Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 10, 2014

Time for Honesty from Obama on Iran

How far are Democrats willing to go to squelch efforts to put a chill on the administration’s headlong rush to embrace Iran? We got a taste of just how important the effort to prevent the enactment of tougher sanctions on Iran is to the president this week when he assigned his Jewish surrogates the job of smearing mainstream Jewish groups that have been lobbying for the bill.

As JTA reports, Rabbi Jack Moline, the head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, slammed both AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee for engaging in what he called “strong-arm tactics, essentially threatening people that if they don’t vote a particular way, that somehow that makes them anti-Israel or means the abandonment of the Jewish community.” That was enough to prompt David Harris, the head of the liberal-leaning AJC to wonder what exactly Moline was up to by engaging in that kind of invective on the issue:

“We support the Iran sanctions bill, as do a bipartisan majority of U.S. senators,” he said. “Can a group differ with him on a critically important issue like Iran, where potentially existential issues are at stake, without being maligned or misrepresented, or is that the price we’re supposed to pay for honest disagreement?”

Yes, that is exactly the price. Especially when the stakes involve anything that would potentially upset the administration’s effort to create a new détente with Iran. Though it is highly unlikely that proponents of the measure have enough votes to override a threatened presidential veto, the administration is not only doing its utmost to spike the effort, it is calling out the dogs in yet another attempt to intimidate those determined to speak out in favor of stricter sanctions.

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How far are Democrats willing to go to squelch efforts to put a chill on the administration’s headlong rush to embrace Iran? We got a taste of just how important the effort to prevent the enactment of tougher sanctions on Iran is to the president this week when he assigned his Jewish surrogates the job of smearing mainstream Jewish groups that have been lobbying for the bill.

As JTA reports, Rabbi Jack Moline, the head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, slammed both AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee for engaging in what he called “strong-arm tactics, essentially threatening people that if they don’t vote a particular way, that somehow that makes them anti-Israel or means the abandonment of the Jewish community.” That was enough to prompt David Harris, the head of the liberal-leaning AJC to wonder what exactly Moline was up to by engaging in that kind of invective on the issue:

“We support the Iran sanctions bill, as do a bipartisan majority of U.S. senators,” he said. “Can a group differ with him on a critically important issue like Iran, where potentially existential issues are at stake, without being maligned or misrepresented, or is that the price we’re supposed to pay for honest disagreement?”

Yes, that is exactly the price. Especially when the stakes involve anything that would potentially upset the administration’s effort to create a new détente with Iran. Though it is highly unlikely that proponents of the measure have enough votes to override a threatened presidential veto, the administration is not only doing its utmost to spike the effort, it is calling out the dogs in yet another attempt to intimidate those determined to speak out in favor of stricter sanctions.

The NJDC’s stand is particularly discreditable since the group is trying to have it both ways on the issue. As JTA notes:

The National Jewish Democratic Council, in an effort to back a Democratic president while not expressly opposing intensified sanctions, issued a mixed verdict on the bill, saying it does not support its passage at present though the option of intensified sanctions should remain open down the road if the president seeks it.

This is utterly disingenuous since the sanctions bill wouldn’t go into effect until the interim nuclear deal signed in November runs its full course, during which the Iranians will have six months to negotiate another agreement with the West and during which they will be able to continue refining uranium. Passage of the legislation will only strengthen President Obama’s hand in his dealings with Tehran and will underscore the point that he and Secretary of State John Kerry have continually made about the Geneva accord not fundamentally weakening the economic restrictions that brought the Islamist regime to the table in the first place.

However, the context of this dispute isn’t merely a spat among Jewish groups. The administration’s position on Iran has fundamentally shifted in the last several months during which secret talks with representatives of the ayatollahs were conducted. As articles in publications like the New York Times have made clear, Washington now regards Iran as a useful partner in Syria (where Tehran has ensured the survival of its ally Bashar Assad) and in Iraq. The move to step back from confrontation with Iran over its nuclear quest predated the election of faux moderate Hassan Rouhani last summer, but it has now reached the point where the White House considers any move to put more pressure on the regime as a threat to the hopes for better relations with the ayatollahs.

