Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 24, 2014

Liberals’ Hobby Lobby Scare Campaign

Tomorrow the U.S. Supreme Court finally takes up a case that has been headed toward their courtroom since the 2010 passage of ObamaCare. Two private companies are challenging the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate that requires all companies to pay for a range of services including contraception and abortion-inducing drugs that violate the religious beliefs of their owners. The two companies, the Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby craft store chain and Pennsylvania’s Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation are seeking to defend the First Amendment rights to exercise of religion against the government’s attempt to impose its beliefs and policies on all employers by threatening to ruin them with fines and penalties if they dare to refuse to obey the mandate.

But according to the administration and its liberal cheerleaders in the media, the stakes involved in this case involve nothing less than the future of women’s rights as well as those of gays. As the lead of a New York Times news story that would have been better placed on their opinion page read, this is a “case that pits religious liberty against women’s rights.” That frame of reference dovetailed nicely with a Times editorial that claimed Hobby Lobby and its supporters were “crying wolf about religious liberty” that would allow business owners to impose their beliefs on their helpless employees. Even worse, they claim it will gut health care and deny basic services to many Americans.

This is nothing less than a scare campaign aimed at intimidating the conservative members of the high court—or perhaps just Chief Justice John Roberts, whose worries about exposing his institution to political criticism allowed ObamaCare to survive a justified challenge to its constitutionality in 2012—to back away from a rigorous interpretation of the law that would obligate them to strike down the mandate. Far from setting off legal chaos that will undermine the foundation of human rights in this country, should Hobby Lobby and its fellow plaintiffs win, the result would be a reaffirmation of individual liberty and the basic protections afforded all Americans by the Constitution.

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Tomorrow the U.S. Supreme Court finally takes up a case that has been headed toward their courtroom since the 2010 passage of ObamaCare. Two private companies are challenging the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate that requires all companies to pay for a range of services including contraception and abortion-inducing drugs that violate the religious beliefs of their owners. The two companies, the Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby craft store chain and Pennsylvania’s Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation are seeking to defend the First Amendment rights to exercise of religion against the government’s attempt to impose its beliefs and policies on all employers by threatening to ruin them with fines and penalties if they dare to refuse to obey the mandate.

But according to the administration and its liberal cheerleaders in the media, the stakes involved in this case involve nothing less than the future of women’s rights as well as those of gays. As the lead of a New York Times news story that would have been better placed on their opinion page read, this is a “case that pits religious liberty against women’s rights.” That frame of reference dovetailed nicely with a Times editorial that claimed Hobby Lobby and its supporters were “crying wolf about religious liberty” that would allow business owners to impose their beliefs on their helpless employees. Even worse, they claim it will gut health care and deny basic services to many Americans.

This is nothing less than a scare campaign aimed at intimidating the conservative members of the high court—or perhaps just Chief Justice John Roberts, whose worries about exposing his institution to political criticism allowed ObamaCare to survive a justified challenge to its constitutionality in 2012—to back away from a rigorous interpretation of the law that would obligate them to strike down the mandate. Far from setting off legal chaos that will undermine the foundation of human rights in this country, should Hobby Lobby and its fellow plaintiffs win, the result would be a reaffirmation of individual liberty and the basic protections afforded all Americans by the Constitution.

As I have noted previously, you don’t have to agree with the owners of Hobby Lobby or other persons of faith about abortion or contraception in order to understand that a defeat for them would endanger everyone’s rights. If their religious liberty is considered less important than the government’s desire to create a universal mandate for employers to pay for such services, then there is no limit to what the government can demand and no room for faith in our public square anymore. In this case the plaintiffs are merely asking the courts to remember that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) set a standard by which government would be forced to prove that they were not imposing a substantial burden on the free exercise of faith by demanding that believers bow to their dictates. This is clearly not the case with ObamaCare, since its contraception mandate forces religious business owners to participate in the provision of services that clearly violate their consciences.

Protecting their rights to abstain from the mandate does not in any way endanger the rights of women or their health since Hobby Lobby employees are free to purchase such drugs on their own. What the government wants is not to protect the freedom to use contraception—which is not in question—but to be able to make religious organizations as well as private businesses pay for it and thus compromise their principles. Their reasoning is twisted, but at its heart is the belief that government can run roughshod over rights in order to obtain some larger good such as free health services. Upholding such a mandate would mean a re-writing of the First Amendment that would protect private expressions of faith but prohibit its exercise in the public square. The administration seeks to interpret the law in such a manner as to require people to choose between their faith and the survival of their enterprises. Our framers believed that government moral coercion of this sort was beyond the pale. That is why they sought to create a constitutional framework that ensured that while we would have no established church, neither would our government seek to constrain religious freedom.

As we saw with the recent furor over a revision in the Arizona version of RFRA, it is entirely possible for concerns about the rights of women or gays to be used as a weapon in order to squelch discussions about religious liberty and the Constitution. But the Supreme Court should be immune to such cynical scare mongering by the administration and the liberal mainstream media. Let us hope the justices ignore the attempt to buffalo them into suppressing religious freedom in the name of upholding ObamaCare.

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Dems Shouldn’t Bother Arguing with Silver

Back in 2012, Republicans and many conservative writers weren’t buying Nate Silver’s forecasts about the presidential election. They argued he was exaggerating President Obama’s appeal and some, like me, doubted the New York Times writer’s assumptions about turnout that year resembling that of the 2008 election. As everyone knows, we who differed with Silver were wrong. In fact, we were extremely wrong and those who care to learn from the experience will try not to allow their political opinions or their hopes temper their views of the numbers again. But, as the Washington Post reports, this time around it’s the Democrats who are the doubters.

Silver, who left the Times to start his own website associated with ESPN, posted a piece this weekend establishing the GOP as a clear favorite to win control of the Senate this fall. But, as the Washington Post reports, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is trying to argue that the man who called all 50 states right in the 2012 election is wrong. The DSCC claims that there aren’t enough polls to justify Silver’s assertion that the Republicans have a 60 percent chance of picking up at least six Senate seats. The Democrats also point out instances of Silver being either wrong in the past or at least underestimating the actual margins of races. But while the attempt to take down Silver will reassure some nervous Democrats who may have been under the impression the liberal-leaning pundit/statistician was only capable of predicting results they like, the response bears all the signs of the same denial that characterized GOP jousting with the writer two years ago.

