Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 10, 2014

What Cantor’s Defeat Means

The staggering Republican primary defeat tonight of Eric Cantor, the second highest-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives and the third most-powerful Republican in Washington, is a reminder of just how volatile American politics has become. And how responsive.

Eric Cantor wasn’t supposed to lose. His own pollster had him up by, get this, 34 points the other week. He’d raised nearly $5 million, and in the past two weeks spent $1 million against his rival’s $79,000. Not enough.

There’s a lot of triumphalist talk tonight about sending a message to Washington and the establishment vs. the outsiders and all that. Most of it is nonsense. Eric Cantor was “Establishment” by definition because he was in the House Republican leadership. But he was a constant source of agita to House Speaker John Boehner because he insisted on representing the party’s more rightward elements during negotiations with President Obama. He is the Republican Obama detests the most because he was so stalwart against the president.

So is this a case of the Republican Right eating one of its own to prove a point? Perhaps. Or it could just be he was hit by a perfect storm of anti-Washington sentiment and his own advocacy for an immigration bill that made him a whipping boy for ratings-hungry radio chatters. He lost touch with the voters in his own district and was done in.

The classic recent chattering-class talking point is that democracy no longer functions because it’s been stolen by rich people. But consider this. From 1954 through 1994, the House of Representatives was under the control of the Democratic Party uninterruptedly. Then Republicans held it, by increasingly thin margins, for 12 years until the Democrats took it back in 2006. Republicans seized control yet again in a 2010 landslide. The Senate has see-sawed back and forth—controlled by Republicans for the first few months of 2001, then by Democrats until 2002, then by Republicans until 2006, then again by Democrats. Both in 2010 and 2012 Republicans had a significant shot of taking back control but were stymied by several bad in-state candidacies.

Interesting things can happen in politics. Very interesting things. Right now the only sure thing, supposedly, is that Hillary Clinton will sail through the Democratic primaries unopposed. The would-be candidate we all saw last night embarrassing herself in an interview with Diane Sawyer should not be considered an inevitability. Eric Cantor’s reelection was an inevitability too.

 

The staggering Republican primary defeat tonight of Eric Cantor, the second highest-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives and the third most-powerful Republican in Washington, is a reminder of just how volatile American politics has become. And how responsive.

Eric Cantor wasn’t supposed to lose. His own pollster had him up by, get this, 34 points the other week. He’d raised nearly $5 million, and in the past two weeks spent $1 million against his rival’s $79,000. Not enough.

There’s a lot of triumphalist talk tonight about sending a message to Washington and the establishment vs. the outsiders and all that. Most of it is nonsense. Eric Cantor was “Establishment” by definition because he was in the House Republican leadership. But he was a constant source of agita to House Speaker John Boehner because he insisted on representing the party’s more rightward elements during negotiations with President Obama. He is the Republican Obama detests the most because he was so stalwart against the president.

So is this a case of the Republican Right eating one of its own to prove a point? Perhaps. Or it could just be he was hit by a perfect storm of anti-Washington sentiment and his own advocacy for an immigration bill that made him a whipping boy for ratings-hungry radio chatters. He lost touch with the voters in his own district and was done in.

The classic recent chattering-class talking point is that democracy no longer functions because it’s been stolen by rich people. But consider this. From 1954 through 1994, the House of Representatives was under the control of the Democratic Party uninterruptedly. Then Republicans held it, by increasingly thin margins, for 12 years until the Democrats took it back in 2006. Republicans seized control yet again in a 2010 landslide. The Senate has see-sawed back and forth—controlled by Republicans for the first few months of 2001, then by Democrats until 2002, then by Republicans until 2006, then again by Democrats. Both in 2010 and 2012 Republicans had a significant shot of taking back control but were stymied by several bad in-state candidacies.

Interesting things can happen in politics. Very interesting things. Right now the only sure thing, supposedly, is that Hillary Clinton will sail through the Democratic primaries unopposed. The would-be candidate we all saw last night embarrassing herself in an interview with Diane Sawyer should not be considered an inevitability. Eric Cantor’s reelection was an inevitability too.

 

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Does Obama Care About Hamas Terror?

The Fatah-Hamas unity pact destroyed Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace talks and undermined the notion that the Palestinian Authority was a genuine partner for peace with Israel. But the standard argument heard from those who believe the United States must continue to support and subsidize the PA is that it is Fatah that is calling the shots in Ramallah and that a financially distressed Hamas is being absorbed by the supposedly more moderate Palestinian group. But that assumption, which had little basis to start with, was dealt a body blow this week when Hamas called on its operatives in the West Bank to redouble their efforts to target Israeli soldiers and civilians.

The supposed rationale for this statement, in which Hamas’s leading spokesman literally called for the spilling of Jewish blood, were complaints about the continued hunger strike being undertaken by terrorist prisoners in Israeli prisons. The ill feelings between Fatah and Hamas are also playing a role in increasing militancy since the Islamist group feels its army of no-show and no-work municipal employees are not being paid the salaries that Fatah promised them. But the bottom line here is that in contrast to the assurances that supporters of the peace process have made on their behalf, Hamas remains utterly opposed to peace and still dedicated to its charter that calls for Israel’s destruction and the slaughter of its population.

But with Hamas now openly demonstrating that far from being assimilated into the peace process, it is more dedicated than ever to perpetuating the conflict, the question arises as to why the U.S. is persisting in pretending otherwise.

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The Fatah-Hamas unity pact destroyed Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace talks and undermined the notion that the Palestinian Authority was a genuine partner for peace with Israel. But the standard argument heard from those who believe the United States must continue to support and subsidize the PA is that it is Fatah that is calling the shots in Ramallah and that a financially distressed Hamas is being absorbed by the supposedly more moderate Palestinian group. But that assumption, which had little basis to start with, was dealt a body blow this week when Hamas called on its operatives in the West Bank to redouble their efforts to target Israeli soldiers and civilians.

The supposed rationale for this statement, in which Hamas’s leading spokesman literally called for the spilling of Jewish blood, were complaints about the continued hunger strike being undertaken by terrorist prisoners in Israeli prisons. The ill feelings between Fatah and Hamas are also playing a role in increasing militancy since the Islamist group feels its army of no-show and no-work municipal employees are not being paid the salaries that Fatah promised them. But the bottom line here is that in contrast to the assurances that supporters of the peace process have made on their behalf, Hamas remains utterly opposed to peace and still dedicated to its charter that calls for Israel’s destruction and the slaughter of its population.

But with Hamas now openly demonstrating that far from being assimilated into the peace process, it is more dedicated than ever to perpetuating the conflict, the question arises as to why the U.S. is persisting in pretending otherwise.

