Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 8, 2014

Russia Oil Deal May Doom Iran Diplomacy

With Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace fiasco and Russia’s threats to Ukraine dominating foreign news, the administration’s quest to derail Iran’s nuclear-weapons program via diplomacy has been off the front pages lately. But with the next round of the P5+1 talks starting this week the gap between President Obama’s promises about halting the Iranian nuclear threat and the reality of a diplomatic stalemate ought to inspire more concern than it is currently getting. The chief complication for Obama and Kerry’s strategy of a multilateral talks and Western concessions on sanctions intended to beguile Tehran into abandoning its nuclear ambition is the fact that the administration’s policy is dependent on the one country that has the least interest in gratifying the president these days: Russia.

Vladimir Putin has always been the weak link in the Western attempt to bribe Iran to give up its nuclear program. It’s not just that Moscow’s extensive trade ties and potential weapons sales complicate the attempt by the administration to orchestrate Iran’s diplomatic and economic isolation. It’s that the core purposes of Russian foreign policy under Putin have been to reassemble the old Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East and to frustrate American policy goals every chance they get. Thus, when Reuters reported last week that Russia is planning on a massive oil-for-goods deal with Iran that would make a mockery of the “crippling” sanctions that the administration has said are sufficient to influence the Islamist regime, it was clear that the fallout from the conflict in Ukraine would undermine any hope that Putin would play along with the P5+1 game plan. But now, as Eli Lake reports in the Daily Beast, the possibility that Putin will use sales of S-300 missiles that could defend Iran’s nuclear sites may put an end to any chance that the West could stop Iran. It also shows that despite Obama and Kerry’s brave talk about pressuring Russia to leave Ukraine alone, it may be that Putin has more leverage on them than they do on him.

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With Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace fiasco and Russia’s threats to Ukraine dominating foreign news, the administration’s quest to derail Iran’s nuclear-weapons program via diplomacy has been off the front pages lately. But with the next round of the P5+1 talks starting this week the gap between President Obama’s promises about halting the Iranian nuclear threat and the reality of a diplomatic stalemate ought to inspire more concern than it is currently getting. The chief complication for Obama and Kerry’s strategy of a multilateral talks and Western concessions on sanctions intended to beguile Tehran into abandoning its nuclear ambition is the fact that the administration’s policy is dependent on the one country that has the least interest in gratifying the president these days: Russia.

Vladimir Putin has always been the weak link in the Western attempt to bribe Iran to give up its nuclear program. It’s not just that Moscow’s extensive trade ties and potential weapons sales complicate the attempt by the administration to orchestrate Iran’s diplomatic and economic isolation. It’s that the core purposes of Russian foreign policy under Putin have been to reassemble the old Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East and to frustrate American policy goals every chance they get. Thus, when Reuters reported last week that Russia is planning on a massive oil-for-goods deal with Iran that would make a mockery of the “crippling” sanctions that the administration has said are sufficient to influence the Islamist regime, it was clear that the fallout from the conflict in Ukraine would undermine any hope that Putin would play along with the P5+1 game plan. But now, as Eli Lake reports in the Daily Beast, the possibility that Putin will use sales of S-300 missiles that could defend Iran’s nuclear sites may put an end to any chance that the West could stop Iran. It also shows that despite Obama and Kerry’s brave talk about pressuring Russia to leave Ukraine alone, it may be that Putin has more leverage on them than they do on him.

The administration has been saying that the Russians have not tried to establish any linkage between their dispute over Ukraine and their role in the Iran negotiations. But Putin doesn’t have to draw any pictures or make any threats to make his position known. Though the Russians have their own reasons for worrying about a nuclear Iran, they have always been reluctant members of the P5+1 group and have been allowed by Obama’s “lead from behind” approach to act, along with China, as a brake on any international effort to isolate Iran.

Having already signed a weak interim deal that both granted tacit recognition of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and weakened sanctions, the U.S. has far less leverage over Tehran than it did only six months ago. And now, armed with the knowledge that Russia can squeeze the West and slow down diplomatic process even more from its already glacial pace, there is absolutely no reason for the Iranians not to keep stalling and prevaricating in the P5+1 talks. There was already very little hope that the talks would not drag on into the summer and fall and then into 2015. But if, as is likely, Russia inks the oil-for-goods deal by August, the already tottering sanctions process may begin to collapse. Though Obama has given himself credit for showing patience in his approach to Iran, that may now translate into a delay that will allow the Russians to sink his diplomatic strategy long before the Iranians felt the least pressure to give ground in the talks.

President Obama spent his first term attempting to “reset” relations with Russia in part to help ease the way for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat. But with the reset now shown to be a joke and little hope of either restraining Russia in Ukraine or in getting them to help on Iran, it appears that the “window of diplomacy” the administration has depended on may prove to be a disaster not only for the Middle East but also for the future of Europe.

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Daenerys Targarean, Neoconservative

In the wake of the debut this past weekend of the fourth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, some writers must be forgiven for jumping the proverbial shark while exploiting the cable network hit to make some odd policy points. The show, based on the novels of George R.R. Martin, is a fantasy set in a mythical world similar to our own Middle Ages but including dragons and zombies along with human characters. The novels are a great read and the show is riveting even though, predictably for HBO, it has a lot more sex than the books along with very graphic violence. Martin’s multi-layered plot revolves around a dynastic struggle that has been aptly compared to England’s War of the Roses, and if the author’s elegant and fully characterized prose is not quite the equal of Shakespeare’s account of that conflict in his history plays, it is still a marvelous confection. But it is also an irresistible target for pundits seeking a news hook for rehearsing old political grudges.

