Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 16, 2014

The Budget and the Light Bulb

When the House of Representatives voted earlier this week to pass a budget it was widely, and rightly, considered a defeat for the Tea Party. Conservatives who opposed the compromise devised late last year by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray to put an end to the partisan impasse on fiscal issues have lost their ability to pressure the House leadership into following them into suicidal stands that undermine the country’s confidence in the GOP. But Tea Party members weren’t the only losers in that vote. Along with them, light bulb manufacturers also took one on the chin as Republicans insisted on including in the $1.1 trillion deal a measure that will defund the enforcement of the regulations that forced consumers to give up their preferred incandescent bulbs and replace them with new halogen, LED, or fluorescent lights.

While proponents of the law forcing the end of incandescent sales claimed it as a victory for the environment, the regulations in fact came about more through the workings of crony capitalism than the arguments favoring energy conservation. Though this move comes after repeated failures by conservatives to end this travesty that enacted bans on various bulbs that have already been implemented, it is not too late to halt a ban that constrains the freedom of consumers to make their own choices and reinstates some slight semblance of a free market. Though a minor part of the compromise both parties have forged, it should give some satisfaction to those who lament the passage of laws that value social engineering over consumer choice.

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When the House of Representatives voted earlier this week to pass a budget it was widely, and rightly, considered a defeat for the Tea Party. Conservatives who opposed the compromise devised late last year by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray to put an end to the partisan impasse on fiscal issues have lost their ability to pressure the House leadership into following them into suicidal stands that undermine the country’s confidence in the GOP. But Tea Party members weren’t the only losers in that vote. Along with them, light bulb manufacturers also took one on the chin as Republicans insisted on including in the $1.1 trillion deal a measure that will defund the enforcement of the regulations that forced consumers to give up their preferred incandescent bulbs and replace them with new halogen, LED, or fluorescent lights.

While proponents of the law forcing the end of incandescent sales claimed it as a victory for the environment, the regulations in fact came about more through the workings of crony capitalism than the arguments favoring energy conservation. Though this move comes after repeated failures by conservatives to end this travesty that enacted bans on various bulbs that have already been implemented, it is not too late to halt a ban that constrains the freedom of consumers to make their own choices and reinstates some slight semblance of a free market. Though a minor part of the compromise both parties have forged, it should give some satisfaction to those who lament the passage of laws that value social engineering over consumer choice.

The key fact about the ban on the old bulbs that was usually ignored in discussions of this issue is that the chief advocates of it were not so much the environmentalists but the far wealthier manufacturers who were thrilled to force Americans to buy a new product that cost up to 10 times more than the old reliable bulbs. The profit margin on the new bulbs is significantly higher. The new bulbs may be more efficient and may last longer, but they also contain toxic mercury, are slow to turn on, and don’t work with dimmers and many other fixtures in American homes. While improved LED bulbs may eventually sweep the market and make us forget the old bulbs we chose, the new ones are being shoved down our throats merely to line the pockets of manufacturers while allowing them to pretend to “save the planet.”

The point here isn’t that innovation is bad. To the contrary, if the new bulbs are more cost-effective and reliable they should make the incandescent as obsolete as lamps that ran on whale oil. But legislating such change makes no sense. No laws were needed to force Americans to use cell phones rather than rely solely on landlines. Nor were regulations required to make us give up long-playing records for compact discs and then to embrace digital devices that don’t require either to play music. If the new bulbs prove to be better, the old ones would have become extinct without Washington dictating the change.

Some on the left may lament this vote as a sop to troglodyte conservatives who don’t believe in science. But the truth here is that the reversal of the regulation is a victory for consumer choice over a market model in which bureaucrats and intellectuals dictate what the public must do. Though a small and belated victory, it is one that those who love freedom and the free market are celebrating.

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Iran Sanctions Foes’ Dishonest Arguments

It’s been a bad week for those trying to stop the Senate from passing tougher sanctions on Iran. After two months of dithering the Obama administration finalized the nuclear deal signed with Iran in November. That should have helped the president to orchestrate greater opposition to the push for more sanctions he opposes. But instead, the Iranians used the completion of the interim deal to celebrate what they say is a great victory over the West for the regime that confirms their right to continue enriching uranium and pursuing their nuclear goal regardless of what any agreement says. That gave the lie to the administration’s claims that the negotiations are succeeding in heading off the nuclear threat. It also strengthened arguments by sanctions proponents that putting more such restrictions in place to be implemented should the talks fail was both prudent and the best way to ensure that diplomacy has a chance to succeed.

But rather respond to Iran’s provocations, both the administration and its allies in Congress and the media have doubled down on their illogical claim that passing more sanctions now is tantamount to a declaration of war on Iran. While it is discouraging to hear this canard voiced by White House functionaries, it is even worse to hear it from those who claim to share the goal of preventing Tehran from getting a bomb. That’s essentially the position that Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg has taken in his latest column. While it is disappointing to see a man considered one of the most astute observers of the Middle East taking such a blatantly disingenuous position on an issue on which he had previously staked out a strong position, it looks as if in this case his attachment to President Obama and his loathing for the administration’s critics outweighs common sense and his ability to offer a clear-eyed evaluation of the situation.

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It’s been a bad week for those trying to stop the Senate from passing tougher sanctions on Iran. After two months of dithering the Obama administration finalized the nuclear deal signed with Iran in November. That should have helped the president to orchestrate greater opposition to the push for more sanctions he opposes. But instead, the Iranians used the completion of the interim deal to celebrate what they say is a great victory over the West for the regime that confirms their right to continue enriching uranium and pursuing their nuclear goal regardless of what any agreement says. That gave the lie to the administration’s claims that the negotiations are succeeding in heading off the nuclear threat. It also strengthened arguments by sanctions proponents that putting more such restrictions in place to be implemented should the talks fail was both prudent and the best way to ensure that diplomacy has a chance to succeed.

