Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 24, 2014

A Righteous Man and the Imperative to Act

Today Georgetown University honored a former professor with a day of events commemorating the centennial of his birth. But the man for whom this is being done was no ordinary political science teacher. Jan Karski, who died in 2000, taught at Georgetown for four decades but he is remembered today for his efforts during World War Two when, as a young officer serving in the Polish resistance, he witnessed the horror of the Holocaust and brought news of the atrocities to the West. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, named him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. But his story stands out not just because he was one of the few who stood up for the persecuted Jews of Europe at a time when most either joined the perpetrators or stood by silently thinking only of their own safety.

Karski risked his life many times over to bring eyewitness testimony of the conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto and of the transport of Jews to death camps to Western leaders. But the point about Karski’s amazing tale is that the people he told about the Holocaust at a time when it was still going on either refused to believe him or ignored his testimony. This should inform our view of the history of these events, including the controversy over the failure of the Allies to attempt to halt or impede the slaughter as well as the ongoing campaign to whitewash the memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who, as Karski said, listened with indifference to his account of Jewish genocide. But just as important, his courageous yet failed attempt to galvanize the West to action stands as an indictment not only of those who did not heed his warnings but to contemporary leaders who likewise stand by impotently while innocents are killed in their thousands or who think they need not take the genocidal threats of anti-Semitic despots seriously.

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Today Georgetown University honored a former professor with a day of events commemorating the centennial of his birth. But the man for whom this is being done was no ordinary political science teacher. Jan Karski, who died in 2000, taught at Georgetown for four decades but he is remembered today for his efforts during World War Two when, as a young officer serving in the Polish resistance, he witnessed the horror of the Holocaust and brought news of the atrocities to the West. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, named him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. But his story stands out not just because he was one of the few who stood up for the persecuted Jews of Europe at a time when most either joined the perpetrators or stood by silently thinking only of their own safety.

Karski risked his life many times over to bring eyewitness testimony of the conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto and of the transport of Jews to death camps to Western leaders. But the point about Karski’s amazing tale is that the people he told about the Holocaust at a time when it was still going on either refused to believe him or ignored his testimony. This should inform our view of the history of these events, including the controversy over the failure of the Allies to attempt to halt or impede the slaughter as well as the ongoing campaign to whitewash the memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who, as Karski said, listened with indifference to his account of Jewish genocide. But just as important, his courageous yet failed attempt to galvanize the West to action stands as an indictment not only of those who did not heed his warnings but to contemporary leaders who likewise stand by impotently while innocents are killed in their thousands or who think they need not take the genocidal threats of anti-Semitic despots seriously.

Born Jan Kozielewski, he used Karski as his nom de guerre when after his escape from Soviet imprisonment (an army officer, he was captured when the Soviet Union invaded Poland as part of the Hitler-Stalin pact) and joined the Polish Home Army. During the course of his activities in the underground, Karski, a Polish Catholic, was smuggled in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto and a transit point for the Belzec death camp. In 1942 he brought proof of the reality of the Holocaust to first Britain and then the following year to the United States when, under the sponsorship of the free Polish government in exile, he spread the news of the extermination of the Jews to American leaders including Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and William Donovan, the chief of the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. As he later told the story, in his own writings, Roosevelt was silent when Karski discussed the fate of the Jews, asking questions only about the conditions of horses in Poland. Frankfurter, a Jew, said that while he didn’t question Karski’s honesty, he nevertheless “could not believe him.” Karski was shocked at the Allied leaders’ refusal to act on his knowledge even to bomb the railroad tracks to the death camps when that became possible.

This is important because Karski’s reports not only make it abundantly clear that the nature of the Nazi war on the Jews was not a secret to the West but that it was also a matter of public record. Karski published an account of what was going on in Poland in 1944. The idea that no one knew about the Holocaust until the death camps were liberated in 1945 is a myth that was accepted as truth because few, either in positions of power or out of them, wanted to acknowledge that the Allies simply chose to ignore Karski’s accounts or treat them as irrelevant to their wartime mission of defeating Germany.

The question of what could have been done to rescue the Jews of Europe is still a sore point with many rightly pointing out that most of those murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators were beyond the help of the Allies. But the minimal attempts to foster rescue, such as the belated and underfunded War Refugee Board, did result in saving hundreds of thousands of Jews. Had Roosevelt’s administration treated the issue as one worth their time, it is simply implausible to assert that more lives could not have been saved.

But even if you don’t want to wade into those bitter historical arguments, Karski’s legacy demands attention. Since the Holocaust occurred, we have seen several instances of genocide. In each one of those cases, whether it was in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, or Sudan, the world once again wrung its collective hands and did nothing until it was too late. Today, Bashar Assad’s Syrian forces have killed more than a hundred thousand people and again the West, and in particular the United States, was unable to find the will to act even when a “red line” about the use of chemical weapons was crossed. Elsewhere, Iran, the leading international state sponsor of terror as well as one of the most vicious anti-Semitic regimes on the planet, plots to build a nuclear weapon. The West’s response is not to ensure that Iran’s plans, which could facilitate another Holocaust, are made impossible but only that they be delayed by a diplomatic process that seems aimed more at creating détente with the ayatollahs than at stopping them.

Jan Karski’s example, as well as the failure of those who chose not to listen to him, stands as a reminder that all the tears wept today about the Holocaust are meaningless if they are not accompanied by action to ensure that contemporary atrocities are not halted or prevented.

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Closing the Coverage Gap on Harry Reid

Both professional and college sports fans have dealt with the “East Coast bias,” the way the location of major media outlets and the time zone difference across the country impact the attention paid to games. (What, you don’t want to burn the midnight oil to catch every moment of the early-season showdown between Gonzaga and Pepperdine?) The political version of this usually pits the “Acela corridor” against the “real America,” which has more to do with content bias. But as any media consumer can attest, there is a coverage gap as well.

Could that account for absurdly underreported whiff of scandal persistently swirling around Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid? Whatever the reason, the press has certainly abdicated its basic responsibilities when it comes to Reid. There are, of course, exceptions, the superb Jon Ralston chief among them. And now RealClearPolitics’ Adam O’Neal has made a splash with the first installment of a two-part series on Reid, the first titled “Harry Reid’s Long, Steady Accretion of Power & Wealth.”

Those who have watched Reid’s career closely, O’Neal reports, “say that his political and economic ascendance has made him increasingly willing to use his power (and apparent electoral resilience) in ways that appear unsavory or nepotistic.” Recent revelations about Reid using his political campaign to his granddaughter’s financial benefit are perhaps a sign that in the current media landscape such activities are more difficult to hide and, according to one Reid watcher paraphrased by O’Neal, “not a product of him changing his style.”

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Both professional and college sports fans have dealt with the “East Coast bias,” the way the location of major media outlets and the time zone difference across the country impact the attention paid to games. (What, you don’t want to burn the midnight oil to catch every moment of the early-season showdown between Gonzaga and Pepperdine?) The political version of this usually pits the “Acela corridor” against the “real America,” which has more to do with content bias. But as any media consumer can attest, there is a coverage gap as well.

Could that account for absurdly underreported whiff of scandal persistently swirling around Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid? Whatever the reason, the press has certainly abdicated its basic responsibilities when it comes to Reid. There are, of course, exceptions, the superb Jon Ralston chief among them. And now RealClearPolitics’ Adam O’Neal has made a splash with the first installment of a two-part series on Reid, the first titled “Harry Reid’s Long, Steady Accretion of Power & Wealth.”