The State Department announcement last week that it would continue sending aid to the PA in the wake of the Hamas pact flatly contradicted the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006. That law stated specifically that taxpayer dollars could not continue to flow to the PA if Hamas was part of the Palestinian government until that Islamist terror group and the PA ceased terrorism and incitement. The only way to continue the aid is for the president to transmit to Congress a waiver saying the conditions of the law are being met. While the State Department claimed that the absence of any Hamas members in the new PA cabinet allows it to say that the group isn’t part of the government, the fact remains that the terror group is a full partner in this new government and no one in Ramallah or Gaza is pretending otherwise.

Were President Obama serious about promoting Palestinian democracy and peace, he would be using the signs of a spat between the two new partners to pressure PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to reject Hamas and to insist that any member of his government embrace peace. But instead of exploiting the rift that gives the U.S. another opportunity to rid the PA of open terrorists, the administration is remaining silent.

As I noted last week, the decision to keep funding a PA that included Hamas was a retreat from decades of U.S. anti-terrorism policy as well as a betrayal of the alliance with Israel. But a refusal to acknowledge what Hamas is openly saying about terror is more than a misguided policy; it gives the lie to the U.S. insistence that its goal is peace via a two-state solution. Even prior to the unity pact, the Fatah-dominated PA had shown no interest in recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn. But with this latest terror threat, it is clear that Hamas has not altered its platform or its practices. So long as Hamas is part of the PA the chances of peace with Israel are exactly zero. While they are not much higher without Hamas, it is at least theoretically possible that the PA might change its tune.

The Hamas threat makes it all the more imperative that Congress act quickly to freeze up Palestinian aid. The money that the U.S. and Europe gives the Palestinians is the only leverage the West has to promote peace. If this administration is not willing to use it, it must be understood that any sort of peace process is simply impossible. While defenders of the unity pact and the PA have asserted that making the Palestinians face consequences for their behavior is unhelpful, the opposite is true. If Obama isn’t prepared to pressure the Palestinians to reject Hamas and embrace peace, his own bona fides as a Middle East peacemaker are very much in question.

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The Problem with American Jewry

When it comes to either American politics or Israel, I find myself in constant disagreement with Peter Beinart. I find his approach to foreign policy absurd (his piece published yesterday in The Atlantic lamely criticizing Hillary Clinton’s apology for supporting the war in Iraq failed to mention his own muscular, if temporary backing for the same conflict) and his writings advocating that Americans save Israel from itself are utterly clueless about the reality of Palestinian rejectionism as well as the needs of the Jewish state. But when it comes to the question of Jewish education, his position is as well informed as it is correct. Indeed, his most recent piece in Haaretz in which he lamented the sorry state of American Jewry, especially when compared to the Australian Jewish community, is right on target.

Most of the organized Jewish community has reacted to the dismal statistics about assimilation and intermarriage to be found in the Pew Study A Portrait of Jewish Americans, which I discussed in the November issue of COMMENTARY, with complacence if not indifference. The fact that non-Orthodox Jewry in this country is rapidly intermarrying itself into communal oblivion is regarded by some of the leading figures of American Jewish life as inevitable and not worth complaining about. I wrote about the efforts of a group of Jewish academics, writers, and community activists led by the trio of Steven Cohen, Steven Bayme, and Jack Wertheimer, to come up with a response to this crisis that can help turn the tide or at least change the conversation about the situation in the April issue of COMMENTARY. But sadly, it has not gotten the support it deserves. At a recent meeting of the group, it was addressed by well-meaning officials from leading Jewish federations who bragged of their great programs but displayed little interest in sounding the alarm about a problem which is effectively dooming their donor base.

But in contrast to much of the American Jewish world, Beinart gets it and is quite correct when he writes today that the lack of funding for Jewish education in this country is abysmal.

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When it comes to either American politics or Israel, I find myself in constant disagreement with Peter Beinart. I find his approach to foreign policy absurd (his piece published yesterday in The Atlantic lamely criticizing Hillary Clinton’s apology for supporting the war in Iraq failed to mention his own muscular, if temporary backing for the same conflict) and his writings advocating that Americans save Israel from itself are utterly clueless about the reality of Palestinian rejectionism as well as the needs of the Jewish state. But when it comes to the question of Jewish education, his position is as well informed as it is correct. Indeed, his most recent piece in Haaretz in which he lamented the sorry state of American Jewry, especially when compared to the Australian Jewish community, is right on target.

Most of the organized Jewish community has reacted to the dismal statistics about assimilation and intermarriage to be found in the Pew Study A Portrait of Jewish Americans, which I discussed in the November issue of COMMENTARY, with complacence if not indifference. The fact that non-Orthodox Jewry in this country is rapidly intermarrying itself into communal oblivion is regarded by some of the leading figures of American Jewish life as inevitable and not worth complaining about. I wrote about the efforts of a group of Jewish academics, writers, and community activists led by the trio of Steven Cohen, Steven Bayme, and Jack Wertheimer, to come up with a response to this crisis that can help turn the tide or at least change the conversation about the situation in the April issue of COMMENTARY. But sadly, it has not gotten the support it deserves. At a recent meeting of the group, it was addressed by well-meaning officials from leading Jewish federations who bragged of their great programs but displayed little interest in sounding the alarm about a problem which is effectively dooming their donor base.

But in contrast to much of the American Jewish world, Beinart gets it and is quite correct when he writes today that the lack of funding for Jewish education in this country is abysmal.

Beinart writes principally about the contrast between the well-attended Jewish schools in Australia and the situation in the United States where middle-class parents are often forced to choose between day school tuition and paying their mortgages. Day schools remain the best form of Jewish education and a chance to at least provide kids with an informed choice about their decisions about embracing Jewish life. They are not a magic bullet against assimilation and intermarriage. Given the ingrained secularism of the majority of American Jews, many, if not most wouldn’t send their kids to a day school if it were free. But along with improved synagogue schools, Jewish camps, and trips to Israel, they all provide a comprehensive alternative to a population that is Jewishly illiterate.

As Beinart points out, there is certainly enough Jewish wealth in America to fund all of these programs in a manner that could actually make a dent in the Pew statistics if not completely change the future of a community that is rapidly shrinking. But instead of funding schools adequately, American Jews have funded vanity projects like museums while not doing what’s necessary so that, “American Jewish six-year-olds [can] read Hebrew and know Torah so that a Jewish tradition that has survived thousands of years of exile and persecution isn’t destroyed by affluent, easy-going ignorance.”

