Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 30, 2014

Did J Street Win by Losing?

J Street’s application to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations failed today. According to JTA, the vote was 22-17 against with three abstentions. This will, no doubt, be represented by J Street as proof that the mainstream community is trying to stifle dissent. But, as the Conference noted in a subsequent statement, there is already no shortage of liberal and left-wing groups among its members. If J Street has alienated so many other Jewish organizations by its strident criticism of Israel’s democratically-elected government and efforts to include anti-Zionist groups in the community, it should not be surprised that many want no part of it. Indeed, the willingness of so many groups to say no to them is a heartening sign that many American Jews have grown tired of its shrill one-note act.

Yet as I noted earlier, a negative vote is probably on balance a good thing for J Street. This rejection will give it material with which it can continue its already flagging efforts to delegitimize mainstream groups like AIPAC and to masquerade as the true voice of American Jewry. Gaining admission would have deprived it of that talking point and relegated it to being just one more among dozens of groups that call themselves “major” but are, in fact, nothing of the sort.

Read More

J Street’s application to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations failed today. According to JTA, the vote was 22-17 against with three abstentions. This will, no doubt, be represented by J Street as proof that the mainstream community is trying to stifle dissent. But, as the Conference noted in a subsequent statement, there is already no shortage of liberal and left-wing groups among its members. If J Street has alienated so many other Jewish organizations by its strident criticism of Israel’s democratically-elected government and efforts to include anti-Zionist groups in the community, it should not be surprised that many want no part of it. Indeed, the willingness of so many groups to say no to them is a heartening sign that many American Jews have grown tired of its shrill one-note act.

Yet as I noted earlier, a negative vote is probably on balance a good thing for J Street. This rejection will give it material with which it can continue its already flagging efforts to delegitimize mainstream groups like AIPAC and to masquerade as the true voice of American Jewry. Gaining admission would have deprived it of that talking point and relegated it to being just one more among dozens of groups that call themselves “major” but are, in fact, nothing of the sort.

Nevertheless, no one should be under the impression that J Street is either a significant player in Washington or speaks for an under-represented constituency. J Street has failed in its effort to supplant or even significantly challenge AIPAC. That it is not even able to gain admission in what is one of American Jewry’s least exclusive clubs is one more indication that it is a dismal failure.

Read Less

Museum is Ground Zero Mosque Rerun

In 2010, a Muslim developer initiated a bitter controversy when he sought to build a Muslim community center and mosque on the site of one of the buildings that had been struck by the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Those plans divided New Yorkers and people of faith as those who rightly asserted that this was, at best, an insensitive gesture were assailed as bigots who were part of a post 9/11 backlash against Muslims. As it turned out the entire dustup was all for nothing since the developer, Sharif El-Gamal, was all hot air and construction of the planned $100 million center and mosque at 45-51 Park Place never materialized. But though the money to build the center was a figment of El-Gamal’s imagination, he’s not finished trying to have a say about the Ground Zero area. As the New York Times reported today, he’s back with another, albeit more modest plan to build a Muslim institution at the site:

Sharif El-Gamal, the developer, said through a spokesman that instead of a $100 million, 15-story community center and prayer space, he now planned a smaller, three-story museum “dedicated to exploring the faith of Islam and its arts and culture.” The building would also include a sanctuary for prayer services and community programs.

To make the plan more attractive to neighbors, he said in a statement, he had commissioned a French architect, Jean Nouvel, winner of the 2008 Prizker Prize, to design the building at 45-51 Park Place, about two blocks from the former World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, and had included plans for a public green space.

It is entirely possible that El-Gamal is once again blowing smoke about this scheme since he may not have the funds needed to build this building anymore than he did of the previous plan. No timetable for construction exists and El-Gamal has yet to take down the existing building that was damaged by the debris from the Trade Center attack. But though the Times, which was a major editorial supporter of the center/mosque plan, takes it as a given that there will be less opposition to this plan, it is just as deserving of criticism.

Read More

In 2010, a Muslim developer initiated a bitter controversy when he sought to build a Muslim community center and mosque on the site of one of the buildings that had been struck by the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Those plans divided New Yorkers and people of faith as those who rightly asserted that this was, at best, an insensitive gesture were assailed as bigots who were part of a post 9/11 backlash against Muslims. As it turned out the entire dustup was all for nothing since the developer, Sharif El-Gamal, was all hot air and construction of the planned $100 million center and mosque at 45-51 Park Place never materialized. But though the money to build the center was a figment of El-Gamal’s imagination, he’s not finished trying to have a say about the Ground Zero area. As the New York Times reported today, he’s back with another, albeit more modest plan to build a Muslim institution at the site:

Sharif El-Gamal, the developer, said through a spokesman that instead of a $100 million, 15-story community center and prayer space, he now planned a smaller, three-story museum “dedicated to exploring the faith of Islam and its arts and culture.” The building would also include a sanctuary for prayer services and community programs.

To make the plan more attractive to neighbors, he said in a statement, he had commissioned a French architect, Jean Nouvel, winner of the 2008 Prizker Prize, to design the building at 45-51 Park Place, about two blocks from the former World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, and had included plans for a public green space.

