Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 3, 2014

Who Buys Votes? Incumbents, Not the Rich

The furor over the Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission handed down yesterday revolves, as I wrote earlier, around the problems liberals have with the First Amendment’s protections of political speech. But what liberals claim they are seeking to protect is the integrity of our democratic process from those seeking to buy the votes or the influence of public officials. Given the stringent rules that exist to limit the behavior of officeholders, the line between making your voice heard and a corrupt quid pro quo can be hazy at times, but it is still there. Yet what often goes unnoticed or is, in fact, tolerated, is a different sort of corruption that is far more common than millionaires purchasing members of Congress. As Byron York wrote yesterday in the Washington Examiner, the ability of incumbent politicians to raid the public treasury for expenditures to buy the votes of certain constituencies is not only legal, it is the most decisive form of campaign finance available.

York went to Louisiana to report on the uphill race of Senator Mary Landrieu, an ObamaCare supporting Democrat seeking reelection in an increasingly deep red state. Polls show her in a dead heat against likely Republican opponent Rep. Bill Cassidy. But, as York found out, a lot of people whom one would think would be working to defeat Landrieu—including at least one local GOP official—are backing her. Why? Because Landrieu, who is seeking a fourth term in the Senate, has been lavishing some of New Orleans’ white suburbs—whose swing voters will probably decide the election—with a deluge of federal money, including a loan forgiveness provision inserted into a Homeland Security Appropriations bill, and every manner of post-Hurricane Katrina disaster funding known to the federal government.

While the ability of incumbents to use earmarks to feather their own political nests was supposedly banned by new rules, it appears Landrieu and most of her colleagues are undaunted by the regulations that were supposed to make it harder for members of the House and Senate to selectively fund favored constituencies while portraying themselves as hard-working servants of the people. As York makes clear, Mary Landrieu is buying more votes in Louisiana with taxpayer money than any Republican with access to the checkbooks of the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson ever could.

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The furor over the Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission handed down yesterday revolves, as I wrote earlier, around the problems liberals have with the First Amendment’s protections of political speech. But what liberals claim they are seeking to protect is the integrity of our democratic process from those seeking to buy the votes or the influence of public officials. Given the stringent rules that exist to limit the behavior of officeholders, the line between making your voice heard and a corrupt quid pro quo can be hazy at times, but it is still there. Yet what often goes unnoticed or is, in fact, tolerated, is a different sort of corruption that is far more common than millionaires purchasing members of Congress. As Byron York wrote yesterday in the Washington Examiner, the ability of incumbent politicians to raid the public treasury for expenditures to buy the votes of certain constituencies is not only legal, it is the most decisive form of campaign finance available.

York went to Louisiana to report on the uphill race of Senator Mary Landrieu, an ObamaCare supporting Democrat seeking reelection in an increasingly deep red state. Polls show her in a dead heat against likely Republican opponent Rep. Bill Cassidy. But, as York found out, a lot of people whom one would think would be working to defeat Landrieu—including at least one local GOP official—are backing her. Why? Because Landrieu, who is seeking a fourth term in the Senate, has been lavishing some of New Orleans’ white suburbs—whose swing voters will probably decide the election—with a deluge of federal money, including a loan forgiveness provision inserted into a Homeland Security Appropriations bill, and every manner of post-Hurricane Katrina disaster funding known to the federal government.

While the ability of incumbents to use earmarks to feather their own political nests was supposedly banned by new rules, it appears Landrieu and most of her colleagues are undaunted by the regulations that were supposed to make it harder for members of the House and Senate to selectively fund favored constituencies while portraying themselves as hard-working servants of the people. As York makes clear, Mary Landrieu is buying more votes in Louisiana with taxpayer money than any Republican with access to the checkbooks of the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson ever could.

Political machines have always thrived at what might euphemistically be called “constituent service” since the earliest days of the republic. The men who ran Tammany Hall were able to dominate New York politics and loot the city’s coffers with impunity for more than a century because they were always willing to give a little of the money in their control back to loyal voters for minimal services or charity while they kept most of it for themselves. The same applied to every other political machine in the country. But while we think of legendary thieves like Tammany’s George Washington Plunkett as in no way comparable to many of those who serve in our government, his concept of “honest graft” has more in common with the way Landrieu and other contemporary politicians play fast and loose with the rules than most of us would like to admit.

Like Plunkitt, Landrieu, who is part of a political dynasty in Louisiana, views the federal budget as a piñata waiting to be broken open for her benefit. The ability of senators and members of the House to lavish money on people they want to curry favor with—and deny it to those they don’t care about—remains the biggest ethical dilemma facing the nation.

You can call that constituent service, but after the excesses of the last decade in which both parties plundered the federal treasury and created our massive budget/entitlement crisis, Congress was supposed to have turned the page and adopted a more fiscally sound approach to governance. Landrieu’s stands on the issues, especially on ObamaCare, have left her out of step with the views of most Louisianans. But York’s reporting leads him to believe that her ability to manipulate allocations and use taxpayer dollars to buy the votes of Louisianans is enough to make the difference between winning and losing in November.

Liberals can complain all they want about the efforts of large donors to support conservative causes and candidates, but neither the Kochs nor Adelson can boast of the kind of efficient vote buying that Landrieu is practicing on the banks of the Mississippi. Even more to the point, while those billionaires are trying to influence elections with their own money, pork-barrel politicians like Landrieu are doing it with yours.

