Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 12, 2014

High Drama at the Court Tomorrow

Tomorrow at 10 a.m., the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the case of National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning. It is a very important case, which is why the court is allowing 90 minutes of oral argument instead of the usual sixty. You can find the legal background here on the indispensable www.scotusblog.com, which will be live-blogging the argument tomorrow morning.

On December 13, 2011, President Obama nominated two people to the National Labor Relations Board, just days before Congress adjourned for the holidays. On January 4, 2012, even before Congress had really opened for business for its second session, which began January 3, he gave them recess appointments to the board. The power to do this is in Article II, Section 2: “The president shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.”

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Tomorrow at 10 a.m., the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the case of National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning. It is a very important case, which is why the court is allowing 90 minutes of oral argument instead of the usual sixty. You can find the legal background here on the indispensable www.scotusblog.com, which will be live-blogging the argument tomorrow morning.

On December 13, 2011, President Obama nominated two people to the National Labor Relations Board, just days before Congress adjourned for the holidays. On January 4, 2012, even before Congress had really opened for business for its second session, which began January 3, he gave them recess appointments to the board. The power to do this is in Article II, Section 2: “The president shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.”

The original purpose of this provision was to provide a means, at a time when travel was extremely slow and the Senate was likely to be out of session for months at a time, of appointing federal officials temporarily to carry on the business of the government when the Senate was unavailable to confirm the appointment. But presidents had increasingly been using it when the Senate refused to have an up-or-down vote on a nominee, installing the nominee when the Senate had recessed sometimes for only a few days. No one seriously challenged a president’s constitutional right to do so. Indeed, in 2007, the Senate, under Majority Leader Harry Reid, had begun holding pro-forma sessions every couple of days precisely to deny President George W. Bush the power of making recess appointments.

But Obama struck when the Republicans tried to do the same after they took the House in 2010. By having the House not adjourn, the Senate was prevented from doing so as well under Article I, Section 5. Obama simply declared the Senate not to be in real session and made the recess appointments, even though the Senate, far from lollygagging on the confirmation process, had not even had time to have the nominees—nominated less than three weeks earlier and with the holidays intervening—vetted by the FBI or to schedule a committee hearing on them. (Why did the president wait until January 4, and not just appoint them the instant the Senate began holding pro-forma sessions in mid-December? Simple: By waiting until January 4, when the next session of the Senate had officially begun, he secured their positions until the end of 2013 instead of just until the end of 2012.)

When a company named Noel Canning subsequently lost a decision at the NLRB, it sued, claiming the board was illegally constituted. The D.C. Circuit Court agreed a year ago, (see here and here). The three-judge panel ruled, unanimously, that the recess power could only be used during “the recess,” not “a recess,” of the Senate, i.e. only when it had adjourned for the year. By a 2-to-1 vote it ruled that the vacancy had to occur during that recess as well, not earlier. (The dissenting judge sympathized with that judgment, but thought it irrelevant to the case at hand.)

The Supreme Court could duck the issue, saying that this was a political dispute between the two other branches and they would have to sort it out between themselves, overturning the D.C. Circuit’s decision. But to do so would, in effect, gut the Senate’s power to advise and consent to executive branch appointments by allowing the president, not the Senate, to decide when the Senate is in session. Presidents would be free to make recess appointments if the Senate adjourned for lunch. But to uphold the D.C. Circuit ruling in its entirety would sharply curtail the long-standing practice, thus greatly limiting the president’s power in this regard.

This is high constitutional drama.

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On ‘Fox and Friends’

I’ll be on “Fox and Friends” on the Fox News Channel tomorrow (Monday the 13th) morning at 7:45 AM Eastern to discuss my New York Post column published today.

I’ll be on “Fox and Friends” on the Fox News Channel tomorrow (Monday the 13th) morning at 7:45 AM Eastern to discuss my New York Post column published today.

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Assessing Sharon’s Complex Legacy

When larger-than-life figures such as former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon die, writers struggle to adequately summarize their legacies. But few historic leaders are as as difficult to assess as Sharon, who died yesterday after lingering for eight years in a vegetative state following a cerebral hemorrhage suffered in January 2006. A man born in 1928 whose military and political career reflected the entire history of the State of Israel, there is simply no analogy to be drawn between Sharon and any contemporary American leader. It’s not just that he was, perhaps, the last of those who were part of the Jewish state’s founding generation to pass from the scene. Nor does Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza during his last years in power — making him a belated hero to many on the left and causing him to be reviled by his erstwhile backers on the right — entirely explain why it is so hard to neatly pigeonhole his career.