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Back in 2012, Republicans and many conservative writers weren’t buying Nate Silver’s forecasts about the presidential election. They argued he was exaggerating President Obama’s appeal and some, like me, doubted the New York Times writer’s assumptions about turnout that year resembling that of the 2008 election. As everyone knows, we who differed with Silver were wrong. In fact, we were extremely wrong and those who care to learn from the experience will try not to allow their political opinions or their hopes temper their views of the numbers again. But, as the Washington Post reports, this time around it’s the Democrats who are the doubters.

Silver, who left the Times to start his own website associated with ESPN, posted a piece this weekend establishing the GOP as a clear favorite to win control of the Senate this fall. But, as the Washington Post reports, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is trying to argue that the man who called all 50 states right in the 2012 election is wrong. The DSCC claims that there aren’t enough polls to justify Silver’s assertion that the Republicans have a 60 percent chance of picking up at least six Senate seats. The Democrats also point out instances of Silver being either wrong in the past or at least underestimating the actual margins of races. But while the attempt to take down Silver will reassure some nervous Democrats who may have been under the impression the liberal-leaning pundit/statistician was only capable of predicting results they like, the response bears all the signs of the same denial that characterized GOP jousting with the writer two years ago.

As the Post notes, the DSCC has been trying to fundraise off of Silver’s last prediction about the Senate made less than a year ago. Last summer, Silver’s assessment of the various competitive Senate races gave the Republicans a 50-50 chance to pick up the seats they need. The article was cited in an attempt to rouse a somewhat lethargic Democratic donor base into action to fend off a potential disaster for President Obama’s party. But now that Silver’s analysis has begun to point toward what many are thinking may be a wave election in November, the Democrats are rightly worried about panic setting in among their ranks.

Silver’s breakdown of the competitive races is not particularly original. You don’t have to be a stat geek to know that the GOP will be heading into the fall knowing that, barring some kind of cataclysm, they will gain at least three red-state seats in West Virginia, South Dakota, and Montana. They are odds-on favorites to pick up two more from the Democrats in Arkansas and Louisiana. He rates North Carolina as a 50-50 tossup as to whether the GOP will seize yet another red-state Democratic seat won in Barack Obama’s big year in 2008. Worse than that, he gives the Republicans at least a 40 percent shot at taking three more in Colorado, Michigan, and Alaska. And he rates Democratic chances of gains in Kentucky and Georgia as no better than 25 and 30 percent respectively. While it is conceivable to think that unforeseen circumstances or GOP gaffes can allow the Democrats to hold on, the chances of that happening are no better than those of the Republicans winding up winning far more than the six they need.

So my advice to Democrats is to not waste time arguing with Silver. He may be a liberal but as we have seen in the past few years, his background in baseball statistics as one of the leading lights of the SABRmetric revolution leads him inevitably to sober and unflinching looks at the numbers. If liberals don’t like the way things are heading this year, they would do better to evaluate their own positions on issues like ObamaCare or the fact that their out-of-touch “Downton Abbey” elitist party (to use the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Green’s apt phrase) is setting this midterm cycle up as one that will be extremely favorable for the GOP, not bad poll numbers or faulty analysis. If not, they’ll be eating crow that is just as bitter as the dish so many conservatives had to consume in 2012.

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Carter Blames Jews for Obama’s Snubs

Former President Jimmy Carter is back in the news this week publicizing a new book about women’s rights. But, as is often the case with Carter, he drew more interest for comments he made about Israel and its supporters. When asked on NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday by Andrea Mitchell why it was that Barack Obama never called upon him for advice, he made it clear that the Jewish state was the reason he has been treated like a pariah:

I—that’s a hard question– for me to answer—you know, with complete candor. I think the problem was that– that in dealing with the issue of peace in– between Israel and Egypt– the Carter Center has taken a very strong and public position of equal treatment between the Palestinians and the Israelis. And I think this was a sensitive area in which the president didn’t want to be involved.

When he first came out with his speech in Cairo calling for the end of all settlements and when he later said that the ’67 borders would prevail, he and I were looking at it from the same perspective. But I can understand those sensitivities. And I don’t have any criticism of him.

Lest anyone think this was a slip of the tongue, he repeated the assertion in more stark terms this morning during a fawning interview with Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough on the same network’s Morning Joe program:

I think that sometimes an incumbent president doesn’t want to be very friendly with me because it might looked upon as more friendly toward the Palestinians instead of the Israelis. So we try to be balanced. That’s the only issue that separates me from Obama anyway. And I was very proud of him when he made a speech in Cairo and said no more settlements when he said the 67 borders would prevail except for minor modifications. Those things are very compatible with what I believe.

Carter might consider that the reason a successor wouldn’t wish to be burdened with a relationship with him was, at least in part, due to the Georgian’s insufferable personality and chronic self-righteousness. But there may be some truth to his assertion that his stands on the Middle East are at the root of the problem. Far from being an innocent victim of political influence for being “even-handed,” however, his lack of influence is due to the fact that his bias and slanders against the Jewish state have effectively marginalized him.

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Former President Jimmy Carter is back in the news this week publicizing a new book about women’s rights. But, as is often the case with Carter, he drew more interest for comments he made about Israel and its supporters. When asked on NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday by Andrea Mitchell why it was that Barack Obama never called upon him for advice, he made it clear that the Jewish state was the reason he has been treated like a pariah:

I—that’s a hard question– for me to answer—you know, with complete candor. I think the problem was that– that in dealing with the issue of peace in– between Israel and Egypt– the Carter Center has taken a very strong and public position of equal treatment between the Palestinians and the Israelis. And I think this was a sensitive area in which the president didn’t want to be involved.

When he first came out with his speech in Cairo calling for the end of all settlements and when he later said that the ’67 borders would prevail, he and I were looking at it from the same perspective. But I can understand those sensitivities. And I don’t have any criticism of him.

