Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 30, 2014

The Secret of ‘Asymmetrical Warfare’—There Are Two Actors

The term of art for terrorism as a military tactic is “asymmetrical warfare.” Since terrorists cannot hope to best states and their armies by fighting them head on, they seek advantage through other tactics—hence the asymmetry. Those tactics are designed to sow fear and depression and anxiety and impotence  in civilian populations. Nothing will do that so well as the murder of kids The point is simple: This is war. Asymmetical warfare is … warfare. It’s not statecraft, it’s not a negotating tactic, it’s not an expression of anger at straitened circumstances. And  just as terrorists play to their own advantages in conducting war, so too the states they fight have every right to use their advantages once they are attacked. Otherwise the asymmetry is simply a form of unilateral permission to kill civilians and wreak havoc on the daily lives of those who are non-combatants.

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The term of art for terrorism as a military tactic is “asymmetrical warfare.” Since terrorists cannot hope to best states and their armies by fighting them head on, they seek advantage through other tactics—hence the asymmetry. Those tactics are designed to sow fear and depression and anxiety and impotence  in civilian populations. Nothing will do that so well as the murder of kids The point is simple: This is war. Asymmetical warfare is … warfare. It’s not statecraft, it’s not a negotating tactic, it’s not an expression of anger at straitened circumstances. And  just as terrorists play to their own advantages in conducting war, so too the states they fight have every right to use their advantages once they are attacked. Otherwise the asymmetry is simply a form of unilateral permission to kill civilians and wreak havoc on the daily lives of those who are non-combatants.

As Israel makes its moves in response to the monstrous slaughter of three boys, we need to keep this in mind. Israel must and should use the best weapons at its command—its superior intelligence, its ability to target bad guys, and its dominance of both ground and air—in a war Hamas (apparently) has now chosen to wage in the aftermath of the ludicrous Kerry “peace process.” This is the other part of the equation in asymmetrical warfare. If Israel follows Barack Obama’s typically anodyne and meaningless counsel to show “restraint,” the asymmetrical balance tilts in favor of Hamas. There’s no reason—moral, practical, realpolitik, or anything else—that Hamas should score any kind of victory here. Rather, it should be wounded, bloodied, injured, impaired, driven asunder. Hamas seeks to weaken Israel emotionally; that is its asymmetrical advantage. Israel’s task is now to weaken Hamas in every other way with its advantage.

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Dems Overreach in War on Women Reboot

Today’s Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby made it clear that religious liberty trumps ObamaCare’s policy dictates. That’s bad news for liberals who believe their vision of universal health care can override the Constitution as well as Republicans. But the silver lining for Democrats is that they think the decision will allow them to reboot their war on women theme just at the moment when it seemed the public might be tiring of it.

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Today’s Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby made it clear that religious liberty trumps ObamaCare’s policy dictates. That’s bad news for liberals who believe their vision of universal health care can override the Constitution as well as Republicans. But the silver lining for Democrats is that they think the decision will allow them to reboot their war on women theme just at the moment when it seemed the public might be tiring of it.

In Hobby Lobby, the court’s 5-4 majority established that the only guarantees that counted in the case were those of the First Amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act that set a high standard for the government to prove that it had a compelling interest to force citizens to violate their religious beliefs. As the decision stated, when it came to matters such as employment discrimination, faith cannot be an excuse for open bias. But the notion of the “right” of citizens to have free contraception or abortion-inducing drugs paid for by an employer who thinks such services violate their religion doesn’t meet the test.

The only parties that were potentially deprived of their rights in Hobby Lobby were the religious owners of the chain stores and other business people in a similar situation. The ObamaCare mandate treated their faith-based opposition to abortion drugs as irrelevant to the desire not for access to such drugs but to compel employers to pay for them. The court rightly decided that to do so to closely held corporations like Hobby Lobby was to create a situation in which the owners must choose between their faith and the right to do business. This would have been an intolerable violation of their rights that would create a cribbed definition of religious liberty in which faith must be abandoned in the public square.

Yet for Democrats, this commonsense reassertion of First Amendment protections is a new war on women being waged not by congressional Republicans but by conservative justices.

That’s the message being repeated endlessly on the left as it attempts to turn Hobby Lobby into a judicial version of Todd Akin’s infamous comments about rape and abortion. As Politico reports, it didn’t take long for Democratic operatives to begin ginning up their war machine in which the decision is now framed as an effort to impose fundamentalist religion on non-believers and to tell women what they can or cannot do with their bodies.

But what the Democrats are forgetting is that a Supreme Court decision protecting constitutional rights is not the moral equivalent of a political gaffe. Try as they might, Justice Samuel Alito’s ruling is not a repeat of Rush Limbaugh’s line about contraception advocate Sandra Fluke being a “slut.”

No one, not even the Green family that owns Hobby Lobby, is telling Fluke or any other women who wants free contraception or abortion drugs not to have sex or to use these products. But they are making it clear that they should not be forced to pay for these widely available items. Do the Democrats think Americans are so stupid as to misconstrue this entirely reasonable position as a war on women?

Given the events of 2012 when a few stray remarks by Limbaugh and then Akin morphed into a media-driven campaign meme about Republicans and women, perhaps they’re not far off. Limbaugh’s foolish comments about Fluke after she testified before Congress against the mandate helped transform a debate that up until that moment had been correctly focused on the Catholic Church’s principled opposition to the federal plan. Soon, everyone, at least in the mainstream media, was discussing how mean conservatives were to women, not religious freedom.