Those who have watched Reid’s career closely, O’Neal reports, “say that his political and economic ascendance has made him increasingly willing to use his power (and apparent electoral resilience) in ways that appear unsavory or nepotistic.” Recent revelations about Reid using his political campaign to his granddaughter’s financial benefit are perhaps a sign that in the current media landscape such activities are more difficult to hide and, according to one Reid watcher paraphrased by O’Neal, “not a product of him changing his style.”

In other words, the more you look the more you’ll find with regard to Reid’s ethics experiments. O’Neal did just that, wondering in part how Reid became so fabulously wealthy on a politician’s salary:

Theoretically, working as a lawmaker should have severely limited Reid’s earning potential. In the early 1980s, members of Congress received a salary of about $70,000 per year. Though pay has generally risen — and Reid receives more than most lawmakers because of his leadership position — he has never earned more than $200,000 per year in salary.

Yet, his estimated net worth peaked at around $10 million just a few years ago, and he has remained consistently wealthier than when he entered Congress.

Perhaps Reid’s mysterious wealth has attracted more attention since most of his time on the Senate floor is spent denouncing private citizens who have made more money than he has while his party outlines various strategies to confiscate that wealth. Presumably Reid believes that if he were more forthright about his assets, Democrats would instinctively move to confiscate them.

Whatever the reason, here is some of what O’Neal has put together:

In 1998, Reid invested $400,000 in an undeveloped residential property located on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Reid’s partner in the deal was attorney Jay Brown, whom Ralston describes as a “master manipulator.” Reid transferred his share of the property to a company Brown controlled in 2001. By transferring the land to Brown’s firm, Reid avoided legal liability and some taxes. But Reid didn’t note the transfer — or that he had any stake in the company — in his financial disclosure forms, despite rules requiring such transfers to be reported. By 2004, Brown’s company sold the land, which had been rezoned for a shopping center, and Reid received $1.1 million. He reported the sale as if he had always had control of the property.

When the Associated Press asked Reid about the deal during a 2006 interview, he hung up on the reporter. A spokesman later said that “there were several legal steps associated with the investment during those years that did not alter Senator Reid’s actual ownership interest in the land.” However, there was no physical proof that Reid had any stake in Brown’s company. The story may have caused Reid public embarrassment — he amended his ethics reports to include the full history of the property — but he walked away from the deal some $700,000 richer.

That isn’t the only problematic land deal Reid was involved with at the time. In 2002, he put $10,000 into a pension fund controlled by another friend, Clair Haycock. The payment gave Reid a sizable parcel of land in Bullhead City, Ariz. According to the Los Angeles Times, Reid purchased the land for one-tenth of its estimated value (and one-fortieth of what it had sold for a decade earlier). Two actions created suspicion afterward. First, Reid sponsored an $18 million earmark for a bridge that would connect Laughlin, Nev., and Bullhead City. This bridge would likely increase property values in the area. Reid also introduced legislation that would benefit Haycock’s lubricant company. Reid aides denied that his support for the earmark or lubricant dealer bill was related to the land purchase. By 2011, Reid’s initial $10,000 investment was valued at between $250,000 and $500,000. The property did not appear in his 2012 disclosure. 

While some of Reid’s most lucrative deals involved land, he also benefited from investments in stocks. Near the end of the 2005, he invested between $50,000 and $100,000 in the Dow Jones U.S. Energy Sector Fund, which held shares in several major oil companies. According to National Review, the fund closed at $29.15 on the day Reid purchased. Nearly three years later, in August 2008, Reid sold some of his shares, which closed that day at $41.82. Two months later, Reid-supported legislation that would cost oil companies billions in taxes and regulatory fees passed. The Energy Sector Fund’s shares plummeted to $24.41 each. 

There’s more, believe it or not, so read the whole thing. Reid’s career is an abject lesson in the need for transparency and accountability in government. The tools available to an elected official for self-enrichment are numerous and some politicians will avail themselves of them if they think no one’s watching. It’s good to see that dedicated lack of attention is no longer the case with Reid, whose questionable behavior should have been an open invitation long ago for the media to do its job.

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Did Fraud Sway the Turkish Election?

Turkey held local elections on March 30, 2014, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) once again came out on top, although with only a plurality rather than a majority. That may not matter for Erdoğan: Any election victory gives him the right to act as a dictator and issue decrees irrespective of law, but the fall in total votes has left him with a little less wind in his sails.

It’s taken a little while for Turkey to give the official, certified declaration of results. Now that these are in hand, a long-time Turkish correspondent whom I trust—who, because of the atmosphere of retaliation and repression in Turkey has asked to remain anonymous—has raised questions, about whether AKP interference in the election and, in some cases, outright fraud might have swayed the outcome. With his permission, I quote extensively from his email, although I have edited lightly for grammar and style:

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Turkey held local elections on March 30, 2014, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) once again came out on top, although with only a plurality rather than a majority. That may not matter for Erdoğan: Any election victory gives him the right to act as a dictator and issue decrees irrespective of law, but the fall in total votes has left him with a little less wind in his sails.

It’s taken a little while for Turkey to give the official, certified declaration of results. Now that these are in hand, a long-time Turkish correspondent whom I trust—who, because of the atmosphere of retaliation and repression in Turkey has asked to remain anonymous—has raised questions, about whether AKP interference in the election and, in some cases, outright fraud might have swayed the outcome. With his permission, I quote extensively from his email, although I have edited lightly for grammar and style:

The High Election Council officially declared final election results, including calls for new polls in a few places. But doubts are lingering in the minds of many members of the opposition camp as well as objective observers as to the validity of certain results and the fairness of the whole election process. Although allegations of irregularities have not been uncommon in previous Turkish elections, this election has produced by far the largest number of questionable incidents and outright falsifications.

First though let us look at the official results and see whose victory it is: The AKP received 45 percent in mayoral and 43 percent in municipal and provincial council votes, against the [secular, center-left] Republican People Party’s [CHP’s] 28 percent and [nationalist, secular] National Movement Party’s [MHP’s] 16 percent.

Only a month before the December 17 revelations of corruption and bribery, AKP spokesmen were claiming that they were still at or above the 50 percent mark. And before the Gezi Park demonstrations in early June 2013, they were claiming 53-55 percent in various opinion polls. If you call a 10 percent drop in ten months a victory, then it was a victory.

The CHP was expected to do much better than the slight increase in their votes suggested. The expected voter bump from the Gülen camp did not materialize. Internal party disputes which have always been a chronic problem, again undercut the vote in the absence of a strong leadership. The MHP also showed a slight increase, gaining a small amount of votes coming from previous AKP and CHP voters, but for different reasons…

The whole election did not take place on a level playing field. The entire government apparatus worked for AKP. Billboards controlled by the municipalities were granted to the AKP for election purposes, or else paid for by pro-AKP businessmen. The opposition, however, was charged full price. You could easily sense the money spent by the various political camps, just walking in the streets. A billboard message CHP wanted to put up was not allowed because it declared “governments should be accountable to people”. Supposedly, it implied accusation of improper actions on the part of the government.

The state controlled radio and television company TRT is by law mandated to be impartial to all political parties… By official statistics, they allotted almost 90 percent of air time to AKP, five percent to the CHP and four percent to the MHP…

The helicopters, airplanes, and buses used by Erdoğan and his ministers to support the AKP campaign were paid out of Turkey’s national budget. The local officials distributed cash gifts to the poor (not a bad idea but) in exchange for AKP votes.