It is entirely possible that El-Gamal is once again blowing smoke about this scheme since he may not have the funds needed to build this building anymore than he did of the previous plan. No timetable for construction exists and El-Gamal has yet to take down the existing building that was damaged by the debris from the Trade Center attack. But though the Times, which was a major editorial supporter of the center/mosque plan, takes it as a given that there will be less opposition to this plan, it is just as deserving of criticism.

Let’s specify that, as with the earlier project, there is nothing wrong with building another mosque in Manhattan or in the creation of a museum devoted to Islam. New York City has countless houses of worship and nearly as many institutions devoted to the arts and history and one more would probably be welcome. But the same objections that greeted the Ground Zero mosque plan apply here.

Why, we must ask, is it necessary to build such a museum in the shadow of the footprint of the 9/11 attacks? Is there no other place in New York with a vacant lot to be procured for this project?

The obvious answer to these questions is that the purpose of both projects was to alter the why Americans thought about 9/11. The goal is to shift it from being seen as a murderous attack on America motivated by variant of Islam to one that sought to disassociate the religion from this act of mass murder. In its place would be a different and false narrative that depicted American Muslims as the primary victims of the event because they were subjected to a post 9/11 backlash against Muslims.

As I wrote in the fall of 2010 when the mosque plan was first debated, the notion of a post-9/11 backlash is a myth. No credible study or set of statistics has ever been produced to back up this idea, which was been promoted by extremist Muslim groups and recycled by a credulous mainstream media. Far from victimizing American Muslims, both the U.S. government and the institutions of popular culture have gone out of their way to avoid not only falsely blaming innocent Muslims for 9/11 but have backed up the notion that Islam should not be tied to al-Qaeda. American Muslims were left in peace and spared, as they should have been, from any repercussions from this crime.

While the original mosque was put forward as a monument to tolerance, it was not clear for whom tolerance was being sought. The interfaith group supporting the plan seemed to be telling us that the real point of remembering 9/11 wasn’t so much to memorialize the victims of this act of Islamist terror but to stand as a warning to Americans not to think ill of any Muslims, including the substantial group that cheered the attack abroad.

We heard an echo of that sentiment last week when the group of interfaith clergy that supported the mosque rose up in protest against the soon-to-be opened National September 11 Memorial and Museum because of a film to be shown there about the rise of al-Qaeda that mentioned Islamists and the role of jihad in the attacks. No doubt those same clergy will be heard again praising the new plans for planting a Muslim institution in the Ground Zero neighborhood.

But there should be no mistake about what this is all about. Those seeking to impose a Muslim institution in this specific area are not interested in memorializing 9/11 or even providing New York with one more museum or mosque. They seek to alter the narrative of an unambiguous meaning of an unambiguous event. They wish to paint the United States and the American people as the perpetrators of a great wrong and to cast Muslims as the true victims.

No one should deny the right of Muslims to build a mosque or a museum but the campaign to impose one in the Ground Zero neighborhood is as insensitive as it is motivated by motives that have little to do with the needs of the community or genuine tolerance. Honoring the memory of the victims or business activity that shows that al-Qaeda failed to beat America is the only proper purpose of building in this area. The new plan is just as much of an insult to the families of the 9/11 victims, the people of New York, and the United States as the previous effort.

Read Less

Check Your Privilege

If there is anything more obnoxious than a liberal on his or her high moral horse I can’t imagine what it might be.

Lately, apparently, they have been using the phrase “check your privilege” in order to shut up any white male who dares to have an opinion not in sync with the approved thoughts of the left. It is, of course, sheer bigotry, presuming to know someone purely on the basis of his skin color and his gender.

Well a Princeton freshman named Tal Fortgang decided he had had enough of being told to shut up because he happens to be male and white. He wrote a beautiful essay for the Princeton Tory that deserves wide attention. (H/T Instapundit).

If there is anything more obnoxious than a liberal on his or her high moral horse I can’t imagine what it might be.

Lately, apparently, they have been using the phrase “check your privilege” in order to shut up any white male who dares to have an opinion not in sync with the approved thoughts of the left. It is, of course, sheer bigotry, presuming to know someone purely on the basis of his skin color and his gender.

Well a Princeton freshman named Tal Fortgang decided he had had enough of being told to shut up because he happens to be male and white. He wrote a beautiful essay for the Princeton Tory that deserves wide attention. (H/T Instapundit).

Read Less

Ronald Asmus’s Extraordinary Legacy

Three years ago today, Ronald Asmus died at the very young age of 53 from cancer-related illnesses. Asmus was NATO’s champion in the Clinton administration, where his ideas about expanding NATO to eventually include a broad array of European countries but especially, as soon as was feasible, the trio of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, were heterodox. The story of how he accomplished it holds immediate relevance to the current conflict in Ukraine and lessons for American officials debating our role in fostering European stability.

Perhaps most of all, it’s worth recalling simply because history has vindicated Asmus. It is easy to forget just how unthinkable Asmus’s ideas were less than a decade before they came to fruition. Asmus was undeterred in part because his ideas about European unity and Western alliances had been pooh-poohed before. As he wrote in his book, Opening NATO’s Door:

I was part of a generation of Western academics raised with the conventional wisdom that a divided Germany and continent was a more or less permanent feature of Europe’s geopolitical landscape. When I opted to write my doctoral dissertation on overcoming the division of Germany in the mid-1980s, several colleagues suggested that I consider a less esoteric and more topical issue. No one imagined that by the time I had completed my thesis that division would be no more. Conventional wisdom not only underestimated Moscow’s willingness to let go of its satellites. It also misjudged the strong desire among the people of what was then still called Eastern Europe to liberate themselves and become part of the West. It was a lesson I would remember in the years ahead as the NATO enlargement debate raged and cautious diplomats argued that fulfilling Central and East European aspirations to join the Alliance was simply not politically or strategically feasible.