Love him or hate him, there was never any denying that Sharon was an extraordinary soldier and one of those rightly seen as one of the chief architects of the victories of the Israel Defense Forces during the several wars it was forced to fight to defend the state’s existence in its first decades. Nor could even his sternest critics deny that he was almost as good a politician as he was a military man. By the time illness felled him he bestrode his country’s political scene and, at least for a short time appeared to have permanently altered its balance with the creation of a new centrist party built around his personal reputation and philosophy.

But though the Jewish state’s enemies decry him as a war criminal because they believe Israel has no right to defend itself against those who seek its destruction, the problem with understanding Sharon goes well beyond the usual pro-Zionist/anti-Zionist arguments or even those that divided Israeli politics during his long career. Sharon may have seen himself as consistent in his concerns for his country’s safety, but his behavior and decisions always reflected an impulsive nature that was impatient with hierarchy and the norms of the democratic political process. As such, it is impossible to talk about what he accomplished and what he tried to do without resorting to conditional praise or criticism.

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When larger-than-life figures such as former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon die, writers struggle to adequately summarize their legacies. But few historic leaders are as as difficult to assess as Sharon, who died yesterday after lingering for eight years in a vegetative state following a cerebral hemorrhage suffered in January 2006. A man born in 1928 whose military and political career reflected the entire history of the State of Israel, there is simply no analogy to be drawn between Sharon and any contemporary American leader. It’s not just that he was, perhaps, the last of those who were part of the Jewish state’s founding generation to pass from the scene. Nor does Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza during his last years in power — making him a belated hero to many on the left and causing him to be reviled by his erstwhile backers on the right — entirely explain why it is so hard to neatly pigeonhole his career.

Love him or hate him, there was never any denying that Sharon was an extraordinary soldier and one of those rightly seen as one of the chief architects of the victories of the Israel Defense Forces during the several wars it was forced to fight to defend the state’s existence in its first decades. Nor could even his sternest critics deny that he was almost as good a politician as he was a military man. By the time illness felled him he bestrode his country’s political scene and, at least for a short time appeared to have permanently altered its balance with the creation of a new centrist party built around his personal reputation and philosophy.

But though the Jewish state’s enemies decry him as a war criminal because they believe Israel has no right to defend itself against those who seek its destruction, the problem with understanding Sharon goes well beyond the usual pro-Zionist/anti-Zionist arguments or even those that divided Israeli politics during his long career. Sharon may have seen himself as consistent in his concerns for his country’s safety, but his behavior and decisions always reflected an impulsive nature that was impatient with hierarchy and the norms of the democratic political process. As such, it is impossible to talk about what he accomplished and what he tried to do without resorting to conditional praise or criticism.

As Elliott Abrams, who dealt directly with him during the George W. Bush administration, writes here in COMMENTARY, Sharon was a bundle of contradictions that made him fascinating. He played at being the bluff citizen soldier/farmer in the tradition of the Roman hero Cincinnatus, but he was actually something of an intellectual, sensitive to criticism and capable of looking at problems from a variety of points of view. He was capable of complex thinking. The British military historian Peter Young described Sharon’s plan for an assault on an Egyptian position in the Sinai during the Six-Day War as almost impossibly complicated yet brilliant. But his defining characteristic from his earliest days in command to his last days in power appeared to be an indomitable belief in his personal judgment and a determination to ignore other points of view. Sometimes this worked; but not always. And sometimes the cost to others—and to Sharon—was greater than he imagined.

The examples of when his brash resolve was not only right but also inspired are integral to the history of Israel’s early conflicts. His decisive leadership as the head of the country’s first commando unit and its paratroop brigade stemmed the tide of cross-border terrorism that threatened to overwhelm the country in its first decade. Similarly, his exploits during the Six-Day War, his campaign quelling terror in Gaza in the early 1970s and, most memorably, when he led the counter-attack across the Suez Canal against Egyptian forces during the Yom Kippur War that turned the tide of that conflict, showed the benefits of having a general who didn’t always play by the rules. His heroism in this era etched for him a permanent place of honor in Jewish history. The same can be said for his decisive reaction to the second intifada as prime minister when he commanded a counter-attack and ordered the construction of a security fence that effectively defeated the terrorists.

However, that same impulsive nature would sometimes prove disastrous. His decision to ignore orders during the Sinai campaign of 1956 resulted in a deadly ambush of his paratroop brigade at the Mitla Pass. Many of its veterans never forgave him. On a larger scale, this scenario played out again when he turned the limited offensive against Palestinian terrorists in Lebanon that Prime Minister Menachem Begin agreed to in 1982 into a drive to Beirut that embroiled Israel in an ill-conceived attempt to transform Lebanese politics that was bound to fail. That was bad enough, but the alliance with Lebanese Christians also led Sharon to ignore warning signs of trouble and resulted in the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians by the Christians that allowed Israel’s critics to claim the entire offensive was a war crime. Time Magazine and others that claimed he was directly responsible for the crimes committed by Lebanese who had suffered their own atrocities at Palestinian hands, in fact libeled Sharon. But Sharon had still blundered and his unwillingness to work cooperatively with colleagues or superiors was, at least in part, to blame.