But a court decision is not so easily hyped into that kind of a distortion. Whether Americans agree with the Greens about abortion, and most probably do not, the reasonable center of American politics understands that this case is about balancing one demand for a benefit against rights. Turning that sort of a nuanced ruling, which limited the impact to a specific kind of company and which also set limits on how far faith could override policy mandates, into a one-liner requires more than an ad buy; it can only work when political operatives are in “big lie” mode.

The Democratic push will fire up their base and that is probably all they really want. But they must also be careful. No one liked it when Limbaugh insulted Fluke and Akin’s comments were as stupid as they were indefensible. But Alito’s decision is the sort of commonsense approach to policy that most Americans crave in that it defended principle while also recognized that even faith can go too far. If Democrats go all-in on an attack on religious liberty, barring a similar error such as that of Limbaugh, they may be the ones overreaching on the issue.

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Not the Moment for “Restraint” Against Hamas

In a sentiment that was echoed across the Israeli political spectrum, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed today that “Hamas will pay” for the murders of three Israeli teenagers kidnapped two weeks ago. What exactly Netanyahu meant by this phrase isn’t yet known. But given the track record of both Israel and the Palestinians and the efforts by President Obama to head off any tough action by Netanyahu, the leaders of the terror group may not exactly be shaking in their boots.

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In a sentiment that was echoed across the Israeli political spectrum, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed today that “Hamas will pay” for the murders of three Israeli teenagers kidnapped two weeks ago. What exactly Netanyahu meant by this phrase isn’t yet known. But given the track record of both Israel and the Palestinians and the efforts by President Obama to head off any tough action by Netanyahu, the leaders of the terror group may not exactly be shaking in their boots.

In the wake of the discovery of the victims’ bodies, anger against the Islamist terror group is widely felt and it is likely that Netanyahu’s government will have wide political leeway to hit Hamas hard, both in the West Bank and Gaza. But the question facing Israel is not so much whether to launch air strikes at Hamas headquarters or to round up even more of their supporters. Rather, it is whether if, after an interval of a week or two, Hamas is still functioning and is still part of the ruling coalition of the Palestinian Authority. If, after absorbing a pounding from the Israeli army, the Islamist movement’s leadership can claim that it not only shed more Jewish blood but also survived another Israeli counterattack, then despite all of the fearsome rhetoric coming out of Jerusalem, Hamas will have won.

President Obama’s condemnation of the deaths of the three Israeli teens was appropriate but it was accompanied by the standard call for “all sides to exercise restraint.” Which is to say that the U.S. is making it clear to the Israelis that anything beyond a minimal retaliation that will not make a difference will be condemned as worsening the situation. But, like all past efforts to enforce restraint on Israel, such counsel merely ensures that this tragedy will be played out again and again.

It must be understood that while the gruesome crime committed against three teenagers may damage Hamas’s already shaky reputation in the West, the willingness of the group to commit this atrocity may increase its popularity among Palestinians. In the last year, Hamas’s political stock has fallen as the cash shortfall caused by its rift with Iran and the closing of smuggling tunnels to Egypt undermined its ability to maintain local support. Where once it was seen as a viable alternative to the Fatah kleptocracy that rules over the West Bank, it is now seen as merely an Islamist version of the same corrupt model. Its willingness to maintain a rough cease-fire with Israel along the border with Gaza also robbed it of its mantle as the standard-bearer of the struggle against the Jewish state. It was for these reasons that it was forced to sign a unity agreement with Abbas’s Fatah.

Should a determined Israeli offensive take out some of its leadership and undermine its capacity to function, perhaps that decline will continue. But Hamas and its backers also know that violence has always been the main factor legitimizing Palestinian political parties. Should the kidnapping lead to another round of violence in which Hamas could portray itself as the true defender of Palestinian honor, then the incident could give it a new lease on life even as its members duck for cover.

That may incline some to counsel Israelis to avoid what in the past has been considered a “disproportionate” response to Palestinian provocations. Since Israeli attacks may actually undermine Abbas and boost Hamas, some (especially in the United States) may advise Netanyahu to make some noise but then get back to business as usual as quickly as possible lest a new counter-terror campaign serve to create a new generation of terrorists.

While that line of reasoning may sound logical, it would be a mistake. Israel needs to do more than launch some symbolic strikes that will do nothing to assuage Israeli anger while doing nothing to deter Palestinians from emulating this horrific deed. Nothing short of a stroke that will decapitate the leadership of this group will convince the Palestinians that Hamas has made a mistake.

As a poll I discussed last week showed, the vast majority of Palestinians want the struggle against Israel to continue but they don’t want to personally pay the price of that conflict. Making the vast majority of Palestinians pay for Hamas’s outrages would deepen their bitterness against Israel and lead to charges of collective punishment. But if, instead, Israel makes Hamas’s leaders pay in such a measure as to make it difficult if not impossible to carry on then perhaps Netanyahu can thread the needle in between an escalation and a weak non-response.

It may be that Israel’s options are limited by political realities and Hamas’s ability to withstand attacks. But no matter what choices Netanyahu makes, “restraint” will be merely an invitation for Hamas to repeat this crime again in the future.