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Anger at SCOTUS? Liberals v. Constitution

The rage directed at the U.S. Supreme Court in the last 24 hours is instructive. From the White House to the editorial pages of most of the mainstream media, Democrats and liberals have depicted the court’s ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission as a lamentable victory for the wealthy few that contribute to Republican and conservative causes at the expense of democracy. To listen to them, the court’s decision to remove the cap on how much money individuals could give to political parties, PACs, and candidates will create a plutocracy. To them, it seems obvious that the only way to make the system fair is to make it hard for citizens, whether as individuals or as a part of group, to make their voices heard in the public square.

Yet when faced with the ruling majority’s opinion that much of what they seek to achieve with these laws directly contradicts the letter and the spirit of the Constitution, liberals are flummoxed. They say that the justices are either naïve or seeking to promote some nefarious agenda by asking those who defend much of the body of campaign finance legislation to take the basic protections afforded political speech in the Constitution into account. Though the left thinks it is self-evident that campaign contributions are an evil that must be severely restricted if not banned altogether, their problem is that they keep forgetting about the First Amendment and that language about free speech. While we are being told the debate about campaign-finance laws is about the rich versus the “people,” their argument with Chief Justice John Roberts and the four other conservatives who voted with him on McCutcheon is really with the Constitution itself.

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The rage directed at the U.S. Supreme Court in the last 24 hours is instructive. From the White House to the editorial pages of most of the mainstream media, Democrats and liberals have depicted the court’s ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission as a lamentable victory for the wealthy few that contribute to Republican and conservative causes at the expense of democracy. To listen to them, the court’s decision to remove the cap on how much money individuals could give to political parties, PACs, and candidates will create a plutocracy. To them, it seems obvious that the only way to make the system fair is to make it hard for citizens, whether as individuals or as a part of group, to make their voices heard in the public square.

Yet when faced with the ruling majority’s opinion that much of what they seek to achieve with these laws directly contradicts the letter and the spirit of the Constitution, liberals are flummoxed. They say that the justices are either naïve or seeking to promote some nefarious agenda by asking those who defend much of the body of campaign finance legislation to take the basic protections afforded political speech in the Constitution into account. Though the left thinks it is self-evident that campaign contributions are an evil that must be severely restricted if not banned altogether, their problem is that they keep forgetting about the First Amendment and that language about free speech. While we are being told the debate about campaign-finance laws is about the rich versus the “people,” their argument with Chief Justice John Roberts and the four other conservatives who voted with him on McCutcheon is really with the Constitution itself.

Of course, it’s not that liberals don’t believe in the Constitution at all. It’s just that they think free speech protections are only somehow relevant to a few specific categories of activity. Liberal jurisprudence has applied First Amendment protections to lots of things that used to be illegal, like flag burning and pornography. They’ve also applied it to activities such as allowing a Nazi march in a heavily Jewish town.

Thankfully, there is also a consensus that the First Amendment clearly applies, as its text indicates, to the right of the press to operate without interference from the government. But, as any media veteran knows, freedom of the press in this country has always meant the right of those who own the press to promulgate whatever views they like. The only way for most of the rest of us to gain some of that same freedom was to pool our money to buy time or space in the media to put forward a different point of view. Though liberal ideologues like Jeffrey Toobin mock the notion that giving money to a campaign is, as Roberts says, “participating in a political debate,” that is exactly what it is. Thus, as Roberts also pointed out in his opinion, the main impact of laws that drastically restrict the ability of individuals to spend money on politics was to disadvantage one group in favor of others.

For liberals, democracy has somehow become dependent on the enforcement of a complex labyrinth of laws first enacted in the wake of the Watergate scandal that have created a bewildering legal landscape for all those who wish to take part in our electoral system. Each new piece of legislation intended to further the principle of good government has created new inequities and anomalies that have further distorted this system to the point where no one but a lawyer who specializes in the field can truly know whether a candidate or campaign has violated them–and even then there is no guarantee that an arbitrary federal prosecution may not ensue. The campaign-finance movement is aimed not so much at the threat from corruption as it is to grant government enormous power over the electoral process. But if the framers of the First Amendment meant anything when they forbade “abridging the freedom of speech,” surely it was to prevent the government from trying to limit political expression.

In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer complained that the majority was “eviscerating campaign finance laws.” Though the ruling in McCutcheon was narrow and left standing laws that limit contributions to individual candidates, it may well be that the court will soon take up other related issues as well. But if it does, it will not be because they want to steal from the poor and give to the rich or turn the United States into an oligarchy. It will be because the liberal drive to restrict political speech contravenes basic constitutional principles.

For too long, the courts have let Congress and the growing federal electoral bureaucracy run roughshod over the First Amendment. But contrary to Breyer, “democratic legitimacy” does not rest in allowing the government (which is to say incumbents who always stand to benefit from restrictions that hurt their challengers more than themselves) to distort the electoral process. Democracy means letting everyone speak up, whether we like them or not. It is that prospect that drives liberals crazy. If the Roberts court is bent on preventing them from having their way on campaign finance, the fault lies with not with conservatism or deference to wealth but with the Constitution.

