Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 6, 2014

Susan Rice: A One-Woman Credibility Gap

Back in September 2012, there were a lot of people, including many conservative critics of the Obama administration who thought the Obama White House hung Susan Rice out to dry after the Benghazi terror attacks. Rice had nothing to do with the decisions that put Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in harm’s way only to be slain by al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. Nor had she, as America’s ambassador to the United Nations, any responsibility for the manner with which the State Department had bungled the Libyan venture and anti-terror policy. But she was the one delegated by the administration to be the voice of its spin of this disaster. It was Rice who was handed the infamous talking points that sought—on all five major Sunday programs—to persuade the American people that the Benghazi attack was the result of film criticism run amok rather than terrorism. It was quickly apparent that this was a brazen lie concocted by the White House for political purposes. Alone of top administration officials, Rice paid the highest penalty for Benghazi since her fateful morning in the spotlight almost certainly cost her the chance to be secretary of state in President Obama’s second term. But in spite of all this, Rice has refused to back down and apologize for her statements.

So it was surprising that Rice, now the president’s national security advisor, would win up in roughly the same position this week during the fallout from the Bowe Bergdahl-Taliban prisoner swap. Last Sunday, when the administration was seeking to portray the exchange as a triumph for the president, Rice went again to the Sunday shows to proclaim that the deal was worthy of celebration and then added that Bergdahl had served “with honor and distinction.” Since then, Rice has taken a beating in the media as the truth about Bergdahl’s alleged desertion and America-bashing was revealed, as any sensible person must have always known it would be. Yet when offered a chance to back down from her egregious comments today on CNN, Rice again refused to do the sensible thing, instead again doubling down on her fibs, arguing that Bergdahl’s presence in a war zone in uniform entitled him to be described in this manner. Rather than acknowledging that her rhetoric made her seem like the administration’s chief fabulist, Rice turned her ire on those who questioned her latest foray into fiction.

But the second instance in which she has been outed as a purveyor of the most transparent “pants-on-fire” type of spin means that Rice can no longer be portrayed as a victim. Whatever you may think about Bergdahl or the decision to trade five top Taliban terrorists for him, there can be no debate about the fact that Rice has severely damaged her own reputation in this business. After all, her definition of what entitles a soldier to be termed as having served with “honor and distinction” would equally apply to Benedict Arnold as it does to Americans who actually have behaved heroically.

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Back in September 2012, there were a lot of people, including many conservative critics of the Obama administration who thought the Obama White House hung Susan Rice out to dry after the Benghazi terror attacks. Rice had nothing to do with the decisions that put Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in harm’s way only to be slain by al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. Nor had she, as America’s ambassador to the United Nations, any responsibility for the manner with which the State Department had bungled the Libyan venture and anti-terror policy. But she was the one delegated by the administration to be the voice of its spin of this disaster. It was Rice who was handed the infamous talking points that sought—on all five major Sunday programs—to persuade the American people that the Benghazi attack was the result of film criticism run amok rather than terrorism. It was quickly apparent that this was a brazen lie concocted by the White House for political purposes. Alone of top administration officials, Rice paid the highest penalty for Benghazi since her fateful morning in the spotlight almost certainly cost her the chance to be secretary of state in President Obama’s second term. But in spite of all this, Rice has refused to back down and apologize for her statements.

So it was surprising that Rice, now the president’s national security advisor, would win up in roughly the same position this week during the fallout from the Bowe Bergdahl-Taliban prisoner swap. Last Sunday, when the administration was seeking to portray the exchange as a triumph for the president, Rice went again to the Sunday shows to proclaim that the deal was worthy of celebration and then added that Bergdahl had served “with honor and distinction.” Since then, Rice has taken a beating in the media as the truth about Bergdahl’s alleged desertion and America-bashing was revealed, as any sensible person must have always known it would be. Yet when offered a chance to back down from her egregious comments today on CNN, Rice again refused to do the sensible thing, instead again doubling down on her fibs, arguing that Bergdahl’s presence in a war zone in uniform entitled him to be described in this manner. Rather than acknowledging that her rhetoric made her seem like the administration’s chief fabulist, Rice turned her ire on those who questioned her latest foray into fiction.

But the second instance in which she has been outed as a purveyor of the most transparent “pants-on-fire” type of spin means that Rice can no longer be portrayed as a victim. Whatever you may think about Bergdahl or the decision to trade five top Taliban terrorists for him, there can be no debate about the fact that Rice has severely damaged her own reputation in this business. After all, her definition of what entitles a soldier to be termed as having served with “honor and distinction” would equally apply to Benedict Arnold as it does to Americans who actually have behaved heroically.