One such example comes from Ezra Klein’s new site Vox where Zach Beauchamp argues that one of the most beloved characters on Thrones is actually a stand-in for that liberal boogeyman George W. Bush. According to Beauchamp, Daenerys Targarean, the platinum blond bombshell that is the last remnant of a deposed dynasty as well as a magical figure known as the mother of dragons that she helped hatch in a fire that left her untouched, is a stand-in for the 43rd president. The princess isn’t just intent on regaining the throne her mad father lost. In her exile, she has taken up the anti-slavery cause and, aided by broadsword and spear wielding allies, has become the John Brown of the fantasy world. Thus, if you weren’t already won over by her hot looks and those dragons that dote on her, her anti-slavery credentials make her an unambiguous good guy in a story where even the greatest heroes and worst villains are (with perhaps only one exception) complex creations rather than cardboard cutouts.

But Beauchamp thinks there’s a hidden problem with Daenerys. In a piece that seems more serious than tongue in check, he builds a case that the princess’s foreign policy is “Bushian to a tee.” He points out that, like neoconservatives, the mother of dragons sees the world in black and white rather than in Obama-like grey terms. She tells the slave masters that they must either give up their evildoing or face the consequences and her “freedom agenda” is just like the rhetoric that got W into the business of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and trying to remake Afghanistan. But while such a mission is both complicated and more costly than a more self-interested quest for a throne, if we accept this premise, it’s worth asking whether Thrones is quite the commentary on the futility of war that its left-leaning author intended it to be.

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In the wake of the debut this past weekend of the fourth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, some writers must be forgiven for jumping the proverbial shark while exploiting the cable network hit to make some odd policy points. The show, based on the novels of George R.R. Martin, is a fantasy set in a mythical world similar to our own Middle Ages but including dragons and zombies along with human characters. The novels are a great read and the show is riveting even though, predictably for HBO, it has a lot more sex than the books along with very graphic violence. Martin’s multi-layered plot revolves around a dynastic struggle that has been aptly compared to England’s War of the Roses, and if the author’s elegant and fully characterized prose is not quite the equal of Shakespeare’s account of that conflict in his history plays, it is still a marvelous confection. But it is also an irresistible target for pundits seeking a news hook for rehearsing old political grudges.

One such example comes from Ezra Klein’s new site Vox where Zach Beauchamp argues that one of the most beloved characters on Thrones is actually a stand-in for that liberal boogeyman George W. Bush. According to Beauchamp, Daenerys Targarean, the platinum blond bombshell that is the last remnant of a deposed dynasty as well as a magical figure known as the mother of dragons that she helped hatch in a fire that left her untouched, is a stand-in for the 43rd president. The princess isn’t just intent on regaining the throne her mad father lost. In her exile, she has taken up the anti-slavery cause and, aided by broadsword and spear wielding allies, has become the John Brown of the fantasy world. Thus, if you weren’t already won over by her hot looks and those dragons that dote on her, her anti-slavery credentials make her an unambiguous good guy in a story where even the greatest heroes and worst villains are (with perhaps only one exception) complex creations rather than cardboard cutouts.

But Beauchamp thinks there’s a hidden problem with Daenerys. In a piece that seems more serious than tongue in check, he builds a case that the princess’s foreign policy is “Bushian to a tee.” He points out that, like neoconservatives, the mother of dragons sees the world in black and white rather than in Obama-like grey terms. She tells the slave masters that they must either give up their evildoing or face the consequences and her “freedom agenda” is just like the rhetoric that got W into the business of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and trying to remake Afghanistan. But while such a mission is both complicated and more costly than a more self-interested quest for a throne, if we accept this premise, it’s worth asking whether Thrones is quite the commentary on the futility of war that its left-leaning author intended it to be.

Martin was actually a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and a stern critic of Bush who, as Beauchamp notes, saw his literary saga as an attempt to debunk the notion of military glory. In Thrones, really bad things happen to good people all the time and even a war launched for supposedly noble purposes leads to widespread suffering and chaos that mocks the goals of those that started the violence. Indeed, as anyone who has read all five of the books (with more promised by the writer as well as at least two more seasons after this one from HBO) knows, Daenerys’s war of slave liberation leads to conflicts that are as difficult to resolve as the more cynical fighting that goes on for less principled reasons in this fantasy world.

That means, as Beauchamp writes, by the end of the story, if indeed Martin ever comes up with one, the conclusion may leave the princess feeling a bit like Bush 43 at the end of his second term.

But if that’s the worst thing you can say about the character then perhaps Bush’s rehabilitation has migrated from the realm of conservative punditry and started to infiltrate the world of popular culture. Whatever happened in Iraq or Afghanistan, President Bush and those who helped craft that “freedom agenda” that is so despised by his immediate successor stood up for the highest values of Western civilization. In seeking to draw a bright line between the forces of tyranny and terror and those of democracy, Bush held out hope for captive peoples. By casting his policy in moral terms in which the notion of freedom wasn’t limited to Anglophone democracies but to the entire planet, he articulated a vision that may well stand up better than the “lead from behind” incompetence of his successor. Perhaps history will ultimately decide that such idealism did more good than the harm that “freedom agenda” wars unleashed in both the real world and the fantasy kingdoms of Martin’s Westeros.

Much as Martin may not have intended it, Beauchamp may be right that Daenerys is something of a neoconservative. If so, her popularity may indicate that in the eyes of pop culture, George W. Bush wasn’t such a bad guy after all.

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White House Debunks Gender Pay Gap

The White House celebrated “Equal Pay Day” today with a dog and pony show that featured President Obama signing executive orders mandating that women be compensated as much as men while scolding congressional Republicans for blocking passage of legislation that would further the same goal. This was all intended to highlight the Democratic Party’s “war on women” theme that helped reelect the president in 2012 and might mitigate their losses in this year’s midterm elections.

But there was no mention at today’s festivities of the embarrassing exchange yesterday in which White House spokesman Jay Carney was forced to explain why women who worked in the executive mansion were also getting paid less, on average, than their male counterparts. Carney’s explanation was that those who cited the statistic that said Obama’s female staffers were paid 88 cents for every dollar doled out to men were comparing apples to oranges and that those who did the same work got the same pay. He’s right, but the same can be said of the bogus statistic Obama spouted this morning when posing as the defender of women against the male chauvinist pigs of the GOP.

