Barack Obama, speaking to a crowd in Baltimore on Friday, said, “I know it can seem frustrating sometimes when it seems like Washington’s priorities aren’t the same as your priorities. I know it often seems like folks down there are more concerned with their jobs than with yours.”
Earlier in the week, when speaking about the IRS scandal, Obama said, “I’ve reviewed the Treasury Department watchdog’s report, and the misconduct that it uncovered is inexcusable. It’s inexcusable, and Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it. I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency, but especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives.”
Nearly 13 years ago, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak journeyed to Camp David to end the conflict with the Palestinians. With the approval of President Clinton, he offered Yasir Arafat an independent Palestinian state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and in part of Jerusalem. Arafat said no. A couple of months later, the Palestinians put an exclamation mark on that refusal by launching the terrorist offensive that came to be known as the second intifada. Yet in spite of the fact that it was the Palestinians who had rejected peace and who were engaging in terror attacks on Israeli targets that would cost more than 1,000 Israeli lives, they were still portrayed in much of the Western media as the victims. While the process that brought about this perplexing reversal was complex, one particular incident became the symbol of this vicious distortion: the Muhammad al-Dura affair.
The story promoted at the time by the Palestinian propaganda machine was that Israeli army fire killed a small boy while he and his father were seeking shelter from fighting near a Gaza checkpoint. Film footage provided by French TV made this tragedy an international cause célèbre and an official Israeli apology reinforced the Palestinian narrative and helped turn al-Dura into the poster child for Israeli beastliness and their own suffering. Yet soon doubts began to surface about the veracity of the claim of Israeli responsibility and the discrepancies and falsehoods in the Palestinian narrative were exposed in various Western outlets. Over the years, the initial story has been debunked in a variety of places. A German documentary proved that the shots that killed the boy could not have come from Israeli positions and French gadfly Phillipe Karsenty, who pointed out the original report was false, was sued in the courts by prominent journalist Charles Enderlin (who had broadcast the initial lie) but ultimately vindicated. Now it appears the Israeli government has finally caught up to the problem and issued what may be a definitive report that comes to the harshest possible conclusion about the al-Dura myth. As Haaretz reports:
Thirteen years after an exchange of fire in Gaza appeared to have resulted in the death of a Palestinian boy at the start of the second intifada, an Israeli investigative panel has found “there are many indications” that Mohammed al-Dura and his father, Jamal, “were never hit by gunfire” – neither Israeli nor Palestinian – after all.
The national panel of inquiry further claims that contrary to the famed report carried by the France 2 television network on the day of the incident, September 30, 2000, 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura appears to be alive at the end of the complete footage captured of the event.
The response to this report is predictable. The Muslim and Arab world will reject any investigation into it that will not accept their narrative. But more troubling will be the answer from many in the West and even in Israel who will ask why anyone should bother with such an old story. We should, they will assert, care about how to end the conflict, not who killed al-Dura. For Israel or its friends to spend any time on this issue is a diversion of effort from the peace process that will only anger Palestinians who will say that any argument about the incident demonstrates insensitivity, even if the facts are correct. But anyone who doubts the importance of debunking what has become a new version of the old Jewish blood libel is the one who is wrong.
Speaking on Face the Nation, White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer tried to deflect blame for the brewing IRS scandal by arguing that the only way the scandal might have involved President Obama is if the president had actively sought to interfere in the IRS inspector general’s report. According to Politico.com’s coverage:
Pfeiffer said that the administration followed the “cardinal rule” of all White Houses. “You do nothing to interfere with an independent investigation and you do nothing to offer the appearance of interfering with investigations,” Pfeiffer said. Once informed, the White House officials responded after they had the facts, he said. Obama has come under fire from Republicans and others for being slow to respond and for saying that he learned only recently of the investigation into IRS officials targeting tea party groups. “What we waited for were the facts,” Pfeiffer said. “It’s important to get out there fast, but it’s important to get out there right.”
