Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 3, 2013

Ambassador Is Proxy Target for Israel’s Foes

Ron Dermer hasn’t yet even been formally credentialed in Washington, but the criticisms of him are already starting. As a feature in Politico Magazine published today noted, many on the Hill and in the White House, as well as Israel’s open foes, consider it to be open season on the new Israeli ambassador to the United States. In the piece written by JTA’s Ron Kampeas, it was made clear that the administration and some Democrats are unhappy about Dermer’s appointment since they are angry about the possibility that he will lobby Congress to undermine the White House position on nuclear negotiations with Iran or see him as a natural ally of President Obama’s Republican foes.

But complaints about Dermer have little to do with unfair accusations that he will behave inappropriately. As Kampeas illustrated in his account of some of the meetings the new ambassador has already held with members of Congress, Dermer is not looking to get involved in partisan battles that would pit Republicans against Democrats. If Dermer worries some people in Washington, it is because, like his boss Prime Minister Netanyahu, he understands American politics and will be a skilled advocate for his nation rather than a cipher that can be ignored.

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Ron Dermer hasn’t yet even been formally credentialed in Washington, but the criticisms of him are already starting. As a feature in Politico Magazine published today noted, many on the Hill and in the White House, as well as Israel’s open foes, consider it to be open season on the new Israeli ambassador to the United States. In the piece written by JTA’s Ron Kampeas, it was made clear that the administration and some Democrats are unhappy about Dermer’s appointment since they are angry about the possibility that he will lobby Congress to undermine the White House position on nuclear negotiations with Iran or see him as a natural ally of President Obama’s Republican foes.

But complaints about Dermer have little to do with unfair accusations that he will behave inappropriately. As Kampeas illustrated in his account of some of the meetings the new ambassador has already held with members of Congress, Dermer is not looking to get involved in partisan battles that would pit Republicans against Democrats. If Dermer worries some people in Washington, it is because, like his boss Prime Minister Netanyahu, he understands American politics and will be a skilled advocate for his nation rather than a cipher that can be ignored.

Dermer has more than the usual diplomatic battles to fight in Washington. Along with the usual cast of Israel-haters who seek to undermine the alliance between the U.S. and the Jewish state, there are many in the administration who regard Dermer with suspicion because of his personal ties to Republicans. Dermer is a former American who is the son and brother of Democratic mayors of Miami Beach. But his first job was in the office of Republican consultant Frank Luntz and the book he co-wrote about democracy with another former boss, Natan Sharansky, was embraced by George W. Bush, who said the work exemplified his own freedom agenda.

But what makes him a target for many in the capital and the media is that he is a confidante of Netanyahu and, like the prime minister, knows his way around American culture and politics. Though like his able predecessor Michael Oren Dermer will be careful about never crossing the line between advocacy and lobbying, the administration would probably prefer someone at the Israeli Embassy who couldn’t speak to Congress as well as the American people with the same sort of fluency as Dermer will be able to do.

Moreover, most of the brickbats being tossed in Dermer’s direction are not only really aimed at Netanyahu and/or the Jewish state. They are also based on a false reading of the disputes that have roiled the U.S.-Israel alliance in the past five years. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of the mainstream press, it has not been the statements and actions of Netanyahu and his “brain” Dermer that have caused rifts in the relationship. Rather, it has been the president’s picking of fights with Israel and policy shifts such as his pursuit of détente with Iran that ignored the Jewish state’s concerns about a weak nuclear deal. Accusations about Netanyahu trying to undermine Obama are really complaints about Israel not knuckling under to U.S. pressure, not evidence of bad behavior on the part of the prime minister or his envoys. Israeli diplomats who aren’t strong advocates tend to get better press than those who aren’t shy about setting Israel’s critics straight.

Those expecting him to diverge from Oren’s oft-repeated theme about the importance and enduring value of the U.S.-Israel alliance are wrong. But neither will he desist from explaining Israel’s concerns to the media and Congress. Moreover, the administration should be glad that in Dermer they have someone with a direct line to the prime minister. If there are further misunderstandings between the two countries, it will clearly be due to the White House’s decision to ignore the Israelis rather than any miscommunications. Though Israel’s critics would prefer to have someone in Dermer’s place who would soft-pedal the country’s valid positions on life and death issues, the idea that the ambassador is disqualified because of his American connections says more about a desire to silence or marginalize him than it does about his suitability for the job.

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Using the Bedouin to Attack Israel

For Israel’s critics, the “day of rage” staged by some Israeli Bedouin is a perfect opportunity to trot out some of their standard cant about the Jewish state stealing Arab land. That was the conceit of a letter signed by many of the British artists and propagandists who can usually be found protesting Israel’s existence or its right to defend itself as well as by a gathering of members of the European Parliament. Others held demonstrations around the world at which sympathy for the Bedouin and contempt for Israel flowed freely. Even some left-wing Jewish groups, like Rabbis for Human Rights, have chimed in with specious comparisons of the government’s actions to Jewish victims of anti-Semitic oppression in Tsarist Russia. But like many of the sins that Israel is charged with by ideological foes, the real story of what is happening with the Bedouin is nothing like the simplistic morality tale of Zionist perfidy that we are hearing.

The Bedouin protests center on an Israeli government plan formulated by former Minister Benny Begin and Udi Prawer, the director of planning in the Prime Minister’s Office, to actually help the poorest segment of the country’s population. The Bedouin are concentrated in the Negev Desert, where they have existed as nomads for generations. A government commission has called for the relocating of some 30,000 of them to new towns where they can receive government services that are impossible to deliver to people roaming the countryside or living in small, scattered shantytowns.

