Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 7, 2014

Bob Gates vs. the White House

After publishing the latest in its series of stories that seemed designed to help burnish Hillary Clinton’s reputation ahead of the 2016 election, the New York Times’s effort had become so transparent, and it had been called out so noticeably, that editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal felt compelled to deny it. He wrote, “let me be clear: We have not chosen Mrs. Clinton.”

Noted. But Vice President Joe Biden might be among those stifling a laugh at Rosenthal’s assertion. Today both the Washington Post and New York Times published revelations from former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’s forthcoming memoir. The Post’s account, written by Bob Woodward, notes that Clinton apparently admitted to President Obama that her opposition to the “surge” was pure politics, since Obama was opposed to the surge and they were in competition at the time. Picking up from that, Woodward’s Post colleague Chris Cillizza speculates on how the excerpt could harm Clinton’s prospects:

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After publishing the latest in its series of stories that seemed designed to help burnish Hillary Clinton’s reputation ahead of the 2016 election, the New York Times’s effort had become so transparent, and it had been called out so noticeably, that editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal felt compelled to deny it. He wrote, “let me be clear: We have not chosen Mrs. Clinton.”

Noted. But Vice President Joe Biden might be among those stifling a laugh at Rosenthal’s assertion. Today both the Washington Post and New York Times published revelations from former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’s forthcoming memoir. The Post’s account, written by Bob Woodward, notes that Clinton apparently admitted to President Obama that her opposition to the “surge” was pure politics, since Obama was opposed to the surge and they were in competition at the time. Picking up from that, Woodward’s Post colleague Chris Cillizza speculates on how the excerpt could harm Clinton’s prospects:

But, remember this is Hillary Clinton we are talking about.  And, the criticism that has always haunted her is that everything she does is infused with politics — that there is no core set of beliefs within her but rather just political calculation massed upon political calculation. Remember that she began slipping in the 2008 Democratic primary when her opponents seized on an overly political answer on giving drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants during a debate in  late 2o07.

Gates’s version of why Clinton opposed the surge fits perfectly into this existing good-politics-makes-good-policy narrative about the former secretary of state. And that’s what makes it dangerous for her —  and why you can be sure she (or her people) will (and must) dispute Gates’s recollection quickly and definitively.

Whether it hurts Clinton might depend largely on who runs against her in the Democratic primary. But he’s right that the reputation of both Clintons has always been not to say a single word that hasn’t been focus-grouped into the ground. If Clinton was hoping her time as secretary of state would temper that reputation, the Gates memoir is yet another example of how difficult it can be for a politician to shake an entrenched narrative, especially one, like this, that is accurate.

The Post story isn’t kind to Biden either. (It’s brutal toward the Obama White House in general, but Obama has no more presidential elections ahead of him.) Gates accuses Biden of “poisoning the well” against the military, and when Biden and Donilon tried to order Gates around, he apparently responded: “The last time I checked, neither of you are in the chain of command.” The Obama administration was notoriously insular and incurious about the world outside them. But quotes like this, coming from a former defense secretary, still sting:

It got so bad during internal debates over whether to intervene in Libya in 2011 that Gates says he felt compelled to deliver a “rant” because the White House staff was “talking about military options with the president without Defense being involved.”

Gates says his instructions to the Pentagon were: “Don’t give the White House staff and [national security staff] too much information on the military options. They don’t understand it, and ‘experts’ like Samantha Power will decide when we should move militarily.”

The Times, however, goes easier on Clinton and tougher on Biden with its quotes, including this uppercut:

Mr. Gates calls Mr. Biden “a man of integrity,” but he questions the vice president’s judgment. “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” Mr. Gates writes.

I suppose it can be argued that the Post’s lack of interest in examining how these revelations might derail a Biden presidential candidacy is it’s own sort of pro-Clinton tilt. The implication is that only one of those candidates has prospects worth protecting (or derailing), and it isn’t Biden.

Unless the reporters who read advance copies of the book missed something juicier, nothing in Gates’s memoir seems likely to spoil anyone’s presidential aspirations, and I doubt Gates has any interest in doing so anyway. Picking out excerpts and anecdotes can easily skew the perception of the book, especially before the public has had a chance to read it. But the splash being made by these (mostly unsurprising) insider claims is a testament to the credibility Gates has earned over his distinguished career, and suggests the considerable authority his account of these last few years will carry.

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Iran and the U.S. Don’t Share Goals

When it comes to Iran, hopes in Washington appear to be outrunning the reality on the ground. Based on the fact that Iran has agreed to a slowdown in its nuclear program–nothing more, and even that hasn’t actually been implemented yet–many policymakers and analysts are envisioning a new alignment in which the U.S. and Iran work together for the greater good of the Middle East.

As Jonathan Tobin wrote earlier today, this New York Times article from Tehran, written by Thomas Erdbrink, is indicative of the current zeitgeist. It claims that Washington and Tehran “are being drawn together by their mutual opposition to an international movement of young Sunni fighters, who with their pickup trucks and Kalashnikovs are raising the black flag of Al Qaeda along sectarian fault lines in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.”

There is no doubt that Iran has cause to be unhappy about Sunni Islamist extremists in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon who are fighting its proxies–even going so far as to bomb the Iranian embassy in Beirut. But that is a far cry from claiming that the U.S. and Iran share identical goals in the region.

