Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 28, 2014

Palin’s New Style of Political Influence

In today’s Washington Post, the always-insightful Robert Costa reports on Sarah Palin’s latest foray into electoral politics. In Iowa to observe a Palin campaign appearance on behalf of Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst, Costa was surprised to note that Palin, who is still widely considered to be a rock star of the political right, spoke to a half-empty ballroom with only a few dozen hanging around afterward hoping to shake the hand of the former Alaska governor. That contrast between this event and the pandemonium that greeted Palin wherever she went in 2010 and 2011 led Costa and NBC’s Kasie Hunt to ponder just how much her stock had fallen since her heyday as the No. 1 attraction for the Tea Party crowd.

Some of this analysis is spot on. There’s no question that Palin has been superseded in the eyes of many on the right by the class of conservative notables like Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul that was produced by the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. Even though Palin can claim some credit for the victories of figures such as Cruz, when pollsters quiz Republicans about potential presidential candidates for 2016, Palin is usually not even mentioned. Though her supporters will point to the rain in Iowa as the reason for the low turnout, the fact is she is no longer as much of a draw as she once was. But in noting, as Costa did, the fact that she “soldiers on as a diminished figure in the Republican Party,” we should, however, not assume that this means she is bereft of influence or supporters. In accounting for this change in status, we must understand that what has happened is not so much a case of a former first-tier political personality declining to secondary status but that she has morphed into something entirely different than a conventional office-seeking politician. She is now a celebrity brand that, while it will never be as significant as any of the actual contenders for leadership of the Republican Party and the nation, will nonetheless remain in place for the foreseeable future as both a scourge and a source of inspiration for the right wing of the GOP.

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In today’s Washington Post, the always-insightful Robert Costa reports on Sarah Palin’s latest foray into electoral politics. In Iowa to observe a Palin campaign appearance on behalf of Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst, Costa was surprised to note that Palin, who is still widely considered to be a rock star of the political right, spoke to a half-empty ballroom with only a few dozen hanging around afterward hoping to shake the hand of the former Alaska governor. That contrast between this event and the pandemonium that greeted Palin wherever she went in 2010 and 2011 led Costa and NBC’s Kasie Hunt to ponder just how much her stock had fallen since her heyday as the No. 1 attraction for the Tea Party crowd.

Some of this analysis is spot on. There’s no question that Palin has been superseded in the eyes of many on the right by the class of conservative notables like Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul that was produced by the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. Even though Palin can claim some credit for the victories of figures such as Cruz, when pollsters quiz Republicans about potential presidential candidates for 2016, Palin is usually not even mentioned. Though her supporters will point to the rain in Iowa as the reason for the low turnout, the fact is she is no longer as much of a draw as she once was. But in noting, as Costa did, the fact that she “soldiers on as a diminished figure in the Republican Party,” we should, however, not assume that this means she is bereft of influence or supporters. In accounting for this change in status, we must understand that what has happened is not so much a case of a former first-tier political personality declining to secondary status but that she has morphed into something entirely different than a conventional office-seeking politician. She is now a celebrity brand that, while it will never be as significant as any of the actual contenders for leadership of the Republican Party and the nation, will nonetheless remain in place for the foreseeable future as both a scourge and a source of inspiration for the right wing of the GOP.

As Palin’s handlers and apologists are at pains to point out, she is right now far more interested in the production of her latest cable television effort than in beating the bushes on behalf of Republican candidates. By withdrawing first from her office as governor and then from what many once thought was an inevitable presidential run, Palin’s stature as a political star has, as a matter of course, declined. If the buzz and the accompanying throngs that greeted her every appearance in early 2011 made her appear to be a major force in American politics, the smaller crowds and attention now may convince some to write her off completely. But though I consider her influence on both the party and our public discourse to be not always productive or particularly insightful, her current position in our political life should not be judged solely by the standards of presidential hopefuls.

By downsizing her political ambitions and her reach, Palin has in a very real sense enhanced her ability to swoop into selected primary battles and have an outsized impact on races. Her intervention on behalf of the tough-talking Ernst, which appears to have been solely the product of that Senate candidate’s ad touting her experience castrating pigs, may turn out to be as decisive as her support for Cruz and Nebraska’s Deb Fischer in 2012, despite the talk about turnout for her appearance.

That doesn’t make her a Senate or congressional kingmaker in the guise of a Karl Rove, whose fundraising operations dwarf Palin’s now sporadic entries into primary battles. But she has managed to create a political space for herself in which expectations about her own ambitions are no longer the point. Her fan base remains numerous and utterly fanatic as anyone who dares to point out her manifest shortcomings as a political thinker and candidate knows all too well. If it is, as she knows all too well, nowhere near large enough to justify a try for national office that would result in a humiliating failure, it is sufficient to maintain her as a political player to be reckoned with on the right. If she has been eclipsed by the deep class of 2016 GOP contenders, it must also be understood that she is likely to remain a desirable backer for conservative primary candidates for the foreseeable future long after the current crop of Republican stars has been largely forgotten.

Palin is, at times, an infuriating and bitter reminder of the worst partisan excesses of the last few election cycles on the part of both parties. As such, she has no chance of ever gratifying the desire of her fan base to see her elected president and that is a good thing. But those who would like to see her go away completely are doomed to disappointment. By cleverly accepting a certain degree of detachment as well as diminishment, Sarah Palin has ensured that she will be around for a long time to come.

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The Grimm Truth About the Political Class

So after years of rumors about improprieties in fundraising, Rep. Michael Grimm was finally indicted today by the federal government on charges that had absolutely nothing to do with the reason he came under suspicion. While others were charged or remain under investigation in connection with questionable fundraising for his campaign, the former Marine and FBI agent was not. But as has often been the case with federal investigations, once the government started sniffing around Grimm’s finances, they wound up uncovering other unrelated misdeeds that may well wind up putting him in jail and perhaps costing the Republican Party a competitive House seat. Grimm’s spokesman may call it a “politically motivated vendetta,” but it’s difficult to talk about politics in the context of what appears to be a cut and dried case of tax fraud and lying under oath resulting from the way the congressman cooked the books at a health food store he opened in Manhattan before heading down to Washington.

But the thing that really interests me about this story is the way it illustrates once again the arrogance of public officials and the way political power has a way of persuading people that the rules they seek to enforce with respect to others don’t apply to them. Michael Grim’s story is familiar in this sense as it resembles those of countless other members of Congress over the years who have run afoul of the law. But just because it is not unique doesn’t mean it isn’t important. What Grimm, like every other public official who breaks the law, teaches us is the necessity of not taking our politicians at face value. If our system is to thrive, accountability, even for those in the public eye who seem to be straight out of a computer program for successful politicians (as the clean-cut former military man was) is a necessity. Grimm is the exception that proves the rule that most members of Congress are decent, hardworking public servants. But anyone who questions the need to send at least a few non-career politicians who are rabble-rousers that don’t go along to get along at Capitol Hill should remember Grimm’s example when asked to treat the political class with deference. He may be an outlier in the sense that there was little doubt about the questionable nature of his conduct, but he is far from the only member of Congress who thinks he is above the law.

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So after years of rumors about improprieties in fundraising, Rep. Michael Grimm was finally indicted today by the federal government on charges that had absolutely nothing to do with the reason he came under suspicion. While others were charged or remain under investigation in connection with questionable fundraising for his campaign, the former Marine and FBI agent was not. But as has often been the case with federal investigations, once the government started sniffing around Grimm’s finances, they wound up uncovering other unrelated misdeeds that may well wind up putting him in jail and perhaps costing the Republican Party a competitive House seat. Grimm’s spokesman may call it a “politically motivated vendetta,” but it’s difficult to talk about politics in the context of what appears to be a cut and dried case of tax fraud and lying under oath resulting from the way the congressman cooked the books at a health food store he opened in Manhattan before heading down to Washington.