As Haviv Rettig Gur writes, in an excellent analysis of the situation published in the Times of Israel:

Israel has already recognized several of the haphazard tent-cities of the Bedouin “dispersion,” but could not keep doing so indefinitely for the simple reason that the Negev Bedouin are the fastest growing population in the world, according to the Israeli government. They double their population every 15 years, and are expected to reach 300,000 by 2020. There simply isn’t any sustainable way to accommodate such a fast-growing population without municipal planning and multi-story housing.

And nowhere in the EU Parliament’s gathering of Socialists and Democrats could one learn that the Bedouin are being moved just three to five kilometers down the road from their current place of residence, and not out of the country.

While the Israeli Bedouin have legitimate grievances with the government, the notion that they are having their land stolen or being turned into just another group of homeless Palestinian refugees is bunk.

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For Israel’s critics, the “day of rage” staged by some Israeli Bedouin is a perfect opportunity to trot out some of their standard cant about the Jewish state stealing Arab land. That was the conceit of a letter signed by many of the British artists and propagandists who can usually be found protesting Israel’s existence or its right to defend itself as well as by a gathering of members of the European Parliament. Others held demonstrations around the world at which sympathy for the Bedouin and contempt for Israel flowed freely. Even some left-wing Jewish groups, like Rabbis for Human Rights, have chimed in with specious comparisons of the government’s actions to Jewish victims of anti-Semitic oppression in Tsarist Russia. But like many of the sins that Israel is charged with by ideological foes, the real story of what is happening with the Bedouin is nothing like the simplistic morality tale of Zionist perfidy that we are hearing.

The Bedouin protests center on an Israeli government plan formulated by former Minister Benny Begin and Udi Prawer, the director of planning in the Prime Minister’s Office, to actually help the poorest segment of the country’s population. The Bedouin are concentrated in the Negev Desert, where they have existed as nomads for generations. A government commission has called for the relocating of some 30,000 of them to new towns where they can receive government services that are impossible to deliver to people roaming the countryside or living in small, scattered shantytowns.

As Haviv Rettig Gur writes, in an excellent analysis of the situation published in the Times of Israel:

Israel has already recognized several of the haphazard tent-cities of the Bedouin “dispersion,” but could not keep doing so indefinitely for the simple reason that the Negev Bedouin are the fastest growing population in the world, according to the Israeli government. They double their population every 15 years, and are expected to reach 300,000 by 2020. There simply isn’t any sustainable way to accommodate such a fast-growing population without municipal planning and multi-story housing.

And nowhere in the EU Parliament’s gathering of Socialists and Democrats could one learn that the Bedouin are being moved just three to five kilometers down the road from their current place of residence, and not out of the country.

While the Israeli Bedouin have legitimate grievances with the government, the notion that they are having their land stolen or being turned into just another group of homeless Palestinian refugees is bunk.

As Gur notes, there is a disconnect between those purporting to speak on behalf of the Bedouin and most of the members of this group. It should be remembered that although their foreign supporters speak of them as “Palestinians,” the Bedouin are loyal citizens of Israel whose sons serve in the Israel Defense Forces. As is the case in Jordan, the Bedouin and Palestinian Arabs are members of two distinct groups with different histories and identities. The overwhelming majority make no demands about losing land and even the minority that do make such claims have little to back up their claims in the way of proof. Most will not be relocated and some of their towns have been recognized by the government and will receive massive infusions of help to build needed infrastructure.

As Gur and other Israelis who sympathize with the plight of the Bedouin notes, it is entirely possible to argue that those who are being moved from shantytowns with no clean water, sewage, or other amenities to new developments may not be getting enough compensation. There is also the worry that new sites will be inadequate. Certainly, Israel’s history with poorly planned development towns where hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim lands (the truly forgotten refugees) were dumped in the 1950s should worry anyone who contemplates repeating this example with the Bedouin.

But the bottom line here is that if the Bedouin are to receive the government services they need and deserve, many of them are going to have to settle down rather than going on living a nomadic existence that is incompatible with maintaining standards of health, let alone education or opportunity.

The romanticization of nomadic existence in Western literature and imagination helps stoke resentment of Israel’s efforts. But it must be understood that the worst outcome for the Bedouin would be for the Israeli government to simply allow the status quo to continue. If hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens are to be afforded a decent standard of living, the creation of towns where the Bedouin will be able to have clean water, decent housing, and schools is an imperative. To assert that all of the desert must be considered an open range across which the Bedouin must be allowed to roam without taking into consideration the rights or the needs of other Israeli citizens or the wellbeing of the Bedouin themselves currently living in unsanitary and not terribly picturesque tent cities is a position rooted neither in law or good public policy.

But Israel’s critics aren’t really interested in the facts here any more than they can be bothered to understand why the Jewish state had to build a security fence to protect its population against Palestinian suicide bombers or why terrorist enclaves in Gaza could not be allowed to go on lobbing missiles into Southern Israeli towns, villages, and farms. Israel isn’t stealing anyone’s land. What it is confronted with in the Negev is the difficult task of administering a situation in which a pre-modern lifestyle is pit against the realities of a modern state and 21st century expectations of how people can live. While its policies may not be perfect, most of those who purport to wish the Bedouin well are, in fact, merely using them as yet another club with which to beat Israel.

The bottom line here is that the protests being held in Europe and the United States on this issue have little to do with the actual grievances of some of the Bedouin or the rights and wrongs of Israeli government actions toward them. It is merely one more excuse for those who believe the Jews have no right to sovereignty in any part of their ancient homeland to lodge false claims of land theft. Though the Bedouin deserve fair treatment, what those who are using this issue want is unfair treatment for Israel.

