Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 2013

Can Midnight Basketball Be Far Behind?

I wanted to add to Jonathan’s post on the story in the New York Times in which we’re told, “Democratic Party leaders, bruised by months of attacks on the new health care program, have found an issue they believe can lift their fortunes both locally and nationally in 2014: an increase in the minimum wage.” 

To put this in context: Barack Obama is coming off what the Democratic pollster Peter Hart calls “a terribly ragged year.” The president’s approval ratings are near historic lows for a fifth year in office. Public confidence in his honesty and trustworthiness is sinking. His second-term agenda is dead in the water. And his failures, particularly related to his signature domestic achievement, are multiplying. And in the face of this Democrats are turning to the minimum wage as a 2014 strategy?

Apparently so. Representative Steve Israel of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told the Times, “The more Republicans obsess on repealing the Affordable Care Act and the more we focus on rebuilding the middle class with a minimum-wage increase, the more voters will support our candidates.” Dan Pfeiffer, the president’s senior adviser, added, “You can make a very strong case that this will be a helpful issue for Democrats in 2014.”

No you can’t. 

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I wanted to add to Jonathan’s post on the story in the New York Times in which we’re told, “Democratic Party leaders, bruised by months of attacks on the new health care program, have found an issue they believe can lift their fortunes both locally and nationally in 2014: an increase in the minimum wage.” 

To put this in context: Barack Obama is coming off what the Democratic pollster Peter Hart calls “a terribly ragged year.” The president’s approval ratings are near historic lows for a fifth year in office. Public confidence in his honesty and trustworthiness is sinking. His second-term agenda is dead in the water. And his failures, particularly related to his signature domestic achievement, are multiplying. And in the face of this Democrats are turning to the minimum wage as a 2014 strategy?

Apparently so. Representative Steve Israel of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told the Times, “The more Republicans obsess on repealing the Affordable Care Act and the more we focus on rebuilding the middle class with a minimum-wage increase, the more voters will support our candidates.” Dan Pfeiffer, the president’s senior adviser, added, “You can make a very strong case that this will be a helpful issue for Democrats in 2014.”

No you can’t. 

Here’s some free counsel to Messrs. Israel and Pfeiffer: When the history of the 2014 mid-term elections is written, the Affordable Care Act will be a dominant, and maybe the dominant, issue while the minimum wage will not merit even an asterisk. The latter is hardly a topic that is on the hearts and minds of the American people. You can find here and here recent polls from the Gallup organization listing the top concerns of the American people. The minimum wage doesn’t show up; and, in fact, more people are concerned with America becoming a socialist country than are concerned that the minimum wage is too low. 

In addition, the idea that increasing the minimum wage is the key to rebuilding the middle class borders on being comical.

What this is all about is a president and a party who see a “wave election” in the making–one triggered in large part by the politically catastrophic effects of ObamaCare. And so Mr. Obama and his aides and allies are trying to deflect attention away from their failures.

It’s kind of pathetic, really. It not only won’t work; looking to the minimum wage to be their political talisman simply underscores the fact that the modern Democratic Party is politically desperate and intellectually exhausted. 

Can a push for midnight basketball be far behind? 

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Minimum Wage Won’t Save Dems in 2014

Democrats have had a generally miserable 2013, but they think they have the answer to how to make 2014 end on a better note for them. Some on the left may still be holding onto the forlorn hope that ObamaCare will somehow magically be transformed from the millstone around their necks to a popular initiative like Social Security or Medicare. But they are thinking clearly about the political impact of the health-care fiasco. Rather than just bang their heads against that wall, Democrats are looking to change the subject. So rather than try to sell skeptical Americans on the dubious idea of increasing the government’s involvement in health care is a good idea, they appear to be set on convincing the electorate that the key issue facing the country isn’t the looming ObamaCare disaster but the notion of inequality.

As the New York Times reported in a front-page feature yesterday, Democrats seem to think provoking a debate about raising the minimum wage is the magic bullet that will slay Republican candidates in a year in which the GOP is generally favored to make midterm gains in Congress if not take back the Senate in November. The minimum wage proposal doesn’t stand alone, as it is part of an effort by the White House to pivot back to the start of 2013 when the president unveiled a laundry list of liberal ideas in his State of the Union speech. The minimum wage was part of a package that was supposed to be the core of the reelected Obama’s second-term program in which income inequality would, along with climate change, gun control, and an expansion of entitlements, herald a sharp left turn in American politics. But while the president is hoping for a mulligan on a 2013 which was marked by scandals at home and foreign-policy disasters like Egypt and Syria abroad, life is rarely that simple. Though the minimum wage seems like a political winner to his strategists, the problem is that while the bully pulpit of the presidency can help set the country’s political agenda, mere strategy can’t divert voters from the impact of problems that affect the lives of large numbers of citizens. Though a pivot left will please the president’s base, it is no match for the havoc that ObamaCare will have on the nation over the course of 2014.

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Democrats have had a generally miserable 2013, but they think they have the answer to how to make 2014 end on a better note for them. Some on the left may still be holding onto the forlorn hope that ObamaCare will somehow magically be transformed from the millstone around their necks to a popular initiative like Social Security or Medicare. But they are thinking clearly about the political impact of the health-care fiasco. Rather than just bang their heads against that wall, Democrats are looking to change the subject. So rather than try to sell skeptical Americans on the dubious idea of increasing the government’s involvement in health care is a good idea, they appear to be set on convincing the electorate that the key issue facing the country isn’t the looming ObamaCare disaster but the notion of inequality.

As the New York Times reported in a front-page feature yesterday, Democrats seem to think provoking a debate about raising the minimum wage is the magic bullet that will slay Republican candidates in a year in which the GOP is generally favored to make midterm gains in Congress if not take back the Senate in November. The minimum wage proposal doesn’t stand alone, as it is part of an effort by the White House to pivot back to the start of 2013 when the president unveiled a laundry list of liberal ideas in his State of the Union speech. The minimum wage was part of a package that was supposed to be the core of the reelected Obama’s second-term program in which income inequality would, along with climate change, gun control, and an expansion of entitlements, herald a sharp left turn in American politics. But while the president is hoping for a mulligan on a 2013 which was marked by scandals at home and foreign-policy disasters like Egypt and Syria abroad, life is rarely that simple. Though the minimum wage seems like a political winner to his strategists, the problem is that while the bully pulpit of the presidency can help set the country’s political agenda, mere strategy can’t divert voters from the impact of problems that affect the lives of large numbers of citizens. Though a pivot left will please the president’s base, it is no match for the havoc that ObamaCare will have on the nation over the course of 2014.

Republicans, however, should not underestimate the appeal of inequality rhetoric. Though raising the minimum wage is economic snake oil that will do far more harm to business and employment than it will help poor workers, such efforts do speak directly to values that most Americans support. Voters like such laws because they sound as if they speak to fairness and the idea of soaking the wealthy even if the impact will hurt those seeking work at the bottom of the pay scale. As the Times rightly notes, polls consistently show broad support for minimum wage increases and the GOP must be wary of being drawn into a fight over the issue.

But a genuine pivot left requires more than the transitory rhetorical advantages that might be gained from the discussion of minimum wages. Americans like giving the poor a break, but they are far more concerned with the impact of higher taxes, out-of-control government spending, and, most of all, the impact of government interference on the cost and quality of their health care.

The Democrats aren’t mistaken to think they can trick the Republicans to force them to defend economic positions that are fiscally wise but unpopular, such as opposing the minimum wage increase or not extending unemployment benefits. Their mistake lies in misunderstanding the far-reaching impact of the president’s signature health-care plan will have on vast numbers of voters.

At its heart, the talk about income inequality is rooted in a belief that the fuss about ObamaCare is only temporary and more about website glitches and embarrassing presidential sound bites (“If you like your health insurance, you can keep it”) than about the law itself. Liberal strategists are in denial not only about what has already happened on the issue but also what is about to unfold in the coming year. As Lanhee Chen wrote yesterday for Bloomberg News, Democrats are going to like the feedback about the Affordable Care Act in 2014 even less than they did in 2013. The president and his team front-loaded the measure to allow its more popular elements to go into effect before the 2012 election with the less savory elements held back until he was safely reelected. But as bad as things look now in terms of approval for a law that has always been opposed by most Americans, it’s about to get worse:

First, some of ObamaCare’s least popular provisions go into effect in 2014. This includes a new $60 billion tax on health insurers, which will be levied relative to premiums collected and directly passed on to consumers. And, of course, ObamaCare’s requirement that individuals secure health insurance coverage (or pay a tax penalty) kicks in during the coming year as well.

Second, millions of Americans who buy their coverage on the individual market or get it through small employers will be shocked by just how much their premiums go up in 2014. The young and healthy will be especially susceptible to this rate shock, and this in turn will further drive them away from purchasing coverage in future years. Given skyrocketing premiums, the economic incentives for many of these “young invincibles” are aligned against buying coverage in the coming years. But these are also the people that the ACA most needs to be enrolled through its health insurance exchanges to offset the comparatively higher risk and costs associated with insuring the sick and old. These dynamics may lead to even higher premiums in the coming years.

Third, not only will millions of Americans on the individual and small group markets who like their plans be unable to keep them in 2014, but many will experience what it’s like to be unable to continue seeing the doctors they know and trust. As health insurers face pressure to keep costs down while providing the richer package of benefits that ObamaCare mandates, many are limiting their networks of doctors and other health-care providers. A cancer survivor’s opinion article in the Wall Street Journal illustrated the horrible situation that ObamaCare will place some Americans in: Being forced to choose between doctors that have been critical to their care or, in some cases, not having access to any of their existing health-care providers.

Finally, ObamaCare’s Medicare cuts will continue to hurt senior citizens. For the 14 million people enrolled in the Medicare Advantage program, the ACA’s $200 billion in cuts over the next 10 years will accelerate in 2014 and have tangible impacts on beneficiaries. Insurers predict that seniors in Medicare Advantage plans will see higher premiums, increased cost-sharing for primary and specialist visits, and limits on the doctors they can see. Although the ACA is not solely responsible for the headwinds the Medicare Advantage program faces, it will (and should) shoulder most of the blame.