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Left Is Outraged Charles Koch Would Defend Himself

There are few things that seem to bother people more than hearing rich people complain. At times their complaints really are quite absurd: twice in the last few months a prominent billionaire has compared the plight of America’s wealthy to Nazi Germany’s victims. But that has also, unfortunately, led to a tendency on the part of the chattering classes to pretend that is what wealthy personalities always say, even when it plainly isn’t.

It’s some distant cousin of reductio ad Hitlerum. And it’s what happened when Charles Koch, chairman of Koch Industries, wrote an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal defending himself. The Kochs have been the subject of increasingly unhinged attacks from the left because they donate to libertarian political causes, and there are few things the left despises more than a robust defense of individual liberty in the age of Obama, whose nominating convention was treated to the creepy video proclaiming that “government is the only thing that we all belong to.”

But the very idea that a wealthy person would have the temerity to respond to public attacks on their reputation seems to take people by surprise. Hence, Koch’s Journal column includes the following paragraph:

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There are few things that seem to bother people more than hearing rich people complain. At times their complaints really are quite absurd: twice in the last few months a prominent billionaire has compared the plight of America’s wealthy to Nazi Germany’s victims. But that has also, unfortunately, led to a tendency on the part of the chattering classes to pretend that is what wealthy personalities always say, even when it plainly isn’t.

It’s some distant cousin of reductio ad Hitlerum. And it’s what happened when Charles Koch, chairman of Koch Industries, wrote an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal defending himself. The Kochs have been the subject of increasingly unhinged attacks from the left because they donate to libertarian political causes, and there are few things the left despises more than a robust defense of individual liberty in the age of Obama, whose nominating convention was treated to the creepy video proclaiming that “government is the only thing that we all belong to.”

But the very idea that a wealthy person would have the temerity to respond to public attacks on their reputation seems to take people by surprise. Hence, Koch’s Journal column includes the following paragraph:

Instead of encouraging free and open debate, collectivists strive to discredit and intimidate opponents. They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.) This is the approach that Arthur Schopenhauer described in the 19th century, that Saul Alinsky famously advocated in the 20th, and that so many despots have infamously practiced. Such tactics are the antithesis of what is required for a free society—and a telltale sign that the collectivists do not have good answers.

Which led to this bizarre response from Dave Weigel, under the snarky headline “If You Criticize Wealthy Donors, You’re Basically Hitler”:

You know who else was a despot in the 20th century? The Charles Koch standard is problematic if you think (like I think) that campaign donations should be uncapped but totally disclosed. That, according to the donors (though not McCutcheon himself), leads to character assassination. Donors have a First Amendment right to give money, but their opponents flout that right when they criticize them. Why? That’s an excellent question.

That’s not what Koch said though. Apparently you don’t have to actually compare someone to Hitler to be accused of comparing someone to Hitler. You only have use the word “despot” and the phrase “20th century” in the same sentence. More importantly, when did Koch say his First Amendment rights are being flouted when people “criticize” him? That’s easy–he didn’t!

What Koch is talking about, and what Weigel surely knows, is that Koch is speaking up because he has been the target of constant attacks from the United States Senate majority leader from the chamber floor. Harry Reid actually worked an attack on the Kochs into his reaction to yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance, as he does for almost anything. Remember, he blamed the debate over aid to Ukraine on the Kochs too.

Even if the effort fails, part of the purpose of this is to find ways to limit political speech, legislatively if necessary. Though Koch doesn’t say it, this actually is a violation of First Amendment protections, which is why such challenges keep ending up in front of the Supreme Court. Additionally, naming and shaming conservative and libertarian donors has another purpose: as we saw recently, those who disagreed with the president were discriminated against by government agencies, including the IRS. They also had private information leaked to political opponents.

Does Weigel not think any of this is a problem? Of course he does–he wrote about it here. He’s less troubled by it than perhaps he should be, but that’s a matter of opinion, and anyway he didn’t ignore it.

Ironically, much of this makes Koch’s point for him. Why is it necessary for writers on the left to pretend Koch said something he didn’t? Because his actual argument is pretty unobjectionable. There seems to be this idea that the wealthy ought to be piñatas–silent as the staggering masses beat the stuffing out of them. Koch didn’t claim he’s deserving of anyone’s pity. But as a businessman whose reputation is being subject to repeated dishonest attacks by prominent politicians, it would be ridiculous for him–and irresponsible to his shareholders–not to defend himself in the public sphere.

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The U.N.’s Parallel Universe

In the midst of the greatest threat to European stability since the Balkans war of the 1990s, and perhaps back to the Berlin Crisis of 1961, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon just announced that the European Union’s primary focus should be on fighting climate change. Ban, who has been singularly unsuccessful in having any positive impact on the Syrian civil war, Chinese coercion in the East and South China Seas, North Korea’s nuclear program, and the like, now sees a Europe in which climate change is more of a threat than Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and continued threat to Ukraine and possibly other parts of Eastern Europe.