An official who not only spreads lies but also won’t disavow them even when caught red-handed has lost the right to be treated as a plausible spokesperson for anything, let alone an American government. Susan Rice must now face up to the fact that she is a one-woman credibility gap who is an embarrassment to the United States government.

Is Rice’s predilection for telling outrageous fibs while fronting for the administration more a commentary on the president who sends her out to do such things than on herself? It’s hard to say.

It is true that Rice does not bear total responsibility for these lies. As we now know, it took a committee of administration spinners to craft the Benghazi talking points. The decision to treat Bergdahl as a returning hero and to treat his parents to the full White House PR treatment surely came from the very top of the West Wing food chain. But Rice’s talent for overstatement and her inability to take responsibility for her mistakes, even when they have exposed her to the worst sort of public ridicule, cannot be attributed to the president or any of the clueless advisors that persuaded him to treat the prisoner swap as an opportunity to make political hay.

As we have seen with his treatment of other officials who failed him, the president is slow to hold his top staff accountable and seems to regard admitting bad personnel judgment as a form of capitulation to his Republican foes. In particular, Rice is a personal Obama favorite and he made no secret of his anger about the fact that her Benghazi lies killed her chances to be secretary of state. But a smarter president with a better grasp of political reality would understand that his national security advisor has fatally compromised her ability to speak for him on important issues. Surely if anyone would have known the truth about Bergdahl’s behavior last week it would have been Rice. Though the chances of Obama ever owning up to the fact that she is a liability are minimal, having a national security advisor who will be best remembered for her Benghazi and Bergdahl lies is not something any president should settle for.

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Presbyterians’ Tent of Nations Propaganda

Later this month, the Presbyterian Church USA will hold its biennial General Assembly at which delegates will decide whether one of the country’s mainstream Protestant denominations will fully embrace an economic war on Israel and the Jewish people. But the battle over resolutions that endorse divestment from companies that do business with Israel is not confined to the debates at that gathering. Presbyterian activists have been working hard over the last two years when similar proposals narrowly failed at the last PCUSA biennial to create an atmosphere of hatred against the Jewish state and its supporters. Earlier this year, a church-affiliated group published an outrageous book and companion CD titled Zionism Unsettled that crossed all boundaries between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and open hostility toward both Israel and Jewish peoplehood. Much of that effort smacked of traditional anti-Semitism, but press arms of the church are also fueling the fires of hate with misleading charges against Israel that are intended to boost the divestment campaign.

One such example, involving the so-called Tent of Nations, a pro-Palestinian rallying point in the West Bank claimed that Israeli forces not only oppress Palestinians but also sought to wage war on their trees. The PCUSA News Service wrote that the Israeli military wantonly destroyed between 1,500 and 2,000 trees planted at the site on property owned by a Palestinian farmer. In this version of the episode, parroted by other left-wing Protestant sites, Israel was seeking to seize Palestinian land and ignoring its own courts. But the truth, as this report from the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) points out, is that much of this tale is pure propaganda built on an edifice of falsehoods.

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Later this month, the Presbyterian Church USA will hold its biennial General Assembly at which delegates will decide whether one of the country’s mainstream Protestant denominations will fully embrace an economic war on Israel and the Jewish people. But the battle over resolutions that endorse divestment from companies that do business with Israel is not confined to the debates at that gathering. Presbyterian activists have been working hard over the last two years when similar proposals narrowly failed at the last PCUSA biennial to create an atmosphere of hatred against the Jewish state and its supporters. Earlier this year, a church-affiliated group published an outrageous book and companion CD titled Zionism Unsettled that crossed all boundaries between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and open hostility toward both Israel and Jewish peoplehood. Much of that effort smacked of traditional anti-Semitism, but press arms of the church are also fueling the fires of hate with misleading charges against Israel that are intended to boost the divestment campaign.

One such example, involving the so-called Tent of Nations, a pro-Palestinian rallying point in the West Bank claimed that Israeli forces not only oppress Palestinians but also sought to wage war on their trees. The PCUSA News Service wrote that the Israeli military wantonly destroyed between 1,500 and 2,000 trees planted at the site on property owned by a Palestinian farmer. In this version of the episode, parroted by other left-wing Protestant sites, Israel was seeking to seize Palestinian land and ignoring its own courts. But the truth, as this report from the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) points out, is that much of this tale is pure propaganda built on an edifice of falsehoods.

