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Posts For: April 14, 2014

The West Is Emboldening Putin

It has been almost exactly two months since mysterious “self-defense” forces in unmarked uniforms began appearing all over Crimea—a prelude to the annexation of the Ukrainian province by Russia only a few weeks ago. The U.S. and the European Union reacted to this unprovoked aggression—of a kind rarely if ever seen in Europe since 1945—with almost comical self-restraint. They sanctioned a few dozen Ukrainian and Russian individuals associated with this aggression, along with one Russian bank, and suspended—rather than simply kicked out—Russia from the G-8.

Ukrainian pleas for military aid were met by President Obama with a laughable offer to send MREs (meals ready to eat), which were dispatched by civilian trucks rather than by U.S. Air Force cargo aircraft, which were deemed too provocative to employ. Requests from General Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, to share intelligence with the Ukrainians and to provide them with enhanced training and communications equipment were apparently rebuffed by the White House. Requests from Poland, the Baltic Republics, and other frontline NATO states for the dispatch of more NATO troops, including American troops, to their soil have been ignored. 

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It has been almost exactly two months since mysterious “self-defense” forces in unmarked uniforms began appearing all over Crimea—a prelude to the annexation of the Ukrainian province by Russia only a few weeks ago. The U.S. and the European Union reacted to this unprovoked aggression—of a kind rarely if ever seen in Europe since 1945—with almost comical self-restraint. They sanctioned a few dozen Ukrainian and Russian individuals associated with this aggression, along with one Russian bank, and suspended—rather than simply kicked out—Russia from the G-8.

Ukrainian pleas for military aid were met by President Obama with a laughable offer to send MREs (meals ready to eat), which were dispatched by civilian trucks rather than by U.S. Air Force cargo aircraft, which were deemed too provocative to employ. Requests from General Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, to share intelligence with the Ukrainians and to provide them with enhanced training and communications equipment were apparently rebuffed by the White House. Requests from Poland, the Baltic Republics, and other frontline NATO states for the dispatch of more NATO troops, including American troops, to their soil have been ignored. 

U.S. and European leaders have made clear they are so paralyzed by fear of provoking Vladimir Putin that they dare not do more. Only if Putin went further and extended his aggression to the rest of Ukraine would the Russian dictator suffer more severe “repercussions.” Or so we were told by Secretary of State John Kerry and his European counterparts.

It is by now obvious that the West’s self-restraint—so reminiscent of similar self-restraint after Adolf Hitler’s military buildup, militarization of the Rhineland, Anschluss with Austria, and seizure of the Sudetenland—has not convinced Putin to exercise self-restraint in response.  Instead he has, correctly, read the West’s non-response as an expression of weakness that he can exploit to make further territorial gains toward his ultimate dream of reestablishing the Russian Empire, of which Ukraine was a satrapy until 1991.

So over the last week mysterious masked gunmen, reminiscent of those seen earlier in Crimea, have been appearing all over eastern Ukraine where they have been seizing police stations and other symbols of governmental authority. As American officials have made plain, these are not spontaneous demonstrations organized by aggrieved Russian-speaking locals. Rather these are carefully planned provocations organized and abetted by Russian security forces even if the on-the-ground Russian special forces presence has been less numerous, so far, than it was in Crimea.

The new, pro-Western government in Kiev stood by as Crimea was wrested away by Russia. It cannot stand by and lose the entire eastern part of the country without a fight. So Ukraine has mobilized what scant military forces it has and threatens to pacify the increasingly wild east by force if necessary. This, of course, is catnip to Putin. By responding in kind to semi-covert Russian aggression, Ukraine risks provoking a confrontation which would provide an excuse for Russian troops—an estimated 40,000 to 80,000 are deployed on Ukraine’s borders in a high state of readiness—to come pouring across the frontier on the pretext of protecting Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority.