Much of the supposedly neutral media was, because of threats, exercising self-censorship, and Erdoğan’s associates and even Erdoğan himself sometimes directly intervened, sometimes during live programming. Erdoğan admitted interfering in the “Alo Fatih” incident because he said a certain program was not being fair to him and so he called the manager to intervene.

Back to the elections: the CHP and media reported many, many incidents of irregularities, including 267 in Ankara alone, where the AKP candidate won by less than one percent, equal to 30,000 votes. Meanwhile, 125,000 votes were invalidated for one reason or another. CHP demands for a recount were rejected. A recount could have validated many of the invalid votes and swung that election.

In Ankara and other places, many results sheets from ballot boxes showed numbers which could not logically be correct, like the CHP receiving zero votes and some obscure party (one of 30 or so taking place in the election) receiving half of the votes. Apparently, CHP votes were recorded one line below or above the CHP designation on the sheet, intentionally or inadvertently… Again CHP demands for a recount were rejected. Officially signed results sheet was accepted as correct. In many other ballot boxes, the number of votes cast exceeded the number of registered voters at that polling site. Either the votes were miscounted or the box was stuffed. Again officials ignored objections and accepted the results.

In one case, the official “EVET” (yes) stamp to be used by the voters, was stolen two days before the election, along with a number of empty vote sheets. So the local election board ordered and received a new stamp. This time it was a “TERCIH” (accept) stamp. What would normally be expected was that all votes cast at that box would carry the “TERCIH” stamp. But many had the “EVET” stamp and were accepted as valid. This is an obvious case of ballot box stuffing…

In a few places in Ankara and elsewhere in Turkey, burned ballots were found in garbage dumps the day after elections. In one case, bags of validated votes were found in a school yard in Ankara. The citizens in the neighborhood wanted to go into the school building to search for other bags. They were prevented by the school principal who called the police and removed the residents.

During election night, there were power outages in at least 44 places in Turkey, which is quite out of the ordinary. In at least one place, someone who snatched the ballot box in the dark and tried to run away was caught. In most other places, the vote count was interrupted with votes scattered on a table. The minister of energy explained the reason in one location, a cat had entered a power station and caused a short circuit. In other places there were “strong winds.”

District and provincial election boards denied most of the requests and demands for a recount or for investigations of irregularities or for new polls. All such demands were rejected by the High Election Council. In contrast, the boards accepted almost all requests filed by the AKP. In Ağrı province, the [Kurdish] Peace and Democracy Party [BDP] won by a few votes. There were subsequently 14 recounts, each showing the same result or the BDP increasing its margin. Yet at AKP request, the High Election Council called a new election on June 1, 2014.

In the province of Yalova, meanwhile, initial results showed the AKP won by one vote. A recount then put the CHP ahead by six votes.  More recounts replicated the CHP lead. Yet again, the High Election Council decided for a new election on June 1. Before that decision, Erdoğan had said “God willing, the High Election Council will decide to hold new elections in Yalova.” God may not have obliged, but the High Election Council did… 

When the Ankara results were announced by the Ankara Provincial Election Board, the chairman of the board organized a small ceremony where he handed the official election document to incumbent mayor Melih Gökçek. Normally, the chairman of the board is a neutral official, but he praised Gökçek so much during the ceremony that you would think he was an emcee during an AKP celebration…

Iranian President Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and Iraqi Kurdish strongman Masud Barzani all congratulated Erdoğan on his election. That is no surprise, because Erdoğan held an election that mirrored their own. Obama, to his credit, has withheld his normal effusive praise. Let us hope normal State Department protocol doesn’t get the best of him, because there is something quite rotten in Ankara.

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An Impressive Stand on Behalf of Liberal Ideals by Gay Marriage Advocates

A group of prominent advocates for same-sex marriage signed a statement arguing for both the freedom to marry and the freedom to dissent.

This statement comes in the aftermath of the forced resignation of the CEO of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, because of a donation he made in 2008 on behalf of California’s Proposition 8, which would have upheld the traditional definition of marriage. The statement points out that there is no evidence that Mr. Eich believed in or practiced any form of discrimination against Mozilla’s LGBT employees. No matter; he was still forced out.

This action signaled “an eagerness by some supporters of same-sex marriage to punish rather than to criticize or to persuade those who disagree,” according to the statement. “We reject that deeply illiberal impulse, which is both wrong in principle and poor as politics.”

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A group of prominent advocates for same-sex marriage signed a statement arguing for both the freedom to marry and the freedom to dissent.

This statement comes in the aftermath of the forced resignation of the CEO of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, because of a donation he made in 2008 on behalf of California’s Proposition 8, which would have upheld the traditional definition of marriage. The statement points out that there is no evidence that Mr. Eich believed in or practiced any form of discrimination against Mozilla’s LGBT employees. No matter; he was still forced out.

This action signaled “an eagerness by some supporters of same-sex marriage to punish rather than to criticize or to persuade those who disagree,” according to the statement. “We reject that deeply illiberal impulse, which is both wrong in principle and poor as politics.”

The statement went on to point out that diversity is the natural consequence of liberty, saying:

Much of the rhetoric that emerged in the wake of the Eich incident showed a worrisome turn toward intolerance and puritanism among some supporters of gay equality—not in terms of formal legal sanction, to be sure, but in terms of abandonment of the core liberal values of debate and diversity.

Sustaining a liberal society demands a culture that welcomes robust debate, vigorous political advocacy, and a decent respect for differing opinions. People must be allowed to be wrong in order to continually test what is right. We should criticize opposing views, not punish or suppress them.

The declaration goes on to invoke the memory of Franklin Kameny, one of America’s earliest gay-rights proponents, who lost his job in 1957 because he was gay. We’re now living in a time when those who oppose gay marriage are being fired.

Neither situation–firing people because they are gay or firing people because they oppose gay marriage–is right; and the efforts by the signatories of this letter to stand up for classical liberal ideals and push back against those with whom they agree on the matter of gay marriage is admirable and important.

As I wrote about before on this matter, “When the dust finally settles, we still have to live together … Surely treating others with a certain degree of dignity and respect shouldn’t be too much to ask of those who oppose gay marriage and those who support it.”

The signatories of the statement have done their part, and I for one am grateful to them for having done so. 

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On Fox News’s Kelly File Tonight

Yesterday I wrote about the attempt by a New York interfaith group to censor a film at the soon-to-be-opened National September 11 Memorial Museum in order to remove references to “Islamists” and “jihad.” I’ll be on Fox News’s Kelly File tonight at 9:45 p.m. EST to discuss this blatant attempt to re-write the narrative about 9/11 with host Megyn Kelly.

Update: Here’s a link to the video from the show. 

Yesterday I wrote about the attempt by a New York interfaith group to censor a film at the soon-to-be-opened National September 11 Memorial Museum in order to remove references to “Islamists” and “jihad.” I’ll be on Fox News’s Kelly File tonight at 9:45 p.m. EST to discuss this blatant attempt to re-write the narrative about 9/11 with host Megyn Kelly.

Update: Here’s a link to the video from the show. 

