Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 18, 2014

Robert Malley and the Shift to Appeasement

Back in 2008 when Barack Obama first ran for president, one of the many signals he sent to Jewish groups to reassure them of his good will toward Israel and his foreign-policy bona fides was to sever ties with Robert Malley. Malley, a Clinton-era National Security Council staffer, is best known for his stand blaming Israel rather than Yasir Arafat for the collapse of the 2000 Camp David peace summit. His position as an informal advisor to the Obama campaign was a major liability for a candidate desperate to reassure Jewish Democrats that he could be relied upon to maintain the alliance with Israel. But when it became known in May of 2008 that Malley had met with Hamas terrorists, the Obama campaign severed ties with Malley.

It turned out that those who worried that Malley’s presence in the Obama foreign-policy shop was a sign of future trouble with the Jewish state were right. Despite his campaign promises and the fact that he failed to give an inveterate Israel-basher like Malley a job in his administration, President Obama spent most of his first term picking fights with the State of Israel before a reelection-year charm offensive. But now well into his second term, the president is finally rewarding Malley for falling on his sword for him during his first campaign. This afternoon it was announced that Malley is heading back to the White House to serve as a senior director at the National Security Council where he will be tasked with managing relations between the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies. While we are told the administration is making an effort to bolster its traditional ties to the region, Malley’s appointment sends a very different signal, especially to Israel.

At a time when Saudi Arabia and other allies in the region are worried that the U.S. has turned its back on them as part of the president’s misguided pursuit of détente with Iran, the president has called back to service one of the foremost defenders of appeasement of terror. Though Malley is merely one more member of a second-term team that is increasingly hostile to Israel, his joining the NSC removes any remaining doubt about where American foreign policy is heading.

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Back in 2008 when Barack Obama first ran for president, one of the many signals he sent to Jewish groups to reassure them of his good will toward Israel and his foreign-policy bona fides was to sever ties with Robert Malley. Malley, a Clinton-era National Security Council staffer, is best known for his stand blaming Israel rather than Yasir Arafat for the collapse of the 2000 Camp David peace summit. His position as an informal advisor to the Obama campaign was a major liability for a candidate desperate to reassure Jewish Democrats that he could be relied upon to maintain the alliance with Israel. But when it became known in May of 2008 that Malley had met with Hamas terrorists, the Obama campaign severed ties with Malley.

It turned out that those who worried that Malley’s presence in the Obama foreign-policy shop was a sign of future trouble with the Jewish state were right. Despite his campaign promises and the fact that he failed to give an inveterate Israel-basher like Malley a job in his administration, President Obama spent most of his first term picking fights with the State of Israel before a reelection-year charm offensive. But now well into his second term, the president is finally rewarding Malley for falling on his sword for him during his first campaign. This afternoon it was announced that Malley is heading back to the White House to serve as a senior director at the National Security Council where he will be tasked with managing relations between the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies. While we are told the administration is making an effort to bolster its traditional ties to the region, Malley’s appointment sends a very different signal, especially to Israel.

At a time when Saudi Arabia and other allies in the region are worried that the U.S. has turned its back on them as part of the president’s misguided pursuit of détente with Iran, the president has called back to service one of the foremost defenders of appeasement of terror. Though Malley is merely one more member of a second-term team that is increasingly hostile to Israel, his joining the NSC removes any remaining doubt about where American foreign policy is heading.

At the time he was working for the Obama campaign, his defenders, including a gaggle of high-ranking Clinton foreign-policy officials, denounced Malley’s critics for what they claimed were unfair personal attacks. But the problem with Malley was never so much about his motives or his father’s role as a supporter of the Egyptian Communist Party and the Nasser regime as it was his own beliefs and policies.

