Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 9, 2014

Aid Can’t Buy Israel’s Silence on Iran Deal

National Security Advisor Susan Rice was in Israel this week to brief Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the latest developments in the nuclear talks with Iran. In doing so Rice, who was accompanied by top U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman, said all the right things about the U.S.-Israel relationship as well as the nuclear threat from Iran. Rice assured Netanyahu that the U.S. was committed to stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons and also touted the value of the American aid flowing to Israel. As the Times of Israel reported:

Rice said that the new deal “will take our total investment in Iron Dome, which has saved countless of Israeli lives, to nearly $900 million, a sign of our continued commitment to Israel’s security.”

“Every American dollar spent on Israel’s security is an investment in protecting the many interests that our nations share. Whether that’s preventing rockets from terrorizing the Israeli people, defending against the growing ballistic missile threat in the region, or advancing our commitment to defend freedom and democracy,” she went on.

Rice is right about that, since the money spent on bolstering its ally’s defense capabilities enhances U.S. security interests. But as welcome as those words may be, they aren’t enough to allay Israeli concerns about the nuclear talks with Iran that resume next week. As Haaretz reported, Netanyahu emerged from a session with Rice repeating his concerns that the U.S. is being dragged into a “bad deal” with Iran. While the Western press discounts virtually anything the Israeli leader said on this topic, the plain fact remains that the impetus from both the Obama administration and its European allies that virtually all informed observers think will result in the deal they have been seeking will be one in which Iran is allowed to keep its centrifuges and go on enriching uranium. So long as that is true, Iran will remain weeks or, at best, months away from a nuclear weapon. Under these circumstances, Americans need to realize that the damage the negotiations with Iran are doing to Israel’s security cannot be erased by even the most generous grants from Washington.

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National Security Advisor Susan Rice was in Israel this week to brief Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the latest developments in the nuclear talks with Iran. In doing so Rice, who was accompanied by top U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman, said all the right things about the U.S.-Israel relationship as well as the nuclear threat from Iran. Rice assured Netanyahu that the U.S. was committed to stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons and also touted the value of the American aid flowing to Israel. As the Times of Israel reported:

Rice said that the new deal “will take our total investment in Iron Dome, which has saved countless of Israeli lives, to nearly $900 million, a sign of our continued commitment to Israel’s security.”

“Every American dollar spent on Israel’s security is an investment in protecting the many interests that our nations share. Whether that’s preventing rockets from terrorizing the Israeli people, defending against the growing ballistic missile threat in the region, or advancing our commitment to defend freedom and democracy,” she went on.

Rice is right about that, since the money spent on bolstering its ally’s defense capabilities enhances U.S. security interests. But as welcome as those words may be, they aren’t enough to allay Israeli concerns about the nuclear talks with Iran that resume next week. As Haaretz reported, Netanyahu emerged from a session with Rice repeating his concerns that the U.S. is being dragged into a “bad deal” with Iran. While the Western press discounts virtually anything the Israeli leader said on this topic, the plain fact remains that the impetus from both the Obama administration and its European allies that virtually all informed observers think will result in the deal they have been seeking will be one in which Iran is allowed to keep its centrifuges and go on enriching uranium. So long as that is true, Iran will remain weeks or, at best, months away from a nuclear weapon. Under these circumstances, Americans need to realize that the damage the negotiations with Iran are doing to Israel’s security cannot be erased by even the most generous grants from Washington.

The Rice visit encapsulated what has become a familiar Obama tactic to deal with the Israelis. The administration pressures Israel on the peace process with the Palestinians, sandbags them with selective and misleading leaks about those talks (as Martin Indyk did after the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative) and conducts negotiations with Iran that are clearly headed toward a deal that will leave Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure intact, a state of affairs that allows the Jewish state’s very existence to be subject to the ability of Washington to enforce an agreement with Iran that may be unenforceable. And after all that, the Israelis are supposed to cheer Obama and express gratitude because the administration has maintained the alliance and poured more money into vital projects like Iron Dome.

It should be understood that this weapons system is a key part of Israel’s defense strategy in dealing with the independent Palestinian state in all but name ruled by Hamas in Gaza. The strengthening of the security alliance with Israel merely maintains what other presidents began, but nevertheless Obama deserves credit for increasing the amounts spent on these projects.

When viewed in this context it is easy to understand why some Israelis are beginning to question the value of the massive aid that is given to them by the U.S. As Caroline Glick wrote in the Jerusalem Post last week when discussing the views of an isolationist like Senator Rand Paul who opposes all foreign aid including that given to Israel, while the help from the U.S. is important, it undercuts the country’s “strategic independence.”

Given the importance of weapons like Iron Dome that have only been made possible by American assistance, I’m not prepared to go as far as joining her in endorsing Paul’s anti-aid position. Israel still cannot afford to be cut off from U.S. military help if it is to maintain its qualitative edge over any combination of actual or potential foes. But neither should we accept Rice’s nice words about the U.S. “investment” as adequate compensation for the underhanded way in which Indyk has sandbagged Netanyahu, let alone the coming betrayal on Iran.

The administration seems to operate on the assumption that keeping the aid dollars flowing to Jerusalem covers a multitude of its sins even to the point of making up for an American push for détente with the vicious anti-Semitic and potentially genocidal regime in Tehran. But though he is wisely doing everything to not rise to Obama’s bait and to keep the daylight between Israel and the United States to a minimum, Netanyahu has to know that a tipping point may soon be coming in the balance between American aid and diplomatic treachery with Iran. It’s not clear what, if anything, Netanyahu will believe Israel is capable of doing in response to a “bad deal” with Iran up to and including a strike on the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities before it is too late to stop their drive to a bomb. But whatever his decision might be, no one in Washington should labor under the illusion that Israeli acquiescence to an Iran deal can be bought with an anti-missile system even if some cash is thrown in on the side.

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Indyk’s Amoral Kiss-and-Tell Story

Since talks collapsed between Israel and the Palestinians, chief U.S. negotiator Martin Indyk has already gone to the press with at least one kiss-and-tell story, about how Israel sabotaged peace through settlement building. But it seems that Indyk intends to extract still more capital from his role in the doomed negotiations. The business of manipulation and self-promotion that now surrounds the negotiation process has virtually become an end in itself, far outstripping the importance of the always-fruitless negotiations themselves. The talks seem to take place so as to allow individuals on each side to come forward with a drip feed of snippets and revelations, promoting the good will of one side, pouring condemnation on the other.