The mainstream media has largely bought into the figure of 77 percent those seeking to portray women as the victims of gender discrimination in the workplace have sold the public. According to those numbers, April 8 is the day that women would have to work until before they start earning as much as men. But, as Carney observed when trying to prevent the Obama White House from being hoisted on its own feminist petard, in order to believe such statistics you must ignore the truth about the different sorts of jobs and work schedules men and women have. As Mark J. Perry and Andrew G. Biggs pointed out in a definitive debunking of this myth in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, once you start breaking down the numbers, this supposedly definitive evidence of bias melts away just like a Jay Carney rationalization. But while liberals who never let facts get in their way when they have a good grievance to pursue against business or the Republicans, Carney should have blushed with shame at the way his boss leveled accusations that could just as easily been leveled at his own staff.

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The White House celebrated “Equal Pay Day” today with a dog and pony show that featured President Obama signing executive orders mandating that women be compensated as much as men while scolding congressional Republicans for blocking passage of legislation that would further the same goal. This was all intended to highlight the Democratic Party’s “war on women” theme that helped reelect the president in 2012 and might mitigate their losses in this year’s midterm elections.

But there was no mention at today’s festivities of the embarrassing exchange yesterday in which White House spokesman Jay Carney was forced to explain why women who worked in the executive mansion were also getting paid less, on average, than their male counterparts. Carney’s explanation was that those who cited the statistic that said Obama’s female staffers were paid 88 cents for every dollar doled out to men were comparing apples to oranges and that those who did the same work got the same pay. He’s right, but the same can be said of the bogus statistic Obama spouted this morning when posing as the defender of women against the male chauvinist pigs of the GOP.

The mainstream media has largely bought into the figure of 77 percent those seeking to portray women as the victims of gender discrimination in the workplace have sold the public. According to those numbers, April 8 is the day that women would have to work until before they start earning as much as men. But, as Carney observed when trying to prevent the Obama White House from being hoisted on its own feminist petard, in order to believe such statistics you must ignore the truth about the different sorts of jobs and work schedules men and women have. As Mark J. Perry and Andrew G. Biggs pointed out in a definitive debunking of this myth in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, once you start breaking down the numbers, this supposedly definitive evidence of bias melts away just like a Jay Carney rationalization. But while liberals who never let facts get in their way when they have a good grievance to pursue against business or the Republicans, Carney should have blushed with shame at the way his boss leveled accusations that could just as easily been leveled at his own staff.

As Perry and Biggs point out, both the 77 and 88 percent figures are utterly useless. Once you dig deeper into the Bureau of Labor Statistics data it becomes quickly apparent that the differences between male and female pay are the function of differing circumstances, not traditional prejudices. Women are more likely to work fewer hours than men, choose professions that are compensated more poorly, take less dangerous work and, most importantly, seek more flexibility in hours in order to take care of their children, or interrupt their careers for periods at home to raise their families, a trend that a new Pew survey shows is growing. Unmarried women without children make almost exactly the same, on average, as men. That means all or nearly the entire 23 percent gap between male and female pay is accounted for by factors that have nothing to do with gender discrimination. Indeed, it is, as they point out, entirely possible that once you have accounted for these varying situations that such discrimination disappears.

As Perry and Biggs also write:

These gender-disparity claims are also economically illogical. If women were paid 77 cents on the dollar, a profit-oriented firm could dramatically cut labor costs by replacing male employees with females. Progressives assume that businesses nickel-and-dime suppliers, customers, consultants, anyone with whom they come into contact—yet ignore a great opportunity to reduce wages costs by 23%. They don’t ignore the opportunity because it doesn’t exist. Women are not in fact paid 77 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men.

Of course, you don’t have to believe the Journal or the American Enterprise Institute with which both of these scholars are associated. You can just listen to Carney’s explanations of the White House pay disparity to understand that that statistics about that workplace, like every other one in the country, can paint a misleading picture if taken out of context.

But these truths and Carney’s own alibis were not allowed to spoil the “Equal Pay Day” fun at the White House today. Obama has built his presidency on the notion that a flawed America that is sunk in bias can only be redeemed by a bigger government run by a messiah of hope and change. But like the case for ObamaCare or an increased minimum wage, arguments for measures to address a mythical gender pay inequality gap are built on a flimsy foundation of out-of-context statistics and outright lies. The genius of this administration is not so much its ability to weave tales of outrage out of whole cloth but, as these last two days have proved again, in the ability to do so without shame. 

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Demonizing SCOTUS: The OCare Precedent

When Chief Justice John Roberts rewrote ObamaCare from the bench in order to save it, most of the ramifications were immediately apparent. But there was one aspect of the stunt that as a member of the Supreme Court Roberts should have been sensitive to: precedent. Having caved to a public intimidation campaign from the president and his congressional allies (as well as the media) Roberts signaled that the way to get a conservative justice to discard his better judgment and rule against constitutional law was to impugn the court’s reputation in the public square.

Be mean to John Roberts and his friends, in other words, and you can have your welfare state for all he cares. This was among the most damaging effects of Roberts’s call back in 2012. And unsurprisingly, Democrats have learned their lesson. I wrote at the time that within days of the decision the media had gone back to bashing Roberts and the high court’s poll numbers had dropped. But Democrats had a found a well they were certain to return to in times of desperation. And as the Hill reports today, that time has come:

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When Chief Justice John Roberts rewrote ObamaCare from the bench in order to save it, most of the ramifications were immediately apparent. But there was one aspect of the stunt that as a member of the Supreme Court Roberts should have been sensitive to: precedent. Having caved to a public intimidation campaign from the president and his congressional allies (as well as the media) Roberts signaled that the way to get a conservative justice to discard his better judgment and rule against constitutional law was to impugn the court’s reputation in the public square.

