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Posts For: March 21, 2014

Will Obama Listen to What Iran is Saying?

Earlier this week, President Obama sent a celebratory message to the people and the leaders of Iran on the occasion of the Nowruz, the Persian New Year. The annual videotaped presidential missive was very much in the spirit of the administration’s policy toward Iran emphasizing not only holiday cheer but also a belief in the need for the U.S. and Iran to resolve their differences, especially with regard to the nuclear negotiations now going on. In doing so, the president went even further than previous statements about the talks in which he said he supported a peaceful Iranian nuclear program and predicted a deal that would strengthen the economy of the Islamist regime. Israeli President Shimon Peres also sent his own equally conciliatory message to Iran that emphasized peace.

But if either leader were expecting a friendly reply from Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, they were disappointed. Speaking earlier today to commemorate the holiday, Khamenei brushed off conciliation, attacking the idea of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, questioning the Holocaust and vowing to triumph over international sanctions.

Given Khamenei’s history of hate speech directed at both the “Great Satan” (the U.S.) and the “Little Satan” (Israel), none of this is particularly surprising. Khamenei is the embodiment of a regime saturated in hostility to the West and anti-Semitism and whose support of international terrorism and a nuclear weapon is closely tied to its ideological goals. The only mystery about this is why Americans refuse to take him seriously when he speaks in this manner.

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Earlier this week, President Obama sent a celebratory message to the people and the leaders of Iran on the occasion of the Nowruz, the Persian New Year. The annual videotaped presidential missive was very much in the spirit of the administration’s policy toward Iran emphasizing not only holiday cheer but also a belief in the need for the U.S. and Iran to resolve their differences, especially with regard to the nuclear negotiations now going on. In doing so, the president went even further than previous statements about the talks in which he said he supported a peaceful Iranian nuclear program and predicted a deal that would strengthen the economy of the Islamist regime. Israeli President Shimon Peres also sent his own equally conciliatory message to Iran that emphasized peace.

But if either leader were expecting a friendly reply from Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, they were disappointed. Speaking earlier today to commemorate the holiday, Khamenei brushed off conciliation, attacking the idea of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, questioning the Holocaust and vowing to triumph over international sanctions.

Given Khamenei’s history of hate speech directed at both the “Great Satan” (the U.S.) and the “Little Satan” (Israel), none of this is particularly surprising. Khamenei is the embodiment of a regime saturated in hostility to the West and anti-Semitism and whose support of international terrorism and a nuclear weapon is closely tied to its ideological goals. The only mystery about this is why Americans refuse to take him seriously when he speaks in this manner.

According to the Times of Israel, this is what Khamenei had to say about the Holocaust:

“The Holocaust is an event whose reality is uncertain and if it has happened, it’s uncertain how it has happened,” Khamenei said during his address, according to a Twitter account under his name thought to be run by his office.

“Expressing opinion about the Holocaust, or casting doubt on it, is one of the greatest sins in the West. They prevent this, arrest the doubters, try them while claiming to be a free country,” said Khamenei, who has repeatedly called the Holocaust a “myth.”

“They passionately defend their red lines … How do they expect us to overlook our red lines that are based on our revolutionary and religious beliefs.”

As much as the president insists that he has his eyes wide open when it comes to Iran, his policies toward it have always reflected a degree of naïveté about the nature of its government and an unwillingness to confront it. From his first attempts at “engagement” to his shameful silence during the 2009 repression of demonstrators in Tehran to the current interim nuclear deal that granted Iran significant concessions in return for nothing of substance from them, Obama has been consistent in his desire for a new détente with the regime.

The administration has disingenuously sought to use the victory of Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s faux presidential election last year to justify a belief in Iranian moderation but the end of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s term in office changed nothing. Holocaust denial is pervasive throughout the Iranian leadership not because they like to offend Jewish and Western sensibilities but because it is integral to their anti-Semitic worldview. Rouhani is no moderate but even if he were one, it is Khamenei who runs the country.