But rather respond to Iran’s provocations, both the administration and its allies in Congress and the media have doubled down on their illogical claim that passing more sanctions now is tantamount to a declaration of war on Iran. While it is discouraging to hear this canard voiced by White House functionaries, it is even worse to hear it from those who claim to share the goal of preventing Tehran from getting a bomb. That’s essentially the position that Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg has taken in his latest column. While it is disappointing to see a man considered one of the most astute observers of the Middle East taking such a blatantly disingenuous position on an issue on which he had previously staked out a strong position, it looks as if in this case his attachment to President Obama and his loathing for the administration’s critics outweighs common sense and his ability to offer a clear-eyed evaluation of the situation.

Throughout the last five years, Goldberg has been an ardent supporter of the president even while frequently expressing impatience and concern over his approach to Iran. Though no fan of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Goldberg has treated the concerns of Israel and the pro-Israel community in this country on the Iranian nuclear threat as serious and credible. He rightly refers to Iran as a despotic state sponsor of terror and believes its possession of a nuclear weapon would undermine U.S. security and that of its Arab allies as well as pose an existential threat to Israel. He understands that Iran has deceived the West in negotiations before and can’t be trusted today. He has been a proponent of tough sanctions and hard-headed diplomacy on Iran and has publicly vouched for the president’s bona fides on the issue, going so far as to be among the very few who believe that if push came to shove, Obama would order the use of force against Tehran in order to forestall its drive for a nuclear weapon.

But though he still calls himself an “Iran hawk” (a term that few, if any, other commentators on the subject have adopted), Goldberg has now officially drunk the administration’s Kool-Aid on the topic and says the deal struck in Geneva in November is the best the West can hope for. Rather than call, as he did in the past, for an end to Iran’s nuclear program, he’s veiled his former hawkishness, saying he is willing to settle for a deal that will “substantially denuclearize” the regime, a weasel-worded expression vague enough to encompass an agreement that would, as Iran demands, leave its nuclear infrastructure in place and the threat to Israel and its Arab neighbors undiminished.

While claiming to be a skeptic on the upcoming talks, he accepts the argument that any congressional move to strengthen the president’s hand in negotiations would provide the Iranians an excuse to end the negotiations. Given that Iran was brought to the table by sanctions (that were consistently opposed by the administration) this makes no sense, especially since the Iranians have so much to gain by talks that have already brought them considerable sanctions relief. By loosening the sanctions while acknowledging the Iranian right to uranium enrichment during the interim deal, the U.S. appears willing to give up much of the economic and military leverage it held over Iran. But now both the president and his supporters like Goldberg are prepared to treat Iranian bluster as an imperative that America dare not contravene. The illogical argument that the time isn’t right for more sanctions accepts this Iranian dictate in a way that undermines any hope the West can achieve the dismantling of Iran’s facilities and the export and/or destruction of all its nuclear material. The process now seems to be one in which it is the West that is the supplicant and the ayatollahs the masters of the situation.

The Iranians don’t like the idea that if the current negotiations fail they will be subjected to a new round of sanctions that would end the lucrative oil trade that is keeping the regime afloat while funding their nuclear program, terrorism, and their intervention in Syria. But without that threat, their improving economy and the prospect that Russia is prepared to engage in an oil-for-goods swap that will make a mockery of the sanctions means Iran will have no reason to treat the president’s threats of future action seriously.

This is the key point in the argument to increase sanctions that Goldberg and other administration supporters consistently mischaracterize.

Like Obama, Goldberg poses this debate as an entirely specious choice between supporters of diplomacy and those who want to fight a war against Iran. This is false. No one in Congress wants war. Neither does Israel or its friends. Nor does anyone (except perhaps for Goldberg in his least credible columns) think Obama or Congress would ever authorize a strike on Iran. To claim that is the goal of sanctions advocates is a blatant lie. To the contrary, those pushing for more sanctions understand all too well that a genuine economic embargo of Iran, rather than the leaky restrictions currently in place, is the only option that has any chance of bringing the Islamist regime to its senses by methods short of war.

The alternative to tougher sanctions isn’t the war Goldberg claims sanctions proponents want; it’s appeasement that will inevitably result in a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran that Obama says he opposes.

There’s a reason that sanctions proponents don’t trust the president to conduct diplomacy without first committing the U.S. to taking the next step toward isolating Iran once the next round of talks fail (a proposition that even Goldberg concedes is a 50-50 proposition). Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez and other sponsors of the bill remember all too well that the current sanctions about which the president boasts were watered down and then fought tooth and nail by the administration. The administration has consistently sought engagement with Iran even when it meant ignoring the regime’s bloody repression of dissidents and its drive for regional hegemony in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and the annihilation of Israel. Now it appears all too willing to turn engagement into détente and a common agenda that will allow the U.S. to substantially withdraw from the region and thereby place its allies in peril.

The idea that more sanctions now would turn the tyrants of Tehran into victims of American provocations is ridiculous. So is the claim that preventing them will allow diplomacy to work to make Iran give up what they clearly wish to retain. More sanctions may not “denuclearize” Iran, but their passage offers the only hope that this goal can be achieved by diplomacy. The only way to justify opposition to them is to demonize both administration supporters (like Menendez, Chuck Schumer, and the many other Democrats who support additional sanctions) and opponents who want to ensure that the president keeps his promises about Iran. That’s a canard that the Jeffrey Goldberg, who was a supportive but tough critic of Obama on Iran throughout his first term, would never have sunk to. But sadly, such despicable smears are all he and other administration loyalists have left. 