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The Obama Era and the Collapse of Trust in Our Governing Institutions

According to a new survey by the Gallup organization:

Americans’ confidence in all three branches of the U.S. government has fallen, reaching record lows for the Supreme Court (30%) and Congress (7%), and a six-year low for the presidency (29%). The presidency had the largest drop of the three branches this year, down seven percentage points from its previous rating of 36%.

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According to a new survey by the Gallup organization:

Americans’ confidence in all three branches of the U.S. government has fallen, reaching record lows for the Supreme Court (30%) and Congress (7%), and a six-year low for the presidency (29%). The presidency had the largest drop of the three branches this year, down seven percentage points from its previous rating of 36%.

These findings are a powerful indictment of the Obama presidency. But they are also part of a broader, extraordinary collapse of trust in government we’ve witnessed during the last 50 years.

After his landslide election in 1964, Lyndon Johnson proclaimed that Americans were living in “the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem.”

Not exactly.

In fact, in less than four years America lurched from one of our more tranquil political periods to perhaps the most tumultuous since the Civil War. It happened in the blink of a historical eye, and it was driven by a complex set of factors, some the result of public policy and some not, but eventually the accretion heavily implicated government.

The public, especially young people, began to turn against the Vietnam War, to the point that President Johnson–battered and broken–decided not to run for reelection in 1968. Student protests spread, including onto college campuses. The nation was convulsed during the struggle over civil rights, while cities burned in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Robert Kennedy was murdered just two months later–and only five years after his brother was gunned down in Dallas. We experienced the killings at Kent State and the March on the Pentagon, Woodstock and Watergate, black power salutes in the Mexico City Olympics and violence at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Social pathologies–including crime, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, those on welfare, and more–worsened. And trust in government eroded at an extraordinary pace.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 1964, 76 percent of the public said they trusted government in Washington to do what was right most of the time or just about always. Just a decade later, the figure had fallen to 36 percent. By 1980, it dropped to 25 percent. In only a decade and a half, trust in government fell by 50 percentage points. We have never seen anything quite like it.

While public trust increased during the presidency of Ronald Reagan (to 47 percent), it dropped sharply following it. By the summer of 1994 public trust was at 17 percent, the lowest recorded. Those figures fluctuated during the Clinton second term, falling to 24 percent during the run-up to the Clinton impeachment trial but rising to more than 40 percent by the end of the Clinton presidency (June 2000). During George W. Bush’s first term, public trust in government spiked to more than 60 percent in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But by October 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis, trust was again down to 17 percent.

This deep, durable unhappiness with government, and the longing of the public to once again believe in it, was something that Barack Obama brilliantly tapped into during his campaign for the presidency. The centerpiece of his run was not a particular policy; it was the promise to elevate our political debates and restore government to a respected place in our national life.

Yet here we are, in the sixth year of the Obama presidency, with the level of confidence in his presidency (29 percent) lower than at a comparable point for any of his predecessors and the ratings for the legislative and judicial branches at or near their lowest points to date.

I can’t say that these judgments are unwarranted. But I’m not convinced that such corrosive mistrust of our governing institutions is particularly good for our country, either. In a free nation, massive distrust of our governing institutions is a self-indictment of sorts. Government is, after all, the “offspring of our own choice,” in the words of George Washington, who added it has

a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty.

Today respect for government’s authority has never been lower, and the American people cannot be happy with this state of affairs or with themselves. In the wake of the Obama era, where expectations were raised to such dizzying heights, only to collapse into ruins, the public will be understandably wary about the next person promising to heal the planet and repair the world, who claims the power to halt the rise of the ocean tides, who says that this time will be different than all the rest and declares that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” (To remind yourself of the stratospheric expectations set by Mr. Obama, I’d urge you to watch this short clip of Obama in 2008.)

Given where we are, it seems to me that the proper response from a Republican candidate is not to celebrate in this distrust but to help correct it; to candidly and with some sophistication explain why it’s happened and to show how a modern conservative governing agenda (perhaps something along these lines) can help restore trust in a responsible, limited government. With the Obama presidency lying in ashes, and with liberalism itself terribly damaged, an opportunity exists. Who on the right will seize it?

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Turkey’s Last Chance?

Turks will go to the polls on August 10 to elect a new president, the first time that office will be filled by direct election. This weekend, incumbent Abdullah Gül, a Justice and Development Party (AKP) acolyte, has announced he will step down and the AKP will determine its nominee on July 1. The party’s nominee will likely be Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist, corrupt, and increasingly authoritarian prime minister.

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Turks will go to the polls on August 10 to elect a new president, the first time that office will be filled by direct election. This weekend, incumbent Abdullah Gül, a Justice and Development Party (AKP) acolyte, has announced he will step down and the AKP will determine its nominee on July 1. The party’s nominee will likely be Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist, corrupt, and increasingly authoritarian prime minister.

Rather than roll over and accept Turkey’s slide into autocracy or kleptocracy without a fight, the center-left Republican Peoples Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) have nominated a joint candidate, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Turkish history reflects the significance of such a choice: For decades, the CHP and MHP were at each other’s’ throats. Gangs affiliated with each targeted supporters of the other. The heightened political polarization in Washington today is nothing compared to what the CHP and MHP wrought. What happened in Turkey is as if Valerie Jarrett and Karl Rove suddenly decided to mount a joint candidate against a greater threat.

