Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 7, 2014

What Is Standing in Putin’s Way in Eastern Ukraine?

Uh oh. Here we go again. Fresh off swallowing Crimea, Vladimir Putin may well be yearning not for peace but for another piece of Ukraine. At least that’s the concern raised by carefully orchestrated pro-Russian demonstrations in Donetsk and other cities in the eastern part of Ukraine where, before Russian TV cameras, the Russian minority is demanding Anschluss with the Motherland. 

John Kerry was quick to note, no doubt accurately, that these events are hardly spontaneous given the recent arrest of Russian intelligence agents in Ukraine. It is not hard to imagine a scenario unfolding whereby, once again repeating his favorite excuse for aggression–protecting Russian minority rights–Putin will send the Russian army rolling across the frontier. It would certainly not be a difficult military operation to carry out, given that the Russian forces are already mobilized ostensibly to carry out “exercises” and given the lack of military capacity in the Ukrainian army to oppose such an incursion.

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Uh oh. Here we go again. Fresh off swallowing Crimea, Vladimir Putin may well be yearning not for peace but for another piece of Ukraine. At least that’s the concern raised by carefully orchestrated pro-Russian demonstrations in Donetsk and other cities in the eastern part of Ukraine where, before Russian TV cameras, the Russian minority is demanding Anschluss with the Motherland. 

John Kerry was quick to note, no doubt accurately, that these events are hardly spontaneous given the recent arrest of Russian intelligence agents in Ukraine. It is not hard to imagine a scenario unfolding whereby, once again repeating his favorite excuse for aggression–protecting Russian minority rights–Putin will send the Russian army rolling across the frontier. It would certainly not be a difficult military operation to carry out, given that the Russian forces are already mobilized ostensibly to carry out “exercises” and given the lack of military capacity in the Ukrainian army to oppose such an incursion.

What, one wonders, is standing in the way of another semi-covert invasion followed by outright annexation? The only real obstacle would seem to be any concerns Putin might have about the consequences of such aggression. Kerry, after all, has warned the Russian president he will face “further costs” for such a move. But given the fact that the costs to Russia of annexing Crimea have been minimal–and given the complete loss of American credibility post-Syria when it comes to drawing “red lines” for dictators–one must conclude that it is only Putin’s self-restraint that is preventing a further expansion of the Russian Empire. And given Putin’s track record, both at home and abroad, of grabbing as much power as possible for himself, betting on his goodwill is not a very good guarantee of Ukraine’s continued territorial integrity.

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What Peace Looks Like … And Requires

One of the oft-repeated clichés of the Middle East is that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is just a matter of determination on the part of both sides, and intermediaries like the United States, to keep pushing compromise until a treaty is signed. As proof of the ability of common sense and persistence to solve even the most intractable conflicts, we are always told to look to Ireland where, after a centuries-long dispute, the long “troubles” over British attempts to hold onto that country were ended by first a partition of the island and then decades later by a Good Friday agreement brokered by the United States. Today, the success of that peace process was on display when the Irish republic’s president came to London on a state visit where Queen Elizabeth treated him as an equal.

Taken in a historical context, this is an inspiring moment that would have seemed impossible a century ago. Indeed, it was not thought likely even a generation ago as Northern Ireland was racked by riots and sectarian conflict over its future. The violence in Ulster seems to be a thing of the past and even if it is not impossible for that powder keg to be reignited at some point, the transformation of the relationship between the two countries and peoples is not to be underestimated. As the New York Times notes today, the main points of contention between Dublin and London these days are worries in Ireland that Britain may leave the European Union, something that would complicate the extensive ties between the two nations.

But those who cite this as a reason for optimism about the Middle East are doing a grave disservice to the parties there, especially the Palestinians. If Ireland has achieved peace it is because the leaders of the Irish nation made hard choices that the Palestinians have, to this day, never been able or willing to do. Why that is so is a short history lesson that those who persist in placing blame for the lack of peace on Israel need to learn. 

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One of the oft-repeated clichés of the Middle East is that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is just a matter of determination on the part of both sides, and intermediaries like the United States, to keep pushing compromise until a treaty is signed. As proof of the ability of common sense and persistence to solve even the most intractable conflicts, we are always told to look to Ireland where, after a centuries-long dispute, the long “troubles” over British attempts to hold onto that country were ended by first a partition of the island and then decades later by a Good Friday agreement brokered by the United States. Today, the success of that peace process was on display when the Irish republic’s president came to London on a state visit where Queen Elizabeth treated him as an equal.

Taken in a historical context, this is an inspiring moment that would have seemed impossible a century ago. Indeed, it was not thought likely even a generation ago as Northern Ireland was racked by riots and sectarian conflict over its future. The violence in Ulster seems to be a thing of the past and even if it is not impossible for that powder keg to be reignited at some point, the transformation of the relationship between the two countries and peoples is not to be underestimated. As the New York Times notes today, the main points of contention between Dublin and London these days are worries in Ireland that Britain may leave the European Union, something that would complicate the extensive ties between the two nations.

But those who cite this as a reason for optimism about the Middle East are doing a grave disservice to the parties there, especially the Palestinians. If Ireland has achieved peace it is because the leaders of the Irish nation made hard choices that the Palestinians have, to this day, never been able or willing to do. Why that is so is a short history lesson that those who persist in placing blame for the lack of peace on Israel need to learn. 

Apologists for the Palestinians claim that they have chosen peace with Israel via the Oslo Accords as well as the subsequent negotiations in which they have engaged. But in point of fact, first Yasir Arafat and now Mahmoud Abbas have steadfastly refused to accept the half a loaf of independence and freedom that a peace agreement would entail. They’ve refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state or agree to its legitimacy no matter where its borders are drawn. Most of all, they have refused to face down their domestic opponents, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They have instead competed with them for the title of the most anti-Israel.

