Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 18, 2014

Will Michelle Join Hashtag Battle Against Hamas Kidnappers?

When the Boko Haram terrorist group kidnapped 300 Nigerian girls not long ago, the response from the mainstream media as well as liberal elites was not long in coming. The outrage and calls for action seemed strangely disconnected from the enthusiasm on the part of many of those speaking up about the kidnapped girls for President Obama’s weak “lead from behind” foreign policy that has left the U.S. paralyzed in the face of egregious human-rights disasters, such as the one in Syria. But as much as many of those promoting the Twitter hashtag #bringbackourgirls, such as First Lady Michelle Obama, seemed to confuse a tweet with tangible action that might do something, the willingness of Americans both prominent and obscure to express their concern was appropriate. As we have since learned, it will take more than a hashtag and a selfie to rescue the girls that Boko Haram have boasted of selling into slavery. But the criticism of the naïveté of the tweeters revealed that social media has become one of the principal battlefronts in human-rights controversies.

That’s become apparent in the last week as both Israelis and Palestinians have taken to Twitter and Facebook to express their feelings about the kidnapping of three Jewish teenagers who were apparently kidnapped Friday by Hamas terrorists. These social media campaigns have now been taken up by the rest of the world and become fodder for media stories. But unlike the worldwide consensus that kidnapping Nigerian girls was a terrible thing, what we have discovered is that there is no such unanimity in the civilized world about the fate of Jewish boys. While Jews and friends of Israel have promoted the #bringbackourboys slogan on Twitter, Palestinians and their sympathizers have answered with #threeshalits, an expression that is not only a callous comment about their abduction but an explicit endorsement of kidnapping as a tactic to force Israel to release imprisoned terrorists.

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When the Boko Haram terrorist group kidnapped 300 Nigerian girls not long ago, the response from the mainstream media as well as liberal elites was not long in coming. The outrage and calls for action seemed strangely disconnected from the enthusiasm on the part of many of those speaking up about the kidnapped girls for President Obama’s weak “lead from behind” foreign policy that has left the U.S. paralyzed in the face of egregious human-rights disasters, such as the one in Syria. But as much as many of those promoting the Twitter hashtag #bringbackourgirls, such as First Lady Michelle Obama, seemed to confuse a tweet with tangible action that might do something, the willingness of Americans both prominent and obscure to express their concern was appropriate. As we have since learned, it will take more than a hashtag and a selfie to rescue the girls that Boko Haram have boasted of selling into slavery. But the criticism of the naïveté of the tweeters revealed that social media has become one of the principal battlefronts in human-rights controversies.

That’s become apparent in the last week as both Israelis and Palestinians have taken to Twitter and Facebook to express their feelings about the kidnapping of three Jewish teenagers who were apparently kidnapped Friday by Hamas terrorists. These social media campaigns have now been taken up by the rest of the world and become fodder for media stories. But unlike the worldwide consensus that kidnapping Nigerian girls was a terrible thing, what we have discovered is that there is no such unanimity in the civilized world about the fate of Jewish boys. While Jews and friends of Israel have promoted the #bringbackourboys slogan on Twitter, Palestinians and their sympathizers have answered with #threeshalits, an expression that is not only a callous comment about their abduction but an explicit endorsement of kidnapping as a tactic to force Israel to release imprisoned terrorists.

The competition between these two groups hasn’t engaged liberal elites the way the Boko Haram attack, did but the willingness of some liberal publications to engage in the worst sort of blame-the-victim memes with regard to the kidnapped boys illustrates that the pro-human rights mentality that made #bringbackourgirls such a huge success is based on sentiments that run about a millimeter deep in our culture. With supposedly cutting edge websites like Vox using the kidnapping as an excuse to engage in specious and largely false arguments about the evils of Israeli occupation of the West Bank to rationalize if not justify Palestinian terrorism, it’s little wonder that Mrs. Obama is not lending her immense prestige to the campaign to free the Israeli boys.

Why won’t Michelle Obama tweet her sympathy for the Israeli boys? The answer is obvious. To do so would be to make it clear that the White House believes that the human rights of Jews, even those living on what the administration thinks is the wrong side of the green line, are human beings with rights, rather than just flesh and blood targets.

While no individual or even any government can involve itself in every issue or incident on the planet, the choices we make are instructive as to whether our putative concern for human rights is a pose or a genuine commitment. In the case of Boko Haram’s victims, it was easy for liberal Americans to express anger for the terrorists and sympathy for the victims, since to do so involved no hard choices, other than the choice former secretary of state Hillary Clinton made in refusing to designate the kidnappers as a terror group during her time in office. Americans don’t really care who runs Northern Nigeria or the intricacies of that vast nation’s political and religious conflicts. But that didn’t stop them from rightly expressing their disgust with the notion that terrorists could simply snatch girls from school and force them to convert to Islam and/or to sell them into slavery.

But to use their hashtag power to speak up against Hamas and the widespread support for kidnapping among Palestinians, even though PA leader Mahmoud Abbas has belatedly condemned the crime, involves some real hard choices. It involves a realization that the Middle East conflict isn’t so much about borders or Israel’s policies as it is about the hate that drives Palestinian rejection of the Jewish state’s repeated offers of peace.

Boko Haram’s military was not matched by an ability to mobilize international opinion on behalf of their cause of preventing women from being educated. But Hamas is more fortunate. They can not only count on Palestinian social media users to glorify their crimes and to call for more such abductions but also rely on the willingness of many Western liberals to rationalize any violence against Israelis.

Up until now, the response of the U.S. to the kidnapping has been weak. While Secretary of State John Kerry has condemned it, he has not sought to draw conclusions from events about the wisdom of his decision to go on supplying the Fatah-Hamas Palestinian government with American taxpayer dollars. Nor has the White House specifically called for the release of the boys and the surrender of the Hamas terrorists.

While we still know nothing about the fate of the boys, countering those who are supporting the kidnapping—a vicious campaign with overtones of traditional anti-Semitism—won’t be easy. But it would be helped if the first lady were willing to endorse freedom for the boys. A hashtag is no substitute for action or even a policy that sought to disassociate America from Palestinian terror. But it would be a start.