As CAMERA notes, the first thing that is wrong with this story is that the Israel Defense Forces did not violate court orders when it uprooted the trees at the Tent of Nations site. While the Palestinian family was able to prove they owned an adjacent hilltop, they have consistently failed in the courts to prove their assertions that they also own the valley where the trees were planted. The family lost the case in Israel’s independent courts. Though they argue that it has been theirs for a century, there is no evidence that it was ever cultivated or in any way occupied by them until just a few years ago when, in an effort to demonstrate ownership, they planted some trees. It is also worth pointing out, as aerial photos taken by the Israelis proved, there were no more than 300 recently planted trees there, not the thousands that the Palestinians and their Presbyterian friends claimed. The entire point of the tree planting was not agriculture but politics and an effort to goad the Israeli government into taking action that can be portrayed as oppression but which is actually upholding the rule of law.

This story proves that in order to libel Israel, these Presbyterian activists will do just about anything, including making vast exaggerations and distortions in order to whip up anger at the Jewish state. But what else can we expect from a church that produced a book like Zionism Unsettled which seeks to portray all of Israel and not just the West Bank settlements as a crime against humanity. In seeking to brand all Israel supporters as co-conspirators in the plot against the Palestinians, the pro-BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) crowd is burning even its bridges with left-wing Israelis and American Jews like J Street. Even the left-wing lobby understands that what is at stake in this battle with church activists is not merely a symbolic resolution but an effort to delegitimize the Jewish people.

It bears repeating that most American Presbyterians have no interest in backing a campaign of hate against Israel and Jews. To the contrary, most mainline Protestants, including those affiliated with PCUSA churches or who serve as their pastors, are not comfortable with the fact that a small group of radical activists have hijacked their church. But given the nature of the incitement produced by official church groups, PCUSA congregants can no longer claim ignorance or indifference about what is being done in their name. If their representatives vote to join those waging war on Israel later this month, the church will have ended any hope of future relations with either Jews or Christians of conscience.

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The Memory and Purpose of Heroism

The commemorations of the D-Day anniversary this morning at Normandy may well be one of the last such great events to be held in the presence of living veterans of World War Two. As with all such attempts to summon up the memory of such pivotal moments of history, once the generation that lived through these events passes and indeed, once their children who were raised on the tales of sacrifice and heroism of that conflict are no longer around, one wonders what our posterity will have left of this seminal moment in American and world history.

Part of this answer comes from those efforts to create institutions to keep these memories alive. Fortunately, after generations in which the achievements of American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines were, for the most part, only celebrated in film, there are now more places devoted to honoring that generation of Americans who took up arms in defense of civilization. To add to existing museums that honored American efforts in the war such as the Smithsonian and the excellent National World War II Museum in New Orleans, New York can now boast of another that was just dedicated in Old Bethpage, the Museum of American Armor that will tell more about the efforts of those who broke the strength of the Axis in the summer of 1944. The focus of this new and innovative way to teach about the past is not so much on the vehicles and weapons of the war but on the men who used them. That is entirely appropriate.

But the point about these commemorations is not merely to cherish those veterans who survive as well as those who have already passed from us. Nor is it solely an excuse to celebrate the free Europe that was created as a result of the blood shed on the shores of France 70 years ago today. Though we can well take satisfaction in the fact that a democratically elected leader of Germany now joins with the descendants of the victorious Allies to honor those who stormed the beaches on D-Day, the point of today’s commemorations should not be to just honor the veterans or pat ourselves on the back for the world they made possible. Instead, we must, above all, remember why those Americans were willing to face German guns at Omaha and Utah Beaches and in the Normandy countryside that fateful day.

No better explanation of the values that created this heroism has ever been written or spoken than in the speech President Ronald Reagan gave thirty years ago today, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. Reagan told the world why D-Day still mattered. It means just as much, if not more today as we contemplate efforts by Russia to swallow up its neighbors and the troubling revival of anti-Semitism in the Europe that we hoped would never revert to past barbarism. Here is the video of his remarks delivered on the Pointe du Hoc on June 6, 1984, courtesy of The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The text of this speech, which remains one of the great presidential addresses in our history, follows:

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The commemorations of the D-Day anniversary this morning at Normandy may well be one of the last such great events to be held in the presence of living veterans of World War Two. As with all such attempts to summon up the memory of such pivotal moments of history, once the generation that lived through these events passes and indeed, once their children who were raised on the tales of sacrifice and heroism of that conflict are no longer around, one wonders what our posterity will have left of this seminal moment in American and world history.

Part of this answer comes from those efforts to create institutions to keep these memories alive. Fortunately, after generations in which the achievements of American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines were, for the most part, only celebrated in film, there are now more places devoted to honoring that generation of Americans who took up arms in defense of civilization. To add to existing museums that honored American efforts in the war such as the Smithsonian and the excellent National World War II Museum in New Orleans, New York can now boast of another that was just dedicated in Old Bethpage, the Museum of American Armor that will tell more about the efforts of those who broke the strength of the Axis in the summer of 1944. The focus of this new and innovative way to teach about the past is not so much on the vehicles and weapons of the war but on the men who used them. That is entirely appropriate.