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Christie and the RGA: Analyze This

Rarely are Republican Governors Association chairmanships as complex and overanalyzed as Chris Christie’s promises to be. Thanks to a confluence of circumstances, the New Jersey governor’s every action as RGA head now is assumed to be about something else entirely. The phrase “proxy war” is hovering above his young tenure at the RGA, but it’s not always immediately clear which proxy war his actions are conducting.

For example, one gubernatorial race on next year’s calendar is New York’s, where Andrew Cuomo will try to win a second term. The state GOP seems unlikely to put up a candidate who could make the race competitive, and Christie recently met with one prospective GOP nominee, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. Someone told the New York Post’s Fred Dicker that, apparently, Christie was ready to back Astorino against Cuomo. Thus, as Dicker said, next year would provide the first real “Battle between Gov. Cuomo and Chris Christie.”

According to this story line, the possible Cuomo-Astorino race would be a proxy fight between Cuomo and Christie. But Cuomo immediately insisted that, in fact, Christie told him he would not back Cuomo’s opponent. Dicker reported the supposed about-face (Christie says he’s made no commitment) and quoted a GOP operative complaining about the head of the RGA not fully backing a Republican against a prominent Democrat:

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Rarely are Republican Governors Association chairmanships as complex and overanalyzed as Chris Christie’s promises to be. Thanks to a confluence of circumstances, the New Jersey governor’s every action as RGA head now is assumed to be about something else entirely. The phrase “proxy war” is hovering above his young tenure at the RGA, but it’s not always immediately clear which proxy war his actions are conducting.

For example, one gubernatorial race on next year’s calendar is New York’s, where Andrew Cuomo will try to win a second term. The state GOP seems unlikely to put up a candidate who could make the race competitive, and Christie recently met with one prospective GOP nominee, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. Someone told the New York Post’s Fred Dicker that, apparently, Christie was ready to back Astorino against Cuomo. Thus, as Dicker said, next year would provide the first real “Battle between Gov. Cuomo and Chris Christie.”

According to this story line, the possible Cuomo-Astorino race would be a proxy fight between Cuomo and Christie. But Cuomo immediately insisted that, in fact, Christie told him he would not back Cuomo’s opponent. Dicker reported the supposed about-face (Christie says he’s made no commitment) and quoted a GOP operative complaining about the head of the RGA not fully backing a Republican against a prominent Democrat:

“Christie already has a problem with many Republicans refusing to forgive him because of his embrace of [President] Obama and his socially liberal policies,’’ said a nationally prominent GOP operative. “But this bizarre behavior in suggesting he won’t help a Republican defeat a Democratic governor, and a Cuomo no less, could finish off his chances of becoming his party’s nominee for president in 2016,’’ the operative continued.

And so a new proxy war entered the picture. Christie’s decision to back or not to back Astorino against Cuomo was really a geographic fight between a parochial Northeastern Republican and the national GOP, increasingly conservative and ever suspicious of its Northeastern brethren (see Romney, Mitt). Yet as Ben Jacobs notes at the Daily Beast, whether or not Christie devotes resources to backing Astorino would be a pretty silly litmus test for his overall motives:

After all, as head of the RGA, Christie can’t openly support any non-incumbent gubernatorial candidate who has yet to win the GOP’s nomination. Further, as even Dicker admits, Astorino doesn’t stand much of a chance in 2014. Any Republican running statewide in New York would face an uphill battle, let alone one running against a popular and well-financed incumbent like Cuomo. Plus, it’s unclear how much help Christie can offer even if the Westchester County Executive gets the Republican nomination.

The playing field for Republican governors in 2014 isn’t very favorable. The RGA will have to defend incumbents who were elected at the crest of the Tea Party wave in 2010, many of whom, like Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett and Florida Governor Rick Scott, are now deeply unpopular. With limited time and resources to devote to any one race, it might seem less than judicious for Christie to target a popular incumbent in the New York media market rather than focus his efforts on close races in swing states.

That last point is important: it’s expensive to compete in New York, and it will be difficult enough for the GOP to come out of the 2014 gubernatorial elections just holding steady, let alone losing some ground if some of these other contests can’t be salvaged.

But that brings up a third proxy war, and the one that seems like the main event: Christie vs. Cuomo for president. Christie is already expected to run in 2016 (hence the second-guessing from within his party), and Cuomo is thought to at least be considering a run. Cuomo’s decision will probably hinge on whether or not Hillary Clinton runs. If she does jump in the race, which she appears eager to do, a Cuomo decision might wait until some internal polling gets done. Clinton may want to clear the field because she thinks she’ll win anyway, but recent polling suggests she wants to clear the field because she would be far from inevitable if she had any competition.

But Christie surely doesn’t see this as a proxy fight between the two governors. Just as Christie would be mistaken to spend up precious resources fighting for New York as head of the RGA, so too would he be mistaken to spend political capital by hitching his wagon to an unknown underdog when he doesn’t have to. Nor would Christie want to earn the ire of New Yorkers if he can avoid it, since if he runs for president he’ll want New York’s delegates in the primary contest and he’ll want to force the eventual Democratic nominee to have to compete in the Northeast in the general election in states they would have won anyway, just to try to expand the map and spoil Democratic intentions to force the GOP to waste resources defending states like Texas.

And so it’s likely that those overanalyzing Christie’s every step are probably wasting their own time and energy for now. But it does offer some indication of the degree of scrutiny Christie can expect now that, as head of the RGA, he’s officially stepping into a national leadership role.