Just as chief White House flack Jay Carney has falsely implied that support for more sanctions is tantamount to a desire for war with Iran, Moline seems to be reading from the same playbook when he claims Jewish groups that won’t keep quiet are misbehaving. Far from stepping out of line, AIPAC and the AJC are reminding members of Congress that they can’t have it both ways. If they are sincere about their campaign pledges to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons they can’t also refuse to back more sanctions. The same point applies to the president since the position that the sanctions are not only unnecessary but a hindrance to diplomacy is illogical.

It should be remembered that this administration opposed the current sanctions regime they claim is sufficient for their purposes. But while those who back the new bill hope diplomacy succeeds, they rightly understand that nothing short of a complete shutdown of all business with Tehran, including the embargo of Iranian oil, will be enough to convince the regime that it must abandon its nuclear dream. Having already sanctioned Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium, there seems little chance that the current diplomatic track will succeed in shutting down the centrifuges or the dismantling of its nuclear infrastructure.

Contrary to the White House spin, Iran is already showing signs that it is shaking off the problems created by the existing sanctions. As Mark Dubowitz and Rachel Ziemba wrote in a piece published by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the improvement in the Iranian economy—a trend that may be rooted in a belief that the sanctions will soon be lifted—is weakening the West’s leverage over Tehran at the very moment when the president needs it the most in order to get a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff with Iran.

As such, the enactment of new tougher sanctions could help convince Tehran that its efforts to stall the West on the nuclear issue will fail. But the president seems more afraid of “breaking faith” with a terror-supporting, anti-Semitic regime that remains a potent strategic threat to America’s Middle East allies than he is of appearing too solicitous of the feelings of the ayatollahs.

But the administration is still nervous about appearing to have openly abandoned efforts to isolate Iran. That’s why the White House is hoping the president’s veto threats as well as the attacks on sanctions supporters by attack dogs like Moline will prevent him from having to veto a measure that bolsters his stated policy aims.

Supporters of sanctions shouldn’t be intimidated by innuendo from either Carney or Moline. It is time for the administration to be honest with the American people about its Iran policy. If it is serious about stopping Iran’s nuclear threat, it should stop opposing the new bill. If not, the administration should end its prevarications and make a straightforward, public case for détente with the tyrants of Tehran—if they dare.

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The Media and the End of President Christie

For supporters of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, it’s difficult to look at this past week’s events in any but catastrophic terms. A week ago, Christie was still basking in the glow of his landslide reelection and at the top of polls for Republican presidential candidates in 2016. Today, he is drowning in a sea of negative stories about Bridgegate. Yesterday’s apologetic news conference and penitential trip to Fort Lee did little to halt the avalanche of criticism from the mainstream media. Though most political professionals thought his performance at the press conference at which he answered every question was good, most of the reviews have been scathing with pundits denouncing even his straightforward apologies as merely more examples of his self-centered nature. Indeed, his claim that “I am not a bully” will inevitably be compared to Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook.”

As I wrote on Wednesday, there is neither proof nor reason to think the governor had any direct involvement in Bridgegate, Christie brought much of this firestorm on himself. He built his tough-guy reputation with an arrogant, pugnacious style that lends credibility to the notion that he created an environment that might lead some staffers to think he would approve of a petty, vindictive prank on a town run by a Democratic mayor who declined to endorse the governor’s re-election bid. Christie deserved every bit of the crow he was forced to publicly consume, and if many observers are saying his professions of ignorance about what happened are indicative of a faulty management style that is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s excuses for ignorance about his administration’s scandals, there is no obvious defense to the charge. Christie’s dream of winning the White House has been dealt a fatal blow and given that the same media that lionized him last fall will never let him live this down, it is far from clear exactly how he will be able to get back on message in the coming weeks and months. The betting here is that this marks the unofficial end of the governor’s presidential hopes. Two years is a lifetime in politics, but not long enough for this crisis to recede from public memory in time to rebound and recapture the enthusiasm for his 2016 candidacy.

That is the major fact to be understood about Bridgegate. However, once we acknowledge that Christie’s political brand is so tarnished by this episode that he won’t be able to reassume the mantle of the GOP frontrunner, it will then be time to ask whether the mainstream media that helped create Christie’s popularity was entirely correct in the way they destroyed it.

