Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 21, 2014

Can Democrats Win on Abortion in 2014? Not Necessarily.

Pro-life activists are streaming into Washington for tomorrow’s annual March for Life on the Mall marking the anniversary of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Weather permitting, Republicans will be out in force to join the pro-lifers, while liberals continue to hope the issue will work in their favor this year as it did two years ago. After successfully persuading many voters that the GOP was waging a “war on women” in 2012, many Democrats believe the issue could help stave off an electoral disaster in this year’s midterm elections. As the New York Times reports, both parties traditionally look to abortion to help mobilize their bases, but for Democrats it has become a rallying cry to convince women that their freedom depends on turning out to defeat conservative Republicans.

Are they right? Given the impact that Missouri senatorial candidate Todd Akin’s ignorant comments on abortion and rape had not only on his own losing race in 2012 but on the entire GOP that year, it’s hard to argue with the conclusion that the faux war on women meme was a big winner for Democrats. The demonization of Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinielli that helped him lose the women’s vote in November also points to the way liberals have manipulated abortion to their advantage. But the assumption that the Democrats can play this card again this year may be wrong. Moreover, Democrats may also be underestimating conservatives’ capacity to present the issue in a way that will help boost their turnout and diminish sympathy for candidates who march under the pro-choice banner.

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Pro-life activists are streaming into Washington for tomorrow’s annual March for Life on the Mall marking the anniversary of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Weather permitting, Republicans will be out in force to join the pro-lifers, while liberals continue to hope the issue will work in their favor this year as it did two years ago. After successfully persuading many voters that the GOP was waging a “war on women” in 2012, many Democrats believe the issue could help stave off an electoral disaster in this year’s midterm elections. As the New York Times reports, both parties traditionally look to abortion to help mobilize their bases, but for Democrats it has become a rallying cry to convince women that their freedom depends on turning out to defeat conservative Republicans.

Are they right? Given the impact that Missouri senatorial candidate Todd Akin’s ignorant comments on abortion and rape had not only on his own losing race in 2012 but on the entire GOP that year, it’s hard to argue with the conclusion that the faux war on women meme was a big winner for Democrats. The demonization of Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinielli that helped him lose the women’s vote in November also points to the way liberals have manipulated abortion to their advantage. But the assumption that the Democrats can play this card again this year may be wrong. Moreover, Democrats may also be underestimating conservatives’ capacity to present the issue in a way that will help boost their turnout and diminish sympathy for candidates who march under the pro-choice banner.

The electoral facts of life on abortion have always been focused on each party’s base and not the political center. It’s a litmus test for single issue voters on both ends of the spectrum. But most Americans don’t base their ballot choices solely on the issue of abortion.

Polls have consistently shown that the majority doesn’t want to overturn Roe v. Wade or to criminalize abortion. But they also demonstrate that a clear majority approves of significant restrictions on the practice, such as requiring parental consent and enacting bans on late-term procedures. The latter point is a crucial weakness for liberals because the advances in medical science, particularly sonograms, since the court ruled on Roe in 1973 make such abortions look more like infanticide than a woman exercising her “right to choose.” Last year’s gruesome Kermit Gosnell murder trial in Philadelphia opened the eyes of many Americans who had never understood exactly what late-term abortion meant or the possibility that such horrors involving the slaughter of babies born alive as a result of botched procedures might be more common than they had realized or than the liberal media had ever sought to inform them.

Thus, messaging is the key to whether the discussion of abortion can stampede voters away from Republicans or, as the GOP hopes, help boost their turnout in a year in which Democrats can no longer count on President Obama’s coattails. That’s why GOP gaffes such as the one committed by Akin are fatal to Republicans and tarnish the national image of conservatives. But the notion that Democrats can keep their stranglehold on the women’s vote ignores the way sonograms and the Gosnell case influence public opinion on late-term abortion. Though Wendy Davis vaulted to national liberal stardom last year on the strength of a filibuster against a bill that banned late-term abortions after 20 weeks—the period after which most fetuses become viable outside the womb—if the GOP can focus its candidates on this issue, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that it will work against them. Republicans also think they have another, related winning issue in the attempts to push back against the ObamaCare mandate forcing employers to pay for abortion and/or requiring the use of public funds to pay for them.

As long as Democrats can portray Republicans as troglodytes who think, as Akin did, that women’s bodies magically protect them from pregnancy in cases of rape, they are on firm ground to pursue their war on women theme. But if Republicans can manage to stay on message on late-term procedures and the impact of ObamaCare, there’s every reason to believe widespread concerns over  abortion will attract more voters to their candidates.

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Will Obama Bypass Congress on Iran?

Over the past several weeks, the White House has been waging an increasingly nasty fight to stop congressional action to put new Iran sanctions in place in the event that the current round of nuclear talks fail. Although 58 senators have co-sponsored the proposed legislation that would tighten the restrictions on doing business with the tyrannical Islamist regime, the Obama administration seems to have acquired the upper hand in the battle. This is largely because of specious arguments claiming those who want to give the president more leverage in the next round of negotiations are actually seeking war rather than a diplomatic solution when the reality is just the opposite. The only hope for a deal that would avert an outcome in which the U.S. would have to choose between the use of force and a nuclear Iran is the adoption of tougher sanctions that would force the ayatollahs to give up their nuclear dreams.

