Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 5, 2014

A Postmortem of Inept U.S. Diplomacy

Secretary of State John Kerry’s disastrous attempt to bring peace to the Middle East is not going quietly into the night after its collapse in the last month. Kerry made clear his own prejudices, as well as his misunderstanding about the reality of the conflict, when he told the Trilateral Commission that Israel would become an “apartheid state” if it failed to make peace. Though Kerry had to offer a non-apology apology in which he regretted his choice of words, the slur illustrated his own animus for the Jewish state’s positions. It also was fuel to the fire for the campaign of hatred that is bolstered by such canards. But not satisfied with that shot fired over the bow of the Netanyahu government, the administration doubled down on the “Israel is to blame” argument with an interview given by anonymous “senior American officials” with Yedioth Ahronoth’s Nahum Barnea available here on YNet.com in English.

There is nothing terribly surprising with the postmortem on the talks, the source for which (if you believe Haaretz) is believed to be Kerry’s envoy Martin Indyk. Indyk, who is resigning his post as U.S. negotiator and going back to his Washington sinecure at the Brookings Institution, has a long history of bad blood with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu dating back to his controversial tenure as U.S. ambassador to Israel in the 1990s. But rather than merely file this away as another example of the poisonous personal politics that can intrude into diplomacy, a close yet critical reading of the interview reveals more about why the Obama administration’s peace efforts failed than anything about what the Israelis have done. Like the public statements made by both President Obama and Secretary Kerry in which they praised Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas while trashing Netanyahu, the U.S. has repeated the Clinton administration’s mistake in whitewashing Yasir Arafat in the 1990s. In doing so, they have effectively made the already slim chances for peace even more unlikely.

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Secretary of State John Kerry’s disastrous attempt to bring peace to the Middle East is not going quietly into the night after its collapse in the last month. Kerry made clear his own prejudices, as well as his misunderstanding about the reality of the conflict, when he told the Trilateral Commission that Israel would become an “apartheid state” if it failed to make peace. Though Kerry had to offer a non-apology apology in which he regretted his choice of words, the slur illustrated his own animus for the Jewish state’s positions. It also was fuel to the fire for the campaign of hatred that is bolstered by such canards. But not satisfied with that shot fired over the bow of the Netanyahu government, the administration doubled down on the “Israel is to blame” argument with an interview given by anonymous “senior American officials” with Yedioth Ahronoth’s Nahum Barnea available here on YNet.com in English.

There is nothing terribly surprising with the postmortem on the talks, the source for which (if you believe Haaretz) is believed to be Kerry’s envoy Martin Indyk. Indyk, who is resigning his post as U.S. negotiator and going back to his Washington sinecure at the Brookings Institution, has a long history of bad blood with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu dating back to his controversial tenure as U.S. ambassador to Israel in the 1990s. But rather than merely file this away as another example of the poisonous personal politics that can intrude into diplomacy, a close yet critical reading of the interview reveals more about why the Obama administration’s peace efforts failed than anything about what the Israelis have done. Like the public statements made by both President Obama and Secretary Kerry in which they praised Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas while trashing Netanyahu, the U.S. has repeated the Clinton administration’s mistake in whitewashing Yasir Arafat in the 1990s. In doing so, they have effectively made the already slim chances for peace even more unlikely.

The details of Indyk’s complaints about Israel aren’t terribly persuasive. Though he attempts to portray Netanyahu as intransigent, even his interviewer is forced to point out that even the prime minister’s rival Tzipi Livni, whom Indyk praises extravagantly as a “heroine,” admitted that in fact it was Netanyahu who had moved off of his previous positions on a possible agreement while Abbas had not moved an inch.

Indyk counters that by trashing Israel’s entirely reasonable demands for security guarantees that would ensure that West Bank territory it gave up would not turn into another version of Gaza after Ariel Sharon’s disastrous 2005 retreat. He also claims that Abbas made great concessions in agreeing to a deal in which Israel would keep Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and 80 percent of West Bank settlements. But having agreed to terms that roughly match what Netanyahu is believed to have offered, Abbas walked away from the talks rather than negotiate their implementation. That isn’t peacemaking. It’s obstruction that allowed him to avoid taking responsibility for making a peace that he fears his people don’t want.

Indyk also tells us a great deal about administration cluelessness when he admits he didn’t understand why Abbas refused to even discuss recognizing Israel as a Jewish state even when the Israelis were preparing versions of a statement that would at the same time recognize “Palestine” as the nation state of Palestinian Arabs.

“We couldn’t understand why it bothered him so much,” the anonymous U.S. official said. Really? Saying those two symbolic words—“Jewish state”—would have gone a long way to convincing the Israeli public that Abbas was sincere about wanting to end the conflict for all time. His refusal signaled that the PA and its new partner Hamas want no part of any treaty that signals the end of their century-old war against Zionism. If Indyk and Kerry didn’t understand the significance of this issue, they are not only demonstrating their unwillingness to hold the Palestinians accountable, they are also showing an alarming lack of diplomatic skill.

Finally, Indyk’s focus on Israel’s diplomatic offenses during the process is also important. Indyk can’t let go of Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s criticism of Kerry as a man in search of a Nobel Peace Prize, terming it a “great insult.” But it had nothing to do with the negotiations and might well have been a sign that the leading right-winger in the Cabinet was alarmed at how much Netanyahu was conceding in the talks.

Lastly, Indyk falls back on the same settlements excuse that Israel’s critics always cite as proof that the Jewish state is obstructing peace. But the focus on how many “settlements” were being built during the talks is a red herring because almost all of the “settlements”—which are actually merely new houses being built in existing communities and not new towns—were being built in exactly the places Abbas supposedly had conceded would stay in Israel. In other words, the building had no impact on the peace terms. For Indyk to specifically blame the announcement that several hundred new apartments would be built in the Gilo section of Jerusalem as the straw that broke the camel’s back of peace is absurd. Gilo, a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood in the capital, would remain inside of Israel even if peace were reached. How, then, could a few more apartments in a place that would never be surrendered by Israel serve as an acceptable rationale for a Palestinian walkout, as Indyk indicates?

The answer to that question is that the Americans are so invested in Abbas’s shaky credibility as a peacemaker that they were prepared to swallow any excuse from him. The truth is Abbas never had any genuine interest in peace and fled the talks the first chance he got. He indicated that lack of interest by going back to the United Nations in an end run around the talks and sealed it by making a deal with Hamas rather than Israel. But all Indyk can do is blame Netanyahu. The interview tells us all we need to know about how inept American diplomacy has become.

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Revolutionary Guards: Our Goal Is Destruction of U.S. Navy

Ali Fadavi, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), just gave an interview to Iran’s Fars News in which he called the destruction of the U.S. Navy the IRGC’s “major operational goal.” The interview is here:

“Conducting trainings, exercises and drills to get prepared for operational goals is always on our agenda and Americans and all the world know that one of the operational goals of the IRGC Navy is destruction of the US naval force,” Admiral Fadavi said in an exclusive interview with FNA. He said the combat power of the United States in the air totally depends on the fighters flying from its aircraft carriers, “hence, that is a natural thing that we want to sink these vessels”.

