Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 18, 2014

Russia’s Provocation Demands Tougher Action

President Obama appeared in the White House briefing room on Friday to deliver remarks on the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17. His statement included some strong and appropriate words of condemnation, calling this an “outrage of unspeakable proportions.” But of course being Barack Obama–the dispassionate academic par excellence–he delivered even this expression of displeasure with all the emotion he might have put into reading a grocery list.

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President Obama appeared in the White House briefing room on Friday to deliver remarks on the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17. His statement included some strong and appropriate words of condemnation, calling this an “outrage of unspeakable proportions.” But of course being Barack Obama–the dispassionate academic par excellence–he delivered even this expression of displeasure with all the emotion he might have put into reading a grocery list.

The potential impact of his statement was further dissipated by the fact that he said repeatedly that “our immediate focus will be on recovering those who were lost, investigating exactly what happened, and putting forward the facts.” As if this were the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 which vanished without a trace. Actually we know with a high degree of certainty what happened with flight 17: As even Obama conceded, it was shot down by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine with the help of the Russian state. As he noted, “we have confidence in saying that that shot was taken within a territory that is controlled by the Russian separatists.” Moreover, he said, “a group of separatists can’t shoot down military transport planes or, they claim, shoot down fighter jets without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training. And that is coming from Russia.”

But still he refused to draw the obvious conclusion: that Russia is ultimately responsible for a war crime–the shooting down of flight 17 as well as broader aggression against Ukraine. Instead, he tried to make it appear as if there is blame all around: “Russia, these separatists, and Ukraine all have the capacity to put an end to the fighting.” That’s like blaming both Hamas and Israel equally for the fighting now going on in Gaza–an act of moral myopia that fails to recognize the culpability of an aggressor (Russia, Hamas) and the responsibility of a nation under attack (Ukraine, Israel) to respond with all due force to defend itself.

Failing to pin the responsibility on Russia as squarely as he should have done, Obama naturally failed to lay out a clear response to Russia’s aggression. He ruled out the possibility of providing any military help to Ukraine to defend itself: “We don’t see a U.S. military role beyond what we’ve already been doing in working with our NATO partners and some of the Baltic States, giving them reassurances that we are prepared to do whatever is required to meet our alliance obligations.” In short, no military equipment and no advisers for Ukraine. Let them eat MREs!

He didn’t even call for “sectoral” sanctions (for example, freezing all Russian financial institutions out of the U.S. and imposing secondary sanctions on foreign firms that do business with Russia, as we’ve done with Iran)–steps that could really hurt the Russian economy. Instead he expressed satisfaction with the very limited and ineffectual sanctions announced so far: “We feel confident that at this point the sanctions that we’ve put in place are imposing a cost on Russia … I think Treasury, in consultation with our European partners, have done a good job so far on that issue.”

Really? Obama thinks the sanctions have been good so far? Admittedly a new round of measures was just announced this week so it’s too early to judge their impact, but there is no sign of Russia backing off its illegal and brazen aggression. Indeed just today Gen. Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander, released a video appearing to show a Russian Grad rocket launcher shelling Ukrainian territory.

It is wishful thinking to imagine that the shooting down of flight 17 will, by itself, cause Russia to end its attacks on Ukrainian territory. To force Russia to back off will require a massive effort on the part of the West. Admittedly Obama’s statement on Friday was only an initial stab at a response; tougher measures may be coming. But his words give little confidence that the type of massive response needed to force Russia into retreating will ever occur.

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Norman Podhoretz on Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Jews

Readers of COMMENTARY will no doubt be interested in a newly released interview with the magazine’s long serving former editor Norman Podhoretz. The interview, which includes fascinating insights into the evolution of the magazine, as well as some lively reflections from one of America’s preeminent public intellectuals on his own life and work, was recorded at a recent event organized by the Tikvah Fund as part of an advanced institute on Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Jews. You can watch a full recording here, at the Tikvah Fund’s newly launched Live @ Tikvah blog, which features highlights from all of Tikvah’s academic programming.

