rather than the usual weasel words about being sorry that someone was offended, Bashir acknowledged not only that he was wrong but also that he was guilty of contributing to all that was wrong about our political system. Fair enough, but what we’re still waiting for is an apology from his network.

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The low level of political discourse is a favorite topic for pundits who want to trash our political class. That is especially true on the left, which has often taken the position that conservatives and Tea Partiers are most to blame for coarsening political discussions and demonizing President Obama and liberals. But as anyone who regularly monitors the cable news channels knows, it’s easy to see that this assumption is largely a fiction. MSNBC, which has become the avowed home of leftism on television, has become notorious for having hosts like Chris Matthews and Al Sharpton who regularly plumb the depths with the sort of invective that would embarrass even most gutter politicians. But last Friday, Martin Bashir topped them with a scripted rant that was extreme even for him.

Reacting to a comment by Sarah Palin about the mounting national debt sentencing future American generations to the moral equivalent of “slavery,” Bashir went off the deep end. An argument can be made that slavery is, like the Holocaust, something that should not be treated as a political metaphor but rather a unique crime to which nothing—other than actual enslavement—should be compared. But Bashir wasn’t satisfied with merely reproving Palin or calling her a “dunce,” which he has done before. Instead, he dug up a historical text about the way slaves were treated in the 18th century and said Palin should be subjected to the same atrocity: to be defecated upon and to have someone urinate into her mouth.

Not surprisingly, Bashir’s crude threat did not set off much of a media firestorm. That is due, at least in part, to the low ratings of his show, but also to the notion that Palin is the sort of person about whom one can say virtually anything with impunity. But the protests that did come in forced Bashir to apologize yesterday on his program. As apologies go, it was quite satisfactory. Rather than the usual weasel words about being sorry that someone was offended, Bashir acknowledged not only that he was wrong but also that he was guilty of contributing to all that was wrong about our political system. Fair enough, but what we’re still waiting for is an apology from his network.

As both Mediate’s Joe Concha and Fox News’ Howard Kurtz have written, imagine what would ensue if either Neil Cavuto or Jake Tapper—Bashir’s time slot competition on Fox and CNN—had suggested that Hillary Clinton should be treated in this matter. It’s also hard to believe either would have kept their job or avoided a long suspension. Moreover, any other network would have thought they had no choice but to apologize abjectly regardless of the mea culpa offered by the person who said the words. This is not a minor point because Bashir’s attack on Palin was not an offhand remark but a prepared monologue read off a teleprompter that had to have been viewed by a producer.

So rather than merely a minor kerfuffle, Bashir’s offensive behavior illustrates that there is a double standard by which liberal pundits and networks believe they can be judged.

Oddly enough, as Kurtz pointed out, actor Alec Baldwin has been suspended by MSNBC for his latest public antics in which he uttered a gay slur at a reporter. But if you slime a conservative like Sarah Palin you don’t lose a day of work even if you use language that marks a historic low for political attacks. It should be remembered that not everyone who works at MSNBC is a guttersnipe like Sharpton, Matthews, or Bashir. No matter what their politics might be, those who still hold to some standard of integrity there must be wondering exactly what has happened to their profession? Although we would hope to never hear another MSNBC rant about conservatives’ lack of civility. But even after Bashir’s apology, you know we will.

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The Obama Presidency in Crisis

The new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds President Obama’s approval rating is at an all-time low (42 percent). Opposition to the Affordable Care Act is at an all-time high (57 percent). And by a margin of nearly two-to-one, those surveyed oppose an individual mandate.

There’s also this: for the first time in Obama’s presidency, a majority of Americans say they have an unfavorable impression of him (52 percent). Half or more of those surveyed say he is not a strong leader, he doesn’t understand the problems of “people like you,” and he’s not honest or trustworthy. 

There’s more data to pore through, but suffice it to say that all of it is ugly for the president.

One of the harder things to do in politics is to distinguish between moments that at the time seem important but are in fact transitory versus those that are genuinely meaningful and durable. In this case, are the problems the president faces simply a bad patch he’ll recover from, or is his presidency sustaining profound and permanent damage?

Time will tell, but I suspect it’s the second of the two scenarios. I say that for several reasons, the first having to do with rank incompetence.

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The new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds President Obama’s approval rating is at an all-time low (42 percent). Opposition to the Affordable Care Act is at an all-time high (57 percent). And by a margin of nearly two-to-one, those surveyed oppose an individual mandate.