The Admiral further noted the vulnerability of the United States’ giant warships and aircraft carriers, specially in any potential combat against Iranian missiles and speedboats in the Persian Gulf, and said, “If you take a look at Robert Gates’ book, you will see how he counts the vulnerabilities of aircraft carriers to the IRGC Navy and (that’s why) he asks for a change in the US naval strategy. This is no easy task, but they (the Americans) have started doing so as he has emphasized.” The commander said the large size of the US warships has made them a very easy target for the IRGC naval force, specially taking into account that “we have very precise analyses of the design, construction and structures of these warships and we know how to act”.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seem intent on treating Iran like a sincere partner in nuclear negotiations. Of course, should Iran develop a military nuclear capability, the command and control of that arsenal would be in the hands of the IRGC. And the IRGC has made clear repeatedly that it does not respect nor will it abide by any agreement Iranian diplomats negotiate. And now, one of the top leaders of the IRGC has sworn himself to destroy the U.S. Navy.

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Ali Fadavi, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), just gave an interview to Iran’s Fars News in which he called the destruction of the U.S. Navy the IRGC’s “major operational goal.” The interview is here:

“Conducting trainings, exercises and drills to get prepared for operational goals is always on our agenda and Americans and all the world know that one of the operational goals of the IRGC Navy is destruction of the US naval force,” Admiral Fadavi said in an exclusive interview with FNA. He said the combat power of the United States in the air totally depends on the fighters flying from its aircraft carriers, “hence, that is a natural thing that we want to sink these vessels”.

The Admiral further noted the vulnerability of the United States’ giant warships and aircraft carriers, specially in any potential combat against Iranian missiles and speedboats in the Persian Gulf, and said, “If you take a look at Robert Gates’ book, you will see how he counts the vulnerabilities of aircraft carriers to the IRGC Navy and (that’s why) he asks for a change in the US naval strategy. This is no easy task, but they (the Americans) have started doing so as he has emphasized.” The commander said the large size of the US warships has made them a very easy target for the IRGC naval force, specially taking into account that “we have very precise analyses of the design, construction and structures of these warships and we know how to act”.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seem intent on treating Iran like a sincere partner in nuclear negotiations. Of course, should Iran develop a military nuclear capability, the command and control of that arsenal would be in the hands of the IRGC. And the IRGC has made clear repeatedly that it does not respect nor will it abide by any agreement Iranian diplomats negotiate. And now, one of the top leaders of the IRGC has sworn himself to destroy the U.S. Navy.

While American journalists and some American diplomats pooh-poohed Iran’s construction of a mock U.S. carrier by saying it was for a film, Iranian leaders themselves said it was to practice attacking the real thing. Obama and Kerry’s single-minded romance with the Islamic Republic’s diplomats is either strategic incompetence or willful negligence. Increasingly, it’s hard to see a third option. The only question is how many American lives will be lost before the White House recognizes that senior Iranian officials might mean what they say when they talk about killing Americans.

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Cowards Among the Scarlet Knights

Over the weekend Condoleezza Rice announced that she would be withdrawing as commencement speaker for the upcoming Rutgers University graduation ceremony after students and teachers protested Rice’s selection as speaker and recipient of an honorary degree. Even if you didn’t follow the story, you probably don’t need the details filled in: she is among the best possible candidates to give such a speech, but she worked for George W. Bush; end of story.

The graduation ceremony she was scheduled to appear at coincides with the tenth anniversary of my own graduation from Rutgers. That decade has instilled in me a great sense of apprehension any time Rutgers is mentioned in the news. That’s not to say there is no good news coming out of the school; the construction of a new Hillel building is a sign that the Jewish community at the school remains numerous and committed to Jewish life on campus–despite the anti-Semitic harassment they’ve experienced as the school shrugs its shoulders.

The combination of a proud Jewish community and a pusillanimous school administration (admittedly, no different from most liberal arts colleges) has also inspired the Jews at Rutgers to make their voices heard. One of the more famous examples of this took place while I was a student there, in 2003. An extremist Palestinian “solidarity” group was scheduled to hold its annual event on campus. The New Jersey chapter’s leader gave interviews ahead of the event, in which she explained that murdering innocent Jews in Israel was merely part of a resistance campaign and others had no right to judge the methods of the Palestinian group’s protest, as a contemporaneous piece in Haaretz recounted:

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Over the weekend Condoleezza Rice announced that she would be withdrawing as commencement speaker for the upcoming Rutgers University graduation ceremony after students and teachers protested Rice’s selection as speaker and recipient of an honorary degree. Even if you didn’t follow the story, you probably don’t need the details filled in: she is among the best possible candidates to give such a speech, but she worked for George W. Bush; end of story.

The graduation ceremony she was scheduled to appear at coincides with the tenth anniversary of my own graduation from Rutgers. That decade has instilled in me a great sense of apprehension any time Rutgers is mentioned in the news. That’s not to say there is no good news coming out of the school; the construction of a new Hillel building is a sign that the Jewish community at the school remains numerous and committed to Jewish life on campus–despite the anti-Semitic harassment they’ve experienced as the school shrugs its shoulders.

The combination of a proud Jewish community and a pusillanimous school administration (admittedly, no different from most liberal arts colleges) has also inspired the Jews at Rutgers to make their voices heard. One of the more famous examples of this took place while I was a student there, in 2003. An extremist Palestinian “solidarity” group was scheduled to hold its annual event on campus. The New Jersey chapter’s leader gave interviews ahead of the event, in which she explained that murdering innocent Jews in Israel was merely part of a resistance campaign and others had no right to judge the methods of the Palestinian group’s protest, as a contemporaneous piece in Haaretz recounted:

The trouble began when a coalition of pro-Palestinian organizations decided to hold their annual convention at Rutgers in the second week of October. Last year, the event was held at Michigan University, and the year before that at Berkeley. The host organization was New Jersey Solidarity, which is considered one of the most extreme organizations in the coalition. One of the group’s leaders, Charlotte Kates, for instance, told The New York Post that “Israel is a colonial settler apartheid state” that has no right even to exist, and against which suicide attacks are justifiable. In another interview, with The New York Times, she said: “It is not our place in the United States to dictate the tactics Palestinian groups use in the liberation struggle.” The organization also hung posters around the campus in March that declared: “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free.”

There was some protest even outside the student community–genocide is, after all, frowned upon. The group succumbed to internal divisions–apparently in part over an argument about inviting Hamas–and eventually relocated by choice, but the New Jersey chapter tried, unsuccessfully, to hold a new solidarity event on campus. In the interim, led by the Rutgers Hillel, the Jewish community on campus mobilized and held a rally that drew four thousand supporters.