While the pillars of the post-World War II international order tremble in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, the secretary general’s statements could be mistaken for parody, but they are manifestly in earnest. The unilateral redrawing of borders in Europe, along with Putin’s deeply paranoid, grievance-driven, and aggressive speech of March 18, might spark a level of personal commitment and concern on the part of the U.N.’s leader commensurate with the threat. Instead, Ban reveals the deeply irrelevant nature and unshakeable ideology of the world’s leading multilateral organization. The only worse news would be if the EU itself, facing violent transformation of its continent, were to endorse such folly as its primary goal.

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In the midst of the greatest threat to European stability since the Balkans war of the 1990s, and perhaps back to the Berlin Crisis of 1961, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon just announced that the European Union’s primary focus should be on fighting climate change. Ban, who has been singularly unsuccessful in having any positive impact on the Syrian civil war, Chinese coercion in the East and South China Seas, North Korea’s nuclear program, and the like, now sees a Europe in which climate change is more of a threat than Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and continued threat to Ukraine and possibly other parts of Eastern Europe.

While the pillars of the post-World War II international order tremble in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, the secretary general’s statements could be mistaken for parody, but they are manifestly in earnest. The unilateral redrawing of borders in Europe, along with Putin’s deeply paranoid, grievance-driven, and aggressive speech of March 18, might spark a level of personal commitment and concern on the part of the U.N.’s leader commensurate with the threat. Instead, Ban reveals the deeply irrelevant nature and unshakeable ideology of the world’s leading multilateral organization. The only worse news would be if the EU itself, facing violent transformation of its continent, were to endorse such folly as its primary goal.

To functionaries such as Ban, process is everything, thus, he calls for a European action plan on climate change to come into effect no later than 2030. By then, of course, no one can any longer be certain what Europe’s borders will look like, whether there will have been actual conflict, or how many other depredations on territorial sovereignty there will have been in Europe and elsewhere.

Perhaps, though, Ban is actually providing a useful vision of the future of multilateralism. Were Washington and its liberal allies to accept that the U.N., and many organizations like it, is fit only to focus on soft issues such as food relief, health care, and environmentalism (regardless of its actual ability to make a meaningful impact), then we can move beyond the fiction that it has any real role to play in responding to global threats. If Washington can free itself from bondage to the “legitimacy” of the U.N. Security Council, then perhaps we can more creatively respond to Russia’s aggression, North Korea’s threat, and Syria’s bloodbath. That might prevent, or at least delay, the continued erosion in international norms. Call it the Ban Doctrine.

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The Peace Process Blame Game

It was to be expected that the Obama administration would seek to cast blame yesterday for the apparent collapse of the Middle East peace process championed by Secretary of State John Kerry on both Israel and the Palestinians. White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest said the president was disappointed with the “unhelpful, unilateral actions both parties have taken in recent days.” He added that “tit for tat” actions were counterproductive but that despite ominous signs, the U.S. administration still believed diplomacy had a chance.

Like the talk about a “cycle of violence” every time a terrorist attack on an Israeli target provokes a response, the decision by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to torpedo Kerry’s proposal to keep the talks going beyond April is being interpreted as being as much Israel’s fault as that of the Palestinians. Kerry, who is not giving up so easily, issued his own statement challenging both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to lead their peoples to peace. Though he has taken on the task of trying to cut the Gordian knot of Middle East peace as a personal crusade, in his comments after Abbas’s actions, Kerry returned to the familiar theme that the U.S. couldn’t want peace more than two parties to the conflict.

But while even-handedly casting blame for the apparent failure of Kerry’s initiative enables the U.S. to continue to try to cajole the Palestinians to keep talking, this effort speaks volumes about the inherent problems in the process. It may be true that, as Kerry claimed, “The fight right now, the disagreement between them, is not over the fundamental substance of a final status agreement. It is over the process that would get you there and what you need to do in order to be able to continue to negotiate.” But the unwillingness of the Palestinians to get from point A to point B in order to achieve statehood tells us much more about the daunting nature of the task Kerry has assumed than the “tit for tat” narrative being circulated by the Americans.

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It was to be expected that the Obama administration would seek to cast blame yesterday for the apparent collapse of the Middle East peace process championed by Secretary of State John Kerry on both Israel and the Palestinians. White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest said the president was disappointed with the “unhelpful, unilateral actions both parties have taken in recent days.” He added that “tit for tat” actions were counterproductive but that despite ominous signs, the U.S. administration still believed diplomacy had a chance.

Like the talk about a “cycle of violence” every time a terrorist attack on an Israeli target provokes a response, the decision by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to torpedo Kerry’s proposal to keep the talks going beyond April is being interpreted as being as much Israel’s fault as that of the Palestinians. Kerry, who is not giving up so easily, issued his own statement challenging both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to lead their peoples to peace. Though he has taken on the task of trying to cut the Gordian knot of Middle East peace as a personal crusade, in his comments after Abbas’s actions, Kerry returned to the familiar theme that the U.S. couldn’t want peace more than two parties to the conflict.

But while even-handedly casting blame for the apparent failure of Kerry’s initiative enables the U.S. to continue to try to cajole the Palestinians to keep talking, this effort speaks volumes about the inherent problems in the process. It may be true that, as Kerry claimed, “The fight right now, the disagreement between them, is not over the fundamental substance of a final status agreement. It is over the process that would get you there and what you need to do in order to be able to continue to negotiate.” But the unwillingness of the Palestinians to get from point A to point B in order to achieve statehood tells us much more about the daunting nature of the task Kerry has assumed than the “tit for tat” narrative being circulated by the Americans.

