Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 27, 2013

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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