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Readers of COMMENTARY will no doubt be interested in a newly released interview with the magazine’s long serving former editor Norman Podhoretz. The interview, which includes fascinating insights into the evolution of the magazine, as well as some lively reflections from one of America’s preeminent public intellectuals on his own life and work, was recorded at a recent event organized by the Tikvah Fund as part of an advanced institute on Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Jews. You can watch a full recording here, at the Tikvah Fund’s newly launched Live @ Tikvah blog, which features highlights from all of Tikvah’s academic programming.

During the wide-ranging discussion with the Tikvah Fund’s executive director Eric Cohen, Podhoretz offers a colorful first-hand account of both the emergence of the New Left and the origins of neoconservatism. Describing vividly the political atmosphere he witnessed during the height of the Cold War, Podhoretz recounts the turns of his own ideological transition: from anti-Communist liberal to fellow traveler of the counter-cultural left, before he then began the move toward what would come to be called neoconservatism, a move primarily driven by the pernicious anti-Americanism that was becoming ever more prevalent on the radical left at the time.

Some of the most illuminating parts of the discussion concerned COMMENTARY’s evolution and Norman Podhoretz’s role in these developments. Podhoretz reminded listeners of COMMENTARY’s founding ethos, established in the wake of the Second World War as a fiercely anti-Communist liberal and Jewish magazine. Taking over as editor in 1960 at the age of just thirty, Podhoretz steered the publication from being a predominantly Jewish magazine that took an interest in wider affairs to a general interest magazine with a special concern for Jewish affairs. And having initially given prominence to writers coming from the left, Podhoretz would soon reorient the magazine’s stance once again, leading it to play a crucial role in countering the most subversive elements responsible for waging the culture war, and perhaps more significantly still, positioning COMMENTARY to play a leading part in shaping American thinking on combating the expansionism and ideology of the Soviet Union.

Toward the end of the conversation, Podhoretz gives his thoughts on such contemporary concerns as radical Islam’s war on the West, Israel, religious faith, and the current state of American Jews. He reflects on why so many American Jews still adhere to a certain left-leaning liberalism, and in turn on why this political outlook has been bad for society in general, and why it remains “bad for the Jews” in particular.

If nothing else, listening to this interview, one is reminded of just what a powerful and compelling voice Norman Podhoretz has been over the years, and just how much American conservatives today owe to the work that he and his generation undertook.

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Washington’s Mixed Messages and Israeli Realities

The Obama administration helped create the situation that led to the current fighting in Gaza by sending mixed messages to the Palestinian Authority about mainstreaming Hamas. That was bad enough, but now the State Department is compounding its recent errors with its equivocal stance about Israeli efforts to suppress both Hamas’s incessant rocket fire and its attempts to send terrorists across the border via tunnel attacks. While U.S. concerns about civilian casualties that result from these counter-attacks are, at least in theory, reasonable, the notion that Israel isn’t doing enough to protect innocents in Gaza reflects the same disconnect from reality that helped create the current mess.

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The Obama administration helped create the situation that led to the current fighting in Gaza by sending mixed messages to the Palestinian Authority about mainstreaming Hamas. That was bad enough, but now the State Department is compounding its recent errors with its equivocal stance about Israeli efforts to suppress both Hamas’s incessant rocket fire and its attempts to send terrorists across the border via tunnel attacks. While U.S. concerns about civilian casualties that result from these counter-attacks are, at least in theory, reasonable, the notion that Israel isn’t doing enough to protect innocents in Gaza reflects the same disconnect from reality that helped create the current mess.

Writing from Jerusalem in the hours before Shabbat descends on the city, I can report that while the country’s collective nerves are frayed by the constant rocket attacks, life is going on pretty much as normal. Crowds are out in the evenings in the cities (an outdoor showing of The Wizard of Oz at the capital’s old train station went on without incident) and there was the normal bustle at the Mahane Yehuda market prior to the Sabbath. There’s also little doubt that in spite of their endemic political divisions, most Israelis are behind their government’s decision to hit Hamas hard in pursuit of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s goal of “sustainable quiet.” The launch of ground operations against Gaza was rendered inevitable after Hamas’s repeated rejections of cease-fire offers and its raising the ante with an infiltration attack. But this sequence of events validates the widespread recognition that so long as Hamas remains in power in Gaza, the violence will resume sooner or later even if the Islamists eventually agree to stop shooting.

