Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 12, 2014

Iran Counting on Obama’s Weakness

With the P5+1 nuclear talks set to resume again in Vienna tomorrow, many observers are sensing optimism that a deal with Iran is within reach. After dropping their insistence that Iran give up enriching uranium in order to gain Tehran’s acquiescence to an interim nuclear deal last November, the U.S. and its allies appear to be confident that another few meetings will produce an accord that will put an end to the confrontation with the Islamist regime over their efforts to build nuclear weapons. The best they hope to achieve is an agreement that will lengthen the time Iran needs to convert its stockpile of uranium into nuclear fuel rather than the end of the program that President Obama promised during his 2012 reelection campaign. But the administration and its supporters seem to think that rather than take the chance that the West will strengthen rather than weaken economic sanctions on it, Iran will do the smart thing and sign on the dotted line. While that won’t really end the nuclear threat, it will grant President Obama the appearance of a diplomatic victory and lead to the end of a sanctions policy that is already in danger of unraveling after the interim deal.

But rather than play ball with Obama, Iran’s leaders look to be playing hardball. As Haaretz reports, both Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani issued statements yesterday that make it clear they are in the talks to win them, not to merely acquiesce to a process that is already paving a path to nuclear capability for them. In speaking to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Khamenei mocked the notion that the country would go along with any limits on its ability to produce and deploy ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, Rouhani, the man President Obama and other advocates of the talks have depicted as a “moderate” whose victory in a faux election last year set the stage for reform of the brutal theocracy, said the best the U.S. could hope for in the talks was “transparency” and that the Islamist regime would accept no limits on its nuclear technology.

While Washington will, no doubt, dismiss the statements as mere posturing for a domestic audience that won’t impact the talks, these declarations come at an inopportune time for the Obama administration. They raise the possibility that Iran is planning to back away from any deal, even one as weak as the interim accord signed by Secretary of State John Kerry last November, much in the same manner that it has torpedoed past agreements at the last minute. But even if that is not the case, these comments make it likely that the U.S. will have to ante up even more than Obama thought in order to get Iran to sign a deal that already amounts to appeasement.

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With the P5+1 nuclear talks set to resume again in Vienna tomorrow, many observers are sensing optimism that a deal with Iran is within reach. After dropping their insistence that Iran give up enriching uranium in order to gain Tehran’s acquiescence to an interim nuclear deal last November, the U.S. and its allies appear to be confident that another few meetings will produce an accord that will put an end to the confrontation with the Islamist regime over their efforts to build nuclear weapons. The best they hope to achieve is an agreement that will lengthen the time Iran needs to convert its stockpile of uranium into nuclear fuel rather than the end of the program that President Obama promised during his 2012 reelection campaign. But the administration and its supporters seem to think that rather than take the chance that the West will strengthen rather than weaken economic sanctions on it, Iran will do the smart thing and sign on the dotted line. While that won’t really end the nuclear threat, it will grant President Obama the appearance of a diplomatic victory and lead to the end of a sanctions policy that is already in danger of unraveling after the interim deal.

But rather than play ball with Obama, Iran’s leaders look to be playing hardball. As Haaretz reports, both Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani issued statements yesterday that make it clear they are in the talks to win them, not to merely acquiesce to a process that is already paving a path to nuclear capability for them. In speaking to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Khamenei mocked the notion that the country would go along with any limits on its ability to produce and deploy ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, Rouhani, the man President Obama and other advocates of the talks have depicted as a “moderate” whose victory in a faux election last year set the stage for reform of the brutal theocracy, said the best the U.S. could hope for in the talks was “transparency” and that the Islamist regime would accept no limits on its nuclear technology.

While Washington will, no doubt, dismiss the statements as mere posturing for a domestic audience that won’t impact the talks, these declarations come at an inopportune time for the Obama administration. They raise the possibility that Iran is planning to back away from any deal, even one as weak as the interim accord signed by Secretary of State John Kerry last November, much in the same manner that it has torpedoed past agreements at the last minute. But even if that is not the case, these comments make it likely that the U.S. will have to ante up even more than Obama thought in order to get Iran to sign a deal that already amounts to appeasement.

It should be remembered that Rouhani’s credibility with the regime’s supposed hardliners rests with his exploits as a nuclear negotiator a decade ago when he took the West right up to the brink of a deal about enrichment and then backed away leaving the Bush administration and its European allies looking silly. Obama and Kerry were warned that this might happen again before they embarked on their most ambitious attempt at engagement with Iran. But while they still hope to get a deal, even if it is nothing more than a thin veil on Western approval for a robust Iranian nuclear program that could easily lead to a weapon, there’s every chance that the they’ve been led down the garden path by Khamenei and Rouhani.

Anyone wondering why Iran is acting with such confidence should look to Europe and Russia. Sanctions were already undermined by the interim deal, but with Europeans not interested in enforcing the existing restrictions, let alone tightening them to create an embargo that would give the West its only hope of spiking the nuclear threat, Iran is confident they are doomed. With Europe now facing the prospect of being forced to confront Russia after its aggression against Ukraine, there is even less appetite for squeezing Iran than even just a few months ago.

If both Khamenei and Rouhani believe Western negotiators that were already behaving as if they were desperate for a deal will be even easier to shake down than before, it’s hard to blame them for thinking so. That means that, at best, what comes out of the P5+1 process in the months leading up to the initial July deadline for an agreement (though the U.S. has already said it is prepared to keep talking beyond the summer) will be even more favorable to Iran’s nuclear quest than expected. A deal that leaves Iran’s infrastructure in place, as well as granting its right to enrich and to produce ballistic missiles, is one that will do little, if anything, to stop Tehran from getting a nuke. Rouhani’s statement that it will continue enriching uranium to 20 percent is no empty boast since it can still reconvert the stockpiles to weapons-grade material at any time.

