Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 11, 2014

Presbyterians Declare War on the Jews

In the last decade, several mainstream American Protestant denominations have flirted with resolutions endorsing boycotts of companies doing business with Israel. Most of these efforts have been defeated, albeit narrowly, by strenuous efforts by Jewish groups determined to preserve good interfaith relations as well as by Christians who wanted no part of a movement dedicated to waging economic war on a democratic state. In most cases, these battles have involved a small cadre of left-wing activists involved in church leadership groups that had little support among ministers, and even less among rank-and-file church members. Thus, even the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), a church that has a particularly virulent group of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel activists working in positions of influence, failed to pass a divestment resolution in 2012. But despite that defeat, those anti-Israel elements have now regrouped and launched a new initiative that threatens to escalate the battle within the church and to undermine any remnant of good will that still exists between this Presbyterian group (the PCUSA is just one among a number of groups that call themselves Presbyterians) and American Jews.

As the Times of Israel reports, the Presbyterians’ Israel Palestinian Mission Network (IPMN) has issued a “study guide” about the Middle East conflict that will forever change the relationship between the church and the Jewish people. The 74-page illustrated booklet and companion DVD entitled Zionism Unsettled was published last month for use by the church’s 2.4 million members. Unlike other left-wing critiques of Israel, the Presbyterian pamphlet isn’t content to register disapproval of Israeli policies and West Bank settlements or to lament the plight of the Palestinians. The booklet is a full-blown attack against the very concept of Zionism and seeks to compare Zionism to the Christian anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust and other historical atrocities. Its purpose is to brand Israel as an illegitimate entity and to treat its American Jewish supporters as having strayed from the values of their religion. Zionism Unsettled not only swallows the Palestinian narrative about Middle East history whole, it is nothing less than a declaration of war on Israel and American Jewry.

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In the last decade, several mainstream American Protestant denominations have flirted with resolutions endorsing boycotts of companies doing business with Israel. Most of these efforts have been defeated, albeit narrowly, by strenuous efforts by Jewish groups determined to preserve good interfaith relations as well as by Christians who wanted no part of a movement dedicated to waging economic war on a democratic state. In most cases, these battles have involved a small cadre of left-wing activists involved in church leadership groups that had little support among ministers, and even less among rank-and-file church members. Thus, even the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), a church that has a particularly virulent group of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel activists working in positions of influence, failed to pass a divestment resolution in 2012. But despite that defeat, those anti-Israel elements have now regrouped and launched a new initiative that threatens to escalate the battle within the church and to undermine any remnant of good will that still exists between this Presbyterian group (the PCUSA is just one among a number of groups that call themselves Presbyterians) and American Jews.

As the Times of Israel reports, the Presbyterians’ Israel Palestinian Mission Network (IPMN) has issued a “study guide” about the Middle East conflict that will forever change the relationship between the church and the Jewish people. The 74-page illustrated booklet and companion DVD entitled Zionism Unsettled was published last month for use by the church’s 2.4 million members. Unlike other left-wing critiques of Israel, the Presbyterian pamphlet isn’t content to register disapproval of Israeli policies and West Bank settlements or to lament the plight of the Palestinians. The booklet is a full-blown attack against the very concept of Zionism and seeks to compare Zionism to the Christian anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust and other historical atrocities. Its purpose is to brand Israel as an illegitimate entity and to treat its American Jewish supporters as having strayed from the values of their religion. Zionism Unsettled not only swallows the Palestinian narrative about Middle East history whole, it is nothing less than a declaration of war on Israel and American Jewry.

As a work of political science or history, Zionism Unsettled is unworthy of serious discussion. Its argument rests on the prejudiced assumption that the Jews are the one people on earth that are unworthy of self-determination or the same rights to a homeland as any other on the planet. It smears those who sought to create the Jewish homeland and whitewashes those who have waged war and engaged in terrorism to destroy it. Ignoring history and the reality of virulent anti-Jewish prejudice in the Arab and Muslim world, it claims Jewish life would thrive in the region if there were no Israel. If that absurd assertion were not enough to strip it of even a vestige of credibility, it goes so far as to claim that the tiny, intimidated remnant of Jewish life in an Iran ruled by a vicious anti-Semitic regime is a model of coexistence.

With regard to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, it sees only black and white. In Zionism Unsettled, the Jews have no right to Israel and no right to defend themselves. On the other hand, it rationalizes and even justifies violence against Israel.

But the argument goes further than anti-Zionism. The pamphlet actually criticizes the Catholic Church for its historic efforts at reconciliation with the Jewish people, saying the 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate that rejected the Deicide myth against the Jews “raises as many questions as it answers.”

Unlike past controversies in which Jewish groups sought to bridge the divide between the two communities, the distribution of a publication that is driven by sheer hatred and a determination to see Israel destroyed requires a more forthright response. The response to this screed should be unequivocal. Any Presbyterian Church USA that chooses to distribute it is not merely offending supporters of Israel. It is endorsing hate speech and seeking to spread a doctrine that seeks Israel’s destruction and views Jews who do not reject Zionism as guilty of complicity in the “crimes” of the Jewish state. With this publication, the PCUSA has crossed a line that divides people of good will from those who promote racism or anti-Semitism. The many decent members of congregations affiliated with the PCUSA can no longer stand by mutely while the good name of their church is sullied in this manner. They must either actively reject this ugly publication or forever be tainted by association with the vile hatred to which their leadership has committed them. 

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Jefferson’s Lesson for Conservatives

Yesterday, timed almost perfectly with the unlawful extension of the ObamaCare employer-mandate delay, President Obama was touring Monticello with the visiting French president when he joked about breaking protocol there. “That’s the good thing as a President, I can do whatever I want,” he said according to the pool report. I’m never sure anymore if this sort of thing is really a gaffe, or if the president is just trolling conservatives. Either way, it got the requisite attention.

