Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 21, 2014

Was Nakba Shooting Another al-Dura Libel?

The United States has joined a chorus of non-governmental organizations and international critics of Israel by calling for an investigation of an incident that took place last week in which two Palestinians were killed following a confrontation with Israeli forces in the West Bank. The Palestinians and various NGOs sympathetic to their cause claim the two, aged 16 and 17 were killed by live fire from Israel Border Police during a demonstration on Nakba Day—the anniversary of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948. What’s more, a video taken from a security camera at a Palestinian-owned business at the site of the confrontation purports to show the two being killed by gunfire while doing nothing that might have provoked the Israelis to shoot. If that evidence is accurate, then the IDF would have been guilty of, at best, using unnecessary force and, at worst, having committed a crime.

But though the world is eager to indict and convict the Israelis of murders that would be seen as validating criticisms about the unjust nature of its “occupation” of the West Bank, no one should jump to any conclusions about this incident. Washington is right about the need for an investigation. But unlike the kangaroo court of international public opinion in which the Israelis already stand convicted, a more sober and less prejudiced probe of what happened may well reveal something very different than the narrative of Israeli brutality and Palestinian victimization. Until we know how much the film produced as evidence was edited and just what the Palestinian demonstrators were doing prior to the shootings, it would be a mistake for anyone, including the Israeli government, to assume that the soldiers were in the wrong.

The first thing that must be ascertained is the context of the deaths. By all accounts, the demonstrators, who had gathered outside an Israeli security facility where Palestinian prisoners have been on a hunger strike, were engaging in violence. If, as has been reported, the Palestinians were throwing rocks and gasoline bombs—both deadly weapons—at the soldiers guarding the prison, the discussion of the soldiers’ response must necessarily be a very different one from the story the Palestinians are telling about peaceful protesters being fired on without provocation. Indeed, even the film of the killings shows one of the deceased wearing a ski mask and the other throwing rocks. While it is not clear whether the violence being used by the Palestinians was sufficient to satisfy the Israeli military’s rules of engagement for the use of fire, this was no Gandhi-like example of peaceful protest. But if the attacks did rise to the level at which the troops felt their lives were in danger—a situation that would certainly apply were the Palestinians approaching with fire bombs ­as well as rocks—then the soldiers were within their rights to defend themselves.

But if, as a senior Israeli defense official told the Times of Israel today, the film was doctored, then the discussion is entirely different. Why should we think that is possible? That’s because the Palestinians have been guilty of deceptions of this sort in the past. They have often staged such confrontations and then tried to sell the world on the idea that the Israelis had committed an atrocity.

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The United States has joined a chorus of non-governmental organizations and international critics of Israel by calling for an investigation of an incident that took place last week in which two Palestinians were killed following a confrontation with Israeli forces in the West Bank. The Palestinians and various NGOs sympathetic to their cause claim the two, aged 16 and 17 were killed by live fire from Israel Border Police during a demonstration on Nakba Day—the anniversary of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948. What’s more, a video taken from a security camera at a Palestinian-owned business at the site of the confrontation purports to show the two being killed by gunfire while doing nothing that might have provoked the Israelis to shoot. If that evidence is accurate, then the IDF would have been guilty of, at best, using unnecessary force and, at worst, having committed a crime.

But though the world is eager to indict and convict the Israelis of murders that would be seen as validating criticisms about the unjust nature of its “occupation” of the West Bank, no one should jump to any conclusions about this incident. Washington is right about the need for an investigation. But unlike the kangaroo court of international public opinion in which the Israelis already stand convicted, a more sober and less prejudiced probe of what happened may well reveal something very different than the narrative of Israeli brutality and Palestinian victimization. Until we know how much the film produced as evidence was edited and just what the Palestinian demonstrators were doing prior to the shootings, it would be a mistake for anyone, including the Israeli government, to assume that the soldiers were in the wrong.

The first thing that must be ascertained is the context of the deaths. By all accounts, the demonstrators, who had gathered outside an Israeli security facility where Palestinian prisoners have been on a hunger strike, were engaging in violence. If, as has been reported, the Palestinians were throwing rocks and gasoline bombs—both deadly weapons—at the soldiers guarding the prison, the discussion of the soldiers’ response must necessarily be a very different one from the story the Palestinians are telling about peaceful protesters being fired on without provocation. Indeed, even the film of the killings shows one of the deceased wearing a ski mask and the other throwing rocks. While it is not clear whether the violence being used by the Palestinians was sufficient to satisfy the Israeli military’s rules of engagement for the use of fire, this was no Gandhi-like example of peaceful protest. But if the attacks did rise to the level at which the troops felt their lives were in danger—a situation that would certainly apply were the Palestinians approaching with fire bombs ­as well as rocks—then the soldiers were within their rights to defend themselves.

But if, as a senior Israeli defense official told the Times of Israel today, the film was doctored, then the discussion is entirely different. Why should we think that is possible? That’s because the Palestinians have been guilty of deceptions of this sort in the past. They have often staged such confrontations and then tried to sell the world on the idea that the Israelis had committed an atrocity.

The most outstanding example of such behavior came in 2000 during a firefight between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers at the Netzarim junction at the start of the Second Intifada. That incident near the border between Israel and Gaza left a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammed al-Dura, dead. Film taken by a French TV crew seemed to back up the idea that he had been killed by Israeli gunfire and died in his father’s arms, a tragedy that was immortalized in a famous photograph. But subsequent investigations showed that the bullets that hit the boy could not have come from the Israeli position. The French film had been heavily edited and an honest accounting of the story has led objective observers to believe bullets fired by the Palestinians killed the boy. Others are even more skeptical and claim the entire event was a fraud—a Pallywood production in which a credulous world was sold a bill of goods whose only purpose was to smear the Israelis. The fact that the film, which purports to show a demonstration that no one disputes had turned violent, depicts the two casualties merely walking along minding their own business and then falling onto their outstretched palms has rightly raised doubts about its authenticity.