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Conservatism Means Adjusting to Shifting Circumstances

The American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis has written a post with a provocative headline: “Have Reagan-style tax cuts lost their political power?”

The answer, he says, is yes. “It shouldn’t be surprising that the tax issue doesn’t have the old oomph that it used to with voters,” according to Pethokoukis. And he highlights these poll results:

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The American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis has written a post with a provocative headline: “Have Reagan-style tax cuts lost their political power?”

The answer, he says, is yes. “It shouldn’t be surprising that the tax issue doesn’t have the old oomph that it used to with voters,” according to Pethokoukis. And he highlights these poll results:

1. In the early 1980s, close to 70 percent of Americans thought their taxes were too high. Today, that number is 50 percent.

2. Middle-class Americans, by 53 percent to 42 percent, think they’re paying their fair share in taxes.

3. Americans rank taxes low on their list of concerns—even below climate change.

4. In the age of online tax preparation, Americans don’t think their tax returns are hard to fill out.

5. Americans think raising the minimum wage and business deregulation are better ways to boost economic growth than cutting tax rates on businesses and the wealthy.

Now, these findings don’t tell us which tax plans might be economically best for this particular moment in time. But I do think this has some bearing on a point I’ve made before and will undoubtedly make in the future: Ronald Reagan’s policies worked fabulously well in the 1980s. But the problems we face are different now than they were then. Conditions have changed, and the task for conservatives is to change–in a responsible, principled way–with them. That is in important respects what it means to be a conservative.

This point should be so obvious that it shouldn’t need to be made, except that for some on the right, to say that what Reagan did nearly 35 years ago may not be what is required today borders on heresy. For others, I suspect what is at play here are certain habits of thought. The tax issue has worked so well for so long for Republicans, they have developed well-worn mental and public policy grooves. And those are difficult to escape from.

It’s isn’t always easy, but it is necessary, to pull back from time to time to re-examine the intellectual and political landscape, to see problems in a somewhat different light, and to periodically think anew and act anew. Reagan himself did precisely that. The Reagan who ran in 1980, embracing supply-side economics, is not identical to the Reagan who ran in 1976, when he focused less on sweeping tax cuts.

Conservatives need to learn from the past but not simply try to replicate it; to understand that our principles applied to new problems will sometimes yield new solutions. To do anything else would not be conservatism but dogmatism.

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French Anti-Semitism and the Specter of “Humanitarian Zionism”

Last week, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve made a very smart observation about terrorism in France that other Western officials would do well to consider. On May 24, a man, believed to be 29-year-old Mehdi Nemmouche, shot and killed four at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. After Nemmouche’s arrest about a week after the crime, authorities began using the term “lone wolf” to describe him–including Cazeneuve. But Cazeneuve now thinks that was a mistake and, as JTA reported, had this to say on the term:

The term suggests an assassin or terrorist who is working independently of partners or any larger framework.

But actions such as Nemmouche “begin a long way back,” he said. The processes of radicalization, Cazeneuve added, “have to transcend many stages,” including procuring weapons” and “arriving in conflict zones or terrorism.” He concluded by saying: “What I want to say is that accomplices are important here not only in the procurement of arms that terrorists use. This leads me to think, without any reservation, that the ‘lone wolf’ is anything but.”

Western officials like to use the term “lone wolf” both for self-serving reasons (to avoid blame) and to try to calm the public (there’s no conspiracy afoot, no persistent danger, etc.). But not having an immediate and knowing accomplice is not the same as acting completely alone, and Cazeneuve seems to realize this. In Western Europe, it is especially important to understand how and why crimes like this happen because European Jewry is under attack more consistently and brazenly than has been the case in decades. As the largest European Jewish community, France is something of a test as to whether European Jewry has a future. And right now it’s failing that test.

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Last week, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve made a very smart observation about terrorism in France that other Western officials would do well to consider. On May 24, a man, believed to be 29-year-old Mehdi Nemmouche, shot and killed four at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. After Nemmouche’s arrest about a week after the crime, authorities began using the term “lone wolf” to describe him–including Cazeneuve. But Cazeneuve now thinks that was a mistake and, as JTA reported, had this to say on the term:

The term suggests an assassin or terrorist who is working independently of partners or any larger framework.

But actions such as Nemmouche “begin a long way back,” he said. The processes of radicalization, Cazeneuve added, “have to transcend many stages,” including procuring weapons” and “arriving in conflict zones or terrorism.” He concluded by saying: “What I want to say is that accomplices are important here not only in the procurement of arms that terrorists use. This leads me to think, without any reservation, that the ‘lone wolf’ is anything but.”

Western officials like to use the term “lone wolf” both for self-serving reasons (to avoid blame) and to try to calm the public (there’s no conspiracy afoot, no persistent danger, etc.). But not having an immediate and knowing accomplice is not the same as acting completely alone, and Cazeneuve seems to realize this. In Western Europe, it is especially important to understand how and why crimes like this happen because European Jewry is under attack more consistently and brazenly than has been the case in decades. As the largest European Jewish community, France is something of a test as to whether European Jewry has a future. And right now it’s failing that test.

Cazeneuve was also speaking about a man named Mohammed Merah, the gunman involved in a brief crime spree in Toulouse that included murdering Jews. This week in France, Merah’s name was reportedly found spray-painted in a message praising him. In fact, the phrase “this week in France” is rarely followed by good news, and for Jews the phrase has taken on an even more ominous tone.

On June 11, Tablet reported on “the third disturbing incident from [the] French capital” so far that week, and then listed all the anti-Semitic incidents in Paris in 2014 for good measure. Each such story tends to bring a round of recollections on social media sites of readers’ latest stories of French anti-Semitism.

It’s easy to see how such incidents proliferate when each is treated as a “lone wolf” attack. The willful blindness practically ensures it will continue. It’s possible that a shift in attitude such as Cazeneuve’s will make a difference, though it would take a cultural shift for the correct approach to be prevalent enough to turn the tide. It’s easier to pretend the tide isn’t there.