As David Horovitz writes in the Times of Israel today, the crisis revolves around the doubts about Abbas’s willingness to make peace under any circumstances:

The Palestinians have a weak president who, while no duplicitous, terror-fostering Arafat, never confronted the narrative bequeathed by his unlamented predecessor, to the effect that the Jews have no sovereign legitimacy in this part of the world.

Every account of the talks that have been going on the past several months agrees that while the Israelis have put proposals on the table about statehood that, while not exactly what the Palestinians wanted, were at least measures that would give them statehood and independence. But the Palestinians haven’t budged an inch on their demands or on their refusal to make symbolic gestures that would make it clear they intended to end the conflict.

While the Israelis have indicated a willingness to keep talking, Abbas has seized upon the first available pretext to abandon the negotiations to resume his efforts to gain further recognition from the United Nations, even though that will do nothing for his people and does little harm to the Israelis.

But Netanyahu is being blamed for balking at releasing another batch of terrorist murderers (including many Israeli citizens) without some assurance that the Palestinians would keep negotiating. An announcement of a housing project in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo (a 40-plus-year-old “settlement”) was also seen as provocative even though both sides know that such an area would remain part of Israel in any peace agreement. Above all, Netanyahu is being castigated for having asked Abbas to acknowledge their acceptance of Israel being the nation state of the Jewish people just as the putative Palestinian state is that of the Palestinian Arabs.

But none of that gainsays the fact that Netanyahu’s government has indicated it will accept a Palestinian state and will compromise on territory in order to make it happen. In return, the Palestinians are still willing to do nothing to indicate that this would cause them to give up their century-long war on Zionism. If Netanyahu erred, it was in his initial decision to release more than 100 terrorist murderers (who were subsequently honored by Abbas) in the first place without gaining something from the Palestinians. Having been bribed by Kerry to come back to the table, Abbas thinks the whole point of the process is to give the Palestinians what they want without making them do anything in exchange for these concessions.

As Horovitz writes:

At the heart of the impasse, however, lies a fundamental asymmetry: Israeli Jews have come to believe that their own best interests, and specifically the imperative to retain a Jewish and democratic Israel, require an accommodation with the Palestinians. There is no comparable imperative on the Palestinian side — not, that is, so long as much of the international community persists in indicating to the Palestinians that they will be able to achieve full independence and sovereignty without the inconvenience of coming to terms with Israel.

It may be convenient to blame both sides. But there is little doubt that the process is failing for the same reason that it failed in 2000, 2001, and 2008 (when Abbas fled the table rather than be forced to answer Ehud Olmert’s offer of statehood). Neither the Palestinian leadership nor their people seem as interested in ending the conflict as the Israelis.

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The Iran Hostage Crisis and the Spirit of Youthful Rebellion

Let he who is without youthful indiscretions cast the first stone, according to Reuters’ new call for amnesty for the perpetrators of the Iran hostage crisis. The 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran is basically portrayed as a case of energetic youth getting carried away. 1979 was a crazy year. We had Blondie and the Bee Gees; they had revolutionary Islamist terror. We’ll all laugh about this one day.

And that day is today, if Reuters has anything to say about it. The report was inspired by the controversy surrounding Hamid Abutalebi, the man the “moderate” Iranian government has chosen to be its next envoy to the United Nations. The problem is that Abutalebi took part in the hostage crisis, and American officials aren’t thrilled about Abutalebi or the message this sends from the Iranian government. The State Department is hesitant to award Abutalebi a visa.

But Reuters is here to explain that just as Americans have left their bellbottoms behind, so too “age mellows some former captors of U.S. hostages,” as the Reuters headline claims. Yet as silly as this all sounds, the article actually deserves a wide reading for two contributions it makes to understanding how such media institutions operate. The first can be seen by juxtaposing the following two paragraphs. The story begins:

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Let he who is without youthful indiscretions cast the first stone, according to Reuters’ new call for amnesty for the perpetrators of the Iran hostage crisis. The 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran is basically portrayed as a case of energetic youth getting carried away. 1979 was a crazy year. We had Blondie and the Bee Gees; they had revolutionary Islamist terror. We’ll all laugh about this one day.

And that day is today, if Reuters has anything to say about it. The report was inspired by the controversy surrounding Hamid Abutalebi, the man the “moderate” Iranian government has chosen to be its next envoy to the United Nations. The problem is that Abutalebi took part in the hostage crisis, and American officials aren’t thrilled about Abutalebi or the message this sends from the Iranian government. The State Department is hesitant to award Abutalebi a visa.

But Reuters is here to explain that just as Americans have left their bellbottoms behind, so too “age mellows some former captors of U.S. hostages,” as the Reuters headline claims. Yet as silly as this all sounds, the article actually deserves a wide reading for two contributions it makes to understanding how such media institutions operate. The first can be seen by juxtaposing the following two paragraphs. The story begins:

Three decades after hardline students occupied the U.S. embassy and took diplomats hostage for 444 days, many of the now middle-aged revolutionaries are among the most vocal critics of Iran’s conservative establishment, officials and analysts said.