Beinart is wrong to lump Israel advocacy—which often struggles for support in much the same manner as education—with the money lavished by American Jews on secular universities and museums as examples of misallocated funds. That is a function of his feud with AIPAC, which he despises for its loyalty to the principle of backing Israel’s democratically elected government.

But I find myself sympathizing with Beinart’s joke about being a “self-hating American Jew” when he regards the complacent manner with which most of the community has reacted to Pew. The struggle to change our priorities in order to preserve non-Orthodox Jewish life in this country is an uphill slog and it’s easy to be discouraged about the foolish manner in which the Reform and Conservative movements as well as many federations have opted out of the fight. But at least this is one battle that needn’t divide us along the familiar lines of left and right.

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A Turning Point in the Battle to Rescue Public Education?

The battle over public education was never quite the same after the New Yorker published a deep dive into New York’s “rubber rooms” in 2009. These were rooms in which hundreds of teachers accused of misconduct–which could mean physically abusing or molesting students–spent their days, instead of working, while still reaping their salaries and benefits. They couldn’t be let near kids. But they still couldn’t be fired. Here was a key paragraph early on:

The teachers have been in the Rubber Room for an average of about three years, doing the same thing every day—which is pretty much nothing at all. Watched over by two private security guards and two city Department of Education supervisors, they punch a time clock for the same hours that they would have kept at school—typically, eight-fifteen to three-fifteen. Like all teachers, they have the summer off. The city’s contract with their union, the United Federation of Teachers, requires that charges against them be heard by an arbitrator, and until the charges are resolved—the process is often endless—they will continue to draw their salaries and accrue pensions and other benefits.

There have been other milestones in education reform and specifically with regard to the unions, but if you want to know just why Republicans in blue states like Chris Christie and Scott Walker had success reining in the unions, the unjust and expensive unaccountability captured in situations like the “rubber rooms” generally sits atop the list. Reforms have tackled the pay and benefits structure, however. Now there may be another turning point, in a milestone court ruling out in California. The Wall Street Journal reports:

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The battle over public education was never quite the same after the New Yorker published a deep dive into New York’s “rubber rooms” in 2009. These were rooms in which hundreds of teachers accused of misconduct–which could mean physically abusing or molesting students–spent their days, instead of working, while still reaping their salaries and benefits. They couldn’t be let near kids. But they still couldn’t be fired. Here was a key paragraph early on:

The teachers have been in the Rubber Room for an average of about three years, doing the same thing every day—which is pretty much nothing at all. Watched over by two private security guards and two city Department of Education supervisors, they punch a time clock for the same hours that they would have kept at school—typically, eight-fifteen to three-fifteen. Like all teachers, they have the summer off. The city’s contract with their union, the United Federation of Teachers, requires that charges against them be heard by an arbitrator, and until the charges are resolved—the process is often endless—they will continue to draw their salaries and accrue pensions and other benefits.

There have been other milestones in education reform and specifically with regard to the unions, but if you want to know just why Republicans in blue states like Chris Christie and Scott Walker had success reining in the unions, the unjust and expensive unaccountability captured in situations like the “rubber rooms” generally sits atop the list. Reforms have tackled the pay and benefits structure, however. Now there may be another turning point, in a milestone court ruling out in California. The Wall Street Journal reports:

In a closely watched court case that challenged California’s strong teacher employment protections, a group of nine students have prevailed against the state and its two largest teachers’ unions.

A California Superior Court on Tuesday found that all the state laws challenged in the case were unconstitutional. The verdict that could fuel similar lawsuits in other states where legislative efforts have failed to ease rules for the dismissal of teachers considered ineffective.

The student plaintiffs in Vergara v. California argued that the statutes protecting teachers’ jobs serve more often to keep poor instructors in the schools—hurting students’ chances to succeed. The teachers’ unions said state laws didn’t preclude school districts from making their own hiring and firing decisions.

Among the laws challenged in the case was California’s “Last-In, First-Out” layoff statute, which requires layoffs based on seniority rather than classroom performance. Also challenged were complex dismissal statutes for ineffective teachers that plaintiffs described as costly, burdensome and involving “a borderline infinite number of steps.”

If the California case were unique, this would be a local victory. As the “rubber rooms” illustrate, it isn’t. In New Jersey, for instance, the process for firing a teacher is essentially rigged against the district, with time delays and the costs of attorney’s fees and the teacher’s salary on top of a replacement instructor for the duration of the process, with no guarantee the teacher can be fired at the end of it. As a result, even attempting to fire a teacher becomes an arduous, and usually avoided, course of action. In Wisconsin, union privileges meant teachers were indeed fired–good teachers, and young teachers, so that those with seniority could keep their generous benefits and job security.

New Jersey and Wisconsin are not alone either, but they illustrate why there was public support for getting union privileges under some control even in liberal states: the policies are so clearly rigged against the students. In California, the students bringing the court challenge argued–correctly–that the policies were exceedingly harmful to the students. The purpose of education is to benefit the students, and government schools were failing miserably.

I’ve written about this before: the students suffer because bad teachers can’t be fired and budget cuts can’t touch what’s been granted the unions in their collective bargaining agreements, so the students lose out on books, educational technology, tutoring, library facilities, after-school activities, and anything else the unions can pick clean off the carcass of public education.

The problem was that the process by which those contracts were won was in essence corrupt. Politicians seeking union backing (usually liberal Democrats) promise taxpayer money for it, some of which is then spent on getting such politicians reelected. It’s a cycle that leaves the taxpayers–you know, those footing the bill–and the students without an advocate.

Yet the system is not so easy to reform. After all, contracts are contracts. And the same politicians in thrall to the unions obviously cannot be relied on to legislate some relief. The California case may provide a way out of this conundrum: the courts. As the Journal notes:

Research has pointed to teacher quality as the biggest in-school determinant for student performance. In recent years, many states have moved to simplify dismissal procedures for ineffective teachers and to encourage districts to consider teacher performance in layoff decisions rather than relying solely on seniority.

Efforts in California failed in the legislature, so students and their advocates took the case to court—a novel way to test the long-standing state policies.

A novel way, perhaps, but one that provides a glimmer of hope for students. It shouldn’t have been necessary to come to this point, but now that it has American public education may take another step toward once again fulfilling its mission.

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Peres, Chamberlain, and the Quest for Peace

Shimon Peres’s retirement as Israel’s president will be one more opportunity for journalists to try and sum up a career that has spanned the entire history of his nation. As was true of many other moments when it seemed as if Peres had exited the spotlight for good, eulogies may also be premature today. Peres is planning on using his time in the future to promote various initiatives and may well seek to play the kingmaker of the left in future efforts to topple or replace Benjamin Netanyahu as the country’s prime minister. But since this is almost certainly the end of his time in public office, some appreciation of his impact on Israel is appropriate.