There’s also this: for the first time in Obama’s presidency, a majority of Americans say they have an unfavorable impression of him (52 percent). Half or more of those surveyed say he is not a strong leader, he doesn’t understand the problems of “people like you,” and he’s not honest or trustworthy. 

There’s more data to pore through, but suffice it to say that all of it is ugly for the president.

One of the harder things to do in politics is to distinguish between moments that at the time seem important but are in fact transitory versus those that are genuinely meaningful and durable. In this case, are the problems the president faces simply a bad patch he’ll recover from, or is his presidency sustaining profound and permanent damage?

Time will tell, but I suspect it’s the second of the two scenarios. I say that for several reasons, the first having to do with rank incompetence.

The list of failures of the Affordable Care Act is quite a long one, including (but not limited to) delaying the employer mandate, sticker shock as many people discover they will be paying much higher premiums and deductibles, the disastrous rollout of the federal government’s healthcare website, and the millions of people who have been forced to drop the coverage they want (thereby causing Mr. Obama’s desperate volte-face last week, when he announced he would take executive action that would allow insurance companies to offer the old plans for an additional year).

This kind of ineptitude would hurt the president on any matter; it is particularly damaging when it happens to his signature domestic achievement. So it won’t be easy for Mr. Obama to shake the reputation he has now earned as a bumbling amateur.

The second reason the Obama presidency is caught in a dangerous downward spiral is that the Affordable Care Act’s problems are likely to get worse, not better. The website will clearly not be running well by the end of this month. The odds of a “death spiral” (in which the vast majority of people who sign up for the ACA’s health insurance plans are sick, causing premiums to skyrocket) are growing by the day, we’re likely to see price hikes, and more cancellations of policies will occur prior to the mid-term election, (for more, see this story). 

What the president desperately needs is a circuit breaker from the problems of ObamaCare. What he’s likely to get are multiplying problems. Things that are broken won’t be repaired any time soon–and new problems will arise. This will increase panic among Democrats, many of whom will begin to break with the president (we’re already in the early stages of this). And this, in turn, will further the impression of chaos and disorder, further undermining Mr. Obama’s reputation for competence.

The third reason the president’s problems are likely to worsen is that his personal credibility has been badly damaged. Mr. Obama misled the American people in such an obvious way, on so many different occasions, on such a large issue, that he is no longer deemed to be trustworthy or honest by a majority of the public. 

This is, I think, a huge blow to the Obama presidency. Remember: What has always kept Mr. Obama afloat, even when his programs were not particularly popular, was the good will he had generated among the American people. Even if they disagreed with him, many Americans were drawn to Obama, inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. No more. And when the bond of trust between a president and the public is ruptured, when his integrity is severely tarnished, it becomes very difficult to recover.

Is it possible for Mr. Obama to right the ship? Of course. Outside events can intervene, for one thing. And perhaps the Affordable Care Act will become a model of efficiency and beloved by a majority of Americans over time. But I have always been skeptical that would occur, since in my judgment the problems afflicting it are fundamental, systemic, and not really fixable. The ad hoc “solutions” the Obama administration is coming up with on a weekly basis seem to confirm that view.

We should know within a matter of a few months whether this period we’re now in will fade away and give way to better times–or whether it’s part of a long, downward slide for Mr. Obama, one that blows apart his reputation and undermines that cause of liberalism. 

The left should be alarmed because right now it looks for all the world like it’s the latter. 

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ObamaCare and the Limits of Propaganda

When future historians attempt to reach a consensus on the moment the Obama personality cult officially became undeniably creepy, they will have plenty of options. But it’s doubtful they will put that date any later than the September 2011 launch of Attack Watch, the Obama team’s web portal established to enable and encourage supporters to report on their fellow citizens to their dear leader’s staff in the White House.

Attack Watch very quickly became a laughingstock. But the Obama administration never faltered in its appreciation for the value of propaganda to its own political success. Whether it was contracting with WebMD or hiring an NFL football team to promote White House talking points, ObamaCare has been the focus of all manner of creative efforts to pay for the good press the disastrous and unpopular law could not earn on its own.

Yet for all the Obama cult’s branding skill and pop culture presence, propaganda has its limits. One indication that the White House is getting that message is today’s Politico story on the president’s reluctance to share a name with his destructive reform law:

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When future historians attempt to reach a consensus on the moment the Obama personality cult officially became undeniably creepy, they will have plenty of options. But it’s doubtful they will put that date any later than the September 2011 launch of Attack Watch, the Obama team’s web portal established to enable and encourage supporters to report on their fellow citizens to their dear leader’s staff in the White House.