On the other hand if the government in Kiev does nothing, Russian allies would simply declare the region’s independence from Ukraine, as many have already been doing. Heads you lose, tails I win: Ukraine is a no-win confrontation with its much bigger and better-armed neighbor.

The only hope that Ukraine now has of emerging as a whole and democratic state aligned to the West is to see dramatic action on the part of the U.S. and Europe to demonstrate to the Kremlin that the cost of further aggression is too high to be borne. What would this mean in practice? Practical steps would extend from rushing military aid to Ukraine, to reversing the dangerous drawdown of U.S. military strength, to rushing U.S. army brigades to Poland and the Baltics, to expelling every Russian financial institution from access to the Western financial system and seizing the ill-gained loot that Putin and his cronies keep in Western banks.

Simply to lay out what a serious response from the West would look like is to make obvious how unlikely it is to be implemented by the feckless leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Ukraine, I fear, has pretty much no chance of prevailing, because it is clear that the spirit of Neville Chamberlain, rather than that of Winston Churchill, is in charge of the Western response. The most that Ukraine can hope for is that Putin will choose not to annex its eastern territory outright, at least not yet, preferring for the time being to keep the region in an uproar to blackmail Kiev into remaining in the Russian orbit. (Nice country you have, he may be saying implicitly, in the fashion of movie gangsters, it would be a shame if anything happened to it.)

Alas the consequences of Western pusillanimity will be felt far outside Ukraine’s borders. Letting Ukraine be dismembered, even after the U.S., UK and Russia had guaranteed its territorial integrity, will send a signal to Putin that he can repeat the same stunt elsewhere. First Sevastopol, now Donetsk, next Tallinn? Likewise it will send a message to China’s leaders that they can act in similar fashion. If Putin can get away with aggression in Ukraine, why can’t China do the same in the South China Sea and East China Sea where it is locked in numerous territorial disputes with its neighbors?

With every fresh act of aggression by Russia which is met by Western confusion, hesitation, and weakness, the world becomes a more dangerous and unstable place.

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Turkey Shows the Risk of Politicized Tax Collectors

There is little question now that at least some Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employees abused their position to allow partisanship to determine their actions. Who authorized such behavior, if anyone, remains subject to fierce partisan dispute. If the IRS targeted conservatives on the basis of their political belief and on the orders of anyone in the White House, most Americans would find such facts scandalous, and rightly so.

Many supporters of the Obama administration have pooh-poohed the scandal, or suggested that it comes from the fevered imaginations of Republican activists. They should not. Too many many fierce partisans will play hardball or engage in dirty tricks, all the more so if a precedent exists that leads them to believe they can get away with it.

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There is little question now that at least some Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employees abused their position to allow partisanship to determine their actions. Who authorized such behavior, if anyone, remains subject to fierce partisan dispute. If the IRS targeted conservatives on the basis of their political belief and on the orders of anyone in the White House, most Americans would find such facts scandalous, and rightly so.

Many supporters of the Obama administration have pooh-poohed the scandal, or suggested that it comes from the fevered imaginations of Republican activists. They should not. Too many many fierce partisans will play hardball or engage in dirty tricks, all the more so if a precedent exists that leads them to believe they can get away with it.

Here, Turkey illustrates just what can happen when politicized tax collection is allowed to continue unabated. Turkey today has threatened to go after Twitter on tax evasion charges. According to an Agence France Presse report:

“Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are international companies established for profit and making money,” Erdogan said. “Twitter is at the same time a tax evader. We will go after it,” he added. “These companies, like every international company, will abide by my country’s constitution, laws and tax rules”

In Turkey, the issue is not rule of law, for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan interprets the law through the narrow prism of his personal interest. Simply put, his philosophy is the 21st century equivalent of “L’État, c’est moi.” Erdoğan has a long history of using arbitrary tax enforcement to target opponents.  He leveled a multimillion-dollar tax fine against the owner of a newspaper critical of his abuse-of-power and, then, when that media group actually found the funds to pay up, he leveled a multi-billion dollar fine. The world saw the tax lien for what it was, and roundly condemned Erdoğan for using the tax man to crush opponents. It was a tried and true strategy. With one of his political allies facing tough competition in Istanbul, Erdoğan used the tax man to levy a fine against the chief secular competitor in the race for an allegedly unpaid loan, draining his campaign chest.  Turkey has effectively become a third world dictatorship, and its tax service more a mechanism to punish than simply raise revenue.