What does that mean for French Jewry, and for European Jewry? As to the former, JTA also noted last month a survey showing that three-quarters of French Jews are considering leaving the country. More than half the respondents said “Jews have no future in France,” and nearly all (more than 95 percent) said anti-Semitism there is “worrisome” or “very worrisome.” As for what it means for European Jewry, this part of the story is pertinent:

Ninety-three percent said the French state had no efficient means for countering “Islamic exclusionist and pro-Palestinian propaganda,” whereas 93.4 percent said French mass media are partially responsible for France’s anti-Semitism problem. Roughly three-quarters said French Jewish institutions were helpless to stop anti-Semitism.

To take those three points in order: According to Brown University’s Maud Mandel (no relation–that I know of, anyway) “France houses the largest Jewish and Muslim populations living side by side outside of Israel.” That bodes ill, obviously, for Muslim-Jewish relations in Europe in the future (though there are certainly aspects of this that are specific to France). On the second point, European mass media is broadly hostile to the Jewish state, so it’s unlikely any strife caused by the press would be limited to France. (Ahem, BBC.) On the third, I’m not sure what the Jews of France expect, outside of their own private army. Jewish institutions in many cases could do much better than they are, but it’s doubtful they can singlehandedly change the hearts and minds of Europe’s Mehdi Nemmouches and Mohammed Merahs.

If there is any strength to be had in numbers, then France’s treatment of its Jews shows how easily that strength can be negated. The packed aliyah fairs in Paris and the rate of French aliyah itself raise the specter of what Jabotinsky once called “humanitarian Zionism.” If such a Zionism is necessary in 2014, Europe has failed its Jews once again.

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Hillary’s Rapist and the War on Women

The second week of Hillary Clinton’s book tour is going a lot better than the first. The former first lady and secretary of state’s gaffes about the “brutality” of American politics and her fib about being broke when she and her husband left the White House made her look foolish rather than the confident president-in-waiting that she wants us to think she is. But now that the dust has settled on the first round of interviews, Hillary is back on message. The news that 100,000 copies of a memoir that is almost devoid of new information or revelations have been sold during the first days since Hard Choices hit the stores is certainly proof of her popularity. Her “town hall” appearance on CNN yesterday seemed more like a pep rally or an episode of Oprah—with the charmless Christiane Amanpour playing the role of host—and did nothing to undermine the narrative of her inevitability. Even better for Clinton, her risky decision to go on Fox News and face far tougher interrogators in Bret Baier and Greta Van Susteren paid off not only because she stood up well to their questions and put some space between her positions and those of President Obama, but also because it came hours after the news broke that one of the Benghazi terrorists had been arrested. That’s the kind of incredible stroke of luck that generally only happens to people who are on their way to winning presidential elections.

Needless to say, in none of the interviews about Hillary’s book was she asked about the fact that she once boasted and laughed about helping a child rapist evade justice. Our former COMMENTARY colleague Alana Goodman wrote on Friday in the Washington Free Beacon about how Clinton was caught on tape discussing the case during an interview with Esquire magazine in the 1980s for an article that was never published. In the tapes, which were archived at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Clinton concedes that her client was guilty and that he beat the rap due to prosecutorial incompetence as well as her own attempt to smear the character of the 12-year-old victim in the case. The then-27-year-old Hillary Rodham managed to get the state to agree to a plea bargain in which the rapist, 41-year-old Thomas Alfred Taylor, served less than a year in prison.

While even rapists are entitled to a zealous defense, the jocular way Clinton discusses the case on tape provides a stark contrast to the 66-year-old veteran politician who is readying a run for president largely on the strength of her gender. While this is not the first time the story of the rape case has surfaced0—Newsday ran a story about it in 2008 that had little traction—the resurfacing of this unpleasant episode in Clinton’s biography illustrates two key points about her potential candidacy. One is that despite the fact that the Democratic presidential nomination is hers for the asking, she remains a flawed candidate and a mediocre politician who lacks the smoothness and skills that helped her husband win the White House. The other is that even though this is exactly the sort of story that would doom virtually any other politician, especially a Republican, Hillary can rely on a fawning press corps to ensure that this is an issue that will be largely buried in the mainstream media.

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The second week of Hillary Clinton’s book tour is going a lot better than the first. The former first lady and secretary of state’s gaffes about the “brutality” of American politics and her fib about being broke when she and her husband left the White House made her look foolish rather than the confident president-in-waiting that she wants us to think she is. But now that the dust has settled on the first round of interviews, Hillary is back on message. The news that 100,000 copies of a memoir that is almost devoid of new information or revelations have been sold during the first days since Hard Choices hit the stores is certainly proof of her popularity. Her “town hall” appearance on CNN yesterday seemed more like a pep rally or an episode of Oprah—with the charmless Christiane Amanpour playing the role of host—and did nothing to undermine the narrative of her inevitability. Even better for Clinton, her risky decision to go on Fox News and face far tougher interrogators in Bret Baier and Greta Van Susteren paid off not only because she stood up well to their questions and put some space between her positions and those of President Obama, but also because it came hours after the news broke that one of the Benghazi terrorists had been arrested. That’s the kind of incredible stroke of luck that generally only happens to people who are on their way to winning presidential elections.

Needless to say, in none of the interviews about Hillary’s book was she asked about the fact that she once boasted and laughed about helping a child rapist evade justice. Our former COMMENTARY colleague Alana Goodman wrote on Friday in the Washington Free Beacon about how Clinton was caught on tape discussing the case during an interview with Esquire magazine in the 1980s for an article that was never published. In the tapes, which were archived at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Clinton concedes that her client was guilty and that he beat the rap due to prosecutorial incompetence as well as her own attempt to smear the character of the 12-year-old victim in the case. The then-27-year-old Hillary Rodham managed to get the state to agree to a plea bargain in which the rapist, 41-year-old Thomas Alfred Taylor, served less than a year in prison.