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Benghazi and the Vile “Least Bad Option”

What has irked congressional Republicans from the beginning of the Benghazi fallout has been the State Department’s callous opposition to accountability. It was typified most famously in Hillary Clinton’s moment of entitlement and exasperation at being questioned over her massive failure that resulted in the death of a U.S. ambassador and three others in Libya. And so it probably won’t surprise anyone that after the release of the bipartisan Senate report detailing that failure, the State Department barely managed to stifle a yawn, as the Washington Post reports:

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the Senate report adds little new information and does not do much to expand the government’s understanding of the attacks. “We should have been better then, and we need to get better going forward,” she said.

Yet in an important way, Harf is actually correct. The Senate report is full of information, but it all conforms to common sense. We are told, for example, that the attacks were preventable, that the administration knew the dangers lurking in Benghazi, that more had to be done and wasn’t. Conservatives have said all this from the beginning, and this certainly confirms it. But of course conservatives were right about this: does anybody seriously believe that the United States intelligence services, with the CIA nearby, were unaware of the state of the country whose government the U.S. had, in cooperation with Europe, just decapitated?

Of course no one seriously believed that. But the report sheds light on just what U.S. officials knew. For example, it states:

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What has irked congressional Republicans from the beginning of the Benghazi fallout has been the State Department’s callous opposition to accountability. It was typified most famously in Hillary Clinton’s moment of entitlement and exasperation at being questioned over her massive failure that resulted in the death of a U.S. ambassador and three others in Libya. And so it probably won’t surprise anyone that after the release of the bipartisan Senate report detailing that failure, the State Department barely managed to stifle a yawn, as the Washington Post reports:

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the Senate report adds little new information and does not do much to expand the government’s understanding of the attacks. “We should have been better then, and we need to get better going forward,” she said.

Yet in an important way, Harf is actually correct. The Senate report is full of information, but it all conforms to common sense. We are told, for example, that the attacks were preventable, that the administration knew the dangers lurking in Benghazi, that more had to be done and wasn’t. Conservatives have said all this from the beginning, and this certainly confirms it. But of course conservatives were right about this: does anybody seriously believe that the United States intelligence services, with the CIA nearby, were unaware of the state of the country whose government the U.S. had, in cooperation with Europe, just decapitated?

Of course no one seriously believed that. But the report sheds light on just what U.S. officials knew. For example, it states:

On July 6, 2012, CIA produced a report entitled, “Libya: Al-Qa’ida Establishing Sanctuary.” In the report, CIA stated: “AI-Qa’ida-affiliated groups and associates are exploiting the permissive security environment in Libya to enhance their capabilities and expand their operational reach. This year, Muhammad Jamal’s Egypt-based network, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al-Qa’ida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have conducted training, built communication networks, and facilitated extremist travel across North Africa from their safe haven in parts of eastern Libya.”

And the warnings:

On July 9, 2012, Stevens sent a cable to State Department headquarters requesting a minimum of 13 “Temporary Duty” (TDY) U.S. security personnel for Libya, which he said could be made up of DS agents, DoD Site Security Team (SST) personnel, or some combination of the two. These TDY security personnel were needed to meet the requested security posture in Tripoli and Benghazi. The State Department never fulfilled this request and, according to Eric Nordstrom, State Department headquarters never responded to the request with a cable.”

And the revelations that “tripwires” were established to trigger operational and personnel adjustments on the ground, yet were ignored. But most infuriating to read are the parts about the Libyan security the mission relied on, and why:

Video footage shows-and the ARB also found-that, at 9:42p.m. Benghazi time, a local police vehicle stationed outside the Mission facility withdrew as soon as armed attackers advanced toward the U.S. compound. In addition, the TMF in Benghazi had been vandalized and attacked in the months prior to the September 11-12 attacks by some of the same guards who were there to protect it.

Local security guards, especially security guards who are not operated and overseen by the host government, are an inherently less reliable security force than security provided by U.S. forces or the military or police forces of a host government. According to the State Department, the Mission facility did not store classified information, and therefore no Marine contingent was present. Although U.S. Government security forces are always preferred, the CIA and State determined that local militias would provide the so-called “least bad option” in post-revolutionary Libya. The former Chief of Base stated: “There was no alternative. You know, there really is no functioning government there. And the militia groups that both we, and the State Department, depended on were in fact kind of the de facto government there in Benghazi.”

The “least bad option”? In what universe is that true? Well, the universe in which dwell the brilliant minds who brought us “leading from behind,” our enlightened president’s strategy to prosecute American foreign policy through magical thinking. In the months before the major assault, the mission was apparently attacked by the guards hired to protect it. And yet the “least bad option” was to rely on the same system as threats continued?

The kindest thing that could possibly be said about that strategy is that it’s fundamentally and irredeemably insane. You know what’s “less bad” than relying on thugs who vandalize what you hire them to protect in a city set upon by terrorist networks? Putting American soldiers or security officials there instead. Ah, but that would technically constitute putting boots on the ground. In other words, it would require the administration to admit its best and brightest were so very wrong. This is the Obama doctrine, such as it is. And let this Senate report be its epitaph.

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The ASA, NYU, and the Shame of Academia

The vote last month by the American Studies Association to join a boycott of Israel’s colleges and universities generated a firestorm of criticism of the group, and justifiably so. The willingness of an academic organization to participate in an effort to single out the Jewish state in this manner is an appalling instance of prejudice. The vote illustrated the way the far left has seized control of such scholarly groups and the insidious nature of a campaign which is not designed so much to help the Palestinians—the alleged objects of the ASA’s concern—but to aid an economic war on Israel that is rooted in a desire to wipe the one Jewish state on the planet off the map. But in addressing the efforts of the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement, it isn’t enough merely to scrutinize this and other groups of pseudo-scholars bent on politicizing their fields of study. The time has come to hold their enablers accountable, as well.

That’s the thrust behind a lengthy piece published in Forbes this week by journalist Richard Behar in which he lets loose with a cri de coeur directed at his alma mater New York University, and its president, John Sexton, for his indifferent response to the ASA.