When tax collectors lose their credibility and become little more than political weapons, there is no restoring that credibility. How sad it is that so many supporters of President Obama for partisan reasons appear to turn a blind eye to the apparent attempt by some in the IRS to wield their power like a weapon. For Turkey shows what happens when such behavior is not nipped in the bud. Let us hope that Erdoğan’s embrace of executive order and financial punishment has not become a model which Obama knowingly or unconsciously follows.

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Will Egypt’s Elections Be Free and Fair?

After the July 2013 uprising, coup, or correction in Egypt—the debate over the terminology, while relevant to U.S. law regarding foreign assistance, can nonetheless be distracting to the broader conversation—the Egyptian military promised a quick transition back to civilian rule, a new constitutional order, and elections.

The Egyptian military has been true to its word in reality, even if Western policymakers debate the spirit of its moves. After the Egyptian military arrested former President Mohamed Morsi and ousted his government, it did appoint civilian place-keepers—Adly Mansour as president, for example, and Hazem al-Beblawi as prime minister (Beblawi resigned in February). Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi might be the paramount power and he could very well be the next president, but he did not assume all power. That said, there is plenty of evidence upon which those who see Sisi’s ambitions more cynically can grasp.

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After the July 2013 uprising, coup, or correction in Egypt—the debate over the terminology, while relevant to U.S. law regarding foreign assistance, can nonetheless be distracting to the broader conversation—the Egyptian military promised a quick transition back to civilian rule, a new constitutional order, and elections.

The Egyptian military has been true to its word in reality, even if Western policymakers debate the spirit of its moves. After the Egyptian military arrested former President Mohamed Morsi and ousted his government, it did appoint civilian place-keepers—Adly Mansour as president, for example, and Hazem al-Beblawi as prime minister (Beblawi resigned in February). Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi might be the paramount power and he could very well be the next president, but he did not assume all power. That said, there is plenty of evidence upon which those who see Sisi’s ambitions more cynically can grasp.

Sisi did, however, keep his word and return Egypt to a constitutional order, scrapping the constitution that Morsi pushed through that would have taken women back decades and entrenched Islamism beyond its electoral mandate. Critics, however, argued that the drafting of the new constitution was not inclusive enough. That was not entirely the interim government’s fault: With the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to reject the post-Morsi order rather than participate in it, there was little choice the new government had to move forward other than scrap the drafting of a new constitution; fortunately, they chose to push forward despite the Brotherhood’s attempts to delegitimize the new constitution.

The next step is elections. U.S. policymakers should certainly recognize by now after its democracy promotion experience of the Bush and Obama years that elections do not make a democracy. Nor are all elections free and fair. While many critics of the Egyptian government effectively want to move back to the pre-July order and allow the Muslim Brotherhood to hang itself with a rope of its owning making, that sentiment discounts the fact that Morsi and the Brotherhood did not seem to be as committed to democratic checks and balances once they entered office and consolidated control, and so may never have allowed the public to try them at the ballot box. Regardless, it is simply impossible to go back to the past. The question then becomes how to push ahead into the future. It would be self-defeating to call for democratization but denounce any attempt at a new election. At the same time, there is no reason to take the Egyptian government at its word when it says that it wants free and fair elections.

