Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 4, 2014

Egypt, Abbas, Refugees, and Peace

When the Egyptian government reached out to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas recently, one surprising and one predictable thing happened. The tale of this offer and its rejection tells us all we need to know about Palestinian politics and the changing political landscape of the Middle East.

Read More

When the Egyptian government reached out to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas recently, one surprising and one predictable thing happened. The tale of this offer and its rejection tells us all we need to know about Palestinian politics and the changing political landscape of the Middle East.

The Palestinian Ma’an News Agency reported today that in a speech given to members of his Fatah Party on Sunday, Abbas said that the Egyptian government had made a startling offer to the PA. The Egyptians told Abbas that they were willing to cede a 618-square mile area of the Sinai adjacent to Gaza for resettlement of the Palestinian refugees, an idea first floated by former Israeli National Security Adviser Giora Eiland.

“They [the Egyptians] are prepared to receive all the refugees, [saying] ‘let’s end the refugee story’,” Abbas was quoted by Ma’an news agency as saying.

The Palestinian leader noted that the idea was first proposed to the Egyptian government in 1956, but was furiously rejected by Palestinian leaders such as PLO militant Muhammad Youssef Al-Najjar and poet Muin Bseiso who “understood the danger of this.”

“Now this is being proposed once again. A senior leader in Egypt said: ‘a refuge must be found for the Palestinians and we have all this open land.’ This was said to me personally. But it’s illogical for the problem to be solved at Egypt’s expense. We won’t have it,” Abbas said.

The remarkable thing about this is the decision of the Sisi government to embrace such a practical solution to the long, sad tale of the 1948 Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Like the rest of the Arab world, the Egyptians were never interested in resettling the refugees anywhere, let alone on a huge swath of the Sinai next door to Gaza. Not even during the 19 years during which Egypt illegally occupied Gaza and Jordan illegally occupied the West Bank and part of Jerusalem did either nation seek to ameliorate the suffering of the refugees by offering them the full rights of citizenship or a home anywhere but in the State of Israel. The same applies to every other Arab and Muslim country. All stuck by the demand of a “right of return” aimed at destroying the newborn Jewish state which was at that time absorbing an equal number of Jewish refugees that had fled or been thrown out of their homes in the Arab and Muslim world. Israel’s enemies purposely kept the Palestinian refugees in order to use them as props in their never-ending war on Israel.

Egypt’s offer was, of course, not merely aimed at finally doing the right thing by the refugees. The Hamas stronghold in Gaza is a threat to the Egyptian military government in Cairo because of its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. They also recognize how toxic the situation in Gaza—where hundreds of thousands of the descendants of the refugees live—and the need to get these people out of a bad situation that is only made worse by their exploitation by the Hamas terrorist government of the strip.

Resettling the refugees could be the first step in neutralizing Hamas as well as in reforming the political culture of the Palestinians to the point where it might be possible for them to start thinking about making peace instead of sticking to demands for a return to Israel. That is something that could only happen after the demands in Hamas’s charter are fulfilled: the destruction of the Jewish state and the deportation/genocide of its Jewish population.

But in making this proposal, Egypt, which was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, wasn’t just seeking to deal with the threat from Hamas and its jihadist allies to the Sisi regime. It was making clear that the new unofficial alliance between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan and Israel isn’t mere talk. These Arab countries haven’t suddenly fallen in love with Zionism. The Jewish state is very unpopular even in Jordan, which has a peace treaty with it and also signed an agreement to import Israeli natural gas this week. But all these moderate Arab governments understand that the real threat to their future comes not from Israel but from Iran and its Islamist allies in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.

PA leader Mahmoud Abbas is nominally in the same boat as these governments since he knows that Hamas’s goal is to topple him in the West Bank just as they did in Gaza in 2007. He also has an interest in defusing the Gaza tinderbox and offering some alternative to the “right of return” to a refugee population whose adamant opposition to peace with Israel is one of the primary reasons why the PA has rejected offers of statehood and peace with Israel over the last 15 years.

If Abbas is serious about peace with Israel, as his apologists in the West and in Israel insist he is, this is an offer that he should have jumped at. But he didn’t, and from the sound of it, it was not even a close call. Why?

Let’s first dismiss the idea that the offer was refused out of solicitude for Egypt as Abbas said. As Egyptians always used to say back in the decades when they were fighting wars against Israel, the Palestinians were always willing to fight Israel to the last Egyptian.

Rather, the refusal reflects Abbas’s recognition that although Hamas has followed in the path of his old boss Yasir Arafat and led the Palestinian people to more death and destruction with no hope in sight, it is the Islamists who seem to represent the wishes of the Palestinian people, not the so-called moderates that he leads. Any acceptance of any refugee solution that does not involve “return” to what is now Israel is the political third rail of Palestinian politics. Indeed, the refugees themselves are adamant about their rejection of any solution short of “victory” over Israel.

That is why Abbas, though supposedly in favor of a two-state solution, has rejected it every time the Israelis have offered the PA independence over almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and even a share of Jerusalem. As much as we are told that in the aftermath of the latest war in Gaza that the time of the moderates is upon us, Palestinian opinion polls indicate that they are still backing Hamas. That means they won’t make peace with Israel no matter where its borders are drawn. So long as the refugees remain homeless, when Palestinians speak of Israeli occupation, they are clearly referring to pre-1967 Israel, not the West Bank.

