Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 3, 2014

Negotiations: The Never-Ending Story

As champions of “soft power” America and her allies have adopted an attitude of unprecedented powerlessness that has left the West with no other way to deal with our enemies than through negotiations. Unwilling to back these negotiations up with even the threat of tough action–shrinking from so much as further sanctions against Iran–Western diplomats find themselves trapped in an endless cycle of appeasement and protracted, yet fruitless, negotiations and peace conferences.   

In recent days both Secretary of State John Kerry and the EU’s foreign-affairs representative Baroness Ashton have made announcements proposing an extension to the various Middle East negotiations they are involved in overseeing. To no one’s surprise, Kerry is now saying that the time period for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will need to be extended beyond the original, and always improbable, nine-month period that the State Department had set. Far more disturbingly, Baroness Ashton has suggested an extension on the five-month-long negotiation period over Iran’s nuclear program–an unbelievable suggestion given that the round of negotiations in question hasn’t even begun yet.  

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As champions of “soft power” America and her allies have adopted an attitude of unprecedented powerlessness that has left the West with no other way to deal with our enemies than through negotiations. Unwilling to back these negotiations up with even the threat of tough action–shrinking from so much as further sanctions against Iran–Western diplomats find themselves trapped in an endless cycle of appeasement and protracted, yet fruitless, negotiations and peace conferences.   

In recent days both Secretary of State John Kerry and the EU’s foreign-affairs representative Baroness Ashton have made announcements proposing an extension to the various Middle East negotiations they are involved in overseeing. To no one’s surprise, Kerry is now saying that the time period for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will need to be extended beyond the original, and always improbable, nine-month period that the State Department had set. Far more disturbingly, Baroness Ashton has suggested an extension on the five-month-long negotiation period over Iran’s nuclear program–an unbelievable suggestion given that the round of negotiations in question hasn’t even begun yet.  

Indeed, Baroness Ashton’s comments about the Iranian negotiations are by far the most concerning. A consensus seems to be forming among many intelligence experts who say that if Iran wished to produce nuclear weapons it could possibly achieve this within a month to six weeks. As it is, the next round of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, which are being overseen by Kerry and Ashton as part of the P5+1 grouping, are due to run for five months starting from February 18. During that period not only does Iran receive relief from some of the sanctions but it is also permitted to continue with enrichment of uranium and so far has not been obliged to dismantle any of its nuclear infrastructure.

Speaking at the security conference in Munich over the weekend, Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif had been pushing for precisely such an extension. This is hardly surprising given the benefits Iran derives from the current arrangements. For Ashton to be voicing such suggestions before negotiations are even underway seems recklessly irresponsible considering the gravity of the stakes involved. Yet, State Department spokespeople have also started hinting that the real time frame they have in mind may be more like six months to a year. In fact the phrase used by deputy State Department spokesperson Marie Harf was “six months, or a year or at any time.” Yes, any time. The message to the Iranians is clear. No need to get serious now, if you keep playing for time then really you can have all the time you need.

The Western powers seem to have adopted an attitude of hyperbolic weakness, in which the fear of assertive action is more frightening than the worst acts taken by our enemies against us. Paralyzed by this attitude, the U.S. and its allies refuse to employ any leverage to pressure the Iranians to cease what is after all an activity proscribed by six separate UN Security Council resolutions. Under this self-imposed attitude of powerlessness, the Western nations can do nothing but negotiate endlessly and offer ever more concessions to the Iranians so as to keep them at the negotiating table and avoid being exposed to their own publics for what they really are: appeasers.

This attitude of defenselessness to the will of the intransigent is even on display in America’s dealings with those whom the U.S. has nothing to fear from, in this case the Palestinians. Kerry’s latest suggestion that he won’t oblige the negotiating parties to accept his final-status parameters within the time frame he set has arisen out of the refusal by the Palestinians to accept the Jewish state. The nine-month period allotted to negotiate a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse was always wildly unrealistic, but it at least recognized that the negotiations couldn’t be allowed to run indefinitely. Given the number of concessions the Palestinians had demanded from the Israelis before even agreeing to join peace talks, it was clear what their attitude to the whole process was going to be. Kerry set up the time frame precisely to compel both sides to take the talks seriously, and now he’s caved on just about his only ground rule.