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J Street Finds Itself Marooned with Hamas

Pity the members of J Street. The left-wing lobby was brought into existence in order to act as a Jewish cheering section for Obama administration pressure on Israel. Its allegedly “pro-Israel, pro-peace” platform is predicated on the notion that the Jewish state must be saved from itself by means of heavy-handed American arm-twisting. It hoped Obama, whose election its members regarded as proof that they, rather than the mainstream AIPAC, represented the bulk of American Jewry, would apply the screws to Israel’s government and magically produce a peace agreement.

But well into the sixth year of Obama’s presidency, their hopes have been dashed. Bereft of influence on Capital Hill or even within the administration it relentlessly supports, J Street has found itself on the sidelines continually seeking to fan each flame of U.S.-Israel discord into a fire that will produce the peace process breakthrough it devoutly insists is always just around the corner. Though J Street has not been without its moments of triumph when Obama has gratuitously slammed Israel and its government, disappointment always follows because not even the most hostile administration to the Jewish state since Jimmy Carter has ever been willing to escalate those spats into all-out political war. Thus, despite its approval of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative and of Obama’s disdain for Prime Minister Netanyahu, J Street finds itself out of sync with the administration.

That’s the position J Street finds itself in again today when it urged Obama not to let the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement be an impediment to pursuing pressure on Israel. That put it at odds with an administration which considered the PA’s alliance with the Islamist terror movement both disappointing and troubling. The idea that Obama and Kerry would, as J Street urges, seize this moment to produce their own peace plan and demand Israel accept it is farcical. Instead of being able to use its influence in the Oval Office and the State Department, J Street is marooned with Hamas.

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Pity the members of J Street. The left-wing lobby was brought into existence in order to act as a Jewish cheering section for Obama administration pressure on Israel. Its allegedly “pro-Israel, pro-peace” platform is predicated on the notion that the Jewish state must be saved from itself by means of heavy-handed American arm-twisting. It hoped Obama, whose election its members regarded as proof that they, rather than the mainstream AIPAC, represented the bulk of American Jewry, would apply the screws to Israel’s government and magically produce a peace agreement.

But well into the sixth year of Obama’s presidency, their hopes have been dashed. Bereft of influence on Capital Hill or even within the administration it relentlessly supports, J Street has found itself on the sidelines continually seeking to fan each flame of U.S.-Israel discord into a fire that will produce the peace process breakthrough it devoutly insists is always just around the corner. Though J Street has not been without its moments of triumph when Obama has gratuitously slammed Israel and its government, disappointment always follows because not even the most hostile administration to the Jewish state since Jimmy Carter has ever been willing to escalate those spats into all-out political war. Thus, despite its approval of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative and of Obama’s disdain for Prime Minister Netanyahu, J Street finds itself out of sync with the administration.

That’s the position J Street finds itself in again today when it urged Obama not to let the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement be an impediment to pursuing pressure on Israel. That put it at odds with an administration which considered the PA’s alliance with the Islamist terror movement both disappointing and troubling. The idea that Obama and Kerry would, as J Street urges, seize this moment to produce their own peace plan and demand Israel accept it is farcical. Instead of being able to use its influence in the Oval Office and the State Department, J Street is marooned with Hamas.

As the New York Times reports:

After months of intensive shuttle diplomacy in which Mr. Kerry relentlessly pursued the peace process and even dangled the possibility of releasing an American convicted of spying for Israel to salvage the lifeless talks, his spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, called the Palestinian move “disappointing” and the timing “troubling.”

“Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties,” Ms. Psaki said, citing conditions Hamas has repeatedly rejected. “It’s hard to see how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist.”

J Street’s argument about Hamas being no impediment to peace (echoed here by the Forward’s J.J. Goldberg) is so out of touch with mainstream opinion in Israel and the American Jewish community it claims to represent as to be cringe inducing. They note that peace process cynics have rightly pointed out that so long as the Palestinians were hopelessly split between Fatah and Hamas, with the former running the West Bank and the latter operating an independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas had no ability to sign a peace deal even if he wanted to. It claims that critics of the process will now switch to saying that a unified Palestinian government with Hamas will be unable to make a deal and asserts that this illustrates their fundamental opposition to peace.

This is, of course, nonsense. The reason why the Israeli government and the pro-Israel community in the United States reject Fatah-Hamas unity is because the Islamist movement as well as a significant slice of Fatah want no part of peace. As I wrote earlier this month when noting the comparisons between the struggle for peace in Ireland and that in the Middle East, just as Irish leaders were forced to choose between peace with Britain and peace with maximalist extremists, so, too, did Fatah have to make such a choice. But unlike Michael Collins, Abbas and his predecessor Yasir Arafat were never able to muster the courage to wage war on those Palestinians who refused to accept a two-state solution. Whether that division was rooted in their own intransigence or their fear of Hamas, the result is the same.

While there is good reason to doubt that this reconciliation will be implemented, its purpose is not to prepare the ground for a unified push for peace but to allow both Fatah and Hamas to perpetuate the status quo. Abbas never wanted to negotiate with Israel and seized the first pretext he could find to abandon the talks. Neither Fatah nor Hamas can make peace or pursue the development Palestinians badly need, but both understand that they must continue to distract the people who suffer under their joint misrule from this fact.

Even more to the point, J Street’s suggestion that this is the moment for Kerry to put forward his own peace plan shows just how out of touch they are. Kerry may have been foolhardy enough to think the magic of his personality could achieve what all of his predecessors failed to accomplish, but he is not so stupid as to think he could persuade a Palestinian government that included Hamas would accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn. Nor would Obama risk his limited political capital in a midterm election year on a fight with Israel that would, like his previous squabbles with Netanyahu, do nothing to advance the cause. That’s why J Street, for all of President Obama’s sympathy for its goals, finds itself once again marginalized.  

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Obama’s Staggering Record of Failure

 In advance of President Obama’s four-nation Asian tour this week, the Washington Post published an article saying this:

President Obama’s bid to focus U.S. attention on Asia has failed to meet the lofty expectations he set three years ago in a grand pronouncement that the new emphasis would become a pillar of his foreign policy.

The result, as Obama prepares to travel to the region… has been a loss of confidence among some U.S. allies about the administration’s commitment at a time of escalating regional tensions. Relations between Japan and South Korea are at one of the lowest points since World War II, and China has provoked both with aggressive actions at sea despite a personal plea to Beijing from Vice President Biden in December.

The same story could be said of the Obama presidency on issue after issue, in foreign policy and on domestic matters. The lofty expectations and grand pronouncements of Obama–unmatched by any presidential candidate in my lifetime–have crashed against reality time and time again.

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 In advance of President Obama’s four-nation Asian tour this week, the Washington Post published an article saying this:

President Obama’s bid to focus U.S. attention on Asia has failed to meet the lofty expectations he set three years ago in a grand pronouncement that the new emphasis would become a pillar of his foreign policy.

The result, as Obama prepares to travel to the region… has been a loss of confidence among some U.S. allies about the administration’s commitment at a time of escalating regional tensions. Relations between Japan and South Korea are at one of the lowest points since World War II, and China has provoked both with aggressive actions at sea despite a personal plea to Beijing from Vice President Biden in December.

The same story could be said of the Obama presidency on issue after issue, in foreign policy and on domestic matters. The lofty expectations and grand pronouncements of Obama–unmatched by any presidential candidate in my lifetime–have crashed against reality time and time again.