But the thing that really interests me about this story is the way it illustrates once again the arrogance of public officials and the way political power has a way of persuading people that the rules they seek to enforce with respect to others don’t apply to them. Michael Grim’s story is familiar in this sense as it resembles those of countless other members of Congress over the years who have run afoul of the law. But just because it is not unique doesn’t mean it isn’t important. What Grimm, like every other public official who breaks the law, teaches us is the necessity of not taking our politicians at face value. If our system is to thrive, accountability, even for those in the public eye who seem to be straight out of a computer program for successful politicians (as the clean-cut former military man was) is a necessity. Grimm is the exception that proves the rule that most members of Congress are decent, hardworking public servants. But anyone who questions the need to send at least a few non-career politicians who are rabble-rousers that don’t go along to get along at Capitol Hill should remember Grimm’s example when asked to treat the political class with deference. He may be an outlier in the sense that there was little doubt about the questionable nature of his conduct, but he is far from the only member of Congress who thinks he is above the law.

Grimm, a repulsive character who will probably best be remembered for an on-camera threat to throw a television reporter off a Capitol balcony for having the temerity to ask him about his legal troubles, is clearly finished in politics. The only political question about this story is not whether he can survive the case (he can’t) but whether the GOP can persuade him to quickly resign his seat and allow them to somehow field a candidate who has a chance to hold onto a district that is one of the few in the Greater New York region where they have a shot as well as a rare example of a genuine swing seat. Considering that Vito Fosella, the last Republican to hold that Staten Island-based seat, also went down in the flames of scandal (a DUI charge that led to the revelation that he was leading a double life), the party doesn’t have a very good track record in picking winners who can stay out of trouble. The fact that the indictment came days after the deadline for replacing Grimm on the ballot this November except by a legal subterfuge is evidence that the Justice Department’s motivations here are not pure. But it also means Grimm’s troubles point to a Democrat pick-up there this fall.

Yet none of that answers the question about why a former FBI agent thought he could get around the tax laws as well as possibly evading campaign finance rules. Perhaps Grimm’s knowledge of the ins and outs of the justice system led him to believe he could evade detection. But there was something in his demeanor when called upon to account for his problems that spoke to a sense that he was a uniquely privileged character who could do what he wanted. That this was a delusion in a 24/7 political news environment may never have occurred to him. As such, he will be branded as peculiar sort of sociopath. But the nature of his office does seem to breed this sort of attitude even among those who are not under federal investigation on both sides of the political aisle.

We may mourn the fact that people like Michael Grimm deepen our sense of cynicism about politics. But rather than lament a mythical lost innocence, we would do well to recognize that politicians are cut from the same cloth as the rest of humanity and are as vulnerable to avarice and sin as the rest of us. Politicians should neither be lionized nor demonized. Rather, what we must do is to remember James Madison’s famous words that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary” and apportion power to our representatives and the institutions they run with care.

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The President Who Has Learned Nothing

In his remarks at a press conference today in the Philippines, President Obama more or less acknowledged that his strategy for restraining Russian aggression isn’t going to work. When pressed on a second round of minimal sanctions that do little to punish the regime of Vladimir Putin, let alone impact the Russian economy, the president didn’t promise much in the way of success. “We don’t know yet if it’s going to work,” he admitted. Given that there is no example in history of such a limited sanctions campaign with no threat of force on the table, nor tangible plans to bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, ever working, he did well to lower expectations. But rather than own up to his impotence, the president lashed out at those who have been urging a more vigorous effort to help the Ukrainians, including the shipment of arms and reinforcing the American presence in those NATO nations that were once part of the tsarist/Soviet empire that Putin seeks to reassemble.

As far as the president is concerned, anyone who might have been wrong about the wisdom of invading Iraq should just shut up about using force or anything more than the charade of resistance to Russian ambitions he has employed or in doing something about the ongoing human-rights catastrophe in Syria. A lengthy and somewhat whiney diatribe about Syria and Russia policy culminated in this extraordinary statement:

The point is that for some reason many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over again.

Whether Obama was referring specifically to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who expressed a desire for a more robust response to Russia, or just neoconservatives in general, who have been lamenting his “lead from behind” approach to foreign policy, wasn’t immediately clear. But the president’s sensitivity about his failures in Syria and Russia and anger at the chutzpah of his critics in pointing out just how disastrous his conduct of foreign policy has been was apparent. But though he may pride himself on having opposed the conflict in Iraq—the issue that helped gain him the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008—history did not stop on January 2009. In the sixth year of his presidency with a lengthy resume of foreign-policy failure, the best Obama can do is to attempt to re-litigate Iraq. While Iraq war advocates have largely acknowledged their mistakes, Obama isn’t willing to even acknowledge his, let alone learn from them.

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In his remarks at a press conference today in the Philippines, President Obama more or less acknowledged that his strategy for restraining Russian aggression isn’t going to work. When pressed on a second round of minimal sanctions that do little to punish the regime of Vladimir Putin, let alone impact the Russian economy, the president didn’t promise much in the way of success. “We don’t know yet if it’s going to work,” he admitted. Given that there is no example in history of such a limited sanctions campaign with no threat of force on the table, nor tangible plans to bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, ever working, he did well to lower expectations. But rather than own up to his impotence, the president lashed out at those who have been urging a more vigorous effort to help the Ukrainians, including the shipment of arms and reinforcing the American presence in those NATO nations that were once part of the tsarist/Soviet empire that Putin seeks to reassemble.

As far as the president is concerned, anyone who might have been wrong about the wisdom of invading Iraq should just shut up about using force or anything more than the charade of resistance to Russian ambitions he has employed or in doing something about the ongoing human-rights catastrophe in Syria. A lengthy and somewhat whiney diatribe about Syria and Russia policy culminated in this extraordinary statement:

The point is that for some reason many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over again.

Whether Obama was referring specifically to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who expressed a desire for a more robust response to Russia, or just neoconservatives in general, who have been lamenting his “lead from behind” approach to foreign policy, wasn’t immediately clear. But the president’s sensitivity about his failures in Syria and Russia and anger at the chutzpah of his critics in pointing out just how disastrous his conduct of foreign policy has been was apparent. But though he may pride himself on having opposed the conflict in Iraq—the issue that helped gain him the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008—history did not stop on January 2009. In the sixth year of his presidency with a lengthy resume of foreign-policy failure, the best Obama can do is to attempt to re-litigate Iraq. While Iraq war advocates have largely acknowledged their mistakes, Obama isn’t willing to even acknowledge his, let alone learn from them.

The president argues that the use of force by the West in Syria would do nothing now to solve the problems created by a bloody three-year-old civil war. He even claims his retreat on Syria that effectively guaranteed the survival of the Assad regime and handed control over the issue of chemical weapons to Putin had solved the problem even though it appears to have done nothing of the kind. He went on to claim that he had “mobilized the international community” and that as a result of his heroic leadership, “Russia has never been more isolated.”

Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army? Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure, and economic pressure that we’re applying?

The answer to the latter question is so obvious that it is troubling that the president even posed it. We don’t know whether Putin, who was sufficiently uncertain of a Western response in 2004 and 2005 during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution to refrain from attacking the former Russian possession, would think twice if the West sent more arms and aid to Kiev. But we do know that Putin is laughing up his sleeve at the ineffectual response that Obama has put forward in the wake of his seizure of Ukraine. Having seen what he could get away with there, he’s now further testing Ukraine and the West with provocations along its eastern border. The result is that after the collapse of Obama’s resolve on Syria, the surrender to Iran’s demands in the nuclear negotiations, and the humiliation in Eastern Europe, America’s standing in the world has never been lower.

President Obama arrived in the White House in 2009 determined not to repeat his predecessor’s mistakes. But as with every general who sought to win the next war with the winning strategies employed in the last one, he has now a record of colossal miscalculations of his own to defend.

History will judge the rights and wrongs of the Iraq debate and right now it looks as if those who wished to stay out have the better argument–though that is as much the result of Obama’s failure to follow up on the victories won in the 2007 surge than the inherent fault of the original plan. But being right on Iraq, if indeed he really was correct, tells us nothing about what the best course of action is on Syria, Iran, or Ukraine. It should be remembered that George W. Bush re-evaluated his Iraq strategy after 2006 and his course correction enabled him to hand off a conflict to Obama that had been largely won.

Obama remains forever locked in a time warp labeled 2008. Making a blunder is one thing but, as the president has demonstrated, not having the grace or the wit to recognize that you’ve made a mistake is far worse. Based on today’s performance and the certain prospects of future humiliations at the hands of Putin, Assad, and Iran’s ayatollahs, Barack Obama will go down in history as the president who learned nothing.