As an Agence France Presse article today noted, at 90, Peres truly can claim the title of “the last of Israel’s founding fathers.” That’s more than an honorific. As that piece pointed out, as an aide to Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, Peres played a significant role in the creation of Israel’s defense establishment and nuclear deterrent. In the 1970s, he was seen as the leader of the more hawkish wing of the Labor Party and supported the building of the first West Bank settlements. That he eventually became the leading figure in the peace movement and the architect of the failed Oslo process and then later left Labor to join Ariel Sharon’s centrist Kadima Party shows not so much his evolution as a thinker as the fact that opportunism can lead a politician, especially one who was considered an indefatigable schemer, all over the place if he hangs around long enough.

Nevertheless, despite decades of varied public service during which he held every major office his country could offer and enough achievements to fill several lifetimes, it is for Oslo and the peace process that Peres will be most remembered. That this, his most important initiative, failed cannot be denied and it is on that failure many will judge him. Yet those who are inclined to damn Peres for his colossal misjudgment of the Palestinians would do well to read Winston Churchill’s 1940 eulogy for Neville Chamberlain, the historical figure to which many of the outgoing Israeli president’s fiercest detractors often compared him.

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Shimon Peres’s retirement as Israel’s president will be one more opportunity for journalists to try and sum up a career that has spanned the entire history of his nation. As was true of many other moments when it seemed as if Peres had exited the spotlight for good, eulogies may also be premature today. Peres is planning on using his time in the future to promote various initiatives and may well seek to play the kingmaker of the left in future efforts to topple or replace Benjamin Netanyahu as the country’s prime minister. But since this is almost certainly the end of his time in public office, some appreciation of his impact on Israel is appropriate.

As an Agence France Presse article today noted, at 90, Peres truly can claim the title of “the last of Israel’s founding fathers.” That’s more than an honorific. As that piece pointed out, as an aide to Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, Peres played a significant role in the creation of Israel’s defense establishment and nuclear deterrent. In the 1970s, he was seen as the leader of the more hawkish wing of the Labor Party and supported the building of the first West Bank settlements. That he eventually became the leading figure in the peace movement and the architect of the failed Oslo process and then later left Labor to join Ariel Sharon’s centrist Kadima Party shows not so much his evolution as a thinker as the fact that opportunism can lead a politician, especially one who was considered an indefatigable schemer, all over the place if he hangs around long enough.

Nevertheless, despite decades of varied public service during which he held every major office his country could offer and enough achievements to fill several lifetimes, it is for Oslo and the peace process that Peres will be most remembered. That this, his most important initiative, failed cannot be denied and it is on that failure many will judge him. Yet those who are inclined to damn Peres for his colossal misjudgment of the Palestinians would do well to read Winston Churchill’s 1940 eulogy for Neville Chamberlain, the historical figure to which many of the outgoing Israeli president’s fiercest detractors often compared him.

Churchill despised Chamberlain’s appeasement policies as well as having no great personal affection for his former rival. But the death of the man who had come back from Munich waving a piece paper signed by “Herr Hitler” and saying that he had brought his country “peace for our time” did not cause Churchill to revisit Chamberlain’s obvious mistakes. Churchill was motivated in part by a desire to keep many of Chamberlain’s old supporters in Parliament from causing trouble. He also remembered his predecessor’s loyal service as a subordinate during the first months of his premiership and was moved by Chamberlain’s fortitude in suffering from the illness that took his life. But whatever the reasons for his decision, the great orator chose a different frame of reference for thinking about the great appeaser:

No one is obliged to alter the opinions which he has formed or expressed upon issues which have become a part of history; but at the Lychgate we may all pass our own conduct and our own judgments under a searching review. It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. …

It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart-the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.

Like many other journalists who asked Peres about the dangers of the path he was charting for Israel at the height of Oslo euphoria, in 1994 he gave me his standard answer at the time. He said that such questions were like reading the disclaimer on the back of an airline ticket that warned of the possibility of a crash. One had to have faith in the pilot, the plane, and the importance of the destination, he told me, rather than dwell on the negative possibilities. As it turned out, the peace plane he was flying was badly constructed and operated more on his wishes than a grasp of reality, which led to its crash, a result that led to the deaths and injuries of many Israelis.

If Peres has outlasted some of his critics and is still considered popular, he cannot outrun history. But even as we judge him for his mistakes, his detractors must never forget his lifetime of service to Israel or that the real blame for the collapse of Oslo belongs to Yasir Arafat and the culture of Palestinian rejectionism that continues to thwart efforts to end the conflict. Just as that “wicked man” Adolf Hitler cheated Chamberlain, so, too, did Yasir Arafat trick Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, and all those who cheered the signing of the Oslo Accords. While Shimon Peres, like Chamberlain, must answer for his mistakes, the true blame for the carnage that Oslo wrought belongs to the terrorist, not the would-be peacemaker.

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What Does Mosul Mean for Afghanistan?

Over at AEI-Ideas, I spoke a bit about what al-Qaeda’s take-over of Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city and a town I visited earlier this year, means for Iraq. But it’s just as important to reflect on what it means for Afghanistan. The Washington Post quoted Osama Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab whose brother is governor of Mosul and who himself is speaker of Iraq’s parliament, as saying, “When the battle got tough in the city of Mosul, the troops dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts, making it an easy prey for the terrorists.”

In order to justify the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the White House repeatedly claimed that Iraqi forces were well-trained and ready. The generals who trained the new Iraqi army also exaggerated their prowess. For the more ambitious among them, acknowledging reality might mean losing some of the public relations luster those who sought the limelight craved.

When it came to rebuilding the army, Iraq was supposed to be the easy one. While many analysts criticize the Bush administration’s decision to disband Saddam Hussein’s army, the U.S. military immediately began building a new force from its ashes. In reality, Iraq was without an army for about three weeks. Afghanistan, however, was a different case. The Soviets withdrew in 1989, but it was only in May 1993 that the Defense Ministry went vacant and the Afghan army evaporated. After 9/11, when the United States invaded Afghanistan, it faced the Herculean task of rebuilding an army that had been gone not for weeks but for years.

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Over at AEI-Ideas, I spoke a bit about what al-Qaeda’s take-over of Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city and a town I visited earlier this year, means for Iraq. But it’s just as important to reflect on what it means for Afghanistan. The Washington Post quoted Osama Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab whose brother is governor of Mosul and who himself is speaker of Iraq’s parliament, as saying, “When the battle got tough in the city of Mosul, the troops dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts, making it an easy prey for the terrorists.”