It’s not simply that Mr. Obama has fallen short of what he promised; it’s that he has been, in so many respects, a failure. Choose your metrics. Better yet, choose Mr. Obama’s metrics: Job creation. Economic growth. Improving our health-care system. Reducing the debt. Reducing poverty. Reducing income inequality. Slowing the rise of the oceans. Healing the planet. Repairing the world. The Russian “reset.” Peace in the Middle East. Red lines in Syria. Renewed focus on Afghanistan. A new beginning with the Arab world. Better relations with our allies. Depolarizing our politics. Putting an end to the type of politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.” Working with the other party. Transparency. No lobbyists working in his administration. His commitment to seek public financing in the general election. The list goes on and on.

By now, nearly five and a half years into the Obama presidency, objective people can draw reasonable conclusions, among which are these: Barack Obama was among the least prepared men to ever serve as presidency. It shows. He has been overmatched by events right from the start. He is an excellent campaigner but unusually inept when it comes to governing.

By temperament and experience, based on skill set and ability, Mr. Obama is much better equipped to be a community organizer than to be president of the United States. 

For the sake of our nation and much of the world, I wish he had stayed on Chicago’s South Side.

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The Greatest Name Associated with the Cause of Popular Government

I first learned about Lord Charnwood’s 1916 masterpiece Abraham Lincoln while recently reading a book by the constitutional scholar Walter Berns. (Berns called it “the best of the Lincoln biographies.”) Then, early this year, the essayist Joseph Epstein wrote a review of it for the Wall Street Journal, calling it the best book about Lincoln ever written. And in a wonderful essay in National Affairs, Professor Diana Schaub refers to Lord Charnwood as Lincoln’s greatest biographer. 

Those are three enthusiastic endorsements by three estimable sources. Having now read the book, I can report to you that it is as good as advertised: beautifully written, filled with piercing insights into Lincoln’s character and his political philosophy, and concisely capturing the situation and various actors in America before and during the Civil War.  

“Salmon P. Chase must have really been a good man before he fell in love with his own goodness,” we read. Horace Greeley was “too opinionated to be quite honest.” And about John C. Calhoun, Lord Charnwood writes this: “His intellect must have been powerful enough, but it was that of a man who delights in arguing, and delights in elaborate deductions from principles which he is too proud to revise; a man, too, who is fearless in accepting conclusions which startle or repel the vulgar mind; who is undisturbed in his logical processes by good sense, healthy sentiment, or any vigorous appetite for truth. Such men have disciples who reap the disgrace which their masters are apt to somehow avoid; they give the prestige of wisdom and high thought to causes which could not otherwise earn them.” 

For our purposes, though, I want to focus on some particular aspects of Lincoln that were brought to life by Lord Charnwood and which we moderns can learn plenty from.   

Lord Charnwood, who was born during the Civil War, says this about Lincoln:

For perhaps not many conquerors, and certainly few successful statesmen, have escaped the tendency of power to harden or at least to narrow their human sympathies; but in this man a natural wealth of tender compassion became richer and more tender while in the stress of deadly conflict he developed an astounding strength. 

In his review Mr. Epstein built on this theme. “He prosecuted a war in which 1/32nd of the nation’s population was killed without ever showing hatred for the other side,” he wrote. “It was not men but slavery he hated… Malice wasn’t available to Lincoln; mercy came naturally to him. His magnanimity in forgiveness was another sign of his superiority.”

There are many reasons Lincoln holds a special place in our public life and historical memory, but this quality of both mercy and strength ranks high among them. Lincoln combined a ferocious will to win the war with restraint in victory. He fully understood the moral stakes involved in the Civil War even as he resisted the temptation to treat Southerners as lacking in any human dignity or human worth.

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I first learned about Lord Charnwood’s 1916 masterpiece Abraham Lincoln while recently reading a book by the constitutional scholar Walter Berns. (Berns called it “the best of the Lincoln biographies.”) Then, early this year, the essayist Joseph Epstein wrote a review of it for the Wall Street Journal, calling it the best book about Lincoln ever written. And in a wonderful essay in National Affairs, Professor Diana Schaub refers to Lord Charnwood as Lincoln’s greatest biographer. 

Those are three enthusiastic endorsements by three estimable sources. Having now read the book, I can report to you that it is as good as advertised: beautifully written, filled with piercing insights into Lincoln’s character and his political philosophy, and concisely capturing the situation and various actors in America before and during the Civil War.  

“Salmon P. Chase must have really been a good man before he fell in love with his own goodness,” we read. Horace Greeley was “too opinionated to be quite honest.” And about John C. Calhoun, Lord Charnwood writes this: “His intellect must have been powerful enough, but it was that of a man who delights in arguing, and delights in elaborate deductions from principles which he is too proud to revise; a man, too, who is fearless in accepting conclusions which startle or repel the vulgar mind; who is undisturbed in his logical processes by good sense, healthy sentiment, or any vigorous appetite for truth. Such men have disciples who reap the disgrace which their masters are apt to somehow avoid; they give the prestige of wisdom and high thought to causes which could not otherwise earn them.” 

For our purposes, though, I want to focus on some particular aspects of Lincoln that were brought to life by Lord Charnwood and which we moderns can learn plenty from.   

Lord Charnwood, who was born during the Civil War, says this about Lincoln:

For perhaps not many conquerors, and certainly few successful statesmen, have escaped the tendency of power to harden or at least to narrow their human sympathies; but in this man a natural wealth of tender compassion became richer and more tender while in the stress of deadly conflict he developed an astounding strength. 

In his review Mr. Epstein built on this theme. “He prosecuted a war in which 1/32nd of the nation’s population was killed without ever showing hatred for the other side,” he wrote. “It was not men but slavery he hated… Malice wasn’t available to Lincoln; mercy came naturally to him. His magnanimity in forgiveness was another sign of his superiority.”

There are many reasons Lincoln holds a special place in our public life and historical memory, but this quality of both mercy and strength ranks high among them. Lincoln combined a ferocious will to win the war with restraint in victory. He fully understood the moral stakes involved in the Civil War even as he resisted the temptation to treat Southerners as lacking in any human dignity or human worth.

There is something hopeful in seeing a great leader, having prevailed in a great struggle, show humanity and eschew casual cruelty; who was willing to concede that his side was not perfect and the other side was not unmitigated evil. Who else but Lincoln could say at the beginning of the war, “We are not enemies, but friends”–and by the end could say, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the wounds…”? And how much we could use those sensibilities in our time, when such grace and largeness of spirit are in such short supply, including among those who claim Lincoln as their role model. 

One other thing. Lord Charnwood writes, “His own intense experience of the weakness of democracy did not sour him, nor would any similar experience of later times have been likely to do so.”

Abraham Lincoln lived in a much more riven and difficult time than ours, yet he refused to give up on his belief that politics could right certain wrongs. He didn’t withdraw from public life. He didn’t become consumed by hatred or cynicism. Neither should we.

“Beyond his own country,” Lord Charnwood wrote, “some of us recall his name as the greatest among those associated with the cause of popular government.”

It was true then; it remains true today.

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The Rise and Fall of Tzipi Livni

Early this morning the Times of Israel noted in passing, in a story without so much as a byline and whose main source was a public Facebook posting, one of the underappreciated but potentially most interesting aspects of the Hamas-Fatah unity deal. “Chief Israeli negotiator and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni struck a solemn tone on Facebook Wednesday night,” the paper reported, “calling the reconciliation agreement signed between Hamas and Fatah ‘a bad step.’”