Egypt’s offer to the PA is a healthy sign that many in the Arab world are rising above their hatred for Israel and ready to make peace, if not for the sake of the Jews then to help them combat the Islamist terror threat. That is a remarkable thing that should be celebrated. The Palestinian refusal is, however, a very unremarkable confirmation of the fact that they remain unready and unwilling to make peace.

Read Less

Fracking and Food Security: Eco-Leftists Lose Again

In a recent article on genetically modified organisms (GMO) in food crops, the New Yorker quotes an Indian farmer pushing back at Western crusaders against GMOs: “Why do rich people tell us to plant crops that will ruin our farms?” Indeed such “rich people,” usually eco-leftists, tend to fall into one of two categories. They are either conspiracy theorists who rail against lifesaving agricultural advancements and wonder drugs/vaccines as capitalist plots, or they push false environmental “science” intended to stop progress on energy development that lowers the cost of living while improving air quality.

Read More

In a recent article on genetically modified organisms (GMO) in food crops, the New Yorker quotes an Indian farmer pushing back at Western crusaders against GMOs: “Why do rich people tell us to plant crops that will ruin our farms?” Indeed such “rich people,” usually eco-leftists, tend to fall into one of two categories. They are either conspiracy theorists who rail against lifesaving agricultural advancements and wonder drugs/vaccines as capitalist plots, or they push false environmental “science” intended to stop progress on energy development that lowers the cost of living while improving air quality.

These activists are, in other words, often exceedingly harmful to the planet. But GMOs aren’t the only aspect of feeding children eco-leftists oppose; sometimes their anti-science environmentalism and their anti-medical-advancement conspiracy theorism combine to form a potent enemy of genuine progress. Such is the case with fracking. As a result, more liberal-leaning states and politicians have restrained oil and gas extraction. More conservative, reality-based states and politicians have not. The results are clear: as Bloomberg reports, North Dakota is showing that fracking is not just about energy companies’ bottom line or the price at the pump. It’s about food security:

North Dakota’s oil and gas production boom has boosted incomes and, according to a government report today, left the state with the lowest percentage of households struggling to afford food.

An estimated 8.7 percent of North Dakota households were at risk of hunger in 2013, compared with 14.3 percent of U.S. households, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in an annual report. Virginia was second lowest, at 9.5 percent, the USDA reported, and Arkansas was highest at 21.2 percent.

“The prevalence of food insecurity varied considerably from state to state,” according to the report’s authors.

North Dakota, which has become the nation’s No. 2 oil producer after Texas as drillers use hydraulic fracturing to extract trapped oil and gas, had the nation’s lowest unemployment rate in July at 2.8 percent.

The state’s economic health index — which measures indicators such as employment, income, tax revenue and home prices — was up 2.7 percent in first quarter from the same period last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That put it among the top-performing states in the nation.

There are two caveats. The first is that this isn’t exactly earthshattering news. If you enable an economy to thrive, people will have jobs. If they have jobs, they can buy food. If they can buy food, they can feed their children. It’s not rocket science, it’s just a bit beyond the grasp of the average eco-leftist.

The second caveat is partially mitigated by the first, but is worth discussing. There are real problems with the way the government measures food insecurity. This is an annual report, and thus it is an annual argument, so much of this is repetitive. Nonetheless, the federal government seems to go out of its way to exaggerate Americans’ lack of access to food.

As James Bovard notes in today’s Wall Street Journal, the USDA, at the behest of the National Academy of Sciences, dropped its reference to “hunger”–the food insecurity it warned of was not the same thing as a lack of access to food. Bovard points out what it does mean:

Is being “food insecure” the same as going hungry? Not necessarily. The USDA defines a “food insecure” household in the U.S. as one that is “uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food” at times during the year. The USDA notes: “For most food-insecure households, the inadequacies were in the form of reduced quality and variety rather than insufficient quantity.”

Reduced quality and variety is not starvation. Of course, it certainly can mean a less healthy diet. Bovard says that low-income children, according to studies, consume more calories than others. But in raising this objection he might actually be falling prey to the kind of pro-government-regulation arguments that have been used here and in developing countries, which put too much emphasis on total calories consumed and thus often work at cross-purposes with those trying to improve health outcomes in poor populations.

On the other hand, Bovard is certainly right that the government tends to inflate such statistics, at times, in order to justify more government intervention, such as food stamps, which the data show do not improve overall food security. What does improve food security, however defined, is a serious energy policy like North Dakota’s, which shows the kind of prosperity that is possible when the government doesn’t let eco-leftists hijack policy.

Read Less

Is Early Voting a Right or a Dem Tactic?

What will make the difference in the Democrats’ efforts to hold onto the Senate? Is it the unpopularity of President Obama? Or perhaps it’s the collapse of U.S. foreign policy? ObamaCare? According to the New York Times, policy may not be the crucial factor in determining whether, for example, embattled Democrat incumbent Kay Hagan retains her North Carolina seat. Rather, the Times asserts, it may be the altered rules for voting in the Tarheel State that will reduce the number of days in which North Carolinians may vote early from 17 to 10, a move that Democrats have denounced as racist in nature. But while turnout will be a crucial factor in the outcome, the notion that the amount of early voting days is a measure of a state’s commitment to voting rights or to the fight against racism is a partisan and pernicious myth.

Read More

What will make the difference in the Democrats’ efforts to hold onto the Senate? Is it the unpopularity of President Obama? Or perhaps it’s the collapse of U.S. foreign policy? ObamaCare? According to the New York Times, policy may not be the crucial factor in determining whether, for example, embattled Democrat incumbent Kay Hagan retains her North Carolina seat. Rather, the Times asserts, it may be the altered rules for voting in the Tarheel State that will reduce the number of days in which North Carolinians may vote early from 17 to 10, a move that Democrats have denounced as racist in nature. But while turnout will be a crucial factor in the outcome, the notion that the amount of early voting days is a measure of a state’s commitment to voting rights or to the fight against racism is a partisan and pernicious myth.