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Obama’s Iran Deal Left Pastor Behind

While the debate about the nuclear deal with Iran centered on the way it legitimized Iran’s nuclear program, some Americans were devastated by another element of the administration’s rush to create a new détente with the ayatollahs. The family of Pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born American citizen who has been imprisoned by the Islamist regime for religious activities, was shocked that Secretary of State John Kerry signed onto the accord without also securing Abedini’s release. As CNN reported last week, the 33-year-old pastor is in ill heath in a dangerous prison. Given that President Obama let it be known that he had mentioned the fate of the American jailed for his Christian faith in a phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, it was thought that any deal with Tehran, especially one whose terms were so favorable to the regime, would also include Abedini’s freedom. But ten days after Kerry’s “mission accomplished” moment in Geneva, there is no indication that the Iranians have any intention of releasing Abedini.

But as bad as that makes the administration appear, an item first reported by Britain’s Daily Mail over the weekend makes the president’s decision to leave Abedini behind in his zeal for an Iranian deal look even worse. It turns out that the Mojtaba Atarodi, an Iranian scientist who was arrested in the U.S. back in 2011 for his work in trying to purchase equipment for the regime’s nuclear program, was set free in April of this year as part of the price paid by the U.S. for the start of the secret back-channel talks that led to the recent agreement. Along with three other Iranians involved in similar activity, Atarodi was sprung. According to the Daily Mail, in return President Obama got the negotiations he wanted as well as the release of two lost American hikers who were imprisoned when they strayed over the country’s border. But three Americans, including Abedini and retired FBI agent Robert Levinson and former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, remain in Iranian custody (Levinson disappeared in Iran and is unaccounted for). If the president has chosen to ignore the plight of these Americans who have been wrongfully imprisoned by a tyrannical regime and left them to rot in Iranian jails, then the U.S. embrace of Iran is even more disgraceful than even its most strident critics had thought.

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While the debate about the nuclear deal with Iran centered on the way it legitimized Iran’s nuclear program, some Americans were devastated by another element of the administration’s rush to create a new détente with the ayatollahs. The family of Pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born American citizen who has been imprisoned by the Islamist regime for religious activities, was shocked that Secretary of State John Kerry signed onto the accord without also securing Abedini’s release. As CNN reported last week, the 33-year-old pastor is in ill heath in a dangerous prison. Given that President Obama let it be known that he had mentioned the fate of the American jailed for his Christian faith in a phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, it was thought that any deal with Tehran, especially one whose terms were so favorable to the regime, would also include Abedini’s freedom. But ten days after Kerry’s “mission accomplished” moment in Geneva, there is no indication that the Iranians have any intention of releasing Abedini.

But as bad as that makes the administration appear, an item first reported by Britain’s Daily Mail over the weekend makes the president’s decision to leave Abedini behind in his zeal for an Iranian deal look even worse. It turns out that the Mojtaba Atarodi, an Iranian scientist who was arrested in the U.S. back in 2011 for his work in trying to purchase equipment for the regime’s nuclear program, was set free in April of this year as part of the price paid by the U.S. for the start of the secret back-channel talks that led to the recent agreement. Along with three other Iranians involved in similar activity, Atarodi was sprung. According to the Daily Mail, in return President Obama got the negotiations he wanted as well as the release of two lost American hikers who were imprisoned when they strayed over the country’s border. But three Americans, including Abedini and retired FBI agent Robert Levinson and former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, remain in Iranian custody (Levinson disappeared in Iran and is unaccounted for). If the president has chosen to ignore the plight of these Americans who have been wrongfully imprisoned by a tyrannical regime and left them to rot in Iranian jails, then the U.S. embrace of Iran is even more disgraceful than even its most strident critics had thought.

It is possible that the three Americans will yet be ransomed by the administration as part of the follow-up negotiations that are supposed to come after the current agreement’s six-month period expires. There’s also the chance that Iran’s supposed moderates will reward the president for his appeasement of the regime by making a gift of these prisoners, perhaps before Christmas.

But no one who cares about their fate, or indeed about the lamentable state of human rights in Iran, could have taken much comfort from the answer given last week by National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden when asked why Abedini’s freedom had not been part of the deal. She dismissed the appeal by saying the talks in Geneva had “focused exclusively on nuclear issues.”

In other words, even though the president had already made a personal appeal for their release, by the time Kerry and chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman sat down to dicker with the Iranians, there had already been a conscious decision made to abandon the effort to free the Americans.

Was it too much to ask that Abedini and the other imprisoned Americans be let loose before any sanctions relief was delivered to the Iranians? Apparently it was for Obama and his team, who handed over billions in frozen assets to the ayatollahs in exchange for promises but not a single prisoner. Though the impact of economic sanctions and the threat of the use of force that supposedly President Obama has not taken off the table should have given the U.S. leverage to get at least these Americans home, if not a better deal, in his zeal for an agreement at any price, the president left them behind.

Given the way President Obama first ignored and then downplayed Tehran’s crushing of dissident protests back in the summer of 2009, he has already demonstrated that human-rights issues simply aren’t on his agenda in talks with Iran. The human tragedy of the three imprisoned Americans as well as the countless Iranians who suffer at the hands of this despotic Islamist regime doesn’t appear to matter much to him when compared to his obvious desire for better relations with their jailers. The lives of Saeed Abedini and the others in Iranian jails may not seem so important to those who foster delusions about détente with Iran. But if they die in Iranian prisons, their fate should lie heavily on the conscience of this president and all who serve him.

