Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 24, 2014

Will the Russian Army March into Ukraine?

It scarcely seems possible, but the situation in Ukraine keeps getting worse.

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It scarcely seems possible, but the situation in Ukraine keeps getting worse.

First Vladimir Putin let loose his “little green men”–a collection of Russian intelligence agents and military personnel along with a sprinkling of locals–to stir up a separatist rebellion in Crimea. Then after a bogus referendum held under Russian guns, he brazenly annexed Crimea, as flagrant a violation of international law as it is possible to imagine. Next he instigated another faux rebellion in eastern Ukraine led by Russian citizens, many of them current or former Russian military and intelligence personnel.

The pro-Russian rebels managed to carve out a quasi-independent region in eastern Ukraine where there is a substantial Russian-speaking population even if previous public opinion polls had indicated little support for breaking away from Ukraine. When the elected government in Kiev began to fight back against the rebels with some success, Putin provided them with heavier weapons including the sophisticated Buk or SA-11 air-defense system which brought down Malaysian Airlines flight 17, killing some 300 people on board.

Instead of apologizing for this war crime committed by his stooges, Putin has spun elaborate fantasies about how the Malaysian aircraft was really brought down by a Ukrainian anti-aircraft battery or fighter aircraft, even though U.S. intelligence and every other reputable observer has provided ample evidence that the foul deed was committed by a missile fired from the territory controlled by Russian separatists. Then the Russian rebels had the gall to deny international investigators access to the crash site and to actually loot the belongings of the innocent victims.

Far from chastened in the aftermath of the Malaysian Airlines tragedy, Putin is actually escalating his aggression. On Wednesday two Ukrainian fighter aircraft were shot down over their own airspace, with Kiev alleging that the shots came from the Russian side of the border. The State Department reports that in recent days artillery in Russia has been pounding Ukrainian positions and that Russia is now supplying the rebels with heavier weapons including tanks and rocket launchers. Speculation is rife that Putin may order the Russian army into Ukraine or that, at the very least, his proxies will stage a major offensive.

It is simply incredible that this is happening in the Europe of 2014–the land of the euro and the Eurovision song contest, of espresso and Bordeaux, of long vacations and short work weeks. Wasn’t Europe supposedly entering an era beyond power politics and certainly beyond war?

Recent events sound like something out of the 1930s, the dark years when brazen predators picked off countries at will: Czechoslovakia, Austria, Abyssinia (Ethiopia), China all fell while the League of Nations and the “international community” stood by, helpless and hapless, paralyzed, not knowing what to do. Putin is no Hitler or Tojo or Mussolini, but there are echoes of these outrageous events in his reckless disregard for the norms of international conduct.

What is even more incredible is that the democracies of the West, which together are infinitely richer and stronger than Russia, cannot muster the will to do anything to stop Putin’s offensive. Germany doesn’t want to lose access to Russian natural gas. France doesn’t want to lose the revenues from selling Russia two amphibious assault ships. Britain doesn’t want to lose the ability to attract Russian money to the City of London. And the U.S.? Well, President Obama appears to be too busy attending fundraisers to formulate a coherent response to Putin’s villainy.

I am normally an optimist–a half-glass-full kind of guy. But faced with the evil let loose from the Kremlin–and the cowardice with which it has been met in the West–it is hard not to despair for the future of Ukraine, of Europe, of the United States, and indeed the world. Perhaps I am being melodramatic but I am simply being driven to despair by the events of recent months.

It is hard to watch the international system disintegrate into chaos–not only in Ukraine but also in Iraq and Syria–while ordinary Americans and Europeans heedlessly enjoy the dog days of summer. It is hard not to think of another summer 100 years ago when illusions were shattered by the roar of guns. Today, however, the guns are roaring and the illusions of the West remain firmly intact.

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Jon Stewart’s Moral Lunacy

In the past I’ve praised Jon Stewart, a liberal, for being an outstanding comedian and satirist. I watch his program and, despite being a conservative, I generally count myself a fan of it. But for Stewart’s political humor to work, it has to have some basis in reality. He has to have identify a real-world absurdity in order to mock it. Which is why Stewart’s recent segment on Israel and Hamas was unfunny, not the least bit clever, and even irresponsible (a point I’ll return to in a moment).