But the current uphill struggle by a majority of the Senate to ensure that the end of the current talks doesn’t lead to a collapse of the sanctions may be only a sideshow to the real fight over Iran that lies ahead in 2014. As the Washington Free Beacon reports, the administration is thinking ahead to the next step in the debate over Iran and exploring the possibility of lifting sanctions without congressional approval.

Congressional insiders say that the White House is worried Congress will exert oversight of the deal and demand tougher nuclear restrictions on Tehran in exchange for sanctions relief.

Top White House aides have been “talking about ways to do that [lift sanctions] without Congress and we have no idea yet what that means,” said one senior congressional aide who works on sanctions. “They’re looking for a way to lift them by fiat, overrule U.S. law, drive over the sanctions, and declare that they are lifted.”

Although only Congress has the power to revoke the sanctions it has enacted, this is not a far-fetched scenario. It is entirely possible that the president may wish to end sanctions on his own. That could come as the result of a nuclear deal that failed to satisfy those who rightly worry about the possibility of an agreement that left Iran with its nuclear infrastructure intact. Or it might be part of a further effort to appease Tehran by scaling back sanctions in order to entice it to sign a deal. And the president believes he can achieve these ends by executive action that would come dangerously close to unconstitutional behavior, but for which Congress might have no remedy.

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Over the past several weeks, the White House has been waging an increasingly nasty fight to stop congressional action to put new Iran sanctions in place in the event that the current round of nuclear talks fail. Although 58 senators have co-sponsored the proposed legislation that would tighten the restrictions on doing business with the tyrannical Islamist regime, the Obama administration seems to have acquired the upper hand in the battle. This is largely because of specious arguments claiming those who want to give the president more leverage in the next round of negotiations are actually seeking war rather than a diplomatic solution when the reality is just the opposite. The only hope for a deal that would avert an outcome in which the U.S. would have to choose between the use of force and a nuclear Iran is the adoption of tougher sanctions that would force the ayatollahs to give up their nuclear dreams.

But the current uphill struggle by a majority of the Senate to ensure that the end of the current talks doesn’t lead to a collapse of the sanctions may be only a sideshow to the real fight over Iran that lies ahead in 2014. As the Washington Free Beacon reports, the administration is thinking ahead to the next step in the debate over Iran and exploring the possibility of lifting sanctions without congressional approval.

Congressional insiders say that the White House is worried Congress will exert oversight of the deal and demand tougher nuclear restrictions on Tehran in exchange for sanctions relief.

Top White House aides have been “talking about ways to do that [lift sanctions] without Congress and we have no idea yet what that means,” said one senior congressional aide who works on sanctions. “They’re looking for a way to lift them by fiat, overrule U.S. law, drive over the sanctions, and declare that they are lifted.”

Although only Congress has the power to revoke the sanctions it has enacted, this is not a far-fetched scenario. It is entirely possible that the president may wish to end sanctions on his own. That could come as the result of a nuclear deal that failed to satisfy those who rightly worry about the possibility of an agreement that left Iran with its nuclear infrastructure intact. Or it might be part of a further effort to appease Tehran by scaling back sanctions in order to entice it to sign a deal. And the president believes he can achieve these ends by executive action that would come dangerously close to unconstitutional behavior, but for which Congress might have no remedy.

The key to any unilateral action by the president on sanctions is effective enforcement. It has long been understood by insiders that the U.S. government has only selectively enforced the existing sanctions on Iran. In 2010, the New York Times reported that more than 10,000 exemptions had already been granted by the Treasury Department to companies wishing to transact business with Iran. Since then there have been worries that the administration has been slow to open new cases by which suspicious economic activity with Iran could be proscribed.

As the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted in a paper published in November 2013, the president can legitimize a policy of non-enforcement by the granting of waivers that could effectively gut any and all sanctions enacted by Congress. The only effective check on such a decision would be the political firestorm that would inevitably follow a relaxation of the sanctions that would be accurately viewed as a craven offering to the ayatollahs and also an affront to both Congress and America’s Middle East allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia that rightly fear a nuclear Iran.

The administration has already made clear on other contentious issues, such as the application of immigration law, that it will only enforce laws with which it agrees. This is clearly unconstitutional, but as we have already seen with the president’s unilateral actions on immigration, Congress cannot prevent him from doing what he likes in these matters. The same might be true on Iran sanctions, especially if he is prepared to double down on inflammatory arguments falsely labeling sanctions proponents as warmongers.

Having begun the process of loosening sanctions on Iran with the interim deal signed in November and seemingly intent on promoting a new détente with Tehran, it requires no great leap of imagination to envision the next step in this process. Unless the president produces a deal that truly ends the Iranian nuclear threat—something that would require the dismantling of Iran’s facilities and ensuring it could not possibly continue enriching uranium or building plutonium plants—a confrontation with Congress is likely. In that event, it appears probable that the president will choose to run roughshod over the will of Congress and the rule of law.