One of the comments was to note the irony of Obama making such imperious boasts at the home of a president who feared just such a display of lawless executive whim. At Hot Air, Ed Morrissey, for example, said: “That’s precisely the opposite of the example set by Jefferson, at least in terms of the presidency. Too bad Obama hasn’t learned that lesson yet.” And of course I agree … mostly. The truth is, Jefferson actually has something in common with Obama in this regard. Both found their presidencies weighed down by public disapproval. But Jefferson, of course, respected it–and in the end, like many things Jefferson set his mind to, took it a bit overboard.

But first he flexed more executive power than he’s remembered for. In 1807, when American ships were being abused on the open seas, Jefferson believed he had two options: go to war, or keep the traders in harbor. He opted for the second. His proposed trade embargo was an astoundingly bad idea, though it received congressional approval. But Jefferson was showing signs that his everyday personality was ill-suited to the presidency. Richard Brookhiser notes that:

There was a too-good-for-this-world streak in Jefferson’s character that showed itself in many ways, from his mountaintop house, to his dislike of face-to-face argument, to his pride, which also found expression in the embargo.

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Yesterday, timed almost perfectly with the unlawful extension of the ObamaCare employer-mandate delay, President Obama was touring Monticello with the visiting French president when he joked about breaking protocol there. “That’s the good thing as a President, I can do whatever I want,” he said according to the pool report. I’m never sure anymore if this sort of thing is really a gaffe, or if the president is just trolling conservatives. Either way, it got the requisite attention.

One of the comments was to note the irony of Obama making such imperious boasts at the home of a president who feared just such a display of lawless executive whim. At Hot Air, Ed Morrissey, for example, said: “That’s precisely the opposite of the example set by Jefferson, at least in terms of the presidency. Too bad Obama hasn’t learned that lesson yet.” And of course I agree … mostly. The truth is, Jefferson actually has something in common with Obama in this regard. Both found their presidencies weighed down by public disapproval. But Jefferson, of course, respected it–and in the end, like many things Jefferson set his mind to, took it a bit overboard.

But first he flexed more executive power than he’s remembered for. In 1807, when American ships were being abused on the open seas, Jefferson believed he had two options: go to war, or keep the traders in harbor. He opted for the second. His proposed trade embargo was an astoundingly bad idea, though it received congressional approval. But Jefferson was showing signs that his everyday personality was ill-suited to the presidency. Richard Brookhiser notes that:

There was a too-good-for-this-world streak in Jefferson’s character that showed itself in many ways, from his mountaintop house, to his dislike of face-to-face argument, to his pride, which also found expression in the embargo.

Jefferson’s secretary of state, James Madison, had much to do with the embargo policy. Madison thought American exceptionalism (though of course he didn’t use the term) would assert itself, and the American people would win this game of economic chicken. They did not. The two ignored a prescient warning from Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin that “Governmental prohibitions do always more mischief than had been calculated.” (Gallatin would be better remembered today, perhaps, had the Congress not blocked his nomination to be Madison’s secretary of state later on.)

But even more important, Gallatin cautioned that the difficulty of enforcing the embargo would force Jefferson to make a choice: “Congress must either vest the executive with the most arbitrary powers … or give it up altogether.” Gallatin had correctly predicted the course of the policy. Its failure took a toll on Jefferson. Brookhiser writes: “But the effort tore him up. Was he appalled by the means he had been driven to use? The party of liberty and light government was behaving more odiously than the Federalists had a decade earlier” by restricting free trade where the Federalists restricted free speech.

In any case, it sickened Jefferson, and he quite literally gave up on the presidency. He didn’t leave office–that might have been more of a scandal, but less of a constitutional offense than the course he chose, which was to simply have Madison, his unelected secretary of state, act as de facto president for the remainder of his last year in office. Madison was duly elected in the next election, but Jefferson’s actions risked undermining the system he helped create, and it was an insult to popular democracy.

The comparison between Jefferson and Obama can only be taken so far without becoming ludicrous. When Jefferson “gave up” on the process he bowed out quietly. When Obama did so, he simply discarded the process and did what he wanted. Hence, Obama’s “joke” isn’t really a joke except to the extent to which it’s on us. Nonetheless, there are a couple of lessons. One is that Madison eventually went to war, but did so from a position of greater weakness, lower public morale, and with a less prepared military. An instinct to avoid war is laudable, but in Jefferson and Madison’s case it resulted in rolling back economic freedom and nearly strangling the young nation’s economy. History has vindicated Gallatin, while also cruelly neglecting him.

The other lesson is one about the temptations of power. Jefferson turned out to be quite stubborn; his preferred policy could only be carried out by crossing his own principles, and that’s what he did. This is not to take away from Jefferson’s legacy, but to point out that Jefferson was a critic of John Adams’s crackdown on liberty when he was out of power, and ended up curbing freedom when his turn came.

Conservatives are noting that Obama is setting a disturbing precedent–but it’s one Democrats seemingly approve of. Thus it could be used in any number of ways by the next Republican president. Conservatives should resist the temptation to follow the left’s precedent the next time they have the chance. The extent of Obama’s lawlessness is the exception, and it should remain that way.

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Conservative Vindication

There’s been a lot of fine commentary on the right about the decision by the president to delay the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate for another year, which is just the most recent in a series of lawless acts by Mr. Obama, all aimed at keeping his teetering health plan from utterly collapsing.

It’s worth pointing out, I think, that the manifold and multiplying failures of the Affordable Care Act were predicted by conservatives, many of whom warned–in advance, repeatedly, on the record–how awful ObamaCare would be. Things are, if anything, worse–or at least worse, quicker–than many on the right predicted.

The reality is that on the facts and arguments surrounding the most far-reaching and transformative domestic program since the Great Society, conservatives were absolutely right and the left was absolutely wrong. That is the case when it comes to ObamaCare’s effect on (among other things) jobs, on businesses, on coverage for the uninsured, on keeping your plan if you like it, on premiums and deductibles, on its cost, and on its overall effect on our health-care system.

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There’s been a lot of fine commentary on the right about the decision by the president to delay the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate for another year, which is just the most recent in a series of lawless acts by Mr. Obama, all aimed at keeping his teetering health plan from utterly collapsing.