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In the past I’ve praised Jon Stewart, a liberal, for being an outstanding comedian and satirist. I watch his program and, despite being a conservative, I generally count myself a fan of it. But for Stewart’s political humor to work, it has to have some basis in reality. He has to have identify a real-world absurdity in order to mock it. Which is why Stewart’s recent segment on Israel and Hamas was unfunny, not the least bit clever, and even irresponsible (a point I’ll return to in a moment).

Mr. Stewart asserted that both sides–Israel and Hamas–are engaging in aerial bombardment. But because Israel is more effective at prosecuting the war, and because more Palestinians than Israelis are dying, Israel is the more guilty party. It’s framed as an example of moral equivalence, but with Israel more morally culpable because of the “asymmetric” nature of the conflict.

This is moral lunacy.

You would never know from watching Stewart that Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state (and says so in its charter); that Hamas started the war; that Hamas wants to escalate the war; that Hamas has refused repeated ceasefires; and that Hamas is using innocent Palestinians as human shields by, for example, using hospitals and schools for military purposes. You would never know, in other words, that Hamas has a vested interest in more dead Palestinians, precisely in the hopes that people like Jon Stewart will make Israel out to be the more malicious of the two combatants. And when Stewart ridicules Israel for warning Palestinians to evacuate before the IDF strikes military targets in Gaza–”Evacuate to where!?”–he is displaying (at best) an embarrassing ignorance. Israel actually drops leaflets with maps indicating where residents of Gaza can go–specific sites–where they’ll be unharmed. So Israel is instructing Gazans to leave dangerous combat zones. And what about Hamas? It’s urging Gazans to stay. Why? In order for them to be killed.

Mr. Stewart, whenever he’s confronted with his errors and misleading segments, will invoke the excuse that he’s merely a comedian, so it’s absurd to judge him in the fashion we judge political commentators. Except that he’s not “merely” a comedian, and he knows it. Mr. Stewart actually has a fair amount of influence on our politics. Members of the political class have their thinking, and even their reporting, shaped by what he says. He is, for many of them, a moral conscience of sorts. Jon Stewart knows it, and he takes advantage of it. He uses his humor to advance his ideology, to give voice to his political and moral beliefs.

Now it’s true enough that Stewart is a comedian before he’s a political commentator. But to say he’s more one than the other isn’t to say he’s simply one or the other. He’s a comedian who often uses comedy to make political comment. And so Stewart should be held accountable, at least within reason, for what he says and what he does.

In this instance, Stewart committed two mistakes. He wasn’t funny, and in the process he showed himself to be a moral fool.

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The Putin Doctrine

Back in March, Columbia University’s Kimberly Marten had a fascinating guest post at the Washington Post’s political science blog, making a noteworthy claim. She wrote that Vladimir Putin had made a subtle, but crucial, adjustment in his speech patterns when discussing his country and his countrymen.

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Back in March, Columbia University’s Kimberly Marten had a fascinating guest post at the Washington Post’s political science blog, making a noteworthy claim. She wrote that Vladimir Putin had made a subtle, but crucial, adjustment in his speech patterns when discussing his country and his countrymen.

“There are two ways to talk about a Russian person or thing in the Russian language,” Marten explained. “One way, ‘Rossisskii,’ refers to Russian citizens and the Russian state. Someone who is ethnically Chechen, Tatar, or Ukrainian can be ‘Rossisskii’ if they carry a Russian passport and live on Russian territory.” That was how Putin had been referring to Russians. He was the leader of the Russian state, and his language reflected that. But then, Marten wrote, “Instead of sticking to the word ‘Rossisskii,’ he slipped into using ‘Russkii,’ the way to refer in the Russian language to someone who is ethnically Russian.”

This was significant especially because of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. According to Marten, Putin was signaling that he was driven by ethnic Russian nationalism–a figure to whom ethnicity, not borders, is the key determinant of his behavior toward others. The consequences could be severe, Marten wrote:

It is no longer far-fetched to think that Ukraine might go the way of the former Yugoslavia, as German journalist Jochen Bittner argued in Tuesday’s New York Times. The possibility of ethnically motivated violence there looms on the horizon.