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When it comes to Iran, hopes in Washington appear to be outrunning the reality on the ground. Based on the fact that Iran has agreed to a slowdown in its nuclear program–nothing more, and even that hasn’t actually been implemented yet–many policymakers and analysts are envisioning a new alignment in which the U.S. and Iran work together for the greater good of the Middle East.

As Jonathan Tobin wrote earlier today, this New York Times article from Tehran, written by Thomas Erdbrink, is indicative of the current zeitgeist. It claims that Washington and Tehran “are being drawn together by their mutual opposition to an international movement of young Sunni fighters, who with their pickup trucks and Kalashnikovs are raising the black flag of Al Qaeda along sectarian fault lines in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.”

There is no doubt that Iran has cause to be unhappy about Sunni Islamist extremists in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon who are fighting its proxies–even going so far as to bomb the Iranian embassy in Beirut. But that is a far cry from claiming that the U.S. and Iran share identical goals in the region.

The U.S. grand objective is pretty clear: stability above all, even if many Americans disagree about whether long-term stability is better achieved by backing dictatorships or nascent democracies. Under the rubric of stability, the U.S. would specifically like to see the defeat of al-Qaeda, the end of the Iranian nuclear program, the negotiation of an accord between Israel and the Palestinians, and the end of the Syrian civil war, among other objectives.

Now what is the Iranian goal? Is it stability above all? Hardly. If that were the case, why would the Iranians be backing insurgent groups such as Hezbollah (which is receiving long-range Iranian rockets) and the opposition in Bahrain (which was the would-be recipient of a boatload of arms from Iran that was intercepted by Bahraini authorities)?

Iran is a revolutionary, not a status quo power, and its goal above all is regional hegemony. Only by accepting Iranian hegemony could the U.S. truly get on the same page as the Islamic Republic. But the cost of such acceptance would be so high (Do we truly want the Quds Force dominant in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Kabul, Bahrain, Doha, Abu Dhabi, and other capitals? Do we want to permanently alienate allies in Saudi Arabia and Israel?) that it would be unacceptable.

The U.S. and Iran can still cooperate occasionally against common foes–for example the Taliban in 2001. But absent American acceptance of Iranian hegemony such cooperation is likely to prove fleeting and inconsequential–witness more recent Iranian smuggling of arms to the Taliban. The suggestion that some kind of grand bargain is in the offing between Washington and Tehran strikes me as fanciful–unless President Obama is prepared to maker greater concessions to the Iranians that anyone can presently imagine.

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Spying on Americans, Then and Now

John and Bonnie Raines are America’s newest libertarian heroes. The pair earned this distinction nearly 43 years ago, when, along with several accomplices, they broke into an F.B.I. regional office in Media, Pennsylvania and made off with a massive haul of confidential files that turned out to be proof of a secret program that authorized spying on anti-Vietnam War protesters. Baffled authorities never solved the theft and the group leaked enough of the documents to the press to help set in motion a backlash against the intelligence community that ultimately brought an end to such practices. As such, the burglars—who dubbed themselves the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the F.B.I.—can claim to have had a real impact on government policy. Even more to the point, they seem to think they set a precedent for future whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden who made off to Russia with a far bigger treasure trove of secrets about the activities of the National Security Agency.

The Raines couple as well as the other members of their circle have now come forward after keeping quiet for so long as part of the publicity campaign surrounding a book about their exploits by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger that generated a front-page feature in today’s New York Times as well as a number of television interviews. It’s quite a tale and one that summons up a bygone era of abuses when F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover was a power unto himself with virtually no accountability to Congress or the presidents who came and went while he lingered in office for five decades. But before we attempt to use this case to justify Snowden or to lionize the F.B.I. burglars, it’s important to understand both the context of the government’s concerns about peace protesters as well as to draw a distinction between what they did and the contemporary movement to hamstring the NSA.

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John and Bonnie Raines are America’s newest libertarian heroes. The pair earned this distinction nearly 43 years ago, when, along with several accomplices, they broke into an F.B.I. regional office in Media, Pennsylvania and made off with a massive haul of confidential files that turned out to be proof of a secret program that authorized spying on anti-Vietnam War protesters. Baffled authorities never solved the theft and the group leaked enough of the documents to the press to help set in motion a backlash against the intelligence community that ultimately brought an end to such practices. As such, the burglars—who dubbed themselves the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the F.B.I.—can claim to have had a real impact on government policy. Even more to the point, they seem to think they set a precedent for future whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden who made off to Russia with a far bigger treasure trove of secrets about the activities of the National Security Agency.

The Raines couple as well as the other members of their circle have now come forward after keeping quiet for so long as part of the publicity campaign surrounding a book about their exploits by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger that generated a front-page feature in today’s New York Times as well as a number of television interviews. It’s quite a tale and one that summons up a bygone era of abuses when F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover was a power unto himself with virtually no accountability to Congress or the presidents who came and went while he lingered in office for five decades. But before we attempt to use this case to justify Snowden or to lionize the F.B.I. burglars, it’s important to understand both the context of the government’s concerns about peace protesters as well as to draw a distinction between what they did and the contemporary movement to hamstring the NSA.

