Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 8, 2014

Richard John Neuhaus, U.S. Jews, and the American Babylon

Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of Richard John Neuhaus, the influential Christian theologian who once edited the journal First Things. What most people remember about his writing–at least the intellectual/political side–is his classic The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. But what has always stuck with me is his last book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile.

My preference among Neuhaus’s works for American Babylon is because it grapples with the subject of living in religious exile and what it means to be a good citizen to a secular state in such exile. This is a question that obviously means much to the American Jewish community as well, and so it’s valuable to see how a non-Jew, especially one as erudite as Neuhaus, approaches the question. Additionally, I think American Babylon’s relevance has unfortunately only increased since he wrote it–since that means the state’s encroachment on private religious practice has continued unabated.

But there’s also another reason I think the book is so beneficial to Jewish readers. Because of the troubled history between Christians and Jews, and because Christian politics have become so identified with the American right while Jews have been identified with the American left, there is still too much mutual suspicion. The clearest current example of this, of course, is the Jewish left’s rejection of pro-Israel Christian groups out of mistrust toward their intentions. American Babylon is in part a meditation on the Jewish-Christian relationship in exile–which is key. Neuhaus devotes a chapter to this called “Salvation Is from the Jews” (a reference the Christian scripture), in which he offers a good example. He writes:

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Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of Richard John Neuhaus, the influential Christian theologian who once edited the journal First Things. What most people remember about his writing–at least the intellectual/political side–is his classic The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. But what has always stuck with me is his last book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile.

My preference among Neuhaus’s works for American Babylon is because it grapples with the subject of living in religious exile and what it means to be a good citizen to a secular state in such exile. This is a question that obviously means much to the American Jewish community as well, and so it’s valuable to see how a non-Jew, especially one as erudite as Neuhaus, approaches the question. Additionally, I think American Babylon’s relevance has unfortunately only increased since he wrote it–since that means the state’s encroachment on private religious practice has continued unabated.

But there’s also another reason I think the book is so beneficial to Jewish readers. Because of the troubled history between Christians and Jews, and because Christian politics have become so identified with the American right while Jews have been identified with the American left, there is still too much mutual suspicion. The clearest current example of this, of course, is the Jewish left’s rejection of pro-Israel Christian groups out of mistrust toward their intentions. American Babylon is in part a meditation on the Jewish-Christian relationship in exile–which is key. Neuhaus devotes a chapter to this called “Salvation Is from the Jews” (a reference the Christian scripture), in which he offers a good example. He writes:

It is significant that, after the Second Vatican Council, when the Catholic Church was formalizing its conversations with non-Christians, the Jewish interlocutors insisted that Jewish relations not be grouped under the Vatican office that deals with other religions, but instead included under the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. That arrangement has much deeper implications than were perhaps realized at the time.

Now, this seems to me a pristine example of the kind of Christian theological activity that can be seen one of two ways. Promoting Christian unity with Jews quite obviously does not mean the Vatican has decided that all Catholics should convert to Judaism. So the conversion issue primarily cuts the other way. And it’s a sore subject for very good reasons. But it is also worth pointing out that this is a clear rejection of supersessionism. If the Jews are mere historical relics, after all, Christianity can be whole without them. Neuhaus was vehemently opposed to such a view.

Moreover, Neuhaus makes a very smart observation about this in the context of interfaith relations. He writes:

Christianity does indeed seek to engage culture, provide a guide for living, and propose the way to human flourishing, but, reduced to any of these undoubtedly good ends, it is not Christianity.

Liberal Protestant theology, taking its cue from the Enlightenment, was much preoccupied with the question of “the essence of Christianity,” and, not incidentally, was contemptuous of Jews and Judaism.

That is, liberal Christians, who center their lives more on the secular culture around them, can more easily discard the Jewish contribution to their own heritage precisely because their history is not what defines them. Instead, their own identity can be established by drawing on the here and now. It matters that Jesus was Jewish, ethically and theologically. But not to politicized liberal denominations of Christianity, who have no need for Jewish recognition.