It is useful to look back on Marten’s post in the wake of the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 in eastern Ukraine. The plane was, it appears, shot down by Ukrainian separatists loyal to Putin who had supplied them with the weapon that shot down the civilian airliner. It resulted in the deaths of about 300 innocent travelers whose plane might have been mistaken by the rebels for a Ukrainian military plane.

Putin, of course, blamed the West. But now it seems Putin the ethnic nationalist has taken yet another step toward war with Ukraine. While the downing of the plane involved Russian weapons and commanders crossing the border into Ukraine and then firing away, Reuters reports that the State Department has evidence the Russian military is shelling the Ukrainian military from Russian territory.

The erasure of borders, of course, started long ago–before Putin invaded and annexed Crimea. Russia did, after all, invade Georgia in 2008 in the culmination of a decade-long escalation of Russian hostilities and attacks against Georgia, which included installing Russian commanders in Georgian separatist communities. Putin’s playbook has been relatively stable, so perhaps Marten’s linguistic analysis shows that Putin is not changing tactics but aligning his rhetoric with action.

And even if ethnic nationalism provides an explanation for Putin’s actions, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a strategy. In a jarring cover story for Time, Simon Shuster lays out the Putin approach to managing world affairs:

The 21st century czar has mastered the dark art of stirring up problems that only he can solve, so that Western leaders find themselves scolding him one minute while pleading with him the next. The crisis in Syria last year is a perfect example. He supplied weapons and training for the armies of President Bashar Assad, propping up the tyrant while Western statesmen demanded Assad’s ouster. Yet when Assad crossed the “red line” drawn by Obama and used chemical weapons against his own people, Putin stepped in to broker the solution. At the urging of the Russian President, Assad gave up his stockpile of chemical weapons. In turn, the U.S. backed away from air strikes in Syria. And guess who still reigns in Damascus? Putin’s ally Assad.

Other world leaders try to avoid crises; Putin feasts on them. When a pro-Western government came to power in Ukraine, Putin dashed in to annex the region of Crimea–an act that redrew the borders of Europe and snatched away Ukraine’s territorial jewel. Within a month, Western diplomats began stuffing the issue into the past. Why? Because by then, Russia had stolen a march on eastern Ukraine, giving the West another crisis to deal with–and another problem that only Putin could reconcile. He made a show of pulling Russian troops back a short distance from the border with Ukraine, but Russian arms and trainers kept the separatists supplied for the fight. And when the fighting produced the macabre spectacle of the rotting corpses, once again the instigator was in the driver’s seat.

It’s a strategy that has so far worked. And this afternoon’s news fits right in. When Putin needs a distraction–and he certainly needs a distraction from MH17, which has caused ripples of outrage in his direction–he simply causes more mischief.

The West routinely gets caught off-guard by Putin’s provocations. And while he may not be totally predictable, there does seem to be a method to his madness. His strategy of causing trouble in one place to distract from the mayhem in another tells us what he might do, and his ethnic nationalism gives us at least a ballpark estimate of where. If Shuster and Marten are correct, Putin is far from finished.

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The “Israel Can Defend Itself in Theory but Not in Practice” Crowd

Yesterday the United Nations Human Rights Council endorsed an appalling motion against Israel’s efforts to defend itself from the ongoing Hamas terrorism. That the host of serial human-rights abusing nations that sit on the council endorsed this outrageous document is hardly surprising. What is more shocking is the failure of the European countries to take a stand against this terrible injustice. Given that these same countries have all issued statements purporting to uphold Israel’s right not to have to stand idly by while its civilians are at the mercy of murderous jihadists, the fact they have now failed to take a stand when the opportunity presented itself shows that these statements were utterly meaningless.

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Yesterday the United Nations Human Rights Council endorsed an appalling motion against Israel’s efforts to defend itself from the ongoing Hamas terrorism. That the host of serial human-rights abusing nations that sit on the council endorsed this outrageous document is hardly surprising. What is more shocking is the failure of the European countries to take a stand against this terrible injustice. Given that these same countries have all issued statements purporting to uphold Israel’s right not to have to stand idly by while its civilians are at the mercy of murderous jihadists, the fact they have now failed to take a stand when the opportunity presented itself shows that these statements were utterly meaningless.