In order to justify the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the White House repeatedly claimed that Iraqi forces were well-trained and ready. The generals who trained the new Iraqi army also exaggerated their prowess. For the more ambitious among them, acknowledging reality might mean losing some of the public relations luster those who sought the limelight craved.

When it came to rebuilding the army, Iraq was supposed to be the easy one. While many analysts criticize the Bush administration’s decision to disband Saddam Hussein’s army, the U.S. military immediately began building a new force from its ashes. In reality, Iraq was without an army for about three weeks. Afghanistan, however, was a different case. The Soviets withdrew in 1989, but it was only in May 1993 that the Defense Ministry went vacant and the Afghan army evaporated. After 9/11, when the United States invaded Afghanistan, it faced the Herculean task of rebuilding an army that had been gone not for weeks but for years.

As President Obama has moved forward with plans for a withdrawal based upon an arbitrary timeline, those under him seem to treat readiness figures with equal spuriousness. Initially, planners estimated that Afghanistan would require $6 billion in aid annually to support and subsidize a 352,000-man force. But as the U.S. sped up plans to withdrawal, suddenly it was determined that Afghanistan would only need a 250,000-man force. The question is whether those revised numbers provided by military planners were based on the fact that suddenly Afghanistan’s army became that much better or, more likely, that the White House recognized that it wouldn’t have the money and so it decided simply to fib.

The problem with lying, and the problem with basing national security on politics rather than actuality, is that eventually reality catches it. It did last night in Mosul, and it will again across Afghanistan if the Obama administration insists on replicating its same mistakes there.

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Rivlin and Israeli Reality

Today’s election by the Knesset of Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin as the next president of Israel wasn’t exactly what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was hoping for as he contemplated this date earlier this year. Netanyahu maneuvered furiously to avoid a scenario in which Rivlin or anyone else that wasn’t one of his close allies became Israel’s head of state. Given that Netanyahu loyalists are rare even in his own Likud Party, that hope was always a long shot. In the end, the PM had to settle for the elevation of a man who is clearly to his right on the peace process and the settlements issue. Yet his disappointment must pale when compared to that of the Obama administration and members of the international community who had enjoyed seeing outgoing President Shimon Peres act as a symbolic yet potent voice opposing Netanyahu on the peace process. Peres walked a fine line between engaging in the sort of partisanship that would be inappropriate for the holder of an office that is supposed to be above politics and constant advocacy that often undercut Netanyahu.

Rivlin is widely respected as a man of integrity who can probably be counted on to observe the non-partisan traditions of the office that give it moral authority and the ability to act as a unifying force in a fractious society. But that a person who has always been identified as an opponent of the kind of concessions to the Palestinians that Peres advocated could succeed Peres in the office is also one more sign of an Israeli consensus that flummoxes its foreign critics.

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Today’s election by the Knesset of Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin as the next president of Israel wasn’t exactly what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was hoping for as he contemplated this date earlier this year. Netanyahu maneuvered furiously to avoid a scenario in which Rivlin or anyone else that wasn’t one of his close allies became Israel’s head of state. Given that Netanyahu loyalists are rare even in his own Likud Party, that hope was always a long shot. In the end, the PM had to settle for the elevation of a man who is clearly to his right on the peace process and the settlements issue. Yet his disappointment must pale when compared to that of the Obama administration and members of the international community who had enjoyed seeing outgoing President Shimon Peres act as a symbolic yet potent voice opposing Netanyahu on the peace process. Peres walked a fine line between engaging in the sort of partisanship that would be inappropriate for the holder of an office that is supposed to be above politics and constant advocacy that often undercut Netanyahu.

Rivlin is widely respected as a man of integrity who can probably be counted on to observe the non-partisan traditions of the office that give it moral authority and the ability to act as a unifying force in a fractious society. But that a person who has always been identified as an opponent of the kind of concessions to the Palestinians that Peres advocated could succeed Peres in the office is also one more sign of an Israeli consensus that flummoxes its foreign critics.

It’s likely that Rivlin will not spend much time trying to upstage Netanyahu on war and peace issues and will, instead, devote himself to more domestic concerns along with the traditional symbolic duties of the presidency. But it must be understood that up until the last minute many observers believed that Rivlin would not win because they thought various forces in the Knesset would unite to back an alternative because they could not stomach having a right-winger as president. While the reasons that didn’t happen are complex and largely related to the intricate entangling rivalries between the various parties and leaders in the Knesset, it must also be acknowledged that Rivlin’s win is one more demonstration that the center of Israeli politics is well to the right of where Americans would like it to be. While liberals and others who deride Netanyahu think the views of the popular Peres represent what most Israelis think, the experience of the last 20 years of the peace process have created a new political alignment that means Rivlin’s opinions don’t place him outside of the mainstream.

This is disconcerting for those who would like to believe that Peres, the architect of Oslo process, speaks for Israel in a way that Netanyahu cannot. But even if most Israelis think a two-state solution would be ideal, they know that in the absence of a true peace partner it isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The second intifada and the repeated rejections of peace offers by the PA has marginalized the Israeli left even if that reality check hasn’t affected American Jewish opinion.

There is no shortage of prominent Israelis who can be counted on to echo the concerns of its foreign detractors and to blast Netanyahu whenever it will do the most harm to the PM. Indeed, the 90-year-old Peres is expected to try to play kingmaker and attempt to unite the various left-wing factions in an effort to topple the government and/or defeat it at the next election. But for the next few years, Israel’s president won’t be a part of the anti-Netanyahu chorus on that issue even if Rivlin may take shots at the PM over social issues or to speak up for the interests of the settlers. That won’t please Washington and many liberal American Jews. But it reflects the current state of Israeli opinion and the facts on the ground.

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Don’t Abet Academia’s Crackdown on Religious Liberty

By far the most strategically canny aspect of liberal institutions’ multifront attack on religious freedom in America has been the (alas, successful) bid to divide and conquer. From within the Jewish world, for example, it’s been sad to watch Jews insist that obvious violations of religious freedom of Catholics shouldn’t concern Jews, because the Democratic White House has not yet come for them.

The latest instance of non-Christian acquiescence in state-sponsored religious bigotry is on the issue of religious groups on public college campuses. The New York Times reports on the trend of religious groups, usually evangelicals, losing their college affiliation for refusing to sign the loyalty oath masquerading as an “anti-discrimination” agreement.

The Times centers the story on Bowdoin College, but notes that the real issue is the California State University’s public system–the largest of its kind in the country–joining the campaign, which Christian students and leaders understandably see as a possible tipping point against them. Like the Constitutional clergy of revolutionary France who took the oath of allegiance to the new secular state, the Times reports that “At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems.”