I spent the last week in Turkey, talking to several CHP and MHP officials as well as contacts who aren’t involved in politics about the İhsanoğlu choice and Turkey’s way forward. Admittedly, many CHP and MHP members are uneasy: İhsanoğlu’s credentials are primarily because of his Islamic scholarship. While members bend over backwards to say he is not an Islamist, he is far different from the typical CHP and MHP candidate, and their respective bases suggest as much. Some outside the parties suggest that the choice of İhsanoğlu effectively acknowledges the end of secularism in Turkey, although party leaders hotly deny this.

What there does appear to be consensus about, though, is that an Erdoğan presidency will permanently end the Republic of Turkey as anyone knows it. Erdoğan is increasingly blunt in his desire to remake Turkey and Turkish society, hence his declaration that “We will raise a religious generation.” Some politicians even suggest Erdoğan sees himself more as a caliph responsive to the Islamic umma (community) rather than simply a leader for Turks. The autocracy under which Turkey now suffers was reflected in the debate about which “Medvedev” might succeed Erdoğan as prime minister.

If Erdoğan wins the presidency—either in the first round on August 10 or, if he receives less than 50 percent, in the second round on August 24—then Turks believe he will increasingly rule as a dictator, remaking the once more ceremonial presidency even as his old party withers under his thumb or falls apart. Indeed, given accusations that the AKP has fiddled with ballot boxes, some Turkish politicians suggested that Erdoğan would automatically gain a fraud bonus of perhaps five percent, which the opposition will have to overcome.

Under Erdoğan, Turkey has shifted its diplomatic posture away from Europe and toward the Middle East. Rather than even align with the more secular dictators of the Middle East, Erdoğan has aligned instead with religious radicals, whether in Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood, or Hamas. Elections matter. But after 12 years of electoral wins, the August polls might mean the end of meaningful elections in Turkey, for an Erdoğan victory would likely mean years more of using the institutions of state to attack anyone in politics, business, or society who dares to stand in his way.

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Is Biden Vindicated on Iraq? Not Even Close

Here is a terrifying, but oddly explanatory, opening sentence from the Sunday edition of the New York Times on Iraq: “From the first summer of the Obama administration, Iraq has been considered Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s account.” While giving such an important strategic portfolio to the man who famously is on the wrong side of nearly every foreign-policy issue may not have been the best idea, the article at first sounds like it’ll at least be a demotion of some kind. After all, a self-declared caliphate is currently burning Iraq to the ground.

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Here is a terrifying, but oddly explanatory, opening sentence from the Sunday edition of the New York Times on Iraq: “From the first summer of the Obama administration, Iraq has been considered Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s account.” While giving such an important strategic portfolio to the man who famously is on the wrong side of nearly every foreign-policy issue may not have been the best idea, the article at first sounds like it’ll at least be a demotion of some kind. After all, a self-declared caliphate is currently burning Iraq to the ground.

But no. Believe it or not, that sentence serves as the introduction to the Times’s attempt to claim that the current mess in Iraq is Biden’s vindication–or at least the vindication of his proposal in 2006 to divide Iraq into three pieces. The country currently looks headed that way, goes the logic, and so perhaps Biden was right after all.

Wrong. Let’s first dispense with the faulty logic employed by the Times. Just because Biden suggested something that is now happening does not mean the United States should have facilitated that outcome. There are various reasons for this, one of which Christian Caryl reported a few days ago:

For the past 2,000 years, Iraq has been home to a distinct and vibrant culture of Eastern Christianity. Now that storied history appears to be coming to an end. Even if the ISIS forces are ultimately driven back, it’s hard to imagine that the Mosul Christians who have fled will see a future for themselves in an Iraq dominated by the current Shiite dictatorship of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which enjoys strong support from Iran.

It’s worth adding, perhaps, that Christians aren’t the only ones in this predicament. Iraq is also home to a number of other religious minorities endangered by the country’s polarization into two warring camps of Islam. The Yazidis follow a belief system that has a lot in common with the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism; about a half a million of them live in northern Iraq. The Mandaeans, numbering only 30,000 or so, are perhaps the world’s last remaining adherents of Gnosticism, one of the offshoots of early Christianity. By tradition many Mandaeans are goldsmiths — a trade that has made them prominent targets for abduction in the post-invasion anarchy of Iraq. Losing these unique cultures makes the world a poorer place.

Feeding Iraq’s sectarianism meant obliterating in some cases its ethnic minority communities. That’s what is happening now, and I don’t think Biden or his staff wishes they could take credit for it.

Now, there’s an important distinction Biden makes: he insists he didn’t want three separate countries–a true partition–but instead three semi-autonomous territories with a central government. Yet a look at Iraq today tells you all you need to know about how well the center could hold under such a federal system. What that division would do is accelerate the disintegration.

Once you devolve power from the center and encourage sectarian division, that division will only concretize leaving the federal center without enough enforcement power. A federal system can thrive in certain conditions–Biden himself is currently vice president of a federal republic–but one important condition is a commitment to a certain level of nationalism. Iraq’s borders never possessed the legitimacy such a state would need. The legitimacy, instead, was held by sectarian loyalties.