It is in that context that the administration’s attempt to both back Israel’s right of self-defense while also maintaining a critical stance about the loss of civilian lives in Gaza must be regarded.

While Israelis deeply regret the loss of lives in Gaza, the notion that their army isn’t doing enough to prevent non-combatants from being killed doesn’t resonate here. No army is perfect, but few here doubt that the Israel Defense Forces’ highly restrictive rules of engagement are both limiting the army’s ability to strike at will against Hamas positions as well as keeping casualties to a minimum. Americans who are inclined to be judgmental about the IDF’s actions should think about the similar dilemmas often faced by U.S. forces in Afghanistan when fighting the Taliban and its allies or when drone attacks are launched at terrorist targets and ask themselves how they would feel about their troops being second-guessed by foreign leaders the way State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki is speaking about Israeli efforts.

But leaving aside the administration’s hypocrisy, the bigger problem is Washington’s attempt to limit Israeli actions to, in Secretary of State Kerry’s words, “precise actions” against tunnel infiltrations that leave in place a terrorist infrastructure that will ensure that more attempts to inflict large-scale atrocities on Israelis–the goal of Thursday’s cross-border raid–will continue.

Back in April when the administration declined to oppose the Palestinian Authority’s decision to strike an agreement with Hamas rather than Israel, it pretended that the Islamist terror movement could be rendered irrelevant by the peace process. But now we see that so long as Hamas retains the power to plunge the country into a new war every time it wants to better its position, stability, let alone peace, is impossible. Nothing short of actions that will force Hamas’s disarmament will enable Kerry to realize his dream of brokering peace. Yet the U.S. continues to act as if limiting Israeli actions to superficial pinpricks against the terrorists’ strongholds and arsenal will enhance the cause of peace. Perhaps Kerry and President Obama believe their clinging to an equivocal stance about Gaza will enable the U.S. to be an “even-handed” broker in the future. But if there is anything that we have learned in the last month, it is that so long as Hamas’s power remains intact, America’s pretensions about peace are exposed as pipe dreams.

It’s not clear if the current operations will realize Netanyahu’s goal of quiet. But the contrast between Washington’s mixed messages about self-defense and the reality of Israel’s security dilemma illustrates how clueless the administration is about the situation. As much as Netanyahu has tried to avoid open fights with the U.S., there are no illusions here about the country’s need to ignore the State Department’s criticism if there’s a chance that the IDF can substantially reduce Hamas’s ability to terrorize Israelis.

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The Conservative Temperament

Is there such a thing as a conservative disposition?

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Is there such a thing as a conservative disposition?

For some on the right the answer is not really. They (rightly) view the purpose of conservatism as a means to limit government in order to further liberty. But they tend to think of conservatism almost strictly in terms of issues: the size of the modern welfare state, taxes, regulations, immigration, welfare, education, and so forth.

For others on the right, conservatism does have a dispositional element. This group includes people who can be fairly characterized, I think, as confrontational and opposed to compromise, rhetorically aggressive, impatient, and often angry (for justifiable reasons, they would insist). These individuals are suspicious of those in their ranks they consider to be unprincipled (“RINOs”). Populist in outlook, they disdain the “establishment” and the “ruling class,” whom they view as cowardly and compromised. Their operating assumption is that we’re witnessing the downfall of America; some even argue we’re moving toward tyranny. This of course shapes their cast of mind and rhetoric. The type of individuals I’m describing, when they listen to Barry Goldwater’s line in his 1964 convention speech “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” are likely to cheer.

There are others of us who believe in a conservative temperament, but it’s very much different than the one I just described. This dispositional bent is beautifully articulated in an essay in National Affairs titled, appropriately, “The Conservative Disposition in Politics.” Written by Philip Wallach and Justus Myers, the essay explores the conservative intellectual tradition, which they identify with figures like Burke, Hume, Madison, Hamilton, Oakeshott, Hayek, de Tocqueville, and Nisbet.