It’s not that the Israeli public seems at all interested in Livni’s comments on Mahmoud Abbas’s latest efforts to scuttle the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It’s that the public probably doesn’t care, raising questions about the plummeting political career of a once-promising Israeli politician whose party won the most seats in Knesset elections only five years ago. That election nearly made Livni prime minister, an accomplishment that would have given the party she led at the time three consecutive premierships and established her as the rightful heir of Kadima’s creator and first prime minister, Ariel Sharon. (Sharon’s immediate successor, Ehud Olmert, resigned in disgrace.)

Instead of carrying forth this serial political victor, Livni was unable to form a governing coalition, went into opposition, saw her party’s support drop precipitously, and lost a leadership fight to Shaul Mofaz in 2012. She left Kadima to form her own party that won just six seats in the 2013 Knesset elections. She was put in charge of peace negotiations with the Palestinians as her consolation prize from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party she bested in 2009 but which formed the governing coalition instead of her. Her career trajectory has been heading in one direction, so: does she have a future?

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Early this morning the Times of Israel noted in passing, in a story without so much as a byline and whose main source was a public Facebook posting, one of the underappreciated but potentially most interesting aspects of the Hamas-Fatah unity deal. “Chief Israeli negotiator and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni struck a solemn tone on Facebook Wednesday night,” the paper reported, “calling the reconciliation agreement signed between Hamas and Fatah ‘a bad step.’”

It’s not that the Israeli public seems at all interested in Livni’s comments on Mahmoud Abbas’s latest efforts to scuttle the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It’s that the public probably doesn’t care, raising questions about the plummeting political career of a once-promising Israeli politician whose party won the most seats in Knesset elections only five years ago. That election nearly made Livni prime minister, an accomplishment that would have given the party she led at the time three consecutive premierships and established her as the rightful heir of Kadima’s creator and first prime minister, Ariel Sharon. (Sharon’s immediate successor, Ehud Olmert, resigned in disgrace.)

Instead of carrying forth this serial political victor, Livni was unable to form a governing coalition, went into opposition, saw her party’s support drop precipitously, and lost a leadership fight to Shaul Mofaz in 2012. She left Kadima to form her own party that won just six seats in the 2013 Knesset elections. She was put in charge of peace negotiations with the Palestinians as her consolation prize from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party she bested in 2009 but which formed the governing coalition instead of her. Her career trajectory has been heading in one direction, so: does she have a future?

In Livni’s admittedly limited defense, her fall from grace was not as steep as it seems. The phrase “so close but yet so far” is perfectly applicable to her 2009 electoral victory. Yes, her party won the most seats. But winning the election paradoxically removed none of the obstacles to her premiership. This is one of the quirks of Israeli electoral politics.

It was widely assumed that Livni’s victory by a few seats was due in part to the fact that Israel’s center-right voters–a clear majority–believed Netanyahu was a shoo-in, and thus enough of them shifted their votes to other right-of-center parties to ensure an agreeable governing coalition. The primary beneficiary of this was Avigdor Lieberman, who now had fifteen seats in the Knesset in large part because of the public’s desire to see Netanyahu in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Lieberman was a kingmaker, but his choice of Likud, despite its silver medal, was eminently logical and consistent with the will of the voters. It sounds strange, but Livni may have won the election because of the public’s desire to prevent her from becoming prime minister. When she was unable to form a governing coalition, it seemed almost predetermined.

And this helps us understand Livni’s career a bit better. Why does she lose even when she wins? It’s not because she isn’t well liked; she did, after all, win all those votes and her personality practically shines in comparison to some of Israel’s more, shall we say, prickly politicians. (We like to say that American politics ain’t beanbag, but the Israeli Knesset is an even more rambunctious place than Congress these days.) What’s really been holding Livni back is the durable political consensus that has persisted in Israel.

The country is center-right, willing to make peace but skeptical of Palestinian intentions and clear-eyed about the need to prioritize national security and antiterrorism. It’s also appreciative of the economic benefits from Israel’s two major deregulatory bursts (the latter by Netanyahu personally, both overseen by Likud) and reluctant to allow its populist instincts to give the state back too much power. The politicians who leave this consensus tend to find themselves on the outside of power looking in. The cast of characters may change–witness the rising stars who came out of nowhere in the last election–but the script hasn’t.

Does this leave room for Livni? Yes, it does. But she’s pigeonholed by her attempts to differentiate herself from Netanyahu and his governing coalition. Her only real role is the one she’s got now: “chief negotiator.” That means the impending collapse of peace talks leaves her without much to do. It also doesn’t help that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations continually and predictably fail, meaning anyone in charge racks up the losses without any wins. It’s not a great record to have in politics, but Livni can take heart: given the enthusiasm of the West for this peace process, she’s guaranteed at least to have to the chance to fail again–and probably soon.

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Sorry, Israel Doomsayers, the Conflict Can Be Managed

The last place one expects to find common sense about the Middle East conflict is Roger Cohen’s column in the New York Times. A reflexive critic of the Jewish state, Cohen has been rightly criticized for sloppy writing and threadbare clichés, and he earned lasting infamy in 2009 for a series of columns he wrote seeking to whitewash the Iranian regime of the charge of anti-Semitism. That was an endeavor so transparently false and despicable that it was rightly compared to the Times’s Walter Duranty who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for seeking to depict Josef Stalin as innocent of the crime of genocide in Ukraine. But Cohen has his occasional moments of clarity and today’s piece is one of them. In it, he rightly takes on the oft-repeated charge that the current standoff between Israel and the Palestinians is “unsustainable.”

The notion that Israel must seize any opportunity to make peace on any terms is rooted in a belief that the economic and military strength of the Jewish state is a house of cards that will, sooner or later, come tumbling down as the Palestinians and their supporters undermine both its prosperity and its political legitimacy. But as Cohen writes today, this piece of conventional wisdom that has been embraced by the president of the United States as well as the Jewish left is utter rubbish. As Cohen notes:

Behind its barriers and wall, backed by military might, certain of more or less unswerving American support, technologically innovative and democratically stable, Israel has the power to prolong indefinitely its occupation of the West Bank and its dominion over several million Palestinians. The Jewish state has grown steadily stronger in relation to the Palestinians since 1948. There is no reason to believe this trend will ever be reversed. Holding onto all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, while continuing to prosper, is feasible. This, after all, is what Israel has already done for almost a half-century. …

Throughout this year the Obama administration has pushed the unsustainability argument to make its case for peace. “Today’s status quo, absolutely to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in February. “It is not sustainable. It is illusionary. There’s a momentary prosperity, there’s a momentary peace.”…

But that “point” of unmanageability is a vanishing one. Permanent occupation is what several ministers in Netanyahu’s coalition government advocate. Backed by the evidence, they are certain it can be managed. They are right.

Cohen believes this “permanent occupation” is not desirable and the majority of Israelis probably agree with him about that. But the problem is that in the absence of a credible Palestinian peace partner, the idea of retreating from the West Bank as Israel did with Gaza in 2005 is rightly seen as an act of utter folly.

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The last place one expects to find common sense about the Middle East conflict is Roger Cohen’s column in the New York Times. A reflexive critic of the Jewish state, Cohen has been rightly criticized for sloppy writing and threadbare clichés, and he earned lasting infamy in 2009 for a series of columns he wrote seeking to whitewash the Iranian regime of the charge of anti-Semitism. That was an endeavor so transparently false and despicable that it was rightly compared to the Times’s Walter Duranty who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for seeking to depict Josef Stalin as innocent of the crime of genocide in Ukraine. But Cohen has his occasional moments of clarity and today’s piece is one of them. In it, he rightly takes on the oft-repeated charge that the current standoff between Israel and the Palestinians is “unsustainable.”

