Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 9, 2014

Kerry’s Blunders Bode Ill For Iran Talks

While Israel is focused right now on dealing with a Hamas missile barrage that has continued for three days, the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon cannot be entirely forgotten. But if Israelis are concerned about the mixed messages their American ally has been sending to the Palestinians, they have to be even more worried about what the U.S. might do in the talks with Tehran.

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While Israel is focused right now on dealing with a Hamas missile barrage that has continued for three days, the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon cannot be entirely forgotten. But if Israelis are concerned about the mixed messages their American ally has been sending to the Palestinians, they have to be even more worried about what the U.S. might do in the talks with Tehran.

As the Wall Street Journal reported today, the P5+1 process is currently stalemated with a July 20 deadline looming over the negotiators. Iran and the West appear to be far apart on issues such as Tehran’s “right” to enrich uranium and the number of centrifuges it would be allowed to keep in the future, the future of its plutonium nuclear plant as well as its mountainside Fordow plant where enrichment activities continue. That list doesn’t even include issues such as Iran’s secret military research facilities that have not been visited by United Nations inspectors or its ballistic missile program that might provide the ayatollahs with a delivery system for a bomb.

Going into the final weeks of talks (though the negotiations can always be extended by both sides), the Iranians have been sounding confident about their ability to stick to their existing positions that would guarantee them the ability to build a bomb despite Western concerns.

The Obama administration gave up much of its leverage over Iran last fall when it decided to loosen sanctions in an interim agreement that granted implicit recognition of Iran’s right to both enrichment and a formidable nuclear infrastructure. The Iranians were required to convert their stockpile of nuclear fuel to a state that couldn’t be used for a bomb. But that could be quickly reversed if the Islamist regime decided to attempt a “break out” to a weapon. Indeed, after beginning the process of unraveling the sanctions that had taken years to put in place, the U.S. position on the Iranian threat has been reduced to one that attempts to lengthen the breakout period rather than forcing Tehran to give up its enrichment or, as President Obama pledged in 2012, the end of its nuclear program.

Iran’s confidence also has to be boosted by the announcement that the P5+1 foreign ministers, a group that includes Secretary of State John Kerry, will be joining the talks in Vienna this week. That’s an ominous development since the weak interim agreement was only reached after Kerry parachuted into those talks in November.

Kerry’s presence is worrisome because he explained the U.S. retreat last fall as being motivated by his belief that even the weak deal he signed was better than no deal at all. To those who wondered why he had accepted Iran’s insistence on keeping its nuclear infrastructure, he merely replied that sticking to America’s demands was impossible. With Iran’s leaders insisting that they will never accept a major reduction in the number of centrifuges available to them, it’s hard to believe that Kerry will hold the line on that issue after his previous retreat.

Kerry’s blunders in the talks between Israel and the Palestinians should also raise alarms for those wondering how he will manage the Iranians in the coming weeks. Throughout that process, Kerry not only disregarded Israel’s security requirements but also continually backed down from demands made on the Palestinians, even those that were purely symbolic such as their need to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state. Kerry was also heedless of the consequences of his all-but-certain failure. The current violence can be directly traced not only to his foolish initiative but his decision not to hold the Palestinian Authority accountable for its decision to ally itself with Hamas rather than making peace with Israel.

At a time when, as Forbes’ Business Insider reports, European governments are already gutting sanctions on Iran even before the talks are concluded, Tehran heads into the final days of negotiations feeling it has the wind at its back. Just as Kerry helped set the stage for the revival of Hamas and a new round of violence, his zeal for a deal with Iran may lead to even more serious disasters in the negotiations that are about to unfold.

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Obama’s Katrina? It’s Actually Worse

For once, I have to agree with the White House. They’re right to deny that the debacle along the border with Mexico is President Obama’s Hurricane Katrina moment. It’s actually much worse.

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For once, I have to agree with the White House. They’re right to deny that the debacle along the border with Mexico is President Obama’s Hurricane Katrina moment. It’s actually much worse.

White House Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Muñoz said it wasn’t fair to compare the debacle along the border with Mexico to Hurricane Katrina. She’s right about that. The Katrina analogy has been mooted by a number of conservative writers but got some extra juice this week when Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar, whose Texas district is situated along the border where locals have been overwhelmed by the surge of illegal immigration, used the K word when discussing President Obama’s reaction to the problem. Obama’s decision to avoid the border this week even though he was already scheduled to go to Texas for a political fundraiser was widely compared to the awful optics that ensued when President Bush was photographed flying over New Orleans after it was devastated by the storm.