Quite apart from anti-Semitism, my alma mater has been in the news more recently for the horrible and tragic case of the sexual bullying of a gay student who subsequently committed suicide, as well as last year’s scandal over an abusive basketball coach. How I long for the days when Rutgers national-media headlines were more along the lines of Sports Illustrated’s feature on its football program, headlined “Why Can’t Rutgers Ever Win?

I should also note that although Rutgers had its share of bias in the classroom (as does any university), the journalism program I attended was utterly devoid of it. My teachers were uniformly excellent, and I left Rutgers convinced that my decision to attend (I had actually transferred in mid-freshman year) was the right one. I still feel that way, and I have spent my years since graduation recommending the school to anyone who asks my opinion. That won’t stop either.

But I’m left wondering if it’s the same institution I left merely a decade ago. Jewish life continues to flourish at the school. But intellectually, I can imagine parents reading about the Rice controversy and wondering if the professors at such a school can be trusted to impart a passable education. Rice grew up in segregated Birmingham and went on to become the first black female secretary of state. On top of that, she has a well-known expertise in, and passion for, education policy. So you would be hard-pressed to find a better choice for commencement speaker.

But she served the Bush presidency when this nation was at war, and that is too much for the academic left. The Rutgers I remember had plenty of acrimonious debate, but that’s far better than to be ruled by heckler’s veto (which was avoided this time, as Rice withdrew so as not to distract from the students’ graduation celebrations, but was still argued for by the professors). I also don’t remember my instructors being such intellectual cowards. Perhaps I just took the right classes. I suppose students just have to hope they do too, though that’s not a line I imagine the Rutgers administration wants to put on a brochure.

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Assessing John Kerry

Almost all secretaries of state believe they shine but for most, their legacy is at best basic competence. Amidst all their ceremonial trips, with hindsight it is clear that for the majority, their legacy is simply to have done no harm. This certainly would be the case for Hillary Clinton, a woman who famously cannot name her accomplishments as secretary, as well as Bush-era secretaries Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s whole strategy was to make no waves and while Powell’s detractors point to his speech before the United Nations laying out the rationale for war against Iraq, that was less his initiative than the consensus policy of the Bush administration. Warren Christopher’s tenure was largely forgettable, and his successor Madeleine Albright was likewise just a manager. While I disagree with them on many issues, James Baker and Henry Kissinger set themselves apart, although for Baker, his success may have been less because of personal abilities and more the result of being in the right place at the right time.

Secretary of State John Kerry may be the exception: He has defined himself as a truly lousy secretary of state, with almost everything he touches turning to vinegar: The Middle East peace process is in shambles. Had Kerry simply ignored the process, the hurdles facing the two sides would be less. And, because of some ill-chosen and self-defeating words, there is virtually no choice to revive such talks under Kerry. While Vladimir Putin is the villain when it comes to the situation in Eastern Europe, the reverberations which the United States will feel for the impotency under Kerry’s watch will be felt for years to come. Libya continues to disintegrate; the Egyptians remain furious at American waffling; freedom-seeking Venezuelans wonder what American silence means; Argentina salivates over the Falklands; and a whole host of allies from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and Indonesia fear what American weakness means in East Asia.

The Iran deal seems to be shaping up to be predicated on a willingness to sacrifice its substance rather than to win an agreement that bolsters regional or national security. Regardless, it’s hard to count as a success an agreement that has yet to be struck, especially with Tehran’s penchant for throwing a last-minute wrench into the cogs.

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Almost all secretaries of state believe they shine but for most, their legacy is at best basic competence. Amidst all their ceremonial trips, with hindsight it is clear that for the majority, their legacy is simply to have done no harm. This certainly would be the case for Hillary Clinton, a woman who famously cannot name her accomplishments as secretary, as well as Bush-era secretaries Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s whole strategy was to make no waves and while Powell’s detractors point to his speech before the United Nations laying out the rationale for war against Iraq, that was less his initiative than the consensus policy of the Bush administration. Warren Christopher’s tenure was largely forgettable, and his successor Madeleine Albright was likewise just a manager. While I disagree with them on many issues, James Baker and Henry Kissinger set themselves apart, although for Baker, his success may have been less because of personal abilities and more the result of being in the right place at the right time.

Secretary of State John Kerry may be the exception: He has defined himself as a truly lousy secretary of state, with almost everything he touches turning to vinegar: The Middle East peace process is in shambles. Had Kerry simply ignored the process, the hurdles facing the two sides would be less. And, because of some ill-chosen and self-defeating words, there is virtually no choice to revive such talks under Kerry. While Vladimir Putin is the villain when it comes to the situation in Eastern Europe, the reverberations which the United States will feel for the impotency under Kerry’s watch will be felt for years to come. Libya continues to disintegrate; the Egyptians remain furious at American waffling; freedom-seeking Venezuelans wonder what American silence means; Argentina salivates over the Falklands; and a whole host of allies from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and Indonesia fear what American weakness means in East Asia.

The Iran deal seems to be shaping up to be predicated on a willingness to sacrifice its substance rather than to win an agreement that bolsters regional or national security. Regardless, it’s hard to count as a success an agreement that has yet to be struck, especially with Tehran’s penchant for throwing a last-minute wrench into the cogs.

Perhaps the only success to which Kerry can point is the deal for Syria to forfeit its chemical-weapons arsenal, never mind that a cynic could see the precedent as rogue leaders getting a free shot to kill 1,400 civilians before coming in from the cold. In recent weeks, however, even that deal appears to be less than meets the eye. Last month, the Syrian regime apparently again used chemical weapons, an incident blogged about at the time and an attack subsequently acknowledged by the State Department, even if the State Department spokesman declined to assess blame.

Subsequently, the Brown Moses Blog, which tends to be the most careful and credible open source resource on Syrian chemical weapons, has posted video outlining claims of a new attack in Al-Tamanah. While the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) says Syria has complied with the removal or disposal of Syrian chemical material, it is important to remember that is based on what Syria has declared, and there is no way of knowing whether it includes all Syrian chemical munitions. Meanwhile, the OPCW has concluded “sizeable and unambiguous traces of chlorine and ammonia” in the aftermath of apparent regime attacks on civilians in northern Syria. And so, while Kerry celebrates, Syrians suffocate.

Let us hope that Kerry can redeem himself. But if there’s one lesson he might learn as he assesses his tenure so far, it’s that he isn’t the center of the world and desire and rhetoric aren’t enough to win success. Perhaps he might look at his failures and recognize that many problems are more complicated than he—or the staff charged with preparing him—seems to recognize. In the meantime, while he assesses where the United States was diplomatically when he took office and where it is today, he might remember the maxim for doctors could just as easily apply to himself: First, do no harm.