That’s why, Neuhaus writes, “When we Christians do not walk together with Jews, we are in danger of regressing to the paganism from which we emerged.” But before we lock arms and sing Kumbaya, we need to take a closer look at what exactly it means for Christians to “walk together with Jews.” Got an itinerary, Fr. Neuhaus? He does:

With respect to Judaism, Christians today are exhorted to reject every form of supersessionism, and so we should. To supersede means to nullify, to void, to make obsolete, to displace.

But:

The end of supersessionism, however, cannot and must not mean the end of the argument between Christians and Jews. We cannot settle into the comfortable interreligious politeness of mutual respect for contradictory positions deemed to be equally true. Christ and his Church do not supersede Judaism, but they do continue and fulfill the story of which we are both part. Or so Christians must contend.

However intertwined, the two belief systems are not one. So Neuhaus is up front: his distaste for political correctness extends to his opposition to the idea that Christians must be quietly apologetic for their belief that Jews should believe as they, Christians, believe. But he says something important about how that argument is less vocal and literal than an appreciation for living these different lives and pursuing these truths. He writes:

We can and must say that the ultimate duty of each person is to form his conscience in truth and act upon that discernment; we can and must say, too, that there are great goods to be sought in dialogue apart from conversion, and that we reject proselytizing, which is best defined as evangelizing by demeaning the other. Friendship between Jew and Christian can be secured in our shared love for the God of Israel; the historical forms we call Judaism and Christianity will be transcended, but not superseded, by the fulfillment of eschatological promise. But along the way to that final fulfillment, there is no avoiding the fact that we are locked in argument. It is an argument by which–for both Jew and Christian–conscience is formed, witness is honed, and friendship deepened. This is our destiny, and this is our duty, as members of the one people of God–a people of God for which there is no plural.

What he’s saying is, essentially: we can share the same bench at the bus stop even while we disagree over whose bus will arrive. Yes, it’s cheesy on some level–let’s wait together! But a Judaism confident that our bus is the one that will show up shouldn’t mind the company.

A final thought: this was arguably more important coming from a Catholic theologian like Neuhaus than from our no-less-appreciated neighbors in the Protestant-inflected evangelical Christian Zionist community, both because of the fraught history of Jewish-Catholic relations and because it is not tethered to a cause–Israel–that is essential but also relatively modern, and therefore comparably new.

Neuhaus, correctly, notes the crucial role that America plays in all this:

The percentage of Christians involved in any form of Jewish-Christian dialogue is minuscule. Minuscule, too, is the percentage of Jews involved. Moreover, serious dialogue is, for the most part, a North American phenomenon. It is one of the many things to which the familiar phrase applies, “Only in America.” In Europe, for tragically obvious reasons, there are not enough Jews; in Israel, for reasons of growing tragedy in the decline of ancient communities, there are not enough Christians. Only in America are there enough Jews and Christians in a relationship of mutual security and respect to make possible a dialogue that is unprecedented in our 2,000 years of history together.

Neuhaus’s work was a strong rejoinder to the temptation to assume ulterior motives on the part of Christians seeking conversation with Jews. Neuhaus was right, as well, that America has given us the security to have that conversation.

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Will “Bridgegate” Damage Christie? Maybe.

Liberals who have been waiting for an opportunity to take down New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seem to have finally fished their wish. The disclosure of emails linking some of the governor’s top aides to a bizarre mini-scandal over lane closings on the George Washington Bridge provides opponents of the Republican presidential contender with plenty of fodder for attempts to debunk his carefully crafted image as a no-nonsense truth teller who is more interested in getting things done than in partisan bickering. Outlets like the New York Times and Politico are playing it for all it’s worth. Some of those hyping the story, like Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, who wrote today that Christie’s in “big trouble,” are clearly exaggerating the potential harm to the governor in the hope that this will hasten the demise of the man widely believed to be the most formidable general-election candidate in the GOP stable.

But if the governor and his backers think it will all blow over without his having to seriously address the issue, they’re wrong. Christie doesn’t just need to apologize and then fire the aides who were stupid enough to send emails and text messages detailing their role in a foolish prank. This caper inconvenienced thousands of New Jersey citizens in an apparent attempt to exact revenge on the mayor of the town of Fort Lee for failing to endorse Christie’s reelection. Even if there is no proof that the governor was personally involved in this misadventure, Christie should understand that this story bolsters the attempts of his foes to portray him as a bully with a thin skin. More than the fallout from what is nothing more than a minor political dirty trick, the ballooning narrative that Christie is a political thug with a style that is well-suited to New Jersey politics but not to the national stage could very well damage his presidential hopes.