That same characteristic was at play when he made the decision to try to break the logjam with the Palestinians by making unilateral gestures that would, he hoped, determine Israel’s borders without a peace agreement. In this case, the same “bulldozer” that helped establish settlements throughout the territories used his determination to push through the forced evacuation of 9,000 Jews from Gaza. He put the proposal to a vote of Likud Party members but ignored the negative result. As Abrams notes, he did the same thing again by firing recalcitrant ministers in order to get the Cabinet to approve the scheme. His decision to ignite what Israeli political writers called the “big bang” and destroy the Likud in order to create a new centrist faction called Kadima was a product of the same belief in his own star. He skimmed the leading opportunists of both Likud and Labor together under the same tent and, seemingly, altered the country’s politics forever by promoting a new pragmatism built on the clear failures of both the right and the left.

But though we are being subjected to a chorus of eulogies lamenting that Sharon’s stroke cut short a real chance for peace, the Gaza gambit was as much a flawed big idea as the drive to Beirut. We are now told that the magic force of Sharon’s personality and political popularity would have somehow enabled Israel to set its own borders and then effectively hamstring Palestinian terrorism. But just as unforeseen circumstances proved that Sharon’s strategically brilliant vision for transforming Lebanon from a Palestinian terror bastion into an ally was inherently flawed, so, too, was the notion that the Gaza withdrawal would lead to de facto, if not  de jure, peace. As I wrote last week, the unwillingness of the Palestinians to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn is what is preventing peace, not the lack of a leader of Sharon’s stature. For all of his great qualities and dedication to ensuring Israel’s security, Sharon’s popularity would not have survived the Hamas coup in Gaza and the years of missile strikes that followed. Nor would his plan for unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank have rallied the world behind Israel’s position. Though Sharon believed, as Abrams writes, that he had achieved a lasting victory by getting Bush to back Israel’s position on the settlement blocs, that triumph didn’t survive Bush’s replacement by Barack Obama.

At a time when the Jewish people needed great soldiers, Sharon was exactly that. His leadership qualities and dogged persistence in pursuit of power also inspires our admiration as we study his three-decade run as an Israeli politician. He wanted a secure Israel as well as an end to the conflict with the Arab world and if he did not succeed (and probably could not have even if he had not fallen ill) in the latter endeavor, he deserves credit for trying. But his career also demonstrates that while a lone wolf can sometimes achieve great things, a man who can’t work comfortably within democratic structures or listen to colleagues is also liable to create disasters. Ariel Sharon’s memory should be as a blessing, but his career is a cautionary tale about the inherent limits of his unique style of leadership.

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A Tale of Two Surges

In Friday’s “Notable & Quotable,” the Wall Street Journal quoted then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s famous remark at the September 11, 2007 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, where she told Gen. David Petraeus his testimony on the Iraq “surge” required “the willing suspension of disbelief.” It was her sophisticated way of telling him she thought he was peddling fiction.

That day, Gen. Petraeus also testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Barack Obama and John Kerry were members. Obama told Petraeus he wanted “an immediate removal of our troops” and a policy that “surges our diplomacy.” He wanted “in a bipartisan way to figure out how to best move forward, to extricate this from the day-to-day politics that infects Washington.” Clinton and Obama would later admit to each other that their opposition to the surge had been political.

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In Friday’s “Notable & Quotable,” the Wall Street Journal quoted then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s famous remark at the September 11, 2007 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, where she told Gen. David Petraeus his testimony on the Iraq “surge” required “the willing suspension of disbelief.” It was her sophisticated way of telling him she thought he was peddling fiction.

That day, Gen. Petraeus also testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Barack Obama and John Kerry were members. Obama told Petraeus he wanted “an immediate removal of our troops” and a policy that “surges our diplomacy.” He wanted “in a bipartisan way to figure out how to best move forward, to extricate this from the day-to-day politics that infects Washington.” Clinton and Obama would later admit to each other that their opposition to the surge had been political.