By claiming as he did in an infamous article in the New York Review of Books in August of 2001 that the Camp David summit’s failure was Israel’s fault rather than that of Arafat, Malley demonstrated extraordinary bias against the Jewish state as well as a willingness to revise recent history to fit his personal agenda. Malley absolved Arafat from blame for refusing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of an independent state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem. In doing so he not only flatly contradicted the testimony of President Bill Clinton and other U.S. officials present, but his justification of Arafat’s indefensible behavior also served to rationalize the Palestinian terror offensive that followed their rejection of peace.

In the years since then, Malley has remained a virulent critic of Israel and an advocate for recognition and acceptance of the Hamas terrorists who rule Gaza as well as engagement with Iran and other rejectionist states.

All this should have been enough to keep him out of any administration that professed friendship for Israel. But by putting him in charge of relations with the Gulf states, President Obama is also demonstrating that he is determined to continue a policy of downgrading relations with traditional allies in favor of better relations with Iran and other radicals. As much as Israel has cause for concern about the headlong rush to embrace Iran, the Saudis have just as much reason to worry, especially because of the administration’s failure to act in Syria, where Iran’s ally Bashar Assad appears to be winning his war to hold on to power. The Saudis are right to dismiss the president’s attempts to reassure them on Iran. Now that he has appointed a longtime advocate of embracing America’s foes, it’s not likely they will feel any better about U.S. policy.

The return to a position of influence of an Arafat apologist like Malley is one more sign of just how far the president has strayed from his campaign pledges on the Middle East. The U.S. drift toward appeasement of radical Islamists is no longer a matter of speculation but a fact. Any constraints on administration policies based in concern about alienating America’s allies are now a thing of the past.

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Congress Is Loving the Army to Death

Bipartisanship is a much-lauded ideal in Washington, but sometimes the worst legislation can pass by the biggest margins. Witness Congress’s decision a few days ago to repeal a small cut–just 1 percent a year–in the cost-of-living adjustment for working-age military retirees below the age of 62. The House voted to rescind the cut by 326-90, the Senate by 95-3, after vigorous lobbying from military retirees and their official associations.

The money involved was fairly trivial by Washington standards–a 1 percent cut in cost-of-living allowances would have produced a savings of $7 billion. But the fact that Congress is not willing to make even such a small, symbolic trim is bad news on two levels.

First, it suggests a lack of will to deal with the much more serious fiscal problems caused by runaway entitlement spending. Second, it suggests a lack of will to do what is necessary to maintain military readiness.

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Bipartisanship is a much-lauded ideal in Washington, but sometimes the worst legislation can pass by the biggest margins. Witness Congress’s decision a few days ago to repeal a small cut–just 1 percent a year–in the cost-of-living adjustment for working-age military retirees below the age of 62. The House voted to rescind the cut by 326-90, the Senate by 95-3, after vigorous lobbying from military retirees and their official associations.

The money involved was fairly trivial by Washington standards–a 1 percent cut in cost-of-living allowances would have produced a savings of $7 billion. But the fact that Congress is not willing to make even such a small, symbolic trim is bad news on two levels.

First, it suggests a lack of will to deal with the much more serious fiscal problems caused by runaway entitlement spending. Second, it suggests a lack of will to do what is necessary to maintain military readiness.

As things stand now, the military budget is declining and an ever-growing share of it is going to personnel costs–salaries and benefits for current and retired personnel, with health-care costs rising especially rapidly. A succession of military leaders, uniformed and civilian, have warned Congress that the Pentagon is in danger, essentially, of becoming a giant HMO that occasionally fires a missile. The Defense Department needs to maintain or even increase its current budget, but, failing that, it needs the leeway to redistribute money away from personnel and toward operations, procurement, training–in short, to all of the things needed to project military power.

The problem is Congress. Lawmakers are so supportive of our service personnel–for perfectly understandable reasons–that they are loving the armed forces to death. Benefits and salaries and pensions have risen so dramatically over the past decade that military personnel are now, by any measure, more generously compensated than their civilian counterparts.