That is why last week’s announcement by the Egyptian government that they will allow not only outside observation of the May 26-27 elections, but credible outside observation, is good sign. Allowing the European Union to send observers is probably the best possible choice. Neither the National Democratic Institute nor the International Republican Institute would be keen let alone welcome to send observers after the Egyptian military had scapegoated them against the backdrop of the initial Arab Spring protests. Nor is the Carter Center credible, given President Jimmy Carter’s outspoken and seemingly unbalanced support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is a lot of anger on all sides relating to the situation in Egypt. No one is satisfied. Rather than nihilistically condemn Egypt to limbo because of anger over the events of last July, however, it is important to make the most of the current situation, and push Egypt to the reforms it so desperately needs to make so that the next president doesn’t simply engage in the same corruption and crony capitalism that led to anger boiling over in 2011. Let us hope that the European Union monitors will observe Egypt’s elections both in the long and short term, and that the Egyptian government will continue to have the self-confidence to embrace transparency as it moves forward. If the authorities in Cairo are showing good faith, that should be reciprocated.

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Patrick Seale in Israel

Patrick Seale, journalist and author, best known for his reportage on Syria and his mediation between Hafez Asad and the West, has passed away at the age of 83, after a battle with brain cancer. Here are a few impressions of my few encounters with him, from an Israeli point of view.

In the world of Israeli Middle East expertise, Seale’s 1965 book The Struggle for Syria had an almost iconic status. When it first appeared, there weren’t a lot of books on contemporary Syria, and Israeli analysts parsed every word. Seale didn’t just rely on published sources, he interviewed all the actors, and he became renowned for his access to otherwise taciturn Arab politicians. Ma’arachot, the publishing house of the Israel Defense Forces, published a Hebrew translation of the book in 1968, and it quickly found its way to every relevant shelf.

In 1988, he published a biography of Syria’s ruler, under the title Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. There was that word “struggle” again, although this time his book had the flavor of a semi-official enterprise. Indeed, Seale ended it with this sentence: “When asked how he would wish this chronicle to be concluded, Asad replied: ‘Say simply that the struggle continues.'” Footnoted: “Interview with President Asad, Damascus, 18 March 1988.” Of course, this only enhanced the aura surrounding Seale in Israeli eyes, and the biography immediately appeared in Hebrew translation. (In contrast, the book’s distribution was banned in Syria. Seale’s account was fine for Westerners, but some passages weren’t sufficiently obsequious for consumption in Damascus.)

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Patrick Seale, journalist and author, best known for his reportage on Syria and his mediation between Hafez Asad and the West, has passed away at the age of 83, after a battle with brain cancer. Here are a few impressions of my few encounters with him, from an Israeli point of view.

In the world of Israeli Middle East expertise, Seale’s 1965 book The Struggle for Syria had an almost iconic status. When it first appeared, there weren’t a lot of books on contemporary Syria, and Israeli analysts parsed every word. Seale didn’t just rely on published sources, he interviewed all the actors, and he became renowned for his access to otherwise taciturn Arab politicians. Ma’arachot, the publishing house of the Israel Defense Forces, published a Hebrew translation of the book in 1968, and it quickly found its way to every relevant shelf.

In 1988, he published a biography of Syria’s ruler, under the title Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. There was that word “struggle” again, although this time his book had the flavor of a semi-official enterprise. Indeed, Seale ended it with this sentence: “When asked how he would wish this chronicle to be concluded, Asad replied: ‘Say simply that the struggle continues.'” Footnoted: “Interview with President Asad, Damascus, 18 March 1988.” Of course, this only enhanced the aura surrounding Seale in Israeli eyes, and the biography immediately appeared in Hebrew translation. (In contrast, the book’s distribution was banned in Syria. Seale’s account was fine for Westerners, but some passages weren’t sufficiently obsequious for consumption in Damascus.)