There’s also more than a bit of irony in the supposed “vindication” of Biden’s old idea. The tone of the story is that if only we had listened to Biden, things might have been different. But the story opens up by stating, explicitly, that we have been listening to Biden all along. Iraq has been his portfolio. The truth is that neither of Biden’s ideas about how to solve the Iraq puzzle were good ones, and the current situation there is demonstrating the failure of both–the failure of one leading to the failure of the other.

More than anything else, Iraq’s dissolution is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Obama/Biden team was elected on a platform of ending America’s involvement in the Iraq war as soon as the president could make the retreat happen. When that took place, which was before it was strategically sensible, the fragile calm achieved but still being secured when Obama came into office was lost. The administration’s overall policy has been disastrous, and that did not happen because no one took Joe Biden’s advice.

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Will Kurdistan Be the World’s Newest Dictatorship?

With the collapse of Iraqi authority over Kirkuk and its lucrative oil fields, Iraqi Kurds have consolidated control over nearly all territory to which they have laid claim. They preside over a booming region fueled by oil and, in recent years, real estate development as well. A whole generation of Kurdish youth speak no Arabic, have no memory of life under Saddam Hussein, and feel no connection to Baghdad whatsoever. Whereas Kurds long quipped they had no friends but the mountains—and the world’s silence a quarter century ago when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurdish population reinforced such a belief—now an international array of investors, including a number of former U.S. officials, line up for a share of the Kurdish pot of black gold. Indeed, it’s hard not to embrace the Kurdish desire for independence denied to them in the wake of the post-World War I settlements and border adjustments. That Syrian Kurds now have de facto autonomy and Turkish Kurds appear likely over the next decade of winning similar status suggests that when Kurdish statehood comes, it may not simply be limited to northern Iraq.

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With the collapse of Iraqi authority over Kirkuk and its lucrative oil fields, Iraqi Kurds have consolidated control over nearly all territory to which they have laid claim. They preside over a booming region fueled by oil and, in recent years, real estate development as well. A whole generation of Kurdish youth speak no Arabic, have no memory of life under Saddam Hussein, and feel no connection to Baghdad whatsoever. Whereas Kurds long quipped they had no friends but the mountains—and the world’s silence a quarter century ago when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurdish population reinforced such a belief—now an international array of investors, including a number of former U.S. officials, line up for a share of the Kurdish pot of black gold. Indeed, it’s hard not to embrace the Kurdish desire for independence denied to them in the wake of the post-World War I settlements and border adjustments. That Syrian Kurds now have de facto autonomy and Turkish Kurds appear likely over the next decade of winning similar status suggests that when Kurdish statehood comes, it may not simply be limited to northern Iraq.

That said, while it’s easy to cheer lead for Kurdish independence, it would be tragic to believe that the Kurdish struggle will end with the lowering of the Iraqi flag (if any still fly outside of Sulaymani and Kirkuk) and the raising of the old Mahabad flag adopted by Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurdistan is still divided among oligarchs and tribal strongmen. And while it will be easy to welcome Kurdistan into the formal family of nations, it would do Kurds a disservice if the international community simply forgot about them then and ceased pressuring for Kurdistan to become the democracy that so many Kurds desire. Masud Barzani, the Kurdish Region’s president, unilaterally extended his second term so as to avoid the constitutional mandate to step down at its conclusion. He promotes a cult of personality, bases employment on party loyalty and family fealty, and uses his son’s security force against any who would pose him or his party any challenge whatsoever. He draws no differentiation between state resources, party resources, and the personal pocketbook. In other words, while Kurdish officials often brag about their democracy, Kurdistan has become about as democratic as Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Let us hope that the Kurds win their freedom, but even as we celebrate that step it is important to remember that freedom and possessing a nation-state are not synonymous; indeed, a battle just as real for human rights and liberty may only just be beginning. In all the celebrations, it’s important to recognize that a Kurdish democracy can contribute to the advancement of the Middle East much better than just another Middle Eastern autocracy.

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Moral Equivalence No Answer to Terror

Now that the bodies of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers have been found, we can expect the usual chorus of pro forma condemnations of terrorism and sympathy for the victims to be voiced by many world leaders. But the willingness of so many of the same people to treat deliberate attempts to target civilians by the Palestinians as morally equivalent to the fate of those Arabs killed while conducting violence against Israelis gives the lie to their pose of objectivity.

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Now that the bodies of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers have been found, we can expect the usual chorus of pro forma condemnations of terrorism and sympathy for the victims to be voiced by many world leaders. But the willingness of so many of the same people to treat deliberate attempts to target civilians by the Palestinians as morally equivalent to the fate of those Arabs killed while conducting violence against Israelis gives the lie to their pose of objectivity.

The discovery of the bodies of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel brings an unhappy ending to the effort that transfixed Israelis and Jews around the world but aroused relatively little interest outside of the Jewish community. The Hamas terror group that is believed to be behind the crime will feel the consequences of what appears to be the cold-blooded murders of these three boys shortly after their abduction. Hamas’s partners in the Palestinian Authority will also be put to the test as the Israelis will now see whether PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’s helpful rhetoric condemning the kidnapping will be matched by actions that disassociate his government from terrorists.