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Refugees Who Insist on the Impossible

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has a budget problem, and as a result its workers are on strike. As the New York Times reports, that’s bad news for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank who depend on the UN agency for food, services, and employment. But the controversy over the impact of the strike and the refugees’ demands for the Palestinian Authority to step in and pick up where the UN left off doesn’t address the heart of their problem. Instead of arguing over who should take care of them, the Palestinians should be seeking the same resolution that has successfully solved every other refugee problem since the Second World War: resettlement. Instead, they have been allowed to languish in camps to keep the war against Israel alive, doing far more injury to themselves than they have ever done to the Israelis.

The curious thing about the dispute between the refugees and the PA is that while the former demand that the corrupt Palestinian government take care of them while UNRWA is on strike, they are resolutely against being governed by it. Doing so would mean giving up their special status as refugees and taking up the more prosaic identity of Palestinian Arabs living on the territory of the putative independent Palestinian state that, while already recognized by some governments, doesn’t yet exist. Leaving the camps would mean a better life, either in the West Bank or elsewhere. But it would also entail giving up their precious fiction that the descendants of the Arabs who fled the land of what is now Israel will someday return to it and thus erase the Jewish state. Rather than do that, they prefer to stay where they are, living in poverty and condemning each subsequent generation to a futile and destructive quest that makes any peace agreement impossible. Instead of demanding more funding for UNRWA in order to continue to maintain the shaky welfare state operating in the West Bank, Gaza, and other refugee camps around the region, those who actually care about the welfare of the Palestinians should advocate instead for its dissolution.

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The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has a budget problem, and as a result its workers are on strike. As the New York Times reports, that’s bad news for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank who depend on the UN agency for food, services, and employment. But the controversy over the impact of the strike and the refugees’ demands for the Palestinian Authority to step in and pick up where the UN left off doesn’t address the heart of their problem. Instead of arguing over who should take care of them, the Palestinians should be seeking the same resolution that has successfully solved every other refugee problem since the Second World War: resettlement. Instead, they have been allowed to languish in camps to keep the war against Israel alive, doing far more injury to themselves than they have ever done to the Israelis.

The curious thing about the dispute between the refugees and the PA is that while the former demand that the corrupt Palestinian government take care of them while UNRWA is on strike, they are resolutely against being governed by it. Doing so would mean giving up their special status as refugees and taking up the more prosaic identity of Palestinian Arabs living on the territory of the putative independent Palestinian state that, while already recognized by some governments, doesn’t yet exist. Leaving the camps would mean a better life, either in the West Bank or elsewhere. But it would also entail giving up their precious fiction that the descendants of the Arabs who fled the land of what is now Israel will someday return to it and thus erase the Jewish state. Rather than do that, they prefer to stay where they are, living in poverty and condemning each subsequent generation to a futile and destructive quest that makes any peace agreement impossible. Instead of demanding more funding for UNRWA in order to continue to maintain the shaky welfare state operating in the West Bank, Gaza, and other refugee camps around the region, those who actually care about the welfare of the Palestinians should advocate instead for its dissolution.

The Times report paints a fairly accurate picture of the systemic chaos of Palestinian society. According to Palestinian population figures, fully 740,000 of the 2.4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank call themselves refugees. These figures are notoriously unreliable since both the refugees and other Palestinian groups have a financial and political incentive to inflate the estimates of their population. But even if we were to accept these numbers as accurate, the current Palestinian refugee population is primarily a function of a political decision undertaken by Arab governments and the leadership of the Palestinians to keep them trapped in camps so they can continue to be used as pawns in the never-ending propaganda war against Israel. Since 1945, wars have created tens of millions of refugees around the world. All, with the sole exception of the Palestinians, are served by a single UN refugee agency, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). And almost all, including the hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Arab and Muslim countries who were forced to flee their homes after 1948, have been resettled in new ones. But only the Palestinians, for whom UNRWA was specifically created, were not given the aid they needed to develop skills and get on with their lives.

The fault for this decades-long scandal lies principally with the Arab states. Not one has sought to absorb the refugees created by the war of aggression launched by the Arab world against the new Jewish state in 1948. Worse than that, the refugees were not allowed to leave the camps and denied the opportunity to acquire citizenship in any of the Arab countries in which they resided. That was also the case with Egypt and Jordan, the nations that governed, respectively, Gaza and the West Bank from 1949 to 1967 when the Arab and Muslim world refused to advocate the creation of a Palestinian state in those territories. Instead, their goal was to eradicate the Jewish state that existed inside the truncated borders created by the 1949 armistice agreements that ended Israel’s War of Independence.

But the refugees and the Palestinian political movements themselves also bear a great deal of the blame for the fact that the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of the 1948 refugees are stuck in exactly the same predicament as their forebears. A case in point is provided by the Times in its interview with Mai Abd al-Razzaq, a 49-year-old Palestinian seeking services from UNRWA.

Asked about a solution for the refugee problem, Mrs. Abd al-Razzaq laughed and said: “It is impossible to return.” But she added: “We insist on return. We don’t want to give up our rights. We will leave it for the generations to come. We don’t want our grandchildren to say we sold out the land.”