Given the risks and hardships that uniformed personnel can endure (even if most of them never see combat), this may be right and fair–but only in an ideal world in which we can afford to pay retirees generously while not compromising the ability of those currently on active duty to carry out their assigned missions. Unfortunately we don’t live in such a world. We live in a world where difficult budget trade-offs have to be made, and regrettably Congress is dictating that those trade-offs be made based on politics, not on the merits.

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Losing Ukraine

The battle for Ukraine has resumed, more violently than ever. Riot police, assisted by “young men in jeans wearing medical masks and carrying pipes and baseball bats,” have broken through barricades in Kiev’s Independence Square. Demonstrators armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails are fighting back and preliminary reports are that at least nine people (seven demonstrators, two police officers) have been killed. Clouds of black smoke are said to be rising over the parliament building, the result of tires set alight by anti-government protesters.

So much for attempts to negotiate a peaceful end to the two-month showdown. President Viktor F. Yanukovych, after wavering a bit, appears to have been emboldened to take violent action, no doubt encouraged by Moscow’s decision to resume its subsidies to his government, worth a total of $15 billion, by buying another $2 billion in Ukrainian bonds.

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The battle for Ukraine has resumed, more violently than ever. Riot police, assisted by “young men in jeans wearing medical masks and carrying pipes and baseball bats,” have broken through barricades in Kiev’s Independence Square. Demonstrators armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails are fighting back and preliminary reports are that at least nine people (seven demonstrators, two police officers) have been killed. Clouds of black smoke are said to be rising over the parliament building, the result of tires set alight by anti-government protesters.

So much for attempts to negotiate a peaceful end to the two-month showdown. President Viktor F. Yanukovych, after wavering a bit, appears to have been emboldened to take violent action, no doubt encouraged by Moscow’s decision to resume its subsidies to his government, worth a total of $15 billion, by buying another $2 billion in Ukrainian bonds.

And where is the West in all this? While all this was going on in Kiev, two opposition leaders, Arseny P. Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko, were meeting in Germany with Chancellor Angela Merkel. The reception they received is nice, but it’s no substitute for an economic aid package to convince Ukrainians that they can get a better deal out of the EU than out of Russia. Both the EU and the U.S. are said to have been working on such a package but behind-the scenes negotiations have produced scant results–which is perhaps why Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was heard cursing on an illicitly taped conversation, “F— the EU.”

But it is not just the EU that is failing to show leadership. So too with the U.S., with a president distracted by numerous crises at home and abroad, ranging from the birthing pangs of his health-care plan to the latest slaughter in Syria. Amid all these other problems, it is hard for Ukraine to get the attention it deserves. But don’t forget, this is a country of almost 45 million people, which was once the second-largest republic in the Soviet Union and today remains the biggest prize on the borderland between Russia and the West–between Putinism and freedom. The U.S. and its European allies have a major stake in making sure that Ukraine does not once again revert to de facto Russian control, but to avert that fate will require more political leadership starting in Washington.

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The Long Iran Stall Begins Again

Today ought to be a day to celebrate for the Obama administration. Nuclear talks with Iran set to begin in Vienna will begin the next stage of a diplomatic process by which the president will redeem his oft-repeated promise about stopping the Islamist regime’s drive for nuclear weapons. For months since the signing of the interim nuclear agreement with Iran in November, the president and his cheering section in the press have lauded the prospects of these negotiations as the only thing standing in the way of a rush to war. They have spoken about the willingness of the Iranians to listen to reason since the election of the “moderate” Hassan Rouhani as president last summer.

They have also cited the seriousness of the president’s resolve to get results even as he has tempered some of the optimism by saying the chances of success are only 50 percent. Most importantly, while shooting down the chances of passing a new Iran sanctions bill that would have gone into effect only if the next round of talks had concluded in failure, they claimed the administration would not allow itself to be stalled by the Iranians and that the president would hold Tehran accountable to a tough timetable that would preclude any delaying tactics.

