Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 2, 2014

The Justice Department Voter ID Charade

Why is the Justice Department doing everything in its power to invalidate Voter ID laws? According to Attorney General Eric Holder, it’s simply a question of voting rights. But lawyers representing the state of Texas, whose voter ID law is being challenged in federal court this week by the federal government, have a different explanation. They say that while Holder claims Republicans have promulgated voter integrity laws to limit the number of blacks and Hispanics casting ballots and increase their chances of winning, that’s looking at the case through the wrong end of the telescope. Instead, it is, as voter ID defenders rightly assert, the result of a Democratic administration trying to alter the outcome of elections in southern, Republican-leaning states.

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Why is the Justice Department doing everything in its power to invalidate Voter ID laws? According to Attorney General Eric Holder, it’s simply a question of voting rights. But lawyers representing the state of Texas, whose voter ID law is being challenged in federal court this week by the federal government, have a different explanation. They say that while Holder claims Republicans have promulgated voter integrity laws to limit the number of blacks and Hispanics casting ballots and increase their chances of winning, that’s looking at the case through the wrong end of the telescope. Instead, it is, as voter ID defenders rightly assert, the result of a Democratic administration trying to alter the outcome of elections in southern, Republican-leaning states.

That charge has the Justice Department outraged as they think the claim of Texas’s attorneys that it is the feds who are practicing a form of discrimination is absurd. The government argues that laws requiring voters to identify themselves when voting are inherently discriminatory because the poor, the elderly, and blacks and Hispanics are less likely to have a photo ID. But the context here is not so much the presumption that these groups are either too stupid or without the will to procure a picture ID. It is the effort of the Justice Department to resurrect the “pre-clearance” provisions of the Voting Rights Act which used to require southern states to get federal permission before changing their voter procedures.

But, as the Supreme Court has ruled, singling out these states for that kind of treatment can no longer be justified by the awful practices that were prevalent more than a half-century ago. Though Holder and the groups who claim to represent the cause of civil rights are acting as if they are still fighting Jim Crow laws, their efforts aren’t so much about fighting discrimination as they are an attempt to convince the country that it is still 1964, not 2014.

The facts about voter ID laws are pretty simple. In an age when you can’t complete virtually any private or public transaction, fly, take a train, or get prescription drugs without a photo ID, the notion that people should be allowed to simply show up and cast a ballot without proving that you are a registered voter boggles the mind. The overwhelming majority of Americans have photo identification and states that require them for voting offer free state ID cards for those who don’t have drivers’ licenses or passports.

The government argues that this makes it impossible for some to vote because they have no ability to get identification. But the witnesses they are bringing forward to back up that assertion don’t seem terribly credible. In the New York Times feature on the issue, we are introduced to one such example, 22-year-old Imani Clark, who resides in rural Texas where there is no public transportation to get her to a state center to get an ID card. But it boggles the mind to think that what appears to be an able-bodied employed young African-American student such as Clark is really unable to come up with any proof of her identity. Indeed, to assume that African Americans or Hispanics are without the wit to do so is itself a discriminatory view that most blacks and Hispanics do not share.

As Texas’s lawyers have pointed out, a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general that said there was no evidence of a discriminatory intent behind voter ID laws but also noted that there was evidence of “deep ideological polarization” among government lawyers pursuing this case.

That report was spot on. The claim that voter fraud is unknown in the United States—thus obviating the need for voter integrity provisions—is a joke. To believe that we would have to forget everything we know about American political history as well as human nature.

But while asserting that voter fraud is unproven, Justice believes it can merely claim discrimination without being required to show either intent during its passage or bias in the law’s implementation. But to do so it they must act as if the Texas of today is no different from the Texas of the past. This is a false charge that one can only hope the courts will eventually reject.

The only thing motivating this case is partisan politics. But rather than it being a function of a prejudiced GOP seeking to hamstring Democrats, the truth is that it is really a matter of a Democratic administration trying to gin up anger among African Americans and Hispanics about a measure that is simply a matter of common sense. Democrats are trying to hype minority turnout not by protecting their rights but by falsely asserting prejudice. This is nothing but a partisan charade and a case that the courts should throw out.

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BuyPartisan and Our Polarized, Overly Politicized Civic Culture

Have you tuned in to recent congressional floor debates, read political blogs, or watched prime-time political talks shows and thought to yourself: “What this country needs is more polarization with an extra helping of mutual suspicion and the politicization of everything you keep in your house”? If so, you might need a sabbatical from political media. What you most certainly don’t need, but probably very much want, is this iPhone app that can enable your full transformation into a raving lunatic.

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Have you tuned in to recent congressional floor debates, read political blogs, or watched prime-time political talks shows and thought to yourself: “What this country needs is more polarization with an extra helping of mutual suspicion and the politicization of everything you keep in your house”? If so, you might need a sabbatical from political media. What you most certainly don’t need, but probably very much want, is this iPhone app that can enable your full transformation into a raving lunatic.

It’s called BuyPartisan, which is clever. It allows you to scan the barcode of products at the grocery store to see how that company allocates its political donations. It was created by Matthew Colbert, formerly a Capitol Hill staffer. For those whose political advocacy is a bit high-proof but not yet completely insufferable, the app will help them reach their potential. According to CBS, the app has about 100,000 users, which suggests there are very many people across the country desperate for a way to stop getting dinner-party invitations.

As the L.A. Times reported:

“We’re trying to make every day election day for people,” Colbert said, adding that the app helps consumers support products that reflect their political beliefs.

BuyPartisan doesn’t directly urge users to boycott products, but that’s likely how many consumers will use it.

Well then I suppose this proves there is such a thing as too much democracy. In any event, Colbert was the first to develop the app, but he wasn’t the first to attempt to release this virus into the air:

It’s all based on publicly available data compiled by non-profit groups like the Sunlight Foundation.

“My first reaction was, cool, we tried to do that!” Sunlight’s Gabriela Schneider said.

More such wisdom from Schneider:

“When I go to vote and when I go to make a purchase, I should know what’s the politics behind that. I should be able to know who’s behind the political ad that’s telling me to vote this way or that way,” Schneider said.

At the very least, it makes you look at your household products in a different way.