This week’s exchange of greetings proves again that Iran has always viewed Western efforts at appeasement with contempt. They have given every indication that they consider Obama weak and too irresolute to hold them accountable for terrorism, arms smuggling aimed at inciting Palestinian violence or their nuclear quest. Nothing Khamenei says will likely deter President Obama from pursuing a nuclear deal. But the administration must, above all, learn to take Iran at its word when it threatens genocide and or says it will never back down on the nuclear question. If not, this pointless back and forth will be merely the forerunner of even more dangerous dialogue that will be heard after the Iranians reach their nuclear goal.

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Beware the False Dawn

By almost all accounts, 2014 is going to be a very good political year for Republicans. Even Democrats are conceding that at this point at least, the odds are better than not that the GOP will take control of the Senate. Neutral political observers say there are now roughly 12 Democratic-held seats in danger; Republicans need to pick up six of them. If that occurs, it would be the “tsunami” predicted by the RNC’s outstanding chairman, Reince Priebus, and the second disastrous mid-term for Democrats during the Obama presidency.

Here are two thoughts on this. It may be that Republicans are in relatively good shape these days to make substantial gains in House and Senate races – but the presidency is much more of an uphill climb, including for demographic reasons. (That was certainly true of Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s.) To put it another way: Mid-term elections are a good deal more favorable for Republicans than national presidential elections.

Presidential elections matter more.

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By almost all accounts, 2014 is going to be a very good political year for Republicans. Even Democrats are conceding that at this point at least, the odds are better than not that the GOP will take control of the Senate. Neutral political observers say there are now roughly 12 Democratic-held seats in danger; Republicans need to pick up six of them. If that occurs, it would be the “tsunami” predicted by the RNC’s outstanding chairman, Reince Priebus, and the second disastrous mid-term for Democrats during the Obama presidency.

Here are two thoughts on this. It may be that Republicans are in relatively good shape these days to make substantial gains in House and Senate races – but the presidency is much more of an uphill climb, including for demographic reasons. (That was certainly true of Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s.) To put it another way: Mid-term elections are a good deal more favorable for Republicans than national presidential elections.

Presidential elections matter more.

Second, beware the false dawn. That’s what happened in 2010, when Republicans wiped out Democrats in races for state legislatures, governorships, the House and the Senate. Republicans convinced themselves that the electorate had turned hard against President Obama and his agenda. In 2012, however, Mr. Obama became the first president to achieve the 51 percent mark in two elections since President Eisenhower and the first Democrat to do so since Franklin Roosevelt. 

What we have, then, is what Mr. Priebus calls “a tale of two parties.” Republicans are situated pretty well when it comes to mid-term elections – but they shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that even if they score an impressive victory in 2014 (and things could still change, of course), it means that Republicans are well-situated for 2016.

The truth is that even if Republicans sweep to victory in 2014 they still have significant repair work that needs to be done – in terms of its agenda and tone, in the mechanics of presidential campaigns and the quality of the candidates we field  – if they hope to win back the presidency.

In my estimation, the GOP is still facing a moment similar to what Democrats and the British Labour Party did in the early and mid-1990s. (It took Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to recast their parties in fairly significant ways, including optically and substantively, on issues like welfare and crime and in terms of a favorable disposition toward individual responsibility and democratic capitalism.)

The problems facing the Republican Party are not transitory or simply candidate-specific; they are more fundamental than that. And so for the GOP to once again become a consistently viable presidential party, Republicans need to put forward a considerably more compelling governing vision than it has, with particular focus on the concerns and challenges facing the middle class and in a way that will win over minority voters. There are some encouraging signs here and there, but it’s simply not nearly where it needs to be. And unless more Republicans accept that fact, and adjust to it, they’ll continue their presidential losing streak.

The 2014 mid-term elections are certainly important; but if Republicans do well and, having done well, once again draw the wrong lessons from them, it will be a Pyrrhic victory. 

