Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 2, 2014

Sotomayor Gives Hope to ObamaCare Foes

For most of the last three years since ObamaCare was passed by Congress, liberals have dismissed efforts to overturn the portion of the law mandating that employers pay for contraception and abortion drugs as the province solely of right-wing extremists. They have mocked the notion that the religious rights of churches, religious groups, and believers who own private businesses have been violated by the government’s order.  Even as lawsuits challenging the legality of the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate have gradually made their way through the federal system, the reaction from the White House and prominent liberal outlets such as the New York Times has been to deny the legitimacy of the debate. Even worse, they have maliciously tried to turn the discussion from one of religious liberty to a false charge that it is the plaintiffs in these suits that are trying to impose religious views on their employees.

But with the Supreme Court already agreeing to consider some challenges to the law, the effort to ignore the appeal to religious liberty received another blow this week when Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed to issue an injunction against enforcement of the mandate pending resolution of litigation. While in no way a guarantee of future success in court, the liberal Sotomayor’s ruling preventing the government from imposing fines against the Denver-based Little Sisters of the Poor for refusing to obey the ObamaCare dictate is a sign that the plaintiffs have not only a strong argument but a reasonable chance to prevail. This should encourage those who entertain the hope that the administration’s abuse of power may yet be reversed. But it also demonstrates the seriousness of an argument that liberals would prefer to ignore.

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For most of the last three years since ObamaCare was passed by Congress, liberals have dismissed efforts to overturn the portion of the law mandating that employers pay for contraception and abortion drugs as the province solely of right-wing extremists. They have mocked the notion that the religious rights of churches, religious groups, and believers who own private businesses have been violated by the government’s order.  Even as lawsuits challenging the legality of the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate have gradually made their way through the federal system, the reaction from the White House and prominent liberal outlets such as the New York Times has been to deny the legitimacy of the debate. Even worse, they have maliciously tried to turn the discussion from one of religious liberty to a false charge that it is the plaintiffs in these suits that are trying to impose religious views on their employees.

But with the Supreme Court already agreeing to consider some challenges to the law, the effort to ignore the appeal to religious liberty received another blow this week when Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed to issue an injunction against enforcement of the mandate pending resolution of litigation. While in no way a guarantee of future success in court, the liberal Sotomayor’s ruling preventing the government from imposing fines against the Denver-based Little Sisters of the Poor for refusing to obey the ObamaCare dictate is a sign that the plaintiffs have not only a strong argument but a reasonable chance to prevail. This should encourage those who entertain the hope that the administration’s abuse of power may yet be reversed. But it also demonstrates the seriousness of an argument that liberals would prefer to ignore.

The injunction in this case is significant because it stops the government from stifling challenges to ObamaCare before the legal process is completed. With organizations and companies that defy the mandate subject to crippling fines that could put them out of business, plaintiffs can be effectively destroyed before a definitive ruling has been reached. While the lower courts in 18 out of 20 such cases have rightly granted such injunctions in the federal system, Sotomayor’s rescue of this group of charitable nuns who had been previously denied judicial relief is a signal victory. That a liberal who is an Obama appointee would act in this way demonstrates that the challenge to the mandate is not a case of conservative groups tilting at windmills.

Liberals have used complaints about the mandate to promote the myth that conservatives were waging a “war against women” as if free contraception were a basic constitutional right. It also ignores the government’s effort to restrict the rights of those being asked to pay.

As some federal courts have already ruled in related cases, the imposition of the president’s vision of a health-care system where all employers — including religious believers whose faith precludes such actions — must pay for contraception or abortion drugs places a severe burden on the free exercise of the religious freedom of those involved. In the absence of the demonstration of a compelling government interest that would force nuns or other groups or individuals opposed to such practices to pay for such services, the law is a clear violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as well as a blow to First Amendment rights. In response to these appeals, the Justice Department has dismissed the idea that anyone’s rights are violated and instead argued that those who work for the nuns or any other religious group or company owned by believers are entitled not only to access to such services but that their employers must pay for it. If this argument were to prevail, the result could be a new and dangerously restrictive definition of religious freedom that would confine the right to practice one’s faith to houses of worship and in the home but not in the public square.

Anyone who attempts to predict how the Supreme Court will rule on any aspect of ObamaCare is unwise, as Chief Justice John Roberts’s illogical opinion, upholding the law as a tax, proved in 2012. But the injunction from Sotomayor, who has already upheld the constitutionality of the law, has to scare liberals who have assumed there was no merit whatsoever to the religious freedom challenge.

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Sharon and the Great Leader Peace Myth

After almost eight years in a vegetative state it appears that former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s long struggle for life may be at its end. According to Tel Hashomer Hospital’s spokesman, Sharon’s condition has deteriorated and sources are telling the Israeli press that his organs are failing, leaving little doubt about the ultimate outcome. When the end comes it is to be expected that most of the international press will center their obituaries on the more controversial aspects of his public career. As a military officer, a Cabinet minister, and then prime minister, Sharon was often viewed as a “bulldozer” with few fans outside of those who care about Israel’s security and many detractors, both at home an abroad. They will focus on the debate about the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon and the building of Israel’s security fence in the wake of the Palestinian terror offensive known as the Second Intifada so as to besmirch his reputation as well as that of the Jewish state that he spent his life defending.

But as much as Sharon was the bête noire of the Israeli left as well as Israel-bashers in general, he will also be spoken of as an example of a leader who had the credibility and the guts to try to end the conflict with the Palestinians. Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza will be cited repeatedly by Middle East experts like Aaron David Miller not so much for his failure to devise a unilateral solution to the conflict but because it provides a contrast with what Miller and other members of the foreign-policy establishment consider Benjamin Netanyahu’s lackluster leadership. Having exited the scene years ago Sharon has now been elevated in the eyes of many of his country’s friends and critics (such as the National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn) if only because it allows them the opportunity to bash the man who occupies the office he once held. Though they will be right to say that no one on the current Israeli political scene has the mythic status that Sharon attained, the idea that peace might be possible if Sharon or someone like him were in the prime minister’s office is a fallacy.

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After almost eight years in a vegetative state it appears that former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s long struggle for life may be at its end. According to Tel Hashomer Hospital’s spokesman, Sharon’s condition has deteriorated and sources are telling the Israeli press that his organs are failing, leaving little doubt about the ultimate outcome. When the end comes it is to be expected that most of the international press will center their obituaries on the more controversial aspects of his public career. As a military officer, a Cabinet minister, and then prime minister, Sharon was often viewed as a “bulldozer” with few fans outside of those who care about Israel’s security and many detractors, both at home an abroad. They will focus on the debate about the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon and the building of Israel’s security fence in the wake of the Palestinian terror offensive known as the Second Intifada so as to besmirch his reputation as well as that of the Jewish state that he spent his life defending.

