Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 28, 2014

Putin and Pyrrhic Victories

Of the attempts to take a more optimistic view of Vladimir Putin’s shoplifting spree on Ukrainian territory, two stand out. One is the idea that Putin is, as President Obama said, acting “out of weakness,” not strength. The other is that Russia’s annexation of Crimea will be something of a Pyrrhic victory by slow bleed–that Putin has taken on an economic albatross.

To the first, the general response is: Who cares? Either international laws and norms must be followed, or they don’t. Psychoanalysis is far more useful to those seeking to predict future behavior, because putting Putin on the couch will not give Ukraine back its territory. The second one has a corollary, voiced today by Owen Matthews in the Spectator–that just as gaining Crimea will weigh down Russia’s budget, losing Crimea will unburden Ukrainian domestic politics. Here’s the crux of his argument:

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Of the attempts to take a more optimistic view of Vladimir Putin’s shoplifting spree on Ukrainian territory, two stand out. One is the idea that Putin is, as President Obama said, acting “out of weakness,” not strength. The other is that Russia’s annexation of Crimea will be something of a Pyrrhic victory by slow bleed–that Putin has taken on an economic albatross.

To the first, the general response is: Who cares? Either international laws and norms must be followed, or they don’t. Psychoanalysis is far more useful to those seeking to predict future behavior, because putting Putin on the couch will not give Ukraine back its territory. The second one has a corollary, voiced today by Owen Matthews in the Spectator–that just as gaining Crimea will weigh down Russia’s budget, losing Crimea will unburden Ukrainian domestic politics. Here’s the crux of his argument:

With Crimea gone, Ukrainian politics will no longer be a tug of war between the Ukrainian west and the Russian east: the balance of power tips irrevocably west.

Thanks to Putin’s rash decision to occupy Crimea, not just the EU but its most powerful members — notably Germany, the UK, France and Poland — realise that supporting Ukraine is no longer about handouts but principle. Countries that strive towards European values — and suffer for it — should be rewarded and protected. Angela Merkel, the European leader who knows Putin best and is usually the most conciliatory towards Russia, told the Bundestag last week that he was ‘on a different planet’. Brussels has hurried to offer an amended Association Agreement; the US has backed a generous bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

That’s what Ukraine and the West stand to gain. Here’s what Russia stands to lose:

Doubtless Putin will pour money into his acquisition, as he has done into Chechnya, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But making Crimea a viable part of the Russian Federation will be cripplingly expensive. ‘Today, our Crimea looks no better than Palestine’ — not the words of a EuroMaidan enthusiast in Kiev but of Russia’s regional development minister, Igor Slyunayev, speaking to the Russian business daily Kommersant just before Putin’s Anschluss. …

But Putin’s biggest problem is not that annexing Crimea will be expensive for the treasury — it is that it will be expensive for Russia’s elite. On the face of it, US and EU sanctions amount to a mere pinprick. But the cost to Russia’s business class will be deep, and come in subtler ways — higher borrowing costs, evaporated international enthusiasm for their share offerings, a sliding stock market, a weak ruble, bad credit ratings. With energy prices sliding too, and Europe pushing hard to find alternatives to Gazprom, Putin is strangling the goose that laid golden eggs in pursuit of an incoherent imperial vision. Russia’s moneyed class will not forgive him.

Perhaps, but one is tempted to once again respond, at least to that last point: Who cares? Is Putin in need of the forgiveness of “Russia’s moneyed class?” When Putin instituted his so-called national champions policy of raiding the private sector and bringing important economic industries under Moscow’s thumb, he did a great many things that were both antidemocratic and bad for business. When Boris Berezovsky fled and Mikhail Khodorkovsky was thrown in prison, Russia’s “moneyed class” did not demand an apology from Putin.

His past displays of raw power have had economic downsides–and quite predictable ones at that. They have not been followed by Putin begging for forgiveness; in fact, they often boost his approval with the Russian public. Long term, of course, this might not be the case. There is a very strong argument that what Putin is doing is ultimately unsustainable, that eventually the bottom will fall out. The crucial question for the West will be to figure out what this means until then.

So if Matthews is right that Putin is accelerating a downward spiral, and Obama is right that Putin orders the invasions of other sovereign states out of weakness, doesn’t that suggest that the West ought to be prepared for more Russian adventurism? That, as the Wall Street Journal reports, appears to be the case: “Russian troops massing near Ukraine are actively concealing their positions and establishing supply lines that could be used in a prolonged deployment, ratcheting up concerns that Moscow is preparing for another major incursion and not conducting exercises as it claims, U.S. officials said.”