Bush had good reasons for not parachuting into an area where first responders and reinforcements were already overwhelmed by the disaster. His presence on the ground would have done nothing to help anyone. Nor is it clear that Obama going to the border would do a thing to fix the crisis there. Yet both presidents suffered for those decisions because their physical distance from events was interpreted by the public as symbolic of their indifference to problems the federal government seemed unable to fix.

But contrary to the White House interpretation of events, the injustice here is not to Obama but to Bush. After all, despite some of the more extreme criticisms aimed at the 43rd president, nobody really believed Bush was capable of causing bad weather or had any impact on whether the levees were strong enough to prevent floods. Katrina was a natural disaster and though the response to it was clearly inadequate, the failures were mostly the fault of the collapse of local and state authorities rather than federal bungling. The push to blame Bush for it was largely the result of media distortions in which the perception of racism overwhelmed the facts.

Though real, the suffering along the border isn’t quite on the scale of the destruction of a major American city, but it must also be pointed out that this isn’t a natural disaster. While we can debate about what the best response to it now would be, attempts to deny that the massive increase in the influx of illegals is largely due to the president’s statements about allowing children to stay are unpersuasive. Bush didn’t make the weather but, like it or not, Obama did encourage the people of Central America to believe that all they had to do to attain residency in the U.S. was to make it across the border. Even worse, his response to the crisis has seemed to center on attempts to blame it on Republican unwillingness to adopt immigration reform rather than on an effort to defend the border and to ensure that the influx of illegals are swiftly sent home.

But the problem here isn’t merely one of perception. Nor is it strictly speaking a matter of fixing an immigration system badly in need of repair.

Even if House Republicans had embraced the bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate last year, the situation along the border might be just as bad. The legislation did call for a massive increase in spending on border security. But even though I think the bill was worthy of support, it’s hard to argue with conservatives who point out that Obama has shown little interest in policing the border while simultaneously making it clear that he was willing to allow illegals to stay in the country.

Moreover, the push from the United Nations, welcomed by some liberals, to treat illegals from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras as “refugees” rather than mere illegal aliens shows the danger that stems from Obama’s attitudes. The violence in these countries is nothing new. Those who came here did so primarily for understandable economic reasons. While Republicans need to consider administration calls for granting the government $3.7 billion in emergency funds to deal with the crisis, the real problem is an administration that has acted to bypass Congress and refused to enforce immigration laws that it doesn’t like.

Will Obama be hurt as much by the border fiasco as Bush was by the hurricane? No. Though the president has damaged his standing with the public—including many who agree with him on immigration reform—by the indifferent response to the crisis, the mainstream media continues to have his back even as his second term heads inevitably toward lame duck status. There will be no press pile-on about Obama hobnobbing with Democratic donors who paid $10,000 to nosh on barbecue in the presidential presence the way Bush was crucified for his Katrina fly-by.

But what we are witnessing is a humanitarian disaster that was created by a thoughtless administration that has trashed the rule of law on immigration and found itself surprised by a crisis of its own making. As bad as Bush’s hurricane optics were, history will judge Obama’s behavior far more harshly.

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Morality and Self-Defense in Gaza

Today’s New York Times brings us a remarkable insight into the behavior of the Israel Defense Forces. As southern and central Israel were subjected to a relentless barrage of rockets from Hamas-run Gaza, the IDF sought to knock out the launchers and the bases from which they originated. But, as the Times reports, unlike Hamas and its other Palestinian allies, the Israelis are giving warnings to many of those they are trying to hit.

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Today’s New York Times brings us a remarkable insight into the behavior of the Israel Defense Forces. As southern and central Israel were subjected to a relentless barrage of rockets from Hamas-run Gaza, the IDF sought to knock out the launchers and the bases from which they originated. But, as the Times reports, unlike Hamas and its other Palestinian allies, the Israelis are giving warnings to many of those they are trying to hit.

The Israeli practice of calling up people whose homes have been used as Hamas bases or centers of missile production to tell them that a rocket or shell is about to hit them was used in the 2008-09 counter-offensive against Gazan terrorists. Its use is now being stepped up as Israel continues to try to silence the Hamas rockets. But the idea of a country defending its borders and population against terrorist assault by politely asking the people living in and around a legitimate military target to evacuate the place before it is demolished is virtually unprecedented in the history of warfare.

The Israelis are doing it for a number of reasons. One is that the IDF’s code of conduct has always promoted the concept of avoiding civilian casualties whenever possible. The other is that the Palestinians have deliberately sought to provoke Israeli counterattacks that would cause civilian deaths that could then be used to discredit the Jewish state.

But the problem with the practice is twofold.