If you were wondering if it’s at all possible for a news organization to publish a story about political spending and not find the long and winding road that inevitably leads to the Koch brothers, the answer is: No, it’s not possible. The media’s Koch obsession is just who they are at this point:

The app showed 95 percent of contributions made by Quilted Northern toilet papers went to Republicans. The parent company, Georgia Pacific, is owned by Koch Industries.

“So for those that really care about it and who like that side, they can buy it,” Colbert said. “And for those that don’t like that side, they can go, ‘Maybe I don’t want to buy it. Maybe there’s a different toilet paper I want.'”

I suppose you can look at the Quilted Northern aspect in two ways, if you’re a Democrat whose daily activity is governed by DNC talking points. On the one hand, Harry Reid told you the Kochs are un-American, and therefore you perhaps won’t give them your money. On the other hand, it would be completely demented to boycott toilet paper made by a company whose parent company is owned by libertarians. The question, then, comes down to whether you’ve managed to follow politics closely and keep your sanity.

On a more serious note, such apps would be harmless if we lived in a society that could handle such detailed information with a sense of dignity. Unfortunately, we know what many people will do with such information. Last year, the CEO of Mozilla (developers of the Firefox browser) was forced to step down after committing the thought crime of years ago donating to the prop 8 ballot initiative in California, which opposed gay marriage.

I personally know someone who received death threats after donating to the campaign of a Republican governor, and I am certainly not alone in that regard. We have seen a demand for full campaign donor transparency coupled with the IRS’s witch hunt targeting conservative and pro-Israel political activists, a very clear signal from national Democrats that political voices are to be identified for the purpose of silencing them.

The instinct to have everything on your grocery shopping list conform to an unyielding loyalty to a political party is not a healthy one. And neither is an app that caters to it.

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UN Internet Control As Bad As Feared

Back in November 2012, Arthur Herman, author of Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, warned in the pages of COMMENTARY about what was at stake because of the Obama administration’s decision to turn control over the governance and regulation of the Internet to the United Nations. He explained:

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Back in November 2012, Arthur Herman, author of Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, warned in the pages of COMMENTARY about what was at stake because of the Obama administration’s decision to turn control over the governance and regulation of the Internet to the United Nations. He explained:

This all began in 2005, when the United Nations sponsored a World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis. That choice of venue was itself rich with irony, since Tunisia’s then dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was the Arab world’s leading censor of the Internet, and the two sponsors of the summit’s trade fair were China’s biggest network companies, Huawei and ZTE. They are the anchors of China’s Great Firewall that keeps out Western ideas and suppresses dissent—and also leaves it free to hack into the secrets of Western governments and corporations more or less at will. That is precisely the kind of Internet many other countries would like to have, and China emerged from the Tunis meeting as their chief spokesman. Several belong to the so-called G-77 of developing countries, which includes Pakistan, the Philippines, Brazil, and Argentina, as well as Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. They believe that the administration of the World Wide Web by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), headquartered in Los Angeles, isn’t responsive enough to the needs of developing countries, and so they pushed through a paragraph in the Tunis final report that “underlines the need to maximize the participation of developing countries in decisions regarding Internet governance, which should reflect their interests, as well as in development and capacity building”—in other words, in helping governments control what their citizens can see, and can’t see, on the Internet. The best way to do that, China proposed in the run-up to the Tunis meeting, was to take administrative control of the Internet away from ICANN and hand it over to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

And here is Heritage with some more detail. The Obama administration cared little, however. Faced with international passions whipped up by Edward Snowden’s leaks—often framed inaccurately by those seeking to amplify his revelations into something more nefarious—it agreed to complete the handover of Internet regulation to the United Nations earlier this year, a move which will become final in a year.

The United Nations has long made itself a laughing stock with its choice of promotions and chairmanships. Take, for example, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya becoming chair of the UN Human Rights Commission or Iran chairing a non-proliferation conference. If Hamas were a member of the United Nations, UN bureaucrats would likely find a way to put it in charge of counter-terrorism.

Over the past few years, Turkey has distinguished itself with an unprecedented crackdown on not only the media, but also the Internet and Twitter. So what does the United Nations do? It chooses Turkey to host an Internet governance forum:

Turkey has begun hosting the ninth annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum, a United Nations-mandated organization, despite a number of recent controversies regarding the country’s Internet freedom record. Speaking at the event Sept. 2, Minister of Transport, Maritime and Communication Lütfi Elvan focused mainly on the issues of “cybercrimes.” “The Internet is abused by criminal networks, terrorist organizations, drug smugglers and child abusers. Sadly, the rampant abuse of the Internet has reached undesirable heights,” Elvan said.

Amnesty International rightly chimed in to criticize Turkey’s selection:

The Turkish government’s prosecution of Twitter critics is a deeply hypocritical stance for the host of the Internet Governance Forum, Amnesty International said today… The event, which takes place in Istanbul between 2 and 5 September, brings together governments and civil society to share best practice on Internet regulation, security and human rights.Twenty-nine Twitter users are being tried in Izmir, Turkey, and face up to three years in jail for posting tweets during last year’s protests that the authorities claim “incite the public to break the law.” None of the tweets contained any incitement to violence.

Many non-governmental activists urging transfer of Internet governance to the United Nations seemed most concerned with taking regulatory power away from a U.S.-based organization and simply hoped that the United Nations would do the right thing once vested with new power over the Internet. The United Nations, however, seems intent on proving itself unworthy. The question for those committed to free speech and free exchange of information is whether it is too late to rectify the situation and save the internet from a UN bureaucracy more inclined to assuage dictatorships like Turkey than defend freedom and liberty.

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Hey GOP, Nobody Likes Cuomo

For a governor with a huge lead in the polls and an even bigger fundraising advantage over both his primary and general election opponents, New York’s Andrew Cuomo isn’t terribly popular. An ethics scandal and years of feuds and slights directed at various constituencies have resulted in Cuomo spending what should have been a triumphant reelection season scrambling to fend off challenges and absorbing slights from likely supporters. But right now the real question is not so much about Cuomo’s efforts as it is the reluctance of Republicans to take advantage of his weakness.

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For a governor with a huge lead in the polls and an even bigger fundraising advantage over both his primary and general election opponents, New York’s Andrew Cuomo isn’t terribly popular. An ethics scandal and years of feuds and slights directed at various constituencies have resulted in Cuomo spending what should have been a triumphant reelection season scrambling to fend off challenges and absorbing slights from likely supporters. But right now the real question is not so much about Cuomo’s efforts as it is the reluctance of Republicans to take advantage of his weakness.