But as much as Sharon was the bête noire of the Israeli left as well as Israel-bashers in general, he will also be spoken of as an example of a leader who had the credibility and the guts to try to end the conflict with the Palestinians. Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza will be cited repeatedly by Middle East experts like Aaron David Miller not so much for his failure to devise a unilateral solution to the conflict but because it provides a contrast with what Miller and other members of the foreign-policy establishment consider Benjamin Netanyahu’s lackluster leadership. Having exited the scene years ago Sharon has now been elevated in the eyes of many of his country’s friends and critics (such as the National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn) if only because it allows them the opportunity to bash the man who occupies the office he once held. Though they will be right to say that no one on the current Israeli political scene has the mythic status that Sharon attained, the idea that peace might be possible if Sharon or someone like him were in the prime minister’s office is a fallacy.

It is true that only someone with the security credentials that Sharon, who was a hero of several Israeli wars, possessed could have pulled off the Gaza withdrawal. Having been reelected in 1983 by running on a platform skewering Labor candidate Amram Mitzna’s proposal for abandoning Gaza, Sharon blew up the Likud Party and rammed the same proposal through the Knesset and implemented it despite the opposition of most of those who had supported him. That took not only guts but also the kind of self-confidence that perhaps only war heroes who have won landslide election victories possess.

Perhaps the aftermath of the Gaza withdrawal would have gone better or at least differently had Sharon not fallen ill. Like those who fantasize that the Oslo peace process might not have been such a failure if only Yitzhak Rabin had lived and forced the Palestinians to abide by the accords and rallied Israelis behind the deal, some will spin similarly unlikely, counter-factual scenarios about Sharon. Perhaps he would not have tolerated the Hamas coup in Gaza or not responded to the rain of missile fire that emanated from the Strip after the withdrawal with the same passivity that his successor Ehud Olmert displayed for almost three years before authorizing a counter-attack. But it is just as likely, if not more so, that Sharon would have been boxed in by the same unfortunate circumstances as Olmert. After all, Hamas had been shooting rockets at Israeli settlements in Gaza as well as southern Israel for years before the withdrawal without provoking a significant military response from Sharon’s government.

However, the real lesson to be drawn from this chapter of history is that the lack of great men with the vision to try something new is not what is preventing peace. From 2001 to 2005, Israelis and Palestinians were both governed by larger-than-life figures. Though it is unfair to compare Sharon, an honorable soldier and a veteran of democratic politics, to a terrorist murderer like Yasir Arafat, one must concede that if any leaders had the standing to sell peace to their respective constituencies, it was those two. What was lacking was not someone with the ability to convince Israelis to take risks but a Palestinian partner and a Palestinian people ready to accept the notion of recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. If Israelis are skeptical about Secretary of State John Kerry’s current campaign to get them to again contemplate withdrawing from territory it is not because they lack leaders, a desire for peace, or are devoted to the cause of keeping settlements but because they think repeating Sharon’s Gaza fiasco in the far more strategic West Bank would be madness.

Netanyahu may seem like a small man when compared to Sharon just as Mahmoud Abbas may strike Palestinians as a pygmy when contrasted to Arafat. But what are needed in the Middle East are not great men so much as a sea change in Palestinian culture that will make peace possible. Until that happens, waiting for another Sharon or even another Arafat won’t hasten the end of the conflict.

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The Recurring Referendum on ObamaCare

ObamaCare is in need of some good press–but it’s looking for love in all the wrong places. Organizing for Action–the overcaffeinated remnants of the Obama reelection campaign–has been tweeting out success stories, usually of people who had previously been denied coverage, for example, but now can get it under ObamaCare. This is understandable, and it’s the kind of anecdote the president also relies on to convey the value of his very unpopular, thus-far-disastrous signature “achievement.”

But it’s the wrong approach. What the pro-ObamaCare apparatchiks really need are stories like this one from Politico, headlined “For Obamacare, it’s finally showtime.” The Obama administration could hardly do better than stories that ludicrously portray January 1, 2014 as the real beginning of the test. As Politico offers:

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ObamaCare is in need of some good press–but it’s looking for love in all the wrong places. Organizing for Action–the overcaffeinated remnants of the Obama reelection campaign–has been tweeting out success stories, usually of people who had previously been denied coverage, for example, but now can get it under ObamaCare. This is understandable, and it’s the kind of anecdote the president also relies on to convey the value of his very unpopular, thus-far-disastrous signature “achievement.”

But it’s the wrong approach. What the pro-ObamaCare apparatchiks really need are stories like this one from Politico, headlined “For Obamacare, it’s finally showtime.” The Obama administration could hardly do better than stories that ludicrously portray January 1, 2014 as the real beginning of the test. As Politico offers:

Obamacare just got real.

Sure, there were some new rules and benefits over the last few years, but that was just a warmup. Starting today, all of the big pieces of the Affordable Care Act — the biggest domestic achievement of Barack Obama’s presidency and one of the most far-reaching changes in American social policy in decades — go into effect. And Americans will start to see, for better or worse, how the law really works.

OFA should be tweeting out this story every hour on the hour. Why move the goalposts when you can put the scoreboard back to zeros? Though on the other hand, if the president and his advisors buy into this mindset they will find themselves unready to deal with the reality, which is that the country cannot call a “do-over down,” as we used to say in our recess football games in grade school, on ObamaCare.

And that reality is important for the administration to keep track of, because Republicans are putting aside, at least temporarily, the drive to repeal the law at all costs in favor of tactics designed both to highlight ObamaCare’s increasingly prevalent flaws while also riding to the rescue. As the Hill reports:

In a memo to Republican lawmakers on Thursday, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said he would schedule a vote on a proposal to require the government to notify individuals if their personal information has been compromised on HealthCare.gov.

Cantor cited the recent data breach at Target in which hackers gained access to the financial information of millions of customers, and he pointed to a study by the credit report bureau Experian warning that the healthcare industry would be the most susceptible to data breaches in 2014.

“If a breach occurs, it shouldn’t be up to some bureaucrat to decide when or even whether to inform an individual that their personal information has been accessed,” Cantor wrote.

Four House committees have held hearings documenting the risks of data breaches within HealthCare.gov, and Cantor accused the Obama administration of downplaying the threat because it didn’t want to scare people away from signing up for insurance through the federal exchange.

In fact the data security troubles are a real concern, because presumably health-insurance exchanges will need access to more sensitive personal data than Target does, which means security breaches–which the administration has apparently not prepared for–are quite serious.

But Republican attempts to help fix ObamaCare are trouble for the administration for another reason: they are obviously legal, while the GOP will make the case that the administration’s own fixes–arbitrary declarations that some parts of the law can be ignored until the Democrats feel they are in better shape for the midterms–are not:

Eleven GOP attorneys general say the Obama administration is breaking the law by repeatedly making changes to ObamaCare without going through Congress.