The Ashton-Kerry mindset is one that appears to fundamentally loathe the use of Western power and is besotted with the notion of peaceful dialogue and coexistence in a world in which all parties are believed to be rational and reasonable. Yet, when you bring such an attitude to the unreasonable and the calculating you find yourself being strung along endlessly. The Palestinians know Kerry will not be secretary of state forever and the Iranians know that if they just drag talks out long enough they will get the concessions they need and will likely be able to achieve nuclear weapons beneath the radar, hidden behind the charade of august negotiations, in elegant European cities.      

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ObamaCare: Yesterday’s Failures Today

The ObamaCare rollout has been such a mess that explaining its manifold failures has become somewhat complex. But basic news coverage of the law is still studded with quotes that, while describing individual weaknesses of the law, would serve as succinct summations of the government’s incompetence. Today’s New York Times story offers a couple of good candidates.

The back story, briefly, is that last month more results from the Oregon Medicaid study were released, further undercutting the central claims of ObamaCare. Part of the recriminations that followed had to do with the fact that the government had not been utilizing randomized studies, which are considered the “gold standard” in medical research, when planning out ObamaCare. Today the Times carries a story on how ObamaCare is funneling taxpayer money into new research facilities–and you won’t be surprised to hear that the government’s new facilities are not using the most reliable methodology:

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The ObamaCare rollout has been such a mess that explaining its manifold failures has become somewhat complex. But basic news coverage of the law is still studded with quotes that, while describing individual weaknesses of the law, would serve as succinct summations of the government’s incompetence. Today’s New York Times story offers a couple of good candidates.

The back story, briefly, is that last month more results from the Oregon Medicaid study were released, further undercutting the central claims of ObamaCare. Part of the recriminations that followed had to do with the fact that the government had not been utilizing randomized studies, which are considered the “gold standard” in medical research, when planning out ObamaCare. Today the Times carries a story on how ObamaCare is funneling taxpayer money into new research facilities–and you won’t be surprised to hear that the government’s new facilities are not using the most reliable methodology:

The idea seemed transformative. The Affordable Care Act would fund a new research outfit evocatively named the Innovation Center to discover how to most effectively deliver health care, with $10 billion to spend over a decade.

But now that the center has gotten started, many researchers and economists are disturbed that it is not using randomized clinical trials, the rigorous method that is widely considered the gold standard in medical and social science research. Such trials have long been required to prove the efficacy of medicines, and similarly designed studies have guided efforts to reform welfare-to-work, education and criminal justice programs.

The story then quotes health experts complaining about the missed opportunities. And what is the government using instead of the “gold standard”? The Times explains:

Instead, the Innovation Center has so far mostly undertaken demonstration projects; about 40 of them are now underway. Those projects test an idea, like a new payment system that might encourage better medical care — with all of a study’s participants, and then rely on mathematical modeling to judge the results.

Dr. Patrick Conway, the director of the center, defended its reliance on demonstration projects, saying they allowed researchers to evaluate programs in the real world and regularly adapt them. “Does it look like it is working?” he asked. “If it does not look like it is working, we can stop.”

That is the first of two classic quotes from the story underlining the government’s failures: “If it does not look like it is working, we can stop.” That’s not, apparently, the case with ObamaCare. It doesn’t appear to be working but the government’s natural tendency when watching bad money float away is to toss good money in after it.

But the better candidate for “ObamaCare in a nutshell” comes from the Times’s description of the activities of two health experts, one of whom was involved in the Oregon study. The Times notes the fact that the U.S. has been slow to use randomized studies despite their accuracy, and then adds:

The situation is different in the developing world. There, randomized trials have become common in health care and other areas, sponsored by a variety of groups like J-PAL, a global network of researchers that was organized by M.I.T. and Harvard economists.

So far, J-PAL has conducted over 440 randomized trials in 55 countries, according to Amy Finkelstein, an M.I.T. economist.

Dr. Finkelstein and Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economist, have now started J-PAL North America to spur randomized trials in, among other areas, health care.

So there you have it: in order to fix one of ObamaCare’s weaknesses, experts are importing methods from the developing world.

Now, in fairness to the administration, the lack of randomized trials is an issue across the board–it’s not a problem invented for or by ObamaCare. But it’s still quite telling that with a blank slate (and a practically blank check of taxpayer money) the government founded an Innovation Center to take us into the future of government health-care services with the past’s outdated and maligned systems and practices.

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Meanwhile in North Korea …

The 2014 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” presented by national intelligence director James Clapper to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week had a stunning conclusion regarding Iran, as Tom Wilson and Evelyn Gordon have noted. Clapper told the committee Iran “has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons.” The “central issue” is now “its political will to do so.” In other words, Iran can produce nuclear weapons if it wants; it only needs to decide when. 