There can be no defense for Hoover’s decision to unleash the secret “Cointelpro” program—a term discovered in the burglars’ cache of documents but not revealed as the code name for a domestic spying and dirty tricks agenda pursued by Hoover until the 1980s—that ran amok from the 1950s to the 1970s.  The effort involved work by agents provocateurs and other operatives not only to monitor leftist radicals, Communists, and civil-rights groups, but also attempts to disrupt their activities and even, in the case of Martin Luther King Jr., to blackmail him about extramarital affairs that were discovered in the course of F.B.I. spying.

Almost all of it was done without proper authorization from political authorities or the courts and, needless to say, must be characterized as an unconstitutional invasion of privacy as well as an illegal abuse of authority. As such, the revelations about the F.B.I.’s activity led to necessary reforms that put an end to this unconstitutional mayhem.

But it should also be noted that any self-righteous posturing on the part of the burglars or their contemporary fans must be tempered by the knowledge that while Hoover’s behavior was outrageous, not all anti-war activity in the late 1960s and early 1970s was blameless. This was an era in which a small portion of the anti-war movement had morphed into a violent terrorist group known as the Weather Underground that committed a number of robberies, bombings, and murders to pursue their aims. That was also true of the Black Panthers, a murderous gang of thugs who were able to persuade a large number of naïve liberals to buy into their masquerade as civil-rights activists.

Just as the existence of a small cadre of real-life Communist spies in Washington and elsewhere in this country didn’t justify the blacklisting of every radical during the McCarthy era, neither the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, nor other such criminal enterprises can excuse everything that was done in the name of Cointelpro.

That is where we are being urged by libertarian and leftist government critics to make the link between these ’70s peaceniks and Snowden. Like Snowden, they still assert their illegal breaking and entering as well as theft of classified government documents was necessary because without them, the country would not have known what Hoover was up to. But even if we take the defense of their activity at face value—a position that is undermined by doubts about whether they were more interested in defending ordinary peace protesters or a desire to have the government back off on efforts to deal with genuinely dangerous radicals—there is a huge difference between the 1971 burglary and what Snowden has done.

After all, for good or for ill, everything in the stolen F.B.I. files related to domestic surveillance that could probably not be presented in court as part of a legal investigation. Even much of the monitoring of real criminals operating under the rubric of war-protesters was legally murky or at least had probably not been properly vetted by the courts, the Justice Department, or Congress.

But none of that can be said about the vast trove of intelligence files stolen by Snowden. While the courts will have the final say about the NSA metadata mining (one lower federal court has ruled it was illegal, another, rightly in my view, said it was not), the FISA court had authorized the activity, as had congressional oversight committees and the highest political authorities in the land.

Even more to the point, had Snowden only leaked files about domestic operations by the NSA he might have merited at least a superficial comparison to the burglars of 1971. But instead what he released was a vast body of intelligence, most of which related to America’s efforts to deal with foreign threats and other routine spying on targets abroad. What he sought to do was to effectively eviscerate any intelligence work by the U.S. government, something that not only endangered agents in the field but could potentially render America helpless to defend itself against future 9/11-style attacks. Any comparison between that kind of broad-based attack on a vital government function and Hoover’s over-reach is absurd. So, too, is the notion that Snowden is a whistle-blower who deserves to be honored or at least pardoned. The F.B.I. burglars may not be quite the heroes that they are now making themselves out to be, but the long-term impact of their actions should not be treated as a precedent for a genuine rogue like Snowden.

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Iraq’s Squandered Opportunity

Veterans of the hard fighting in Fallujah in 2004 must be experiencing a sense of déjà vu. Once again masked al-Qaeda fighters are parading through the streets and proclaiming the establishment of a new Islamic emirate. And once again military forces are massing on the outskirts preparing to wage a bloody battle to liberate the city. The only difference this time is that those troops are Iraqi, not American.

It is easy to imagine veterans of the Iraq War asking themselves what the point was of their service and sacrifice if al-Qaeda is back, as strong as ever–and arguably stronger because its reach now extends into Syria. It is an understandable question, and one that veterans of Vietnam no doubt ask themselves too. It is never pleasant to fight in a losing cause, but that does not mean that one’s service was in vain.

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Veterans of the hard fighting in Fallujah in 2004 must be experiencing a sense of déjà vu. Once again masked al-Qaeda fighters are parading through the streets and proclaiming the establishment of a new Islamic emirate. And once again military forces are massing on the outskirts preparing to wage a bloody battle to liberate the city. The only difference this time is that those troops are Iraqi, not American.

It is easy to imagine veterans of the Iraq War asking themselves what the point was of their service and sacrifice if al-Qaeda is back, as strong as ever–and arguably stronger because its reach now extends into Syria. It is an understandable question, and one that veterans of Vietnam no doubt ask themselves too. It is never pleasant to fight in a losing cause, but that does not mean that one’s service was in vain.

Vets can still derive satisfaction from the commitment and heroism they exhibited, from the tactical results they achieved, and from the knowledge that they were fighting for a good cause. It is not their fault that the hard-won gains of their service were squandered by politicos in Baghdad and Washington.