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The Problem with Turkey’s “Zero-Problem” Foreign Policy

With the Iranian nuclear deal dominating news from the Middle East last week, another significant development got less attention than it deserved: the expulsion of Turkey’s ambassador from Egypt. For a country that once boasted of “zero problems with its neighbors,” losing ambassadors in three Mideast countries–Israel, Syria, and Egypt–in roughly two years is no mean feat. To grasp how extraordinary this latest downgrade is, consider the fact that Cairo has never expelled Israel’s ambassador, even during high-tension periods like the second intifada.

This, of course, shows once again that Arab leaders care much less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than their rhetoric might imply. But beyond that, it points to a serious problem with Turkey’s foreign policy that ought to prompt some rethinking in Washington–not only about its reliance on Turkey hitherto as its key Mideast partner, but also about its burgeoning romance with Iran.

Ostensibly, Turkey’s breaks with Israel, Syria, and Egypt are completely unrelated: They were prompted, respectively, by Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza, the Syrian uprising, and Egypt’s military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government. In fact, however, all stem from a common cause: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist worldview and policies.

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With the Iranian nuclear deal dominating news from the Middle East last week, another significant development got less attention than it deserved: the expulsion of Turkey’s ambassador from Egypt. For a country that once boasted of “zero problems with its neighbors,” losing ambassadors in three Mideast countries–Israel, Syria, and Egypt–in roughly two years is no mean feat. To grasp how extraordinary this latest downgrade is, consider the fact that Cairo has never expelled Israel’s ambassador, even during high-tension periods like the second intifada.

This, of course, shows once again that Arab leaders care much less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than their rhetoric might imply. But beyond that, it points to a serious problem with Turkey’s foreign policy that ought to prompt some rethinking in Washington–not only about its reliance on Turkey hitherto as its key Mideast partner, but also about its burgeoning romance with Iran.

Ostensibly, Turkey’s breaks with Israel, Syria, and Egypt are completely unrelated: They were prompted, respectively, by Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza, the Syrian uprising, and Egypt’s military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government. In fact, however, all stem from a common cause: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist worldview and policies.

This worldview is what led him to actively support the flotilla, sponsored by a terror-affiliated Islamist organization, despite knowing violence might ensue; downgrade ties with Israel in a fit of pique after a UN investigation of the incident upheld the legality of Israel’s naval blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza; and refuse to restore them even after President Obama personally brokered a reconciliation deal, since the deal didn’t include ending the blockade. Supporting his fellow Islamists in Hamas trumped realpolitik and his country’s interests.

This is also what led him to actively support the Sunni rebels–and particularly the most radical Islamists among them–against Syria’s Alawite regime, and why he’s never stopped denouncing the Egyptian coup, even as the rest of the world has long since accepted that it’s not only a fait accompli, but enjoys broad popular support. In these cases, too, loyalty to his fellow Islamists trumped realpolitik and his country’s interests.

Such a principled foreign policy might be admirable if it weren’t for one problem: The principle Erdogan is supporting–Islamism–happens to be a destabilizing one. Inter alia, the Islamist governments and movements he’s supported have produced nonstop rocket fire on Israel from Gaza, a brutal civil war in Syria, and governmental abuses and incompetence in Egypt on a scale that generated massive support for the coup. Hence Erdogan’s commitment to his Islamist foreign policy has only further destabilized an unstable region.

Iran, of course, is also committed to Islamism, albeit the Shi’ite rather than the Sunni variety. Indeed, its foreign policy has been even more aggressive and destabilizing than Turkey’s: Witness its support for the Assad regime’s brutality in Syria and for Hezbollah’s virtual takeover of Lebanon. And since Islamism is the Iranian regime’s raison d’etre, no deal with Washington is going to end its commitment to an Islamist foreign policy.   

The lesson for America ought to be that Islamists–even “moderate” ones, to quote the Washington elite’s favorite adjective for both Erdogan and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani–don’t make good foreign-policy partners. Unless, that is, one thinks even more instability in a volatile region is a good idea.

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Bursting the ObamaCare Bubble

After Mitt Romney’s election-night loss to Barack Obama in November 2012, those outside the conservative movement had a ready cure for what ailed the right: stop listening to each other. Or, rather, stop listening to each other so much. Conservatives, we were told, lived in a media bubble of their own making. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf wrote a piece that quickly became the anthem of this bid to get the choir to ditch their preachers.

Around the time of the election, Friedersdorf had been writing a bit obsessively about Rush Limbaugh, so his declaration that conservatives were listening to too much talk radio rang a bit hollow. It’s unclear if conservative talk radio had, at the time, a more dedicated follower than Friedersdorf. Nonetheless, it was true that many conservatives were surprised by Romney’s loss. And even if talk radio wasn’t responsible for the 2012 debacle, exhortations to avoid living in an intellectually closed bubble are worth heeding.

And since liberals were so convinced of the harm that such epistemic closure can have on a political movement, surely they will welcome the new Politico Magazine piece calling attention to something non-liberals knew long ago: on ObamaCare, the leftist media bubble has not only deprived American liberalism of a basic grasp of reality, but has visibly harmed the rest of country because of the still-prevailing dominance of the mainstream media.

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After Mitt Romney’s election-night loss to Barack Obama in November 2012, those outside the conservative movement had a ready cure for what ailed the right: stop listening to each other. Or, rather, stop listening to each other so much. Conservatives, we were told, lived in a media bubble of their own making. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf wrote a piece that quickly became the anthem of this bid to get the choir to ditch their preachers.

Around the time of the election, Friedersdorf had been writing a bit obsessively about Rush Limbaugh, so his declaration that conservatives were listening to too much talk radio rang a bit hollow. It’s unclear if conservative talk radio had, at the time, a more dedicated follower than Friedersdorf. Nonetheless, it was true that many conservatives were surprised by Romney’s loss. And even if talk radio wasn’t responsible for the 2012 debacle, exhortations to avoid living in an intellectually closed bubble are worth heeding.