Kerry told Petraeus the day was “historic”–because “not since the country heard from General Westmoreland, almost 40 years ago, has an active-duty general played such an important role in the national debate.” Kerry said he wanted to remind everyone that:

[A]lmost half the names that found their way etched into the Vietnam Wall after Westmoreland’s testimony found their way there when our leaders had acknowledged, in retrospect, that they knew the policy was not working, and would not work. And all you need do to underline this chilling fact is read Defense Secretary McNamara’s books …

The following year, Barack Obama was elected president, and faced in his first year the need for a “surge” in Afghanistan. He approved it only after an excruciatingly long series of White House meetings and gave the military less than they had requested. In an excerpt from his memoir yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recounted the November 2009 Oval Office meeting with Gen. Petraeus and Adm. Michael Mullen in which Obama discussed the basis on which he had decided to go forward, with Obama and Biden giving what they described as an “order” for the military to follow Obama’s decision:

That Sunday meeting was unlike any I ever attended in the Oval Office … I was shocked. I had never heard a president explicitly frame a decision as a direct order. With the U.S. military, it is completely unnecessary … Obama’s “order,” at Biden’s urging, demonstrated the complete unfamiliarity of both men with the American military culture … In the end, this major national security debate had been driven more by the White House staff and domestic politics than any other in my entire experience. The president’s political operatives wanted to make sure that everyone knew the Pentagon wouldn’t get its way.

The next day, Obama announced his decision in his televised West Point speech, in which he said the additional troops would “allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011 … taking into account conditions on the ground.” Obama had simultaneously announced a surge and a withdrawal–a counter-productive combination. The Gates excerpt does not deal with what followed, but Jonathan Alter summarized it succinctly in his 2010 book on Obama’s first year as president:

It didn’t take long for Clinton, Gates, and Petraeus to begin endorsing nation-building and exploiting their “conditions on the ground” loophole. Testifying the day after Obama’s speech, Gates told a House committee, “I have adamantly opposed deadlines. I opposed them in Iraq and I opposed them in Afghanistan.” At the Pentagon the message coursing through the building was the summer of 2011 didn’t really mean the summer of 2011. The president was unperturbed. Obama’s attitude was “I’m president. I don’t give a shit what they say. I’m drawing down those troops” said one senior official who saw him nearly every day.

By early 2011, Gates concluded that Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” It had been the “good war” for purposes of the 2008 campaign, a way for Obama to distinguish his opposition to the Iraq war. But once in office, it became for Obama, as Rich Lowry writes, “the insincere war,” fought half-heartedly, with a goal not of winning but getting out.

More than three-fourths of the names on some future Afghanistan memorial wall will be those of American soldiers who died under a commander-in-chief contemptuous of the military, whose foreign policy was (to use Bret Stephens’s expression in this incisive video on the Gates book) “the conduct of politics by other means”–a chilling fact now underlined by a former secretary of defense’s book.

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Is America More Sectarian Than Iraq?

The seizure by al-Qaeda of the cities of Ramadi and Falluja in Iraq’s al-Anbar governorate has been pause for reflection around Washington and among many former officials, journalists, and other Iraq watchers. Many blame sectarianism, and that is not wrong. Al-Qaeda is a sectarian organization that sees Shi’ite interpretation of Islam as corrupt and profane.

Politico Magazine typified this when, on January 9, they asked various officials and analysts “Is Iraq’s Mess America’s Fault?” Here’s how Politico introduced the segment:

Sunni militants—provoked by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government and abetted by extremist spillover from the Syrian civil war—have gained a foothold particularly in Iraq’s Anbar province, where last week members of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed the city of Falluja.

Think about the implication of that: Blaming Maliki for provoking al-Qaeda is like blaming the United States for provoking Osama Bin Laden before 9/11. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s policies may have antagonized many Sunni Arabs in al-Anbar, but the root of al-Qaeda’s antagonism is not isolated toward Maliki but rather the fact that any Shi’ite holds power over Sunni Arabs.

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The seizure by al-Qaeda of the cities of Ramadi and Falluja in Iraq’s al-Anbar governorate has been pause for reflection around Washington and among many former officials, journalists, and other Iraq watchers. Many blame sectarianism, and that is not wrong. Al-Qaeda is a sectarian organization that sees Shi’ite interpretation of Islam as corrupt and profane.

Politico Magazine typified this when, on January 9, they asked various officials and analysts “Is Iraq’s Mess America’s Fault?” Here’s how Politico introduced the segment:

Sunni militants—provoked by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government and abetted by extremist spillover from the Syrian civil war—have gained a foothold particularly in Iraq’s Anbar province, where last week members of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed the city of Falluja.

Think about the implication of that: Blaming Maliki for provoking al-Qaeda is like blaming the United States for provoking Osama Bin Laden before 9/11. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s policies may have antagonized many Sunni Arabs in al-Anbar, but the root of al-Qaeda’s antagonism is not isolated toward Maliki but rather the fact that any Shi’ite holds power over Sunni Arabs.