There was nothing inevitable about the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq. If the U.S. had kept troops in Iraq after 2011 and if Prime Minister Maliki had pursued more inclusive policies toward the Sunnis, AQI would have remained defeated, in all likelihood. Unfortunately, now that AQI has grown back, stronger than ever, it will have to be fought once again, and the battles that the Iraqi army will face in Anbar are likely to be bloodier than those fought by the U.S. Marine Corps.

It is a shame and a tragedy that President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki did not honor the sacrifices of so many troops in the past, both American and Iraqi, by doing more to build on the success of the surge. But that is not the fault of those troops, who fought magnificently to give Iraq an opportunity–now being squandered–for a better future.

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The Iranian Enemy of Our Enemy Is Also Our Enemy

Skeptics of President Obama’s attempt to engage Iran have long feared that the goal of his administration’s diplomatic efforts was a new détente with Tehran rather than bring an end to its nuclear program or to halt its support for terrorism. Even in the wake of the nuclear deal signed in Geneva in November that, astonishingly, granted tacit Western approval to Iran’s enrichment of uranium and loosened economic sanctions, the administration’s defenders scoffed at those concerned about the feckless new foreign-policy approach that seemed geared more toward warming relations with the Islamist regime than to isolating it. But Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to invite the Iranians to participate in discussions about the future of Syria—a nation which continues to be ruled by a murderous tyrant largely because of Iranian intervention on his behalf in the civil war there—in addition to the clear signals that Washington and Tehran will also be cooperating in Iraq have made it clear that détente with Iran is already a fait accompli, and not merely fodder for the speculation of pundits.

The justification for this policy is the notion that when facing a common enemy, countries otherwise at each other’s throats will prefer to cooperate. As the New York Times notes today in a front-page feature touting this new approach as reason enough to justify U.S.-Iranian amity, the renewed threat from al-Qaeda in Iraq has created a situation in which both the U.S. and Iran share a desire to see the existing governments in Iraq remain in place. To that end, it is certainly in the interests of U.S. policy to try to ensure that Iran does not destabilize the situation. But to assume that just because the ayatollahs dislike al-Qaeda the U.S. should embrace this new ally is a dangerous miscalculation. Iran may be the enemy of our enemy, but contrary to the adage now popular among the administration’s cheering section at the Times, that doesn’t make Tehran a friend. In this case, the Iranian enemy of America’s al-Qaeda enemy is also our enemy.

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Skeptics of President Obama’s attempt to engage Iran have long feared that the goal of his administration’s diplomatic efforts was a new détente with Tehran rather than bring an end to its nuclear program or to halt its support for terrorism. Even in the wake of the nuclear deal signed in Geneva in November that, astonishingly, granted tacit Western approval to Iran’s enrichment of uranium and loosened economic sanctions, the administration’s defenders scoffed at those concerned about the feckless new foreign-policy approach that seemed geared more toward warming relations with the Islamist regime than to isolating it. But Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to invite the Iranians to participate in discussions about the future of Syria—a nation which continues to be ruled by a murderous tyrant largely because of Iranian intervention on his behalf in the civil war there—in addition to the clear signals that Washington and Tehran will also be cooperating in Iraq have made it clear that détente with Iran is already a fait accompli, and not merely fodder for the speculation of pundits.

The justification for this policy is the notion that when facing a common enemy, countries otherwise at each other’s throats will prefer to cooperate. As the New York Times notes today in a front-page feature touting this new approach as reason enough to justify U.S.-Iranian amity, the renewed threat from al-Qaeda in Iraq has created a situation in which both the U.S. and Iran share a desire to see the existing governments in Iraq remain in place. To that end, it is certainly in the interests of U.S. policy to try to ensure that Iran does not destabilize the situation. But to assume that just because the ayatollahs dislike al-Qaeda the U.S. should embrace this new ally is a dangerous miscalculation. Iran may be the enemy of our enemy, but contrary to the adage now popular among the administration’s cheering section at the Times, that doesn’t make Tehran a friend. In this case, the Iranian enemy of America’s al-Qaeda enemy is also our enemy.

Before anyone hops on the bandwagon forming to welcome Iranian intervention in the widening conflict in Iraq, it’s important to remember that these same hopes were once widely expressed about Tehran’s role in stabilizing Afghanistan. Though Iran has more at stake in any battle to preserve the government of fellow Shiites in Baghdad, anyone who believes Tehran’s goal is regional stability hasn’t been paying attention to Iranian foreign policy over the last 20 years.

Iran’s goals in the Middle East have been remarkably consistent for decades. It worked hard to forge an alliance with Syria to outflank Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime with which it fought a bloody war in the 1980s. Saddam’s fall and ultimate replacement by a majority-Shiite government gave Iran the opportunity to make Iraq an ally. Tehran did its best to hamper U.S. efforts to create stability–although it ultimately acquiesced in the creation of a majority-Shiite government. When President Obama left Iraq with no structure in place to maintain U.S. interests, that too worked to Iran’s advantage. Saddam—for all his massive, homicidal villainy—did serve as a check on Iran.