We don’t want to prejudge the investigation of last week’s shootings. But it would appear that, at the very least, the Palestinians who staged the demonstration were doing their best to provoke exactly what happened. The only point of throwing rocks and bombs at armed soldiers is to get them to fire and thus create an international incident. At best, the two Palestinians were merely the latest example of youths who were needlessly sacrificed in order to generate bad publicity for the Israelis. At worst, the story is yet another fraud. Even if the truth lies somewhere in between and Israeli soldiers did fire when perhaps they should not have, responsibility for the incident lies with those who send teenagers into such a situation hoping that they will be injured or killed.

But the most important point about this is that both Israel’s friends and its critics should wait until an investigation is conducted before assuming that the story is as egregious as the Palestinians claim it to be. Those who cry bloody murder at the Israelis today will owe them an apology if, as may well be the case, the film is a fraud and the Nakba killings are a new version of the al-Dura blood libel.

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Why Is Obama “Happy” About Rouhani’s Iran?

Though the latest nuclear talks with Iran failed to yield progress toward an agreement, the Obama administration isn’t rethinking its commitment to engagement with Iran. Having come into office determined to find a way to end the nuclear standoff, President Obama has taken every opportunity to demonstrate that he wishes to create warmer relations with Tehran, even staying largely silent while the Islamists brutally suppressed dissidents in 2009. That’s why he seized upon the faux election last summer that resulted in Hassan Rouhani becoming Iran’s president to justify the decision to trust the regime when it came to the nuclear question. Though the secret negotiations that led to a weak interim agreement with Tehran preceded that vote, Rouhani’s more moderate image has been useful in dampening outrage about the direction of U.S. policy toward Iran which seems oriented more toward détente than actually preventing the regime from attaining nuclear capability.

But yesterday we got another reminder of the naïveté of Western hopes for Rouhani’s moderation. Days after Rouhani had given speech extolling the need for greater Internet freedom in his country, Iranian police arrested six young people and paraded them on national television for the crime of creating an Internet video in which they danced and sang to Pharrell Williams’s song “Happy.” According to Hossein Sajedinia, the head of the Tehran police, the harmless video was “a vulgar clip which hurt public chastity.” But after being forced to publicly repent, and with a worldwide furor growing over their arrest, the six who appeared on screen were freed today, apparently none the worse for wear for their ordeal and humiliation, though their director is still in jail. Rouhani celebrated their release with the following tweet:

#Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy

So should we be celebrating the advance of human rights in Iran today? And what has this to do with the nuclear talks?

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Though the latest nuclear talks with Iran failed to yield progress toward an agreement, the Obama administration isn’t rethinking its commitment to engagement with Iran. Having come into office determined to find a way to end the nuclear standoff, President Obama has taken every opportunity to demonstrate that he wishes to create warmer relations with Tehran, even staying largely silent while the Islamists brutally suppressed dissidents in 2009. That’s why he seized upon the faux election last summer that resulted in Hassan Rouhani becoming Iran’s president to justify the decision to trust the regime when it came to the nuclear question. Though the secret negotiations that led to a weak interim agreement with Tehran preceded that vote, Rouhani’s more moderate image has been useful in dampening outrage about the direction of U.S. policy toward Iran which seems oriented more toward détente than actually preventing the regime from attaining nuclear capability.

But yesterday we got another reminder of the naïveté of Western hopes for Rouhani’s moderation. Days after Rouhani had given speech extolling the need for greater Internet freedom in his country, Iranian police arrested six young people and paraded them on national television for the crime of creating an Internet video in which they danced and sang to Pharrell Williams’s song “Happy.” According to Hossein Sajedinia, the head of the Tehran police, the harmless video was “a vulgar clip which hurt public chastity.” But after being forced to publicly repent, and with a worldwide furor growing over their arrest, the six who appeared on screen were freed today, apparently none the worse for wear for their ordeal and humiliation, though their director is still in jail. Rouhani celebrated their release with the following tweet:

#Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy

So should we be celebrating the advance of human rights in Iran today? And what has this to do with the nuclear talks?

The answer is simple. Despite Iran’s attempt to persuade the world otherwise, it remains a brutal theocracy where anything, even a simple video can land you in jail if it rubs the Islamist authorities the wrong way. Rouhani, a veteran operative of the regime, is no moderate even though he is attempting to put forward a more human face to the world than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But power—including everything having to do with the country’s nuclear project—remains in the hands of his boss, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Incidents like the arrest of the video makers are designed to chill any signs of liberalization and dissent. As such, it was quite effective since few are bold enough to risk jail and a TV perp walk on the assumption that international attention will lead to their release. Unlike the lucky six, most Iranians who are arrested by the regime don’t become a trend on Twitter and simply disappear into the bowels of Tehran’s police dungeons.

But the Obama administration may argue that even if Iran is still a tyranny, that shouldn’t affect America’s decision to enter into a nuclear agreement with it. The danger Iran poses to the rest of the world stems from their ability to create a nuclear weapon, not policies designed to repress free spirits.

But the problem with America’s nuclear diplomacy is that it is based on the idea that Iran can be trusted to keep its agreements and that the further loosening of sanctions will aid the country’s progress toward better relations with the West. Unfortunately, Iran has proven time and again that it regards agreements with foreign powers as pieces of paper that it can tear up at will. And once sanctions are lifted, there is little chance the U.S. will ever be able to persuade a reluctant Europe to stop doing business with Iran.

So in order to rationalize a plan of action that is predicated on Iran turning the page from its past as a rogue regime, the U.S. must pretend that a regime that practices religious persecution and represses even the most innocuous sign of dissent is somehow changing. That’s why the administration’s negotiators have not even tried to raise the issues of Iranian sponsorship of terrorism in the talks. The more the discussion centers on Iranian behavior—whether as a backer of terrorists or as a vicious foe of human rights—the harder it will be for the president to persuade Americans that Iran means to keep even a weak deal that will give it plenty of leeway to cheat and get to a bomb.

Thus, far from being irrelevant to the talks that have been going on in Vienna, the “happy” dancers are a reminder that Iran isn’t the country Barack Obama would like it to be. The longer Americans cling to the delusion that Rouhani has genuine power and that he really can moderate the Islamist regime, the less chance there is that they will think clearly about the nuclear threat and a diplomatic process that seems to guarantee that it won’t be averted.