As with their somewhat desultory efforts to exploit concerns over the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri into a rallying cry to turn out African Americans to vote for their candidates in the midterms, Democrats see allegations of racism as crucial to their efforts. That’s especially true in southern states where minorities are their key constituencies.

For the past few years, liberals have sought to assert that Republicans were doing nothing less than seeking to inaugurate a new era of Jim Crow racism by promoting voter-integrity laws that required voters to produce a picture ID to identify themselves before casting a ballot. Though most Americans believe it is nothing more than a commonsense measure, Democrats take it as an article of faith that asking someone to identify themselves by the same method required to perform virtually any transaction or to travel is racist in nature. That’s a stretch under any circumstances, but at least they can point to some statistics that show minorities are less likely to have a picture ID–though they fail to explain why they think they are less capable of obtaining a free one from the state than other citizens.

But whatever the merits of photo ID laws, the emphasis on early voting as a principle of non-racist society is baffling.

Much of the country has embraced the concept of early voting in order to broaden participation in elections. Where once the act of coming to the polls on Election Day was considered a sacred civil rite in which all should participate, many now believe that letting people vote by mail or offering opportunities to vote weeks in advance of the end of the campaign is essential to broadening the electorate.

But while one can make an argument for making voting more convenient, it’s not clear why minorities stand to benefit more from the practice than the rest of the population. Nor should mere convenience be confused with the right to vote.

It is something of a mystery as to why some Democrats seem to need gimmicks like early voting or votes by mail more than Republicans. Is it because the latter are intrinsically more invested in the system than those who feel themselves to be more marginal to society or the political establishment? Perhaps.

But the attempt to frame, as is the case in North Carolina, the contrast between 17 days of early voting and ten as the difference between an inclusive democracy committed to equality and a return to Jim Crow isn’t merely absurd; it’s a partisan smear.

To speak of that difference as a case of “voting restrictions,” as the Times refers to it in the headline of their article on the battle in North Carolina, is disingenuous. As it happens, the new rules allow the same number of hours for pre-election day voting in North Carolina as before, only not stretched out over as many days.

Early voting advocates ignore the complications that can arise from having so many people voting before the end of the campaign when candidate’s stands and statements can still influence in the outcome. With more than a third of the nation now not voting on Election Day, it must be understood that we are not all operating with the same information, a trend that is potentially more corrosive to democracy than adjustments in early voting schedules.

But even if we ignore that factor, much of this debate seems to revolve around an effort to herd as many voters into the polls before they can change their minds or lose interests in candidates. In that sense, early voting seems more partisan gimmicks—like straight party-line levers that were once common in many states—than an expansion of rights.

If liberals are really concerned about getting out the minority vote, they will devote more resources to building turnout and educating voters about the necessity of showing up at the polls. The hubbub about early voting or even voter ID seems geared more to creating a sense of grievance among minorities whose voting rights are not in question than anything else. Fomenting an attitude in which African Americans believe themselves to be discriminated against even as the polls remain wide open for them and everyone else is a partisan tactic for Democrats; not a matter of civil rights. That may get more of them to the polls to vote for Hagan and other Democrats. But it’s also designed to give them an excuse if they lose. As such, it’s a foolproof tactic for a party that knows it’s in trouble this fall.

Read Less

Whose Victory Is Amerli?

The recent success of Iraqi forces in lifting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s siege of the town of Amerli, populated by Shiite Turkmen, has been hailed as a significant defeat for ISIS. And so it is. But who is it a victory for? The U.S. contributed to the outcome by sending our warplanes to drop bombs. The on-the-ground fighting was done by the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish pesh merga, and, most troubling of all, Shiite militias backed by Iran. In fact there are reports that General Qassem Suleimani, who as head of Iran’s Quds Force is arguably the most dangerous terrorist in the world, was on the ground in Amerli personally directing the offensive.

Read More

The recent success of Iraqi forces in lifting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s siege of the town of Amerli, populated by Shiite Turkmen, has been hailed as a significant defeat for ISIS. And so it is. But who is it a victory for? The U.S. contributed to the outcome by sending our warplanes to drop bombs. The on-the-ground fighting was done by the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish pesh merga, and, most troubling of all, Shiite militias backed by Iran. In fact there are reports that General Qassem Suleimani, who as head of Iran’s Quds Force is arguably the most dangerous terrorist in the world, was on the ground in Amerli personally directing the offensive.

If you want to know more about Suleimani, who may be the most feared man in the Middle East, read this long profile by Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker which notes that in addition to directing Syria’s deadly offensive against rebel forces, “Suleimani has orchestrated attacks in places as far flung as Thailand, New Delhi, Lagos, and Nairobi—at least thirty attempts in the past two years alone.”

This, in short, is not someone the U.S. should knowingly be cooperating with even if we share an interest in rolling back ISIS advances in Iraq. The problem, even leaving moral qualms aside, is that Suleimani’s way of war is to employ indiscriminate violence to try to cow rebel forces into submission. In Iraq, such a strategy is likely to backfire by driving Sunnis deeper into ISIS’s camp.