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What China Really Thinks of North Korea

As a kind of secretive hermit state, North Korea clings to its remaining ally in China. Yet the recent leaking of sensitive documents from the Chinese military to the Japanese media might suggest that China has just about had enough of its eccentric friends over the northern border. The documents in question are contingency plans for what is to be done in the event of a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang. Yet, as the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs scholar Jun Okumura told the Daily Telegraph, such plans have likely existed for years: their leakage now may be significant. After all, the People’s Liberation Army of China is a pretty tightly run ship, and would-be leakers might think twice about proceeding without a high-ranking green light. Are these contingency plans perhaps more prescriptive than predictive on China’s part?

The leaked documents may reveal more about China’s own outlook than about a likely trajectory of future events. Of course we know so little about what is really going on in North Korean society that these things are difficult to predict, but if a North Korean spring were to burst forth now, it is fair to say that most would be caught off guard. Still, the Chinese report seems to envisage that the regime might collapse on account of outside intervention of some kind, presumably on the part of the United States. If China really imagines that this could happen anytime soon then it is simply projecting its own paranoia. Ever since the West foolishly let the North Koreans pass the nuclear threshold in around 2003, America’s appetite for intervention there fell below the already non-existent levels seen prior to that point. And while the Obama administration may have spoken of pivoting toward Asia, a war with North Korea was surely not what the president had in mind.  

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As a kind of secretive hermit state, North Korea clings to its remaining ally in China. Yet the recent leaking of sensitive documents from the Chinese military to the Japanese media might suggest that China has just about had enough of its eccentric friends over the northern border. The documents in question are contingency plans for what is to be done in the event of a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang. Yet, as the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs scholar Jun Okumura told the Daily Telegraph, such plans have likely existed for years: their leakage now may be significant. After all, the People’s Liberation Army of China is a pretty tightly run ship, and would-be leakers might think twice about proceeding without a high-ranking green light. Are these contingency plans perhaps more prescriptive than predictive on China’s part?

The leaked documents may reveal more about China’s own outlook than about a likely trajectory of future events. Of course we know so little about what is really going on in North Korean society that these things are difficult to predict, but if a North Korean spring were to burst forth now, it is fair to say that most would be caught off guard. Still, the Chinese report seems to envisage that the regime might collapse on account of outside intervention of some kind, presumably on the part of the United States. If China really imagines that this could happen anytime soon then it is simply projecting its own paranoia. Ever since the West foolishly let the North Koreans pass the nuclear threshold in around 2003, America’s appetite for intervention there fell below the already non-existent levels seen prior to that point. And while the Obama administration may have spoken of pivoting toward Asia, a war with North Korea was surely not what the president had in mind.  

While China would no doubt fiercely resent any Western intervention in what it views as its sphere of influence, it may well be the case that the Chinese are also growing weary of the Kims and the weird brand of Stalinism-meets-Medieval-absolutist-monarchy that they keep ticking over in North Korea. If the North Koreans have now become too unpredictable and are viewed by Beijing as a likely source of instability in the region, then it could well be that these contingency plans are essentially wishful thinking on the part of a China just about ready to be rid of North Korea. Indeed, ahead of a widely anticipated nuclear test by the North Koreans, the Chinese have released a statement expressing a clear tone of disapproval. It has also been reported that China refused to transfer oil supplies to the North Koreans during the first three months of this year.

The contingency plans drawn up by the Chinese include the anticipation of large numbers of refugees fleeing over the North Korean border, but also preparations for creating some kind of internment camp for North Korea’s leadership. Hardly the most friendly of moves, although it would appear that such a plan is as much driven by concerns about preventing the country’s former rulers from falling into foreign hands as by the desire to ensure that the ruling clique couldn’t continue to wage long-term civil war Assad-style.

For the moment it seems that China is simply planning to monitor its border with North Korea still more closely than it already does. Regardless of whether or not the leaking of these contingency plans was instructed from higher up, they certainly provide a window into Chinese thinking on North Korea. A collapse of North Korea’s government may not appear quite imminent, nor is it so easy to imagine outside intervention in the way that the Chinese report would seem to. What these contingency plans do expose, however, is a growing Chinese disinterest in preserving the regime ruling North Korea at the present. 

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Freedom for Religion, Not From It

Today the U.S. Supreme Court once again affirmed that the so-called “wall of separation” that exists between church and state is not quite the edifice that liberals would like it to be. In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the court ruled today that a village in upstate New York did not violate the First Amendment in allowing members of clergy to begin town board meetings with prayers, some of which were explicitly sectarian (and usually Christian) rather than ecumenical. The narrow vote along the usual 5-4 conservative/liberal lines is bound to incite many on the left to express fears about the court trying to turn the U.S. into a “Christian nation.”

But in upholding the rights of Greece, N.Y. to have meetings begin with a religious invocation, the court has done no such thing. Rather, it has simply affirmed a long American tradition of beginning public meetings with prayer. Even more to the point, by refusing to be drawn into the question of regulating the content of such prayers, the court has preserved religious liberty rather than constricting it. The decision also provides a timely reminder that for all the talk about separation walls, the main point of the First Amendment is to preserve freedom of religion, not freedom from any mention or contact with faith.

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Today the U.S. Supreme Court once again affirmed that the so-called “wall of separation” that exists between church and state is not quite the edifice that liberals would like it to be. In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the court ruled today that a village in upstate New York did not violate the First Amendment in allowing members of clergy to begin town board meetings with prayers, some of which were explicitly sectarian (and usually Christian) rather than ecumenical. The narrow vote along the usual 5-4 conservative/liberal lines is bound to incite many on the left to express fears about the court trying to turn the U.S. into a “Christian nation.”

But in upholding the rights of Greece, N.Y. to have meetings begin with a religious invocation, the court has done no such thing. Rather, it has simply affirmed a long American tradition of beginning public meetings with prayer. Even more to the point, by refusing to be drawn into the question of regulating the content of such prayers, the court has preserved religious liberty rather than constricting it. The decision also provides a timely reminder that for all the talk about separation walls, the main point of the First Amendment is to preserve freedom of religion, not freedom from any mention or contact with faith.

In recent decades, the “separationist” position on church/state interaction has grown more, rather than less, aggressive. In its 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision that banned public school prayers, the court rightly ruled that school districts had no business imposing what were often sectarian prayers on children. Given that students were not free agents who could accept or reject these prayers with impunity, it was clear that the practice could easily be considered an “establishment” of a state religion that is prohibited by the First Amendment. But purely ceremonial affairs such as invocations before legislative proceedings cannot be reasonably interpreted in the same light. Since, as Justice Anthony Kennedy noted in the majority opinion, such prayers go back to the First Congress and have been repeatedly upheld since then, any attempt to overturn these precedents was unwarranted.

It is true that for any member of a minority faith or for atheists, the repeated use of Christian prayers at Greece’s public meetings might be tedious or possibly offensive. But in the absence of a more diverse group of local clergy in this hamlet not far from the shores of Lake Ontario, the town’s choices were between either censoring the prayers of local clergy who were willing to take part or eliminating the practice. Clearly there are many on the left who would have been comfortable with the former and well pleased with the latter.