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To Play the King: Bibi’s Gamble

The second season of the original House of Cards trilogy revolves around the British prime minister’s open feud with the king of England. The Crown is supposed to be apolitical, or at least nonpartisan, and eventually Prime Minister Francis Urquhart bests the king in the court of public opinion. The plot culminates in Urquhart visiting the king to demand he abdicate the throne.

The plot would be more realistic (though less dramatic) if it took place in a parliamentary democracy that is not a monarchical system, where the ceremonial head of state may very well clash with the head of government because he is likely to come from within the political sphere, not hover above it like a royal figurehead. Such is the case in Israel, where the president–currently Shimon Peres–hasn’t much power except one important decision: his blessing must be sought and received for the formation of a governing coalition.

The general practice is that the party that wins the most seats in the preceding Knesset election gets the nod. But the fragmentation of Israeli party politics has made this less than a sure thing. Peres is retiring after his term is up, and the race to succeed him has taken a strange turn. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to avoid a House of Cards-like situation where he must contend with a political animal. Yet while Urquhart’s ploy was to dethrone a king to “save” the monarchy, Netanyahu had a different idea: get rid of the presidency altogether.

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The second season of the original House of Cards trilogy revolves around the British prime minister’s open feud with the king of England. The Crown is supposed to be apolitical, or at least nonpartisan, and eventually Prime Minister Francis Urquhart bests the king in the court of public opinion. The plot culminates in Urquhart visiting the king to demand he abdicate the throne.

The plot would be more realistic (though less dramatic) if it took place in a parliamentary democracy that is not a monarchical system, where the ceremonial head of state may very well clash with the head of government because he is likely to come from within the political sphere, not hover above it like a royal figurehead. Such is the case in Israel, where the president–currently Shimon Peres–hasn’t much power except one important decision: his blessing must be sought and received for the formation of a governing coalition.

The general practice is that the party that wins the most seats in the preceding Knesset election gets the nod. But the fragmentation of Israeli party politics has made this less than a sure thing. Peres is retiring after his term is up, and the race to succeed him has taken a strange turn. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to avoid a House of Cards-like situation where he must contend with a political animal. Yet while Urquhart’s ploy was to dethrone a king to “save” the monarchy, Netanyahu had a different idea: get rid of the presidency altogether.

This was too clever by half, but there was logic to it. Netanyahu has presided over an unusually stable term as prime minister. Part of that is due to his political instincts and part to the fact that his Likud resides at the precise point on Israel’s ideological spectrum so as to maximize public support. The country is center-right, and so is Likud. The Israeli left has been in freefall since the collapse of the Clinton parameters and the second intifada, and the effort to draft disgraced former prime minister Ehud Olmert–egged on by American journalists who suffer from Bibi Derangement Syndrome far more than the Israelis who would actually have to live under another Olmert administration–collapsed as expected.

That means the main intrigue has been who Bibi’s coalition partners will be. The truth is, he doesn’t care too much, because the Israeli political equilibrium virtually guarantees that his coalition partners will usually include some religious/ethnic minority representation and a secular nationalist party, with some room for token peace processers like Tzipi Livni. All Netanyahu really cares about is that he presides over that coalition, the outlines of which have remained remarkably stable in recent elections.

That leaves one real threat to Netanyahu’s premiership: the president, because theoretically the president could simply offer the ability to form a governing coalition to the head of one of the other major parties. This can be more democratic than it sounds: Livni, after all, bested Netanyahu in the vote count in 2009 but couldn’t form a coalition. Yet the only reason she won the election was because the public assumed Bibi’s Likud had it in the bag and so they shifted some votes to other right-of-center parties to ensure a center-right coalition led by Likud. And that’s what they got.

Netanyahu is apparently concerned that he could be a victim of the right’s own success. That is, there are so many right-of-center vote-getters that it’s conceivable a coalition could be formed without Netanyahu’s Likud at the head of it. It’s probably a long shot, but it’s the one way a restless right wing could get around Netanyahu’s hold on power.

His plan, then, was to find a way to delay the presidential election so he could get through the Knesset a bill that would abolish the presidency and make the leading vote-getter automatically the prime minister. Just a few years ago, such a move would have kept Netanyahu out of the Prime Minister’s Office. Not so today.

But in practice, the plan ran aground. Such a bill would have approximately zero percent chance of passing. So while it’s understandable that Netanyahu would want this, it’s difficult to picture a way for it to happen. It should be noted that an Israeli president meddling in party politics is far from unheard of. This is easily forgotten because the post is currently held by elder statesman extraordinaire Shimon Peres, who is 90 and has been fighting for Israel since before Netanyahu was born. Peres revels in the ceremonial job, and he’s more than earned it. He is also a man of the left.

The primary threat to Netanyahu comes from the right, not the left. That is, if a right-winger with an axe to grind were to win the presidency, he might be tempted to empower one of Netanyahu’s rivals. Peres has no desire to elevate anyone to Bibi’s right. The race thus far has been a bit nasty, with allegations of long-ago misconduct already chasing Likud’s Silvan Shalom from the contest. Likud’s Reuven Rivlin, Labor’s Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, and Hatnua’s Meir Sheetrit are among the candidates for the election, currently scheduled for June 10.

Netanyahu’s gamble will probably not do him any lasting damage. But neither does it seem to have been worth the trouble. Bibi is no Francis Urquhart, and he is not up against royalty. The man most likely to get in Benjamin Netanyahu’s way remains, it seems, Benjamin Netanyahu.

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U.S. Right to Indict Chinese Cyber Spies

The Obama administration has stirred plenty of controversy with its unprecedented indictments of five Chinese People’s Liberation Army hackers, attached to the infamous Unit 61398, on charges of spying on major American companies. Beijing–and plenty of other capitals–is screaming hypocrisy because of the large-scale American surveillance activities revealed by Edward Snowden.