What the European countries demonstrated in Geneva yesterday is that they are part of the “Israel can defend itself in theory but not in practice” crowd. They maintain that of course the Jewish state should be entitled to the same right to self-defense that all other nations enjoy, provided that when the Jewish state defends itself, no one on the other side is harmed.

The motion that the European nations acquiesced to was a frightful distortion of basic notions of morality and justice. Which was more grotesque: the claim that Israel targets civilians? The claim that Israel is the occupying power in Gaza? The claim that the blockade of Gaza is collective punishment for which Israel is held solely responsible with no reference to the blockade on the Egyptian border? The claim that the majority of deaths in Gaza have been among civilians when it has not yet been possible for any independent verification of this? The condemning of Israel for its recent military activities in the West Bank with no mention of the three murdered Israeli teens that the Israeli security forces were searching for? The fact that the resolution includes a number of accusations about “extremist Israeli settlers” but not one mention of either Hamas specifically or terrorists generally? And then there was the ludicrous insistence that Gaza cannot be allowed to remain “geographically” isolated from the West Bank (an apparent assault on Israel’s own existing territorial contiguity).

Particularly breathtaking was the accusation that Israel has failed to adequately investigate accusations of past violations against Palestinians, a flagrant lie given that Israel has, where necessary, prosecuted members of its own security forces when they were found to have acted unlawfully. This indeed has been affirmed even by Richard Goldstone, the author of the UN’s previous infamous report on Israel’s 2009 military operation in Gaza.

Also not to be missed was the clause that welcomes as a positive step the recent formation of the Palestinian unity government, which of course includes Hamas! After everything that has happened in recent weeks, could the Europeans really not find it in their cautiously diplomatic hearts to outright reject a motion that celebrates a Palestinian Authority government that involves Hamas?

The Europeans have attempted to whitewash their own complicity in the passing of this motion by claiming that they were responsible for introducing amendments that made the resolution more evenhanded. Yet such activities give the impression that this document has some underlying legitimacy. Furthermore, the additional amendments that they point to with such self-congratulation simply allow for the possibility of Hamas also being investigated for its breaches of international law. At best, all that such amendments achieve is an obscene moral equivalence between the terror group Hamas and the democratic nation-state Israel. In reality, the amended resolution doesn’t even manage to put the two parties on an equal footing–which itself would be an unspeakable inversion—because the vast majority of the resolution is still focused on castigating Israel for a litany of humanitarian offenses.

Still, the question remains of how there could be such a gap between the words of the European governments and their actions, or shameful inaction, at the human rights council. For instance, the British government has not only been steadfast in its commitment to Israel’s right to self-defense, but the country’s newly appointed foreign minister vocally condemned the resolution. The answer to this conundrum would seem to be that Catharine Ashton’s Foreign Service division of the European Union dictated to the European members of the UNHRC that they would vote as a bloc. Finding a consensus between a fiercely anti-Israel country like Ireland and a country friendlier to the Jewish state like the Czech Republic was never going to be easy. The morally vacuous abstention votes would appear to have been the result.

The European countries have consistently singled out Israel’s settlement policy on the grounds that Israel must surrender still more territory as part of the creation of a Palestinian state. But by utterly failing to give any meaningful support to Israel’s efforts to defend its people from attacks emanating from territory it has already surrendered, the Europeans ensure that Israelis will take that much less notice of Europe’s assurances from now on.

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Israel and the Burden of Being Right

Generally when someone says they “hate to say I told you so,” it’s fair to doubt they really hate saying it. But in Israel’s case it’s believable. The current conflict with Gaza is proving Israel correct about its various claims with regard to Hamas, and the result is the treacherous urban warfare the world is currently witnessing.

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Generally when someone says they “hate to say I told you so,” it’s fair to doubt they really hate saying it. But in Israel’s case it’s believable. The current conflict with Gaza is proving Israel correct about its various claims with regard to Hamas, and the result is the treacherous urban warfare the world is currently witnessing.