The way to win in Iraq–to “degrade and destroy” ISIS as President Obama claims to be doing–is not to drop bombs in support of Suleimani’s thugs. The only way to truly roll back ISIS–to chase them to “the gates of hell,” wherever those may be found, as Joe Biden theatrically vows to do–is to ally with Sunni tribes who are chafing under ISIS’s heavyhanded rule but will stick with the terrorist group as long as it credibly postures as the defender of Sunnis against the “Persians,” as Anbari tribesmen refer to all Shiites. Normally to call Shiites “Persians” is an insult implying they’re not real Iraqis–but in the case of Suleimani the label fits because he really is Iranian, not Iraqi. Thus the more that resistance to ISIS is identified with Iranian interests, the less traction it will gain in Sunni areas.

The U.S. needs to tread carefully, supporting the Kurdish pesh merga, non-sectarian elements of the Iraqi Security Forces (which may mean principally the Iraqi Special Operations Forces), and Sunni tribes–not the murderous Shiite militias armed and directed by Suleimani. But in order to do that the U.S. needs more of an on-the-ground presence than we currently have: it’s impossible to accurately employ U.S. airpower in more than dribs and drabs without having more eyes on the ground than we currently possess.

I have been arguing for sending 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops to act as Special Operations Forces and as advisers to the Iraqis and the Free Syrian Army–a view endorsed by no less than retired Marine General Tony Zinni, a widely revered former commandeer of Central Command (and a skeptic of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq).

Zinni is quoted as saying: “My God, we are the most powerful nation in the world. This is a moment we have to act. How many Americans getting their throats cut on TV can we stand?” Good question–and one that President Obama still needs to answer.

Read Less

Democrats Are All About Power

Can you imagine a conservative or Tea Party Republican statewide candidate so determined to beat the Democrats that they would withdraw from a race in order to help an independent who might (or might not) switch to the GOP after the election? Neither can I. These days the political right in this country values ideology over mere political advantage. But not so their Democrat opponents. As this week’s news from Kansas and Alaska illustrates, one of our two major political parties is consistently playing to win and the other can’t necessarily be relied upon to do so.

Read More

Can you imagine a conservative or Tea Party Republican statewide candidate so determined to beat the Democrats that they would withdraw from a race in order to help an independent who might (or might not) switch to the GOP after the election? Neither can I. These days the political right in this country values ideology over mere political advantage. But not so their Democrat opponents. As this week’s news from Kansas and Alaska illustrates, one of our two major political parties is consistently playing to win and the other can’t necessarily be relied upon to do so.

In Kansas, Chad Taylor, the Democratic Senate candidate withdrew from the race. Taylor was trailing badly in the polls in a contest in which embattled Republican incumbent Pat Roberts faced his most significant competition from independent Greg Orman. This will clear the field for the former Republican turned Democrat turned independent to mount a serious challenge to Roberts who survived a tough primary fight in which his lack of a home in Kansas was a major issue.

In Alaska, something similar happened when Byron Mallott, the Democratic candidate for governor agreed to merge forces with independent Bill Walker in order to better compete against GOP incumbent Sean Parnell. The Democratic state central committee endorsed a new ticket on which Mallott will be their candidate for lieutenant governor under Walker, who dropped his membership in the Alaska Republican Party in order to facilitate this unusual marriage of convenience.

In both cases, regular liberal Democrats swallowed hard and bowed to their party’s best interests by endorsing a less ideological candidate. If that wasn’t enough, also in Alaska, incumbent Senator Mark Begich demonstrated his commitment to winning at all costs by running a television advertisement that falsely accused his GOP opponent, a former state attorney general, of responsibility for the freeing of a convict who subsequently murdered two senior citizens and raping their granddaughter. Protests from the outraged family of the victims forced Begich to take the ad off the air but his willingness to broadcast what Politico calls a “Willie Horton ad” in his quest for reelection amply illustrated a fight-to-the-death spirit that seems to be animating Democrats this year.

What’s going on?

What we’re observing in these races is the way Democrats have become a party solely devoted to power. Whereas Democrats were once even more fractious and as prone to ideological squabbles as Republicans, in recent years they have changed. The Obama era is one in which the party of Jefferson and Jackson has finally realized that the only way to enact their liberal big-government agenda is to win elections. In service to that cause they have embraced unprincipled opportunists like Charlie Crist in Florida, Orman in Kansas, and Walker in Alaska. Where liberals might have once preferred to fight centrist Democrats in a quest for purity, they understand the election of political chameleons fighting under their banner will do more to advance their cause than sticking with a principled liberal who will lose honorably.

This is in marked contrast to Republicans who have in recent years made a specialty of tearing each other apart in bitter and often pointless civil wars that have resulted in their losing Senate seats they might have won. Indeed, the whole point of the Tea Party is a reaction to the way the Republican Party seemed to lose its soul during the George W. Bush administration with GOP majorities in the House and the Senate spending like drunken sailors just like Democrats in a futile effort to win the loyalty of voters. Indeed, the ire of most Tea Partiers has always seemed to be mostly reserved for moderate Republicans—dubbed RINOs—whose defeat is considered a greater victory for true conservatism than unseating any Democrat. Purging the GOP of such heretics has been their goal and they have largely succeeded.

Contrary to the myth propagated by the liberal mainstream media, Republicans are, as a rule, no more extreme in their conservatism than the average Democrat officeholder is in their liberalism. But the Jacobin spirit demonstrated by the Tea Party—which initially represented a healthy revolt of the taxpayers against an establishment determined to ignore the wishes of the voters and feather their own nests—which has largely acted as if it is better to have a liberal win a congressional or Senate seat rather than a nominal non-conservative Republican, has done more than hurt the GOP’s electoral prospects in some cases. It has also given it the aura of a Robespierre-style junta determined to root out any ideological diversity or dissent. This fealty to principle at all costs can be more attractive in some ways than the cynicism of the Democrats. But it also seems to be rooted in an indifference to governance that ill befits any great party that seeks to rule rather than merely posture.