Be mean to John Roberts and his friends, in other words, and you can have your welfare state for all he cares. This was among the most damaging effects of Roberts’s call back in 2012. And unsurprisingly, Democrats have learned their lesson. I wrote at the time that within days of the decision the media had gone back to bashing Roberts and the high court’s poll numbers had dropped. But Democrats had a found a well they were certain to return to in times of desperation. And as the Hill reports today, that time has come:

Senate Democrats and liberal groups are mounting a pressure campaign against the Supreme Court, hoping to influence future decisions by blasting conservative justices for alleged political bias.

The effort from the left also portrays the high court as an instrument rigged to help the wealthy, and is intended to energize Democratic voters and increase turnout in the midterm elections.

Some legal experts see the effort as akin to basketball or soccer players “working the ref” in a high-stakes game.

Critics say Democratic leaders used a similar strategy in 2010, when they piled on the court for striking down the ban on political spending by corporations in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Some court watchers speculated that Chief Justice John Roberts felt chastened by the angry reaction and sought to avoid another uproar, when he crafted the majority decision in 2012 that largely upheld ObamaCare.

“The left clearly tried to work the refs on the Affordable Care Act,” said Randy Barnett, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. “They worked the refs after Citizens United, which helped set things up for the Affordable Care Act challenge. If it seems to work, why not continue? It’s unfortunate, I think, that they’ve been encouraged in this behavior by its apparent success.”

And it’s not just a public disinformation campaign:

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) plan to hold hearings on the court’s ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission striking down aggregate limits on campaign donations. …

Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev.) panned it for granting greater influence to wealthy donors, such as Charles and David Koch, the wealthy conservative donors, whom he again slammed on the Senate floor Monday.

Of course Reid would find a way to turn a complaint about the court into another tool in his quest to turn libertarian activists into former people. In one sense, this is irrational, because it has no intellectual merit and should be beneath the leaders of the world’s greatest deliberative body. But in another sense, it’s completely rational: people respond to incentives, and in his ObamaCare ruling Roberts incentivized demonizing–that’s the Hill’s word–the Supreme Court.

The story notes that chief among the left’s worries is the upcoming ruling on the ObamaCare contraception mandate. And on that note, the best line in the story has to be this: “Democrats say the present-day court lacks the experience to understand the corrupting influence of money in politics, because none of its members have held publicly elected office.” Democrats just don’t believe that law abiding, upstanding men and women who have never been offered a bribe could ever really understand ObamaCare. And you’ve got to admit, they have a point, don’t they?

We may or may not find out if the pressure campaign works. After all, a decision on the case may not be a result of the intimidation tactics, either as a concession to them or as an act of defiance against them. It may be just another ruling on the merits of the case. But that’s one of the consequences of the Democrats’ shenanigans: the idea that the court will rule on the merits of the case becomes only one of several possibilities. Roberts thought he was protecting the legitimacy of the court in his 2012 decision. It’s quite clear now that he has done precisely the opposite.

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Why Did Kerry Lie About Israeli Blame?

Today in testimony before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry performed a post-mortem on the recent collapse of the Middle East peace talks. According to Kerry, the Palestinian refusal to keep negotiating past April and their decision to flout their treaty commitments by returning to efforts to gain recognition for their non-existent state from the United Nations was all the fault of one decision made by Israel. As the New York Times reports:

Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that Israel’s announcement of 700 new apartments for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem precipitated the bitter impasse in peace negotiations last week between Israel and the Palestinians.

While Mr. Kerry said both sides bore responsibility for “unhelpful” actions, he noted that the publication of tenders for housing units came four days after a deadline passed for Israel to release Palestinian prisoners and complicated Israel’s own deliberations over whether to extend the talks.

“Poof, that was the moment,” Mr. Kerry said in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Poof? To say that this evaluation of the situation is disingenuous would be the understatement of the century. Kerry knows very well that the negotiations were doomed once the Palestinians refused to sign on to the framework for future talks he suggested even though it centered them on the 1967 lines that they demand as the basis for borders. Why? Because Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas wouldn’t say the two little words —“Jewish state”—that would make it clear he intended to end the conflict. Since the talks began last year after Abbas insisted on the release of terrorist murderers in order to get them back to the table, the Palestinians haven’t budged an inch on a single issue.

Thus, to blame the collapse on the decision to build apartments in Gilo—a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem that would not change hands even in the event a peace treaty were ever signed and where Israel has never promised to stop building—is, to put it mildly, a mendacious effort to shift blame away from the side that seized the first pretext to flee talks onto the one that has made concessions in order to get the Palestinians to sit at the table. But why would Kerry utter such a blatant falsehood about the process he has championed?

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Today in testimony before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry performed a post-mortem on the recent collapse of the Middle East peace talks. According to Kerry, the Palestinian refusal to keep negotiating past April and their decision to flout their treaty commitments by returning to efforts to gain recognition for their non-existent state from the United Nations was all the fault of one decision made by Israel. As the New York Times reports:

Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that Israel’s announcement of 700 new apartments for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem precipitated the bitter impasse in peace negotiations last week between Israel and the Palestinians.

While Mr. Kerry said both sides bore responsibility for “unhelpful” actions, he noted that the publication of tenders for housing units came four days after a deadline passed for Israel to release Palestinian prisoners and complicated Israel’s own deliberations over whether to extend the talks.

“Poof, that was the moment,” Mr. Kerry said in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Poof? To say that this evaluation of the situation is disingenuous would be the understatement of the century. Kerry knows very well that the negotiations were doomed once the Palestinians refused to sign on to the framework for future talks he suggested even though it centered them on the 1967 lines that they demand as the basis for borders. Why? Because Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas wouldn’t say the two little words —“Jewish state”—that would make it clear he intended to end the conflict. Since the talks began last year after Abbas insisted on the release of terrorist murderers in order to get them back to the table, the Palestinians haven’t budged an inch on a single issue.