The portion of the Clapper report relating to North Korea has been little reported, but it is equally stunning, and it bears on the situation involving Iran. Let’s review what happened in the last three years regarding North Korea, notwithstanding crippling sanctions and a tableful of options. 

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The 2014 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” presented by national intelligence director James Clapper to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week had a stunning conclusion regarding Iran, as Tom Wilson and Evelyn Gordon have noted. Clapper told the committee Iran “has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons.” The “central issue” is now “its political will to do so.” In other words, Iran can produce nuclear weapons if it wants; it only needs to decide when. 

The portion of the Clapper report relating to North Korea has been little reported, but it is equally stunning, and it bears on the situation involving Iran. Let’s review what happened in the last three years regarding North Korea, notwithstanding crippling sanctions and a tableful of options. 

The 2011 Assessment stated “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” The 2012 Assessment reported “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.” The 2013 Assessment concluded the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs “pose a serious threat to the United States.” The 2014 Assessment states North Korea has expanded its uranium enrichment facility; has restarted its plutonium reactor; has begun fielding its road-mobile ICBM system; is developing long-range missile technology capable of directly threatening the United States; and is making efforts to market ballistic missiles, raising “global security concerns.” 

In other words, between 2011 and 2014, North Korea went from (a) having nuclear-weapons “capability,” to (b) having nuclear weapons, to (c) having weapons and missile programs posing “a serious threat” to the U.S., to (d) starting to sell ballistic missiles across the globe. As North Korea moved steadily to nuclear-weapons capability, then weapons, then missile delivery systems, then global impact, the effect of the unfortunate message to Iran from watching what happened to North Korea (nothing) was entirely predictable.

Back in 2012, when Clapper presented the 2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment to the Senate, he had the following exchange with Sen. Lindsey Graham about Iran: 

SEN. GRAHAM: Do you think they’re building these power plants for peaceful nuclear power generation purposes?

CLAPPER: That remains to be seen.

SEN. GRAHAM: You have doubt about the Iranians’ intention when it comes to making a nuclear weapon?

CLAPPER: Uh-h, I do.  I, I, uh, I –

SEN. GRAHAM: You’re not so sure they’re trying to make a bomb? You doubt whether or not they are trying to create a nuclear bomb?

CLAPPER: I think they are keeping themselves in a position to make that decision, but there are certain things they have not yet done and have not done for some time.

SEN. GRAHAM: How would we know when they have made that decision?

CLAPPER: I am happy to discuss that with you in closed session.

SEN. GRAHAM: Well I guess my point is that I take a different view. I’m very convinced that they’re going down the road of developing a nuclear weapon. I can’t read anyone’s mind, but it seems logical to me that they believe that if they get a nuclear weapon they’ll become North Korea …

Clapper’s 2014 report states “Iran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East” and has “the means and motivation to develop longer-range missiles, including an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).” Perhaps Iran is interested in a road-mobile one, or long-range missile technology capable of directly threatening the United States. The report indicates another country–one that in a different era might have been called part of an “axis of evil”–may be willing to help out, if it is not already doing so. 

Meanwhile, the administration purports not to know whether Iran decided to follow the trail blazed by North Korea. We may eventually find out, however, that “Uh-h, I do.  I, I, uh” was simply the least untruthful statement Clapper could make, as the slow-motion Munich proceeded.

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Israelis, Palestinians, and the Status Quo

With Secretary of State Kerry gradually unveiling his proposal for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is worth asking what it is that Kerry seeks to solve. The present situation is certainly far from ideal. Yet, most Israelis feel safe most of the time and most Palestinians don’t live under “occupation”; they live in areas controlled and governed by the Palestinian Authority. In the last decade this conflict has generated comparatively fewer casualties than those in nearby countries and if one doesn’t count Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon or Hamas-controlled Gaza, which are after all not even being included in Kerry’s peace plan, then the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of recent years has been positively uneventful. A cold war between Israel and the PA.

For most Israelis and most Palestinians the present situation is tolerated with the understanding that this is not a permanent arrangement. What each side thinks a permanent arrangement should look like, however, is still vastly different. In this way the unresolved nature of the standoff leaves open the hope for each side that their vision will win out. Drawing from this, there are those on the two sides that prefer perpetuating and advancing the status quo, even if only as means of keeping open the possibility of achieving more far-reaching objectives in the long run. For these parties it has essentially become about playing the long game. For each the hoped-for future remaining just out of reach.