And since liberals were so convinced of the harm that such epistemic closure can have on a political movement, surely they will welcome the new Politico Magazine piece calling attention to something non-liberals knew long ago: on ObamaCare, the leftist media bubble has not only deprived American liberalism of a basic grasp of reality, but has visibly harmed the rest of country because of the still-prevailing dominance of the mainstream media.

Liberal denialism on ObamaCare has made for some interesting moments, such as when liberals panicked when opening arguments were made at the Supreme Court’s consideration of ObamaCare’s constitutionality. Of course there was a serious question of the individual mandate’s constitutionality, and of course the justices would consider such arguments. But the Supreme Court case, naturally, followed lower-court considerations of the issue. How is it that liberals managed to not hear any of the basic arguments of the case until it was before the Supreme Court? How did they manage to close themselves off from political discourse that didn’t conform to their ideological orthodoxy for so long?

And how is it that the exposure in October 2013 as a complete and utter falsehood of Barack Obama’s central promise–that you could keep your health insurance or doctor under ObamaCare–could count as a revelation? The White House knew it was false. So did conservatives, whose other warnings about the reform law also turned out to be prescient. When it came to ObamaCare, conservatives knew what they were talking about and liberals were mired in delusion. Politico Magazine tries to explain this phenomenon by pointing out that the same mainstream media that conservatives are being told to heed carefully are largely responsible for the uninformed public:

Although the media spoke or wrote zillions of words about the ACA, relatively few explained in meaningful ways what the law was all about, who would be affected by it and how—in short, how would it affect peoples’ lives and why they should care. The media, for the most part, fell down on the job when it came to dissecting the promises made by supporters (for example, that people could keep their insurance and their doctors); who would pay for the subsidies; why essential benefits were important; and why there had to be an individual mandate with penalties for not buying insurance. And there’s no question most of us failed to dig into the most basic question of all: Would the darn thing work?

What the press delivered instead was mostly a conversation among policy wonks and Beltway political elites without letting in the people who would be most affected by the nostrums they were prescribing. The public was the victim of a messaging war, with much of the conversation shaped by spin and talking points. And as in all wars, truth is the first casualty. Americans needed clear, direct explanations, honesty, dot connection and a probe of the carefully crafted words that came to define the debate. Yes, there were plenty of fact-checkers keeping watch, but as press critic and political scientist Brendan Nyhan has pointed out, these services can fall short. Their one-the-one hand, on-the-other hand format often confuses more than illuminates. Against this backdrop, the backlash of the last few weeks was probably inevitable.

There’s plenty more, and the whole thing is worth a read. It’s damning, though it’s probably still too kind to its subject. One reason conservatives were right and liberals were wrong about ObamaCare is that they were essentially having two different conversations. Conservatives were treating health-care reform as a policy issue. So they correctly explained what the health-policy implications would be thanks to the design of the law.

To the left, however, the health-policy implications were close to irrelevant. They viewed ObamaCare simply as a wealth transfer, as a financial insurance plan. I explained yesterday why this is wrong in many cases as well. And that also explains why the website’s disastrous rollout garnered such attention from across the ideological divide, but especially, and finally, from the left. Liberals by and large weren’t troubled by the fact that ObamaCare kicked people off their insurance plans. The key question was: can lower-income Americans sign up for this wealth transfer? When the website failed, the answer was no.

There are a great many scandalous aspects of ObamaCare. This is the one that captivated the left because it’s the only one–the confiscation of some Americans’ money to give to others, under the guise of insurance reform–that endangered what they see as ObamaCare’s core mission.

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The ObamaCare PR Reset Won’t Work

Today the White House returns to what it does best. Unfortunately, that isn’t governing; it’s campaigning. So after two months of a disastrous ObamaCare rollout, instead of sitting down and figuring out the implications of a bill that still aren’t fully understood and why the healthcare.gov website is still not fully functional, the president is about to hit the road in full campaign mode to sell the country on the bill’s benefits and blaming all of its problems on Republicans. The point of this new push is public relations, not policy. The administration has been flummoxed by its inability to control the ObamaCare narrative after the website didn’t work and the nation discovered that the president’s promises about people keeping their insurance and doctors if they liked them proved to be a lie. So their answer is to go back to their strengths that won the 2012 election: captivating the nation with the magic of Obama’s personality and scapegoating the GOP.

Will it work? Anyone who underestimates the president’s still potent powers of persuasion is making a mistake. It’s also probably foolish to think that the mainstream media that has gone off the reservation in recent months won’t respond to Obama’s planned three-week-long dog-and-pony show as they always did before he was mired in a spate of second-term scandals and disasters. But the problem with the administration’s strategy is that recasting the ObamaCare narrative will require more than a good public-relations strategy. So long as the website doesn’t work, millions are losing their coverage and being faced with higher costs and with the implications of the new insurance landscape still a question for the majority of Americans who are covered by their employers, a few presidential speeches and events highlighting the minority that will undoubtedly benefit from the bill won’t change the narrative.

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Today the White House returns to what it does best. Unfortunately, that isn’t governing; it’s campaigning. So after two months of a disastrous ObamaCare rollout, instead of sitting down and figuring out the implications of a bill that still aren’t fully understood and why the healthcare.gov website is still not fully functional, the president is about to hit the road in full campaign mode to sell the country on the bill’s benefits and blaming all of its problems on Republicans. The point of this new push is public relations, not policy. The administration has been flummoxed by its inability to control the ObamaCare narrative after the website didn’t work and the nation discovered that the president’s promises about people keeping their insurance and doctors if they liked them proved to be a lie. So their answer is to go back to their strengths that won the 2012 election: captivating the nation with the magic of Obama’s personality and scapegoating the GOP.