The notion that Israel must seize any opportunity to make peace on any terms is rooted in a belief that the economic and military strength of the Jewish state is a house of cards that will, sooner or later, come tumbling down as the Palestinians and their supporters undermine both its prosperity and its political legitimacy. But as Cohen writes today, this piece of conventional wisdom that has been embraced by the president of the United States as well as the Jewish left is utter rubbish. As Cohen notes:

Behind its barriers and wall, backed by military might, certain of more or less unswerving American support, technologically innovative and democratically stable, Israel has the power to prolong indefinitely its occupation of the West Bank and its dominion over several million Palestinians. The Jewish state has grown steadily stronger in relation to the Palestinians since 1948. There is no reason to believe this trend will ever be reversed. Holding onto all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, while continuing to prosper, is feasible. This, after all, is what Israel has already done for almost a half-century. …

Throughout this year the Obama administration has pushed the unsustainability argument to make its case for peace. “Today’s status quo, absolutely to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in February. “It is not sustainable. It is illusionary. There’s a momentary prosperity, there’s a momentary peace.”…

But that “point” of unmanageability is a vanishing one. Permanent occupation is what several ministers in Netanyahu’s coalition government advocate. Backed by the evidence, they are certain it can be managed. They are right.

Cohen believes this “permanent occupation” is not desirable and the majority of Israelis probably agree with him about that. But the problem is that in the absence of a credible Palestinian peace partner, the idea of retreating from the West Bank as Israel did with Gaza in 2005 is rightly seen as an act of utter folly.

Cohen and others believe Israel’s presence in the West Bank and the corrosive nature of its anomalous relationship with the Palestinians undermines its democratic ethos. But as problematic as that situation may be, as Cohen acknowledges, the vast majority of Israelis prefer to go on living with that conundrum rather than endanger their future by repeating the mistakes of Oslo and Ariel Sharon’s Gaza retreat.

Cohen concludes his largely sensible piece by foolishly claiming that Israel must embrace the new Palestinian unity coalition in which Fatah and Hamas have come together as the best path to peace. He even compares the myth that Israel can be destroyed with the idea that the Palestinian Authority “represents the Palestinian national movement” by itself. That latter point may be true, but that is exactly why it is necessary for Israel to refrain from empowering the Islamists of Hamas as it did for the nationalists of Fatah under the Oslo Accords. Given the choice of making peace with Israel or with Hamas, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas chose Hamas. The idea that Hamas or even most of Fatah is willing to accept peace with Israel is a myth that is every bit as baseless as the one about Israel’s impending doom.

But Cohen’s broader point about sustainability is one the doomsayers about Israel on the left need to come to terms with. By feeding the Palestinian fantasy about Israel running out of time to make peace, President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and their cheerleaders on the Jewish left are actually undermining the chances for peace. The notion that Israel is living on borrowed time has been a staple of Middle East commentary since its victory in 1967 and it is just as much of a fallacy today as it was then. Indeed, despite numerous problems, both domestic and foreign, Israel has become an economic and military powerhouse that cannot be wished away. While some toy with unrealistic notions about a one-state solution, most Israelis would prefer a two-state answer to their current predicament but sensibly understand that must be deferred until the Palestinians come to their senses and reject a concept of national identity that is not inextricably tied to a quest for Israel’s destruction. If and when they do, they will find that Israel is ready to deal with them. But until then, they will remain mired in their current dilemma while the Jewish state continues to wax stronger.

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Iran Promoted to UN Rights Bodies

Yesterday was business as usual at the United Nations, with Iran and a host of other despotic regimes winning seats on leading human-rights bodies. What should by any estimation be considered an astonishing inversion of the principles that the institution purports to champion somehow seems barely remarkable coming from the UN. For decades it has rendered its human-rights bodies Orwellian caricatures by handing them into the charge of the world’s worst human-rights abusers. It is completely absurd to imagine that the bodies that are supposed to be responsible for policing human rights can be administered by the very countries that ought to be subject to investigation.

The UN’s Commission on the Status of Women can now look forward to the assistance of the Iranians in fulfilling its worthy mission of promoting the welfare of the world’s women. Similarly, Iran will no doubt be eager to make itself useful in its new position on the UN’s NGO Committee, which is tasked with determining which NGOs are to be accredited by the UN. For years now tyrannical leaders have been seeking to use such positions of influence to drive out those NGOs that dare to publicize and criticize their shameful human-rights records. Iran’s ascent to a seat at this table is just another victory for the world’s dictators, hell-bent not only on tormenting their own peoples but also on ensuring that these crimes are kept far away from the world’s attention.

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Yesterday was business as usual at the United Nations, with Iran and a host of other despotic regimes winning seats on leading human-rights bodies. What should by any estimation be considered an astonishing inversion of the principles that the institution purports to champion somehow seems barely remarkable coming from the UN. For decades it has rendered its human-rights bodies Orwellian caricatures by handing them into the charge of the world’s worst human-rights abusers. It is completely absurd to imagine that the bodies that are supposed to be responsible for policing human rights can be administered by the very countries that ought to be subject to investigation.

The UN’s Commission on the Status of Women can now look forward to the assistance of the Iranians in fulfilling its worthy mission of promoting the welfare of the world’s women. Similarly, Iran will no doubt be eager to make itself useful in its new position on the UN’s NGO Committee, which is tasked with determining which NGOs are to be accredited by the UN. For years now tyrannical leaders have been seeking to use such positions of influence to drive out those NGOs that dare to publicize and criticize their shameful human-rights records. Iran’s ascent to a seat at this table is just another victory for the world’s dictators, hell-bent not only on tormenting their own peoples but also on ensuring that these crimes are kept far away from the world’s attention.

As for Iran’s newly found place in a forum supposedly devoted to women’s rights, this move would surely be deemed laughable if it weren’t also so tragic. The lot of women in Iran is particularly appalling. The mullahs’ regime there enforces one of the most draconian versions of Islamic religious law. Iran’s laws regulate everything from how women are to dress to the myriad areas of their lives that are to be governed by their husband’s consent. And women in Iran have fallen victim in large numbers to Iran’s liberal use of the death penalty, executed unsparingly for crimes ranging from adultery to drug-related offenses.

Not surprisingly, the monitoring group UN Watch has been particularly scathing in its assessment of these events. Hillel Neuer, the organization’s director, responded by announcing, “Today is a black day for human rights. By empowering the perpetrators over the victims, the UN harms the cause of human rights, betrays its founding principles, and undermines its own credibility.” The United States has similarly expressed its opposition to seeing Iran assume membership of these committees, just as administration officials have been compelled to protest Iran’s choice of one of the 1979 U.S. embassy hostage takers for its new envoy to the UN. But given that move, and if the administration really finds the thought of Iran sitting on a human-rights body so deplorable, then why does the U.S. government continue to legitimate the regime in Iran by continuing to push the line that President Rouhani is a moderate with whom it is advisable to negotiate?

There is little point in American officials protesting this kind of thing as long as the UN continues to remain what it has long been: a club for the dictatorships that dominate its membership. Some protest the disproportionate power of the UN’s Security Council and the five permanent members that dominate that body. Yet the real travesty of the UN is that in the General Assembly and throughout its maze of committees and bodies, it gives a vote to regimes that don’t even allow their own people the most basic right to vote in free and fair elections.