But when I first met Seale, it wasn’t in connection with his Syria work. The date was February 5, 1992, and the place, the Chicago studio of Milt Rosenberg’s highly regarded talk show, “Extension 720.” I was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, and Seale was passing through town to promote a new book, Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire. It was a wretched piece of conspiracy mongering (the Economist called it “ludicrous”), claiming that the Mossad was behind the Palestinian terrorist Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal). Seale didn’t bring a single shred of evidence. I read and notated the book, and came to the studio loaded for bear. In the waiting room, where we met, Seale seemed almost apologetic: “I’ve written something of a potboiler.” In the on-air exchange, I quoted his claims line by line, pressing him to produce even a scintilla of evidence, of which there was none. At one point, I told Seale that I respected his Struggle for Syria, but each of his subsequent efforts was less rigorous than its predecessor, and with Abu Nidal he’d scraped bottom. Maybe one day I’ll put the exchange online (I have the tape). I remember thinking it was a nice evening’s work; it certainly wasn’t the beginning of a friendship.

I didn’t expect to encounter Seale again, but later events in the 1990s set in motion Israel-Syria feelers and intermittent peace talks, and when the Labor party prevailed in the May 1999 elections, prime minister-elect Ehud Barak indicated that he wanted to relaunch negotiations. It was Barak who asked my colleague Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s preeminent Syria hand, to invite Seale to Israel to speak publicly. (Seale knew and respected Rabinovich, although the tie had been severed for a few years, after Rabinovich disparaged Seale’s Assad biography in a review.) I headed the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University at that time, and that’s how I came to co-sponsor and co-chair Patrick Seale’s first and only public address in Israel. The date: June 9, 1999.

I’ll not forget the Seale-fest that ensued in the lead-up and sequel to his appearance. Everyone wanted to know Asad’s real redlines, and everyone assumed Seale was on a quasi-official mission to relay a message from Damascus. The media besieged us with requests to interview him. When he came to the university to speak, more than five hundred people packed the hall. He had audiences with Barak (a “red-carpet reception,” said one source), President Ezer Weizman (who gave Seale a Golan-must-go interview), and former prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres. Uri Saguy, a former head of military intelligence and Barak’s expected point man on Syria, took Seale to the Golan, where Saguy told Israeli settlers, with tears in his eyes, that “hard decisions may be coming.”

Rabinovich was the go-to for these meetings, but I also found myself consumed with the management of Patrick Seale, media star, for the better part of a week. He was charming, diplomatic, and precise in his formulations, and he clearly enjoyed the limelight. Seale genuinely yearned to facilitate a breakthrough—on Asad’s terms, of course. Later that month, Seale published side-by-side interviews with Barak and Asad, in which they signaled hope for this and that. Seale denied being a go-between, but that’s exactly how Israelis regarded him.

It turned out to be a bridge too far, for reasons that will keep historians busy for years to come. When Asad died a year later and his son Bashar took over, Israelis concluded that Seale didn’t have the same access in Damascus that he’d had under the old man. Failure at Camp David, Intifada II, Barak’s departure, Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush, 9/11, and the Iraq war all pushed Syrian-Israel peace off the agenda, and put Syria on the defensive. Seale slipped into Israel-bashing on a scale unprecedented even for him. Read the columns yourself.

And that’s where my Seale story ends, but there’s a footnote. Whenever Seale came up in Israeli discussions, there usually would be a fair bit of winking and nodding about his ancestry. His father, a Russian Jew born (I think) in Jerusalem under the name of Ephraim Sigel, converted to Christianity, changed his name to Morris Seale, studied theology in Belfast (where Patrick was born), and became an ordained minister of the Irish Presbyterian Church. Sigel-Seale then went out as a missionary to Damascus, where Patrick spent his childhood. Nothing more excites speculation among Israelis than the discovery that a foreign friend or foe is a blood member of the tribe. (Albright, Kerry… it happens all the time.) Did Hafez Asad and his cronies know that their Patrick wasn’t purely Irish? Did it matter? How could it not? Etcetera—for what it’s worth. (Not much, I think.)