Others made the same counter-productive point, eschewing any solution but a “return,” which is tantamount to a demand for the end of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and a preservation of a conflict for which they send out new generations of children to goad or to engage in violent exchanges with Israelis. Seen in that light, the answer to their problems is not more money for UNRWA and its employees nor for a Palestinian Authority that has no interest in helping them. The only answer is the abolition of UNRWA  and its replacement by an agency dedicated to giving Palestinians the same resettlement help other refugees have received. Until that happens, the refugees—still the driving force of Palestinian politics—will ensure peace with Israel can never be achieved.

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Canada and Australia’s Stand for Israel and the West

With President Barack Obama seeming to have taken a leave of absence as leader of the free world, the task of providing such leadership continues to fall to others. Increasingly, this task is being taken up by leaders in other English-speaking democracies, and for several of them their defense of the West’s values is never more strongly pronounced than when it comes to Israel.

This has been particularly noticeable with the recent visits to Israel by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Both of these individuals have not only seen to it that their countries have taken concrete actions to defend Israel on the international stage, but they have also voiced this support in terms of standing by democratic values and doing what is just. In short, both have demonstrated a clear sense of moral clarity, where other Western governments have failed to do so.

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With President Barack Obama seeming to have taken a leave of absence as leader of the free world, the task of providing such leadership continues to fall to others. Increasingly, this task is being taken up by leaders in other English-speaking democracies, and for several of them their defense of the West’s values is never more strongly pronounced than when it comes to Israel.

This has been particularly noticeable with the recent visits to Israel by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Both of these individuals have not only seen to it that their countries have taken concrete actions to defend Israel on the international stage, but they have also voiced this support in terms of standing by democratic values and doing what is just. In short, both have demonstrated a clear sense of moral clarity, where other Western governments have failed to do so.

Prime Minister Harper’s speech delivered before the Knesset on Monday was a case in point. Rightly, Harper spoke of Israel’s accomplishments, defending unequivocally its right to exist as a Jewish state and denouncing in no uncertain terms the new anti-Semitism that masquerades as anti-Zionism–or as Harper put it, “the old hatred has been translated into more sophisticated language for use in polite society. People who would never say they hate and blame the Jews for their own failings or the problems of the world, instead declare their hatred of Israel and blame the only Jewish state for the problems of the Middle East.”

Ironically, when Prime Minister Harper came to rebutting the apartheid charge leveled against Israel, two of the Arab Knesset members present began to loudly interrupt him, before then promptly storming out–their very position in the Knesset, of course, serving to refute the accusation that they apparently felt so strongly about insisting upon. 

This sense of obligation to speak out against such lies and bigotry clearly stems from the prime minister’s wider worldview. Harper declared unapologetically that we live in a world where “moral relativism runs rampant” and that “in the garden of such moral relativism, the seeds of much more sinister notions can be easily planted.” For, as Harper noted, “Those who, often begin by hating the Jews…history shows us, end up hating anyone who is not them.”

Indeed, the most important aspect of Harper’s speech was the explanation he gave for why Canada would stand by Israel. Having begun by stating plainly, “Canada supports Israel because it is right to do so,” Prime Minister Harper went on to explain that “Israel is the only country in the Middle East, which has long anchored itself in the ideals of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”

Crucially, he observed that, “These are not mere notions. They are the things that, over time and against all odds, have proven to be the only ground in which human rights, political stability, and economic prosperity, may flourish. These values are not proprietary; they do not belong to one nation or one people. Nor are they a finite resource; on the contrary, the wider they are spread, the stronger they grow. Likewise, when they are threatened anywhere, they are threatened everywhere.”

It is a similar tone that we hear when the Australian foreign minister speaks, and indeed acts. In contrast to the policies of her predecessor, Julie Bishop has twice now ensured that Australia has been one of only a handful of countries at the United Nations to resist voting in support of motions demanding that Israel halt all settlement activity. In an interview during her recent visit to Israel Bishop stated that she thought the international community should refrain from calling settlements illegal, remarking, “I would like to see which international law has declared them illegal,” and arguing, “I don’t think it’s helpful to prejudge the settlement issue if you’re trying to get a negotiated solution. And by deeming the activity as a war crime, it’s unlikely to engender a negotiated solution.”

Foreign Minister Bishop has likewise been unwavering in her opposition to boycotts, seeing to it that funding from the Australian government does not reach organizations calling for them. Of the BDS movement Bishop exclaimed, “It’s anti-Semitic. It identifies Israel out of all other nations as being worthy of a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign? Hypocritical beyond belief.” 

Bishop stands out as an almost lone voice on a number of these issues, yet in doing so she echoes the Canadian prime minister’s attitude when he stated that his country will “stand for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is convenient or popular.”

With all America’s coming challenges on the world stage, Obama and Kerry would do well to pay attention to Harper’s example and remember his words when he spoke Monday of how “either we stand up for our values and our interests, here, in Israel, stand up for the existence of a free, democratic and distinctively Jewish state or the retreat of our values and our interests in the world will begin. Ladies and gentlemen, just as we refuse to retreat from our values, so we must also uphold the duty to advance them.” 