On Thursday evening, speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s founders conference, Indyk offered up a serving of platitudes and obvious statements, dressed up with a particularly provocative barb about how Israel’s settlement building is supposedly risking the future of the Jewish state. Among a whole list of predictable observations, Indyk’s remark that if only the U.S. feels a sense of urgency then “the negotiations will not succeed,” seemed particularly unworthy of having been uttered. Indeed, Indyk bemoaned how leaders on both sides “don’t feel the pressing need to make gut-wrenching compromises.” Well, it’s not as if Indyk and Kerry weren’t warned of this fact before they set out on their ill-advised venture. Neither side trusts the other to think that concessions are really warranted, and yet what does Indyk imagine Israel releasing terrorists was if not “gut-wrenching”? If Indyk can be so flippant about the pain caused by these murderers going free then he has either suspended all moral judgment or is completely indifferent to Israeli suffering; perhaps both.

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Since talks collapsed between Israel and the Palestinians, chief U.S. negotiator Martin Indyk has already gone to the press with at least one kiss-and-tell story, about how Israel sabotaged peace through settlement building. But it seems that Indyk intends to extract still more capital from his role in the doomed negotiations. The business of manipulation and self-promotion that now surrounds the negotiation process has virtually become an end in itself, far outstripping the importance of the always-fruitless negotiations themselves. The talks seem to take place so as to allow individuals on each side to come forward with a drip feed of snippets and revelations, promoting the good will of one side, pouring condemnation on the other.

On Thursday evening, speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s founders conference, Indyk offered up a serving of platitudes and obvious statements, dressed up with a particularly provocative barb about how Israel’s settlement building is supposedly risking the future of the Jewish state. Among a whole list of predictable observations, Indyk’s remark that if only the U.S. feels a sense of urgency then “the negotiations will not succeed,” seemed particularly unworthy of having been uttered. Indeed, Indyk bemoaned how leaders on both sides “don’t feel the pressing need to make gut-wrenching compromises.” Well, it’s not as if Indyk and Kerry weren’t warned of this fact before they set out on their ill-advised venture. Neither side trusts the other to think that concessions are really warranted, and yet what does Indyk imagine Israel releasing terrorists was if not “gut-wrenching”? If Indyk can be so flippant about the pain caused by these murderers going free then he has either suspended all moral judgment or is completely indifferent to Israeli suffering; perhaps both.

Some recent comments that have been widely attributed to Indyk framed the Israelis for having allegedly wrecked the peace talks through settlement building. In his speech on Thursday evening it was Israeli settlements that Indyk was especially eager to condemn. Settlements, claimed Indyk, will “drive Israel into an irreversible binational reality.”

In one sense this claim is demonstrably nonsense. The limited settlement building that has taken place has been restricted to the major settlement blocs that the consensus holds would be annexed to Israel under any final-status agreement. Yet it is also true that many proponents of the settlement project see the role of the settlements as being to block the ceding of strategically important territory to a Palestinian state that might use that territory to attack Israel from—as has been the practice in territories already surrendered by Israel. Yet there is no necessary reason why Israeli annexation of the West Bank would end Israel as a Jewish state. True, if carried out right now it would likely create an almost ungovernable situation and present a severe challenge to Israeli democracy. But the claims about demography used by Indyk/Kerry/Obama to terrorize the Israelis are increasingly being called into question. Israeli birthrates have just overtaken those of Palestinians in the West Bank and with Jewish immigration into Israel up, and Palestinian emigration remaining high, the demographic catastrophe is by no means as imminent as Indyk sounds like he hopes it is.

Still the peace process has become totemic for many, and like Kerry, Indyk is among the most pious devotees to this obsession. And so, in the course of his speech, Indyk insisted that talks could be resumed, that there is still hope for an agreement between the two sides. As ever, it is always five minutes to midnight. For the last two decades the Indyks have been telling us, one more settlement expansion, one more suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and peace will be lost forever and Israel inevitably consigned to the history books. Who knows what any of this is based on? Such claims seem as fabricated as Indyk’s suggestion that since negotiations collapsed both sides have shown restraint. But since when did restraint include the Palestinians moving to bring Hamas into the government and pushing ahead with their applications to join international bodies in direct breach of the Oslo accords?

The gap between reality and the picture Indyk and Kerry paint has become so wide that one wonders how it doesn’t simply swallow them both.   

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Trust the Arms Control Association on Iran?

The Arms Control Association (ACA) bills itself as “a national nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to promoting public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies.” It is a serious organization and does serious work, even if its bipartisanship seems in recent years a bit more theoretical than real, perhaps not a surprise given support for the likes of the Ford Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, and MacArthur Foundation.

Most recently, in a series of media appearances and radio hits by staff, it has lent its organizational reputation to the promotion of President Barack Obama’s Iran diplomacy and has embraced partisan Bush-bashing nonsense like the discredited notion of a 2003 Iranian peace proposal. It has also been surprising to travel to the Persian Gulf and hear Iran watchers there list a litany of loopholes in the proposed agreement, all of which the ACA seems to dismiss or disregard. When ACA staff lends their imprimatur to the rigorous verifications and downplay concerns inherent in the Iran nuclear deal, a relevant question is the degree to which their track record inspires confidence in their willingness to put objectivity above politics.

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The Arms Control Association (ACA) bills itself as “a national nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to promoting public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies.” It is a serious organization and does serious work, even if its bipartisanship seems in recent years a bit more theoretical than real, perhaps not a surprise given support for the likes of the Ford Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, and MacArthur Foundation.

Most recently, in a series of media appearances and radio hits by staff, it has lent its organizational reputation to the promotion of President Barack Obama’s Iran diplomacy and has embraced partisan Bush-bashing nonsense like the discredited notion of a 2003 Iranian peace proposal. It has also been surprising to travel to the Persian Gulf and hear Iran watchers there list a litany of loopholes in the proposed agreement, all of which the ACA seems to dismiss or disregard. When ACA staff lends their imprimatur to the rigorous verifications and downplay concerns inherent in the Iran nuclear deal, a relevant question is the degree to which their track record inspires confidence in their willingness to put objectivity above politics.