When combined, these four elements set the stage for a political tsunami that will drown any effort to distract the public with talk about inequality. Democrats have assumed that once it was implemented, ObamaCare would be as popular as Social Security and Medicare. But they are only just starting to grasp the fact that unlike those programs that spread the wealth with few, if any, voters being worse off for their passage, the misnamed Affordable Care Act creates a vast population of Americans who are going to be hurt by the law. In 2014, their number will grow, not shrink. The first year of the president’s second term ended with ObamaCare as the top political story of the year. The likelihood that it will remain so in 2014 spells big political trouble for Democrats whose fate will be determined more by this fiasco than any fights they can pick about the minimum wage.

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Grade Inequality, Failures, and Presidential Candidates

As President Obama pivots to the issue of income inequality, Harvard has already advanced fairly far in eliminating grade inequality. At a faculty meeting earlier this month, Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield elicited an admission from the dean of undergraduate education that the most common grade at Harvard now is an “A” (the term “Harvard fail” refers these days to a grade somewhere in the “B” range).

Last week, Harvard Magazine posted a sophisticated defense of the college’s grading system by Michael Zuckerman, a recent graduate whose remarkable commencement address in 2010 was a reflection on adversity and failure. Zuckerman noted the concerns that Harvard’s easy grading system was “failing to prepare its students to weather failure”–one of the inevitable post-graduate experiences. But he downplayed the significance of the inflated grades, since he found that Harvard provided many extracurricular ways to learn about failure. He cited a small-group class he had taken on community organizing:

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As President Obama pivots to the issue of income inequality, Harvard has already advanced fairly far in eliminating grade inequality. At a faculty meeting earlier this month, Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield elicited an admission from the dean of undergraduate education that the most common grade at Harvard now is an “A” (the term “Harvard fail” refers these days to a grade somewhere in the “B” range).

Last week, Harvard Magazine posted a sophisticated defense of the college’s grading system by Michael Zuckerman, a recent graduate whose remarkable commencement address in 2010 was a reflection on adversity and failure. Zuckerman noted the concerns that Harvard’s easy grading system was “failing to prepare its students to weather failure”–one of the inevitable post-graduate experiences. But he downplayed the significance of the inflated grades, since he found that Harvard provided many extracurricular ways to learn about failure. He cited a small-group class he had taken on community organizing:

[The tutorial] was built entirely around controlled failure: each of the 10 students had to conceive, plan, and execute a 10-week organizing project around a salient social-justice issue. We were all highly optimistic at the outset—I launched, for example, a community-service program within a 2009 Democratic primary campaign for the U.S. Senate, hoping to spur a “service politics” movement—and, needless to say, we all came up short. It is, after all, nearly impossible to transform society in 10 weeks.

It is an example of failure teaching a good lesson. Perhaps there is a broader one: even four years may not be enough to fundamentally transform society, especially if you don’t learn the lessons of failure along the way. It may not even be enough time to implement your own signature legislation (notwithstanding your assurance to a joint session of Congress four years ago). As Zuckerman’s commencement address indicated, it can be a double loss if one not only suffers failure but fails to learn the lesson failure might have taught.

One wonders if President Obama ever took a class in community organizing (or the Middle East peace process), and what other classes he took, who taught them, what grades he received, etc.–back in the days when a transcript was a transcript. Unfortunately, the protective press did not make an issue of the non-disclosure when he first ran for president. The only reason we know about John Kerry’s college grades is he found himself during his own presidential campaign in a situation that can only be fully appreciated by those who know Shalom Aleichem’s great story, “The Yom Kippur Scandal.”

Harvard’s grading system seems unlikely to change soon; indeed, Princeton’s grading system seems to be moving in Harvard’s direction. But the good news is that, within a couple of decades, presidential candidates may no longer have to campaign under the constant fear that someone might puncture their pretensions by disclosing their college transcripts, since the transcripts by then will likely show all of them to have been A students. The candidates of the future will thus be able to focus fully on the issues of the day, such as hope, change, and their opponent’s record as a high school bully.

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Has Israel Made Sacrifices for Peace?

One of the clichés of commentary about the Middle East is the idea that it is time for the people of Israel to put their fears aside and make needed sacrifices for peace. That was the conceit of some of President Obama’s remarks when he visited Israel earlier in 2013 despite the fact that he couched this advice with some badly needed support for Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself. But the president and those who have expressed this sentiment both before and after his remarks ignored the fact that Israel has made many such sacrifices and risks for the sake of peace. In the 20 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords, Israel has withdrawn from territory only to learn that land-for-peace deals with the Palestinians generally translate into an exchange of land for terror, not a cessation of the conflict. And yet no number of concessions has ever been seen as enough to remove the onus from Israel. It is in this context that the latest Israeli concessions must be understood.

The price that Israel was asked to pay to get the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table after years of their boycotting such talks was the release of terrorist murderers. The first batch of killers was set free in the fall. The second group is due to be freed today and it is expected that they, like the others before them, will be greeted as heroes by not just the Palestinian people but also the PA leadership, including its head Mahmoud Abbas. When Secretary of State John Kerry was asked about the pain Israelis felt about this spectacle in November, he dismissed the concern while expressing no sympathy or understanding. As far as he was concerned, Palestinians who murder Jews in cold blood belong to a different category of terrorists than those who kill Americans and whom the U.S. would never consider releasing.

But to bring home just how egregious is a peace process that is built upon such a shaky edifice, here, courtesy of the Times of Israel, is a list of each one of the killers who will be released today, with their crimes and the identity of their victims. While no one should expect that this gesture, any more than the ones that preceded it, will be enough to silence those who call for Israelis to make such sacrifices, anyone who dares to make such a statement should be forced to read it and ponder how a Palestinian government that embraces such people and holds them up as role models in their official media could actually be a partner for peace.

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One of the clichés of commentary about the Middle East is the idea that it is time for the people of Israel to put their fears aside and make needed sacrifices for peace. That was the conceit of some of President Obama’s remarks when he visited Israel earlier in 2013 despite the fact that he couched this advice with some badly needed support for Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself. But the president and those who have expressed this sentiment both before and after his remarks ignored the fact that Israel has made many such sacrifices and risks for the sake of peace. In the 20 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords, Israel has withdrawn from territory only to learn that land-for-peace deals with the Palestinians generally translate into an exchange of land for terror, not a cessation of the conflict. And yet no number of concessions has ever been seen as enough to remove the onus from Israel. It is in this context that the latest Israeli concessions must be understood.

The price that Israel was asked to pay to get the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table after years of their boycotting such talks was the release of terrorist murderers. The first batch of killers was set free in the fall. The second group is due to be freed today and it is expected that they, like the others before them, will be greeted as heroes by not just the Palestinian people but also the PA leadership, including its head Mahmoud Abbas. When Secretary of State John Kerry was asked about the pain Israelis felt about this spectacle in November, he dismissed the concern while expressing no sympathy or understanding. As far as he was concerned, Palestinians who murder Jews in cold blood belong to a different category of terrorists than those who kill Americans and whom the U.S. would never consider releasing.

But to bring home just how egregious is a peace process that is built upon such a shaky edifice, here, courtesy of the Times of Israel, is a list of each one of the killers who will be released today, with their crimes and the identity of their victims. While no one should expect that this gesture, any more than the ones that preceded it, will be enough to silence those who call for Israelis to make such sacrifices, anyone who dares to make such a statement should be forced to read it and ponder how a Palestinian government that embraces such people and holds them up as role models in their official media could actually be a partner for peace.

Muhammad Yusuf Adnan Elafandi, arrested May 13, 1992, for stabbing two youths in Jerusalem. After the attack, his life was saved by an Israeli woman who defended him from a lynch mob. He was convicted of attempted murder. The woman who saved his life, Bella Freund, was the subject of a song by the hip hop band Hadag Nahash, in collaboration with rocker Barry Sakharof.

Farid Ahmed Shahade, arrested February 16, 1985, for the murder of Yosef Farhan, a suspected collaborator with Israel, in Jaffa.

Yakoub Muhammad Ouda Ramadan, Afana Mustafa Ahmad Muhammad, and Da’agna Nufal Mahmad Mahmoud, arrested April 1, 1993. The three were convicted of stabbing Sara Sharon, 37, to death in Holon on January 20, 1993.

Abu al Rub Mustafa Mahmoud Faisal and Kamil Awad Ali Ahmad, convicted of murder in the killing of 20-year-old IDF soldier Yoram Cohen in a shootout in the West Bank town of Jenin. Ali Ahmad was also convicted of kidnapping, torturing and murdering 15 Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. Faisal was convicted of manslaughter in four of those cases.

Damara Ibrahim Mustafa Bilal, arrested June 16, 1989, and convicted of murdering Steven Friedrich Rosenfeld, 48, a US-born immigrant to Israel. Damra and several others accosted Rosenfeld outside the West Bank settlement of Ariel, grabbed the knife he was carrying, and stabbed him to death with it. His body was found on the following day by a Palestinian shepherd.

Abu Mohsin Khaled Ibrahim Jamal, arrested April 10, 1991, and convicted of murder. Abu-Muhsan ambushed Shlomo Yahya, a 76-year-old gardener, in a public park in Moshav Kadima and stabbed him to death.

Tamimi Rushdi Muhammad Sa’id, convicted of kidnapping and murdering Hayim Mizrahi at a Palestinian-owned farm outside the settlement of Beit El, where Mizrahi lived, in 1993. Mizrahi had come to the farm to shop for eggs.

Silawi Khaled Kamel Osama, one of three Palestinians convicted in the murder of Motti Biton. Similar to Mizrahi, Biton was shot while he was shopping for groceries in a Palestinian-owned store. Afterwards his wife, who was in the car outside, fired at his attackers, who detonated a pipe bomb and fled. Biton was gravely wounded in the attack and died in an Israeli hospital three days later. Osama was also convicted of murder and manslaughter in the deaths of four Palestinians suspected of collaborating with the authorities.

Sawafta Sudqi Abdel Razeq Mouhlas, who stabbed Yosef Malka (Malkin) to death on December 29, 1990, during an attempt to rob his home in Haifa.

Barham Fawzi Mustafa Nasser, arrested December 20, 1993, for the murder of Morris (Moshe) Edri. Nasser, a former employee of Edri, 65, ambushed Edri and stabbed him in the back. After he was apprehended, he said he had carried out the murder to prove that he was worthy of joining Hamas.

Yusuf Ahmed Nu’aman Al-Shalvi, Mahmad Anis Aiman Jaradat, and Ahmad Yusuf Bilal Abu-Hassin, convicted of murdering multiple Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel.

Mahmad Naim Shawmra Yunis, convicted of murder in the death of Yossef Hayun, a police sapper who was killed while attempting to disarm a bomb in Moshav Shekef in June 1993.