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For supporters of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, it’s difficult to look at this past week’s events in any but catastrophic terms. A week ago, Christie was still basking in the glow of his landslide reelection and at the top of polls for Republican presidential candidates in 2016. Today, he is drowning in a sea of negative stories about Bridgegate. Yesterday’s apologetic news conference and penitential trip to Fort Lee did little to halt the avalanche of criticism from the mainstream media. Though most political professionals thought his performance at the press conference at which he answered every question was good, most of the reviews have been scathing with pundits denouncing even his straightforward apologies as merely more examples of his self-centered nature. Indeed, his claim that “I am not a bully” will inevitably be compared to Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook.”

As I wrote on Wednesday, there is neither proof nor reason to think the governor had any direct involvement in Bridgegate, Christie brought much of this firestorm on himself. He built his tough-guy reputation with an arrogant, pugnacious style that lends credibility to the notion that he created an environment that might lead some staffers to think he would approve of a petty, vindictive prank on a town run by a Democratic mayor who declined to endorse the governor’s re-election bid. Christie deserved every bit of the crow he was forced to publicly consume, and if many observers are saying his professions of ignorance about what happened are indicative of a faulty management style that is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s excuses for ignorance about his administration’s scandals, there is no obvious defense to the charge. Christie’s dream of winning the White House has been dealt a fatal blow and given that the same media that lionized him last fall will never let him live this down, it is far from clear exactly how he will be able to get back on message in the coming weeks and months. The betting here is that this marks the unofficial end of the governor’s presidential hopes. Two years is a lifetime in politics, but not long enough for this crisis to recede from public memory in time to rebound and recapture the enthusiasm for his 2016 candidacy.

That is the major fact to be understood about Bridgegate. However, once we acknowledge that Christie’s political brand is so tarnished by this episode that he won’t be able to reassume the mantle of the GOP frontrunner, it will then be time to ask whether the mainstream media that helped create Christie’s popularity was entirely correct in the way they destroyed it.

As much as shutting down lanes on the George Washington Bridge as “revenge” was an astonishingly stupid thing for Christie’s aides to have done, at this point it’s time to note the disproportional nature of the attention to this story. The liberal media that spent a year treating questions about Benghazi as a Republican distraction and refused to draw any dire conclusions about the politicization of the IRS are now treating a traffic jam as more important than the deaths of four Americans at the hands of terrorists or the unconstitutional behavior of the most powerful agency in the government. Moreover, if Christie were a liberal Democratic star  who abused power in this manner rather than a Republican, it’s fair to assume the scandal wouldn’t be front-page news. We know that to a certainty because then-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer used the state police to spy on his political opponents—a maneuver that is at least as egregious if not far more serious than Bridgegate—without it being treated as front-page news in the New York Times or dominating cable TV news.

That the political press would go all-out on a story as juicy as this one is neither surprising nor, in and of itself, necessarily indicative of bias. But the idea that this was not only an embarrassment and worthy of censure but also merited calls for Christie’s resignation is the sign of how quickly this incident became a political stick with which to crush the man widely thought to be the most electable Republican in the 2016 field.

It should be stipulated that if proof ever emerges that Christie directly ordered lane closings on the bridge for political purposes, this will get a lot worse for him. But given the way he openly mocked suggestions that he had personally taken part in the scheme only last month, that seems unlikely. Even those who are rightly outraged at this abuse of power must admit the nature of the scandal doesn’t rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors.

While I think a thorough investigation of the affair is warranted, it’s far from clear what laws were actually broken other than the informal rules of political conduct that ought to prevent those in power from abusing their prerogatives. Many people were inconvenienced in a prank that still makes no sense, but no money was stolen and, despite efforts to hype the angle of ambulance delays, no lives were lost as a result of the lane closures. It’s doubtful that anyone who would claim this should be enough to force Christie’s resignation from office (the subject of a New York Times “Room for Debate” feature) would be doing so were he not a Republican who looked like a major obstacle to Democratic hopes of winning the 2016 presidential election.