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Let Reagan Be Reagan

In an April 21, 1986 lecture at New York University (found in the collection Came the Revolution), Daniel Patrick Moynihan has some words to say about David Stockman. Moynihan quotes Stockman as saying (in his memoir), “To me, [Irving] Kristol was a secular incarnation of the Lord Himself.” 

Senator Moynihan had great regard for Kristol, referring to him in the speech as “perhaps the preeminent conservative intellectual of our age.” Moynihan then went on to make this observation about Ronald Reagan’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget:  

But then a younger generation comes along which elevates thought into belief. Not only are the ideas of their mentors true, they are the Only Truth. Given by the Lord Himself. What began as skepticism concerning received doctrine transmutes into fierce conviction.

Elsewhere Moynihan describes Stockman as “an absorbing figure to a student of ideology not least because of his near addiction. He goes on as if the Reaganites had appointed him a kind of party theorist responsible for doctrinal conformity.” 

And then there’s this: 

[Stockman] describes his migration from the student Left — SDS and suchlike — to the Republican Right in terms which are legitimately intellectual but also, at times, clearly at that point where a measured judgment as to the preponderance of evidence crosses over into the zone of radical conviction. He cites authors of meticulous clarity and caution with that element of fervor we associate with zealotry and even intolerance.

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In an April 21, 1986 lecture at New York University (found in the collection Came the Revolution), Daniel Patrick Moynihan has some words to say about David Stockman. Moynihan quotes Stockman as saying (in his memoir), “To me, [Irving] Kristol was a secular incarnation of the Lord Himself.” 

Senator Moynihan had great regard for Kristol, referring to him in the speech as “perhaps the preeminent conservative intellectual of our age.” Moynihan then went on to make this observation about Ronald Reagan’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget:  

But then a younger generation comes along which elevates thought into belief. Not only are the ideas of their mentors true, they are the Only Truth. Given by the Lord Himself. What began as skepticism concerning received doctrine transmutes into fierce conviction.

Elsewhere Moynihan describes Stockman as “an absorbing figure to a student of ideology not least because of his near addiction. He goes on as if the Reaganites had appointed him a kind of party theorist responsible for doctrinal conformity.” 

And then there’s this: 

[Stockman] describes his migration from the student Left — SDS and suchlike — to the Republican Right in terms which are legitimately intellectual but also, at times, clearly at that point where a measured judgment as to the preponderance of evidence crosses over into the zone of radical conviction. He cites authors of meticulous clarity and caution with that element of fervor we associate with zealotry and even intolerance.

I cite these passages from Moynihan because the Stockman Temptation–to take it upon oneself to enforce rigid ideology, to attack those who are not sufficiently pure and fervid, and to remove conservatism from any real-world context–is arguably more widespread today than it was thirty years ago.

We’re seeing some self-described Reaganites who are far more ideological and interested in doctrinal conformity than Reagan ever was. Making matters worse, they invoke the name of Reagan and claim they are his heirs. In fact they seem to know very little about the real Reagan–his temperament and graceful bearing, his governing style, and some of the basic facts of his years in office (including his bipartisan deals, his willingness to make accommodations with key elements of the Great Society and the New Deal, and his ability to pick his battles wisely and with prudence).  

They revere not the real Reagan but an imaginary one–the one who validates their own zeal, their quest for doctrinal purity, and their own resentments. To invoke a line we often heard from conservatives during the Reagan years: Let Reagan be Reagan. 

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Non-Intervention Has a Price Too

According to David Remnick, Fareed Zakaria is a writer whom President Obama “reads and consults.” He is also a writer that I read and respect—but do not always agree with.  His latest column, is a case in point. It argues for a more hands-off American attitude to the Middle East in line with the president’s policies.

Zakaria argues that the current mess in the Middle East—with active wars going on in Iraq and Syria, terrorism worsening in Lebanon, a new military regime in Egypt, Iran in possession of 19,000 centrifuges, etc.—is not America’s making. He blames instead the machinations of European powers who empowered minorities like the Syrian Alawites, “the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism,” and “the invasion of Iraq.”

Of the first two factors, there is not much debate—but it seems a bit of a stretch to ascribe events going on as far afield as Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran to the ripple effects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It is, in fact, as much of a stretch as the mirror-image argument made by Bush partisans who claim, with equally scant evidence, that the invasion catalyzed the Arab Spring a decade later.

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According to David Remnick, Fareed Zakaria is a writer whom President Obama “reads and consults.” He is also a writer that I read and respect—but do not always agree with.  His latest column, is a case in point. It argues for a more hands-off American attitude to the Middle East in line with the president’s policies.

Zakaria argues that the current mess in the Middle East—with active wars going on in Iraq and Syria, terrorism worsening in Lebanon, a new military regime in Egypt, Iran in possession of 19,000 centrifuges, etc.—is not America’s making. He blames instead the machinations of European powers who empowered minorities like the Syrian Alawites, “the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism,” and “the invasion of Iraq.”