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The Fierce Urgency of After the Midterms

The apocalyptic rhetoric from environmental groups has always put them in the spotlight, which can be a blessing and a curse: it helps their funding, though their dire predictions and alarmist proclamations are tested. But surely even worse for the greens’ prophetic pretensions than having to revise their forecasts of doom is their wavering sense of urgency when political expediency demands it.

And so while environmentalists make no secret of their fervent opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline extension, they’re also revealing that they are following the familiar trajectory of left-leaning interest groups by starting out as principled issue activists and becoming yet another Democratic Party adjunct. As the Hill reported yesterday:

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The apocalyptic rhetoric from environmental groups has always put them in the spotlight, which can be a blessing and a curse: it helps their funding, though their dire predictions and alarmist proclamations are tested. But surely even worse for the greens’ prophetic pretensions than having to revise their forecasts of doom is their wavering sense of urgency when political expediency demands it.

And so while environmentalists make no secret of their fervent opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline extension, they’re also revealing that they are following the familiar trajectory of left-leaning interest groups by starting out as principled issue activists and becoming yet another Democratic Party adjunct. As the Hill reported yesterday:

Centrist Democrats who support construction of the Keystone XL pipeline might not get the cold shoulder from green groups this fall. 

Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who’s challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), was the latest to buck her party’s leaders when she announced this week she supports construction of the pipeline. 

Democrats from conservative states have joined with Republicans in supporting Keystone XL, which they argue would create jobs and improve the country’s energy independence. In addition to Grimes, at least seven other Senate Democratic incumbents or candidates have supported its construction so far. 

But even though green groups have fought tooth and nail to block the oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. over environmental concerns, they aren’t making the issue into a litmus test for Democratic candidates they consider supporting.

Instead, organizations with environmental priorities are weighing Keystone along with other top environmental issues when deciding who to throw their weight behind.

They’ve spent a tremendous amount of effort on treating Keystone as a cause worth fighting for. And the fight has been good for their bottom line. As the New York Times reported back in January, “no one disputes that the issue has helped a new breed of environmental organizations build a mostly young army eager to donate money and time.” So why wouldn’t they live up to the hype and make this a litmus test issue?

Here’s the justification from the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, as reported by the Hill: “The action fund has made the strategic conclusion in this cycle to focus on climate change, and, specifically, the president’s climate plan.” So Keystone just isn’t much of a “climate change” issue then? On the contrary, says … the Natural Resources Defense Council:

Building the 875-mile northern segment of Keystone XL would lead to a dramatic increase in the carbon pollution that worsens the effects of climate change. Hence, construction of the pipeline fails the all-important carbon test the president laid out in his June 2013 climate address to the nation, when he said Keystone XL’s permit would be approved only if the pipeline “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

The dissembling makes it pretty clear just how the environmentalists choose their “litmus tests.” Another clue comes from the indications that President Obama has delayed a decision on Keystone in order to kill the pipeline deal after the midterm elections. That flies in the face of the science on Keystone, which effectively rebuts the greens’ anticommerce propaganda. But it is perfectly synchronous with the demands of Tom Steyer, the billionaire writing large checks to finance Democratic campaigns, especially those who fight Keystone.

Why wouldn’t Steyer demand–since he can, apparently–that the pipeline project get its rejection notice immediately, if it’s truly the right thing to do? Because while that would follow the professed principles of Steyer and others in the environmentalist far-left, it would also make life tougher for embattled Democrats in non-loony states who don’t want to oppose the commonsense job creator Keystone represents. This way, they can run in support of Keystone without suffering any consequences.

Now, you might say, that doesn’t sound quite so principled. Enabling Democrats to run in support of Keystone while plowing money into attacking Republicans because they also support Keystone would appear to elevate partisanship over principle. And aside from Steyer’s business interests, he appears to be mulling a political career of his own, possibly as a candidate for California governor. Initially, he seemed willing to attack Democrats who supported Keystone; as the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel noted, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu was, at first, on the list:

Mr. Steyer then spent some quality time with senior Democrats, who presumably explained that the establishment would not look kindly on a would-be governor who blew their control of the Senate. Ms. Landrieu came off the list, and Mr. Steyer has downgraded his criteria for playing in races to whether “something important” is at stake.

Despite the unhinged rhetoric from high-profile Democrats–for example, Harry Reid calling conservative political activism “un-American”–Steyer and the greens are perfectly entitled to participate in the electoral process. It’s just helpful to know that it’s about power and electing Democrats, not the Earth hanging in the balance.

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Iraqis at the Polls

I arrived in London yesterday as Iraqis here began early voting ahead of Wednesday polls, and ever more photos of Iraqi expatriates voting around the world now mark Facebook. Given the videos of campaigning inside Iraq, as well as the chatter from Iraqis there, it certainly seems that Iraqis will embrace new national elections with enthusiasm, and as a chance to resolve critical questions which Iraq’s political class has so far kicked down the road. There are many issues to be resolved.

First and foremost, is the position of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, about whom the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins recently penned a study worth reading, even if some of his assumptions are questionable and despite the fact that he appears to have allowed American officials both to exaggerate and whitewash their roles. Maliki—like pretty much all of his political rivals—is flawed. Many of the aspersions his rivals throw at him perhaps reflect their own projection. Maliki is no autocrat—he has not the power to be one at present and few autocrats worry about losing at the polls. That said, Iraqis fear that after a third term he could push Iraq in that direction by further reshaping the civil service in his image.

Ayad Allawi remains more popular among military analysts in Washington and royal family members in Jordan and Saudi Arabia than he is in Iraq, largely because he spends so much time abroad. And it is unclear whether Ammar al-Hakim’s grouping will remain immune to forces that might seek to co-opt its members after the election. That said, any change in power might benefit Iraq simply by setting a precedent. If Maliki is unable to form a new coalition—more on that later—then hopefully any successor will be wise enough to allow Maliki to retire in peace rather than engage in political retaliation.

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I arrived in London yesterday as Iraqis here began early voting ahead of Wednesday polls, and ever more photos of Iraqi expatriates voting around the world now mark Facebook. Given the videos of campaigning inside Iraq, as well as the chatter from Iraqis there, it certainly seems that Iraqis will embrace new national elections with enthusiasm, and as a chance to resolve critical questions which Iraq’s political class has so far kicked down the road. There are many issues to be resolved.

First and foremost, is the position of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, about whom the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins recently penned a study worth reading, even if some of his assumptions are questionable and despite the fact that he appears to have allowed American officials both to exaggerate and whitewash their roles. Maliki—like pretty much all of his political rivals—is flawed. Many of the aspersions his rivals throw at him perhaps reflect their own projection. Maliki is no autocrat—he has not the power to be one at present and few autocrats worry about losing at the polls. That said, Iraqis fear that after a third term he could push Iraq in that direction by further reshaping the civil service in his image.

Ayad Allawi remains more popular among military analysts in Washington and royal family members in Jordan and Saudi Arabia than he is in Iraq, largely because he spends so much time abroad. And it is unclear whether Ammar al-Hakim’s grouping will remain immune to forces that might seek to co-opt its members after the election. That said, any change in power might benefit Iraq simply by setting a precedent. If Maliki is unable to form a new coalition—more on that later—then hopefully any successor will be wise enough to allow Maliki to retire in peace rather than engage in political retaliation.

The second issue which the elections should resolve is the question of the presidency. Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s president, remains paralyzed, impaired cognitively, and barely able to speak. Kurdish officials have released only two sets of photographs since he suffered a debilitating stroke in December 2012, and his family refuses him visitors or to release videos. Those who suggest Talabani is recuperating well have become the second coming of Saddam’s former Information Minister Muhammed Saeed “There are no Americans in Baghdad” al-Sahaf.