But what must be acknowledged is that being put in a position where one must listen to the prayers of another faith is not a violation of one’s constitutional rights. A ceremonial prayer, like the words “In God We Trust” on our coinage, does not transform our republic into one with a state religion. So long as those participating in such gestures are not attacking other faiths or those who do not believe in religion, their words are not an establishment of religion or impinge on the freedom of those listening. Adults at a town board meeting are not like schoolchildren in a closed class. They can join in the prayer or not at their own pleasure with no fear of punishment.

At the heart of this issue is the notion that any expression of faith in the public square is a violation of a vast mythical wall that some believe must completely separate religion from state. But while the Founders explicitly and with good reason forbade any one sect, denomination, or faith from being empowered by and identified with the state, they did not intend the First Amendment to be used as a shield to prevent Americans from any contact with religion. To the contrary, they saw faith as having an important role in preserving a democratic nation and a civil society.

There may have been a time when religious minorities and non-believers felt that the identification of the state with the faith of the Christian majority resulted in discriminatory practices that compromised their rights. But what is at stake here are not cases of bias or religious rule but rather the desire of some to be insulated from expressions of faith, and that is a privilege that the First Amendment does not provide them.

As we have seen with the efforts by the Obama administration to restrict the rights of religious believers in the Hobby Lobby case concerning the ObamaCare contraception mandate, there is a not inconsiderable body of opinion that would like to promote a cribbed definition of religious liberty that would be restricted to prayers in houses of worship or private homes. But Americans have always defined religious freedom in a more open and expansive manner that allowed them to practice their faith on the public square rather than only in private. It is that rich legal tradition that the court has upheld in Town of Greece. Though only a narrow majority is defending that principle on the Supreme Court at present, it is one that is well worth preserving.

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Remembering Kfar Etzion

“Massacre that Marred the Birth of Israel” reads a headline in the Guardian, and your heart sinks. This is the last thing one feels like reading as Israel enters into forty-eight hours of commemoration, celebration, mourning, and remembrance; today is Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers and terror victims, tomorrow Israel’s independence day marking sixty-six years since the reestablishment of the Jewish state. Yet, on closer inspection the headline might be thought a little misleading.

This column by the Guardian’s Peter Beaumont turns out not to be just another hit piece laden with the usual allegations of Zionist crimes against forlorn Palestinians. In a newspaper typically more inclined to give over its pages to stories about what Israel’s opponents call the Nakba—the catastrophe of Israel’s creation—it is rather disorienting, if refreshing, to find a piece so sympathetically recounting the macabre events of the Kfar Etzion massacre.

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“Massacre that Marred the Birth of Israel” reads a headline in the Guardian, and your heart sinks. This is the last thing one feels like reading as Israel enters into forty-eight hours of commemoration, celebration, mourning, and remembrance; today is Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers and terror victims, tomorrow Israel’s independence day marking sixty-six years since the reestablishment of the Jewish state. Yet, on closer inspection the headline might be thought a little misleading.

This column by the Guardian’s Peter Beaumont turns out not to be just another hit piece laden with the usual allegations of Zionist crimes against forlorn Palestinians. In a newspaper typically more inclined to give over its pages to stories about what Israel’s opponents call the Nakba—the catastrophe of Israel’s creation—it is rather disorienting, if refreshing, to find a piece so sympathetically recounting the macabre events of the Kfar Etzion massacre.

Supporters of Israel still regularly try to remind the world of how the surrounding nations attempted to strangle Israel at its birth, yet they rarely do so with any reference to the specifics. By contrast those seeking to paint Israel’s creation as the original sin of an illegitimate state have long been equipped with arguments provided by Israel’s revisionist historians, with their allegations of orchestrated ethnic cleansing on the part of the nascent Jewish state.

A closer inspection of the events as they actually unfolded reveals how Israel’s precarious war of independence was the culmination of an ongoing conflict which reached its most frenetic point as the British Mandatory forces prepared to pull out and the surrounding countries invaded in an effort to undo the United Nations’ decision to back the establishment of the Jewish state. Messy and disorganized battles followed as the ill-equipped Jewish forces—with their poorly trained ranks of newly arrived immigrants and holocaust survivors—tried to repel five invading armies.

Talk by Arab leaders at the time of “driving the Jews into the sea” has since been dismissed by some as mere rhetoric. The events at Kfar Etzion, however, should serve as a reminder of how things might have looked had Israel lost in its fight for independence. Beaumont recounts the massacre that took place on May 13, 1948 when Jordanian forces were responsible for killing some 127 Jewish captives who had been holding out in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. Among this number were some twenty women who had been hiding in the cellar of the adjacent German monastery. Beaumont’s piece focuses on the story of Yossi Ron, whose parents Yecheil and Tzipora Rosenfeld, both Holocaust survivors, were among those murdered following the fall of the Kibbutz.

These events were in fact the second massacre involving Kfar Etzion. In January 1948 a convoy set out from Jerusalem to bring supplies to the four besieged kibbutzim of the Gush Etzion region south of Bethlehem. Their fate became apparent when the Irgun intercepted an Arab radio communication apparently celebrating some kind of attack on Jewish forces. All thirty-five of the young men in the group had been killed by local Arab villagers, many mutilated beyond recognition. What happened to this group was not unique for the time, with Jewish convoys often serving as easy targets. During the early stages of the civil war, many young people lost their lives accompanying convoys bringing aid from Tel Aviv to the desperately encircled Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. And perhaps most shocking of all was the ambush of a Jewish medical convoy on its way to Hadassah hospital on Mount Scopus. Among the seventy-nine people murdered in that attack were doctors, nurses, patients, students, and a British soldier.

Beaumont’s piece notes that it was out of the memory of Kfar Etzion that the settlement movement would be born. The kibbutz was the first settlement to built after the 1967 Six-Day War when Hanan Porat and the other children of Kfar Etzion—who had been evacuated prior to the massacre—reestablished the community. Today the Gush Etzion region is one of the quieter parts of the West Bank and arguably one of the settlement movement’s greatest success stories. Its pastural landscape dotted with Kibbutzim, vineyards, seminaries, and a number of small towns has been envisaged as remaining part of Israel even by those proposing the most extensive Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank.

The easygoing Kfar Etzion of today is just one expression of the Israeli tendency to redeem sites of loss and tragedy with new life. With some 23,169 Israelis having fallen in combat in the course of Israel’s short history, and with another 2,495 civilian victims of terrorism, it seems unjust to highlight some cases over others. Yet while it may be surreal to be reminded from the pages of the Guardian of all places, the events at Kfar Etzion are a particularly harrowing testament of what could have been Israel’s fate, and of all that has been achieved instead.  