But the atmosphere pervading the opening of the new talks provides a stark contrast to what we’ve been hearing from Washington lately. It’s not just that the Iranians are pouring cold water on any optimism about the negotiations, with their Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying they “will lead nowhere” in a speech yesterday or his representatives’ adamant refusal to even discuss the dismantling of any of their nuclear infrastructure. What is most distressing about the Iran talks is the blithe assumption on the part of the negotiators that they will drag on for as long as a year. That gives the lie to the president’s assurances that he wouldn’t let himself be suckered by the Iranians into allowing them to keep delaying while they continue to get closer to their nuclear goal. It also puts the administration’s adamant opposition to the proposed sanctions bill into a new and unflattering light. The reason to oppose the sanctions seems now to be not so much about protecting the diplomatic option as it does enabling the Iranians to stall the West for as long as they like.

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Today ought to be a day to celebrate for the Obama administration. Nuclear talks with Iran set to begin in Vienna will begin the next stage of a diplomatic process by which the president will redeem his oft-repeated promise about stopping the Islamist regime’s drive for nuclear weapons. For months since the signing of the interim nuclear agreement with Iran in November, the president and his cheering section in the press have lauded the prospects of these negotiations as the only thing standing in the way of a rush to war. They have spoken about the willingness of the Iranians to listen to reason since the election of the “moderate” Hassan Rouhani as president last summer.

They have also cited the seriousness of the president’s resolve to get results even as he has tempered some of the optimism by saying the chances of success are only 50 percent. Most importantly, while shooting down the chances of passing a new Iran sanctions bill that would have gone into effect only if the next round of talks had concluded in failure, they claimed the administration would not allow itself to be stalled by the Iranians and that the president would hold Tehran accountable to a tough timetable that would preclude any delaying tactics.

But the atmosphere pervading the opening of the new talks provides a stark contrast to what we’ve been hearing from Washington lately. It’s not just that the Iranians are pouring cold water on any optimism about the negotiations, with their Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying they “will lead nowhere” in a speech yesterday or his representatives’ adamant refusal to even discuss the dismantling of any of their nuclear infrastructure. What is most distressing about the Iran talks is the blithe assumption on the part of the negotiators that they will drag on for as long as a year. That gives the lie to the president’s assurances that he wouldn’t let himself be suckered by the Iranians into allowing them to keep delaying while they continue to get closer to their nuclear goal. It also puts the administration’s adamant opposition to the proposed sanctions bill into a new and unflattering light. The reason to oppose the sanctions seems now to be not so much about protecting the diplomatic option as it does enabling the Iranians to stall the West for as long as they like.

It should be remembered that the deal Secretary of State John Kerry signed in Geneva on November 24 stipulated that the talks that would follow were to take place over a six-month period. While there was a clause that said the talks could be extended if necessary, Kerry and his boss President Obama stressed the six-month time frame in order to assure Americans and nervous Israelis the agreement couldn’t be used by Tehran to stall the West indefinitely. Yet even before the new talks began, we are now being assured by the administration’s faithful enablers at the New York Times that we should expect the negotiations to drag on until 2015 with little hope that they will end even then. With Iran’s economy showing signs of a revival in the wake of the West’s loosening of sanctions, there appears to be no reason to expect Tehran will ever give up its nuclear dream.

Thus, with this week’s first meeting to be only about the form of the talks that will follow, it’s now clear that what is happening is exactly what critics of the president’s attempt to engage with Iran always feared: a renewal of the same stalling tactics that has allowed Tehran to drag out this process over the last decade.

President Obama denounced the new sanctions bill that had the support of a bipartisan 59-member Senate coalition as both superfluous and dangerous since it could scare the Iranians away from the table. But what we now see is that the proposal’s worst feature in the eyes of the administration was that it took the Iran nuclear deal’s timetable seriously. If the new sanctions bill were signed into law it would strengthen President Obama’s hand in negotiations with the Iranians since it would convey the message that there would be serious consequences if they did not comply with Western demands to give up their nuclear ambition. But without the sanctions bill, the Iranians—and the administration—are free to draw out the talks as long as they like. The lack of a new sanctions option also allows both sides to ignore key questions about Iran’s ballistic missile technology and other pertinent questions about their behavior, such as support for terrorism.