But the main battle that has interested Tehran in more recent years has been the one it has waged in Syria to preserve the murderous regime of Bashar Assad. When President Obama called for Assad to leave office but failed to do anything to bring about that result, the Iranians stepped into the vacuum, sending massive amounts of military aid and deploying their auxiliaries in the form of Hezbollah shock troops to shore up a tottering Damascus government. While the West dithered, Iran’s troops turned the tide.There is little doubt that Assad’s hold on power—despite murdering more than 100,000 Syrians—is secure.

Iran’s victory in Syria combined with Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon have created a pro-Tehran axis that threatens the security of moderate Arab governments in the region, as well as that of Israel, as much as al-Qaeda’s resurgence. Rather than a solution to America’s problems, every effort to move closer to Iran is tantamount to placing a Western imprimatur on the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. Just as the deal signed by Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva gives Iran’s nuclear program a Western seal of approval, additional cooperation with Tehran elsewhere creates a perilous situation in which the West, in its folly, is agreeing to the existence of an Iranian sphere of influence that fundamentally alters the balance of power in the region.

Every advantage the U.S. thinks it gains from détente with Iran in the present will be paid in the future as the Islamist regime consolidates its power, especially if the diplomatic shell game Tehran is playing with Kerry leads to the complete collapse of Western economic sanctions. That is the key for the Iranians, because once that happens there will be no reassembling the reluctant coalition that the U.S. spent the last decade cobbling together.

A wise U.S. foreign policy would be one that recognizes that common ground with Iran is a Western illusion. The gap that separates the U.S. from a radical Islamist, anti-Semitic and terror-sponsoring government in Tehran, one with an openly-stated goal of annihilating the State of Israel cannot be bridged by a misguided understanding of realpolitik or the perception of shared interests in either Syria or Iraq. Dreams of détente with Iran will only lead to a nightmare Middle East in which genuine U.S. allies are left alone to deal with a genocidal Islamist nuclear regional power. The enemy of our enemy in Iraq is still our enemy.

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Anti-Semitism Should Not Be Criminalized

The challenge France faces in stemming the tide of a resurgent anti-Semitism has been on full display during the controversy over its now-infamous anti-Semitic comic and the modified Nazi-like salute he has sadly popularized. Both the bigotry and the government’s discomfiting attempts to quash it were neatly summarized in these two sentences from the Associated Press report on Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala:

The 47-year-old Dieudonne (pronounced DYEU-dun-ay) denies his act — or the “quenelle” — is anti-Semitic. However, he has been convicted more than a half-dozen times for inciting racial hatred or anti-Semitism over the years.

To deny the quenelle is anti-Semitic is merely to insult the public’s intelligence. The modified Nazi salute is accompanied by Dieudonne’s “comedy” in which he laments the lack of gas chambers for French Jews. But that second sentence is problematic as well. He’s been “convicted” time and again for his racism and anti-Semitism. Dieudonne’s hateful act should be shunned, but not by punished by the government. Yet as Dieudonne’s popularity has increased, so has the French government’s authoritarian response–one that should be anathema to a free society:

Nantes and Tours have become the latest French cities to ban a show by controversial comic Dieudonne M’bala M’bala.

Dieudonne, who has six convictions for hate speech against Jews, had been due to open his tour in Nantes on Thursday.

Bordeaux and Marseille had already cancelled performances.

President Francois Hollande earlier urged French officials to enforce an order authorising the ban, but Dieudonne has vowed to appeal.

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The challenge France faces in stemming the tide of a resurgent anti-Semitism has been on full display during the controversy over its now-infamous anti-Semitic comic and the modified Nazi-like salute he has sadly popularized. Both the bigotry and the government’s discomfiting attempts to quash it were neatly summarized in these two sentences from the Associated Press report on Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala:

The 47-year-old Dieudonne (pronounced DYEU-dun-ay) denies his act — or the “quenelle” — is anti-Semitic. However, he has been convicted more than a half-dozen times for inciting racial hatred or anti-Semitism over the years.

To deny the quenelle is anti-Semitic is merely to insult the public’s intelligence. The modified Nazi salute is accompanied by Dieudonne’s “comedy” in which he laments the lack of gas chambers for French Jews. But that second sentence is problematic as well. He’s been “convicted” time and again for his racism and anti-Semitism. Dieudonne’s hateful act should be shunned, but not by punished by the government. Yet as Dieudonne’s popularity has increased, so has the French government’s authoritarian response–one that should be anathema to a free society:

Nantes and Tours have become the latest French cities to ban a show by controversial comic Dieudonne M’bala M’bala.

Dieudonne, who has six convictions for hate speech against Jews, had been due to open his tour in Nantes on Thursday.

Bordeaux and Marseille had already cancelled performances.

President Francois Hollande earlier urged French officials to enforce an order authorising the ban, but Dieudonne has vowed to appeal.

The Jews of France should hope Dieudonne wins his appeal. As Jonathan noted last week, banning the gesture and Dieudonne’s “comedy” will only make both more popular.

Additionally, such actions will reinforce Dieudonne’s hateful speech. When anti-Semites anywhere propagandize about malign Jewish influence on their beloved countries, the last thing that would discredit them would be for the Jewish minority to appear to prevail on the government to outlaw anti-Jewish remarks and take away the livelihood of its proponents.