Had the leaders of Ireland’s early 20th century revolt against British rule done the same, today’s state visit would be unthinkable. What happened in 1922 was that the a majority of the Irish Republican party led by underground hero Michael Collins embraced a compromise peace agreement with Britain that fell far short of their dreams of a united Irish republic. They swallowed hard and accepted a partition that left six of the country’s 26 counties under British rule including a couple in which the country’s Protestant minority was not in the majority. More than that, the democratically elected Irish government (something that can no longer said to be true of Abbas who is currently serving in the ninth year of a four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority) put the question of war and peace in the hands of their people. A majority backed the peace treaty and when the IRA, under Eamon de Valera, did not accept the outcome of the ballot box, a bloody civil war resumed in which the pro-peace faction backed by the British prevailed.

Neither Arafat nor Abbas has ever shown any sign of being to act as Collins did in realizing that a truncated Palestinian state was better than none at all. Neither were they prepared to risk their lives as he did (he was assassinated during the Irish Civil War); nor have they, perhaps for good reason, trusted the Palestinian people to back the cause of peace against those preaching war to the death against the Jews.

The reason for this is, of course, rooted in the very different natures of these two conflicts. It was difficult for many Britons to accept the loss of their first colony. But the reason why they were eventually able to reconcile themselves to the compromise of 1922 was that the purpose of the various Irish rebellions they had put down over the centuries was not the annihilation of the British state. The Irish wanted self-determination but they had no ambition to plant their flag over London or any part of England, Scotland, or Wales. But, though many observers continue to act as if the only point of the conflict in the Middle East is the dispute over the West Bank, Palestinians see all of Israel, and not just settlements over the old “green line,” as their patrimony. Irish nationalism was about the revival of Celtic culture and self-determination on their island. Palestinian nationalism was created as a reaction to Zionism and unfortunately has never outgrown the obsession with seeking to eradicate any Jewish state.

Peace between Palestinians and Israelis is not impossible, at least in theory. It would require Israelis to accept a Palestinian state, a position the overwhelming majority of them, including their supposedly right-wing government, have already accepted. But it also requires the Palestinians to do as the Irish did and give up their maximalist dreams and be willing to put down domestic opposition to peace, even if it means a civil war of their own. Until that happens, dreams of a Middle East version of Anglo-Irish reconciliation are not within the realm of the possible.

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Abbas Bets on Kerry’s Desperation

The Palestinians have had a fairly willing enabler in John Kerry so far, but if today’s New York Times report is right, they may have finally overplayed their hand. According to the Times, both sides have asked Martin Indyk to extend the talks, which were on the verge of disintegration after the Palestinians walked away. But the Palestinians are now saying they can be lured back to the table … for a price.

Apparently the Palestinians will resume negotiations on the principle that the negotiations never actually ended as long as the Israelis are made to act as though the talks crumbled and the resumption is actually a new round starting from scratch. Here’s the logic, such as it is:

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The Palestinians have had a fairly willing enabler in John Kerry so far, but if today’s New York Times report is right, they may have finally overplayed their hand. According to the Times, both sides have asked Martin Indyk to extend the talks, which were on the verge of disintegration after the Palestinians walked away. But the Palestinians are now saying they can be lured back to the table … for a price.

Apparently the Palestinians will resume negotiations on the principle that the negotiations never actually ended as long as the Israelis are made to act as though the talks crumbled and the resumption is actually a new round starting from scratch. Here’s the logic, such as it is:

Mr. Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel would take its own “unilateral steps” in response to the Palestinians’ move last week to join 15 international treaties and conventions and reiterated that a Palestinian state could be created “only through direct negotiations, not through empty statements and not by unilateral moves.”

The Palestinians said they took the contentious step only because Israel reneged on a promise to release a group of long-serving prisoners by the end of March, breaking its own commitment as part of the negotiations.

So that’s step one: the pretext. The Palestinians say they took their unilateral steps because Israel didn’t release all the murderers it was supposed to. Those unilateral steps consisted of pushing applications to join various international conventions. According to this logic, if Israel releases the rest of those terrorists, the talks should resume. Except:

Muhammad Shtayyeh, a senior Palestinian official who resigned as a negotiator in the midst of the current talks, said on Monday that Mr. Abbas’s application to join the international entities was “irreversible” and represented a “paradigm shift” in which Palestinians would pursue other options in parallel with bilateral negotiations. But he, too, suggested that there could yet be a way out of the crisis.

“We are keeping the door open for any serious talks,” he said at a briefing in Ramallah. “We have time between today and the 29th of April. If the Israeli side is serious, we are ready for that.”

So there’s no going back. But there is a way to salvage the talks, according to the Palestinians. More concessions from Israel, with no concurrent Palestinian concessions, will bring them back to the table:

Mr. Shtayyeh rejected Israel’s demand that the applications to the entities be withdrawn and said Palestinians want to separate the issues of the release of the promised fourth batch of prisoners from that of extending the timetable for the talks. He said extending negotiations would require either a freeze on construction in West Bank settlements or the Israeli presentation of a map outlining the future borders of the promised two states.

So the two sides are to treat the negotiations as if they are beginning anew, not continuing the previous round of talks? Not exactly:

“The release of prisoners is part of an agreement, and no compromise can be accepted,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a close aide to Mr. Abbas and an officer of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said Sunday on the Voice of Palestine radio station.

Even if you are sympathetic to the Palestinian side in this argument, this is plainly transparent. If the Palestinians believe Israel must release the rest of the terrorists for talks to continue, then that should theoretically be the only requirement for Abbas to pretend to negotiate again. It would be appropriate for Abbas to then take back the unilateral action he claims he took in response to Israel’s action (or perceived inaction, as it were), since even he associates the two.

He doesn’t want to do that. He wants to exact a price for this delay. If you’re still with him so far, he gets the original prisoner release in order to return to negotiations plus a penalty of sorts against Israel for the delay by applying to join the international agencies and conventions. That should be it, right? Nope–Abbas wants another precondition, such as a settlement freeze, as though the process were starting from the beginning or Israel wouldn’t release the rest of the terrorists, when in fact he acts as though both were true.

What’s the argument in favor of a round of concessions as preconditions in addition to releasing the terrorists? Abbas is playing Kerry. He assumes that Kerry is sufficiently desperate for negotiations that he’ll lean on Netanyahu to give Abbas whatever he wants. In all likelihood, the Israeli Cabinet (except for Tzipi Livni) will get tired of this game, which suits Abbas just fine, since he doesn’t seem to want an actual peace deal but rather a disaster he can blame on the Israelis. The question is whether Kerry–or any representative of the Obama administration–can ever get tired of scapegoating Netanyahu.