Open-ended negotiations were exactly what the president promised he would not be drawn into, but that appears to be the situation that the United States finds itself in as the diplomats arrive in Vienna. For a decade, Iran has been able to engage in diplomatic tricks that have enabled it to stall the West indefinitely as they tried to run out the clock until their nuclear project was completed. The sanctions that were passed over Obama’s objections during his first term were supposed to bring them to the table and end this charade. But the glum outlook in Vienna makes it appear as if the West has thrown away that economic leverage.

Right now, faith in diplomacy with Iran seems to have more to do with a disinclination to pressure them than it does with any belief that the U.S. can achieve its objectives. While it may take a year or more for the administration to concede that the talks have failed, the only measure that might actually help them to succeed—the prospect of new sanctions that will shut down Iran’s oil sales—is now off the table. This is good news for the Iranians but very bad news for those in the West who hoped Obama meant what he said about averting the nuclear threat.

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Illuminating Reactions to an Unpopular Proposal

With Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas having retreated so far from previously agreed positions that he now even rejects Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall (he’s willing only to let Jews pray there under Palestinian sovereignty), one might reasonably think any further discussion of final-status proposals is pointless. Yet some proposals are still worth discussing–not because they could, or even should, be adopted, but because reactions to them are so enlightening. A prime example is the Yisrael Beiteinu party’s much-maligned proposal to transfer certain Arab-Israeli towns to a Palestinian state in exchange for Israel’s retention of the settlement blocs. 

Since both Israelis and Palestinians generally oppose this plan, it clearly isn’t realistic. Yet the Arab-Israeli reaction to it speaks volumes about two key issues related to the “peace process”–the nature of the future Palestinian state, and the nature of the existing Jewish state.

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With Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas having retreated so far from previously agreed positions that he now even rejects Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall (he’s willing only to let Jews pray there under Palestinian sovereignty), one might reasonably think any further discussion of final-status proposals is pointless. Yet some proposals are still worth discussing–not because they could, or even should, be adopted, but because reactions to them are so enlightening. A prime example is the Yisrael Beiteinu party’s much-maligned proposal to transfer certain Arab-Israeli towns to a Palestinian state in exchange for Israel’s retention of the settlement blocs. 

Since both Israelis and Palestinians generally oppose this plan, it clearly isn’t realistic. Yet the Arab-Israeli reaction to it speaks volumes about two key issues related to the “peace process”–the nature of the future Palestinian state, and the nature of the existing Jewish state.

In an op-ed defending her party’s plan last week, Yisrael Beiteinu MK Faina Kirshenbaum noted that the UN itself explicitly condones swaps of populated territory: General Assembly Resolution 55/153, adopted in 2001, states that “When part of the territory of a State is transferred by that State to another State, the successor State shall attribute its nationality to the persons concerned who have their habitual residence in the transferred territory and the predecessor State shall withdraw its nationality from such persons.”

Moreover, almost every peace plan ever proposed demands that Israel do exactly that: quit East Jerusalem and transfer its inhabitants, all of whom are either Israeli citizens or permanent residents, to Palestinian rule (the same goes for the persistent demand that Israel return the Golan Heights to Syria). In short, there’s no barrier to the plan under international law; the objection is purely practical: Arab Israelis themselves vehemently oppose the idea.

That they don’t “want to become part of a failed, corrupt and poor new state” is perfectly understandable, Kirshenbaum continued. But a successful peace process, she argued sensibly, shouldn’t create such a state to begin with. Indeed, such a state wouldn’t even be viable: It would likely “break apart in a bloody conflict like so many of our neighbors,” and Palestinians themselves would be the main victims.