Thus, to blame the collapse on the decision to build apartments in Gilo—a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem that would not change hands even in the event a peace treaty were ever signed and where Israel has never promised to stop building—is, to put it mildly, a mendacious effort to shift blame away from the side that seized the first pretext to flee talks onto the one that has made concessions in order to get the Palestinians to sit at the table. But why would Kerry utter such a blatant falsehood about the process he has championed?

The answer is simple. Kerry doesn’t want to blame the Palestinians for walking out because to do so would be a tacit admission that his critics were right when they suggested last year that he was embarking on a fool’s errand. The division between the Fatah-run West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza has created a dynamic which makes it almost impossible for Abbas to negotiate a deal that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn even if he wanted to.

Since Kerry hopes to entice the Palestinians back to the talks at some point, blaming Israel also gives him leverage to demand more concessions from the Jewish state to bribe Abbas to negotiate. Being honest about the Palestinian stance would not only undermine the basis for the talks but also make it harder to justify the administration’s continued insistence on pressuring the Israelis rather than seek to force Abbas to alter his intransigent positions.

Seen in that light, Kerry probably thinks no harm can come from blaming the Israelis who have always been the convenient whipping boys of the peace process no matter what the circumstances. But he’s wrong about that too. Just as the Clinton administration did inestimable damage to the credibility of the peace process and set the stage for another round of violence by whitewashing Yasir Arafat’s support for terrorism and incitement to hatred in the 1990s, so, too, do Kerry’s efforts to portray Abbas as the victim rather than the author of this fiasco undermine his efforts for peace.

So long as the Palestinians pay no price for their refusal to give up unrealistic demands for a Jewish retreat from Jerusalem as well as the “right of return” for the 1948 refugees and their descendants and a refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and end the conflict, peace is impossible no matter what the Netanyahu government does. Appeasing them with lies about Israel, like the efforts of some to absolve Arafat and Abbas for saying no to peace in 2000, 2001, and 2008, only makes it easier for the PA to go on saying no. Whether they are doing so in the hope of extorting more concessions from Israel or because, as is more likely, they have no intention of making peace on any terms, the result is the same.

Telling the truth about the Palestinians might make Kerry look foolish for devoting so much time and effort to a process that never had a chance. But it might lay the groundwork for future success in the event that the sea change in Palestinian opinion that might make peace possible were to occur. Falsely blaming Israel won’t bring that moment any closer. 

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Conservative Vulgarity Isn’t Cool

Conservatives have had good reason to cry foul in recent years about the way liberals and Democrats have treated them. Though liberals still speak as if incivility in politics is a Republican invention as well as something they have a monopoly on, the instances of Democratic demonization of their opponents are numerous. Liberals such as Democratic National Committee chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz blamed conservatives for the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords by an apolitical lunatic on a climate of right-wing intolerance. Liberals have likened the Tea Party to Hezbollah, opponents of new gun-control measures to murderers, and reform-minded governors like Scott Walker to Hitler. They also demeaned 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in a sexist manner that would have been considered a hate crime had it been done to a Democrat.

So when Democrats cry foul over attacks on their leaders, most conservatives are inclined to ignore it or to merely say something about hypocrisy and payback. That’s a mistake. Call me old school if you like but I’ve always felt that part of being a conservative was an expectation that those who take part in public life should behave like ladies and gentlemen. So don’t count me among those who are snickering at the outrage being expressed by some liberals about a Breitbart ad campaign that superimposes the face of Nancy Pelosi on a photo of Miley Cyrus in a bikini doing her twerk thing. I think Pelosi represents just about everything that is wrong about the contemporary Democratic Party and its congressional leadership, but the picture is vulgar and crosses a line that serious people shouldn’t approach let alone leap over.

Though this hardly rises to the level of a national crisis, I’m always troubled when conservatives succumb to the temptation of sinking to the level of their opponents because of the way it lowers the tone of our already vulgarized popular culture. But it is also a mistake for anybody on the right to feed into the Democratic playbook about sexism and the faux “war on women” they have used successfully to scare female voters into opposing the GOP.

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Conservatives have had good reason to cry foul in recent years about the way liberals and Democrats have treated them. Though liberals still speak as if incivility in politics is a Republican invention as well as something they have a monopoly on, the instances of Democratic demonization of their opponents are numerous. Liberals such as Democratic National Committee chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz blamed conservatives for the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords by an apolitical lunatic on a climate of right-wing intolerance. Liberals have likened the Tea Party to Hezbollah, opponents of new gun-control measures to murderers, and reform-minded governors like Scott Walker to Hitler. They also demeaned 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in a sexist manner that would have been considered a hate crime had it been done to a Democrat.

So when Democrats cry foul over attacks on their leaders, most conservatives are inclined to ignore it or to merely say something about hypocrisy and payback. That’s a mistake. Call me old school if you like but I’ve always felt that part of being a conservative was an expectation that those who take part in public life should behave like ladies and gentlemen. So don’t count me among those who are snickering at the outrage being expressed by some liberals about a Breitbart ad campaign that superimposes the face of Nancy Pelosi on a photo of Miley Cyrus in a bikini doing her twerk thing. I think Pelosi represents just about everything that is wrong about the contemporary Democratic Party and its congressional leadership, but the picture is vulgar and crosses a line that serious people shouldn’t approach let alone leap over.

Though this hardly rises to the level of a national crisis, I’m always troubled when conservatives succumb to the temptation of sinking to the level of their opponents because of the way it lowers the tone of our already vulgarized popular culture. But it is also a mistake for anybody on the right to feed into the Democratic playbook about sexism and the faux “war on women” they have used successfully to scare female voters into opposing the GOP.

One can defend the Breitbart ads, which also spoof Jerry Brown and Mark Zuckerberg with similarly foolish photoshopped images and are intended to promote their new West Coast politics site, as being all in good fun. The site’s founder, the sorely missed Andrew Breitbart, sought to boldly challenge the left on its own cultural turf with envelope-pushing work that sometimes raised eyebrows but always had a strong political point. Moreover, as many on the right have pointed out, a similar and perhaps even more vulgar depiction of House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Michele Bachmann was used in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch last year lampooning the government shutdown starring none other than the same Miley Cyrus. The silence from the left about that travesty was deafening.