While even rapists are entitled to a zealous defense, the jocular way Clinton discusses the case on tape provides a stark contrast to the 66-year-old veteran politician who is readying a run for president largely on the strength of her gender. While this is not the first time the story of the rape case has surfaced0—Newsday ran a story about it in 2008 that had little traction—the resurfacing of this unpleasant episode in Clinton’s biography illustrates two key points about her potential candidacy. One is that despite the fact that the Democratic presidential nomination is hers for the asking, she remains a flawed candidate and a mediocre politician who lacks the smoothness and skills that helped her husband win the White House. The other is that even though this is exactly the sort of story that would doom virtually any other politician, especially a Republican, Hillary can rely on a fawning press corps to ensure that this is an issue that will be largely buried in the mainstream media.

Clinton did talk about her foray into defending sexual predators in her 2003 autobiography Living History, but represented it as a triumph of jurisprudence because of her work discrediting the prosecution’s handling of the evidence. She also said it inspired her to help organize a rape crisis hotline in Fayetteville, a tidbit that is consistent with her representation of her early career as one that was based on defense of the rights of women and children.

While legal expert Ronald Rotunda told Goodman that Clinton’s discussion of her client’s polygraph test results and guilt was unethical, there’s nothing wrong with a lawyer successfully defending a guilty client. But there is a difference between a run-of-the-mill attorney taking on such a case and even boasting about it and a woman who is seeking the presidency doing so. Suffice it to say that, as Melinda Henneberger wrote in the Washington Post, were a conservative to be caught with such a damning admission in their past, it would become part of the Democrat narrative about the Republican “war on women.” But when a liberal who stands a good chance of being the first female president and who has built an image as a champion for women is caught laughing about destroying the life of a child rape victim, it is the sort of thing that most of the media will quickly shove down the proverbial memory hole.

You don’t have to be a Clinton-hater to be cognizant of the ironies involved in Hillary being associated with the worst sort of legal abuse of rape victims. That her husband also successfully evaded sexual harassment charges as well as the accusation of rape by Juanita Broaddrick only makes the story seem even sleazier.

But Hillary needn’t worry about getting the Todd Akin treatment from a media that, as Chris Cuomo noted last week on CNN, “We couldn’t help her any more than we have. She’s just got a free ride from the media.”

Learning about Clinton’s callous legal record doesn’t necessarily disqualify her for the presidency or undermine her attempt to represent herself as uniquely ready for the presidency. But it does call into question not only her claims as a champion for women but also the entire war on women meme used by her party and the fairness of a media culture that is ready to bury this story.

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Wondering Just How Much More Damage Obama Can Do

In speaking about the new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll that Jonathan refers to, NBC’s White House correspondent Chuck Todd told the Morning Joe crew

This poll is a disaster for the president…. You look at the presidency here: lowest job rating, tied for the lowest; lowest on foreign policy…  Then on the issue of do you believe you can still lead, and a majority believe not. Essentially the public is saying, “Your presidency is over” by saying a number like that. Fifty-four percent saying he no longer has the ability to lead and solve problems. That’s one of those things, you’re sitting at the White House going, “Oh, wow.”

Mr. Todd is right in that the poll shows tremendous erosion in support for for the president. And I understand what he means when he says the public is saying, “Your presidency is over.” But of course that is not, alas, so. Mr. Obama is still president, and he will be for two-and-a-half more years. That’s a long time for more mischief.

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In speaking about the new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll that Jonathan refers to, NBC’s White House correspondent Chuck Todd told the Morning Joe crew

This poll is a disaster for the president…. You look at the presidency here: lowest job rating, tied for the lowest; lowest on foreign policy…  Then on the issue of do you believe you can still lead, and a majority believe not. Essentially the public is saying, “Your presidency is over” by saying a number like that. Fifty-four percent saying he no longer has the ability to lead and solve problems. That’s one of those things, you’re sitting at the White House going, “Oh, wow.”

Mr. Todd is right in that the poll shows tremendous erosion in support for for the president. And I understand what he means when he says the public is saying, “Your presidency is over.” But of course that is not, alas, so. Mr. Obama is still president, and he will be for two-and-a-half more years. That’s a long time for more mischief.

As we’re seeing in Iraq, the broader Middle East, and many other areas of the world, as well as here at home, even a politically weak president is showing he has the capacity to do enormous, sustained damage. And low approval ratings aren’t slowing him down all that much. He is using his executive authority and pursuing what is in many respects a lawless agenda in order to implement his vision for America.

I happen to believe the Democratic Party will suffer once again in a mid-term election because of it. But the president doesn’t really seem to care all that much. He is a progressive in a hurry. He wants to bend history in a certain direction, even if the American people aren’t inclined to go along with him.

Mr. Obama is doing much of what he set out to do. The fact that there is such a high human cost in the wake of this extraordinarily incompetent and misguided man’s presidency doesn’t appear to bother him at all. He is someone seemingly incapable of honest self-reflection, at times wholly unable to see the world as it is. Yet he continues to wield power, making one massive error after another. And the rest of us are left to wonder just how much more damage one person can do.

The answer, I fear, is quite a lot.

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Iraq: What We Know Now and What We Knew Then

Along with the outbreak of the new war in Iraq has come a ferocious debate over who is to blame. Is it George W. Bush for getting us into Iraq in the first place or is it Barack Obama for getting us out without leaving any American troops there?

My old friend George Will, who was one of the most eloquent proponents of the invasion in 2003 but who later changed his mind, has not surprisingly made the best case for the anti-Bush party. Addressing all Republicans vying for the presidential nomination in 2016, he asks:

Given the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and given that we now know how little we know about “nation-building” and about the promotion of democracy in nations that need to be “built,” and given that Saddam Hussein’s horrific tyranny at least controlled Iraq’s sectarian furies, and given that Iraq under him was Iran’s adversary, and given that ten-year wars make Americans indiscriminately averse to military undertakings—given all this, if you could rewind history to March 2003, would you favor invading Iraq?