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Liberals who have been waiting for an opportunity to take down New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seem to have finally fished their wish. The disclosure of emails linking some of the governor’s top aides to a bizarre mini-scandal over lane closings on the George Washington Bridge provides opponents of the Republican presidential contender with plenty of fodder for attempts to debunk his carefully crafted image as a no-nonsense truth teller who is more interested in getting things done than in partisan bickering. Outlets like the New York Times and Politico are playing it for all it’s worth. Some of those hyping the story, like Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, who wrote today that Christie’s in “big trouble,” are clearly exaggerating the potential harm to the governor in the hope that this will hasten the demise of the man widely believed to be the most formidable general-election candidate in the GOP stable.

But if the governor and his backers think it will all blow over without his having to seriously address the issue, they’re wrong. Christie doesn’t just need to apologize and then fire the aides who were stupid enough to send emails and text messages detailing their role in a foolish prank. This caper inconvenienced thousands of New Jersey citizens in an apparent attempt to exact revenge on the mayor of the town of Fort Lee for failing to endorse Christie’s reelection. Even if there is no proof that the governor was personally involved in this misadventure, Christie should understand that this story bolsters the attempts of his foes to portray him as a bully with a thin skin. More than the fallout from what is nothing more than a minor political dirty trick, the ballooning narrative that Christie is a political thug with a style that is well-suited to New Jersey politics but not to the national stage could very well damage his presidential hopes.

As for what actually happened in early September, even lengthy accounts, such as that provided today by the Times, are somewhat sketchy. The emails and text messages dug up by journalists establish that the governor’s deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, as well as David Wildstein and David Samson, who were appointed by Christie to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that controls the bridge over the Hudson River between the two states, establish that they helped orchestrate lane closings. As a result, commuting time was quadrupled for people who lived in the Fort Lee area. Though the Times headline explicitly describes this as an attempt at “revenge” for Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s decision to back the campaign of Barbara Buono, Christie’s doomed Democratic challenger, weeks after the closings even the mayor wasn’t sure that rumors that he was being punished for his choice were true. Seen in that light, the plot was as clumsy as it was wrong, since a clever bully would have made it clear to Sokolich that the bridge closings would occur before he turned Christie down, not afterward when the causal connection would be all too apparent.

Equally as botched is the spectacle of presumably sophisticated political operatives using forms of communication to hatch a juvenile plot that could easily be traced back to them and, even more damaging, jeopardizing the political future of their boss. While some are comparing the closings to a plot twist in an episode of The Sopranos, that’s unfair to Tony’s gang. When they schemed and plotted, they knew better than to leave themselves open to successful detection. All this speaks to an atmosphere in the governor’s office that seems roughly comparable to Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign that had no more need to bug Democratic offices in the Watergate than Christie needed to take a shot at Fort Lee. Even if Christie knew nothing about this specific incident, he bears some responsibility for tolerating an environment that produced this kind of behavior.

Of course, it’s not likely that too many voters in New Hampshire, Florida, or any other early primary state will remember the details of Bridgegate two years from now when the GOP will be choosing its presidential nominee. It’s doubtful that many of them will understand the mechanics of bridge lane closings and Northern New Jersey traffic patterns sufficiently (something that was also the case of many of those writing about this from near and afar) to make the story stick in their minds in a way that will doom Christie’s chances. As far as we know, nobody died in the traffic jams. Nor did this involve stolen money or any of the other traditional elements of scandals that are generally fatal to politicians such as the proverbial “dead girl or live boy.”

But what this story does do is provide chapter and verse to a Democratic script that seeks to transform Christie’s image. The governor skated to a landslide reelection last year and from there to the top of Republican Party presidential polls. He embodied the everyman who laughs at his own weight problems on late-night television and fearlessly tells off union bosses, liberal critics, and conservative members of his own party. But if Democrats can convince voters that he is more of petty, spiteful thug than a likeable man of integrity, he really is finished.