Surely international law, and the human-rights norms these laws are supposed to protect, will remain a mockery so long as countries that have nothing but disregard for human rights and the rule of law continue to have equal say in halls of the international community. If the UN ever wanted to get serious about human rights, it would start by not letting the criminals assume the position of judge and jury.

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So Much for Self-Determination in Crimea

Vladimir Putin has repeatedly justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea with an argument about ethnic solidarity. Just as Nazi Germany based citizenship on ethnicity rather than within which borders one happened to live and to whom one paid taxes, Putin argues effectively that Russians everywhere deserve autonomy if not unification with the homeland. That many Russian populations are not contiguous to Russia itself is not a problem because, after all, so long as Putin is concerned Russians are more equal than other peoples and if the Russian army needs to steamroll through territory that isn’t Russian, so be it.

The problem with precedent is what happens when others utilize it. Putin (and Obama) are lucky that China does not have a ruler as Machiavellian as Putin. After all, with resource-rich Siberia’s growing Chinese minority and declining ethnic Russian population, it really is ripe for the picking. So is much of Southeast Asia, should the Chinese set their sights on it.  

That may seem farfetched, so back to Crimea. A majority of Crimeans might speak Russian (according to this map derived from the 2001 Ukrainian census), but there are other populations in Crimea regardless of the language they speak. Before Josef Stalin, Soviet dictator and Putin idol, Crimea was home to an indigenous Tatar population. As a result of supposed (and actual) Nazi collaboration, Stalin ordered the deportation of almost 200,000 Tatars from Crimea, many of whom died during and as a result of their forcible relocation. Still, a small but growing number of Tatars remain in the Crimea today. Given their history of victimization at the hands of Moscow, it is not surprising that many Tatars preferred life in Ukraine rather than suddenly find themselves living back in Russia because of the wave of Putin’s magic wand.

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Vladimir Putin has repeatedly justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea with an argument about ethnic solidarity. Just as Nazi Germany based citizenship on ethnicity rather than within which borders one happened to live and to whom one paid taxes, Putin argues effectively that Russians everywhere deserve autonomy if not unification with the homeland. That many Russian populations are not contiguous to Russia itself is not a problem because, after all, so long as Putin is concerned Russians are more equal than other peoples and if the Russian army needs to steamroll through territory that isn’t Russian, so be it.

The problem with precedent is what happens when others utilize it. Putin (and Obama) are lucky that China does not have a ruler as Machiavellian as Putin. After all, with resource-rich Siberia’s growing Chinese minority and declining ethnic Russian population, it really is ripe for the picking. So is much of Southeast Asia, should the Chinese set their sights on it.  

That may seem farfetched, so back to Crimea. A majority of Crimeans might speak Russian (according to this map derived from the 2001 Ukrainian census), but there are other populations in Crimea regardless of the language they speak. Before Josef Stalin, Soviet dictator and Putin idol, Crimea was home to an indigenous Tatar population. As a result of supposed (and actual) Nazi collaboration, Stalin ordered the deportation of almost 200,000 Tatars from Crimea, many of whom died during and as a result of their forcible relocation. Still, a small but growing number of Tatars remain in the Crimea today. Given their history of victimization at the hands of Moscow, it is not surprising that many Tatars preferred life in Ukraine rather than suddenly find themselves living back in Russia because of the wave of Putin’s magic wand.

Now, Putin is waving his stick once again, signing a decree banning the leader of Crimea’s Tatars from his homeland for five years. Perhaps he was upset that the Tatars were taking a page from Putin’s own playbook and demanding a referendum for their own freedom from Russia. What’s good for the goose obviously isn’t good for the gander. Perhaps if Russia is unilaterally banning the Tatar leader from Crimea and its wonderful beaches, Europe should show solidarity and respond by banning members of Russia’s ruling “United Russia” party from their summers in the Riviera or the Algarve. The financial loss to business could be more than offset by a concerted advertising campaign to encourage Ukrainians and other Europeans to take their place. After all, many would be more than happy to enjoy the resorts absent the loud Russians who put the stereotype of the “Ugly Americans” to shame.

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Union Leader’s About-Face on School Choice

Despite the Obama administration’s best efforts, union membership remains at all-time lows. Meanwhile, public disapproval of labor unions is near all-time highs. Teachers’ unions have been a main catalyst of public antipathy. During the last presidential election campaign, Gov. Mitt Romney tried to make teachers’ unions a lightning rod to rally support. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has likewise used antipathy toward teachers’ unions as a populist tool.

One of the reasons why teachers’ unions have become such a lightning rod is the belief, even among many who would normally be pro-labor, is the sense that teachers’ unions pit membership interest above that of children. Nowhere has this become more apparent than with the case of school vouchers which allow otherwise underprivileged youth or those stuck in poorly performing districts a chance at a better education. While many underprivileged students have sought to take advantage of these vouchers, teachers’ unions have uniformly opposed them. Here, for example, is the National Education Association position on vouchers and here is the American Federation of Teachers’ position.

How refreshing it is to see a union leader, even if retired, rethink his position and put kids first. George Parker used to be president of the Washington Teachers Union, and is a 30-year veteran teacher of the Washington D.C. school system. Writing last month in the Tennessean, here is what he had to say:

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Despite the Obama administration’s best efforts, union membership remains at all-time lows. Meanwhile, public disapproval of labor unions is near all-time highs. Teachers’ unions have been a main catalyst of public antipathy. During the last presidential election campaign, Gov. Mitt Romney tried to make teachers’ unions a lightning rod to rally support. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has likewise used antipathy toward teachers’ unions as a populist tool.

One of the reasons why teachers’ unions have become such a lightning rod is the belief, even among many who would normally be pro-labor, is the sense that teachers’ unions pit membership interest above that of children. Nowhere has this become more apparent than with the case of school vouchers which allow otherwise underprivileged youth or those stuck in poorly performing districts a chance at a better education. While many underprivileged students have sought to take advantage of these vouchers, teachers’ unions have uniformly opposed them. Here, for example, is the National Education Association position on vouchers and here is the American Federation of Teachers’ position.

How refreshing it is to see a union leader, even if retired, rethink his position and put kids first. George Parker used to be president of the Washington Teachers Union, and is a 30-year veteran teacher of the Washington D.C. school system. Writing last month in the Tennessean, here is what he had to say:

My change of heart boiled down to this: I realized my opposition to opportunity scholarships was based on prioritizing adult interests above those of kids. As a former union leader, I made maintaining union influence and power a greater priority than meeting the educational needs of parents and students. But seeing firsthand the positive impact that D.C.’s federally funded voucher program had on many families — especially those of color and limited means — compelled me to rethink my position.

He then gives three reasons why school vouchers work:

First, it puts more power back in the hands of parents, where it belongs. I think we can all agree that parents should have the biggest voice in deciding what type of school is best for their child. Second, expanding school choice helps level the playing field by giving low-income families the same options as high-income ones. Opportunity scholarships will be a godsend for disadvantaged families who cannot afford private school, or to move to a community with better public options. Third, and most importantly, opportunity scholarships work. Similar programs in other states report greater levels of student achievement and parental satisfaction.

Let us hope that his former colleagues will have a similar change of heart. At the very least, his litmus test of what benefits students should become the key litmus test for anyone concerned about the state of public education in the United States, whether they are parents, community leaders, non-unionized teachers, or, indeed, teachers’ unions as well.

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