But what Obama and Kerry are really worried about is the possibility that Iran won’t even grant them a bad deal but will instead blow off the entire process and to proceed directly to nuclear capability. If so, their fatal weakness will be exposed as a reality rather than merely a conservative talking point, leaving them a choice between ramping up the conflict and complete capitulation. That’s exactly the mindset Khamenei and Rouhani are counting on to deliver them a meaningless agreement that can either be signed or ignored. Either way, Iran seems closer to its nuclear goal today than it did before Obama’s interim capitulation.

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Putin Keeps Chipping Away at Ukraine

You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin. Sure, he’s immoral, corrupt, despicable, tyrannical. But he’s also a power politician of the first order, and right now he’s playing the West like a Stradivarius. 

Last week, facing growing calls for sanctions on Russia in the U.S. and Europe, he announced that he was pulling his troops back from the border with Ukraine and ending his support for a referendum this weekend among pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine who desire Anschluss with Russia. This rhetorical feint provided a fig leaf of legitimacy for those in the West who don’t want to do anything about Russian aggression. But then of course Putin did not follow through. 

According to NATO intelligence reports, Russian troops still have not redeployed from the Ukrainian border. And on Sunday Russian separatists held a rigged referendum in the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which delivered a predictable–if hardly believable–majority in favor of breaking away from Kiev. In Donetsk the pro-autonomy measure won 89 percent of the votes; in Luhansk a truly fantastic 97.5 percent. Pretty incredible when you consider that opinion polls just a month ago showed only 30 percent of eastern Ukrainians wanting to go their own way. These kinds of election “results”–reminiscent of years of rigged elections in the Soviet Union which reliably delivered 99.99 percent majorities for Communist candidates–are only credible to Putin’s mouthpieces on RT (Russia Today) television.

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You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin. Sure, he’s immoral, corrupt, despicable, tyrannical. But he’s also a power politician of the first order, and right now he’s playing the West like a Stradivarius. 

Last week, facing growing calls for sanctions on Russia in the U.S. and Europe, he announced that he was pulling his troops back from the border with Ukraine and ending his support for a referendum this weekend among pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine who desire Anschluss with Russia. This rhetorical feint provided a fig leaf of legitimacy for those in the West who don’t want to do anything about Russian aggression. But then of course Putin did not follow through. 

According to NATO intelligence reports, Russian troops still have not redeployed from the Ukrainian border. And on Sunday Russian separatists held a rigged referendum in the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which delivered a predictable–if hardly believable–majority in favor of breaking away from Kiev. In Donetsk the pro-autonomy measure won 89 percent of the votes; in Luhansk a truly fantastic 97.5 percent. Pretty incredible when you consider that opinion polls just a month ago showed only 30 percent of eastern Ukrainians wanting to go their own way. These kinds of election “results”–reminiscent of years of rigged elections in the Soviet Union which reliably delivered 99.99 percent majorities for Communist candidates–are only credible to Putin’s mouthpieces on RT (Russia Today) television.

But the results serve to further muddy the waters: They undermine Kiev’s attempts to assert its sovereignty over the breakaway eastern provinces and they call into question the legitimacy of the looming May 25 election in Ukraine–how can a free and fair ballot be conducted when Russian gunmen are in control of substantial parts of eastern Ukraine?

Putin is now being extra cagy. Unlike in Crimea, he is not using this rigged referendum as an excuse to immediately annex eastern Ukraine. Instead he is demanding that the government in Kiev negotiate with the “demonstrators” (really, Russian provocateurs) who have taken power in the east–as if the two forces were of equal legitimacy. Putin is thus avoiding the onus of outright annexation, which could bring about not only more costly Western sanctions but also guerrilla warfare against Russian troops. Instead he is continuing to destabilize Ukraine and preparing the way to create autonomous Russian-controlled enclaves in that country as he has previously done in Moldova and Georgia, thereby helping to undermine the independence of all these post-Soviet republics.

You have to give Putin points for cleverly if amorally pursuing his realpolitik objectives. If only the leaders of the West were half as clever in stopping him. But they’re not. While Putin is playing geopolitical chess like a grandmaster, his opponents are playing checkers with the skill of not-overly-bright six-year-olds. No wonder pieces of the map keep falling to Russia.

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Hashtag Diplomacy Jumps the Shark

The Obama administration’s “hashtag diplomacy” has been under criticism for some time, though condemnation of its participation in the campaign to rescue the girls kidnapped by Nigeria’s Islamist terror group Boko Haram–tweeting messages along with the tag #BringBackOurGirls–was especially voluble this weekend. I agree with Jonathan on First Lady Michelle Obama’s decision to join the hashtag campaign: it’s harmless; she’s a political celebrity without the power to do more than speak out anyway; and while she certainly can simply tell her husband to “bring back our girls” in private, doing so publicly is more meaningful, and possibly more effective.

However, it is decidedly not harmless when a Western leader who really can order troops decides his or her contribution will be to play a hashtag game. I’m looking at you, British Prime Minister David Cameron, head of the government while representing the party once led by Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. In fairness to Cameron, he was on a television talk show when another guest, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, asked him if he’d like to hold the sign and mug for the cameras. I’m not sure how it would have looked if he’d said no. At the same time, he shows no understanding of just how silly it looks to have a Western leader join this campaign, which should be reserved for those who can’t do more than make a sad face and throw up their hands.