Will they succeed? Maybe. After all, Christie became a GOP star largely on the basis of YouTube videos of town hall meetings in which he berated critical questioners and of press conferences in which he verbally mugged journalists. To his fans, it was refreshing candor. But to the objects of his scorn it doubtless felt like bullying. Combined with numerous other examples of his playing rough with political opponents, Bridgegate can help feed a narrative in which Christie can be portrayed as an unattractive figure who is not capable of withstanding the scrutiny afforded national political figures.

This afternoon, the governor issued a statement expressing regret for the incident and saying he was “misled” by aides and that it had gone on without his knowledge. But if Christie is to get out of this pickle, he will have to do more including firing those staffers who are implicated in the bridge closings and apologizing for both their actions. He must also acknowledge that he failed  to address this problem until it blew up in his face. As I wrote last month when the Times placed a feature about allegations of his bullying style on the front page of its Christmas Day edition, it isn’t clear whether Christie’s old-school political style will work against him elsewhere. But is certainly possible that this story will reinforce the Democrats’ spin that the characteristics that made him popular in New Jersey will work against him on the national stage. Any further delay by the governor in addressing this story head-on will only make matters worse.

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No Blank Check for Maliki

President Obama and his top aides have criticized the militarization of American foreign policy and called for a “smart power” approach which utilizes all aspects of our national resources. Yet when it comes to fighting al-Qaeda, especially in Iraq, the administration is resorting to a purely military policy.

With al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters seizing control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, the administration has responded by rushing Hellfire missiles to Iraq. The administration would also like to sell lots of Apache attack helicopters to the Iraqi Security Forces, but is currently being blocked from doing so by Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Administration officials are frustrated with his hold on the Apaches. One of them told Foreign Policy, “It’s hard to imagine why some members think now is a good time to deny the Iraqi government the weapons it needs to effectively take the fight to al Qaeda.”

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President Obama and his top aides have criticized the militarization of American foreign policy and called for a “smart power” approach which utilizes all aspects of our national resources. Yet when it comes to fighting al-Qaeda, especially in Iraq, the administration is resorting to a purely military policy.

With al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters seizing control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, the administration has responded by rushing Hellfire missiles to Iraq. The administration would also like to sell lots of Apache attack helicopters to the Iraqi Security Forces, but is currently being blocked from doing so by Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Administration officials are frustrated with his hold on the Apaches. One of them told Foreign Policy, “It’s hard to imagine why some members think now is a good time to deny the Iraqi government the weapons it needs to effectively take the fight to al Qaeda.”

If this were a Republican administration, such talk would lead to accusations that the administration is questioning Menendez’s patriotism. But in fact the Democratic senator has a good point–it will take a lot more than Apaches and Hellfires to stop AQI. It will take a political overture from Prime Minister Maliki to the Sunni tribes of Anbar, similar to the Awakening orchestrated in 2007-2008 by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

It is important to kill and capture al-Qaeda militants, to be sure, but absent political reconciliation with the Sunni population, AQI will have no trouble regenerating its losses. Indeed the indiscriminate application of firepower by Maliki, while it may play well among the prime minister’s Shiite constituents (which, with an election looming, may be the point), is likely to simply arouse more Sunni opposition.

Selling Maliki military hardware without preconditions is a bad idea. What’s needed is a more comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy centered on political outreach. If Maliki launches such an effort, the U.S. should support him–even flying armed Predators to directly target AQI if Maliki agrees. But unless and until Maliki ends his sectarian attacks on prominent Sunnis, giving him a military blank check, as the administration wants to do, would be counterproductive.

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Al-Qaeda and the Benghazi Question

The major New York Times story on the Benghazi attack that killed the American ambassador and three others has come under sustained criticism. The article was hyped when published but failed to live up to its billing, in part because the reporter got lost in the weeds of international terrorism and couldn’t quite find his way through the intricacies. This led some to allege that the article was part of the Times’s heavyhanded promotion of Hillary Clinton ahead of 2016, by attempting to portray Republicans as uninformed when tying the attack to al-Qaeda instead of an anti-Islam film.