As Evelyn Gordon wrote earlier, the vast tunnel networks prove Israel was right about letting in dual-use items that Hamas would only appropriate for its terror war against Israeli civilians. The West should, in fact, be embarrassed by its enabling of those tunnels: pressuring Israel to let in those materials was the international community’s way of using Israeli civilians as guinea pigs in a grand experiment. They didn’t believe Israeli predictions, and wanted the premises tested. Now they have been, and innocents are paying the price.

While we’re on the topic of dangerously boneheaded diplomatic fumbles by the Obama administration, the FAA ban on flights to Israel’s major international airport–conspicuously imposed not when the rockets started flying but when John Kerry needed leverage to box Israel into a cease-fire–proved another point. The grotesque body-counters among the press like to treat rockets from Gaza as barely more than fireworks which do not lead (because of Israeli and American technological genius) to a comparable number of fatalities.

But the FAA ban is the Obama administration’s way of inadvertently admitting otherwise: rockets from Gaza are such a threat, according to the Obama administration’s actions, that Tel Aviv should be treated as more dangerous for commercial flight than countless other locations that would give anything for a safety record even resembling that of Ben-Gurion. Thus, the possibility that rockets will escape Iron Dome is sufficient to treat them as the act of war they are intended to be. Israel was right about the need to stop and deter the rockets, not least because of America’s reaction to them.

The tunnels and the rockets are Hamas’s primary threat to those living inside Israel, and they also shine a light on another of Israel’s verified claims: Hamas’s practice of turning civilians and their property into instruments of war. As I wrote on Tuesday, journalists have witnessed Hamas fighters using a hospital as a command center and moving rockets into mosques. And Hamas is using UN schools to store weaponry as well.

But reporters have also opened a window into why there’s not as much coverage of the use of human shields as one would think. Yesterday, a Wall Street Journal photographer tweeted an image of a Hamas official at Shifa hospital and wrote: “You have to wonder w the shelling how patients at Shifa hospital feel as Hamas uses it as a safe place to see media.” He then deleted the tweet. At the Jerusalem Post, Lahav Harkov offers a window into the threats journalists are getting on social media for recording Hamas actions:

On Wednesday, Peter Stefanovic of Australia’s Channel Nine News tweeted: “Hamas rockets just launched over our hotel from a site about two hundred metres away. So a missile launch site is basically next door.”

An account called @ThisIsGaza said this was Stefanovic’s fourth time “passing and fabricating information to Israel… from GAZA” and threatened to sue him.

Another account, @longitude0 wrote: “You are a cretin. Are you working for the IDF” and “in WWII spies got shot.”

Financial Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief John Reed reported seeing “two rockets fired toward Israel from near al-Shifa hospital, even as more bombing victims were brought in.”

Shifa, in Gaza City, is the main medical facility in the Strip.

In response, @Saritah_91 tweeted: “We’ll hold you responsible if Israel uses your tweet to bomb the hospital & then justify it.”

The Hamas supporters are making use of the term “informant,” treating the media as their allies (I can’t imagine why) who then betray the cause when they report what they see. There has also been an interesting desire on the part of journalists to obfuscate the implications of their own reporting. For example, in an article detailing Hamas’s brazen use of human shields, New York Times reporters Anne Barnard and Jodi Rudoren write:

Nothing is ever so clear in the complex and often brutal calculus of urban warfare. There is no evidence that Hamas and other militants force civilians to stay in areas that are under attack — the legal definition of a human shield under international law. But it is indisputable that Gaza militants operate in civilian areas, draw return fire to civilian structures, and on some level benefit in the diplomatic arena from the rising casualties.

Hamas is using civilians as human shields, but let’s not jump to any conclusions. Barnard and Rudoren don’t cite their source for international law, but here is the plain text of the Geneva Conventions:

The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.

But even by the Barnard/Rudoren account, it’s pretty clear that Hamas, in turning civilian areas into military targets and then prohibiting civilians from using the reinforced bunkers under those areas to which Hamasniks then retreat when the counterattack arrives, is using civilians as human shields.