Attack Watch very quickly became a laughingstock. But the Obama administration never faltered in its appreciation for the value of propaganda to its own political success. Whether it was contracting with WebMD or hiring an NFL football team to promote White House talking points, ObamaCare has been the focus of all manner of creative efforts to pay for the good press the disastrous and unpopular law could not earn on its own.

Yet for all the Obama cult’s branding skill and pop culture presence, propaganda has its limits. One indication that the White House is getting that message is today’s Politico story on the president’s reluctance to share a name with his destructive reform law:

“Obamacare” started out as a pejorative term during Obama’s first campaign, and Republicans, especially the tea party, embraced it during protests and rallies against the health care bill. The media generally steered clear as well — using phrases such as “health care reform” to describe the issue.

But Obama last year reappropriated the term for himself, making the phrase a staple of his stump speech and hawking “I (heart) Obamacare” bumper stickers.

“We passed Obamacare — yes, I like the term — we passed it because I do care, and I want to put these choices in your hands where they belong,” Obama said at a typical stop in Iowa last October.

Now, the phrase is vanishing from official use. White House website posts in July (“Obamacare in Three Words: Saving People Money”) and late September (“What Obamacare Means for You”) called the health care law the O-word. But now HealthCare.gov is almost entirely scrubbed of “Obamacare” and the law is called the Affordable Care Act in nearly every instance. Health insurance exchanges run by states don’t use the term Obamacare at all.

Democrats can read the polls. The president’s approval ratings are tanking after the ObamaCare website fiasco and the continuing revelations that the president sold the bill on false promises and that millions are getting kicked off their insurance plans. Many may soon lose access to their doctors because of ObamaCare as well. With the midterms coming up next year, it’s clear Democrats would like to put some distance between themselves and the president’s health-care mess.

But it’s their mess too. ObamaCare was passed on a partisan vote. Liberals wanted it, conservatives didn’t. Liberals got their law, and now they’ll own it. The indecision over what to call it, however, will change if the popularity of the law changes. That’s what made the Democrats’ initial opposition to the term ObamaCare so revealing: they seemed to understand just how unpopular was the law they forced on the public even as they were casting their votes.

It calls to mind this heartwarming story referenced by Reason magazine editor Jacob Sullum last week:

Last month a Tennessee judge overseeing a burglary case rejected a pretrial motion in which the prosecution requested that it not be referred to as “the Government” because that term is “derogatory.” In the May 22 motion, Assistant District Attorney General Tammy J. Rettig noted with alarm that “it has become commonplace during trials for attorneys for defendants, and especially Mr. [Drew] Justice [the defendant's lawyer], to refer to State’s attorneys as ‘the Government’ repeatedly during trial.” Rettig worried that “such a reference is used in a derogatory way and is meant to make the State’s attorneys seem oppressive and to inflame the jury.” She added that “attempts to make the jury dislike the State’s attorney have no place in the courtroom.” She therefore urged Williamson County Circuit Court Judge Michael Binkley to bar Justice from using the g-word during the trial and instead refer to her as “General Rettig, the Assistant District Attorney General, Mrs. Rettig, or simply the State of Tennessee.”

The judge denied the motion, and Sullum quotes the opposing counsel’s sarcastic response, which is really worth a read. But the story was encouraging because when even those representing the government acknowledge that the term “government” carries a derogatory, “oppressive” connotation, there is still hope for the republic.

Something similar took place within the debate over what to call ObamaCare. In August 2012, the New York Times reported on the term suddenly being embraced by Democrats. Until that point, the Times noted, they didn’t even want other people to be allowed to use the term: “Democrats continued to complain when the news media used the term and tried to stop House Republicans from using it in their official correspondence with constituents because they said it violated rules against partisan letters.”

It’s doubtful that Democrats will take a page out of the Tennessee prosecutor’s book and openly admit their project is becoming synonymous with oppressive authority. But they can’t run from the reality of the reform law no matter what they choose to call it.

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Sequestration and Combat Readiness

Gen. Martin Dempsey, army chief of staff, and Gen. Jim Amos, Marine commandant, are warning that sequestration could result in overly deep cuts to the ground forces. But is anyone listening? Not so that you would notice.

As Mike O’Hanlon of Brookings noted yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, if sequestration continues unabated, the army could fall from 532,000 today to 380,000 active-duty soldiers–or even fewer. Figures of less than 300,000 have even been mentioned. That would cut the U.S. Army to a size not seen since the start of World War II.