The overkill on Christie may be excused by his presidential ambitions, but the attention paid to this story and the refusal to accept his explanations stands in stark contrast to the willingness by many of the same media outlets to accept President Obama’s excuses about his administration’s scandals last summer. The same New York Times that now dismisses any attempt by Christie to disavow personal responsibility scoffed at anyone that would try to hold the president or his then-secretary of state accountable for what had happened on his watch with respect to Benghazi, the IRS, or spying on the media.

It should also be remembered that while Spitzer was brought down by a sex scandal, prior to that we knew he used New York State Troopers to spy on his political opponents, an abuse of power that is far more frightening from the point of view of democracy than the creation of a traffic jam. Like Christie, that, too, was in keeping with Spitzer’s reputation as a political bully earned while he played the “Sheriff of Wall Street” as New York’s attorney general. But if the liberal media paid any attention to it at the time, it was considered merely business as usual in the rough and tumble world of Albany politics. The fact that virtually no one on the right is making this point is an indication of how unpopular Christie had become among conservatives who can usually be counted upon to speak up when one of their own is under liberal media siege.

After three days, attacks on Christie have risen to the level of overkill and can’t be reasonably sustained without further material that is unlikely to exist. Saying this doesn’t diminish the damaging nature of the revelations or undo the damage that was done to his political career. But once the dust has settled, it will be time to ask ourselves whether the hysteria we’ve witnessed this week was entirely justified and why the same media that has all but buried Governor Christie stands silent and remains unmotivated to do the same amount of digging to expose the inner workings of the scandals in the Obama administration.

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The Silly Attempt to Discredit Bob Gates

In 1948, a diplomatic tell-all appeared on the shelves intended to make a splash. By former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Arthur Bliss Lane, the book title blared “I Saw Poland Betrayed” beside the Polish coat of arms’ imposing white eagle, which seemed almost to be shouting the words. The cover also informs us that “Our Ambassador to Poland resigned to tell this story.”

In fact, the timeline is less condensed than that might imply. The betrayal Lane witnessed referred to the post-Yalta actions of the major powers in which FDR, Churchill, and Stalin sealed the fate of postwar Poland, which would be under the Soviet thumb for decades more. Lane resigned in 1947 after the sham Polish elections made it official. It was a headache for President Truman, one of many he inherited from Franklin Roosevelt. But it was not a surprise: Lane writes in the introduction that his resignation was accepted “with the understanding of President Truman … that I would tell the story as I had seen it.”

Lane’s book was only one in a sea of such memoirs, the latest of which is former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s account of his time leading the Pentagon in wartime during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Excerpts from the book have caused a stir, showing President Obama and Hillary Clinton admitting that their opposition to the “surge” was feigned for political benefit, and that the Obama White House was broadly dismissive of and disrespectful to the American military. And the pushback commenced immediately, today garnering a Politico article attempting to shame Gates for his timing and his candor.

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In 1948, a diplomatic tell-all appeared on the shelves intended to make a splash. By former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Arthur Bliss Lane, the book title blared “I Saw Poland Betrayed” beside the Polish coat of arms’ imposing white eagle, which seemed almost to be shouting the words. The cover also informs us that “Our Ambassador to Poland resigned to tell this story.”

In fact, the timeline is less condensed than that might imply. The betrayal Lane witnessed referred to the post-Yalta actions of the major powers in which FDR, Churchill, and Stalin sealed the fate of postwar Poland, which would be under the Soviet thumb for decades more. Lane resigned in 1947 after the sham Polish elections made it official. It was a headache for President Truman, one of many he inherited from Franklin Roosevelt. But it was not a surprise: Lane writes in the introduction that his resignation was accepted “with the understanding of President Truman … that I would tell the story as I had seen it.”

Lane’s book was only one in a sea of such memoirs, the latest of which is former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s account of his time leading the Pentagon in wartime during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Excerpts from the book have caused a stir, showing President Obama and Hillary Clinton admitting that their opposition to the “surge” was feigned for political benefit, and that the Obama White House was broadly dismissive of and disrespectful to the American military. And the pushback commenced immediately, today garnering a Politico article attempting to shame Gates for his timing and his candor.