The essay includes important caveats, including this one: Temperamental conservatism is not a good match for every problem, and conserving institutional structures that are incompatible with liberty or justice would be illiberal and unjust. Different moments require different approaches. Still, generally speaking, the key features of conservatism include being consciously anti-ideological and anti-utopian, wary of abstractions and disruptive change, and somewhat humble in its approach given the complexity of human society and the limitations of knowledge.

When possible, conservatism prefers incremental changes to radical ones. It places a premium on experience and prudence. It is adaptive and situational, taking into account the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It accepts that governing can be messy, frustrating, and painfully slow (which is precisely what Madison intended with his system of checks and balances and separation of powers). Conservatism properly understood isn’t in principle opposed to compromise–particularly, it needs to be said, since the Constitution would never have been ratified but for repeated compromises. Compromise was in fact thought to be a positive good within the system of government created by the founders (see here for more). While certainly willing to fight for principles, a true conservative disposition seeks to temper and constructively channel passions rather than inflame them.

This difference in temperament is, I think, the major divide that exists within conservatism today. While there is some variance in terms of policies they are, by historical standards, somewhat narrow. The Republican Party is an almost uniformly conservative party these days. This is not a Rockefeller v. Goldwater moment.

Which disposition is most appropriate for this particular time is for each individual to decide. (Most of us will defend the disposition that comes most naturally to us.) My point, though, is that those who identify with the intellectual tradition described by Wallach and Myers should not cede the mantle of conservatism to those who don’t.

It’s one thing to believe, as I do, that we need substantial reforms of our governing institutions. But conservative reforms can be achieved–in fact, they are more likely to be achieved–by those with moderate temperaments: men and women who can persuade and not simply exhort, who are seen as equable and bold rather than zealous and reckless, and who carefully select the ground on which they’ll fight. (Ronald Reagan succeeded where Goldwater failed in part because his temperament reassured voters whereas Goldwater’s alarmed many of them.)

There is also something “inherently sunny about conservatism,” Wallach and Myers write. It tends to, in the words of Oakeshott, “delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be.” Conservatives correctly judge our situation not against perfection, but against life in this fallen world. And even in this fallen world they’re still able to find joy in the journey.

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Hamas and the New Middle East

The spiraling conflict between Israel and Hamas may be part of an unfortunately regular pattern, but the recent events were also an indication of the new Middle East. That was clear earlier this week when Haaretz’s Barak Ravid published the tick-tock of how the attempts to strike a truce collapsed. Secretary of State John Kerry was getting ready to pick up nuclear diplomacy with his Iranian interlocutors in Vienna when he offered to take a temporary diversion to the Middle East. But, each for their own reasons, “Egyptians and Israelis both politely rejected that offer, telling Kerry they are already in direct contact and didn’t need American mediation.”

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The spiraling conflict between Israel and Hamas may be part of an unfortunately regular pattern, but the recent events were also an indication of the new Middle East. That was clear earlier this week when Haaretz’s Barak Ravid published the tick-tock of how the attempts to strike a truce collapsed. Secretary of State John Kerry was getting ready to pick up nuclear diplomacy with his Iranian interlocutors in Vienna when he offered to take a temporary diversion to the Middle East. But, each for their own reasons, “Egyptians and Israelis both politely rejected that offer, telling Kerry they are already in direct contact and didn’t need American mediation.”

According to Ravid, the Israelis expected a visit from Kerry to be interpreted as pressure on Israel, a lesson probably learned from Kerry’s time as secretary of state thus far. The Egyptians, on the other hand, wanted to prove they could still play the role of mediator. But while that certainly could be true, it seems incomplete. The Egyptians, apparently, excluded Hamas from early deliberations to craft the truce. Whether the Egyptian leadership truly wanted a truce or not, it’s clear they were most concerned that the truce not undermine the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank under Mahmoud Abbas or the Israeli leadership in favor of Hamas. As Avi Issacharoff writes in the Times of Israel:

Hamas wants this in order to bring an end to the blockade on Gaza, open the Rafah Border Crossing, and in many ways to ensure its own survival.

