Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 2014

For Leftists, the Personal Is Still the Political

Here are a few brief thoughts on the controversy surrounding MSNBC’s Twitter feed, in which–in response to a Cheerios ad (!)–the following message was sent out: “Maybe the right wing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new#Cheerios ad w/ biracial family.”

1. This kind of racial slander is the coin of the realm for MSNBC. Its president, Phil Griffin, apologized for the tweet and fired the staffer responsible for it. Fine and good. But it’s not clear why he acted on this occasion and not the hundreds of outrageous libels against Republicans and conservatives that have happened prior to it.

2. This incident demonstrates how for some on the left virtually everything is reduced to politics–even a cereal ad. It reveals an obsession with politics that is distorted and unhealthy. And it’s something that frankly one doesn’t find as prevalent among conservatives, at least in my experience. The slogan popularized during the social revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, “the personal is the political,” helps explain this progressive cast of mind. For the left, politics is the primary means toward social progress and fulfillment, whereas for the right, our private lives are considered far more separate and distinct. Conservatives, I think, tend to view politics as important but not as all consuming, which is a far better way to understand life and reality.

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Here are a few brief thoughts on the controversy surrounding MSNBC’s Twitter feed, in which–in response to a Cheerios ad (!)–the following message was sent out: “Maybe the right wing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new#Cheerios ad w/ biracial family.”

1. This kind of racial slander is the coin of the realm for MSNBC. Its president, Phil Griffin, apologized for the tweet and fired the staffer responsible for it. Fine and good. But it’s not clear why he acted on this occasion and not the hundreds of outrageous libels against Republicans and conservatives that have happened prior to it.

2. This incident demonstrates how for some on the left virtually everything is reduced to politics–even a cereal ad. It reveals an obsession with politics that is distorted and unhealthy. And it’s something that frankly one doesn’t find as prevalent among conservatives, at least in my experience. The slogan popularized during the social revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, “the personal is the political,” helps explain this progressive cast of mind. For the left, politics is the primary means toward social progress and fulfillment, whereas for the right, our private lives are considered far more separate and distinct. Conservatives, I think, tend to view politics as important but not as all consuming, which is a far better way to understand life and reality.

3. There’s a cautionary tale in all of this, which is that the right shouldn’t become like the left. Leave the hateful attacks, the venom, and the name-calling to them. Conservatives don’t need it, we shouldn’t want it, and it’s not consistent with our best tradition. If the left wants to give refuge to the haters, then that’s up to them. The right, on the other hand, should be characterized by people who are principled, passionate, decent and who don’t (as Ronald Reagan used to remind his staff) consider our opponents to be our enemies. Some conservatives seem to make a rather good living on doing the opposite, on engaging in ad hominem and often childish attacks, and it’s discrediting to them and to the movement they claim to represent.

 

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How Much Will Kerry’s Peace Cost?

It doesn’t take a great deal of investigation to discover that neither Palestinians nor Israelis are particularly enthusiastic about the latest U.S.-backed peace initiative. Neither side has been subtle about making known precisely what they think of Secretary of State John Kerry’s suggestions for a final-status framework. Perhaps Israelis and Palestinians can be forgiven for being inclined toward cynicism on this matter. Yet, Kerry seems not to detect the mood and plows on regardless.

This attitude, that the Israelis and Palestinians are going to have a peace agreement whether they like it or not, would appear not to be Kerry’s alone. Despite even President Obama warning that third parties can’t want peace more than the two sides themselves, world diplomats are now gathering to set about doing just that.

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It doesn’t take a great deal of investigation to discover that neither Palestinians nor Israelis are particularly enthusiastic about the latest U.S.-backed peace initiative. Neither side has been subtle about making known precisely what they think of Secretary of State John Kerry’s suggestions for a final-status framework. Perhaps Israelis and Palestinians can be forgiven for being inclined toward cynicism on this matter. Yet, Kerry seems not to detect the mood and plows on regardless.

This attitude, that the Israelis and Palestinians are going to have a peace agreement whether they like it or not, would appear not to be Kerry’s alone. Despite even President Obama warning that third parties can’t want peace more than the two sides themselves, world diplomats are now gathering to set about doing just that.

On Saturday Kerry and the EU’s Foreign Affairs representative, Baroness Ashton, are convening the Quartet (the U.S., the EU, the UN, and Russia) to discuss how they can best help implement John Kerry’s peace plan. Also present for the meeting will be UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the Quartet’s Middle East envoy Tony Blair. The fact that the Palestinians have dragged their feet through this entire process, or that the Israelis clearly have about as much confidence in the Palestinians standing by their commitments as they do in Kerry’s ability to make them do so, appears to have been simply disregarded by those rushing to be part of Ashton and Kerry’s feel-good peace extravaganza. Where will the Israelis and Palestinians be amidst this high-profile standing-room-only diplomatic photo opportunity? Who knows, who cares? Onwards anyway. 

The State Department’s chief negotiator Martin Indyk has already revealed roughly what Kerry’s final-status parameters will look like, which both sides are going to be expected to accept shortly. The problem is that there’s barely a single point in the parameters outlined by Indyk that isn’t still being fiercely and publicly disputed by one side or the other. Indeed, for this very reason we are told that the parameters will be vague on Jerusalem. Yet, they are also incredibly vague on the fate of the future of Israelis living in the West Bank, with no decision on whether Jews will be allowed to stay behind in a Palestinian state.

Allegedly 75-85 percent of these Israelis are in settlements that would be annexed to Israel. However, what isn’t clear is whether the State Department considers Jews living in suburbs of Jerusalem to be settlers. If they do, then it has been suggested that these parameters may actually mean the forcible evacuation of 150,000 Jews from their homes. In this way, the Quartet meeting, which is to be held in Munich, will in part be about how to facilitate the transfer of huge numbers of West Bank Jews from their communities.

Perhaps the delegates will find this whole event a little more sobering when they discover how much all of this will cost and how much they may be asked to contribute to cover these costs. For, increasingly Kerry’s efforts are looking like an exercise in bribing each side into submission. The Palestinians have long been promised astronomical levels of investment in the event that they agree to accept statehood. Then the Israeli evacuation from the West Bank alone is estimated to come with a price tag running into the billions of dollars. Once Israeli settlers have been evacuated, re-housed, and compensated, the parameters also make provision for the compensation of both Palestinian refugees and for Jews who were forced out of Arab lands. In both cases the descendants of these refugees now number into the millions. Israel is also being told that under Kerry’s parameters it would have to leave the strategically vital Jordan Valley, but that someone else will foot the bill for all manner of unmanned high-tech security paraphernalia to take the place of actual Israeli troops.

Anyone looking to rain on Ashton and Kerry’s peace parade in Munich this Saturday need only mention even a low estimate for how much all of this is going to cost.  

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The Orwellian World of Israel’s Opponents

Yesterday on Twitter, foreign-affairs writer Armin Rosen engaged other Mideast watchers in the reason American officials call Jewish settlements “illegitimate” instead of “illegal.” It’s the sort of distinction that ought to be common knowledge–judging their legality would preempt final-status talks in contravention of the various agreements already reached–but isn’t. And amid the controversy over SodaStream, it was also a good reminder of just how loaded such language becomes when applied to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Evelyn touched on this subject earlier, on the hypocrisy of those who designate themselves pro-Palestinian by demanding that hundreds of Palestinians lose their jobs, benefits, and professional connections, especially since they go against the express wishes of actual Palestinians, for whom they claim to speak. But the whole issue is littered with loaded and Orwellian language. Put aside the opinion pieces, for a moment, since they are by writers who seek openly to claim language for their side. It can be more interesting to watch the “reporting,” which claims neutrality and is anything but.

The New York Times is usually the place to go for this sort of journalism, and the paper’s story doesn’t disappoint. Of the SodaStream controversy, the Times tells us:

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Yesterday on Twitter, foreign-affairs writer Armin Rosen engaged other Mideast watchers in the reason American officials call Jewish settlements “illegitimate” instead of “illegal.” It’s the sort of distinction that ought to be common knowledge–judging their legality would preempt final-status talks in contravention of the various agreements already reached–but isn’t. And amid the controversy over SodaStream, it was also a good reminder of just how loaded such language becomes when applied to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Evelyn touched on this subject earlier, on the hypocrisy of those who designate themselves pro-Palestinian by demanding that hundreds of Palestinians lose their jobs, benefits, and professional connections, especially since they go against the express wishes of actual Palestinians, for whom they claim to speak. But the whole issue is littered with loaded and Orwellian language. Put aside the opinion pieces, for a moment, since they are by writers who seek openly to claim language for their side. It can be more interesting to watch the “reporting,” which claims neutrality and is anything but.

The New York Times is usually the place to go for this sort of journalism, and the paper’s story doesn’t disappoint. Of the SodaStream controversy, the Times tells us:

The factory is in Mishor Adumim, an industrial zone attached to the large, urban settlement of Maale Adumim in the beige hills east of Jerusalem. Israel views the territory that it captured from Jordan in the 1967 war as disputed and says it intends to keep Maale Adumim under any peace deal with the Palestinians.

A common complaint from the pro-Israel side is that Israeli claims are identified as such while Palestinian claims are not subject to the qualifications and caveats so prevalent in coverage of Israeli statements. Of course the territory captured from Jordan is disputed. Israel keeping Maale Adumim is treated here as a demand (or even a threat) by Israel. But past parameters of the peace process consider Maale Adumim to be retained by Israel. Thus, not only is the land obviously disputed, but Israel is given greater claim to the city in question.

Worse, however, is the following sentence:

The dispute over the ad, scheduled to air during the Super Bowl on Sunday, has pitted pro-Palestinian activists against people and groups who support Israel unreservedly.

According to the Times, opponents of the SodaStream factory are self-evidently “pro-Palestinian,” but those who stand against the boycott of the Israeli company are not pro-Israel or supporters of Israel but rather are those who support Israel unreservedly. This is, first of all, flatly false. It isn’t true among Westerners, Israelis, or even Palestinians. Are the Palestinians at SodaStream who oppose the boycott to be considered “unreservedly” pro-Israel? To ask the question is to simultaneously wonder if mainstream reporters and editors have lost their minds.

And that, according to Yaacov Lozowick, is exactly what happens when “otherwise reasonably normal people” confront the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lozowick notes that the SodaStream controversy is causing people to forget what words mean, and explains:

In any other context, worldwide, a private company maintaining a factory in an underdeveloped country so as to take advantage of its lower labor costs would be regarded as a boon for the hosting country (if perhaps not for the rich country the factory had previously been in). Sodastream, however, isn’t paying hundreds of Palestinian workers what they’d get from a Palestinian employer. It’s paying the Palestinian laborers Israeli wages, with the social benifits mandated by Israeli law.