Well, I was as passionate, if not as eloquent, a supporter of the invasion as George Will was, and my own answer to his question would be that if I had been able to foresee the unintended consequences of a fair number of actions I have taken in my life, I would most certainly not have taken them. But I would then go on to say that, looking back at the situation in 2003 when I unfortunately lacked prophetic powers, my answer to his question would be that, yes, I would still have supported the invasion.

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Along with the outbreak of the new war in Iraq has come a ferocious debate over who is to blame. Is it George W. Bush for getting us into Iraq in the first place or is it Barack Obama for getting us out without leaving any American troops there?

My old friend George Will, who was one of the most eloquent proponents of the invasion in 2003 but who later changed his mind, has not surprisingly made the best case for the anti-Bush party. Addressing all Republicans vying for the presidential nomination in 2016, he asks:

Given the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and given that we now know how little we know about “nation-building” and about the promotion of democracy in nations that need to be “built,” and given that Saddam Hussein’s horrific tyranny at least controlled Iraq’s sectarian furies, and given that Iraq under him was Iran’s adversary, and given that ten-year wars make Americans indiscriminately averse to military undertakings—given all this, if you could rewind history to March 2003, would you favor invading Iraq?

Well, I was as passionate, if not as eloquent, a supporter of the invasion as George Will was, and my own answer to his question would be that if I had been able to foresee the unintended consequences of a fair number of actions I have taken in my life, I would most certainly not have taken them. But I would then go on to say that, looking back at the situation in 2003 when I unfortunately lacked prophetic powers, my answer to his question would be that, yes, I would still have supported the invasion.

“Given the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction,” his indictment of Bush begins, but the only “given” in 2003 was the exact opposite. All fifteen agencies involved in gathering intelligence for the United States agreed “with high confidence” that “Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.” So did the intelligence agencies of Britain, Germany, Russia, China, Israel, and France.

“Given” also that the Democrats would later accuse Bush of lying about this, here is a (partial) list of Democrats who had previously joined in the consensus: Bill Clinton; his Vice President Al Gore; his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; his Secretary of Defense William Cohen; and his National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. In the Senate, there were Teddy Kennedy, Harry Reid, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Carl Levin, Tom Daschle, John Edwards, Jay Rockefeller, Robert Byrd, and Bob Graham–not to mention Nancy Pelosi, among scores of others, in the House, as well as liberal papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Each and every one of them saw Saddam Hussein as a threat, and they all advocated taking action against him.

“Given” all this, I would go so far as to say that not only was George W. Bush justified in ordering the invasion, but that if he had failed to do so, he would have deserved to be impeached for violating his oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” this country against any and all foreign enemies.    

As to the other items in George Will’s parade of horribles, they all belong to the period that followed the successful military phase of the invasion itself. I am willing to stipulate that many mistakes were made in the three years that followed, and that the entire operation would very likely have ended in defeat if Bush had not finally found in David Petraeus a general who wanted to win and knew how to do it. The upshot was that by the time Barack Obama took office, American casualties were all the way down, and that the Iraq turned over to him was a country largely at peace and living under a nascent democratic regime. So much for the case for blaming Bush.

Turning now to the case for blaming Obama, a commensurately eloquent one has been made by another old friend of mine, David Pryce Jones, the eminent British authority on the Arab world. After explaining why and how the al-Qaeda affiliate ISIS has been able to capture city after city in Iraq and is now only about fifty miles from Baghdad, David flatly declares that “President George W. Bush is vindicated. The sole way Iraq could have continued was under a permanent American presence that gave and guaranteed state functions. President Obama’s withdrawal of American forces is already a historic error. They alone could have kept the peace. Arabs have a phrase to the effect that some mistake has opened the doors of Hell. President Obama has opened those doors.”

Obama evidently now thinks that a de facto alliance with Iran—Iran!—is the way to close those doors, but such an alliance would only guarantee that they would open even wider than they are now. It would also solidify Iran’s influence over Iraq while giving a green light to an Iranian nuclear bomb. 

Alas, none of the other proposals for getting us out of this fix seems fully persuasive. Which means that it may be too late to prevent Iraq from joining Syria as part of a new Iranian empire. It is not too late, however, to keep that empire from building a nuclear arsenal, and neither is it too late to keep Afghanistan from reverting to the al-Qaeda haven it was before 9/11. The problem is that doing those things would require Barack Obama to acknowledge that his policies are exposing us to an infinitely greater danger than we were in before 9/11. In my opinion–and I express it with fear and trembling–it would take something close to a miracle for him to undergo so radical a change of heart and mind. God help us then.

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Toward An Achesonian Foreign Policy

One of the popular Washington parlor games of the last several years has been guessing the Obama Doctrine. The manifold failures of the administration made people wonder what the strategy governing Obama’s foreign policy was exactly–or if there was one at all. Obama himself seems to reduce his doctrine to “Don’t do stupid stuff”–but the massive and unrelenting proliferation of stupidity in the administration’s foreign policy suggests that such a doctrine, whatever its value, is not being practiced.

It seems fairly clear that Obama believes in a retrenching of American power and influence in world affairs. The latest such example is buried in a recent New York Times article which mentions Obama’s remarks at a recent Democratic fundraiser defending his preference for retrenchment. According to the Times: “The president added that the entire notion that America undergirded global order through a broad use of force was a dangerous fallacy.” So the president, obviously, is not much of a history buff.

Obama is trying to solve a particular riddle: how to safeguard American interests while avoiding military confrontations. Obama’s wish to pull America back from the world stage has led him to try to outsource American strategy and security. Sometimes this means letting Europe take the lead on military action, but more often it means treating diplomacy as an end in itself so conflicts can be pawned off on Iran or Russia. But there’s a better way.

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One of the popular Washington parlor games of the last several years has been guessing the Obama Doctrine. The manifold failures of the administration made people wonder what the strategy governing Obama’s foreign policy was exactly–or if there was one at all. Obama himself seems to reduce his doctrine to “Don’t do stupid stuff”–but the massive and unrelenting proliferation of stupidity in the administration’s foreign policy suggests that such a doctrine, whatever its value, is not being practiced.