Just who is Cameron telling to “bring back our girls”? The terrified parents of these children are certainly getting the impression that they’re on their own, as the New York Times reports:

Desperate parents have entered the forest themselves, armed only with bows and arrows. Officials say the military is searching there but there have been no results so far.

So parents have in some cases taken bows and arrows into enemy terrain to hunt for their children, because the guys commanding the most powerful and technologically advanced armies in the world are holding up cardboard signs and looking glumly into the camera, as if Boko Haram will be moved to charity by the ostentatiously pathetic nature of it all.

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The Obama administration’s “hashtag diplomacy” has been under criticism for some time, though condemnation of its participation in the campaign to rescue the girls kidnapped by Nigeria’s Islamist terror group Boko Haram–tweeting messages along with the tag #BringBackOurGirls–was especially voluble this weekend. I agree with Jonathan on First Lady Michelle Obama’s decision to join the hashtag campaign: it’s harmless; she’s a political celebrity without the power to do more than speak out anyway; and while she certainly can simply tell her husband to “bring back our girls” in private, doing so publicly is more meaningful, and possibly more effective.

However, it is decidedly not harmless when a Western leader who really can order troops decides his or her contribution will be to play a hashtag game. I’m looking at you, British Prime Minister David Cameron, head of the government while representing the party once led by Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. In fairness to Cameron, he was on a television talk show when another guest, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, asked him if he’d like to hold the sign and mug for the cameras. I’m not sure how it would have looked if he’d said no. At the same time, he shows no understanding of just how silly it looks to have a Western leader join this campaign, which should be reserved for those who can’t do more than make a sad face and throw up their hands.

Just who is Cameron telling to “bring back our girls”? The terrified parents of these children are certainly getting the impression that they’re on their own, as the New York Times reports:

Desperate parents have entered the forest themselves, armed only with bows and arrows. Officials say the military is searching there but there have been no results so far.

So parents have in some cases taken bows and arrows into enemy terrain to hunt for their children, because the guys commanding the most powerful and technologically advanced armies in the world are holding up cardboard signs and looking glumly into the camera, as if Boko Haram will be moved to charity by the ostentatiously pathetic nature of it all.

A world leader holding up a sign asking someone to please do something is an unnecessary, if implicit, admission of the intent to do nothing. This has been a running complaint of Western leaders, especially Barack Obama, of late. He has taken to declaring he wouldn’t use force without even being asked. It just became second nature for the president to insist that there wasn’t much to be done.

Although it is an imperfect analogy, it’s striking to contrast this with Ken Adelman’s piece at Politico about Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. It was derided, of course, as “star wars” by its critics and no one was sure it could even be done. But Adelman, who traveled with Reagan to his famous Reykjavik summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, notes that the Soviet leader was worried enough about SDI that he made it the focus of that meeting. He would give Reagan the dramatic nuclear cuts he wanted, but the deal had to include getting rid of SDI:

Reagan was furious with Gorbachev’s last-minute qualification. And he would not compromise on SDI, no matter the incentives. With all that we have achieved, he in essence told his Soviet counterpart, you throw in this roadblock and everything’s out the window. There’s absolutely no way we will give up research to find a defensive weapon against nuclear missiles.

“Am I wrong?” the president then scribbled on a note to George Schultz, his secretary of state. “No,” was the reply, whispered in his ear. “You are right.”

Adelman notes that the meeting was not considered a success because the two sides didn’t come to an agreement. But it was a success. SDI didn’t bring down the Soviet Union, but it played a role by accelerating Soviet reforms that the system could not, in the end, handle. Adelman quotes Margaret Thatcher as writing in her memoirs that Gorbachev was “so alarmed” by SDI that it made Reagan’s decision on SDI the “single most important of his presidency.”

Development of a missile shield is not the same as deploying forces in harm’s way, of course. But the point is less about the action taken than the willingness to make your enemies believe you’re capable of taking action. I’m reminded of a different Thatcher quote from another edition of her memoirs, when discussing members of her own party who behave as though they’ve already lost to the other side. “Retreat as a tactic is sometimes necessary; retreat as a settled policy eats at the soul.”

Cameron–and other Western leaders, including Obama–would do well to take that to heart. They should stop feeling so helpless, because they aren’t. But at the very least, they should stop acting so helpless.

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Can Hillary Play the Victim on Benghazi?

If there was one reason why House Democrats have finally decided that they had no choice but to take part in the House Select Committee that will investigate the Benghazi terrorist attack it can be summed up in two words: Hillary Clinton. As Committee Chair Trey Gowdy indicated, Republicans have some questions for the former secretary of state about the event that weren’t asked during her sole appearance before a congressional committee, let alone in a State Department report that, as Byron York aptly commented in the Washington Examiner, was principally concerned with building “a fire wall” around the likely 2016 Democratic presidential nominee. Democrats know that without their presence on the committee, Clinton will be left alone to face questioners that won’t let her get away with dismissing criticisms by merely asking “What difference does it make?”

But Democrats are not content to merely stand by and wait for Clinton to be called to account for this, the most spectacular of the failures that she presided over at the State Department. They’re already laying the groundwork for not only a defense of Clinton’s record of non-achievement but for discrediting any attempt to question her closely. As former top Obama strategist David Axelrod said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” today, liberals view the prospect of her being grilled by Gowdy and other Republicans as an act of “bullying.” Regardless of the facts of the case—and it is by no means certain that Clinton will emerge from even the most rigorous of inquires as anything worse than an out-of-touch globetrotting secretary who never gave security in Benghazi a passing thought—Democrats are seeking to insulate her from any scrutiny by claiming that tough questions should be seen as part of the faux Republican “war on women” they have touted as one of their main political talking points.