Mahmud Muhammad Salman, arrested May 6, 1994, and convicted in the murder of Shai Shoker. Salman strangled Shoker with a shoelace outside Tira on February 2, 1994.

Ahmed Ibrahim Jamal Abu-Jamal, convicted of attempted murder. Abu-Jamal was slated for release in 2016.

Mahmoud Ibrahim Abu-Ali Faiz, convicted of murdering Ronny Levy.

Zaki Rami Barbakh Jawdat, convicted of murdering Yosef Zandani.

Mustafa Ahmed Khaled Jumaa, convicted of aggravated assault, up for release in 2014.

Abu Hadir Muhammad Yassin Yassin, convicted of murder. Yassin shot Yigal Shahaf, 24, in the head while Shahaf and his wife were walking through Jerusalem’s Old City toward the Western Wall. Shahaf died in hospital on the following day. The murder weapon had been bought from a Jewish Israeli. Yassin was slated for release in 2016.

Muammar Ata Mahmoud Mahmoud and Salah Khalil Ahmad Ibrahim, convicted of murdering Menahem Stern, a history professor at Hebrew University. Stern, 64, a winner of the prestigious Israel Prize, was stabbed to death while walking to work at the university’s Givat Ram campus on June 22, 1989. A monument in his memory figures in a scene from the prize-winning Israeli film “Footnote.” Ibrahim was also convicted in the murder of Eli Amsalem. In addition, the two murdered a Palestinian suspected of collaborating with Israel, Hassin Zaid.

Taqtuq Lutfi Halma Ibrahim, arrested March 3, 1989, and convicted of murder in the shooting of IDF soldier Binyamin Meisner, on February 24, 1989, in Nablus.

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Distinguishing Between Moderation and Political Compromise

I wrote a piece recently on compromise, moderation, and the American Constitution, and in reaction I received a note from Diana Schaub, a professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland.

She pointed out to me that it’s “helpful to distinguish the virtue of moderation, which is always right, from the practice of political compromise, the goodness of which depends on circumstances.” Moderation, Schaub went on to write, “doesn’t always entail the spirit of accommodation. There are times when one must stand fast, and one can do so without becoming immoderate.”

To buttress her argument, Schaub cited an example of George Washington (who became a revolutionary, having arrived at the conclusion that diplomatic compromise was no longer possible with Great Britain) and Abraham Lincoln (who was unwilling to consider certain sorts of compromise in order to maintain the Union and who steadfastly opposed any action that would remove the label of moral evil from the institution of slavery). Professor Schaub herself has used the apposite phrase “intransigent moderation” when describing Lincoln. 

Her main point, Schaub said in the note she sent to me (and which she kindly allowed me to quote from), is that “moderation, while usually receptive to political compromises, can at times be uncompromising without ceasing to be moderation.”

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I wrote a piece recently on compromise, moderation, and the American Constitution, and in reaction I received a note from Diana Schaub, a professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland.

She pointed out to me that it’s “helpful to distinguish the virtue of moderation, which is always right, from the practice of political compromise, the goodness of which depends on circumstances.” Moderation, Schaub went on to write, “doesn’t always entail the spirit of accommodation. There are times when one must stand fast, and one can do so without becoming immoderate.”

To buttress her argument, Schaub cited an example of George Washington (who became a revolutionary, having arrived at the conclusion that diplomatic compromise was no longer possible with Great Britain) and Abraham Lincoln (who was unwilling to consider certain sorts of compromise in order to maintain the Union and who steadfastly opposed any action that would remove the label of moral evil from the institution of slavery). Professor Schaub herself has used the apposite phrase “intransigent moderation” when describing Lincoln. 

Her main point, Schaub said in the note she sent to me (and which she kindly allowed me to quote from), is that “moderation, while usually receptive to political compromises, can at times be uncompromising without ceasing to be moderation.”

These words are ones I fully concur with and are consistent, I think, with some of the observations I made in my original piece. My emphasis, though, was somewhat different. What I intended to underscore is that to assume per se that moderation and compromise are problematic is itself problematic.

In any event, I thought Professor Schaub’s explication was wise and very intelligently stated, and certainly worth sharing. 

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The Tragedy of Maliki’s Iraq

If it’s the end of December or the beginning of January, it must be time for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to arrest another prominent Sunni politician.

The trend began in December 2011, just days after the departure of U.S. troops, when security forces raided the compound of Vice President Tariq al Hashemi. Hashemi was able to flee but several of his bodyguards were arrested and based on their testimony, allegedly extracted under torture, he was convicted in absentia of various terrorist offenses and sentenced to death.

A year later Maliki’s forces raided the home of Raffi el-Essawi, a former finance minister who barely managed to elude arrest.

Now it is the turn of Ahmed al-Alwani, a prominent member of Parliament who was arrested at his home a few days ago after a two-hour gun battle between his bodyguards and security forces that left his brother and five guards dead.

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If it’s the end of December or the beginning of January, it must be time for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to arrest another prominent Sunni politician.

The trend began in December 2011, just days after the departure of U.S. troops, when security forces raided the compound of Vice President Tariq al Hashemi. Hashemi was able to flee but several of his bodyguards were arrested and based on their testimony, allegedly extracted under torture, he was convicted in absentia of various terrorist offenses and sentenced to death.

A year later Maliki’s forces raided the home of Raffi el-Essawi, a former finance minister who barely managed to elude arrest.

Now it is the turn of Ahmed al-Alwani, a prominent member of Parliament who was arrested at his home a few days ago after a two-hour gun battle between his bodyguards and security forces that left his brother and five guards dead.

If Maliki wants to know why al-Qaeda in Iraq is suddenly resurgent, and why violence is returning to 2008 and even 2007 levels, all he need do is look at this trend. Sunnis certainly do. Many prominent leaders of the Anbar Awakening, who allied with American and Iraqi forces in 2007-2008 to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq, have now made common cause with AQI because of what they see–with some justification–as a campaign of persecution directed against them by Maliki and the militant Shiites who surround him.

After Alwani’s arrest, one sheikh, Ahmed al-Tamimi, was quoted as saying: “The war has begun. I call on young people to carry their weapons and prepare. We will no longer allow any army presence in Falluja.”

The threat is not to be taken lightly as the Iraqi army recently learned–it just lost 18 soldiers, including a general in command of a division, during an attempted raid on an AQI encampment in Anbar Province.

Maliki understands that the threat against him is growing, but the actions he keeps taking–one crackdown after another–simply spark more protest. Buying more Hellfire missiles and Scan Eagle drones from the U.S. will accomplish little beyond further enflaming the situation.

Maliki needs to implement a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign such as the one that General David Petraeus implemented in 2007-2008 whose central feature must be outreach to the estranged Sunnis. The tragedy of Iraq today is that Maliki lacks the acumen to do that–and the U.S. lacks the leverage to compel him, because of the ill-advised pullout of American forces at the end of 2011.

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Murderers or Houses: Kerry’s V.A.T. on Peace

The release of unrepentant Jew-killers from Israeli prisons to keep the engine of the peace process running has left many, even those sympathetic with the Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria, angrily wondering why Prime Minister Netanyahu did not accept a settlement freeze instead. There is a good reason, even for those not generally sympathetic to the Jewish presence: unlike the other concessions, a settlement freeze implicitly concedes Israel’s chief negotiating positions before even sitting down at the table.

The first thing to say is that the position Israel was put in by Secretary of State John Kerry and the Palestinians was fundamentally unjust. Israel is forced to make sacrifices even for the “privilege” of participating in peace negotiations to whose ultimate goal is “painful sacrifices” by Israel. In Israel, politicians talk about paying “the price” for peace. Kerry has put a price on paying the price: a value-added tax on peace.

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The release of unrepentant Jew-killers from Israeli prisons to keep the engine of the peace process running has left many, even those sympathetic with the Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria, angrily wondering why Prime Minister Netanyahu did not accept a settlement freeze instead. There is a good reason, even for those not generally sympathetic to the Jewish presence: unlike the other concessions, a settlement freeze implicitly concedes Israel’s chief negotiating positions before even sitting down at the table.

The first thing to say is that the position Israel was put in by Secretary of State John Kerry and the Palestinians was fundamentally unjust. Israel is forced to make sacrifices even for the “privilege” of participating in peace negotiations to whose ultimate goal is “painful sacrifices” by Israel. In Israel, politicians talk about paying “the price” for peace. Kerry has put a price on paying the price: a value-added tax on peace.

Moreover, if the occupation were so terrible (or real) one would think Abbas would be in a hurry to get to the bargaining table without any preliminaries. This suggests Abbas is not in such a hurry to get an “end of the occupation” so much as particular tactical wins. Moreover, the fact that a top priority for Abbas is the release of mass murders so they can be feted and remunerated shows that “peace” is not vaguely on the horizon, regardless of whether a Kerry diplomatic achievement is. If Bibi partied down with Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein, it would be the end of his career.

Still, why did Bibi take this option, of all the bad ones presented to him? We know he is not a slave of the settlers: he has imposed a construction freeze before, for 10 months, simply to entice Abbas to the table. It did not work, Abbas ran down the clock, and demanded an extension. So that has been tried.

But aren’t houses less important than justice for the murdered? Of course. However, unlike the release of terrorists, a construction freeze is fundamentally related to the substance of the negotiations themselves. That is, of all the proposed “gestures,” the freeze would not only be problematic in itself, but would have Israel start negotiations on its back foot.

Not allowing Jews to build houses in most of Jerusalem, in settlement blocs like Gush Etzion, Maale Adumim, and elsewhere that would surely remain under Israel sovereignty sends one message: we have absolutely no right to be here. We are trespassers. It is one thing to say the Palestinians can have a state because of demographic reasons, international pressure, and so forth. It is another thing to say we are trespassers in the Old City of Jerusalem and Hebron, where Jews lived until being expelled by Arab armies and mobs. A settlement freeze in effect agrees to the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations–which even if it were a good idea, is a lot more than a “gesture of good faith.” It is one thing to say these territories should become Palestinian territory. It is another to say Israel took them from the Palestinians, that they always were, as Abbas claims, Palestinian territory.

Of course, the way the narrative of the peace process is structured, Israel should not be surprised at the pay-to-play. And for this situation, the tireless proponents of “peace” bear primary responsibility. If, as the left argues, Israel needs peace more than the Palestinians need it, no wonder the Palestinians will charge Israel heavily for the privilege of giving them a state.