But the point about these commemorations is not merely to cherish those veterans who survive as well as those who have already passed from us. Nor is it solely an excuse to celebrate the free Europe that was created as a result of the blood shed on the shores of France 70 years ago today. Though we can well take satisfaction in the fact that a democratically elected leader of Germany now joins with the descendants of the victorious Allies to honor those who stormed the beaches on D-Day, the point of today’s commemorations should not be to just honor the veterans or pat ourselves on the back for the world they made possible. Instead, we must, above all, remember why those Americans were willing to face German guns at Omaha and Utah Beaches and in the Normandy countryside that fateful day.

No better explanation of the values that created this heroism has ever been written or spoken than in the speech President Ronald Reagan gave thirty years ago today, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. Reagan told the world why D-Day still mattered. It means just as much, if not more today as we contemplate efforts by Russia to swallow up its neighbors and the troubling revival of anti-Semitism in the Europe that we hoped would never revert to past barbarism. Here is the video of his remarks delivered on the Pointe du Hoc on June 6, 1984, courtesy of The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The text of this speech, which remains one of the great presidential addresses in our history, follows:

We’re here to mark that day in history when the Allied armies joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty. For four long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved and the world prayed for its rescue. Here, in Normandy, the rescue began. Here, the Allies stood and fought against tyranny, in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.

We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but forty years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon. At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June, 1944, two hundred and twenty-five Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs.

Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here, and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.

The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers at the edge of the cliffs, shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After two days of fighting, only ninety could still bear arms.

And behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. And these are the heroes who helped end a war. Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem. You are men who in your “lives fought for life and left the vivid air signed with your honor.”

I think I know what you may be thinking right now — thinking “we were just part of a bigger effort; everyone was brave that day.” Well everyone was. Do you remember the story of Bill Millin of the 51st Highlanders? Forty years ago today, British troops were pinned down near a bridge, waiting desperately for help. Suddenly, they heard the sound of bagpipes, and some thought they were dreaming. Well, they weren’t. They looked up and saw Bill Millin with his bagpipes, leading the reinforcements and ignoring the smack of the bullets into the ground around him.

Lord Lovat was with him — Lord Lovat of Scotland, who calmly announced when he got to the bridge, “Sorry, I’m a few minutes late,” as if he’d been delayed by a traffic jam, when in truth he’d just come from the bloody fighting on Sword Beach, which he and his men had just taken.

 There was the impossible valor of the Poles, who threw themselves between the enemy and the rest of Europe as the invasion took hold; and the unsurpassed courage of the Canadians who had already seen the horrors of war on this coast. They knew what awaited them there, but they would not be deterred. And once they hit Juno Beach, they never looked back.

All of these men were part of a roll call of honor with names that spoke of a pride as bright as the colors they bore; The Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Poland’s 24th Lancers, the Royal Scots’ Fusiliers, the Screaming Eagles, the Yeomen of England’s armored divisions, the forces of Free France, the Coast Guard’s “Matchbox Fleet,” and you, the American Rangers.

Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief. It was loyalty and love.

The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead, or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.

You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.

The Americans who fought here that morning knew word of the invasion was spreading through the darkness back home. They fought — or felt in their hearts, though they couldn’t know in fact, that in Georgia they were filling the churches at 4:00 am. In Kansas they were kneeling on their porches and praying. And in Philadelphia they were ringing the Liberty Bell.

Something else helped the men of D-day; their rock-hard belief that Providence would have a great hand in the events that would unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause. And so, the night before the invasion, when Colonel Wolverton asked his parachute troops to kneel with him in prayer, he told them: “Do not bow your heads, but look up so you can see God and ask His blessing in what we’re about to do.” Also, that night, General Matthew Ridgway on his cot, listening in the darkness for the promise God made to Joshua: “I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.”

These are the things that impelled them; these are the things that shaped the unity of the Allies.

When the war was over, there were lives to be rebuilt and governments to be returned to the people. There were nations to be reborn. Above all, there was a new peace to be assured. These were huge and daunting tasks. But the Allies summoned strength from the faith, belief, loyalty, and love of those who fell here. They rebuilt a new Europe together. There was first a great reconciliation among those who had been enemies, all of whom had suffered so greatly. The United States did its part, creating the Marshall Plan to help rebuild our allies and our former enemies. The Marshall Plan led to the Atlantic alliance — a great alliance that serves to this day as our shield for freedom, for prosperity, and for peace.