But once condolences have been given and the boys buried, the atrocity will probably be shoved down the global memory hole as Palestinians and their cheerleaders contend that the terror attack on the teens must be seen as either an understandable reaction to the “occupation” or morally equivalent to the fate of those Palestinians who die while attacking Israeli forces. The New York Times provided a prime example of such thinking this morning in an article published only hours before the bodies were found.

In this piece by Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, the paper contrasted the grief felt by Naftali Fraenkel’s mother Rachel and that of another mother, Aida Dudeen, whose son Muhammad was killed while confronting Israeli soldiers searching for the boys.

The loss of any life is a tragedy and the sadness of both mothers is genuine. But other than those bare facts, there is no real basis of comparison between these two families. In one case, you have a boy who was targeted by terrorists because he was a Jew and vulnerable and then murdered. In the other, another boy actively chooses to join the ranks of those attempting to obstruct the forces attempting to find the kidnapping victims and attacks them with rocks, seeking to provoke the Israelis into firing to protect their own lives.

The words of the two mothers also belie any moral equivalence. While Fraenkel expressed sympathy for any Palestinians who have been hurt, Aida Dudeen proclaimed her boy to be a “martyr” who “died for his homeland.” Dudeen, who said she tried to prevent her son from joining in the violence, also regards the Jewish presence in the land to be a matter of “colonialism.” Like the Palestinian social media campaign mocking the kidnapped boys, there is a clear sense on the part of the Arabs that any Jew who suffers in the conflict had it coming.

Reduced to the personal human element of mothers and sons, one can argue that one is no different from the other. But so long as the Palestinians cling to the notion that the country can be “liberated,” as Dudeen suggests, from the Jews, nothing will change. Despite the clichés about a cycle of violence in which both sides are stuck, the events that led to the deaths of Fraenkel and Dudeen were not involuntary. They involved the decision on the part of Hamas terrorists to kill Israeli kids and the subsequent decisions of other Palestinians to pour into the streets in an effort to either impede Israeli searchers or to seek out confrontations in which the ranks of Palestinian “martyrs” will be replenished.

The problem here is not merely a misunderstanding between the two sides that can be resolved by a superficial juxtaposition of the two families. The deaths of these two boys stem from a belief on the part of the Palestinians that they have the right to “resist” the Jewish presence with terror as well as the duty to attack those Israelis who sought out the terrorists and their victims.

Israel will be justified in taking drastic actions against Hamas in the coming days, especially in light of the news that, for the first time in years, the Islamist group is firing missiles into southern Israel from Gaza rather than farming out that duty to other Palestinian groups. But the point here isn’t so much the necessity to mete out retaliation for the kidnapping/murders as it is the necessity of the Palestinians to reassess their actions and belief system that set this chain of events in motion.

The tragic ending to the search should also cause those—like the New York Times—who routinely treat the victims of terror as somehow morally equivalent to those who aid and support terror to think again about what it truly means to be evenhanded in one’s thinking about the conflict. By treating these events as an excuse for superficial moralizing rather than an honest evaluation of a toxic Palestinian political culture that glorifies terror, the Western media plays a not insignificant role in perpetuating a conflict that they deplore.

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The Opposition to Religious Liberty Is Partisan–And That’s What Is Dangerous

Anyone watching Congressman Xavier Becerra, Democrat of California, on Fox News Sunday yesterday saw the one significant aspect of the Hobby Lobby case that the Supreme Court would not have solved no matter how it ruled today. Of course, it helped that the high court defended some space for religious freedom in its ruling. But Becerra’s talking points demonstrated just why religious protections must be in place and defended vigorously: religious freedom for its own sake is now a partisan issue.

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Anyone watching Congressman Xavier Becerra, Democrat of California, on Fox News Sunday yesterday saw the one significant aspect of the Hobby Lobby case that the Supreme Court would not have solved no matter how it ruled today. Of course, it helped that the high court defended some space for religious freedom in its ruling. But Becerra’s talking points demonstrated just why religious protections must be in place and defended vigorously: religious freedom for its own sake is now a partisan issue.

Becerra was asked by host Chris Wallace whether business owners must violate their beliefs if the government mandates it. Here is the ensuing exchange (sic throughout; from the transcript):

BECERRA: The government will not violate anyone’s religious beliefs. But no one has the right to discriminate against a woman because of her own beliefs. I believe that the Supreme Court will find that no business –

WALLACE: She doesn’t have to work with the company.

BECERRA: – no business should be allowed to discrimination against women. And we’ve gone beyond that. We should also try to pay them equally for the work they do.

WALLACE: We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about the birth control mandate.

BECERRA: Let’s protect the woman’s rights to be able to earn the same pay and live their lives –

WALLACE: What about the owner’s right to his religious freedom, his religious beliefs?

BECERRA: The owner has a right to his or her religious beliefs, but that doesn’t mean you get to discriminate against women if a woman have different beliefs than what the owner has and the woman wants to exercise her rights under the Constitution.

Notice Becerra–twice–compares “religious beliefs” to any “beliefs.” The owner may hold religious beliefs that would be violated by the contraception mandate. But the employee believes the owner should provide her with any form of birth control she wants. Now we’re at an impasse, according to Becerra’s remarkably preposterous gibberish. According to Becerra’s mindset–and remember, he is offering the Democratic Party take on this case–religious beliefs are no different from political opinions. That is, for the purposes of constitutional law and practice, they don’t exist separate from any random employee demand.