Asmus’s crucial insight into NATO enlargement was that independent states should be treated as just that–independent. It’s common to think of the postwar order as consisting, at a simplified level, of large states and small states. That’s certainly how the great powers spoke when drawing lines after the Second World War. But it would be more helpful to think of them as power states and peripheral states. Asmus thought the peripheral states–though he doesn’t use that term–deserved the right to chart their own path.

After the Cold War, the very reasonable desire on behalf of first the Bush administration then the Clinton administration was to maintain stability in Europe. But the system that underpinned that stability was outdated and, in some respects, unjust. Asmus realized that. In Central and Eastern Europe, he noted, “Yalta” was a watchword not only for Western abandonment of Poland but the relegation of peripheral states to second-class status. He even writes of working with allies at one point to formulate “a strategy to overcome Yalta.” That chapter is titled “Dismantling Yalta.” It’s an indication of just how much conventional wisdom Asmus was seeking to subvert.

Read More

Three years ago today, Ronald Asmus died at the very young age of 53 from cancer-related illnesses. Asmus was NATO’s champion in the Clinton administration, where his ideas about expanding NATO to eventually include a broad array of European countries but especially, as soon as was feasible, the trio of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, were heterodox. The story of how he accomplished it holds immediate relevance to the current conflict in Ukraine and lessons for American officials debating our role in fostering European stability.

Perhaps most of all, it’s worth recalling simply because history has vindicated Asmus. It is easy to forget just how unthinkable Asmus’s ideas were less than a decade before they came to fruition. Asmus was undeterred in part because his ideas about European unity and Western alliances had been pooh-poohed before. As he wrote in his book, Opening NATO’s Door:

I was part of a generation of Western academics raised with the conventional wisdom that a divided Germany and continent was a more or less permanent feature of Europe’s geopolitical landscape. When I opted to write my doctoral dissertation on overcoming the division of Germany in the mid-1980s, several colleagues suggested that I consider a less esoteric and more topical issue. No one imagined that by the time I had completed my thesis that division would be no more. Conventional wisdom not only underestimated Moscow’s willingness to let go of its satellites. It also misjudged the strong desire among the people of what was then still called Eastern Europe to liberate themselves and become part of the West. It was a lesson I would remember in the years ahead as the NATO enlargement debate raged and cautious diplomats argued that fulfilling Central and East European aspirations to join the Alliance was simply not politically or strategically feasible.

Asmus’s crucial insight into NATO enlargement was that independent states should be treated as just that–independent. It’s common to think of the postwar order as consisting, at a simplified level, of large states and small states. That’s certainly how the great powers spoke when drawing lines after the Second World War. But it would be more helpful to think of them as power states and peripheral states. Asmus thought the peripheral states–though he doesn’t use that term–deserved the right to chart their own path.

After the Cold War, the very reasonable desire on behalf of first the Bush administration then the Clinton administration was to maintain stability in Europe. But the system that underpinned that stability was outdated and, in some respects, unjust. Asmus realized that. In Central and Eastern Europe, he noted, “Yalta” was a watchword not only for Western abandonment of Poland but the relegation of peripheral states to second-class status. He even writes of working with allies at one point to formulate “a strategy to overcome Yalta.” That chapter is titled “Dismantling Yalta.” It’s an indication of just how much conventional wisdom Asmus was seeking to subvert.

Part of the reason NATO was an option at all in the early days was that the existing European structures were simply not up to the task of integrating and protecting the post-Soviet states. Initial hopes were that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) could take stewardship of such an integration. But it was heavy on the cooperation and light on the security. Then there was the European Union, but France was opposed to opening its doors to full membership. “That left NATO,” Asmus writes.

There were a few turning points in NATO’s favor, some more famous than others. For Asmus, it was the Foreign Affairs article he authored along with two other colleagues at RAND in 1993 making the case for NATO enlargement. Another was a speech given around that time by Volker Ruehe, an up-and-coming German politician who had taken the defense portfolio in the German governing coalition. Ruehe, apparently without even telling the country’s foreign minister, gave a speech calling for NATO and the EU to put Central and Eastern European countries on the path to full membership. Asmus writes:

On the plane during the flight back to Cologne, one of Ruehe’s top military advisors remarked that it had been a mistake to give the speech and it would take Germany years to recover from the damage caused by the Minister’s comments. He was mistaken. Within several years every one of Ruehe’s core ideas would be embraced by the U.S. and would become official Alliance policy.

It was one of many examples that showed support for the alliance was always higher than it appeared, but also that the West (especially Europe) needed a good shove in the right direction every so often. The rest is, as they say, history.