Nobody lives in the Sodastream factory: it’s a factory. If ever there is peace between Israel and Palestine, Israeli owned factories in Palestine employing Palestinians is precisely the sort of thing everyone should be wishing for. Not for the “soft” advantages of people working alongside one another, which is the kind of thing one can’t easily measure: for the “hard”, quantifiable advantage of employment and foreign curreny.

In any other context, this is called FDI (foriegn direct investment) and is eagerly sought by politicians and toted up by economists. When it comes to Israel-Palestine, however, normal discourse goes silent.

And indeed, this is a point made by SodaStream’s CEO Daniel Birnbaum:

Unlike the question of Israeli homes in a foreign entity, he noted, there’s already ample precedent for Israeli-owned factories operating in foreign areas.

Birnbaum’s advisor, Maurice Silber, said that within the company “everybody is against the occupation.” But it does not follow, he said, that because SodaStream operates in an occupied area, it violates human rights. Eventually, he said, SodaStream could become the “seed of the future Palestinian economy.”

The company is “against the occupation,” will happily stay in a Palestinian state and pay taxes to the Palestinian government, and would like to jumpstart the process by providing a jolt to the Palestinian economy. It’s a move and a mindset that would be celebrated were the company not owned by Israeli Jews. Nonetheless, the fact that Israel’s enemies must torture and distort everyday language just to attempt to make their case says a lot about how an honest rendering of the facts favors Israel’s moral standing.

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Both Obama and the GOP Badly Damaged

The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey is filled with ominous news for the president.

It’s not simply that the president’s approval ratings are near all-time lows for him in this particular poll (43 approve v. 51 disapprove). Or that for the third-straight survey those who view Obama negatively (44 percent) outnumber those who view him positively (42 percent). It’s also the sour and anxious mood of the nation.

Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed (68 percent) believe the country has either gotten worse or stayed stagnant during the Obama era. Fifty-nine percent say they are either “pessimistic and worried” or “uncertain and wondering” about Obama’s remaining time in office. By a 39 percent to 31 percent margin, Americans believe the country is currently worse off compared with where it was when Obama first took office (29 percent say it’s in the same place). And when asked what one or two words best describes the state of the union, here are the top three responses: “divided” (37 percent), “troubled” (23 percent), and “deteriorating” (21 percent). Only 28 percent of those surveyed say we’re on the right track. And the president’s instantly forgettable State of the Union address won’t change any of that.

But before Republicans rejoice too much, they should consider this finding: Only 24 percent of the public has a very or somewhat positive view of the GOP, whereas 47 percent have a very or somewhat negative view of the Republican Party (28 percent are neutral). So nearly twice as many Americans now hold negative views about the Republican Party as positive ones. (As a point of comparison, 37 percent have a very or somewhat positive view of the Democratic Party v. 40 percent a very or somewhat negative view of the Democratic Party, with 22 percent neutral.)

There are, I suspect, several different things going on at once. There’s clearly a deep disenchantment with American politics today, and it’s directed at both parties, most politicians, and many of our political institutions. There is a great deal of frustration that things aren’t working as they should, and the entire political class has been implicated.

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The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey is filled with ominous news for the president.

It’s not simply that the president’s approval ratings are near all-time lows for him in this particular poll (43 approve v. 51 disapprove). Or that for the third-straight survey those who view Obama negatively (44 percent) outnumber those who view him positively (42 percent). It’s also the sour and anxious mood of the nation.

Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed (68 percent) believe the country has either gotten worse or stayed stagnant during the Obama era. Fifty-nine percent say they are either “pessimistic and worried” or “uncertain and wondering” about Obama’s remaining time in office. By a 39 percent to 31 percent margin, Americans believe the country is currently worse off compared with where it was when Obama first took office (29 percent say it’s in the same place). And when asked what one or two words best describes the state of the union, here are the top three responses: “divided” (37 percent), “troubled” (23 percent), and “deteriorating” (21 percent). Only 28 percent of those surveyed say we’re on the right track. And the president’s instantly forgettable State of the Union address won’t change any of that.

But before Republicans rejoice too much, they should consider this finding: Only 24 percent of the public has a very or somewhat positive view of the GOP, whereas 47 percent have a very or somewhat negative view of the Republican Party (28 percent are neutral). So nearly twice as many Americans now hold negative views about the Republican Party as positive ones. (As a point of comparison, 37 percent have a very or somewhat positive view of the Democratic Party v. 40 percent a very or somewhat negative view of the Democratic Party, with 22 percent neutral.)

There are, I suspect, several different things going on at once. There’s clearly a deep disenchantment with American politics today, and it’s directed at both parties, most politicians, and many of our political institutions. There is a great deal of frustration that things aren’t working as they should, and the entire political class has been implicated.

Yet there’s no getting around the fact that the Republican Party is in a very precarious situation. In the fall of 2013, for example, in the wake of the government shutdown, the GOP recorded the lowest favorable rating measured for either party since Gallup began asking this question in 1992. Which means Republicans have a tremendous amount of work to do in order to win back the confidence of most Americans.

Different people recommend different solutions. Some will argue that the GOP has been too easy on the president and that its rhetoric hasn’t been sufficiently anti-government. They will argue that those on the right need to amp up their declamations against Mr. Obama, invoking words like “Marxist,” “coup,” and “tyranny” to describe him. The key to making the GOP more popular is for it to become more strident, the language more apocalyptic. People in this camp think the government shutdown was an impressive victory for the conservative cause and backfired only because of a failure of nerve by Republicans. They believe the contemporary politicians whom Republicans should pattern themselves after are Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz. 

Readers of this site know that I’m of a different view, that the leaders of the GOP and the conservative movement, while leveling very tough criticisms at the president, also need to carry themselves with a degree of grace and winsomeness. They need to be less agitated and more agreeable, in possession of strong convictions and moderate temperaments. They need to demonstrate a genuine interest in justice and those living in the shadows of society. And they need to propose far-reaching conservative reforms that constitute an actual governing vision, one that matches the challenges of this moment.

Which is why the recent health-care plan put forward by Senators Burr, Coburn, and Hatch is so encouraging. An alternative to the Affordable Care Act, It would cover pre-existing conditions, provide universal coverage, reform Medicaid, and promote medical liability reform and market-oriented policies. (Among the specific proposals is to extend a tax credit for the purchase of health insurance to all Americans below 300 percent of the poverty level who don’t have health coverage from a large employer.) No piece of legislation is perfect, and neither is this one. But I agree with those who consider it to be the most impressive conservative health-care plan yet put forward by Republican lawmakers.

There are, then, several currents of thought that exist in the modern GOP. The debate isn’t between those who are conservative and those who are not so much as it’s between those who have some important disagreements over what constitutes authentic conservatism. The debate involves differences in tone and style and divergent interpretations of the federalist Founders and the Constitution, the role of government, and the conservative tradition. 

It’s a fascinating debate, really, and at times quite a spirited one. Whichever side prevails will go some distance toward determining the future of conservatism and the country.

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Jon Stewart (Literally) Laughs at Pelosi

If you want to do yourself a favor, set aside eight minutes to watch Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart interview House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Ms. Pelosi is so programmed and evasive–her answers are so obviously partisan, non-responsive, and unimpressive–that several times Stewart literally laughs in her face, most especially when she admits she has no idea why the ObamaCare website failed so miserably. (When discussing the backlog at the Veterans Administration and the failures of it and the Defense Department to communicate with each other, Pelosi conceded it was a terrible problem. “OK, do something about it,” Pelosi concludes. To which Stewart quipped, “I was actually going to say that to you.”) 

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If you want to do yourself a favor, set aside eight minutes to watch Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart interview House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Ms. Pelosi is so programmed and evasive–her answers are so obviously partisan, non-responsive, and unimpressive–that several times Stewart literally laughs in her face, most especially when she admits she has no idea why the ObamaCare website failed so miserably. (When discussing the backlog at the Veterans Administration and the failures of it and the Defense Department to communicate with each other, Pelosi conceded it was a terrible problem. “OK, do something about it,” Pelosi concludes. To which Stewart quipped, “I was actually going to say that to you.”) 

Jon Stewart is liberal, but he’s intellectually honest enough to (respectfully) challenge those who share his progressive beliefs, at least from time to time. For Ms. Pelosi to do so poorly while being interviewed by a man of the left tells you a great deal about her, but also something about how intellectually bankrupt leading Democrats are.

When liberals like Nancy Pelosi act in a way that embarrasses Jon Stewart, you know they’re in a fair amount of trouble. 

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“Pro-Palestinians” Versus Real Palestinians

If you want to understand the difference between people who are actually pro-Palestinian and those who routinely but falsely claim that label, it’s worth reading the Forward’s interview with SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum. The headline, of course, was Birnbaum’s admission that having a plant in a West Bank settlement is “a pain in the ass,” and he would “never” locate there today. But the most striking comment was his answer to the question of why, in that case, he doesn’t shut the West Bank plant and transfer its operations to SodaStream’s new facility in the Negev, which has ample capacity:

The reason for staying is loyalty to approximately 500 Palestinians who are among the plant’s 1,300 employees, Birnbaum claimed. While other employees could relocate on the other side of the Green Line if the plant moved, the West Bank Palestinian workers could not, and would suffer financially, he argued.

“We will not throw our employees under the bus to promote anyone’s political agenda,” he said, adding that he “just can’t see how it would help the cause of the Palestinians if we fired them.”

In other words, Birnbaum is concerned about real live Palestinians whose families need to eat. That’s a concern noticeably absent among the usual “pro-Palestinian” types, who couldn’t care less about ordinary Palestinians’ welfare unless it happens to serve their primary goal of attacking Israel: See, for instance, the shocking indifference by “pro-Palestinian” groups to the literal starvation of Palestinians in Syria (since Israel can’t be blamed for it), or the Dutch and German governments’ efforts to halt sewage treatment and landfill projects that would primarily benefit Palestinians because Jewish settlers would also benefit. But it’s a concern ardently shared by ordinary Palestinians themselves, as a 2010 poll showed: By an overwhelming majority of 60 percent to 38 percent, Palestinians opposed the idea that they themselves should refuse to work in the settlements. Real Palestinians care about feeding their families, and they don’t want to be barred from jobs that enable them to do so.

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If you want to understand the difference between people who are actually pro-Palestinian and those who routinely but falsely claim that label, it’s worth reading the Forward’s interview with SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum. The headline, of course, was Birnbaum’s admission that having a plant in a West Bank settlement is “a pain in the ass,” and he would “never” locate there today. But the most striking comment was his answer to the question of why, in that case, he doesn’t shut the West Bank plant and transfer its operations to SodaStream’s new facility in the Negev, which has ample capacity:

The reason for staying is loyalty to approximately 500 Palestinians who are among the plant’s 1,300 employees, Birnbaum claimed. While other employees could relocate on the other side of the Green Line if the plant moved, the West Bank Palestinian workers could not, and would suffer financially, he argued.