Last week John Kerry went to Moscow to persuade the Russians to play nice with the rest of the international community on Syria. While he would have liked to have them join in the effort to force the Assad regime out of office, his hope was to at least get the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin to not further strengthen their Syrian client. The only bone Putin was prepared to throw Kerry was backing a proposal to hold a peace conference on Syria next month. But within a few days, the Russian contempt for the Obama administration and its new secretary of state was made all too clear with the news that they were shipping advanced missiles to Damascus that would be perfectly suited to threaten any Western ships or bases in the region that might resupply the Syrian rebels or enforce a no-fly zone in the country. In other words, the Russians demonstrated that when it comes to Syria, they have more in common with Iran and Hezbollah than the United States.
This ought to have been understood to be a sobering development for the administration that calls into question not just Kerry’s competence but a strategy that envisions leveraging a reset of relations with Russia into progress on Syria as well as dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. But as the New York Times reports, Kerry is undaunted by the evidence of his failure and is instead concentrating on making friends with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. The result is, as the Times says, a “change in tone” in the relations between the two countries even if it has not actually advanced American interests.
While there is a case to be made for diplomats keeping the lines of communication open, what recent events have shown is that Kerry is not so much keeping the Russians informed of American positions as he has signaled to them that the U.S. is ready to bow to Moscow’s will. The news that, as the Times makes clear, the Russians are well pleased with Kerry ought to set off alarms in Washington.
The April 24 collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza, a building hosting numerous garment factories on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, has now claimed more than 1,100 lives. There is no mitigating the disaster for the families of those killed or maimed, or for the nation of Bangladesh.
I had the true pleasure of spending a week in Bangladesh back in December 2008. After having spent time in Pakistan, Bangladesh is a breath of fresh air. While the specter of extremism, aggrievement, an embrace of terrorism and an obsession with its neighbors permeates Pakistan and Pakistani society, Bangladesh exudes tolerance and a general desire by its people that the fate of their country is in their own hands. Much of the difference between the two outlooks rests in the brutal birth of Bangladesh. Its 1971 independence war claimed upwards of 850,000 lives—far more than in Bosnia or the past two years of Syrian atrocities. Pakistan—which controlled what is now Bangladesh from 1947-1971—sought a state based on religious identity. Bengalis, who generally embraced much more moderate interpretations of Islam, embraced ethnic and cultural identities beyond religion. More than four decades later, Pakistanis who organize around ethnicity or secular ideas are considered traitors, and religious parties reign supreme. The opposite is true in Bangladesh.
It is commencement season at our colleges and universities. Over at the Atlantic, law professor Andrew Guthrie Ferguson has a useful piece on how, amid commencement calls for global citizenship and volunteerism, more mundane and local citizenship responsibilities, like serving on a jury, or running for the school board, are neglected.
Ferguson does not expect that our commencement speaker roster of politicians, actors, and the occasional Muppet will take up his call to speak less about following one’s passion and more about running for borough council. But he does hope that students and their teachers will consider that for almost all of us it “is not about changing the world in a boundless future but engaging constitutional responsibilities in the grounded present.”
While the scandal surrounding the government seizure of Associated Press records continues to percolate in Washington, such state intrusion on the press would seem positively mild inside Turkey where, today, most journalists assume they are being tapped. It is near impossible to talk politics with Turkish journalists before everyone at the table first takes batteries out of their cell phones. The judiciary has been tapped, as have newspapers.
Erdoğan has stacked previously apolitical bodies with his own party hacks, and transformed technocratic institutions to wield against the press. He has had them, for example, levy fines of billions of dollars to silence some outfits, and seized and sold at auction another. The sole bidder (after others dropped out because of political pressure)? Erdoğan’s son-in-law. Ironically, it was Sabah—the once-opposition paper confiscated by Erdoğan and given to his son-in-law—that President Obama chose to contribute a glowing op-ed to on the occasion of Erdoğan’s visit to Turkey.
One of the strangest and weakest defenses of the IRS’s campaign targeting conservative and pro-Israel nonprofit applicants was that the blatant violation of the constitutional rights of Americans who disagreed with President Obama was the natural reaction of the poor, overworked bureaucrat. We were told that conservatives “swamped” the IRS with nonprofit applications after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision struck down some restrictions on political speech.