Bill Clinton, too, deserves a fair amount of credit. Not only was he receptive to the ideas that led to NATO expansion, but he was a compelling spokesman for the cause. As the events in Ukraine this year and Georgia a few years ago showed, the countries most likely to be attacked by Russia are those without security guarantees from the West. Clinton made this point repeatedly. In 1997, Asmus notes, Clinton gave a speech to West Point graduates and declared that he wanted to expand NATO “to make it less likely that you will ever be called to fight in another war across the Atlantic.” Later that year Clinton met privately with a group of senators to gauge their support. “Extending a security guarantee is important,” Clinton told them. “No NATO member has ever been attacked.”

Joe Biden, too, made a powerful argument, telling skeptics like Jack Matlock and Michael Mandelbaum that not to enlarge NATO simply because there was no immediate threat from Russia was “a prescription for paralysis.” As we’ve seen in recent years, such complacency does indeed set in and grind progress to a halt.

And that is key to truly grasping the significance of what Asmus accomplished. Letting opportunities slip by, when it comes to European integration, often means there will be no second chance. Asmus saw an opportunity, made his case, and accomplished something historic before it was buried in bureaucratic inertia.

After the Senate overwhelmingly approved the expansion, Jan Nowak, the famed courier between the Polish underground resistance and Allied governments who was 84 years old at the time of the vote, approached Asmus from the Senate’s visitor’s galley. “I never thought,” he said with broad smile, “that I would live to see the day when Poland is not only free—but safe.” That was Asmus’s monumental achievement, and thanks to his determination it is America’s legacy.

Read Less

Why the Benghazi Email Still Matters

The release of a new batch of White House emails relating to the September 11, 2012 Benghazi terror attack is a problem for the Obama administration. The emails, specifically one from Deputy National Security Director Ben Rhodes, indicates that the White House was attempting to orchestrate responses to the attack in such a way as to promulgate the message that “these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.” Coming as it does a day after the murder of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, the communication appears to be clear proof that the false story that the attack was a case of film criticism run amok can be traced directly to high-ranking officials with clear political motivations.

This email was, according to the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake, provided to the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform only two weeks ago, although Congress requested them back in August 2013. Judicial Watch published it Tuesday after it forced the government to release them via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. This raises serious questions about what Lake aptly termed a White House “slow walk” of the release of information as well as the original concerns as to why the administration was putting out a false story about the attack that senior officials already knew was incorrect. Rhodes’s email seems to confirm the suspicions of many Republicans and other administration critics that the White House was behind the false story that then National Security Council director Susan Rice spouted repeatedly the following weekend on the Sunday news shows.

But as damning as Rhodes’s email seems to be, Democrats don’t seem too worried. The story is being largely ignored or downplayed by most of the same mainstream media that helped foster the narrative that Republicans were nuts to claim the White House was covering something up. Indeed, many on the left and perhaps even some on the right think that the email controversy is a trap for the GOP because it will motivate them to waste more time hammering the administration on an issue that the public doesn’t care about. But while this may not be an issue that will be decisive in the midterm elections, Congress should not let the administration bury this episode. The American people still have a right to know why the White House lied about the origin of the attack and why it covered that lie up for more than a year.

Read More

The release of a new batch of White House emails relating to the September 11, 2012 Benghazi terror attack is a problem for the Obama administration. The emails, specifically one from Deputy National Security Director Ben Rhodes, indicates that the White House was attempting to orchestrate responses to the attack in such a way as to promulgate the message that “these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.” Coming as it does a day after the murder of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, the communication appears to be clear proof that the false story that the attack was a case of film criticism run amok can be traced directly to high-ranking officials with clear political motivations.

This email was, according to the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake, provided to the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform only two weeks ago, although Congress requested them back in August 2013. Judicial Watch published it Tuesday after it forced the government to release them via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. This raises serious questions about what Lake aptly termed a White House “slow walk” of the release of information as well as the original concerns as to why the administration was putting out a false story about the attack that senior officials already knew was incorrect. Rhodes’s email seems to confirm the suspicions of many Republicans and other administration critics that the White House was behind the false story that then National Security Council director Susan Rice spouted repeatedly the following weekend on the Sunday news shows.

But as damning as Rhodes’s email seems to be, Democrats don’t seem too worried. The story is being largely ignored or downplayed by most of the same mainstream media that helped foster the narrative that Republicans were nuts to claim the White House was covering something up. Indeed, many on the left and perhaps even some on the right think that the email controversy is a trap for the GOP because it will motivate them to waste more time hammering the administration on an issue that the public doesn’t care about. But while this may not be an issue that will be decisive in the midterm elections, Congress should not let the administration bury this episode. The American people still have a right to know why the White House lied about the origin of the attack and why it covered that lie up for more than a year.

In response, administration defenders claim that this is still much ado about nothing. Does it, as Hillary Clinton asked last year, matter who said what about Benghazi that weekend when the real issue is the fact that terrorists killed four Americans?

There is some truth to this line of reasoning. A much bigger scandal than the lies told about the attack is the fact that to this day not a single one of the murderers has been captured, let alone tried and punished.

But the reason the lie still sticks in the collective craw of the American people is that the falsehoods helped reelect President Obama. As Rhodes’s communication makes clear, the White House’s No. 1 concern at that moment seemed to be more about the American people thinking that al-Qaeda was reviving than the fact that the terror group and its affiliates had done it. The attempt to convince Americans that a video was at fault (for which the administration wrongly issued a profuse apology to the Muslim world) was no innocent mistake. With the assistance of the mainstream media (remember CNN Candy Crowley intervening on behalf of the president when he was pressed on the issue by Mitt Romney?), Obama was able to maintain his stance that al-Qaeda was as dead as Osama bin Laden.