Cuomo’s biggest problem revolves around the U.S. attorney’s investigation of the governor’s attempts to quash the efforts of the Moreland Commission to probe the pay-to-play culture of Albany when it got too close to some of his supporters. His outrageous decision to shut the commission down was compounded by his arrogant dismissals of critics. But now that the Justice Department is involved, the public relations hit isn’t anywhere near as important as the potential legal peril facing the governor if more evidence is found corroborating charges of obstruction of justice.

That led to the startling decision of the New York Times to refuse to endorse Cuomo in the Democratic primary against Zephyr Teachout, a virtually unknown challenger. But the National Organization of Women and the left-wing Nation magazine coming down in favor of Teachout and her relentless attacks on the governor are taking a toll on him. As the Times reported yesterday, critics are now emerging throughout the political spectrum to either bash the governor or to exact demands to win their loyalty. Key constituent groups like unions are angry at the governor because of his initial move to the center after being elected in 2010 and are not appeased by his shift back to the left since 2012. Though none of this is enough to make anyone think Teachout or Republican nominee Rob Astorino can beat Cuomo, the picture emerging from the campaign is that of a weakened incumbent who is favored mainly because of his massive expenditures on television commercials and the moribund state of the state’s Republican Party.

Cuomo is right to take the New York GOP lightly. It’s been in a state of virtual collapse since 2002 when George Pataki won the last of his three terms in Albany. It’s been that long since it fielded a competitive candidate for either the governorship or a U.S. Senate seat and it has shown few signs of being able to pull itself together even in a midterm election year in which Republicans around the country are prepared to make gains because of President Obama’s unpopularity. It is true that the president is still popular in New York and the national GOP brand is despised in the liberal state, but unlike in past eras when centrist figures emerged to take advantage of Democratic weakness, the Republican bench in New York is empty as the state drifts toward a one-party dominance that essentially takes it off the board for national consideration in any election.

But, as I first wrote two weeks ago, the national Republican Party and the Republican Governors Association is making a big mistake in snubbing GOP nominee Rob Astorino. Unlike many of his recent predecessors on the New York ballot, the Westchester County executive is a plausible alternative to Cuomo. And unlike those GOP standard-bearers who were offered up as sacrificial lambs when they ran against Eliot Spitzer in 2006 and Cuomo in 2010, Astorino is facing an opponent who is in retreat on many issues and deeply vulnerable on ethics charges.

It may be that most New Yorkers don’t care about the charges against Cuomo. That’s understandable considering that the broadcast media has largely buried the story. That’s especially true when compared to Chris Christie’s Bridgegate woes. But despite his strong poll numbers, he remains vulnerable. It should also be remembered that the thin-skinned Cuomo has a long history of blowing up when put under pressure. Were Astorino given anywhere near the resources at Cuomo’s disposal, he might not win but he could help begin the process of rebuilding his party in a state Republicans should try to make competitive and help strengthen its influence in the state legislature.

Right now the assumption is that Cuomo’s obvious weakness is irrelevant to the national political equation and that any GOP money spent there would be wasted. But fate—in the form of a legal problem that could overshadow a potential second term for Cuomo—has given Republicans a golden chance that may not be repeated again. A governor who is under as much pressure and disliked as much as Cuomo has proven to be shouldn’t be given a free pass to reelection.

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Why the Resurgence of Beheading in Islam?

The SITE Intelligence Group, a subscription service which provides the best coverage of jihadi chat forums and media, has now posted the video of ISIS beheading captive American journalist Steven Sotloff, whom ISIS had threatened to execute in the wake of its beheading of James Foley. To my untrained eye, it’s unclear whether Sotloff had been executed immediately following Foley, with the video only released now, or whether it is a fresh video. That said, the rash of beheadings that began with the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 and continued through the Iraq war, certainly renews focus on the practice and radical Islamism.

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The SITE Intelligence Group, a subscription service which provides the best coverage of jihadi chat forums and media, has now posted the video of ISIS beheading captive American journalist Steven Sotloff, whom ISIS had threatened to execute in the wake of its beheading of James Foley. To my untrained eye, it’s unclear whether Sotloff had been executed immediately following Foley, with the video only released now, or whether it is a fresh video. That said, the rash of beheadings that began with the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 and continued through the Iraq war, certainly renews focus on the practice and radical Islamism.

Almost a decade ago, while I was editing the Middle East Quarterly, I published an insightful article by Timothy Furnish entitled, “Beheading in the Name of Islam.” While some more radical Islamic advocacy organizations like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) bend over backwards to obfuscate the links between such acts of violence and religion, the truth lies in the interpretation of religious texts espoused by more radical elements.

Furnish explains, “Sura (chapter) 47 contains the ayah (verse): ‘When you encounter the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads until you have crushed them completely; then bind the prisoners tightly.’” He then explains the history of the exegesis:

The famous Iranian historian and Qur’an commentator Muhammad b. Jarir at-Tabari (d. 923 C.E.) wrote that “striking at the necks” is simply God’s sanction of ferocious opposition to non-Muslims. Mahmud b. Umar az-Zamakhshari (d. 1143 C.E.), in a major commentary studied for centuries by Sunni religious scholars, suggested that any prescription to “strike at the necks” commands to avoid striking elsewhere so as to confirm death and not simply wound…

Literalism with regard to the interpretation of this passage was re-introduced in relatively recent times:

In his Saudi-distributed translation of the Qur’an, ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali (d. 1953) wrote that the injunction to “smite at their necks,” should be taken both literally and figuratively. “You cannot wage war with kid gloves,” Yusuf ‘Ali argued… Perhaps the most influential modern recapitulation of this passage was provided by the influential Pakistani scholar and leading Islamist thinker S. Abul A’ la Mawdudi (d. 1979), who argued that the sura provided the first Qur’anic prescriptions on the laws of war. Mawdudi argued, “Under no circumstances should the Muslim lose sight of this aim and start taking the enemy soldiers as captives. Captives should be taken after the enemy has been completely crushed.”

What is striking to me with regard to the evolution of interpretation is how it has hardened with time. For that, the world has no one to blame but Saudi Arabia which has, for decades, done everything possible to distribute the Yusuf ‘Ali interpretation of the Koran which, thanks to Saudi Arabia’s generous subsidies, remains perhaps the most widely-available version of the Koran not only in the English-speaking world, but across the Sunni world as well.