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With Secretary of State Kerry gradually unveiling his proposal for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is worth asking what it is that Kerry seeks to solve. The present situation is certainly far from ideal. Yet, most Israelis feel safe most of the time and most Palestinians don’t live under “occupation”; they live in areas controlled and governed by the Palestinian Authority. In the last decade this conflict has generated comparatively fewer casualties than those in nearby countries and if one doesn’t count Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon or Hamas-controlled Gaza, which are after all not even being included in Kerry’s peace plan, then the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of recent years has been positively uneventful. A cold war between Israel and the PA.

For most Israelis and most Palestinians the present situation is tolerated with the understanding that this is not a permanent arrangement. What each side thinks a permanent arrangement should look like, however, is still vastly different. In this way the unresolved nature of the standoff leaves open the hope for each side that their vision will win out. Drawing from this, there are those on the two sides that prefer perpetuating and advancing the status quo, even if only as means of keeping open the possibility of achieving more far-reaching objectives in the long run. For these parties it has essentially become about playing the long game. For each the hoped-for future remaining just out of reach.

While the Palestinian population in the West Bank is clearly far from happy with the status quo, it also seems that they prefer an outcome that is unachievable as things stand. Electoral support for Hamas and polling of Palestinians in recent years would suggest most Palestinians either reject the two-state proposal outright, or they believe two states should be used as a step toward eventually eliminating the Jewish state. The dream of seeing Israel ended and Palestinians return in its place has remained prominent and unaltered, constituting the core of Palestinian identity ever since it was formed in the aftermath of Israel’s establishment. This is what most Palestinian politicians continue to express support for–in Arabic at least–and it’s what they broadcast on their television networks and teach in their schools. 

The Palestinian leadership also has multiple practical reasons for maintaining the status quo. For one thing, they have long grown fat on the financial aid and sympathy that comes with playing the part of the ever-destitute nation. They are also confident that under the status quo they are better able to advance their strategy for weakening Israel, chipping away at its international legitimacy while believing that demographics are ultimately on their side. With every round of negotiations they have been able to win more concessions from Israel, the consensus about the final-status parameters gradually drifting in their favor. When new talks begin it is with Israel’s previous concessions assumed as given, with the expectation that Israel now agree to further demands. The division of Jerusalem and land swaps being a case in point. Each time the amount Israel is obliged to offer increases.        

The Israeli public became sick of policing the Palestinians decades ago. The electoral success of those promising to end the impasse has been persistent, even in the face of unrelenting Palestinian terrorism. However, this hope for peace accompanied by the constant background noise of violence against Israeli civilians creates a strange kind of cognitive dissonance. Israelis find themselves unwilling to stay with the present arrangement, while not quite able to embrace a new one. 

Land-for-peace compromises only served to weaken Israel’s security, undermining the left-wing peace camp, adding weight to the arguments of Israel’s security hawks who, like many Israelis, still hope for a complete and definitive defeat of Palestinian terrorism. These voices insist that given current Palestinian attitudes and incitement, for now it is safer to manage the conflict than attempt to solve it. For such an agreement would mean evacuating the strategically vital Jordan Valley and abandoning the West Bank hilltops that overlook Israel’s narrow coastal strip where its major population centers, industrial infrastructure, and transit network are all situated. Israel would have to do this knowing a Palestinian state has every likelihood of turning out to be another failed state, a terror state and an Iranian satellite. Far better, they argue, to have the IDF in the West Bank, keeping Hamas and Islamic Jihad at bay, while strengthening the Jewish presence in the settlement blocks ensures that the areas most vital to Israel’s future will be retained in any agreement. 

In this way the unhappy status quo at least leaves open the possibility to people on both sides of eventually achieving their most precious objectives. The problem with Kerry’s final-status plan is that it threatens to permanently slam the door firmly shut on these hopes. We have already seen what unsettling the status quo looks like. It was during the Oslo years that suicide bombers first ventured into Israel’s cities. Equally, the failure of the Camp David peace talks in 2000 played no small part in unleashing the horrors of the second intifada.

Israel and the PA have already agreed to disagree, for now. Kerry may yet come to wish he’d left well enough alone.   

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Abbas’s NATO Gambit Is a Nonstarter

It would be quite an irony if the Obama administration, which has already withdrawn all U.S. troops from Iraq and may yet withdraw all of them from Afghanistan, while refusing to become heavily engaged in Syria or Libya, were to cap its tenure by dispatching U.S. troops to guard a new Palestinian state in the West Bank. It would also be pretty unlikely. It would be downright miraculous if troops from other NATO nations were to join U.S. troops on the front lines of what amounts to a fight against Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and myriad other radical groups.