Of the first two factors, there is not much debate—but it seems a bit of a stretch to ascribe events going on as far afield as Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran to the ripple effects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It is, in fact, as much of a stretch as the mirror-image argument made by Bush partisans who claim, with equally scant evidence, that the invasion catalyzed the Arab Spring a decade later.

There is little doubt that the early years of the Iraq War created a disaster in Iraq—but the success of the 2007-2008 surge bought Iraq another opportunity to develop peacefully. The fact that this opportunity has been lost is, in no small part, due to America’s lack of follow-up. In particular, President Obama’s failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq and his rubber-stamping of Nouri al-Maliki’s election to a second term after a hung election in 2010. At least that’s my analysis.

Zakaria will have none of it. He writes of this argument: “Not only does this perspective misunderstand the very deep nature of the conflict in the Middle East but it also fails to see that Washington choosing one side over another made matters substantially worse.”

But the fact that the Middle East has deep problems doesn’t mean that the U.S. and other outside powers can’t help to ameliorate them. (Isn’t this what Secretary of State John Kerry and others argue when they press for more American involvement in the “peace process”?) And in fact it is American non-involvement in Iraq that is empowering Maliki and his sectarian tendencies. When the U.S. was more actively involved in 2007-2009, we served as a bridge between Shiite sectarians in Baghdad and Sunni sheikhs in Anbar. Now that bridge is gone, and open warfare has erupted between the two camps. Lacking much influence, Obama has been reduced to fulfilling Maliki’s arms orders, which in fact does fuel the conflict.

None of this is to deny the very real costs of the Iraq War. But it is to point out that non-interventionism comes with a heavy price too, and that price is now being paid in blood in Iraq, Syria, and beyond.

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Obama’s Wishful Thinking

Last week, Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution and I had an op-ed in the New York Times which suggested that President Obama is looking not just to sign a nuclear deal with Iran but to convert that state from a destabilizing force into part of a concert of the Middle East that would keep the peace along with the U.S., EU, and Russia. Our argument, that Obama is seeking a “Nixon to China” moment, was based not on the president’s explicit remarks, which are characteristically cautious, but rather on reading between the lines of his rhetoric and actions.

Now comes further evidence that we were right, in the form of New Yorker editor David Remnick’s revealing interview with the president.

Remnick writes as follows:

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Last week, Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution and I had an op-ed in the New York Times which suggested that President Obama is looking not just to sign a nuclear deal with Iran but to convert that state from a destabilizing force into part of a concert of the Middle East that would keep the peace along with the U.S., EU, and Russia. Our argument, that Obama is seeking a “Nixon to China” moment, was based not on the president’s explicit remarks, which are characteristically cautious, but rather on reading between the lines of his rhetoric and actions.

Now comes further evidence that we were right, in the form of New Yorker editor David Remnick’s revealing interview with the president.

Remnick writes as follows:

Ultimately, he envisages a new geopolitical equilibrium, one less turbulent than the current landscape of civil war, terror, and sectarian battle. “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” he told me. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.

This is wishful thinking, not a realistic assessment of U.S.-Iran relations at a time when the mullahs are more active than ever in backing violent proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain, among other states. The problem is that the costs of Obama’s Iran gambit are considerable. As Doran and I noted, the less that the U.S. does to oppose Iranian designs, the more that Sunni states will do—and in the process they will wind up empowering extremists of the kind who currently roam freely through western Iran and northern and eastern Syria. But the president seems blind to the costs of his outreach to Iran, which is worsening a regional civil war, because he is so mesmerized by the prospect of an agreement that will secure his place in foreign-policy history.

At one point Remnick, who seems to be channeling the inner Obama (he claims, echoing the president, that the GOP is “fuelled less by ideas than by resentments”), writes:  “A final pact, if one could be arrived at, would end the prospect of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and the hell that could follow: terror attacks, proxy battles, regional war—take your pick. An agreement could even help normalize relations between the United States and Iran for the first time since the Islamic Revolution, in 1979. Obama put the odds of a final accord at less than even, but, still, how was this not good news?”

The problem is that this is undoubtedly how Obama views the issue too—with the biggest threat coming not from an Iran in possession of nuclear weapons but from the “prospect of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.” Because the mullahs know where he stands, and realize how little they have to fear from Obama now that they have succeeded in getting him to back off crushing sanctions, he is unlikely to achieve his ambition of stopping the Iranian nuclear program, much less his grand design of integrating Iran into a peaceful new equilibrium in the Middle East.

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Mike Lee Makes It Interesting

There remains no good reason why American television consumers must endure the monarchical monotony of the president’s annual State of the Union address. It is usually unnecessary and intolerably dull, though sometimes, when we’re lucky, it’s simply unnecessary. (Say this for Richard Nixon: according to the American Presidency Project, one of his SOTU addresses clocked in at under thirty minutes, while another was not delivered at all, but written–the way it was and should again be. Meanwhile Bill Clinton’s final SOTU may still be droning on.)