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Friends, Enemies, and Columnists

Among the lowest forms of political punditry is the meme by which a writer demonizes a political opponent by identifying them as allies of a known evil. So when New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls casino mogul Sheldon Adelson “Iran’s Best Friend,” it tells us a lot, but none of it has much to do with the controversial billionaire donor to conservative and Jewish causes.

Such a column is one more indication that Friedman has definitively run out of steam in his decades-long run as one of the Times’s op-ed writers. Since assuming his current perch he has shoveled out an unending stream of mainstream liberal conventional wisdom on a variety of topics not limited to his supposed expertise in foreign affairs, but with a particular interest in depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a latter-day Attila the Hun. Regardless of what you think about Netanyahu, Friedman’s efforts to treat those who support the Jewish state as morally equivalent to those who wish to destroy it is a tired cliché. So, too, is the idea that anyone who supports Netanyahu is doing, albeit unwittingly, the bidding of Iran’s Islamist leadership. Like his deservedly mocked columns in which he used anonymous, and no doubt mythical, cabdrivers, to serve as mouthpieces for his own views, this sort of apposition is predictable and not so much ineptly argued, as not argued at all. Friedman simply assumes that the Times’s readership will make the connection between a leading GOP donor and evil without the heavy lifting of actually proving why Adelson’s insistence that would-be Republican candidates refrain from calling the West Bank “occupied” rather than disputed qualifies.

But the definitive proof that this was just the latest example of Friedman mailing it in rather than wading into a topic and making a coherent argument came from his own newspaper today in the form of a column from Shmuel Rosner, who now writes opinions for its online edition from Israel. In it, Rosner relates the dispute about Adelson’s attempt to acquire the Makor Rishon newspaper to add to a collection that already includes Israel Hayom, the Jewish state’s most-read daily. As Rosner writes, some people are up in arms about the acquisition, but they are exactly the types that Friedman most despises: supporters of the settler movement. Economics Minister Naftali Bennett and others to the right of the prime minister fear that Makor Rishon will become, like Israel Hayom, a strong supporter of Netanyahu rather than a critic. While Bennett’s risible and futile attempt to handicap Adelson’s papers with legislation intended to lower their circulation need not trouble American readers much, what they can glean from this account is that the settlers fear Adelson will use his bully pulpits to back a peace agreement in the event Netanyahu ever signs one. Rosner’s concern is that Adelson may be about to “silence the Israeli right.” Thus, even though I believe Rosner is wrong about there being a danger that anyone in Israel will be silenced, Friedman’s absurd hyperbole about Adelson is not only lazy but also inaccurate.

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Among the lowest forms of political punditry is the meme by which a writer demonizes a political opponent by identifying them as allies of a known evil. So when New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls casino mogul Sheldon Adelson “Iran’s Best Friend,” it tells us a lot, but none of it has much to do with the controversial billionaire donor to conservative and Jewish causes.

Such a column is one more indication that Friedman has definitively run out of steam in his decades-long run as one of the Times’s op-ed writers. Since assuming his current perch he has shoveled out an unending stream of mainstream liberal conventional wisdom on a variety of topics not limited to his supposed expertise in foreign affairs, but with a particular interest in depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a latter-day Attila the Hun. Regardless of what you think about Netanyahu, Friedman’s efforts to treat those who support the Jewish state as morally equivalent to those who wish to destroy it is a tired cliché. So, too, is the idea that anyone who supports Netanyahu is doing, albeit unwittingly, the bidding of Iran’s Islamist leadership. Like his deservedly mocked columns in which he used anonymous, and no doubt mythical, cabdrivers, to serve as mouthpieces for his own views, this sort of apposition is predictable and not so much ineptly argued, as not argued at all. Friedman simply assumes that the Times’s readership will make the connection between a leading GOP donor and evil without the heavy lifting of actually proving why Adelson’s insistence that would-be Republican candidates refrain from calling the West Bank “occupied” rather than disputed qualifies.

But the definitive proof that this was just the latest example of Friedman mailing it in rather than wading into a topic and making a coherent argument came from his own newspaper today in the form of a column from Shmuel Rosner, who now writes opinions for its online edition from Israel. In it, Rosner relates the dispute about Adelson’s attempt to acquire the Makor Rishon newspaper to add to a collection that already includes Israel Hayom, the Jewish state’s most-read daily. As Rosner writes, some people are up in arms about the acquisition, but they are exactly the types that Friedman most despises: supporters of the settler movement. Economics Minister Naftali Bennett and others to the right of the prime minister fear that Makor Rishon will become, like Israel Hayom, a strong supporter of Netanyahu rather than a critic. While Bennett’s risible and futile attempt to handicap Adelson’s papers with legislation intended to lower their circulation need not trouble American readers much, what they can glean from this account is that the settlers fear Adelson will use his bully pulpits to back a peace agreement in the event Netanyahu ever signs one. Rosner’s concern is that Adelson may be about to “silence the Israeli right.” Thus, even though I believe Rosner is wrong about there being a danger that anyone in Israel will be silenced, Friedman’s absurd hyperbole about Adelson is not only lazy but also inaccurate.

Like the Israeli left that our Tom Wilson rightly depicted as being stuck in an Oslo time warp, Friedman’s problem is that his predictions of Israeli doom have proved as foolish as his best-selling effort to convince us that technology would trump religion, prejudice, and nationalism in the Arab world. He gives away the game when he concedes, “I don’t know if Israel has a Palestinian partner for a secure withdrawal from the West Bank, or ever will.” He then follows this snippet of realism by claiming that Israel must find a way to get out of the West Bank, peace partner or not. But the reason why the overwhelming majority of Israelis have rejected another willy-nilly withdrawal regardless of consequences is that they have no interest in repeating what happened in Gaza in 2005 when Ariel Sharon did just that.