One is that often the Palestinians don’t heed the warnings. In the case of one building in Khan Younis that Hamas had been using to fire rockets from or otherwise conduct operations, the warnings—a cell phone call and then a flare fired at the roof—came in time for everyone inside the place to flee. Those inside understood what was going on but rather than evacuate the target, local Palestinians decided to gather around the house to form a human shield for the Hamas operations with some even going to the roof of the doomed building. Seven people were killed despite the attempt by the Israelis to demolish the enemy hideout without taking any lives.

The other problem with this method is that if the goal of the tactic is to avoid international criticism, it doesn’t work. Hamas is deliberately firing missiles into heavily populated cities in the hope that some will get through Israel’s missile defenses and injure as many civilians as possible. In response, Israel tries to target Hamas fighters who hide among civilians. But no matter how hard the Israelis try to fight a “clean” war, they still wind up getting attacked by human-rights groups who hold them to a standard that would prohibit virtually any form of self-defense against the terrorists.

While morality and warfare are incompatible almost by definition, Israel has always tried to reconcile the two with mixed success. The only way to win wars is to kill the enemy and make it difficult if not impossible for them to continue fighting. That means removing the means of supply and production of weapons for the opponent. But in the asymmetrical warfare into which the Palestinians have forced Israel, an international community that has little sympathy for the Jewish state’s dilemma has branded the normal means of fighting a war as atrocities.

The standing rebuke to Israel is that its counter-attacks against Hamas targets in Gaza produce more casualties than the Palestinian barrage exacts from Israel. That is as true in the current fight as it was in the past as more than two dozen Palestinians have been killed in the recent exchanges while there have been no Israeli fatalities despite the hundreds of missiles whose purpose was to kill as many Jews as possible. Israeli counter-attacks are always called disproportionate though the last thing the Palestinians would want is for the IDF to respond in kind with attacks that, like those of Hamas, aim to kill civilians.

The notion that Israel needs to apologize for the inaccuracy of Hamas rockets or the success of the Iron dome anti-missile defense system is absurd. But not as absurd as the notion that Israel need apologize for the fact that its strikes on Hamas targets have sometimes exacted a lethal price on the terrorists and those, whether young or old, who were, as in the case with the Khan Younis building, foolish enough to stay in a place that was an obvious military target.

But the discussion about morality in the conflict with Hamas is ultimately pointless. For those who wrongly characterize the fighting going on in the Middle East as merely part of a blood feud between two crazed antagonists, it’s easy to dismiss Israeli efforts to spare the lives of its foes as either inadequate or insignificant in the context of the conduct of an immoral war on the Palestinian people. But to adopt such facile moral relativism is to misunderstand the conflict.

The difference between Hamas and the IDF isn’t merely a matter of technology. It’s that Hamas’s goal is the destruction of the Jewish state and the annihilation of its people. Israel’s goal is to survive and to eventually force the Palestinians to make peace. For those who share the Palestinian belief that the Jewish presence in the country is the real cause of the war, IDF tactics, no matter how fastidious, are irrelevant. By the same token, they consider any form of Palestinian “resistance” to be legitimate even if that means tacit approval for terror such as the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers last month or the indiscriminate firing of missiles on cities.

One can only applaud the tactics employed by the Israelis to avoid needless deaths. Yet even those involved with this noble effort must understand that the most moral thing they can do is to end the terrorist threat to Israeli civilians. Destroying Hamas’s ability to wage another campaign of terrorist warfare is also the most moral thing to do from the perspective of saving Palestinian lives. The people of Gaza will only be safe once the Hamas tyrants who have ruthlessly exploited their suffering are removed from power and stripped of their ability to plunge the region into conflict. Until that is accomplished, any further effort devoted to the discussion about morality and the Gaza conflict is a waste of time.

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Conservative Fiction and the Culture Wars

Conservative editor Adam Bellow’s July 7 cover story in National Review is a fascinating call for the conservative movement to produce more written fiction. It is, I think, both learned and yet a bit too pessimistic to my mind. His point is that conservatism has become the counterculture and liberalism, especially social liberalism, the establishment, and that liberals have become so intolerant of dissenting ideas and opinions that they seek to shun and marginalize opposing voices. Here’s Bellow:

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Conservative editor Adam Bellow’s July 7 cover story in National Review is a fascinating call for the conservative movement to produce more written fiction. It is, I think, both learned and yet a bit too pessimistic to my mind. His point is that conservatism has become the counterculture and liberalism, especially social liberalism, the establishment, and that liberals have become so intolerant of dissenting ideas and opinions that they seek to shun and marginalize opposing voices. Here’s Bellow:

I eventually went into publishing to fight back against people like these. I had seen them coming a long way off and I knew they meant business. They wanted power and were eager to use it. Their approach to fiction was two-sided: use their own stories and novels to advance their revolutionary aims, and prevent others from using that same descriptive and imaginative power for counterrevolutionary ends. It was an American version of what used to be called socialist realism.