The question is, will she, and they, get away with it?

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If there was one reason why House Democrats have finally decided that they had no choice but to take part in the House Select Committee that will investigate the Benghazi terrorist attack it can be summed up in two words: Hillary Clinton. As Committee Chair Trey Gowdy indicated, Republicans have some questions for the former secretary of state about the event that weren’t asked during her sole appearance before a congressional committee, let alone in a State Department report that, as Byron York aptly commented in the Washington Examiner, was principally concerned with building “a fire wall” around the likely 2016 Democratic presidential nominee. Democrats know that without their presence on the committee, Clinton will be left alone to face questioners that won’t let her get away with dismissing criticisms by merely asking “What difference does it make?”

But Democrats are not content to merely stand by and wait for Clinton to be called to account for this, the most spectacular of the failures that she presided over at the State Department. They’re already laying the groundwork for not only a defense of Clinton’s record of non-achievement but for discrediting any attempt to question her closely. As former top Obama strategist David Axelrod said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” today, liberals view the prospect of her being grilled by Gowdy and other Republicans as an act of “bullying.” Regardless of the facts of the case—and it is by no means certain that Clinton will emerge from even the most rigorous of inquires as anything worse than an out-of-touch globetrotting secretary who never gave security in Benghazi a passing thought—Democrats are seeking to insulate her from any scrutiny by claiming that tough questions should be seen as part of the faux Republican “war on women” they have touted as one of their main political talking points.

The question is, will she, and they, get away with it?

Hillary Clinton is a fascinating political figure in large measure because her success has been built on creating an image as a tough political customer as well as a person who has cashed in on her victimhood. Though she did nothing as secretary of state to bolster the notion that she is the tough-as-nails centrist that her admirers claim her to be, the assumption among many pundits is that her approach to foreign policy is an asset for Democrats who have shucked their party’s former stance as weak on defense. Yet it should also be remembered that Clinton’s election to the Senate was in no small measure the result of her ability to play the victim in the Monica Lewinsky scandal set off by her husband’s affair.

Not only did she played the wronged woman who nevertheless stood by her man beautifully, the most memorable moment in her Senate campaign—indeed, the one that sealed her comfortable victory—was when GOP opponent Rick Lazio stepped over to her podium to address her during a debate. Rightly or wrongly, getting in Hillary’s space was seen as the moral equivalent of an actual assault and doomed whatever slim hopes Lazio might have had of pulling off an upset. And what Democrats are praying for in the Benghazi hearings is another such incident that can be played and relayed endlessly showing Republicans to be bullies who tried and failed to beat down a brave woman.

While such a narrative will be as much balderdash as Clinton’s previous forays into victimhood, it could nevertheless be useful to Democrats both in 2014 as they try to gin up their turnout rates to avoid another midterm blowout as well as for Hillary’s 2016 efforts.

But the assumption that Republicans will play into her hands may be faulty. Gowdy is a wily former prosecutor and while that has led some on the left to question his ability to, as he pledges, conduct an impartial investigation, he is well aware of the trap that is being set for him. Gowdy will be sure to try to avoid hectoring or personal attacks on Clinton. More to the point, he will be intent on crafting a process that will enable him and his colleagues to press her for answers that have so far not been forthcoming. If faced with gentlemanly yet pointed questions and Hillary starts to grandstand in a “what difference does it make?” manner, she will be the loser, not Gowdy. Witnesses who play the victim in that manner must understand that they are as likely to mess up as their accusers.

Rather than looking forward to what they think will be the next chapter in their “war on women” novella, Democrats may find that Clinton will wind up looking as lame as she often did in her 2008 debates with Barack Obama. As was the case then, whining about being liked or bullied will not be enough to derail tough questions or the voters drawing some unflattering conclusions about her ineffective leadership.

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How Turkey Helps Jihadists in Syria

The problem of Islamist extremism among the opposition groups in Syria has become a major rallying cry for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and a source of concern even among those in the United States sympathetic to the opposition. The Syrian opposition has always been fissiparous, and so it is hard to ensure that weaponry given to the “moderate” opposition wouldn’t be transferred to more radical groups let alone simply seized by them.

Rather than simply shrug shoulders and walk away, however, it is well past time the international community moved to stop the most radical elements from entering Syria. Many policymakers might imagine that this is an impossible task: Syria has more than 1,350 miles of borders. But it is not true that most extremists or al-Qaeda wannabes hide out in the middle of the desert and crawl on their bellies under cover of night to reach Syria. The simple fact is that many of the radicals fighting in Syria and sullying the name of the moderates transit Turkey.

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The problem of Islamist extremism among the opposition groups in Syria has become a major rallying cry for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and a source of concern even among those in the United States sympathetic to the opposition. The Syrian opposition has always been fissiparous, and so it is hard to ensure that weaponry given to the “moderate” opposition wouldn’t be transferred to more radical groups let alone simply seized by them.

Rather than simply shrug shoulders and walk away, however, it is well past time the international community moved to stop the most radical elements from entering Syria. Many policymakers might imagine that this is an impossible task: Syria has more than 1,350 miles of borders. But it is not true that most extremists or al-Qaeda wannabes hide out in the middle of the desert and crawl on their bellies under cover of night to reach Syria. The simple fact is that many of the radicals fighting in Syria and sullying the name of the moderates transit Turkey.