Friedman has a history of trying to delegitimize supporters of Israel. As I wrote here in 2011, his efforts to depict the ovations that Netanyahu received that year from Congress as being “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby” reinforced a central myth of anti-Semitism about Jews and money. To use the same logic employed by Friedman today against Adelson, one could say that by doing so, the columnist was showing himself to be an ally of Hitler’s spiritual descendants. But Friedman’s umbrage at his critics then has not tempered his subsequent writings using the same sort of invective.

The problem here is not just that writer’s hypocrisy and his lack of intellectual integrity. The much-heralded exchange between Adelson and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie about what to call the West Bank was merely an attempt to level the rhetorical playing field on which the Israelis and the Palestinians are located. In doing so, the man whom Friedman denounces as “crude” was actually showing a greater grasp of nuance than the columnist who poses as a Middle East expert.

Israel’s friends in this country have every right to speak up and ask potential candidates to speak clearly about the Middle East, especially when so many, like Christie, clearly have no real grasp of foreign policy or the details of the conflict with the Palestinians. In a political landscape filled with foreign-policy blind men, a one-eyed pundit like Friedman likes to play the king. Having reflexively denounced Netanyahu and all those who support him as enemies of peace for so long, the decision of the Palestinians to walk out of the negotiations—a stance that is, for all intents and purposes, a fourth “no” to peace in the last 15 years—Friedman refuses to draw conclusions from events that have contradicted his past positions. Nor does he recognize any distinctions between those who back Israel’s democratically-elected government and a settler movement that is horrified by Netanyahu’s embrace of the two-state solution. In writing in this manner, Friedman tells us nothing about who is a friend or an enemy of Israel, but a lot about his own lack of intellectual rigor.

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What’s Love Got to Do with It, Jeb?

Yesterday Jeb Bush said his decision to run for president in 2016 would hinge in small part on if he can advocate for his beliefs without getting drawn into a “political mud fight.” I’m not sure how anyone can expect to avoid the no-holds-barred style of political combat that comes with a presidential candidacy but if Bush does run, it’s likely that another passage in that Fox News interview will supply his detractors with some of the ammunition that they will use against him:

There are means by which we can control our border better than we have. And there should be penalties for breaking the law. But the way I look at this — and I’m going to say this, and it’ll be on tape and so be it. The way I look at this is someone who comes to our country because they couldn’t come legally, they come to our country because their families — the dad who loved their children — was worried that their children didn’t have food on the table. And they wanted to make sure their family was intact, and they crossed the border because they had no other means to work to be able to provide for their family. Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family. I honestly think that that is a different kind of crime that there should be a price paid, but it shouldn’t rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families.

Bush’s position makes a lot of sense but unfortunately—and he knew when he uttered those words—only one phrase will be remembered: “act of love.” Suffice it to say that this son and younger brother of presidents will be endlessly mocked by many, if not most, conservatives for expressing what will be depicted as a bleeding heart liberal’s view of illegal immigrants. That Bush would campaign as an advocate for immigration reform—a position that is considered anathema by many in the Republican Party’s grass roots—was never in doubt. But what makes this a political gaffe of a sort is that Bush chose to make the argument for a rational approach to the fact that 12 million illegals are in the country by playing the sympathy card rather than an appeal to cold, hard economic logic.

Those who believe that the rule of law is at stake in the effort to punish illegals can’t be blamed for taking out the proverbial world’s smallest violin in response to Jeb Bush’s effort to evoke compassion for those who cross the border without permission. People don’t come to the United States out of pure love. They do it because there are jobs waiting for them that are not being filled by those already here.

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Yesterday Jeb Bush said his decision to run for president in 2016 would hinge in small part on if he can advocate for his beliefs without getting drawn into a “political mud fight.” I’m not sure how anyone can expect to avoid the no-holds-barred style of political combat that comes with a presidential candidacy but if Bush does run, it’s likely that another passage in that Fox News interview will supply his detractors with some of the ammunition that they will use against him:

There are means by which we can control our border better than we have. And there should be penalties for breaking the law. But the way I look at this — and I’m going to say this, and it’ll be on tape and so be it. The way I look at this is someone who comes to our country because they couldn’t come legally, they come to our country because their families — the dad who loved their children — was worried that their children didn’t have food on the table. And they wanted to make sure their family was intact, and they crossed the border because they had no other means to work to be able to provide for their family. Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family. I honestly think that that is a different kind of crime that there should be a price paid, but it shouldn’t rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families.

Bush’s position makes a lot of sense but unfortunately—and he knew when he uttered those words—only one phrase will be remembered: “act of love.” Suffice it to say that this son and younger brother of presidents will be endlessly mocked by many, if not most, conservatives for expressing what will be depicted as a bleeding heart liberal’s view of illegal immigrants. That Bush would campaign as an advocate for immigration reform—a position that is considered anathema by many in the Republican Party’s grass roots—was never in doubt. But what makes this a political gaffe of a sort is that Bush chose to make the argument for a rational approach to the fact that 12 million illegals are in the country by playing the sympathy card rather than an appeal to cold, hard economic logic.

Those who believe that the rule of law is at stake in the effort to punish illegals can’t be blamed for taking out the proverbial world’s smallest violin in response to Jeb Bush’s effort to evoke compassion for those who cross the border without permission. People don’t come to the United States out of pure love. They do it because there are jobs waiting for them that are not being filled by those already here.

This goes to the heart of the long-running argument about immigration on the right. Much of the left spent most of the last century trying to rewrite or ignore basic economic truths in order to make it conform to false Marxist theories. Nowadays, conservatives seek to do the same by saying that basic laws of supply and demand with regard to employment can be overcome in order to keep immigrants from Mexico or other Latin American countries out. Some make these arguments because of a reasonable concern over our porous borders. Others do so because they want to exclude Hispanics for either racial or political reasons. But either way, they are asking us to ignore the basic fact that as long as there are low paying jobs that most Americans won’t fill, immigrants, whether legal or illegal will find a way to take them.

As much as there is a strong case to be made for strengthening border security, the idea that 12 million people can be deported at the stroke of a pen or that there will be no negative consequences (regardless of the negative impact on the future prospects of Republicans if they continue to alienate Hispanics with negative stands on immigration) is fanciful.