“We will not throw our employees under the bus to promote anyone’s political agenda,” he said, adding that he “just can’t see how it would help the cause of the Palestinians if we fired them.”

In other words, Birnbaum is concerned about real live Palestinians whose families need to eat. That’s a concern noticeably absent among the usual “pro-Palestinian” types, who couldn’t care less about ordinary Palestinians’ welfare unless it happens to serve their primary goal of attacking Israel: See, for instance, the shocking indifference by “pro-Palestinian” groups to the literal starvation of Palestinians in Syria (since Israel can’t be blamed for it), or the Dutch and German governments’ efforts to halt sewage treatment and landfill projects that would primarily benefit Palestinians because Jewish settlers would also benefit. But it’s a concern ardently shared by ordinary Palestinians themselves, as a 2010 poll showed: By an overwhelming majority of 60 percent to 38 percent, Palestinians opposed the idea that they themselves should refuse to work in the settlements. Real Palestinians care about feeding their families, and they don’t want to be barred from jobs that enable them to do so.

Yet that’s exactly what boycotting companies like SodaStream would primarily accomplish. Though SodaStream says it won’t leave, other Israeli companies have decided they don’t need the hassle and relocated inside the Green Line, throwing their erstwhile Palestinian employees out of work. Countless others choose not to locate in the West Bank to begin with, as Birnbaum admits he would do today.

Currently, 20,000 Palestinians work in the settlements. Eliminating their jobs would cause the number of unemployed people in the West Bank to jump 14 percent–hardly a helpful proposition for an economy already suffering 19 percent unemployment.

This same disregard for actual Palestinians also characterizes other forms of anti-Israel boycotts. Take, for instance, the effort to impose an academic boycott on Israel. As one Palestinian pharmacy professor, who understandably feared to give his name, told the New York Times this month, “more than 50 Palestinian professors were engaged in joint research projects with Israeli universities, funded by international agencies,” and “without those grants, Palestinian academic research would collapse because ‘not a single dollar’ was available from other places.”

Boycott proponents claim that by reducing Israelis’ academic freedom, they seek to “enlarge” Palestinians’ academic freedom. Yet in fact, as this Palestinian professor admitted, Israeli academia is the lifeline keeping its Palestinian counterpart alive. So how would killing off academic research in Palestinian universities “enlarge” Palestinians’ academic freedom? It wouldn’t, of course–but the “pro-Palestinian” crowd doesn’t care about that.

In fact, the only thing these self-proclaimed “pro-Palestinians” do care about is undermining Israel–which is why it’s high time to stop dignifying them with the name “pro-Palestinian.” They are anti-Israel, pure and simple. And that’s what they should be called.

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Truth and Consequences in Sochi

The news this afternoon that the Justice Department will seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving accused Boston Marathon bomber, comes at a time of increased attention to the terror threat from the Russian Caucasus, the breakaway region from which the Tsarnaevs fled to America. And for the Russian government it’s an ill-timed reminder of the consequences of the breakdown of trust in American-Russian security cooperation.

That’s because the Winter Olympics are set to begin in the Russian city of Sochi next week, and security concerns have only grown since dual suicide bombings in Volgograd in December. The U.S. Olympic Committee and State Department have warned American athletes not to wear their identifying gear outside the Olympic compound, and the threat of violence has put something of a cloud over the athletes’ families traveling to Sochi for the games. As the Washington Post reported earlier this week:

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The news this afternoon that the Justice Department will seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving accused Boston Marathon bomber, comes at a time of increased attention to the terror threat from the Russian Caucasus, the breakaway region from which the Tsarnaevs fled to America. And for the Russian government it’s an ill-timed reminder of the consequences of the breakdown of trust in American-Russian security cooperation.

That’s because the Winter Olympics are set to begin in the Russian city of Sochi next week, and security concerns have only grown since dual suicide bombings in Volgograd in December. The U.S. Olympic Committee and State Department have warned American athletes not to wear their identifying gear outside the Olympic compound, and the threat of violence has put something of a cloud over the athletes’ families traveling to Sochi for the games. As the Washington Post reported earlier this week:

The United States will send the largest delegation of athletes from any single country in the history of the Winter Olympics to Sochi, a team 230 strong that includes 13 gold medal winners .

And to one degree or another, the 105 women and 125 men will carry with them concern for their personal safety and that of loved ones who will make the round-the-globe trek to cheer them on.

“Obviously I keep up with the news. I’m very aware of the security threats,” said two-time U.S. figure skating champion Ashley Wagner, 22, of Alexandria, whose parents also will travel to Sochi for her Olympic debut. “At the same time, I have to tell myself that the USOC and the Russian Olympic Committee are doing everything they can. We want this Olympics to go smoothly; I know they absolutely want this Olympics to go smoothly.

“Really, what can you do other than believe in the people put in charge to take care of you?”

But reassuring the athletes and their families is not so simple. As Wagner suggests, trust has much to do with it. That is the upshot of today’s ABC News dispatch from Sochi. The article may assuage some of the concerns of the athletes and spectators, but it can’t possibly make the Russian government–or the American government, for that matter–very happy.

The article details the ways in which Russia has dotted the landscape with invisible security–or almost invisible, that is. ABC News’s correspondent began spotting some of the camouflaged army tents along the highway in and out of Sochi. “Once you spot one,” the correspondent noted triumphantly, “the others are easier to find.” The Russians quite justifiably told ABC to knock it off:

Missile batteries poke out from behind camouflage nets in the hills above the Olympic Park. Soldiers stand guard inside tents masked with fake leaves and branches in the mountains. Navy speedboats patrol the coast. Plainclothes police officers mingle among the crowd. Closed circuit security cameras are everywhere. An electronic surveillance program monitors all cell phone and internet activity.

Russian security officials have promised a “ring of steel” to safeguard the Sochi Winter Olympics. Putin has ordered tens of thousands of extra troops and police to help secure the Olympics. Judging by the number of times ABC News was asked to stop filming or asked to show identification, it is clear that Russian authorities are taking security very seriously.

As the story goes on to note, Russia is trying to strike a balance familiar to any country struggling with increased threats of domestic terrorism. They want the attendees to know the security is there without seeing them. People expect checkpoints around the main arteries in and out of the city, but they don’t want to constantly be reminded they’re in danger or feel like they’re competing in a police state.

But Russian security policy toward the Caucasus hasn’t exactly earned blind faith. Whereas the complaint often heard in the West is about “threat inflation” to justify intensive security measures (such as the controversial NSA programs), in Russia the opposite is the case. Ever since Vladimir Putin prosecuted the Second Chechen War, he has tried to build his public image on the idea that he pacified the troubled region. That means he understates the threat, and looks unprepared or disingenuous when trouble strikes.

It’s also why American and Russian military officials have been in talks about sharing American security technology for the games. U.S. officials don’t need any more reminders that authoritarian governments that rely extensively on propaganda and punishing dissent can’t be simply taken at their word.

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A BDS Thought Bubble

What a relief that Scarlett Johansson has stepped down as Oxfam ambassador. When it comes to relieving poverty, there is one thing we know: the most important thing is ideological purity.

As the Zionist oppressors at COMMENTARY are doubtless aware, Johansson recently accepted a role as global ambassador for SodaStream. SodaStream contributes to the oppression of Palestinians by employing about 500 West Bank Palestinians at much higher wages than they could earn elsewhere. That is why we say, along with Oxfam, that SodaStream helps “further the ongoing poverty” of Palestinian communities. We regret that Oxfam did not also mention that having Israelis working alongside Arabs in the factory furthers Israeli apartheid.

You will undoubtedly deploy your colonialist “logic” to point out that higher wages do not further poverty and that having Israelis working alongside Arabs does not foster apartheid. It is true that Reuters, that mouthpiece of Zionist colonialist expansion, reports that “in the plant, assembly lines buzz to the mixed voices in Hebrew and Arabic of its employees – a rare example of people from the two sides working and talking together.” But Reuters is obviously drinking the SodaStream Kool Aid, which, curse them, they make in three delicious varieties.

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What a relief that Scarlett Johansson has stepped down as Oxfam ambassador. When it comes to relieving poverty, there is one thing we know: the most important thing is ideological purity.

As the Zionist oppressors at COMMENTARY are doubtless aware, Johansson recently accepted a role as global ambassador for SodaStream. SodaStream contributes to the oppression of Palestinians by employing about 500 West Bank Palestinians at much higher wages than they could earn elsewhere. That is why we say, along with Oxfam, that SodaStream helps “further the ongoing poverty” of Palestinian communities. We regret that Oxfam did not also mention that having Israelis working alongside Arabs in the factory furthers Israeli apartheid.

You will undoubtedly deploy your colonialist “logic” to point out that higher wages do not further poverty and that having Israelis working alongside Arabs does not foster apartheid. It is true that Reuters, that mouthpiece of Zionist colonialist expansion, reports that “in the plant, assembly lines buzz to the mixed voices in Hebrew and Arabic of its employees – a rare example of people from the two sides working and talking together.” But Reuters is obviously drinking the SodaStream Kool Aid, which, curse them, they make in three delicious varieties.

But the SodaStream plant is located in Maale Adumim, a piece of the occupied territories east of Jerusalem, which already contains tens of thousands of radical Israeli suburban commuters. Almost no one thinks that Maale Adumim will become part of a future Palestinian state, but a movement can dare to dream, can it not? That is why some Oxfam insiders worried that keeping Johansson on would threaten its relationships with Palestinian partners. These Palestinian partners sensibly stand by this principle: no one who supports a company that employs Palestinians in a territory certain to be ceded to Israel as part of a peace agreement will be permitted to help Palestinians. We hold that truth to be self-evident.

The fact is, it’s not just the settlements. We in the BDS movement oppose all joint Israeli-Palestinian projects, wherever they take place. As the guidelines for our academic and cultural boycott plainly state, we must “refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions.” Johansson therefore crossed a line when she expressed support for “economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine.” Even COMMENTARY readers, if they are willing to relax their ideological pose for a moment, will grasp why those words are so hateful. We don’t care how effective Scarlett Johannson is as an anti-poverty advocate, or how good she was in Iron Man 2, a movie we permitted ourselves to enjoy before we realized that it glorified an industrial capitalist.

Although we are deeply disappointed that Johannson beat Oxfam to the punch by resigning, we still say good riddance. And don’t think that Oxfam needs you either, Ms. Johansson. They’ve still got Annie Lennox and Desmond Tutu.