The good news for Gates is that it is likely many people who clicked on the article stopped reading a few paragraphs in. That’s because Politico offers the first shaming quote to Sandy Berger. Yes, Sandy Berger–the Clinton administration official who pilfered national-security documents from the National Archives to protect his boss. Here’s what Sandy Berger has to say about a highly decorated public servant who is the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom:

“Cabinet members who don’t leave on principle ought to avoid undercutting the president while he’s still in office,” said Sandy Berger, who was national security adviser during President Bill Clinton’s second term. “I think they have that duty of loyalty to the president. It makes me uncomfortable to see Gates do this.”

Imagine that, you might say to yourself: the world has discovered behavior that makes Sandy Berger uncomfortable. But the larger point is just how difficult it is to tarnish Gates’s well-earned reputation. Gates must be chuckling to himself at being attacked by Sandy Berger.

Berger isn’t the only one quoted in the article, and the story goes on to mention James Byrnes’s post-Yalta memoir, though it is a far less relevant example than Lane’s. We hear from others as well in the story notes of disapproval about the timing of the memoir and the fact that it criticizes those Gates served. Berger’s critique is the least sensible of all: that Gates should have resigned to write this book or waited until Obama was out of office.

But think about that for a moment. Should Gates have resigned “on principle” to tell his story before President Obama’s reelection? How would that have been received? Surely many would have preferred to hear such criticism before casting their vote, but it would have been seen as an attempt to influence the presidential election.

Others in the story echo the claim Gates should have waited until Obama left office. But at that point, someone else criticized in the book might be taking office. How would it look if Gates released the book this time in 2017, just in time to ruin the inauguration of Obama’s successor?

Additionally, we are currently winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The decisions have already been made, so this won’t change anything. It just enables the conversation about these changes to include Gates, surely one of the most knowledgeable sources in the country. The book’s actual impact, then, is going to be limited. It will mostly involve keeping the public better informed about the debate we’re now having. The attacks on Gates may have been predictable, but that makes them no less gratuitous or silly.

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“When all the mud has been flung every man’s views still remain to be considered”

In an exchange with the evolutionary biologist and Marxist J.B.S. Haldane, C.S. Lewis found his motivations under assault. Lewis offered this marvelous reply:

The Professor has his own explanation … he thinks that I am unconsciously motivated by the fact that I “stand to lose by social change.” And indeed it would be hard for me to welcome a change which might well consign me to a concentration camp. I might add that it would likewise be easy for the Professor to welcome a change which might place him in the highest rank of an omnicompetent oligarchy. That is why the motive game is so uninteresting. Each side can go on playing ad nauseam, but when all the mud has been flung every man’s views still remain to be considered on their merits. I decline the motive game and resume the discussion.

Now it needs to be said that motivations aren’t always irrelevant or unimportant. They matter, for example, in a court of law (see perjury trials). And if the classmate of your son hurts him (or vice-versa), motivation certainly needs to be taken into account. We punish in part based on intent.

But in the context Lewis is describing–public debates over public matters–he’s quite right. Impugning the motivations of those whom we disagree with should be kept to a minimum. For one thing, it’s hard enough to honestly assess our own motivations, let alone those of others. Every human heart is divided against itself, tainted to one degree or another. Altruism and pride, selflessness and selfishness, mix like salt and water in the ocean. They are nearly impossible to separate out.

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In an exchange with the evolutionary biologist and Marxist J.B.S. Haldane, C.S. Lewis found his motivations under assault. Lewis offered this marvelous reply:

The Professor has his own explanation … he thinks that I am unconsciously motivated by the fact that I “stand to lose by social change.” And indeed it would be hard for me to welcome a change which might well consign me to a concentration camp. I might add that it would likewise be easy for the Professor to welcome a change which might place him in the highest rank of an omnicompetent oligarchy. That is why the motive game is so uninteresting. Each side can go on playing ad nauseam, but when all the mud has been flung every man’s views still remain to be considered on their merits. I decline the motive game and resume the discussion.

Now it needs to be said that motivations aren’t always irrelevant or unimportant. They matter, for example, in a court of law (see perjury trials). And if the classmate of your son hurts him (or vice-versa), motivation certainly needs to be taken into account. We punish in part based on intent.