It’s an open question as to whether enough Republican primary voters will listen to such commonsense arguments in 2016, whether made by Jeb Bush or someone else. But there is certainly an opening for someone to speak truth to them on this issue rather than merely engaging in the sort of “severely conservative” rabble rousing on immigration that Mitt Romney employed in order to distract GOP voters from his inconsistency on state-run health care. But my advice to anyone who tries to do so would be to leave love out of it.

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The Retrograde Israeli Left

Listening to Israel’s “progressives” you might think it was still 1994, as if two decades of failed peace efforts, Palestinian intransigence, and unrelenting incitement and terrorism had simply never happened. They speak as if they’re still living in some heyday of the Oslo peace accords. Naturally, it is the role of the political opposition in any democracy to find fault with the actions of governing political rivals, but what Israel’s left-wing politicians are saying goes far beyond normal critique of government policy despite the fact that, although they would never admit it, the current government’s strategy for peace talks is not fundamentally different from what they themselves propose.

On Monday Israel’s parliament convened from its recess for a session on the peace talks, as had been called for by 25 Knesset members, only 15 of whom bothered to show up. But perhaps those who stayed away were the wiser; in reality this supposedly urgent session was little more than a shameless opportunity for opposition politicians to capitalize on the failure of the latest round of peace talks. Pouring scorn on Prime Minister Netanyahu, left-wing party leaders called for everything from new elections to a breakup of the coalition and the formation of a new government. Political ambitions aside, what these individuals really displayed was a total unwillingness to recognize any of what has been happening in the last few months–really, the last few decades. Israel’s left is stuck in a time warp and whereas the right is increasingly looking to formulate new alternatives, the backward-looking left appears utterly unable to adapt to current realities.

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Listening to Israel’s “progressives” you might think it was still 1994, as if two decades of failed peace efforts, Palestinian intransigence, and unrelenting incitement and terrorism had simply never happened. They speak as if they’re still living in some heyday of the Oslo peace accords. Naturally, it is the role of the political opposition in any democracy to find fault with the actions of governing political rivals, but what Israel’s left-wing politicians are saying goes far beyond normal critique of government policy despite the fact that, although they would never admit it, the current government’s strategy for peace talks is not fundamentally different from what they themselves propose.

On Monday Israel’s parliament convened from its recess for a session on the peace talks, as had been called for by 25 Knesset members, only 15 of whom bothered to show up. But perhaps those who stayed away were the wiser; in reality this supposedly urgent session was little more than a shameless opportunity for opposition politicians to capitalize on the failure of the latest round of peace talks. Pouring scorn on Prime Minister Netanyahu, left-wing party leaders called for everything from new elections to a breakup of the coalition and the formation of a new government. Political ambitions aside, what these individuals really displayed was a total unwillingness to recognize any of what has been happening in the last few months–really, the last few decades. Israel’s left is stuck in a time warp and whereas the right is increasingly looking to formulate new alternatives, the backward-looking left appears utterly unable to adapt to current realities.

The reading of the failure of negotiations offered by Labor leader Isaac Herzog was hardly convincing. It essentially amounts to: Abbas is no picnic, but that’s beside the point because Netanyahu is infinitely worse. Apparently ignoring the fact that Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas is now without any democratic mandate, not to mention the way in which he already rejected the remarkably generous offers of Olmert’s Kadima government in 2008, Herzog announced before the Knesset, “Abu Mazen is a tough and infuriating partner and sometimes very exasperating, and can even be depressing, (but) he is our partner and there is no point at all in wishing otherwise.” Yet of Netanyahu Herzog had this to say: “We are on the edge of a volcano and the public does not understand the severity of the situation, and all of the blame is on a prime minister who is incapable of doing anything. The entire process has collapsed because as far as Netanyahu is concerned there is no place for taking real steps for peace.”

What these “real steps” are remains unclear, but presumably the offer of another 400 security prisoners going free and a partial settlement freeze doesn’t really cut it for those in the business of taking “real steps for peace.” Of course to admit otherwise would be to concede that Abbas is anything but the partner that Herzog insists he is. It is certainly remarkable that Herzog could claim, with a straight face, that “all of the blame” lies with Netanyahu. This desperate need to excuse the Palestinians, no matter how ridiculous, was also the order of the day for Labor MK Eitan Cabel who, during the same debate, declared “I’m not defending the Palestinians, but it’s amazing how people act like they’re shocked that the Palestinians have demands. Isn’t that the meaning of negotiations?” The Palestinian demand that Israel agree to all the final outcomes of the negotiations before they even got underway may seem a little unreasonable to some, yet, if this line of saying “yes the Palestinians don’t act like they want peace but…” was ever convincing then it certainly ceased to be so quite some time ago.  

These were the same delusions being pushed by Meretz. MK Tamar Zandberg was particularly critical of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, rubbishing the government’s efforts and asserting, “If we needed a negotiating process for them to accept the destructive thesis that there is no partner only so that they could stay in a coalition that undermines it, then thanks but no thanks. If you can’t do it then let’s break up the coalition and choose someone who can do the work.” Meretz’s leader Zahava Gal-On similarly singled out the centrist party leaders for propping up this supposedly anti-peace coalition, claiming that “this government does not really want to reach an accord” and referred to Livni and Lapid as “fig leaves which grant legitimacy to pointless negotiations.”

In her suggestion that these negotiations have been pointless, many Israelis will agree with the Meretz leader, only for quite different reasons. They know that if Abbas was ever serious about these talks it was only ever as a means for extracting as many concessions from Israel as possible. There are also many Israelis who, contrary to the statements above, doubt that the Palestinians are capable of being partners for peace and as such, figures on the right are starting to float new proposals for unilateral ways out of this impasse. The left, stuck in the past, has nothing new to offer, just more of the same. 

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Mozilla Has Rights. Just Like Hobby Lobby.