There is, however, a crucial difference: While the U.S. intelligence community does target economic data from various countries, to help trade negotiators and for other ends, it does not, as far as is known, give any of the resulting information to American companies. Not so in China, Russia, France, or other countries where the relationship between industry and government is much tighter. By contrast, the U.S. intelligence community really does focus on national-security objectives, hard as that may be for cynical foreigners (or even some Americans) to believe.

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The Obama administration has stirred plenty of controversy with its unprecedented indictments of five Chinese People’s Liberation Army hackers, attached to the infamous Unit 61398, on charges of spying on major American companies. Beijing–and plenty of other capitals–is screaming hypocrisy because of the large-scale American surveillance activities revealed by Edward Snowden.

There is, however, a crucial difference: While the U.S. intelligence community does target economic data from various countries, to help trade negotiators and for other ends, it does not, as far as is known, give any of the resulting information to American companies. Not so in China, Russia, France, or other countries where the relationship between industry and government is much tighter. By contrast, the U.S. intelligence community really does focus on national-security objectives, hard as that may be for cynical foreigners (or even some Americans) to believe.

The administration should be commended for its actions, given the inevitable pushback from Beijing. The indictments shine a spotlight on Chinese hacking, alert American companies to the danger, and may possibly lead the Chinese government to dial back its outrageous and routine theft of American industrial secrets. This action also highlights the fact that–contrary to the arch-traitor Snowden–the U.S. is hardly alone or the worst offender when it comes to electronic espionage.

What the indictment does not do is actually lead to any meaningful sanctions against the named individuals who remain in China far beyond the reach of American law. The administration must show that this is not a symbolic one-off but part of a long-term campaign against Chinese cyber-theft and cyber war (the two are closely connected) that will result in more meaningful consequences for China beyond public embarrassment. One way to proceed would be for the U.S. intelligence community to show that it has the capability to steal Chinese industrial secrets too and will do so unless China shows more respect for American intellectual property. Mutually Assured Destruction worked in the nuclear arena. Why not in cyber war?

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Dems Won’t Be Saved Again by the Tea Party

Yesterday’s primary results in Kentucky, Georgia, Oregon, and Idaho confirmed what has already become an obvious trend this year. Tea Party-backed candidates would not sweep to victory in Republican primary fights across the nation as they largely did in 2010 and 2012. That was good news for the so-called GOP establishment as well as for incumbents like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who crushed his Tea Party challenger in a Kentucky landslide. But it is even worse news for President Obama and the Democrats. Republicans blew golden opportunities to take winnable Senate seats from vulnerable Democratic incumbents in both the last two federal elections.

The results in Kentucky as well as in Oregon where the GOP nominated its strongest possible candidate in Dr. Monica Wehby and even in Georgia, where two mainstream candidates will face off in runoff, doesn’t mean that the Republicans are a lock to get to 51 Senate seats. McConnell is in for the fight of his life with Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Wehby faces a tough incumbent in Jeff Merkley, and whoever wins the GOP nod in Georgia will not have an easy time beating Democrat Michelle Nunn. But if Harry Reid does hang on as majority leader it won’t be because the GOP was saddled with the kind of outlier candidates like the one that was largely responsible for reelecting the Nevada senator.

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Yesterday’s primary results in Kentucky, Georgia, Oregon, and Idaho confirmed what has already become an obvious trend this year. Tea Party-backed candidates would not sweep to victory in Republican primary fights across the nation as they largely did in 2010 and 2012. That was good news for the so-called GOP establishment as well as for incumbents like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who crushed his Tea Party challenger in a Kentucky landslide. But it is even worse news for President Obama and the Democrats. Republicans blew golden opportunities to take winnable Senate seats from vulnerable Democratic incumbents in both the last two federal elections.

The results in Kentucky as well as in Oregon where the GOP nominated its strongest possible candidate in Dr. Monica Wehby and even in Georgia, where two mainstream candidates will face off in runoff, doesn’t mean that the Republicans are a lock to get to 51 Senate seats. McConnell is in for the fight of his life with Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Wehby faces a tough incumbent in Jeff Merkley, and whoever wins the GOP nod in Georgia will not have an easy time beating Democrat Michelle Nunn. But if Harry Reid does hang on as majority leader it won’t be because the GOP was saddled with the kind of outlier candidates like the one that was largely responsible for reelecting the Nevada senator.

It bears repeating that those in the media who are treating this as an ideological shift in which moderates have triumphed over conservatives are mistaken. Though individual groups that claimed the Tea Party banner have attempted to transform a broad grassroots movement into something with a specific address and card-carrying members (while liberals have falsely imagined it to be the function of a few large conservative donors like the Koch brothers pulling the puppet strings of political operatives), the Tea Party movement was always something far more amorphous. It began as an inchoate push across the board from conservatives who were angry about the betrayal of what they felt were the party’s principles from big government Republicans in Congress as well as about the Obama administration’s billion-dollar stimulus boondoggle and ObamaCare.

In its first bloom in 2010 and to a lesser degree in 2012 that rise led to the nomination of people like Nevada’s Sharron Angle and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, who had no business getting major party nods. That happened because of the perception that their opponents were somehow part of the permanent governing class that had no compunction about increasing the debt in order to keep funding a government with no limits. But what has happened in recent years is that virtually the entire Republican Party has embraced Tea Party ideology when it comes to the big issues of taxing and spending. While the liberal mainstream media has always labeled Tea Partiers as being a bunch of wild-eyed extremists who were liable to be racists as well as at war with the federal government, the reality is that most of the voters and candidates who identify with the term are simply conservatives who are tired of business as usual Republicans.

What happened on Tuesday is not a situation where mainstream Republicans bested Tea Partiers and beat them on the issues. Rather, it was that voters were faced with candidates that largely shared the same views but understandably preferred more electable Republicans to those who were unlikely to prevail in November.

Indeed, this ideological shift is noticeable even among the Democrats who are being nominated to oppose these conservatives. Candidates like Grimes and Nunn are doing everything to distance themselves from President Obama and seeking to appeal to mainstream voters. While Democrats in blue states are veering to the left, those in the rest of the country understand that they must come across as being comfortable with the basic conservatism of most Americans. That’s good politics, and if the GOP lets them get away with obscuring their dedication to failed liberal policies, the Democrats will prevail.