Will it work? Anyone who underestimates the president’s still potent powers of persuasion is making a mistake. It’s also probably foolish to think that the mainstream media that has gone off the reservation in recent months won’t respond to Obama’s planned three-week-long dog-and-pony show as they always did before he was mired in a spate of second-term scandals and disasters. But the problem with the administration’s strategy is that recasting the ObamaCare narrative will require more than a good public-relations strategy. So long as the website doesn’t work, millions are losing their coverage and being faced with higher costs and with the implications of the new insurance landscape still a question for the majority of Americans who are covered by their employers, a few presidential speeches and events highlighting the minority that will undoubtedly benefit from the bill won’t change the narrative.

Up until the last couple of months, both Democrats and Republicans had assumed that once the benefits to the poor started flowing from ObamaCare the popularity of this new example of government largesse would make the bill untouchable. Thus, the president believes that all he needs to do to turn back the page to where we were before October is to spend enough time and energy highlighting those who stand to gain from the plan.

That seems to make sense, especially when you assume, as he clearly does, that as long as he is out in front of the camera speaking, the press and public opinion will be in his pocket. Surely, if the White House works hard enough to put on a saleable production starring the 44th president accompanied by those with hard luck stories designed to pluck at the nation’s heartstrings, there should be no problem in diverting attention from the website. And if that is combined with a full-court press aimed at blaming ObamaCare’s problems on an obstructionist and unpopular Republican Party, White House strategists are sure that their current problems will soon be overcome if not completely forgotten.

But there are serious problems with this plan that the president isn’t taking into account.

First is that the assumption about the bill’s ultimate popularity is an enormous miscalculation. Unlike Social Security and Medicare, the two great entitlement expansions to which ObamaCare is most often compared and which benefited most Americans and hurt almost none, this bill is creating a large number of losers along with a relatively small population of winners. The presidential lie about people keeping their coverage and doctors wasn’t merely a bad choice of language or a mistake. It was an attempt to finesse the fact that ObamaCare is fundamentally a redistributionist measure that would reward some but penalize others. Three weeks of presidential speeches and attempts to highlight the winners won’t convince the losers that they are better off.

Just as importantly, going into campaign mode won’t change the fact that the president’s credibility has been severely, if not fatally, damaged by the lies he told to get the bill passed. That problem can be finessed by the White House and even walked back to some extent. But they are ignoring the fact that once a president’s mendacity has been exposed in this manner, his credibility can’t be recaptured. At this point, presidential salesmanship should be regarded as a depreciating asset rather than a magic political bullet.

Nor can the president rely on his familiar whipping boys to dig him out of the hole he has dug for himself on health care. It may be that Republicans remain even more unpopular than the Democrats and that the familiar narrative about obstructionism still has some traction. But blaming the GOP for sabotaging ObamaCare is a thesis so patently absurd that even most of the liberal media has trouble swallowing it.

After all, it was not the Republicans who designed the healthcare.gov website. Nor can it be asserted that it is their fault that after two months, it is still not fully functional. They also have been mere bystanders as administration promises that it will work continue to be proved false. This week’s proclamation from the White House that the website is now functional was another easily disproved assertion since its back end—the element that allows people to actually purchase the insurance—is still a work in progress. Nor is it likely that most Americans will blame Republicans for being right all along about their claims that the government is incompetent to run health care and that the president’s promises have been based on untruths. Indeed, the GOP calls for delaying the implementation of the bill that were decried as extremist back in September during the government shutdown controversy are now seen as prescient and are being adopted, piece by piece, by the administration.

Democrats assume that once the president gets back on his old message, all their problems will disappear. But merely hitting the reset button on the same arguments used when the bill was passed despite the opposition of most Americans won’t be enough. The negative impact of ObamaCare on the health-care coverage of many Americans and on the economy in general is just starting to be felt. Three weeks of dog-and-pony shows won’t change that or allow Democrats to go into 2014 with the same confidence they had only a few months ago.

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Burke, Paine, and the Politics of This Era

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin is the author of a wonderful new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. It explores the origins of the right-left divide by focusing on Burke and Paine’s dramatically opposing views. 

For example, in his chapter titled “Choice and Obligation,” Levin points out that Burke, unlike Paine, believed a “politics of choice” begins in error. “As Burke sees it, each man is in society not by choice but by birth. And the facts of his birth – the family, the station, and the nation he is born into – exert inescapable demands on him, while also granting him some privileges and protections that the newborn has, of course, done nothing to earn.”

Levin then writes this:

Just as Paine’s understanding of rights and choice sits at the heart of his political thought, so this vision of obligations not chosen but nevertheless binding forms the very core of Edmund Burke’s moral and political philosophy. Almost everything else flows out of it. To understand the human situation this way – as existing in a web of embedded obligations flowing out of our natural and social circumstances and setting the form of our lives and the shape of our society – is implicitly to deny Enlightenment liberalism’s emphasis on choice. But this view of binding obligations also tries to ground a theory of human relations in human life as we find it, rather than in an internally consistent but highly abstract set of ideal principles.

Many of our most important human relationships and circumstances, then, are not a matter of choice. “We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any special voluntary pact,” according to Burke. They are based on prior and even compulsory obligations.

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My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin is the author of a wonderful new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. It explores the origins of the right-left divide by focusing on Burke and Paine’s dramatically opposing views. 