But in the context Lewis is describing–public debates over public matters–he’s quite right. Impugning the motivations of those whom we disagree with should be kept to a minimum. For one thing, it’s hard enough to honestly assess our own motivations, let alone those of others. Every human heart is divided against itself, tainted to one degree or another. Altruism and pride, selflessness and selfishness, mix like salt and water in the ocean. They are nearly impossible to separate out.

In addition, the tendency to focus on motivations can be a sign of intellectual laziness. It’s just much easier to attack other people’s motivations than it is to answer their arguments (especially when the arguments are difficult to refute). And even if the motivations of others are suspect, that’s still not an excuse to avoid dealing with the other side’s reasoning. The merits of an argument don’t depend on the character of those advancing them.

When we do move from the realm of divining motivations to examining facts and premises, there’s a temptation to focus on the other side’s less formidable advocates and arguments. Professor Alan Jacobs, writing on his New Atlantis blog, cautions that we shouldn’t go in search of 

the crowd-pleasers and rabble-rousers from outside your typical group (unless you’re trying to understand sociological phenomena). If you’re a conservative who wants to understand liberalism, don’t bother with Michael Moore; if you’re a liberal who wants to understand conservatism, don’t bother with Sarah Palin; if you’re an unbeliever who’s curious about Christianity, ignore Joel Osteen; if you’re an orthodox Christian trying to get a fix on atheism, steer clear of Bill Maher. 

If we follow this counsel–if we seek out impressive and intelligent individuals among those with whom we disagree–Jacobs argues that several things can happen: (a) our views might be altered based on the encounter; (b) we’ll find that people who disagree with us are in all likelihood the moral and intellectual equals of those who agree with us; and (c) we’ll realize “that any question that is fiercely debated is fiercely debated because there aren’t simple and obvious answers to it.”

To which I would add this: Truth exists and it needs to be pursued, but each individual can at best apprehend only part of the whole. To be sure, some see it better than others and some live their lives more in accordance with the moral good than do others. All honor is due them. But it is also the nature of life in this world that even those who strive to live in the sunlight cannot fully escape the shadows.

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The Jobs Report

Job creation slowed markedly in December, with only a dismal 74,000 jobs created last month, the worst monthly report in three years. Economists, notorious for their clouded crystal balls, had been predicting 200,000 new jobs, above the 2013 average of 182,000 per month.

They also predicted that the unemployment rate would remain steady at 7 percent. It didn’t, it fell a full three-tenths of a percent to 6.7. But that was only because the labor participation rate fell to 62.8 percent, down two-tenths. As has been happening all through the so-called recovery, improvement in the unemployment rate has been largely the result of a shrinking labor force, not a growing jobs market. The labor participation rate is the now lowest since the days of Jimmy Carter.

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Job creation slowed markedly in December, with only a dismal 74,000 jobs created last month, the worst monthly report in three years. Economists, notorious for their clouded crystal balls, had been predicting 200,000 new jobs, above the 2013 average of 182,000 per month.

They also predicted that the unemployment rate would remain steady at 7 percent. It didn’t, it fell a full three-tenths of a percent to 6.7. But that was only because the labor participation rate fell to 62.8 percent, down two-tenths. As has been happening all through the so-called recovery, improvement in the unemployment rate has been largely the result of a shrinking labor force, not a growing jobs market. The labor participation rate is the now lowest since the days of Jimmy Carter.

Unemployment in hard-hit sectors showed little if any improvement. Teenage unemployment is at 20.3 percent (raising the minimum wage would make that worse, probably much worse, as teenagers make up a very large percentage of minimum-wage workers). Black unemployment was at 11.9 percent. People unemployed for more than 27 weeks stood at 3.9 million, 37.7 percent of total unemployment, up from 37.4 percent last month.

The question is how much longer President Obama can avoid major political damage from these numbers. The “recovery” began in June 2009, according to economists. According to millions of unemployed, under-employed, and dropouts from the labor force, it has yet to begin.

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Will the MLA Resolve to Discredit Itself?

Tomorrow the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association considers a resolution urging the “U.S. Department of State to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” I have focused on the MLA panel on academic boycotts because a boycott is a more radical gesture than the proposed resolution.