That is indeed why the Palestinian demands go far beyond the end of occupation or having an independent state. The right of return? What does that have to do with the end of occupation? A capital in Jerusalem, which no Arab state has had? An end to Jewish control over the Holy Basin? Nothing to do with an independent state. These are additional political add-ons. Sovereignty over the Jordan Valley? Ditto; almost no Arabs (or Jews) live there; control over it is a territorial demand rather than an independence-related one.

Interestingly, the Labor Party, while favoring a two-state solution, was until recently against icing the cake–against the division of Jerusalem, ceding sovereignty over Jerusalem, and a right of return. Yet in succeeding rounds of peace negotiations, they have accepted all three in some form. This erosion of their position is natural. Once peace is defined as an existential Israeli interest–once Israeli politicians have resorted to the cheap tactic of threatening apartheid and illegitimacy–there is nowhere back to go, only forward with endless concessions.

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The ASA Responds to its Critics

Evidently stung by over seventy statements of opposition by college and university presidents to their boycott resolution, and the loss of some of its institutional members, the American Studies Association has issued a plea for support. As Yair Rosenberg says, it’s like they’re not even trying.

To be precise, the statement comes not from the ASA’s National Council, which voted unanimously to endorse the resolution and to have ASA members vote on it, but from the ASA Academic and Community Activism Caucus, which originally put it forward. As I explain here, the ASA, although it includes members who have vigorously opposed the resolution, has a long history of radicalism and politicization. The ASA Academic and Community Caucus represents the constituency within the ASA that thinks the group is not radical or political enough. These are the people to whom the defense of the boycott has apparently been left.

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Evidently stung by over seventy statements of opposition by college and university presidents to their boycott resolution, and the loss of some of its institutional members, the American Studies Association has issued a plea for support. As Yair Rosenberg says, it’s like they’re not even trying.

To be precise, the statement comes not from the ASA’s National Council, which voted unanimously to endorse the resolution and to have ASA members vote on it, but from the ASA Academic and Community Activism Caucus, which originally put it forward. As I explain here, the ASA, although it includes members who have vigorously opposed the resolution, has a long history of radicalism and politicization. The ASA Academic and Community Caucus represents the constituency within the ASA that thinks the group is not radical or political enough. These are the people to whom the defense of the boycott has apparently been left.

The Activism Caucus is engaged in propaganda rather than debate. Consider its call to defend the “right of the association to act according to the will of the membership.” When it proposed the resolution, the Caucus did not call for a general membership vote and indeed, boycott supporters “overwhelmingly urged the [National Council] to immediately act and approve the resolution—any delay, they argued, was a tactic for defeat.” The pro-boycott leadership  then presided over a rushed discussion, in which it refused to share any arguments other than its own with the general membership, and vote. The Caucus is a late convert to democracy.

The Caucus also complains that the ASA Facebook page has “been subject to a barrage of inflammatory attacks.” It is true that the ASA comes in for some harsh criticism on the page, which also includes assertions that the mainstream media is controlled by Zionists. But the comments on the page—see for yourself—are hardly distinguishable from what you would see in the comments section of a typical article on a sensitive issue. Nonetheless, we are told, “tactics of intimidation may be illegal.” The Caucus’s “legal team” (they have a legal team!) is on the case.

The Facebook page is also worth looking at in the context of the Caucus’s insistence on “the right of the ASA to develop independent political positions based on the scholarship and research of its members.” In fact, the only work relevant to the boycott posted by administrators is from the Electronic Intifada and Al Jazeera America. While the Caucus is able to name six “internationally renowned scholars” who support the boycott, not one of them is a scholar of the Middle East. Admittedly, Richard Falk is a scholar of international law, but he is also, as Rosenberg is the latest to document, a 9/11 truther who once posted “a cartoon of a yarmulke-wearing dog urinating on Lady Justice while chewing on a bloody skeleton.” The citation of Falk, whose words are actually quoted and incorrectly attributed to “the United Nations” in the original resolution, leads Rosenberg to wonder, tongue in cheek, whether the Caucus has been infiltrated by Zionist operatives.

The Caucus is able to quote one “well-known scholar of Mid-East politics,” “Professor Henry Siegman,” who also helps the ASA’s “some of my best friends are Jews!” defense by being a “former director of the American Jewish Congress.” Professor Siegman, though he has, indeed, written a great deal on the Middle East, lists as his sole scholarly credential a bachelor’s degree from the New School for Social Research.

I am no snob, so I do not think that lacking an advanced degree in a subject means that you cannot become an expert in it or, for that matter, know more about it than people who hold advanced degrees. Moreover, the Caucus would have had no problem, had they taken the trouble to look, finding advanced degree holding professors of Middle East Studies, like Mark LeVine of the University of California-Irvine, who support BDS. But the Caucus’s choice of Siegman and Falk as the closest thing they could find to experts in the area the boycott covers is telling. Far from developing “independent political positions based on the scholarship and research of its members,” the Caucus cannot be bothered to Google its way out of the bubble from which it issues its pronouncements.

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Obama’s Tedious Act Grown Old and Stale

A new Gallup poll finds President Obama’s approval rating at 39 percent and his disapproval rating at 54 percent. But it’s not just that the public is increasingly displeased with the job Mr. Obama is doing; they are growing weary of the whole packaged deal. They are frustrated with the president, his style, his attitude, his approach to the job.

The Boston Herald reports:

President Obama’s tanking approval rating in newly released polls shows Americans are tired of his whining, according to some experts, who also see a fighting chance for Republicans to rack up coast-to-coast victories in the 2014 midterm congressional races.

“We think of presidents as being morale leaders … and he goes out and complains,” according to Richard Benedetto, a retired White House correspondent and a journalism professor at American University. “He complains about the fact that he doesn’t get enough cooperation from the other side. ‘It’s not my fault, it’s the Republicans’ fault.’ And that message gets old for the American public. … It’s not a good sign for Democrats in Congress going into next year.”

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A new Gallup poll finds President Obama’s approval rating at 39 percent and his disapproval rating at 54 percent. But it’s not just that the public is increasingly displeased with the job Mr. Obama is doing; they are growing weary of the whole packaged deal. They are frustrated with the president, his style, his attitude, his approach to the job.

The Boston Herald reports:

President Obama’s tanking approval rating in newly released polls shows Americans are tired of his whining, according to some experts, who also see a fighting chance for Republicans to rack up coast-to-coast victories in the 2014 midterm congressional races.

“We think of presidents as being morale leaders … and he goes out and complains,” according to Richard Benedetto, a retired White House correspondent and a journalism professor at American University. “He complains about the fact that he doesn’t get enough cooperation from the other side. ‘It’s not my fault, it’s the Republicans’ fault.’ And that message gets old for the American public. … It’s not a good sign for Democrats in Congress going into next year.”

No, it’s not. And here’s one of the many challenges facing Mr. Obama: Can he alter the patterns of a presidency? I ask because the president is a chronic whiner, a habitual complainer and excuse-maker. He relied on blame shifting for his entire first term, and I suspect it’s not merely a tactic for Obama. It is how he’s been conditioned, how he views the world and his place in it. He believes deep in his bones that every setback he encounters is due to outside forces. And so he has laid the blame for his failures on his predecessor, the congressional GOP, the Tea Party, conservative talk radio hosts, millionaires and billionaires, Wall Street, Japanese tsunamis, the Arab Spring, Fox News, and more. Those excuses no longer work–and because they don’t, one of the main political arrows has been removed from the Obama quiver.

It’ll be interesting to see if Mr. Obama is emotionally able to adjust to this new situation. My guess is he’ll try the same lines of attack–including portraying himself again and again as the only adult in a room of unruly children–even as most Americans believe his act has grown old and stale. And as the failures of the Obama presidency continue to multiply and his record of incompetence becomes even more indisputable, will Mr. Obama become more aggrieved, more prickly, and more detached from reality? The new year will go some distance toward answering whether you can teach a hubristic president new tricks. This much we know: the old ones have become tedious and monotonous.

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The Ongoing Barbarism in Syria

It is becoming sad and tiresome to chronicle the continuing failure of President Obama’s policy in Syria, but notice must nevertheless be taken of a couple of recent developments. First, the bombing of Aleppo. More than 360 people have been killed in this large and historic city by the Assad regime’s indiscriminate bombardment. Government helicopters are dropping “barrel bombs” randomly in rebel-dominated neighborhoods, killing civilians wantonly.

This is a sign of how barbarically the Assad regime is acting, and it should be of interest to an administration which has touted its Atrocities Prevention Board to deal with gross human-rights abuses. The war in Syria is an ongoing atrocity, but it is one that the administration is politely ignoring while it concentrates on the very limited achievement of spiriting away Assad’s chemical weapons.

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It is becoming sad and tiresome to chronicle the continuing failure of President Obama’s policy in Syria, but notice must nevertheless be taken of a couple of recent developments. First, the bombing of Aleppo. More than 360 people have been killed in this large and historic city by the Assad regime’s indiscriminate bombardment. Government helicopters are dropping “barrel bombs” randomly in rebel-dominated neighborhoods, killing civilians wantonly.

This is a sign of how barbarically the Assad regime is acting, and it should be of interest to an administration which has touted its Atrocities Prevention Board to deal with gross human-rights abuses. The war in Syria is an ongoing atrocity, but it is one that the administration is politely ignoring while it concentrates on the very limited achievement of spiriting away Assad’s chemical weapons.

Nor are the atrocities limited to Syria. Just yesterday a powerful bomb exploded in Beirut killing Mohamad Chatah, a former finance minister and ambassador to Washington who was a prominent critic of Syria and a member of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s political bloc. The culprits are undoubtedly to be found among Hezbollah and the Syrian and Iranian intelligence services, which are so closely aligned as to be almost indistinguishable.

This is surely part of the spillover from the Syrian civil war, which has already resulted in bomb attacks on Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon. Another sign of the spillover can be seen in Iraq, where the Baghdad government is losing a war against a resurgent al-Qaeda in Iraq.

If the administration has a policy to deal with this ongoing catastrophe, I am not aware of it. The last we heard was that the moderate Syrian opposition was so weak that the administration was suspending delivery of nonlethal supplies. And the administration has always been hesitant to provide much in the way of arms and training to the rebel forces.