The point is Rhodes’s email reveals that Rice’s false story was not an innocent mistake. It was a cynical attempt to divert public attention from the revival of Islamist terrorism at a moment during a competitive reelection when the president was basing his reelection in no small part on the notion that he was a strong leader who had vanquished that movement.

The lie may not have changed the outcome of an election that Obama was probably fated to win anyway. Nor is it as outrageous as the subsequent failure of the United States to find the terrorists responsible for the murders. But as with so many other scandals, the coverup is in some ways worse than the original lie. As much as liberals have tired of the discussion, it should not be buried along with the four Benghazi victims.

Read Less

Conference Vote Demonstrates J Street’s Irrelevance

Today, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will vote on the J Street lobby’s application for membership. The question has split the Conference with more conservative pro-Israel groups expressing opposition and left-wingers and centrists seeming to favor it. If, as some expect, J Street wins the vote, it will probably be interpreted as a victory for “diversity” of thought about Israeli politics. More to the point, the group and its allies will spin the ballot as proof that its brand of left-wing politics and support for U.S. pressure on the State of Israel to “save it from itself” has gained legitimacy in the American Jewish organizational world.

But both celebrating J Streeters and opponents who will mourn its growing acceptance should calm down. The fact is, joining the Conference as just one more not particularly influential member among a long roster of generally well meaning but politically insignificant groups is actually a huge step down for J Street from where it started a few years ago. The best thing that could happen to J Street would actually be to lose this vote.

Here’s why:

Read More

Today, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will vote on the J Street lobby’s application for membership. The question has split the Conference with more conservative pro-Israel groups expressing opposition and left-wingers and centrists seeming to favor it. If, as some expect, J Street wins the vote, it will probably be interpreted as a victory for “diversity” of thought about Israeli politics. More to the point, the group and its allies will spin the ballot as proof that its brand of left-wing politics and support for U.S. pressure on the State of Israel to “save it from itself” has gained legitimacy in the American Jewish organizational world.

But both celebrating J Streeters and opponents who will mourn its growing acceptance should calm down. The fact is, joining the Conference as just one more not particularly influential member among a long roster of generally well meaning but politically insignificant groups is actually a huge step down for J Street from where it started a few years ago. The best thing that could happen to J Street would actually be to lose this vote.

Here’s why:

J Street burst upon the public scene at the end of 2008 hoping to capitalize on the victory of Barack Obama. At that point J Street’s ambitions soared as high as the new president’s popularity. Its goal was nothing less than to challenge and then replace AIPAC as the voice of American Jewry on Israel. More sober observers always thought this was a pipe dream and today it seems not so much over-ambitious as it does ridiculous. But at the time the J Street crowd was drunk on the Obama victory and convinced that the traditional overwhelming support in the community for the Democratic candidate meant that most American Jews shared Obama’s desire for pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to achieve peace. Since they wrongly believed AIPAC to be a right-wing dominated clique rather than a bipartisan consensus-driven umbrella coalition, J Street thought its appearance on the scene would shove the older group aside and establish the newcomers as the go-to organization for American Jews on Israel. It was, they thought, the perfect opportunity at the perfect time for a group whose raison d’être was to take Obama’s side against the Israelis.

To say that these hopes were quickly dashed is the understatement of the 21st century. AIPAC shrugged off the J Street challenge without missing a step. The left-wing group quickly proved that it was out of step with even most liberal supporters of Israel by opposing its counter-attack against the Hamas terrorist base in Gaza and went downhill from there. Not only did J Street soon find that it had little influence in Congress in comparison to AIPAC’s across-the-board support but it also rapidly began to comprehend that even its friends in the Obama administration were not interested in boosting it at the expense of its mainstream rival. Even worse, every time Obama picked a fight with Israel’s government to the cheers of his J Street fans, he eventually always disappointed him by backing down. By the time of his 2012 election-year Jewish charm offensive, the president was not only seeking to please the very people J Street despised, he was appearing at AIPAC and taking a tough stand on Iran that left-wingers opposed.

Though J Street has survived these disappointments and has enjoyed some moments of triumph during Obama’s second term as the president once again found himself at odds with Israel on both Iran and the peace process, it remains a noisy but marginal group. While it can count on support from the New York Times, it is still out of step with mainstream Jewish opinion (as its support for engagement with the Hamas terrorists proved again last week) and its positions are completely at odds with the views of a majority of Israelis.

The arguments against J Street’s acceptance are not without merit. The group’s positions are, at best, unhelpful to Israel and by seeking to undermine efforts to isolate anti-Zionist organizations like Jewish Voices for Peace it has hurt rather than helped the fight against the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement that seeks to wage economic war on the Jewish state. But so long as J Street adheres to a position of support for Israel’s existence and opposition to BDS, the rationale for keeping them out of such a non-exclusive and diverse group like the Conference is a tough sell.