But after years of the media echo chamber flaying the Republicans for being in thrall to extremists, GOP primary voters have taken that issue off the table. Without it, Democrats will be hard-pressed to hold the Senate.

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The Record Versus Obama’s VA Outrage

President Obama spoke to the nation this morning to address the scandal at the Veterans Administration. Adopting a stern and authoritative tone, Obama expressed outrage about the mistreatment of veterans and determination to get to the bottom of the problem. This was entirely appropriate, but coming weeks after the news about widespread misconduct began to seep into the headlines and more than a year after the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee wrote to him to bring this issue to his attention, the president’s actions must still be considered too little and too late.

The president’s decision to wait for the Inspector General’s report before making policy decisions is probably wise. Nobody knows just how widespread the cooking of the books at VA institutions has been or how many executives have been gaming the system to generate bonuses for themselves and others or how many wounded or ill veterans have been harmed by being forced to wait because of this misconduct. But we do already know a few salient facts about the way the administration has handled the VA and the scandal. As with every other scandal or catastrophe that has occurred in the last five and a half years, Obama was an absentee head of government who let things slide here despite warnings until the political consequences became clear to him.

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President Obama spoke to the nation this morning to address the scandal at the Veterans Administration. Adopting a stern and authoritative tone, Obama expressed outrage about the mistreatment of veterans and determination to get to the bottom of the problem. This was entirely appropriate, but coming weeks after the news about widespread misconduct began to seep into the headlines and more than a year after the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee wrote to him to bring this issue to his attention, the president’s actions must still be considered too little and too late.

The president’s decision to wait for the Inspector General’s report before making policy decisions is probably wise. Nobody knows just how widespread the cooking of the books at VA institutions has been or how many executives have been gaming the system to generate bonuses for themselves and others or how many wounded or ill veterans have been harmed by being forced to wait because of this misconduct. But we do already know a few salient facts about the way the administration has handled the VA and the scandal. As with every other scandal or catastrophe that has occurred in the last five and a half years, Obama was an absentee head of government who let things slide here despite warnings until the political consequences became clear to him.

We know that despite flaunting his supposed concern for veterans since his first presidential campaign in 2008, this commander-in-chief has allowed the agency tasked with their care to be driven into a ditch. We also know that the president seems incapable of holding Cabinet officials or anyone close to him accountable for their incompetence. That Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is, even now, still holding on to his job despite presiding over this mess for years gives the lie to any talk of accountability coming from the president. The fact that the agency attempted to get off the hook by merely firing one of Shinseki’s subordinates was not only proof of how tone deaf the administration is about the importance of this scandal but demonstrated how resistant it is to hold political appointees responsible for their actions.

Even more outrageous was the president’s concern today that no one should use the VA has a “political football.” Using straw men to bolster his rhetorical position is nothing new for this president. But in this instance it is particularly off key since Democrats and Republicans have been lining up this week to express anger about the VA. But the talk of keeping politics out of the discussion isn’t an appeal for bipartisanship so much as it is one focused on avoiding accountability for the man at the top of the government food chain.

Nor is there any indication that Obama or anyone else in this administration is capable of seeing that perhaps the reason for the systemic problems at the VA is the reliance on government health-care institutions burdened by bloated bureaucracies. Given Obama’s almost religious devotion to big government, don’t expect that this president can wrap his brain around the right fix to a problem that may require a complete reform of this system and a switch to a vouchers scheme that would end the spectacle of veterans waiting weeks or months for the health care they need.

For the president to emerge from a meeting about this controversy praising the good services millions get from the VA and speaking of how much Shinseki cares about veterans does nothing to divert the American people from understanding how much Obama has failed as a leader. Nothing said today will enhance the confidence of the public or of veterans that this situation is being handled properly or that the president has the ability to act to stem a crisis in the making. It took him five and a half years to realize that he had to do something more than talk about the need to help veterans. In the meantime, more than 40 died. There’s no telling how many more will suffer and how many other scandals will pop up in the two and a half years he has left in office. But no matter what the total turns out to be, no one should expect anything more than lip service and belated concern from an absentee president.

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The New Obama Narrative: Epic Incompetence

The last eight months have battered the Obama administration. From the botched rollout of the health-care website to the VA scandal, events are now cementing certain impressions about Mr. Obama. Among the most damaging is this: He is unusually, even epically, incompetent. That is not news to some of us, but it seems to be a conclusion more and more people are drawing.

The emerging narrative of Barack Obama, the one that actually comports to reality, is that he is a rare political talent but a disaster when it comes to actually governing. The list of his failures is nothing short of staggering, from shovel-ready jobs that weren’t so shovel ready to the failures of healthcare.gov to the VA debacle. But it also includes the president’s failure to tame the debt, lower poverty, decrease income inequality, and increase job creation. He promised to close Guantanamo Bay and didn’t. His administration promised to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed before a civilian jury in New York but they were forced to retreat because of outrage in his own party. Early on in his administration Mr. Obama put his prestige on the line to secure the Olympics for Chicago in 2016 and he failed. 

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The last eight months have battered the Obama administration. From the botched rollout of the health-care website to the VA scandal, events are now cementing certain impressions about Mr. Obama. Among the most damaging is this: He is unusually, even epically, incompetent. That is not news to some of us, but it seems to be a conclusion more and more people are drawing.

The emerging narrative of Barack Obama, the one that actually comports to reality, is that he is a rare political talent but a disaster when it comes to actually governing. The list of his failures is nothing short of staggering, from shovel-ready jobs that weren’t so shovel ready to the failures of healthcare.gov to the VA debacle. But it also includes the president’s failure to tame the debt, lower poverty, decrease income inequality, and increase job creation. He promised to close Guantanamo Bay and didn’t. His administration promised to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed before a civilian jury in New York but they were forced to retreat because of outrage in his own party. Early on in his administration Mr. Obama put his prestige on the line to secure the Olympics for Chicago in 2016 and he failed. 