That seems to be what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is proposing in this interview with Jodi Rudoren and Tom Friedman of the New York Times. He has told Secretary of State John Kerry, who for mysterious reasons has made the Israeli-Palestinian peace process his top priority, that a future Palestinian state will have its own police force but not army. To make up for the lack of armed forces, he wants to have “an American-led NATO force patrol a future Palestinian state indefinitely, with troops positioned throughout the territory, at all crossings, and within Jerusalem.”

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It would be quite an irony if the Obama administration, which has already withdrawn all U.S. troops from Iraq and may yet withdraw all of them from Afghanistan, while refusing to become heavily engaged in Syria or Libya, were to cap its tenure by dispatching U.S. troops to guard a new Palestinian state in the West Bank. It would also be pretty unlikely. It would be downright miraculous if troops from other NATO nations were to join U.S. troops on the front lines of what amounts to a fight against Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and myriad other radical groups.

That seems to be what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is proposing in this interview with Jodi Rudoren and Tom Friedman of the New York Times. He has told Secretary of State John Kerry, who for mysterious reasons has made the Israeli-Palestinian peace process his top priority, that a future Palestinian state will have its own police force but not army. To make up for the lack of armed forces, he wants to have “an American-led NATO force patrol a future Palestinian state indefinitely, with troops positioned throughout the territory, at all crossings, and within Jerusalem.”

To understand why this proposal is a nonstarter just think about how such a force would work. Imagine a force of, say, Americans, Brits, French, Germans, and Italians patrolling the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They might as well have a “kick me” sign on their backs–their very presence will make them an irresistible magnet for jihadists who want to score points against the Great Satan. If history is any guide, they will either suffer casualties which will drive most of them out (a la the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983 or attacks on Spanish forces in Iraq in 2004) or they will hunker down in a “force protection” mode which will make it utterly impossible for them to police the borders.

It is hard to know, in any case, how the multinational force could possibly stop arms smuggling or incursions by terrorists. Certainly U.S. troops, deployed in far greater numbers, with far more firepower and looser rules of engagement, have had little success in policing the borders of Afghanistan or Iraq.

Border interdiction, in any case, is only a small part of a more comprehensive security strategy which must involve gathering intelligence (including running agents) and arresting suspects. Would this NATO force have such powers and, even if it did, would it really exercise them? It’s hard to imagine, because if the outside peacekeepers were actually effective in stopping militant operations they would make themselves an even bigger target for suicide bombers. More likely the presence of foreign troops would hinder and deter effective action by Israeli forces to defend their own homeland.

Israel, of course, knows all this, and it is for this reason that it is unlikely to agree to any such force if it requires the pullback of Israeli troops from the borders of the West Bank. Israel has had experience before with international peacekeepers and it well remembers how little such forces did to protect Israel when deployed to protect against attack from Egypt (before the 1967 Six-Day War) or from Hezbollah when deployed in Lebanon more recently.

Abu Mazen’s proposal is a nice fantasy, and one embraced by ardent “peace processers” who think it will resolve the deep and understandable security concerns that Israel has about ceding power to an entity that continues to deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. But it is not a workable solution, even assuming (which we cannot know for sure) that the West Bank will continue to be overseen by the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority rather than fall to the more radical Hamas. The U.S. should not agree to put ground troops in harm’s way on such a nebulous mission and Israel should not agree to accept them.

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Cheerios, Coca-Cola, and the Left’s Tea Party Obsession

In a Friday blog post on yet another MSNBC controversy in which the network made biracial families the punch line of awkward joke, Pete asked an interesting question–and received something of an answer during the Super Bowl. Pete’s subject was the MSNBC tweet noting a Cheerios ad that featured a biracial family; the MSNBC Twitter feed snarked that the “rightwing” would hate the ad. This had come on the heels of an MSNBC television segment that ridiculed black children adopted by white families, which itself had been preceded by numerous troublesome race-related moments on MSNBC.

So Pete asked why the controversy over the Cheerios ad prompted an apology from station President Phil Griffin, and not any number of others. One explanation is that in this case an apology was demanded of him by the RNC, which threatened to boycott the network, working under the questionable assumption that people watch MSNBC. (The evidence suggests otherwise.) But another answer could be found in a different ad controversy during the Super Bowl, and what it says about the mindset of today’s leftists.