Were J Street to be denied entry to the Conference it would, however, be a huge public-relations coup and allow it to milk the situation for sympathy and depict its critics as seeking to silence a voice for peace. But its potential entry into the Conference would be confirmation that rather than a significant force on the Jewish scene, J Street is just one more insignificant Jewish group among a welter of such organizations whose infrastructure consist of little more than a staff and a mailing list.

To say this is not to criticize the Conference which, under the leadership of Malcolm Hoenlein, has done great service to the community by helping to mobilize support for consensus positions on the issues. But joining it will be proof that rather than challenging AIPAC, all J Street has accomplished is to attain the dubious distinction of being the leading left-wing sparring partner for the Zionist Organization of America and its leader Mort Klein.

The point here is that rather than signifying its acceptance, today’s vote is merely a sign that J Street failed in its mission to overturn the Jewish consensus on Israel. A seat in what is, for all intents and purposes, a debating society–most of whose members are little known even among American Jews–strikes me as a poor consolation prize for such a defeat.

UPDATE:

J Street’s application to join the Conference was rejected. My take on the vote can be read here.

Read Less

Why Americans Seem So Torn on Foreign Policy

Though comparisons between Russian leaders today and 20th century monsters like Hitler and Stalin are generally–and rightfully–resisted or corrected when used in the U.S., it’s impossible to understand the conflict in Ukraine without making room for the sense of history that hangs over Europe. Der Spiegel reports on German veterans who recognize too much of the scenes in Ukraine from their own time serving there seventy years ago (though the Germans were the invaders that time). And the New York Times notices a once-forgotten Moscow Cold War museum now swamped by visitors “drawn as much by history as by the sense that the combustible, post-World War II conflict between East and West has come roaring back to life.”

This also makes it easier to understand European nerves over American inaction. If they see the possibility of a massive war engulfing Europe’s major powers, they must also see American war-weariness and retrenchment chic as distinct but not tangibly different, for their own purposes, from the American isolationism they remember as well. So in one sense, they could be heartened by the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll which, as Max notes, shows an American public confused and hesitant about America’s role in the world but not isolationist. But that optimism is based on the sense that Americans are open to persuasion on foreign involvement, which leads to the crucial question: who is doing the persuading?

Read More

Though comparisons between Russian leaders today and 20th century monsters like Hitler and Stalin are generally–and rightfully–resisted or corrected when used in the U.S., it’s impossible to understand the conflict in Ukraine without making room for the sense of history that hangs over Europe. Der Spiegel reports on German veterans who recognize too much of the scenes in Ukraine from their own time serving there seventy years ago (though the Germans were the invaders that time). And the New York Times notices a once-forgotten Moscow Cold War museum now swamped by visitors “drawn as much by history as by the sense that the combustible, post-World War II conflict between East and West has come roaring back to life.”

This also makes it easier to understand European nerves over American inaction. If they see the possibility of a massive war engulfing Europe’s major powers, they must also see American war-weariness and retrenchment chic as distinct but not tangibly different, for their own purposes, from the American isolationism they remember as well. So in one sense, they could be heartened by the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll which, as Max notes, shows an American public confused and hesitant about America’s role in the world but not isolationist. But that optimism is based on the sense that Americans are open to persuasion on foreign involvement, which leads to the crucial question: who is doing the persuading?

Max notes the central contradiction in the results: the pollsters asked Americans what they thought (in addition to a bevy of other issues) about foreign policy, and Americans responded, essentially, that they have no idea. They succumbed to a kind of magical thinking on foreign policy in which they want the U.S. to pull back from the world without creating a vacuum–a logical impossibility. They appear frustrated that when America plays a reduced role in world affairs its influence is replaced by Vladimir Putin instead of unicorns and labradoodles (I’m paraphrasing slightly).

But on some level that confusion is understandable because the president of the United States is arguing out loud with the straw men in his head, claiming that the alternative to toothless sanctions is total world war. Americans at home may see this as the amusing inanity of an ideologue who is losing an argument, but it’s doubtful the Europeans are laughing. It turns out there is some middle ground between treating Putin like Gilly from Saturday Night Live and nuking Moscow, though you wouldn’t know it from the commander in chief.

The fact of the matter is, as I’ve noted from time to time, the president has a unique ability to shape public opinion on foreign policy, more so than on domestic policy. Americans have internalized the president as both the leader of the free world and the commander in chief of the armed forces of the planet’s only superpower. So the public is not going to be easily persuaded on the goodness of American power projection by this administration.

Looking forward, again, Europeans are probably not too encouraged. The Democrats are seeking to succeed Obama with Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state who presided over the failed Russian “reset,” chewed out allies like Israel, and expressed regret to Pakistan–which cooperates with anti-American terrorists and sheltered Osama bin Laden–for past American policy. On the right, the debate looks to be more interesting, not least because unlike the Democrats the Republicans do want to have an actual debate, not a coronation.

Sentiments like those expressed in the poll are reflected in the way the Republican race for the nomination has taken shape so far. The president’s abject failures have opened space for those who can present a serious alternative. That means that Republicans with the most success so far have been those like Scott Walker and Rand Paul, with the former proving conservative governance can fix even deep and costly liberal mismanagement and the latter making a thoughtful case for individual liberty in the face of liberal attacks on basic freedoms.