Again, Israel said all this–and has said it for some time. But there’s not much consolation in being right about these claims, because it means Hamas’s sacrificial use of Palestinian civilians and the group’s genocidal war against the Jewish state continues.

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How the West Helped Hamas Build Its War Machine

Yesterday, I wrote about one important way in which the West helps Hamas. Clearly, there are also many others, including media coverage that encourages Hamas’s use of human shields (as Alan Dershowitz explains here) or even parrots outright Hamas lies (as Noah Pollak explains here). But Monday’s Jerusalem Post editorial highlighted one important form of assistance to Hamas that has received far too little attention despite contributing greatly to Gaza’s current misery: the West’s relentless pressure on Israel to stop restricting imports of “dual-use” items into Gaza.

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Yesterday, I wrote about one important way in which the West helps Hamas. Clearly, there are also many others, including media coverage that encourages Hamas’s use of human shields (as Alan Dershowitz explains here) or even parrots outright Hamas lies (as Noah Pollak explains here). But Monday’s Jerusalem Post editorial highlighted one important form of assistance to Hamas that has received far too little attention despite contributing greatly to Gaza’s current misery: the West’s relentless pressure on Israel to stop restricting imports of “dual-use” items into Gaza.

For years, human-rights groups, diplomats, pundits, and other opinion leaders demanded an end to the “siege” of Gaza, and eventually, they succeeded. President Barack Obama deserves special mention here; it was he who, after Israel’s botched raid on a flotilla to Gaza in 2010, twisted Israel’s arm into drastically easing its import controls. The pressure increased again after Egypt tightened its own blockade of Gaza last year, leading Israel to remove all remaining restrictions on construction materials like cement and iron.

Most of those who pressed Israel on this issue sincerely wanted to improve Palestinian lives: Eliminating import restrictions, they argued, would let Gaza residents build homes and businesses, improve the economy, and generally contribute to Palestinian wellbeing. So they blithely dismissed Israel’s warnings that these materials would actually be used not to help ordinary Palestinians, but to build Hamas’s terror infrastructure.

We now know Israel’s warnings were 100 percent correct. As Jonathan Tobin has already noted, Hamas built a vast warren of underground bunkers to protect its rockets and its own personnel. It also built dozens of cross-border tunnels dedicated solely to launching attacks inside Israel; the IDF has so far located 28–each of which runs for miles, deep underground, requiring hundreds of tons of cement and millions of dollars to build–and doesn’t think it has found them all. Yet Hamas built no hospitals, schools, power plants, or even bomb shelters to serve the general population; where such institutions exist, they were built either by Israel (when it controlled Gaza) or the international community.

Hamas built much of its underground warren with materials smuggled in from Egypt. But Israel’s lifting of restrictions last year undoubtedly helped. And even before that, Israel allowed huge quantities of dual-use products to be imported for projects supervised by the UN, Western governments, or international aid agencies, who were supposed to ensure that Hamas didn’t use them for its terrorist infrastructure. Given the sheer size of the tunnel network, it now seems likely that Hamas siphoned off some of this material, too–just as it has repeatedly stored rockets in UNRWA schools despite that organization’s stated objections.

Had Hamas not been able to build these tunnels, Israeli ground troops wouldn’t be in Gaza trying to destroy them. And had Israeli troops not been in Gaza, the hundreds of Palestinians wounded or killed in the Hamas-Israel crossfire would be unharmed, while the hundreds of homes damaged or destroyed in the fighting, or in the demolition of tunnels that run right under them, would still be standing.

In other words, in its well-meaning effort to improve Palestinian lives by demanding that Israel end its import restrictions, the international community helped Hamas build a massive terrorist infrastructure that has now brought death and destruction down on Gaza. I wonder whether all the Palestinians who have lost their loved ones or their homes think those extra tons of imported cement were worth the price.

I also wonder whether the West will learn the lessons for next time. Hamas is demanding that any cease-fire include a complete removal of all Israeli and Egyptian import restrictions and the end of Israel’s naval blockade. Pressuring Israel to comply with this demand would be a mistake. For not only would it show Hamas that launching rockets at Israel is an effective way of securing political gains, it would also facilitate its efforts to rebuild its war machine for the next round.

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