In spite of our great efforts and successes, not all that followed the end of the war was happy or planned. Some liberated countries were lost. The great sadness of this loss echoes down to our own time in the streets of Warsaw, Prague, and East Berlin. The Soviet troops that came to the center of this continent did not leave when peace came. They’re still there, uninvited, unwanted, unyielding, almost forty years after the war. Because of this, allied forces still stand on this continent. Today, as forty years ago, our armies are here for only one purpose: to protect and defend democracy. The only territories we hold are memorials like this one and graveyards where our heroes rest.

We in America have learned bitter lessons from two world wars. It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent. But we try always to be prepared for peace, prepared to deter aggression, prepared to negotiate the reduction of arms, and yes, prepared to reach out again in the spirit of reconciliation. In truth, there is no reconciliation we would welcome more than a reconciliation with the Soviet Union, so, together, we can lessen the risks of war, now and forever.

It’s fitting to remember here the great losses also suffered by the Russian people during World War II. Twenty million perished, a terrible price that testifies to all the world the necessity of ending war. I tell you from my heart that we in the United States do not want war. We want to wipe from the face of the earth the terrible weapons that man now has in his hands. And I tell you, we are ready to seize that beachhead. We look for some sign from the Soviet Union that they are willing to move forward, that they share our desire and love for peace, and that they will give up the ways of conquest. There must be a changing there that will allow us to turn our hope into action.

We will pray forever that someday that changing will come. But for now, particularly today, it is good and fitting to renew our commitment to each other, to our freedom, and to the alliance that protects it.

We’re bound today by what bound us 40 years ago, the same loyalties, traditions, and beliefs. We’re bound by reality. The strength of America’s allies is vital to the United States, and the American security guarantee is essential to the continued freedom of Europe’s democracies. We were with you then; we’re with you now. Your hopes are our hopes, and your destiny is our destiny.

Here, in this place where the West held together, let us make a vow to our dead. Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for. Let our actions say to them the words for which Matthew Ridgway listened: “I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.”

Strengthened by their courage and heartened by their value [valor] and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.

Thank you very much, and God bless you all.

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Thinking Through the Morality of the Bergdahl Deal

I oppose the deal the Obama administration struck to secure the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. People whom I admire have a different reaction, so I thought it might be useful to think through this matter, which can be analyzed on several levels. Let me deal with them in turn, starting with how we should view prisoner swaps in general.

We can begin with two givens: (a) every civilized nation should make heroic efforts to free its POWs; and (b) there are limits to the price a nation can pay. We are all drawn to the notion that “we don’t leave anybody behind.” What that means in reality is that we should make tremendous, good faith efforts to free captive soldiers. Anything more than that–to turn a humane impulse into an inviolable principle; to say there is nothing we will not do to win the release of a POW–would leave us at the mercy of the most malevolent among us.

In exchange for a captured soldier tyrants and terrorists could make entirely unreasonable demands of us–Kim Jong-un might insist we turn over to him nuclear technology and nuclear weapons in return for a prisoner of war–and we’d have no moral obligation to accede to them. In fact, we’d have a moral obligation to turn them down. What counts as reasonable and unreasonable depends on circumstance: what we do in a particular situation can’t be answered by some abstract principle; it’s a prudential judgment. 

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I oppose the deal the Obama administration struck to secure the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. People whom I admire have a different reaction, so I thought it might be useful to think through this matter, which can be analyzed on several levels. Let me deal with them in turn, starting with how we should view prisoner swaps in general.

We can begin with two givens: (a) every civilized nation should make heroic efforts to free its POWs; and (b) there are limits to the price a nation can pay. We are all drawn to the notion that “we don’t leave anybody behind.” What that means in reality is that we should make tremendous, good faith efforts to free captive soldiers. Anything more than that–to turn a humane impulse into an inviolable principle; to say there is nothing we will not do to win the release of a POW–would leave us at the mercy of the most malevolent among us.

In exchange for a captured soldier tyrants and terrorists could make entirely unreasonable demands of us–Kim Jong-un might insist we turn over to him nuclear technology and nuclear weapons in return for a prisoner of war–and we’d have no moral obligation to accede to them. In fact, we’d have a moral obligation to turn them down. What counts as reasonable and unreasonable depends on circumstance: what we do in a particular situation can’t be answered by some abstract principle; it’s a prudential judgment. 

In that context it’s worth noting that six former members of Sgt. Bergdahl’s platoon were interviewed by Fox’s Megyn Kelly, and to a person they opposed the Bergdahl deal. And it’s not simply based on how Bergdahl conducted himself. They made it clear they wouldn’t want or expect a similar deal for their return if they had been captured. In addition, according to this story in Time, the president’s actions overrode officials in the Pentagon and intelligence communities who had successfully fought off release of the five Taliban members in the past. So when the president says, as he did yesterday, that his actions simply reaffirm the “basic principle that we don’t leave anybody behind,” it may be that this principle isn’t as basic or self-evident as he thinks. What the president did to secure the release of Sgt. Bergdahl has rankled a lot of people in uniform, who presumably have some understanding of what their country owes those who are captured.