This excuse never made much sense, and it certainly didn’t justify what happened: President Obama publicly slammed conservative nonprofits as shady and possibly foreign-funded and complained they had patriotic-sounding names to hide their nefarious purposes; he encouraged extra scrutiny of these groups; Democrats in the Senate then pushed the IRS to target the kinds of groups the president warned about; the IRS did so. Blaming conservatives for applying to participate in the nonprofit sector and thus forcing the IRS to harass and silence them is just as nonsensical as it sounds. But what about the underlying point: were those poor IRS officials flooded with conservative applicants? No, as the Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta points out:
Throughout a long week of scandal, the growing evidence of wrongdoing in the executive branch has buffeted Democrats. Like President Obama, who was slow to realize the danger to his presidency, his supporters were initially put back on their heels by the triple threat posed by the Benghazi investigation, the Justice Department’s seizure of the Associated Press’s phone records and, most damning of all, the Internal Revenue Service’s discriminatory practices. But also like the president, who took to the road today to resume his attempt to blame the interest in these issues on his opponents’ narrow partisanship, liberals are starting to speak out to minimize the importance of the scandals.
The left is working hard to classify Benghazi as a “political circus”; blame the AP for being subjected to an unprecedented phone records grab; or to say the real problem in the IRS affair is that right-wing groups attempt to gain nonprofit status. But while they are having mixed success with those efforts, they are gaining some traction with the notion that the real problem today is not the administration’s incompetence or malfeasance but overreaching on the part of Republicans.
Indeed, Republicans are already second-guessing themselves about how hard to hit the president on the scandals, with liberals using those doubts to help craft a narrative in which the real threat to the republic is an extremist GOP. There are good reasons to fear that Republican hotheads will distract the public from Obama’s troubles but it should be understood that this storyline is essentially bogus. However the president’s opposition plays their hand, any attempt to shift the focus from the administration and the president to those who are attempting to make him accountable for the government’s behavior is a yet another attempt to deceive the public.
Throughout the discussion about the crimes of Kermit Gosnell we were repeatedly assured that the atrocities that took place in his clinic were exceptional and should in no way be imputed to other providers of abortion services. This is a tenet of faith for those seeking to defend abortion rights since they seem to fear that any attention focused on late-term abortions impacts the discussion about the legality of the procedure under any circumstances. But if Gosnell is not quite the outlier that some have tried to argue that he is, then the nation may have to confront the fact that what went on in West Philadelphia isn’t the only place where infants were slaughtered as the result of botched abortions.
Thus, the news today that another such case may be about to surface in Texas may realize the worst fears of both sides in the abortion debate.
As the American Spectator notes (they cite a Houston Chronicle story that is difficult to find on its website), former employees of a Houston clinic are claiming that babies were routinely killed in the same fashion as the ones Gosnell was convicted of murdering: by snipping their spinal cords. Like the testimony in the Philadelphia case, reading this account is not for those with weak stomachs. The details of fully formed infants being mutilated in this manner are horrifying. While those implicated are entitled to a presumption of innocence and we should wait until police complete their investigation, these new hair-raising allegations should cause enforcement officials and health care inspectors, not to mention the rest of us, to wonder just how common such activities really are.
One of the things that has long intrigued me is how people of different political and ideological attitudes can look at the same set of facts and interpret them in entirely different ways.
For example, it’s no secret to readers of this site that I’m a conservative who views a whole range of issues–the size and reach of government, taxes, entitlement programs, education, immigration, health care, abortion, America’s role in world affairs, and so forth–in a particular way. One of my long-time friends, a man who has played a significant role in my Christian faith, is a liberal who disagrees with me on virtually everything having to do with politics. He’s smart, informed, and has integrity. We’ve had good, rich conversations over the years. Yet there’s very little common political ground we share.
We simply look at the same issues, the same events, in a fundamentally different way.
I thought about my friend while reading Jesse Norman’s outstanding biography Edmund Burke: The First Conservative. In the second half of the book, devoted to Burke’s political philosophy, Norman invokes the Muller-Lyer illusion, a benchmark of human visual perception in which two lines of the same length appear to be of different lengths, based on whether the fins of an arrow are facing inward or outward.
The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, America’s greatest living investigative reporter, was on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and said this: “I would not dismiss Benghazi. It’s a very serious matter.” Mr. Woodward recounted his own memories of Richard Nixon’s role in editing Watergate transcripts in order to mislead the public.