The incursion could be done “without warning” because the pieces are in place. It’s easy, from a certain distance, to say that Putin is foolishly bringing about the decline of his own power structure. And it may even be true. But the complacency with which Putin’s repeated invasions are being treated in the West suggests a lack of both resolve and urgency where more of both are needed.

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“J-Streetophobia” and Shutting Down the Debate

A documentary simply titled The J Street Challenge has been stirring up much debate and controversy in recent weeks. I wrote about it here when it was first released, but since then the debate surrounding it has only grown louder. Most recently a dispute arose as supporters of the left-wing lobby group J Street protested the showing of the documentary at Greater Philadelphia Hillel as part of an event discussing what it means to be pro-Israel. With J Street bidding to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, it seems this is not a debate J Streeters want to be the focus of right now. But for years J Street and those who share its views have been calling for just such a debate. This documentary, featuring such figures as Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz and Wall Street Journal editor Bret Stephens, is the most concerted effort yet by mainstream Zionism to answer J Street’s claims with clear counterarguments.

This is what “Liberal Zionists” on the Jewish left have been demanding, they must be so pleased that someone finally took them seriously enough to reply, right? Wrong. As ever, rather than take on any of these accusations directly, they have simply gone for that tried and tested method of shutting down debate by demonizing anyone who criticizes their views. The most recent, and indeed most astonishing example of this comes from Bradley Burston writing in Haaretz. In his piece J-Streetophobia, and the U.S. Jewish right’s hatred for American Jews Burston argues that this documentary is a window into the minds of what he calls “the Jewish right,” exposing how this seething faction is driven by its resentment of the rest of the Jewish community. In fact most of the voices in this film seem broadly in line with the pro-Israel consensus.

What is perhaps most striking about this line of argument is the one-directional set of standards that it operates on. When Jewish liberals in America criticize, condemn, and yes at times demonize Israelis, they tell us they do it out of love. Yet when those with a more “hawkish” perspective have the temerity to try and pick holes in liberal arguments, well then it must obviously be motivated by hate. It’s not a particularly sophisticated worldview: liberals are innately nice and conservatives are by their very definition nasty.

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A documentary simply titled The J Street Challenge has been stirring up much debate and controversy in recent weeks. I wrote about it here when it was first released, but since then the debate surrounding it has only grown louder. Most recently a dispute arose as supporters of the left-wing lobby group J Street protested the showing of the documentary at Greater Philadelphia Hillel as part of an event discussing what it means to be pro-Israel. With J Street bidding to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, it seems this is not a debate J Streeters want to be the focus of right now. But for years J Street and those who share its views have been calling for just such a debate. This documentary, featuring such figures as Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz and Wall Street Journal editor Bret Stephens, is the most concerted effort yet by mainstream Zionism to answer J Street’s claims with clear counterarguments.

This is what “Liberal Zionists” on the Jewish left have been demanding, they must be so pleased that someone finally took them seriously enough to reply, right? Wrong. As ever, rather than take on any of these accusations directly, they have simply gone for that tried and tested method of shutting down debate by demonizing anyone who criticizes their views. The most recent, and indeed most astonishing example of this comes from Bradley Burston writing in Haaretz. In his piece J-Streetophobia, and the U.S. Jewish right’s hatred for American Jews Burston argues that this documentary is a window into the minds of what he calls “the Jewish right,” exposing how this seething faction is driven by its resentment of the rest of the Jewish community. In fact most of the voices in this film seem broadly in line with the pro-Israel consensus.

What is perhaps most striking about this line of argument is the one-directional set of standards that it operates on. When Jewish liberals in America criticize, condemn, and yes at times demonize Israelis, they tell us they do it out of love. Yet when those with a more “hawkish” perspective have the temerity to try and pick holes in liberal arguments, well then it must obviously be motivated by hate. It’s not a particularly sophisticated worldview: liberals are innately nice and conservatives are by their very definition nasty.

Of course Burston is arguing nothing new here; the view he promotes is simply that of Peter Beinart, the movement’s would-be theorist in chief. In his manifesto for liberal Zionism The Crisis of Zionism, Beinart even claims that, contrary to popular belief, it is actually Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who has the problem with President Obama. This, explains Beinart, is because Obama, as a liberal and thus a “Jewish President,” reminds Netanyahu of what he most dislikes about Jews. Presumably all of this is supposed to be profound, yet reading these lines many will have felt as if they were entering some kind of Alice-through-the-looking-glass inversion of reality.