As Behar makes clear, responsibility for this disgrace doesn’t belong solely to the radicals intent on demonizing Israel. It also should be placed on those institutions that are supporting these hatemongers as well as resisting efforts to hold them accountable. As Behar notes, NYU falls into both categories.

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The vote last month by the American Studies Association to join a boycott of Israel’s colleges and universities generated a firestorm of criticism of the group, and justifiably so. The willingness of an academic organization to participate in an effort to single out the Jewish state in this manner is an appalling instance of prejudice. The vote illustrated the way the far left has seized control of such scholarly groups and the insidious nature of a campaign which is not designed so much to help the Palestinians—the alleged objects of the ASA’s concern—but to aid an economic war on Israel that is rooted in a desire to wipe the one Jewish state on the planet off the map. But in addressing the efforts of the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement, it isn’t enough merely to scrutinize this and other groups of pseudo-scholars bent on politicizing their fields of study. The time has come to hold their enablers accountable, as well.

That’s the thrust behind a lengthy piece published in Forbes this week by journalist Richard Behar in which he lets loose with a cri de coeur directed at his alma mater New York University, and its president, John Sexton, for his indifferent response to the ASA.

As Behar makes clear, responsibility for this disgrace doesn’t belong solely to the radicals intent on demonizing Israel. It also should be placed on those institutions that are supporting these hatemongers as well as resisting efforts to hold them accountable. As Behar notes, NYU falls into both categories.

While Sextonhas stated his disagreement with the ASA’s vote, as Behar rightly notes, the NYU president’s statement was perfunctory, especially when compared to more passionate denunciations of this subversion of academic integrity made by the presidents of other universities–such as the University of Connecticut, Wesleyan, Middlebury College, or the University of Indiana–that Behar cited. But if that sounds like nitpicking, it isn’t. NYU has a special responsibility to speak up about this issue because its faculty is neck-deep in the ASA’s decision-making process. The incoming head of the group is NYU’s Lisa Duggan and fully 25 percent of the national council that first promulgated the anti-Israel resolution is based at the school. Moreover, as the home to what Hillel International reports is the largest number of Jewish students at any American institution of higher learning, NYU should also be mindful that giving platforms to scholars that promote an ideology that is indistinguishable from classic anti-Semitism places them under a particular obligation to avoid creating a hostile environment for Jews.

A key element of this controversy is the fact that many schools are themselves institutional members of the ASA and are thus compromised by its participation in the boycott. NYU is one such university. But unlike other schools that have moved to sever their connections with the ASA and thus remove this taint from themselves, it has neither done so nor clarified the nature of its connection with the group.

As Behar also notes, NYU bears a special responsibility for speaking about discrimination against Israel, because of its decision to open a campus in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. While that principality has welcomed business with the West and its leaders have been showering NYU and other American partners with generous donations, it has also been notorious for its discrimination against Israel, Israelis and Jews. Just this past a month a Dutch soccer team invited to play in the country was forced to leave one of its members at home because he was an Israeli citizen if the team was to be permitted to play in Abu Dhabi.

The need to raise money may be offered as an excuse for an institution like NYU getting into bed with a nation that boycotts Israel. But even if we are to grant them a pass on that egregious connection, that should make Sexton and NYU even more eager to distance the univeristy from the ASA’s attack on academic freedom.

Also discouraging is NYU’s public opposition to the proposal in the New York State legislature, by its Speaker Sheldon Silver, that would block colleges and universities from using state aid money to fund groups that promote discriminatory boycotts like the ASA. While more a symbolic measure than anything else, it is still a way for the state of New York to register its disgust at the ASA. Yet rather than sever its ties with the ASA, NYU to condemn the proposal as an affront to academic freedom.

Behar, whose piece contains a lengthy defense of Israel against the specious charge that is an apartheid state, understands the realities of the conflict and the plight of Palestinians better than the ASA’s members. In a Forbes cover story published last August, he wrote about the way Israel’s growing high-tech industry was seeking Palestinian partners. But as he reported in a follow-up article, the Arab businessmen who were working with Israelis in partnerships that stood to benefit the Palestinian economy were subsequently forced to disavow any interest in working with the Jews. The dynamic of the conflict is such that anyone who seeks to create common ground with Israelis is branded a collaborator. Rather than working to promote peace, groups like the ASA are, instead, backing those forces that are intent on perpetuating and worsening the situation.

Behar is to be applauded for speaking out in this manner. But he should not be alone. It is time for alumni of other schools that are also implicated in the ASA scandal to pressure them to draw a line in the sand against anti-Israel hate. A good place to start would be by withholding contributions that alumni are endlessly asked to make from universities that foster anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli sentiment on their campuses under the spurious guise of academic freedom.

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Benghazi Won’t Stop Guilty Hillary

The release of a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday on the Benghazi terrorist attack casts a shadow over the record of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The study declares that the assault on the U.S. facility in Benghazi could have been prevented had the State Department taken warnings about terrorism seriously. Security at the outpost was shortchanged in no small measure because bad decisions were made in Washington for which Clinton bears ultimate responsibility. The report also makes clear that the participants in the assault on the mission were affiliated with al-Qaeda groups, effectively debunking the assertions made in a recent controversial New York Times article. While it shed no further light on the attempt by the administration to spin the incident as a spontaneous gathering of film critics upset about a video produced in the United States rather than an act of terrorism, it still leaves open the question why that happened.