More specifically, the French actions risk retroactively buttressing Dieudonne’s protestation that the quenelle is an “anti-establishment” sign, not an anti-Jewish gesture. Once the government outlaws it and those who use it, the quenelle goes from being anti-Semitic to also being anti-establishment. (Is anything more anti-establishment than a government-banned hand gesture?)

The controversy over the quenelle takes place against the backdrop of Europe’s decades-long struggle to learn the right lessons from the Holocaust. One of those efforts–well-intentioned and an outgrowth of the earlier attempts to get the continent’s surviving Nazis assimilated back into society–was to criminalize Holocaust denial. Unfortunately, criminalizing speech is its own form of legitimization: only dangerous, seductive ideas must be forbidden to be defeated. The exception of course is speech that incites violence, and there is unfortunately a thin line, especially in Europe, between anti-Semitic speech and anti-Semitic violence.

Thus the laws against Holocaust denial and similar hateful speech are part of a genuine desire to grapple with balancing freedom and security. In its 2007 write-up of the Holocaust denial conviction of Ernst Zuendel, the New York Times included this aside:

Interestingly, Mr. Zuendel had spent much of his adult life in Canada — having lived and worked there since 1958, and where he wrote a little book called “The Hitler We Loved and Why.” But the Canadians decided he was a security threat in 2005 and sent him back to Germany.

It can be tempting to consider hate speech a security threat. The two can work in tandem without being equated, but it’s always a struggle for countries–especially those that don’t have a First Amendment–to decide where to draw the line. And European countries dealing with the terrible combination of past genocide and present anti-Semitism should be commended for their desire make pariahs of those who pine for the days of state-sponsored extermination.

But those ideas–when they remain ideas, and not battlefield cries–should be defeated by a society, not outlawed by the government. Jailing anti-Semites for their opinions won’t reduce anti-Semitism. Incarceration can deter action, but it’s unlikely to alleviate grievance, and anyway it is an unjust method of changing minds. The same goes for the government banning “comedians” whose act offends basic notions of decency.

It’s also worth reminding the Jews of Europe that their religious beliefs contain ideas that the modern secular left consider offensive as well. They may find that a heavyhanded government enforcing a standard of righteous thought is on their side this time. If they think it will stay that way, then they, too, have unlearned the lessons of the past.

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The ASA’s Next Boycott!

Dear Fellow Members of the American Studies Association (ASA),

We are pleased to report our progress toward our next boycott resolution. As you know, our president, Professor Curtis Marez, gained some notoriety from a quote given by him to the New York Times. He had been asked why, given the widespread abuse of human rights around the world and especially in the Middle East, the ASA had chosen to boycott only Israeli universities. His answer: “One has to start somewhere.”

This prompted questions as to where we would go next. So we took our lead from a statement by Professor Marez: “We are targeting Israeli universities because they work closely with the government and military in developing weapons and other technology that are used to enforce the occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.” In that spirit, we have decided that our next boycott should be leveled against additional universities that collaborate with their governments and militaries in developing weapons and other technology used to violate human rights around the world. And since we are the American Studies Association, we have decided to focus our quest in these United States, where perhaps, right under our noses, universities are falling short of our own new standards of academic virtue.

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Dear Fellow Members of the American Studies Association (ASA),

We are pleased to report our progress toward our next boycott resolution. As you know, our president, Professor Curtis Marez, gained some notoriety from a quote given by him to the New York Times. He had been asked why, given the widespread abuse of human rights around the world and especially in the Middle East, the ASA had chosen to boycott only Israeli universities. His answer: “One has to start somewhere.”

This prompted questions as to where we would go next. So we took our lead from a statement by Professor Marez: “We are targeting Israeli universities because they work closely with the government and military in developing weapons and other technology that are used to enforce the occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.” In that spirit, we have decided that our next boycott should be leveled against additional universities that collaborate with their governments and militaries in developing weapons and other technology used to violate human rights around the world. And since we are the American Studies Association, we have decided to focus our quest in these United States, where perhaps, right under our noses, universities are falling short of our own new standards of academic virtue.

Our attention has been drawn to the University of California at San Diego—where, so it happens, Professor Marez chairs the department of ethnic studies. We begin with a basic data point, taken from a 2012 press release by the UCSD News Center under the headline: “UC San Diego Maintains Strong Ties With Department of Defense.” The item notes that UCSD (itself situated on a former marine base) “has maintained a strong connection with defense initiatives for the military and U.S. government over the past five decades…. During this fiscal year alone, the Department of Defense has granted more than $60 million to support various basic and applied research studies at UC San Diego.” To this must be added grants from defense contractors, who are thick on the ground in San Diego.

After an intensive Internet search, we have discovered where some of this funding is going. The 2012 news item, quoted above, mentioned that the most recent DoD grant, for $7 million, went to a team of physicists, biologists, chemists, bioengineers, and psychologists, “to investigate the dynamic principles of collective brain activity.” Nothing could sound more sinister. (Although our critics, pointing to our earlier boycott resolution, have claimed that “collective brain activity” does not have much potential.) Social scientists are also doing their share. For example, there is the political scientist doing a DoD-funded project on “cross domain deterrence,” in collaboration with the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories. (E.g., you threaten a student with a failing grade, and they threaten back with harassment charges.) And there is the economist, funded by DoD and Homeland Security, asking “Can Hearts and Minds be Bought? The Economics of Counterinsurgency in Iraq.” (In a word: yes, but every academic dean knows that anyway.)