The only certainty from this new election is that it will usher in a new presidency. I have written before about the Masud Barzani option. Visiting Baghdad last month, I also heard rumors that Barzani’s uncle, Hoshyar Zebari, could fill the position, thereby creating a vacancy in the foreign ministry. While many Americans may hope that former Kurdish prime minister and Iraqi Minister of Planning Barham Salih could fit the bill for president, Barham has to overcome two hurdles working against him: First is that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party he represents, has steadily hemorrhaged voter support. Many Iraqis would rightly question why the plum post of the presidency should go to the third-place finisher. Iraq, after all, isn’t like the European Union, where failed national politicians get plum posts as consolation prizes.

A greater obstacle for Barham is the animosity which Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, Jalal Talabani’s wife and the keeper of PUK finances, has for him. Simply put, she hates him and would do anything she can to scuttle any promotion for him. That is too bad, because if Hoshyar Zebari takes the presidency, Barham would make an excellent foreign minister. Hero is too small-minded to care, but short-sightedness has always been the Kurds’ No. 1 enemy. That said, many Iraqis question why the Kurds should automatically consider the presidency reserved for them. If the Kurds do succeed in taking the presidency, then it confirms the Lebanese confessional model in Iraq, a model that does not have a strong track record of preserving peace.

Many other issues remain unresolved which I will write about after the election: The situation in Kirkuk remains volatile, even as most across the political, ethnic, and sectarian spectrum acknowledge that Governor Najmaldin Karim has done an excellent job. The question of oil and, more broadly, relations between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government remains unresolved. Sectarianism continues to eat away at Iraqi society, and al-Qaeda’s rise will challenge a third Maliki term or a new premier. All major Iraqi political figures utilize their sons and immediate family members to engage in what at best would appear to be a conflict of interest and at worst is blatant corruption.

Unless Maliki wins a majority outright rather than a plurality, Iraq is in for a rough ride. Should Maliki not top fifty percent of the vote, Iraqis can expect it to takes months if not more than a year to put together a new government. The bidding and brinkmanship will make previous Iraqi caucuses pale in comparison because the opposition will calculate that they either rid themselves of Maliki at this junction, or they live with him forever. Iraq’s Kurds will use that brinkmanship to up the ante on autonomy, unresolved issues relating to Kirkuk and other disputed areas, and power in Baghdad. Some sectarian parties—and not only those in Anbar and Mosul—might calculate that they can utilize violence to bolster their position at the negotiating table or, conversely, to undercut their opponents. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran will not hesitate to interfere for sectarian reasons and to support their respective proxies.

Let us hope that Iraqis—all Iraqis—have on Wednesday a successful election not marred by violence. But once the polls close and the ballots are pointed, the real struggle will begin. America no longer occupies Iraq, but it is essential to remain engaged in what will become a long period of diplomatic need.

UPDATE: The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan late this afternoon Iraqi time released its first video of President Jalal Talabani since his stroke. While it depicts him as wheelchair bound and without speaking, it clearly shows him moving his arms. Still, he does not appear in any condition to exercise his functions as president.

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Kerry’s Apartheid Slur Sabotages Peace

Last Friday while speaking to a closed meeting of the Trilateral Commission, Secretary of State John Kerry raised the ante in his bid to keep his Middle East peace initiative alive. While lamenting the latest collapse of the talks, Kerry cast blame for the outcome on both Israel and the Palestinians but made it clear that the consequences for the former would be far more serious. In the recording of his comments, which was obtained by the Daily Beast, Kerry not only repeated his past warnings that if peace wasn’t reached Israel would be faced with a new round of violence from the Palestinians as well as increased boycott efforts. He went further and said that the alternative to an Israeli acceptance of a two-state solution was that it would become “an apartheid state.”

In doing so, Kerry exploded the notion that he is an evenhanded broker since he is, as he has done previously, effectively rationalizing, if not justifying the next intifada as well as the continued efforts of the BDS—boycott, divest, sanction—movement against Israel. The point here is that if the maintenance of the status quo will make Israel an apartheid state, then it must already be one. Given the odious nature of such a regime, that would not only justify the boycotts but also violence on the part of the Palestinians against Israel.

Identifying Israel as even a potential apartheid state is not only an incendiary slur; it demonstrates the fundamental flaw at the heart of Kerry’s effort. There is no comparison between apartheid South Africa and Israel. But that term is not merely an inexact analogy. Since the Palestinians allege that the desire for a Jewish state is racist, claiming that the lack of peace means apartheid is a tacit acceptance of the Palestinian refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Though this may not be Kerry’s direct intent, his resort to the ultimate slander in order to pressure Israel’s leaders to be more accommodating reinforces both Palestinians’ intransigence and their conviction that it is in their interest to keep saying no to Israeli peace offers. Rather than a mere expression of frustration, as Kerry’s apologists will insist, the use of the “A” word does more to doom the already dim chances of peace. As such, Kerry’s already dubious utility as a peace process facilitator is officially at an end.

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Last Friday while speaking to a closed meeting of the Trilateral Commission, Secretary of State John Kerry raised the ante in his bid to keep his Middle East peace initiative alive. While lamenting the latest collapse of the talks, Kerry cast blame for the outcome on both Israel and the Palestinians but made it clear that the consequences for the former would be far more serious. In the recording of his comments, which was obtained by the Daily Beast, Kerry not only repeated his past warnings that if peace wasn’t reached Israel would be faced with a new round of violence from the Palestinians as well as increased boycott efforts. He went further and said that the alternative to an Israeli acceptance of a two-state solution was that it would become “an apartheid state.”

In doing so, Kerry exploded the notion that he is an evenhanded broker since he is, as he has done previously, effectively rationalizing, if not justifying the next intifada as well as the continued efforts of the BDS—boycott, divest, sanction—movement against Israel. The point here is that if the maintenance of the status quo will make Israel an apartheid state, then it must already be one. Given the odious nature of such a regime, that would not only justify the boycotts but also violence on the part of the Palestinians against Israel.

Identifying Israel as even a potential apartheid state is not only an incendiary slur; it demonstrates the fundamental flaw at the heart of Kerry’s effort. There is no comparison between apartheid South Africa and Israel. But that term is not merely an inexact analogy. Since the Palestinians allege that the desire for a Jewish state is racist, claiming that the lack of peace means apartheid is a tacit acceptance of the Palestinian refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Though this may not be Kerry’s direct intent, his resort to the ultimate slander in order to pressure Israel’s leaders to be more accommodating reinforces both Palestinians’ intransigence and their conviction that it is in their interest to keep saying no to Israeli peace offers. Rather than a mere expression of frustration, as Kerry’s apologists will insist, the use of the “A” word does more to doom the already dim chances of peace. As such, Kerry’s already dubious utility as a peace process facilitator is officially at an end.

Kerry’s defenders are arguing that there is nothing new about a discussion centered on the belief that the status quo is unsustainable for Israel. Kerry’s position, which echoes that of the Jewish left in Israel and the United States, is that Israel’s best interests are served by a separation from the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank. Without a peace treaty that would create a Palestinian state alongside Israel, they argue that the continuation of the current situation means that the population there would have neither self-determination nor the rights of Israeli citizens. The question of unsustainability is one that I think is, at best, highly debatable. As I wrote last week, even as dim a light as the New York Times’s Roger Cohen has realized that the predictions about Israel’s doom are insupportable. But it is true that a majority of Israelis would, understandably, prefer a two-state solution. The notion that the Palestinians share this desire is equally debatable given the refusal of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, let alone Hamas, to accept Israel’s repeated offers of peace and independence.

But by including the word “apartheid” in this discussion, Kerry has done the cause of peace to which he has devoted so much effort this past year a grave disservice. Though the standoff in the West Bank is deeply troubling, it is not remotely comparable to the situation in South Africa that preceded the end of the old white minority regime in the 1994. Arabs have complete equality before the law and political rights inside Israel. Even in the West Bank where the failure to make peace has led to a situation in which Israel maintains its security presence, the Palestinian Authority is the governing authority for the overwhelming majority of those who live there. More importantly, the Jews, who remain a majority of the population between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River rather than an apartheid-style minority, have repeatedly offered the Palestinians statehood and been turned down every time, the last refusal coming during the talks Kerry sponsored.