Taken together with previous investigations, the report leaves no doubt that four Americans died as a result of negligence and bad judgment at the highest levels of the State Department as well as a determination to avoid doing anything that might alter the public perception that the Obama administration had vanquished al-Qaeda. It’s a sorry record and one for which no one, especially those at the top of the food chain, have been held accountable. But conservatives who have been frustrated by the way Clinton has evaded criticism over Benghazi shouldn’t get their hopes up about this report. No one should labor under the delusion that it will hinder Clinton’s efforts to secure the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

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The release of a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday on the Benghazi terrorist attack casts a shadow over the record of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The study declares that the assault on the U.S. facility in Benghazi could have been prevented had the State Department taken warnings about terrorism seriously. Security at the outpost was shortchanged in no small measure because bad decisions were made in Washington for which Clinton bears ultimate responsibility. The report also makes clear that the participants in the assault on the mission were affiliated with al-Qaeda groups, effectively debunking the assertions made in a recent controversial New York Times article. While it shed no further light on the attempt by the administration to spin the incident as a spontaneous gathering of film critics upset about a video produced in the United States rather than an act of terrorism, it still leaves open the question why that happened.

Taken together with previous investigations, the report leaves no doubt that four Americans died as a result of negligence and bad judgment at the highest levels of the State Department as well as a determination to avoid doing anything that might alter the public perception that the Obama administration had vanquished al-Qaeda. It’s a sorry record and one for which no one, especially those at the top of the food chain, have been held accountable. But conservatives who have been frustrated by the way Clinton has evaded criticism over Benghazi shouldn’t get their hopes up about this report. No one should labor under the delusion that it will hinder Clinton’s efforts to secure the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

If Republicans haven’t already discovered that much of the mainstream media has taken their cue from the Obama administration and long ago decided that there is nothing to see here, the lack of interest in following up on this scandal even after this latest report should convince them now. Those who are rightly clamoring for more accountability from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie about the misconduct of his aides in the Bridgegate scandal have had more than a year to ask the same kind of questions of Clinton about what she knew and when she knew it about security in Benghazi and the post-attack lies told by the administration. But they haven’t and won’t start now just because of a new Senate report.

Media apathy about investigating Benghazi is infuriating. While the origin of a traffic jam has become the focal point for a genuine controversy that has seriously hobbled Christie’s presidential prospects, it is astonishing that those insisting on a fuller accounting of a far more serious incident involving the deaths of four Americans serving their country is routinely characterized as solely the province of extremists and conspiracy theorists.

The double standard here is clear. While no one is saying that Clinton deliberately sent Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others to their deaths, she was the person responsible for this disaster. Had any other presidential contender been in charge of an agency whose negligence led to four deaths, it is hard to imagine they would not be disqualified in the eyes of the general public by it, let alone be acclaimed as a likely next president of the United States as is the case with Clinton. But the idea of derailing the chances of electing our first woman president merely because of an inconvenient terrorist attack in Libya is unimaginable to most of our chattering classes. That’s why this report isn’t likely to generate any more coverage of the issue in the coming days, weeks, and months than previous discussions of the scandal.

While Republicans are right to complain about this and should pursue further inquiries, they need to lower their expectations about this controversy. Benghazi shouldn’t be filed away, but the GOP needs to avoid appearing obsessed about it in a way that would allow liberals to depict them as unhinged or conspiratorial. If she runs, the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination will be handed to Clinton on a silver platter. At that point there will be more than enough time for conservatives to revive a discussion of Benghazi and in the glare of a general-election campaign it will be harder for Hillary and her many media enablers to change the subject. This may not be the silver bullet that will prevent her from becoming president, but it will be a potent issue that can’t be ignored. Until then, Republicans frustrated about their inability to hold Clinton accountable should keep their powder dry and wait for their moment.

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Neo-Nazis and Free Speech

On Wednesday Israel’s Knesset approved the preliminary reading of a bill that would both outlaw the use of Nazi symbols, such as the swastika, and make it illegal to label someone a Nazi. The bill, which must now be reviewed by committee prior to the final Knesset vote to determine whether it is to become law, was proposed by MK Shimon Ohayon (Likud-Beiteinu) and would make illegal both the use of swastikas and even the wearing of yellow stars reminiscent of those Jews were forced to wear under Nazi rule. 

Given Israel’s history and identity as a Jewish state, perhaps it is quite understandable that the presence of Nazi symbols, and indeed the all-too-common Nazi name calling that goes on in Israel’s national debates, should be considered particularly objectionable. But this legislation is riddled with problems and more than anything else bespeaks of the often confused and at times shallow political culture that Israelis live with.

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On Wednesday Israel’s Knesset approved the preliminary reading of a bill that would both outlaw the use of Nazi symbols, such as the swastika, and make it illegal to label someone a Nazi. The bill, which must now be reviewed by committee prior to the final Knesset vote to determine whether it is to become law, was proposed by MK Shimon Ohayon (Likud-Beiteinu) and would make illegal both the use of swastikas and even the wearing of yellow stars reminiscent of those Jews were forced to wear under Nazi rule. 

Given Israel’s history and identity as a Jewish state, perhaps it is quite understandable that the presence of Nazi symbols, and indeed the all-too-common Nazi name calling that goes on in Israel’s national debates, should be considered particularly objectionable. But this legislation is riddled with problems and more than anything else bespeaks of the often confused and at times shallow political culture that Israelis live with.

For one thing, this bill clumsily conflates two clearly distinct issues. On the one hand, there is the no doubt vexing irritation of Israel’s minute neo-Nazi fringe, and on the other is the clearly undesirable trend of certain protest groups, and a number of public figures, throwing around the Nazi accusation with a casualness that is as offensive as it is infantile. In both cases, however, there are clear issues of free speech at stake. With Israel’s lack of any kind of First Amendment culture, we witness a reflexive attitude that seeks to solve problems by simply outlawing them. Yet, in this instance, the proposed remedy risks being more crippling than the ailment that it seeks to cure.

