Commentary Magazine


Who Will Show Leadership on Iran?

One of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s goals in his speech today before the United Nations General Assembly was to put the debate about Iran’s nuclear program back on the international community’s front burner. But whether he succeeded or not—and given the hate for Israel that is integral to the culture of the UN it is unlikely that many nations will heed his warnings about the moral equivalence between ISIS and Hamas Iran—the real question that needs to be asked is why the Iranian threat has dropped off the radar screen here in the United States in the last year and whether anyone of stature in this country is willing to speak up consistently and forcefully on the issue.

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One of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s goals in his speech today before the United Nations General Assembly was to put the debate about Iran’s nuclear program back on the international community’s front burner. But whether he succeeded or not—and given the hate for Israel that is integral to the culture of the UN it is unlikely that many nations will heed his warnings about the moral equivalence between ISIS and Hamas Iran—the real question that needs to be asked is why the Iranian threat has dropped off the radar screen here in the United States in the last year and whether anyone of stature in this country is willing to speak up consistently and forcefully on the issue.

Shutting down the debate about Iran is one of President Obama’s few political triumphs during his second term. Though the president pledged to shut down Iran’s nuclear program during his campaigne for reelection, his main focus after his victory was on appeasing Tehran and enticing the Islamist regime to sign an interim nuclear deal that undermined economic sanctions while doing nothing to end the threat. Having squandered immense political, economic, and military leverage over Iran in order to secure that agreement, he then branded critics of this travesty as warmongers. With the help of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, he was able to squelch efforts to increase sanctions on Iran if negotiations failed despite the support of majorities in the both Houses of Congress for a measure that would have strengthened his hand in talks with the ayatollahs.

Since the collapse of that effort, the issue has remained largely dormant in the U.S. as diplomacy with Iran has remained largely under the radar. And while conservatives can generally be counted on to attack virtually any Obama initiative, let alone one as misguided as his attempt at engagement with Iran, many on the right have been far more interested in following Senator Rand Paul’s lead in criticizing the president’s misuse of executive authority rather than sounding the alarms about Iran. Even if, in the wake of the new concerns about the rise of the ISIS terrorist movement, it appears that the isolationist moment in American politics may be fading, the president is probably right if he thinks he still has plenty of room to maneuver in negotiating a new Iran deal that may be even more dangerous than last year’s accord.

Given the leaks about possible compromises—including the absurd one last week about an American proposal that Iran disconnect the pipes that link the centrifuges that enrich the uranium used for nuclear fuel—there is little doubt about the administration’s zeal for a deal. In response, Iran has stiffened its demands to the point where it is clear that any accord will leave their nuclear infrastructure in place and quickly eviscerate sanctions while making it impossible to re-impose them even if it quickly became clear that Tehran wasn’t keeping its promises.

But in the absence of serious debate about the issue or the willingness of GOP leaders to draw a line in the sand on the nuclear issue, it is possible to envisage a repeat of last year’s fiasco in which critics of Iran appeasement were routed by the administration.

That is why Senator Ted Cruz’s decision to stake out an extremely tough position on Iran is such an intriguing development.

Cruz has critics, including COMMENTARY bloggers, who rightly point out that his success in buffaloing congressional Republican leaders into supporting the confrontation that led to last year’s government shutdown was a huge mistake. So, too, is his continued unwillingness to concede that it was an error. But like it or not, the Texan has become an extremely influential figure in the GOP who is clearly interested in running for president in 2016. While Cruz goes into the next election cycle as a huge underdog who is probably not a viable Republican option to defeat Hillary Clinton, what is most interesting about his effort is the fact that this Tea Party hero seems to think foreign policy is where he can best differentiate himself from other conservatives or a libertarian like Rand Paul.

Where last year he rushed to the Senate floor to second Rand Paul’s dubious but wildly popular filibuster about the administration’s use of drones, in recent months he has been throwing down the gauntlet to the Kentucky senator. Though he claims he should not be confused with an all-out interventionist like John McCain, Cruz’s op-ed in Politico Magazine published yesterday seemed to indicate he is prepared to use opposition to the Obama drive for détente with Iran as a rallying point for his presidential hopes.

Cynics will say this is just about Cruz seeking an edge for 2016 and, as with his courageous stand against anti-Semitic critics of Israel among those protesting persecution of Christians in the Middle East, dismiss his statements as politics as usual rather than principle.