The attorneys general specifically criticize President Obama’s executive action that allowed insurance companies to keep offering health plans that had been canceled for not meeting ObamaCare’s more rigorous standards.

“We support allowing citizens to keep their health insurance coverage, but the only way to fix this problem-ridden law is to enact changes lawfully: through Congressional action,” the attorneys general wrote in a letter to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “The illegal actions by this administration must stop.”

On the one hand, this is a fairly obvious attempt to give congressional Republicans–who control the House–a shot at taking apart the law. On the other hand, the administration is undoubtedly behaving lawlessly in some respects.

This was always one of the gambles the administration took in the way it went about enacting and then enforcing ObamaCare. The public rarely pays much attention to process stories, preferring to focus instead on the merits of any particular bill. But the process stories can pile up, and if the law is unpopular it will more easily be branded illegitimate. And the more it gains that reputation, the more support there will be for something like full repeal. The Democrats’ lack of credibility even in “fixing” the law shows why they appear headed into the 2014 midterms defending a four-year-old law.

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Boehner Won’t Split GOP on Immigration

The mainstream media is still reeling from House Speaker John Boehner’s telling off Heritage Action and other right-wing groups that were attempting to obstruct Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget deal last month. Having pegged Boehner as a Tea Party hostage in the wake of the disastrous government shutdown that he failed to stop, the Speaker’s willingness to talk back to conservative activists has led to expectations that the Ryan budget won’t be the last instance in which the GOP establishment gives the back of its hand to the right.

Thus, Boehner’s hiring of Rebecca Talent, a  longtime immigration adviser to John McCain is fueling expectations that 2014 will be the year when the Republican-controlled House will take up immigration reform after thwarting efforts to change the existing broken system. Yet while those predicting some action on immigration are not wrong, the glee on the left about an impending civil war on the right over this is premature. Though after the shutdown Boehner appears to have learned his lesson about letting the Tea Party caucus run the House asylum, expectations that he will do anything to bring about a major schism even over an issue as vital as immigration are more the product of liberal wishes than conservative strategy.

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The mainstream media is still reeling from House Speaker John Boehner’s telling off Heritage Action and other right-wing groups that were attempting to obstruct Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget deal last month. Having pegged Boehner as a Tea Party hostage in the wake of the disastrous government shutdown that he failed to stop, the Speaker’s willingness to talk back to conservative activists has led to expectations that the Ryan budget won’t be the last instance in which the GOP establishment gives the back of its hand to the right.

Thus, Boehner’s hiring of Rebecca Talent, a  longtime immigration adviser to John McCain is fueling expectations that 2014 will be the year when the Republican-controlled House will take up immigration reform after thwarting efforts to change the existing broken system. Yet while those predicting some action on immigration are not wrong, the glee on the left about an impending civil war on the right over this is premature. Though after the shutdown Boehner appears to have learned his lesson about letting the Tea Party caucus run the House asylum, expectations that he will do anything to bring about a major schism even over an issue as vital as immigration are more the product of liberal wishes than conservative strategy.

Contrary to the spin placed on the hiring of Tallent by the New York Times and other liberal outlets, this is not the first indication of Boehner’s willingness to push forward some kind of immigration legislation. Though he has never had any affection for the comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform bill passed by the Senate, Boehner has been signaling since last spring that what he wanted to do was to break down that omnibus bill and cherry pick parts of it that he thought could pass the House.

Will that be enough to satisfy immigration advocates or the not-inconsiderable number of conservatives who view a more rational approach to the issue as an indispensable element of a rebranding of the GOP in advance of the next presidential election? The answer is almost certainly no. But the speculation about Boehner’s intentions tell us more about the desire of the left for a Republican meltdown than about the actual prospects of a full scale confrontation on the issue on the right.

It is true that Boehner is fed up with Heritage Action and a host of other conservative activist groups that have lost sight of the need for Republicans to find a way to govern rather than engage in guerrilla warfare against the Obama administration and its pet projects. The failure of the shutdown and the juxtaposition of that foolish move with the obvious political benefits of sitting back and letting the Democrats deal with the negative fallout from the president’s ill-conceived health-care law has strengthened the Speaker’s hand against those who would like to maneuver him into a similar strategy on the debt ceiling. But there is a vast difference between the debate on the right about fiscal issues and the one it is having on immigration.

The differences between Tea Partiers and the so-called GOP establishment on the budget, spending, taxes, and even ObamaCare are tactical. If Boehner won’t let Heritage and the Tea Partiers shut down the government again or threaten a default it is not because he secretly likes ObamaCare or wants to enable liberal spending. It’s because he—and the vast majority of conservatives—understand that shutdowns are political mistakes. But on immigration, there is a genuine split among Republicans, especially on providing a path to citizenship for those who are already here illegally.

Count me among those who think the Senate bill was the right approach in many respects. The immigration system is broken and needs a complete overhaul that includes strengthening border security as well as dealing with the reality of approximately 12 million illegals, many of whom have been here for decades and are no threat to anyone.

But given the inability of the government to deal adequately with security issues as well as legitimate concerns about flouting the rule of law, it is an understandable if regrettable fact that what appears to be a majority of Republicans and conservatives oppose the comprehensive bill. A majority of House Republicans also doesn’t exist in support of anything that would provide a path to citizenship for illegals and anyone who thinks Boehner will choose to create a party schism on such an effort in 2014 and sabotage the GOP’s chances in November is almost certainly mistaken.

Republicans do need to change their tone on immigration, not so much because they stand a chance of making major inroads in the Hispanic vote but because some on the right have taken positions that smack of hostility to all immigrants and minorities, thus discrediting the party in the view of more than only those personally concerned.

Yet while Boehner won’t go all the way on immigration, he does have the votes to pass some elements of the reform package. One such measure is adoption of a DREAM Act type of law that will enable those who were brought here illegally as children to become citizens. Another is increasing visas for high-tech workers or dealing with the need to provide a way to fast-track the legalization of agricultural laborers. That won’t go as far as some Republicans want the party to go, let alone please Hispanic leaders or President Obama. But it is a start in the right direction that may provide a basis to deal with larger issues after the 2014 midterms.

But what Boehner won’t do is blow his party up on core immigration issues. Doing so won’t advance the cause of immigration reform but it will increase the Democrats’ chances of holding onto the Senate and making gains in the House. It is hardly surprising that liberals are hoping for just such an outcome, but that has more to do with their political agenda than any sober analysis of what the Speaker might do.

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Bill de Blasio’s Mandate

While it’s tempting for politicians to interpret an election victory as a mandate that aligns with their personal priorities over those of the electorate, the disconnect is especially glaring in the case of Bill de Blasio. The new mayor of New York City was sworn in yesterday in a downright bizarre spectacle. During a procession of speeches, the New York City of 2013-14 was notably absent to make room for the New York City of the progressives’ fevered imaginations, completely at odds with how New Yorkers generally view their home.