The forced resignation of Mozilla CEO Brandon Eich over his support for an anti-gay marriage referendum continued to provoke bitter debate over the weekend. After an initial burst of revulsion even from liberal pundits like Andrew Sullivan over the purge of a businessman from a company over his political beliefs by pro-gay thought police, many on the left have recovered their bearings and are reminding themselves that freedom of speech for me but not for thee has always been their guiding principle. Though some are a bit shame-faced to do so, some liberals have decided that punishing individuals for their personal politics is OK because those who hold opinions contrary to their own are not only wrong but so hateful that their mere presence undermines the efforts of those associated with them.

That this is rank hypocrisy is so obvious that it barely needs to be said. If, say, a liberal business executive were to be ousted from a similar position at a Fortune 500 company because a lot of the shareholders or executives at the business didn’t like the fact that he or she was a supporter of gay marriage or had donated to prominent liberal candidates for office, you can bet your stock portfolio and your mortgage payment that the mainstream media and every left-wing pundit in creation would be anointing such a person for sainthood rather than twisting themselves into pretzels in order to justify Eich’s defenestration, as so many have already done.

But in doing so, some on the left have, albeit unwittingly, stumbled into some truths about First Amendment rights that undermine their positions on an important case under consideration at the U.S. Supreme Court.

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The forced resignation of Mozilla CEO Brandon Eich over his support for an anti-gay marriage referendum continued to provoke bitter debate over the weekend. After an initial burst of revulsion even from liberal pundits like Andrew Sullivan over the purge of a businessman from a company over his political beliefs by pro-gay thought police, many on the left have recovered their bearings and are reminding themselves that freedom of speech for me but not for thee has always been their guiding principle. Though some are a bit shame-faced to do so, some liberals have decided that punishing individuals for their personal politics is OK because those who hold opinions contrary to their own are not only wrong but so hateful that their mere presence undermines the efforts of those associated with them.

That this is rank hypocrisy is so obvious that it barely needs to be said. If, say, a liberal business executive were to be ousted from a similar position at a Fortune 500 company because a lot of the shareholders or executives at the business didn’t like the fact that he or she was a supporter of gay marriage or had donated to prominent liberal candidates for office, you can bet your stock portfolio and your mortgage payment that the mainstream media and every left-wing pundit in creation would be anointing such a person for sainthood rather than twisting themselves into pretzels in order to justify Eich’s defenestration, as so many have already done.

But in doing so, some on the left have, albeit unwittingly, stumbled into some truths about First Amendment rights that undermine their positions on an important case under consideration at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Some, like the Guardian’s Mary Hamilton, rightly point out that the First Amendment doesn’t entitle Eich to a job at Mozilla. That is true, and I don’t believe any serious conservative critic of the Mozilla lynch mob has said any different. Mozilla and any other company have a perfect right to hire or fire anyone they like. Anti-discrimination laws don’t require liberals to hire conservatives or vice versa even though injecting political litmus tests into job searches are not conducive to hiring the best people. But when New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote that Eich had to be ousted from his position because Mozilla isn’t an ordinary company, that should have unsettled some on the left who have been mocking the idea that corporations have First Amendment rights. If Mozilla should be able to fire Eich because of his politics, how can liberals also argue with a straight face that Hobby Lobby should have to pay for abortion drugs?

The upshot of Manjoo’s piece was to say that rather than a soulless instrument of the technology business, Mozilla is a unique sort of company with a raison d’être that rises above mere commerce and must be nurtured by an individual who shares a vision of inclusiveness that excludes defenders of traditional marriage and other non-liberal concepts. By refusing to “recant,” as Farhad put it, he had demonstrated his inability to lead the company. As Michelangelo Signorile, the editor-at-large of the HuffPost’s Gay Voices wrote, “It’s about a company based in Northern California that has many progressive employees, as well as a lot of progressives and young people among the user base of its Firefox browser, realizing its CEO’s worldview is completely out of touch with the company’s — and America’s — values and vision for the future.”

That Mozilla’s employees and board members actually think it is consistent with American values or even “freedom of speech” (in the words of the company’s disingenuous announcement of Eich’s departure) to hound out of their midst someone who, though a supporter of gay rights in other respects, may disagree with them about marriage or support conservative candidates says something awful about such a group. But if that’s how they feel, then it’s their right to do so even as many on the outside of their cozy left-wing bubble enclave jeer at a version of “inclusiveness” that demands ideological conformity.

Ironically, Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern thinks conservatives are the hypocrites to complain about this because of the Hobby Lobby case. He thinks conservatives are only for protecting the First Amendment rights of companies when they allow people like the religious owners of the Hobby Lobby chain to oppose the Health and Human Services mandate that would force them to pay for abortion drugs for their employees but not for Mozilla to burn Eich at the stake. Wrong.

Conservatives have been consistent about the rights of corporations. It is the left that has always mocked the notion of First Amendment rights applying to corporations, principally in campaign finance law cases. Conservatives have correctly argued that individuals do not give up their right to political speech when they incorporate or engage in commerce. By claiming, as they now do, that the special culture of Mozilla requires it to root out all unbelievers in gay marriage or supporters of conservatives, but deny that Hobby Lobby has the right to protect its particular culture or the beliefs of its owners, liberals are the ones that are engaging in hypocrisy.

It would be nice if liberals were sufficiently self-aware of their inconsistency to cause them to “recant” and grant Hobby Lobby—which has an individual business culture just as special as the one at Mozilla—the same respect it demands for the Torquemadas who rule the roost in the high-tech sector. But I’m not expecting that to happen. The real problem here isn’t hypocrisy but a liberal mindset that views conservatives as not merely wrong, but evil. Eich’s fate shows that the decline of civility in our political culture may have become irreversible. But that makes it all the more important for the courts to defend the Constitution against the left’s crusade against the First Amendment with respect to political speech and faith.

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Vox: Old Media’s Best Friend?

Should the hoary institutions of mainstream American print media be concerned about the rise of web-only, technology-driven “explanatory journalism”? Judging by the highly anticipated launch of Ezra Klein’s Vox.com, which added its signature features Sunday night, they might be less alarmed than they were yesterday. That’s because Vox’s launch has shown the limits of its own vision. Technology is no substitute for information, as Vox’s early projects demonstrate.