But at a time when the administration appears to be operating with a free hand on Iran, this is no time to questioning the bona fides of anyone on the national stage that is willing to prioritize this issue. Cruz’s insistence that justified concerns about ISIS should not allow the West to give Iran a pass on both its use of terrorism and its nuclear ambitions is exactly what we should be hearing from Republicans on Obama. But, for the most part, this point and others he made about Iran’s egregious human rights record haven’t been said loudly or often enough.

Even if we were willing to accept the premise that Cruz is doing this for political reasons—and his record on both Israel and Iran suggests that his foreign-policy views have been both consistent and sincere—that doesn’t change the fact that his effort to change the conversation about the issue is timely and much needed. If he steals a march on Paul or other 2016 contenders by pushing Republicans to speak up on Iran the way he did about the shutdown, then so much the better for him, his party, and the country.

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Will the Met Opera Silence the Jews?

Over the course of the last century, whenever Jews rose up to protest anti-Semitism, they were invariably told that they were doing more harm than good. Whether it was in pre-Holocaust Europe or even in the United States, Jewish leaders were often counseled by those in power that their complaints would provoke anti-Semitism rather than repress it. While the lessons of history should have consigned this sort of advice to the unhappy history of prejudice, it appears that it has been resurrected by the head of the Metropolitan Opera when confronted with criticisms of his decision to stage an opera that rationalizes both terrorism and Jew hatred. As such, it has raised the stakes in the debate about The Death of Klinghoffer and the specious claim that the opera’s critics are seeking to suppress freedom of expression.

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Over the course of the last century, whenever Jews rose up to protest anti-Semitism, they were invariably told that they were doing more harm than good. Whether it was in pre-Holocaust Europe or even in the United States, Jewish leaders were often counseled by those in power that their complaints would provoke anti-Semitism rather than repress it. While the lessons of history should have consigned this sort of advice to the unhappy history of prejudice, it appears that it has been resurrected by the head of the Metropolitan Opera when confronted with criticisms of his decision to stage an opera that rationalizes both terrorism and Jew hatred. As such, it has raised the stakes in the debate about The Death of Klinghoffer and the specious claim that the opera’s critics are seeking to suppress freedom of expression.

As I wrote last week, the controversy over the Met’s upcoming production of Klinghoffer heated up with the start of the 2014-15 opera season in New York. Armed with the support of the New York Times and an arts world that has closed ranks around the opera company, composer John Adams, and his controversial creation, Met General Manager Peter Gelb stood his ground on going forward with the new production of the opera that debuts on October 20. He agreed back in June not to include the piece on the roster of operas that will be broadcast to theaters around the world because of its possible role in fomenting anti-Semitism at a time when hatred for Jews is on the rise. But Gelb is unmovable about going ahead with the staging on the famed stage in New York. And in defending that stance in a private meeting with New York Jewish leaders, he not only displayed the arrogant stubbornness that has marked his tenure at the Met; Gelb also chose to lecture them about what was good for the Jews.

As the New York Jewish Week reports, a broad coalition of mainstream Jewish organizations sent leaders to meet with Gelb earlier this month prior to the opening of the opera season. While the demonstration at the opera’s Lincoln Center home that greeted those attending the Met’s opening night last week was the work of groups that are often considered right-wing, the meeting was very much a broad-based affair and included the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, and the New York Board of Rabbis. But rather than demonstrate any sensitivity for the concerns of those who met with him, Gelb doubled down on his decision.

According to one of the participants, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of the Board of Rabbis,

“He took the outrageous position that challenging this opera would increase anti-Semitism because it would appear that Jews were controlling the arts,” the rabbi recalled. “We said this opera is an affront not only to Jews but also to all decent people, especially those victimized by terrorists. Many 9/11 families have spoken against it. Given this mentality what’s next, an ISIS love story?”

Heretofore, Gelb’s position merely reflected the tone-deaf attitude of many in the arts world that views any protests against their work as evidence of Philistinism or a desire to censure artists and deny them the right to freely express themselves. As I have previously explained, this is an absurd distortion of the facts of the case since no one is trying to deny the Met’s right to stage anything it likes or to repress art. Rather, the protests are based, as I have written, on the recognition that there are always limits observed even in the world of the avant-garde. The Met would never dare stage an opera rationalizing, let alone glorifying in part the Ku Klux Klan or apartheid but somehow thinks there’s nothing wrong with one that treated the terrorist murder of an old man because he was a Jew as merely a debatable concept rather than something that is beyond the pale of civilized behavior.