But the effect on the foreign-policy debate has been muted. Paul advocates retrenchment (though without the apology tour, one suspects) and has warned not to “tweak Russia.” Others like Walker seem to disagree with Paul on foreign policy but as the governor of a Midwestern state locked in a battle with government unions in the midst of the dismal Obama economy, the issue doesn’t exactly come up very often. Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who possesses one of the stronger resumes of the potential 2016 class, has started branching out a bit more into foreign affairs but remains mired in a debate over education policy back home. Others are facing similar circumstances, with the high-profile exception of Marco Rubio. The Florida senator has dropped a bit in the polls recently, but he has not shied away from displaying his fluency in foreign affairs or striking a contrast to Paul’s perspective.

So yes, Americans are inclined toward the maintenance of a peaceable world order, and they are persuadable on the need for America to protect that order with a robust presence on the world stage. But they’re not going to get there on their own.

Read Less

Americans’ Foreign-Policy Contradictions

There is an interesting anomaly in the new Wall Street Journal poll. The headline finding is that most Americans want to pull away from the world: “The 47% of respondents who called for a less-active role in world affairs marked a larger share than in similar polling in 2001, 1997 and 1995.” On the other hand respondents disapprove of President Obama’s foreign policy by a margin of 53 percent to 38 percent, making the president’s approval rating in foreign policy worse than in economic policy (where 42 percent approve of his conduct). 

How can this be, given that Obama’s foreign policy is all about having America take a less-active role in the world? Isn’t Obama giving the public what it wants? The answer, I believe, is that most Americans are ambivalent. On the one hand, they like the idea of doing less, and that impulse has been reinforced by five years of presidential rhetoric about “nation building begins at home” and “the tide of war is receding.” On the other hand, most Americans also want a vigorous defense of American interests abroad and they are uneasy about the image of weakness we currently project. 

Read More

There is an interesting anomaly in the new Wall Street Journal poll. The headline finding is that most Americans want to pull away from the world: “The 47% of respondents who called for a less-active role in world affairs marked a larger share than in similar polling in 2001, 1997 and 1995.” On the other hand respondents disapprove of President Obama’s foreign policy by a margin of 53 percent to 38 percent, making the president’s approval rating in foreign policy worse than in economic policy (where 42 percent approve of his conduct). 

How can this be, given that Obama’s foreign policy is all about having America take a less-active role in the world? Isn’t Obama giving the public what it wants? The answer, I believe, is that most Americans are ambivalent. On the one hand, they like the idea of doing less, and that impulse has been reinforced by five years of presidential rhetoric about “nation building begins at home” and “the tide of war is receding.” On the other hand, most Americans also want a vigorous defense of American interests abroad and they are uneasy about the image of weakness we currently project. 

The pollsters read two questions to those surveyed and asked them which one more closely reflected their view of the world. “Statement A: We need a president who will present an image that America has a more open approach and is willing to negotiate with friends and foes alike. Statement B: We need a president who will present an image of strength that shows America’s willingness to confront our enemies and stand up for our principles.” It turns out that Statement B–reflecting a desire to show strength–won 55 percent support, whereas Statement A–calling for a more “open approach,” whatever that means–won the support of only 39 percent. The number opting for strength actually increased by five points since the question was asked in 2008 at the conclusion of the Bush presidency. 

Further buttressing the impression that Americans respond to strength, respondents disapproved of Obama’s weak handling of the Ukraine crisis by a margin of 45 percent to 37 percent. 

My takeaway? Americans may have mixed impulses in foreign policy but they are not dedicated isolationists. In fact they are ready to be led toward a stronger and more active foreign policy–a project that is likely to await Obama’s successor, whoever he or she may be.

Read Less

The Growth Figures

New gross domestic product figures for the first quarter of 2014 were released this morning by the Commerce Department and they are dismal, a mere 0.1 percent growth. This was way below what economists had been expecting (the Wall Street Journal’s survey of economists had predicted a less-than-stellar 1.1 percent) and even more below the pace of the last half of 2013, which was 3.4 percent.

To be sure, it was a brutal winter in much of the country this year, but these figures are seasonally adjusted, to reflect normal winter slowdown in such industries as construction. Had it not been for considerably above normal spending on energy to heat homes, which caused consumer spending to rise by 3 percent (it rose 3.3 percent in the last quarter of 2013), the figures would have been worse.

Read More

New gross domestic product figures for the first quarter of 2014 were released this morning by the Commerce Department and they are dismal, a mere 0.1 percent growth. This was way below what economists had been expecting (the Wall Street Journal’s survey of economists had predicted a less-than-stellar 1.1 percent) and even more below the pace of the last half of 2013, which was 3.4 percent.

To be sure, it was a brutal winter in much of the country this year, but these figures are seasonally adjusted, to reflect normal winter slowdown in such industries as construction. Had it not been for considerably above normal spending on energy to heat homes, which caused consumer spending to rise by 3 percent (it rose 3.3 percent in the last quarter of 2013), the figures would have been worse.

Business investment in such things as equipment and buildings fell 2.1 percent from the last quarter. Exports fell a startling 7.6 percent, the largest drop since the recession officially ended in June 2009 and reflecting lackluster economic growth abroad. Imports fell much less, only 1.4 percent.

To be sure, economists expect GDP growth to pick up next quarter, in part because the spending that was delayed this winter by the awful weather will be made up this spring and summer. But this continues a worrying pattern of not only lackluster growth overall, but very erratic growth, as can be seen in this chart from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. This is not at all typical of a recovery from a deep recession, which usually shows strong and steady growth.