Seale has left a world in which even the idea of Syria is in peril, as nearly every achievement of Hafez Asad unravels. In the preface to a 1986 reedition of The Struggle for Syria, Seale wrote that Hafez Asad

seeks to discipline Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians, preventing them from entering into any relationship with Israel without his consent, trying to turn the Arab Levant into a bastion against Israeli expansion… But just as Asad needs to unite the Levant in order to recover the occupied territories, Israel needs to divide it in order to keep them… “Greater Syria” is a sort of mirror-image of “Greater Israel” and its inevitable opponent. Both cannot win.

It might not be as black-and-white as all that, but if Seale was right, there can be no doubt today who the winner is. Syria is prostrate, an arena for the meddling of others, while the Arab Levant continues to divide and subdivide into its smallest parts. As the old man told Seale back in 1988, “the struggle continues,” but it’s not the one he or Seale envisioned. Theirs will be a sad reunion.

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ObamaCare’s Day of Reckoning Can’t Be Postponed

The Obama administration is, along with liberals like Ezra Klein, promoting a new narrative: The Affordable Care Act, after a rough start, is now a raging success. More than 7.5 million Americans have enrolled. The resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will act as a circuit breaker. Here’s how Mr. Klein put it:

the law has won its survival. The Obama administration can exhale. Personnel changes can be made. A new team — led by Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Matthews Burwell, who the White House calls a proven manager— can be brought in to continue to improve the law. And Sebelius can leave with her head held high. She can leave with the law she helped build looking, shockingly, like a success.

Some of us have a different interpretation, which is that the enrollment figures are dubious, that premiums will rise sharply later in the spring, and that the problems plaguing ObamaCare are systemic and won’t be fixed. The endless number of waivers, exemptions, and delays are evidence of that. The law will, in fact, remain highly unpopular with the public. And this will become most obvious on the night of November 4, when the returns from mid-term elections are in.

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The Obama administration is, along with liberals like Ezra Klein, promoting a new narrative: The Affordable Care Act, after a rough start, is now a raging success. More than 7.5 million Americans have enrolled. The resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will act as a circuit breaker. Here’s how Mr. Klein put it:

the law has won its survival. The Obama administration can exhale. Personnel changes can be made. A new team — led by Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Matthews Burwell, who the White House calls a proven manager— can be brought in to continue to improve the law. And Sebelius can leave with her head held high. She can leave with the law she helped build looking, shockingly, like a success.

Some of us have a different interpretation, which is that the enrollment figures are dubious, that premiums will rise sharply later in the spring, and that the problems plaguing ObamaCare are systemic and won’t be fixed. The endless number of waivers, exemptions, and delays are evidence of that. The law will, in fact, remain highly unpopular with the public. And this will become most obvious on the night of November 4, when the returns from mid-term elections are in.

What the Obama White House is hoping is that, with the help of the press, which is tired of writing about the failures of ObamaCare, they can not only reframe events but reinvent reality.

I’m rather doubtful it will work. The debate over the ACA has gone from an abstract one to a real one, one negatively affecting the lives of millions upon of Americans. And when you have a facts-on-the-ground problem, as the president and his party do, spin and invoking banal talking points are ultimately of little use.

The president can postpone implementation of various parts of his law. But what he can’t postpone indefinitely is his and his party’s day of reckoning.

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“Something That Was Not Imaginable 40 years Ago Has Happened”

Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, has written a sobering and important essay for National Affairs on marriage, parenthood, and public policy. I thought it might be useful to highlight data from the Haskins essay, in order to understand just how profound the changes in family composition have been over the last four decades. 

Marriage Rates

In 1970, 83 percent of women ages 30 to 34 were married. By 2010, that number had fallen to 57 percent.

For almost every demographic group, whether broken down by age, education, or race and ethnicity, marriage rates have declined nearly continuously since 1970. Marriage rates for 20- to 24-year-olds, for instance, fell from 61 percent to 16 percent, a decline of almost 75 percent in four decades. The rate for 35- to 39-year-olds declined by 25 percent, from 83 percent to 62 percent. (The only exception to the pattern of decline was for women with a college degree or more. After a modest decline of about 11 percent between 1970 and 1990, the marriage rate for college-educated women stopped declining and even increased by about 1 percent between 1990 and 2010.)