On Tuesday morning, many people in Israel raised an eyebrow at Hamas’s rejection of the Egyptian ceasefire. But if we examine the crisis from the prism of Egypt-Hamas relations, we can see things differently.

Cairo offered the organization the same language it rejected from the outset: quiet for quiet. But for Hamas, the big problem was the way the Egyptian ceasefire was presented: At the same time that Razi Hamid, Hamas representative in Gaza, received the Egyptian document, the initiative was already being published in the Egyptian media.

This was a humiliation for Hamas, since no one thought to consult with its leadership. And still, as even senior Hamas officials admit, there is no other mediator in the region. Just like real estate agents who have a monopoly on a certain area, Egypt has a monopoly on Israel-Hamas relations.

At the very least, the Egyptian leadership does not seem to be in any rush to see Hamas given any breathing space. And neither does Abbas, whose leverage over Hamas has become all the more important in light of the recent unity deal between Hamas and Fatah.

Abbas, arguably, had the most to lose in the continued Hamas rocket attacks on Israel. Hamas was able to essentially shut down the country, sending Israelis fleeing to bomb shelters and disrupting air travel and Israel’s economic activity and productivity. This is where Hamas’s relative weakness works to its advantage among its own people. Israel may have superior firepower, and both Israel and Fatah may have the United States in their corner, but Hamas can bring life to a (temporary) standstill in Israel at a moment’s notice. They can make the argument that Abbas’s cooperation with Israel and his participation in the peace talks has done nothing to bring about the ostensible goal of an independent Palestine.

Hamas doesn’t care about that, having made clear its objective has nothing to do with a two-state solution but with a genocidal war against the Jewish state. As such, its ability to disrupt and sabotage any attempts at a peaceful solution are crucial to its own raison d’être. By the same token, then, any weakening of Hamas helps both Abbas and any prospects, however remote, for a negotiated solution.

So while Egypt’s “failure” to step in and constructively play the role of mediator has been lamented, the priorities of the new regime in Cairo are actually geared much more toward those of the West. The defeat of Hamas, its diplomatic isolation, and the depletion of its terrorist capabilities are not just beneficial to Israel but also to Egypt, the Palestinian Authority structure in the West Bank, and America and its allies’ desire to limit Iranian influence in the region.

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Israel Must Use Gaza Op to Destroy Hamas’s Rocket Capabilities

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted desperately to avoid a ground operation in Gaza. He ordered it only 10 days into Operation Protective Edge, following the failure of two separate cease-fire proposals that Israel accepted and honored–an Egyptian one that Hamas simply ignored and a UN-sponsored one that it swiftly abrogated. Yet now that he’s been forced into it, it would be a criminal waste to confine it to the very limited goal he set.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted desperately to avoid a ground operation in Gaza. He ordered it only 10 days into Operation Protective Edge, following the failure of two separate cease-fire proposals that Israel accepted and honored–an Egyptian one that Hamas simply ignored and a UN-sponsored one that it swiftly abrogated. Yet now that he’s been forced into it, it would be a criminal waste to confine it to the very limited goal he set.

Netanyahu’s goal–destroying the network of cross-border tunnels Hamas has built to carry out attacks in Israel–is undeniably important. It was through such tunnel that Hamas kidnapped Gilad Shalit in 2006 and subsequently traded him for 1,027 vicious terrorists, some of whom have since resumed killing; Israel has good reason to seek to prevent a repeat. But destroying the tunnels will do nothing to prevent a repeat of the kind of rocket war Israel has already suffered three times in the nine years since its 2005 Gaza pullout, and it simply cant afford to keep having such wars every few years: While Iron Dome and extensive civil defense measures have kept Israeli casualties near zero, the economic costs are already nontrivial, and as David Rosenberg noted in Haaretz last week, one lucky hit on, say, Ben-Gurion Airport or Intel’s production facility could suffice to send the economy into a tailspin. Thus Israel must seize the opportunity to completely dismantle Hamas’s rocket capabilities–because for the first time since it quit Gaza, there’s a real chance Hamas won’t be able to rebuild them.