It’s worth pointing out, I think, that the manifold and multiplying failures of the Affordable Care Act were predicted by conservatives, many of whom warned–in advance, repeatedly, on the record–how awful ObamaCare would be. Things are, if anything, worse–or at least worse, quicker–than many on the right predicted.

The reality is that on the facts and arguments surrounding the most far-reaching and transformative domestic program since the Great Society, conservatives were absolutely right and the left was absolutely wrong. That is the case when it comes to ObamaCare’s effect on (among other things) jobs, on businesses, on coverage for the uninsured, on keeping your plan if you like it, on premiums and deductibles, on its cost, and on its overall effect on our health-care system.

Progressives have full ownership of ObamaCare. They built it, they passed it, they own it. This is a “teachable moment,” to use a favorite Obama phrase, when it comes to both the political philosophy and competence of liberalism. Conservatives are absolutely correct to keep reminding the public what they said versus what President Obama and liberals said about the Affordable Care Act; to test their promises against what really happened and to test conservative predictions against what really happened.

On the health-care debate, conservatives have done to liberals what the Seahawks did to the Broncos in the Super Bowl. It’s been a rout, and it will shape American politics for years to come.

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Liberals Ignore Palestinian Human Rights

Today’s New York Times featured a prominent news piece titled “In West Bank Settlements, Israeli Jobs Are Double-Edged Sword.” It engages in a good dose of disingenuous hand-wringing over its claim that employment for Palestinians, when provided by Israelis, is less a blessing and more a curse. This piece, and the outrageous attitude it propagates, warrants a full response of its own. But reflecting on this subject that the Times apparently deems so worthy of giving space to, it is difficult not to think of another story released yesterday, one that didn’t find its way into the pages of the Times. This concerns the single-edged sword–all curse no blessing–of Palestinian human-rights abuses against other Palestinians.  

Not of any concern to the mainstream media, it was left to Arab-Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh to draw attention to the release of a report by the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) documenting human-rights abuses in Gaza and the West Bank. It highlights how last month alone stacked up a disturbing, yet not unprecedented, count of abuses against Palestinians, by Palestinians. Given the great focus on Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to establish a Palestinian state, one might have thought that the Palestinian Authority’s record on governance would be of some considerable interest to commentators.

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Today’s New York Times featured a prominent news piece titled “In West Bank Settlements, Israeli Jobs Are Double-Edged Sword.” It engages in a good dose of disingenuous hand-wringing over its claim that employment for Palestinians, when provided by Israelis, is less a blessing and more a curse. This piece, and the outrageous attitude it propagates, warrants a full response of its own. But reflecting on this subject that the Times apparently deems so worthy of giving space to, it is difficult not to think of another story released yesterday, one that didn’t find its way into the pages of the Times. This concerns the single-edged sword–all curse no blessing–of Palestinian human-rights abuses against other Palestinians.  

Not of any concern to the mainstream media, it was left to Arab-Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh to draw attention to the release of a report by the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) documenting human-rights abuses in Gaza and the West Bank. It highlights how last month alone stacked up a disturbing, yet not unprecedented, count of abuses against Palestinians, by Palestinians. Given the great focus on Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to establish a Palestinian state, one might have thought that the Palestinian Authority’s record on governance would be of some considerable interest to commentators.

Yet, the Times follows the script as provided in the good liberal’s handbook; human-rights abuses are only of any interest when committed by the West (which includes Israel). Far more interesting, from the liberal point of view, is attempting to spin economic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians as oppression worthy of critical concern and lament. The notion that there might be any positive aspect to the Israeli presence in the West Bank is simply beyond unthinkable for liberal dogma.

In contrast to the employment opportunities that so offend the sensibilities of the Times, the latest ICHR report reveals a horrendous record, not only on the part of Hamas in Gaza, but also by the supposedly moderate Fatah-led Palestinian Authority that controls the West Bank and is the recipient of huge amounts of international aid. The report documents how in the course of the last month ten Palestinians died as a result of anarchy, lawlessness, and misuse of weapons, while disclosing that the ICHR received 56 complaints about torture and mistreatment in Palestinian prisons. During January there were 85 complaints regarding arbitrary arrests, with many being related to politically motivated charges. The PA police force in Ramallah employed excessive force to shut down protests on several occasions; in one instance 60-70 protesters were wounded when policemen attacked them with clubs and stun grenades, while in another case the police used live ammunition to disperse stone-throwers.

One has to hope that someone at the State Department is taking note of all of this. With Kerry having pushed impetuously for a negotiation framework that initially sought to reach an agreement on the establishment of a Palestinian state within just nine months, Kerry might want to ask precisely what kind of state it is he is attempting to help establish. Apparently, one with a total disregard for the rights and welfare of its own people. And if the PA is treating its own people in this way, what kind of treatment can we expect them to show toward their sworn enemies, the people of Israel? Nor should anyone forget that, given the amount of aid the U.S. provides the PA with annually, including some $500 million transferred to the Palestinians back in May, it’s not as if the administration has no leverage to try and prevent these kinds of activities.

It is, however, doubtful that anyone at the Times will pay much attention to this report, or the many others like it for that matter. They, apparently, are far too busy cataloguing the host of horrors that come with Palestinian employment in Israeli businesses to trouble themselves with such trifles as unlawful arrest and torture. 

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Iran and the Limits of AIPAC’s Power

Supporters of Israel are frustrated. Despite the bipartisan endorsement of 59 members of the U.S. Senate, the effort to enact a new round of tougher sanctions against Iran has stalled. President Obama’s opposition to a measure that would only go into effect after it had been determined that the current negotiations with Iran had failed has effectively spiked the bill. The administration’s misleading effort to portray more sanctions as the moral equivalent of a declaration of war on Iran was enough to stiffen opponents and to spook many of the bill’s Democratic supporters. With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid determined not to allow a vote and with prominent pro-Israel Democrats like New York’s Chuck Schumer not wishing to go toe-to-toe with the White House on the issue, the bill is stuck in limbo.