As a general matter, then, I believe that releasing experienced jihadist commanders in exchange for an American soldier is too high a price to pay, even as I understand why others would disagree with me.

This case, of course, is complicated–at least for some of us–by the fact that based on the publicly available evidence, including reported interviews with those who served with him, Sgt. Bergdahl seems to have been a deserter. If that’s the case, the moral question moves from swapping high-value, high-risk terrorists for a soldier to swapping high-value, high-risk terrorists for a soldier who betrayed his country. They are rather different things.

Citizenship isn’t simply what our nation owes us; it’s also what we owe our nation. There is reciprocity involved. The dictionary definition of citizenship is “the condition or status of a citizen, with its rights and duties.” [Emphasis added.] When an individual breaks faith with his country–when there are grave violations of duty–how his country views him and treats him ought to change. Mass murderers are citizens, too, but we rightly treat them differently than we do those who abide by the law. Under some circumstances we deny rights, including in some instances the right to life, to American citizens.

What makes this deal even more troubling for some of us is that several genuine American heroes may have died in order to free an individual who deserted them. If that’s the case, and more investigation has to occur before we know for sure, that has to be factored in as well. Mr. Obama spent a lot of time talking in moving terms about Sgt. Bergdahl’s parents. Perhaps someday he’ll find it within his heart to talk in equally moving terms about the parents and spouses and children of those who bore such a high cost trying to free Sgt. Bergdahl. The parents of a deserter have had the honor of standing next to the president in the Rose Garden. Will the parents of the heroes who tried to free him be accorded the same honor?

Let me now offer up a thought experiment. Assume for the sake of the argument that the five released terrorists return to the battlefield and as a result 50, or 500, or 5,000, or 50,000 Americans die as a result. Would those who favor this deal continue to defend it? If not, how many dead Americans tip the scales from supporting to opposing it?

My point is that this kind of decision often involves an element of ethical consequentialism. It’s not self-evident to me that if the result of winning the release of a man who deserted is the destruction of a large American city, securing that release is morally justifiable. To be clear: I’m not saying that the release of Sgt. Bergdahl will result in such an event; I’m simply saying that most of us would properly take into account what the consequences are. Yet some of those who defend the deal insist that what follows from it need not be taken into account.

Our nation has a special responsibility to those who put on the uniform, but they also a have special responsibility to our nation. They agree to uphold a code of conduct. By the accounts of those who served with him, Sgt. Bergdahl failed in his responsibilities. Which is why some of the strongest reaction against this deal comes from those in the military who have actually served our nation with honor and distinction; who felt summoned by a country whose voice (to paraphrase George Washington) they could never hear but with veneration and love. 

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“Lebanonization” and Other Bogus Defenses of Obama’s Hamas Policy

The Obama administration’s strategy to deflect criticism of its support for Hamas’s role in the emerging Palestinian government is becoming clear. American officials will accuse Israel of hypocrisy, and rely on the media to parrot the accusation. There are two elements to the charge, and neither–as would be expected from an Obama-Kerry brainstorm–have merit. But they are revealing nonetheless.

Today’s New York Times story on the matter includes both charges. The first: “The Israeli government, [Kerry] noted, was continuing to send the Palestinian Authority tax remittances.” The implication is that Israel is in no place to protest American funding of a government including Hamas since they are doing so themselves. Yet to suggest that tax remittances are the same, or should be considered the same, as foreign aid is absurd on its face–and, frankly, rather embarrassing for Kerry who may not understand basic economics himself but can afford to hire someone who does.

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The Obama administration’s strategy to deflect criticism of its support for Hamas’s role in the emerging Palestinian government is becoming clear. American officials will accuse Israel of hypocrisy, and rely on the media to parrot the accusation. There are two elements to the charge, and neither–as would be expected from an Obama-Kerry brainstorm–have merit. But they are revealing nonetheless.

Today’s New York Times story on the matter includes both charges. The first: “The Israeli government, [Kerry] noted, was continuing to send the Palestinian Authority tax remittances.” The implication is that Israel is in no place to protest American funding of a government including Hamas since they are doing so themselves. Yet to suggest that tax remittances are the same, or should be considered the same, as foreign aid is absurd on its face–and, frankly, rather embarrassing for Kerry who may not understand basic economics himself but can afford to hire someone who does.