Kirshenbaum doesn’t spell out the obvious conclusion, so I will: The fact is that many Arab Israelis who “continually malign Israel” and self-identify as Palestinians nevertheless insist on remaining under Israeli rather than Palestinian rule because they, like all the people worldwide who back their opposition to Yisrael Beiteinu’s plan, do expect a Palestinian state to be “failed, corrupt and poor”–and reasonably so (see, for example, the case of Mohamed Sabawi). That raises one question: Why should anyone think bringing another failed state into the world is desirable?

This Arab-Israeli stance is equally instructive regarding the canard that Israel is an “apartheid state.” After all, if this were true, one would expect them to jump at Yisrael Beiteinu’s proposal: It would free them from “apartheid rule” without their even having to leave home, since their towns would simply become Palestinian rather than Israeli. As Prof. Alex Yakobson pungently noted in an op-ed last month:

Of course, one has the right to say: “I am a Palestinian whose Israeli ID card was forced on him, and I prefer to be subject to an apartheid regime, an oppressive, fascist, racist and colonialist regime. I prefer all this to having to live under Palestinian rule.” A person who exercises his or her democratic right to express such a position cannot prevent others from exercising their democratic right to find such a statement ridiculous.

In short, reactions to the Yisrael Beiteinu proposal illuminate two key truths that too many people refuse to acknowledge: Far from being an “apartheid state,” Israel is a thriving democracy whose Arab citizens cling zealously to the right to remain in it. And far from being ready for statehood, “Palestine” would likely become yet another failed state in a world that already has far too many.

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In Defense of Social Justice

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has written an excellent essay in the current issue of COMMENTARY. It lays out a conservative social justice agenda aimed at helping the most vulnerable members of society. The pillars of this agenda include personal moral transformation, material relief, and opportunity.

Specific polices are of course crucial, and what Brooks lays out is commendable. For now, though, I want to focus on the underlying case for a social justice agenda.

The term itself is not one you often hear from conservatives, perhaps in part because of the brilliant Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s distaste for it. Hayek believed the idea of social justice was a mirage, an “empty formula” and “hollow incantation,” and impossible to define.  (You might enjoy watching this 1977 Firing Line conversation between William F. Buckley Jr. and Hayek on social justice.)

On the matter of social justice, Hayek had in mind distributive justice. “There can be no distributive justice where no one distributes,” Hayek put it. “Considerations of justice provide no justification for ‘correcting’ the results of the market,” he said elsewhere. “Only human conduct can be called just and unjust,” Hayek argued. (Hayek himself did not oppose a comprehensive system of social insurance and favored a guaranteed minimum income. His fear was that the concept of social justice would lead to “centrally planned distribution according to merit,” in the words of the philosopher David Schmidtz. “He thinks a merit czar would be intolerable.”)

Professor Hayek’s insights about spontaneous order, the virtues of dispersed decision making, the dangers of collectivism and centralized planning, and the limits of social knowledge are tremendous contributions. But I do think that the term “social justice,” as defined by Hayek, is too constricted and incomplete; that it’s a term conservatives should not only refuse to cede to the left but one they should embrace.

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Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has written an excellent essay in the current issue of COMMENTARY. It lays out a conservative social justice agenda aimed at helping the most vulnerable members of society. The pillars of this agenda include personal moral transformation, material relief, and opportunity.

Specific polices are of course crucial, and what Brooks lays out is commendable. For now, though, I want to focus on the underlying case for a social justice agenda.

The term itself is not one you often hear from conservatives, perhaps in part because of the brilliant Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s distaste for it. Hayek believed the idea of social justice was a mirage, an “empty formula” and “hollow incantation,” and impossible to define.  (You might enjoy watching this 1977 Firing Line conversation between William F. Buckley Jr. and Hayek on social justice.)