So while opportunistic turncoats like Crist as well as the shady maneuvers of Kansas and Alaska Democrats rightly disgust Republicans, they can also take a lesson from them. Winning isn’t the only thing in politics and dishonorable flip-flopping is a disgrace, but the only way to really stop liberal big government is to ensure that the advocates of those policies lose elections. The moral of the story is that it’s no good complaining about ObamaCare if your activists are actually doing more to elect Democrats than Republicans who might vote to repeal it.

Democrats have figured out that they are better off taking half a loaf than none at all. It remains to be seen if Republicans are mature enough to learn the same lesson before they throw away another chance to control Congress.

Read Less

The Imperial Age of Terrorism

President Obama has taken plenty of heat for saying he wants to turn ISIS into a “manageable” problem, proving that his underestimation of threats continues apace. But the lack of urgency toward stopping ISIS’s deadly and destabilizing march is not just about ISIS: it shows the president to still be operating in the false solace of compartmentalization, as if ISIS exists in a vacuum. It doesn’t, and a New York Times story today about terrorism far from Syria or Iraq demonstrates why.

Read More

President Obama has taken plenty of heat for saying he wants to turn ISIS into a “manageable” problem, proving that his underestimation of threats continues apace. But the lack of urgency toward stopping ISIS’s deadly and destabilizing march is not just about ISIS: it shows the president to still be operating in the false solace of compartmentalization, as if ISIS exists in a vacuum. It doesn’t, and a New York Times story today about terrorism far from Syria or Iraq demonstrates why.

The Times writes of a new video message released by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, in which he attempts to recruit fighters in the Indian subcontinent, “in Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad and Kashmir.” The call to establish this branch of al-Qaeda was, according to the report, two years in the making, meaning even when al-Qaeda appeared to be splintering it was still expanding. The Times explains the relevance of al-Qaeda’s competitor, ISIS, to Zawahri’s message:

Al Qaeda, which has been weakened by military and economic pressure in the years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has not traditionally recruited heavily in India or staged major attacks on Hindus. Instead, its ideological focus has been on driving out a “far enemy” — the United States and its allies — from the Middle East. Analysts say its leaders may be wary of provoking conflict with this region’s huge Hindu population.

This summer, however, has seen recruiting of Indian Muslims by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a Sunni network that split rancorously from Al Qaeda last year and has rapidly expanded, threatening to eclipse its forerunner. Many analysts in India saw Al Qaeda’s announcement Wednesday as an effort by the older organization to confront a rising challenge to its leadership of the Islamic militancy in the region.

In his videotaped address, Mr. Zawahri does not make specific reference to ISIS, but he does call for unity among jihadists, saying “discord is a curse and torment, and disgrace for the believers and glory for the disbelievers.”

The idea that ISIS is a threat that can be contained to Syria and Iraq is thus false not only because ISIS is already attracting adherents outside those countries but also because ISIS is an element of a global Islamist terror threat whose success breeds expansion, competition, and imitation. If Islamist terrorists are seen to be on the run, as American officials like to believe, they are often on the run to other, stronger terror networks or on the run to scout new locations to expand their reach. This globalized, networked nature of the threat is something Obama has never understood, and it’s hampered American security policy on his watch.

It also undermines Obama’s “realist” desire to see America’s enemies, especially in Syria, destroy each other. What happens when competition fosters not bloody turf wars but competition for new markets? You have a sort of imperial rivalry superimposed on top of the existing world order.

Take the idea of the nation-state, for example, which has been the basis of the quest for a stable global order. Yesterday, the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney wrote a smart post on how ISIS and its self-declared sovereignty complicate our preferred understanding of what a state is. Using a fascinating Wall Street Journal story about how ISIS controls its local economy and polices its territory as a jumping-off point, Carney writes:

Many states — including my favorites — gained their territory through violence against pre-existing states.

Is it that ISIS lacks consent of the governed? ISIS has consent of some of the governed, it seems. No state has approval from all of the governed. Many states lack consent of the governed (think, China).

We don’t want to call ISIS a state, because it is evil, murderous and oppressive. But that way of thinking might impart more virtue to the idea of statehood than it deserves.

There is a lot to this, though I don’t think it undermines the case for the nation-state as the preferable currency of international order. My immediate reaction to Carney’s post is to ask the following question, however: if ISIS is a state, is Iraq? Both claim defined borders–but those borders conflict.

The same goes for Syria. The West recognized the Syrian opposition coalition as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime” almost two years ago. Now we’re contemplating airstrikes that would help Assad at the expense of the rebels because the rebels have been eclipsed by groups like ISIS. So who, or what, is Syria?

And this brings us back to the threat of global terrorism. The expansion not just of ISIS but of al-Qaeda and their competitors threatens to destabilize countries across the globe. If they are going to set up statelets–similar, I suppose, to what the Caucasus Emirate tried to do in Russia–they are not doing so on frontierland. They are doing so in existing states, erasing borders and collapsing authority. Yes, rogue states like Putin’s Russia are a prominent threat to the international regime of state sovereignty. But so is ISIS and its ilk, and it’s time to treat it as such.

Read Less

Does Human Rights Watch Make Up Its Numbers?