Lest anyone think this was a slip of the tongue, he repeated the assertion in more stark terms this morning during a fawning interview with Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough on the same network’s Morning Joe program:

I think that sometimes an incumbent president doesn’t want to be very friendly with me because it might looked upon as more friendly toward the Palestinians instead of the Israelis. So we try to be balanced. That’s the only issue that separates me from Obama anyway. And I was very proud of him when he made a speech in Cairo and said no more settlements when he said the 67 borders would prevail except for minor modifications. Those things are very compatible with what I believe.

Carter might consider that the reason a successor wouldn’t wish to be burdened with a relationship with him was, at least in part, due to the Georgian’s insufferable personality and chronic self-righteousness. But there may be some truth to his assertion that his stands on the Middle East are at the root of the problem. Far from being an innocent victim of political influence for being “even-handed,” however, his lack of influence is due to the fact that his bias and slanders against the Jewish state have effectively marginalized him.

Carter’s grudge against the pro-Israel community goes back to his defeat for reelection at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Carter thought he would reap the applause of supporters of the Jewish state because of his role in the Camp David Accords that brokered peace between Israel and Egypt. But Reagan gained a record percentage of the Jewish vote for a Republican due in no small measure to the contrast between his support for Israel and Carter’s open antagonism toward the Israeli government led by Menachem Begin. Once out of office, Carter has spent the years since nursing this grudge and becoming an increasingly bitter opponent of Israel and those who support it. This reached a crescendo in 2007 with the publication of his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. The book, a compendium of vicious slurs hurled against the Jewish state, lent the imprimatur of the former president and the Carter Center for Peace to the canard that Israel was imposing apartheid on the Arabs. In Carter’s world, Israelis have always been the obstacles to peace while Palestinian terrorism and refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn is always ignored.

Carter can always count on a sympathetic hearing in the mainstream media (and especially on the show where the daughter of his former National Security Advisor is the co-host) and has carefully cultivated a low-key do-gooder image because of charity projects with which he has associated himself. But his animus against Israel puts him outside the American political mainstream. That is not because supporters of Israel don’t believe in fairness but due to the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans in both major political parties want no part of Carter’s hostility to the Jewish state. If he has become politically toxic even during the administration of the president whose foreign policy and predilection for picking fights with Israel most resembles his own, it is due to his own intemperate and indefensible views on the Middle East and his not-so-subtle echoes of the anti-Semitic Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis. Obama’s snubs in the wake of Carter’s “apartheid” slurs are simply a matter of political awareness that it wasn’t possible to align oneself with such a discredited figure. That the 39th president would blame the Jews, rather than himself, for this predicament is as vile as it is predictable.

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EU, UN Blame Settlements, not Palestinian Violence

In recent days both the European Union and the United Nations have issued statements condemning Israel for issuing housing permits to build additional homes in West Bank Jewish communities. Naturally, both statements equated these moves to Israel sabotaging the peace process, a completely dishonest claim that only makes it easier for the Palestinian side to use these moves as the very pretext that they are looking for to flee negotiations. In opposing the building of homes for Jews in communities that under just about any conceivable arrangement would remain part of Israel, these international bodies utterly ignore the most critical threat to peace in the area: the growing levels of Islamist violence in the territories, and the Palestinian Authority’s total neglect of its responsibility to confront this.

Indeed, the same Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO), which issued the statement condemning the settlement construction, issued another statement only days earlier criticizing the activities of Israeli security forces operating in the West Bank, calling for investigations of any violations of international law.

In response to the publication of Israeli plans to move ahead with the construction of new housing projects in existing West Bank settlements, the EU’s Catherine Ashton said she was “deeply disappointed by the Israeli plans to expand settlements” and bemoaned how “unilateral action prejudging final status issues threatens the current peace negotiations.” Yet this is simply a misrepresentation of what is actually happening here. The talk of “expanding” settlements gives the sense of more territory being enveloped by Israel. In reality all building in these communities takes place within the existing perimeter boundaries of already established settlements. And the suggestion that creating more homes in these towns in any way prejudges “final status issues” is no less problematic. It has long been understood that the major settlement blocks would be annexed to Israel under any peace agreement.

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In recent days both the European Union and the United Nations have issued statements condemning Israel for issuing housing permits to build additional homes in West Bank Jewish communities. Naturally, both statements equated these moves to Israel sabotaging the peace process, a completely dishonest claim that only makes it easier for the Palestinian side to use these moves as the very pretext that they are looking for to flee negotiations. In opposing the building of homes for Jews in communities that under just about any conceivable arrangement would remain part of Israel, these international bodies utterly ignore the most critical threat to peace in the area: the growing levels of Islamist violence in the territories, and the Palestinian Authority’s total neglect of its responsibility to confront this.

Indeed, the same Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO), which issued the statement condemning the settlement construction, issued another statement only days earlier criticizing the activities of Israeli security forces operating in the West Bank, calling for investigations of any violations of international law.

In response to the publication of Israeli plans to move ahead with the construction of new housing projects in existing West Bank settlements, the EU’s Catherine Ashton said she was “deeply disappointed by the Israeli plans to expand settlements” and bemoaned how “unilateral action prejudging final status issues threatens the current peace negotiations.” Yet this is simply a misrepresentation of what is actually happening here. The talk of “expanding” settlements gives the sense of more territory being enveloped by Israel. In reality all building in these communities takes place within the existing perimeter boundaries of already established settlements. And the suggestion that creating more homes in these towns in any way prejudges “final status issues” is no less problematic. It has long been understood that the major settlement blocks would be annexed to Israel under any peace agreement.

For those who support the two-state proposal, there is a fundamental question to be answered about why settlements are indeed so problematic for their plan. Two-state plans almost always envisage the settlements either being annexed to Israel or otherwise evacuated. Yet, the need for such arrangements only highlights the fact that just as the Palestinians are refusing to agree to live alongside a Jewish state, they even refuse to live peacefully alongside Jewish neighbors. They have made it very clear that they have absolutely no intention of tolerating a Jewish minority within their state in the same way that Israel has always embraced having an Arab minority within its borders. When Ashton addresses the settlement issue, it seems she does not stop for a moment to ask herself why she is backing the establishment of a Jew-free state.    