However, Gelb’s comments escalate the argument here from one about a lack of sensitivity and double standards to something even more shocking. Instead of merely attempting to defend the indefensible, Gelb has apparently switched to offense and is seeking to shut the Jews up. But the opera executive, who has often provoked the anger of the Met’s employees and subscribers, should understand these sorts of comments would not make the debate go away.

It is true that anti-Semites believe Jews control the arts. They also think they control the media, Congress, and the government in general and are guilty of promoting both capitalism and socialism. The fact that none of this is true and that the smears are largely self-contradictory does not deter them. Nothing the Jews do or don’t do is responsible for any of these allegations since they reflect the conspiratorial mindset and delusions of Jew-haters rather than reality.

But that has also never stopped those who wish to pursue agendas that benefit anti-Semites from playing off these fears in order to silence criticism. That is exactly what Gelb is doing. Having committed himself to staging Klinghoffer at all costs, he is now ready to cross the line that ought to separate debate between civilized persons and hateful arguments aimed at suppressing criticism of prejudice.

The question now is whether New York elites—including many Jews who support the opera—are willing to cross it with him. It is now up to those philanthropists and agencies that support the Met—a rightly beloved institution that is a central pillar of the arts community in one of the musical capitals of the world—to step in and tell Gelb he has gone too far.

The decision to stage Klinghoffer was egregious to start with and reflected the willingness of the arts world to accept the delegitimization of Israel and the Jews as legitimate fodder for art. But it must be understood that the stakes in this controversy have now been raised. This is no longer merely an argument about a despicable opera. It is now also about whether the Metropolitan Opera will be led by a man who, despite his Jewish origins, is prepared to use statements that are redolent of the rationalizations that were offered by those in the past who counseled Jews to be silent about a host of evils including the Holocaust. Even in the arts, this is unacceptable under any circumstances.

As Judea Pearl, father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, wrote in a letter-to-the-editor to the New York Times protesting its endorsement of Klinghoffer:

We might someday be able to forgive the Met for decriminalizing brutality, but we will never forgive it for poisoning our music, for turning our best violins and our iconic concert halls into megaphones for excusing evil.

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Tom Perez and the Trusted Few

The Obama administration’s active engagement with pop culture can sometimes backfire, as it seemed to last night. Valerie Jarrett apparently made a cameo on last night’s episode of The Good Wife, urging a main character to run for state’s attorney. But, lamented a New York Times arts critic, “The political functionaries can’t act — they’re a distraction, and they flatten every scene they’re in.” At least the role was believable.

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The Obama administration’s active engagement with pop culture can sometimes backfire, as it seemed to last night. Valerie Jarrett apparently made a cameo on last night’s episode of The Good Wife, urging a main character to run for state’s attorney. But, lamented a New York Times arts critic, “The political functionaries can’t act — they’re a distraction, and they flatten every scene they’re in.” At least the role was believable.

Jarrett made another cameo over the weekend, also backing a favored candidate. But this one was in the real world, in a Politico consideration of possible successors to Attorney General Eric Holder–and one in particular: Tom Perez.

Perez is already a member of President Obama’s Cabinet; he’s the labor secretary. But the administration is seeking to replace Holder at Justice, and some insiders, Jarrett among them, reportedly like the idea of shifting Perez over to Holder’s spot. It’s not that there aren’t any traditional candidates; Solicitor General Donald Verrilli is apparently on the list, as is outgoing Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who served as assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Clinton administration.

Perez, in fact, isn’t even on some of the speculative lists circulating in the political press. But in this insular White House, there are few trusted by the president. Few enough, it appears, to have to shift them from Cabinet secretarial post to Cabinet secretarial post:

Perez has made more stops with the president than any other Cabinet secretary, events that are often followed by rides home and private meetings on Air Force One. And he’s often been out on his own, making over 40 appearances around the country since May where he’s pumped out the message of an economy that is actually recovering and has urged people not to see the president as having given up or disappeared.

Obama’s not the only one in the White House who’s come to rely on him. Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett’s been a Perez fan and promoter for years, going back to Perez’s time in the Civil Rights Division, and she and Holder continued to call on him for advice even as the violent protests overtook Ferguson last month. (Perez refers to that as “part of other duties as assigned.”) At Holder’s resignation announcement Thursday at the White House, Perez was right there in the front row, clearly emotional. And White House Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Muñoz has known Perez since they were both Hill staffers in the 1990s, and their relationship has expanded as they’ve collaborated over the past year and a half.