Yet it’s easy to understand the evangelical groups’ concern with the extent, though not the spirit, of the oath:

The evangelical groups say they, too, welcome anyone to participate in their activities, including gay men and lesbians, as well as nonbelievers, seekers and adherents of other faiths. But they insist that, in choosing leaders, who often oversee Bible study and prayer services, it is only reasonable that they be allowed to require some basic Christian faith — in most cases, an explicit agreement that Jesus was divine and rose from the dead, and often an implicit expectation that unmarried student leaders, gay or straight, will abstain from sex.

“It would compromise our ability to be who we are as Christians if we can’t hold our leaders to some sort of doctrinal standard,” said Zackary Suhr, 23, who has just graduated from Bowdoin, where he was a leader of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.

No kidding! Would a Jewish group be comfortable with a non-Jew leading prayer services? In charge of the group’s Torah study? The evangelical groups do not forbid non-believers from participating in their activities. They simply want their religious practice to be led by members of their religious community. And for this, they are paying the price:

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By far the most strategically canny aspect of liberal institutions’ multifront attack on religious freedom in America has been the (alas, successful) bid to divide and conquer. From within the Jewish world, for example, it’s been sad to watch Jews insist that obvious violations of religious freedom of Catholics shouldn’t concern Jews, because the Democratic White House has not yet come for them.

The latest instance of non-Christian acquiescence in state-sponsored religious bigotry is on the issue of religious groups on public college campuses. The New York Times reports on the trend of religious groups, usually evangelicals, losing their college affiliation for refusing to sign the loyalty oath masquerading as an “anti-discrimination” agreement.

The Times centers the story on Bowdoin College, but notes that the real issue is the California State University’s public system–the largest of its kind in the country–joining the campaign, which Christian students and leaders understandably see as a possible tipping point against them. Like the Constitutional clergy of revolutionary France who took the oath of allegiance to the new secular state, the Times reports that “At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems.”

Yet it’s easy to understand the evangelical groups’ concern with the extent, though not the spirit, of the oath:

The evangelical groups say they, too, welcome anyone to participate in their activities, including gay men and lesbians, as well as nonbelievers, seekers and adherents of other faiths. But they insist that, in choosing leaders, who often oversee Bible study and prayer services, it is only reasonable that they be allowed to require some basic Christian faith — in most cases, an explicit agreement that Jesus was divine and rose from the dead, and often an implicit expectation that unmarried student leaders, gay or straight, will abstain from sex.

“It would compromise our ability to be who we are as Christians if we can’t hold our leaders to some sort of doctrinal standard,” said Zackary Suhr, 23, who has just graduated from Bowdoin, where he was a leader of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.

No kidding! Would a Jewish group be comfortable with a non-Jew leading prayer services? In charge of the group’s Torah study? The evangelical groups do not forbid non-believers from participating in their activities. They simply want their religious practice to be led by members of their religious community. And for this, they are paying the price:

The consequences for evangelical groups that refuse to agree to the nondiscrimination policies, and therefore lose their official standing, vary by campus. The students can still meet informally on campus, but in most cases their groups lose access to student activity fee money as well as first claim to low-cost or free university spaces for meetings and worship; they also lose access to standard on-campus recruiting tools, such as activities fairs and bulletin boards, and may lose the right to use the universities’ names.

“It’s absurd,” said Alec Hill, the president of InterVarsity, a national association of evangelical student groups, including the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship. “The genius of American culture is that we allow voluntary, self-identified organizations to form, and that’s what our student groups are.”

Some institutions, including the University of Florida, the University of Houston, the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas, have opted to exempt religious groups from nondiscrimination policies, according to the Christian Legal Society. But evangelical groups have lost official status at Tufts University, the State University of New York at Buffalo and Rollins College in Florida, among others, and their advocates are worried that Cal State could be a tipping point.

The Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, mainline Protestant, and other non-evangelical groups that have signed this modern-day Civil Constitution of the Clergy probably think they are simply avoiding a fight that doesn’t pertain to them. That’s plain madness, and shameful to boot.

But it’s also counterproductive. When the left-liberal establishment seeks to infringe their own rights, they will have already acceded to this conformist fanaticism and surrendered any right to expect other religious groups to come to their aid. This is particularly careless for the Jewish community, which is such a demographic minority that in such cases they have no strength but in numbers–a lesson they bewilderingly seem intent on unlearning.

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The Fall of Mosul

Iraq, which had achieved a tenuous stability when U.S. troops were still present in 2011, continues to descend further into the abyss. Already the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (as al-Qaeda in Iraq has rebranded itself) has taken control of Fallujah and many other parts of Anbar Province. Now its control is extending to Ninewa Province and the second-largest city in the entire country: Mosul.

The latest news: “Iraqi army soldiers abandoned their weapons and fled the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, as Sunni militants freed hundreds of prisoners and seized military bases, police stations, banks and the provincial governor’s headquarters.”

This immensely strengthens a group that, as recently as 2008, has been on its deathbed. The New York Times quotes one analyst suggesting that ISIS could “use cash reserves from Mosul’s banks, military equipment from seized military and police bases, and the release of 2,500 fighters from local jails to bolster its military and financial capacity.”

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Iraq, which had achieved a tenuous stability when U.S. troops were still present in 2011, continues to descend further into the abyss. Already the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (as al-Qaeda in Iraq has rebranded itself) has taken control of Fallujah and many other parts of Anbar Province. Now its control is extending to Ninewa Province and the second-largest city in the entire country: Mosul.

The latest news: “Iraqi army soldiers abandoned their weapons and fled the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, as Sunni militants freed hundreds of prisoners and seized military bases, police stations, banks and the provincial governor’s headquarters.”

This immensely strengthens a group that, as recently as 2008, has been on its deathbed. The New York Times quotes one analyst suggesting that ISIS could “use cash reserves from Mosul’s banks, military equipment from seized military and police bases, and the release of 2,500 fighters from local jails to bolster its military and financial capacity.”

It is not just Iraq which is threatened but also Syria, since ISIS now operates freely on both sides of the porous border between the two states. Islamist militants are now in the process of establishing a fundamentalist caliphate that includes much of northern Syria and western and northern Iraq. And that in turn threatens the U.S. and our regional allies because this new Islamist state is certain to become a training ground for international jihadists who will then strike other countries–including possibly ours.

It is harder to imagine a bigger disaster for American foreign policy–or a more self-inflicted one. There was no compelling reason why the U.S. had to pull our troops out of Iraq; if President Obama had tried harder to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement, he probably could have succeeded. But his heart was in troop withdrawal, not in a long-term commitment.