Conservative nonfiction has flourished. “The real problem,” Bellow asserts, turning to his right, “isn’t the practical challenge of turning serious books into bestsellers. The real problem is that we may have reached the limit of what facts and reasoned arguments can do. The real problem is that the whole conservative nonfiction enterprise has peaked and reached its limit of effectiveness.”

I recommend reading the whole thing. But while I agree with Andrew Breitbart–who Bellow quotes, and who everyone quotes on this subject–that “Politics is downstream from culture,” and that the prevailing popular culture is far more heavily influenced by liberals than by conservatives, I find myself far more optimistic than Bellow. Perhaps that is because I think there’s a difference between the culture being influenced by liberals and it being influenced by liberalism.

Bellow is right that conservatives should be creative and their creativity supported. But I think it’s worth pointing out that often “liberal” or politically neutral novels reinforce conservative ideas. The same is true of movies and television, though Bellow concentrates on the written word. One of the right’s guilty pleasures is to watch a card-carrying liberal writer or a mainstream Hollywood director or showrunner produce a piece of art intended to grapple with complexity and be verbally assaulted as a warmonger or a traitor by his or her liberal audience. When Kathryn Bigelow directed Zero Dark Thirty, for example, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, she portrayed torture in the movie, and liberals lashed out and branded her an apologist for the methods of interrogation. Bigelow took to the pages of the LA Times to respond, somewhat incredulous:

First of all: I support every American’s 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.

But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.

Bigelow is a “lifelong pacifist” and opponent of anything resembling torture, but she was making a movie about real life, and real life is complex.

But to come back to the written word. This phenomenon is easier to spot in fiction that requires heroism or celebrates law and order. But I think it happens when the subject turns to the culture wars too. In December, Ross Douthat noted a study that found that “having daughters makes parents more likely to be Republican.” In offering his own theory, Douthat referenced the kind of man increasingly enabled by a sexually permissive culture: Nate, the protagonist of Adelle Waldman’s novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Douthat writes about Nate’s propensity to, as Waldman writes, “provoke” the “unhappiness” of the women in his life:

He provokes it by taking advantage of a social landscape in which sex has been decoupled from marriage but biology hasn’t been abolished, which means women still operate on a shorter time horizon for crucial life choices — marriage, kids — than do men. In this landscape, what Nate wants — sex, and the validation that comes with being wanted — he reliably gets. But what his lovers want, increasingly, as their cohort grows older — a more permanent commitment — he can afford to persistently withhold, feeling guilty but not that guilty about doing so.

His column touched off an interesting back-and-forth with Waldman herself on the topic of whether the situation portrayed in her book’s Brooklyn social circle calls for a more socially conservative ethic, or whether such an ethic would put too much of the responsibility for the personal misery of these women on themselves. But I think it’s worth dwelling for a moment on Nate.

We meet Nate immediately, as the book opens with a scene in which Nate runs into an ex-lover. She is uneasy and hostile to him. We learn that this is because during their brief involvement (this was not a “relationship”–an important point), she became unintentionally pregnant and had an abortion. Nate was emotionally absent, though he paid for the procedure. Nate is a good liberal–we learn early on he’s contemplating an essay on how rich societies even outsource exploitation just to salve their conscience. When he found out this non-girlfriend–Juliet–was pregnant, he:

felt like he had woken up in one of those after-school specials he watched as a kid on Thursday afternoons, whose moral was not to have sex with a girl unless you were ready to raise a child with her. This had always seemed like bullshit. What self-respecting middle-class teenage girl–soon-to-be college student, future affluent young professional, a person who could go on to do anything at all (run a multinational corporation, win a Nobel Prize, get elected first woman president)–what such young woman would decide to have a baby and thus become, in the vacuous, public service announcement jargon of the day, “a statistic”?

Nate realizes this might not be the case now for Juliet though, who is not a teenager but a professional in her thirties. Here is how he rationalizes the possibility she may want a baby:

Maybe she was no longer so optimistic about what fate held in store for her (first woman president, for example, probably seemed unlikely). Maybe she had become pessimistic about men and dating. She might view this as her last chance to become a mother.

Maybe she’s so dejected and desperate that she’ll–gasp!–want a family. You can see how the liberal cultural norms have seeped into Nate. He waits for her to decide: he has accepted the idea of “choice” in full, like a good liberal. This means it’s her choice completely, and he assumes he has no say. “Nate was all for a woman’s right to choose and all the lingo that went with it,” we’re told by way of explanation for why Nate doesn’t feel he can even suggest aborting “the baby or fetus or whatever you wanted to call it.” He doesn’t even know what to call an unborn child! Nate is opinion-less on the matter of human life, and he is so because he thinks this is How To Be A Modern Man.