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In a Friday blog post on yet another MSNBC controversy in which the network made biracial families the punch line of awkward joke, Pete asked an interesting question–and received something of an answer during the Super Bowl. Pete’s subject was the MSNBC tweet noting a Cheerios ad that featured a biracial family; the MSNBC Twitter feed snarked that the “rightwing” would hate the ad. This had come on the heels of an MSNBC television segment that ridiculed black children adopted by white families, which itself had been preceded by numerous troublesome race-related moments on MSNBC.

So Pete asked why the controversy over the Cheerios ad prompted an apology from station President Phil Griffin, and not any number of others. One explanation is that in this case an apology was demanded of him by the RNC, which threatened to boycott the network, working under the questionable assumption that people watch MSNBC. (The evidence suggests otherwise.) But another answer could be found in a different ad controversy during the Super Bowl, and what it says about the mindset of today’s leftists.

A major difference between the Cheerios tweet and, say, the bizarre outburst on Melissa Harris-Perry’s political talk show is that the latter at least had a tangential connection to politics. Harris-Perry and her guests were mocking Mitt Romney’s adopted grandson, and so could at least claim they had a political target in sight when firing away at the innocent youngster. It is still appalling and inexcusable, but it could plausibly be portrayed as a political segment gone awry.

The same cannot be said for the tweet about the Cheerios ad. That tweet was much more revealing about MSNBC and the American left today. It’s true that, as Pete notes, MSNBC created an atmosphere in which it’s easy to imagine the tweeter (who was fired, apparently) following suit. But it was indeed a new low. When an MSNBC host like Chris Matthews accuses Newt Gingrich of racist word pronunciation, he’s trying to delegitimize an opponent of the president, to whom Matthews and his network are disturbingly loyal.

Behind the Cheerios tweet, however, was the assumption that conservative Americans–not Republican presidential candidates taking advantage of a wedge issue, but citizens throughout the country–are inherently bigoted people. Not only does this display the disdain leftists have for their fellow Americans, but it shows they can’t look at a biracial couple without thinking about the intersection of race and politics. If that’s the case, we’ve reached a troubling level of politicization of breakfast cereals, to say the least.

And that dynamic was again on display last night during the Super Bowl broadcast. Though the Cheerios ad went off without a hitch, there was another “controversial” ad: a Coca-Cola commercial presented a mash-up of people singing America the Beautiful in various languages, to emphasize the U.S. as a melting pot of immigrants who embraced their new country while retaining their cultural roots. Considering the pessimism at home and the anti-Americanism abroad, the ad was subtly uplifting without being too saccharine.

Allen West disagreed. The former congressman thought it “disturbing” and insufficiently pro-assimilation. West was not representative of the broader conservative political movements such as the Tea Party. News organizations that tried to push a conservative backlash story relied on unknown Twitter commenters–though by such a standard the entire left can also be painted as racist, misogynistic, etc.

But the more interesting reason the left pushed those stories was not because they found a genuine Tea Party backlash but because they predicted one. Twitter lit up in the moments during and after the ad with leftists proclaiming this to be yet another ad conservatives wouldn’t like, with the Tea Party specifically named. That is, the left cannot hear foreign languages or look at immigrants without being filled with politically-based revulsion.

This trend is yet another example of what Sonny Bunch has been calling the “emptiness of a politicized life.” It’s worth reading through Bunch’s various discussions of the phenomenon, because he pulls together a broad array of examples that get at the depth of the problem. But how obsessed by politics do you have to be to see a cereal or soda commercial during the Super Bowl and immediately think about what Tea Partiers might say? It’s unhealthy, and–as Phil Griffin seems to understand–it’s a far more problematic iteration of the ever-deteriorating political rationality of the left.

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Syrian Opposition Pillages Heritage

I spent several days last month in northeastern Syria, an area controlled neither by the regime nor the increasingly radicalized Sunni Arab opposition, but rather by Syrian Kurds who seek a third option. Just as in Iraq, the rest of Syria, and Israel, it’s hard to drive far without seeing historical mounds and remnants of un-excavated historical sites. Alas, even in the unlikely event peace comes to Syria, archaeologists never will be able to survey many of these sites because of rampant looting against the backdrop of the civil war.

Local authorities in northeastern Syria have fenced and posted guards at some of the sites, but the reports from displaced Arab about the Syrian opposition’s looting of archaeological museums in Aleppo, Homs, and elsewhere are cause for concern: According to various Syrians—none of whom are tied into the regime—some groups among the Syrian opposition and individual jihadis have systematically looted museums to sell artifacts for profit and to finance their jihad.