A majority of black and Hispanic New Yorkers believe race relations in their city are “generally good.” Yet the chaplain who gave yesterday’s invocation claimed the city was a “plantation.” New York has seen a steady drop in the murder rate–to historic lows, in fact–for over a decade at the same time as its incarceration rate has plummeted. Yet de Blasio’s inauguration featured a speech by Harry Belafonte in which the crowd was treated to his false depiction of the city: “While it is encouraging to know that the statistics have indicated a recent drop in our city’s murder rate, New York alarmingly plays a tragic role in the fact that our nation has the largest prison population in the world.”

But demonstrably false progressive propaganda on race and crime are just the opening acts. The main event, of course, is income inequality. This is a Progressive Moment, we are told, thanks to the victory of de Blasio and others, such as the election of an avowed socialist to Seattle’s city council advocating policies she acknowledged will cost jobs–but hey, revolutions are messy. And this Progressive Moment was made possible, as the New York Times explains, by frustration with “the city’s current gilded era” which “propelled” de Blasio to power. Except, of course, that this is a fantasy.

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While it’s tempting for politicians to interpret an election victory as a mandate that aligns with their personal priorities over those of the electorate, the disconnect is especially glaring in the case of Bill de Blasio. The new mayor of New York City was sworn in yesterday in a downright bizarre spectacle. During a procession of speeches, the New York City of 2013-14 was notably absent to make room for the New York City of the progressives’ fevered imaginations, completely at odds with how New Yorkers generally view their home.

A majority of black and Hispanic New Yorkers believe race relations in their city are “generally good.” Yet the chaplain who gave yesterday’s invocation claimed the city was a “plantation.” New York has seen a steady drop in the murder rate–to historic lows, in fact–for over a decade at the same time as its incarceration rate has plummeted. Yet de Blasio’s inauguration featured a speech by Harry Belafonte in which the crowd was treated to his false depiction of the city: “While it is encouraging to know that the statistics have indicated a recent drop in our city’s murder rate, New York alarmingly plays a tragic role in the fact that our nation has the largest prison population in the world.”

But demonstrably false progressive propaganda on race and crime are just the opening acts. The main event, of course, is income inequality. This is a Progressive Moment, we are told, thanks to the victory of de Blasio and others, such as the election of an avowed socialist to Seattle’s city council advocating policies she acknowledged will cost jobs–but hey, revolutions are messy. And this Progressive Moment was made possible, as the New York Times explains, by frustration with “the city’s current gilded era” which “propelled” de Blasio to power. Except, of course, that this is a fantasy.

Back to the polling on New Yorkers’ attitudes toward their city: a majority say the economic condition of the city is good, and closing the income gap between rich and poor rated the lowest of four voter priorities even at the height of the de Blasio campaign. How do these numbers square with de Blasio’s landslide victory? Perfectly, as a matter of fact.

De Blasio was practically handed the mayoralty after winning the Democratic nomination and never looking back. But the primaries garnered 20 percent turnout. As the New York Times explained, this means de Blasio’s initial victory was bestowed on him by “about 3 percent of all New Yorkers.” The Times also reported that turnout in the general election was a record low of 24 percent–noticeably lower, even, than the turnout for Michael Bloomberg’s election to a third term.

This also casts some light on the question of what kind of national momentum this Progressive Moment has. New York is a liberal city. Seattle is a liberal city. It’s certainly notable that de Blasio is the first registered Democrat elected to lead New York in two decades, but it’s not as though statist excesses were rare in the Bloomberg administration–and, let us not forget, Bloomberg was a former registered Democrat who changed his registration in order to avoid a Democratic primary and then dropped his Republican registration while in office.

Some, such as reporters at Politico, suggest the local progressives may elevate the conversation to the national level. The outlet has a story about the crucial relationships de Blasio will have to manage, and President Obama is at the top of the list:

De Blasio’s going to want attention from the federal government that Obama probably won’t be able to give, and Obama’s going to be pressured to respond more fully to the kind of progressive politics that de Blasio represents.

Will he, though? Will the leftwing mayor of New York put pressure on a second-term president to follow his lead? Anything more than lip service is highly doubtful, and class warfare rhetoric was part of the president’s speeches before most people outside New York knew much about de Blasio. You could argue, in fact, the opposite: Americans on the whole seem more concerned about inequality than New Yorkers. But then you’d have to contend with the fact that for five years Obama has been pushing inequality as a stain on the national conscience and his approval ratings have been in a nosedive.

In that way and in others, the president offers de Blasio a cautionary tale. Obama was elected in the midst of an economic crisis, and he chose to push for an unpopular health-care reform bill despite the fact that health care was not a top priority for voters in 2008 and at the time Americans favored keeping the current health-care system. The lesson for de Blasio is how easily an administration can be knocked off-course if public opinion is discarded as soon as the sun sets on Election Day.

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Will de Blasio Secure Hillary’s Left Flank?

In politics, having a good memory can always be something of a liability. It was, after all, only a couple of decades ago that Bill Clinton was one of the leaders of the centrist faction of the Democratic Party and his presidency is considered to have succeeded in large measure because of his decision to distance himself from liberal dogma. Nevertheless, both the former president and his spouse—who hopes to return to the White House in 2016—were front and center at the inauguration of Bill de Blasio as New York City’s new mayor. The event was a celebration not just of the new mayor but of the leftist ideology he championed during his campaign. Class warfare was the theme of the day articulated by a blistering diatribe by new Public Advocate Leticia James, in a poem recited by a college student, and repeated by de Blasio when he said the chief purpose of his administration of the country’s largest city would be, as the New York Times noted, to “fix” inequality in Gotham.

This theme may dovetail nicely with President Obama’s attempt to change the focus of the national political discussion from one about the impact of his disastrous health-care law to one about populist initiatives such as an increase in the minimum wage. But it also represents the kind of muscle flexing on the part of the party’s liberal base that hasn’t been seen since Clinton’s so-called “New Democrats” took control of things in the early ’90s. And that is exactly why Hillary Clinton and her ubiquitous husband were eager to associate themselves with not only de Blasio’s victory but also with the leftist surge that brought him to office. Having failed to win the presidency in 2008 because of an inability to defend her left flank, Clinton seems determined not to make that same mistake in her next try for the White House. But the question remains whether worrying so much about liberal sensibilities is the smartest thing for her to do in the long run.

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In politics, having a good memory can always be something of a liability. It was, after all, only a couple of decades ago that Bill Clinton was one of the leaders of the centrist faction of the Democratic Party and his presidency is considered to have succeeded in large measure because of his decision to distance himself from liberal dogma. Nevertheless, both the former president and his spouse—who hopes to return to the White House in 2016—were front and center at the inauguration of Bill de Blasio as New York City’s new mayor. The event was a celebration not just of the new mayor but of the leftist ideology he championed during his campaign. Class warfare was the theme of the day articulated by a blistering diatribe by new Public Advocate Leticia James, in a poem recited by a college student, and repeated by de Blasio when he said the chief purpose of his administration of the country’s largest city would be, as the New York Times noted, to “fix” inequality in Gotham.