Bernard Lewis, the greatest living historian of the Middle East, once made the following analogy:

The Wahhabi branch of Islam is very fanatical, to the extent of being totally intolerant, very oppressive of women, and so on. Two things happened in the 20th century that gave Wahhabis enormous importance. One of them was that sheikhs of the House of Saud, who were Wahhabis, and their followers obtained control of the holy places of Islam — Mecca and Medina — which gave them enormous prestige in the Muslim world. And second, probably more important, they controlled the oil wells and the immense resources those gave them. Imagine that the Ku Klux Klan gets total control of the state of Texas. And the Ku Klux Klan has at its disposal all the oil rigs in Texas. And they use this money to set up a well-endowed network of colleges and schools throughout Christendom, peddling their peculiar brand of Christianity. You would then have an approximate equivalent of what has happened in the modern Muslim world.

What we are seeing now is not the natural evolution of Islam, but rather the result of decades of Saudi-fueled hatred. Many Saudi officials may have recognized that their financing of radical Islam has gone too far and may seek a more productive role—especially vis-à-vis unrepentant Qatar—but it is important to recognize that interpretations have changed over time to allow the murders within ISIS to justify their cruelty and crimes in Islam.

The question which both Muslims and non-Muslims must then answer is: How can decades of well-funded radicalism be undone? It’s not going to happen with Oval Office pronouncements, art therapy, or snake-oil de-radicalization programs. It will happen with a concerted, decades-long, well-financed operation to change hearts and minds. That investment, alas, must come from within the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia has yet to put its money where it mouth is and, regardless, no country other than perhaps Morocco appears ready to give the promotion of moderation beyond its borders a serious try.

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A “Berlin Airlift” for the Ukrainian Winter

Russian aggression remains very much in the headlines, as President Vladimir Putin last week re-opened the southern front and more recently reportedly bragged that he could capture the Ukraine in just a couple weeks. Max Boot rightly writes that the gestures NATO envisions won’t deter Putin. The problem with American and perhaps NATO policy goes deeper, however.

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Russian aggression remains very much in the headlines, as President Vladimir Putin last week re-opened the southern front and more recently reportedly bragged that he could capture the Ukraine in just a couple weeks. Max Boot rightly writes that the gestures NATO envisions won’t deter Putin. The problem with American and perhaps NATO policy goes deeper, however.

So much policy in recent years has been based on wishful thinking. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton preferred to see problems in U.S.-Russian relations as rooted more with their predecessors than with Putin himself, hence the investment in the “reset.” There continued years of denial about Putin’s true intentions, all the while making compromises and offering concessions based on the deluded notion that Putin was more partner than pariah. When Putin invaded Crimea, when he shot down Malaysian Airlines flight 17, and when he continued his push into his neighbor, Obama simply reacted with a patchwork of statements and superficial pronouncements until the television cameras moved on. Indeed, if there is one core principle to the Obama doctrine, it is not leading from behind (for that would imply leading), but rather simply reacting to world events in a scattershot fashion.

It’s time to be proactive. Putin can boast that he can take the Ukrainian capital Kiev in two weeks, but he really doesn’t need to. After all, Ukraine remains overwhelmingly dependent upon Russian gas shipments to power its factories and heat its homes during the winter. If Putin simply turns a nozzle, he can freeze Ukrainians into submission. Everyone sees the winter coming, and yet there does not appear to be much planning within U.S. policy circles about how to prevent Russian hardball with energy shipments.

It’s time to talk about a “Berlin Airlift” of escorted shipments of fuel into Ukraine. Such an operation would be difficult, but then again, so was the Berlin Airlift. American warships can enter the Black Sea on routine patrol, and Romania can contribute and provide basing and logistical support, if not active partnership. If the United States could reflag Kuwaiti tankers to protect them, so too could the United States re-flag tankers bound for the Ukraine.

There is no doubt that any Ukraine flotilla would be expensive. It is also true that European officials—and especially Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany—construct their policies more on mercantile considerations than on principles. But then again, if economics always trumped freedom, there would have been no Berlin Airlift and the Cold War would have taken a far worse turn. But looming problems require more than posturing and press conference; they require proactive resolutions. Alas, time is running out to construct such a solution and to prevent Putin from transforming Ukraine into the vassal he envisions.

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Abbas’s Fake Ultimatum to Israel

Mahmoud Abbas has come up with what seems like a foolproof plan to pressure Israel into withdrawing from the West Bank and allowing the creation of a Palestinian state. The Palestinian Authority leader is reportedly planning to give an ultimatum to the Israelis demanding they agree to the borders of such a state and threatening to withdraw security cooperation and go to the United Nations for redress if they don’t. It sounds smart but, like virtually every other initiative undertaken by the PA, it’s entirely fake, and his threats are, for the most part, a transparent bluff.

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Mahmoud Abbas has come up with what seems like a foolproof plan to pressure Israel into withdrawing from the West Bank and allowing the creation of a Palestinian state. The Palestinian Authority leader is reportedly planning to give an ultimatum to the Israelis demanding they agree to the borders of such a state and threatening to withdraw security cooperation and go to the United Nations for redress if they don’t. It sounds smart but, like virtually every other initiative undertaken by the PA, it’s entirely fake, and his threats are, for the most part, a transparent bluff.

Abbas’s plan is to set up a nine-month negotiating period that would start with Israel being forced to agree to a map for a Palestinian state largely along the parameters of the 1967 lines at the outset. After that, the parties would negotiate other issues including refugees, water, settlements, and security cooperation. If the Israelis don’t do as Abbas bids, he will not only run to the UN to get it to grant the Palestinians independence and to the International Criminal Court to get the Jewish state indicted for their “crimes” against the Palestinians. He will also withdraw security cooperation.

Given the anger about Israel in the international community in the wake of the war in Gaza and the destruction and death suffered by the Palestinians during that conflict, Abbas thinks the timing is perfect for a round of pressure directed at the Jewish state. With President Obama openly displaying his anger and resentment about Israel’s government, the Palestinians may believe Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s deeply divided government will crack up and give him what he wants.