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Don’t Mourn the Passing of Robert Strauss’s Washington

The death of Washington fixer extraordinaire Robert Strauss at 95 this week is being noted as a reminder of a bygone era that has vanished from the scene. Strauss was, by any standard, a remarkable figure in 20th century American political history. The Texas-born lawyer founded Akin Gump, one of the capital’s most powerful law firms and played a pivotal role in Democratic Party politics for decades. He helped elect one president—Jimmy Carter—was a friend to several others, including Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, and served both Democrats and Republicans in high office.

As the appreciations that have been written about his life have all agreed, he was a unique “character.” His keen political instincts, colorful language, and smooth manner helped him amass great influence and allowed him to play both ends against the middle throughout his career. Strauss was said to have embodied a Washington where partisan differences were muted. His D.C. was the sort of place where Republicans and Democrats might have used some sharp elbows on each other on the floors of Congress and on the campaign trail. But they could always relax with each other and, more importantly, do business and cooperate behind the scenes to advance Strauss’s perennial agenda of “making the government work.”

But while Strauss deserves credit for his rise from obscurity as the lone Jewish boy in a small Texas town to the toast of Capitol Hill, we should not be mourning the passing of his Washington. For all of his gifts, Strauss exemplified a kind of politics that was, at its heart, unprincipled and, above all, self-interested. Pundits lament the hyper-partisan nature of D.C. politics today in which ideologues on both sides of the aisle dominate and often make compromise impossible. But the notion that we were better off in an era when “go along to get along” produced a government that was unaccountable and worked primarily to help enrich political elites at the expense of the taxpayers is the product of a dangerous kind of amnesia.

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The death of Washington fixer extraordinaire Robert Strauss at 95 this week is being noted as a reminder of a bygone era that has vanished from the scene. Strauss was, by any standard, a remarkable figure in 20th century American political history. The Texas-born lawyer founded Akin Gump, one of the capital’s most powerful law firms and played a pivotal role in Democratic Party politics for decades. He helped elect one president—Jimmy Carter—was a friend to several others, including Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, and served both Democrats and Republicans in high office.

As the appreciations that have been written about his life have all agreed, he was a unique “character.” His keen political instincts, colorful language, and smooth manner helped him amass great influence and allowed him to play both ends against the middle throughout his career. Strauss was said to have embodied a Washington where partisan differences were muted. His D.C. was the sort of place where Republicans and Democrats might have used some sharp elbows on each other on the floors of Congress and on the campaign trail. But they could always relax with each other and, more importantly, do business and cooperate behind the scenes to advance Strauss’s perennial agenda of “making the government work.”

But while Strauss deserves credit for his rise from obscurity as the lone Jewish boy in a small Texas town to the toast of Capitol Hill, we should not be mourning the passing of his Washington. For all of his gifts, Strauss exemplified a kind of politics that was, at its heart, unprincipled and, above all, self-interested. Pundits lament the hyper-partisan nature of D.C. politics today in which ideologues on both sides of the aisle dominate and often make compromise impossible. But the notion that we were better off in an era when “go along to get along” produced a government that was unaccountable and worked primarily to help enrich political elites at the expense of the taxpayers is the product of a dangerous kind of amnesia.

Even if his ability to enrich himself and his clients by positioning himself at the public trough is inherently unseemly, the tale of Strauss’s gleeful ascent up the greasy pole is nevertheless a good story in which it is hard to root against him. Strauss’s allergic reaction to ideology has caused more than one writer to compare him to the protagonist of House of Cards. That seems a bit extreme (no one has accused Strauss of murder, let alone the kind of political skullduggery that the fictional Frank Underwood commits) but in an era in which we have grown tired of ideologues, perhaps it’s understandable that there is nostalgia for a time when a fixer could sit down with party leaders and make a deal that both sides might profit from. Many of us are weary of people like Ted Cruz, with their uncompromising approach to politics that might, at least occasionally, be improved by a touch of Straussian pragmatism.