Whether the Palestinians are ever able to take the leap of faith to make peace or not, Israel will remain a full democracy within its borders. More to the point, the continuation of the situation in the West Bank will be one that is not a matter of a Jewish minority willfully dominating the Arab majority as was the case in South Africa for blacks and whites. Rather it is one in which a largely belligerent power—the PA—prefers the current anomalous situation over actual peace with Israel since signing a treaty would obligate them to end the century-old war they have been fighting against Zionism. And the more Americans throw around the apartheid slur, the less likely they will ever be to take such a decision.

Kerry may, as he indicated in the tape, present his own peace plan to the parties at some point on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. But his ability to influence events in a positive way is finished. By injecting the apartheid slur into the negotiations, Kerry has poisoned the waters in a manner that will only make it more rather than less difficult for Palestinian leaders to do what they must to bring about peace. Rather than pushing the parties toward an agreement, he has sabotaged the process. Just as the end of the conflict will have to wait until a new generation of Palestinians is willing to put aside their rejection of a Jewish state, so, too, must a productive American intervention be put off until Kerry leaves the diplomatic stage.

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EU Doublethink on the Palestinians

That the European Union’s foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton should have come out reiterating her support for the U.S.-sponsored peace process is hardly surprising. The fact that she has chosen to do this in the wake of a Hamas-Fatah unity deal–at a time when even the U.S. has conceded there should be a letup in the talks–is a little more troubling. Out of Ashton’s refusal to see what even the Obama administration reluctantly acknowledges has come a statement filled with incomprehensible contradictions.

Ashton at once lauds the importance of democratic elections while also endorsing Palestinian head Mahmoud Abbas as having a mandate, insisting on the importance of non-violence and Palestinian recognition of Israel, and yet at the same time welcoming the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement. These various sentiments are simply incompatible with one another. So what is going on?

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That the European Union’s foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton should have come out reiterating her support for the U.S.-sponsored peace process is hardly surprising. The fact that she has chosen to do this in the wake of a Hamas-Fatah unity deal–at a time when even the U.S. has conceded there should be a letup in the talks–is a little more troubling. Out of Ashton’s refusal to see what even the Obama administration reluctantly acknowledges has come a statement filled with incomprehensible contradictions.

Ashton at once lauds the importance of democratic elections while also endorsing Palestinian head Mahmoud Abbas as having a mandate, insisting on the importance of non-violence and Palestinian recognition of Israel, and yet at the same time welcoming the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement. These various sentiments are simply incompatible with one another. So what is going on?

Coming from Brussels, that insistence upon Israel’s right to exist is no doubt supposed to be considered wildly pro-Israel, although there is of course no reference to anything about a Jewish state. But what is so strange is that in the very same speech, Ashton declares that the EU has always supported “intra-Palestinian reconciliation.” And yet to hold these two positions, Eurocrats are obliged to believe two contradictory things at once. Because Hamas, who this much favored intra-Palestinian reconciliation must necessarily concern, is innately the antithesis of all the things that Ashton outlined above.

Of course, it isn’t just Hamas that fails to meet the EU’s alleged criteria for participation in government and negotiations. Abbas’s sham-moderate Fatah movement has also struggled to live up to these “principles.” And yet Ashton’s repeated endorsement of Abbas is unequivocal. On the subject of reconciliation, Ashton stresses that the EU holds that this should take place under the authority of Abbas. But why? Abbas has no legitimacy. The Palestinian president is presently serving out the tenth year of what was supposed to have been a four-year term of office. Yet the contradiction here runs deeper still. 

The concluding part of Ashton’s announcement is by far the most problematic. Ashton states, “The EU welcomes the prospect of genuine democratic elections for all Palestinians. The fact that President Abbas will remain fully in charge of the negotiation process and have a mandate to negotiate in the name of all Palestinians provides further assurance that the peace negotiations can and must proceed.” This is astonishing. Not only is there no real prospect of free and fair elections for the Palestinians, either under Hamas in Gaza or Fatah in the West Bank, but the very fact that “President Abbas will remain fully in charge” is an affront to the very principle of democratic elections that Ashton has just invoked. Indeed, to speak of Abbas as having a mandate is farcical. If there really were the “genuine democratic elections” that Ashton claims she wants, it is impossible to imagine that Abbas would still be where he is today.

In one sense the attitudes displayed here are quite in keeping with the EU’s own conduct: to praise democracy in principle while performing precious little of it practice. But while the EU’s habit of only paying lip service to democracy no doubt makes it easier for Brussels to adopt this policy, it doesn’t explain why it would wish to do so in the first place. After all, if even the Obama administration, with all its investments and delusions, can take a reluctant step back from the negotiations at this point, why can’t the EU?

For Ashton and the EU to concede that in joining with Hamas Abbas has really gone too far this time, they would have to make their support for the Palestinians contingent upon what the Palestinians actually do. But the truth is that Palestinian conduct has nothing to do with European support for the Palestinians and their cause. European support for the Palestinians is simply innate. According to the EU’s own worldview, the Palestinians are third-world victims–of Western colonialism, of U.S. financial and military might, and yes, of the Jews and their Zionism.

And because the people who run the EU don’t much care for any of those just listed, in the Palestinians they find a pet cause like no other. And so the EU has poured millions of Euros into the Palestinian Authority when it knows full well that this money is used by Abbas to shore up his regime, to crackdown on political opposition, and to incite hatred against Jews and Israel among the Palestinian citizenry.

Of course, Ashton could never come out and say just what she and the European elites really think and feel about the Palestinian cause. EU high-minded moral superiority is predicated upon democratic and non-violent values. And so Ashton must talk as if she’s praising the Palestinians for embodying all the things the EU claims to love, while being well aware that they are the archetypes of everything enlightened Europe is supposed to oppose. 

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Kerry’s Regime-Change Fantasy

Despite the attention received by yesterday’s scoop from the Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin, in which we learned that Secretary of State John Kerry raised the specter of Israeli apartheid, it probably deserves a bit more. That’s because there was more to Kerry’s comments than the apartheid claim, and they demonstrate the extent of Kerry’s ignorance on Middle Eastern politics. As Rogin notes:

It wasn’t the only controversial comment on the Middle East that Kerry made during his remarks to the Trilateral Commission, a recording of which was obtained by The Daily Beast. Kerry also repeated his warning that a failure of Middle East peace talks could lead to a resumption of Palestinian violence against Israeli citizens. He suggested that a change in either the Israeli or Palestinian leadership could make achieving a peace deal more feasible. He lashed out against Israeli settlement-building. And Kerry said that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders share the blame for the current impasse in the talks.

The key part in that parade of nonsense is: “He suggested that a change in either the Israeli or Palestinian leadership could make achieving a peace deal more feasible.” The most harmful effect of such comments is not that they insult Israeli and Palestinian leaders–they do, but Kerry doesn’t care, and they’re all adults anyway and can roll with the punches. The real danger here is that Kerry is revealing that he doesn’t know anything about Israeli or Palestinian politics if he thinks that “regime change,” so to speak, on either side might get him closer to his Nobel Prize.

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Despite the attention received by yesterday’s scoop from the Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin, in which we learned that Secretary of State John Kerry raised the specter of Israeli apartheid, it probably deserves a bit more. That’s because there was more to Kerry’s comments than the apartheid claim, and they demonstrate the extent of Kerry’s ignorance on Middle Eastern politics. As Rogin notes:

It wasn’t the only controversial comment on the Middle East that Kerry made during his remarks to the Trilateral Commission, a recording of which was obtained by The Daily Beast. Kerry also repeated his warning that a failure of Middle East peace talks could lead to a resumption of Palestinian violence against Israeli citizens. He suggested that a change in either the Israeli or Palestinian leadership could make achieving a peace deal more feasible. He lashed out against Israeli settlement-building. And Kerry said that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders share the blame for the current impasse in the talks.

The key part in that parade of nonsense is: “He suggested that a change in either the Israeli or Palestinian leadership could make achieving a peace deal more feasible.” The most harmful effect of such comments is not that they insult Israeli and Palestinian leaders–they do, but Kerry doesn’t care, and they’re all adults anyway and can roll with the punches. The real danger here is that Kerry is revealing that he doesn’t know anything about Israeli or Palestinian politics if he thinks that “regime change,” so to speak, on either side might get him closer to his Nobel Prize.