Overseas the range of Obama’s failures include the Russian “reset” and Syrian “red lines” to Iran’s Green Revolution, the Egyptian overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, and Libya post-Gaddafi. The first American ambassador since the 1970s was murdered after requests for greater security for the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi were denied. (For a comprehensive overview of President Obama’s failures in the Middle East, see this outstanding essay by Abe Greenwald.) The president has strained relations with nations extending from Canada to Germany, from Israel to Afghanistan to Poland and the Czech Republic to many others. All from a man who promised to heal the planet and slow the rise of the oceans. 

But that’s not all. The White House response to everything from the VA and IRS scandals to the seizure of AP phone records by the Department of Justice is that it learned about them from press reports. More and more Mr. Obama speaks as if he’s a passive actor, a bystander in his own administration, an MSNBC commentator speaking about events he has no real control over. We saw that earlier today, when the president, in trying to address the public’s growing outrage at what’s happening at the VA, insisted he “will not stand for it” and “will not tolerate” what he has stood for and tolerated for almost six years. His anger at what’s happening to our veterans seems to have coincided with the political damage it is now causing him.

We’ve learned the hard way that Mr. Obama’s skill sets are far more oriented toward community organizing than they are to governing. On every front, he is overmatched by events. It’s painful to watch a man who is so obviously in over his head. And more and more Americans are suffering because of it.

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The Anti-Freedom Hypocrisy of Europe’s Far Right

After the 2012 election, as Hillary Clinton was winding down her time as secretary of state and looking to the future, she began toughening up her rhetoric. Having presided over the disastrous Russian “reset,” Putin’s Russia seemed a good place to start. So she told the media before a meeting with her Russian counterpart that Putin’s proposed “Eurasian Union,” a customs union involving Russia’s near abroad, was “a move to re-Sovietize the region,” and she planned to “figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”

The comment was surprisingly alarmist, as Clinton hadn’t officially left the State Department yet and appeared to be overcompensating for the weakness and naïveté that characterized Washington’s relationship with Russia on her watch. Yet as in so many instances, Russia’s recent behavior has made what looked alarmist at first glance much closer to the mark. And what if Clinton was actually underestimating the spread of Russian influence in Europe? That’s the upshot of the New York Times’s disheartening story on the rise of Putinist sympathizers across Europe’s political spectrum:

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After the 2012 election, as Hillary Clinton was winding down her time as secretary of state and looking to the future, she began toughening up her rhetoric. Having presided over the disastrous Russian “reset,” Putin’s Russia seemed a good place to start. So she told the media before a meeting with her Russian counterpart that Putin’s proposed “Eurasian Union,” a customs union involving Russia’s near abroad, was “a move to re-Sovietize the region,” and she planned to “figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”

The comment was surprisingly alarmist, as Clinton hadn’t officially left the State Department yet and appeared to be overcompensating for the weakness and naïveté that characterized Washington’s relationship with Russia on her watch. Yet as in so many instances, Russia’s recent behavior has made what looked alarmist at first glance much closer to the mark. And what if Clinton was actually underestimating the spread of Russian influence in Europe? That’s the upshot of the New York Times’s disheartening story on the rise of Putinist sympathizers across Europe’s political spectrum:

This convergence has pushed the far right into a curious alignment with the far left. In European Parliament votes this year on the lifting of tariffs and other steps to help Ukraine’s fragile new government, which Russia denounces as fascist but the European Union supports, legislators at both ends of the political spectrum banded together to oppose assisting Ukraine.

“Russia has become the hope of the world against new totalitarianism,” Mr. Chauprade, the National Front’s top European Parliament candidate for the Paris region, said in a speech to Russia’s Parliament in Moscow last year.

When Crimea held a referendum in March on whether the peninsula should secede from Ukraine and join Russia, Mr. Chauprade joined a team of election monitors organized by a pro-Russian outfit in Belgium, the Eurasian Observatory for Elections and Democracy. The team, which pronounced the referendum free and fair, also included members of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party; a Flemish nationalist group in Belgium; and the Jobbik politician in Hungary accused of spying for Russia.

Luc Michel, the Belgian head of the Eurasian Observatory, which receives some financial support from Russian companies but promotes itself as independent and apolitical, champions the establishment of a new “Eurasian” alliance, stretching from Vladivostok in Russia to Lisbon in Portugal and purged of American influence. The National Front, preoccupied with recovering sovereign powers surrendered to Brussels, has shown little enthusiasm for a new Eurasian bloc. But it, too, bristles at Europe’s failure to project itself as a global player independent from America, and looks to Russia for help.

A Eurasian union from Vladivostok to Lisbon is far, far more than even Putin could have hoped for. The story underlines a major reason Putin has been so effective at building support abroad: by shedding socialist ideology, Putin has been able to attract members of the far right without losing the support of European leftists who have retained a good dose of sympathy for Russia, believing that the West (through NATO especially) added insult to injury when the Soviet Union collapsed and proved somehow to be unworthy of its own victory. It was a consolation prize for the European left.

Another fascinating, if unoriginal, aspect to this is the role of anti-European Union populism. There are various reasons for this, but one of them is that the far right has put a new spin on the traditional leftist critique of American imperialism:

The European Union, said Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a member of the French Parliament and a niece of Marine Le Pen, is “the poodle of the United States.”

If only! (Though it wouldn’t be a “poodle,” but a far more majestic breed; some kind of retriever, perhaps.) This is where the uniting of the European far left and far right results in total incoherence. Does Le Pen really think Brussels is lacking in anti-Americanism? It isn’t. And that’s where this fight over Russia exposes the fault lines in Euro-Atlantic relations.

In the ongoing debate over whether Britain should remain in the EU, America’s position has been that it should stay in the EU because otherwise the union would be bereft of true Anglosphere voices. I have been clear that I find this argument unconvincing. What is likely is a kind of “reverse integration” in which British opinion would be submerged in a sea of Eurostatism and the free world would be compromised, not reinforced.

And here we have a perfect moment to test it. The Europeans are already skeptical of sanctions against Russia, undermining Western resolve. If there is pro-American sentiment of any real force in the EU, now would be a good time to hear it rally to the side of democracy and international law.