While President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry may take Abbas seriously and use this initiative as the excuse for another round of Middle East diplomacy, I doubt that Netanyahu is foolish enough to take the bait. Despite his grandstanding, Abbas won’t sign any peace deal no matter where his putative state’s borders would be drawn. Nor has he the slightest interest in withdrawing security cooperation with Israel.

Why can Israel be so sure that Abbas doesn’t mean what he says?

First, it should be remembered that despite Abbas’s claims that Israel has yet to put forward a map of where an acceptable Palestinian state might be, the PA has already received several such maps and turned each one of them down over the course of negotiations stretching back to 2000. When former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Abbas a map pretty much along the lines he is demanding in 2008, he fled the negotiations and wouldn’t return to the table for years. In the latest round with the Netanyahu government during the past year, Abbas wouldn’t negotiate seriously on any issue and again seized the first pretext to break them off.

The reason for this behavior is that although Abbas sometimes talks a good game about peace, he knows his public is not ready for a deal that will recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one. So as much as he has put on a good show in recent years about wanting a state, his goal has always been to avoid a peace deal or even being put in a position where he would be forced to say either yes or no to one.

Abbas does like the idea of going to the UN and the ICC since that allows him to avoid making reciprocal agreements with Israel, recognizing a Jewish state, and acting as if the future of the Palestinians lies in cooperation rather than futile “resistance.” But he also knows that the UN can’t give him a state.

As for the threat of Abbas ending security cooperation with Israel, that’s a bad joke. While the Israelis do view any help they get from the various PA security forces as useful, the main beneficiary of the cooperation is not the Jewish state; it’s Abbas. As the revelations of a planned Hamas coup against the PA uncovered by the Israelis proved, the PA leader’s hold on his office as well as his personal security depends on Israel’s good will.

That fact should also factor into an understanding of why Israelis are so reluctant to hand over more territory to Abbas. While his more moderate brand of Palestinian nationalism is certainly to be preferred over that of Hamas’s Islamist rejectionism, the lack of enthusiasm for peace among Palestinians and the popularity of Hamas both restrains the PA leader’s ability to make peace and would render any such deal a perilous risk for Israel.

These conclusions are bolstered by a new poll of Palestinian public opinion that shows Hamas’s popularity skyrocketing in the wake of the destructive war they imposed upon the country this summer. As the Times of Israel reports:

According to the data collected on August 26-30 by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) headed by pollster Khalil Shikaki, 79 percent of Palestinians questioned in Gaza and the West Bank said that Hamas had won the war against Israel, while only 3% said Israel had won. …

In stark contrast to predictions voiced during Operation Protective Edge by senior Israeli military officers saying the extent of damage in Gaza would likely turn the civilian population against Hamas, 94% of respondents said they were satisfied with Hamas’s performance in confronting the IDF and 78% were pleased with the movement’s defense of civilians in Gaza. Eighty-six percent of the 1,270 adults questioned in the survey said they supported the continuation of rocket attacks at Israel as long as the blockade on Gaza is maintained.

In other words, despite the expectations of some in both Israel and the United States, the war has not created an opening for Abbas or for the advancement of moderate Palestinian policies. To the contrary, the results make it all too plain that any withdrawal from the West Bank might ultimately produce the same result as in Gaza when the removal of every soldier, settler, and settlement paved the way for a Hamas terror state rather than peace and development. Even if Israel wanted to grant Abbas his wishes and accept his ultimatum on territory, the likelihood of the creation of another, larger and more dangerous Hamas state in the West Bank would make such a move impossible. Even if Abbas wasn’t bluffing—and he almost certainly is—no Israeli government of any political stripe will risk such an outcome. And it would be irresponsible for any of those who purport to be Israel’s friends to urge it do so.

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Obama’s Been Pickpocketed By Reality

A liberal who has been mugged by reality may turn to conservatism, as Irving Kristol famously said. Or that liberal might blame society on behalf of his mugger and redouble his liberalism. But in either case the liberal knows he’s been victimized. What happens to a liberal who, instead, has been pickpocketed by reality–robbed and victimized but who assumes he’s just misplaced his wallet? The last few days have given us our clearest answer yet, in the incoherent ramblings of President Obama on the nature of the threats to the free world.

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A liberal who has been mugged by reality may turn to conservatism, as Irving Kristol famously said. Or that liberal might blame society on behalf of his mugger and redouble his liberalism. But in either case the liberal knows he’s been victimized. What happens to a liberal who, instead, has been pickpocketed by reality–robbed and victimized but who assumes he’s just misplaced his wallet? The last few days have given us our clearest answer yet, in the incoherent ramblings of President Obama on the nature of the threats to the free world.

And over the weekend Democrats tried desperately to convince him he’s been mugged. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says he’s being “too cautious” on ISIS. That’s her way of saying that she’s privy to enough intel to wonder what Obama sees when he looks at the same information. Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thinks Obama needs to be doing more to fend off Russia’s invasion of Ukraine–and yes, by the way, he used the word “invasion” rather than participate in the administration’s Orwellian word games to deny reality and make excuses for abandoning American allies.

And the Washington Post editorial board laid into Obama’s swirling confusion over the complexity of the world:

This argument with his own administration is alarming on three levels.

The first has to do with simple competence. One can only imagine the whiplash that foreign leaders must be suffering…

Similarly, his senior advisers uniformly have warned of the unprecedented threat to America and Americans represented by Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq. But Mr. Obama didn’t seem to agree…

When Mr. Obama refuses to acknowledge the reality, allies naturally wonder whether he will also refuse to respond to it.

One can almost imagine the Post’s editors intended the editorial to be read aloud, slowly and with exaggerated elocution, as if speaking to a child. And so the president hasn’t really been mugged by reality, because he doesn’t seem to know he’s been hit.

The Post editorial was right to call attention to the bewilderment America’s allies around the world must be experiencing. But it’s worth dwelling on the same confusion America’s enemies must be feeling. Their actions have resulted in a propaganda windfall because they surely expected the American president not to parrot their talking points or shrug off their murderous intent.

When it was revealed in August that President Obama had downgraded American security cooperation with Israel and was withholding weapons transfers to Israel during wartime, Times of Israel editor David Horovitz wrote a column headlined “US livid with Israel? Hamas can’t believe its luck.” Indeed, Hamas probably expects at best empty words from Obama about Israel’s right to defend itself, but it’s doubtful they ever imagined they would start a war with Israel only to have the American president withhold military support from Israel during that war and then fume that the U.S.-Israel military relationship is such that both sides assume America will have Israel’s back, at least during wartime. Obama wants Israel to make no such assumptions.