The liberal Zionist argument regularly portrays the Likud-led Israeli right as little more than a fascist gang hell-bent on transforming Israel into a banana republic. The settlers are portrayed as still more frightful, ultra-religious crazies whose shadowy influence pulls unseen strings in the corridors of the Israeli government so as to keep the rest of Israel hostage in an imperialist conflict. Those speaking in The J Street Challenge on the other hand at no point try to frame Jewish liberals as even remotely ill willed. They simply seek to show how a well-meaning worldview has become quite precariously misguided and how the leadership of this movement has demonstrated a tendency toward dishonesty at times. Yet, Burston describes the film as “odd-man-out bitterness and the burning, bully pulpit venom of marquee personalities in the American Jewish right.” That description itself might sound pretty venomous to most observers.

Of course, there is no such thing as J-Streetophobia, although there is plenty of critique of those J Street activities that run directly counter to the mainstream view. Yet one cannot help but reflect on the familiar pattern of how liberals have also been known to try and deflect comment on extremist Islam by labeling it Islamophobia. If in doubt, shut down the debate with cries of bigotry. Since liberal Zionists keep calling for an open discussion within the American Jewish community about Israeli policies, why don’t they stop demonizing and start debating? Could it be that they suspect that in fair fight they wouldn’t win?

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An Alternative Model for Pro-Israel Liberals

Alan Dershowitz has a blistering column in Haaretz today explaining why no self-respecting pro-Israel liberal should support J Street. Yet many genuinely pro-Israel liberals will likely continue doing so, for the same reason they continue giving to the New Israel Fund despite its track record of funding political warfare against Israel: They want an outlet for pro-Israel sentiment that also allows them to try to alter Israeli policies, whether foreign or domestic, with which they disagree. And absent a genuine outlet, it’s human nature to cling instead to groups that falsely purport to fill this niche, ignoring all evidence to the contrary. Hence an alternative model for pro-Israel liberalism is desperately needed.

The good news is that such a model exists. The bad news is that few people know about it–which is why Haaretz’s profile of philanthropist Robert Price earlier this month ought to be required reading for pro-Israel liberals. Price, who self-identifies as “toward the J Street side of things,” is a major donor to Israel, but on principle, he refuses to give to any Jewish Israeli institution: He focuses exclusively on the most disadvantaged fifth of Israeli society–the Arab community. Yet unlike, say, the NIF, Price doesn’t seek to “empower” Israeli Arabs by financing their leadership’s political war on Israel. Instead, he tries to promote Israeli Arabs’ integration, by focusing on educational initiatives that will ultimately improve their job prospects and earning power: early-childhood community centers in Arab towns and, more recently, an Arabic-language version of PJ Library. As he put it, “Arabs represent 20 percent of the population and have an opportunity, we think, to be productive citizens and to actually enrich the fabric of life in Israel if provided reasonable opportunities.”

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Alan Dershowitz has a blistering column in Haaretz today explaining why no self-respecting pro-Israel liberal should support J Street. Yet many genuinely pro-Israel liberals will likely continue doing so, for the same reason they continue giving to the New Israel Fund despite its track record of funding political warfare against Israel: They want an outlet for pro-Israel sentiment that also allows them to try to alter Israeli policies, whether foreign or domestic, with which they disagree. And absent a genuine outlet, it’s human nature to cling instead to groups that falsely purport to fill this niche, ignoring all evidence to the contrary. Hence an alternative model for pro-Israel liberalism is desperately needed.

The good news is that such a model exists. The bad news is that few people know about it–which is why Haaretz’s profile of philanthropist Robert Price earlier this month ought to be required reading for pro-Israel liberals. Price, who self-identifies as “toward the J Street side of things,” is a major donor to Israel, but on principle, he refuses to give to any Jewish Israeli institution: He focuses exclusively on the most disadvantaged fifth of Israeli society–the Arab community. Yet unlike, say, the NIF, Price doesn’t seek to “empower” Israeli Arabs by financing their leadership’s political war on Israel. Instead, he tries to promote Israeli Arabs’ integration, by focusing on educational initiatives that will ultimately improve their job prospects and earning power: early-childhood community centers in Arab towns and, more recently, an Arabic-language version of PJ Library. As he put it, “Arabs represent 20 percent of the population and have an opportunity, we think, to be productive citizens and to actually enrich the fabric of life in Israel if provided reasonable opportunities.”