The Benghazi scandal is obviously not comparable to Watergate at this stage and may never be. Watergate, after all, involved the president being at the center of a criminal conspiracy. But not every scandal has to be Watergate to be serious; and a scandal need not lead to impeachment to be deeply problematic.
There was a running joke in the fall of 2008 that John McCain should simply re-air Hillary Clinton’s “3 a.m. phone call” ad, which highlighted Barack Obama’s lack of experience and meager knowledge of world affairs, and just tack on “I’m John McCain, and I approve this message” at the end of the ad. The point was that thanks to the bitter primary battle between the Clintons and Obama, Democrats had already developed the most effective lines of attack against Obama, and Republicans needed only to nod their heads in agreement.
Something similar is taking place amid the several Obama administration scandals that have surfaced almost simultaneously. (There has been new information on Benghazi, but the issue itself isn’t new; the IRS and AP phone records scandals, in contrast, hit less than a week apart.) Both Democrats and Republicans are raising the prospect that the GOP could get carried away or bungle their response to the scandals–surely a possibility. One way to prevent that, however, would be to simply echo the way Obama’s supporters have tried to defend him.
Last January, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the president can only make recess appointments when the Senate has adjourned sine die, i.e. without setting a date for returning to session. Once it adjourns this way it is out of session until noon on the following January 3, when the 20th Amendment commands that a new session begin. (The president has the power to summon Congress back into session if necessary.)
This was a great restriction on the recess appointment power of the president, which allows the president to make temporary appointments to posts requiring Senate confirmation “during the Recess of the Senate.” Before that ruling, presidents had often made recess appointments while the Senate was in temporary recess, often of only a few weeks. They did this either because the president thought the post needed to be filled immediately (President Eisenhower gave William Brennan a recess appointment to the Supreme Court in 1956 and he was subsequently confirmed by the Senate) or because of obstruction in the Senate that made an up-or-down vote on an appointment impossible (such as George W. Bush’s recess appointment of John Bolton to the U.N. ambassadorship in 2005).
The testimony of Acting Internal Revenue Service Director Steven Miller before the House Ways and Means Committee didn’t provide much in the way of answers about the scandalous targeting of conservative groups by the agency. But it did give us a window into the mindset of the bureaucrats who supervised this outrage. Republican members tried to get Miller to respond to the key question hanging over this entire affair: Who gave the order to target groups with words like “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names and that criticized the way the country was being run? They got no answers, but they did get a refusal on his part to admit that he lied to Congress last year when he claimed no such targeting was going on. He also arrogantly claimed the abuses did not constitute targeting because he asserted that it was not politically motivated.
Miller’s claim that politics didn’t play a role in what was such an obvious case of bias directed solely at conservatives is without credibility. So too is his inability to admit that he didn’t tell the whole truth to Congress in the past about this or to remember who gave the order for the targeting. The same applies to his assertion that the person who supervised this disaster is a great public servant or that the targeting was not illegal.
Add this all together and what you get is a picture of an agency that has so thoroughly absorbed the views of its political masters that it doesn’t even recognize when it has crossed the line into illegal activity. It is also one in which that bias was considered a topic that they didn’t feel impelled to change or to reveal to Congress prior to the last election. Simply putting down this blatantly illegal activity to “foolish mistakes” by a few employees or considering it “horrible customer service,” as if they were discussing the delivery of fast food, shows a mindset that reeks of contempt for the Constitution and for democratic values. With the agency about to play a major role in implementing ObamaCare, the inability of its leader to give a straight answer to questions about any of this bodes ill for the country.
The report this morning on the front page of the New York Times that Russia is sending a new batch of advanced arms to Syria is very bad news for those who hoped international isolation would lead to the fall of Bashar Assad’s regime. Despite constant predictions over the past two years from President Obama and others in the West that it was only a matter of time before this evil dictator would be forced out, Assad is holding his own. The rebels have not only failed to push him out of Damascus but, if recent accounts of the fighting there are true, they have lost ground as the regime has rolled back the tide of unrest all across the country. Though the rebellion may have fractured the country, as a separate front-page story in the Times testifies, with Iran and its Hezbollah auxiliaries doubling down on their backing for Assad on the ground and emboldened by Russia’s diplomatic support as well as its efforts to resupply the regime’s military, it’s hard to see why anyone would think the dictator is going anywhere in the foreseeable future.