For example, in his chapter titled “Choice and Obligation,” Levin points out that Burke, unlike Paine, believed a “politics of choice” begins in error. “As Burke sees it, each man is in society not by choice but by birth. And the facts of his birth – the family, the station, and the nation he is born into – exert inescapable demands on him, while also granting him some privileges and protections that the newborn has, of course, done nothing to earn.”

Levin then writes this:

Just as Paine’s understanding of rights and choice sits at the heart of his political thought, so this vision of obligations not chosen but nevertheless binding forms the very core of Edmund Burke’s moral and political philosophy. Almost everything else flows out of it. To understand the human situation this way – as existing in a web of embedded obligations flowing out of our natural and social circumstances and setting the form of our lives and the shape of our society – is implicitly to deny Enlightenment liberalism’s emphasis on choice. But this view of binding obligations also tries to ground a theory of human relations in human life as we find it, rather than in an internally consistent but highly abstract set of ideal principles.

Many of our most important human relationships and circumstances, then, are not a matter of choice. “We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any special voluntary pact,” according to Burke. They are based on prior and even compulsory obligations.

Related to this is the importance of restraint in a free society. “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites,” is how Burke famously put it. Precisely how society ought to balance liberty and restraint is a matter of prudence, not principle. “The calculus of prudence aims not to maximize choice,” according to Levin, “but to meet the true wants of the people, as these emerge from the complex and layered society that Burke describes.”

Which leads to a final point about Burke’s effort to define liberty in a particular way–a liberty that is “not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is assured by the equality of restraint…. This kind of liberty is indeed but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.” Burke, in reflecting on the French Revolution, described liberty without wisdom and virtue as “the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.” (The French Revolution horrified Burke, of course, while Paine was an enthusiastic supporter of it.)

Burke’s perspective is clearly a challenge to many ways of modern thinking, where virtually any constraint on choice, freedom, and individualism are viewed as oppressive and unjust. Even within conservatism one can tell how far we have drifted away from some of Burke’s most basic attitudes.

Many on the right speak about liberty as an unqualified good, with hardly (if ever) a mention of the dangers of “selfish liberty” and the importance of reciprocal obligations, the role politics plays in reinforcing our common bonds and the role the state plays in reinforcing the common good. There is a fuller and richer conservative tradition, as embodied by Burke, that’s worth reclaiming.  

In this elegantly written and engaging book, Yuval Levin explains why the disagreements between Burke and Paine have helped to define the politics of this era, why “political events are always tied up with political ideas,” and why reflecting on the deep, permanent questions of human life and human society still matters.

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Governing Ukraine

With popular protests shaking governments from Bangkok to Kiev, after previously having toppled regimes from Cairo to Tunis, it is a wonder that anyone bothers with guerrilla or terrorist tactics to seize power. Insurgent campaigns are much less successful than popular uprisings. The reason why they are not more widespread, of course, is that guerrillas often do not champion a particularly popular cause. The Taliban, for instance, have no hope of bringing millions, or even thousands, of people out into the streets of Kabul to demand a reimposition of their tyrannical rule. They can only aspire to power by the gun.

The problem that all anti-government movements confront–whether they employ violence or peaceful protests–is what to do if the government actually falls and they manage to seize power.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood already flunked the test of governance and odds are the military, which displaced the Brotherhood with popular support, will fare little better once the subsidies from the Gulf countries run out. In Ukraine, the Orange movement which toppled Viktor Yanukovych in 2004 had equally little success in jump-starting a moribund economy or eliminating rampant corruption. The result: Yanukovych managed to stage a come back and win a democratic election.

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With popular protests shaking governments from Bangkok to Kiev, after previously having toppled regimes from Cairo to Tunis, it is a wonder that anyone bothers with guerrilla or terrorist tactics to seize power. Insurgent campaigns are much less successful than popular uprisings. The reason why they are not more widespread, of course, is that guerrillas often do not champion a particularly popular cause. The Taliban, for instance, have no hope of bringing millions, or even thousands, of people out into the streets of Kabul to demand a reimposition of their tyrannical rule. They can only aspire to power by the gun.

The problem that all anti-government movements confront–whether they employ violence or peaceful protests–is what to do if the government actually falls and they manage to seize power.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood already flunked the test of governance and odds are the military, which displaced the Brotherhood with popular support, will fare little better once the subsidies from the Gulf countries run out. In Ukraine, the Orange movement which toppled Viktor Yanukovych in 2004 had equally little success in jump-starting a moribund economy or eliminating rampant corruption. The result: Yanukovych managed to stage a come back and win a democratic election.

But for Yanukovych, old authoritarian habits die hard. He jailed his political adversary Yulia Tymoshenko and cozied up to Moscow. His rejection of an association agreement with the European Union, which would have benefitted Ukraine economically, was widely seen to have been done under pressure from Vladimir Putin. But while this was a momentary victory for Putin and Yanukovych, it has spurred massive resistance in Kiev that recalls the Orange Revolution. The results are unpredictable and could range from a bloodbath among the demonstrators to the toppling of Yanukovych (again!) or, more likely, some kind of muddled compromise that would allow him to serve out his remaining 16 months in office.

The West has a clear stake in blocking Yanukovych’s attempt to cozy up to Moscow. Secretary of State John Kerry is right to skip an international meeting in Ukraine and instead head to Moldova, another embattled state in Eastern Europe that is resisting Russian pressure. EU ministers should follow suit. But whatever happens with the current crisis in Ukraine, its intractable political and economic and social problems will remain intact. That is why it is so important for Ukraine to affiliate with the EU, which will open up a brighter economic future long-term along with more political transparency. But EU affiliation is no panacea and whoever rules in Kiev will have to make tough political choices, which so far have not been forthcoming from either side.

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