On the Israeli side, the idea of helping to collapse Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition to get more obedient peaceniks in office is an ongoing farce during the Obama presidency. Even the president’s staunch defenders noticed quite early on that he was intent on spending energy and political capital trying to compel change in the Israeli coalition so he could get what he wanted. (This is the same administration that legitimized Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “election” “victory” in Iran.)

Barack Obama’s irrational hatred of Netanyahu was mirrored by the left in general, so he didn’t get quite the pushback such a scheme deserved. Putting aside the moral implications of destabilizing an ally in order to control it, the Obama administration should have learned by now that it would fail anyway. There has been an election since Obama’s early Mideast foibles, and that election produced a governing coalition that reflected precisely what I talked about last week: There is a broad political consensus in Israel, especially regarding the peace process, and Israeli democracy, however imperfect, tends to keep that consensus in office.

What the Obama administration wants for Israel is not what the Israeli people want for their country. The beauty of democracy is that this can be expressed at the ballot box for all to see. Kerry, then, has no excuse. We all know he’s wrong about Israeli politics, and thanks to regular parliamentary elections there’s no hiding it. Kerry, for obvious reasons, did not have much credibility on this issue to begin with; he would be foolish to bury whatever’s left of it with such pronouncements.

He is no less wrong about the Palestinians, but for different reasons. I can understand any frustration he might have with Mahmoud Abbas. The PA leader demanded pricey preconditions even to participate in talks, and then abandoned them to run into the arms of Hamas. Though it should have been obvious from the beginning that Abbas was not going to make peace and that he was playing Kerry, it probably still stings.

But who, exactly, does Kerry think is waiting in the wings to replace Abbas? Palestinian society is shot-through with hatred for Jews and anti-Semitic propaganda, and the high-profile alternative to Abbas’s crew has always been the more extreme Hamas. Additionally, Salam Fayyad’s exit from the PA government proved that the Palestinian Authority couldn’t even tolerate a reformer whose hands they had already tied. The mere presence of a man with liberalizing ideas was enough for the antibodies to attack the infection.

The Fayyad fiasco shows something else: it’s not true that there aren’t Palestinian moderates or Palestinians who want peace (or would at least prefer it to their leaders’ bombs-and-poverty governance). But they do not appear to be in the majority and, even more significantly, they do not reside in a democracy. Abbas governs by suffocating authoritarianism. There is simply no institutional structure to empower moderates.

This is one reason Fayyad’s departure was so deeply mourned in the West. Even when stymied by his rivals, Fayyad accomplished something modest by simply existing within the Palestinian bureaucracy. Though he couldn’t put his ideas into practice, he could infuse the internal debate with them and perhaps even hire likeminded staffers who, in the future, would be nearer the levers of power and greater in number. It might have been a long shot, but it was something.

As the American aid to the PA and Israeli military cooperation with it demonstrates, the alternatives to Abbas currently are unthinkable as peace partners and almost uniformly more enamored of violence. Abbas is no hero, but if Kerry thinks a change in Palestinian leadership would benefit his quest for peace, he’s even more confused than he appears.

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Being Black in America Today

Recently I wrote a highly critical piece about Senator Rand Paul and his former close aide, Jack Hunter, who repeatedly wrote racist rants, both in his own name and as “The Southern Avenger.”

Since then, the Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who garnered attention during his high-profile showdown with the Bureau of Land Management, was quoted in the New York Times wondering about the status of “Negros.”

“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton,” according to Bundy. “And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

And this weekend the sports world was rocked by the release of tape-recorded conversations allegedly of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, making racist statements to his girlfriend. (According to press reports, Sterling has a documented history of supposedly racist behavior, having been sued twice by the federal government for refusing to rent apartments to Blacks and Latinos.) 

All of which got me to wondering how, based on these incidents, I would feel if I were a black person in America in 2014. And the answer is: Pretty sick to my stomach.

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Recently I wrote a highly critical piece about Senator Rand Paul and his former close aide, Jack Hunter, who repeatedly wrote racist rants, both in his own name and as “The Southern Avenger.”

Since then, the Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who garnered attention during his high-profile showdown with the Bureau of Land Management, was quoted in the New York Times wondering about the status of “Negros.”

“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton,” according to Bundy. “And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

And this weekend the sports world was rocked by the release of tape-recorded conversations allegedly of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, making racist statements to his girlfriend. (According to press reports, Sterling has a documented history of supposedly racist behavior, having been sued twice by the federal government for refusing to rent apartments to Blacks and Latinos.) 

All of which got me to wondering how, based on these incidents, I would feel if I were a black person in America in 2014. And the answer is: Pretty sick to my stomach.

I’ve written many times about the harmful effects of people promiscuously and recklessly throwing out the charge of racism. I still hold to that view. But what may need to be amended is my assumption about racial attitudes.

For many people of my generation and younger, who grew up in the post-Civil Rights era, racism–while obviously not fully extinguished–is something that belongs in America’s past; an ugly stain that has more or less been wiped away by law and shifting attitudes. And there’s no question that racism has receded over the decades; the fact that a black man could be elected and reelected president is evidence of that. So is the swift and harsh condemnations of both Bundy and Sterling. Still, it may well be the case that bigotry is more widespread than many of us have assumed. That public displays of racism are rare but private hostility toward minorities, and especially African Americans, is much more common. They exist, but in the shadows.

I understand the counter-argument, well-stated by Hotair.com’s Jazz Shaw, and it goes like this: People like Bundy (67) and Sterling (80) are elderly men who live in isolated and insular worlds. Shaw points out that for the millennial generation, “Questions of racial differences seem to be a foreign concept to them.”

“Is actual racism completely dead in America?” Shaw asks. “No … I’m not saying that. But from the looks of things out on the street it’s dying a natural death. I wouldn’t read too much into the comments of septuagenarians who grew up steeped in a different culture.”

Fair enough. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to read too little into them, either. At a minimum the comments by Hunter (age 39), Bundy, and Sterling are at least a reminder that we’re not all that far removed from a time when feculent views on race were fairly common. And while the law should be colorblind, our society is not. For most of American history, slavery and segregation were legal, at least in large parts of the nation. The march from Selma to Montgomery occurred less than 50 year ago.

I wouldn’t want to discount for a moment the progress America has made on race, or what the progress says about America. But we also need to keep this in mind as well: Slavery was America’s original sin, and freeing the slaves and later allowing blacks to eat at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s–while enlightened and humane acts–hardly expunged the malignancy of racism from the human heart. And while I haven’t shifted my views on policy or my belief that those on the left who invoke racism to explain virtually every difference on policy are having a pernicious effect, I do wonder whether my own experiences have caused me to overlook some persistently disturbing realities. What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing, C.S. Lewis wrote; and none of us stands in a place where we see the complete landscape, all the hills and all the valleys, the beauty and the scars.  

Speaking for myself at least, it’s worth re-thinking just a bit what it must feel like to be black in America today. 

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Khamenei Loves Carter’s Book on Women

Love Jimmy Carter or hate him, one thing is certain: The Iranian hostage crisis paralyzed his presidency and contributed heavily to his political downfall. A chapter of my new book examines in detail Carter administration outreach to Iran in the wake of the hostage crisis and while Carter made many mistakes, too often his critics ignore the very real belief at the time that Iran’s revolutionary authorities could do anything, including trying American diplomats before revolutionary tribunals and executing them.

The Islamic Revolution, of course, did many things. Despite the rhetoric of social justice that infuses the Islamic Republic’s religious rhetoric, it ushered in an increase in sectarianism and a rollback of basic human rights across Iranian society. Whereas women in Middle Eastern countries have long fought for new rights, the Islamic Republic was unique—at least until recently with the Islamist hijacking of the Arab Spring and the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey—in that women had to fight for rights which had been taken away from them. Nor are there many countries whose governments take pride in imprisoning and perhaps even executing rape victims.

So, it’s always slightly ironic when senior Iranian officials extol the Utopia they say their country has become for women. And so it was with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and the self-professed deputy of the messiah on Earth, who gave a speech on women’s rights recently. The values the Islamic Republic hold dear in women?