Yet a chorus of querulous Cruz clones endlessly bickering on points of principle would far better serve the nation than a new generation of Bob Strausses orchestrating things from the sideline. There was something profoundly wrong about the influence of figures like Strauss and not just because, as Michael Kinsley famously wrote of him, he was “99 percent hot air.” Rather it was because a political system dominated by men and women who clearly believed in nothing and whose primary motivation was to game the system prevented accountability and ultimately undermined democracy itself.

We sometimes forget that it was the reality of a Washington in which Strauss was not an outlier that gave rise to the revolution on the right led by New Gingrich in the late ’80s and ’90s and then eventually to today’s Tea Party. Americans may not want their government to be shut down over partisan quarrels, but they also understand that a Congress and a D.C. establishment that eschews ideology is one that is in the pockets of the lobbyists rather than working for the people. It’s OK to chuckle at the colorful anecdotes being recounted today of Strauss’s influence peddling and bipartisan deal making. But let’s never be so annoyed with the Ted Cruzes of the world that we think we’ll be better off with a return to his Washington.

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Twitter and Turkey’s Slide Into Dictatorship

The government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been gradually chipping away at every vestige of democracy in that country for years. Independent press outlets have been suppressed and more journalists are in prison in Turkey than in any other place on earth. Political opponents of his AKP and much of the secular leadership of the military have been jailed, and demonstrators have been brutalized. Despite this terrible record the West, and in particular the Obama administration, have largely turned a blind eye to Turkey’s excesses. But by trying to ban the use of Twitter, Erdoğan may have finally picked a fight that he can’t win in the long run.

The Turkish government is standing by an order issued by a judge who is friendly to the prime minister to block the use of Twitter in Turkey. The reason for the effort is that social media, such as Twitter and YouTube, is the vehicle for spreading evidence of corruption by Erdoğan’s son and other prominent scions of the country’s Islamist elite. While social media plays an increasingly critical role in the spread of news throughout the free world, it is especially critical now in a country like Turkey because the mainstream press in that country has been effectively silenced by the dictatorial policies of the AKP and its leader. That forced the flow of information elsewhere and Erdoğan’s courts have responded with demands that Twitter and other venues remove the embarrassing content from their sites.

But by adopting a stand that undermines the notion that Turkey is a modern state that is ready to be integrated into the international economy and the European Union, Erdoğan may have worsened his problems rather than solve them. After 11 years in power during which he has ruthlessly wielded influence, the Turkish leader may have finally crossed the line that separates a feared dictator from a laughingstock. By banning Twitter, Erdoğan has begun to resemble a parody of a despot rather than the strongman who has transformed Turkey from a secular state to an Islamist tyranny.

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The government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been gradually chipping away at every vestige of democracy in that country for years. Independent press outlets have been suppressed and more journalists are in prison in Turkey than in any other place on earth. Political opponents of his AKP and much of the secular leadership of the military have been jailed, and demonstrators have been brutalized. Despite this terrible record the West, and in particular the Obama administration, have largely turned a blind eye to Turkey’s excesses. But by trying to ban the use of Twitter, Erdoğan may have finally picked a fight that he can’t win in the long run.

The Turkish government is standing by an order issued by a judge who is friendly to the prime minister to block the use of Twitter in Turkey. The reason for the effort is that social media, such as Twitter and YouTube, is the vehicle for spreading evidence of corruption by Erdoğan’s son and other prominent scions of the country’s Islamist elite. While social media plays an increasingly critical role in the spread of news throughout the free world, it is especially critical now in a country like Turkey because the mainstream press in that country has been effectively silenced by the dictatorial policies of the AKP and its leader. That forced the flow of information elsewhere and Erdoğan’s courts have responded with demands that Twitter and other venues remove the embarrassing content from their sites.