This theme may dovetail nicely with President Obama’s attempt to change the focus of the national political discussion from one about the impact of his disastrous health-care law to one about populist initiatives such as an increase in the minimum wage. But it also represents the kind of muscle flexing on the part of the party’s liberal base that hasn’t been seen since Clinton’s so-called “New Democrats” took control of things in the early ’90s. And that is exactly why Hillary Clinton and her ubiquitous husband were eager to associate themselves with not only de Blasio’s victory but also with the leftist surge that brought him to office. Having failed to win the presidency in 2008 because of an inability to defend her left flank, Clinton seems determined not to make that same mistake in her next try for the White House. But the question remains whether worrying so much about liberal sensibilities is the smartest thing for her to do in the long run.

It is true that the alliance between de Blasio and the Clintons runs both ways. The mayor ran Hillary’s first Senate campaign, but his political roots are to be found on the party’s far left and he was never part of her inner circle. By having the former president rather than a judge or some other public figure swear him in, it could be said that de Blasio was attempting to associate himself with the Clintons’ pragmatism rather than the other way around. Indeed, as the Times noted in another article on the inauguration, de Blasio is hoping to use the Clintons to keep the city’s business interests from open opposition to his administration, something that is a potential problem for the mayor given the tone of the anti-capitalist rants he and his followers have been sounding.

Yet both Bill and Hillary are past masters of the art of putting their fingers to the wind to determine their future course of action. And since the wind in the Democratic Party is blowing hard to the left these days, their decision to make de Blasio’s inauguration an official Clinton affair must be understood as an indication of how Hillary perceives her current political dilemma.

Clinton lost the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination largely because she was seen as the centrist in the race. That resulted in her left flank being left wide open for Barack Obama to ride a wave of anti-war sentiment to the White House. Having seen how poorly such a stance played to Democratic primary voters, Clinton is obviously determined never to make the same mistake again. And given the resurgence of the left wing of her party, a tilt in their direction would make it harder for potential gadfly candidacies from people like California Governor Jerry Brown or former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer to gain traction in the winter and spring of 2016 or a more mainstream challenge from Vice President Biden. As we have seen throughout the past months, this time the Clintons are leaving nothing to chance when it comes to the next presidential election–and if that means spending as much if not more of their time echoing the left’s rhetorical excesses about inequality as kissing up to their usual Wall Street donors, so be it.

But Clinton needs to be careful about identifying too much with the de Blasio faction and other left-wingers. Though they are the flavor of the month today as the White House tries to sound similar themes, hitching her star to the mayor’s wagon may not seem like such a brilliant idea if his “progressive” administration really does go to war against business as well as reversing police procedures that have kept crime rates down in the Big Apple. If tax increases start to chase business and the middle and upper classes out of the city, Clinton may find by 2016 that the association with the mayor is as much of a burden on her hopes to win the presidency as it is an asset.

More to the point, a shift this far to the left is going to necessitate a swing back to the center if, after easily winning her party’s nomination, she wants to win in November. The problem with Clinton in 2008 wasn’t as much her centrism as it was her lack of authenticity and inability to connect with voters as well as Obama. Politically motivated ideological mood swings will only remind voters of their previous doubts about her. Just as important, anything that distracts the public from her sales pitch to be the first woman in the White House is a mistake.

The Clintons’ embrace of de Blasio is a tactical stroke that makes a lot of sense right now. But over the long haul, it may be yet another example of Hillary’s predilection for being too clever by half.

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What Does the Bahrain Weapons Seizure Mean?

On December 30, Bahraini authorities announced that they had intercepted a ship carrying Iranian explosives and weaponry apparently destined for the Bahraini opposition. According to Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News:

Bahrain has scored a major victory in the fight against terror with the seizure of a huge weapons stash and the arrests of wanted fugitives attempting to flee the country. Seventeen people have been detained in a massive anti-terrorism operation on Saturday and Sunday, in which police confiscated large amounts of weapons and bomb-making material. Iranian-made explosives, Syrian bomb detonators, Kalashnikovs, C-4 explosives, Claymores, hand grenades, a PK machine gun, circuit boards for use in bomb making, armor-piercing explosives, TNT and a raft of other materials used to manufacture bombs were discovered. Some of the arms were seized in one of Bahrain’s biggest weapons hauls at sea as they were being smuggled here, apparently from Iraq. Others were found during a raid on an illegal weapons depot near the Budaiya Highway, while 13 of those arrested were wanted fugitives attempting to flee Bahrain on a high-speed boat heading north.

The Iranian government, for its part, fiercely rejected the Bahraini accusations. Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for African and Arab affairs, dismissed the Bahraini charges, and said that Bahrain had no one to blame but itself for its own domestic woes.

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On December 30, Bahraini authorities announced that they had intercepted a ship carrying Iranian explosives and weaponry apparently destined for the Bahraini opposition. According to Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News:

Bahrain has scored a major victory in the fight against terror with the seizure of a huge weapons stash and the arrests of wanted fugitives attempting to flee the country. Seventeen people have been detained in a massive anti-terrorism operation on Saturday and Sunday, in which police confiscated large amounts of weapons and bomb-making material. Iranian-made explosives, Syrian bomb detonators, Kalashnikovs, C-4 explosives, Claymores, hand grenades, a PK machine gun, circuit boards for use in bomb making, armor-piercing explosives, TNT and a raft of other materials used to manufacture bombs were discovered. Some of the arms were seized in one of Bahrain’s biggest weapons hauls at sea as they were being smuggled here, apparently from Iraq. Others were found during a raid on an illegal weapons depot near the Budaiya Highway, while 13 of those arrested were wanted fugitives attempting to flee Bahrain on a high-speed boat heading north.

The Iranian government, for its part, fiercely rejected the Bahraini accusations. Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for African and Arab affairs, dismissed the Bahraini charges, and said that Bahrain had no one to blame but itself for its own domestic woes.

Make no mistake: Bahraini Shi’ites have real grievances which have nothing to do with Iran. Ninety-five percent of unemployed Bahrainis are Shi’ites, and they face discrimination in almost every sector. And while Iran was neck-deep in the 1981 coup plot against the Bahraini royal family (as per the materials and publications of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain which are housed at the Library of Congress), few Bahraini Shi’ites knowingly carry water for Iran. As many Bahraini Shi’ites point out, they had every opportunity to vote for unity with Iran during the UN-sponsored referendum in 1970, but chose independence. Many Bahrainis want only reform, but have grown frustrated by a Bahraini king who prefers recreation over government, and a prime minister who believes wielding an iron fist and Saudi backing trumps reform.