However, there are projects far more ominous than “collective brain activity,” such as weapons systems, and particularly drone warfare. San Diego is the nation’s biggest center of military drone production, with the massive presence of General Atomics and Northrop Grumman, the two leaders in the field. General Atomics makes the Predator and the Reaper, Northrop Grumman makes the Golden Hawk and the Hunter. We remind our members that in the fall, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued reports on civilian casualties in U.S. drone strikes in North Waziristan (Pakistan) and Yemen, respectively. Both reports are replete with disturbing case studies. Amnesty expressed “serious concerns that the USA has unlawfully killed people in drone strikes, and that such killings may amount in some cases to extrajudicial executions or war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law.” Human Rights Watch concluded that “US statements and actions indicate that US forces are applying an overly broad definition of ‘combatant’ in targeted attacks… These killings may amount to an extrajudicial execution.” We have already received direct calls from Waziri and Yemeni civil society organizations, demanding our action. (We discount the one that began: “Oh, ye unbelievers of the ASA… .”)

Just how much contract research on drones is done by UCSD? In July 2012, MuckRock News made a request under the California Public Records Act (the California equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act), requesting to see “all contracts between UCSD and government agencies or private corporations for services relating to aerial drones, UAs, UAVs and UASs (‘drones’).” A year and a half later, UCSD has yet to produce any contracts, claiming that it is backlogged with other requests.

Nevertheless, your association has managed to uncover some specific instances. In 2006, the university’s Structural Engineering Department did a project to boost the payload of the Hunter. According to Northrop Grumman, the project helped to “add additional communications, intelligence and weapon payloads to the Hunter, expanding the capabilities of the fighter.” (Here is a photo of the Hunter on campus.) UCSD has also had a partnership with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in which students worked on “damage detection for composite wings of the Predator UAV.” Interest in this subject continues, and two Predator wings were recently installed at the university for testing. (Here is a photo of two students posing with the wings.)

We intend to keep digging, but we believe this is enough to justify action. Remember the words of Professor Marez: “We are targeting Israeli universities because they work closely with the government and military in developing weapons and other technology that are used to enforce the occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.” Given that UCSD works closely with the U.S. government and military in developing weapons and other technology employed by the United States (including the CIA) to perpetrate extrajudicial executions and other violations of international humanitarian law, UCSD is obviously a candidate for boycott by the ASA. Our standards, to be compelling, should be consistent.

We have also been apprised of the following, by the Students for Justice in Palestine at UCSD: “UC San Diego is built upon indigenous Kumeyaay land just as Israel is built upon indigenous Palestinian land.” This being so, there are even further grounds for implementing a boycott, as UCSD stands on occupied Kumeyaay territory. Even the chancellor’s residence sits in the midst of a Kumeyaay cemetery. We know the analogy is not perfect: if you drop a shovel in indigenous Palestinian land, you might still strike an ancient Jewish grave. Nevertheless, we believe the parallels are compelling, and that this is further reason to boycott UCSD.

We are certain no difficulty would be caused to Professor Marez were his university to be boycotted. This would only preclude “formal collaboration” with his institution, so he could continue to participate in our annual conferences. And we are certain the pressure on him would lead him to stand firm in the faculty lounge and confront his scientific colleagues, and above all the chancellor of UCSD. The chancellor himself is a computer engineer who spent years working at the Department of Defense (at DARPA, its basic research branch), and later served as an adviser to DARPA on unmanned combat air systems. But we are sure our boycott, and the persuasiveness of Professor Marez, would lead the chancellor to reverse the university’s immoral course.

An ASA boycott of the University of California at San Diego would be a bold act, demonstrating our adherence to consistent principle and our solidarity with the peoples of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen, who live in constant fear of deadly U.S. drone attacks. In protesting these U.S. government violations of international humanitarian law, we have to start somewhere. Fellow members: let us make clear, in no uncertain terms, that we do have the courage to speak truth to power, even if it means sawing off the limb on which we sit!

Don’t we?

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What’s Really Happening in Iraq?

The situation in Iraq’s restive Western province of al-Anbar continues to deteriorate as al-Qaeda-affiliated radicals have now seized Fallujah and threaten to take more cities. Some analysts have been tempted to blame everyone from Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad to President Obama in the White House—and certainly there is blame to go around—but ultimately that political blame should not cover the fact that sometimes the solution to terrorism rooted in ideology is not counterinsurgency strategy or winning hearts and minds, but rather killing those who embrace terror.

It would be wrong simply to blame Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the breakdown of security in Al-Anbar or Iraq more broadly. Prime Minister Maliki does not set off car bombs in Baghdad, and to blame the prime minister for the reaction of terrorism effectively legitimizes such terrorism.

It is true that the Iraqi government, perhaps on the orders of Prime Minister Maliki or some of those around him, has moved against prominent Sunni politicians in the past, men like former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and former finance minister Rafi al-Issawi. Many Americans condemned such moves and said that they would fan sectarian tension. The most important question, however, is too often ignored: Were Hashemi and Issawi guilty? In both cases, the answer seems to be yes. After all, why would Issawi pay blood money to the family of those his body guards allegedly murdered if those murders did not occur? That any politician is Sunni should not be a reason for immunity in Iraq. (That the initial complaints against these men often came from Sunnis as well is an inconvenient fact too often ignored.)