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I spent several days last month in northeastern Syria, an area controlled neither by the regime nor the increasingly radicalized Sunni Arab opposition, but rather by Syrian Kurds who seek a third option. Just as in Iraq, the rest of Syria, and Israel, it’s hard to drive far without seeing historical mounds and remnants of un-excavated historical sites. Alas, even in the unlikely event peace comes to Syria, archaeologists never will be able to survey many of these sites because of rampant looting against the backdrop of the civil war.

Local authorities in northeastern Syria have fenced and posted guards at some of the sites, but the reports from displaced Arab about the Syrian opposition’s looting of archaeological museums in Aleppo, Homs, and elsewhere are cause for concern: According to various Syrians—none of whom are tied into the regime—some groups among the Syrian opposition and individual jihadis have systematically looted museums to sell artifacts for profit and to finance their jihad.

How different the reaction of so many in the American and European academic communities to the very real looting of Syria’s heritage, versus the inflated tales of the decimation of the Baghdad Museum and various archaeological and heritage sites around Iraq. On April 16, 2003, the American Schools of Oriental Research, a professional organization for U.S. archaeologists working in the Middle East, declared the Baghdad Museum looting to be “the most severe blow to cultural heritage in modern history, comparable to the sack of Constantinople, the burning of the library at Alexandria, the Vandal and Mogul invasions, and the ravages of the conquistadors,” never mind that much of the theft at the Baghdad Museum turned out to be an inside job, and that most of the artifacts there were recovered.

Regardless, condemnation for the looting at the Baghdad Museum was warranted, even if marred by hyperbole. But the relative silence for the far greater damage currently being done to Syria’s heritage suggests political agendas among America’s academics trump objective concern for preservation of the past. And that is tragic.

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“Principle Had Made Its Painful Peace with Circumstance”

“Purer souls, sterner moralists, can and do argue that, far from being models for emulation, the architects of American constitutionalism were temporizers, or whistlers in the dark, or even covenanters with Satan himself,” the University of Chicago’s Ralph Lerner has written. Lerner went on to say:

Where such critics may see weakness and confusion, Lincoln unhesitatingly perceives prudence. The premise of his admiration is plain enough: “From the necessities of the case we should be compelled to form just such a government as our blessed fathers gave us.” Again, what Lincoln has in mind is a defense not of every jot and tittle of earlier policies and provisions but of the general stance the founders took toward the actual presence of slavery in the new nation. Its presence was a fact, not less a fact than its being a wrong. Neither fact might be ignored or wished away, and the authors of the Declaration responded to both. At one and the same time they both declared the right of all to the equal enjoyment of inalienable rights and took account of the circumstances standing in the way of an immediate universal attainment of these rights. A moral imperative was embedded in a far-from-yielding world and then left to work its influence…. Principle had made its painful peace with circumstance.

“It is to this policy, at once moral and prudential,” he added, “that Lincoln urges his countrymen to return.”

This strikes me as an elegant and historically informed way to help us think about two virtues that can be, but need not be, in tension: a deep commitment to principles and to prudence. 

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“Purer souls, sterner moralists, can and do argue that, far from being models for emulation, the architects of American constitutionalism were temporizers, or whistlers in the dark, or even covenanters with Satan himself,” the University of Chicago’s Ralph Lerner has written. Lerner went on to say:

Where such critics may see weakness and confusion, Lincoln unhesitatingly perceives prudence. The premise of his admiration is plain enough: “From the necessities of the case we should be compelled to form just such a government as our blessed fathers gave us.” Again, what Lincoln has in mind is a defense not of every jot and tittle of earlier policies and provisions but of the general stance the founders took toward the actual presence of slavery in the new nation. Its presence was a fact, not less a fact than its being a wrong. Neither fact might be ignored or wished away, and the authors of the Declaration responded to both. At one and the same time they both declared the right of all to the equal enjoyment of inalienable rights and took account of the circumstances standing in the way of an immediate universal attainment of these rights. A moral imperative was embedded in a far-from-yielding world and then left to work its influence…. Principle had made its painful peace with circumstance.

“It is to this policy, at once moral and prudential,” he added, “that Lincoln urges his countrymen to return.”

This strikes me as an elegant and historically informed way to help us think about two virtues that can be, but need not be, in tension: a deep commitment to principles and to prudence. 