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Why the Left Resents Israeli Democracy

Israel’s tradition of marking Yom Hazikaron before Yom Haatzmaut–Memorial Day followed by Independence Day–has always served as a crystal clear demonstration that no matter the success and the progress of the Jewish state, Israelis never forget the price the Jews have had to pay for their own security. So it takes a special kind of chutzpah to not only accuse Israelis of ignoring the costs, the sacrifices, the trade-offs, and the responsibilities of statehood, but to do so on the weekend of Yom Hazikaron.

Yet that is precisely the sucker punch the American Jewish left hit their Israeli brethren with over the past few days. To be sure, American Jews don’t (necessarily) intend it to be the pernicious cheap shot it unquestionably is. The emotionally and politically and religiously complex question of how much Israeli state policy reflects a general consensus in the Jewish world has often led the American left into the same thought-cocoon to which they retreat when Republicans win national elections. Their fellow voters, they reason, must have been fooled.

Both the Forward newspaper editorialists and Harvard’s Yochai Benkler are out with recycled versions of this–a kind of What’s the Matter with Kansas for the Jews of Israel. The Forward’s weekend editorial is based on the demonstrably untrue claim that Israelis have crafted a situation in which they are blissfully unaware of the statelessness of the Palestinians next door:

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Israel’s tradition of marking Yom Hazikaron before Yom Haatzmaut–Memorial Day followed by Independence Day–has always served as a crystal clear demonstration that no matter the success and the progress of the Jewish state, Israelis never forget the price the Jews have had to pay for their own security. So it takes a special kind of chutzpah to not only accuse Israelis of ignoring the costs, the sacrifices, the trade-offs, and the responsibilities of statehood, but to do so on the weekend of Yom Hazikaron.

Yet that is precisely the sucker punch the American Jewish left hit their Israeli brethren with over the past few days. To be sure, American Jews don’t (necessarily) intend it to be the pernicious cheap shot it unquestionably is. The emotionally and politically and religiously complex question of how much Israeli state policy reflects a general consensus in the Jewish world has often led the American left into the same thought-cocoon to which they retreat when Republicans win national elections. Their fellow voters, they reason, must have been fooled.

Both the Forward newspaper editorialists and Harvard’s Yochai Benkler are out with recycled versions of this–a kind of What’s the Matter with Kansas for the Jews of Israel. The Forward’s weekend editorial is based on the demonstrably untrue claim that Israelis have crafted a situation in which they are blissfully unaware of the statelessness of the Palestinians next door:

We recognize that, thanks to the separation barrier, a thriving economy and security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority (though who knows how long that will last), most Israelis outside the military don’t have to deal with Palestinians. Even those Jews living among them in the West Bank can travel on separate roads to gated communities. The occupation is largely invisible. It can be easily denied.

One cringes at the sight of this kind of nonsense, because it defies the most basic knowledge of Israel as well as plain old common sense. In fact, the Forward editorial is self-refuting, for those paying attention. Note the important phrase “most Israelis outside the military.” It is a country with a national military draft. The military is one of the unifying elements of a diverse Israeli society, and even those who aren’t currently in the military probably have relatives and friends serving.

The idea that Israelis “outside the military” are so disconnected from what the military sees and knows is absurd, not to mention insulting. And the idea that Israelis need American leftists to remind them of the military experience on or near Yom Hazikaron is devoid of any merit or seriousness. Yet it is presented as brave truth telling.

But the left’s self-deluding is also understandable on some level. The Israeli electorate does not share their penchant for self-flagellation nor their belief that Israelis should take unreasonable risks to salve the sense of guilt that pervades the offices of their Manhattanite critics. Israelis shouldn’t take specific offense; this is how the American left engages in political debate these days. If you don’t agree with them, you must be ignoring the truth.

An even more bizarre argument comes from Benkler in the New Republic. Benkler writes that the rejection of J Street’s membership by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is reflective of the broader trend that will doom American Jewry the way observant Jews are “dooming” Israel. (The idea that Judaism will be doomed by those who practice Judaism is, to put it kindly, not the sharpest piece of analysis.)

One obvious mistake Benkler makes is to equate J Street’s rejection from the Conference with J Street’s rejection from the American Jewish community. All that happened was J Street established itself with a particularly vicious personal campaign against the American Jewish establishment and those groups, many of which stayed quiet while Jeremy Ben-Ami pointed fingers at them, simply declined to do J Street any favors. You burn bridges, don’t expect others to rebuild them at your command.

After musing about how much he likes people-watching from Tel Aviv beach cafes, Benkler gets to the heart of his concern. The demographic time bomb is not the Palestinians, apparently; it is the Jews:

The Israel I grew up in was a secular democratic state whose self-image was captured by Paul Newman’s image in Exodus, with a strong ethnic national identity, a respected Zionist orthodox minority, a smaller and more controversial anti-Zionist ultra-orthodox community, and about 20 percent of the population Arab, both Muslim and Christian. In Israel’s most recent education statistics, about half the Jewish kids enrolled in elementary school are enrolled in ultra-orthodox and nationalist-orthodox schools. Only half the Jewish student population is enrolled in the general, secular public education system. This trend is ongoing and rapid.

Now if you’re an Israeli reading American leftist publications, you’ve learned that liberals think Israel is doomed because of the pace of reproduction of the Palestinians and of the Jews. What Benkler wants is for everyone to stop reproducing except a fictional character played by the late Paul Newman.

What unites those like Benkler and those like the Forward editorial board is that they view Israeli democracy as a kind of Frankenstein and the current political consensus as its monster. They like the idea of Israeli democracy, but are aghast at what it has produced. They have yet to come to grips with the fact that Israelis are making informed choices about their lives–and that means the entire country does not look like a beachside café in Tel Aviv.

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No, Egypt’s Generals Don’t Cause Terrorism

Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, dedicates his monthly Washington Post column to argue that Egypt’s provisional government does not deserve U.S. support. He begins:

One wonders how much further the United States will allow itself to be dragged down into the deepening abyss that is today’s Egypt. Those in the Obama administration and Congress who favor continued U.S. military aid to the dictatorship in Cairo insist that although such aid may run counter to American ideals, it does serve American interests. I would argue the contrary, that American interests are being harmed every day that support continues.

Far from aiding the United States in the struggle against terrorism, as the Egyptian military dictatorship and its supporters claim, the military’s brutal crackdown on Egypt’s Islamists is creating a new generation of terrorists. Whatever one thought of the government of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, and there was much to criticize, it came to office by fair and legitimate electoral means, just as U.S. policy had demanded, and it was headed toward a second election that it probably would have lost.

Alas, while his argument is powerful, it is also based on several faulty assumptions. Underlying his argument is the assumption that the motivation for terrorism lies in grievance, not ideology. That may be comforting to many diplomats because it leads to the idea that if diplomats only address those grievances, terrorism will fade away. However, it completely ignores the ideological component of Islamist terrorism fully embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood, a topic which I touched upon for this COMMENTARY article a couple years back.