The impulse to fight fire with fire with such things is understandable, but if conservatives wish to preserve what is good about our society and to turn back the efforts of the left to further degrade our culture and civilization, it’s hard to see how putting Pelosi’s face on Cyrus’s body advances that goal.

As for the political impact of any efforts by conservatives that feed into the false narrative of a Republican war on women, there’s no doubt that a double standard is at play here. The same people who think nothing of degrading Palin or Bachmann immediately shift into full outrage mode when someone does the same to Pelosi. But that doesn’t give anyone on the right license to behave in a similar fashion. Respect for women and disgust at attempts to demean them with highly sexualized images should be integral to the conservative worldview.

Efforts by conservatives to compete with the left for the hipster vote are bound to fail. Even worse, they feed the same cultural trends that conservatives should be resisting rather than mimicking. As Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld points out in his new polemic Not Cool: The Hipster Elite and Their War on You, the impetus to be “cool” undermines the conservative values that are the foundation of American greatness. He’s right about that. Call me square if you like, but I think conservatives should be equally appalled about trashing Pelosi in this manner as they were about the liberal assault on Palin.

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Immigration Debate Is Just Getting Started

Nearly every question of how a Republican politician’s stand will affect the 2016 presidential primaries must be qualified with “it depends who else runs.” And so it is with Jeb Bush’s comments on immigration. Although conservatives have more objections to Bush than on immigration, other issues–such as the Common Core, for example–just don’t have the visibility the immigration issue does. Nor do those other issues have the legislative and policy relevance of immigration: the Senate, after all, did pass an immigration reform bill.

Additionally, immigration arguably played a greater role than any other specific issue in sifting wheat from chaff in the 2012 Republican primaries. There were other factors, but it seems clear that Rick Perry was at least damaged by his comments on immigration–that if you don’t support in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrations “I don’t think you have a heart.” Bush’s comment–that such migration is “an act of love”–has been compared to Perry’s, and it’s also similar to a far better phrased version of the argument put forth by Newt Gingrich, who put it in terms of separating families. And we got a preview of how Bush’s comments might be countered in a 2016 version of those debates from Ted Cruz, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper:

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Nearly every question of how a Republican politician’s stand will affect the 2016 presidential primaries must be qualified with “it depends who else runs.” And so it is with Jeb Bush’s comments on immigration. Although conservatives have more objections to Bush than on immigration, other issues–such as the Common Core, for example–just don’t have the visibility the immigration issue does. Nor do those other issues have the legislative and policy relevance of immigration: the Senate, after all, did pass an immigration reform bill.

Additionally, immigration arguably played a greater role than any other specific issue in sifting wheat from chaff in the 2012 Republican primaries. There were other factors, but it seems clear that Rick Perry was at least damaged by his comments on immigration–that if you don’t support in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrations “I don’t think you have a heart.” Bush’s comment–that such migration is “an act of love”–has been compared to Perry’s, and it’s also similar to a far better phrased version of the argument put forth by Newt Gingrich, who put it in terms of separating families. And we got a preview of how Bush’s comments might be countered in a 2016 version of those debates from Ted Cruz, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper:

“We need to be a nation that welcomes and celebrates legal immigrants, people who follow the rules, and come here according to the law,” said Cruz in response.

“Rule of law matters. And if you look at any sovereign nation, securing your border is critically important,” said the freshman lawmaker.

“We need to solve the problem to secure the borders and then improve and streamline legal immigration so people can come to America consistent with the rule of law,” said Cruz.

Cruz’s response is not particularly controversial, though it’s clear he’s less concerned about fixing America’s legal immigration system–which is an unholy mess–than about securing the border. Both are important: in the age of asymmetric warfare, it makes no sense to have an unsecured border; and the current restrictions and layers of red tape on immigration are artificially distorting the market for labor and creating a black market–as overregulation almost always does–to fill the demand.

More relevant to 2016 than this argument–which goes round and round, and round again–is what it indicates about the various actors involved. And it confirms the pattern we’ve seen from Ted Cruz on his strategy for the primary contest. Cruz has not taken to promoting major reform legislation or “owning” an issue such as it is. Instead, he moves with alacrity to position himself slightly closer to the party’s grassroots when such reform is proposed.

There’s nothing objectionable about the strategy. Cruz is not required to churn out white papers or author major reform legislation, and if he does run for president he’ll do so anyway. It might not be on immigration, but in all likelihood a Cruz candidacy would include a tax plan at the very least. What the strategy is allowing Cruz to do is take the temperature of the party’s grassroots as the 2016 picture fills out.

Cruz has deployed the strategy against the candidate who would probably be his closest rival for grassroots voters, Rand Paul. When the Kentucky senator staged his famous filibuster over drones to the applause of conservatives (and a few non-conservatives as well), Cruz joined him on the chamber floor for the assist. But Paul’s response to the crisis in Ukraine was too tepid for Cruz, who staked out vague but more interventionist ground:

“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul. He and I are good friends. But I don’t agree with him on foreign policy,” Cruz said. “I think U.S. leadership is critical in the world. And I agree with him that we should be very reluctant to deploy military force abroad. But I think there is a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did… The United States has a responsibility to defend our values.”

Cruz portrays the difference between him and Paul as a philosophical one, which is why, as I’ve argued in the past, foreign policy is likely to be a more prominent point of contention in the 2016 GOP primary season than it was in 2012. As Jeb Bush’s comments showed, the contentious domestic issue is likely to be immigration, which is why, no matter how stalled in the House immigration legislation remains, it’s an argument that will only get louder between now and 2016.