The dangers of such an approach should be obvious. But few if any are paying attention to them in Washington today because the widespread assumption is that we will never have to fight another ground war again. Why this assumption has become prevalent is a mystery because it flies in the face of all known history–to wit, mankind has been fighting on the ground since his earliest days on this earth. Ground warfare continues notwithstanding the creation of air forces, computers, and precision, stand-off weapons such as drones and smart bombs. Just look at Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and a whole lot of other places.

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Gen. Martin Dempsey, army chief of staff, and Gen. Jim Amos, Marine commandant, are warning that sequestration could result in overly deep cuts to the ground forces. But is anyone listening? Not so that you would notice.

As Mike O’Hanlon of Brookings noted yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, if sequestration continues unabated, the army could fall from 532,000 today to 380,000 active-duty soldiers–or even fewer. Figures of less than 300,000 have even been mentioned. That would cut the U.S. Army to a size not seen since the start of World War II.

The dangers of such an approach should be obvious. But few if any are paying attention to them in Washington today because the widespread assumption is that we will never have to fight another ground war again. Why this assumption has become prevalent is a mystery because it flies in the face of all known history–to wit, mankind has been fighting on the ground since his earliest days on this earth. Ground warfare continues notwithstanding the creation of air forces, computers, and precision, stand-off weapons such as drones and smart bombs. Just look at Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and a whole lot of other places.

It is the height of hubris to imagine that the U.S. can stand aloof from such messes simply because we desire to do so. If history shows anything, it is that the U.S. has a tendency to get sucked into distant conflicts, and that includes the dispatch of ground forces. Just look at the 1990s–the last period of major defense downsizing when we got involved in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, among other places.

Today if we show an inability to field substantial ground forces we are practically inviting our enemies to challenge us in this arena of warfare, whether through the use of terrorist and guerrilla tactics or (more unlikely but not impossible) through conventional combat operations. Yet both Republicans and Democrats are so caught up in their political squabbles, with neither side being willing to address the fiscal danger of runaway entitlement spending, that they are oblivious to the impact their defense cuts are having on our military readiness in general and our ground-combat readiness in particular.

Dempsey and Amos might as well be talking to a brick wall for all the notice they are getting. We should be paying more attention because history shows that those in the past who have warned about the dangers of excessive defense drawdowns have inevitably been proven correct.

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France’s Peace Process Innovation

For the second time in two weeks, France has proven itself the most serious foreign-policy player the West currently has. First, it thwarted an abysmal nuclear deal with Iran. Now, it’s come up with the most creative idea for advancing Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy that I’ve heard in years.

Speaking in Ramallah yesterday, French President Francois Hollande essentially told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the following: You think Israeli settlement construction is destroying prospects for a two-state solution, and therefore want it halted. I agree. But the Israelis think these prospects are being destroyed by your demand to relocate millions of Palestinians to Israel (aka the “right of return”). So why not trade concessions on the right of return for a settlement freeze?

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For the second time in two weeks, France has proven itself the most serious foreign-policy player the West currently has. First, it thwarted an abysmal nuclear deal with Iran. Now, it’s come up with the most creative idea for advancing Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy that I’ve heard in years.

Speaking in Ramallah yesterday, French President Francois Hollande essentially told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the following: You think Israeli settlement construction is destroying prospects for a two-state solution, and therefore want it halted. I agree. But the Israelis think these prospects are being destroyed by your demand to relocate millions of Palestinians to Israel (aka the “right of return”). So why not trade concessions on the right of return for a settlement freeze?

The first innovation in this proposal is that someone in Paris actually seems to have read the Oslo Accords–a rarity among Western diplomats–and discovered that they explicitly designate settlements as a final-status issue, just like refugees; Israel has no interim obligation to stop building them. Once this is understood, it’s obvious that an unrequited settlement freeze is a nonstarter: No sane negotiator would make major, upfront, unrequited concessions on a significant final-status issue. Hollande therefore proposed a substantive trade in which both sides would make concessions on a major final-status issue.

Granted, the issues aren’t equivalent. Flooding Israel with over five million Palestinians really would render a two-state solution impossible, by turning the Jewish state into a second Palestinian one. Settlements, by contrast, don’t preclude a Palestinian state; even chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat admits that they occupy only 1.1 percent of the West Bank. But since Palestinians have repeatedly declared a settlement freeze a top priority, such a trade would give both sides something they claim to want.

And that is the even greater innovation in Hollande’s proposal: For the first time in 20 years of Israeli-Palestinian talks, a Western leader is suggesting mutual concessions instead of demanding that Israel make unilateral ones.