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Love Jimmy Carter or hate him, one thing is certain: The Iranian hostage crisis paralyzed his presidency and contributed heavily to his political downfall. A chapter of my new book examines in detail Carter administration outreach to Iran in the wake of the hostage crisis and while Carter made many mistakes, too often his critics ignore the very real belief at the time that Iran’s revolutionary authorities could do anything, including trying American diplomats before revolutionary tribunals and executing them.

The Islamic Revolution, of course, did many things. Despite the rhetoric of social justice that infuses the Islamic Republic’s religious rhetoric, it ushered in an increase in sectarianism and a rollback of basic human rights across Iranian society. Whereas women in Middle Eastern countries have long fought for new rights, the Islamic Republic was unique—at least until recently with the Islamist hijacking of the Arab Spring and the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey—in that women had to fight for rights which had been taken away from them. Nor are there many countries whose governments take pride in imprisoning and perhaps even executing rape victims.

So, it’s always slightly ironic when senior Iranian officials extol the Utopia they say their country has become for women. And so it was with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and the self-professed deputy of the messiah on Earth, who gave a speech on women’s rights recently. The values the Islamic Republic hold dear in women?

A mother who has offered two, three, four martyrs in the way of God and who has stood firm despite this, advises us to stand firm as well. One really feels humility in the face of such greatness. These are the realities about the women of our society which are very glorious and important realities. Well, this is thankfully the bright and shining part of the issue of women in our country.

He continues to lament women’s suffrage and the growing role in society that women have played in the West since the Industrial Revolution. He continues to cite none other than Jimmy Carter to describe the supposedly horrible state of women in the West:

I found it to be a very important writing. I have brought it to this meeting to read it for you. A book written by Jimmy Carter – the former president of America – has been published which is named “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, And Power”. Jimmy Carter says in this book, “Every year, 100,000 girls are sold as slaves in America where the owner of a brothel can buy girls – who are usually Latin American or African – at only 1000 dollars.” He also refers to the rapes which occur in colleges where only one case out of 25 cases is reported. He goes on to say that only one percent of rapists are put to trial in the army. One cries when one reads such things. We can see many such writings in newspapers. I see such writings as well, but I never base my opinions on them. However, these are realities. Jimmy Carter is a well-known personality after all and this is his book.

Khamenei is referring to Carter’s new book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power. While Carter is right to point out a lack of progress in some aspects of Western society, he has little perspective or sense of balance about relative rights. He exaggerates or uses unreliable or discredited statistics to bash the West, and tends to embrace cultural relevancy and downplay the horrific violence and discrimination women face in the Middle East and broader Islamic world.

For example, he describes Saudi women as “bubbl[ing] over with pleasure as they extolled their enhanced status in Saudi society, with its special protection, plus freedom and privilege.” Indeed, he then observed “women in the Kingdom relish some customs that Westerners consider deprivations.” How unfortunate it is that a man who was once leader of the free world so readily considers individual liberty and freedom to choose how to live one’s life such a burden.

Carter also includes some potted history with regard to Iran, but he fails to mention the repressions Iranian women face. The closest he comes is to lament that Tehran—along with Sudan, Somalia, the island nations of Palau and Tonga, and the United States—have not ratified the UN’s The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. He neglects to realize that many Arab countries have ratified but then moved to exempt themselves from the Convention’s provisions, or ignored them altogether, nor mentions the reasons why the United States has not ratified the treaty, which have more to do with sovereignty than misogyny. Bashing Western freedom and whitewashing abuses in the Islamic world does not make an individual enlightened; it makes him or her a bigot, willing to condemn others to tyranny based on the location of their birth.

The arrogance of power—and life in an echo chamber—can lead to the moral miscalibration that appears to afflict our nation’s 39th president. But, if there was ever a time to stand up and engage in some serious introspection, it is probably when Iran’s supreme leader seems so enthusiastic to endorse your latest book.

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Putin and His Billions

The New York Times on Sunday had a fascinating article on Vladimir Putin’s personal fortune, which has been estimated as high as $40 billion. What made the article truly dismaying, however, was not its detailed speculation about the extent to which Putin has looted the Russian state. This was depressing but hardly shocking. 

I was far more dismayed by this sentence: “So far, the American government has not imposed sanctions on Mr. Putin himself, and officials said they would not in the short term, reasoning that personally targeting a head of state would amount to a ‘nuclear’ escalation, as several put it.”

So let me get this straight: Putin can invade neighboring states such as Georgia and Ukraine. He can oppress his own people and steal from them. He can shore up a murderous despot in Syria and block effective action against the Iranian mullahs over their nuclear program. But the West thinks that trying to sanction and freeze his ill-gotten billions is too risky an escalation?

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The New York Times on Sunday had a fascinating article on Vladimir Putin’s personal fortune, which has been estimated as high as $40 billion. What made the article truly dismaying, however, was not its detailed speculation about the extent to which Putin has looted the Russian state. This was depressing but hardly shocking. 

I was far more dismayed by this sentence: “So far, the American government has not imposed sanctions on Mr. Putin himself, and officials said they would not in the short term, reasoning that personally targeting a head of state would amount to a ‘nuclear’ escalation, as several put it.”

So let me get this straight: Putin can invade neighboring states such as Georgia and Ukraine. He can oppress his own people and steal from them. He can shore up a murderous despot in Syria and block effective action against the Iranian mullahs over their nuclear program. But the West thinks that trying to sanction and freeze his ill-gotten billions is too risky an escalation?

If you want to know why Putin is able to get away with his brazen aggression, here it is in a nutshell: a fundamental failure of will on the part of the U.S. and its European allies. Obviously nobody favors nuclear or even conventional military retaliation–we are not going to war with Russia unless it crosses some future line. 

But surely Putin has already crossed enough lines to justify the most severe possible economic sanctions we can inflict–including doing everything possible to deny him and his cronies the use of their illicitly acquired fortunes. The fact that we are willing to impose limited sanctions on some Putin pals but not on the master of the Kremlin himself says volumes about how fecklessly we are acting in the face of continuing and escalating aggression.

The big difference between the current masters of the Kremlin and their Soviet predecessors is that today’s crew are much more vulnerable to Western retaliation because they have so much money and property stored in the West. But it seems we are voluntarily giving up this leverage until sometime in the future. Are we waiting for Putin to invade Poland?

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Werner J. Dannhauser, 1929-2014

Werner J. Dannhauser, who worked for COMMENTARY as an editor fifty years ago before moving into academia as a celebrated teacher of political philosophy, was an American original—and of a type of which there are, sadly, fewer and fewer as the years pass. He was a deeply serious intellectual—and a bit of a reprobate. He was a highly responsible bourgeois who tragically found himself a widower at a very young age with two very young children—and a party animal who liked to gamble and drink. (He once prevailed upon his legendary teacher, Leo Strauss, for a loan when he got himself in over his head in a professional poker game and needed some scratch to keep his legs from getting broken out from under him.) He had the beard of a 19th Century Swedenborgian clergyman—and told a Jewish joke like nobody’s business. He taught moral and political philosophy with great gravity—and got into hot water for talking dirty in a Cornell classroom. He was a genuinely delightful man and, when he could free himself from the writer’s block that oddly afflicts so many Straussians, a prose stylist of true grace and wit.

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Werner J. Dannhauser, who worked for COMMENTARY as an editor fifty years ago before moving into academia as a celebrated teacher of political philosophy, was an American original—and of a type of which there are, sadly, fewer and fewer as the years pass. He was a deeply serious intellectual—and a bit of a reprobate. He was a highly responsible bourgeois who tragically found himself a widower at a very young age with two very young children—and a party animal who liked to gamble and drink. (He once prevailed upon his legendary teacher, Leo Strauss, for a loan when he got himself in over his head in a professional poker game and needed some scratch to keep his legs from getting broken out from under him.) He had the beard of a 19th Century Swedenborgian clergyman—and told a Jewish joke like nobody’s business. He taught moral and political philosophy with great gravity—and got into hot water for talking dirty in a Cornell classroom. He was a genuinely delightful man and, when he could free himself from the writer’s block that oddly afflicts so many Straussians, a prose stylist of true grace and wit.