As the smallest Arab state and the Arab world’s only island nation, Bahrain’s borders have also traditionally been easiest to control. Smuggling weaponry into Bahrain is no easy feat. While the Bahraini opposition are not as non-violent as they profess (Molotov cocktails are hardly tools of the non-violent), they have apparently maintained their distance from all but Iranian media and, if the Bahraini government is to be believed, from financial assistance siphoned from the interest upon Iranian accounts in Bahraini banks and charitable donations provided by the offices of Iran- and Iraq-based ayatollahs.

If this weapons seizure is true—and, despite Iranian denials, it seems far-fetched that it is fake—then it suggests a number of worrisome things for 2014.

First, despite hope in Western capitals that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election matters, it seems the Islamic Republic—or at least its Revolutionary Guards (IRGC)—are resurgent and bent on taking the constitutionally-mandated “export of revolution” to a new level. With Iran resurgent in Syria and still overwhelmingly influential in Iraq (and Iraqi Kurdistan), it seems that Tehran seeks to be turning its attention to its proxy war against Saudi Arabia on other fronts.

The United States should also be concerned, given the decades-long partnership between the Bahraini government and the United States. Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and American servicemen genuinely like the kingdom and its people, who are known throughout the Persian Gulf for their friendliness. The Bahraini opposition, for its part, determinedly has not targeted Americans or engaged in gratuitous anti-Americanism, although some opposition figures who say nice thing about the United States in English have told the Iranian press in Persian that expulsion of the Americans will be the first order of business should the opposition be victorious.

It behooves the Bahraini opposition to be especially careful if Qods Force commander Qasim Suleimani and the IRGC seek to open a new chapter in the Bahraini unrest, for any attempt by Iran to co-opt the movement will delegitimize the Bahraini opposition and their struggle for reform for decades to come. At the same time, let us hope that President Obama, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Secretary of State John Kerry understand just how much remains at stake in the Middle East, and the damage that will occur to U.S. interests should they continue to allow American influence to hemorrhage. 

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Clemency for Snowden?

The year is still young, but I would say the New York Times’s editorial board has already retired the prize for the most irresponsible, unconvincing, and pernicious editorial of the year with “Edward Snowden, Whistle-Blower.”

To get to the bottom line up front: The Times would like the U.S. government to offer “a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.”

Personally, the only kind of plea bargain I would like to see offered to Snowden is one that allows him to serve life in a maximum-security prison rather than face the death penalty for his treason.

Why does the Times think we should adopt a more lenient approach to one of the most damaging traitors in our nation’s history–a man who, in the words of Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, “has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies”?

Because, the Times claims, Snowden’s leaks are justified on the following grounds: “The public learned in great detail how the agency has exceeded its mandate and abused its authority, prompting outrage at kitchen tables and at the desks of Congress, which may finally begin to limit these practices.”

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The year is still young, but I would say the New York Times’s editorial board has already retired the prize for the most irresponsible, unconvincing, and pernicious editorial of the year with “Edward Snowden, Whistle-Blower.”

To get to the bottom line up front: The Times would like the U.S. government to offer “a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home, face at least substantially reduced punishment in light of his role as a whistle-blower, and have the hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.”

Personally, the only kind of plea bargain I would like to see offered to Snowden is one that allows him to serve life in a maximum-security prison rather than face the death penalty for his treason.

Why does the Times think we should adopt a more lenient approach to one of the most damaging traitors in our nation’s history–a man who, in the words of Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, “has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies”?

Because, the Times claims, Snowden’s leaks are justified on the following grounds: “The public learned in great detail how the agency has exceeded its mandate and abused its authority, prompting outrage at kitchen tables and at the desks of Congress, which may finally begin to limit these practices.”

Maybe the Times editorialists have some special information that the rest of us are not privileged to have, but I have been following this story pretty closely and I am not aware of anything that the NSA has done without the authorization of Congress, the executive branch, and the special court that oversees its activities–even if (in the case of eavesdropping on the German chancellor, Angela Merkel) the president would rather have some “deniability” about his personal responsibility.

In fact there is no evidence of the NSA exceeding its mandate and the only evidence of it doing anything wrong (such as accidentally entering the wrong phone number) was a small number of errors in its data searches which were caught and reported and corrected by its own internal audits. There is no sign of any malicious or criminal intent in any of these errors–and no evidence that the NSA has become a Big Brother listening in on everyone.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Listen to the members of Congress, such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, who has said about one of the NSA’s most controversial activities (the collection of meta-data on phone calls): “The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight.”

Even if you think that the NSA’s collection programs are excessive, it is hard to make the case that sharing the most vital secrets of the U.S. government with the news media–and probably hostile foreign governments in Beijing and Moscow, although the Times doesn’t mention this inconvenient probability–is the way to address the problem. Snowden now claims that he tried to notify a couple of superiors about his concerns; the NSA denies it. Whatever the case, there is no evidence he tried to notify the NSA’s inspector general, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or the intelligence committees of Congress. No doubt this is precisely because he knew that all of the activities he disliked were fully authorized by all three branches of government.

What we have here is not a case of “whistle-blowing,” as the Times disingenuously claims, but a case of a young, arrogant, headstrong techie with a libertarian bent and a taste for fame who has taken upon himself the responsibility of deciding which intelligence programs the U.S. government may carry out and which it may not. A true whistleblower, like Daniel Ellsberg, stays to face the consequences of his actions–he does not flee to hostile foreign capitals.

By his actions Snowden has placed the entire nation at risk. Even if terrorists and foreign enemies don’t manage to take advantage of Snowden’s disclosures to attack the U.S., the cost of repairing the damage he has caused will be steep–certainly amounting to billions of dollars because he has rendered some valuable collection programs useless.

Perhaps there is a prudential case, as an NSA investigator recently suggested, for offering Snowden amnesty in return for preventing the disclosure of even more highly classified information that he stole–but that is not what the Times is suggesting. It is instead granting its benediction to Snowden’s activities, suggesting he should be considered a hero, not a traitor. That’s a funny stance for a newspaper to take that, not so long ago, in the Valerie Plame case, was aghast at the notion of blowing any secrets–even though the Plame disclosure had an infinitesimal impact on national security compared to the Snowden disclosures.

If Snowden is allowed to get away with his crimes, it is hard to see how the intelligence apparatus of the U.S. can function. Successful intelligence, after all, is premised on secrecy–and that secrecy will not last long if every intelligence community employee feels free to disclose whatever secrets he knows simply because he disagrees with what his superiors are doing. Yet that would be the logical consequence of the Times‘s risible suggestion to rehabilitate Snowden.