I wrote here yesterday regarding Human Rights Watch’s tendency to substitute polemic for research, and to force analysis through a political lens. At issue were questions about the circumstances surrounding the deaths in Rabaa Square in August 2013, when military forces broke up a sit-in of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamad Morsi, a Brotherhood acolyte and Egypt’s first democratically-elected president before his ouster the month before. Make no mistake: hundreds of protestors died and, according to the Egyptian government, dozens of police as well.

Read More

I wrote here yesterday regarding Human Rights Watch’s tendency to substitute polemic for research, and to force analysis through a political lens. At issue were questions about the circumstances surrounding the deaths in Rabaa Square in August 2013, when military forces broke up a sit-in of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamad Morsi, a Brotherhood acolyte and Egypt’s first democratically-elected president before his ouster the month before. Make no mistake: hundreds of protestors died and, according to the Egyptian government, dozens of police as well.

Enter Human Rights Watch, and its publicity-seeking executive director, Ken Roth. Human Rights Watch launched an investigation into the massacre, as it should have, although from Roth’s tweets and public statements, it seems that he had already drawn his conclusions before the investigation had even begun. Nevertheless, despite his outrage, Roth’s initial tweets were somewhat restrained. For example, shortly after the massacre, he tweeted, “‘Democracy’ is not shooting people in the name of #Egypt majority. It requires operating within the limits of rights.”

After the Egyptian government denied Roth entry into Egypt on the first anniversary of the killings, he magically raised the casualties that Human Rights Watch attributed to the Egyptian government, declaring on Facebook, “I went to Cairo to present Egypt’s leaders with evidence that police slaughtered 1,000 people at Rabaa Square. They wouldn’t even let me out of the airport.” If Human Rights Watch is a serious organization, it should confirm those killed with visits to the morgue, interviews with the families, and confirmation with state records and visits to graves. It shouldn’t, with a magic wand and in a fit of pique, imply that the numbers are chosen arbitrarily depending on the mood of the analyst.

Initially, Human Rights Watch documented “at least 377 [deaths], significantly higher than the latest Rab’a death toll of 288 announced by the Health Ministry.” With time, that number grew. In its final report, Human Rights Watch put the death toll they could confirm at 817. That’s bad enough (and the Egyptian government, for what it’s worth, places the death toll in the 600-person range). But Roth’s Facebook post on the Human Rights Watch page seems to simply inflate the numbers by 25 percent. Raising the death toll in a fit of anger out of the disrespect a researcher feels at the hands of a foreign government does nothing but diminish the legitimacy of Human Rights Watch’s research.

Roth is fond of analogies as well but, again, with these he plays fast and loose. On August 13, 2014, he tweets, “Tiananmen in 1989, Andijan in 2005, and now #Egypt’s Rab’a in 2013–large-scale massacres that demand justice.” That’s true. Again, however, Roth’s bombast seemed to get the better of him, perhaps because his relatively dispassionate tweet didn’t get him the media coverage he hoped. Hence, just 17 days later, he tweeted, “17 NGOs press UN rights council to address #Egypt: bigger protester massacre than Tiananmen, mass arrests & torture.” So was Rabaa a bigger massacre than Tiananmen? Well, for this, it pays simply to look at old reports by Human Rights Watch from the days when it prioritized human-rights research and reporting above polemic. As the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square approached this past spring, Human Rights Watch released this, carefully sidestepping the question of deaths on that horrible day because Human Rights Watch doesn’t know how many hundreds died. On the 20th anniversary, Human Rights Watch mentioned “untold numbers” killed. In 2010, however, Human Rights Watch suggested 2,000 had been killed in and around Tiananmen. Perhaps my math is wrong, but I thought 2,000 was larger than 1,000 (or 817 or 377).

The point of this is not to diminish the horror of what transpired in Rabaa Square, nor the culpability of Egyptian forces who may have used unnecessary force (or the Muslim Brotherhood activists who apparently fired from within crowds in order to kill security forces and bring more casualties to some of the innocents in the square when government forces returned fire). Rather, it’s to point out that while human-rights advocacy is extremely important and, along with independent journalism, plays an important role in civil society, so flagrantly massaging numbers to support the politics or press release of the day is the hallmark of an organization gone bad, and simply enables governments across the globe to dismiss all Human Rights Watch work as unprofessional and politically biased.

Given the inconsistencies and exaggerations to which Human Rights Watch Executive Director Ken Roth appears prone, the Egyptian government would be within its rights to dismiss the Human Rights Watch report as inherently flawed. Let us hope that other organizations do a better job of shining light on an incident which so many wish would remain in the dark, because until that job is done credibly and professionally, many will get away with murder. And let us also hope that if Human Rights Watch is to salvage its reputation, it will start to pay heed to the consistency of numbers espoused by its staff.

Read Less

Ignoring Real Syrian Refugees to Support Fake Palestinian Ones

I realize it’s been a busy week, what with ISIS beheading journalists, Russia invading Ukraine, and deadliest of all (to quote the inimitable Sultan Knish), Israel threatening to build new houses. But it’s nevertheless shocking that one UN announcement last week should have attracted so little international attention: Last Friday, the number of registered Syrian refugees topped the 3 million mark. And those are just the ones who have made it out of Syria and registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The agency estimates that another 6.5 million are internally displaced, bringing the total number of displaced Syrians to almost half the country’s population.