To follow Kagan’s logic, and admittedly, that of many others whom I admire—that the United States should have simply let the Morsi government hang the Muslim Brotherhood with a rope its leadership provided—is optimistic, for it assumes that Morsi was committed to the electoral process. In this regard, Kagan is more optimistic than tens of millions of Egyptians listening to Morsi in Arabic, living under Muslim Brotherhood rule and, frankly, millions of one-time Morsi supporters who recognized that rhetoric aside, Morsi was unrepentant and unreformed.

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Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, dedicates his monthly Washington Post column to argue that Egypt’s provisional government does not deserve U.S. support. He begins:

One wonders how much further the United States will allow itself to be dragged down into the deepening abyss that is today’s Egypt. Those in the Obama administration and Congress who favor continued U.S. military aid to the dictatorship in Cairo insist that although such aid may run counter to American ideals, it does serve American interests. I would argue the contrary, that American interests are being harmed every day that support continues.

Far from aiding the United States in the struggle against terrorism, as the Egyptian military dictatorship and its supporters claim, the military’s brutal crackdown on Egypt’s Islamists is creating a new generation of terrorists. Whatever one thought of the government of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, and there was much to criticize, it came to office by fair and legitimate electoral means, just as U.S. policy had demanded, and it was headed toward a second election that it probably would have lost.

Alas, while his argument is powerful, it is also based on several faulty assumptions. Underlying his argument is the assumption that the motivation for terrorism lies in grievance, not ideology. That may be comforting to many diplomats because it leads to the idea that if diplomats only address those grievances, terrorism will fade away. However, it completely ignores the ideological component of Islamist terrorism fully embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood, a topic which I touched upon for this COMMENTARY article a couple years back.

To follow Kagan’s logic, and admittedly, that of many others whom I admire—that the United States should have simply let the Morsi government hang the Muslim Brotherhood with a rope its leadership provided—is optimistic, for it assumes that Morsi was committed to the electoral process. In this regard, Kagan is more optimistic than tens of millions of Egyptians listening to Morsi in Arabic, living under Muslim Brotherhood rule and, frankly, millions of one-time Morsi supporters who recognized that rhetoric aside, Morsi was unrepentant and unreformed.

If the Muslim Brotherhood would have held elections under the narrow and bigoted constitution they rammed through, they likely would not have entertained a wider stable of candidates than those able to run in the Islamic Republic of Iran after that theocracy’s unelected Guardian Council got through with its vetting. It is true that the Egyptian counter-revolution rejected the established electoral calendar, much as did almost every Arab Spring uprising in the first place, revolutions that Kagan (and I) both embraced.

Nor does the “product of society” argument hold much water. To imply as, unfortunately Kagan does, that it is understandable that some Egyptians will turn to terrorism as a result of last summer’s events is to accept the same logic that al-Qaeda’s terror attacks on 9/11 were somehow the understandable backlash of American foreign policy. When terrorists set off bombs in Cairo, Alexandria, or Asyut, there simply is no legitimate excuse, ever. Period.

The Egyptian generals are no saints, but they have moved forward with the electoral process. The jury is out about how genuine the roadmap to democracy is, but it is essential not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. True, Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will probably win, but he is also probably the most popular politician in Egypt right now. Hopefully, he will recognize the mistakes that led to the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak in the first place, and not make the same compromises with crony capitalists and corrupt generals.

U.S. interests are well-served by engagement with the Egyptian leadership during the current transition and into the future. Support should not be blind, but it is essential to recognize that the best chance to encourage real and lasting democratic reform comes only when the Muslim Brotherhood—a group as antithetical to democracy as the terrorist movements it has spawned—is defeated. Just as military analysts preached the importance of stability and security in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to enable those countries to move forward, so it is true also with Egypt. It is ironic—and inconsistent—for those cheerleading security in some countries to treat it with such disdain in others.

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Watching the Obama Presidency Die

The news for Democrats, already bad this year, just got worse. Consider this story in the USA Today:

A nationwide USA TODAY/Pew Research Center Poll shows the strongest tilt to Republican candidates at this point in a midterm year in at least two decades, including before partisan “waves” in 1994 and 2010 that swept the GOP into power. Though Election Day is six months away — a lifetime in politics — at the moment, Democrats are saddled by angst over the economy, skepticism about the health care law and tepid approval of the president.

The specific data point worth focusing on is that registered voters favor a generic Republican over a generic Democrat by four points (47 percent v. 43 percent). As USA Today points out, “[The GOP] lead in the generic congressional ballot is the biggest at this point for Republicans in the past 20 years. In 1994, when the GOP would gain control of the House and Senate, Democrats held a 2-point advantage in the spring of the election year. In 2010, when Republicans would win back the House, the two sides were even.”

That’s not all.

By more than two-to-one, 65 percent v. 30 percent, Americans say they want the president elected in 2016 to pursue different policies and programs than the Obama administration, rather than similar ones. By more than two-to-one, Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. And by more than two-to-one, 40 percent v. 17 percent, they assess the nation’s economic conditions as poor, not excellent or good. Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed rate their financial situation as “only fair” and 23 percent call it poor.

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The news for Democrats, already bad this year, just got worse. Consider this story in the USA Today:

A nationwide USA TODAY/Pew Research Center Poll shows the strongest tilt to Republican candidates at this point in a midterm year in at least two decades, including before partisan “waves” in 1994 and 2010 that swept the GOP into power. Though Election Day is six months away — a lifetime in politics — at the moment, Democrats are saddled by angst over the economy, skepticism about the health care law and tepid approval of the president.

The specific data point worth focusing on is that registered voters favor a generic Republican over a generic Democrat by four points (47 percent v. 43 percent). As USA Today points out, “[The GOP] lead in the generic congressional ballot is the biggest at this point for Republicans in the past 20 years. In 1994, when the GOP would gain control of the House and Senate, Democrats held a 2-point advantage in the spring of the election year. In 2010, when Republicans would win back the House, the two sides were even.”

That’s not all.

By more than two-to-one, 65 percent v. 30 percent, Americans say they want the president elected in 2016 to pursue different policies and programs than the Obama administration, rather than similar ones. By more than two-to-one, Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. And by more than two-to-one, 40 percent v. 17 percent, they assess the nation’s economic conditions as poor, not excellent or good. Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed rate their financial situation as “only fair” and 23 percent call it poor.

By a ten-point margin, 53 percent v. 43 percent, those surveyed say the issue of which party controls Congress will be a factor in their vote–and those who say they feel that way are more likely to support the Republican contender. In addition, 26 percent say they think of their vote as a vote against Obama while only 16 percent as a vote for him.

The mid-term elections are still six months away, but the political landscape for Democrats is perilous. And the odds are as good or better that things will get worse, not better, for Democrats between now and November.