Even if EU and UN officials genuinely believe that unilateral actions will hurt prospects for an agreement, where are all their statements giving equal condemnation of Palestinian moves? It would seem that they are deaf to what are now almost daily statements coming from president Abbas, declaring his refusal to sign up to the U.S.-sponsored framework and his intention to end the talks and return to pursuing Palestinian statehood unilaterally.

Given that Palestinian schools and broadcast media (in many instances funded by both the EU and the UN) put out a never-ending stream of incitement against Israel, in direct contravention of agreements that the PA is signed up to, wouldn’t you expect to occasionally hear some protest about this from Ashton or the UN’s special Middle East envoy Robert Serry? Instead, both of these figures pave Abbas’s way to fleeing talks by endorsing his narrative that settlement construction warrants just such a reaction.

These international diplomats live in a topsy-turvy version of reality in which homes for Jews are antithetical to peace, while the proliferation of Islamist terror groups in the West Bank are unworthy of comment. Indeed, in his Bloomberg interview President Obama repeatedly described settlements as “aggressive” so as to create the sense that building homes for Jews is comparable with acts of violence. Meanwhile Obama praised Abbas as having rejected violence. In truth Abbas’s PA continues to glorify and honor terrorism, but it also now seems that Abbas has adopted a parallel policy of inaction that only makes the proliferation of terrorism against Israelis more likely.

The growing threat of terror coming from the West Bank has become ever more apparent in recent months. It appears that, under pressure from a Palestinian public supportive of jihadist groups, the PA security forces have simply stopped policing certain neighborhoods of such radicalized cities as Jenin and Nablus. This has obliged the Israeli military to step up its involvement in these areas and over the weekend the IDF was engaged in a firefight in Jenin as they pursued Hamas operative Hamza Abu al-Hija, having already attempted to arrest him back in December. Despite the fact that these measures were necessitated by PA inaction, the Palestinian Authority actually condemned this incursion by Israel.

On Sunday Israeli border police officers were also injured by Palestinian rioters during a violent flare-up close to the Jewish holy site of Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. Meanwhile Palestinians assaulted an Israeli man near a Nablus village after PA police dispersed a group of Israelis visiting the site of the former Jewish community of Homesh. These are the kinds of activities that by their very nature break the peace and yet while Robert Serry apparently chooses to remain silent about the activities of terrorist groups, his office has no such qualms about chastising the Israeli security forces that have to try and deal with this threat.

Ashton accuses Israel of “squandering” opportunities for peace. What word, then, would she use to describe Abbas’s policy of presiding over a government that at once promotes and permits this kind of violence?   

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No Moderation from the Monstrous Taliban

One sometimes hears, from those who oppose a continued U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014, that the Taliban have changed. They have supposedly moderated from the bad old days of the 1990s. Now, we are told, they will not be as abusive of human rights nor as likely to ally with al-Qaeda.

Anyone who still harbors such illusions should read this article on last week’s Taliban attack on the Serena hotel in Kabul. The lead is chilling:

His handgun drawn, the clean-cut insurgent stood in the restaurant of the Serena Hotel in Kabul, listening to the mother of three as she begged, “Take my life, but please don’t kill my kids.”

Her pleading made no difference. As frightened hotel staff members watched from the kitchen, the young militant shot the children first before killing their mother, some of the first casualties inflicted by four Taliban attackers who rampaged through the luxurious hotel on Thursday. The assault killed at least nine people and struck at the heart of the fortified existence enjoyed here by Westerners and the moneyed Afghan elite.

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One sometimes hears, from those who oppose a continued U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014, that the Taliban have changed. They have supposedly moderated from the bad old days of the 1990s. Now, we are told, they will not be as abusive of human rights nor as likely to ally with al-Qaeda.

Anyone who still harbors such illusions should read this article on last week’s Taliban attack on the Serena hotel in Kabul. The lead is chilling:

His handgun drawn, the clean-cut insurgent stood in the restaurant of the Serena Hotel in Kabul, listening to the mother of three as she begged, “Take my life, but please don’t kill my kids.”

Her pleading made no difference. As frightened hotel staff members watched from the kitchen, the young militant shot the children first before killing their mother, some of the first casualties inflicted by four Taliban attackers who rampaged through the luxurious hotel on Thursday. The assault killed at least nine people and struck at the heart of the fortified existence enjoyed here by Westerners and the moneyed Afghan elite.

The Taliban remain monsters who kill small children–not as the accidental collateral damage from a larger attack but deliberately and at pointblank range. This is the true face of the enemy in Afghanistan, and it is why the civilized world cannot abandon Afghanistan to its fate.

The Afghan security forces are now much bigger and better organized than they once were. They are now taking the lead in 95 percent of all coalition operations in Afghanistan and suffering 95 percent of coalition casualties. But to defeat an insurgency which enjoys safe havens in Pakistan, they still need continuing American assistance. If we don’t provide it–and our ability to help will be contingent on Hamid Karzai’s successor signing a Bilateral Security Accord–then we will be leaving Afghanistan and indeed the entire region to the tender mercies of child killers.

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Bridgegate Inquiry Verdict Changes Nothing

Reports that a probe of the Bridgegate controversy conducted by outside lawyers at the behest of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has cleared him of wrongdoing is good news for his supporters. According to stories that have been published in multiple news outlets, the inquiry has determined that there is no evidence that Christie helped plot or carry out the bizarre scheme by which officials in his office and allies at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey created a traffic jam on the bridge in order to inconvenience or embarrass the mayor of Fort Lee as revenge for a political slight to the governor.

But those who are hoping this will restore Christie to the strong political position he was in–especially with regard to the 2016 presidential contest–before the story broke in January are bound to be disappointed. While I think it entirely likely, if not probable, that the conclusion that the governor was not personally involved in creating the bridge tie-up will be vindicated by subsequent investigations conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s office and the New Jersey legislature, that won’t stop Christie from being dragged through the mud by those running other probes. Nor will it quiet speculation from unfriendly outlets about what will be learned from the testimony of Christie associates who refused to talk to the governor’s lawyers, who produced this report. That means that although Christie and some of his supporters are acting as if Bridgegate is merely a bump on the road to 2016 that he can overcome, this report is a reminder not only of the difficulty he will have in getting back on message but also the way his opponents—both in New Jersey and in the national media—will use this issue to hound him relentlessly over the scandal in the coming months.