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Syrian Deal Missing Deadlines

In the State of the Union address, President Obama claimed that “Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated” because of “American diplomacy, backed by threat of force.” Not so fast. Like his claim that by the end of the year “America’s longest war,” the one in Afghanistan, “will finally be over” (tell that to the Taliban), this is a soaring goal which is at odds with reality.

Even Obama’s own secretary of defense now has to admit that “the Syrian government is behind in delivering these chemical weapons and precursor materials on time, and with the schedule that was agreed to.” Far behind, to be exact.

The New York Times notes:

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In the State of the Union address, President Obama claimed that “Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated” because of “American diplomacy, backed by threat of force.” Not so fast. Like his claim that by the end of the year “America’s longest war,” the one in Afghanistan, “will finally be over” (tell that to the Taliban), this is a soaring goal which is at odds with reality.

Even Obama’s own secretary of defense now has to admit that “the Syrian government is behind in delivering these chemical weapons and precursor materials on time, and with the schedule that was agreed to.” Far behind, to be exact.

The New York Times notes:

Two small shipments representing only a tiny percentage of the 600 tons of the most dangerous chemicals have been exported so far, one shipment on Jan. 7 and the other on Monday.

The deadline for exporting all 600 tons of the most dangerous chemicals passed on Dec. 31, and the deadline for exporting the total amount of all chemical materials, an estimated 1,200 tons, is Feb. 6. There is a widespread expectation that deadline will be missed as well.

The Syrian regime blames the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague, for not providing all the tools that it needs to dismantle and export its chemical weapons, but the UN body reports that it has given the Syrian government everything it needs. No doubt the heavy fighting going on in Syria is a contributing element to the delay as well–as is the Assad regime’s reluctance to part with these fearful weapons.

That’s why many of us were skeptical that the deal brokered by Russia would be carried out. The skeptics may still be proven wrong; Syria has until June 30 to destroy its entire chemical-weapons stockpile. But on the current trajectory the odds of success appear to be diminishing–which should, but almost certainly won’t, make the administration question whether any deal it can reach with Assad’s sponsors in Tehran will be worth the paper it is printed on.

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Will ScarJo Pay a Price for Her Principles?

The BDS campaign against SodaStream took an unexpected turn yesterday when actress Scarlett Johansson announced her resignation as a representative of Oxfam. The British-based coalition of philanthropic groups had condemned Johansson’s role as a commercial spokesperson for SodaStream, an Israeli soda machine manufacturer, because of its location in the Jerusalem suburb of Maale Adumim in the West Bank. Initially, Johansson sought to remain with both organizations, but it was soon clear that she had to choose and released the following statement through a spokesman:

“Scarlett Johansson has respectfully decided to end her ambassador role with Oxfam after eight years,” the statement said. “She and Oxfam have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. She is very proud of her accomplishments and fundraising efforts during her tenure with Oxfam.

In response, Oxfam thanked Johansson for her service but made it clear that her decision with SodaStream meant she was no longer welcome:

While Oxfam respects the independence of our ambassadors, Ms. Johansson’s role promoting the company SodaStream is incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador. Oxfam believes that businesses, such as SodaStream, that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support.

Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law. Ms. Johansson has worked with Oxfam since 2005 and in 2007 became a Global Ambassador, helping to highlight the impact of natural disasters and raise funds to save lives and fight poverty.

This is a remarkable turn of events. For Johansson, a prominent Hollywood liberal who has campaigned for Democrats and progressive causes, Oxfam was a perfect fit because of her interest in poverty-related causes. But as one of the most visible international charities, it was also a good match for a career in that it added a touch of gravitas to an actress who might otherwise be trivialized as the only woman to be named the sexiest woman in the world by Esquire twice. One might have thought that in terms of an immediate monetary reward, Johansson would choose SodaStream over Oxfam because one pays her and the other doesn’t. But in terms of positive publicity and maintaining her status as a member in good standing of the Hollywood liberal establishment, Oxfam might have been the more sensible choice.

In sticking with SodaStream, Johansson will win the praise of many Americans, especially fellow Jews, but it opens a new and potentially bitter chapter in the struggle by the BDS movement against Israel. The question facing the actress as well as friends of the Jewish state is whether her decision will herald more defeats for those seeking to isolate Israel or will instead provide a new focus for a BDS movement that is gaining support in Europe even as it remains marginal in the United States.

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The BDS campaign against SodaStream took an unexpected turn yesterday when actress Scarlett Johansson announced her resignation as a representative of Oxfam. The British-based coalition of philanthropic groups had condemned Johansson’s role as a commercial spokesperson for SodaStream, an Israeli soda machine manufacturer, because of its location in the Jerusalem suburb of Maale Adumim in the West Bank. Initially, Johansson sought to remain with both organizations, but it was soon clear that she had to choose and released the following statement through a spokesman:

“Scarlett Johansson has respectfully decided to end her ambassador role with Oxfam after eight years,” the statement said. “She and Oxfam have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. She is very proud of her accomplishments and fundraising efforts during her tenure with Oxfam.

In response, Oxfam thanked Johansson for her service but made it clear that her decision with SodaStream meant she was no longer welcome:

While Oxfam respects the independence of our ambassadors, Ms. Johansson’s role promoting the company SodaStream is incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador. Oxfam believes that businesses, such as SodaStream, that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support.

Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law. Ms. Johansson has worked with Oxfam since 2005 and in 2007 became a Global Ambassador, helping to highlight the impact of natural disasters and raise funds to save lives and fight poverty.

This is a remarkable turn of events. For Johansson, a prominent Hollywood liberal who has campaigned for Democrats and progressive causes, Oxfam was a perfect fit because of her interest in poverty-related causes. But as one of the most visible international charities, it was also a good match for a career in that it added a touch of gravitas to an actress who might otherwise be trivialized as the only woman to be named the sexiest woman in the world by Esquire twice. One might have thought that in terms of an immediate monetary reward, Johansson would choose SodaStream over Oxfam because one pays her and the other doesn’t. But in terms of positive publicity and maintaining her status as a member in good standing of the Hollywood liberal establishment, Oxfam might have been the more sensible choice.

In sticking with SodaStream, Johansson will win the praise of many Americans, especially fellow Jews, but it opens a new and potentially bitter chapter in the struggle by the BDS movement against Israel. The question facing the actress as well as friends of the Jewish state is whether her decision will herald more defeats for those seeking to isolate Israel or will instead provide a new focus for a BDS movement that is gaining support in Europe even as it remains marginal in the United States.

It is possible that Oxfam’s decision wasn’t entirely based on the anti-Israel bias of its London-based leadership. One of the leading corporate donors to Oxfam just happens to be the Coca Cola Company that has given millions to the group. That tie between a company that can be linked to obesity and bad nutrition and a charity that promotes feeding the hungry is seen as a contradiction by some and only explained by the cash that flows from Coke to Oxfam. But the fact that SodaStream is a competitor that is already eating into Coke’s market share could account, at least in part, for Oxfam’s speed in denouncing Johansson.

But even if contributions from Coke had nothing to do with Oxfam’s decision, the most important conclusion to be drawn from the way this controversy developed is the ease and speed with which a theoretically apolitical charity like Oxfam publicly embraced the BDS stand even though it meant losing the services of such an effective ambassador as Johansson. The decisiveness and alacrity  with which Oxfam’s leaders condemned her ties with an Israeli company may well have come as a rude shock to Johansson after she signed on to appear in SodaStream commercials, including one scheduled for broadcast during the Super Bowl. Though she is an active supporter of many liberal causes who embraced Oxfam because of its apparent compatibility with her personal values, it may not have occurred to her that in international progressive circles such associations with Israel aren’t kosher.

The point here is not simply the factual inaccuracy of Oxfam’s accusations that settlements further Palestinian poverty or deny Palestinian rights. Having seen SodaStream’s operations herself, Johansson knew that charges that it exploited its Arab workers were nothing but propaganda and absurd lies. She rightly understood that its owners were committed peaceniks who genuinely believe that the cooperative and mutually profitable relations between Jews and Arabs that go on at SodaStream are exactly what the region needs. But in the world of Oxfam, opposition to West Bank settlements isn’t about what’s good for the Palestinians. The factory’s location, a few miles from Jerusalem’s city limits in territory that almost certainly would be incorporated into Israel in the event of a peace treaty, is merely an excuse to continue a campaign of delegitimization against the Jewish state. And in that struggle, there can be no exceptions or even any grey areas where people of good conscience may differ.

The arrogant moral certainty of Oxfam’s statement simply assumes that the presence of Jews in what is, under international law, disputed territory rather than that of a sovereign state, is repugnant. That is exactly the mindset of BDSers whose purpose is not aiding poor Palestinians but to further impoverish them by destroying businesses that provide them with income and an opportunity to better themselves that is largely denied them by the corrupt governments led by both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza.

But now that Johansson has rejected the leftist groupthink of Oxfam that assumes the Jewish state to be beyond the pale, it remains to be seen whether there will be a price to be paid for her principled choice. As I noted earlier this week, it is possible that in the future Johansson may become the focus of a concerted boycott by Israel-haters. Though their efforts won’t put even a minor dent in her career prospects in the United States, it is entirely possible that she will be become better known in Europe and Asia as a supporter of Israel than as a gifted A-list actress. The implications of such a development would not be trivial for film producers who increasingly rely on international markets to realize profits, nor for other companies seeking film stars to promote their products.

If Johansson had abandoned SodaStream it would have signaled an immediate and high-visibility victory for the BDS campaign, certainly its most important victory in the United States. But having cast her lot with defenders of the Jewish state, the actress must understand that this isn’t the end of the story. She may have thought her work for Oxfam gave her common ground with progressives in Europe and around the globe. But she may now discover that, from this day forward, they will only see her as a public figure to be rejected and shunned as a principled Jew who stands with Israel.

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Why Bridgegate Won’t Clear Jeb’s Path

Chris Christie’s “bridgegate” scandal had such an impact on the emerging 2016 GOP primary field not only because Christie was considered the early frontrunner but because of why he was considered the frontrunner. In addition to his advantage as a governor and his success in getting Democratic and minority votes, Christie was the 2016 candidate who was moderate enough to win prominent establishment backing but still conservative enough to envision winning the nomination.

Thus while the primary fight would no doubt be bruising, it was conceivable that the other categories–libertarian, religious conservative, defiant conservative firebrand, etc.–would be represented by more than one candidate and split the remaining vote. Christie, then, had both no competition and too much competition. I think this scenario always overestimated Christie’s odds at winning the nomination because at some point the competition would thin out and supporters would coalesce around fewer candidates, but there’s no question it made him a strong contender.