CNN has reported on the jihadis flying into Hatay and then paying bribes to Turkish border guards to cross into Syria. Now the Kurdish media based in Syria has interviewed captured jihadis who have talked about how they, too, transited Turkey.

It is ironic that Turkey has, for mainly ideological and sectarian reasons, largely led the diplomatic calls for the United States to be more active in its assistance to the Syrian opposition but has, through its very actions, created the chief impediment to such action. Perhaps rather than organize high-profile conferences or new photo opportunities replete with empty American promises, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to instead pressure Turkey to stop serving as the chief route for terrorists flooding into Syria.

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More on SJP at Vassar College

Last week, I wrote about the Vassar chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which quoted an anti-Semitic author, writing for an anti-Semitic publication, to this effect: “Of course, mainstream media hasbarats have been around for decades, as have ‘hasbaratchiks,’ fifth-columns in foreign governments who subvert national policies to serve Israel.” I learned about the episode from Rebecca Lesses of Mystical Politics, whose follow-up posts are also worth reading. David Schraub and Petra Marquardt Bigman have also commented.

The Vassar SJP has now issued an apology of sorts: “we did not vet the original posters of some of the content we reblogged close enough this past week, and only focused on the content.” Last week, they dismissed criticisms this way: “if the idea is alright, who cares where they [sic] come from?” But they now understand that the “sources, no matter the content, can be triggering to many in our audience.”

The Vassar SJP is therefore counting on an assumption that David Schraub’s post questioned in its very title, that one is “Innocent Until Proven Nazi.” As Schraub puts it: “Suppose Vassar SJP had posted the exact same material, only it wasn’t attributable to an avowedly white nationalist website? Would the reaction have been the same? For some of us, sure: we know anti-Semitism when we see it. But for others, it seems that the Nazi link is a crutch — without it they find it very difficult to even raise the prospect of anti-Semitism.”

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Last week, I wrote about the Vassar chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which quoted an anti-Semitic author, writing for an anti-Semitic publication, to this effect: “Of course, mainstream media hasbarats have been around for decades, as have ‘hasbaratchiks,’ fifth-columns in foreign governments who subvert national policies to serve Israel.” I learned about the episode from Rebecca Lesses of Mystical Politics, whose follow-up posts are also worth reading. David Schraub and Petra Marquardt Bigman have also commented.

The Vassar SJP has now issued an apology of sorts: “we did not vet the original posters of some of the content we reblogged close enough this past week, and only focused on the content.” Last week, they dismissed criticisms this way: “if the idea is alright, who cares where they [sic] come from?” But they now understand that the “sources, no matter the content, can be triggering to many in our audience.”

The Vassar SJP is therefore counting on an assumption that David Schraub’s post questioned in its very title, that one is “Innocent Until Proven Nazi.” As Schraub puts it: “Suppose Vassar SJP had posted the exact same material, only it wasn’t attributable to an avowedly white nationalist website? Would the reaction have been the same? For some of us, sure: we know anti-Semitism when we see it. But for others, it seems that the Nazi link is a crutch — without it they find it very difficult to even raise the prospect of anti-Semitism.”

The Vassar SJP has backed off not even a little from the claim that the “idea is alright,” where the “idea” is that Israel’s defenders, whether on the right or the left (neither Lesses nor Schraub is on the right and the former has explicitly distanced herself from COMMENTARY) are or are deliberately in league with fifth columnists, or traitors. Indeed, the SJP, which has asserted that its apology came late “due to finals week” found time, in what it called “Communique #1” to accuse its critics of being paid agents of the Zionist conspiracy. They “know that the manufactured misrepresentation of our mission does not occur in a vacuum” and are  “aware of the watchdog organizations who pay alums and students to generate slanderous claims against pro-palestinian activists.” They “find it an appalling irony to be accused of supporting white supremacy by those who support the racist Israeli regime,” whose “agenda is comprised of policies that work towards exterminating Palestinians and African migrants.”

The apology was followed up, remarkably, by a new posting, since taken down, of a Nazi propaganda poster depicting, among other things, a big-nosed man clutching a money bag. When called on this latest misstep by Lesses, SJP Vassar saw no problem at all: “it’s from a blog showcasing various types of historical propaganda.” In other words, just as Schraub suggested, they think that they can be accused of spreading anti-Semitism only if they lift material directly from a known anti-Semitic website. The idea—here that greedy Jews are part of a monstrous America—is, once again, “alright.”

The attitude of the Vassar SJP is oddly blithe, as if they do not know they are playing with fire. But they are. Consider another post about the African-American activist Stokely Carmichael, taken from a site called Disciples of Malcolm. Carmichael is quoted to the effect that Martin Luther King was “confused” when he associated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. But King, Carmichael adds, was depending on progressive Jewish support, or the support of “Zionists who did not say they were Zionists.”

Carmichael was also wont to say “the only good Zionist is a dead Zionist.”

If SJP has a faculty adviser, this may be what we in the education biz call a “teaching moment.”

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Is Rubio the Establishment’s Best Bet?

Yesterday Senator Marco Rubio made it clear on ABC’s This Week that he is seriously considering running for president in 2016. That Rubio’s been thinking about the presidency isn’t a secret. After a brutal 2013 in which his presidential prospects took a precipitous decline, the chaotic nature of the GOP race and the increasing importance of foreign policy has brought him back into the limelight. But if his chances are no better—and no worse—than just about any of the other prospective 2016 candidates, what’s really fascinating about the confident manner with which he’s promoting his candidacy is that his path to the nomination runs primarily through a Republican establishment that he once challenged.