In 1983, for example, in an episode I cover in my recent book, an American spy satellite detected a Soviet radar complex near Krasnoyarsk, in the middle of Siberia. Its configuration suggested a military purpose. The sheer size of the complex underlined the scale of Soviet subterfuge of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. To lend credence to Soviet cheating, however, would undercut hopes for new arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union. The Arms Control Association duly chimed in and dismissed Krasnoyarsk as insignificant. Reagan thought otherwise. “No violations of a treaty can be considered to be a minor matter, nor can there be confidence in agreements if a country can pick and choose which provisions of an agreement it will comply with,” he explained. And, indeed, subsequent revelations hastened by the collapse of the Soviet Union showed that it had been cheating.

While praising Clinton-era nuclear deal-making with North Korea, during the Bush administration the Arms Control Association downplayed reports of North Korean treaty cheating and illicit enrichment.

It is quite possible that the Obama administration will strike a nuclear deal with Iran, not by resolving the obstacles or removing the reasons for such long-term distrust, but rather by ignoring or downplaying them. If the historical pattern holds true, the ACA will affirm that strategy by lending its organization’s reputation to efforts to downplay the concerns of critics. This would less attest to the strength of the Iran deal, however, then to the joint tendency to promote a political agenda and prioritize the act of reaching an agreement over the substance of that agreement.  

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“So We’ll Choose the Way of Trust and Joy Instead.”

In a fascinating interview with Charlie Rose, David Brooks–who is now teaching moral philosophy at Yale–spoke, among many other topics, about Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor.

Dr. Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, deals with the fact that he was living a life he didn’t plan for. Living in a concentration camp obviously isn’t what he hoped for. The crucial question became not what Frankl wanted out of life; it was what he would do with the hand he had been dealt. 

Dr. Frankl decided, “Suffering became a problem upon which I did not want to turn my back.” He made a decision to, in Brooks’s words, “suffer well,” meaning he would not allow the Nazis to take away his dignity. The moral of the story is that life happens, and you are forced to adapt to circumstances. How you handle those circumstances is really what defines who you are.

I was vividly reminded of this after learning that a treasured friend of mine, Steve Hayner–a man who was my youth pastor in college and to whom I have turned to for wisdom and support at every difficult moment in my life–is battling pancreatic cancer.

Upon learning the news, here is what Steve wrote on a site created to update his legion of friends: “So now by God’s grace I enter the next chapter of the journey over which I have very little control. Medically I’m in great hands. And God is good!” 

He later wrote, “We’re on God’s timetable in this–clearly not ours. We continue to be carried along and sustained by the Spirit, and the love and prayers of our amazing friends.” And this:

Reading about metastatic pancreatic cancer can be pretty scary, but we continue to be calm and are taking one day at a time.  There are never any guarantees in this life, and this is a chance to take Jesus’ words to heart, “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Mt. 6:27) So we’ll choose the way of trust and joy instead.

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In a fascinating interview with Charlie Rose, David Brooks–who is now teaching moral philosophy at Yale–spoke, among many other topics, about Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor.

Dr. Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, deals with the fact that he was living a life he didn’t plan for. Living in a concentration camp obviously isn’t what he hoped for. The crucial question became not what Frankl wanted out of life; it was what he would do with the hand he had been dealt. 

Dr. Frankl decided, “Suffering became a problem upon which I did not want to turn my back.” He made a decision to, in Brooks’s words, “suffer well,” meaning he would not allow the Nazis to take away his dignity. The moral of the story is that life happens, and you are forced to adapt to circumstances. How you handle those circumstances is really what defines who you are.

I was vividly reminded of this after learning that a treasured friend of mine, Steve Hayner–a man who was my youth pastor in college and to whom I have turned to for wisdom and support at every difficult moment in my life–is battling pancreatic cancer.

Upon learning the news, here is what Steve wrote on a site created to update his legion of friends: “So now by God’s grace I enter the next chapter of the journey over which I have very little control. Medically I’m in great hands. And God is good!” 

He later wrote, “We’re on God’s timetable in this–clearly not ours. We continue to be carried along and sustained by the Spirit, and the love and prayers of our amazing friends.” And this:

Reading about metastatic pancreatic cancer can be pretty scary, but we continue to be calm and are taking one day at a time.  There are never any guarantees in this life, and this is a chance to take Jesus’ words to heart, “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Mt. 6:27) So we’ll choose the way of trust and joy instead.

Steve’s remarkable wife Sharol, in reacting to news of a medical setback, said, “We are definitely in the fiery furnace from Daniel 3 but we are not alone. God’s presence is very evident.”

There are moments that reveal the orientation of your heart and the order of your loves; a diagnosis of cancer is one of them. There is obviously a difficult road ahead. But Steve and Sharol have chosen to face this supreme challenge with honesty and faith rather than denial or rage. And no one who knows them is surprised.

If you’re lucky in life, somewhere along the way you come across someone whose integrity, grace, tenderness, and wisdom become touchstones for you. Steve has been that for me for almost my entire adult life.

More than anyone I’ve known over the years, Steve has helped me to see that often we find ourselves somewhere else than we ever imagined and that God can weave good even out of places of brokenness and pain; that we need to live our lives in light of eternity; and that while we may not understand what God is doing, hope comes when we cling to the One who holds the future.

“What the world needs,” he would say, “is not simply men and women of dreams and ambitions and energy. What the world needs is men and women who have surrendered to God and continue to do so no matter what.”  

When I was in college I visited with Steve to share a particular burden I had shared with no one else. I left our encounter in a very different place then when it began, with my spirits having been lifted by the words I heard and by the man whose extraordinary human qualities made those words meaningful.

Nothing has really changed.

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Intel and Military Presence Go Hand in Hand

One of the less appreciated consequences of a U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan is that it also necessitates an intelligence drawdown. The armed forces and the CIA are apparently at loggerheads because the CIA is busy closing its bases around Afghanistan and laying off its militias (known as Counter-Terrorist Pursuit Teams) just as the summer fighting season begins. This raises the danger to U.S. troops who will remain through at least the fall.