It seems fairly clear that Obama believes in a retrenching of American power and influence in world affairs. The latest such example is buried in a recent New York Times article which mentions Obama’s remarks at a recent Democratic fundraiser defending his preference for retrenchment. According to the Times: “The president added that the entire notion that America undergirded global order through a broad use of force was a dangerous fallacy.” So the president, obviously, is not much of a history buff.

Obama is trying to solve a particular riddle: how to safeguard American interests while avoiding military confrontations. Obama’s wish to pull America back from the world stage has led him to try to outsource American strategy and security. Sometimes this means letting Europe take the lead on military action, but more often it means treating diplomacy as an end in itself so conflicts can be pawned off on Iran or Russia. But there’s a better way.

Obama would do well to read Dean Acheson’s memoir, Present at the Creation. In it, Acheson writes of the bad-faith actions and stubbornness of the Soviet Union’s diplomats. Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general of the United Nations, signals his determination to further engage the Soviets in a twenty-year plan to have the UN lead the world to peace. “It was to start off with something that, despite Mr. Lie’s protestations, sounded very much like appeasement to me, luring the Soviet Union back to the United Nations, from which Malik and his cohorts had withdrawn, by the majority’s reversing itself and seating the Communists as the representatives of China,” Acheson writes. “To me all this made little sense.”

He continues:

I said that on Chinese representation we held to our expressed views but would “accept the decision of any organ of the United Nations made by the necessary majority, and we [would] not walk out.” So far as negotiations were concerned we would consider anything put forward in the United Nations, but, meanwhile, “we can’t afford to wait and merely hope that [Soviet] policies will change. We must carry forward in our own determination to create situations of strength in the free world, because this is the only basis on which lasting agreement with the Soviet Government is possible.”

That phrase “situations of strength” became an essential component of Acheson’s prosecution of American foreign policy in the postwar world. The Truman administration, which Acheson served, was dealing with an obstacle that would ring familiar to President Obama. The country was surely war weary–after a second world war, it would have been strange not to be. Additionally, our European allies were suddenly not in shape to prop up the free world with minimal American involvement, and our Russian partners were keen to take advantage of European weakness and American optimism toward the end of conflict.

The “situations of strength” were not intended to replace negotiations but to strengthen America’s hand. And they required American power projection in ways that would deter aggression. We had to be ready to fight, in other words, so that we wouldn’t have to. Here is Henry Kissinger in 2006 reflecting on Acheson’s strategy:

He interpreted it to mean that the task of foreign policy was to create situations of strength around the Soviet periphery to deter any temptation for aggression. Negotiation with the Soviet Union was to be deferred until these situations of strength had come into being; any attempt to begin diplomacy prematurely would undermine the primary task.

Acheson’s overriding priority, in the years immediately following World War II, was to restore Western Europe and create an Atlantic community to resist what then appeared as the Soviet colossus. He built the structure that sustained democracy during the cold war, with the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO and the return of Germany and Japan to the community of nations.

Yet it is precisely these methods Obama has ignored. The door to NATO was slammed on nations in Russia’s line of fire; budget outlays for democracy promotion and programs to help build civil society in troubled parts of the world were cut; residual forces who were needed mostly to train others and to act as arbiters of internal discord were recalled; and wishful thinking and self-delusion about the intentions of others dominated an obsession with diplomacy at all costs.

There are ways, after a decade of war, to safeguard the gains and strengthen allies while avoiding new wars and working within the confines of public opinion. It’s been done before. But it still requires a level of American leadership with which Obama just doesn’t appear to be comfortable.

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Obama’s in Trouble, But This Isn’t 2010

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll is proof that the Obama presidency is sliding into irrelevancy. The president’s numbers, which show his personal approval, job approval, and confidence in his ability to manage the economy and conduct foreign policy all sinking to new lows, are clear evidence that the 2008 messiah of hope and change is running out of steam. Moreover, the president’s ratings aren’t merely a standard case of second term-blues. After the last year and a half of scandals in which his absentee management style has exacerbated chronic government problems and the collapse of his “lead from behind” foreign strategies, the Obama presidency is in crisis.

Amid a plethora of negative stats that emerge from the poll is one that ought to send shivers down the spines of Democrats who take it as a matter of faith that Obama’s predecessor was a disaster whose failures always provide a standing excuse for any of the president’s shortcomings. The fact that the public now rates Obama’s competence in managing the government as being lower than that of George W. Bush in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when the war in Iraq was also spiraling out of control illustrates how low the president has sunk in the public’s esteem. That the same poll now shows that a majority of Americans believe the president is no longer capable of leading the country in the right direction shows that with more than two and a half years left in the White House, the tipping point has been reach at which it is possible to assert that Obama’s second-term problems cannot be reversed.

While this is very bad news for the president and the country, which, whether or not you like Obama, desperately needs him to lead both at home and abroad, it is pretty good news for a Republican Party which is heading into the midterm elections with reasonable hopes of winning control of both houses of Congress this fall. But conservatives and GOP operatives who may consider this poll–and the many others that have been published this year that provide similar results–as being definitive proof that they are on the way to a 2010-style landslide need to rethink their optimism. The president’s troubles are serious, but the Republicans have plenty of problems of their own. Though the GOP has a better than even chance of winning control of the Senate and are odds-on favorites to hold the House, the same poll provides data that should encourage Democrats to believe they have a chance in 2014 and are set up to win again in 2016.

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The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll is proof that the Obama presidency is sliding into irrelevancy. The president’s numbers, which show his personal approval, job approval, and confidence in his ability to manage the economy and conduct foreign policy all sinking to new lows, are clear evidence that the 2008 messiah of hope and change is running out of steam. Moreover, the president’s ratings aren’t merely a standard case of second term-blues. After the last year and a half of scandals in which his absentee management style has exacerbated chronic government problems and the collapse of his “lead from behind” foreign strategies, the Obama presidency is in crisis.