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The situation in Iraq’s restive Western province of al-Anbar continues to deteriorate as al-Qaeda-affiliated radicals have now seized Fallujah and threaten to take more cities. Some analysts have been tempted to blame everyone from Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad to President Obama in the White House—and certainly there is blame to go around—but ultimately that political blame should not cover the fact that sometimes the solution to terrorism rooted in ideology is not counterinsurgency strategy or winning hearts and minds, but rather killing those who embrace terror.

It would be wrong simply to blame Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the breakdown of security in Al-Anbar or Iraq more broadly. Prime Minister Maliki does not set off car bombs in Baghdad, and to blame the prime minister for the reaction of terrorism effectively legitimizes such terrorism.

It is true that the Iraqi government, perhaps on the orders of Prime Minister Maliki or some of those around him, has moved against prominent Sunni politicians in the past, men like former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and former finance minister Rafi al-Issawi. Many Americans condemned such moves and said that they would fan sectarian tension. The most important question, however, is too often ignored: Were Hashemi and Issawi guilty? In both cases, the answer seems to be yes. After all, why would Issawi pay blood money to the family of those his body guards allegedly murdered if those murders did not occur? That any politician is Sunni should not be a reason for immunity in Iraq. (That the initial complaints against these men often came from Sunnis as well is an inconvenient fact too often ignored.)

Perhaps Maliki should not have timed the raid on the Ramadi protest camp in the manner he did, and it is unfortunate that the timing appears to have been colored by partisan politics: With the elections forthcoming in April, the theory that Maliki ordered the raid to prove his “Shi’ite” credentials is believable among a wide segment of Iraqi society. It would also be good to reinforce the notion of blind justice by moving with similar seriousness against those Shi’ites and Kurds who engage in murder and terrorism. Again, the answer to that is not immunity for the perpetrators in al-Anbar, but rather greater action against Shi’ite abusers of Iraqi law.

The spark, however, was the raid on the Ramadi camp. According to residents of al-Anbar, most residents of the protest camp were unemployed youth who joined the camp both for the free food and the camaraderie. Residents do acknowledge supporters of al-Qaeda were present—and, indeed, their presence is undeniable and caught on YouTube videos—but locals dismiss the al-Qaeda presence as few and far between (somewhat akin to the way “International ANSWER” or “Code Pink” show up at random protests to try to hijack the press attention).

Perhaps, however, the al-Qaeda presence was underestimated: After all, al-Qaeda didn’t spontaneously organize to the point that they could seize Fallujah in just a week. The al-Qaeda presence was not created in the mind of the prime minister, as it is too easy to imagine from the safety of Washington or New York.

It is fashionable to blame Baghdad for the alleged discrimination which fuels the unrest in Al-Anbar but, once again, the situation is more complicated. There are huge differences in the proportion of allocated budgets actually spent from province to province. The way the Iraqi system works, some governors explain to me, is that the province has a budget, but only when a certain amount of money is spent will they receive the next infusion of cash. Kirkuk spends almost all of its budget, and has the results to show for it. In Ninewah and al-Anbar, the proportion spent is miniscule. What is unclear is whether the reason for that is a capacity issue in Mosul and Ramadi, or whether there is some bureaucratic blockage in Baghdad. Either way, if the protestors simply buy into the sectarian rhetoric, they will be no further to solving the very real problems which impact predominantly Sunni areas.

Political culture is also a problem. One of the most remarkable aspects of visiting and analyzing Iraq is meeting politicians of all backgrounds in their homes, offices, and in restaurants and hearing their assessments of the situation: They are down to earth, calm, and assess the situation rationally. Put the same politician in front of a television camera, however, and the personality shifts 100 percent: it’s fire and sectarian brimstone. Iraqi politicians all acknowledge the problem, but no one is willing to address the problem.

Within the United States, the surge colors analysis. The surge was a very successful military strategy in the short-term, but it created and exacerbated very real long-term political problems. General David Petraeus sometimes promised what he did not have the power to implement, and throughout his career seems to have prioritized short-term stability and security over the long-term viability of his strategies. If the situation went to heck after his departure, too often his successors would be blamed even if the seeds had been sown under his command. The unfortunate fact is that the surge rewarded violence and convinced some elements of Iraqi society that if they simply hold out longer or threaten (or even engage in violence), that they can win concessions through violence that they will never win through the ballot box. Proponents of the surge may not like to see the long-term consequence tarnish their legacy, but to pin the blame on the prime minister would be dishonest: the problem isn’t Maliki, but rather the absolutist vein which continues to course through Al-Anbar’s body politic.

So what can be done? A civil war in Iraq would be tragic, but offering concessions in the face of terrorism would simply pour fuel on the fire. If terrorism is motivated by ideology and, indeed, when facing al-Qaeda, both Iraq and the West are facing a corrosive ideology, then the only solution can be to kill the terrorists. Secretary of State John Kerry might be right when he says the United States no longer should be involved in the fight inside Iraq, but let us hope then that the United States will not get squeamish when Iraqi security forces do what must be done.

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