If Christie is no longer the frontrunner, that means there’s an opening for a “moderate” with conservative credentials. And that, in turn, means we’ll have a resurgence in speculation over whether Jeb Bush will run. Politico catches the latest, which was Bush’s radio interview yesterday mulling it over:

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Chris Christie’s “bridgegate” scandal had such an impact on the emerging 2016 GOP primary field not only because Christie was considered the early frontrunner but because of why he was considered the frontrunner. In addition to his advantage as a governor and his success in getting Democratic and minority votes, Christie was the 2016 candidate who was moderate enough to win prominent establishment backing but still conservative enough to envision winning the nomination.

Thus while the primary fight would no doubt be bruising, it was conceivable that the other categories–libertarian, religious conservative, defiant conservative firebrand, etc.–would be represented by more than one candidate and split the remaining vote. Christie, then, had both no competition and too much competition. I think this scenario always overestimated Christie’s odds at winning the nomination because at some point the competition would thin out and supporters would coalesce around fewer candidates, but there’s no question it made him a strong contender.

If Christie is no longer the frontrunner, that means there’s an opening for a “moderate” with conservative credentials. And that, in turn, means we’ll have a resurgence in speculation over whether Jeb Bush will run. Politico catches the latest, which was Bush’s radio interview yesterday mulling it over:

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush says he will make a decision on whether to run for president in 2016 at “the right time” — later this year.

“I don’t wake up each day saying, ‘Now what am I going [to] do today to make the decision?’ I’m deferring the decision to the right time, which is later this year,” Bush said in an interview Wednesday with Miami CBS affiliate WFOR.

The brother of former President George W. Bush and son of former President George H.W. Bush said he will make up his mind based on whether he can run an uplifting campaign.

Jeb Bush is also pushing back, ever so diplomatically, against his mother’s comments last year that “there are other families” besides the Bushes, and it’s time to give someone else a turn. After Jeb’s brother, George W. Bush, was asked about the comments by Jay Leno (and said his brother would make a great president), CNN quoted Jeb’s response: “Even when I was a teenager, I’d listen to her respectfully and never always followed what she said, even though she was probably right. And now at the age of 60, I really feel I don’t have to listen to every word she says,” he said, drawing laughs. “At some point you got to make these decisions like a grown up.”

But his name came up on Leno’s show again this week, in a more positive mention:

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner made his first ever appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on Thursday, just to get some facetime with Leno before he leaves the show on Feb. 6. …

Asked what he thought of the upcoming presidential race in 2016, Boehner said, “I’m not endorsing anybody. But Jeb Bush is my friend and, frankly, I think he’d make a great president.”

Jeb Bush not only has the gubernatorial success and moderate credentials to match those of Christie, but he is also thought to have the crossover appeal to voters outside the GOP’s traditional support blocs that Christie does. So it’s reasonable to assume that Bush, who in fact has picked fewer fights with the grassroots than Christie has, could step into Christie’s shoes. But does that make him, like Christie was thought to be, the frontrunner?

Probably not, because Bush’s path to the nomination would be complicated in a few ways. The most obvious is his last name, and the GOP, with a bevy of young stars, will probably only be more hesitant to nominate Bush now that it appears Hillary Clinton is the Democratic frontrunner. One advantage Republicans would have over Clinton is that she represents a bygone era both for the country in general and the Democratic Party in particular, having already spent eight years in the White House of a president with a very different political agenda than the one she served as secretary of state. It’s doubtful the grassroots, so opposed to the GOP’s history of next-in-linism, would be satisfied with a Bush-Clinton election.

Additionally, Christie wasn’t the only prospective candidate standing in Jeb Bush’s way. The general consensus was that either Bush or Marco Rubio would run in 2016, but not both. They served the same state and would thus split their constituency, most likely ensuring neither would win. Would the party prefer to run Jeb or Rubio? The latter seems the better bet at this point.

Competing with the senators won’t be easy, considering Rand Paul’s popularity and Ted Cruz’s Texas network. And the governors, like Scott Walker and Mike Pence, would thrive against a wounded (or absent) Christie. Luck has never been on Jeb Bush’s side with regard to the presidency: no one doubts his qualifications, experience, intelligence, diligence, or sense of service, to say nothing of his accomplishments in office in areas like education reform. But even with Christie weakened by bridgegate, his path to the presidency is strewn with roadblocks.

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Politics and the Anti-Sanctions Coalition

With news that support for Iran sanctions may now be showing signs of crumbling among Democrats in the Senate, it’s worth recalling that there have been a host of Jewish and self-titled liberal Zionist groups working tirelessly to make this happen. When UCLA Professor Mark Kleiman recently urged those who “have Jewish sounding names” to lobby their senators against further Iran sanctions, it was because he knew that these calls would seem to carry extra weight and legitimacy if they appeared to be coming from those who are assumed to be pro-Israel.

Several Washington-based lobby groups, claiming to be pro-Israel, have been lending their image of legitimacy to an organized coalition that is working to lobby against Iran sanctions. In joining this group, which also receives its briefings from White House officials, J Street and Americans for Peace Now are putting themselves into coalition with a number of other organizations and individuals who are at best completely indifferent to Israel’s welfare, such as, for instance, the National Iranian American Council.

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With news that support for Iran sanctions may now be showing signs of crumbling among Democrats in the Senate, it’s worth recalling that there have been a host of Jewish and self-titled liberal Zionist groups working tirelessly to make this happen. When UCLA Professor Mark Kleiman recently urged those who “have Jewish sounding names” to lobby their senators against further Iran sanctions, it was because he knew that these calls would seem to carry extra weight and legitimacy if they appeared to be coming from those who are assumed to be pro-Israel.

Several Washington-based lobby groups, claiming to be pro-Israel, have been lending their image of legitimacy to an organized coalition that is working to lobby against Iran sanctions. In joining this group, which also receives its briefings from White House officials, J Street and Americans for Peace Now are putting themselves into coalition with a number of other organizations and individuals who are at best completely indifferent to Israel’s welfare, such as, for instance, the National Iranian American Council.

That said, it is doubtful that these left-wing Jewish groups are being motivated by any explicitly pro-Iranian sentiment. Rather it seems that, in J Street’s case in particular, this action is an expression of shameless partisan loyalty to what is after all a Democrat administration and to the policies generated from the left of the Democratic Party. As recently as July of last year, J Street had been vocally supporting sanctions when the Obama administration was pushing this as an alternative to military action; now that the administration is also setting about dismantling the sanctions J Street has also fallen in line and is advocating precisely the same policy. American’s for Peace Now, hardly to their credit, have been a little more consistent in opposing sanctions against Iran. They even opposed sanctions when the administration thought them a preferable way to encourage Tehran to participate in negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program. 

The coalition was brought together by the Ploughshares Fund, which advocates for a nuclear free world (the irony). Those attempting to justify logically and morally untenable positions often feign sophistication by appealing to the counterintuitive, yet the fact that this effort against sanctions–sanctions that are specifically designed to prevent a nuclear Iran–is being led by people claiming to be against nuclear weapons is simply beyond paradoxical. It was noteworthy at the time that many of those who campaigned against the war in Iraq, claiming they favored non-violent solutions, had previously protested sanctions against Iraq also. Now, with Iran, those who were against the military option are also lining up to try and prevent the sanctions option. Indeed, in an almost Orwellian inversion, some in this coalition have accused the supporters of sanctions of “warmongering.” The question arises, what kind of pressure for preventing the proliferation of the very nuclear weapons that these people claim to oppose would they consider acceptable?

In the case of both of the supposedly pro-Israel groups in question, their participation in this coalition would seem to suggest that whatever it is that they are committed to, it is hardly Israel’s welfare first and foremost. J Street already made clear that it took its marching orders from the Obama administration when it lobbied hard for Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be secretary of defense. Hagel had made a series of infamously anti-Israel and even anti-Jewish comments and had been concerningly ambiguous in his stance on Iran. J Street not only failed to oppose his nomination, they supported it.

American’s for Peace Now may be less slavish to the dictates of the Obama administration, but their consistent opposition to even peaceful measures for preventing Iran from getting the bomb would seem to betray a general hostility to Western interests as well as to the security and survival of Israel in particular. 

When American Jews and friends of Israel look to AIPAC, or the ZOA, or the Emergency Committee for Israel, they may not agree with all of their tactics or even their policies. Yet, they can be sure that these groups are unequivocally pro-Israel. Of J Street and American’s for Peace Now they know no such thing.  

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Artificial Intelligence

I have one question for National Intelligence Director James Clapper and his predecessors. As we all know, the infamous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate asserted with “high confidence” that Iran had halted its work on nuclear weapons development, and no subsequent NIE ever reversed that judgment. Yet fast forward seven years, and the latest annual intelligence assessment asserts that “Tehran has made technical progress in a number of areas … from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons,” and consequently, it now “has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons” should it so choose. So here’s my question: If Iran stopped its weapons development effort seven years ago, how did it happen that since then, it has made precisely the kind of technical progress that now enables it to build a nuclear warhead whenever it chooses?

There are two plausible answers to this question. One, the work never really stopped, or resumed at some point in the last few years, and U.S. intelligence agencies simply missed it. That’s certainly possible; intelligence agencies aren’t omniscient, and it’s unrealistic to think they will never make mistakes. A more troubling possibility is that since intelligence rarely reaches the level of absolute certainty, the available information was misinterpreted due to political bias–a desire to avoid military action against Iran, and hence to avoid interpreting Iran’s behavior in a way that might necessitate such action.

But the answer offered by the Obama administration strains credulity: that Iran really did stop its weapons program and never resumed it, but somehow, mysteriously, nevertheless made major technical progress over the last seven years of precisely the kind that now enables it to build a nuclear warhead anytime it pleases. Even a two-year-old wouldn’t buy that.

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I have one question for National Intelligence Director James Clapper and his predecessors. As we all know, the infamous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate asserted with “high confidence” that Iran had halted its work on nuclear weapons development, and no subsequent NIE ever reversed that judgment. Yet fast forward seven years, and the latest annual intelligence assessment asserts that “Tehran has made technical progress in a number of areas … from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons,” and consequently, it now “has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons” should it so choose. So here’s my question: If Iran stopped its weapons development effort seven years ago, how did it happen that since then, it has made precisely the kind of technical progress that now enables it to build a nuclear warhead whenever it chooses?

There are two plausible answers to this question. One, the work never really stopped, or resumed at some point in the last few years, and U.S. intelligence agencies simply missed it. That’s certainly possible; intelligence agencies aren’t omniscient, and it’s unrealistic to think they will never make mistakes. A more troubling possibility is that since intelligence rarely reaches the level of absolute certainty, the available information was misinterpreted due to political bias–a desire to avoid military action against Iran, and hence to avoid interpreting Iran’s behavior in a way that might necessitate such action.