That last point also shows what is so counterproductive about the supposedly Euroskeptic right’s support for Putin. They may have legitimate grievances about the EU’s power grab and antidemocratic supranationalism. Indeed, they certainly do. But the Putinist model is the road to tyranny, not democracy. By throwing their support to an authoritarian thug, they are only proving just how hollow and dishonest are their claims to be standing up for freedom and democratic sovereignty.

They are hypocrites, and their hypocrisy only enables further bloodshed and the rolling back of freedom in Europe. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

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The Rubber Man Meets the Peace Process

As I noted yesterday, there’s no lack of evidence that even “moderate” Palestinians aren’t interested in ending their war on Israel. Yet most of the world will go through contortions worthy of the rubber man rather than admit it. A classic example is the interview a “senior American official” (widely reputed to be special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian talks Martin Indyk) gave to Yedioth Ahronoth earlier this month.           

The official spent about 3,000 words blaming the talks’ breakdown on Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and specifically its authorization of settlement construction during the negotiations. Only then did he describe what actually happened during those crucial final months when Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to broker a framework agreement:

“In February, Abbas arrived at a Paris hotel for a meeting with Kerry … He rejected all of Kerry’s ideas. A month later, in March, he was invited to the White House. Obama presented the American-formulated principles verbally – not in writing. Abbas refused.”

Then, in the very next sentence, came this astonishing defense: “The claim on your side that Abbas was avoiding making decisions is not true. He wasn’t running away.”

So long before the announcement of 700 new housing units that Kerry later termed the “poof” moment when everything blew up, Abbas had rejected all Kerry’s ideas and all President Barack Obama’s ideas. Yet he wasn’t “avoiding making decisions” or “running away”; he was a committed and engaged peace partner. Then who is to blame for his serial rejections? Why, Netanyahu, of course: Those “announcements of new housing tenders in settlements limited Abbas’ ability to show flexibility.”           

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As I noted yesterday, there’s no lack of evidence that even “moderate” Palestinians aren’t interested in ending their war on Israel. Yet most of the world will go through contortions worthy of the rubber man rather than admit it. A classic example is the interview a “senior American official” (widely reputed to be special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian talks Martin Indyk) gave to Yedioth Ahronoth earlier this month.           

The official spent about 3,000 words blaming the talks’ breakdown on Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and specifically its authorization of settlement construction during the negotiations. Only then did he describe what actually happened during those crucial final months when Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to broker a framework agreement:

“In February, Abbas arrived at a Paris hotel for a meeting with Kerry … He rejected all of Kerry’s ideas. A month later, in March, he was invited to the White House. Obama presented the American-formulated principles verbally – not in writing. Abbas refused.”

Then, in the very next sentence, came this astonishing defense: “The claim on your side that Abbas was avoiding making decisions is not true. He wasn’t running away.”

So long before the announcement of 700 new housing units that Kerry later termed the “poof” moment when everything blew up, Abbas had rejected all Kerry’s ideas and all President Barack Obama’s ideas. Yet he wasn’t “avoiding making decisions” or “running away”; he was a committed and engaged peace partner. Then who is to blame for his serial rejections? Why, Netanyahu, of course: Those “announcements of new housing tenders in settlements limited Abbas’ ability to show flexibility.”           

In other words, if Netanyahu is intransigent, it’s Netanyahu’s fault. And if Abbas is intransigent, it’s also Netanyahu’s fault. Under this administration’s definition of “honest brokerage,” only one side is ever to blame; the Palestinians have no agency of their own.

But it gets even worse–because it turns out Netanyahu wasn’t intransigent. As interviewer Nahum Barnea noted, even chief Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni–whom the American official termed a “heroine” who “fought with all of her might to promote the agreement”–says Netanyahu “showed flexibility.” The American pooh-poohed this, insisting Netanyahu hadn’t moved “more than an inch.” Yet addressing the Washington Institute the following week, Indyk admitted that Netanyahu actually evinced dramatic flexibility and was in “the zone of a possible agreement” when he met Obama in early March.            

So the bottom line is that Abbas rejected every proposal Kerry and Obama offered, while Netanyahu was in “the zone of a possible agreement.” Yet the administration nevertheless blames the breakdown on Netanyahu. In short, no matter what happens, the Palestinians will never be blamed.           

The reasons for this are numerous. As Jonathan Tobin noted last week, it helps deflect blame from the administration’s own mistake of wasting so much time and diplomatic energy on a dead end. Additionally, as Michael Doran perceptively argued this week, keeping Netanyahu on the defensive over the Palestinian issue undermines his ability to pressure the administration over Iran’s nuclear program. Nor can anti-Israel animus be ruled out, given the American official’s shocking claim, when Barnea drew a comparison to China’s occupation of Tibet, that “Israel is not China. It was founded by a UN resolution”–the clear implication being that unlike other countries, Israel’s right to exist is revocable.           

The most important reason, however, is simply that if the main barrier to peace is the settlements, then the problem is easily solvable and peace is achievable. But if the main barrier is Palestinian unwillingness to end their war on Israel, the problem is unsolvable and peace is unachievable. And to most of the world, blaming Israel unjustly is infinitely preferable to acknowledging that unpleasant truth.

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Trigger Warnings

Conservatives are having a field day with the latest nonsense to come out of academia, trigger warnings. These are meant to warn people that certain subject matter that might be troubling to them will be covered in a course. Movies and television have long had rating systems to warn of violence, foul language, nudity, etc. And I see nothing wrong with that.

But do college professors have to warn students that The Merchant of Venice involves anti-Semitism or that All Quiet on the Western Front is about warfare, or that the history of Africa will refer to colonialism? Is it possible that students matriculated at respectable colleges might not already know that Shylock is a Jew or that Gatsby isn’t a card-carrying feminist? Alas, the answer to that is yes. But even so, are they so delicately constructed that encountering anti-Semitism in a play written more than four hundred years ago might cause significant distress?

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Conservatives are having a field day with the latest nonsense to come out of academia, trigger warnings. These are meant to warn people that certain subject matter that might be troubling to them will be covered in a course. Movies and television have long had rating systems to warn of violence, foul language, nudity, etc. And I see nothing wrong with that.