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Reports that a probe of the Bridgegate controversy conducted by outside lawyers at the behest of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has cleared him of wrongdoing is good news for his supporters. According to stories that have been published in multiple news outlets, the inquiry has determined that there is no evidence that Christie helped plot or carry out the bizarre scheme by which officials in his office and allies at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey created a traffic jam on the bridge in order to inconvenience or embarrass the mayor of Fort Lee as revenge for a political slight to the governor.

But those who are hoping this will restore Christie to the strong political position he was in–especially with regard to the 2016 presidential contest–before the story broke in January are bound to be disappointed. While I think it entirely likely, if not probable, that the conclusion that the governor was not personally involved in creating the bridge tie-up will be vindicated by subsequent investigations conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s office and the New Jersey legislature, that won’t stop Christie from being dragged through the mud by those running other probes. Nor will it quiet speculation from unfriendly outlets about what will be learned from the testimony of Christie associates who refused to talk to the governor’s lawyers, who produced this report. That means that although Christie and some of his supporters are acting as if Bridgegate is merely a bump on the road to 2016 that he can overcome, this report is a reminder not only of the difficulty he will have in getting back on message but also the way his opponents—both in New Jersey and in the national media—will use this issue to hound him relentlessly over the scandal in the coming months.

The report, which was paid for by the state of New Jersey, interviewed 70 witnesses as well as reviewing available records. But since the lawyers (led by former Rudy Giuliani chief of staff Randy Mastro) who conducted it are seen as political allies of Christie, Democrats are likely to cast doubt on its findings. Just as important, key figures that did orchestrate the traffic jam, such as Christie’s former deputy chief of staff Bridget Ann Kelly, who did not talk to Mastro because of her potential legal peril, undermined the effort.

But even if subsequent probes by Democrats in the legislature and the U.S. Attorney’s office never prove that Christie was part of the scheme, putting this in his rear-view mirror isn’t as simple as that. The process that will unfold in the legislature and by the Justice Department will ensure that the Bridgegate story will continue to unfold throughout 2014 and perhaps well into 2015. The drip-drip-drip of stories and non-stories about various aspects of the investigation leaked by those with a vested interest in besmirching Christie or at least tying him up in knots in defending his reputation won’t stop.

This is blatantly unfair, as is the fact that the news media was willing to devote more time and resources to covering this story than it was—or still is—to far more serious scandals such as those involving the IRS or Justice Department spying on the press. But at the core of Christie’s problems is something more than just another, if particularly egregious instance of liberal media bias. The fact is that people close to the governor hatched a ridiculous scheme that was intended to advance his political interests. This scheme was absurd and basically pointless but it was a massive and easily understood abuse of government power. Even if he had nothing to do with it, the question of whether a culture of bullying and exacting revenge on opponents fostered by Christie led to Bridgegate will always hover over him.

Christie remains a formidable figure in Republican politics and an able politician. But Bridgegate sullied his reputation in a way that will make it impossible for the governor to recapture the sense that he was the inevitable mainstream GOP choice or even a first-tier candidate for president. He already had serious problems convincing conservatives to trust him. Some will never forgive his 2012 embrace of Barack Obama or his slighting of Mitt Romney during his convention speech that same year, not to mention his pragmatic blue-state emphasis on winning rather than ideology. Bridgegate gave Republicans an excuse to avoid confronting those issues and it isn’t likely they will ever reconsider that decision.

Though he may act as if his plans haven’t changed, even a Christie who is universally acclaimed as innocent on the bridge fiasco—something Democrats will do their best to prevent in spite of the lack of evidence to the contrary—has little chance in 2016. Today’s report doesn’t change that conclusion.

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Putin, the Baltics, and NATO

Vladimir Putin seems to be bent on resurrecting the Russian Empire using as his excuse the supposed mistreatment of Russian minorities in former Soviet republics. At least that was his rationale for the annexation of Crimea. It is not only Ukraine, which has already lost one province and has a sizable Russian-speaking population in other provinces, which has cause to be worried. So does Moldova, where Russia has already sponsored a breakaway province in Transnistria. Russian troops are maneuvering now on the borders of both countries.

Ukraine and Moldova might seem particularly inviting targets for Russian aggression given that neither is a member of NATO. But the really worrisome scenario, at least from our perspective, should be what would happen if Putin were to set his sights on the Baltic republics. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are postage-stamp size countries on Putin’s doorstep which are members of NATO–and they have significant Russian minority populations whose grievances could be exacerbated and exploited with Kremlin manipulation.

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Vladimir Putin seems to be bent on resurrecting the Russian Empire using as his excuse the supposed mistreatment of Russian minorities in former Soviet republics. At least that was his rationale for the annexation of Crimea. It is not only Ukraine, which has already lost one province and has a sizable Russian-speaking population in other provinces, which has cause to be worried. So does Moldova, where Russia has already sponsored a breakaway province in Transnistria. Russian troops are maneuvering now on the borders of both countries.

Ukraine and Moldova might seem particularly inviting targets for Russian aggression given that neither is a member of NATO. But the really worrisome scenario, at least from our perspective, should be what would happen if Putin were to set his sights on the Baltic republics. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are postage-stamp size countries on Putin’s doorstep which are members of NATO–and they have significant Russian minority populations whose grievances could be exacerbated and exploited with Kremlin manipulation.

As this Reuters story notes, the Baltic republics are worried, and with good cause: “Russian speakers make up about 35 percent of Latvia’s 2 million population. In Estonia, around a quarter of its 1.3 million people are Russian speakers. In neighbouring Lithuania, which does not border Russia, ethnic Russians make up about 6 percent.” As these figures would indicate, Latvia has particular cause for concern. Reuters notes: “In the Latvian town of Daugavpils, where a Russian Tzarist-era fortress and barracks meet grey Soviet-era apartment blocks, you are more likely to be greeted in Russian than Latvian, with 51 percent of the city’s residents Russians.”