But the answer offered by the Obama administration strains credulity: that Iran really did stop its weapons program and never resumed it, but somehow, mysteriously, nevertheless made major technical progress over the last seven years of precisely the kind that now enables it to build a nuclear warhead anytime it pleases. Even a two-year-old wouldn’t buy that.

The real problem, however, isn’t what this says about the past, but what it says about the future. After all, for years, opponents of attacking Iran’s nuclear program have argued that Tehran hasn’t yet decided to make a nuclear weapon, and if it ever does, the U.S. will know in enough time to stop it before it succeeds. Therefore, there’s no reason for either America or Israel to take military action now. Yet how can either Americans or Israelis have confidence that U.S. intelligence will detect a nuclear breakout in time if, for the past seven years, it has either missed all the signs that Iran was continuing to make “technical progress” toward weaponization, or deliberately ignored them out of a desire to avert military action–a desire that, judging by both words and deeds, remains the administration’s top priority?

The answer, of course, is that they can’t. And the lesson for Israel is clear: It cannot rely on U.S. promises to stop Iran from getting nukes, because these promises are based on the faulty assumption that U.S. intelligence will uncover a “smoking gun”–the kind of irrefutable proof that can’t be argued away–in enough time to take action. Hence the day is coming closer when Israel will have to make a fatal decision: attack Iran itself, or learn to live with a nuclear Iran.

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Clapper: Iran Ready for Nuclear Breakout

In yesterday’s State of the Union address President Obama spoke stridently of how “American diplomacy … has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program—and rolled back parts of that program.” The president spoke with apparent pride of the “peaceful” efforts being taken to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. How then to explain the fact that less than twenty-four hours after that speech was given, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was being informed that Iran essentially already has breakout capacity for building the bomb should it wish to do so?

While presenting the annual report on the worldwide threat assessment before the committee, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper spoke of Iran’s extensive progress in expanding its nuclear and military infrastructure, including further work on its heavy-water facility at Arak. Clapper stated that “these technical advancements strengthen our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so.” In a roundabout way, it would seem that we are being told that Iran is now ready and able to get the bomb, and all that remains to be seen is whether it is willing. With that comes the implication that this “political willingness” is the last thing that we might have any leverage over.

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In yesterday’s State of the Union address President Obama spoke stridently of how “American diplomacy … has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program—and rolled back parts of that program.” The president spoke with apparent pride of the “peaceful” efforts being taken to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. How then to explain the fact that less than twenty-four hours after that speech was given, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was being informed that Iran essentially already has breakout capacity for building the bomb should it wish to do so?

While presenting the annual report on the worldwide threat assessment before the committee, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper spoke of Iran’s extensive progress in expanding its nuclear and military infrastructure, including further work on its heavy-water facility at Arak. Clapper stated that “these technical advancements strengthen our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so.” In a roundabout way, it would seem that we are being told that Iran is now ready and able to get the bomb, and all that remains to be seen is whether it is willing. With that comes the implication that this “political willingness” is the last thing that we might have any leverage over.

Under the current agreement, reached in Geneva last fall, Iran commits not to enrich uranium above five percent, rather than going to above twenty percent from which it is a quick and relatively simple process to reach the high weapons-grade materials needed for a bomb. The closest thing to good news that the annual report has on Iran is the claim that Iran would not be able to actually accomplish this final breakout without being detected. Cold comfort indeed, and not only for those countries within Iran’s immediate vicinity, but for all of us. For the annual report also stated that, in addition to its large stock of ballistic missiles, which have the capabilities for carrying a nuclear warhead, Iran’s space program gives it the ability to develop long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles.

What is perhaps most disheartening about this report is that because of the emphasis that it puts on the need to be able to monitor closely whether Iran is taking the final steps toward breakout, Clapper counsels that further sanctions would be counterproductive. In other words, the argument now seems to be that the U.S. must avoid imposing further sanctions, lest it disrupt the Iranians’ willingness to allow inspectors to monitor their ongoing and undismantled nuclear enrichment program. This sits in rather sharp contrast to the six United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for a total halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment.

These sentiments essentially echo the argument being pushed by Obama himself when he says that he would veto Congress should it vote for the implementation of further sanctions against Iran. Having apparently gone to great lengths to prevent Israel from carrying out a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, arguing that the military option threatened to jeopardize efforts on the negotiations and sanctions track, now we are told that sanctions too must be avoided because they threaten to jeopardize efforts on the monitoring track. In this way appeasement naturally necessitates more appeasement until the only thing that stands between Iran and genocidal weapons is Iran’s “political willingness,” or lack of it.

Even if we accept the assessment that places our last hope on our ability to closely monitor Iran’s nuclear activities, there remains the question of what would happen if inspectors discovered Iran to be in breach of any agreement. It would be too late to reassemble the sanctions in time for them to have any effect and by that point Iran’s nuclear network may have progressed beyond anything that could be destroyed by airstrikes. Furthermore, it is not inconceivable that our intelligence is flawed–it wouldn’t be the first time. If Iran has an unmonitored secret site where it is enriching to weapons-grade levels then all of Obama’s efforts to placate Iran by pulling apart the sanctions regime will have been in vain in any case.

It may, however, be worth noting that a poll by the Mellman group released yesterday revealed that 68 percent of American voters prefer the use of a military strike to the prospect of a nuclear Iran. They no doubt have made the commonsense assessment that leads one to conclude that if sanctions are not proving effective then a conventional military confrontation with Iran now, however unpleasant, is still preferable to a nuclear one later. It is sometimes hard to tell if the Obama administration has fully explored that same thought process.  

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Kerry’s Dance of the Deadlocked

Last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he could envision some Jewish settlements remaining in place inside a Palestinian state after a peace agreement. While many in Israel thought it was a ploy to embarrass the Palestinians (who want no Jews in their state), it could also have been interpreted as a sign that Netanyahu is edging closer to agreeing to a framework for peace in which a Palestinian state (with or without Jews within its borders) would become a reality.

Yesterday, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas responded by telling a conference in Israel (he spoke via a video hookup) that he could envision Israeli military forces remaining in the West Bank for up to three years after the signing of a peace agreement. While he added that he would dismiss any lengthier interim security force out of hand, like Netanyahu’s statement this, too, could be interpreted as a sign that in spite of formidable obstacles, Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative is actually succeeding.

With both Netanyahu and Abbas indicating acceptance of relatively minor final status details, it’s likely that some naifs in the State Department will attempt to persuade themselves and their media accomplices that this means that Kerry’s peace framework is a realistic one. If the two leaders are preparing their respective constituencies for some sacrifices—the implicit acceptance of withdrawal from the West Bank and a Palestinian state on Netanyahu’s part, and Abbas’s willingness to countenance limits on Palestinian sovereignty for a time—then it may be possible that Kerry believes he is closer to pulling off this gambit than anyone–other than himself, that is–ever thought possible.

But peace process enthusiasts need to calm down. Not only are both of these seeming concessions only a minuscule dose of an enormous number of bitter pills each side must swallow in the event of an accord, they may actually be more of an indication that this process is, in fact, hopelessly deadlocked. What we may well be witnessing with these statements is not so much signs that the two sides are edging closer to each other but a bizarre dance in which both seek to deflect blame for the inevitable failure.

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Last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he could envision some Jewish settlements remaining in place inside a Palestinian state after a peace agreement. While many in Israel thought it was a ploy to embarrass the Palestinians (who want no Jews in their state), it could also have been interpreted as a sign that Netanyahu is edging closer to agreeing to a framework for peace in which a Palestinian state (with or without Jews within its borders) would become a reality.

Yesterday, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas responded by telling a conference in Israel (he spoke via a video hookup) that he could envision Israeli military forces remaining in the West Bank for up to three years after the signing of a peace agreement. While he added that he would dismiss any lengthier interim security force out of hand, like Netanyahu’s statement this, too, could be interpreted as a sign that in spite of formidable obstacles, Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative is actually succeeding.

With both Netanyahu and Abbas indicating acceptance of relatively minor final status details, it’s likely that some naifs in the State Department will attempt to persuade themselves and their media accomplices that this means that Kerry’s peace framework is a realistic one. If the two leaders are preparing their respective constituencies for some sacrifices—the implicit acceptance of withdrawal from the West Bank and a Palestinian state on Netanyahu’s part, and Abbas’s willingness to countenance limits on Palestinian sovereignty for a time—then it may be possible that Kerry believes he is closer to pulling off this gambit than anyone–other than himself, that is–ever thought possible.

But peace process enthusiasts need to calm down. Not only are both of these seeming concessions only a minuscule dose of an enormous number of bitter pills each side must swallow in the event of an accord, they may actually be more of an indication that this process is, in fact, hopelessly deadlocked. What we may well be witnessing with these statements is not so much signs that the two sides are edging closer to each other but a bizarre dance in which both seek to deflect blame for the inevitable failure.

It should be remembered that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians sought Kerry’s intervention when he made a resumption of the long moribund peace process his top priority upon assuming his post. No one, other than Kerry himself, expressed the slightest optimism about his quest with even veteran peace process fans expressing skepticism.

With the Palestinians hopelessly divided between Abbas’s Fatah in the West Bank and the Hamas terrorists in Gaza, there seemed little indication that the PA could agree to a genuine peace agreement or implement it if such a treaty were ever signed. Nor was there any sign the Palestinians were prepared to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state (a requirement that President Obama reiterated last night during his State of the Union address) regardless of its borders. Moreover, any peace deal that renounced, as it must, the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees would place its Palestinian signatories in peril.

As for the Israelis, while Netanyahu has repeatedly endorsed the concept of a two-state solution, neither his coalition nor the majority of the Israeli people seem interested in a repeat of the late Ariel Sharon’s 2005 Gaza withdrawal with another such retreat in the West Bank where the creation of a new terror state would be an even greater danger to Israel than the Hamasistan that exists in Gaza.

Months of talks have produced no visible progress on the substantive issues of Jerusalem, borders, refugees or security. With time running out on the nine months allocated for negotiations, the main fear on both sides is not a failure to reach an agreement that always seemed impossible to the parties but the possibility that they will be blamed for Kerry’s own ignorant folly.

Thus, it is hardly surprising that both Netanyahu and Abbas are now making noises indicating their willingness to embrace a two-state solution even though neither of them believes for a second that a deal is a possibility.

Netanyahu’s statement earned him a vehement rebuke from his right-wing partner, Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett. The prime minister’s office ruthlessly answered Bennett with a threat that he might be forced to resign from his Cabinet post if he failed to apologize. But the back-story reveals more to about Netanyahu’s annoyance at Bennett’s inability to realize that all the prime minister was doing was posturing.