It’s impossible to stop Hamas from launching another war without dismantling its capabilities; recently history amply proves that deterrence doesn’t work. The significant damage Hamas suffered in both previous Gaza wars, in 2009 and 2012, didn’t stop it from launching new wars a few years later, and there’s no reason to think the current war–which has done it no more damage than the previous ones–will produce a different result.

Nor is there any way to destroy Hamas’s capabilities other than by a ground operation. Even according to the Israel Air Force’s possibly over-optimistic statistics, the intensive airstrikes of Operation Protective Edge’s first week destroyed fewer than 3,000 of Hamas’s estimated 9,000 rockets; most of the rest cant be destroyed by air, either because their location is unknown or because theyre stored in places likes schools and hospitals that can’t be bombed without massive civilian casualties. During that same week, Hamas fired about 1,000 rockets at Israel. Thus it has some 5,000 left, including hundreds capable of hitting Tel Aviv and beyond–more than enough for another war or three. And it can easily manufacture even more, since for the same reasons, Israel has bombed only about half its rocket production facilities. Eliminating its capabilities thus requires a search-and-destroy ground operation: capturing and interrogating terrorists to find out where arsenals and factories are located, searching facilities like hospitals that can’t be bombed, etc.

Clearly, such an operation wouldn’t be cost-free, and in previous years, Israel saw little point in paying the price, because Hamas could easily replenish its arsenal. But thats no longer true. The Egyptian government, with strong public support, has been systematically destroying Hamas’s cross-border smuggling tunnels into Sinai over the past year, having finally grasped that the two-way terror traffic through these tunnels threatens Egypt’s security at least as much as Israel’s. Thus as long as Israel refrains from a cease-fire deal that grants Hamas egregious concessions–i.e., as long as it resists international pressure to loosen its naval blockade of Gaza, ease its tight security checks on overland cargo to Gaza, and relax restrictions on dual-use imports like cement that Hamas has repeatedly diverted to build its terrorist infrastructure at the expense of civilian needs–Hamas will likely have difficulty rebuilding its capabilities.

In short, Israel now has a golden opportunity to destroy Hamas’s rocket capabilities once and for all. It would be folly to waste it.

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The Missile Threat Goes Beyond Ukraine

The downing of Malaysian Air flight 17 continues to dominate headlines, as reporters (and the U.S. government) shift their attention back to Russia and Russia’s proxy militias in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. It would be a mistake to limit concern to overflights of eastern Ukraine, or to focus only upon the question of culpability in this instance. Rather, it’s time to look at the downing of the Malaysian passenger jet as a possible window into the future.

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The downing of Malaysian Air flight 17 continues to dominate headlines, as reporters (and the U.S. government) shift their attention back to Russia and Russia’s proxy militias in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. It would be a mistake to limit concern to overflights of eastern Ukraine, or to focus only upon the question of culpability in this instance. Rather, it’s time to look at the downing of the Malaysian passenger jet as a possible window into the future.

Several thousand surface-to-air missiles went missing in Libya in part because the White House chose to lead from behind and so did not work to secure Libya’s substantial arms caches. While airlines scramble to avoid Ukrainian airspace, they still fly over other contested regions. Less than two weeks ago, I flew on an American carrier from Washington to Dubai: we traversed Turkey and avoided Syria, but then appeared to fly over portions of Iraq which were newly seized by the Islamic State.

Terrorists with weaponry that can blow planes out of the sky may increasingly become the new normal. The question for policymakers is what to do about it. Only Israel equips its civilian jets with measures to counter missile threats. In 2002, terrorists attacked an Israeli charter flight leaving Mombasa. The missiles failed to hit their target, in part because of Israeli countermeasures.

The U.S. government is infamous for always defending against the last terrorist attack. TSA agents continue to pat down grandmothers in order to confiscate hidden water bottles. That may be all well and good, but increasingly it provides security theater rather than real security. If the growing threat is from below, the question the White House and airline industry should answer is what steps are they taking to defeat a surface-to-air missile aimed at a civilian jetliner, or whether they will simply wait to act until terrorists down an American-flagged aircraft.

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