After the abortion, Nate disappears, because he thinks even having an extended or personal conversation with Juliet–that is, signaling any interest at all–comes with too many strings attached now that they’ve unburdened themselves of the fetusthingamajiggy. But he doesn’t understand what makes him so toxic to these Brooklynite beauties. He’s a good person–he doesn’t even think one should shop at Whole Foods without feeling guilty about capitalist exploitation!

Is Waldman intentionally commenting on the piggish man-child who is the product of a steady cultural liberalism as practiced in the real world? Certainly not. But if you were to write a “conservative” novel, and this novel had a protagonist who was to demonstrate the perpetual adolescent loosed on the world by a yearslong immersion in liberal social values and the unintentional but very real harm he caused, might not that protagonist be Nathaniel P.?

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John Kerry’s War

Being a pessimist means that having your predictions come true rarely brings much joy. That’s the situation I and many other Israelis and Palestinians are in right now–all those who warned that John Kerry’s insistence on restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks would likely spark a new round of Palestinian-Israeli violence, but were drowned out by those who insist that talking never does any harm. It’s already too late to spare Israelis and Palestinians the bloody consequences of Kerry’s hubris. But it’s important to understand why such initiatives so frequently result in bloodshed, so that future secretaries of state can avoid a recurrence.

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Being a pessimist means that having your predictions come true rarely brings much joy. That’s the situation I and many other Israelis and Palestinians are in right now–all those who warned that John Kerry’s insistence on restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks would likely spark a new round of Palestinian-Israeli violence, but were drowned out by those who insist that talking never does any harm. It’s already too late to spare Israelis and Palestinians the bloody consequences of Kerry’s hubris. But it’s important to understand why such initiatives so frequently result in bloodshed, so that future secretaries of state can avoid a recurrence.

First, as repeated efforts over the last 14 years have shown, Palestinians and Israelis aren’t ready to make a deal. Serious efforts were made at the Camp David talks in 2000, the Taba talks in 2001, the Livni-Qureia talks in 2007-08, the Olmert-Abbas talks in 2008, and, most recently, Kerry’s talks, but all failed because the gaps between the parties couldn’t be bridged. As Shmuel Rosner noted in a perceptive New York Times op-ed in May, that’s because many issues Westerners don’t much care about, and therefore imagine are easy to compromise on, are actually very important to the parties involved and thus impossible to compromise on. That isn’t likely to change anytime soon, and until it does, negotiations will never bring peace.

But failed peace talks inevitably make violence more likely, for two main reasons. First, they force both sides to focus on their most passionate disagreements–the so-called “core issues” that go to the heart of both Israeli and Palestinian identity–rather than on less emotional issues. On more mundane issues, Israel and the Palestinian Authority can sometimes agree–as they did on a series of economic cooperation projects last June, before Kerry’s peace talks gummed up the works. But even if they don’t, it’s hard for people on either side to get too upset when their governments squabble over, say, sewage treatment. In contrast, people on both sides do get upset when their governments argue over, say, the “right of return,” because that’s an issue where both sides view the other’s narrative as negating their own existence.

Second, failed peace talks always result in both sides feeling that they’ve lost or conceded something important without receiving a suitable quid pro quo. Palestinians, for instance, were outraged when Kerry reportedly backed Israel’s demand for recognition as a Jewish state, while Israelis were outraged by Kerry’s subsequent U-turn on the issue. Thus both sides ended up feeling as if their positions on this issue were undermined during the talks. The same goes for the Jordan Valley, where both Israelis and Palestinians felt Kerry’s proposals didn’t meet their respective needs, but now fear these proposals will serve as the starting point for additional concessions next time.

Added to this were the “gestures” Kerry demanded of both sides: that Israel free dozens of vicious killers and the PA temporarily refrain from joining international organizations. Though the price Kerry demanded of Israel was incomparably greater, neither side wanted to pay its assigned share. So when the talks collapsed, both felt they had made a sacrifice for nothing.

In short, failed peace talks exacerbate Israeli-Palestinian tensions rather than calming them. And when tensions rise, so does the likelihood of violence. That’s true in any situation, but doubly so for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because terrorist groups like Hamas are always happy to throw a match into a barrel of explosives. The unsurprising result is that spasms of violence, like the second intifada and the current war, have frequently followed failed peace talks.