Read More

I realize it’s been a busy week, what with ISIS beheading journalists, Russia invading Ukraine, and deadliest of all (to quote the inimitable Sultan Knish), Israel threatening to build new houses. But it’s nevertheless shocking that one UN announcement last week should have attracted so little international attention: Last Friday, the number of registered Syrian refugees topped the 3 million mark. And those are just the ones who have made it out of Syria and registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The agency estimates that another 6.5 million are internally displaced, bringing the total number of displaced Syrians to almost half the country’s population.

But buried about halfway through the announcement is a sentence that goes a long way toward explaining the international apathy: “Syrians are now the world’s largest refugee population under UNHCR care, second only in number to the decades-long Palestinian crisis.” In other words, even as it tries to solicit aid for distressed Syrians, the UN itself is telling people that another refugee crisis is even greater, and hence presumably more deserving of their money and attention. And it has peddled this nonsensical claim so successfully, for so long, that it now finds itself unable to meet the needs of a real crisis: The $2 billion it’s desperately seeking to keep Syrian refugees alive through the upcoming winter has already been squandered on five million faux refugees, most of whom don’t need it at all.

Of course, there are real Palestinian refugees–primarily the 500,000 in Syria, whose plight, like that of other Syrians, is dire. Moreover, though most of the Palestinians temporarily displaced by the Hamas-Israel war are now returning home, Gaza will need reconstruction aid.

But of the 5 million Palestinians registered as “refugees” with their own private UN agency, UNRWA, most aren’t displaced in any fashion: They have lived in the same places for decades, and have houses, jobs, extended families, friends, schools, health care, and all the other accoutrements of normal life. Moreover, most live in places that, by Mideast standards, are exceptionally safe and stable, including 2.1 million in Jordan and 750,000 in the West Bank.

Nevertheless, UNRWA’s staff and budget dwarfs that of UNHCR. It has 30,000 employees to deal with 5 million “refugees,” while UNHCR has 8,600 to handle 10.5 million refugees plus more than twice as many other “people of concern,” including 17.7 million internally displaced. UNRWA’s regular budget is $1 billion a year, bolstered by periodic emergency appeals ($300 million in 2013); UNHCR had a regular budget of $4 billion plus $1.3 billion in emergency appeals as of mid-2013, but for a population seven times as large–35.8 million “people of concern.”

Thus UNRWA has one staffer for every 167 Palestinians while UNHCR has one for every 4,163 non-Palestinians, and UNRWA has $260 for every Palestinian while UNHCR has $148 for every non-Palestinian. Yet the needs of the people UNHCR cares for–who have lost their homes, their jobs and their entire lives–are incomparably greater than those of the Palestinians, most of whom lead completely normal lives.

Much has been written, correctly, about how UNRWA helps perpetuate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But to my mind, the greater outrage is the degree to which UNRWA diverts international money and attention from those who need it desperately–like the Syrian refugees–to those who don’t need it at all, like the many Palestinian “refugees” who became Jordanian citizens decades ago.

And unlike the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this is a problem the West can easily solve. Western nations provide most of UNRWA’s budget, so all they have to do is reallocate this money–some to UNHCR, and some, at least initially, to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and perhaps Lebanon, to cushion the shock of suddenly having to provide health, education, and welfare services to millions of people who currently receive those services from UNRWA.

Then, with five million faux refugees out of the picture, perhaps the real ones will finally get the attention they deserve.

Read Less

Defining Settlements Down: the False “Appropriation” Hysteria

Israel’s declaration of certain open, uncultivated areas near the 1949 Armistice Line as “state land” has been widely mischaracterized as an “appropriation” of private Palestinian land, and a promotion of settlement activity. It is neither.

Read More

Israel’s declaration of certain open, uncultivated areas near the 1949 Armistice Line as “state land” has been widely mischaracterized as an “appropriation” of private Palestinian land, and a promotion of settlement activity. It is neither.

A determination that land is “state land” is a factual, administrative finding that does not change the ownership of land. In the West Bank–like in the American West–massive amounts of land have no private owners. There is nothing unusual about this; indeed, it is even truer inside the Green Line. Moreover, if Israel is indeed an occupying power, it has a duty to administer and maintain the rule of law, and oversee public resources, both of which require the authorities to know what land has private owners and what does not.

An “appropriation” involves taking something that is someone’s. A designation of land as “state land” requires a determination, based on extensive investigation, that it does not have a private owner. The determination can be challenged administratively and judicially, as Palestinian claimants often do, and sometimes prevail.

In other words, nothing has been taken from anyone, or given to anyone. Thus a “state land” determination does not create any new facts or change ownership.

Moreover, designating an area state land does not mean that a Jewish community can be built on it. Both illegal Jewish and Arab building on state land is often demolished. Authorizing a new residential community would require a vast number of additional administrative and political permissions, none of which appear to be remotely forthcoming. Indeed, those who object to Israel’s recent action also object Jews living or even studying on undisputedly private Jewish-owned land in the West Bank.

The hysteria over this announcement illustrates several points. First, it reflects how detached discussions of “illegal settlements” are from international law. The entire legal argument against settlements rests on one sentence of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits an “occupying power” to “deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population” into the territory it occupies.

Assume the treaty even applies to this situation–and there is good reason to think it does not. Further assume that Israelis moving across the Green Line can be considered a “deportation or transfer” committed by the Israeli government, though it does not appear the government is moving anyone. None of that has anything to do with the occupying power determining the ownership status of the land, an action which does not transfer or help transfer, and indeed, has nothing to do with the movement of people.