That has angered Republicans as well as pro-Israel activists who are still determined to keep the issue alive and left some of them looking to assess blame for the bill’s failure. The principal target of those recriminations appears to be the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). As Eli Lake reports in the Daily Beast today, AIPAC is being blamed for its decision to pull back on advocacy for sanctions earlier this month after it realized the bill could no longer count on bipartisan support. Lake describes the lobby’s on-again, off-again campaign for sanctions as a botched job that has disappointed both Republicans and the Israeli government.

But while it’s clear this episode is far from being AIPAC’s finest moment, any effort to pin the blame on the group is mistaken. Whatever mistakes AIPAC may have made in the last few months, once President Obama decided to go all-out to stop the sanctions bill, the issue was decided. Nothing AIPAC could do or say was going to convince Democrats to stand up to a president that claimed opposition to his position was advocacy of war. Scapegoating AIPAC in this manner not only fails to take into account the limits of even the vaunted lobby’s power but also is a misreading of how the group operates.

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Supporters of Israel are frustrated. Despite the bipartisan endorsement of 59 members of the U.S. Senate, the effort to enact a new round of tougher sanctions against Iran has stalled. President Obama’s opposition to a measure that would only go into effect after it had been determined that the current negotiations with Iran had failed has effectively spiked the bill. The administration’s misleading effort to portray more sanctions as the moral equivalent of a declaration of war on Iran was enough to stiffen opponents and to spook many of the bill’s Democratic supporters. With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid determined not to allow a vote and with prominent pro-Israel Democrats like New York’s Chuck Schumer not wishing to go toe-to-toe with the White House on the issue, the bill is stuck in limbo.

That has angered Republicans as well as pro-Israel activists who are still determined to keep the issue alive and left some of them looking to assess blame for the bill’s failure. The principal target of those recriminations appears to be the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). As Eli Lake reports in the Daily Beast today, AIPAC is being blamed for its decision to pull back on advocacy for sanctions earlier this month after it realized the bill could no longer count on bipartisan support. Lake describes the lobby’s on-again, off-again campaign for sanctions as a botched job that has disappointed both Republicans and the Israeli government.

But while it’s clear this episode is far from being AIPAC’s finest moment, any effort to pin the blame on the group is mistaken. Whatever mistakes AIPAC may have made in the last few months, once President Obama decided to go all-out to stop the sanctions bill, the issue was decided. Nothing AIPAC could do or say was going to convince Democrats to stand up to a president that claimed opposition to his position was advocacy of war. Scapegoating AIPAC in this manner not only fails to take into account the limits of even the vaunted lobby’s power but also is a misreading of how the group operates.

AIPAC is among the most effective lobbies on Capitol Hill and has, thanks to support from a broad cross-section off American society that cares deeply about the Jewish state, helped build a wall-to-wall consensus in favor of the U.S. alliance with Israel. When AIPAC takes up an issue or seeks supports for a program of joint interest to the U.S. and Israel, it usually gets its way. But thanks to the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theory, AIPAC’s reputation as a Washington super lobby has grown out of all proportion to reality. Far from being the pro-Israel tail that wags the American dog, it is, in fact, nothing more than a manifestation of the bipartisan support for the Jewish state that is deeply engrained in the political DNA of the United States.

Though it has, at times, been unfairly labeled as only supportive of Israeli right-wingers or a tool of the Republican Party, it is nothing of the sort. AIPAC loyally supports whomever the Israeli people elect to govern their nation. And it has as many, if not more, Democratic supporters as it does Republicans. It is that bipartisan nature that is key to its ability to produce results. Though it has consistently pushed both Republican and Democratic administrations to give more to Israel or to be more vigilant about threats to Middle East peace such as Iran, its ability to prevail is based on the sort of access to the leaderships of both parties that makes its involvement in partisan disputes impossible.

That is why Obama’s decision to throw down the gauntlet and veto new Iran sanctions even if they passed both Houses of Congress rendered AIPAC’s role in the debate moot. AIPAC can oppose a policy but it can’t go to war with Democrats any more than it could with Republicans. If Senate Democrats like Schumer were unwilling to stand up to the president’s threats, there was never anything AIPAC could do about it.

As for the government of Israel, it, too, may be frustrated with AIPAC over the defeat of sanctions. But if so, that says more about their frustration with Obama than it does about AIPAC’s shortcomings. AIPAC has a specific role to play in the alliance. That role is to work with the administration and the Congress, not to engage in knock-down, drag-out fights that will hamper its ability to keep U.S. aid flowing to the Jewish state and to foster increased cooperation between the two countries.

One may well argue that the Iranian nuclear issue is of such importance that all other considerations should be put aside in favor of advocacy of a tougher U.S. stance. But even here AIPAC—and the State of Israel—must look at the long-term picture rather than vent anger after a momentary defeat. If the administration’s engagement with Iran fails—as it almost certainly will—then AIPAC must be in position to renew the fight for sanctions and more U.S. action to stop the nuclear threat. Burning their bridges with the Democrats now will undermine future efforts along these lines.

The Israeli government is also in no position to decry AIPAC’s current moderation at the moment on Iran sanctions. AIPAC’s retreat on sanctions is no different from the efforts of the Israelis to paper over their differences with Secretary of State John Kerry over the peace negotiations with the Palestinians. They understand only too well that keeping close to the administration is an imperative even when it does—or in Kerry’s case, says—things that undermine the alliance.

AIPAC may have lost a battle in the last month over Iran sanctions but it still is in a position to win the war to hold the administration to its pledge to stop the nuclear threat from Tehran. In order to do that, unfortunately, it must retreat now in order to prevail later.

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Republicans Dodge Debt Ceiling Disaster

When House Speaker John Boehner told a shocked Republican caucus this morning that he would allow a vote on raising the debt ceiling with no strings attached, it was seen in some quarters as a defeat for the GOP. And, in many ways, it was. A clean debt-ceiling resolution gives President Obama exactly what he wants and signals that there will be no attempt in 2014 by either political party to rein in the deluge of federal spending that feeds a national debt that keeps going up with no limit in sight. It also demonstrates that Boehner has failed yet again to get even a majority of his Republican members, let alone of the entire House, to vote for a bill that would link an increase in the debt ceiling with even modest measures aimed at trimming spending. Boehner was not even capable of passing a bill tied to a popular measure such as reversing cuts in veteran benefits. Most of the GOP caucus seems only interested in another apocalyptic fight to drastically cut spending and refuses to vote for any of Boehner’s compromises, leaving him no choice but to let the debt ceiling go through without strings and relying on the votes of Democrats.