On the matter of social justice, Hayek had in mind distributive justice. “There can be no distributive justice where no one distributes,” Hayek put it. “Considerations of justice provide no justification for ‘correcting’ the results of the market,” he said elsewhere. “Only human conduct can be called just and unjust,” Hayek argued. (Hayek himself did not oppose a comprehensive system of social insurance and favored a guaranteed minimum income. His fear was that the concept of social justice would lead to “centrally planned distribution according to merit,” in the words of the philosopher David Schmidtz. “He thinks a merit czar would be intolerable.”)

Professor Hayek’s insights about spontaneous order, the virtues of dispersed decision making, the dangers of collectivism and centralized planning, and the limits of social knowledge are tremendous contributions. But I do think that the term “social justice,” as defined by Hayek, is too constricted and incomplete; that it’s a term conservatives should not only refuse to cede to the left but one they should embrace.

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin reminded me of Irving Kristol’s rejection of Hayek’s denial of the idea of social justice in his 1970 essay “When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness.” Kristol pointed out that Hayek, for whom Kristol had great respect, preferred a free society to a just society “because, [Hayek] says, while we know what freedom is, we have no generally accepted knowledge of what justice is.”

“Can men live in a free society if they have no reason to believe it is also a just society?” Kristol asked. “I do not think so. My reading of history is that, in the same way as men cannot for long tolerate a sense of spiritual meaninglessness in their individual lives, so they cannot for long accept a society in which power, privilege, and property are not distributed according to some morally meaningful criteria.”

Kristol praised American society when it was

still permeated by the Puritan ethic, the Protestant ethic, the capitalist ethic – call it what you will. It was a society in which it was agreed that there was a strong correlation between certain personal virtues – frugality, industry, sobriety, reliability, piety – and the way in which power, privilege, and property were distributed. And this correlation was taken to be the sign of a just society, not merely of a free one. 

So denying the possibility of a common idea of justice is not one I’m prepared to accept. Moreover, the Hebrew Bible and New Testament don’t seem to accept it, either. In his book Generous Justice, Timothy J. Keller writes that the words “social justice” appear more than three dozen times in the Bible. (Dr. Keller argues that “social justice” is the best English expression we have for the relevant Hebrew words. The most accurate translated text for Psalm 33:5, for example, would be, “The Lord loves social justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.”)

Whether or not one finds this persuasive, social injustice exists; so, I would argue, does the concept of social justice–and any society that fails to dispense some measure of sympathy and solicitude to others, particularly those living in the shadows and who are most vulnerable to injustice, cannot really be a good society. A decent civilization needs to have something to say to them. So should the conservative movement. Which brings me back to the essay by Arthur Brooks.

“The conservative creed should be fighting for people, especially vulnerable people, whether or not they vote as we do,” Brooks writes. “This is our fight, and it is a happy one. After all, as Proverbs 14:21 reminds us, ‘He that despiseth his neighbor, sinneth: but he that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he’.”

Whether this effort travels under the banner of social justice or some other name, to do justice and to love mercy is what is required of us, as individuals and as a society. Or so it seems to me.

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ObamaCare Supporters Swear They Can Be Trusted This Time

In the last couple of days, the political press has introduced us to the Democrats’ emerging strategy for the upcoming midterm congressional elections. They will be running as the arsonists who can be trusted to put out their fire. They are being less explicit about the first part, of course. The New York Times has a story that exemplifies the cognitive dissonance. It begins with a campaign ad by Democratic Representative Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona trumpeting the fact that when the Healthcare.gov website sputtered out of the gate, she wagged her finger at it.

But how did that website come about? It was an important component of ObamaCare, of course. And how did ObamaCare come about? Well, you’d have to go elsewhere for that information; Ann Kirkpatrick treats the disastrous health-care reform law as if it were some sort of anonymous cyberattack. In fact, Democrats passed ObamaCare over the objections of all Republicans and some Democrats. Kirkpatrick should know: she was one of the votes in favor of ObamaCare. Ann Kirkpatrick, then, helped unleash this horrendous law on her constituents.