It obviously makes sense for the CIA to delay its drawdown and to synchronize more closely with the military. It is especially stupid to lay off thousands of armed fighters without a plan for the Afghan National Security Forces to absorb them–it is a virtual invitation for them to seek employment with drug lords or the Taliban. 

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One of the less appreciated consequences of a U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan is that it also necessitates an intelligence drawdown. The armed forces and the CIA are apparently at loggerheads because the CIA is busy closing its bases around Afghanistan and laying off its militias (known as Counter-Terrorist Pursuit Teams) just as the summer fighting season begins. This raises the danger to U.S. troops who will remain through at least the fall.

It obviously makes sense for the CIA to delay its drawdown and to synchronize more closely with the military. It is especially stupid to lay off thousands of armed fighters without a plan for the Afghan National Security Forces to absorb them–it is a virtual invitation for them to seek employment with drug lords or the Taliban. 

But no matter what happens this year the larger issue remains: what kind of military and intelligence footprint will the U.S. have in Afghanistan post-2014? The two are more intimately connected than proponents of a military drawdown find it comfortable to acknowledge. Many of those opposed to keeping at least 10,000 U.S. troops after this year, as recommended by General Joe Dunford, imagine that we could keep a smaller Special Operations force solely to chase al-Qaeda’s remnants.

Leave aside the issue of whether we can afford to focus on al-Qaeda alone when other jihadist groups such as the Haqqani Network and the Pakistani Taliban present just as big a threat to American interests. The point I want to emphasize here is that there is no way to maintain the intelligence networks we need to effectively target terrorists (whether al-Qaeda or Haqqani or Taliban) unless there is a substantial military presence in place to provide logistics and security. The Los Angeles Times quotes one “former CIA operator who has spoken to current officers about the pullback” as saying: “There is no stomach in the building for going out there on our own. We are not putting our people out there without U.S. forces.”

So if we want to maintain “situational awareness” of terrorist plots emanating not just from Afghanistan but also from Pakistan, then we need to keep at least 10,000 troops in Afghanistan in order to support intelligence personnel who can generate “actionable” intelligence and Special Operations Forces who can act on it. If President Obama keeps fewer than 10,000 troops, the military will pull back to Kabul and Bagram Air Base just north of it, dramatically decreasing our ability to uncover and disrupt terrorist machinations in other parts of the country–especially in the still-volatile east and south.

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What BuzzFeed’s Success Can Teach Vox

National Journal has earned the ire of progressive bloggers today with its story noting that the White House long ago figured out how to essentially incorporate liberal writers into the Obama communications shop. The article notes the access given to some of these bloggers, though it does not exclude targeting the liberal bloggers not invited to the White House, whose willingness to parrot administration talking points does not require flattery or coordination.

But there is one that stands out, and I think it’s an interesting aspect to some of the recent developments in political new media. From the story:

Consider: A search of White House records shows Ezra Klein, then with The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, visiting more than 25 times since 2009; last week, a Post story detailed the travails of Lesley Clark, a White House reporter for McClatchy who has been to the Oval Office three times in the last three years, and has asked one question directly to Obama in all that time.

Klein’s visits with Democratic politicians have always been about more than pressing a message; elected Democrats see his status as a “wonk” as an opportunity both to glean information from him and as a messenger of their own perspective who carries more credibility with the policy community than other bloggers. But that presumed credibility is a trap both sides have fallen into.

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National Journal has earned the ire of progressive bloggers today with its story noting that the White House long ago figured out how to essentially incorporate liberal writers into the Obama communications shop. The article notes the access given to some of these bloggers, though it does not exclude targeting the liberal bloggers not invited to the White House, whose willingness to parrot administration talking points does not require flattery or coordination.

But there is one that stands out, and I think it’s an interesting aspect to some of the recent developments in political new media. From the story:

Consider: A search of White House records shows Ezra Klein, then with The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, visiting more than 25 times since 2009; last week, a Post story detailed the travails of Lesley Clark, a White House reporter for McClatchy who has been to the Oval Office three times in the last three years, and has asked one question directly to Obama in all that time.

Klein’s visits with Democratic politicians have always been about more than pressing a message; elected Democrats see his status as a “wonk” as an opportunity both to glean information from him and as a messenger of their own perspective who carries more credibility with the policy community than other bloggers. But that presumed credibility is a trap both sides have fallen into.

Klein left the Washington Post to run his own “explanatory journalism” site, Vox.com. It’s off to a rough start. I explained here how uninformative its foreign-policy explainers are; Sonny Bunch detailed here how uninformative its sports reporting is; and after Klein used the site’s launch to explain how political bias infects consumers of data, it turned out Klein had misread the data himself. And this week Jim Antle demonstrated how Klein and his health-care writers have resorted to essentially cherry-picking numbers and moving the goalposts in order to spin the struggling ObamaCare as a success story.

And that gets at the problem with Vox. Despite its mission statement, the site is notably light on information and heavy on the pretense of authority. It does not prove; it proclaims. And it is, along with those mentioned in the National Journal story, a vehicle through which the White House can speak.

Vox’s struggles, then, are actually indicative of a more positive trend on consumers of political news. Vox started with high expectations and landed with a bit of a thud. The reverse is true of another new media trendsetter, and for all the right reasons. When Ben Smith left Politico to direct BuzzFeed’s expanded news coverage, more than a few were scratching their heads. BuzzFeed was known for humorous memes and pet listicles, and many wondered whether Smith could ever lead BuzzFeed’s news division to garner the credibility that would take, to some extent, undermining or at least shifting the (successful) brand BuzzFeed had already created.

Though it’s still fairly early, it seems clear at this point that Smith has largely succeeded. BuzzFeed still fights for its reputation, but the site did a very simple thing to prove itself to its doubters: it hired exceptional journalists.

Rosie Gray has led an energetic investigative news effort, scoring repeated scoops without playing ideological favorites. To do foreign-affairs reporting, BuzzFeed hired Gregory Johnsen, an experienced writer on Yemen and terrorism, and the AP’s Max Seddon. For its Washington bureau, the site hired Roll Call’s John Stanton. And while reporters get most of the attention, BuzzFeed has made exceptional editing hires as well, including Katherine Miller from the Washington Free Beacon and the superb Miriam Elder.