Boehner expressed grave disappointment over his inability to speak for his caucus or to lead them to support a sensible approach to the issue as well as the futility of his efforts to chip away at the debt. Those are troubling developments, both for the speaker and the GOP. But rather than mourning Boehner’s decision, Republicans should be celebrating. A partisan confrontation over the debt ceiling—even one in which Republicans tie support for the increase to sensible spending cuts or a popular measure aimed at helping veterans—would have turned into a repeat of last fall’s political melodrama that ended so badly for the GOP.

The fact that a majority of the House GOP was too stubborn to back the speaker’s efforts to use the debt ceiling in an attempt to push for less spending may have granted the president what he wanted. But Boehner’s waving of the white flag on the debt ceiling also denies the Democrats the only issue that might have helped them win the 2014 midterm elections: a repeat of the GOP’s disastrous government shutdown. Today’s outcome allows Republicans to spend the upcoming months concentrating their fire on the president’s failed policies and the ObamaCare fiasco that threatens to drown the Democrats in a sea of lost insurance coverage, lost jobs, and a stalled economy rather than in defending another suicidal stand that would accomplish nothing but to strengthen their liberal opponents.

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When House Speaker John Boehner told a shocked Republican caucus this morning that he would allow a vote on raising the debt ceiling with no strings attached, it was seen in some quarters as a defeat for the GOP. And, in many ways, it was. A clean debt-ceiling resolution gives President Obama exactly what he wants and signals that there will be no attempt in 2014 by either political party to rein in the deluge of federal spending that feeds a national debt that keeps going up with no limit in sight. It also demonstrates that Boehner has failed yet again to get even a majority of his Republican members, let alone of the entire House, to vote for a bill that would link an increase in the debt ceiling with even modest measures aimed at trimming spending. Boehner was not even capable of passing a bill tied to a popular measure such as reversing cuts in veteran benefits. Most of the GOP caucus seems only interested in another apocalyptic fight to drastically cut spending and refuses to vote for any of Boehner’s compromises, leaving him no choice but to let the debt ceiling go through without strings and relying on the votes of Democrats.

Boehner expressed grave disappointment over his inability to speak for his caucus or to lead them to support a sensible approach to the issue as well as the futility of his efforts to chip away at the debt. Those are troubling developments, both for the speaker and the GOP. But rather than mourning Boehner’s decision, Republicans should be celebrating. A partisan confrontation over the debt ceiling—even one in which Republicans tie support for the increase to sensible spending cuts or a popular measure aimed at helping veterans—would have turned into a repeat of last fall’s political melodrama that ended so badly for the GOP.

The fact that a majority of the House GOP was too stubborn to back the speaker’s efforts to use the debt ceiling in an attempt to push for less spending may have granted the president what he wanted. But Boehner’s waving of the white flag on the debt ceiling also denies the Democrats the only issue that might have helped them win the 2014 midterm elections: a repeat of the GOP’s disastrous government shutdown. Today’s outcome allows Republicans to spend the upcoming months concentrating their fire on the president’s failed policies and the ObamaCare fiasco that threatens to drown the Democrats in a sea of lost insurance coverage, lost jobs, and a stalled economy rather than in defending another suicidal stand that would accomplish nothing but to strengthen their liberal opponents.

Much as he did before to the shutdown fight, Boehner tried to enlist conservative House members in an approach to the debt ceiling rooted in Tea Party’s concern over more spending, but would have sought to conduct the fight from the high ground of a popular position. But any reluctance to pay for the debt and to allow it to continue to increase—no matter how reasonable the strings that would have been attached to a GOP plan—was a political loser. Americans don’t like debt or big government spending in principle, but they also know that any attempt to bring a halt to the spending binge in a partisan manner could do real damage to the country’s credit rating and ultimately the economy as a whole.

Just as they did during the shutdown battle, Democrats deserve a lot of the blame for the failure to act on the debt. Their refusal to negotiate in good faith on either ObamaCare or spending caused the shutdown as much as the kamikaze instincts of Tea Party Republicans. But shutting down the government, even over ObamaCare funding, was deeply unpopular. The same applies to debt ceiling negotiations in which Democrats have also refused to deal fairly or address the country’s long-term problems.

It may be unfair that the GOP is blamed more than the Democrats for shutdowns or debt fights, but that is irrelevant to a political reality in which liberal domination of the mainstream media creates a distorted playing field. If Republicans want to win elections, they have to stay away from situations in which the media can brand them as irrational extremists, which is exactly what happened with the shutdown. As bad as things look for Boehner and his dysfunctional crew today, avoiding a debt-ceiling showdown denies the president and his party another chance to portray Republicans as irresponsible obstructionists who can’t be trusted with the serious task of governing.

Letting Democrats pass the debt increase is a bitter pill for Boehner and the GOP to swallow. But by doing it, they have also set the stage for a 2014 campaign that can be fought on their terms rather than those of the Democrats. That gives them a good chance not only to win back control of the Senate but to gain House seats and set themselves up for a 2015 session in which the party can not only begin to reverse the damage Obama has done but also set the stage for a return to the White House in 2016. All that was made possible by Boehner’s surrender. Given the stakes involved, that’s the sort of exchange that conservatives should like.

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Libya’s Lesson for Syria

Sometimes small news stories come and go without their full significance being grasped. So it was with this February 2 report in the New York Times about Libya completing the destruction of its chemical weapons. This was a process that began all the way back in 2004–i.e., a full decade ago–under Muammar Gaddafi.

The destruction of Libya’s chemical weapons was such a lengthy process that it had not been completed by the time that Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011–in fact only half of Gaddafi’s arsenal had been destroyed–and the process has only now concluded under a pro-Western government.