So if Washington truly wants to avoid Israeli-Palestinian violence, the best thing it could do is stop trying to force both sides into talks that are doomed to fail. For contrary to the accepted wisdom, which holds that “political negotiations” are the best way to forestall violence, they’re actually the best way to make violence more likely.

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The Idealism and Realism of the American Founders

During an engaging, wide-ranging interview with Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival, New York Times columnist David Brooks was asked this: “How do you feel about the Tea Party? The notion of compromise is a dirty word more than ever on Capitol Hill. So how do you see us getting us to a place where there can be a moderate middle? Do you think it’s possible to return to those days?” To which Brooks replied this way:

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During an engaging, wide-ranging interview with Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival, New York Times columnist David Brooks was asked this: “How do you feel about the Tea Party? The notion of compromise is a dirty word more than ever on Capitol Hill. So how do you see us getting us to a place where there can be a moderate middle? Do you think it’s possible to return to those days?” To which Brooks replied this way:

Let me quibble with one phrase in your question, which would be “moderate middle.” So I’m a moderate but I’m not in the middle. And what I mean by that, I think being moderate is seeing politics as a competition between partial truths. And like in this era we have competition between security and freedom, between achievement and equality, between mobility and cohesion. And both sides have a piece of the truth. And often you want to be radical on both ends and try to balance. So it’s all about balance. So you can really value things that are on each end as long as you try to balance these opposing things and as long as you understand that politics is a messy, slow … boring through hard boards–it’s just messy and slow and you take one step at a time.

Brooks went on to say this:

My problem with the Tea Party is partly what they believe, but partly it’s just their [methods]–they’re anti-political. I believe in politics, that you pass a piece of legislation and you get half a loaf and you make a slow step and you make a compromise and you try to go a little forward every day. Politics is not, it’s not show business. It’s just messy compromises because you’re always caught in contradictions and filled with paradoxes. And my problem with the Tea Party is they don’t like politics. They want it to be pure, and they often punish people who they call RINOs–who are Republican in Name Only–because they’re not pure. But I think impurity is what leaders do. They take impurity upon themselves. They take the sins of the situation on themselves. They take the complexity of the situation on themselves and they try to muddle through. And so I think people who are unwilling to muddle through are not being political; they’re being self-indulgent. And so I have a problem with that style of politics.

I would add some elaborations to what David says, ones I think he might agree with, such as: No one in politics sees the truth in full, but some people are within much closer striking distance than others. And the Tea Party movement has produced some of the most impressive politicians now on the right, including Marco Rubio (who defeated Charlie Crist in their primary) and Mike Lee (who defeated Bob Bennett in their primary).

With that said, Brooks is zeroing in on something quite important, which is that politics is an inherently messy business. Moreover, the American founders–who developed the concepts of checks and balances, separation of powers, and all the rest–wanted politics to be messy. That is, our constitutional order requires give and take, adaptation and collaboration, the balancing of competing interests, and compromise itself. As Jonathan Rauch has written in National Affairs, “In our constitutional system, compromise is not merely a necessary evil but a positive good: an indispensable source of political discipline, competition, and stability — which are all conservative values.”

Too often these days, zealous people who are in a hurry don’t appreciate that the process and methods of politics–the “messy,” muddling through side of politics–is a moral achievement of sorts. But this, too, is only part of the story.

The other part of the story is that justice is often advanced by people who are seized with a moral vision. They don’t much care about the prosaic side of governing; they simply want society to be better, more decent, and more respectful of human dignity. So yes, it’s important not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. But it’s also the case that politics requires us to strive for certain (unattainable) ideals.

There’s a distinction, then, between motivating ideals and the methods and processes of politics. Think of Martin Luther King’s dream and Lyndon Johnson’s civil-rights legislation. Or think of Lincoln, who was both the greatest exponent of principles of the Declaration of Independence in American history and a supremely great politician.

What happens all too often in our politics is that people who are drawn to one tend to look with disdain on those who are drawn to the other. What we need, I think, is greater recognition that both are necessary, that each one alone is insufficient. Visionaries have to find a way to give their vision concrete expression, which requires deal-making, compromise, and accepting something less than the ideal. Legislators need to govern with some commitment to philosophical and moral ideals; otherwise, they’re just passing laws and cutting deals for their own sake.

What David Brooks is saying, I think–and where I agree with him–is that some recalibration needs to occur in some quarters on the right, away from those seeking purification and excommunication (RINO-hunters) and toward a fuller, more authentic conservatism. Call it the conservatism of the founders.

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Hobby Lobby, Religious Liberty, and the Dangers of Complacence

It’s tempting, and easy, to dismiss Democrats’ legislative response to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. Senate Democrats say as soon as today they could bring up a bill that would, as Politico terms it, “override” the high court’s ruling, which followed the course set out in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Democrats want to push this as part of the “war on women” by making shameless false claims about the court’s ruling and trashing both RFRA and the First Amendment.