MK Ohayon has defended his proposed bill by arguing, “it is very important that Israel join the many countries in Europe that prohibit all use of Nazi symbols. These are a danger to Jews wherever they are, and as long as these symbols are not illegal in Israel we cannot go to the nations with complaints about how they allow their use.” Although undeniably an affront to Israel’s values as a Jewish state, the scant number of neo-Nazis (mostly from the former Soviet Union) that do exist in Israel today are hardly comparable to the much larger and politically significant neo-Nazi movements that proliferate in Germany and Eastern Europe.

Yet, by referencing Europe Ohayon perhaps unwittingly highlights precisely what is wrong with his bill and what Israel should seek to avoid emulating. For those who place the greatest emphasis on the importance of democracies being places where freedom of expression and conscience are protected above just about all else, much of Europe could not be considered a happy place. Even Britain, which conceives of itself as being closer to the American model of championing free speech, finds its laws against the incitement of race hatred regularly create an unresolved paradox where freedom is concerned. The heckler’s veto plagues public discourse there. In this way political correctness, as generally defined by the liberal establishment, is imposed top-down on the wider public. Israel should think seriously about whether it really wishes to side with the European attitude to free speech, rather than the American one.

Indeed, for sometime now Israel has been veering toward the European tendency to regulate speech. To be clear, it would be wrong to read this in the alarmist manner that Jewish liberals tend to view just about every law proposed by Likud parliamentarians: as proof that the Israeli right is fast transforming Israel into a banana republic. This is not a problem exclusive to either side of the political divide. Both left and right in Israel have been guilty of trying to create legislation to silence the other. The left in the 1980s sought to have certain right-wing parties simply struck off the electoral register on the grounds that they were racist and anti-democratic, while more recently Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been associated with a string of proposed bills to outlaw, among other things, mourning Israel’s Independence Day.

Most of the things that Ohayon’s recent anti-Nazi bill seeks to address can be confronted through existing laws. If neo-Nazi groups are engaging in terrorist or vigilante activities, their activities can be proscribed as such. If Nazi slurs are being made, then Israel has sufficient libel laws to rectify this, and such statutes have been used in the past in precisely such instances of Nazi-themed defamation.  

It may well be the case that Israel’s high-pitched political discourse has a problem with the flippancy with which unthinking accusations of Nazism are made, but the idea that the solution to the low quality of public debate is more laws to limit free speech is wrongheaded. The ease with which Haredi and far-left activists have the tendency to charge Nazism at centrist politicians who clearly have no such sympathies with any aspect of Nazi ideology is silly if not unforgivably offensive, but making it illegal is hardly a proportionate or well considered way of dealing with this practice.

Irving Kristol was quite right when he explained that Israel’s young political culture lacked a certain intellectual depth and required the infusion of the greats of Western thought. Solving the problem of Israel’s troubled political discourse will be a long process, requiring a lot more than clumsy top-down legislation. Although, if this bill does pass Israelis will at least have to get far more inventive in the future. Perhaps Israel’s politicians can look forward to being compared to Pol Pot and Ceausescu from now on. 

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Yaalon’s Not Alone

Moshe Yaalon’s comments about John Kerry appear to have been something of a Kinsleyan gaffe, when a politician is caught telling the truth. The accuracy of the comments may explain the swift and pained How dare you response from Foggy Bottom, and Yaalon declined to immediately deny or disavow the comments, instead preferring to apologize for their offense.

Not much attention has been paid to why Yaalon made the comments, though. Israeli officials do sometimes forget the delicate egos of some Western politicians, so it can perhaps be written off as sabra prickliness. But surely Yaalon knows better. If the Israeli administration–this being the most English-proficient one in memory–had concerns, they could have spelled them out in private. Why cause a stir? Shmuel Rosner floats one rather convincing explanation:

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Moshe Yaalon’s comments about John Kerry appear to have been something of a Kinsleyan gaffe, when a politician is caught telling the truth. The accuracy of the comments may explain the swift and pained How dare you response from Foggy Bottom, and Yaalon declined to immediately deny or disavow the comments, instead preferring to apologize for their offense.

Not much attention has been paid to why Yaalon made the comments, though. Israeli officials do sometimes forget the delicate egos of some Western politicians, so it can perhaps be written off as sabra prickliness. But surely Yaalon knows better. If the Israeli administration–this being the most English-proficient one in memory–had concerns, they could have spelled them out in private. Why cause a stir? Shmuel Rosner floats one rather convincing explanation:

It is funny how both left and right use “messianic” as the ultimate insult. But even if Defense Minister Yaalon should not have publically stated that State Secretary Kerry is “obsessive and messianic”, it doesn’t mean he is not right in making this assessment. David Horovitz aptly summed it up in one sentence: “Ya’alon’s been thoroughly dumb. But he’s not entirely wrong”. In fact, a majority of Israelis would say that he is right. And while the Americans have been rushing to get some diplomatic mileage out of Yaalon’s mistake – to “put Israel in its place, perhaps to put it on the defensive as Kerry comes back to continue his diplomatic efforts”, as Herb Keinon remarks – one would hope that this fact was not lost on them. One would hope that they realized that their initiative hardly impresses the Israeli public and its leadership. In other words, if you want to put a positive spin on Yaalon’s carelessness, try this: He was a messenger that had to be sacrificed in order to send a clear message of dissent to the American mediator, a message that no polite disagreement behind closed doors can convey.

The public fracas was the only way to get the message across. The harsh reaction from the U.S. suggests why: this administration doesn’t listen. Washington was shocked by comments that shouldn’t have surprised them in the least, but they famously pay no attention to the concerns of others.

I wrote about this in November, on the heels of Kerry’s Iran deal. The secretary of state was surprised by virtually everything–French objections, Israeli protestations, Saudi warnings, even Iranian declarations–that everyone else had been hearing for weeks, if not longer. Kerry’s single-minded quest for a deal with Iran had led him to stick his fingers in his ears, which had the practical effect of our secretary of state being the last to know much of the relevant information.