So we are left with a situation where two increasingly barbaric factions–the government and Hezbollah and the Quds force on one side, the Sunni Islamists on the other–are left to fight it out. Those who take grim satisfaction from this state of affairs should recall the human cost to innocent Syrians–and the strategic cost to the U.S. and its allies if these Sunni and Shiite extremists divide Syria’s soil between them, as appears increasingly likely. Syria is well on its way to becoming what pre-9/11 Afghanistan was–a breeding ground for Islamic extremists. There is nothing inevitable about this outcome–it has been made possible by an abdication of American power and responsibility.

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Will Masud Barzani Become Iraqi President?

It has now been more than a year since Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a debilitating stroke. And while Kurdish authorities have recently released another photograph showing that despite persistent rumors he is still alive, the refusal to allow visitors or release any video of Talabani speaking seems to suggest that concerns about his mental and physical abilities are warranted. It is understood across the Iraqi ethnic, sectarian, and political spectrum that Talabani will not return. And while Iraqis are willing to maintain the fiction that he is still president, they have been discussing for months his successor.

Visiting Basra, Baghdad, and Kirkuk last summer, I was surprised to hear a suggestion from a wide range of officials that Masud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, might take over as Iraq’s president after next year’s elections.

While it might seem illogical that Barzani would move to Baghdad, it’s actually not so farfetched. Barzani might like to depict himself as a Kurdish nationalist leader, but that’s always been more a means to an end rather than the end itself. For Barzani, power, money, and title trumps Kurdish nationalism: How else to explain Barzani inviting Saddam Hussein’s hated Republican Guards to Erbil in 1996, or more recently his efforts to undercut Kurdish autonomy in Syrian Kurdistan, or his willingness to cooperate with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to undercut Kurdish officials inside Turkey. Being president of Iraq can be a lucrative position, and Masud—who lives in a former mountaintop resort he confiscated for his own personal use—likes the finer things in life.

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It has now been more than a year since Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a debilitating stroke. And while Kurdish authorities have recently released another photograph showing that despite persistent rumors he is still alive, the refusal to allow visitors or release any video of Talabani speaking seems to suggest that concerns about his mental and physical abilities are warranted. It is understood across the Iraqi ethnic, sectarian, and political spectrum that Talabani will not return. And while Iraqis are willing to maintain the fiction that he is still president, they have been discussing for months his successor.

Visiting Basra, Baghdad, and Kirkuk last summer, I was surprised to hear a suggestion from a wide range of officials that Masud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, might take over as Iraq’s president after next year’s elections.

While it might seem illogical that Barzani would move to Baghdad, it’s actually not so farfetched. Barzani might like to depict himself as a Kurdish nationalist leader, but that’s always been more a means to an end rather than the end itself. For Barzani, power, money, and title trumps Kurdish nationalism: How else to explain Barzani inviting Saddam Hussein’s hated Republican Guards to Erbil in 1996, or more recently his efforts to undercut Kurdish autonomy in Syrian Kurdistan, or his willingness to cooperate with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to undercut Kurdish officials inside Turkey. Being president of Iraq can be a lucrative position, and Masud—who lives in a former mountaintop resort he confiscated for his own personal use—likes the finer things in life.

The Iranian government, for its part, is also in favor of a Barzani presidency. Their reason, according to various Iraqi politicians, is more Machiavellian: If Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is seen as Tehran’s man in Baghdad (an exaggerated characterization as Maliki is an Iraqi nationalist, but he does listen and consider quite carefully what the Iranians say), then Nechirvan Barzani, currently the prime minister in Iraqi Kurdistan, is Iran’s man in Erbil, paying as much deference if not more to Qods Force chief Qasim Suleimani and the other powers that be in Tehran as Maliki does. If Masud Barzani goes to Baghdad, and the Kurds eliminate the presidency in favor of a stronger premiership, then the Islamic Republic figures it’s game, set, match in Iraq, with Masud Barzani shunted off to some honorary position. That U.S. officials also find Nechirvan (and Maliki) professionals seems to suggest that both have the support of the powers whose opinion still counts in Iraq.

Masud is being coy, but he seems to want the job. He is term-limited, and his second term as president should have ended several months ago. He has illegally extended his term to remain president for a couple more years, but that might simply be to wait until the spot formally opens in Baghdad. Certainly, Barzani’s rivals would be glad to have him out of Kurdistan, be it for selfish reasons or because Barzani’s tribal mentality has always held back more progressive forces.

There are problems with such a scenario. It’s bad for Iraq, for it confirms—in the word of one Iraqi official—the transactional nature of Iraqi politics, and sets Iraq down the path of the Lebanon model of confessional (and ethnic) politics. And Barzani does not have Talabani’s talent. He seldom sees the big picture and often exacerbates conflict rather than calms it. Many Sunni Arabs may be upset that they will not achieve the presidency, even if Usama al-Nujayfi wields more power as speaker of parliament. Masud’s eldest son Masrour might also cause trouble if left out: He sees himself as a natural successor to his father, and would object to the far more talented Nechirvan Barzani effectively becoming the kingmaker in Kurdistan.

It’s a game of thrones right now in Iraq, and it looks like Masud Barzani might win the title of which he’s always dreamed, even if the reason has less to do with his individual talents and more to do with others seeking to rise up in his place. While Maliki’s reelection remains uncertain (another sign that Iraq is not the dictatorship some claim; not too many autocrats have to fight for their political lives at the ballot box), Barzani’s new role at this point in time seems a sure thing. Whether the United States is ready for that scenario: well, that’s another question whose answer is far from clear.

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The Diaspora’s Stake in Conservative Judaism

Over at Mosaic, Bar-Ilan University’s Rabbi Joshua Berman has written an absorbing essay on common law and statutory law in Jewish observance. The response pieces Mosaic has published are thoughtful as well, but there’s a side issue touched on in Berman’s piece and addressed more intently by David Golinkin that warrants more attention: namely, how all this applies to Conservative Judaism.

The reason it deserves attention is not only because the identity—and, therefore, the fate—of Conservative Judaism is less stable than that of the Orthodox or Reform. It is also because the survival of Conservative Judaism is far more important to the American Jewish Diaspora than is often appreciated or understood. Its diminishing prospects should be troubling not only to its adherents but, arguably, to its competition.

I say this as an Orthodox Jew, but one who spent a portion of his childhood in Conservative shuls, day schools, and youth groups. And therein lies the contradiction of Conservative Judaism’s fading promise. Berman writes that unlike Reform but like Orthodox Jews, Conservative authorities accept “the binding authority of halakhah,” although they give much weight to common-law practices, which allow the movement flexibility. Berman writes that this may be a legitimate talmudic tradition, but it comes at the price of Jewish unity:

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Over at Mosaic, Bar-Ilan University’s Rabbi Joshua Berman has written an absorbing essay on common law and statutory law in Jewish observance. The response pieces Mosaic has published are thoughtful as well, but there’s a side issue touched on in Berman’s piece and addressed more intently by David Golinkin that warrants more attention: namely, how all this applies to Conservative Judaism.

The reason it deserves attention is not only because the identity—and, therefore, the fate—of Conservative Judaism is less stable than that of the Orthodox or Reform. It is also because the survival of Conservative Judaism is far more important to the American Jewish Diaspora than is often appreciated or understood. Its diminishing prospects should be troubling not only to its adherents but, arguably, to its competition.

I say this as an Orthodox Jew, but one who spent a portion of his childhood in Conservative shuls, day schools, and youth groups. And therein lies the contradiction of Conservative Judaism’s fading promise. Berman writes that unlike Reform but like Orthodox Jews, Conservative authorities accept “the binding authority of halakhah,” although they give much weight to common-law practices, which allow the movement flexibility. Berman writes that this may be a legitimate talmudic tradition, but it comes at the price of Jewish unity:

It is true that in ancient times, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai issued widely divergent rulings and yet retained their standing as partners in a unified Jewish people. But back then there were only “two Torahs,” and adherents of those schools lived in integrated communities. Such ancient precedents have little relevance to the religious and demographic complexity of the contemporary Jewish world. Although I am sympathetic to the Conservative movement’s attempt to invigorate halakhic practice within the best tradition of talmudic jurisprudence, I don’t see how that can be responsibly executed with an eye toward the unity of the Jewish people and of Judaism itself.

Golinkin, a Conservative rabbi, responds that Conservative Judaism’s struggles have less to do with the prominent role of common law and more do to with an inability to strike the right balance:

In my view, one of the reasons for the contraction of the Conservative movement in the U.S. lies in its overemphasis on change and underemphasis on tradition. …

I personally am committed to expanding the roles of women in Judaism via organic halakhic change. I have taught the subject for over 30 years and have published two volumes of responsa on the issue, one each in Hebrew and English. Even so, I think that Gottleib’s critique is correct. The Conservative movement has focused so much on changes in halakhah that it has forgotten to stress the observance of halakhah. It is perfectly permissible to change certain laws and customs using the tools and methods of halakhah, provided that you are fully committed to halakhah and the halakhic system. I have advocated for years that Conservative Jews must be committed to tradition and willing to make changes within that halakhic tradition. Both are needed for a healthy legal system.

The challenge for someone like Golinkin, of course, is that once halakha becomes subject to cultural norms increasingly out of step with Jewish tradition, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that so much of that tradition is optional. To put it another way: what’s the use of stressing tradition if the community is empowered to break with that tradition? Any aspect of it deemed relevant doesn’t need to be encouraged, and any part deemed obsolete will be rendered as such with the imprimatur of the community’s rabbinic leadership. Further, doesn’t such a situation invert the historical relationship between rabbi and congregation?

That is the question Conservative Judaism must answer: what is sacred and untouchable? To the Orthodox, everything is sacred. To the Reform, nothing is untouchable. Can Conservative Judaism offer both without undermining them? The demographic trajectory of Conservative Judaism suggests the answer is no.

If that’s the case, what do we, as American Jews, lose? More than we seem willing to acknowledge, I think. The pluralist spectrum of American Jewish life—the mosaic—has historically played two roles that distinguished it from the rest of the Diaspora. The first is that it eventually grew to offer a menu of options uniquely American in its comprehensiveness. Whatever your particular religious disposition, American Judaism, like America itself, had a place for you in its theological marketplace.

The second was that this array of options meant each was near its closest variant on either side. It may sound contradictory, but this had its own kind of unity to it. Haredim may not have much, if anything, in common with Reform Jews, but Haredim do understand, say, the modern Orthodox. Modern Orthodox Jews have a fair amount in common with the now-rare “Conservadox”—right-leaning Conservatives—who in turn share their customs with mainstream Conservative Jews. Those mainstream Conservative Jews are theologically close to their more liberal Conservative congregants, who in turn aren’t far from practicing Reform Jews, and so on and so forth.