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It’s tempting, and easy, to dismiss Democrats’ legislative response to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. Senate Democrats say as soon as today they could bring up a bill that would, as Politico terms it, “override” the high court’s ruling, which followed the course set out in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Democrats want to push this as part of the “war on women” by making shameless false claims about the court’s ruling and trashing both RFRA and the First Amendment.

Conservatives have been generally dismissive of the White House’s “war on women,” and for good reason. Additionally, they may be further tempted to deride the left’s response now that they’ve won a limited victory at the Supreme Court. It also requires a heroic effort to take seriously any policymaking that begins with Harry Reid including Clarence Thomas in his category of “white men” who should be ignored. Reid is railing against the Supreme Court, but he does not appear to be terribly familiar with it. (As an aside, why mention the race of the justices at all if this is an issue about gender? Because leftists can’t speak, apparently, without accusing someone of being racist.)

But this attitude would be a mistake, with regard to the Hobby Lobby pushback. To be sure, conservatives should avoid getting drawn into a fictitious debate on birth control based on completely false premises and designed not to advance policy solutions but to give Democrats yet another chance to insult the intelligence of the nation’s women and to put Christianity–and by extension, religious belief in general–on trial. After all, it’s unlikely that yet another Reid-led Democratic effort to undo basic American rights will pass the House.

And getting drawn into this debate risks giving the Democrats what they actually want: a change of subject. As the Obama presidency plummets in popularity and the corruption and abuse of power scandals keep multiplying, the Democrats want to talk about anything but the issues dragging them down.

Nonetheless, conservatives should think twice about taking the debate over this bill–not the president’s executive action, but the Senate bill on which there would presumably be debate and a vote–too lightly. What the Democrats are trying to do is build a public-policy consensus that would erode religious liberty by holding a referendum on whether America’s first freedom, and the basis for the American project, should be undone in the service of left-wing culture-war extremism.

Is it worth undermining religious freedom just so Democrats can distract the electorate from their inability to govern with a public discussion about the economics of sex? For Democrats like Harry Reid, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Basic freedoms are fine in the abstract, according to Democratic policymakers, but they often infringe on Democrats’ quest for power. So they must be subverted.

Conservatives must understand that the risk here is not actual policy, since the bill won’t pass the House. The risk is that by ceding space in the public sphere to liberal demagogues, they won’t engage the important part of this debate. Since, as I’ve written previously, opposition to religious freedom is now a partisan Democratic position, conservatives are the last line of defense. What they don’t want is for the left to own a debate that could build a public consensus against those freedoms. If conservatives won’t speak up for religious freedom, nobody will, and it will be ignored and trampled.

It’s also important because none of this takes place in a vacuum. In a very smart piece for BuzzFeed, Chris Geidner tracks the evolving fight over religious exemptions in employee non-discrimination legislation. He notes that LGBT groups and their supporters are backing away from anti-discrimination legislation they were initially inclined to support because of the religious exemptions being added. The bill will probably not be advanced in the House this year, Geidner notes, and explains why these groups are fighting about it anyway.

He gives three reasons: to shape the next version of this legislation that comes through Congress in the next session; because the groups are unnerved by the Supreme Court’s upholding of religious freedom protections in the Hobby Lobby case; and to influence President Obama’s forthcoming executive order on the issue. In other words, these groups recognize that although the Democrats’ demand for employee-sponsored drugs that may act as abortifacients has nothing to do with gay rights, in some way it has everything to do with it.

Settling law and winning public debates over religious freedom affects other laws and other debates that follow it. Just as the Supreme Court sets precedent in legal rulings, so too the passage of laws and other actions set precedent in how the public understands the issues at play and how politicians can attract support for their own legislative projects. The left has always operated with the knowledge that there’s no off-season here. They are counting on conservative exhaustion, complacence, or both. Conservatives must demonstrate neither.

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As Rockets Fly, Administration Blasts Israel

Give the Obama administration credit. Its Middle East policies may be counterproductive, but the White House is consistent. Rather than let the fact that hundreds of terrorist rockets were launched at Israeli cities affect their public pronouncements, the administration went ahead and let a White House official blast the Jewish state and its government yesterday.

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Give the Obama administration credit. Its Middle East policies may be counterproductive, but the White House is consistent. Rather than let the fact that hundreds of terrorist rockets were launched at Israeli cities affect their public pronouncements, the administration went ahead and let a White House official blast the Jewish state and its government yesterday.