The sectarian narrative is simple to grasp, and many do. Col. Peter Mansoor (ret.), John Nagl, and Emma Sky, all of whom served admirably in Iraq, blame Maliki for pursuing sectarian vendettas. While Sky is right to say that the prime minister has worked to remove and marginalize rivals, she continues:

The trumped up warrant against the former finance minister, Rafi al-Issawi, a Sunni, in December 2012 sparked widespread year-long protests by Sunnis aggrieved at their marginalization. A raid last April by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) on a protest camp in Hawija led to the deaths of 50 Sunnis. Last month, in response to the deteriorating security situation in Iraq and horrific attacks against Shia civilians, Maliki ordered the ISF to raid an al Qaeda training camp in the deserts of western Anbar province. But when 24 Iraqi soldiers, including the commander of the Seventh Army Division, died in the raid, Maliki then ordered ISF into the city of Ramadi to arrest a Sunni member of parliament, Ahmed Alwani, and to close down the protest camps, which he accused of being occupied by al Qaeda.

While this creates a damning narrative, what she omits is also important: How trumped-up were the charges against Issawi when he himself has paid blood money to make settlement with the families of victims in whose murders he was complicit? Likewise, while the raid on Hawija led to the deaths of 50 Sunnis, Iraqi forces first went in with water cannons until they were fired upon with heavy weapons by the protestors. Only then did the raid turn violent. Hawija has for years been a hotbed of radicalism widely sympathetic to al-Qaeda and hostile to any Shi’ite or Kurd who might step foot in the town. It is true that the Iraqi government might have exaggerated the numbers of al-Qaeda present in the protest camps of Ramadi, but what is certain—at least according to YouTube videos of Friday sermons and rallies and Facebook declarations—is that al-Qaeda was present. That raises the question about how much al-Qaeda presence Maliki should tolerate and, just as important, how much al-Qaeda presence Sunni residents of Anbar should tolerate before being forced to react or expecting an Iraqi government reactions. To transpose that question to the United States, how much al-Qaeda presence should the United States tolerate in its midst before taking action?

Mansoor’s narrative is also one-sided:

Prime Minister Maliki, emboldened by the improvements in security, turned on his political enemies with a mailed fist. His first target was Tarik al-Hashemi, a Sunni vice president of Iraq and longtime political adversary. Hashemi escaped the country, but Maliki had the courts try him in absentia and sentence him to death. The prime minister didn’t stop there. Faced with non-violent Sunni resistance to his increasingly authoritarian leadership style, Maliki sent Iraqi security forces into protest camps last April and again a week ago.

The question Mansoor does not address is whether Hashemi was guilty of terrorism and, indeed, it seems overwhelmingly that he was. A follow-on question would then be whether Hashemi’s sectarian preference should be a mitigating factor. The answer to that is clearly no. More complicated would be the question whether Maliki or others should decline to pursue those engaging in terrorism if they know the result of that pursuit might be violence. That is tricky, but to fail to pursue terrorists out of fear of violence would, in effect, be succumbing to blackmail. Again, it is useful to transpose the question to the United States: Should American police refuse to pursue cases against extremist militias for fear that prosecuting them might encourage revenge? Again, the answer to that question is no.

The Baghdad government should take steps to ameliorate the grievances of al-Anbar, so long as those grievances are not the democratic system itself: Too many al-Anbar residents and their politicians—including those who participate in the Awakening Councils—seem unable to reconcile themselves to the fact that Sunnis are a minority in Iraq and that no amount of encouragement to their community from sectarian countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia will return Iraq to its pre-2003 order.

It seems, unfortunately, that too many Americans have bit into the sectarian narrative, hook, line, and sinker. Because Americans—especially those whose background is in CENTCOM, which has its own distinct culture and biases based on its operations and interactions with the militaries and governments of sectarian Sunni emirates, kingdoms, and republics—now wear sectarian blinders, many refuse to acknowledge the complexity of the situation in which Sunni victims complain to a Shi’ite government about abuses by Sunni politicians, as was the case with both Hashemi and Issawi. Likewise, that Sunnis displaced from Anbar choose to take refuge in predominantly Shi’ite Karbala rather than neighboring (and largely Sunni) Ninewah governorate or Jordan says a lot about the complexity of Iraq today.

Sectarianism and ethnic chauvinism do exist in Iraq, but it is dangerous for Americans to base analysis on a narrative that may have been truer during their service many years ago, when the situation has evolved significantly since. When Americans are more sectarian in their judgments than many Iraqis, they risk reigniting sectarianism rather than ameliorating it. The United States should not accept blindly the narrative whispered by Saudi, Jordanian, and Turkish diplomats and generals. More dangerous is the implication of such sectarianism in the Western narrative: to suggest that al-Qaeda has legitimate grievances in Iraq, as Politico’s introduction appears to have done, risks setting policy down a slippery slope that will nullify the war on terror not only in Iraq but far beyond.