Later on in the story we read this:

But hardline U.S. lawmakers said on Tuesday they were concerned about his selection and called on the Obama administration to do what it can to prevent him from taking up the post in New York.

Notice what the two sentences just quoted have in common? The term “hardline.” It is how Reuters describes militant, violent extremists who stormed a foreign embassy and held its occupants hostage. And it is how Reuters describes members of the United States Congress who raise concerns about such violence. (In this way, Reuters is hardly alone in bludgeoning the English language into meaningless submission. Search the New York Times website for the word “ultraconservative,” for example, to see how the Times applies it to Republican critics of President Obama and Salafi Islamists.)

But there’s a second, more pressing problem with the story that becomes apparent only after wading through the entire piece. Here’s Reuters’ recounting of the hostage takers who are all grown up:

Among the hostage takers were Abbas Abdi, an adviser to Khatami, who in 1998 met former hostage Barry Rosen in Paris.

Abdi made no apology and said the past could not be altered. Instead “we must focus on building a better future”, he said.

In 2002 Abdi was arrested for having carried out a poll in collaboration with U.S. firm Gallup which showed that three quarters of Tehran’s citizens favored a thaw with Washington.

Reform leader Saeed Hajjarian survived an assassination attempt in 2000 by unidentified people but was gravely injured and has not recovered. Khatami’s younger brother Mohammad Reza and his deputy foreign minister Mohsen Aminzadeh were also among the hostage takers. …

In a comment widely taken as a reference to the turmoil, former hostage taker Masumeh Ebtekar wrote on her blog Persian Paradox: “Those who were all devotees and trustees of the Islamic Revolution … felt that the Islamic Republic is facing a serious challenge to its basic principles and values.”

Ebterkar, who was Iran’s vice-president under Khatami, a post she resumed under Rouhani, was the public face of the siege, serving as a spokeswoman for the hostage-takers.

Aides to reformist candidates were jailed in the post-election unrest, including former hostage takers Mohsen Mirdamadi and Aminzadeh, on charges including “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the system”. …

Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, who was also a spokesman for the hostage takers, has also hinted he is no longer a hardliner.

Notice a name missing? Where’s Abutalebi? He is the figure at issue here, not his fellow hostage takers who have “hinted” they don’t hate America quite like they used to. Are we to believe that Abutalebi should be granted his visa and accepted into the company of his fellow international diplomats because people he may have known in 1979 are less violent than they once were?

We often encounter guilt by association, but Reuters wants us to accept Abutalebi’s innocence by association. His American counterparts have stopped taking in shows at CBGB and his fellow Iranians have stopped taking Americans hostage. The events of 1979 should be considered ancient history, apparently. Perhaps the State Department will find this argument persuasive. If so, they are more desperate for “engagement” than most of us ever thought they were.

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How Many Palestinians Would Endorse a Jewish State?

In “The Real ‘Jewish State’ Story,” Ben-Dror Yemini, a senior Maariv journalist, notes the issue of Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state was not raised first by Benjamin Netanyahu. It was not raised first by the Israeli right. It was not raised recently. It was part of the 2000 Clinton Parameters, which proposed “the state of Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people and the state of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.”

Yemini notes that recognition of a Jewish state is endorsed across the entire Israeli political spectrum, both within and without the governing coalition.

The Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) has just released a new poll, conducted March 20-22 in the West Bank and Gaza, in which one of the polling questions raised this issue:

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In “The Real ‘Jewish State’ Story,” Ben-Dror Yemini, a senior Maariv journalist, notes the issue of Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state was not raised first by Benjamin Netanyahu. It was not raised first by the Israeli right. It was not raised recently. It was part of the 2000 Clinton Parameters, which proposed “the state of Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people and the state of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.”

Yemini notes that recognition of a Jewish state is endorsed across the entire Israeli political spectrum, both within and without the governing coalition.

The Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) has just released a new poll, conducted March 20-22 in the West Bank and Gaza, in which one of the polling questions raised this issue:

There is a proposal that after the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the settlement of all issues in dispute, including the refugees and Jerusalem issues, there will be mutual recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and Palestine as the state of the Palestinian people. Do you agree or disagree to this proposal?” [Emphasis added].

The percentage of Palestinians that “certainly agreed” was 3 percent. A total of 58.5 percent disagreed.

In other words–just as Israel’s Ron Dermer asserted at AIPAC five years ago–the Palestinian refusal to recognize a Jewish state does not involve the refugees. The poll assumed “all issues in dispute” were settled, including the refugees. But even with no other issue remaining on the hypothetical table, a lopsided majority of Palestinians rejected a Jewish state.

The Palestinians push a specious “right of return” (which no other refugee group has ever been granted, much less Arab ones from a war the Arabs started). They express faux concern for the Arab minority in Israel, but those Arabs have far more civil and religious rights than they would under a Palestinian state (according to the PCPSR poll, only 31 percent believe people in the West Bank can criticize the PA; only 22 percent believe people in Gaza can criticize Hamas).

In 1947, the UN proposed a two-state solution involving an “Arab state” and a “Jewish state.” The Arabs rejected the resolution, rejected a state for themselves, and started a war. They still reject a Jewish state 66 years later. Yemini ends his article as follows:

[A]nyone who justifies the Palestinian refusal is not bringing peace any closer, but rather pushing the chances of a two state solution further away … On this issue [Netanyahu] deserves total support. Not to torpedo peace. But just the opposite. To pave the way to peace.