What happens when the center contracts, then, is that it puts distance between Jews of differing observance. It also forces a choice on many Jews, since the nuances of American Jewish life have faded. That choice sometimes results in a person choosing Orthodoxy—a result to be celebrated for its obvious contribution to Jewish continuity. But when there is no longer a stepladder to observant Judaism, and instead only a leap, that leap may be too far for some. If it’s all or nothing, then nothing will be a more viable option.

Perhaps this oversimplifies the issue, but if so, not by much. If Golinkin is right, and a renewed focus on halakhic observance and tradition can revivify Conservative Judaism, American Judaism itself will be revitalized. If not, more will be lost than Conservative synagogue membership dues.

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What Threatens Peace? Houses or Terror?

The news that Israel is preparing to announce permissions for new housing starts in Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement blocs is causing predictable consternation in the international community. The Palestinian Authority is claiming the building of these homes threatens the peace process. European nations are expressing their unhappiness with rumblings about a “harsh response” that may go beyond their previous efforts to restrict economic cooperation with the Jewish state so as to exclude anything to do with the settlements. Prime Minister Netanyahu can also expect U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to be upset since he has gone on record as branding the Jewish presence beyond the cease-fire lines of June 4, 1967 as “illegitimate.”

Why is Netanyahu doing it? The consensus answer is domestic politics. Having agreed to release more convicted Palestinian terrorists next month, he is hoping to keep his coalition together by throwing a bone to his right-wing supporters in the form of housing starts. But even settlement movement supporters are no more thrilled with a policy that somehow equates building homes with sending unrepentant murderers of Jews back to a hero’s welcome than is the PA about an announcement of new houses within existing settlements. Considering that it is unlikely that these homes will be built any time soon, if ever, the announcement seems to be a lose-lose proposition for the prime minister and his government. But before you join in the chorus of critics lambasting his decision, it is worthwhile to re-examine the question of what is and what is not an obstacle to Middle East peace.

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The news that Israel is preparing to announce permissions for new housing starts in Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement blocs is causing predictable consternation in the international community. The Palestinian Authority is claiming the building of these homes threatens the peace process. European nations are expressing their unhappiness with rumblings about a “harsh response” that may go beyond their previous efforts to restrict economic cooperation with the Jewish state so as to exclude anything to do with the settlements. Prime Minister Netanyahu can also expect U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to be upset since he has gone on record as branding the Jewish presence beyond the cease-fire lines of June 4, 1967 as “illegitimate.”

Why is Netanyahu doing it? The consensus answer is domestic politics. Having agreed to release more convicted Palestinian terrorists next month, he is hoping to keep his coalition together by throwing a bone to his right-wing supporters in the form of housing starts. But even settlement movement supporters are no more thrilled with a policy that somehow equates building homes with sending unrepentant murderers of Jews back to a hero’s welcome than is the PA about an announcement of new houses within existing settlements. Considering that it is unlikely that these homes will be built any time soon, if ever, the announcement seems to be a lose-lose proposition for the prime minister and his government. But before you join in the chorus of critics lambasting his decision, it is worthwhile to re-examine the question of what is and what is not an obstacle to Middle East peace.

This is a moment when terrorism against the Jewish state is on the rise. Rockets are flying from Gaza into southern Israel. And Israel’s supposed peace partners continue to say they will never recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Yet the world is about to pounce on Israel for having the temerity to state its intention to build houses. If that doesn’t tell you all you have to know about the skewed moral compass of Israel’s critics and the lopsided morality of Middle East peace processing, nothing will.

Let’s first walk back the assumption that is treated as self-evident by the Obama administration and the rest of the foreign-policy establishment: that building these homes makes peace less likely. This is simply false.

Furthermore, the existence of settlements over the green line would not prevent their removal if the Palestinians were ever to make the leap the world has been waiting for them to make for decades: to renounce the conflict and recognize that Israel is the Jewish state which will never be toppled so as to create another Arab majority state. Until the PA renounces the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees and stops treating pre-1967 Israel as “occupied territory,” there is nothing to talk about.

It should also be understood that Israel is not building more settlements, merely allowing natural growth inside the communities that have existed for decades.

Even more to the point, the peace agreement that Kerry, liberal pundits, and others all say is well known is one in which the areas where these homes will be built will remain inside Israel. The accord that “everybody knows” and which we are endlessly told merely has to be acknowledged by Israel isn’t going to be one where the 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem are handed over to the Palestinians. Nor are the major settlement blocs going to be razed and their population evicted. Even President Obama has said that they will be accommodated by territorial swaps.

The Palestinians can have their state in almost all of the West Bank and even part of Jerusalem without having a single one of these homes or most of the settlements touched. Why then is there such consternation about building in an area that won’t change hands even in the unlikely event that peace is achieved?

Unless the administration and the Europeans are as committed to the proposition that hundreds of thousands of Jews will be tossed out of their homes in Jerusalem, its suburbs, and the other blocs close to the ’67 lines, making a fuss about building in these places is a red herring designed to obfuscate the real problems of the region rather than focusing on a matter of vital interest.

Far more troubling for the future of the region is the current surge in terrorism taking place in the West Bank as well as the increase in missile firings from Gaza. Contrary to the conventional wisdom about the Middle East that is routinely published in the mainstream media, this is not part of a cycle of violence for which both Israelis and Palestinians are equally to blame. Rather it is a function of Palestinian politics in which the Islamists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are competing with equally radical segments of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah Party. None of these groups is prepared to accept true peace with Israel on any terms, even if not a single Jew were left on the other side of the 1967 lines. Until a sea change in Palestinian politics occurs that will enable their leaders to embrace peace—something that Hamas control of Gaza currently makes impossible—diplomacy doesn’t have a chance.

By threatening Israel with another intifada if it does not make more concessions to the Palestinians, Kerry has set in motion a train of events in which Palestinian rejectionists feel justified, indeed encouraged, in engaging in violence. A U.S. policy that treats houses as more of a threat to peace than terrorism is one that is not only bound to fail but is also likely to make the situation worse.

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Tweet Tweet

What is it about communicating in 140 characters or less that makes people stupid? Idiotic Twitter faux pas are now just something we’ve come to expect. And the latest Twittiocy might seem to put even Anthony Weiner to shame (if such were possible). 

Justine Sacco, head of corporate communications for media conglomerate IAC, just before hopping on a plane for a vacation in South Africa, tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” 

As Ms. Sacco wended her Internet-less way through the skies in blissful ignorance, her tweet went viral, and all hell broke loose. She was given the heave-ho by her bosses pretty much as soon as her plane landed, and her Twitter account disappeared. Ms. Sacco has now issued the obligatory apology for the “insensitivity” of her tweet and for the “pain” she caused–to AIDS victims, to black people, to South Africa.

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What is it about communicating in 140 characters or less that makes people stupid? Idiotic Twitter faux pas are now just something we’ve come to expect. And the latest Twittiocy might seem to put even Anthony Weiner to shame (if such were possible). 

Justine Sacco, head of corporate communications for media conglomerate IAC, just before hopping on a plane for a vacation in South Africa, tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” 

As Ms. Sacco wended her Internet-less way through the skies in blissful ignorance, her tweet went viral, and all hell broke loose. She was given the heave-ho by her bosses pretty much as soon as her plane landed, and her Twitter account disappeared. Ms. Sacco has now issued the obligatory apology for the “insensitivity” of her tweet and for the “pain” she caused–to AIDS victims, to black people, to South Africa.

This incident was not, it turns out, Ms. Sacco’s first venture into Interweb … um … liveliness. Her now-defunct Twitter profile, for example, describes her thus: “CorpComms at IAC. Troublemaker on the side. Also known for my loud laugh.” And a couple of years ago, she tweeted, “I had a sex dream about an autistic kid last night.”

This woman is (or was, anyway) in the PR biz! Now, I happen to be in that business myself, and one of its key tenets has always been, “never say anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times.” So, what in the world was she thinking?

The answer (obviously)? Not much. Was she trying to squeeze tragic irony into her allotted 140? Perhaps; maybe even likely. But, really, tragic irony can’t possibly translate well in four sentences dashed off on the way from one plane to another. Especially when your goal is to impress the blogosphere with your snappy cleverness. 

Soberer heads are in the process of turning Twitter into a rather more sedate business and political communications tool; but it’s safe to say that the careless, the feckless, and the downright stupid will find themselves a new digital pathway.

Let’s not forget, after all, that the social media revolution was brought to us by those models of thoughtless, insensitive stupidity (and here I do apologize in advance for any pain I may cause)–college kids.

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Is Egypt Headed Back Toward Civil War?

If Egypt’s new military rulers–pretty much the same as the old, only more truculent–want to ignite a civil war, they’re going about it the right way. Not only are they prosecuting the senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they are also outlawing the entire organization as a terrorist entity and targeting its funding.

That is hitting the hospitals operated by the Islamic Medical Association, a Brotherhood offshoot which serves roughly a million, mostly poor, patients every year in a country where public medical care is poor to nonexistent. Already the hospitals are seeing fewer patients because ordinary people are scared of associating with the Brotherhood; if the government crackdown continues, the hospitals could close altogether. That is not going to endear the military leadership to the populace in whose name they claim to rule.

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If Egypt’s new military rulers–pretty much the same as the old, only more truculent–want to ignite a civil war, they’re going about it the right way. Not only are they prosecuting the senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they are also outlawing the entire organization as a terrorist entity and targeting its funding.

That is hitting the hospitals operated by the Islamic Medical Association, a Brotherhood offshoot which serves roughly a million, mostly poor, patients every year in a country where public medical care is poor to nonexistent. Already the hospitals are seeing fewer patients because ordinary people are scared of associating with the Brotherhood; if the government crackdown continues, the hospitals could close altogether. That is not going to endear the military leadership to the populace in whose name they claim to rule.

Nor is the military limiting its crackdown to Islamists. It is also jailing more secular pro-democracy activists and bloggers who led the original demonstrations that overthrow Hosni Mubarak.

Already there are signs of a backlash against the military crackdown. A few days ago the police headquarters in the town of Mansour was leveled by a bomb, killing at least 14 people. That brings the toll of police officers killed since August to more than 150. As the New York Times notes, “The attacks have affected police morale, officers said, and raised troubling questions about the government’s ability to secure the country in the face of increasingly frequent attacks by militants.”