Similarly, could Vladimir Putin have expected the Obama administration to help him obfuscate the fact that he has invaded Ukraine–again? Administration officials “have a perfectly clear idea what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine,” the Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey wrote late last week. “They just don’t want to say the word out loud.” Putin must be giddy.

And when video surfaced revealing that, in the words of CNN, “Libyan militia members have apparently turned the abandoned U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, into a water park,” U.S. Ambassador Deborah Jones protested the coverage of an event the symbolism of which was impossible to ignore. It was not true that those ransacking the compound were ransacking the compound, she claimed; they were, um, guarding it. We are truly in the best of hands.

What is most troublesome about this, and what might be responsible for bringing Democrats out of the woodwork to denounce Obama’s foreign-policy silliness, is the fact that there doesn’t appear to be anything that can get the president to confront reality. It’s always been assumed that at some point Obama will wake up; Democrats are no longer convinced that’s the case, and have gone public to try to assure friends and foes alike that not everyone in the U.S. government is so steeped in comforting delusions while the world burns.

Someone’s at the wheel, in other words, just not the president. And now it’s the rest of the world’s turn to believe the spin coming out of Washington, instead of hoping American officials don’t believe the spin coming in.

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NATO’s Gesture Won’t Deter Putin

You can bet Vladimir Putin is shaking in his Gucci loafers as he learns that NATO is going to respond to his aggression in Ukraine … by creating a rapid-reaction force of 4,000 troops that could deploy to Eastern Europe. Actually, this is the kind of ineffectual action that will only cause Putin to smirk even more.

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You can bet Vladimir Putin is shaking in his Gucci loafers as he learns that NATO is going to respond to his aggression in Ukraine … by creating a rapid-reaction force of 4,000 troops that could deploy to Eastern Europe. Actually, this is the kind of ineffectual action that will only cause Putin to smirk even more.

Although none of the news stories reporting breathlessly on the latest developments from this week’s NATO summit in Wales bother to mention it, the nations of Europe actually have a long history of trying to stand up rapidly deployable forces. In 1992 we had the creation of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, “a North Atlantic Treaty Organization High Readiness Force (Land) Headquarters ready for deployment worldwide within five to thirty days.” In 1993 we had the Eurocorps, “an intergovernmental army corps headquarters (HQ) based in Strasbourg, France” and based around a Franco-German brigade created in 1987. In 2003 we saw the creation of the NATO Response Force, which was supposed to be a “coherent, high-readiness, joint, multinational force package” of up to 25,000 troops that is “technologically advanced, flexible, deployable, interoperable and sustainable.” Uh, right. At least the NATO Response Force has a nifty logo.

If any of these initiatives had produced any substantive results, it would be hard to see why NATO would need to create yet another rapid-response force. But of course as with most NATO or EU initiatives these past efforts have produced more memoranda, PowerPoints, and conferences than actual usable military force. So there is little reason for Putin or anyone else to think that a new brigade-size NATO force–just 4,000 troops!–will present any significant threat to his designs given that he has 766,000 active-duty soldiers at his command.

NATO as a military actor scares no one–certainly not the predator in the Kremlin. The only thing that might give Putin pause is if the United States of America, whose military power vastly eclipses Russia, were to take a credible stand. President Obama might do that by dispatching U.S. army brigades–say one each–to the three Baltic states along with a few more brigades for Poland. That could be combined by sending U.S. cargo aircraft to airlift urgently needed supplies to Ukrainian forces to allow them to fight back against what is plainly a Russian invasion of their country. And the president at the same time could announce that he is asking Congress to suspend cuts in the military budget and especially to stop cuts in army end-strength that will make it impossible for the U.S. to provide a credible deterrent to Russian aggression.

Yet Obama will not take any of these steps–he will not even call the invasion an invasion. Until the U.S. steps up, NATO can issue all the communiqués, resolutions, and press releases that it wants. None of it will mean anything.

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Obama’s Pattern of Foreign-Policy Failure

President Obama has taken a lot of criticism–and rightly so–for his now-infamous comment last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Why, most listeners must be wondering, would the president of the United States admit to lacking a strategy, even if that’s the case? Why not just stay silent? Or better yet why not formulate a strategy? It’s really not that hard–I have no doubt that U.S. Central Command has come up with plenty of workable options. It just requires force of will to choose one and execute it, rather than engaging in an endless faculty-club debate of the kind this law professor-turned-president seems to prefer.

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President Obama has taken a lot of criticism–and rightly so–for his now-infamous comment last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Why, most listeners must be wondering, would the president of the United States admit to lacking a strategy, even if that’s the case? Why not just stay silent? Or better yet why not formulate a strategy? It’s really not that hard–I have no doubt that U.S. Central Command has come up with plenty of workable options. It just requires force of will to choose one and execute it, rather than engaging in an endless faculty-club debate of the kind this law professor-turned-president seems to prefer.

What is truly disturbing about this president is that this not a one-off gaffe. Rather, it is part of a long and disturbing series of remarks by the president and his top aides who, while trying to explain and defend their foreign-policy thinking, have caused a major crisis of confidence in their ability to handle the nation’s foreign policy.

Let’s recap a few of the lowlights.

The New Yorker, May 2, 2011: “One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’ ”

President Obama’s interview with David Remnick, the New Yorker, January 7, 2014: “At the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

The president’s press conference in the Philippines, April 28, 2014: “My job as Commander-in-Chief is to look at what is it that is going to advance our security interests over the long term, to keep our military in reserve for where we absolutely need it… That may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

Politico, June 1: “Forget The New Yorker’s ‘leading from behind,’ and even President Barack Obama’s own ‘singles … doubles.’ The West Wing has a preferred, authorized distillation of the president’s foreign-policy doctrine: ‘Don’t do stupid shit.’ ”

Leading from behind… Getting our paragraph right… Hitting singles and doubles… Not doing “stupid shit”: The more the president and his foreign-policy deep thinkers talk, the bigger a hole they dig for themselves.

Even liberals are scathing in denouncing these risible attempts to lay out a foreign-policy doctrine. As Hillary Clinton says, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Or as Maureen Dowd wrote, “A singles hitter doesn’t scare anybody.”