As long as we’re subjected to the speech, however, the opposition party’s official response is logical: the response itself is of limited value, but it serves as a reminder that the president is not the king, merely an elected official. The response is also a PR minefield; no one ever gives a memorable response unless it’s memorable for the wrong reasons–a flat speech, or, as was the case last year, a desire for a drink of water that gave the media the distraction it was looking for so reporters didn’t have to pretend they were listening to the text.

But now there is a third speech of the night. And, surprisingly, it has defied the odds to become the only (possibly) interesting address of the evening. One of the major Tea Party groups has backed in recent years a Tea Party response. The reason it’s interesting is that, depending on the speaker, it is just as much a response to the (Republican) response to the State of the Union. The speech benefits from the lower expectations of this bronze-medal address and the tension between the Tea Party and what they consider the “establishment” party leadership. But there’s an extra boost to the interest in this year’s Tea Party response: it’s being delivered by Mike Lee.

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There remains no good reason why American television consumers must endure the monarchical monotony of the president’s annual State of the Union address. It is usually unnecessary and intolerably dull, though sometimes, when we’re lucky, it’s simply unnecessary. (Say this for Richard Nixon: according to the American Presidency Project, one of his SOTU addresses clocked in at under thirty minutes, while another was not delivered at all, but written–the way it was and should again be. Meanwhile Bill Clinton’s final SOTU may still be droning on.)

As long as we’re subjected to the speech, however, the opposition party’s official response is logical: the response itself is of limited value, but it serves as a reminder that the president is not the king, merely an elected official. The response is also a PR minefield; no one ever gives a memorable response unless it’s memorable for the wrong reasons–a flat speech, or, as was the case last year, a desire for a drink of water that gave the media the distraction it was looking for so reporters didn’t have to pretend they were listening to the text.

But now there is a third speech of the night. And, surprisingly, it has defied the odds to become the only (possibly) interesting address of the evening. One of the major Tea Party groups has backed in recent years a Tea Party response. The reason it’s interesting is that, depending on the speaker, it is just as much a response to the (Republican) response to the State of the Union. The speech benefits from the lower expectations of this bronze-medal address and the tension between the Tea Party and what they consider the “establishment” party leadership. But there’s an extra boost to the interest in this year’s Tea Party response: it’s being delivered by Mike Lee.

The Utah senator combines the grassroots bona fides of other Tea Partiers with an energetic reform agenda–the latter being arguably more significant as the right seeks to find its way out of the wilderness. Ross Douthat, long a proponent of reform conservatism, notes that high-profile support for reform, such as that of Paul Ryan, has mostly gone nowhere, and adds:

Which is why the most consequential recent development for the G.O.P. might not actually be Chris Christie’s traffic scandal. It might, instead, be the fact that reform conservatism suddenly has national politicians in its corner.

The first is Mike Lee, the junior Senator from Utah, who has pivoted from leading the defund-Obamacare movement to basically becoming a one-stop shop for provocative reform ideas: in the last six months, his office has proposed a new family-friendly tax reform, reached across the aisle to work on criminal justice issues and offered significant new proposals on transportation and higher education reform.

The second is Marco Rubio, whose speech two weeks ago on the anniversary of the declaration of the war on poverty called for two major changes to the safety net: first, pooling federal antipoverty programs into a single fund that would allow more flexibility for state experiments; and second, replacing the earned-income tax credit with a direct wage subsidy designed to offer more help to low-income, single men.

The juxtaposition is noteworthy, because Rubio gave last year’s “official” GOP SOTU response despite rising to stardom as a Tea Party favorite, while Lee will give this year’s Tea Party response despite falling out of favor with some libertarians by advocating a community-minded conservatism with a focus on civil society.

Lee, then, has a foot in each camp. His hope is probably that he can blend the borders and blur the distinctions. What he’s more likely to find is that American conservatism was and remains a coalitional enterprise, and that he may not be granted the dual citizenship–Tea Partier and Establishmentarian–he seeks but rather be forced to choose.

That choice can be ignored at the moment because he is not considered an immediate prospective presidential candidate, which frees him up to shun either label and instead embrace reform. He also may combine elements of each in his response to the response to the SOTU. That means, strangely enough, that a vehicle established specifically for the purpose of elevating dissent within the ranks could be utilized to promote unity and consensus. That’s classic opposition-party behavior, of course, but Lee is clearly expecting–and planning for–a return to conservative governance.

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UNESCO Fiasco Explains Why ME Talks Fail

Did anyone really think a United Nations agency would sponsor a scholarly exhibition about the 3,500-year-old connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel? The world body’s constituent agencies have been cesspools of anti-Semitism for decades with many of them devoting a disproportionate amount of time, money and effort to attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state and to condemn its every action. Chief among the culprits has been UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), which endorsed the infamous 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution by the UN General Assembly on the anniversary of Kristallnacht and has since been a veritable playground for international Israel-bashers. The United States and Israel stopped paying dues to the agency in 2011 when it admitted “Palestine” as a full voting member although it is not a UN member state.