In other words, while Vox concentrated its energy in its brand, BuzzFeed decided the best way to prove itself was to publish undeniably good journalism. Does BuzzFeed still struggle with the sometimes awkward marriage of cat gifs and on-the-ground foreign reporting? Sure, but that’s in large part due to the fact that BuzzFeed’s initial, pre-Ben Smith branding efforts were so successful. It’s a battle BuzzFeed doesn’t always win, but it seems pretty clear they beat expectations in a rout.

Online-only new media startups are proliferating for all the obvious reasons. It would be an encouraging sign if the market for them continued to reward those who don’t act as brand-obsessed adjuncts of the White House press shop.

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Iran Targeting U.S. Satellites with Lasers?

For all the Iranian government and its fellow travelers whine about sanctions, the Iranian regime seems to have no problem funneling money off to ever more creative military projects. Take this latest tidbit which appears in the Washington Examiner:

Iran, meanwhile, “undertakes more purposeful interference” with U.S. satellites using lasers and jammers. “Although these actions have not resulted in irreparable damage to U.S. assets, this practice increases the possibility that the United States will misinterpret unintended harm caused by such interference.”

The Examiner piece derives from a longer Council on Foreign Relations report well-worth reading. Indeed, from what I have heard, it has garnered significant attention in policy circles. That report elaborates:

Since Iran already views space as a legitimate arena in which to contest U.S. military power, Tehran could use similar tactics against U.S. satellites during a major crisis, especially if it believes war is imminent—an assessment that could have self-fulfilling consequences. Should this significantly limit U.S. situational unawareness of the unfolding crisis, there would most certainly be a military response against the source of that Iranian interference. Additionally, like North Korea, Iran could attempt a direct-ascent ASAT test or co-orbital ASAT test, in which it detonates a conventional explosive near a targeted satellite. Iran’s capacity to do this will likely improve if it follows through on its June 2013 announcement of plans to build a space monitoring center designed to track satellites above Iranian territory.

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For all the Iranian government and its fellow travelers whine about sanctions, the Iranian regime seems to have no problem funneling money off to ever more creative military projects. Take this latest tidbit which appears in the Washington Examiner:

Iran, meanwhile, “undertakes more purposeful interference” with U.S. satellites using lasers and jammers. “Although these actions have not resulted in irreparable damage to U.S. assets, this practice increases the possibility that the United States will misinterpret unintended harm caused by such interference.”

The Examiner piece derives from a longer Council on Foreign Relations report well-worth reading. Indeed, from what I have heard, it has garnered significant attention in policy circles. That report elaborates:

Since Iran already views space as a legitimate arena in which to contest U.S. military power, Tehran could use similar tactics against U.S. satellites during a major crisis, especially if it believes war is imminent—an assessment that could have self-fulfilling consequences. Should this significantly limit U.S. situational unawareness of the unfolding crisis, there would most certainly be a military response against the source of that Iranian interference. Additionally, like North Korea, Iran could attempt a direct-ascent ASAT test or co-orbital ASAT test, in which it detonates a conventional explosive near a targeted satellite. Iran’s capacity to do this will likely improve if it follows through on its June 2013 announcement of plans to build a space monitoring center designed to track satellites above Iranian territory.

President Obama’s initiative toward Iran seems predicated on the belief that Iran somehow changed after the election of President Hassan Rouhani, never mind that presidents in Iran don’t hold power comparable to that in the United States. If Iran has been targeting American satellites with lasers, perhaps that’s a sign that Iranian sincerity isn’t what the White House believes. Perhaps it is time for the White House to recognize that sometimes a “reset” simply doesn’t work. Then again, so long as Obama heard sincerity in Rouhani’s voice in their September 2013 phone chat, what difference does hard evidence of continued malfeasance make?

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Helping Nigeria in the Long Term

I am deeply ambivalent about the current cry to #freeourgirls–the international Twitter campaign to pressure Boko Haram, a Nigerian terrorist group loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda, to release some 300 girls it has kidnapped. Like everyone else I am appalled at the brutality and inhumanity of Boko Haram, which has even some jihadists disassociating themselves from its actions. And I am sympathetic in principle to the idea of the U.S. working with the Nigerian government to free the captives. 

As Michael Rubin notes, this is the kind of humanitarian mission that can engender a lot of goodwill. The problem is that such goodwill can evaporate quickly–as it did in Pakistan after the U.S. helped provide relief following a 2005 earthquake. Pakistanis were grateful but today that country remains as anti-American as ever, with 74 percent of those surveyed by Pew in 2012 describing the U.S. as an enemy.

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I am deeply ambivalent about the current cry to #freeourgirls–the international Twitter campaign to pressure Boko Haram, a Nigerian terrorist group loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda, to release some 300 girls it has kidnapped. Like everyone else I am appalled at the brutality and inhumanity of Boko Haram, which has even some jihadists disassociating themselves from its actions. And I am sympathetic in principle to the idea of the U.S. working with the Nigerian government to free the captives. 

As Michael Rubin notes, this is the kind of humanitarian mission that can engender a lot of goodwill. The problem is that such goodwill can evaporate quickly–as it did in Pakistan after the U.S. helped provide relief following a 2005 earthquake. Pakistanis were grateful but today that country remains as anti-American as ever, with 74 percent of those surveyed by Pew in 2012 describing the U.S. as an enemy.

What we really need in Pakistan is the same thing we need in Nigeria: not one-off humanitarian assistance but a sustained and serious commitment to nation-building. It is the lack of effective governance that has allowed Pakistan and to a lesser extent Nigeria to become a playground for jihadists ranging from al-Qaeda to the Haqqani Network and Boko Haram. Whatever the fate of those poor kidnapped girls–and everything practicable should be done to liberate them–many more innocents will die in Nigeria unless the government can reduce its rampant corruption and increase its effectiveness such that it can effectively curb Boko Haram in the future.