But do college professors have to warn students that The Merchant of Venice involves anti-Semitism or that All Quiet on the Western Front is about warfare, or that the history of Africa will refer to colonialism? Is it possible that students matriculated at respectable colleges might not already know that Shylock is a Jew or that Gatsby isn’t a card-carrying feminist? Alas, the answer to that is yes. But even so, are they so delicately constructed that encountering anti-Semitism in a play written more than four hundred years ago might cause significant distress?

Jonah Goldberg also points out a contradiction:

And what a strange madness it is. We live in a culture in which it is considered bigotry to question whether women should join combat units — but it is also apparently outrageous to subject women of the same age to realistic books and films about war without a warning? Even questioning the ubiquity of degrading porn, never mind labeling music or video games, is denounced as Comstockery, but labeling “The Iliad” makes sense?

It is a madness that will pass, I’m sure, as the academy undergoes the wrenching changes that will undoubtedly come in the next 20 years, for the 20th-century model for higher education is in terminal collapse. But meanwhile, this latest idiocy reminds me of a long-ago joke when movies were first being rated: “To some, it is the simple story of a boy and his dog. For others it is something more. Rated G for those who think it is a story of a boy and his dog. Rated X for those who think it is something more.”

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Reclaiming Our Love for America

My post on when the right turns on America provoked some reactions, most of them favorable but a few of them critical. I want to deal with two of the disapproving ones–the first a brief criticism on Twitter by National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson and the second a longer, private criticism written to me by a friend.

Let me deal with them in order, beginning with this tweet by Mr. Williamson:

We aren’t turning on America, ‪@Peter_Wehner. We’re turning on the federal government, as we should be.

Mr. Williamson is confusing a few things. My argument isn’t that there aren’t reasons to be critical of the federal government or the Obama administration. I’ve made those criticisms repeatedly, as well as offering up my thoughts for how we can re-limit and reform the federal government. So if Williamson is simply saying there are reasons to denigrate the federal government, count me in.

But of course my post didn’t have to do with criticisms of the federal government per se; it had to do with the rhetoric some on the right now employ. I quoted, for example, Dr. Ben Carson, who said, America is “very much like Nazi Germany.”

That is not simply “turning on the federal government”; that is a statement that is unmoored from reality and a slander against America. If Mr. Williamson agrees that the United States today is, with a quibble here and there, Nazi Germany all over again, he should make that argument in a comprehensive manner. It would be revealing to hear him make the case for why the United States is similar to one of the most malevolent regimes in history. Hopefully Williamson doesn’t agree with Dr. Carson, in which case I believe he agrees with me.

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My post on when the right turns on America provoked some reactions, most of them favorable but a few of them critical. I want to deal with two of the disapproving ones–the first a brief criticism on Twitter by National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson and the second a longer, private criticism written to me by a friend.

Let me deal with them in order, beginning with this tweet by Mr. Williamson:

We aren’t turning on America, ‪@Peter_Wehner. We’re turning on the federal government, as we should be.

Mr. Williamson is confusing a few things. My argument isn’t that there aren’t reasons to be critical of the federal government or the Obama administration. I’ve made those criticisms repeatedly, as well as offering up my thoughts for how we can re-limit and reform the federal government. So if Williamson is simply saying there are reasons to denigrate the federal government, count me in.

But of course my post didn’t have to do with criticisms of the federal government per se; it had to do with the rhetoric some on the right now employ. I quoted, for example, Dr. Ben Carson, who said, America is “very much like Nazi Germany.”

That is not simply “turning on the federal government”; that is a statement that is unmoored from reality and a slander against America. If Mr. Williamson agrees that the United States today is, with a quibble here and there, Nazi Germany all over again, he should make that argument in a comprehensive manner. It would be revealing to hear him make the case for why the United States is similar to one of the most malevolent regimes in history. Hopefully Williamson doesn’t agree with Dr. Carson, in which case I believe he agrees with me.

Now let me turn to a more substantial note I received from a friend, who wrote this:

Are you sure about this? I remember the attacks of the Left; they were that the very idea of America, its own ideals, were corrupt and irredeemable. This critique, perhaps lacking in sophistication, seems to derive from their perception that we are, transiently, failing our ideals. One attack was on fundamental principle, the other seems more situational, calling us back. Perhaps ham-handedly. But do you see no difference?

This statement is a fair one, at least up to a point. Over the years some on the left have vilified the founders, while those on the right (myself included) have tended to lionize them. So to be precise: some on the right are saying we used be good but now we’re evil. That is different than saying we have been evil from the start. But it is not much less divorced from reality or hardly less pernicious. It looks for the impossible ideal in the past rather than in the future, but it still disparages the actual living, breathing America.

I’d add that my friend–intelligent, well-educated, and a person of good will–could only say that the rhetoric I cited in my post was “perhaps” lacking in sophistication and “perhaps” ham-handed. 

“Perhaps”?

It is more than unsophisticated and ham-handed; it is a grotesque libel. Yet it happens frequently enough that it hardly elicits a critical reaction. Are we now to the point where conservatives who depict America as a replica of Hitler’s Germany, a police state, a borderline tyranny, and a dystopian society are viewed as having made slight if understandable overstatements? I for one hope not.

In this context it’s worth people reading, or re-reading, Norman Podhoretz’s My Love Affair With America, a book that expresses his deep affection for his native land. In it he urges his fellow conservatives to rediscover their faith in America. It is, among other things, an act of gratitude, one of the most important if overlooked human qualities.  

Near the end of his elegant and touching book Podhoretz writes that the United States is entitled to 

a place among the very greatest of human societies. And even more surely, it entitles this country to the love and gratitude of all whom a benevolent providence has deposited on the shores of – yes, a thousand times yes – “the land of the free and the home of the brave” to live their lives and make their livings under the sublime beauty of its “spacious skies” and “from sea to shining sea.”

This spirit of love and gratitude for America, even (and sometimes especially) in difficult times, is worth reclaiming. Because America, whatever its shortcomings, surely deserves it. 

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