Abbas, who is entering his 10th year of a four-year elected term as Palestinian president, isn’t worried about losing votes from his right wing but he is concerned about being outflanked by Hamas. Nevertheless, like Netanyahu, he is concerned about the consequences of being the one to say no to the United States even though, if push came to shove, he knows that is exactly what he will do. While the international community is more likely to blame Israel no matter how intransigent the Palestinians prove to be on final-status issues, Abbas understands that his predecessor Yasir Arafat paid a heavy price for torpedoing offers of statehood in 2000 and 2001 and that he also suffered for turning down Ehud Olmert’s offer in 2008.

Though this dance of the deadlocked may appear to Kerry and his posse like progress toward peace, it’s far more likely that all we are witnessing is a desperate effort to avoid responsibility for the failure of talks that never stood a chance of success in the first place.

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The Court Jesters

Easily the strangest moment in last night’s State of the Union address was when President Obama promised to ignore Congress and carry out his agenda without their legislative oversight or cooperation and was met with a hearty ovation from congressional Democrats. One possible explanation was that they weren’t listening, and responded to a vocal cue. Another is that they simply assumed it was their obligation to shower their king with praise.

But there’s actually a third explanation, which may be giving them too much credit but is also at least logical. Politico carries an interesting story today on the tension between congressional Democrats and Obama over the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare and its possible impact on the fall midterm elections. In the president’s address, he tried to ward off Republican attempts to undo the unpopular law by holding vote after vote to repeal it. Enough of those symbolic votes, Obama said: “The first forty were plenty. We got it.”

But it turns out that, as the Politico story shows, the president’s real problem on ObamaCare is not Republican opposition–which he can dismiss as partisan posturing–but the congressional Democrats:

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Easily the strangest moment in last night’s State of the Union address was when President Obama promised to ignore Congress and carry out his agenda without their legislative oversight or cooperation and was met with a hearty ovation from congressional Democrats. One possible explanation was that they weren’t listening, and responded to a vocal cue. Another is that they simply assumed it was their obligation to shower their king with praise.

But there’s actually a third explanation, which may be giving them too much credit but is also at least logical. Politico carries an interesting story today on the tension between congressional Democrats and Obama over the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare and its possible impact on the fall midterm elections. In the president’s address, he tried to ward off Republican attempts to undo the unpopular law by holding vote after vote to repeal it. Enough of those symbolic votes, Obama said: “The first forty were plenty. We got it.”

But it turns out that, as the Politico story shows, the president’s real problem on ObamaCare is not Republican opposition–which he can dismiss as partisan posturing–but the congressional Democrats:

With the Democratic grip on the Senate coming down to at least six seats, the White House is extremely sensitive to the concerns of in-cycle Democrats. The administration hopes to use the president’s authority to assuage voter anger over the law, as it did recently by exempting volunteer fire departments from health coverage mandates.

In addition to Landrieu, who faces a tough reelection this year, the effort is also being organized by Heidi Heitkamp, who won a bruising battle in North Dakota last cycle. And the discussions include a spate of Democrats facing potentially difficult races this year, including Begich, Pryor, Mark Udall of Colorado, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Warner of Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

While the private discussions consist of several senators who are not running for reelection — namely freshmen Democrats like Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Tim Kaine of Virginia, and the independent Angus King of Maine — at least nine senators facing voters in the fall are discussing whether to push legislation or pressure the White House to make administrative fixes they can then flag to voters back home.

The issue is this: the president doesn’t really want to talk about ObamaCare, because until coverage expands the White House will continue to lose the battle of the anecdotes. The law, thus far, is creating more “losers” than “winners.” The expansion of coverage under the law may not fix that because of Medicaid’s manifold weaknesses. Additionally, unless the employer mandate is repealed, its suspension will come to an end and inflict plenty of pain on the economy. And people will continue losing the plans they like.

However, the president has the bully pulpit and everyone who needs insurance and gets it under ObamaCare can have their story trumpeted by the traveling salesman in chief. The government will also claim, on behalf of ObamaCare, more credit for expanding coverage than it warrants while keeping the real numbers hidden for as long as possible, the way central planners always must in order to hide their incompetence.

The point is, the White House wants time to catch up. But Democrats up for reelection in November don’t have that time. They want to talk about ObamaCare–specifically, they want to talk about fixing it. Obama doesn’t, because that would admit its faults and failures.

Going through Congress is also a political minefield for the president, because Republicans still control the House and have enough seats in the Senate to make Democratic votes count. The president may be willing to make certain fixes to the law, but he doesn’t want to lose control of it.

Democrats have reason to be wary as well. The reason Harry Reid has been chipping away at minority rights and ignoring Senate rules and traditions is so Democrats can be spared from taking difficult votes. Tossing ObamaCare back into the Senate would mean some of these Democrats may get the votes they want–but they may also be forced to take votes they don’t, and the last thing they want is to have yet another vote in support of ObamaCare heading into the midterms. (That’s why they’re in this predicament in the first place.)

But there is a solution: The president can ignore the law and Congress and adjust the legislation accordingly, no votes necessary. Congressional Democrats are comfortable with this because they don’t want something as trifling as the law of the land or the Constitution to get in the way of their reelection and continued empowerment. The president is comfortable with this because he considers Congress’s main responsibility to be to stand and clap for him when he insults them to their faces. Which is what they, and he, did at last night’s address.

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Three GOPs? No. Just One Opposition Party

It doesn’t matter how uninspired President Obama’s State of the Union speech turned out to be. The contrast between the pomp and circumstance of what is accorded the American equivalent of Queen Elizabeth’s annual visit to Westminster to open Parliament makes any opposition responses seem pale by comparison. If the official response by Washington state’s Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers wasn’t a flop like most of her predecessors, nor did it offer an in-depth refutation of the president, or anything more than a thumbnail sketch of what it is the GOP believes. The fact that the Republicans have in recent years produced more than one response, with the Tea Party offering up one last night by Senator Mike Lee separate from that of the traditional GOP, with Senator Rand Paul deciding to speak too, only serves to reinforce the impression of a Republican Party that is both divided and incoherent.

This feeds into the mainstream media narrative that the Republicans’ problems in the wake of their 2012 defeat as well as the beating they took (and largely deserved) for shutting down the government last fall. As New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal wrote in a humorous putdown of the GOP, the three parties represented last night could be labeled the “Stepford party” (a sexist reference to McMorris Rodgers speaking for the GOP establishment), “the storm the castle party” (Mike Lee speaking for the Tea Party), and “the non-threatening insurgent party” (Rand Paul speaking on behalf of the Rand Paul party). Rosenthal even took the opportunity to pile on by taking a cheap shot at Republicans by terming the ugly threat made to a reporter last night by New York’s Rep. Michael Grimm as the “class clown response” to the president.

But the idea that the GOP is hopelessly divided and would be unable to govern even if they were given the chance is a misreading of the situation or, as in the case of the liberal ideologue Rosenthal, mere partisan hyperventilating. What we saw last night was not a contrast between a united party and one rent by schisms. Rather, it was an illustration of the difference between being in power and not being in power.

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It doesn’t matter how uninspired President Obama’s State of the Union speech turned out to be. The contrast between the pomp and circumstance of what is accorded the American equivalent of Queen Elizabeth’s annual visit to Westminster to open Parliament makes any opposition responses seem pale by comparison. If the official response by Washington state’s Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers wasn’t a flop like most of her predecessors, nor did it offer an in-depth refutation of the president, or anything more than a thumbnail sketch of what it is the GOP believes. The fact that the Republicans have in recent years produced more than one response, with the Tea Party offering up one last night by Senator Mike Lee separate from that of the traditional GOP, with Senator Rand Paul deciding to speak too, only serves to reinforce the impression of a Republican Party that is both divided and incoherent.

This feeds into the mainstream media narrative that the Republicans’ problems in the wake of their 2012 defeat as well as the beating they took (and largely deserved) for shutting down the government last fall. As New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal wrote in a humorous putdown of the GOP, the three parties represented last night could be labeled the “Stepford party” (a sexist reference to McMorris Rodgers speaking for the GOP establishment), “the storm the castle party” (Mike Lee speaking for the Tea Party), and “the non-threatening insurgent party” (Rand Paul speaking on behalf of the Rand Paul party). Rosenthal even took the opportunity to pile on by taking a cheap shot at Republicans by terming the ugly threat made to a reporter last night by New York’s Rep. Michael Grimm as the “class clown response” to the president.

But the idea that the GOP is hopelessly divided and would be unable to govern even if they were given the chance is a misreading of the situation or, as in the case of the liberal ideologue Rosenthal, mere partisan hyperventilating. What we saw last night was not a contrast between a united party and one rent by schisms. Rather, it was an illustration of the difference between being in power and not being in power.

The problem here isn’t that Republicans are particularly querulous—though there’s no denying the divisions in the party—or inept at messaging. Rather the schisms we observe on the right are the natural product of lacking one unifying figure.

The contrast between Tea Party conservatives and the more mainstream conservatives in congressional leadership positions is only in part ideological. There are issues on which the two seem to part ways on matters of principle—immigration being one example. But for the most part, the establishment and the castle-burners don’t seriously disagree on basic issues. Indeed, on most fiscal and social issues there are few strong disagreements. The schisms stem not from any genuine disagreement about dislike of big-government measures, taxes, and spending but on the tactics best suited to combat the Democrats. The establishment rightly wishes to govern and to pick its fights with the liberals to lay the groundwork for future electoral victories. The castle-burners are frustrated by past defeats and want to lash out at the system. Indeed, it was just such despair about the GOP struggle against ObamaCare—an issue on which there is a remarkable consensus, if not unanimity among Republicans—that led to the government shutdown.

As was the case last night, the Republicans were unable to speak with one voice during the shutdown while Democrats were able to rally around the White House. The result, as with the State of the Union, is that a congressional Republican Party that actually has as little divergence of views on a host of important issues as their Democratic opponents comes across as a band of savages tearing one  another to pieces.

The remedy for this is simple. Win a presidential election. Once in opposition, the Democratic Party, whose divisions are today papered over by their deference to the president, will seem as angry and divided as the GOP does today. Its leaders will—as the Republicans do now—ruthlessly maneuver in order to put themselves in the strongest position for the next presidential election. Republicans will be forced, as Democrats are today, to bow to their president’s wishes and to play defense for an administration whose popularity will largely determine their own fates at the next midterm election.

Of course to get back to that position, Republicans will have to deal with the fallout from the shutdown and the misrepresentation, pounded home by the liberal media, that the GOP is aloof from the concerns of women and Hispanic voters. But, as Democrats learned in 2008, one good presidential candidate can make up for a multitude of political faults. Though no one who fits that description was on display last night for the Republicans, those members of the GOP nursing their wounds from another dispiriting beating in the Republican response to the State of the Union should remember that all they have to do to change places with the Democrats is to find someone who can beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

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Not So Fast, Senator Cruz

Senator Ted Cruz is tired of talking about the government shutdown.