But by adopting a stand that undermines the notion that Turkey is a modern state that is ready to be integrated into the international economy and the European Union, Erdoğan may have worsened his problems rather than solve them. After 11 years in power during which he has ruthlessly wielded influence, the Turkish leader may have finally crossed the line that separates a feared dictator from a laughingstock. By banning Twitter, Erdoğan has begun to resemble a parody of a despot rather than the strongman who has transformed Turkey from a secular state to an Islamist tyranny.

As the New York Times reports, his inability to suppress the incriminating information about his son and his regime has sent Erdoğan over the edge:

The shutdown, which Turks began to notice around midnight, occurred 10 days before local elections and came after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lashed out at Twitter in an election rally in Bursa, a western town, on Thursday, saying that he did not care about international reactions if national security was at stake.

“Twitter, mwitter! We will wipe out roots of all,” Mr. Erdoğan declared in a campaign speech before the pivotal elections on March 30. “They say, ‘Sir, the international community can say this, can say that.’ I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the state of the Republic of Turkey is.”

Mr. Erdoğan had faced perhaps the biggest challenge in his 11 years in office when unidentified critics began using Twitter and YouTube to leak dozens of phone calls and documents that seemed to tie government officials and business circles close to the government to a graft inquiry that began last December.

One of the recordings purports to be of the prime minister himself telling his son to get rid of large sums of cash on the morning of Dec. 17, when the homes of three former ministers’ sons were raided. Mr. Erdoğan has repeatedly — and angrily — insisted that the recording was fake.

This is far from the first instance of Erdoğan’s dictatorial manner. He has run roughshod over all legal opposition and shut down journalistic outlets that were not in his pocket. But perhaps by taking on the popular social media in such an absurd and transparently self-interested manner, a turning point may be reached on international opinion of his regime.

This is, after all, the same man President Obama described as his best friend among foreign leaders. While other Western heads of state were not quite so fulsome in their praise for Erdoğan, the result was the same, as the AKP’s excesses at home and its support for Hamas in Gaza were ignored because of Turkey’s membership in NATO and its role in supporting opposition to the Assad regime.

While the United States has slowly started to edge away from Erdoğan, Washington needs to do more now than merely state its displeasure with the antics of the president’s friend. The same applies to Turkey’s bid for EU membership. Relations with this increasingly despotic Islamist state need to be put on hold until the country and its dictator come to their senses.

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Victory Is the Only Legitimacy Assad Needs

Consumers of news are well aware that the old saw “if it bleeds, it leads” comes with an unstated qualification: it depends who else is bleeding. This isn’t the only variable, but it’s a potent one. And so the current age of global instability–the Arab Spring, European protest movements, etc.–has meant that no matter how much Syria bleeds, it rarely leads. While the conflict has not experienced any major transformations recently, the lack of interest in Syria compared to, say, Egypt or Ukraine or the perennial newsmakers in Israel and the Palestinian territories means it’s possible, even likely, we’ll miss subtle shifts.

And Syria has undergone such a shift. The New York Times reports that Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, believes Bashar al-Assad will stay in power. This isn’t breaking news. But it’s a significant story because it’s not breaking news. We’ve written here over the last year or so that Assad’s survival has gone from unlikely to tenuous to probable, culminating in the Russian-brokered deal to pretend to eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons, a deal which (as the Times notes) did more to solidify Assad’s hold on power than virtually any other development there since the beginning of the uprising.

Assad’s survival, then, has become the new conventional wisdom, ushering Syria into an era of status quo chaos. The Times adds that this story appears in today’s print edition of the paper on page A10. Assad’s survival means Syria will continue to bleed, but won’t come close to leading.

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Consumers of news are well aware that the old saw “if it bleeds, it leads” comes with an unstated qualification: it depends who else is bleeding. This isn’t the only variable, but it’s a potent one. And so the current age of global instability–the Arab Spring, European protest movements, etc.–has meant that no matter how much Syria bleeds, it rarely leads. While the conflict has not experienced any major transformations recently, the lack of interest in Syria compared to, say, Egypt or Ukraine or the perennial newsmakers in Israel and the Palestinian territories means it’s possible, even likely, we’ll miss subtle shifts.