Philip Gordon, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and a special assistant to President Barack Obama, gave the keynote address at the Haaretz Conference on Peace in Tel Aviv yesterday. Yet rather than use the opportunity to focus on American support for Israel’s right to self-defense at a time when the very city he was speaking in was being targeted by Hamas rockets, Gordon centered his remarks on harsh criticism of the Israeli government and lavished praise on the Palestinian leader who had embraced unity with the people currently shooting at Tel Aviv and scores of other Israeli cities, towns, and villages.

Gordon’s thesis was familiar. The Obama administration believes that Israel must negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinian Authority because it cannot remain a Jewish and democratic state while continuing to rule over millions of Arabs in the West Bank. And he blames Israel for the failure to conclude such an agreement with PA leader Mahmoud Abbas.

That’s the position Secretary of State John Kerry adopted after the predictable collapse of his peace initiative in April and echoed by various administration officials since then. The U.S. preferred to blame Israel for this failure rather than recognize that Abbas was never truly interested in signing any agreement. Faith in Abbas’s commitment to negotiations was lost when he fled the talks to return to efforts to get the United Nations to recognize Palestinian independence. Any remaining trust in his bona fides should have evaporated when he concluded a unity pact with the Islamist terrorists of Hamas rather than agreeing to continue to talk to Israel. The administration compounded that error when it decided to continue to keep sending aid to the PA despite the presence of Hamas in its ranks, which U.S. law forbade.

But as egregious as those misjudgments were before this latest outbreak of violence, they were rendered even more absurd by the spectacle of an American official sticking to this line even as a Hamas rocket offensive rained down on the Jewish state.

Perhaps the president believes that timing is irrelevant when it comes to pressuring the Netanyahu government but if the U.S. goal is to persuade the Israeli people to make more concessions to the Palestinians, then yesterday’s speech was a disaster.

It bears repeating that Israel made three offers of statehood and independence to the Palestinians in 2000, 2001, and 2008 that would have given them control of Gaza, almost all of the West Bank, and a share of Jerusalem. The Palestinians, first under Yasir Arafat and then Abbas, turned them down each time. Abbas’s recent decision to flee the latest talks and his refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn constitute a fourth “no” to peace. This is a fact that has caused most Israelis to give up on the process even though the overwhelming majority—including the supposedly intransigent Netanyahu—favor a two-state solution in theory and would be willing to make serious territorial concessions in exchange for an end to the conflict, as opposed to a truce.

But the rocket fire from Gaza provided more than an inconvenient background noise for Gordon’s speech. It was a reminder of what happens when Israel gives up territory to the Palestinians. Ariel Sharon heeded the international calls for Israel to make concessions and to separate from the Palestinians and in 2005 he withdrew every Israeli settlement, soldier, and civilian from Gaza. But rather than use this as a steppingstone to comprehensive peace, the Palestinians used the retreat to turn Gaza into a giant missile-launching pad and terrorist base. Since Hamas’s 2007 coup when they seized control of the strip, Gaza has been an independent Palestinian state in all but name. As such, it is a standing argument against further such withdrawals in the West Bank that abuts Israel’s main population centers. No Israeli government will ever contemplate ceding security control of more territory unless it can be sure that it will not be used to replicate the Gaza experiment.

But instead of sending a strong message to the Palestinians that they must renounce violence and make peace, Gordon’s speech made clear that the U.S. has no intention of holding Abbas accountable for his embrace of Hamas. Gordon’s pointed dismissal of Netanyahu’s recent comments about the need for Israel to secure the Jordan River security line in light of the growing Islamist threat from the East in Iraq as well as Syria will also inspire no Israeli confidence in the judgment or the reliability of American promises.

As I wrote yesterday, the Obama administration bears a not inconsiderable degree of responsibility for the current mess. Kerry’s initiative was undertaken with complete disregard of the consequences of its likely failure. The secretary’s prediction of a third intifada in the wake of its collapse was a self-fulfilling prophecy that Israelis are now witnessing as they mourn the three teenagers who were murdered by Hamas terrorists and see their skies filled with rockets. The decision to treat the Fatah-Hamas pact as not being a threat to peace was similarly misguided. The idea that a weakling like Abbas could force Hamas to embrace peace wasn’t so much a mistake as a demonstration of the administration’s complete lack of understanding of the situation.

When a sea change in the political culture of the Palestinians happens that will allow their leaders to recognize Israel’s legitimacy and end the conflict, they will find their neighbors willing to talk and to once again offer them sovereignty over part of the land they share with the Jews. But if Obama, Kerry, or Gordon think Israelis are likely to embrace Abbas or to start more withdrawals on the West Bank at a time when the Palestinians are using the only territory they control to wage war on them, they’re as arrogant as they are clueless.

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