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Ariel Sharon in His Own Words

Lee Smith has a good summary of various reminiscences of Ariel Sharon–“one of the exemplary lives on the 20th century.” To the essential reading about Sharon, one should add David Hazony’s piece at the Jewish Daily Forward, “The Sharon They Loved, the Sharon We Hated,” and Ari Shavit’s lengthy profile published in the January 23, 2006 issue of the New Yorker, just after Sharon’s stroke.

Not all Shavit’s judgments were solid, but his reporting was reliable, because it was based on 20 hours of taped conversation with Sharon over six years, and the article provides a sort of Sharon self-portrait, since it contained extended quotations from the interviews. The answer Sharon gave when Shavit asked him if the conflict with the Palestinians would have an end is worth reading in light of the eight years that followed:

“[T]he problem at the heart of the conflict is that the Arab world does not recognize the Jews’ inherent right to have a Jewish state in the land where the Jewish people began. This is the main problem. This also applies to Egypt, with which we have a cold peace. It also applies to Jordan, with which we have a very close strategic relationship, but this is a relationship between governments, not between peoples. The problem is not 1967. The problem is the profound nonrecognition by the Arab world of Israel’s birthright. This problem will not be solved by an agreement. It will not be solved by a speech. Anyone who promises that it’s possible to end the conflict within a year or two years or three is mistaken. Anyone who promises peace now is blind to the way things are. Even after the disengagement, we will not be able to rest on our laurels. We will not be able to sit under our fig tree and our vine.

“It may be that we will never have peace,” he went on. “And it may be that it will take a great many years to have peace. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk. It’s better to talk than not to talk. It’s important to conduct negotiations. Maybe it’s possible to solve one thing or another. But it has to be understood that the conflict may never be resolved. If it is ever resolved, it will be in a very long process.”

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Lee Smith has a good summary of various reminiscences of Ariel Sharon–“one of the exemplary lives on the 20th century.” To the essential reading about Sharon, one should add David Hazony’s piece at the Jewish Daily Forward, “The Sharon They Loved, the Sharon We Hated,” and Ari Shavit’s lengthy profile published in the January 23, 2006 issue of the New Yorker, just after Sharon’s stroke.

Not all Shavit’s judgments were solid, but his reporting was reliable, because it was based on 20 hours of taped conversation with Sharon over six years, and the article provides a sort of Sharon self-portrait, since it contained extended quotations from the interviews. The answer Sharon gave when Shavit asked him if the conflict with the Palestinians would have an end is worth reading in light of the eight years that followed:

“[T]he problem at the heart of the conflict is that the Arab world does not recognize the Jews’ inherent right to have a Jewish state in the land where the Jewish people began. This is the main problem. This also applies to Egypt, with which we have a cold peace. It also applies to Jordan, with which we have a very close strategic relationship, but this is a relationship between governments, not between peoples. The problem is not 1967. The problem is the profound nonrecognition by the Arab world of Israel’s birthright. This problem will not be solved by an agreement. It will not be solved by a speech. Anyone who promises that it’s possible to end the conflict within a year or two years or three is mistaken. Anyone who promises peace now is blind to the way things are. Even after the disengagement, we will not be able to rest on our laurels. We will not be able to sit under our fig tree and our vine.

“It may be that we will never have peace,” he went on. “And it may be that it will take a great many years to have peace. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk. It’s better to talk than not to talk. It’s important to conduct negotiations. Maybe it’s possible to solve one thing or another. But it has to be understood that the conflict may never be resolved. If it is ever resolved, it will be in a very long process.”

Later in the profile, Sharon told Shavit that what bothered him about the “peaceniks” was “their hatred of the settlers and their excessive faith in the Arabs.” He believed peace depended on Palestinian reforms, not Israeli concessions:

“The greatest danger is in signing some document and believing that as a result we will have peace. This is not going to happen. . . . Instead, we have to build a process that will enable us to ascertain that indeed a change is taking place in the Arab world. It is necessary to teach all the teachers that Israel is a legitimate entity. And it is necessary to replace all the Palestinian textbooks. And this is beyond the elementary demand for the cessation of terror and the cessation of incitement and the implementation of reforms in the security organizations and the implementation of governmental reforms. It is necessary not to omit a single one of these steps. …”

Shavit concluded that if Sharon “has left a legacy, it is the need for time – lots of time – because there is no way to reach peace with one abrupt act.” It is a good lesson for New York Times reporters who think the current prime minister’s insistence on recognition of a Jewish state is an obstacle to peace, or secretaries of state who always think peace is only a peace agreement away. 