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Removing IDF from the Jordan Valley Would Destabilize Jordan

In the run-up to John Kerry’s arrival in Jerusalem today for yet another round of Israeli-Palestinian talks, media attention naturally focused less on real obstacles to peace than on an Israeli bill to annex the Jordan Valley that supporters and opponents agree hasn’t a prayer of becoming law. Yet despite this coverage, the most interesting fact about the bill has been largely overlooked: One of the biggest behind-the-scenes fans of Israel retaining control of this strategic location is none other than the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Last month, the Israeli daily Maariv reported that Jordan has been urging Kerry to support Israel’s demand for a permanent IDF presence in the valley under any deal with the Palestinians. Three months earlier, the Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh quoted a senior Jordanian official’s response when asked in a closed briefing how Amman viewed the possibility of Palestinians replacing Israel along the Jordan border:

“May God forbid!” the official retorted. “We have repeatedly made it clear to the Israeli side that we will not agree to the presence of a third party at our border.”

The Jordanian official claimed this has been Jordan’s position ever since 1967. But it was undoubtedly reinforced by watching the deleterious effects on Egypt’s security of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

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In the run-up to John Kerry’s arrival in Jerusalem today for yet another round of Israeli-Palestinian talks, media attention naturally focused less on real obstacles to peace than on an Israeli bill to annex the Jordan Valley that supporters and opponents agree hasn’t a prayer of becoming law. Yet despite this coverage, the most interesting fact about the bill has been largely overlooked: One of the biggest behind-the-scenes fans of Israel retaining control of this strategic location is none other than the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Last month, the Israeli daily Maariv reported that Jordan has been urging Kerry to support Israel’s demand for a permanent IDF presence in the valley under any deal with the Palestinians. Three months earlier, the Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh quoted a senior Jordanian official’s response when asked in a closed briefing how Amman viewed the possibility of Palestinians replacing Israel along the Jordan border:

“May God forbid!” the official retorted. “We have repeatedly made it clear to the Israeli side that we will not agree to the presence of a third party at our border.”

The Jordanian official claimed this has been Jordan’s position ever since 1967. But it was undoubtedly reinforced by watching the deleterious effects on Egypt’s security of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

With the IDF no longer there to impede the flow, radical ideology, terrorists, and weaponry began pouring from into Sinai, providing local terrorists not only with enhanced resources (as I explain in more detail here and here), but also with valuable training. As a result, Sinai quickly became a terrorist hotbed that poses a major threat not only to Israel–whose Shin Bet security service now devotes the same resources to monitoring Sinai that it does to the northern West Bank–but also to Egypt itself. A Sinai terrorist group, for instance, claimed responsibility for last week’s deadly bombing in Mansoura.

The last thing Jordan needs is a similar influx of arms, radicalism, and veteran Palestinian terrorists pouring over its border, especially given its large Palestinian population. Already destabilized by a massive influx of Syrian refugees and rumblings of homegrown discontent, such an influx would surely send it over the edge. And unless Israel remains in the Jordan Valley permanently (or at least for many decades to come), that’s exactly what will happen. Allowing the IDF to stay there merely for another few years, as Kerry is reportedly proposing, does nothing but temporarily postpone the inevitable.

Western leaders repeatedly say they want Israel out of the territories because its presence there is “a major source of instability” in the region, as President Obama put it his UN address in September. Yet experience shows that Israeli withdrawals may well be a far greater source of instability. The Gaza pullout certainly turned out that way for Egypt (as well as for Israel), and Amman clearly fears a Jordan Valley pullout would have a similarly negative impact on Jordan.

If the West truly cares about stability, pushing for an Israeli withdrawal that would destabilize Jordan, one of the region’s last remaining islands of stability, seems highly counterproductive. Indeed, given how often Israeli pullouts have had negative results, the West might do better to abandon this paradigm altogether and start searching for a new one. Supporting a permanent Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley would be a good place to start.

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No, Fethullah Gülen Isn’t a Savior

It’s hard not to applaud Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen for apparently blowing the whistle on the massive corruption scandal that now touches several Turkish ministers, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan, and perhaps the prime minister himself. The prosecutor’s surprise raids have also shown light on financial dealings which—aside from enriching Erdoğan’s cronies—also apparently assisted Iranian sanctions evasion and helped al-Qaeda expand its network into Syria.

The problem is Gülen’s motive. Erdoğan is an arrogant man, and he has grown more arrogant with each election victory. He came to believe that he either no longer needed Gülen’s support or was strong enough to win a battle with Gülen and put the Hizmat movement leader in his place. Hence, his decision last November to close the Gülen movement’s test prep schools throughout Turkey. The schools are key to Gülen, not only because they are lucrative—and the Gülen movement is basically an international conglomerate—but also because they are useful for recruiting and indoctrination. They also fill a void and provide a useful service which Turks readily embrace.

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It’s hard not to applaud Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen for apparently blowing the whistle on the massive corruption scandal that now touches several Turkish ministers, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan, and perhaps the prime minister himself. The prosecutor’s surprise raids have also shown light on financial dealings which—aside from enriching Erdoğan’s cronies—also apparently assisted Iranian sanctions evasion and helped al-Qaeda expand its network into Syria.

The problem is Gülen’s motive. Erdoğan is an arrogant man, and he has grown more arrogant with each election victory. He came to believe that he either no longer needed Gülen’s support or was strong enough to win a battle with Gülen and put the Hizmat movement leader in his place. Hence, his decision last November to close the Gülen movement’s test prep schools throughout Turkey. The schools are key to Gülen, not only because they are lucrative—and the Gülen movement is basically an international conglomerate—but also because they are useful for recruiting and indoctrination. They also fill a void and provide a useful service which Turks readily embrace.

While it is good that Gülen appears to bless a new transparency in Turkish politics, it is important to remember both that his about-face is based not in principle but self-interest and that Gülen enabled the tremendous corruption and abuses of power in which Erdoğan engaged.

Gülen’s followers dominate the security forces which Erdoğan wielded without mercy against his political opposition and the press. Gülen professes tolerance, but his own past is checkered. And while he has his own media network with the daily Zaman at is head, there is a disturbing difference in tone between Zaman and its English version, Today’s Zaman. Diplomats who only read the latter may not be aware that anti-Semitic conspiracies infect if not Gülen, then those around him and his top supporters.

Transparency is necessary in Turkey if there will be justice and reform. It is naïve to believe that the enemy of an enemy is a friend, or that Gülen’s apparent acquiescence to pursuit of the corruption allegations against Erdoğan means a fundamental difference in Turkey’s future. President Abdullah Gül has kept largely quiet, but has seemed more willing to accommodate Gülen and has taken many of his adherents into his inner circle. Gül is far more polished than Erdoğan, and presents a more professional face, but the difference in style masks a similar disdain for the separation of mosque and state that once marked Turkey’s imperfect democracy. Let us hope that reform continues, but there will never be any true and lasting reform until Gülen opens himself to the same sort of investigation which he once encouraged against Turkey’s so-called “Deep State,” and now seeks against Erdoğan and his inner circle.