That is a big job, and one primarily for the Nigerians. But the U.S. also has a stake in the outcome because we don’t want Islamist extremists destabilizing the No. 1 oil producer in Africa. Unlike Michael, I do believe that nation-building is a job for the U.S. military–at least, it is a job that the military has been doing ever since the Lewis and Clark expedition laid the foundations for America’s expansion from sea to shining sea. But it is not a job for our military alone. There needs to be a major interagency effort–with a big contribution from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, not just the Department of Defense–to help Nigeria to build more effective and accountable governmental institutions starting with its security forces.

This is obviously a long-term project that will not offer a quick payoff such as a mission to rescue the kidnapped girls. But it has the potential to do more good in the long run.

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Both Parties Face Traps on Benghazi, IRS

A year ago, as the news of the IRS scandal was breaking and the fallout from Benghazi was also becoming better known, Democrats were on the defensive about possible misconduct by the administration. A year later, their panic has subsided. By steadfastly denigrating the very idea that these scandals are, in fact, scandals, the administration, its political allies, and its cheerleaders in the media have begun to see issues like Benghazi as a battle cry for their base as much as it is for the Republicans. Far from worrying about the impact of investigations into the effort to target conservative groups by the IRS or what happened in Benghazi and its aftermath, liberals are cheered by the decision by the House GOP caucus to embrace these issues.

The conceit of the Democrats’ approach is one that is shared by many fearful conservatives. They think that what is being depicted as an obsessive pursuit of either minor wrongdoing or non-scandals will turn the Republican Party into a laughingstock in much the same manner that the government shutdown did. Since they take it as a given that there is no substance to the accusations of a cover up about government actions either before or after Benghazi or that the IRS controversy involved anything but overzealous bureaucrats, they believe the deeper the GOP dives into these investigations the more Democrats will benefit.

There is some substance to these concerns, since many in the GOP caucus have shown themselves to be incapable of conducting sober investigations or being able to avoid succumbing to grandstanding when they’d be better off at least trying to pretend to be on a bipartisan search for the truth. But, as we noted here last week, the reason these issues are still alive is that there are some serious questions still left answered about administration conduct and the lies that were told after Benghazi. The same goes for the IRS investigation. Though the creation of a select committee on Benghazi is a trip for Republicans, Democrats need to be wary of both underestimating its chair Rep. Trey Gowdy, a veteran prosecutor, and also of getting stuck in the position of defending what may turn out to be the indefensible.

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A year ago, as the news of the IRS scandal was breaking and the fallout from Benghazi was also becoming better known, Democrats were on the defensive about possible misconduct by the administration. A year later, their panic has subsided. By steadfastly denigrating the very idea that these scandals are, in fact, scandals, the administration, its political allies, and its cheerleaders in the media have begun to see issues like Benghazi as a battle cry for their base as much as it is for the Republicans. Far from worrying about the impact of investigations into the effort to target conservative groups by the IRS or what happened in Benghazi and its aftermath, liberals are cheered by the decision by the House GOP caucus to embrace these issues.

The conceit of the Democrats’ approach is one that is shared by many fearful conservatives. They think that what is being depicted as an obsessive pursuit of either minor wrongdoing or non-scandals will turn the Republican Party into a laughingstock in much the same manner that the government shutdown did. Since they take it as a given that there is no substance to the accusations of a cover up about government actions either before or after Benghazi or that the IRS controversy involved anything but overzealous bureaucrats, they believe the deeper the GOP dives into these investigations the more Democrats will benefit.

There is some substance to these concerns, since many in the GOP caucus have shown themselves to be incapable of conducting sober investigations or being able to avoid succumbing to grandstanding when they’d be better off at least trying to pretend to be on a bipartisan search for the truth. But, as we noted here last week, the reason these issues are still alive is that there are some serious questions still left answered about administration conduct and the lies that were told after Benghazi. The same goes for the IRS investigation. Though the creation of a select committee on Benghazi is a trip for Republicans, Democrats need to be wary of both underestimating its chair Rep. Trey Gowdy, a veteran prosecutor, and also of getting stuck in the position of defending what may turn out to be the indefensible.

If all this exasperates Democrats, it’s understandable since they thought that they had already finished weathering the storm of Obama’s scandal-plagued 2013.

After ducking for cover in the wake of the revelations about the IRS’s targeting of conservative and Tea Party groups, the confusing inconclusive narrative that House investigators were able elicit from witnesses diluted public outrage. And when Lois Lerner, the key figure in the scandal, invoked her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination—but only after making a statement declaring her innocence and seemingly waving those rights—that led to a partisan squabble in the House Oversight Committee chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa that allowed Democrats to portray the whole thing as a witch hunt led by an intemperate partisan. That most Democrats voted not to charge Lerner with contempt for refusing to testify shows that they believe not only that there is no scandal but that Republicans will pay a price for pursuing it.

As for Benghazi, the sheer volume of congressional investigations about Benghazi that performed little in the way of actual probing similarly fed the impression that the country was ready to move on rather than searching for more answers.

But the discovery of a smoking gun email from Deputy National Security Director Ben Rhodes that seemed to speak of doctoring the talking points about Benghazi in order to downplay talk of terrorism and reinforce the false narrative about the attack being a case of film criticism run amok has reignited the controversy. House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to finally seat a select committee to investigate the matter may have come a year too late since the chaotic and largely incompetent hearings on the issue have done much to give former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other administration underlings cover. Democrats are divided as to what to do about the Benghazi committee because they are unsure whether taking part in the hearings will lend credence to the GOP probe or if staying away will make it easier for Gowdy to lead the probe toward dangerous territory for the administration.

But rather than solely focus on how much rope to give Republicans to hang themselves, Democrats shouldn’t blithely assume that Gowdy will not uncover more embarrassing revelations about the various aspects of the tragedy, including the failure to heed warnings about terrorism as well as the misleading talking points. Just as Republicans need to worry about playing their roles as dogged pursuers of the truth rather than a political attack squad, so, too, Democrats need to be careful not to overplay their hand.

Democrats acted this week as if they think they have nothing to lose in defending Lerner against contempt charges or stopping the GOP from forcing her to divulge whether anyone higher up in the government food chain had a role in the targeting of conservatives. By the same token, they seem to think that obstructing or mocking the Benghazi investigation will only help them in the midterms as well as protect Clinton’s 2016 presidential prospects.