The article’s glaring weaknesses also opened up an opportunity for another newspaper to get the story right, and the Washington Post appears to have done so. One issue that trips up some reporters is the interaction and fuzzy affiliation of terrorist groups. It’s something that has snared the Obama administration as well. I wrote about this in my November essay on the war on terror, with regard to the administration’s insistence that we were fighting a more limited war on al-Qaeda. But in Syria, for example, making those distinctions was a challenge:

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The major New York Times story on the Benghazi attack that killed the American ambassador and three others has come under sustained criticism. The article was hyped when published but failed to live up to its billing, in part because the reporter got lost in the weeds of international terrorism and couldn’t quite find his way through the intricacies. This led some to allege that the article was part of the Times’s heavyhanded promotion of Hillary Clinton ahead of 2016, by attempting to portray Republicans as uninformed when tying the attack to al-Qaeda instead of an anti-Islam film.

The article’s glaring weaknesses also opened up an opportunity for another newspaper to get the story right, and the Washington Post appears to have done so. One issue that trips up some reporters is the interaction and fuzzy affiliation of terrorist groups. It’s something that has snared the Obama administration as well. I wrote about this in my November essay on the war on terror, with regard to the administration’s insistence that we were fighting a more limited war on al-Qaeda. But in Syria, for example, making those distinctions was a challenge:

Some of these groups are working with al-Qaeda affiliates and some aren’t. How does that fit into the administration’s paradigm that our “enemy is al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates,” strictly speaking? Does the administration mean to say that jihadists coming from Afghanistan—where we are still fighting the “good war”—and joining in alliance with al-Qaeda in Syria, but not joining al-Qaeda de jure, are not our enemy?

The Post story shows why so many observers got the feeling the Times story started from a conclusion–Republicans must be wrong–and worked in reverse to reconstruct what happened based on that conclusion. The Post writes about a former Guantanamo prison inmate who was released to Libyan custody in 2007 and then released by the Libyan government the following year, named Abu Sufian bin Qumu. The Post reports on Qumu’s alleged role in the Benghazi attack and that American officials are expected to designate him and branches of his Ansar al-Sharia group as foreign terrorist organizations.

Then the Post adds the crucial context:

Qumu, 54, a Libyan from Darnah, is well known to U.S. intelligence officials. A former tank driver in the Libyan army, he served 10 years in prison in the country before fleeing to Egypt and then to Afghanistan.

According to U.S. military files disclosed by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, Qumu trained in 1993 at one of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist camps in Afghanistan and later worked for a bin Laden company in Sudan, where the al-Qaeda leader lived for three years.

Qumu fought alongside the Taliban against the United States in Afghanistan; he then fled to Pakistan and was later arrested in Peshawar. He was turned over to the United States and held at Guantanamo Bay.

He has a “long-term association with Islamic extremist jihad and members of al-Qaida and other extremist groups,” according to the military files. “Detainee’s alias is found on a list of probable al-Qaida personnel receiving monthly stipends.”

Qumu also had links to Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, known by his alias Abu Zubaida, a key al-Qaeda facilitator who is being held indefinitely at Guantanamo.

There are two aspects to this that illustrate why the Times piece was problematic, and they both revolve around Qumu’s role. The Times story was apparently written last summer and held, which could explain this sentence in the Times piece:

But neither Mr. Qumu nor anyone else in Derna appears to have played a significant role in the attack on the American Mission, officials briefed on the investigation and the intelligence said.

That’s not what American officials appear to believe now, if they ever did. But it undermines the Times’s account of the entire episode because it shows it to be either too dated to be trusted or based on unreliable sources, which when mixed with an ideological predisposition against the conservative assessment of the administration’s spin only elevates and justifies the paper’s critics.

But it’s also part of the ongoing discrediting of the administration’s confused approach to national security, trying to wish away or minimize those terrorists who are not part of “al-Qaeda Central.” The president’s desire to end wars is understandable. His habit of pretending they have ended because of his own impatience is reckless.

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The War on Poverty a Half Century Later

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the so-called War on Poverty. 