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A Conservative Vision of Government

Michael Gerson and I have written an essay, “A Conservative Vision of Government,” published in the newest issue of the indispensable quarterly National Affairs. Our aim is to make a persuasive case for why conservatives should speak about not only the size but also the purposes of government–and why a modern, reform agenda is key to the future of the GOP and conservatism. 

We explain in some detail our deep disagreements with the Obama agenda and why limited government advances individual liberty and human flourishing. But we deal with a good deal more than that.

The essay responds to what we consider to be a rhetorical indiscipline among some on the right that is often directed against government. Since those attacks are often justified by references to the Constitution and the American founding, we explore the views of the Federalist founders and Lincoln, who in fact were not fiercely and ideologically anti-government.

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Michael Gerson and I have written an essay, “A Conservative Vision of Government,” published in the newest issue of the indispensable quarterly National Affairs. Our aim is to make a persuasive case for why conservatives should speak about not only the size but also the purposes of government–and why a modern, reform agenda is key to the future of the GOP and conservatism. 

We explain in some detail our deep disagreements with the Obama agenda and why limited government advances individual liberty and human flourishing. But we deal with a good deal more than that.

The essay responds to what we consider to be a rhetorical indiscipline among some on the right that is often directed against government. Since those attacks are often justified by references to the Constitution and the American founding, we explore the views of the Federalist founders and Lincoln, who in fact were not fiercely and ideologically anti-government.

We point out that the Federalist founders, unlike some anti-federalist opponents of the Constitution, did not view government as an evil, or even as a necessary evil. In their view, government, properly understood and framed, was essential to promoting what they referred to as the “public good.” The most important framers and explicators of the Constitution–Madison, Hamilton, Washington, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, and others–believed the national government had to have the ability to adapt as necessary to meet citizens’ needs as those needs were expressed through representative government. (“In framing a system which we wish to last for ages,” Madison told the Constitutional Convention, “we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce.”) They would have little toleration, we write,

for politicians who are committed to abstract theories even when they are at odds with the given world and the welfare of the polity — who fail to differentiate between conserving the system by adapting it to changing circumstances and undermining the system by breaking with its fundamental aims and outlook.

We devote a section of the essay to law and character, arguing that by definition laws shape habits, values, and sensibilities–not every law, not all the time, but enough to play a decisive role in the formation of our national character and the individual characters of our citizens.

The last section of our piece argues that the real problem in much of American government is not simply that it is too big but rather that it is antiquated, ineffective, and ill-equipped to handle the most basic functions appropriate for a great and modern country. Conservatives, we say, “should offer a menu of structural reforms that do not simply attack government but transform it on conservative terms.” 

The essay concludes this way:

Conservatives are more likely to be trusted to run the affairs of the nation if they show the public that they grasp the purposes of government, that they fully appreciate it is in desperate need of renovation, and that they know what needs to be done. The American people are deeply practical; they are interested in what works. And they want their government to work. Conservatives know how institutions can and should work in our free society, and they can apply that knowledge to government. 

All this leads us to a final reason why conservatives should be engaged in the reform of government. The reputation of government is an important national asset — and an irreplaceable source of national pride. Government overreach by the left has degraded that asset. Today’s hemorrhaging of trust in public institutions, if left to run its course, will only further degrade it. Skepticism toward government is one thing; outright hostility is injurious to the health of American democracy itself. How can citizens be expected to love their country if they are encouraged to hold its government in utter contempt?

Thinking of government as a precious national institution in need of care and reform does not come naturally to many modern-day conservatives. Given the damage that our government is doing to our society, it is easy to understand their anger and frustration. But that is precisely why, especially now, conservatives must make the case that they will give Americans a government, and therefore a country, they can once again be proud of. 

Our essay, then, is an attempt to lay out a vision of conservatism that is philosophically sound and politically popular. But judge for yourself.

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Release the Ergenekon and Balyoz Suspects

The current crisis in Turkey should be cause for reflection on a number of fronts. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reacted with umbrage that the security forces who he had wielded against his political enemies have now turned against him. The reason for that split lays in the growing antagonism between Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist leader whose followers dominate the security forces and for years had worked hand-in-glove with Erdoğan in their shared desire to breakdown the separation between mosque and state in Turkey.

Putting the reasons for their split aside, the current crisis shines a spotlight on Erdoğan’s concept of justice and the role of courts. To put it bluntly, Erdoğan believes not in impartial justice, but rather vengeance. Or perhaps he believes that he personifies justice and so that he personifies right and wrong without regard to law. Hence, it should not surprise that Erdoğan’s reaction to the corruption probe was to fire the investigator and threaten a wholesale upheaval of the courts.

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The current crisis in Turkey should be cause for reflection on a number of fronts. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reacted with umbrage that the security forces who he had wielded against his political enemies have now turned against him. The reason for that split lays in the growing antagonism between Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist leader whose followers dominate the security forces and for years had worked hand-in-glove with Erdoğan in their shared desire to breakdown the separation between mosque and state in Turkey.

Putting the reasons for their split aside, the current crisis shines a spotlight on Erdoğan’s concept of justice and the role of courts. To put it bluntly, Erdoğan believes not in impartial justice, but rather vengeance. Or perhaps he believes that he personifies justice and so that he personifies right and wrong without regard to law. Hence, it should not surprise that Erdoğan’s reaction to the corruption probe was to fire the investigator and threaten a wholesale upheaval of the courts.

Evidence of Erdoğan’s abuse of justice are multifold. Back in 2005, frustrated that Turkey’s constitutional court had deemed some of Erdoğan’s agenda unconstitutional, parliamentary speaker and Erdoğan confidant Bülent Arınç (since promoted to deputy prime minister) threatened to use the AKP dissolve the constitutional court if its judges kept allowing law to get in the way of agenda.

The real travesty has been with regard to two alleged coup plots—the Ergenekon and Balyoz conspiracies—in whose names Erdoğan has targeted journalists and political opponents. I had detailed the many problems involved in the Ergenekon case here, and most international analysts pointed out that the Balyoz evidence was not only fraudulent, but a sloppy fraud at that. It is a shame upon Western diplomats, human-rights organizations, and journalists that all were willing to turn a blind eye to the travesties of justice so long as the targets happened to be military or old guard politicians. Just because a figure is a general or a secularist does not make them automatically bad people.

There are dozens of former officials, journalists, and generals in prison right now, condemned to die behind bars simply because Erdoğan disagrees with their world view and seeks vengeance. Now that the emperor has no clothes, it is time for Western diplomats to pressure for Turkey to right its wrongs. It was a mistake ever to give Erdoğan the benefit of the doubt, or to provide the judiciary the benefit of the doubt based on its reputation after Erdoğan and former allies from the Gülenist movement had worked so tirelessly to undermine it. Every single Ergenekon and Balyoz convict should walk free, and should win millions of Turkish Lira in compensation. Perhaps the state might even pay them from the tens of millions of Turkish lira in ill-gotten wealth Erdoğan and his cronies have apparently amassed.

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