Yet if Republicans conduct a serious investigation of Benghazi—as Gowdy intends to do—Democrats would be wise to join the South Carolinian in pursuit of the truth. If the probe comes up with nothing embarrassing for the administration and Clinton, they will have lost nothing. But if the select committee—which will have subpoena power and legal counsels conducting a thorough legal process—does learn that the Rhodes email was just the tip of the iceberg, then they, and not the Republicans, will be the big losers if they continue to kibitz on the sidelines. 

The ability of the administration and the media to table these stories is finished, and the sooner Democrats realize that the better off they will be.

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Of Military and Humanitarian Missions

Using military assets to rescue the school girls kidnapped in Nigeria has become the crie du jour among the broader policy community. Admittedly, I am sympathetic as well to using tools in the American arsenal, although under no circumstances should that include boots on the ground: Nigeria is a corrupt morass and a major part of the story there—that the first lady of Nigeria at first denied the kidnapping and then targeted and had arrested family members of the kidnapped girls, accusing them of manufacturing the crisis to embarrass her husband—hasn’t fully made it into the Western press.

Nevertheless, if U.S. drones can survey territory not easily accessible and locate the girls or their captors, and if that enables the ability of Nigerian Special Forces to rescue them, it’s an excellent use of U.S. resources. If Ospreys are needed to ferry troops or provide transport, perhaps that further involvement would be worth it. The goodwill brokered by enabling such a rescue against a group so roundly hated in Nigeria and more broadly in Africa would be a great investment.

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Using military assets to rescue the school girls kidnapped in Nigeria has become the crie du jour among the broader policy community. Admittedly, I am sympathetic as well to using tools in the American arsenal, although under no circumstances should that include boots on the ground: Nigeria is a corrupt morass and a major part of the story there—that the first lady of Nigeria at first denied the kidnapping and then targeted and had arrested family members of the kidnapped girls, accusing them of manufacturing the crisis to embarrass her husband—hasn’t fully made it into the Western press.

Nevertheless, if U.S. drones can survey territory not easily accessible and locate the girls or their captors, and if that enables the ability of Nigerian Special Forces to rescue them, it’s an excellent use of U.S. resources. If Ospreys are needed to ferry troops or provide transport, perhaps that further involvement would be worth it. The goodwill brokered by enabling such a rescue against a group so roundly hated in Nigeria and more broadly in Africa would be a great investment.

Faced with criticism regarding how the United States distributes and spends foreign aid, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) often complain that the United States spends just a tiny proportion of its budget on foreign assistance, and that USAID should actually have a larger budget. A successful rescue of the school girls in Nigeria, however, could bring greater benefit to America’s image than all the money the State Department has spent in Nigeria over the past two decades.

When it comes to goodwill and effectiveness, such reality is the rule rather than the exception. The U.S. military is the largest and most effective humanitarian organization in the world. Nation-building should not be its mission—much of what the public complains about in Iraq and Afghanistan are actually the result of ill-advised nation-building and mission creep, not the military’s initial goals—but the military has often been used in rescues and emergency relief. The United States received tremendous goodwill for its emergency relief in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Once again, the weeks of work the U.S. Navy and Marines did trumped decades of U.S. foreign assistance to countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia.

The Navy was likewise on the front lines of operations in the wake of the Japan earthquake and tsunami, and the Haiti earthquake. Again, in each instance, the military exercised a capability neither the United Nations nor any NGO has, and the help offered by the military was far more effective and created greater goodwill than decades of work by the State Department and USAID. The video of rescues of Iranian fisherman likewise are a huge boon to the image of America.

How ironic it is that the Obama administration wants to trim the Marine Expeditionary Units and the Carrier Strike Groups so responsible for these successes, or that it seems to want to double down on an aid agency that has decades of expensive failure to its name. Perhaps it is time to value and enhance the capability of the military to do work that so promotes pro-American sentiment rather than throw good money after bad.

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The EU as America Inverted

Malcolm Lowe has written a highly engaging opinion piece for the Gatestone Institute explaining how the project of the European Union has attempted to replicate American-style federalism, and has ultimately been failing in these efforts. Of course no small part of this has to do with the fact that, as diverse as the fifty states of the American union may well be, the nations of Europe are radically more diverse. Out of that diversity a reactionary nationalism is being sustained, one that refuses to be quelled by the post-nationalist European project. Still, Lowe explains how many of the EU’s failings in its attempt to duplicate the U.S. stem from structural and organizational problems. The EU’s democracy deficit is just one very striking way in which European federalists have failed to live up to the standard set by their American counterparts.

On further reflection, however, the lack of democracy witnessed in the EU is not merely consequential. Rather, the favoring of bureaucracy over democracy stems from a core ideological difference. Whereas America was a nation founded around a positive ideal of the liberty of the individual, the EU has arisen as a response to a perceived problem, and in that sense has a negative starting point. For European federalists the problem is believed to be that of nations and the wars they engage in; hence the EU’s genesis in the 1950s as the European Coal and Steel Community—the point being that the very materials necessary for warfare would be confiscated and held collectively.

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Malcolm Lowe has written a highly engaging opinion piece for the Gatestone Institute explaining how the project of the European Union has attempted to replicate American-style federalism, and has ultimately been failing in these efforts. Of course no small part of this has to do with the fact that, as diverse as the fifty states of the American union may well be, the nations of Europe are radically more diverse. Out of that diversity a reactionary nationalism is being sustained, one that refuses to be quelled by the post-nationalist European project. Still, Lowe explains how many of the EU’s failings in its attempt to duplicate the U.S. stem from structural and organizational problems. The EU’s democracy deficit is just one very striking way in which European federalists have failed to live up to the standard set by their American counterparts.

On further reflection, however, the lack of democracy witnessed in the EU is not merely consequential. Rather, the favoring of bureaucracy over democracy stems from a core ideological difference. Whereas America was a nation founded around a positive ideal of the liberty of the individual, the EU has arisen as a response to a perceived problem, and in that sense has a negative starting point. For European federalists the problem is believed to be that of nations and the wars they engage in; hence the EU’s genesis in the 1950s as the European Coal and Steel Community—the point being that the very materials necessary for warfare would be confiscated and held collectively.