The American public, at least at this point, seem intent on deliver a stinging rebuke to President Obama, his party, and liberalism itself. The left, knowing this, is going to become even more desperate, more ad hominem, and more deranged in their attacks.

It won’t alter the outcome. We are watching the Obama presidency die. The cause of death? Massive incompetence. Flawed ideology. And the Obama agenda coming into contact with reality.

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The Best Essay of the Year So Far…

…(not to appear in COMMENTARY, that is) is James Loeffler’s extraordinary take on “The Death of Jewish Culture,” published today by Mosaic, the masterful website of the Tikvah Fund that is edited by my predecessor at COMMENTARY, Neal Kozodoy. What Loeffler details is the century-long history to build and sustain a rich and specificially Jewish secular culture and how the rise of do-it-yourself Judaism in the United States has effectively euthanized it. Loeffler makes reference to the concert at the Kennedy Center earlier this year when the pianist Evgeny Kissin almost single-handedly brought the effort back to life. I wrote about it here.  Do yourself a favor; go get a cup of coffee and settle in to read Loeffler’s remarkable account.

…(not to appear in COMMENTARY, that is) is James Loeffler’s extraordinary take on “The Death of Jewish Culture,” published today by Mosaic, the masterful website of the Tikvah Fund that is edited by my predecessor at COMMENTARY, Neal Kozodoy. What Loeffler details is the century-long history to build and sustain a rich and specificially Jewish secular culture and how the rise of do-it-yourself Judaism in the United States has effectively euthanized it. Loeffler makes reference to the concert at the Kennedy Center earlier this year when the pianist Evgeny Kissin almost single-handedly brought the effort back to life. I wrote about it here.  Do yourself a favor; go get a cup of coffee and settle in to read Loeffler’s remarkable account.

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Why Is the State Department Supporting a Jewish Conspiracy Book Fair?

Tom Gross, probably Europe’s leading observer of the Middle East to whose work I have linked before, points out on his website that the U.S. State Department has become a “cultural partner” with the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which this year has run from April 30 until May 5. He writes:

Among the anti-Semitic publications on display at the fair (in both English and Arabic) – books which paved the way for The Holocaust – are “The International Jew,” “Mein Kampf” and “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.” “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” is now reported to be the second most widely published book in the Arab world. It promotes anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that Jews are planning global domination.

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Tom Gross, probably Europe’s leading observer of the Middle East to whose work I have linked before, points out on his website that the U.S. State Department has become a “cultural partner” with the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which this year has run from April 30 until May 5. He writes:

Among the anti-Semitic publications on display at the fair (in both English and Arabic) – books which paved the way for The Holocaust – are “The International Jew,” “Mein Kampf” and “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.” “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” is now reported to be the second most widely published book in the Arab world. It promotes anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that Jews are planning global domination.

He notes, rightly, that there are many books on display that have absolutely nothing to do with Israel, Jews, or conspiracy theories. Still, no other U.S. government agency would even consider sponsoring a conference that promoted the works, for example, of racists David Duke and Louis Farrakhan, or conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche, even if it also sold books by J.K Rowling or Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys. Why the State Department under the leadership of John Kerry believes that it should use American taxpayer money to do the equivalent is a question that goes to the very heart of how the State Department spends money and executes strategy which in theory should promote American interests and U.S. national security.

Perhaps it is long past due for those in Congress charged with oversight of Foggy Bottom to ask such basic questions and to examine such choices as the State Department’s decision to sponsor the Abu Dhabi book fair, and work backwards to see how the choice was made and what due diligence, if any, our Foreign Service conducted.

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Voice of America Needs a Strategy

Earlier this week, Foreign Policy reported that Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), respectively, the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are supporting a bill which, according to Foreign Policy, “tweaks the language of VOA’s mission to explicitly outline the organization’s role in supporting U.S. ‘public diplomacy’ and the ‘policies’ of the United States government, a move that would settle a long-running dispute within the federal government about whether VOA should function as a neutral news organization rather than a messaging tool of Washington.”

VOA and International Board of Broadcasting employees have, in private sessions, defended the notion that they should be a media company like any other, and argued that by criticizing U.S. policy, they increase the service’s credibility. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, VOA famously defended and subsequently gave an award to a Pashto service employee who consistently aired Taliban officials and seemed to promote the Taliban line in order to create balance. That neither advanced U.S. interests nor made VOA more credible. Rather, it encouraged conspiracy theories and simply confused Afghans who could fathom no reason why Voice of America would broadcast reports sympathetic to Mullah Omar and the Taliban in the wake of 9/11.

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Earlier this week, Foreign Policy reported that Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), respectively, the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are supporting a bill which, according to Foreign Policy, “tweaks the language of VOA’s mission to explicitly outline the organization’s role in supporting U.S. ‘public diplomacy’ and the ‘policies’ of the United States government, a move that would settle a long-running dispute within the federal government about whether VOA should function as a neutral news organization rather than a messaging tool of Washington.”

VOA and International Board of Broadcasting employees have, in private sessions, defended the notion that they should be a media company like any other, and argued that by criticizing U.S. policy, they increase the service’s credibility. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, VOA famously defended and subsequently gave an award to a Pashto service employee who consistently aired Taliban officials and seemed to promote the Taliban line in order to create balance. That neither advanced U.S. interests nor made VOA more credible. Rather, it encouraged conspiracy theories and simply confused Afghans who could fathom no reason why Voice of America would broadcast reports sympathetic to Mullah Omar and the Taliban in the wake of 9/11.

The Pashto service isn’t alone. Many Iranians have questioned why VOA’s Persian Service and Radio Farda have in the past (I haven’t followed it in recent years) seemed so sympathetic to pro-regime reformists. Indeed, many mocked them as “Radio Khatami.” While diplomats might understandably think more favorably toward Iranian reformists than Iranian hardliners, the fact of the matter is that neither represents the broad array of Iranians who are, at best, overwhelmingly apathetic toward the regime imposed upon them, if not actively hostile to it.

It’s clear that VOA should not be simply an ordinary news service. The private sector handles that better, and CNN, CNBC, and even Fox are increasingly available abroad. Even in autocratic countries like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, residents can access a plethora of satellite stations, even when such access isn’t really legal.

So, here’s a modest proposal: The Broadcasting Board of Governors should identify in each country hostile to the United States or behind an iron curtain what journalists in that country aren’t allowed to pursue. In Iran, it could be stories about the leaders’ moral and financial corruption, strong women, or the arguments of dissident religious leaders. In Turkey, journalists are not able to cover fully Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s corruption and that of his cronies, or explore fully Kurdish issues.

In Algeria, it could be interviews with refugees who have escaped their captivity in the Tindouf refugee camps or the plight of the Berbers; and in North Korea and Eritrea, it could be just about anything. Given limited resources, VOA broadcasting to that country should focus on those banned subjects. That would guarantee relevance, an audience, and invariably bolster American interests as well.

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