What was really striking in this news article, however, was buried near the end:

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Sometimes small news stories come and go without their full significance being grasped. So it was with this February 2 report in the New York Times about Libya completing the destruction of its chemical weapons. This was a process that began all the way back in 2004–i.e., a full decade ago–under Muammar Gaddafi.

The destruction of Libya’s chemical weapons was such a lengthy process that it had not been completed by the time that Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011–in fact only half of Gaddafi’s arsenal had been destroyed–and the process has only now concluded under a pro-Western government.

What was really striking in this news article, however, was buried near the end:

Libyan officials also surprised Western inspectors by announcing the discovery in November 2011 and February 2012 of two hidden caches of mustard, or nearly two tons, that had not been declared by Colonel Qaddafi’s government. That brought the total declared amount of chemical to 26.3 tons.

Unlike the majority of Libya’s mustard agents, which were stored in large, bulky containers, the new caches were already armed and loaded into 517 artillery shells, 45 plastic sleeves for rocket launchings and eight 500-pound bombs.

Thankfully those final two tons of chemical weapons, already armed and ready for use, have been eradicated–but only, one assumes, because of a change of regime in Tripoli. Does anyone think that Gaddafi would have voluntarily turned over the remnants of his stockpile if he were still alive and in office? And how confident can anyone be that Western intelligence agencies would have found these hidden weapons on their own?

The answer says much about how much faith you have in arms-control agreements that have recently been negotiated with Syria and Iran–in the former case, to eradicate its chemical weapons, in the latter case to slow down its nuclear program. Already Syria has missed agreed-upon deadlines and has gotten rid of only 4 percent of its arsenal. Iranian compliance or noncompliance is hard to judge, but the example of Libya should be a cautionary tale about the danger of doing deals with dictators.

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FCC’s Unforgiveable CIN

There’s no such thing as the government “just asking questions.” That’s something both the public and the country’s news organizations should keep in mind as they read Ajit Pai’s important piece in the Wall Street Journal today. Pai is one of five commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission, the agency charged with regulating and licensing broadcast media, and he is rightfully disturbed by one of the FCC’s current projects.

Known as “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs” (CIN), the FCC’s latest bright idea is to send representatives to press outlets to grill them on story selection and “perceived station bias,” among other red flags. Of course, the agency is going in with its own ideas about what such terms mean. Pai notes that a field test of this program is scheduled for this spring. He continues:

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There’s no such thing as the government “just asking questions.” That’s something both the public and the country’s news organizations should keep in mind as they read Ajit Pai’s important piece in the Wall Street Journal today. Pai is one of five commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission, the agency charged with regulating and licensing broadcast media, and he is rightfully disturbed by one of the FCC’s current projects.

Known as “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs” (CIN), the FCC’s latest bright idea is to send representatives to press outlets to grill them on story selection and “perceived station bias,” among other red flags. Of course, the agency is going in with its own ideas about what such terms mean. Pai notes that a field test of this program is scheduled for this spring. He continues:

How does the FCC plan to dig up all that information? First, the agency selected eight categories of “critical information” such as the “environment” and “economic opportunities,” that it believes local newscasters should cover. It plans to ask station managers, news directors, journalists, television anchors and on-air reporters to tell the government about their “news philosophy” and how the station ensures that the community gets critical information.

The FCC also wants to wade into office politics. One question for reporters is: “Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your customers that was rejected by management?” Follow-up questions ask for specifics about how editorial discretion is exercised, as well as the reasoning behind the decisions.

Participation in the Critical Information Needs study is voluntary—in theory. Unlike the opinion surveys that Americans see on a daily basis and either answer or not, as they wish, the FCC’s queries may be hard for the broadcasters to ignore. They would be out of business without an FCC license, which must be renewed every eight years.

Pai recalls the FCC’s thuggish Fairness Doctrine, through which unelected bureaucrats were given the power to micromanage news content. The Fairness Doctrine was beloved by liberals, especially in recent decades as the left’s media dominance was challenged by the discovery that if given a choice, no one wanted to listen to them. The left’s response to losing an argument is to have the government shut down the other side, and there were hopes among Democrats that the Fairness Doctrine could be used to crack down on the First Amendment rights proving so bothersome to them.

But there’s another context for this FCC stunt: the debate over a so-called shield law for journalists. As I noted back in July, there is a congressional effort led by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin to pass legislation that would put on the books a federal law–most of the states already have such laws–to “shield” reporters from having to divulge sources. It is carried out ostensibly under the banner of protecting the press and therefore defending the First Amendment.

If only. In truth, there are two main problems with a federal shield law that would render it harmful to freedom of the press. The first is that in order to legislate protections for a specific group, you have to define that group. That means for a federal shield law, the government would get to be the final arbiter on the question of who is a journalist. Thus the government could easily play favorites and have yet another accreditation–not unlike an FCC license, in a way–to hold over the heads of the press.

The second problem with a federal shield law is that there would almost certainly be vague national-security carve-outs, which are often couched in terms like “compelling public interest.” That means the protections would likely evaporate anyway in most high-profile cases. The shield law, then, would be corrosive to the protections currently afforded the press.

It is such rules the FCC’s CIN calls to mind. It opens the door to increased government scrutiny of the press, with an implicit threat to a broadcaster’s license. It does so under the guise of public service and quality control and fairness and other terms that usually hint the government is up to no good. And if established without challenge, it would grant the premise that news judgment is the FCC’s business.

Perhaps this can still be avoided if the press puts up a united front against this intrusion, but the implicit threat is already out there. The media should be able to tell the FCC to get lost on this one. In a perfect world, of course, they wouldn’t have to.

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Washington’s Strange Silence on Iran

If you only got your news by following the statements put out by the Obama administration, you would currently be blithely unaware of the disturbing moves taken by Iran in recent days. That is because it would appear that the latest strategy of the Obama administration is to simply ignore those statements coming from the Iranians that they don’t wish to hear. Nuclear centrifuges can spin, ballistic missiles can be tested, bellicose speeches can be delivered by the Islamic Republic’s most senior figures–but if no one in the White House chooses to hear it, does it really make a sound? 