But Kirkpatrick isn’t the only one. The Times itself seeks to avoid the messy topic of why the country is suffering from ObamaCare in the first place. The whole article talks about Democrats running on an agenda of “fixing” elements of the law, but only buried late in the story do we get a hint about the culprits. The call is coming from inside the House:

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In the last couple of days, the political press has introduced us to the Democrats’ emerging strategy for the upcoming midterm congressional elections. They will be running as the arsonists who can be trusted to put out their fire. They are being less explicit about the first part, of course. The New York Times has a story that exemplifies the cognitive dissonance. It begins with a campaign ad by Democratic Representative Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona trumpeting the fact that when the Healthcare.gov website sputtered out of the gate, she wagged her finger at it.

But how did that website come about? It was an important component of ObamaCare, of course. And how did ObamaCare come about? Well, you’d have to go elsewhere for that information; Ann Kirkpatrick treats the disastrous health-care reform law as if it were some sort of anonymous cyberattack. In fact, Democrats passed ObamaCare over the objections of all Republicans and some Democrats. Kirkpatrick should know: she was one of the votes in favor of ObamaCare. Ann Kirkpatrick, then, helped unleash this horrendous law on her constituents.

But Kirkpatrick isn’t the only one. The Times itself seeks to avoid the messy topic of why the country is suffering from ObamaCare in the first place. The whole article talks about Democrats running on an agenda of “fixing” elements of the law, but only buried late in the story do we get a hint about the culprits. The call is coming from inside the House:

Moreover, not all congressional Democrats are talking about the health care law in their advertising or their routine stump speeches — and even some of those hoping to explain their support are being far from laudatory. The commercial for Ms. Kirkpatrick, the Arizona Democrat, by the House Majority PAC refers to the “disastrous health care website,” as does a spot the group did for Representative Joe Garcia, Democrat of Florida.

If you blinked, you might have missed it. Twenty-one paragraphs into the story we get a note about Democrats “hoping to explain their support.” Yes, ObamaCare was in fact an act of Congress. And that is what complicates this Democratic strategy. In order to confront the manifold problems in ObamaCare, they have to acknowledge its existence. And its existence is thanks to them.

And it’s not just voting for the law in the first place. The Times story also talks about the predicament facing Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, who, thanks to the shady “Louisiana Purchase,” provided a crucial vote for the bill. The Times mentions that her ad campaign will show her taking action, for example with “legislation she sponsored that would allow individuals to keep their insurance plans even if the plans did not meet the minimum requirements of the health law.”

Why can’t individuals keep their insurance? It’s not just the law’s regulations: an effort was made in late 2010 to alleviate that consequence of ObamaCare and allow folks to keep their insurance. Mary Landrieu was instrumental in defeating it and keeping ObamaCare as punitive as possible. What has changed? The public outrage and the fumbled rollout of the health-care exchanges, certainly. But other Democrats, as the Times reports, thought if they ignored the voters they would just go away:

“Part of what we learned in 2010 is that this is a real issue of concern to voters and you can’t dodge it, you have to take it on, and I think Democrats are much more ready and willing to do that in 2014,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who has done surveys for Democrats on the law. “We certainly have enough evidence now that this is not a fight you can win if you are in a defensive crouch.”

In one sense, it’s encouraging that Democrats are kinda-sorta confronting reality. But in another sense, this follows the classic storyline of American liberalism. Progressives animated by ideology, ignorant of policy and economics, and filled with contempt for the voters institute leftist policy. The policy is, unsurprisingly, a wreck. As others attempt to clean up their mess, liberals intervene to promise to fix what they’ve done, usually through yet more state coercion.

The arsonists promise that this time they can be trusted with the matches and lighter fluid. If that’s the best the Democrats have to go on, ObamaCare may have done more harm to their brand than even their opponents expected.

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