Though he started out as a Tea Party challenger to the establishment’s choice for a Florida Senate seat, Rubio’s mainstream views on foreign policy, embrace of immigration reform, as well as his tough opposition to the Obama administration on host of other domestic issues have transformed him from an outsider to one of the people who may be hoping to fill the insider slot in the 2016 primaries. With Chris Christie heavily damaged by Bridgegate, Jeb Bush still big a question mark, and other possibilities such as Governors Scott Walker and Mike Pence not certain to run, if you’re going to handicap the race this far out, Rubio has to be considered as having a reasonable chance of being the Republican who will emerge from the early primaries as the establishment’s best hope of stopping Rand Paul. Seen in that light, Rubio’s announcement of readiness is a smart move that could set in motion a train of events that will see him inheriting the mantle of the party’s hopes for 2016.

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Yesterday Senator Marco Rubio made it clear on ABC’s This Week that he is seriously considering running for president in 2016. That Rubio’s been thinking about the presidency isn’t a secret. After a brutal 2013 in which his presidential prospects took a precipitous decline, the chaotic nature of the GOP race and the increasing importance of foreign policy has brought him back into the limelight. But if his chances are no better—and no worse—than just about any of the other prospective 2016 candidates, what’s really fascinating about the confident manner with which he’s promoting his candidacy is that his path to the nomination runs primarily through a Republican establishment that he once challenged.

Though he started out as a Tea Party challenger to the establishment’s choice for a Florida Senate seat, Rubio’s mainstream views on foreign policy, embrace of immigration reform, as well as his tough opposition to the Obama administration on host of other domestic issues have transformed him from an outsider to one of the people who may be hoping to fill the insider slot in the 2016 primaries. With Chris Christie heavily damaged by Bridgegate, Jeb Bush still big a question mark, and other possibilities such as Governors Scott Walker and Mike Pence not certain to run, if you’re going to handicap the race this far out, Rubio has to be considered as having a reasonable chance of being the Republican who will emerge from the early primaries as the establishment’s best hope of stopping Rand Paul. Seen in that light, Rubio’s announcement of readiness is a smart move that could set in motion a train of events that will see him inheriting the mantle of the party’s hopes for 2016.

In the last 18 months, Rubio has demonstrated just how perilous it can be to be anointed as a future president. In the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election Rubio was dubbed “The Republican Savior” by TIME magazine because of his youth, his Hispanic identity, and the fact that he represented a fresh face in a party that was desperately in need of a makeover. With impeccable conservative credentials on the issues and close ties to the Tea Party movement that he had championed in Florida against the quintessential GOP moderate Charlie Crist, Rubio seemed to be a computer model of what Republicans needed.

But after beginning 2013 as a punch line after his comic dive for a water bottle during his official response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address, his stock quickly went downhill. The rise of Paul and Cruz illustrated that he had been eclipsed among Tea Partiers. The increasing willingness of many on the right to embrace Paul’s brand of isolationism also seemed to show that Rubio’s positions in favor of traditional GOP beliefs in a strong defense and engagement with the world against Islamist terror might no longer be popular on the right.

However, the biggest problem was Rubio’s decision to join a bipartisan coalition to solve the immigration mess. Rubio’s presence in the group forced it to accept a tough border enforcement element, but his acceptance of a path to citizenship provoked outrage on the right where anything other than support for deportation for illegals is viewed as heresy. Rubio’s immigration gambit was meant to demonstrate his leadership capabilities as well as his ability to compromise. And he was, and still is, absolutely right to assert that the real “amnesty” is what is going on now as 12 million illegals who are not going to be deported remain here but in a legal limbo. But it doomed any hope that Tea Partiers would back his candidacy and there are many on the right who will never back him because of it.

However, the failure of that bill has, perversely, helped Rubio come back in 2014. With immigration off the table for the near and perhaps even foreseeable future, the senator doesn’t have to keep arguing about an issue that many conservatives won’t budge on. With the crises in Ukraine and the collapse of the Middle East peace process as well as the ongoing debate about Iran’s nuclear program, suddenly Rubio’s tough foreign-policy stance makes him look a lot more marketable. There is a clear opening for a traditional Republican foreign-policy candidate to oppose Paul’s isolationism and marginal would-be contenders like Peter King and John Bolton won’t fill it.

The one big obstacle to Rubio’s hopes is Jeb Bush. If the son and brother of former presidents does run, he will likely snatch up all the establishment support Rubio needs, not to mention most of the senator’s own Florida backers. But if Bush doesn’t run, it’s easy to plot a scenario in which Rubio’s main competition for mainstream Republicans would be a severely compromised Christie and other less prominent Republicans who would be starting behind him in terms of fundraising. At that point, Rubio’s obvious strengths—youth, appeal to Hispanic voters, strong foreign-policy voice, fiscally conservative domestic policies, and willingness to play to the right on climate change—come back into play.

It remains to be seen whether much of the right will ever forgive him for a correct, if doomed, immigration proposal. But a year and a half before the primary fight really begins, you’d have to give him a fighting chance to be the man that establishment Republicans will look to if they want to stop a possible Rand Paul juggernaut in the spring of 2016.

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A Cheerful Conservative

Building on Tom Wilson’s fine post on the creation of the Foundation for Constitutional Government’s new website devoted to the writings of Irving Kristol (irvingkristol.org), I thought it worthwhile to recall some of the contributions made by Kristol to conservatism.