This is not to cast doubt on Perez’s qualifications–he’s already served as an assistant attorney general as well–nor to imply that there aren’t quite logical political reasons to nominate him to replace Holder. Chief among those reasons would be (as Politico also notes) the fact that as a Cabinet secretary, Perez has already been confirmed by the Senate. That takes some of the air out of Republican opposition, though his last confirmation vote was fairly close.

It does, however, reinforce a theme we’ve seen surface intermittently throughout the six years of the Obama presidency: insularity and a fortified inner circle. In differentiating the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war in Iraq and Obama’s botched health-care reform, Dana Milbank nonetheless saw eerie similarities:

But the decision-making is disturbingly similar: In both cases, insular administrations, staffed by loyalists and obsessed with secrecy, participated in group-think and let the president hear only what they thought he wanted to hear.

In a damning account of the Obamacare implementation, my Post colleagues Amy Goldstein and Juliet Eilperin described how Obama rejected pleas from outside experts and even some of his own advisers to bring in people with the expertise to handle the mammoth task; he instead left the project in the care of in-house loyalists.

MSNBC described the same phenomenon thus: “Obamacare burned by culture of secrecy.” Ron Fournier asked: “Will Insularity, Incompetence, and Lies Doom Obamacare?” Brent Budowsky said Obama “governs through a tightly controlled and highly centralized White House staff that is overloaded, dangerously insular, short on gravitas, and often hostile to outside advice even from friends and supporters.”

It was not a new concern. In 2010, the L.A. Times reported that Democrats worried about Obama’s insularity. He was replacing staffers and appointees with loyalists everywhere you turned, the paper noted, from the Council of Economic Advisors to his own chief of staff–and of course, always leaning on Valerie Jarrett:

Obama’s executive style relies heavily on a cordon of advisors who were with him at earlier points in his career. In nearly every instance, as senior advisors have resigned, Obama has filled the vacancies with trusted confidants who are closer to him than the people they replaced.

It should be noted that, as the above examples suggest, it is Democrats who are more worried about this than Republicans. Democrats are the ones getting shut out of the inner circle while the party’s congressional candidates have to suffer for Obama’s sins. And Democrats are the ones doomed to a mess of a bench thanks to the dried-up talent pool that, aside from a select few (Susan Rice, for example), leaves Democrats with a team of political hacks and yes-men staffing the White House. The atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust in this administration, on the other hand, would make a Clinton succession pretty seamless.

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Some Terrorists More Equal Than Others

Last week, when President Obama denounced ISIS during his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations and called for a concerted effort by the international community to defeat the terrorist group, he received some well-deserved applause. But when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called for the same body to judge Hamas and Iran by the same standard they use for ISIS, he might as well have been talking to a wall. At the UN, some terrorists are more equal than others, a double standard that was also present when Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas spoke to the world body on Friday.

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Last week, when President Obama denounced ISIS during his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations and called for a concerted effort by the international community to defeat the terrorist group, he received some well-deserved applause. But when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called for the same body to judge Hamas and Iran by the same standard they use for ISIS, he might as well have been talking to a wall. At the UN, some terrorists are more equal than others, a double standard that was also present when Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas spoke to the world body on Friday.

That Netanyahu wouldn’t persuade a UN General Assembly that has repeatedly voted to demonize Israeli acts of self-defense against Palestinian terrorism was a given. But the real tragedy is not the indifference of a world body that is tainted by the same virus of anti-Semitism that is gaining strength around the world. It is that those who are supposed to represent the Palestinians are still so cowed by the Islamists that they refuse to understand that the Islamists are as much if not a greater threat to them than they are to Israel. Though much of the Arab and Muslim world is belatedly coming to grips with the fact that ISIS must be destroyed (a task they hope will be largely accomplished by the United States with minimal aid from local forces), if they are to avoid being swept away by a sea of murderous fanaticism, so-called moderate Palestinians must understand that Hamas poses the same threat to their survival.

Instead, when PA leader Abbas had his turn last week at the UN podium, he devoted his remarks to some of the usual calumnies against Israel. He spoke of “war criminals” and genocidal crimes against the Palestinian people having been committed during the 50-day war launched by Hamas this past summer. The problem with this speech wasn’t just that, in stark contrast to Netanyahu who spoke repeatedly of his desire for peace and willingness to compromise to attain an agreement, Abbas talked only about conflict.