This is a radical contrast to the NIF, which claims to promote integration but actually promotes Arab separatism. For instance, it’s a major funder of Adalah, an Israeli Arab NGO that actively promotes boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, terms Israel an “apartheid state,” and demands a “right of return” for millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees. It was also a major funder of Mada al-Carmel, another Israeli Arab NGO, whose flagship project was the infamous Haifa Declaration. This document, compiled by dozens of Israeli Arab intellectuals, terms Zionism a “colonial-settler project” that, “in concert with world imperialism,” succeeded in 1948 “in occupying our homeland and transforming it into a state for the Jews,” partly by committing “massacres.” Israel, it adds, can atone for this sin only by transforming itself into a binational state with an Arab majority (via an influx of millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees).

Needless to say, such activities by Israeli Arab NGOs not only undermine Israel, but also worsen Jewish-Arab tensions and exacerbate anti-Arab discrimination: Why would any Israeli Jew want to help or even associate with a community whose leadership actively seeks the Jewish state’s annihilation? Thus by funding such activities, NIF hurts both Israel and the Arab minority it ostensibly seeks to help.

By promoting integration, in contrast, Price is helping both Israel and its Arab minority, and working to reduce discrimination–which is precisely what one would expect a pro-Israel liberal to want to do.

There are numerous ways to promote liberal goals while also genuinely helping Israel. Examples include programs that help ultra-Orthodox Jews acquire secular educations and enter the workplace, or that promote the integration of Ethiopian-Israelis, or that foster Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. But by clinging instead to groups like J Street and NIF, while turning a blind eye to their reality, liberals aren’t just harming Israel. They’re also missing precious opportunities to genuinely make Israel a better, more equal, and more just society.

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The Odious Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough interviewed Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, asking him about the charge by Majority Leader Harry Reid that the conservative philanthropist David Koch is “un-American.” Scarborough asked Schumer whether he associated himself with Reid’s statement. 

Senator Schumer began his answer by ducking and weaving, shifting attention from Reid’s claim to Schumer’s disagreement with the Kochs’ preferred policies.

“But, senator, can’t we have a disagreement about how charity is funded without calling somebody un-American?” Scarborough countered. He continued to press Schumer to answer his question. “Do you think David Koch is un-American?”

Schumer finally said, “The commercials he runs are not part of the American mainstream. No two people [David Koch and his brother Charles] should have such a huge influence on our politics. That’s not First Amendment … I think the commercials he is running are against the American grain and un-American, yes …. I think what Harry Reid was saying was the actions are un-American. And they are, and they should change.”

I wonder if people quite appreciate how disgusting this all is. Here we have two Democratic senators labeling a private citizen as being “un-American” because that citizen is vocally advocating public policies they disagree with.

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MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough interviewed Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, asking him about the charge by Majority Leader Harry Reid that the conservative philanthropist David Koch is “un-American.” Scarborough asked Schumer whether he associated himself with Reid’s statement. 

Senator Schumer began his answer by ducking and weaving, shifting attention from Reid’s claim to Schumer’s disagreement with the Kochs’ preferred policies.

“But, senator, can’t we have a disagreement about how charity is funded without calling somebody un-American?” Scarborough countered. He continued to press Schumer to answer his question. “Do you think David Koch is un-American?”

Schumer finally said, “The commercials he runs are not part of the American mainstream. No two people [David Koch and his brother Charles] should have such a huge influence on our politics. That’s not First Amendment … I think the commercials he is running are against the American grain and un-American, yes …. I think what Harry Reid was saying was the actions are un-American. And they are, and they should change.”

I wonder if people quite appreciate how disgusting this all is. Here we have two Democratic senators labeling a private citizen as being “un-American” because that citizen is vocally advocating public policies they disagree with.

Can you imagine the media (and Hollywood) firestorm if Senator Ted Cruz went to the Senate floor and repeatedly accused, say, Jeffrey Katzenberg of being “un-American”–and Mike Lee echoed the charge?

It’s worth considering, too, the corrupting effect on language these charges have. If advocating cuts in record-high federal spending and running ads opposing the Affordable Care Act are deemed to be “un-American,” where exactly does this all end? Allowing powerful senators like Reid and Schumer to smear private citizens in this way further undermines our political and civic life. You might think members of the political class would speak out against such things. But you would be wrong (apart from honorable exceptions like Scarborough).

For the record, the definition of McCarthyism is “the practice of making unfair allegations or using unfair investigative techniques, especially in order to restrict dissent or political criticism.” Speaking of which, here is what Edward R. Murrow said of Senator Joseph McCarthy:

His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind … We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men …

This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities.

Senators Reid and Schumer, small and mean men, are trying to usher in a new age of unreason. This is no time for those who oppose them to keep silent. Because we cannot escape responsibility for the result.

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