In the lead-up to Tehran’s no doubt charming celebrations marking the 35th anniversary of the country’s violent Islamic revolution, the regime’s warlike moves have been going into overdrive. As part of the festivities Iranian state television has aired simulated footage of its military bombarding Israel’s cities and attacking an American aircraft carrier. Senior military figures have spoken of dispatching warships to the North Atlantic and of their ability to strike the U.S. military. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has taunted America, expressing his amusement at the naivete of Americans for believing Iran would actually scale down its military. Indeed, they haven’t and Iran’s Defense Ministry has been celebrating the testing of new long-range ballistic missiles and laser guided surface-to-surface and air-to-surface missiles.

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If you only got your news by following the statements put out by the Obama administration, you would currently be blithely unaware of the disturbing moves taken by Iran in recent days. That is because it would appear that the latest strategy of the Obama administration is to simply ignore those statements coming from the Iranians that they don’t wish to hear. Nuclear centrifuges can spin, ballistic missiles can be tested, bellicose speeches can be delivered by the Islamic Republic’s most senior figures–but if no one in the White House chooses to hear it, does it really make a sound? 

In the lead-up to Tehran’s no doubt charming celebrations marking the 35th anniversary of the country’s violent Islamic revolution, the regime’s warlike moves have been going into overdrive. As part of the festivities Iranian state television has aired simulated footage of its military bombarding Israel’s cities and attacking an American aircraft carrier. Senior military figures have spoken of dispatching warships to the North Atlantic and of their ability to strike the U.S. military. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has taunted America, expressing his amusement at the naivete of Americans for believing Iran would actually scale down its military. Indeed, they haven’t and Iran’s Defense Ministry has been celebrating the testing of new long-range ballistic missiles and laser guided surface-to-surface and air-to-surface missiles.

And while Obama may have used his State of the Union address to showcase his achievements in holding back the Iranian nuclear program, yesterday Iran’s nuclear experts announced the unveiling of a new generation of centrifuges 15 times more powerful than the ones they currently have. This will allow them to resume uranium enrichment at 60 percent, somewhat higher than the less than 5 percent permitted under the U.S. brokered interim agreement.

How many emergency statements has the administration made in the face of these threats? How many press conferences called regarding Iran’s moves to breach the interim agreement? Cue tumbleweed. With the exception of some quotes that CNN managed to extract from the Pentagon, in which officials noted they were monitoring the ballistic missile tests and denied that there was evidence warships had been sailed into the North Atlantic, we have heard nothing from the U.S. government. Seemingly these matters are of little concern to the administration. On the one hand perhaps this speaks of a certain fatigue among the press who have grown tired of pursuing this matter in State Department press briefings. Yet it is also noteworthy that the administration has offered no statements of its own on these developments.

Given that National Security Advisor Susan Rice has a tendency to take to Twitter to slam Israeli ministers for unkind words about Secretary Kerry, one would have thought that she would also have no qualms about treating the Iranians to some of the same. Yet apparently the testing of ballistic missiles, Iran’s head of state calling the U.S. government liars, or the threat to sail warships up to American waters is of little interest to anyone in Washington.

But then, it is probably hardly surprising that the Obama administration isn’t exactly eager to highlight the fact that its Iran policy lies in tatters. The administration is in no rush to draw attention to the matter of Iran’s new centrifuges and thus confirm that the interim agreement they staked everything on was in fact never fit for purpose in the first place. Perhaps they are hoping that if they don’t make too much fuss about any of this then no one will notice. Or is the strategy now simply to ignore the Iranians and eventually they’ll shut up and go away? They won’t, of course. 

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Iranian Poet Hanged

Iranian authorities have reportedly hanged Hashem Shaabani, a poet which the regime has accused of being “an enemy of God.” His execution should do more than anything else to provide an opportunity for Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power to embrace moral clarity, for it does more than anything to show the undeniable cruelty of the Islamic Republic and its murderous ideology.

There is a tendency in the State Department—the administration does not matter—to repress discussion of human rights out of fear that to discuss them will risk progress on harder national-security issues like the nuclear deal or terrorism. This is a mistake: If the Iranian commitment to come in from the cold is so shaky that it can’t deal with rightful criticism of its treatment of political prisoners and internal dissidents, then the deal is so fragile as to be not worth relying upon.

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Iranian authorities have reportedly hanged Hashem Shaabani, a poet which the regime has accused of being “an enemy of God.” His execution should do more than anything else to provide an opportunity for Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power to embrace moral clarity, for it does more than anything to show the undeniable cruelty of the Islamic Republic and its murderous ideology.

There is a tendency in the State Department—the administration does not matter—to repress discussion of human rights out of fear that to discuss them will risk progress on harder national-security issues like the nuclear deal or terrorism. This is a mistake: If the Iranian commitment to come in from the cold is so shaky that it can’t deal with rightful criticism of its treatment of political prisoners and internal dissidents, then the deal is so fragile as to be not worth relying upon.

At the same time, the incident reminds how insincere European leaders and diplomats are when they promise critical engagement. It has now been 21 years since German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel unveiled Germany’s “critical engagement.” The idea was to talk with the Iranians, but put critical issues such as human rights at the center of dialogue. However, once European diplomats sit down at the table—and Kerry models himself after his European counterparts—the ‘critical’ aspect of the dialogue goes out the window. Make no mistake, Tehran, Damascus, and other rogue states know this. They understand that they can break their isolation, revive their economy, and not only continue business as usual, but actually augment internal terror because American and European officials will be so scared of insulting their partners, that they will simply accept whatever outrage rogue regimes dish up.

Shaabani is the latest victim of this pattern. Unless Kerry and his European counterparts are willing to speak up forcefully and demand such outrages cease, Shaabani will not be the last victim. If Kerry is convinced that Iran really is changing, he should not be afraid to stand on principle. If the character of the regime hasn’t changed, the United States should place no faith it Iran’s commitment to abide by its nuclear deal.