And so it’s important to note that whatever the wisdom of his comments, Yaalon’s not alone, even among close allies. The Daily Beast talks to Hew Strachan, the British military historian and defense advisor, and gets a brutal judgment of the Obama administration’s foreign policy and sense of strategy:

Sir Hew Strachan, an advisor to the Chief of the Defense Staff, told The Daily Beast that the United States and Britain were guilty of total strategic failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Obama’s attempts to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels “has left them in a far worse position than they were before.”

The extraordinary critique by a leading advisor to the United States’ closest military ally comes days after Obama was undermined by the former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who questioned the President’s foreign policy decisions and claimed he was deeply suspicious of the military.

Strachan, a current member of the Chief of the Defense Staff’s Strategic Advisory Panel, cited the “crazy” handling of the Syrian crisis as the most egregious example of a fundamental collapse in military planning that began in the aftermath of 9/11. “If anything it’s gone backwards instead of forwards, Obama seems to be almost chronically incapable of doing this. Bush may have had totally fanciful political objectives in terms of trying to fight a global War on Terror, which was inherently astrategic, but at least he had a clear sense of what he wanted to do in the world. Obama has no sense of what he wants to do in the world,” he said.

In this sense John Kerry is a symptom of the underlying problem: personnel is policy, especially when it comes to the leader of the free world. There were talented, experienced, and well-respected options for Obama’s top Cabinet posts, so it threw many for a loop when he picked Kerry and Chuck Hagel at State and Defense. But Obama doesn’t appreciate constructive criticism or robust debate. Obama, the Washington Post explained a year ago, “spent the last four years immersed in all of this stuff and can now make decisions based on his own observations not the idea that you always just need to get the ‘best person for the job’.”

This lack of talent was deliberate, and our allies noticed. They then tried to mitigate the damage by raising their concerns behind closed doors. They were ignored, of course. As a last resort, they have taken to voicing their alarm aloud. It’s not always constructive or diplomatic. But the administration would be mistaken to assume that Yaalon is an outlier.

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Being More Than the Opposition Party

In Politico, Representative Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, is quoted saying this:

It’s incumbent upon us now, I think there’s a window opening, where we become not the opposition party, but the alternative party. Which means we have an obligation to come forward with agendas and plans for how we would govern if we were in the majority in Washington. It’s starting to open.

That is, I think, precisely the right attitude for Republicans to have. In saying this, I don’t mean to imply that Republicans can’t do well, even very well, in the 2014 mid-term elections simply by opposing the president’s agenda. Mr. Obama is, after all, highly unpopular these days. His signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is toxic. And if historical trends hold, Democrats will suffer significant losses (the mid-term elections for the party of a president in his second term are usually awful).

Still, Republicans need to be bolder in offering up a governing agenda, for several reasons. First, voters tend to be future-oriented and want to know that a political party has a program that will improve their lives in a practical way.

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In Politico, Representative Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, is quoted saying this:

It’s incumbent upon us now, I think there’s a window opening, where we become not the opposition party, but the alternative party. Which means we have an obligation to come forward with agendas and plans for how we would govern if we were in the majority in Washington. It’s starting to open.

That is, I think, precisely the right attitude for Republicans to have. In saying this, I don’t mean to imply that Republicans can’t do well, even very well, in the 2014 mid-term elections simply by opposing the president’s agenda. Mr. Obama is, after all, highly unpopular these days. His signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is toxic. And if historical trends hold, Democrats will suffer significant losses (the mid-term elections for the party of a president in his second term are usually awful).

Still, Republicans need to be bolder in offering up a governing agenda, for several reasons. First, voters tend to be future-oriented and want to know that a political party has a program that will improve their lives in a practical way.

Second, an oppositional mindset that may work in a mid-term might not work nearly as well in a presidential election (see the results of the 2010 mid-term elections v. the 2012 presidential election). If Republicans hope to reclaim the White House, then a lot of work needs to be done when it comes to winning the trust of the public on governing matters.

Third, the GOP, fairly or not, has a reputation as being too ideological, too reflexively anti-government, the Party of No. Presenting a compelling and intellectually serious agenda–one that deals with wage stagnation, the loss of blue-collar jobs and the lack of social mobility, rising poverty and exploding health-care and college costs, the collapse of the culture of marriage and reforms of the tax code, education, energy, and our immigration system–can help overcome that problem. (As a side note, and as I’ve pointed out before, it’s no wonder that Republican policies can seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those offered up by the party more than 30 years ago. For Republicans to design an agenda that applies to the conditions of 1980 is as if Ronald Reagan designed his agenda for conditions that existed in the Truman years.) 

Fourth, a great political party should be eager to offer a governing agenda. Not to sound too high-minded about it, but presumably the reason Republicans want to win elections is to govern; and the reason they want to govern is they believe their ideas are better; and the reason they believe their ideas are better is they will promote prosperity, human flourishing and what the Founders referred to as “the public good.”

In the 1980s, one of the Republican Party’s main sources of attraction to younger conservatives like myself was its growing reputation for intellectual seriousness. “Of a sudden,” wrote Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, in 1981, “the GOP has become a party of ideas.”

As it was then, so it should be again.

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Belief Undeterred by the Facts

After the Israeli defense minister’s undiplomatic skepticism about the peace process prompted a diplomatic flap earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry announced yesterday that he is “undeterred,” explaining, “I believe strongly in the prospects for peace.” In that, Kerry isn’t alone: An entire industry has arisen around the belief that Israeli-Palestinian peace is imminently attainable, and it is consistently “undeterred” by the facts. For a classic example, consider the joint Israeli-Palestinian poll released in late December under the unequivocal headline, “The majority of Israelis (63%) and of Palestinians (53%) support the two states solution.”