Additionally, the United States and Israel often have different approaches to the Palestinians because of the different roles the two play. Generally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has opposed ending American aid to the Palestinian Authority, and has gone to bat for Obama by lobbying Congress to back off such proposals. The reason is the Palestinians have two primary choices for leadership: Fatah and Hamas. Until now Hamas has been excluded from the broader government, which means any money that flows to Mahmoud Abbas may have been misused in any number of ways, but it at least propped up the far superior alternative to Hamas.

Had Fatah been abandoned by the West, Hamas would have taken over the West Bank too. It can be argued that this process incentivizes Abbas’s misbehavior because it signals to him that he can get away with virtually anything. But actions have consequences, and the consequences of setting Abbas adrift would be disastrous.

The whole point of propping up Abbas was to fund the PA instead of Hamas, in an effort to weaken the latter. Funding a Palestinian government that includes Hamas is, strategically, the opposite of what the United States has been doing. It is not hypocritical of Israel to point this out. Indeed, it should not need pointing out. But if the geniuses running the White House and State Department insist on behaving as though they were born yesterday, they can expect the leaders of the nations that will bear the brunt of the consequences to treat them as such.

The other accusation of hypocrisy concerns the so-called “Lebanonization” of the Palestinian Authority. Here’s the Times:

Nothing illustrated the complexity of the situation for the United States better than Mr. Kerry’s backdrop: He was in Lebanon to underscore American support for the Lebanese government — which includes the Islamic militant group, Hezbollah.

This argument has gained some traction recently, but its popularity is truly puzzling. The implication here is that the United States supports the Lebanese government even though the terrorist group Hezbollah is an influential part of that government. Therefore, how can Israel oppose American support for a similar government in the Palestinian territories when it does not push back against American support for Lebanon?

Can anyone at the State Department guess the difference between the Palestinians and Lebanon? Show of hands? If you said, “The Israeli government is not involved in land-for-peace negotiations, including the possibility of ceding control of holy places and uprooting Israelis from ancient Jewish land, with the Lebanese,” then you get a gold star.

As the Times story notes, this is really a preliminary confrontation. There will supposedly be elections within the next six months or so, and Hamas will want to participate. Wouldn’t that be dangerous? Sure, but here’s an American official putting everyone at ease:

“Can a group that has a political party and a militia of 20,000 troops run in an election?” a senior administration official said. “These are issues that are going to have be dealt with down the road.”

We’ll find out together! It’ll be exciting. Of course, we already know the answer, since Hamas has already participated in elections in what was widely viewed as a mistake back in 2006. And Hamas currently governs its own province of the territories, the Gaza Strip. The Americans have already seen this movie, but they still can’t wait to see how it ends.

That, of course, could be the one silver lining. If Hamas enters the government and Israel refuses to negotiate with them, it’ll put the onus back where it belongs: on the Palestinian leadership to prove it can build a state that would coexist side by side with a Jewish state. It’ll be John Kerry’s chance to prove the Israelis wrong, though I don’t think they’ll be holding their breath.

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The Jobs Report

The economy added 217,000 jobs in May while the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 6.3 percent. The jobs number is a bit above the monthly average over the last six months, enough growth to keep the economic situation from getting worse but not enough to produce what anyone would call boom times.

The number of people employed in the United States reached 138.5 million, a new record, finally surpassing the previous record set in January 2008 before the financial crisis. But the population since then has increased by five percent. So the labor participation rate, at 62.8 percent (unchanged from last month) is well below the rate in January 2008, when it was 66.2 percent.

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The economy added 217,000 jobs in May while the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 6.3 percent. The jobs number is a bit above the monthly average over the last six months, enough growth to keep the economic situation from getting worse but not enough to produce what anyone would call boom times.

The number of people employed in the United States reached 138.5 million, a new record, finally surpassing the previous record set in January 2008 before the financial crisis. But the population since then has increased by five percent. So the labor participation rate, at 62.8 percent (unchanged from last month) is well below the rate in January 2008, when it was 66.2 percent.

There are still 7.3 million workers working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment or have had their hours cut back. There are 697,000 “discouraged” workers, little changed from a year ago. Overall teenage unemployment remains a dismal 19.2 percent while for black teenagers it’s an appalling 31.1 percent. That’s down from 36.8 percent last month, but this number tends to be volatile.

All in all this is about an average jobs report for the Obama era. Nothing to write home about but not calamitous either.

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Is the International Consensus on Jerusalem Fracturing?