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Hamas’s Losses Are Islamic Jihad’s Gain

One of the more farcical claims popularized about the Palestinians and their war has been the notion of “moderate Hamas.” These claims have ranged from presenting Hamas as unpleasant but essentially pragmatic to Hamas as the good-willed would-be partners for peace. All of that, however, may soon become irrelevant. For as much as Hamas is very clearly anything but moderate, for many living in Gaza it appears that Hamas just isn’t extreme enough. From among a number of tiny Salafi and Islamist splinter groups that have engaged in periodic freelance rocket fire into Israeli civilian areas, Islamic Jihad is now emerging as a potential rival to Hamas’s authority in the Gaza strip. And with the backing of Iran, this small militant faction could begin to challenge Gaza’s current Islamist rulers and their hold on power.

In the past the alliance between Hamas and Iran appeared unbreakable, despite the fact that Hamas is a Sunni group and the Iranians are of course Shia. The uprisings in the Arab world destabilized this arrangement. Hamas had long had its headquarters in Damascus, but when Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime began butchering its mostly Sunni population, and with the backing of Shia Iran at that, suddenly this relationship was called into doubt. Yet, much to Hamas’s good fortune, these events coincided with the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power in Egypt. With Hamas itself essentially existing as the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, this must have come as welcome news for Ismail Haniyeh and his government in Gaza. However, with the subsequent removal of their Egyptian allies and benefactors from power in July of last year, Hamas in Gaza has been left underfunded and isolated.

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One of the more farcical claims popularized about the Palestinians and their war has been the notion of “moderate Hamas.” These claims have ranged from presenting Hamas as unpleasant but essentially pragmatic to Hamas as the good-willed would-be partners for peace. All of that, however, may soon become irrelevant. For as much as Hamas is very clearly anything but moderate, for many living in Gaza it appears that Hamas just isn’t extreme enough. From among a number of tiny Salafi and Islamist splinter groups that have engaged in periodic freelance rocket fire into Israeli civilian areas, Islamic Jihad is now emerging as a potential rival to Hamas’s authority in the Gaza strip. And with the backing of Iran, this small militant faction could begin to challenge Gaza’s current Islamist rulers and their hold on power.

In the past the alliance between Hamas and Iran appeared unbreakable, despite the fact that Hamas is a Sunni group and the Iranians are of course Shia. The uprisings in the Arab world destabilized this arrangement. Hamas had long had its headquarters in Damascus, but when Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime began butchering its mostly Sunni population, and with the backing of Shia Iran at that, suddenly this relationship was called into doubt. Yet, much to Hamas’s good fortune, these events coincided with the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power in Egypt. With Hamas itself essentially existing as the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, this must have come as welcome news for Ismail Haniyeh and his government in Gaza. However, with the subsequent removal of their Egyptian allies and benefactors from power in July of last year, Hamas in Gaza has been left underfunded and isolated.

While the prospect of Hamas’s decline might in itself be something to be welcomed, it is impossible to ignore that Hamas’s loss increasingly appears to be Islamic Jihad’s gain; which is after all a faction arguably even more potent that Hamas. With Iran stepping up its support for Islamic Jihad the group is now reported to have access to far more advanced weapons than was previously the case and in addition it is claimed that this faction can muster a militia some 5,000 men strong. An indication of the possible shift in the balance of power was evident in the recent barrage of rockets that struck communities in southern Israel last month. This attack was not launched by Hamas but rather by Islamic Jihad fighters, and whereas previously in such instances the Egyptian government mediated between Hamas and Israel, this time Egypt was mediating on behalf of Islamic jihad, with Hamas being consigned to the sidelines.  

This is a reminder that the improvement in Islamic Jihad’s fortunes has not simply been a matter of Iranian patronage, but rather this has also hinged on growing public support. Far more hardline than even Hamas, Islamic Jihad has shown a willingness to step up attacks on Israel while Hamas appears to be mostly observing the ceasefire—although Hamas’s grip on the strip is still such that it would not be possible for these smaller Islamist factions to keep up their rocket fire without at least the tacit consent of Haniyeh’s government. This shift in allegiances among Gaza’s residents should serve as a reminder that what wins hearts and minds among the Palestinians are clear demonstrations of aggression against Israel. This of course flies in the face of the claim that Palestinians simply voted for Hamas as a rejection of Fatah corruption, as if they were otherwise innocently unaware of Hamas’s genocidal position on extinguishing the Jewish state.   

As has often been observed, Islamism and statecraft hardly go hand in hand. Presumably Hamas is discovering that the practical day-to-day matters of governing do not exactly lend themselves to keeping up a level of purist militancy that plays out well on the Gazan street. While Hamas still managed to bring out large numbers for a recent “loyalty” rally, attendance was significantly down from what had been expected, and that is taking into account that many of those present were there under obligation, with Hamas still serving as one of the primary employers in Gaza. As such, Hamas maintains a fighting force some 20,000 men strong. 