It was January 8, 1964, in his Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union, where President Lyndon Johnson “declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.” He went on to state, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

By most accounts, we did lose it (certainly by no reasonable standard did we win it). It’s worth recalling that this period was the high-water mark of liberal confidence. To appreciate just how high the expectations were at the time, consider that the previous month LBJ proclaimed that Americans were living in “the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” And during his State of the Union speech, Johnson set a very high bar for what was possible:

Let us work together to make this year’s session the best in the Nation’s history. Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined; as the session which enacted the most far-reaching tax cut of our time; as the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States; as the session which finally recognized the health needs of all our older citizens; as the session which reformed our tangled transportation and transit policies; as the session which achieved the most effective, efficient foreign aid program ever; and as the session which helped to build more homes, more schools, more libraries, and more hospitals than any single session of Congress in the history of our Republic. 

All this and more can and must be done. It can be done by this summer, and it can be done without any increase in spending.

There was no obvious ceiling to what progressives thought was achievable. At the time the idea that public-spirited men and women, at the head of the federal government, could transform American society sounded ambitious. Today it sounds fanciful and in some circumstances downright destructive (for more, see the Affordable Care Act).

So what did we learn? 

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Today marks the 50th anniversary of the so-called War on Poverty. 

It was January 8, 1964, in his Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union, where President Lyndon Johnson “declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.” He went on to state, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

By most accounts, we did lose it (certainly by no reasonable standard did we win it). It’s worth recalling that this period was the high-water mark of liberal confidence. To appreciate just how high the expectations were at the time, consider that the previous month LBJ proclaimed that Americans were living in “the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” And during his State of the Union speech, Johnson set a very high bar for what was possible:

Let us work together to make this year’s session the best in the Nation’s history. Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined; as the session which enacted the most far-reaching tax cut of our time; as the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States; as the session which finally recognized the health needs of all our older citizens; as the session which reformed our tangled transportation and transit policies; as the session which achieved the most effective, efficient foreign aid program ever; and as the session which helped to build more homes, more schools, more libraries, and more hospitals than any single session of Congress in the history of our Republic. 

All this and more can and must be done. It can be done by this summer, and it can be done without any increase in spending.

There was no obvious ceiling to what progressives thought was achievable. At the time the idea that public-spirited men and women, at the head of the federal government, could transform American society sounded ambitious. Today it sounds fanciful and in some circumstances downright destructive (for more, see the Affordable Care Act).

So what did we learn? 

In his biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, The Gentleman from New York, Godfrey Hodgson offers this summary of one of the men deeply involved in building what Johnson called The Great Society. While never abandoning his faith in the capacity and the duty of government to make society better, Hodgson argues, Moynihan “acquired a profound doubt about the central paradigm of liberal government: the assumption that social scientists should identify a need, devise a program of government action to meet that need and supervise the application of public money to the sore place through the ministrations of enlightened bureaucracy.” 

By 1969, in a memorandum to President Nixon on the rise of welfare in New York and elsewhere, Moynihan wrote, “I believe the time has come for a President to state what increasingly is understood: that welfare as we know it is a bankrupt and destructive system…. It is also necessary to state that no one really understands why and how all this has happened.” And Moynihan’s great friend, the eminent social scientist James Q. Wilson, when asked about Moynihan’s increasing skepticism of the efficacy of government intervention in almost all circumstances, said this:

He always believes that the job of politics is to help those who can’t help themselves. But he has a scholar’s reluctance to accept the proposition that the government knows very much about how to help people who can’t help themselves.

When all that is required is to transfer money from person A to person B, as in the social security system, it works very well, and Pat has been a staunch defender of social security. But when it has to alter their character, when it has to alter whether men marry women with whom they begat a child, or when it has to reduce the crime rate, or has to deal with student radicalism, the fact of the matter is that government doesn’t know much what to do.

It’s complicated, however. Starting in the early-to-mid 1990s, we saw enormous progress on a range of social issues, including welfare, drug use, and crime. After the failures of The Great Society, we learned that progress can happen faster than many people thought possible. In analyzing various social trends in 2007, Yuval Levin and I wrote:

Despite the good case made by those who believe that diffidence, skepticism, and self-limitation are the prerequisites of sound policymaking, sometimes what is needed is a bold break with the past. There will always be unintended consequences, but even these need not always be for the worse, and the prospect of such unintended consequences should not paralyze us from taking action. Guided by a modest sense of possibility, and by realistic notions of the limits of politics, reform can succeed.