But the resolution is bad, too. Richard Ohmann of Wesleyan University and Bruce Robbin of Columbia University proposed it. As I have noted here before Ohmann signed a mind-boggling letter describing Israel as an apartheid state and as the perpetrator of “one of the most massive, ethnocidal atrocities of modern times.” Robbin has endorsed the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. I suspect that the present resolution is the most anti-Israeli one Ohmann and Robbins think they can get this year.

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Tomorrow the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association considers a resolution urging the “U.S. Department of State to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” I have focused on the MLA panel on academic boycotts because a boycott is a more radical gesture than the proposed resolution.

But the resolution is bad, too. Richard Ohmann of Wesleyan University and Bruce Robbin of Columbia University proposed it. As I have noted here before Ohmann signed a mind-boggling letter describing Israel as an apartheid state and as the perpetrator of “one of the most massive, ethnocidal atrocities of modern times.” Robbin has endorsed the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. I suspect that the present resolution is the most anti-Israeli one Ohmann and Robbins think they can get this year.

In 2008, Ohmann proposed and the MLA ultimately passed a resolution, complaining that “those teaching and writing about the occupation and about Middle East culture have regularly come under fire from anti-Palestinian groups on extra-academic grounds,” affirming that “education at all levels in the occupied territories is being stifled by the occupation,” and expressing “solidarity with scholars of Palestinian culture.” That resolution does not mention Israel by name. This one does. That’s progress, if your aim is to delegitimize Israel.

Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors, has been fighting such resolutions for some time. A supporter of an economic boycott of Israeli goods produced in the West Bank, he is not a reflexive defender of Israeli policy. His piece opposing the resolution, published as the conference began, explains why even academics with no strong convictions about Israeli visa policies should vigorously oppose the resolution. Simply, if MLA scholars vote for a resolution founded on a set of factual claims they are in no position to judge, they will “have undermined the credibility of the organization and gone a long way toward transforming it from a scholarly to a political one.”

Nelson lists some of the questions the Delegate Assembly, and later the MLA’s membership, would have to answer in order to cast a responsible vote. “What are the conditions at Palestinian universities? Are faculty members from other countries … able to teach there? Are Palestinian faculty members able to engage in professional travel? What Israeli security concerns that affect access are or are not valid? What travel rules should an existentially threatened country … feel justified in enforcing?”

To answer such questions, the delegates would “ideally have to listen to weeks of expert testimony and questioning.” Instead, “they will hear an afternoon’s debate by English and foreign language professors.”

Supporters of the resolution provide supporting materials, which consist mainly of interviews and stories, drawn from sources like the Electronic Intifada, about the impact of Israeli visa policy on West Bank universities and foreign nationals seeking to teach in them. Some of these stories are genuinely disturbing. But the professors who are being asked to sign up for the resolution would chide any student who drew such a broad conclusion on so narrow a basis. As opponents of the boycott observe, the materials include a State Department description of entry and exit requirements for U.S. citizens to show that Israel makes it hard to enter Gaza but leave out some other things the State Department has to say: “The Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to the Gaza Strip, including by sea. U.S. citizens in Gaza are advised to depart immediately. Gaza is currently under the control of Hamas, a designated foreign terrorist organization.”

The resolution’s opponents offer a document of their own, which points out, that “in 2012 only 142 Americans were denied entry out of about 626,000 who wished to enter, a refusal rate of about 0.023%…. The American refusal rate for Israeli applications for “B” visas was 5.4% in 2012. The United States has a much more restrictive practice than Israel in this regard.” The authors also argue that the resolution’s backers neglect the conditions that produced Israel’s security policies and that Israel’s visa policy is probably not the main reason that universities in the West Bank and Gaza do not get many applications from qualified Ph.D.’s.

Nelson concedes that what he calls the “case for the defense,” like the case for the resolution, sometimes draws on sources with a strong interest and position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But that is merely to highlight that there are at least two sides of the question the resolution addresses, that the sides disagree concerning the facts, and that the MLA Delegate Assembly has not conducted and is not capable of conducting a credible fact-finding investigation.

Nelson’s principles are not hard to grasp: scholars diminish themselves and undermine their own status when they use their (ever dwindling) prestige to pronounce on matters about which they are ignorant.

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