Take, for example, its backgrounder of the Ukraine crisis. Vox claims to provide “explanatory journalism,” and sets up its backgrounders as a series of flash cards with highlighted terms, which link to explanations of those terms. It’s a smooth and readable interface, but the product itself basically comes across as targeting those without the attention span for Wikipedia. Klein has hired the Washington Post’s foreign-affairs blogger Max Fisher to “explain” foreign policy to Vox’s readers. And the Ukraine explainer has a somewhat surprising conclusion.

The backgrounder on the Ukraine crisis has (at least as I write this) 20 “cards,” each with a subheader meant to answer a specific question about the issue. Because the Ukraine crisis is evolving and escalating in real time, readers will wonder what to expect in the near future. Card 17 presents this opportunity, titled “Is Russia going to invade eastern Ukraine?” Good question. The answer, however, was revealing not about Ukraine but about Vox itself.

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Should the hoary institutions of mainstream American print media be concerned about the rise of web-only, technology-driven “explanatory journalism”? Judging by the highly anticipated launch of Ezra Klein’s Vox.com, which added its signature features Sunday night, they might be less alarmed than they were yesterday. That’s because Vox’s launch has shown the limits of its own vision. Technology is no substitute for information, as Vox’s early projects demonstrate.

Take, for example, its backgrounder of the Ukraine crisis. Vox claims to provide “explanatory journalism,” and sets up its backgrounders as a series of flash cards with highlighted terms, which link to explanations of those terms. It’s a smooth and readable interface, but the product itself basically comes across as targeting those without the attention span for Wikipedia. Klein has hired the Washington Post’s foreign-affairs blogger Max Fisher to “explain” foreign policy to Vox’s readers. And the Ukraine explainer has a somewhat surprising conclusion.

The backgrounder on the Ukraine crisis has (at least as I write this) 20 “cards,” each with a subheader meant to answer a specific question about the issue. Because the Ukraine crisis is evolving and escalating in real time, readers will wonder what to expect in the near future. Card 17 presents this opportunity, titled “Is Russia going to invade eastern Ukraine?” Good question. The answer, however, was revealing not about Ukraine but about Vox itself.

As John Tabin noticed last night, Vox’s answer seemed to change within the hour, from “At this point it looks pretty unlikely” to “there are growing reasons to worry that Russia may also try to annex some parts of eastern Ukraine as well.” Why the sudden change? Read on, and it becomes clear. The next card is titled, accurately, “You didn’t answer my question!” Indeed Vox did not answer your question. “This is very much a work in progress,” Fisher continues. “It will continue to be updated as events unfold, new research gets published, and fresh questions emerge.” (Vox added the 20th card to explain that previous cards had in fact changed without acknowledgement.)

So is Vox explaining the news, or explaining why it can’t explain the news? All signs point to the latter. But the 19th card–which was the final card, until the disclaimer was added as card 20–is where the reader will really feel cheated. Card 19 offers further reading about the Ukraine crisis. Thus far we have seen that Vox’s foreign-policy explainers are simply bullet-pointed versions of someone else’s reporting. But whose? Card 19 gives us an idea.

Suggestions for further reading about the Ukraine crisis include five major publications: the Washington Post, the New York Times, the New Republic, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. Now, there’s nothing wrong with reading these publications–indeed, the New Republic’s Julia Ioffe is a great source for Russia-related material and the NYRB contributor Vox suggests is Timothy Snyder, certainly an expert on the region.

But if you’ve slogged through 19 cards for a Vox explainer, what was your reward? A suggestion that if you want your questions answered, you should really be reading actual reporters and experts. Vox, then, appears to be a collection of road signs, pointing you in the right direction. And those media institutions Vox sends you to are old, East Coast liberal establishment fixtures. Vox is not replacing the New York Times; it’s reading the New York Times to you. Old media is the essential lifeblood of publications like Vox. The latter desperately needs the former, while the former mostly considers the latter an expensive parasite.

This is not to dismiss new media challenges to old media–those are, in general, quite real, as are the weaknesses in the business model of the kinds of stodgy newspapers that writers must leave in order to innovate. It would also be more valuable if Vox were to broaden its own horizons. If you followed Vox’s reading list on Ukraine, you would have a decent start. But you would be confined the narrow worldview that produced the Vox backgrounder in the first place.

And you would be surprisingly chained to print publications–a bizarre choice for a site hoping to be an online-only trendsetter. For example, Vox’s explainer ignores the great reporting on the conflict from Eli Lake and Jamie Kirchick at the Daily Beast. And it doesn’t recommend checking out the running Ukraine live-blog at the Interpreter, Michael Weiss’s latest project. Perhaps online publications are Vox’s competitors and are therefore not endorsed with the gusto reserved for the New York Times. But that would only reinforce the impression that Vox is simply explaining the sermon to the choir.

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Seymour Hersh’s Latest Conspiracy Theory

Seymour Hersh is gaining headlines again for a London Review of Books article in which he alleges that Turkey was behind the chemical-weapons strike in the suburbs of Damascus which led many American officials to demand that President Obama enforce his red line and retaliate against the Bashar al-Assad regime.

I’m not one to defend the Turkish regime—certainly, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a terrorist sympathizer, if not sponsor—but Hersh’s allegations are problematic and, frankly, an embarrassment to the New Yorker.

While Hersh gained fame for his reporting of the My Lai massacre, he has largely been coasting on his reputation ever since. Did he blow the lid on the reprehensible abuses at Abu Ghraib? Not quite: the Pentagon had already investigated the abuses, was in the process of taking action, and Hersh simply published the leaked report.

Today, rather than personify responsible journalism, Hersh seems to embody a political agenda which leads him to fit square pegs into round holes, cherry pick what works, and discard what doesn’t. A 2007 article on jihadis in Lebanon was a real embarrassment to the New Yorker, as other analysts quickly tore it apart.

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Seymour Hersh is gaining headlines again for a London Review of Books article in which he alleges that Turkey was behind the chemical-weapons strike in the suburbs of Damascus which led many American officials to demand that President Obama enforce his red line and retaliate against the Bashar al-Assad regime.