On the other hand, Israel also announced this week the construction of thousands of housing units in eastern Jerusalem for Arab Israelis. If the Geneva Convention indeed forbids building apartments in occupied territory for one’s nationals, it does so without any ethnic discrimination. The question would not be whether the “settlers” are Jews or Arabs, but whether they are part of Israel’s “civilian population.” Yet on this action, the international community was entirely silent.

The outrage over Israel’s “settlement” actions has no basis in law. Moving people is settlement activity, but only when done by Jews. Not moving people is also settlement activity. “Settlement activity” has just become a term of opprobrium with legal pretensions.

Second, the outrage over Israel’s “state land” declaration must be seen on the background of the six-month moratorium on new settlement construction that the Netanyahu government has been quietly implementing. Indeed, even a plan to allow for some building in blocs in response to the murder of the boys was scrapped.

Bibi has quietly done exactly what all his critics in the peace camp have long demanded. But instead of bringing Abbas to the table, it has sent him on unilateral attacks at the UN and ICC.

So instead of giving Netanyahu credit for his silent freeze–credit which would raise serious questions about Abbas’s sincerity–Peace Now and the international community simply define settlements down.

In short, Netanyahu’s moratorium has only encouraged more extreme international attacks on any Jewish presence in the territories.

Read Less

Will Hostage Bring Cameron into the War?

Refusing to pay ransoms to terrorists has the virtue of being both morally laudable and strategically expedient. However, governments that refuse to negotiate with terrorists are generally obliged to take some alternative course of action instead–such as to combat and defeat them. British Prime Minister David Cameron has employed some staunch rhetoric against ISIS’s advance, much of it far more rousing than that of President Obama, who generally sounds as if he is discussing a matter with all the urgency of mass transit whenever he is forced to speak on the subject. Still, Cameron is yet to join the United States in its airstrikes against the Islamists. And with a British hostage now apparently next in line on ISIS’s macabre list of beheadings, there is a renewed pressure for Cameron to match his strong words with some equally strong actions.

Read More

Refusing to pay ransoms to terrorists has the virtue of being both morally laudable and strategically expedient. However, governments that refuse to negotiate with terrorists are generally obliged to take some alternative course of action instead–such as to combat and defeat them. British Prime Minister David Cameron has employed some staunch rhetoric against ISIS’s advance, much of it far more rousing than that of President Obama, who generally sounds as if he is discussing a matter with all the urgency of mass transit whenever he is forced to speak on the subject. Still, Cameron is yet to join the United States in its airstrikes against the Islamists. And with a British hostage now apparently next in line on ISIS’s macabre list of beheadings, there is a renewed pressure for Cameron to match his strong words with some equally strong actions.

There are of course those in Britain who would want to see Cameron pursue the same course of action as has been adopted by the countries of mainland Europe. French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Danish hostages were all held by militants in Iraq and Syria and are all now free after their ransoms were paid. But in surrendering to the terrorists’ demands Western governments are in a sense both funding terrorism and putting more of their citizens around the world at risk by incentivizing their kidnapping.

The French attitude to hostage taking makes the point pretty clearly. Despite the fact that the payment of ransoms for French hostages is generally undertaken through state owned companies rather than by the government directly–so as to permit French politicians to make the unconvincing claim that they are absolved from the whole sordid affair–the effect is still entirely the same. Indeed, it has been estimated that France has now paid over $57 million to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in return for the release of hostages. For their trouble France has succeeded in making its citizens the most desirable people in the world to kidnap and last year it is thought that more French nationals were taken hostage than those from any other country in the world.

Of course as well as funds, terrorists also often demand the release of prisoners. But by letting hardened terrorists go free, Western governments are essentially just returning combatants to the field and replenishing the ranks of terrorist groups. Furthermore, in countries where the most severe punishment on the books is imprisonment, the release of these prisoners renders terrorism a crime without penalty. During the 1970s the PLO and associated groups became particularly adept at using hostage taking for this very purpose. They knew that European countries were the weak link here and of the 204 terrorists convicted outside of the Middle East between 1968 and 1975, only three were still in prison by the end of that period.

So David Cameron’s refusal to follow his European counterparts down the ransom paying rabbit hole is indeed both sensible and admirable. Yet, if he is not going to free British hostages by negotiating with their captors then he must explain what he intends to do instead. Nor can he maintain the rhetoric of moral opprobrium against ISIS with any kind of credibility if he still refuses to take real action. If British government officials want to label ISIS as “evil” then that is fine–just so long as they know that doing so will quickly render their current policy morally indefensible.

Up until now, Britain has met the ISIS threat with what appears to have been a defense strategy devised by Quakers. A team is being put together to document ISIS war crimes so that these people might one day be put on trial, while the British air force recently took to the skies over mount Sinjar to drop bottles water to the sheltering Yazidis down below. Yet in the end it was only ever going to be the kind of airstrikes employed by the United States that would save the Yazidis from the ISIS militants seeking to perpetrate genocide against them. As it is, Obama’s strategy may well prove to be too little, too late. But as things stand, for all his tough talk, Cameron has only managed less than that.

With regard to freeing the British hostage, Cameron’s government now insists that all options are being considered. Yet under present circumstances a rescue operation looks unlikely. Cameron’s former secretary of defense, Liam Fox, has however very publicly called on Britain to join the U.S. in its airstrikes. There are the first tentative signs that the British government may be coming round to this idea. But for the moment, Cameron is stalling, talking about building a broad coalition, one which he insists must include non-Western nations as well–though with news about the existence of a British hostage now being made public, there are the first stirrings of popular pressure for “something to be done.”

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.