Amid a plethora of negative stats that emerge from the poll is one that ought to send shivers down the spines of Democrats who take it as a matter of faith that Obama’s predecessor was a disaster whose failures always provide a standing excuse for any of the president’s shortcomings. The fact that the public now rates Obama’s competence in managing the government as being lower than that of George W. Bush in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when the war in Iraq was also spiraling out of control illustrates how low the president has sunk in the public’s esteem. That the same poll now shows that a majority of Americans believe the president is no longer capable of leading the country in the right direction shows that with more than two and a half years left in the White House, the tipping point has been reach at which it is possible to assert that Obama’s second-term problems cannot be reversed.

While this is very bad news for the president and the country, which, whether or not you like Obama, desperately needs him to lead both at home and abroad, it is pretty good news for a Republican Party which is heading into the midterm elections with reasonable hopes of winning control of both houses of Congress this fall. But conservatives and GOP operatives who may consider this poll–and the many others that have been published this year that provide similar results–as being definitive proof that they are on the way to a 2010-style landslide need to rethink their optimism. The president’s troubles are serious, but the Republicans have plenty of problems of their own. Though the GOP has a better than even chance of winning control of the Senate and are odds-on favorites to hold the House, the same poll provides data that should encourage Democrats to believe they have a chance in 2014 and are set up to win again in 2016.

The problem for Republicans is that as bad as the president’s numbers may be, theirs are just as bad. After years of sinking approval ratings, the party’s negative image is beginning to look like it is set in stone. Part of this is due to the hangover from its disastrous collisions with Obama such as the 2013 government shutdown, but more of it is due to the perception that it is essentially leaderless and being driven by Tea Party activists rather than pragmatic statesmen. Liberal dominance in popular culture has also created endemic problems on issues like the environment, climate change, and gay marriage in which the GOP generally finds itself on the less popular side of many divisive issues. Immigration reform, which pits most though not all conservatives against the wishes of the vast majority of Hispanics, also creates a powerful obstacle to winning national elections.

The Democrats’ ability to portray the GOP as waging a war on women may be more a function of a successful propaganda campaign than fact. But it is nonetheless having a major impact on American politics as women, especially white women, have become the Democrats’ chief bulwark.

When one compares today’s numbers to those of June 2010, you rapidly see that although the Democrats are burdened with a president who is seen as largely incompetent, they are helped by data that shows Republicans to be underwater in ways that they were not four years ago. In particular, the party’s declining support among women and Hispanics as well as the far more negative image of the Tea Party today has altered the political landscape in a way that makes another midterm landslide less likely.

These factors do not change the fact that 2014 will be largely decided in red states where the president’s unpopularity may prove lethal to centrist Democrats seeking reelection. But they may lessen the chances for a midterm avalanche that might otherwise be expected in the middle of such a disastrous second term for the incumbent. It also goes almost without saying that these numbers show the Democrats to be in good shape heading toward the 2016 presidential election.

Throughout 2012 most conservatives and Republicans took it as an article of faith that Obama’s incompetence would lead to a GOP victory in November. They underestimated the importance of the president’s historic status as the first African American in the White House as well as their party’s growing problems among minorities and women. Those same problems may not prevent Republicans from winning back control of Congress this year, but they are enough to doom even a highly competent presidential nominee in 2016 unless something happens to change the way the public regards Republicans. Instead of spending the rest of the year counting their chickens before they are hatched, conservatives would do well to return to the business of trying to expand their base that many rightly concentrated on in the wake of their 2012 defeat. The alternative to such an effort will only lead to a repeat of that disaster.

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ISIS Can Win Without Baghdad

I don’t blame President Obama for not rushing to launch symbolic air strikes in Iraq when we don’t have good ground-level intelligence on what targets to hit. But generating that intelligence will require dispatching a sizable contingent of Special Operations Forces, military trainers, and intelligence personnel to Iraq as soon as possible. Whether the president will do this or not remains unclear since his first reaction to the crisis was to affirm that the U.S. “will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”

I suppose that language leaves enough room to send Special Operations Forces and even advisers as long as they are billed as being on a “non-combat” mission–but whether Obama will do even that much remains very much an open question. It is not comforting to read in the Wall Street Journal: “One option developed by military planners would send as many as 1,400 advisers to embed in Iraqi battalions, but that plan was rejected by top defense officials as overly ambitious and against White House preferences.” This suggests that the president is still refusing, for largely political reasons (“White House preferences”), to do what is strategically necessary to stabilize a country on the verge of imploding.

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I don’t blame President Obama for not rushing to launch symbolic air strikes in Iraq when we don’t have good ground-level intelligence on what targets to hit. But generating that intelligence will require dispatching a sizable contingent of Special Operations Forces, military trainers, and intelligence personnel to Iraq as soon as possible. Whether the president will do this or not remains unclear since his first reaction to the crisis was to affirm that the U.S. “will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”

I suppose that language leaves enough room to send Special Operations Forces and even advisers as long as they are billed as being on a “non-combat” mission–but whether Obama will do even that much remains very much an open question. It is not comforting to read in the Wall Street Journal: “One option developed by military planners would send as many as 1,400 advisers to embed in Iraqi battalions, but that plan was rejected by top defense officials as overly ambitious and against White House preferences.” This suggests that the president is still refusing, for largely political reasons (“White House preferences”), to do what is strategically necessary to stabilize a country on the verge of imploding.

Certainly the public pronouncements from the White House do not communicate the gravity of the situation. Instead administration leakers are claiming that urgent action is not needed because the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has stalled in its attack north of Baghdad, which is protected not only by Iraqi security forces but also by Shiite militias. That is true, but it’s not the whole story. For one thing, ISIS continues to make important gains in the north, with the most recent news being that Iraq’s largest oil refinery, at Baiji, has fallen to the terrorists. If they manage to continue operating the refinery it will result in a critical lost of revenue (and power) for Baghdad and a concomitant increase in money and power for ISIS.

Moreover ISIS does not have to take Baghdad, much less the Shiite heartland, to win. It wins if it can simply establish and maintain an Islamist emirate encompassing not only the Sunni Triangle of Iraq but also northern Syria–a goal it is well on its way toward achieving. Eventually ISIS rule will chafe on the people under its thumb, as happened previously in Anbar Province–and as seen earlier in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. Fundamentalist jihadist rule is not very popular.