Of course, the Supreme Court did not rule this way, because Becerra’s reasoning, such as it is, discounts the very first passage of the very First Amendment to the Constitution. But the violence Becerra wants to inflict on the Constitution should not be ignored even after the high court rejected it, because it reflects the reason we have this case to begin with: when forced to choose between religious freedom and government coercion, the left will choose government coercion. Combine that with the extent to which the left seeks to expand government power, and you have a troubling erosion of civil society and the private sphere.

That’s evident from this piece by Yishai Schwartz in the New Republic. Schwartz argues that the left is wrong to dismiss the religious freedom issues at play here. He knocks the deeply silly talking point so popular on the left that “corporations aren’t people” and “corporations don’t have beliefs.” He writes: “I certainly hope The New Republic has free-speech rights and the local church has free-exercise rights, even though they are corporations.”

Having acknowledged the legitimacy of the religious protections Hobby Lobby sought, Schwartz also praises the religious freedom “consensus” that has prevailed … until now. What happened? Here Schwartz makes a novel, though thoroughly noxious, attempt at misdirection: “the GOP’s scorched-earth attack of the Affordable Care Act has already claimed its primary victim: religious freedom.”

Schwartz then tries, in vain, to defend his assertion that the party fighting on behalf of religious freedom is really its enemy, and the party assaulting the religious freedom consensus is innocent:

But as conservative media seized on religious freedom suits like Hobby Lobby to bludgeon Obama, the left has increasingly abandoned RFRA. Where liberals once championed a law meant to protect small religious groups from callous majorities, they now see an endless slippery slope of religious conservatives obeying whatever laws they happen to find acceptable.  In religious freedom, the left now sees only a shield that will allow religious conservatives to discriminate against gays and harm women’s reproductive health. In the partisan rancor that has consumed today’s Washington, the consensus in favor of religious accommodations has been shattered.

ObamaCare’s HHS regulations infringed on the religious freedom of Christians. After that infringement, Americans fought for their previously recognized religious rights. According to Schwartz, conservatives should have silently accepted this abrogation of constitutional protections because if they made a scene, liberals would finally concede that they don’t really believe in those protections, and in a fit of rage revolt against the very idea of religious freedom–simply because conservatives are loudly defending it.

I don’t know the Democrats that Schwartz is talking about, but they seem consumed by anger and absolutism. And they–and their apologists like Schwartz–are living proof of just how important it is to fight for and codify these rights. Any political movement that hates conservatives enough to abandon the Constitution because conservatives support it, as does the version of American liberalism Schwartz profiles, is a perpetual argument in favor of conservatives’ effort to preserve religious liberty.

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Religious Liberty Trumps ObamaCare

In ruling against the ObamaCare contraception mandate today in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a fundamental principle of American law. While the administration hoped to establish a precedent that would have ensured that its policy goals about free contraception and abortion overrode the rights of individuals, the court said no. Religious freedom trumps ObamaCare and the government’s war on faith.

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In ruling against the ObamaCare contraception mandate today in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a fundamental principle of American law. While the administration hoped to establish a precedent that would have ensured that its policy goals about free contraception and abortion overrode the rights of individuals, the court said no. Religious freedom trumps ObamaCare and the government’s war on faith.

At stake in this case was the question of whether the government could compel companies to pay for services that its owners asserted violated their right to religious freedom. In this case, it was the abortion-inducing drugs that the Christian owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of stores refused to include in the insurance coverage they offered employees. The government’s position was that such companies do not have First Amendment rights that protect free exercise of religion. But what the court has done today is to make clear that no policy goal justifies abrogating religious freedom.

Doing so does not overturn the Affordable Care Act or make it unworkable. Indeed, the decision will probably not even affect the ability of individuals who work for such companies to get free coverage for such drugs since it is likely that the government will now step in and pay for them. Nor does it claim that all companies can assert such rights since the decision restricts itself to the fate of closely held corporations rather than public companies run by people with diverse views and interests. But it does deal a devastating blow to the concept that government mandates can run roughshod over religious freedom when applied to those who do business.

Had the government prevailed, the result would have been a new cribbed version of religious freedom that would have allowed it only in houses of worship or at home but not in the public square. Under those circumstances, those choosing to operate businesses or to avail themselves of the protections afforded those who incorporate enterprises would be forced to make a choice between their faith and their economic interests. As Justice Alito rightly notes in the majority decision, when Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it “designed the statute to provide very broad protection for religious liberty and did not intend to put merchants to such a choice.”

Liberals have mocked the idea that corporations are individuals with rights, whether of political speech (which the court protected in the Citizens United decision) or religious liberty as in this case. But the point here is that by extending free exercise rights to corporations, the Constitution is guaranteeing them to the individuals who own them. Citizens are not stripped of their religious freedom when they incorporate.

Similarly, opponents of Hobby Lobby and the other companies associated with this case have asserted that granting religious liberty to such entities creates a slippery slope that will enable all sorts of discrimination in the name of faith. But, as the court held, the government has a compelling interest in protecting citizens against such actions. It could make no such case for forcing business owners to pay for abortion-inducing drugs.