And Syria has undergone such a shift. The New York Times reports that Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, believes Bashar al-Assad will stay in power. This isn’t breaking news. But it’s a significant story because it’s not breaking news. We’ve written here over the last year or so that Assad’s survival has gone from unlikely to tenuous to probable, culminating in the Russian-brokered deal to pretend to eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons, a deal which (as the Times notes) did more to solidify Assad’s hold on power than virtually any other development there since the beginning of the uprising.

Assad’s survival, then, has become the new conventional wisdom, ushering Syria into an era of status quo chaos. The Times adds that this story appears in today’s print edition of the paper on page A10. Assad’s survival means Syria will continue to bleed, but won’t come close to leading.

The Times mentions that Ford’s “assessment was starkly different from one the Obama administration presented as recently as last year, when it insisted that Mr. Assad’s days were numbered and that he was losing a battle of attrition with the moderate opposition.” Syria was always a prime example of the president’s belief that he could make something so by simply saying it. Obama declared Assad’s days to be numbered; what else could possibly have been needed?

The Times asks Ford why Assad is now expected to stay in power–that is, why Assad might have won. Here’s his response:

Mr. Ford said there were three reasons Mr. Assad had been able to hang on to power. First, Mr. Ford said, the Syrian opposition had been unable to assure the Alawite minority that it would not be threatened by Mr. Assad’s overthrow. “First and foremost,” Mr. Ford said, the Syrian opposition “has been very unsuccessful at explaining an agenda that would not threaten the communities that are the pillars of support for the regime, first and foremost the Alawite community.” Mr. Assad himself is an Alawite.

Another factor that has helped Mr. Assad’s prospects has been “Iranian and Russian financing and huge amounts of arms coming from both Russia and Iran.” Tehran’s decision to encourage Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, and Iraqi Shiite fighters to join the fray has also provided the Syrian government with badly needed manpower, Mr. Ford said.

The third factor is that the Assad government has had a “certain unity and coherence, which is lacking on the opposition side,” he said.

Mr. Ford appeared to hold out little hope that diplomacy could resolve the crisis anytime soon. He said the Syrian government was not interested in negotiating the establishment of a transitional administration that could govern the country if Mr. Assad yielded power. Nor, he added, has the United States had any serious negotiations over the Syria crisis with Tehran.

In other words, Assad had received significant help from his backers, while the Obama administration has neither given such help to Assad’s opposition nor seriously engaged in diplomacy with Assad’s benefactors. Of course, the window for significant material support to the rebels has probably closed, and been closed for some time. At the outset of the uprising, there seemed to be an opportunity to try and pick winners and losers among the rebel groups. The ever-contemplative Obama just had to think about it for a while, say, several years.

It’s not just Ford or U.S. intelligence officials who admit the odds in favor of Assad’s continued reign. Wherever there is a foreign-policy crisis, you are likely to find an insipid and dismissive quote from this nation’s chief diplomat, the blundering John Kerry. And Syria is no different. Here is Kerry’s acknowledgement of the current state of the conflict:

On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to recognize Mr. Assad’s tenacity on the battlefield in remarks to a group of university students.

“Whether they win, don’t win, they can’t regain legitimacy,” said Mr. Kerry, who argued that the Syrian leader would face armed opposition as long as he sought to hold power.

The most charitable explanation is that Kerry simply doesn’t understand how offensive and callous his statements are to the many, many, many victims and their families of this incredibly bloody civil war. Is that their consolation prize from the leader of the free world? The Obama administration may not lift a finger to stem the barbarous mass murder they are subjected to, but rest assured the president has resolutely extracted from Assad his international legitimacy.

What the president and his embarrassing secretary of state don’t say is that such legitimacy may not be theirs to bestow anyway. Victors tend to accrue legitimacy in the real world. And Assad is on pace to claim a costly, but no less real, victory.

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