But, perhaps in an effort to win back American support, UNESCO agreed to host an exhibit on the Jews and their ancient homeland at its Paris headquarters. But all it took was a single letter of protest from the Arab members of the agency to get UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova to cancel the exhibit created by the Simon Wiesenthal Center on the grounds that it might harm the Middle East peace process. This is an outrageous insult to Jews everywhere since it treats the ties between the Jewish people and the land of Israel as a matter of debate rather than historical fact. As the author of the exhibit, historian Robert Wistrich has said, coming from an organization devoted to Holocaust commemoration, the decision once again illustrates that the UN “loves dead Jews” but regards the existence of live ones, especially in the state of Israel, as something it cannot stomach.

This is no surprise to anyone who follows the UN, but it is interesting to note that in explaining her decision to shelve the exhibit, Bokova used the same excuse cited by the U.S. State Department when it, too, chose not to co-sponsor the exhibit. Only Israel, Canada, and Montenegro were willing to put their names on the display. Though the U.S. has subsequently and rightly condemned Bokova’s decision, the Obama administration’s decision to keep its distance from the exhibit makes its rebuke to UNESCO an example of rank hypocrisy.

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Did anyone really think a United Nations agency would sponsor a scholarly exhibition about the 3,500-year-old connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel? The world body’s constituent agencies have been cesspools of anti-Semitism for decades with many of them devoting a disproportionate amount of time, money and effort to attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state and to condemn its every action. Chief among the culprits has been UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), which endorsed the infamous 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution by the UN General Assembly on the anniversary of Kristallnacht and has since been a veritable playground for international Israel-bashers. The United States and Israel stopped paying dues to the agency in 2011 when it admitted “Palestine” as a full voting member although it is not a UN member state.

But, perhaps in an effort to win back American support, UNESCO agreed to host an exhibit on the Jews and their ancient homeland at its Paris headquarters. But all it took was a single letter of protest from the Arab members of the agency to get UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova to cancel the exhibit created by the Simon Wiesenthal Center on the grounds that it might harm the Middle East peace process. This is an outrageous insult to Jews everywhere since it treats the ties between the Jewish people and the land of Israel as a matter of debate rather than historical fact. As the author of the exhibit, historian Robert Wistrich has said, coming from an organization devoted to Holocaust commemoration, the decision once again illustrates that the UN “loves dead Jews” but regards the existence of live ones, especially in the state of Israel, as something it cannot stomach.

This is no surprise to anyone who follows the UN, but it is interesting to note that in explaining her decision to shelve the exhibit, Bokova used the same excuse cited by the U.S. State Department when it, too, chose not to co-sponsor the exhibit. Only Israel, Canada, and Montenegro were willing to put their names on the display. Though the U.S. has subsequently and rightly condemned Bokova’s decision, the Obama administration’s decision to keep its distance from the exhibit makes its rebuke to UNESCO an example of rank hypocrisy.

The UNESCO decision to avoid anything having to do with the history of the region might make sense if the world body refrained from endorsements of the Palestinian view of events. But this is the same United Nations that holds an annual International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (expanded now to a “Year of Solidarity” in 2014), an event that is nothing less than an Israel-bashing festival, replete with pseudo-historical displays aimed at walking back the UN’s 1947 decision to create a Jewish state in the then-British Mandate for Palestine alongside an Arab one.

As Wistrich says in an interview with the Times of Israel, given UNESCO’s history of anti-Israel bias, he was skeptical from the start of the process of creating the exhibit. But he is especially angry about the State Department’s refusal to endorse the exhibit and not unreasonably believes it may have set the stage for Bokova’s decision to bail on the project:

The State Department had been repeatedly asked to cosponsor the exhibition, and “after sitting on the fence for a long time they declined, using a very similar argument to that used by the Arab delegates,” Wistrich said.

Earlier this month, Kelly Siekman, the State Department’s director of UNESCO affairs, wrote to the Wiesenthal Center: “At this sensitive juncture in the ongoing Middle East peace process, and after thoughtful consideration with review at the highest levels, we have made the decision that the United States will not be able to cosponsor the current exhibit during its display at UNESCO headquarters. As a rule, the United States does not cosponsor exhibits at UNESCO without oversight of content development from conception to final production.”

“That makes the U.S., passively at least, complicit in the UNESCO decision,” Wistrich charged. “Because in my view UNESCO would not have felt that it could, with impunity, act in this way if the U.S. had been a cosponsor.”

The reason that the exhibit was necessary in the first place was to correct the depiction of the state of Israel purveyed by the Palestinians and their international cheerleaders as a colonial error in which Jews were dumped on Arab territory in order to compensate for the Holocaust. If Jews are seen as having connections and a presence in historic Israel/Palestine millennia before 1948, it undermines the canard—a staple of Palestinian Authority propaganda and incitement—to delegitimize the notion that Jews have any right to sovereignty anywhere in the Middle East, making peace talks pointless.

That is exactly the sort of delusional perspective the State Department should be working hard to oppose. But the American decision to distance itself from the project sent an unmistakable message that the Obama administration views any talk about Jewish ties to the land as too controversial to warrant its involvement. So long as the Palestinians are enabled by both the UN and the U.S. to continue denying Jewish history, the peace process that both Bokova and the State Department claim to take so seriously  has no chance of success. 

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