And it is not just police officers who are being targeted. Recently a crude pipe bomb went off on a public bus in Cairo, injuring at least five.

These are small, early signs of how the Brotherhood and other, even more extreme Islamists are capable of hitting back against the security forces, and they run the risk of expanding into a higher level of violence that will make it impossible for the generals to revive the Egyptian economy, which depends so heavily on tourism. (Would you travel to Egypt today with your kids?)

Field Marshal Sisi, Egypt’s actual ruler today, and his subordinates in the military hierarchy appear to be punch drunk from the wave of affection that greeted their usurpation of power last summer. At that point the people of Egypt were sick of Brotherhood mismanagement and open to a more effective, secular alternative. Even many Brotherhood leaders saw that they were losing popularity and were no doubt open to some kind of accommodation with the military. By taking such a hard line, however, the military is pressing its luck and risking sending Egypt down the vortex of civil strife.

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Shinzo Abe’s Provocation

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is making predictable waves with his provocative visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s war dead–including a number of war criminals from World War II. He is trying, half-heartedly, to pass this off as a normal visit akin to a U.S. president visiting Arlington National Cemetery, but anyone who has ever been to Yasukuni knows that’s not the case. Right next to the shrine is a museum commemorating Japan’s 20th-century wars, which are presented from an imperialistic and militaristic slant in which the Rape of Nanking is not mentioned, the U.S. is blamed for provoking the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the kamikaze pilots are glorified for their devotion to the nation.

Abe knows all of this, and he knows how Japan’s neighbors perceive high-level visits to the Shrine–about the same way as a bull perceives a waving red cape. So what is he up to? The obvious explanation is that he is enhancing his domestic popularity, already high, by catering to his right-wing supporters. He may also feel that China and South Korea have shown little interest in rapprochement with Japan so he has nothing to lose by doing what he has wanted to do all along.

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is making predictable waves with his provocative visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s war dead–including a number of war criminals from World War II. He is trying, half-heartedly, to pass this off as a normal visit akin to a U.S. president visiting Arlington National Cemetery, but anyone who has ever been to Yasukuni knows that’s not the case. Right next to the shrine is a museum commemorating Japan’s 20th-century wars, which are presented from an imperialistic and militaristic slant in which the Rape of Nanking is not mentioned, the U.S. is blamed for provoking the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the kamikaze pilots are glorified for their devotion to the nation.

Abe knows all of this, and he knows how Japan’s neighbors perceive high-level visits to the Shrine–about the same way as a bull perceives a waving red cape. So what is he up to? The obvious explanation is that he is enhancing his domestic popularity, already high, by catering to his right-wing supporters. He may also feel that China and South Korea have shown little interest in rapprochement with Japan so he has nothing to lose by doing what he has wanted to do all along.

Some Japan watchers posit a more conspiratorial explanation for his provocation: By visiting Yasukuni, Abe will enrage China, North Korea, and South Korea, among others, possibly prompting symbolic Chinese retaliation, thereby making the Japanese people feel threatened and making them more receptive to his agenda of rearming Japan and adopting a more aggressive posture in foreign and defense policy.

This sounds plausible to me, but it is also short-sighted on Abe’s part, because he is simply feeding Chinese nationalism and xenophobia–the greatest threats to East Asian security today. He is also making it harder, indeed nearly impossible, for Japan to work together more closely with South Korea on issues of mutual concern, such as the threat from North Korea. Japan and South Korea–both democracies closely aligned with the U.S.–ought to be natural allies, but for that to occur South Korea would have to overcome decades of bitterness over Japan’s imperialistic exploitation of their country. Abe’s visit to Yasukuni makes that nearly impossible.

Abe has the potential to be one of Japan’s greatest prime ministers. He has already achieved a great deal by turning around the Japanese economy, which is emerging from years of stagnation. He will also do much good if he succeeds in expanding Japan’s capacity and scope for military action. Japan is America’s closest ally in Northeast Asia and one that can do a good deal of good by checking the rise of Chinese power. The just-concluded agreement to keep a U.S. marine base on Okinawa by relocating it to a remote part of the island is an example of Abe at his best. The visit to Yasukuni, unfortunately, undermines this achievement and creates needless antagonism toward Japanese rearmament.

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Port Calls and Grand Strategy

The port call is a chief selling point for Navy recruiters. The Navy’s main website, for example, implies that if you join the Navy, you could end up enjoying Spain, Australia, Brazil, or Hong Kong. The truth is obviously more complicated, but there is no doubt that after weeks of round-the-clock, seven-day-a-week work, sailors enjoy getting two or three days off to hang out on the beach or at a hotel swimming pool, have a beer (or three) and enjoy real restaurants. For those more culturally attuned, morale officers arrange a host of tours to do everything from touring vineyards in France, to riding elephants in Thailand, to touring World War II heritage sites in the Philippines. Community service is also an important component of the port call, as chaplains and others arrange tours to help rebuild schools, repair orphanages, or revitalize military cemeteries or other sites.

Many countries, of course, also look forward hosting port calls. When an aircraft carrier pulls into port with 5,000 sailors and aviators, that easily translates into hundreds if not thousands of hotel bookings, restaurant reservations, and shopping–not to mention the husbands, wives, boyfriends, and girlfriends who fly into port to meet their loved ones.

While rest and relaxation is important, too often the strategic aspect of the port call seems to be downplayed. Ask any sailor, and they would be far happier to be in Phuket or Pattaya, Thailand, than in Cambodia, where the tourist infrastructure is far less developed. Likewise, Singapore is far more popular a destination than Sri Lanka. For smaller ships, Malaga, Spain, has far more infrastructure than Dakhla, in the Moroccan Sahara (even if the kite surfing is better at the latter).

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The port call is a chief selling point for Navy recruiters. The Navy’s main website, for example, implies that if you join the Navy, you could end up enjoying Spain, Australia, Brazil, or Hong Kong. The truth is obviously more complicated, but there is no doubt that after weeks of round-the-clock, seven-day-a-week work, sailors enjoy getting two or three days off to hang out on the beach or at a hotel swimming pool, have a beer (or three) and enjoy real restaurants. For those more culturally attuned, morale officers arrange a host of tours to do everything from touring vineyards in France, to riding elephants in Thailand, to touring World War II heritage sites in the Philippines. Community service is also an important component of the port call, as chaplains and others arrange tours to help rebuild schools, repair orphanages, or revitalize military cemeteries or other sites.

Many countries, of course, also look forward hosting port calls. When an aircraft carrier pulls into port with 5,000 sailors and aviators, that easily translates into hundreds if not thousands of hotel bookings, restaurant reservations, and shopping–not to mention the husbands, wives, boyfriends, and girlfriends who fly into port to meet their loved ones.

While rest and relaxation is important, too often the strategic aspect of the port call seems to be downplayed. Ask any sailor, and they would be far happier to be in Phuket or Pattaya, Thailand, than in Cambodia, where the tourist infrastructure is far less developed. Likewise, Singapore is far more popular a destination than Sri Lanka. For smaller ships, Malaga, Spain, has far more infrastructure than Dakhla, in the Moroccan Sahara (even if the kite surfing is better at the latter).

Port calls should be about more than rewarding servicemen with a good time, however. As China rattles its sabre, scheduling a port call in a country like Cambodia (or Vietnam) determined to resist Chinese pressure should outweigh putting yet another ship into dock in Thailand or Singapore. Likewise, as Morocco reforms and shines as the lone stable country in the Sahel, it is clear that it is doing something right. Why not reward it by sending a cruiser or a destroyer into one of its Saharan ports to balance growing Iranian presence in neighboring Mauritania and to reinforce the U.S. policy decision to recognize the Western Sahara as an autonomous region of Morocco, despite Algerian complaints? Morocco is an ally; Algeria is not. It’s that simple. Certainly, the biggest U.S. ships have other considerations: depth of port, general security, and the desire by local governments to host such visits, etc. But it seems that the decision about where to schedule port calls is often haphazard without attention to deeper symbolism and strategy.

At present, the Department of the Navy is re-examining some aspects of port calls in the aftermath of a bribery scandal. Changing business practices is one thing, but perhaps it’s time for Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to articulate just how the port call can be used to enhance American strategy and presence in the world. It’s time the United States use all elements of our power in fulfillment of a larger strategy, not simply muddle through and forfeit such an important diplomatic tool.

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Turkey Scandal’s Al-Qaeda Angle

Turkey’s current corruption scandal has thrown Turkish politics into disarray. For the first time in more than a decade outside of the normal election cycle, ministers are resigning or being forced from office. Egemen Bağış, according to Turkish news reports an apparent target of the corruption probe, urged AKP officials to circle the wagons against the backdrop of a continuing investigation. For his part, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is ranting once again about external conspiracies, although for once he is not blaming Jews, Washington think-tanks, or “the interest rate lobby,” focusing his ire instead on the followers of exiled Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Rather than root out corruption, Erdoğan seems more inclined to punish the investigators.

There may be more than one reason why Erdoğan seeks to muzzle the investigation, whatever the imagery of such actions and whatever the political cost. It’s not just the political embarrassment of presiding over such a scandal. The investigation has already touched Erdoğan’s son Bilal, and it also seems that Erdoğan’s appointees sought to cash in on the gas-for-gold scheme by which Turkey helped Iran avoid sanctions.

Now it seems that the corruption being exposed also has an al-Qaeda angle that harkens back to the Yasin al-Qadi affair. In that case, Cuneyt Zapsu, a close Erdoğan confidant, donated money to Qadi, a Saudi businessman designated by the U.S. Treasury Department to be a “specially designated global terrorist.” Rather than distance himself from Zapsu, the prime minister doubled down and lent Qadi his personal endorsement.

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Turkey’s current corruption scandal has thrown Turkish politics into disarray. For the first time in more than a decade outside of the normal election cycle, ministers are resigning or being forced from office. Egemen Bağış, according to Turkish news reports an apparent target of the corruption probe, urged AKP officials to circle the wagons against the backdrop of a continuing investigation. For his part, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is ranting once again about external conspiracies, although for once he is not blaming Jews, Washington think-tanks, or “the interest rate lobby,” focusing his ire instead on the followers of exiled Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Rather than root out corruption, Erdoğan seems more inclined to punish the investigators.