What exactly would NATO do if Putin were to move against the Baltics employing armed men with no insignia? This would be a crisis of the first order, which would confront the West with the unwelcome choice of either letting NATO’s collective security guarantees become a dead letter–or else getting embroiled in a war with a nuclear-armed Russia. The U.S., rapidly drawing down its military forces and especially its forces in Europe (where only two Army brigades will be left, if we are lucky), is not in a good position to defend the Baltic states. The other NATO states have more forces nearby but less willpower to act.

Putin knows this and it could well tempt him to further aggression. The best way to head off such a dire emergency would be to (a) increase the size of the U.S. army by cancelling a planned drawdown and (b) to position U.S. ground forces in the Baltic republics to act as a guarantee of American assistance in the event of invasion. By not doing this we are tempting Putin to exploit our perceived weakness–as he has previously done in Georgia and Ukraine.

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Is Pursuing Kony Worth the Resources?

There is no doubt that the African rebel leader Joseph Kony is a very bad man who–as viewers of the viral hit movie Kony 2012 know–deserves to be brought to justice. But is his capture important enough to justify a growing commitment of U.S. Special Operations Forces to Uganda?

President Obama has just announced that he is roughly doubling the size of the U.S. Special Operations Force on this mission to 300 personnel and sending an Osprey aircraft along with refueling aircraft.

If defense funds and the resources of the U.S. Special Operations Command were unlimited, I would say go for it. But that is not the case. As we know, defense spending is being slashed even as demands on the entire force–and especially on SOCOM–are growing. In fact there is “significant stress” on the Special Operations community, which is called on not only to fight in Afghanistan and in the global war on terror but also to conduct anti-piracy missions (remember who freed Captain Philips?) and myriad other assignments.

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There is no doubt that the African rebel leader Joseph Kony is a very bad man who–as viewers of the viral hit movie Kony 2012 know–deserves to be brought to justice. But is his capture important enough to justify a growing commitment of U.S. Special Operations Forces to Uganda?

President Obama has just announced that he is roughly doubling the size of the U.S. Special Operations Force on this mission to 300 personnel and sending an Osprey aircraft along with refueling aircraft.

If defense funds and the resources of the U.S. Special Operations Command were unlimited, I would say go for it. But that is not the case. As we know, defense spending is being slashed even as demands on the entire force–and especially on SOCOM–are growing. In fact there is “significant stress” on the Special Operations community, which is called on not only to fight in Afghanistan and in the global war on terror but also to conduct anti-piracy missions (remember who freed Captain Philips?) and myriad other assignments.

Some missions–such as standing up security forces in Libya capable of ending the rule of militias and restoring some law and order, or training non-jihadist rebels in Syria capable of beating back both Hezbollah and al-Qaeda–are getting short shrift as a result. To say nothing of preparing for a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moldova, or other states: that is a potential emergency for which the U.S. military, in the full throes of budget cuts, are simply not prepared for.

It is hard to see, therefore, how the White House can justify the commitment of scarce resources to a mission that does not implicate any vital American interest and that can best be described as humanitarian. There is, of course, nothing wrong with sending the U.S. military on humanitarian missions, but only if it does not take away from vital work elsewhere. I fear that in the case of Kony we are committing resources that are needed elsewhere.

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Britain’s Worsening Sharia Creep

Britain has seen yet another landmark step that deepens and expands the growing influence of Islamic religious law over the people who live in that country. The UK’s highly prestigious Law Society has issued guidelines for attorneys on how to draw up Sharia-compliant legal documents, shockingly setting a precedent for sanctioning the implementation of legal discrimination against both women and non-Muslims. Up until now those concerned with trying to resist the growing inertia of Sharia law in British society have been mostly focused on the matter of the expanding network of unauthorized Sharia courts that exist throughout Britain. Now, for the first time, Sharia practices will in effect be recognized at the level of the British court system.

Law Society President Nicholas Fluck spoke as if completely blind to the devastating damage that these guidelines will do to civil liberties in Britain. Fluck said that this new guidance would promote “good practice” in applying Islamic principles to the British legal system. The guidelines specifically advise on how to draft wills that comply with Islamic dictates while still appearing valid under British law. Indeed, these guidelines even suggest how Sharia principles could be used to overrule British practices in certain disputes, providing examples of areas that could be tested in English courts. It is astonishing to see how the Law Society blandly outlines how female heirs are to receive half what is to be allotted to male heirs while also acknowledging both the likelihood of multiple wives and ways in which widows can be penalized.

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Britain has seen yet another landmark step that deepens and expands the growing influence of Islamic religious law over the people who live in that country. The UK’s highly prestigious Law Society has issued guidelines for attorneys on how to draw up Sharia-compliant legal documents, shockingly setting a precedent for sanctioning the implementation of legal discrimination against both women and non-Muslims. Up until now those concerned with trying to resist the growing inertia of Sharia law in British society have been mostly focused on the matter of the expanding network of unauthorized Sharia courts that exist throughout Britain. Now, for the first time, Sharia practices will in effect be recognized at the level of the British court system.

Law Society President Nicholas Fluck spoke as if completely blind to the devastating damage that these guidelines will do to civil liberties in Britain. Fluck said that this new guidance would promote “good practice” in applying Islamic principles to the British legal system. The guidelines specifically advise on how to draft wills that comply with Islamic dictates while still appearing valid under British law. Indeed, these guidelines even suggest how Sharia principles could be used to overrule British practices in certain disputes, providing examples of areas that could be tested in English courts. It is astonishing to see how the Law Society blandly outlines how female heirs are to receive half what is to be allotted to male heirs while also acknowledging both the likelihood of multiple wives and ways in which widows can be penalized.

The Law Society’s guidance recommends to attorneys how they might delete or amend accepted legal terms to ensure that Islamic practices on inheritance are followed. For instance, the guidelines suggest removing the word “children” so as to prevent anyone considered illegitimate by Islamic law from having a claim to inheritance. In this way non-Muslims and non-Islamic marriages are disqualified from being considered valid for the purposes of inheritance and the children from any such unions are also classified as illegitimate.