One of them was a humane political realism, including helping conservatives make their own inner peace with the New Deal. In 1976 Kristol wrote:

Neo-conservatism is not at all hostile to the idea of a welfare state, but it is critical of the Great Society version of this welfare state.  In general, it approves of those social reforms that, while providing needed security and comfort to the individual in our dynamic, urbanized society, do so with a minimum of bureaucratic intrusion in the individual’s affairs… while being for the welfare state, it is opposed to the paternalistic state.  It also believes that this welfare state will best promote the common good if it is conceived in such a way, as not to go bankrupt.

Second, Kristol was a man whose philosophical commitments were always accompanied by what he said was “a degree of detachment.” He was wise enough to know that no movement, even one he was a part of, was without flaws. He knew every political philosophy has inherent limitations and therefore he had the (rare) ability to be both a part of a movement and to see it from a distance, to believe in a cause even while being alert to its weaknesses.

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Building on Tom Wilson’s fine post on the creation of the Foundation for Constitutional Government’s new website devoted to the writings of Irving Kristol (irvingkristol.org), I thought it worthwhile to recall some of the contributions made by Kristol to conservatism.

One of them was a humane political realism, including helping conservatives make their own inner peace with the New Deal. In 1976 Kristol wrote:

Neo-conservatism is not at all hostile to the idea of a welfare state, but it is critical of the Great Society version of this welfare state.  In general, it approves of those social reforms that, while providing needed security and comfort to the individual in our dynamic, urbanized society, do so with a minimum of bureaucratic intrusion in the individual’s affairs… while being for the welfare state, it is opposed to the paternalistic state.  It also believes that this welfare state will best promote the common good if it is conceived in such a way, as not to go bankrupt.

Second, Kristol was a man whose philosophical commitments were always accompanied by what he said was “a degree of detachment.” He was wise enough to know that no movement, even one he was a part of, was without flaws. He knew every political philosophy has inherent limitations and therefore he had the (rare) ability to be both a part of a movement and to see it from a distance, to believe in a cause even while being alert to its weaknesses.

Third, Kristol warned the right against “equat[ing] conservatism with a desperate, defensive commitment to the status quo.” The danger facing conservatism was risk-averseness and a “feebleness of the imagination,” with conservatism being seen as “a tedious if necessary interregnum during which the excesses of the Left are tidied up.”

“Unless conservatives can legitimate their claim to office with a persuasive assertion of the claim to be the future, theirs is a lost cause,” Kristol wrote in 1982. “As between no claim to the future and a fraudulent claim, the latter will always prevail in an ideological age.” 

Fourth, Kristol offered a corrective to the conservative temptation to embrace, enthusiastically and without qualification, populism. He had faith in common people, just not that much faith in them. He understood, as the Founders did, the danger of a citizenry corrupting itself.

A fifth quality of Irving Kristol’s that conservatism today would be wise to replicate is what his friend Charles Krauthammer called “his extraordinary equanimity.”

His temperament was marked by a total lack of rancor. Angst, bitterness and anguish were alien to him. That, of course, made him unusual among the fraternity of conservatives because we believe that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. That makes us cranky. But not Irving. Never Irving. He retained steadiness, serenity and grace that expressed themselves in a courtliness couched in a calm quiet humor.

When you think about some of the leading figures on the right today, words like “steadiness” and “serenity,” “grace” and “calm quiet humor” are not ones that immediately come to mind. Instead the tone and approach we often hear can best be described as apocalyptic, brittle, angry, and embittered. This approach to politics, by the way, was not simply stylistic; it was rooted in a deep understanding of conservatism itself. Kristol believed conservatism was “antiromantic in substance and temperament.” It’s approach to the world, he wrote, “is more ‘rabbinic’ than ‘prophetic.’”

It also would help for conservatism to embody a kind of cheerfulness that was a hallmark of Kristol. As his writings show, he was deeply realistic. He certainly didn’t sugarcoat things. In fact, he described himself as “cheerfully pessimistic.” But one sensed that deep down, the needle leaned a bit more in the direction of cheerfulness than pessimism.

In any event, as long as I’ve been alive (and well before I was born) there have been people on the right issuing dark warnings of the decomposition and dissolution of the West; people who worn about impending tyranny and America’s march toward Gomorrah. I’m all for cursing the darkness when necessary, and have done a bit of it myself now and then. But that cast of mind, without any leavening agent, can lead to despair and radicalism. Those attitudes were unknown to Irving Kristol. He seemed very much at home in the world in the best sense and nudged it along in the right direction when he could. And my how he did.  

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The Economist’s Revisionist Israeli History

On Friday afternoon, Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg posted a corrective calling the Economist to account for its latest falsehood about Jews. In a review of a book about the British Mandate authorities’ hunt for Avraham Stern, the leader of the “Stern gang,” or Lehi, the reviewer made the following claims:

Stern still commands a striking hold over many of Israel’s ruling right-wingers, including the successors of the mandate-era Jewish underground who continue to perpetrate attacks on Palestinian civilians. Many still choose his nom de guerre, Yair, for their sons, including Israel’s current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. One of the most fanatical settlements, Kochav Yair, is named after him.

Rosenberg patiently explains that there are two kinds of falsehoods in this paragraph. The obvious one, which the Economist has since corrected, is its characterization of Kochav Yair as a “fanatical settlement.” Rosenberg notes that readers quickly pushed back on the Economist, since Kochav Yair is neither fanatical nor a settlement. The other falsehood is that Jews named Yair are named for a terrorist.

Rosenberg admits he’s not impartial here; his name is Yair and, as he joked on Twitter, claiming that Yair is not a Jewish terrorist’s name is exactly what you’d expect a Jew named Yair to say. But kidding aside: “To the more literate, however, ‘Yair’–which means ‘will illuminate’–is of course a famous biblical name that has been popular among Jews for centuries,” Rosenberg writes. “It is one of the few names possessed by multiple characters in the Hebrew Bible.”