The danger facing those who are active in politics is leaning too much toward one at the expense of the other. The result can be people who become ideologues devoted to abstract principles without taking into account actual circumstances (and vilify those who do). Still others will embrace compromise for its own sake, with no sense of what is trying to be achieved when it comes to justice and the ends of government. For principled politicians to make painful peace with circumstances, to shape a far-from-yielding world in a moral direction, is among the hardest balances to strike and the most impressive things to achieve. (None faced more difficult challenges, or met them as well, as did Lincoln.)

It’s perhaps worth noting that this task is made harder, not easier, by those who insist on elevating every debate, and even tactical differences, into an existential struggle between liberty and tyranny. Who have convinced themselves that the road to victory begins with excommunicating the non-pure–the heretics and apostates–in their midst. These voices are loud, often intemperate, and hardly conservative.

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An Old Idea, Still as Dumb as Ever

The New York Times has an op-ed this morning whose very title gives away its bias, “A New Way to Rein in Fat Cats.” “Fat cats,” of course, is a highly pejorative term designating people who have large incomes. In this case it refers not to people who inherited lots of money and spend their lives yacht racing and polo playing, not to Hollywood stars pulling down $20 million a picture, but specifically to corporate executives.

The author of this op-ed, Douglas K. Smith, wants to limit the compensation of the executives of corporations who do business with the federal government to 20 times the pay of its lowest-paid workers. If President Obama’s executive order requiring a minimum wage of $10.10 is issued, then the highest paid worker in a company paying someone the minimum wage would, assuming a forty-hour work week, earn $420,160. But CEO’s are not paid wages, they are paid a salary and they work far more than 40 hours a week. Like the president, they get 3 a.m. phone calls. They have to testify before Congress. They travel a lot. They make tough decisions that can cost or earn billions. It takes years of on-the-job training to be ready for the top job in a huge corporation. (If you’d like an example of what happens when an unqualified person tries to run a large organization, I refer you to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.)

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The New York Times has an op-ed this morning whose very title gives away its bias, “A New Way to Rein in Fat Cats.” “Fat cats,” of course, is a highly pejorative term designating people who have large incomes. In this case it refers not to people who inherited lots of money and spend their lives yacht racing and polo playing, not to Hollywood stars pulling down $20 million a picture, but specifically to corporate executives.

The author of this op-ed, Douglas K. Smith, wants to limit the compensation of the executives of corporations who do business with the federal government to 20 times the pay of its lowest-paid workers. If President Obama’s executive order requiring a minimum wage of $10.10 is issued, then the highest paid worker in a company paying someone the minimum wage would, assuming a forty-hour work week, earn $420,160. But CEO’s are not paid wages, they are paid a salary and they work far more than 40 hours a week. Like the president, they get 3 a.m. phone calls. They have to testify before Congress. They travel a lot. They make tough decisions that can cost or earn billions. It takes years of on-the-job training to be ready for the top job in a huge corporation. (If you’d like an example of what happens when an unqualified person tries to run a large organization, I refer you to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.)

So corporate CEOs may be overpaid, they may underachieve, but no one off the editorial pages of the Times can argue that they don’t work hard. Running a multi-billion-dollar organization is a very time-consuming, demanding, high-stress task that very, very few people have the skills and talents to handle.

So corporate CEOs are highly paid because market forces dictate that they be so. If someone has rare skills and talents that are in high demand, they will earn lots of money. For instance, there are only a handful of people in the country who can throw a baseball 60 feet 6 inches through a strike zone at 95 miles per hour. But Cliff Lee of the Philadelphia Phillies can. That’s why he was paid about $7,500 per pitch last season to do so.

So Mr. Smith’s bright idea is nothing more than a price-fixing scheme to stick it to a group that’s perennially unpopular on the left. I doubt he advocates that Cliff Lee be paid no more than 20 times what the janitors at Citizens Bank Park are paid. I equally doubt that President Obama’s Hollywood friends, who bankroll him so generously at $50,000-a-plate dinners, would be willing to settle for a lousy $400,000 a year in income. Private jets are expensive. So are $50,000-a-plate dinners.

Besides, this nonsense has been tried before. In 1993, Congress and President Clinton limited the deductibility of corporate executive salaries to $1 million. What happened? Nothing. Corporations quickly found ways around the salary cap in order to get the executive talent they felt they needed.

So the government can dictate price controls. The editorial board of the New York Times can write glowing editorials about “fairness.” And market forces will work their inevitable way regardless.

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