Here he is, in 1975, in an article called “On Teaching Politics Today” which is so politically incorrect in its discussion of, among other things, his students’s “bosoms” that no one, not even he, would write it now:

Like everybody else around me I learned Shaw’s not-so-bon mot early: Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach. I wanted to be the third baseman for the Cleveland Indians when I grew up, or a jazz trumpeter, or a movie star, but never a teacher. I drifted into teaching just as I drifted into everything else, both wonderful and dreadful, in my life. Graduate students need money—a student, according to Balzac, is somebody who can afford only luxuries—so I began to do a little teaching on the side. It became more than a sideline because it was a stage of sorts and I was not too bad as an actor on it. To watch a classroom full of people taking down what I said was heady, especially when there were admiring girls among them. So I kept teaching.

Then came a time when I began to realize I had grown too old to be a third baseman and I suddenly got the dreadful feeling that real life was somewhere else. So I left teaching and looked for real life as a social worker, a truck dispatcher, an editor, a researcher for a labor union. In the ivory tower the university struck me as, well, an ivory tower; but out of it, it seemed to be the place where the action was. In I went and out I went, and now I’m back in, having learned, as Milton Friedman puts it, that there is no such thing as a free lunch. One pays a price for being a teacher. One’s wit becomes donnish; one’s arguments pedantic; one grows slower without growing calmer. Continued association with those younger than oneself may hasten the coming of senility. Faculty parties are immeasurably more boring than Village parties or family parties. But real life is not out there either. It’s inside somewhere, hard to find, and teachers have a better chance of finding it than most. One has to learn to trust oneself, to trust the great stupidity one is (Nietzsche). I have not learned much about who I am, but I have learned I am a teacher.

He was indeed. He had a bad ticker but managed to live decades longer than, I think, he expected to—and kept his friends and students and family entertained and enlightened throughout. Werner died over the weekend at the age of 84. May his daughters Fanya and Anna and their children be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. UPDATE: Bill Kristol’s tribute to Werner is here.

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Why Does the Clarion Project Endorse Mujahedin al-Khalq?

The Clarion Project dedicates itself “to exposing the dangers of Islamic extremism while providing a platform for the voices of moderation and promoting grassroots activism.” Progressive organizations like the Center for American Progress as well as those close to the Muslim Brotherhood like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Islamic Society of North America have condemned the group, more often than not by labeling it to try to stigmatize it and its supporters so as to avoid a much-needed debate on issues surrounding radical Islamism.

A truism of radical Islamism is that those most in its cross hairs are moderates. For all American officials talk about “green on blue” violence in Afghanistan, they often omit that rates of “green on green” violence is about three times as high. An extremist’s attempted assassination of then-14-year-old school girl Malala Yousefzai was followed by the silence of Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni activist awarded the Nobel Peace Prize precisely because the committee wanted to depict the Muslim Brotherhood, an affiliate of which she is a member, as a peaceful organization. CAIR, an unabashed supporter of Hamas, often keeps its powder dry to attack groups like the American Islamic Congress or the American Islamic Forum for Democracy precisely because they refuse to deny the links between terrorism and more extreme interpretations of Islam.

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The Clarion Project dedicates itself “to exposing the dangers of Islamic extremism while providing a platform for the voices of moderation and promoting grassroots activism.” Progressive organizations like the Center for American Progress as well as those close to the Muslim Brotherhood like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Islamic Society of North America have condemned the group, more often than not by labeling it to try to stigmatize it and its supporters so as to avoid a much-needed debate on issues surrounding radical Islamism.

A truism of radical Islamism is that those most in its cross hairs are moderates. For all American officials talk about “green on blue” violence in Afghanistan, they often omit that rates of “green on green” violence is about three times as high. An extremist’s attempted assassination of then-14-year-old school girl Malala Yousefzai was followed by the silence of Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni activist awarded the Nobel Peace Prize precisely because the committee wanted to depict the Muslim Brotherhood, an affiliate of which she is a member, as a peaceful organization. CAIR, an unabashed supporter of Hamas, often keeps its powder dry to attack groups like the American Islamic Congress or the American Islamic Forum for Democracy precisely because they refuse to deny the links between terrorism and more extreme interpretations of Islam.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Clarion Project, as it is dedicated to countering radical Islam, lists  a number of progressive Muslim organizations. What is surprising is that they list among them the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the front organization of the Mujahedin al-Khalq, an Iranian opposition group. The Mujahedin al-Khalq may be a lot of things, but it is neither progressive nor is it non-violent. Progressive movements tend not to dictate to women who to marry and who to divorce. It has its roots in the same Islamist currents that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini drank from, and only abandoned the Islamic Republic when its revolutionary vortex turned on the movement. Then it attached itself to Saddam Hussein and allowed itself to be used almost as a mercenary organization against both Kurds and Iraqi Shi’ites.

That does not excuse Iran’s targeting of the group, but the logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is not always wise, unless those who criticize Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was too close to Iran really want to embrace Muqtada al-Sadr. To accept the Mujahedin al-Khalq as a moderate organization is analytically shallow given the group’s record of behavior, its dishonesty in its written work, its past targeting of Americans, and the fact that its rhetoric about democracy does not match its practice.

To counter Islamist radicalism and the totalitarianism and anti-liberalism it represents is a noble goal. And those on the front line are the moderate Muslim organizations that are willing to take on radicals like CAIR and weather the often-unhinged hostility of the progressive left in America. But to lump the Mujahedin al-Khalq in with progressive Muslim organizations not only erodes the credibility of Clarion, but tars legitimate progressive Muslim organizations that already have an uphill battle.

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The Philippines and the American Empire of Liberty

If you want to know the secret of American power, look no farther than the Philippines. 

The U.S. once had a sprawling infrastructure of military bases there including a massive naval facility at Subic Bay and a massive air force base at Clark Air Base. But with the end of the Cold War and with nationalism rising in the Philippines–a country that was an American colony for a half-century–the U.S. agreed to pull up stakes in 1992. 

Now, President Obama is visiting the Philippines on Monday to sign a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that will allow the U.S. Armed Forces regular access to Philippine military bases. This is not the same thing as getting permanent bases again–something prohibited by the Philippine constitution–but it is the next best thing, because it allows the U.S. to pre-position supplies and equipment in the Philippines.

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If you want to know the secret of American power, look no farther than the Philippines. 

The U.S. once had a sprawling infrastructure of military bases there including a massive naval facility at Subic Bay and a massive air force base at Clark Air Base. But with the end of the Cold War and with nationalism rising in the Philippines–a country that was an American colony for a half-century–the U.S. agreed to pull up stakes in 1992. 

Now, President Obama is visiting the Philippines on Monday to sign a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that will allow the U.S. Armed Forces regular access to Philippine military bases. This is not the same thing as getting permanent bases again–something prohibited by the Philippine constitution–but it is the next best thing, because it allows the U.S. to pre-position supplies and equipment in the Philippines.

This demonstrates, in different ways, why America is an empire of liberty–not an empire of coercion. It’s true that we have a military presence around the world, with more bases in foreign territories than any other power by far. But we never–except for rare and short instances at the conclusion of wars–impose bases by force. Even countries that were once conquered by the United States–as the Philippines was at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War–eventually win the right to kick us out if they so desire. 

But countries that exercise their privilege to proclaim “Yankee, go home” often find themselves regretting their nationalist impulse. Certainly many Iraqis must by now regret the departure of U.S. forces, which has allowed violence to surge back to 2008 levels and sectarian strife to get worse and worse. And many Filipinos are equally sorry they kicked out the U.S. now that they see a far bigger threat looming on the horizon: China, which is using its navy to assert its claim over a tiny island in the South China Sea also claimed by the Philippines.

China is not an empire of liberty–it is the old-fashioned kind of territorial empire that imposes its diktat by force on Tibet and Xingjiang, among others, and threatens to do the same with Taiwan and various islands in the South China Sea. Chinese aggression is scaring its neighbors–just as Russian aggression is now doing in Eastern Europe. In both cases the threatened countries are looking to America for protection because they know we are the No. 1 champion of freedom in the world.

Those who predict the demise of American power ignore this obvious reality–namely, that America remains powerful because of a silent referendum on the part of most of the world. However much others may enjoy engaging in anti-American rhetoric, when the chips are down, they know they can count on the United States to keep them free.

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