But the implications of Russia’s move, coming as it does only a week after Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow to plead for restraint on their part, is a devastating blow to American diplomacy. It’s not just that the Russians are flouting the will of the international community as well as a sticking a finger in the eye of President Obama. Such mischief making is the hallmark of Russian foreign policy under Vladimir Putin since creating the illusion that Moscow is returning to the status of a major world power is integral to his own regime’s legitimacy. But the spectacle of Kerry playing the supplicant to Putin and then being humiliated in this fashion marks a new low for the administration’s prestige. It calls into question not just the direction of the American approach to both Russia and Syria but highlights the secretary’s blind belief in his own diplomatic skill despite abundant evidence to the contrary.
David Axelrod was once Barack Obama’s closest chief political adviser. He now comments for MSNBC, where he trotted out the latest defense of President Obama, who is being buffeted by three unfolding scandals: misleading the public in the aftermath of the lethal assault on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, the seizure of phone records of Associated Press reporters, and the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS.
On the latter, the Axelrod defense goes like this: “There’s so much underneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast.”
Now isn’t that convenient.
Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, thankfully, do not have to face the kind of opprobrium that an earlier generation of Vietnam veterans encountered. But there is still a tendency to pathologize vets, to assume that they are victims of a sinister system, innocents who have been sent into battle against their will and forced to pay a high cost.
Take the surge of concern about military suicides. The problem is a real one—the suicide rate is rising in the ranks of the military—but let’s not get carried away. Given the demographics of the military (young white males are one of the population groups most likely to commit suicide) and the easy availability of lethal weapons, one might expect that the suicide rate in the military would at least be higher than in the general population. That’s not the case. As this New York Times article notes: ”In 2002, the military’s suicide rate was 10.3 per 100,000 troops, well below the comparable civilian rate. But today the rates are nearly the same, above 18 per 100,000 people.”
In response to the IRS scandal, voices are rising in defense of the Internal Revenue Service’s need to police the behavior of non-profit 501 (c) groups. Didn’t the IRS need to ensure that groups applying for non-profit status would conduct themselves properly once they had received it? That is the question raised. The answer, actually, is no, not really. The IRS’s enforcement power has to do with misconduct following the granting of tax-exempt status. It should not presume lack of good faith on the part of those applying for the status. What it can do to them, fairly and legally, is revoke the status based on the organization’s behavior after the exemption is granted—thus effectively crippling and destroying it. That is its policing power. It is the threat of losing the status that acts as the deterrent to violating the guidelines and boundaries established by the law. When COMMENTARY was threatened in just this way in 2009 (almost certainly as the result of a political witch hunt the origination of which I do not know) we had no doubt that what the IRS was doing was within the scope of its mandate. We knew that because we were and are highly conscious of the boundaries drawn by the law—that we could not endorse candidates or promote the electoral interests of a political party.
What the IRS was doing in its examination of the applications for tax exemption was nothing less than attempting to use its power to prevent the promotion of ideas someone believed would be injurious. That is the outrage, as is any effort to defend the conduct by saying the IRS was only doing its job.
On Tuesday, I posted here about how Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was being two-faced in his dealings with Benjamin Netanyahu after the latter’s apology for the loss of life in the raid on the Mavi Marmara. The reason for the apology—part of a deal brokered by President Obama—was to allow Turkey and Israel to reconcile and renew their partnership.
Turkey appears to have violated that deal by seeking referral of the case to the International Criminal Court, litigation which Obama and Netanyahu understood Erdoğan would not support once he had his apology. Just as Erdoğan sought plausible deniability when he first invited Hamas to Ankara, telling Western officials that the invitation came from his political party (AKP) and not from the state, so too does the referral to the ICC come from a familiar proxy: a law firm where one principal has been a long-time AKP party activist and the other has been intimately involved in the IHH, the pro-Hamas organization that sponsored the Mavi Marmara. The proxy issue goes farther, of course, as the AKP had provided the ship to the IHH in the first place.