Little wonder, then, that in a Pew poll conducted even before Obama made his “no strategy” comment, 54 percent of respondents said last week that the president isn’t “tough enough” on foreign policy. You can bet that’s a view shared by Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar Assad, Kim Jong-un, and other key American adversaries.

That the president is so ham-handed in trying to defend his foreign-policy conduct is all the more puzzling in that he is supposedly a great orator–at least he won the White House (and a Nobel Peace Prize, lest we forget) based largely on the power of his inspirational words. But at the end of the day there is a limit to how much any orator, no matter how gifted, can say to defend the indefensible or explain the inexplicable. We have now reached that point and beyond. It is high time for Obama to stop talking and start acting. At this point the only thing that can reverse the crippling decline of American credibility is tough, unexpected action–say bombing the Iranian nuclear complex if talks fall through, or mounting an all-out campaign to destroy ISIS, or sending military aid to Ukraine and positioning U.S. troops in the Baltic republics.

You may well observe that these are all military actions. Am I suggesting that Obama become a militarist–a warmonger of the kind he plainly despises? Not at all. Not one of these policy options will send American ground troops into combat. All can be executed with a limited degree of risk without becoming “another Iraq,” the bogeyman that the president most wants to avoid.

And if Obama had acted tougher to begin with–if, for example, he had done more to aid the Syrian opposition or to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011–such drastic actions would not now be necessary. But American credibility has sunk so low that it is now crucially important to show that there is more to our foreign policy than empty verbiage from the White House–especially when the more of that verbiage that we hear, the less confidence the world has that we know what we’re doing.

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The World Has Changed. Boy, Has It Changed.

When you watch politics carefully and you have attained a certain age, you often misunderstand it—because you forget how many, many people are far younger than you and do not share the same memories. Some of us who live in New York City spent much of the last mayoral election warning about the consequences of turning back the clock on policing to the days before Rudy Giuliani’s 1993 election—but of course that meant nothing to the 50 percent of the electorate who had no idea what it was like in the city in those years. Now consider the fact that 18 year-olds who will vote for the first time in 2016 were three years old on 9/11 and 10 when Barack Obama was elected, and you have a sense of how the traditional conversation about foreign policy, for example, may make little or no sense of them.

I’ve been struck this morning by two signs of the colossal changes in the world and in the United States since I was in my mid-20s—one significant and one not so significant but telling nonetheless.

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When you watch politics carefully and you have attained a certain age, you often misunderstand it—because you forget how many, many people are far younger than you and do not share the same memories. Some of us who live in New York City spent much of the last mayoral election warning about the consequences of turning back the clock on policing to the days before Rudy Giuliani’s 1993 election—but of course that meant nothing to the 50 percent of the electorate who had no idea what it was like in the city in those years. Now consider the fact that 18 year-olds who will vote for the first time in 2016 were three years old on 9/11 and 10 when Barack Obama was elected, and you have a sense of how the traditional conversation about foreign policy, for example, may make little or no sense of them.

I’ve been struck this morning by two signs of the colossal changes in the world and in the United States since I was in my mid-20s—one significant and one not so significant but telling nonetheless.

The first is that Barack Obama left the United States today to pay an official visit to Estonia. Estonia! It was one of the “captive nations” of Central Europe swallowed up by the Soviet Union—first as part of Stalin’s evil 1939 deal with Hitler, then taken by Germany when Stalin and Hitler turned on each other, then reoccupied by the Soviets in 1944. The United States never recognized the Soviet dominion over Estonia (or Latvia and Lithuania, its fellow “Baltics”), and throughout the Cold War Estonians living in the West maintained its independence through a government in exile. They had currency, they had consulates, they had representatives. I knew a few. They seemed both brave and silly, resolute in their pointless insistence that their country still existed as an independent entity. And then came the fall of the Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union and—just like that—there they were. Free and independent. And, eventually, members of NATO.

If you had told me, in 1986, that a president of the United States would pay a state visit to a free Estonia as a fellow member of NATO, I would have wondered at your sanity. It’s worth remembering, in these dark and depressing days, that some extraordinary things happened in the world a couple of decades ago.

The less significant but still dumbfounding development this morning is the news that Fred Ryan has become the new publisher of the Washington Post. I also knew Fred Ryan. When I was a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, he was the White House scheduler—the man responsible for setting the president’s daily and weekly calendar. He was not known as a “Reaganite”—he was more Nancy Reagan’s man than Ronald’s, and Nancy was considered an ideologically heterodox person by us conservatives—but he did occupy a senior position and then went to serve as Reagan’s chief of staff at the conclusion of the presidency. Anyway, if you had told me, in 1988, that a senior official of the Reagan White House would one day be running the Washington Post, even you would have laughed at the absurdity of the idea.

A quarter century is a long time.

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When Political Correctness Comes at a Terrible Cost

Had it not been for the investigative reporting of the Times of London journalist Andrew Norfolk, then the full extent of a horrendous culture of sex abuse taking place in Northern England might never have come to light. This problem, so widespread that it is thought to have involved some 1,400 underage girls and young women since 1997, was not unknown to the authorities. Rather, it now appears that police, social workers, and local government employees all pursued a sustained policy of silence and acquiescence in the face of these crimes.

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Had it not been for the investigative reporting of the Times of London journalist Andrew Norfolk, then the full extent of a horrendous culture of sex abuse taking place in Northern England might never have come to light. This problem, so widespread that it is thought to have involved some 1,400 underage girls and young women since 1997, was not unknown to the authorities. Rather, it now appears that police, social workers, and local government employees all pursued a sustained policy of silence and acquiescence in the face of these crimes.

The reason for this appalling neglect of duty was apparently a particularly warped incarnation of political correctness. As an explosive report has now revealed, the men carrying out these acts of abuse were almost exclusively from Britain’s Pakistani community, while their victims were for the most part underage white girls from troubled families and childrens’ care homes.

In their defense, police and social workers have essentially pleaded that they did not want to be accused of racism and have claimed that they had been concerned about the risks for community cohesion. Yet it is astonishing to consider just how far reaching the effort to ignore and cover up these crimes has been.

Andrew Norfolk’s exposé of these happenings–which mostly centered in the town of Rotherham–forced this issue onto the public agenda in September 2012. Norfolk revealed how a confidential 2010 police report had warned that thousands of these crimes were taking place in England’s northern towns and that the perpetrators were predominantly men of Pakistani origin who had formed a sizable network through which they coordinated their activities and exchanged the girls that they were abusing. And despite that police report, those responsible still went unconvicted.