“I understand that there are a lot of folks in the media that love to talk about the shutdown from four months ago,” he told reporters:

What we ought to be talking about is the fact that we have the lowest labor force participating in 30 years since 1978, that Obamacare has taken away more than 5 million people’s health insurance plans, that people are hurting, that income inequality has increased under the Obama agenda and that there is an abuse of power and lawlessness. So that’s what we ought to be talking about. Efforts that distract from that conversation, I think, are deliberate efforts of smoke and mirrors distracting from the questions coming from the American people.

Now why oh why would Senator Cruz want to stop talking about the government shutdown? After all, before it occurred he insisted it wouldn’t be such a bad thing–and since it’s occurred he’s claimed it was a wonderful success. “I think we accomplished a great deal,” according to Cruz.

Of course it did.

Don’t forget that during the lead-up to the shutdown Mr. Cruz insisted that those who didn’t agree with his tactics were part of the “surrender caucus” and he and his colleagues argued that if you didn’t follow their tactic, you were a de facto supporter of ObamaCare.

Of course it’s clear to every sentient human being that the Cruz & Co. gambit badly backfired. It achieved nothing useful. It deflected attention away from the awful rollout of the ObamaCare website. And it damaged the reputation of the GOP. The public, in overwhelming numbers, didn’t like the government shutdown–and by overwhelming numbers voters blamed Republicans for it. 

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Senator Ted Cruz is tired of talking about the government shutdown.

“I understand that there are a lot of folks in the media that love to talk about the shutdown from four months ago,” he told reporters:

What we ought to be talking about is the fact that we have the lowest labor force participating in 30 years since 1978, that Obamacare has taken away more than 5 million people’s health insurance plans, that people are hurting, that income inequality has increased under the Obama agenda and that there is an abuse of power and lawlessness. So that’s what we ought to be talking about. Efforts that distract from that conversation, I think, are deliberate efforts of smoke and mirrors distracting from the questions coming from the American people.

Now why oh why would Senator Cruz want to stop talking about the government shutdown? After all, before it occurred he insisted it wouldn’t be such a bad thing–and since it’s occurred he’s claimed it was a wonderful success. “I think we accomplished a great deal,” according to Cruz.

Of course it did.

Don’t forget that during the lead-up to the shutdown Mr. Cruz insisted that those who didn’t agree with his tactics were part of the “surrender caucus” and he and his colleagues argued that if you didn’t follow their tactic, you were a de facto supporter of ObamaCare.

Of course it’s clear to every sentient human being that the Cruz & Co. gambit badly backfired. It achieved nothing useful. It deflected attention away from the awful rollout of the ObamaCare website. And it damaged the reputation of the GOP. The public, in overwhelming numbers, didn’t like the government shutdown–and by overwhelming numbers voters blamed Republicans for it. 

So here’s my recommendation: Unless and until Senator Cruz admits the errors of his ways–unless he is willing to concede how flawed his judgment was and explains to us what he’s learned since then–the press should keep asking the junior senator from Texas about the shutdown. Again and again and again.

If Ted Cruz thinks it was such a terrific idea, let him claim ownership of it at every conceivable opportunity.

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Obama’s Disappearing Pacific Pivot

Talk about a disappearing agenda.

Back in the fall of 2011 and the early part of 2012, the Obama administration was busy announcing a “rebalancing” of American foreign policy from the Middle East to the Pacific region. In November 2011, Obama told the Australian parliament that he wanted to ensure that “the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region [the Asia-Pacific] and its future.”

In his 2014 State of the Union address the “pivot” to the Pacific had been relegated to one short paragraph near the end of the speech:

And we will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster, as we did in the Philippines, when our Marines and civilians rushed to aid those battered by a typhoon, and were greeted with words like, “We will never forget your kindness” and “God bless America.”

The Asia-Pacific region, it must be noted, received less notice than Iran or Afghanistan, to say nothing of the president’s many domestic priorities.

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Talk about a disappearing agenda.

Back in the fall of 2011 and the early part of 2012, the Obama administration was busy announcing a “rebalancing” of American foreign policy from the Middle East to the Pacific region. In November 2011, Obama told the Australian parliament that he wanted to ensure that “the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region [the Asia-Pacific] and its future.”

In his 2014 State of the Union address the “pivot” to the Pacific had been relegated to one short paragraph near the end of the speech:

And we will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster, as we did in the Philippines, when our Marines and civilians rushed to aid those battered by a typhoon, and were greeted with words like, “We will never forget your kindness” and “God bless America.”

The Asia-Pacific region, it must be noted, received less notice than Iran or Afghanistan, to say nothing of the president’s many domestic priorities.

The relative unimportance of the “Pacific pivot” in his speech is matched by a lack of action to bulk up U.S. forces in the region, even as the U.S. downsizes in the Middle East–something that military officers and observers have been noticing. But then it’s hard to see how the U.S. can do more in the Pacific, or anywhere else, at a time when the defense budget is falling as fast as it is.

An increased U.S. commitment in the region is appropriate, especially coming at a time when delegates at Davos are buzzing about the possibility of conflict between China and Japan—a situation that Japan’s premier has compared to the relationship between Germany and Britain before 1914. But a U.S. commitment to the Pacific shouldn’t come at the expense of the U.S. commitment to the Middle East, which is in greater turmoil than ever.

In reality, the U.S. commitment to both regions is decreasing; it is just that the decline of U.S. power in the Middle East is happening faster than in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. will not be able to exert more power in either area until the president and Congress rethink their plans to shrink the defense budget and with it our military capability.

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The Difference Between Iran and the USSR

In what was an otherwise lackluster State of the Union speech last night as well as one that gave short shrift to foreign policy, it was no small irony that one of the most pointed passages was the section devoted to opposing additional sanctions on Iran. Repeating arguments he has made before, President Obama declared he would veto any measure that imposed new sanctions on the Islamist regime, even those only slated to go into effect after the scheduled six-month negotiating period had failed:

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

But these assertions about the interim argument aren’t merely exaggerations. They are false. The Iranian stockpile is not being eliminated and the inspections are not verifying that Iran isn’t working on a bomb. Just as importantly, the comparisons between his nuclear diplomacy and that of Kennedy or Reagan are specious. The Iranians are not as dangerous as the Soviet Union. But that’s precisely the reason his weak diplomacy, indeed, his abject appeasement, is so wrongheaded. Moreover, the even greater difference between those situations and this one has to do with the way America’s adversaries regard the U.S. The Russians knew both JFK and Reagan meant business. After five years of feckless diplomatic engagement, the Iranians have come to the opposite conclusion about Obama.

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In what was an otherwise lackluster State of the Union speech last night as well as one that gave short shrift to foreign policy, it was no small irony that one of the most pointed passages was the section devoted to opposing additional sanctions on Iran. Repeating arguments he has made before, President Obama declared he would veto any measure that imposed new sanctions on the Islamist regime, even those only slated to go into effect after the scheduled six-month negotiating period had failed:

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

But these assertions about the interim argument aren’t merely exaggerations. They are false. The Iranian stockpile is not being eliminated and the inspections are not verifying that Iran isn’t working on a bomb. Just as importantly, the comparisons between his nuclear diplomacy and that of Kennedy or Reagan are specious. The Iranians are not as dangerous as the Soviet Union. But that’s precisely the reason his weak diplomacy, indeed, his abject appeasement, is so wrongheaded. Moreover, the even greater difference between those situations and this one has to do with the way America’s adversaries regard the U.S. The Russians knew both JFK and Reagan meant business. After five years of feckless diplomatic engagement, the Iranians have come to the opposite conclusion about Obama.

The interim nuclear accord does require Iran to halt the installation of new centrifuges and to stop enriching uranium at higher weapons-grade levels. But the centrifuges are still turning and their output can easily be converted to use for a bomb after a short “breakout” period. Even more deceptive is the president’s description of the disposal of Iran’s stockpile of nuclear fuel. It is being converted into oxide powder, but that is not the same as elimination. To the contrary, it can be easily reconverted into its previous form and then enriched further to reach the levels necessary for use in a bomb.

Nor are the inspections anywhere close to being as intrusive as Obama described. In particular, the International Atomic Energy Agency is still unable to monitor Iran’s military nuclear research facilities. Indeed, the accord signed in November by Secretary of State Kerry didn’t even mention them.

But just as misleading is the analogy between Iran and the Soviet Union that the United States dealt with in the past.

The president is correct in distinguishing the Soviet Union, a nuclear power, from Iran, a potential one.  But that is exactly the reason that the president’s decision to discard the military and economic leverage the U.S. possessed in talks with Iran last fall was so profoundly dangerous. In doing so the president decided to not only loosen existing sanctions but to tacitly recognize Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium with a deal that allowed that activity to continue unabated even as the president deceitfully described the accord as freezing Iran’s program.

The reasoning behind this astonishing retreat was the very opposite of America’s negotiating tactics—especially under Reagan—with the Soviets. The current U.S. retreat is premised in a belief that Iran is too strong and too determined not to be pressured by sanctions into giving up its nuclear program.

If the Soviet Union negotiated with the U.S. and wound up ultimately reducing its nuclear stockpile, as Reagan demanded, rather than merely limiting their increase, it was because they understood that he could not be intimidated. The Soviets knew they were dealing with a principled president. But the interim agreement with Tehran has convinced the Iranians of just the opposite about Obama. Having thus far persuaded him to accept enrichment and reduce sanctions, they have every reason to think he will go even further to appease them.

The Kennedy precedent provides yet another cautionary tale. In his first meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna, Kennedy admitted that he was insufficiently prepared for dealing with the Russian and the result was far from satisfactory. Though Kennedy had rightly opposed pressure to evacuate Berlin, he later told the New York Times that Khrushchev had “beaten the hell out of me” and left the meeting convinced that JFK was a political lightweight. It was this impression of weakness that led the Soviets to underestimate Kennedy and led to further provocations in the form of the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

That is an unfortunate precedent for Obama, whose supine position toward Iran ill becomes the American president and has similarly convinced Iran’s leaders that they need not fear his occasional threats to use force against them. Given the weakness of his position, he should welcome measures such as the bipartisan sanctions bill that has the support of 58 senators that would strengthen his hand in the talks.

Instead, he threatens a veto lest the proposal upset his Iranian negotiating partners. Rather than confirming the seriousness of his purpose, this irresponsible passage in the State of the Union will only reaffirm the Iranians’ belief that they can stand up to the U.S. and set the stage for either an American retreat on the nuclear issue or a confrontation that might be avoided by exactly the Senate measure the president opposes.

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