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Pivot on the Rocks

Max’s questions about why John Kerry is paying far less attention to helping tamp down the tension in Asia are echoed throughout the region. On Thursday, Kerry is leaving for his fifth visit to Asia since taking office last year. The State Department claims this is proof of his commitment to the administration’s pivot. Yet the White House continues to believe that merely showing up is 90 percent of success. This Woody Allen approach has worn thin with countries looking at Washington’s continuing refusal to confront China head-on over its increasingly coercive behavior. Nor were our partners in Asia appeased by once-regular statements that D.C. budget battles would not reduce the American presence in the Pacific.

Now they read comments by the commander of Pacific Air Forces, Gen. Hawk Carlisle, that “resources have not followed the … rebalance.” They see that U.S. Pacific Command has cut back on travel throughout the region and joint exercises, and that the U.S. Navy is planning on dropping down to just two carriers deployed globally. Far better than most in Washington, our friends and allies in Asia understand the immense distances separating the U.S. homeland from the areas in which it has rather daunting commitments.

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Max’s questions about why John Kerry is paying far less attention to helping tamp down the tension in Asia are echoed throughout the region. On Thursday, Kerry is leaving for his fifth visit to Asia since taking office last year. The State Department claims this is proof of his commitment to the administration’s pivot. Yet the White House continues to believe that merely showing up is 90 percent of success. This Woody Allen approach has worn thin with countries looking at Washington’s continuing refusal to confront China head-on over its increasingly coercive behavior. Nor were our partners in Asia appeased by once-regular statements that D.C. budget battles would not reduce the American presence in the Pacific.

Now they read comments by the commander of Pacific Air Forces, Gen. Hawk Carlisle, that “resources have not followed the … rebalance.” They see that U.S. Pacific Command has cut back on travel throughout the region and joint exercises, and that the U.S. Navy is planning on dropping down to just two carriers deployed globally. Far better than most in Washington, our friends and allies in Asia understand the immense distances separating the U.S. homeland from the areas in which it has rather daunting commitments.

The problem the administration faces is that Kerry, and President Obama for that matter, come to Asia bearing no gifts. There was a brief flurry a few years ago, after the announcement that we would rotate U.S. Marines through Darwin, Australia as well as a few other minor adjustments. All these were good moves, but they certainly did not add up to a major shift in American resources. Worse, the administration never explained just what the pivot was for: containing China, promoting democracy, forging a regional coalition of the willing?

Now, Washington is getting worried enough about the heated rhetoric in the region that it is telling our allies Japan and the Philippines to cool it and not provoke China over the territorial disputes each has with Beijing. The problem, of course, is that both Tokyo and Manila have been urging Washington for years to get more involved. They see little evidence that the Obama team is willing to stand up to China, except for more rhetoric, like that of NSC Asia head Evan Medieros last week, in which he said that another Chinese air defense identification zone would result in a change in U.S. posture in Asia. Such bravado is increasingly discounted, if not dismissed, in Asia.

The ultimate answer may well be the one the Asians already believe: the administration is afraid of provoking China and does not feel that the risks of countering Beijing’s moves are worth it. To me, the most interesting question is whether they are acting in this way because they feel militarily superior (and thus can give the Chinese space to “act out”), or because fear that they are not strong enough in depth in Asia to risk a clash that they could not control with our stretched forces. Either one is sending a signal to our allies and other nations that they increasingly are on their own.

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Is Sports Diplomacy Worth It?

A chapter of my new book focuses on the history of people-to-people exchanges, or “Track II diplomacy” between the United States and so-called rogue-regimes. Over at Foreign Policy, and against the context of the Sochi Olympics, I examined the enthusiasm among diplomats that sporting diplomacy really breaks down barriers between peoples and regimes. Here, for example, is a recent video blog by a State Department official preaching the merits of sports diplomacy, a discussion full of platitudes but absent any evidence of how it fits the broader picture of American diplomacy, which should be to advance American interests and solidify American national security.

Proponents of sporting diplomacy often cite two examples: First, African-American track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens’s triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Proponents of sporting diplomacy suggest he disproved Hitler’s racial theories on Hitler’s own turf. But subsequent history certainly shows that the boost Hitler received from hosting the Olympics more than offset any embarrassment Hitler experienced at Owens’s gold medals. Owens did not delegitimize Nazism among Hitler’s German constituents.

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A chapter of my new book focuses on the history of people-to-people exchanges, or “Track II diplomacy” between the United States and so-called rogue-regimes. Over at Foreign Policy, and against the context of the Sochi Olympics, I examined the enthusiasm among diplomats that sporting diplomacy really breaks down barriers between peoples and regimes. Here, for example, is a recent video blog by a State Department official preaching the merits of sports diplomacy, a discussion full of platitudes but absent any evidence of how it fits the broader picture of American diplomacy, which should be to advance American interests and solidify American national security.

Proponents of sporting diplomacy often cite two examples: First, African-American track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens’s triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Proponents of sporting diplomacy suggest he disproved Hitler’s racial theories on Hitler’s own turf. But subsequent history certainly shows that the boost Hitler received from hosting the Olympics more than offset any embarrassment Hitler experienced at Owens’s gold medals. Owens did not delegitimize Nazism among Hitler’s German constituents.

Second is the Ping-Pong diplomacy that allegedly broke the ice between the United States and Communist China. Henry Kissinger makes clear in his memoir White House Years, however, that the Ping-Pong exhibition actually came after months of behind-the-scenes diplomacy. To credit the athletes for the diplomatic breakthrough puts the cart between the horse.

Rather than assume athletic competitions break down barriers, it is important to recognize that sometimes they confirm them. After the Iranian team defeated the United States in a 1998 World Cup match, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei crowed that “Tonight, again, the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat.” In Sochi, Russian authorities seem determined to ensure that the Olympics reinforce hostility toward the United States rather than any feelings of brotherhood.

So is all sporting diplomacy bad? Certainly not, although its outcomes do not justify the State Department’s considerable investment in it. Simply put, when it comes to rogue regimes and America’s adversaries, it is time to face the fact that there are no magic formulas.

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