There is, of course, no guarantee that events would have played out any differently even if U.S. troops had been present, but the odds are they would have. After all the event that triggered the current cataclysm was Prime Minister Maliki’s vindictive and short-sighted attempt to persecute senior Sunni politicians–something he waited to do until U.S. troops had withdrawn. As long as U.S. troops were present in significant numbers, their very presence gave extra leverage to American generals and diplomats to influence the government and their aid, especially in intelligence-gathering, logistics, and mission planning, allowed the Iraqi military to more effectively target terrorists.

Now all that is gone. The Iraqi military seems to be falling apart. Many Sunnis are embracing ISIS militants while many Shiites, for their own protection, are drawing closer to Iranian-backed militants. And what is the U.S. doing? It is selling Maliki F-16s that will only exacerbate the violence without addressing its causes.

This is all very dismaying, even heart-breaking, considering how close the U.S. had come in 2011, after so many early missteps, to achieving an acceptable outcome in Iraq. Now Iraq appears increasingly lost and the entire region is threatened by the growing power of the extremists.

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Remembering Joseph Shattan

My former White House colleague Joe Shattan passed away this weekend. Bill Kristol has written a touching tribute to Joe that I commend to you. I wanted to add a personal anecdote and my impressions of him.

Joe preceded me as a speechwriter for Secretary of Education William Bennett, where his wonderful skills as a speechwriter were well known. Years later, when I was deputy director of presidential speechwriting in the George W. Bush White House and we were staffing up, I reached out to Joe to see if he’d like to join our team. He demurred; he had served in previous administrations, he had built the life he wanted, and he wasn’t eager to change.

Then came 9/11.

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My former White House colleague Joe Shattan passed away this weekend. Bill Kristol has written a touching tribute to Joe that I commend to you. I wanted to add a personal anecdote and my impressions of him.

Joe preceded me as a speechwriter for Secretary of Education William Bennett, where his wonderful skills as a speechwriter were well known. Years later, when I was deputy director of presidential speechwriting in the George W. Bush White House and we were staffing up, I reached out to Joe to see if he’d like to join our team. He demurred; he had served in previous administrations, he had built the life he wanted, and he wasn’t eager to change.

Then came 9/11.

Shortly after the attacks on September 11, I received an email from Joe. Was my previous offer still on the table? Joe wrote in moving terms about how he felt America was now engaged in a great moral and civilizational struggle. He felt compelled to help if he could. A student of history, Joe knew the vital role words play in summoning a nation to fight for a great cause.

We hired Joe.

The thing to understand about Joe is he was something of a rarity. While I was not an intimate friend of his, it seemed to me he saw his calling in life in terms of duty rather than a driving personal ambition. One never got the sense with Joe that he was acting out of egotism.

Witty and delightful, there was something endearing about Joe. To be sure, serving in high public office was something very special to him. He esteemed the institution of the presidency and deeply admired the handiwork of the founders. But all things being equal, I had the sense that a more quiet life is what he preferred. Which is why when I received that email from him shortly after 9/11, I knew what animated it was a sense of higher purpose.

Joe had his priorities in the right order, and right at the top was his family, which he adored, and his nation, which he revered.

It was a privilege and an honor to have served with Joe Shattan.

An archive of his writings in Commentary can be found here.

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Tom Friedman, Autocratophile

Last week I was in Warsaw, taking a taxi from the airport to the hotel, when I saw a poster commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of Communism in Poland. I asked the taxi driver but, alas, I speak no Polish and he spoke no English. We drove past the poster and next to it I saw a short, squat man with a mustache and I thought, “Every country seems to have short, squat men with mustaches. Poland had that guy and we have Tom Friedman.”

And that led me to consider: Poland was a land under Soviet domination, a country in which people struggled for freedom, and so I wondered, “What does Tom Friedman think about freedom?” Alas, that’s an easy question to answer, but not in a good way, sort of like when the “check engine” light went on in my 2003 Nissan and I wondered what that meant as my car sputtered to a halt.

Just as babies have a soft spot on their heads (or so my Polish taxi driver probably said, although I can’t be sure because of the language barrier), Friedman has a soft spot for dictatorship. His paeans to China are both legendary and embarrassing. When Friedman was a young student and journalist, he backpacked around the Middle East and was astute in his observations. From Beirut to Jerusalem was a good book. But there is a reason why a peace corps volunteer or backpacker in Haiti have a better idea of society than tourists who book five-star trips and tend not to learn much about the troubles and travails of the societies which they visit. Taking a Royal Caribbean cruise to a private beach in Haiti does not make one an expert on Haitian politics, corruption, or earthquake reconstruction. It simply suggests one is rich. There’s nothing wrong with being rich—unless, of course, you are a senior Chinese Communist party functionary, in which case you likely got your money upon the blood of the tens of millions of people your party has murdered. But most rich people are smart enough to realize that luxury tourism doesn’t make them smart.

But then again, Tom Friedman isn’t most people. Any analyst or writer knows not to simply parachute into a country, talk to politicians for a few hours or a few days, and then wax eloquently about how enlightened and forward thinking that polity is. But, alas, Tom Friedman is not just any analyst. Earlier this month, Friedman visited Iraqi Kurdistan as a guest of Barham Salih, a Kurdish politician currently aspiring to the Iraqi presidency, if he can overcome the animosity of Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, Iraq’s current first lady. Barham gave Friedman the royal treatment. They hiked in the mountains. Kurdish journalists wrote on Facebook about seeing the two in local restaurants. Friedman gave the keynote at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, an impressive university for which Barham deserves credit, even if it is not as free from politics as Friedman imagines.

Friedman then wrote a predictable column:

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Last week I was in Warsaw, taking a taxi from the airport to the hotel, when I saw a poster commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of Communism in Poland. I asked the taxi driver but, alas, I speak no Polish and he spoke no English. We drove past the poster and next to it I saw a short, squat man with a mustache and I thought, “Every country seems to have short, squat men with mustaches. Poland had that guy and we have Tom Friedman.”

And that led me to consider: Poland was a land under Soviet domination, a country in which people struggled for freedom, and so I wondered, “What does Tom Friedman think about freedom?” Alas, that’s an easy question to answer, but not in a good way, sort of like when the “check engine” light went on in my 2003 Nissan and I wondered what that meant as my car sputtered to a halt.