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Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, has written a sobering and important essay for National Affairs on marriage, parenthood, and public policy. I thought it might be useful to highlight data from the Haskins essay, in order to understand just how profound the changes in family composition have been over the last four decades. 

Marriage Rates

In 1970, 83 percent of women ages 30 to 34 were married. By 2010, that number had fallen to 57 percent.

For almost every demographic group, whether broken down by age, education, or race and ethnicity, marriage rates have declined nearly continuously since 1970. Marriage rates for 20- to 24-year-olds, for instance, fell from 61 percent to 16 percent, a decline of almost 75 percent in four decades. The rate for 35- to 39-year-olds declined by 25 percent, from 83 percent to 62 percent. (The only exception to the pattern of decline was for women with a college degree or more. After a modest decline of about 11 percent between 1970 and 1990, the marriage rate for college-educated women stopped declining and even increased by about 1 percent between 1990 and 2010.)

Non-Marital Birth Rates

The non-marital birth rate among all demographic groups has increased from 11 percent to almost 41 percent over the same four decades. In 2010, 72 percent of births to African-American women were out of wedlock. The Hispanic rate was 53 percent, a 50 percent increase over 1989 (when data on Hispanic birth rates first began to be collected separately from non-Hispanic whites). The rate for non-Hispanic whites, which stood at 16 percent in 1989, had increased to 29 percent by 2010, a larger increase in percentage terms than for any other group over that period.

Teen pregnancy rates have declined almost every year since 1991, and the number of teen births has declined by more than 50 percent since that time. The problem of non-marital pregnancy is now greatest among adults in their 20s and 30s.

Married-with-Children Households

Over the four-decade period, the percentage of married-with-children households declined by well over a third to just 51 percent. By contrast, the percentages of all three other types of households increased: married without children by 72 percent, single with children by 122 percent, and single without children by 165 percent.

Single Parent Households

In 1970, 12 percent of children lived with a single parent at any given time; over the next 40 years, that number increased by 124 percent, rising to 27 percent of children in 2010. Over the course of their childhoods, as many as half of all American children will spend some time in a single-parent household.

Child Poverty

According to the Census Bureau, in 2012 the poverty rate among children living with only their mother was 47.2 percent; by contrast, the poverty rate among children living with their married parents was 11.1 percent, meaning that a child living with a single mother was almost five times as likely to be poor as a child living with married parents.

As the Haskins essay makes clear, there is a high human cost to children in particular when marriage collapses–in terms of high school dropout rates, delinquency, crime and incarceration, drug use, mental illness, suicide, poverty, idleness in later years, and more. “If we want to address the challenges of income inequality and immobility,” he writes, “we must address one of the main causes – non-marital births and single parenting.”

Mr. Haskins, in reviewing programs tried at all levels of government, finds that the results have been mixed and, for the most part, hardly encouraging. We are dealing in a realm of human behavior where the positive effects of public policy look to be quite limited. What will be required is a substantial shift in social mores–in how we view the institution and purposes of marriage, the duties of parenthood, our commitments to one another, and even human fulfillment itself–and there’s little evidence that is about to occur anytime soon. 

In 2000, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was asked to identify the biggest change he had seen in his 40-year political career. Moynihan responded, “The biggest change, in my judgment, is that the family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world.” This change has occurred in “an historical instant,” Moynihan said. “Something that was not imaginable 40 years ago has happened.”

Indeed it has. (The trends that concerned Moynihan have, in fact, accelerated.) The historian Lawrence Stone said the scale of marital breakdown in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent. It is unique. And as a civilization we seem unable, or at least unwilling, to do much of anything about it.

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