The mandate’s supporters have sought to frame this issue as one of women’s rights or health but that is utterly specious. No one is preventing anyone from obtaining contraception or abortions in this case. But it does not follow that the government has the right to compel companies to pay for such services when they contradict the religious beliefs of its owners. Those who wish not to be forced to pay for such services are not imposing their faith on others. It is, instead, the government that is trying to force people of faith to abandon their values if they want to operate publicly.

This precedent will not apply to companies with diverse ownership that do not all agree about religion. Yet by carving out a place in the public sphere for companies like Hobby Lobby, whose proprietors live out their faiths even when they do business, the court has reminded a government whose appetite for power seems unquenchable that the First Amendment protections of religious expression apply in the business world as much as they do in churches, synagogues, or mosques.

One needn’t agree with the Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, or with the Catholic Church that successfully campaigned for exempting religious institutions and non-profits from the mandate, about either contraception or abortion, to understand that if the government can take their rights away, no one’s freedom is safe.

At the heart of this case was more than a government regulation. Universal healthcare is, in principle, a noble goal. But when it is interpreted to mean that the government guarantees those who wish to avail themselves of contraception or abortion services may compel those whose faith opposes these things to give it to them for free, it becomes a form of tyranny. Even if we were to concede that the Affordable Care Act is good for the country, which I do not, its ambition to expand insurance coverage is not sufficient to justify mandates that treat religious liberty as an afterthought at best.

As with so many other difficult cases being decided by the court these days, Hobby Lobby hinged on the attempt to balance the desire of liberals to expand the power of government with constitutional principles. Religious liberty may not be set aside merely because it can, under some circumstances, interfere with the liberal project. The Constitution can be a very inconvenient document for those who want to ignore its restrictions on the ability of government to do what it likes. But at least in this instance, the court has reminded us that religious freedom cannot be sacrificed on the altar of President Obama’s signature health-care law.

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The Consequences of the Obama Foreign-Policy Vacuum

The proclamation of the establishment of what is billing itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a troubling sign of how confident ISIS is feeling about its prospects even if no one is taking seriously the group’s leader’s boast that he is caliph of the world. But the desperate situation is also allowing Russia to insert itself into the deteriorating Middle East situation.

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The proclamation of the establishment of what is billing itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a troubling sign of how confident ISIS is feeling about its prospects even if no one is taking seriously the group’s leader’s boast that he is caliph of the world. But the desperate situation is also allowing Russia to insert itself into the deteriorating Middle East situation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to resurrect the old tsarist and Soviet empires isn’t much less of a fantasy than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s pretensions. Yet the news that Russia is sending aircraft to the government of Iraq as well as expert personnel to help deploy them is yet another indication that Moscow’s desire to reassert itself on the world stage is no empty boast. Like the Russians’ opportunistic efforts to cozy up to an Egyptian government that has become thoroughly alienated from the United States and its successful aid program that has helped prop up the Assad dictatorship in Syria, the Russian foothold in Iraq is just the latest indication of what happens when the United States makes a conscious decision to abandon its responsibilities.

The delivery of a dozen jets won’t alter the balance of power in the region or probably even improve the Iraqi government’s faltering military efforts. Nor does this one move, even when placed in the context of Russia’s other attempts to worm its way back into international relevance, give Putin the kind of power that Leonid Brezhnev once wielded. At this moment, the U.S. is not discouraging efforts to aid the cause of the Baghdad government even if it means Iran or even Syria is attempting to exploit the implosion of Iraq.

Moreover, the confusing and shifting alliances of the factions fighting in Syria and Iraq makes it hard to see any foreign interventions as signifying anything more than a chaotic scrum in which the United States has no real friends or much to gain.

But what must be understood about these developments is that they all stem from the power vacuum that has developed in the region as the Obama administration tried to ease itself out of a conflict in which it no longer believed. The abandonment of Iraq by the U.S. was depicted as President Obama “ending” a war that wearied and depressed Americans. The war had been essentially won by the time Obama took office by means of a surge that the president had claimed could never work. But he and his vice president happily took credit for President Bush’s decision and then proceeded to bug out, just as they seem prepared to leave Afghanistan now.

But wars don’t end just because Americans and their presidents want them to be finished. Similarly, just because this administration thought that it could back away from American interests and allies without paying a cost, that didn’t mean that the implementation of such a policy would not wind up setting the stage for chaos.

Liberal thinkers thought the post-American Middle East would be one in which a healthy multilateralism would replace cowboy diplomacy to produce a more stable world that would no longer be dominated by the U.S. But the result of this pullback has created the opposite result. In the absence of a strong U.S. presence, Iraq has disintegrated. Iran is more powerful than ever and, via its Syrian and Lebanese surrogates, is causing Arab moderates to fear for their future even as insurgents like ISIS are having the same effect. The decision of the Russians to parachute into this disaster is just one more indication of how bad things have gotten.

After years of dithering, measures like Obama’s decision to fund Syrian opposition factions won’t repair the damage that his previous prevarications have caused. When you create a vacuum like the one that the U.S. created in the last few years, all sorts of unexpected and unpleasant things are bound to happen. Iraq’s would-be worldwide caliph will provide fodder for American comics but, as Putin seems to understand, the trouble that was created by Obama’s desire to pull back from the world stage is just getting started.

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