What is most troubling about these guidelines is the way in which they are clearly intended for use by non-Muslim attorneys bringing cases to British courts, meaning that Britain’s legal system will effectively be able to function in such a way as to discriminate against those born out of Muslim wedlock, anyone who has been adopted, non-Muslims, and women generally. It is simply bizarre that at precisely the same time that British society and politicians have been pursuing programs for attempting to guarantee greater rights for women and minorities, now we also see parallel moves to implement other kinds of discrimination.

The principle of equality before the law is a foundational value of Western civilization, never mind liberal democracy. While clearly everyone has the right to draw up their will however they choose, it is simply unacceptable for legal guidelines to be issued that openly advise on how to systemically implement this type of discrimination. It is unthinkable that, after all the progress that has been made in the name of greater freedom and civil rights, we would witness in a country like Britain the imposition of religiously based legal practices for discriminating against people on such grounds as gender. Once again, in the name of attempting to accommodate and show tolerance toward its Muslim minority, Britain appears to be prepared to sacrifice some of the most fundamental rights that the majority of its citizenry has long believed in.

Some years ago, a Muslim friend of mine who lives in England confided in me that his greatest concern was not the threat of Islamist terror, but rather the onset of Islamic practices permeating civil life. It seems his worse fears are continuing to be borne out.       

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What Next for Egyptian Islamists?

Cairo has an outsized role in Islamic history. Alongside Baghdad and Damascus, it has always served as a cultural, intellectual, and often political capital for the Arab world. Thanks in large part to Al-Azhar University, perhaps the most prestigious center of Sunni learning in the Islamic world, it has also been a center for religious thought. In the modern era, it was home for a time to Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, an Iranian pan-Islamist thinker who called Cairo home, and later Muhammad Abduh, a nineteenth and early twentieth century Muslim reformer. In the twentieth century, Cairo was the home base of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement founded by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna, which soon grew to become the preeminent Islamist movement challenging the established political order.  

The Muslim Brotherhood, seldom far beneath the surface, rose to prominence in the wake of the Arab Spring protests that led to President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. But the movement was hardly the only Islamist group to seek political power, nor was it necessarily a monolith, although Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi sought to run it as one.

Since the July 2013 coup, the Egyptian government has moved to delegitimize the Muslim Brotherhood, and drive its remnants underground, a policy which, quite frankly, I support. Still, it’s important to embark on any such policy with eyes wide open. While I believe the interim Egyptian government is, frankly, a better match for U.S. national security than Morsi’s government, and while I also believe Egypt is more likely to achieve a more democratic order from the current situation than from when the Muslim Brotherhood was in control, it would be foolish to consider the current Egyptian government democratic and fully committed to the rule of law. What goes on inside Egyptian prisons remains atrocious, and the Egyptian military remains as involved in the crony capitalist order as it was in the decades before the Arab Spring.

In assessing Egyptian Islamism in the wake of the coup, the Center for American Progress has just published an excellent new study that maps out the current state of Egypt’s Islamist movements. Based on a series of recent interviews, they depict a Brotherhood still in disarray amidst the new government’s crackdown:

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Cairo has an outsized role in Islamic history. Alongside Baghdad and Damascus, it has always served as a cultural, intellectual, and often political capital for the Arab world. Thanks in large part to Al-Azhar University, perhaps the most prestigious center of Sunni learning in the Islamic world, it has also been a center for religious thought. In the modern era, it was home for a time to Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, an Iranian pan-Islamist thinker who called Cairo home, and later Muhammad Abduh, a nineteenth and early twentieth century Muslim reformer. In the twentieth century, Cairo was the home base of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement founded by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna, which soon grew to become the preeminent Islamist movement challenging the established political order.  

The Muslim Brotherhood, seldom far beneath the surface, rose to prominence in the wake of the Arab Spring protests that led to President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. But the movement was hardly the only Islamist group to seek political power, nor was it necessarily a monolith, although Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi sought to run it as one.

Since the July 2013 coup, the Egyptian government has moved to delegitimize the Muslim Brotherhood, and drive its remnants underground, a policy which, quite frankly, I support. Still, it’s important to embark on any such policy with eyes wide open. While I believe the interim Egyptian government is, frankly, a better match for U.S. national security than Morsi’s government, and while I also believe Egypt is more likely to achieve a more democratic order from the current situation than from when the Muslim Brotherhood was in control, it would be foolish to consider the current Egyptian government democratic and fully committed to the rule of law. What goes on inside Egyptian prisons remains atrocious, and the Egyptian military remains as involved in the crony capitalist order as it was in the decades before the Arab Spring.

In assessing Egyptian Islamism in the wake of the coup, the Center for American Progress has just published an excellent new study that maps out the current state of Egypt’s Islamist movements. Based on a series of recent interviews, they depict a Brotherhood still in disarray amidst the new government’s crackdown:

These Brothers remain steadfast in the face of state repression. Their commitment to continued street mobilization is firm, and they help organize and fund the protests to bring pressure on the interim government. While they express concern over the growing tendency by some youth in their ranks to engage in violence, they are increasingly unlikely to condemn the use of violence by protestors considered to be acting in self-defense. But the impact of the crackdown is palpable. In speaking with members up the chain of command and across Cairo and Alexandria, differing opinions emerged on key issues and core challenges before the Brotherhood. While they are shoulder to shoulder in skirmishing with the security forces, their views diverge as they look back over Morsi’s tenure and forward to matters of politics and reconciliation. At times, this dissonance borders on incoherence and draws into question their ability to maintain unity of purpose.

Nor is there consensus about a way forward for those who have fled into exile:

Further complicating the group’s cohesiveness is the growing number of Brotherhood leaders and members outside Egypt that try to influence the actions and strategy of the group. Many of these leaders have sought shelter in Qatar and Turkey, while others have set up shop in London. The largely uncoordinated and seemingly haphazard efforts have ranged from dead-on-arrival calls to form a government in exile to more ambitious designs to take the group’s fight to the International Criminal Court whose governing Rome Statute was blocked from ratification by the group when it was in power.