Following the very public spotlight that Andrew Norfolk had put on the problem, South Yorkshire Police finally agreed to set up a team to specifically investigate the subject. Yet even at this stage the police were denying that they had shown any reluctance to address the problem, or that the matter of “ethnic origin” had been a factor in their handling of these cases. However, as the latest report now makes clear, concerns about ethnicity had clearly played a crucial part in the very negligence that the authorities initially sought to deny.

Of course, it should never have taken the public pressure of media exposure to force an independent inquiry; plenty of others had attempted to sound the alarm already. One of the most badly treated was the local Labor Member of Parliament Ann Cryer. In 2002, when desperate parents had turned to her for help in rescuing their daughters from these men, she discovered that the police and social services were both entirely reluctant to take any action. Similarly, Islamic community leaders were unwilling to engage with Cryer’s efforts.

Having openly associated herself with this issue, Ann Cryer’s safety was called into question and the police were obliged to install a panic button in the MP’s home. While some in her party privately congratulated her on her efforts, she was also shunned by others. Indeed, when she approached Ken Livingstone, the then mayor of London, he was by all accounts completely unreceptive to what he was being told.

Cryer has since said that she feels others failed to act at the time on account of “not wanting to rock the multicultural boat.” Yet this speaks of a pretty twisted hierarchy of values in modern Britain. Obviously those working in the public services should not be careless when it comes to racism. Indeed, given the way in which the British police have been accused of institutionalized racism in the past, it is understandable that they might now conduct their operations with a renewed cautiousness. Yet how anyone could have decided that concerns about allegations of racism trumped the wellbeing of so many vulnerable girls is unimaginable.

Naturally, many have now questioned how such an extreme and misguided political correctness could have become the orthodoxy for Britain’s public services. In the case of the police, past allegations of racism may have simply bludgeoned officers into a spirit of inaction. In the case of some of the social workers it has been suggested that more ideological considerations may have been at work.

Either way, there can be no mistaking the poisonous leftist notions about victimhood that have seeped in here. To speak quite frankly, many in the authorities were evidently unwilling to act because they knew that in the hierarchy of victim groups, girls from white working-class backgrounds came lower down the scale than middle aged men from an ethnic minority such as the Pakistani community.

Given that the record of abuse detailed in the latest report goes at least as far back as 1997, and given that so many of the victims and their families tried to seek help over the years, the truth is that very many people suffered terrible trauma needlessly. Had it not been for the culture of ultra-political correctness that has taken Britain’s public services hostage, these crimes might have been halted more than a decade ago.

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A Conversation About Things That Matter

Mark Blitz, professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, was interviewed by William Kristol as part of the Conversations With series.

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Mark Blitz, professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, was interviewed by William Kristol as part of the Conversations With series.

It’s a discussion that touches on Plato’s political philosophy and Aristotle’s understanding of character and virtue. Professor Blitz offers up insights on Hobbes and Locke, whom he calls “the central thinker to understand if one wants to understand modern liberal democracy and therefore ultimately modern politics.” He discusses Marx and Hegel (“the most powerful thinker of the 19th century”) and the allure of, and damage done by, Nietzsche. Professor Blitz speaks about liberal democracy, its connection to human happiness and the importance of human excellence. And he reminds us why we need to think about the philosophic basis of a regime (arguing that the principle of justice must be at the heart of politics) and explains the limitations of modern science.

There are a dozen themes one could develop from the conversation; for now, I’ll focus on Blitz’s reflections on Plato and Aristotle being neither relativists nor absolutists; on their belief that there are standards by which we can judge but the standards themselves are not unbending absolutes. Professor Blitz is worth quoting at length on this matter:

There’s a cartoon version of Aristotle and even of Plato and sometimes that moves students away from them, because students are intelligent and recognize that absolute, immovable–“It always must be done this way or it’s wrong”–is rarely, if ever, correct. And that’s not Aristotle.

Aristotle doesn’t have unbridgeable laws. What he has is a full understanding of what virtue is. There is a difference between courage and cowardice and excess of boldness. There is a difference between generosity and cheapness and profligacy. You know which one is better.

Blitz goes on to say this:

But within the particular situation that you face, you need to think about what the generous action is or what the courageous action is. Similarly, politically, you know what’s more and less just. You know that the purpose ultimately of politics is to aid human happiness, which means excellence of character and excellence of judgment, to the degree to which you can.

But what you need to do, here and now–what set of institutions can actually achieve, support, and consent, here and now–that’s something you need to think about, you need to judge, you need to choose, so you’re guided in your choice, but you’re narrowly restricted and directed in your choice. Complete relativism gives you no opportunity to choose and think. Complete absolutism is a way of running away from the responsibility of choice and thought. So Aristotle gives you guidance, but not rigidity.

Bill Kristol invokes the metaphor of trying to steer a ship toward a goal, sometimes zigging and sometimes zagging, depending on the circumstances. The goal isn’t arbitrary, but neither is there a single, unchanging course on how to arrive at it. “Good judgment, prudence, as one calls it, practical wisdom, combined with a real understanding and holding your understanding in the direction of the goal that you would like to reach, that’s the central matter,” Blitz says. “And I think it is what leads people to be successful in the serious sense in Washington, not just personally successful, but to advance the level of freedom and justice in the country.”

This homes in on one of the most underrated and misunderstood virtues in politics: Prudence. In its classical understanding, prudence embraces moral purposes, though always with an eye toward what is achievable in the world as it is. It isn’t simply caution; rather, it has to do with choosing the right course of action among contingencies. It involves wisdom in acting upon human affairs. And it plays a vital role in guiding and regulating other virtues. (For more, see Aristotle’s discussion of prudence/practical wisdom in Chapter VI of Nicomachean Ethics and in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, Part II of the Second Part, Questions 47-56.)

As I understand prudence in the context of politics, we should look for leaders who combine ethical clarity and correct moral intuitions, the courage and perseverance to strive for appropriate ends, and the wisdom to adjust to circumstances and who are guided by discernment and common sense. Men and women who have the ability to steer the ship to port, through rough waters, arriving whole and safe. This is, I think, what Mark Blitz and Bill Kristol were getting at in their marvelous conversation.

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