Rosenberg also notes that the Economist has yet to correct this mistake. But it’s worth pondering why the Economist would pass along an odd and verifiably false smear that paints Jews as the choosing heirs of a terrorist–and which slanders Netanyahu specifically. The answer, I’d wager, is contained in the last three sentences of the review, which demonstrate the potent combination of astounding ignorance and spectacular malice. Here’s the magazine describing Stern’s legacy:

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On Friday afternoon, Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg posted a corrective calling the Economist to account for its latest falsehood about Jews. In a review of a book about the British Mandate authorities’ hunt for Avraham Stern, the leader of the “Stern gang,” or Lehi, the reviewer made the following claims:

Stern still commands a striking hold over many of Israel’s ruling right-wingers, including the successors of the mandate-era Jewish underground who continue to perpetrate attacks on Palestinian civilians. Many still choose his nom de guerre, Yair, for their sons, including Israel’s current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. One of the most fanatical settlements, Kochav Yair, is named after him.

Rosenberg patiently explains that there are two kinds of falsehoods in this paragraph. The obvious one, which the Economist has since corrected, is its characterization of Kochav Yair as a “fanatical settlement.” Rosenberg notes that readers quickly pushed back on the Economist, since Kochav Yair is neither fanatical nor a settlement. The other falsehood is that Jews named Yair are named for a terrorist.

Rosenberg admits he’s not impartial here; his name is Yair and, as he joked on Twitter, claiming that Yair is not a Jewish terrorist’s name is exactly what you’d expect a Jew named Yair to say. But kidding aside: “To the more literate, however, ‘Yair’–which means ‘will illuminate’–is of course a famous biblical name that has been popular among Jews for centuries,” Rosenberg writes. “It is one of the few names possessed by multiple characters in the Hebrew Bible.”

Rosenberg also notes that the Economist has yet to correct this mistake. But it’s worth pondering why the Economist would pass along an odd and verifiably false smear that paints Jews as the choosing heirs of a terrorist–and which slanders Netanyahu specifically. The answer, I’d wager, is contained in the last three sentences of the review, which demonstrate the potent combination of astounding ignorance and spectacular malice. Here’s the magazine describing Stern’s legacy:

He called for holy war and the building of a third temple, and espoused a Davidic kingdom rather than a democratic state. And he championed rejection of the prevailing superpower, even when it was a patron. A fringe discourse in the 1940s, Stern’s language is increasingly echoed by the activists on the religious right, Israel’s most potent grassroots force.

The Economist seeks to tar Israel’s right-of-center polity with the brush of Lehi terrorism, and in order to make such a claim you would have to falsify the entire political history of Israel from before its founding to the present day. So that is what the Economist has done.

The magazine wants to warn the United States, it seems, that Israelis are perhaps once again on the verge of “champion[ing] rejection of the prevailing superpower, even when it was a patron.” To characterize the British Mandate as merely a “patron” is, especially by the 1940s, getting more mileage out of the term than its warrantee will cover. But comparing it to the U.S. today (the world’s only “superpower”) is absurd. As the Economist has surely by now heard–to its evident chagrin–Israel is actually an independent state. The government against which pre-state Jews rebelled was Britain; the current Israeli government is the current Israeli government. A rebellion against it in the name of Jewish sovereignty would be strange indeed; it would also have nothing to do with Washington D.C.

More broadly, however, the idea that the Israeli right are the inheritors of Stern’s Lehi is an irredeemable distortion of Israeli history. Here’s what actually happened: Stern’s fringe group was opposed not just by Ben-Gurion (back to him in a moment) and the Haganah; it was opposed by its rival, Menachem Begin’s Irgun. Begin–the actual leader of the Israeli right for most of the state’s first forty years–did not support the indiscriminate violence of Lehi, nor its terroristic attacks on civilians. As such, he did not support Lehi’s assassination of Lord Moyne, for example.

Back to Ben-Gurion. He saw Begin, not Stern, as his true rival. So the crackdown in the wake of Moyne’s assassination cast a net wide enough to be aimed at the Irgun too. After Moyne’s killing, the British wanted both justice and to establish deterrence. Ben-Gurion, however, used the incident as an opportunity to help the British squash Begin and the Irgun. Begin was the one in this particular incident who arguably showed the most restraint, since he neither supported Moyne’s killing nor engaged Ben-Gurion in the civil war Ben-Gurion was intent on starting and winning, with British assistance.

Ben-Gurion surely deserves his hard-earned reputation and gratitude from the Jewish nation. But it’s worth noting that his opportunistic attacks on Begin did lasting damage to the nascent state. The coalition of the left ruled Israel until Begin was able to finally win a national election in 1977. In that time, the Israeli ruling establishment sought to exclude anyone with the slightest connection to Begin or the right. It was antidemocratic, and it was wrong. But either way, Begin’s eventual triumph, which earned the Israeli right its place in the state’s political equilibrium, was the triumph of Stern’s rival, not Stern’s heir.

Of course some moderately less ignorant partisans will claim that Yitzhak Shamir’s succession of Begin in the late 1980s was the rise of a Lehi-nik, since Shamir was part of the group. But as everyone knows, Shamir cast aside the ideology of Lehi for the pragmatism of democratic governance when he joined the Mossad and then the state’s political class in the years after Israel became independent. The Economist’s portrayal of Stern and modern Israel is indefensible, and plainly false.

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