While many young Egyptians gave the Brotherhood a shot but abandoned it when they saw the group’s rhetoric of democracy did not match the reality of its internal decision-making culture, other young Egyptians drew opposite conclusions, and determined that the problem was that the Brotherhood wasn’t hardcore enough:

These activists resent the senior Brotherhood leadership, whom they believe abandoned core Islamist principles, and are actively seeking to convince the rank and file of the necessity to resort to violence… These youth have come to reject the Egyptian state and believe that the country can progress only if the traditional centers of power—the military, the intelligence, the police, bureaucracy, and business networks—are taken apart rather than co-opted.

As valuable is the report’s survey of Egypt’s other Islamists: the Salafi Da’wa and the Nour Party, the Watan Party, as well as other Salafi splinter groups and factions.

While the Muslim Brotherhood seeks “to kill the state through a thousand cuts,” hoping that the new government’s brutal reaction will turn public opinion against it, the Salafi Da’wa has aligned itself with the state and against the Brotherhood. While this weakens the Brotherhood somewhat, it also suggests that the post-Brotherhood order will not be as secular as many in the West imagine. Whatever the tactical political maneuvering of their leaders, some within the Salafi Da’wa and Nour Party may ultimately put religion above politics. This might encourage further radicalization, especially among the youth who face the same problems as before the Arab Spring.

While I disagree with some of the report’s recommendations—promoting political dialogue sounds good, but in a battle of absolutist ideologies, it seldom does any good—“Fragmenting Under Pressure,” is probably the best platform from which to have a real debate about a pro-active rather than reactive U.S. policy toward Egypt, and is certainly worth a read not only by the Center for American Progress’s normal political allies on the left, but also by any serious political analyst on the right as well, for quality should never be defined by politics.

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A Tale of Two Terror Resolutions

On March 12-13, I attended Iraq’s “first international counterterrorism conference” in Baghdad. It wasn’t the most organized conference, but it did enjoy attendance from most European countries, many African, Arab, and Asian countries, and the United States. Saudi Arabia and Qatar boycotted, and there was no high-level Turkish representation. The speeches were as one might predict: condemnations of terrorism, laments at international inaction, and frustration at growing sectarianism. The Iranian deputy foreign minister was tone deaf as he used his ten minutes at the podium to pursue the usual Iranian bugaboos, topics in which few others at the conference had any real interest, given the recognition that the problems facing Iraq and the Middle East can’t simply be blamed on those whom Iran sees as enemies.

Iraq has suffered immensely from terrorism over the past decade. While many American opponents of military action to oust Saddam Hussein blame that action for the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths in the intervening years, Iraqis recognize that the only ones to blame for deaths at the hands of terrorists are the terrorists themselves and those states who sponsor such terrorism.

Three thousand miles away, in Marrakech, Morocco, Arab interior ministers issued a declaration enunciating a “total rejection of terrorism,” regardless of cause or justification. While a lack of universal definition of terrorism will always undercut the fight against it, the good news is that so many Arab countries are now taking terrorism seriously now that they recognize that playing with fire has gotten them burned. Both Morocco and Iraq have been victims of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism, and while Morocco tends to have been more successful in rolling back radicalism and countering terrorism, both face neighbors intent on utilizing terror as a tool of foreign policy.

Algeria, for example, still subsidizes and shelters the Polisario Front, whose unnecessary camps increasingly are used as recruitment centers for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. And Iraq faces the influx of not only Iranian-backed militias, but also Turkish and Saudi support for al-Qaeda factions in Al-Anbar, Mosul, and other large Sunni areas.

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On March 12-13, I attended Iraq’s “first international counterterrorism conference” in Baghdad. It wasn’t the most organized conference, but it did enjoy attendance from most European countries, many African, Arab, and Asian countries, and the United States. Saudi Arabia and Qatar boycotted, and there was no high-level Turkish representation. The speeches were as one might predict: condemnations of terrorism, laments at international inaction, and frustration at growing sectarianism. The Iranian deputy foreign minister was tone deaf as he used his ten minutes at the podium to pursue the usual Iranian bugaboos, topics in which few others at the conference had any real interest, given the recognition that the problems facing Iraq and the Middle East can’t simply be blamed on those whom Iran sees as enemies.

Iraq has suffered immensely from terrorism over the past decade. While many American opponents of military action to oust Saddam Hussein blame that action for the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths in the intervening years, Iraqis recognize that the only ones to blame for deaths at the hands of terrorists are the terrorists themselves and those states who sponsor such terrorism.

Three thousand miles away, in Marrakech, Morocco, Arab interior ministers issued a declaration enunciating a “total rejection of terrorism,” regardless of cause or justification. While a lack of universal definition of terrorism will always undercut the fight against it, the good news is that so many Arab countries are now taking terrorism seriously now that they recognize that playing with fire has gotten them burned. Both Morocco and Iraq have been victims of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism, and while Morocco tends to have been more successful in rolling back radicalism and countering terrorism, both face neighbors intent on utilizing terror as a tool of foreign policy.

Algeria, for example, still subsidizes and shelters the Polisario Front, whose unnecessary camps increasingly are used as recruitment centers for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. And Iraq faces the influx of not only Iranian-backed militias, but also Turkish and Saudi support for al-Qaeda factions in Al-Anbar, Mosul, and other large Sunni areas.

Still, problems remain that will continue to undercut any real progress in the fight against terrorism. First is the lack of any universally-recognized definition of terrorism. Here, the United States could take the lead but making any counterterrorism assistance granted to allies contingent on their acceptance of a definition of terrorism put forward by the United States.

Second is the continued attempt by Iran, Turkey, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to criminalize “Islamophobia,” by which they mean the association of Islam with terrorism. The problem isn’t Islam per se, but rather the interpretation of Islam embraced by radical factions, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Salafis. The battle is not one of civilizations, but rather one of theological interpretations. Denying that, and criminalizing debate, will only exacerbate terrorism rather than contain it.

Lastly, the United States must recognize that countries it has long considered top partners in the region—Qatar and Turkey—are now those, alongside Iran, who do the most to fan the flames of terrorism rather than contain it. Diplomatic nicety should not be a substitute for progress in fighting the scourge of terror. Perhaps rather than treat Turkey and Qatar with kid gloves, it is time to work through countries like Iraq and Morocco who recognize the problem and are no longer willing to sit by and ignore it.

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