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Who Won at the MLA?

On Saturday, the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association narrowly passed an amended version of the anti-Israel resolution I wrote about here on Friday. The resolution, as passed by a 60-53 vote of the Assembly, states that “the MLA urges the U.S. Department of State to contest Israel’s denial of entry to the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” The resolution still must get through the Executive Committee and survive a general membership vote, but I doubt it will fail.

The original resolution included the West Bank and Gaza and spoke of Israel’s “arbitrary” denials. The changes are significant. The proposers had to remove the language in question when it became clear that they had not presented nearly enough evidence to substantiate it. That setback will be neglected in coverage of the event. But there are good reasons for thinking the anti-Israel forces in academia suffered a blow at the MLA.

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On Saturday, the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association narrowly passed an amended version of the anti-Israel resolution I wrote about here on Friday. The resolution, as passed by a 60-53 vote of the Assembly, states that “the MLA urges the U.S. Department of State to contest Israel’s denial of entry to the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” The resolution still must get through the Executive Committee and survive a general membership vote, but I doubt it will fail.

The original resolution included the West Bank and Gaza and spoke of Israel’s “arbitrary” denials. The changes are significant. The proposers had to remove the language in question when it became clear that they had not presented nearly enough evidence to substantiate it. That setback will be neglected in coverage of the event. But there are good reasons for thinking the anti-Israel forces in academia suffered a blow at the MLA.

Consider the context. In April 2013, the Association for Asian American Studies passed a pro-boycott resolution unanimously. To this day, as far as I know, no member has publicly dissented. In November the National Council of the American Studies Association unanimously endorsed a pro-boycott resolution. But unlike the Association for Asian American Studies, the ASA felt compelled to call a membership vote, and the resolution met determined resistance. It passed by a wide margin but has since been rejected publicly by, at last count, 183 colleges and universities.

The MLA resolution was not a boycott resolution, nor apart from actually naming Israel was it unprecedented. As I have noted here before, the MLA passed in 2008 a resolution expressing solidarity with students of Palestinian culture. The “whereas” section of that resolution declares that “education at all levels in the occupied territories is being stifled by the occupation” and 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.” The 2008 resolution passed by a much bigger margin, 77-9, than this year’s did. Although the anti-Israel crowd insists that debate, once stifled, is breaking out and that we are reaching a “tipping point,” their argument is faring worse than it was faring in April and, at least within the MLA, worse than it was faring six years ago.

Even more strikingly, the MLA’s Radical Caucus introduced an “emergency resolution” in solidarity with the American Studies Association. It declared that “the MLA condemns the attacks on the ASA and supports the right of academic organizations and individuals, free from intimidation, to take positions in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against racism. Be it further resolved that the MLA encourage robust discussion of issues regarding the academic freedom of Palestinians.” Emergency resolutions require a 75 percent vote of the Delegate Assembly to be considered. This one could not even muster a majority and went down 59-41. The failure occurred even though supporters of the resolution claimed, a bit preposterously, that a vote for it would not constitute support for the boycott. The Executive Committee could still choose to act on the resolution, but such action is unlikely in light of the decisive vote.

The tweet I just linked to quotes one Grover Furr, of Montclair State University. Furr is a defender of Stalin (perhaps one of the last remaining on the left), a retailer of disgusting allegations of Zionist complicity in the Holocaust, and a critic of non-violent protest (BDS is apparently too soft for him). Don’t take my word for it. He says it all on his own website here and here.

Furr, by the way, proposed the emergency resolution on behalf of the Radical Caucus.

While I am not given to optimism, perhaps it is not too much to hope that the overwhelming rejection of Furr’s resolution means that the MLA is starting to notice that the variety of Israel criticism that has been on display this year, most prominently in the BDS movement, is an embarrassment and a liability.

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What Gates Gets Wrong

Many on the right have seized upon former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s criticism of President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton in his new book to show the cravenness of behavior and their treatment of American soldiers in harm’s way as political footballs. That may all be true, but as with the lionization of Ryan Crocker (who has embraced unconditional talks not only with Iran but also Hezbollah) and David Petraeus (who repeatedly sought to appease radical Islamists and unrepentant Baathists and wanted also to engage with Bashar al-Assad in Syria), there is a danger in amplifying Gates’s welcome criticism into an imprimatur of statesman-like wisdom.

As Hugh Hewitt pointed out during a conversation on his radio show last Wednesday, the paragraph in the excerpts of Gates’s book that too many experts overlook is this:

Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of. Those who ask about exit strategies or question what will happen if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers are demanding that we strike—as they did when advocating invading Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iran’s nuclear sites. But in recent decades, presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun. Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.

Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort. On the left, we hear about the “responsibility to protect” civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership. And so the rest of the world sees the U.S. as a militaristic country quick to launch planes, cruise missiles and drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces. There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do—and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.

First, let’s put aside Gates’s legacy statement that “too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort.” That seems a straw man argument, and a cheap one at that: Who exactly with any credibility on issues calls for U.S. force as the first option? The Iraq war was launched as the sanctions regime was collapsing after failing for 13 years to bring Saddam in from the cold. The intelligence regarding Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was faulty, but what was not—and was confirmed subsequently from seized Iraqi documents—was that Saddam sought to restore his capability after the international community abandoned sanctions.

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Many on the right have seized upon former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s criticism of President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton in his new book to show the cravenness of behavior and their treatment of American soldiers in harm’s way as political footballs. That may all be true, but as with the lionization of Ryan Crocker (who has embraced unconditional talks not only with Iran but also Hezbollah) and David Petraeus (who repeatedly sought to appease radical Islamists and unrepentant Baathists and wanted also to engage with Bashar al-Assad in Syria), there is a danger in amplifying Gates’s welcome criticism into an imprimatur of statesman-like wisdom.

As Hugh Hewitt pointed out during a conversation on his radio show last Wednesday, the paragraph in the excerpts of Gates’s book that too many experts overlook is this:

Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of. Those who ask about exit strategies or question what will happen if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers are demanding that we strike—as they did when advocating invading Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iran’s nuclear sites. But in recent decades, presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun. Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.

Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort. On the left, we hear about the “responsibility to protect” civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership. And so the rest of the world sees the U.S. as a militaristic country quick to launch planes, cruise missiles and drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces. There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do—and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.

First, let’s put aside Gates’s legacy statement that “too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort.” That seems a straw man argument, and a cheap one at that: Who exactly with any credibility on issues calls for U.S. force as the first option? The Iraq war was launched as the sanctions regime was collapsing after failing for 13 years to bring Saddam in from the cold. The intelligence regarding Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was faulty, but what was not—and was confirmed subsequently from seized Iraqi documents—was that Saddam sought to restore his capability after the international community abandoned sanctions.

While Gates is certainly right that the decision to utilize military force should not be taken lightly, he fails to consider what happens should resistance to military force allow problems to spread. Take the case of Syria: Two and a half years ago, the United States had the way but not the will to catalyze the conflict’s end and President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster before Syria became a magnet for international jihadism. The opposition had radicalized today not only to the extent that it dooms Syria but also will threaten many other countries throughout the region as their citizens fighting with radicals in Syria return home. Moroccan security experts believe, for example, that perhaps 600 Moroccans have joined jihadi groups inside Syria. Tunisia, Jordan, and Turkey will face similar blowback, all of which more decisive action in a limited window might have prevented. Likewise, while the Obama administration celebrated its “leading from behind” approach toward Libya, the American desire to take a hands-off approach to the situation on the ground meant that no one secured ousted Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s weapons caches. Not only will we eventually pay the price for the surface-to-air missiles which went missing, but the collapse of Mali into civil war was a direct result of the resulting flow of Libyan weapons to terrorist movements across the Sahel.

Gates also seems not to understand the danger of signaling emptiness to American red lines. Not only during the Obama administration, but also during the Republican and Democratic administrations which preceded him, a tremendous gap has developed between the rhetoric of policy and its reality. That encourages international rogues to test the line. When they become too overconfident or improperly assess American resolve, the result can be devastating.

Gates’ frustration when testifying in Congress also gained press attention. “I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit,” he wrote, adding, “It was, I am confident, a fantasy widely shared throughout the executive branch.” Again here his umbrage is dangerous. Anyone who has testified before Congress knows that they are mere props for representatives and senators who are speaking more for the television or their constituents than to the item at hand. Still, the job of Congress is oversight and the notion either that such oversight should be mitigated for the ego of a secretary, or that the thin skins of senior executives within the United States government mean that words must be crafted to a kindergarten code is nonsense. Had the Pentagon’s own congressional liaisons done a better job, perhaps such exchanges would not have been so testy, but the Pentagon’s congressional liaisons are not the most effective bunch, as the culture of the Pentagon does not encourage the type of glad-handing, back-slapping, alcohol-imbibing culture that permeates Congress and its staff.

It would be nice if everyone was nice and demonstrated class, but if senior officials cannot put up with the likes of Carl Levin, John McCain, or Rand Paul, then they should not be trusted to deal with Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. That said, had the cynicism of Obama, Biden, and Clinton really frustrated Gates to the extent he suggests, then he should have quit for, by doing so, he literally could have put his money where his mouth was and changed the debate when it still mattered.

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