In thinking about the War on Poverty a half-century after it began, this still sounds about right to me. 

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Assessing Defense Officials’ Assessments

One reason Israel has struggled to muster international support for its demand for defensible borders is that one can always find some former senior Israeli defense official to proclaim this unnecessary. A typical example was former Mossad chief Meir Dagan’s statement this weekend that Israel no longer needs to retain the Jordan Valley for security purposes, because “there is no eastern front”: Israel is at peace with Jordan, and “there is no longer an Iraqi army.”

What made this statement truly remarkable was the timing: On the very same weekend that Dagan made this categorical pronouncement, al-Qaeda in Iraq largely completed its takeover of the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. As the New York Times reported, this means that “Sunni insurgents essentially control most of Anbar”–a province bordering directly on Jordan. Since Qaeda-linked groups also control large swathes of eastern Syria, Jordan now has al-Qaeda sitting on two of its borders: Syria to the north and Anbar to the east. Granted, al-Qaeda’s forces are currently busy fighting Syrian and Iraqi troops, but if they prevail in these battles, Jordan, which al-Qaeda has targeted in the past, will clearly be next in line.

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One reason Israel has struggled to muster international support for its demand for defensible borders is that one can always find some former senior Israeli defense official to proclaim this unnecessary. A typical example was former Mossad chief Meir Dagan’s statement this weekend that Israel no longer needs to retain the Jordan Valley for security purposes, because “there is no eastern front”: Israel is at peace with Jordan, and “there is no longer an Iraqi army.”

What made this statement truly remarkable was the timing: On the very same weekend that Dagan made this categorical pronouncement, al-Qaeda in Iraq largely completed its takeover of the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. As the New York Times reported, this means that “Sunni insurgents essentially control most of Anbar”–a province bordering directly on Jordan. Since Qaeda-linked groups also control large swathes of eastern Syria, Jordan now has al-Qaeda sitting on two of its borders: Syria to the north and Anbar to the east. Granted, al-Qaeda’s forces are currently busy fighting Syrian and Iraqi troops, but if they prevail in these battles, Jordan, which al-Qaeda has targeted in the past, will clearly be next in line.

In other words, Dagan is correct that “there is no eastern front” at this minute. But given the massive instability in the region and the marked gains that hostile forces like al-Qaeda have made just in the last few months, only a fool would be willing to gamble that the eastern front won’t reappear in another year, or two or three–especially given the likelihood (as I explained last week) that Israel’s withdrawal from the Jordan Valley would actively contribute to destabilizing Jordan, just as its withdrawal from Gaza destabilized Sinai. Yet this is precisely the gamble Dagan is advocating: Wager Israel’s security on the hope that even with the region in the midst of convulsive upheaval, the eastern front will nevertheless remain dormant for the foreseeable future.

All this speaks to a larger point about the validity of senior defense officials’ pronouncements: Their field of expertise is fairly narrow, and outside it, their assessments have no more validity than those of anyone else–and sometimes less. Dagan, a senior IDF officer before taking over the Mossad, certainly knows what’s needed to stop columns of tanks from invading Israel; had he said the Jordan Valley was unnecessary for this purpose, it would have to be taken seriously. But he didn’t; indeed, by saying it’s unnecessary specifically because the “eastern front” no longer exists, he clearly implied that the valley would be needed were the eastern front to reappear.

Rather, Dagan’s assertion rests on a political assessment: that nothing is likely to happen in the foreseeable future to turn either Jordan or Iraq into a threat. But when it comes to predicting future political developments, defense officials have no special expertise whatsoever. In fact, their track record is notoriously poor (think, for instance, of intelligence agencies’ failure to predict the intifadas, the Arab Spring, the Iranian revolution, etc.).

So when defense experts say that “defensible borders” aren’t necessary, consider whether their pronouncements are based on military or political assessments. And if it’s the latter, anything they say should be taken with whole buckets of salt.

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