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“Solving” Israel to Solve the Conflict

With the Israeli-Palestinian talks at an impasse, now would be the time for some fresh thinking on how to move forward. Two pieces have appeared in recent days offering advice on what could be done to make progress. Both are written in a highly skeptical tone about the probability of success, yet both essentially offer the same suggested remedy. Although they come at it from slightly different angles, when it comes down to it what they both propose is a pretty simple formula: more pressure on Israel. And while these writers may temper their arguments with a certain pessimism toward the process, they still tap into a more commonly held notion about Israeli concessions being the gateway to harmony in the region.

Writing for the Nation, Bob Dreyfuss argues that the United States must first posit its own detailed outline of what a final agreement should look like. Then what will be needed is an almighty amount of pressure to be brought against rejectionist Israel and, in all probability, the bringing down of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “ultra-right” coalition. The other piece that comes to mind here is one by Aaron David Miller that appeared in the New Republic under the title Five Lessons That Could Save John Kerry’s Peace-Process Efforts. Miller served as an advisor to Secretary of State James Baker, and so perhaps unsurprisingly Miller recommends applying Baker’s approach. If it were possible to summarize the Baker doctrine on peace in the Middle East, it might be: the application of unrelenting and non-negotiable pressure on Israel. Miller paints this strategy as having been some unprecedented example of how to operate with success. While U.S.-Israel relations became more strained during that period than they have ever been under Obama, it is not clear what Baker and Miller actually achieved for all their trouble.

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With the Israeli-Palestinian talks at an impasse, now would be the time for some fresh thinking on how to move forward. Two pieces have appeared in recent days offering advice on what could be done to make progress. Both are written in a highly skeptical tone about the probability of success, yet both essentially offer the same suggested remedy. Although they come at it from slightly different angles, when it comes down to it what they both propose is a pretty simple formula: more pressure on Israel. And while these writers may temper their arguments with a certain pessimism toward the process, they still tap into a more commonly held notion about Israeli concessions being the gateway to harmony in the region.

Writing for the Nation, Bob Dreyfuss argues that the United States must first posit its own detailed outline of what a final agreement should look like. Then what will be needed is an almighty amount of pressure to be brought against rejectionist Israel and, in all probability, the bringing down of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “ultra-right” coalition. The other piece that comes to mind here is one by Aaron David Miller that appeared in the New Republic under the title Five Lessons That Could Save John Kerry’s Peace-Process Efforts. Miller served as an advisor to Secretary of State James Baker, and so perhaps unsurprisingly Miller recommends applying Baker’s approach. If it were possible to summarize the Baker doctrine on peace in the Middle East, it might be: the application of unrelenting and non-negotiable pressure on Israel. Miller paints this strategy as having been some unprecedented example of how to operate with success. While U.S.-Israel relations became more strained during that period than they have ever been under Obama, it is not clear what Baker and Miller actually achieved for all their trouble.

Both of these pieces are only able to pursue their line of argument by refusing to acknowledge the full reality of recent events. The line that Israel is impossibly intransigent has simply become enshrined as a doctrine unalterable by real events. Dreyfuss’s recounting of the collapse of the latest talks is an all but unrecognizable version of reality. He protests that Netanyahu breached his commitments by expanding settlements and refused to release the last group of prisoners. But settlements were never subject to the concessions the Palestinians were bribed with before they would consent to their participation in talks. In any case, the last round of prisoners would have been released like all the others had the Palestinians not announced that they were about to leave talks regardless of how many additional terrorists Israel offered to let lose.  

In Dreufuss’s view pressure on the Israeli side is warranted because Palestinian leader Abbas is essentially powerless. Yet if that’s true then it might legitimately be asked whether Abbas really has the ability to give Israelis any reliable assurances of peace in return for concessions that greatly weaken Israel’s security if those assurances aren’t guaranteed. Indeed, in both the case of Miller and Dreyfuss’s article, one wonders why, if the deal on offer is really evenhanded and promises an end to the conflict, would the Israelis need so much pressuring?

Miller’s piece acknowledges that under present circumstances there is little to be gained from pressuring either side. Yet Miller seems convinced that in the event that there was an opening for peace, it would be the Israelis that would need to be forced into it and he expresses his concern that this administration hasn’t got what it takes to get tough with Israel. Not like in the good old days of Baker when the U.S. would withhold loan guarantees needed to help absorb Jews from the former Soviet Union as punishment for Prime Minister Shamir not agreeing to the additional demand of freezing construction in Jerusalem as well as the West Bank. All that any of this achieved was the spectacle of the Madrid conference, which pandered to Arab demands for an international conference from which to condemn Zionism.

Perhaps it would be claimed that Madrid somehow opened the way toward the Oslo accords, but since neither side considers that to have been an overwhelming success, it’s not clear why we should celebrate Baker’s conference. Indeed, a more concrete result of the Baker diplomacy was the move to frame Israel as the problem and thus assault its underlying legitimacy. This is the assumption that both of these pieces rest on; that to solve the conflict you must first solve Israel.

Dreyfuss has a couple of telling things to say about such a solution. As well as claiming that everyone knows what that solution will look like he also claims that “Israel holds all the high cards.” The arguments put forward by Dreyfuss and Miller are really the logical conclusion of believing that this is a territorial conflict, in which case by holding the territory Israel does hold all the high cards, and so, Israel is the problem for blocking peace by retaining territory. As such, Israel will remain vilified until it can make the case that this conflict has never been about two states, but rather the destruction of one state: the Jewish state.  

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Hagel and Dempsey vs. the Straw Men

The Wall Street Journal has a story today on the division in the administration over greater intervention in Syria. The internal divide, we are told, pits Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power, who want to do more to train and arm the Syrian opposition and possibly support them with air strikes, against Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argue, in essence, for inaction.