No one should imagine that Hamas has gone soft. The unconvincing suggestion that Hamas somehow deserves rehabilitating on account of its offer of a ten-year truce in return for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines really fails to stand. Not only should no one trust Hamas to even keep to such a truce, but what kind of “peace” agreement sees one side pledge to pause its war on the other in return for the territory from which to ultimately continue that war more successfully? Nevertheless, the all-consuming task of holding onto power in Gaza has periodically distracted Hamas from its war on Israel. That has weakened the group’s standing in the eyes of many Gazans and Islamic Jihad, with its Iranian backers, has only been too pleased to welcome in Hamas’s disaffected supporters. 

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The Reality of Returning Veterans

The terrible shooting rampage at Fort Hood by Specialist Ivan Lopez, a soldier who had served four months in Iraq, will unfortunately reinforce the post-Vietnam image of a soldier home from war as a ticking time bomb–as a victim of the society and the military who is primed to kill either himself or others. That image, however, is at odds with reality.

While the number of veterans committing suicide is going up, so is the number of suicides in the general population. That, at least, is the finding of a Veterans Administration study of veterans’ suicides. “There is a perception that we have a veterans’ suicide epidemic on our hands. I don’t think that is true,” Robert Bossarte, an epidemiologist with the VA who did the study, told the Washington Post. “The rate is going up in the country, and veterans are a part of it.”

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The terrible shooting rampage at Fort Hood by Specialist Ivan Lopez, a soldier who had served four months in Iraq, will unfortunately reinforce the post-Vietnam image of a soldier home from war as a ticking time bomb–as a victim of the society and the military who is primed to kill either himself or others. That image, however, is at odds with reality.

While the number of veterans committing suicide is going up, so is the number of suicides in the general population. That, at least, is the finding of a Veterans Administration study of veterans’ suicides. “There is a perception that we have a veterans’ suicide epidemic on our hands. I don’t think that is true,” Robert Bossarte, an epidemiologist with the VA who did the study, told the Washington Post. “The rate is going up in the country, and veterans are a part of it.”

Another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found little link between combat experience and the tendency to commit suicide: “Depression and other types of mental illness, alcohol problems and being male – strong risk factors for suicide among civilians – were all linked to self-inflicted deaths among current and former members of the military. But the researchers found deployment and combat did not raise the risk.”

A more wide-ranging Washington Post survey of veterans did find cause for concern. Among its findings: “More than half of the 2.6 million Americans dispatched to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with physical or mental health problems stemming from their service, feel disconnected from civilian life and believe the government is failing to meet the needs of this generation’s veterans…. One in two say they know a fellow service member who has attempted or committed suicide, and more than 1 million suffer from relationship problems and experience outbursts of anger — two key indicators of post-traumatic stress.”

However, the Post also found that “the vast majority of recent veterans are not embittered or regretful. Considering everything they now know about war and military service, almost 90 percent would still have joined.”

What that suggests is that, while many combat veterans are understandably struggling with the stress of their experiences, they do not see themselves as victims–and neither should society. Nor should we see them as potential criminals, much less likely rampage killers. In fact, as might be expected, rates of crime are much lower among military personnel than among civilians.

Specialist Lopez was being treated for a variety of mental health problems. It stands to reason it was those problems–and not his experience in Iraq per se, whose details are still not clear–that triggered his fatal outburst. Vast numbers of soldiers have spent far more time “down-range” than he did, seen far more combat, been wounded, and returned home to live productive and happy lives. We should remember the “silent majority” of veterans instead of focusing on a tiny number of outliers like Lopez.

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Obama’s Dumbed Down Public Rhetoric

Barack Obama, speaking at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, decided to take aim at the budget released by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. “If they tried to this sell [Paul Ryan's budget] at Zingerman’s, they’d have to call it the ‘stinkburger’ or the ‘meanwich,’” Obama said.

Good grief.

This is the man we were told was rhetorically our next Lincoln. (“I don’t think we’ve had a president since Lincoln who has the oratorical skills that Obama has,” Professor Alan Brinkley told Charlie Rose the day after the 2008 election. “Obama has that quality that Lincoln had.”) Instead we’re getting references to “stinkburger” and “meanwich.”

Is this what passes for wit among liberals these days?

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Barack Obama, speaking at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, decided to take aim at the budget released by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. “If they tried to this sell [Paul Ryan's budget] at Zingerman’s, they’d have to call it the ‘stinkburger’ or the ‘meanwich,’” Obama said.

Good grief.

This is the man we were told was rhetorically our next Lincoln. (“I don’t think we’ve had a president since Lincoln who has the oratorical skills that Obama has,” Professor Alan Brinkley told Charlie Rose the day after the 2008 election. “Obama has that quality that Lincoln had.”) Instead we’re getting references to “stinkburger” and “meanwich.”

Is this what passes for wit among liberals these days?

It’s not easy to lower the level of public discourse in America today. But President Obama, God bless him, is doing his part. It’s one thing to be, as Obama is, hyper-partisan and ad hominem. But couldn’t he at least be a bit clever about it?

It would be unfair to ask Obama to meet the standard of, say, Winston Churchill, who said of Clement Atlee that he was “a sheep in sheep’s clothing,” a “modest man who has much to be modest about,” and, “An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Atlee got out.” (Of Stanley Baldwin, Churchill said, “He occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.”)

It’s obvious that Obama is no Lincoln or Churchill. But these days he’s not even Joe Biden.  

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