Democrats had better pray that this is a blip in the statistics. Two more quarters like this and November will be an ugly political month for them.

Read Less

Assad Owes His Survival to Obama

With so much attention being focused on Russian aggression in Ukraine and the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace talks, the ongoing disaster in Syria hasn’t gotten much attention lately. That’s good news for President Obama because as much as Ukraine and the peace talks are genuine defeats for the administration, it’s possible to argue that his retreat on Syria was far more humiliating than either of those other situations. By backing down from his threats to bomb Syria once the Bashar Assad regime crossed the “red line” personally imposed by Obama on the use of chemical weapons, the president’s international standing and credibility as a world leader to be reckoned with sunk to a new low.

In punting on Syria, President Obama helped set the stage for future problems because of his decision to basically hand the issue of chemical-weapons disposal to Russia. In doing so, he inflated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sense of invulnerability that made aggression in Ukraine more likely. But there was another more direct result of the White House’s shameful flight from principle: the preservation of the Assad regime. The American willingness to back down on threats of intervention and the increased cooperation with Assad’s Russian ally more or less guaranteed the survival of the very regime whose fall President Obama had repeatedly demanded.

But now, several months after Obama’s demarche on chemical weapons, the proof that Obama had preserved Assad is unmistakable. When the Syrian government announced on Monday that the country would hold a presidential election, it was one more confirmation that Assad believes he has won the civil war. Though it will be a travesty, we can expect that the dictator will be reelected with a total that is somewhere north of 95 percent of the votes cast. Assad will have many people to thank for being able to pull this off: Iran, Hezbollah, and Vladimir Putin. But he will be remiss if he doesn’t also express gratitude to Barack Obama.

Read More

With so much attention being focused on Russian aggression in Ukraine and the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace talks, the ongoing disaster in Syria hasn’t gotten much attention lately. That’s good news for President Obama because as much as Ukraine and the peace talks are genuine defeats for the administration, it’s possible to argue that his retreat on Syria was far more humiliating than either of those other situations. By backing down from his threats to bomb Syria once the Bashar Assad regime crossed the “red line” personally imposed by Obama on the use of chemical weapons, the president’s international standing and credibility as a world leader to be reckoned with sunk to a new low.

In punting on Syria, President Obama helped set the stage for future problems because of his decision to basically hand the issue of chemical-weapons disposal to Russia. In doing so, he inflated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sense of invulnerability that made aggression in Ukraine more likely. But there was another more direct result of the White House’s shameful flight from principle: the preservation of the Assad regime. The American willingness to back down on threats of intervention and the increased cooperation with Assad’s Russian ally more or less guaranteed the survival of the very regime whose fall President Obama had repeatedly demanded.

But now, several months after Obama’s demarche on chemical weapons, the proof that Obama had preserved Assad is unmistakable. When the Syrian government announced on Monday that the country would hold a presidential election, it was one more confirmation that Assad believes he has won the civil war. Though it will be a travesty, we can expect that the dictator will be reelected with a total that is somewhere north of 95 percent of the votes cast. Assad will have many people to thank for being able to pull this off: Iran, Hezbollah, and Vladimir Putin. But he will be remiss if he doesn’t also express gratitude to Barack Obama.

As his rant at a news conference in the Philippines illustrated, Syria is a sore point for Obama. But rather than vent his spleen on the critics who have the temerity to point out his weakness by calling them trigger-happy warmongers, the president would do better to search his own conscience and wonder just how many of the more than 100,000 people slaughtered in that country might have been saved had he decided to act in the early stages of the unrest there.

The initial demonstrations in the wake of the Arab Spring protests showed just how weak Bashar Assad was in 2011. The second-generation dictator was deeply unpopular and the people of Syria were clearly begging for change, if not something approaching democracy. As was the case with Libya’s Qaddafi, a swift and limited intervention in Syria could have easily toppled Assad with little cost to the West. While the aftermath might, like that in Libya, have been messy, the cost of inaction turned out to be even worse than some of Obama’s sternest critics feared. Not only did the indifference of the West embolden Assad to use any and all means to preserve his regime, but weakened opposition forces were soon infiltrated and arguably dominated by radical Islamists. This could have been avoided had Obama done something more useful than spout empty predictions of Assad’s imminent demise.

This “lead from behind” strategy created the worst of all possible outcomes: a human-rights catastrophe in which Assad was allowed to slaughter tens of thousands with impunity and the growth of an Islamist faction that rallied many of those who hated the regime to its ranks.

What has happened in Syria over the past three years gives the lie to all of the administration’s pronouncements about its concern for human rights. But it also demonstrates how a feckless foreign policy motivated by fear of involving America in foreign tangles can make a bad situation worse. As much as Assad owes his life to his Iranian, Hezbollah, and Russian allies, his faux reelection this year would not have been possible had Obama shown resolve early on in the crisis when a decent outcome was still possible and the costs of intervention were lower. That’s a sobering commentary on Obama’s lack of leadership. But when one considers how many tens of thousands of lives might have been saved had America had a leader with the courage of his convictions, it is a disgrace that all the accolades given him by the liberal press will never be able to erase.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.