The most significant sentence in the article? “It isn’t clear where Mr. Obama stands.” That, in fact, is the nub of the problem. The fact that the Pentagon is opposed to intervention isn’t terribly surprising–the Pentagon has either been opposed to, or skeptical of, just about every foreign military intervention since Vietnam with the exception of Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11. And sometimes more caution has been warranted–something, alas, that Pentagon leaders, both civilian and military, lost sight of during the planning for the Iraq invasion. But at other times–e.g., the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s–the Pentagon has been overly cautious and civilian leaders were right to override military objections.

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The Wall Street Journal has a story today on the division in the administration over greater intervention in Syria. The internal divide, we are told, pits Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power, who want to do more to train and arm the Syrian opposition and possibly support them with air strikes, against Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argue, in essence, for inaction.

The most significant sentence in the article? “It isn’t clear where Mr. Obama stands.” That, in fact, is the nub of the problem. The fact that the Pentagon is opposed to intervention isn’t terribly surprising–the Pentagon has either been opposed to, or skeptical of, just about every foreign military intervention since Vietnam with the exception of Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11. And sometimes more caution has been warranted–something, alas, that Pentagon leaders, both civilian and military, lost sight of during the planning for the Iraq invasion. But at other times–e.g., the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s–the Pentagon has been overly cautious and civilian leaders were right to override military objections.

But that’s only possible when you have leadership from the president. In this case you don’t. Which is why the Defense Department has been able to get away with shoddy arguments such as this one: “If it weren’t for the chairman, you would be right back in Iraq or Afghanistan,” a senior defense official told the Journal. Huh? Is anyone–anyone–proposing sending 100,000-plus ground troops to Syria? Or any ground troops at all? Not that I’ve heard. This is a totally bogus argument but one that no doubt resonates with a president who won office in no small part on the strength of his opposition to the conflict in Iraq.

What the cautious leadership of the Pentagon is losing sight of is a point that has been made to me by a number of active-duty military officers: namely, that there is not only danger but a great opportunity in Syria. We have the potential to do great damage Hezbollah, the Quds Force, and al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, three of the most potent anti-American terrorist organizations in the world. The Free Syrian Army is eager to fight all three groups if we would only provide them the arms and training to do so. If the U.S. were to use its airpower, that would truly provide an opportunity to wreak havoc among our enemies while running scant risks ourselves: Syrian air defense could be quickly disabled and as long as we don’t put troops on the ground (aside from a few Special Operators and intelligence operatives) we would be unlikely to suffer any casualties.

But that is a course of action that would require more boldness and decisiveness than we have seen from the Oval Office at any time since the Osama bin Laden raid nearly three years ago.

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When Does a Once Widely Held Opinion on a Public Issue Become Unacceptable?

The uproar over the forced resignation of Brendan Eich at Mozilla last week (see Jonathan’s excellent post from yesterday) is certainly called for. After all, Eich’s transgression was to make a donation in support of a state constitutional proposition that ended up passing with 53 percent of the vote. In other words, he agreed with the majority of California voters and donated a modest sum to the cause. But a mere six years later, he has been pronounced a moral leper for having held such an outrageous and unacceptable view. It’s no more than the same view that was held by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008.

I can think of no other major change in American society that has moved as swiftly as gay marriage. In 1960 it was, almost literally, unthinkable. The Stonewall Inn riot in New York in 1969 put gay rights on the political map, but gay marriage was not among the rights being demanded. By 1990 gay marriage was thinkable, but nowhere legal. Then in 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalized gay marriage in that state. In 2007, the Stonewall Inn was designated a National Historic Landmark. Today, gay marriage is legal in sixteen states and spreading rapidly to others. Because approval of gay marriage is strongly inversely correlated with age, it is as clear as anything in the future can be that gay marriage will be countrywide in the not distant future.

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The uproar over the forced resignation of Brendan Eich at Mozilla last week (see Jonathan’s excellent post from yesterday) is certainly called for. After all, Eich’s transgression was to make a donation in support of a state constitutional proposition that ended up passing with 53 percent of the vote. In other words, he agreed with the majority of California voters and donated a modest sum to the cause. But a mere six years later, he has been pronounced a moral leper for having held such an outrageous and unacceptable view. It’s no more than the same view that was held by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008.

I can think of no other major change in American society that has moved as swiftly as gay marriage. In 1960 it was, almost literally, unthinkable. The Stonewall Inn riot in New York in 1969 put gay rights on the political map, but gay marriage was not among the rights being demanded. By 1990 gay marriage was thinkable, but nowhere legal. Then in 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalized gay marriage in that state. In 2007, the Stonewall Inn was designated a National Historic Landmark. Today, gay marriage is legal in sixteen states and spreading rapidly to others. Because approval of gay marriage is strongly inversely correlated with age, it is as clear as anything in the future can be that gay marriage will be countrywide in the not distant future.

I imagine that by 2030, gay marriage will be about as controversial as women’s suffrage is today. But women’s suffrage took 100 years to go from a glimmer in the eyes of its first advocates to a constitutionally mandated right. Slavery took nearly 200 years from the first objections to it among 17th century Quakers to its final abolition in this country. One can see the slow evolution of thought on the morality of slavery in the life of Benjamin Franklin. In the 1730s Franklin owned a couple of slaves who worked in his printing house. In the 1750s he wrote a famous essay on the economic inefficiency of slavery. By 1785 he was president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Still it took another 80 years, and a war that cost 600,000 lives, before slavery was finally gone.

Both women’s suffrage and slavery were highly controversial issues in their day and honest men and women could be found on both sides. (Queen Victoria, for instance, was adamantly against votes for women.) Today, of course, the arguments of the losing sides of these issues seem silly and, often, downright evil.

But we are more than 90 years since the argument over women’s suffrage ended and nearly 150 since slavery was abolished. The issues are both dead and gone. It seems to me that only two years after Barack Obama himself “evolved” on the issue of gay marriage (please note: Democrats evolve on issues, Republicans flip flop) is much too soon for opponents of the idea to be cast into outer darkness.

But, then, liberals—addicted to their sense of moral superiority—are notoriously intolerant of dissenting views.

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