Just as babies have a soft spot on their heads (or so my Polish taxi driver probably said, although I can’t be sure because of the language barrier), Friedman has a soft spot for dictatorship. His paeans to China are both legendary and embarrassing. When Friedman was a young student and journalist, he backpacked around the Middle East and was astute in his observations. From Beirut to Jerusalem was a good book. But there is a reason why a peace corps volunteer or backpacker in Haiti have a better idea of society than tourists who book five-star trips and tend not to learn much about the troubles and travails of the societies which they visit. Taking a Royal Caribbean cruise to a private beach in Haiti does not make one an expert on Haitian politics, corruption, or earthquake reconstruction. It simply suggests one is rich. There’s nothing wrong with being rich—unless, of course, you are a senior Chinese Communist party functionary, in which case you likely got your money upon the blood of the tens of millions of people your party has murdered. But most rich people are smart enough to realize that luxury tourism doesn’t make them smart.

But then again, Tom Friedman isn’t most people. Any analyst or writer knows not to simply parachute into a country, talk to politicians for a few hours or a few days, and then wax eloquently about how enlightened and forward thinking that polity is. But, alas, Tom Friedman is not just any analyst. Earlier this month, Friedman visited Iraqi Kurdistan as a guest of Barham Salih, a Kurdish politician currently aspiring to the Iraqi presidency, if he can overcome the animosity of Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, Iraq’s current first lady. Barham gave Friedman the royal treatment. They hiked in the mountains. Kurdish journalists wrote on Facebook about seeing the two in local restaurants. Friedman gave the keynote at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, an impressive university for which Barham deserves credit, even if it is not as free from politics as Friedman imagines.

Friedman then wrote a predictable column:

But it was the Kurds who used the window of freedom we opened for them to overcome internal divisions, start to reform their once Sopranos-like politics and create a vibrant economy that is now throwing up skyscrapers and colleges in major towns of Erbil and Sulaimani. Everywhere I’ve gone here, I’ve met “reverse immigrants,” Kurds who’ve come back to their homeland in northeastern Iraq because of all the opportunities.

Kurdistan represents everything that has not happened in Shiite-dominated Baghdad and the Sunni regions of Iraq, where Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has behaved like a visionless, pro-Shiite sectarian chief and violence remains rife. Maliki was “our guy.” So you could say that we left two big “gifts” behind in Iraq: an American-installed autocrat and an American university that is teaching the values of inclusiveness that Maliki doesn’t practice… Kurdistan is an island of decency in a still-roiling sea. But the power of example is a funny thing. You never know how it can spread. More American universities, please — not just drones.

Kurdistan has achieved a lot, but hagiography does not make it a beacon of freedom any more than Vogue’s profile of Asma al-Assad made the Syrian regime a beacon of progressivism. Kurdistan has not rid itself of its internal divisions; they are just more easily hidden. Both major political parties maintain their own separate security forces, much like Hamas and the PLO. Perhaps Friedman ignores this fact because he couldn’t figure out a way to blame settlements.

Friedman apparently doesn’t realize that the skyscrapers he so admires in Iraqi Kurdistan have occupancy rates of around 20 percent according to numerous Iraqi Kurds who live there. Much of the land they are built on was either appropriated by Barham’s political party or simply given as gifts to those who supported Barham’s political party. This wasn’t Barham’s fault, but it is the reality. The family of one of my former students—and, here, unlike Tom Friedman, I cannot mention name or age because in the reality of Iraqi Kurdistan, that can lead to a prison sentence—was forced from Kirkuk by Saddam, and then forced from their home by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—Barham’s party—so that a brother-in-law of party leader Jalal Talabani could speculate in real estate.

Nor is Kurdistan really that much of a democracy. How powerful it would have been had Friedman actually given a shout-out to the young journalists—theoretically his real protégés—whose families today mourn their sons because they had the courage to write about corruption and nepotism in Iraqi Kurdistan. Barham probably did not mention that the party that he presides over and that of Masud Barzani have run death squads. That may sound harsh, but that’s the proper word for the politicized security forces sent out to kidnap and kill those who disagree. Friedman may not have been aware that the same street he drove down to get to the American University campus was the scene of a shooting by Kurdish security forces on protestors during Barham’s premiership. Barham could have resigned rather than allow his reformist reputation to serve as cover for such action, but sometimes it is easier to talk about reform than actually implement it. Regardless, the perpetrators in each case remain at large. So much for “the values of inclusiveness” that Friedman observed.

Barham is smooth but he is a political player. There’s nothing wrong with that. Politics can be healthy, especially in a country which aspires to democracy. But dirty tricks are dirty tricks. Convince a visitor to bash Maliki in a widely-read American paper? That’s good politics for someone who has tied his fortunes to Maliki’s competitors. Last year, Barham invited another writer and convinced him to criticize Kirkuk, a town which the writer had not visited but which is booming economically and happens to be governed by a man from Barham’s party who happens to be one of Barham’s chief rivals. Kudos to Barham, because he gets his point across and his guests often do not seem to realize they are being used.

True, violence is worse in Baghdad but discrimination is as bad in Kurdistan. Just ask any non-Kurd humiliated at the region’s borders. In January, I drove from Tikrit to Erbil and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Corruption is rife in both Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. Even Friedman’s host has dabbled in business. And while Friedman castigates Maliki for taking the fight to al-Qaeda, what does he expect the prime minister to do? How luxurious it must be to criticize Baghdad’s leaders on one hand for insecurity and on the other hand for fighting to restore security. Maybe the drones would have been helpful after all.

What else did Friedman forget? In praising the Kurds, he appears unaware that rather than step down at the end of his second term, Kurdish President Masud Barzani simply extended his tenure. So much for democracy. Barzani can hire and fire ministers on a whim. They answer to him. He trumps the prime minister of Kurdistan, who happens to be his nephew, and the chief of Kurdish intelligence, who happens to be his son. Not so in Baghdad, where the nature of compromise and political pluralism means that the prime minister is saddled with ministers whom he may not trust and whom he cannot fire, even if they are incompetent, corrupt, or abusive. If he even tries, people label him autocratic. But for Friedman, autocratic in Baghdad is democratic in Kurdistan. Maliki has faults, indeed many. But at least he subjects himself to elections. But in Friedman’s world, democracy is about dictatorship and dictatorship is democracy.

Kurdistan is impressive and, I must admit that after spending time in Basra or Baghdad, it’s a pleasure to go to Sulaymani, sit in an outdoor café and have a beer or tea with friends. And to Barham’s credit, he (and current Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani) do tolerate more dissent than either Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, Masud Barzani, Masour Barzani, Falah Mustafa, Fuad Hussein, or Karim Sinjari. But for all of Kurdistan’s success, it is on a trajectory to become not a new bastion of democracy, but yet just another dictatorship. But then again, that may be what attracts Tom Friedman—or at least his subconscious—to it the most. Friedman likes making up words and catchy phrases. Perhaps he illustrates one: Autocratophile, the love of dictators.

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