Today much of Israel’s capital Jerusalem is regarded by the international community as “illegally occupied territory.” In fact ever since the Jewish state’s establishment some sixty-six years ago no country has fully recognized Israel’s claim to Jerusalem; not one has an embassy in the city. Yet the consensus against the Israeli presence in north, south, and east Jerusalem has become more robust in recent decades. Prior to the onset of the Oslo peace process, not only was the position of the United States far from clear on this matter, but even far-left Israeli groups such as Peace Now were adamantly insisting that Jerusalem would remain the rightfully undivided capital of the Jewish state. After some two decades of negotiations it might be said that Israel’s legitimacy in general, and its claim to its capital in particular, have both been greatly weakened.

Yet now it would appear that there has been a radical and bold break with the international consensus: Australia has announced that it will no longer refer to East Jerusalem as “occupied territory.” Tony Abbott’s government has put out an uncompromising statement of intent, informing the world that, “The description of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied’ East Jerusalem is a term freighted with pejorative implications which is neither appropriate nor useful. It should not and will not be the practice of the Australian government to describe areas of negotiation in such judgmental language.” This announcement is made all the more significant on account of the fact that back in January Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop publicly disputed the notion that Israel’s settlements should be considered illegal either.

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Today much of Israel’s capital Jerusalem is regarded by the international community as “illegally occupied territory.” In fact ever since the Jewish state’s establishment some sixty-six years ago no country has fully recognized Israel’s claim to Jerusalem; not one has an embassy in the city. Yet the consensus against the Israeli presence in north, south, and east Jerusalem has become more robust in recent decades. Prior to the onset of the Oslo peace process, not only was the position of the United States far from clear on this matter, but even far-left Israeli groups such as Peace Now were adamantly insisting that Jerusalem would remain the rightfully undivided capital of the Jewish state. After some two decades of negotiations it might be said that Israel’s legitimacy in general, and its claim to its capital in particular, have both been greatly weakened.

Yet now it would appear that there has been a radical and bold break with the international consensus: Australia has announced that it will no longer refer to East Jerusalem as “occupied territory.” Tony Abbott’s government has put out an uncompromising statement of intent, informing the world that, “The description of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied’ East Jerusalem is a term freighted with pejorative implications which is neither appropriate nor useful. It should not and will not be the practice of the Australian government to describe areas of negotiation in such judgmental language.” This announcement is made all the more significant on account of the fact that back in January Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop publicly disputed the notion that Israel’s settlements should be considered illegal either.

The move by the Australians couldn’t have come at a more sensitive time. Just as Canberra is breaking ranks with the international consensus that opposes the Israeli presence in eastern Jerusalem, that consensus is itself hardening. In recent days both the United States and the European Union have mounted vocal protest against Israeli plans to build new homes in existing Jewish neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem. This is an astounding response that exposes the full extent of the hostility toward the Jewish state that emanates from both the EU and the Obama administration. For while the newly formed Hamas-backed Palestinian government has received endorsement from both the White House and the Europeans, building homes for Jews in the ancient Jewish holy city of Jerusalem has provoked a degree of condemnation out of all proportion with reality.

The State Department has said that it is “deeply disappointed” by these moves and the U.S. ambassador to Israel has also expressed words of protest, but typically the Europeans have gone much further still. A statement from the EU demanded that Israel reverse this decision and even alluded to the threat of sanctions in retaliation for this “settlement activity.” In response the Israeli government claimed to be “mystified” that “there are those in the international community who claim that construction in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, and in other places that the Palestinians know will remain under Israeli sovereignty in any future arrangement is a step that we must reverse.”

The double standards displayed by diplomats who can at once welcome a move that brings an internationally recognized terrorist organization into coalition with the Palestinian Authority, while at the same time condemning the building of homes for Jews in Jerusalem, may be disgraceful, but sadly it is anything but mystifying. For years now–ever since the Camp David talks of 2000–Israel has been expressing a willingness to give up large parts of its capital, including some of Judaism’s most historic and holy sites, despite the fact that Israeli law fully considers all of Jerusalem sovereign Israeli territory.

If Israelis have not been willing to vocally and uncompromisingly assert their rights to their own undivided capital before the court of world opinion, then it is hardly surprising if those who don’t have much love for the Jewish state have taken this as a cue to further delegitimize Jewish rights in Jerusalem. Both the Europeans and the Obama administration insist that they are friends of Israel, but if Israelis want to know what real friends look like then they can look to Stephen Harper’s government in Canada and now to Tony Abbott’s in Australia. The decision to no longer refer to East Jerusalem as “occupied territory” is a bold and brave move that displays a degree of moral clarity that one could barely imagine coming from Obama’s State Department and certainly not from London’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Ideally, the move by the Australians will be repeated by other governments, but if nothing else it calls into question the attitude in Europe that holds the illegality of the Israeli presence in north, south, and east Jerusalem to be an open and shut case.

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