But that’s in the long run. In the short term a lot can and likely will happen if ISIS can consolidate its authority. It is likely, for example, to welcome a motley who’s who of international jihadists to its domain where they can be trained and, in some cases, exported to carry out terrorist attacks in their homelands–including Europe and the United States.

Some will argue that I’m overstating the danger because it’s not in ISIS’s interest to directly target the U.S. or our allies because this is more likely to trigger American intervention. But the same thing could have been said about the Taliban and al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. For some strange reason the reasoning of Western faculty lounges does not always resonate with the hard men of the jihadist movement.

The longer that ISIS controls northern and western Iraq and northern Syria, the more its power will grow and the harder it will be to dislodge. This will likely harden the division of Iraq between a Sunni terrorist state and a Shiite terrorist state. This is or should be America’s worst nightmare–and it is why the president needs to act with greater dispatch and decisiveness than is his usual professorial pattern.

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Will the Presbyterian Church USA Vote for Divestment (and Irrelevance)?

Irrelevance breeds irrelevance. When an organization allows itself to be influenced by radicals who are out of touch with the membership, the members begin to depart or tune out. As the numbers of thoughtful and attentive members dwindles, the organization becomes more susceptible to the influence of radicals. More members depart and tune out, the radicals become a significant part of the base leaders think they need to listen to, and the organization is in danger of being taken over. Such was the case of the small, barely relevant American Studies Association, which has become a playground for the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement, and such is the case with the much larger, but also barely relevant Presbyterian Church (USA).

The church, like other mainline churches, has been hemorrhaging members for some time. In 2013, PCUSA counted 1,760,200 members. That was down from 2,525,330 in 2000, a decline of about thirty percent.

Maybe Anti-Semitism will help.

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Irrelevance breeds irrelevance. When an organization allows itself to be influenced by radicals who are out of touch with the membership, the members begin to depart or tune out. As the numbers of thoughtful and attentive members dwindles, the organization becomes more susceptible to the influence of radicals. More members depart and tune out, the radicals become a significant part of the base leaders think they need to listen to, and the organization is in danger of being taken over. Such was the case of the small, barely relevant American Studies Association, which has become a playground for the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement, and such is the case with the much larger, but also barely relevant Presbyterian Church (USA).

The church, like other mainline churches, has been hemorrhaging members for some time. In 2013, PCUSA counted 1,760,200 members. That was down from 2,525,330 in 2000, a decline of about thirty percent.

Maybe Anti-Semitism will help.

Jonathan Tobin has reported on Zionism Unsettled, a “teaching guide” developed by the Israel-Palestine Network of the Church. Zionism Unsettled calls Zionism, or support for a Jewish state, “Jewish supremacism” on the order of support for Jim Crow, or the Nazis. David Duke tells us that this term was his idea, but he does not seem to mind that the authors borrowed it without attribution. Among friends, after all, one does not stand on ceremony. The church did just barely distance itself from Zionism Unsettled without, however, disavowing it. The Israel-Palestine Mission Network “speaks to the Church and not for the Church.” Never mind that the organization has the mandate and support of PCUSA, or that the book is for sale at the Church store.

The Israel-Palestine Mission Network was formed by the PCUSA General Assembly in 2004, the same year in which it passed a resolution calling for “phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.” While the Assembly was at it, it claimed that the “occupation” was “at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict” and lectured Israelis on the importance of making peace with the Palestinians. Formed at the behest of anti-Israel activists, the network has had a problem with anti-Semitism ever since. In 2006, under intense pressure, the Assembly voted to remove the selective disinvestment language. The Assembly also professed to be “grieved by the pain that [the 2004 resolution caused,” to “accept responsibility for the flaws [in the process leading up to that resolution], and to hope for “a new season of mutual understanding and dialogue.”

The activists have been trying to rescind this dangerous embrace of mutual understanding and dialogue, and to pass disinvestment, ever since. In 2012, they almost persuaded the Assembly to disinvest from Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard, and Motorola for “profiting from non-peaceful activities in Israel-Palestine.” They lost 333 to 331. Encouraged, they are back at it again at this year’s General Assembly, which is meeting this week. The good news is that the Mideast Committee failed, albeit very narrowly, to pass on to the General Assembly a resolution describing Israel as an apartheid state. It also succeeded, albeit hypocritically, in advancing a resolution distancing PCUSA from the now radioactive Zionism Unsettled. The bad news is that the same committee voted to recommend divestment from, once again, Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard, and Motorola.

Those members of the General Assembly who are merely foolish, rather than hostile to Jews, may vote for the resolution, which is admittedly much narrower than the one passed in 2004, thinking it relatively benign. That is the BDS strategy. Get what you can get, then publicly marvel at your momentum, even if what you got is less than what you were able to get ten years ago. But, as Yair Rosenberg reveals, boycott supporters like Reverend Larry Grimm hope for a lot more than disinvestment in a few companies: Grimm let the “everyone would be better off if there were no Israel” cat out of the bag on his Facebook page: “America is the Promised Land. We all know this. Come to the land of opportunity. Quit feeling guilt about what you are doing in Palestine, Jewish friends. Stop it. Come home to America!”

The Mideast Committee also passed a resolution urging reconsideration of the Church’s support for a two-state solution, a position which certainly follows from Grimm’s view that there should be no Jewish state.

I hope the General Assembly, which will take up these resolutions later this week, will again, by however small a margin, reject them. But if they don’t, BDS won’t get much momentum out of it. The more likely result, momentum-wise, is even more departures from the church. In spite of the implosion of mainline Protestantism, the press is still in the old habit of attending to the pronouncements of  mainline Protestant groups. So if the Assembly votes to embrace the anti-Israel lunatic fringe, even more rank and file Presbyterians may notice that they have leaders, and that these leaders are, increasingly, radicals and fools. Even devoted churchgoers can’t be blamed for leaving a church when it starts to smell this bad.

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