I’m not one to defend the Turkish regime—certainly, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a terrorist sympathizer, if not sponsor—but Hersh’s allegations are problematic and, frankly, an embarrassment to the New Yorker.

While Hersh gained fame for his reporting of the My Lai massacre, he has largely been coasting on his reputation ever since. Did he blow the lid on the reprehensible abuses at Abu Ghraib? Not quite: the Pentagon had already investigated the abuses, was in the process of taking action, and Hersh simply published the leaked report.

Today, rather than personify responsible journalism, Hersh seems to embody a political agenda which leads him to fit square pegs into round holes, cherry pick what works, and discard what doesn’t. A 2007 article on jihadis in Lebanon was a real embarrassment to the New Yorker, as other analysts quickly tore it apart.

The good thing about Hersh is that he is predictable: He often circles back to the same sources, with the same agenda, which by no coincidence happens to be his own. The current article seems to rely a great deal on a former Defense Intelligence Agency official. Who might this person be? There is no way to know for sure since Hersh protects his source with anonymity, never allowing the reader to assess whether the person is simply using his past affiliation to spin a tale or if he was even in a position to have the information he claimed to possess. In the past, Hersh has relied on one W. Patrick Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official. Let’s hope the source isn’t Lang, because if it was, Hersh should certainly have noted (as he neglected to previously) that Lang had registered with the Foreign Agents Registration Act in order to work with a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician. Given Hersh’s previous mistakes in this regard, he cannot be given the benefit of the doubt.

Now, this isn’t to say that the Syrian opposition hasn’t, at times, sought to use crude chemical-weapons devices. Nor is it to deny that Erdoğan has single-mindedly sought to pursue a sectarian agenda inside Syria. But the international community seems to have conducted a great deal of forensic work about what happened in East Ghouta, and that evidence reportedly pointed overwhelmingly at the Assad regime. And if that information doesn’t coincide with whatever Hersh’s political agenda of the day is, tough.

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Is Turkey Next to Face Al-Qaeda Threat?

Over the last couple decades, a pattern has emerged: Governments tolerate if not encourage Islamist extremism, so long as the jihadists, takfiris, radicals, militants, or whatever the name of the day is understand the devil’s bargain: They can be as radical as they want, so long as their terrorism is for export only.

Hence, for decades, Saudi princes pumped money into the coffers of extremist groups and eventually al-Qaeda, immune to criticism from the outside world. Even after 9/11, the Saudi royal family was decidedly insincere in its approach toward terrorism. It was only after al-Qaeda turned its guns on Saudi Arabia itself that the king and his princes woke up to the danger that it posed.

Likewise, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while nurturing a reputation as a secularist, flirted with extremists. His father Hafez al-Assad may have crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 but, contrary to Tom Friedman’s caricature of Assad and his so-called “Hama Rules,” he was not simply a brute with zero tolerance toward Islamism. Rather, Hafez al-Assad was a brute who almost immediately after his massacre began trying to co-opt the survivors. He and, subsequently, his son Bashar quietly began to tolerate greater Islamic conservatism. Bashar went farther and actively supported jihadists so long as they kept their jihad external to Syria. Hence, Syria became the underground railroad for Islamist terrorists infiltrating into Iraq to rain chaos against not only American servicemen, but far more ordinary Iraqi citizens. That Islamists co-opted the uprising against Bashar al-Assad should not surprise: There is always blowback.

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Over the last couple decades, a pattern has emerged: Governments tolerate if not encourage Islamist extremism, so long as the jihadists, takfiris, radicals, militants, or whatever the name of the day is understand the devil’s bargain: They can be as radical as they want, so long as their terrorism is for export only.

Hence, for decades, Saudi princes pumped money into the coffers of extremist groups and eventually al-Qaeda, immune to criticism from the outside world. Even after 9/11, the Saudi royal family was decidedly insincere in its approach toward terrorism. It was only after al-Qaeda turned its guns on Saudi Arabia itself that the king and his princes woke up to the danger that it posed.

Likewise, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while nurturing a reputation as a secularist, flirted with extremists. His father Hafez al-Assad may have crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 but, contrary to Tom Friedman’s caricature of Assad and his so-called “Hama Rules,” he was not simply a brute with zero tolerance toward Islamism. Rather, Hafez al-Assad was a brute who almost immediately after his massacre began trying to co-opt the survivors. He and, subsequently, his son Bashar quietly began to tolerate greater Islamic conservatism. Bashar went farther and actively supported jihadists so long as they kept their jihad external to Syria. Hence, Syria became the underground railroad for Islamist terrorists infiltrating into Iraq to rain chaos against not only American servicemen, but far more ordinary Iraqi citizens. That Islamists co-opted the uprising against Bashar al-Assad should not surprise: There is always blowback.

Iraq experienced much the same phenomenon: Islamist extremism did not begin with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003; it predated it. That “Allahu Akhbar” appeared on Iraq’s flag in the wake of the 1991 uprising was no coincidence. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein established morality squads which, in order to appease Islamist feelings, conducted activities such as beheading women for alleged morality infractions. It was a short leap for some young radicals in al-Anbar in 2003 to start waging violence in the name of religion against Iraqi Shi’ites when, in the decade previous, Saddam Hussein encouraged them to do much the same thing.

So who is next? If I were a Turk living in Istanbul or Ankara, I would be very worried about al-Qaeda violence on my doorstep. Istanbul, of course, has already been subject to al-Qaeda attacks but nothing compared to what could be on the horizon. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has remained uncomfortably close to al-Qaeda financiers. Turkey has also been quite supportive of the Nusra Front and perhaps even the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), so long as they targeted Syria’s secular Kurds. Now, after months of denial, it now appears that a suicide bombing in Reyhanli, which the Turkish government blamed on the Syrian regime, was in fact conducted by Syria’s al-Qaeda-linked opposition.

The Turkish government may have thought—like the Saudis, Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, and others before them—that they could channel al-Qaeda or that group’s fellow-travelers against their strategic adversaries. They were wrong. When al-Qaeda comes to Turkey, whether this year, next, or in 2016, Turks should understand that the man who effectively invited them was none other than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

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