Initially, the emphasis on free trade alienated much of the left from the European project. Yet, as the anti-nationalist elements of this project gradually became more pronounced, the left would become the primary advocate for a federal Europe. Indeed, several key figures from the radical student movement of the ’60s and ’70s—such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit—would later assume important positions in driving the European project forward. And so the vast bureaucracy of the EU would soon enough become a tool by which progressives could advance their agenda. The proposed EU constitution of 2004 sought to regulate just about every conceivable area of life for Europeans. In this way the project had become utopian on two accounts; first in its promise to end war and the resentments of national rivalry so as to usher in a kind of universal brotherhood of man, and secondly by regulating daily life in accordance with more “enlightened” principles.

Whereas the structure of government in the U.S. seeks to protect against tyranny by investing legislative powers at the state level, the EU seeks to drain away the power of the elected parliaments of the various European states, accumulating it in the hands of a centralized bureaucracy that believes it knows how to use this power for a higher good. This is just one of many observable differences. While America has consistently sought to bolster its national identity around a set of values and the American way of life, the EU shuns the notion of national identity, and its president Herman Van Rompuy has spoken gushingly of the prospect of world government. Nor does the EU share the American emphasis on freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Censorship of that which is deemed politically incorrect is now the norm in Europe and the EU could be said to be at best ambivalent about religion.  

The anti-Americanism that is prevalent among parts of European society not only rejects much of American culture—dismissing it as crass materialism—but it clarifies around a rejection of American foreign policy. This is not simply driven by the usual leftist hostility to militarism or Western interventionism, but more fundamentally it stems from ideas about the end of history and how the world should be run. Rejecting the notion of great power politics, or the idea that there might be a good side and a bad side in a conflict, the European federalists are not merely post-nationalists, but rather they are such because they are also post-history. For the EU federalists, history is not still being made, the end point is clear, it now only has to be universally formalized.

Malcolm Lowe’s piece makes some very interesting points. But it would be mistaken to think that European federalists tried to recreate America and have simply gotten stuck halfway. What they have been trying to create is an alternative to the United States; an anti-America. 

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Israeli Apartheid? To Arabs, It’s a Model Democracy

Yesterday, I wrote about a crucial legal fallacy behind the “Israeli apartheid” canard. But you don’t actually need to know anything about the Geneva Convention or international law to know how ridiculous this slur is; it’s enough to ask yourself one simple question: How many black Africans in other countries spoke admiringly about South African apartheid as a model they’d like their own countries to follow? The answer, of course, is not many–and if Israel really practiced apartheid against Arabs, Middle Eastern Arabs would respond similarly to an equivalent question about Israel. Yet in fact, Arabs throughout the Middle East persistently cite Israeli democracy as the model they’d like their own countries to adopt.

Back in 2011, when the Arab Spring revolutions were at their height, Haaretz correspondent Anshel Pfeffer reported being stunned to hear from demonstrators in both Tunis and Cairo–neither of whom knew he represented an Israeli newspaper–that they wanted “a democracy like in Israel.” Just two weeks ago, the Middle East Media Research Institute published excerpts from articles in the Arab press over the last year that held up Israel as a model Arab states should learn from–in some cases, because of its economic, scientific, and democratic achievements, but in others, because of its democracy and even its morality.

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Yesterday, I wrote about a crucial legal fallacy behind the “Israeli apartheid” canard. But you don’t actually need to know anything about the Geneva Convention or international law to know how ridiculous this slur is; it’s enough to ask yourself one simple question: How many black Africans in other countries spoke admiringly about South African apartheid as a model they’d like their own countries to follow? The answer, of course, is not many–and if Israel really practiced apartheid against Arabs, Middle Eastern Arabs would respond similarly to an equivalent question about Israel. Yet in fact, Arabs throughout the Middle East persistently cite Israeli democracy as the model they’d like their own countries to adopt.

Back in 2011, when the Arab Spring revolutions were at their height, Haaretz correspondent Anshel Pfeffer reported being stunned to hear from demonstrators in both Tunis and Cairo–neither of whom knew he represented an Israeli newspaper–that they wanted “a democracy like in Israel.” Just two weeks ago, the Middle East Media Research Institute published excerpts from articles in the Arab press over the last year that held up Israel as a model Arab states should learn from–in some cases, because of its economic, scientific, and democratic achievements, but in others, because of its democracy and even its morality.

Even the Palestinians themselves consistently voice admiration for Israeli democracy. From 1996-2002 (the last year the question was asked), Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki conducted annual polls of what governments Palestinians admired. “Every year Israel has been the top performer, at times receiving more than 80 percent approval,” the New York Times reported in 2003. “The American system has been the next best, followed by the French and then, distantly trailing, the Jordanian and Egyptian.” And that’s not because those years, in contrast to today, were a time of progress and optimism in the peace process: They were the years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s first government (1996-99), the collapse of the Camp David talks (2000) and the height of the second intifada (2000-03).

What’s truly astonishing about this admiration is that the Arab media is virulently anti-Israel, and routinely reports the wildest anti-Israel fabrications as fact. Hence most Arabs believe Israeli treatment of both Palestinians and Israeli Arabs to be much worse than the reality–and even so, they admire Israeli democracy.

As Pfeffer perceptively noted back in 2011, this is an ironic side effect of the Arab media’s obsession with Israel. Because Israel receives so much more coverage than other Western countries, Arabs end up seeing more of Israeli democracy in action than they do of other Western democracies: a president convicted of rape and a prime minister of corruption; hundreds of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets (in the social justice protests of summer 2011) without suffering any violence from the police or military; a robustly free press in both Hebrew and Arabic; even the fact that Israeli hospitals offer first-class medical treatment to all, Jews and Arabs alike. And the Arabs like what they see.

So next time someone tells you Israel is an “apartheid state,” try asking them why Arabs throughout the region–unlike blacks in the days of South African apartheid–view the “apartheid state” as a model democracy to be emulated. You won’t convince the diehard anti-Israel crowd. But you might provide food for thought to the merely uninformed.

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