That sounds very promising, until you read the fine print. And then it turns out that most Palestinians don’t support the two-state solution at all–or at least, not the one whose terms “everyone knows.” In fact, when presented with the elements of that “everyone knows” package, defined by the researchers as based on the Clinton parameters and the Geneva Initiative, 53 percent of Palestinians opposed it, while only 46 percent supported it.

Moreover, several specific clauses were rejected by both Palestinians and Israelis, though Israelis supported the overall package by 54 percent to 37 percent.

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After the Israeli defense minister’s undiplomatic skepticism about the peace process prompted a diplomatic flap earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry announced yesterday that he is “undeterred,” explaining, “I believe strongly in the prospects for peace.” In that, Kerry isn’t alone: An entire industry has arisen around the belief that Israeli-Palestinian peace is imminently attainable, and it is consistently “undeterred” by the facts. For a classic example, consider the joint Israeli-Palestinian poll released in late December under the unequivocal headline, “The majority of Israelis (63%) and of Palestinians (53%) support the two states solution.”

That sounds very promising, until you read the fine print. And then it turns out that most Palestinians don’t support the two-state solution at all–or at least, not the one whose terms “everyone knows.” In fact, when presented with the elements of that “everyone knows” package, defined by the researchers as based on the Clinton parameters and the Geneva Initiative, 53 percent of Palestinians opposed it, while only 46 percent supported it.

Moreover, several specific clauses were rejected by both Palestinians and Israelis, though Israelis supported the overall package by 54 percent to 37 percent.

For instance, Palestinians opposed the “everyone knows” plan for dividing Jerusalem (Israel retains Jewish neighborhoods, including the Old City’s Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, while Palestinians get Palestinian neighborhoods, including the rest of the Old City and the Temple Mount) by a whopping 68 percent to 32 percent. That’s consistent with their longstanding refusal to recognize any Jewish connection whatsoever to Jerusalem. But Israelis also rejected it overwhelmingly, 56 percent to 37 percent, consistent with their longstanding opposition to ceding Judaism’s holy site, the Temple Mount. The shared opposition also reflects both sides’ understanding of the proposal’s sheer impracticality (as I explained here).  

By an even larger majority, 71 percent to 28 percent, Palestinians opposed the idea of a demilitarized Palestinian state (Israelis, unsurprisingly, supported it). Yet this has long been recognized by international mediators as an essential security element of any deal.

On refugees, the researchers managed to craft a proposal that both parties rejected. Palestinians opposed it by a relatively narrow margin, 52 percent to 46 percent, which initially surprised me: Most polls show much stronger Palestinian opposition to abandoning their dream of eliminating the Jewish state by resettling millions of Palestinians there. But after reading the fine print, I understood why: On this issue, the researchers ditched the Clinton parameters in favor of the Geneva Initiative, which no Israeli government ever has accepted or will accept.

Under this plan, Israel cedes its right to determine how many Palestinians to let into its territory, committing instead to accept the average number accepted by third-party states–some of which, like Jordan, have granted citizenship to millions of Palestinians. Hence it garnered less Palestinian opposition than the standard version, which lets Israel decide how many Palestinians to accept. But, unsurprisingly, Israelis rejected it decisively (50 percent to 39 percent).

Finally, there’s the most important clause of all: Even “after the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the settlement of all issues in dispute,” Palestinians still rejected “mutual recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and Palestine as the state of the Palestinian people,” by a majority of 56 percent to 43 percent. In short, even after all other issues are “resolved,” Palestinians still refuse to recognize the Jewish people’s right to a state of their own.

So what exactly does it mean that Palestinians “support a two-state solution”? The same thing it has always meant, as an unusually honest 2011 poll revealed: not two states living side by side in peace and security, but two states as a stepping-stone to Israel’s ultimate eradication. That’s why they insist on resettling millions of Palestinians in Israel; that’s why they reject any Jewish connection to Jerusalem; and that’s why they can’t recognize Israel as “the state of the Jewish people.”

And as long as that remains true, Kerry’s belief in “the prospects for peace” really is “messianic”–however unwise it was of Moshe Ya’alon to say so.

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Cooperating with Assad

Imagine, during World War II, Western intelligence agencies meeting with representatives of Nazi Germany to gather information on Soviet spying. Pretty hard to imagine, no?

And yet it now emerges that European intelligence agencies, including those of Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, have met with representatives of the Assad regime to share information on European jihadists who have come to Syria to fight the regime. The spooks’ concerns are understandable since there is a very real danger that jihadists who travel to fight in Syria could return to stage acts of terrorism in their homeland.

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Imagine, during World War II, Western intelligence agencies meeting with representatives of Nazi Germany to gather information on Soviet spying. Pretty hard to imagine, no?

And yet it now emerges that European intelligence agencies, including those of Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, have met with representatives of the Assad regime to share information on European jihadists who have come to Syria to fight the regime. The spooks’ concerns are understandable since there is a very real danger that jihadists who travel to fight in Syria could return to stage acts of terrorism in their homeland.

Yet the fact that the intelligence representatives of these countries, which have broken diplomatic relations with Damascus, are willing to meet with Assad’s thugs is very telling–and what it tells us is that they have basically accommodated themselves to the perpetual existence of the Assad regime. And why shouldn’t they, when the U.S., which would have to lead any coalition to oust Assad, refuses to do so?

President Obama has even discontinued providing non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition for fear of it falling into the wrong hands. Instead he has struck a deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile, which essentially makes the U.S. a partner of the Syrian regime.

It is only a small step from where we are today toward tacit toleration for Assad’s atrocities, much as the West provided tacit support for Saddam Hussein’s regime in its war against Iran in the 1980s. Maybe there really is no other choice left in Syria–maybe the only alternative to Assad’s thuggery is the thuggery of al-Qaeda on the other side–but if so, that’s a pretty damning indictment of the moral and practical failure of Western (read: American) policy in Syria.

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