Contrast this with some of the Obama administration’s “peacemaking” proposals:

  • Israel should agree in advance to a border based on the 1967 lines. In other words, Israel should concede all the Palestinians’ territorial demands upfront without getting anything in exchange.
  • Israel and the PA should negotiate a deal on borders and security only, without resolving issues like Jerusalem and the refugees or ending the conflict. In other words, instead of trading territory for peace, Israel should trade territory for no peace. Moreover, it should forfeit its only bargaining chip–territory–in the first stage of negotiations, thereby leaving itself with nothing to trade for Palestinian concessions on vital issues like the refugees.
  • Israel should free 104 Palestinian murderers just so the Palestinians will deign to negotiate–a move Israeli negotiating expert Moty Cristal aptly termed paying “with hard currency for nothing.” Palestinians also temporarily halted their campaign against Israel in international agencies, but that will resume in nine months. The prisoners won’t be rearrested.

To be fair, Hollande’s proposal won’t actually bring peace any more than Obama’s ideas have, because the Palestinians aren’t willing to make any concessions: Abbas told Hollande he has no authority to deviate from the Arab League’s stance on the refugees, begging the obvious question of what the point of the current talks are if he has no power to actually negotiate.

Nevertheless, the French proposal at least acknowledges the obvious fact that peace requires concessions by both sides, not just one. And that is a necessary first step. For as long as the world keeps pandering to Palestinian rejectionism by not demanding any concessions, as the Obama administration has, the Palestinians will never have an incentive to make any.

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An Inadequately-Clothed Emperor

Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal was interviewed yesterday on CBS This Morning, and was asked how strained the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is (answer: “very strained”); what he thought about President Obama’s failure to strike Syria after his red line was crossed (answer: “[the whole world] saw it as a blinking”); and whether Saudi Arabia would like someone to strike Iran (answer: “Most of the countries in the region want Iran to be struck by the United States or by the western powers”). 

Then he was asked whether he had confidence the U.S. would execute a military option as a last resort, which produced this colloquy: 

PRINCE ALWALEED BIN TALAL: Frankly speaking, no, we don’t have confidence that the military strike would happen if Iran does not succumb to the pressure and the –  

CHARLIE ROSE: So you don’t trust the United States, you’re saying. The Saudi government does not trust the United States to do it. 

PRINCE ALWALEED BIN TALAL: I think at the more macro level, the whole trust issue on United States is very much on shaky grounds these days, not only from Saudi Arabia but also Europe. … 

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Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal was interviewed yesterday on CBS This Morning, and was asked how strained the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is (answer: “very strained”); what he thought about President Obama’s failure to strike Syria after his red line was crossed (answer: “[the whole world] saw it as a blinking”); and whether Saudi Arabia would like someone to strike Iran (answer: “Most of the countries in the region want Iran to be struck by the United States or by the western powers”). 

Then he was asked whether he had confidence the U.S. would execute a military option as a last resort, which produced this colloquy: 

PRINCE ALWALEED BIN TALAL: Frankly speaking, no, we don’t have confidence that the military strike would happen if Iran does not succumb to the pressure and the –  

CHARLIE ROSE: So you don’t trust the United States, you’re saying. The Saudi government does not trust the United States to do it. 

PRINCE ALWALEED BIN TALAL: I think at the more macro level, the whole trust issue on United States is very much on shaky grounds these days, not only from Saudi Arabia but also Europe. … 

The whole world has watched over the last year as the president of the United States: (1) took no action as a U.S. ambassador and U.S. personnel were killed in Libya on 9/11; (2) promised two weeks later, in a UN speech to representatives of every country in the world, that he would be “relentless” in tracking down the killers, but still has taken no action; (3) issued a “red line” in Syria and then blinked when it came time to enforce it; (4) lateraled his proposed “shot across the bow” to Congress; (5) avoided his “red line” commitment (and vitiated his “Assad must go” policy) by approving an agreement leaving Assad ensconced in power, free to continue his war by conventional means; (6) negotiated with Iran while disregarding the objections of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle East allies; and (7) exposed his word to his own citizens as unreliable (after which he expressed regret that “the way I put that forward unequivocally ended up not being accurate”). 

He has made other unequivocal assurances–he’s got your back, all options are on the table, he doesn’t bluff, no deal is better than a bad deal–but at this point it has become increasingly clear that he is an inadequately-clothed emperor, dressed in assurances that end up not being accurate. When a prominent Saudi prince answers a direct question as directly as he did on national TV yesterday, a critical point has been reached.

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