There may be more than one reason why Erdoğan seeks to muzzle the investigation, whatever the imagery of such actions and whatever the political cost. It’s not just the political embarrassment of presiding over such a scandal. The investigation has already touched Erdoğan’s son Bilal, and it also seems that Erdoğan’s appointees sought to cash in on the gas-for-gold scheme by which Turkey helped Iran avoid sanctions.

Now it seems that the corruption being exposed also has an al-Qaeda angle that harkens back to the Yasin al-Qadi affair. In that case, Cuneyt Zapsu, a close Erdoğan confidant, donated money to Qadi, a Saudi businessman designated by the U.S. Treasury Department to be a “specially designated global terrorist.” Rather than distance himself from Zapsu, the prime minister doubled down and lent Qadi his personal endorsement.

Fast forward to the present day: According to Turkish interlocutors, there are consistent irregularities in 28 government tenders totaling in the tens of billions of dollars, in which kickbacks and other payments were made, a portion of which Turkish investigators believe ended up with al-Qadi’s funds and charities. These funds and charities were then used to support al-Qaeda affiliates and other radical Islamist groups operating in Syria like the Nusra Front. Erdoğan thought he had his plausible denial, but it seems that Turkish government funds supported the growth of these groups, which are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands and which subsumed the more moderate opposition.

President Obama has called Erdoğan one of the five foreign leaders he most trusted. Such trust was entirely undeserved and, given the snowballing revelations about just what Erdoğan and his close associates were doing, seems to increasingly symbolize the lack of Obama’s judgment in picking friends and confidants.

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Is Christie’s Old School Style Marketable?

Even some of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s biggest supporters have always understood that one of his greatest strengths is also a potential weakness. The governor’s blunt manner and the delight he takes in personally taking on opponents helped make him a YouTube star and fueled the talk about a 2016 presidential run. But the same quality that makes people cheer his angry dismissal of foes can also seem overbearing or the mark of a bully. I’ve often wondered whether Christie’s in-your-face style would play as well outside of New Jersey and the New York media market, especially once he began to receive the kind of micro-coverage from the national press corps that any presidential candidate must expect. So while one must take the New York Times’s Christmas present to the governor in the form of a highly critical feature focusing on stories about Christie taking revenge on his foes in the context of liberal fears about his popularity, the article also illustrates how tales of his temper can catch up with him.

The piece, which graced the front page of the holiday edition of the Times, is a compendium of stories about how Christie treats those who cross him. Like many another powerful politician, the governor does not hesitate to use his power to punish critics and political enemies and to reward his friends. In that sense, there is nothing unique about Christie’s behavior. But placed in the context of his well-publicized lack of tolerance for opposing views, it is not entirely unfair to assert that it comes across as bullying. However, the question for Americans about Chris Christie is not only whether they like his personal style but also whether they are ready for a president who embraces the perks of power with the kind of gusto that he exudes.

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Even some of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s biggest supporters have always understood that one of his greatest strengths is also a potential weakness. The governor’s blunt manner and the delight he takes in personally taking on opponents helped make him a YouTube star and fueled the talk about a 2016 presidential run. But the same quality that makes people cheer his angry dismissal of foes can also seem overbearing or the mark of a bully. I’ve often wondered whether Christie’s in-your-face style would play as well outside of New Jersey and the New York media market, especially once he began to receive the kind of micro-coverage from the national press corps that any presidential candidate must expect. So while one must take the New York Times’s Christmas present to the governor in the form of a highly critical feature focusing on stories about Christie taking revenge on his foes in the context of liberal fears about his popularity, the article also illustrates how tales of his temper can catch up with him.

The piece, which graced the front page of the holiday edition of the Times, is a compendium of stories about how Christie treats those who cross him. Like many another powerful politician, the governor does not hesitate to use his power to punish critics and political enemies and to reward his friends. In that sense, there is nothing unique about Christie’s behavior. But placed in the context of his well-publicized lack of tolerance for opposing views, it is not entirely unfair to assert that it comes across as bullying. However, the question for Americans about Chris Christie is not only whether they like his personal style but also whether they are ready for a president who embraces the perks of power with the kind of gusto that he exudes.

The problem that this story, and the scores like it that will follow from a national media eager to take Christie down in the years that still separate us from the formal start of the 2016 campaign, is that there is a fine line that separates a truth-telling man of the people, as the governor’s friends think of him, from that of the public bully that comes across in the Times story. Voters love it when Christie tells his critics to go to hell not just because they often agree with him but because they like the authenticity he projects. Unlike so many in our political class, there is no deception or posing with Christie. He tells us what he thinks and dares us to disagree in a manner that speaks well for his integrity, especially when compared with most of the products of a political culture in which every utterance or gesture is poll-tested before being trotted out. If he thinks someone is misrepresenting him or his policies, he says so in unvarnished terms that leave little doubt of his opinion. His willingness to say what he thinks and to show his emotions and even his disdain gives him credibility because what Americans most want from their political leaders is honesty.

But it must be admitted there is a point when such conduct can cross the line into rudeness and ill humor that speaks more to Christie’s natural irascibility than it does his candor. That is a danger to his prospects in 2016 simply because likeability often counts more in presidential politics than anything else. That means that if Christie is to succeed, in the next two years he’s going to have to work just as hard at showing the more attractive aspects of his personality than in lashing out. That shouldn’t be a problem, as he has already shown us that he has a good sense of humor, including the ability to laugh at himself (as his pulling a donut out of his pocket on David Letterman’s show illustrated), as well as having the kind of quirks (such as his struggles with his weight and his devotion to Bruce Springsteen) that will humanize him in ways that Mitt Romney was never able to do. But it is an open question whether the examples of temper tantrums and exaction of revenge on political critics and foes will outnumber the instances of the more appealing aspects of his personality as the run-up to the primaries continues.

But just as important is the question of whether we are really ready for an old-school style politician who isn’t shy about using raw power in open view. While all of our recent presidents have sought to help their friends and to punish their enemies, modern national political figures have preferred to pose as being above such petty concerns. We haven’t had a president who consistently allowed himself to be seen acting in this manner since the days of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. Needless to say that is not the sort of comparison Christie or any other 2016 contender would like and it is exactly the reason that the Times and other mainstream liberal outlets will work hard to establish this image.

Yet in an era in which the most popular complaint about Congress and other branches of government is one of dysfunction, there may be an opening for a candidate who is not ashamed of exercising power. Christie’s brand is not just that of a tough-talking guy but also as a man who can get things done even if means ruffling feathers and stepping on toes. Whether such a stance will play well in Middle America, especially in southern and western states where conservatives are already skeptical about Christie’s supposed moderation, is open to question. But since a shift to a cuddlier Christie is unlikely and liable to be viewed as fake, if he is to be elected president it will have to be on his own terms. 

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The Problem of the Middle East’s First Sons

The Turkish corruption scandal continues to boil as, in Ankara, the ministers of finance, interior, and environment have resigned. The latter, Erdoğan Bayraktar, went even further, calling on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also to step down. Bayraktar is not simply spitting into the wind. A cabinet reshuffle also claimed Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s widely disliked European Union affairs minister. As I wrote here last week, the investigation also appears to be closing in on Prime Minister Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan.

That rumors of shady business surround the prime minister’s son surprises no one. Years ago, as Prime Minister Erdoğan sought to explain his sudden increase in wealth that far outpaced his salary by suggesting that his mansions and millions of dollars were due to wedding gifts given to his son. Alas, when it comes to the Middle East—and, make no mistake, Erdoğan has moved Turkey so far from Europe and into the Middle Eastern sphere that it cannot be extricated—the problem of first sons is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

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The Turkish corruption scandal continues to boil as, in Ankara, the ministers of finance, interior, and environment have resigned. The latter, Erdoğan Bayraktar, went even further, calling on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also to step down. Bayraktar is not simply spitting into the wind. A cabinet reshuffle also claimed Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s widely disliked European Union affairs minister. As I wrote here last week, the investigation also appears to be closing in on Prime Minister Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan.

That rumors of shady business surround the prime minister’s son surprises no one. Years ago, as Prime Minister Erdoğan sought to explain his sudden increase in wealth that far outpaced his salary by suggesting that his mansions and millions of dollars were due to wedding gifts given to his son. Alas, when it comes to the Middle East—and, make no mistake, Erdoğan has moved Turkey so far from Europe and into the Middle Eastern sphere that it cannot be extricated—the problem of first sons is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

Moammar Gaddafi had Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, held by the new Libyan government and wanted by the International Criminal Court; and Hosni Mubarak had Alaa and Gamal Mubarak, both awaiting trial on various corruption charges (despite being acquitted in one case last week). Ailing Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s eldest son Bafil is facing trial in Great Britain for defrauding investment partners in Iraqi Kurdistan, while younger son Qubad is neck deep in the family business. Iraqi Kurdish regional president Masud Barzani’s eldest son Masrour is, in theory, the intelligence chief for the autonomous Kurdish government. In practice, according to conversations with human-rights monitors, he uses his position and the security forces he has under his control to ensure businessmen understand that he and his family should get a piece of the pie. When Masud Barzani’s second son Mansour Barzani lost $3.2 million gambling in one of Dubai’s illegal casinos, the Kurdish leader quickly cut short an official visit and left the United Arab Emirates. The pattern continues: Iraqis resent the involvement of Ahmad Maliki, the son of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in businesses which benefit from his father’s position. Such business dealings and relationships go without saying in the monarchies of the Persian Gulf with the exception, of course, of Oman whose ruler Sultan Qaboos is unmarried and has no children.

It is true that such a pattern is not limited to the Middle East. While his father Kofi Annan was secretary-general of the United Nations, Kojo Annan sought to profit from UN deals. And both Africa’s dictatorships and its nascent democracies also see sons of presidents and rulers seeking to cash in on their fathers’ positions.

It may be fashionable to look the other way and pretend such corruption does not occur. Western universities go farther and happily welcome donations of questionable money to honor dictatorial dynasties. But building false images of such countries does no favors, nor does it reflect well on a new generation of rulers that they encourage their sons to accumulate as much money as possible rather than distinguish themselves as doctors, lawyers, or other professionals.

Erdoğan has been fond of describing Turkey as a democracy and bragging for more than a decade about the reforms he claims to have implemented. If attorneys are allowed to question Bilal Erdoğan and, if warranted, force him to face justice as a man equal to any Turk or Kurd in Turkey, then he should be congratulated for standing on principle. If he wants his son to stand above justice, however, then Recep Tayyip Erdoğan confirms the notion that Turkey is no democracy and  he himself is little more than yet one more self-important Middle Eastern potentate.

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