More to the point, Abbas refused to point out that the only party that committed war crimes against the Palestinian people was Hamas, his erstwhile partner in the PA government following the signing of a unity pact last spring. It was Hamas, as Netanyahu rightly pointed out, which used Palestinian civilians as human shields behind which it launched thousands of rockets at Israeli cities. It was Hamas that sought to maximize Palestinian civilian casualties so as to create more anti-Israel talking points, not a Jewish state that was reluctantly dragged into the conflict and did its best to minimize the impact its counter-attack hand on the people of Gaza.

Abbas has repeatedly demonstrated that he is willing neither to make peace with Israel nor to confront Hamas. Instead, he wishes only to avoid an agreement while continuing to milk the international community for aid that keeps his corrupt government and the soulless oligarchy that runs it afloat. This is a tragedy for the Palestinians who have been abused by their leaders and so-called allies in the Arab and Muslim world for the past 70 years.

It is easy to understand why most of the world refuses to accept Netanyahu’s analogy between ISIS and Hamas. Though, as the prime minister pointed out, the two have common ultimate goals in terms of establishing Islamist rule over the region and the world as well as speaking a common language of terror and using many of the same tactics, the international community sees ISIS as threatening other Muslims and Westerners while clinging to the belief that all Hamas wants to do is to kill Jews. The former is rightly held to be unacceptable while the latter, when cloaked in the language of anti-Zionism, is somehow rendered palatable since denying Jews the same right to sovereignty, self-determination, and self-defense that others are routinely granted is considered debatable if not completely reasonable.

But the Palestinians are the big losers here. So long as Abbas won’t fight Hamas, the Palestinian people will not be forced to choose between peace and coexistence with their Jewish neighbors and a never-ending war that Hamas and much of his own Fatah Party desires. It is the people of Gaza who live under the despotic Islamist rule of Hamas and the people of the West Bank who may well do the same if Israel does not continue to protect Abbas from a coup who suffer most from the pass Hamas gets from the international community. The same is true of those who live under the thumb of the other Islamist terrorist regime that Netanyahu mentioned in his speech: the people of Iran.

UN delegates may mock Netanyahu and his use of audio-visual aids during his UN speech (this year’s device was an enlarged photo of Hamas using Palestinians as human shields) or the American pop culture references in his speech (this year’s favorite was his contention that pretending that Iran didn’t employ terrorism was as crazy as saying Derek Jeter didn’t play shortstop). But the people of Israel sent him to New York to tell the truth about the calumnies hurled at the Jewish state. It is the Palestinians who lack a leader who is similarly interested in telling the truth. Until they do, they will continue to wait for a solution to the conflict and be forced to live with the prospect of being ruled by their own Islamist killers.

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China’s New Era of Disobedience?

A quarter-century ago, thousands of Chinese students occupied the heart of Beijing, in Tiananmen Square, hoping to push the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) toward democracy. They were crushed, literally, by a government unwilling to surrender any of its political control. The twenty-five years since that 1989 massacre have seen China become perhaps the world’s second-most powerful nation, yet one that is just as politically and socially repressive, if not more so.

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A quarter-century ago, thousands of Chinese students occupied the heart of Beijing, in Tiananmen Square, hoping to push the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) toward democracy. They were crushed, literally, by a government unwilling to surrender any of its political control. The twenty-five years since that 1989 massacre have seen China become perhaps the world’s second-most powerful nation, yet one that is just as politically and socially repressive, if not more so.

While those young students in Tiananmen Square were attempting to create new freedoms for themselves, today’s protests in Hong Kong, by equally young students, are aimed at ensuring that the island does not lose any more of its freedoms. In that sense, they may well be more passionate and potentially explosive.

The immediate cause of the demonstrations being called the “umbrella revolution” was Beijing’s decision not to allow free elections in 2017 for Hong Kong’s chief executive, per the 1984 joint declaration agreement with Great Britain that set the guidelines for post-colonial Hong Kong. Instead, Beijing will allow only a handful of pre-approved candidates on the ballots. Hong Kongers rightly assume this is just the beginning of a broader move to restrict their freedoms, including an independent judiciary and press.

Yet Hong Kong should not be seen in isolation from China’s broader crackdown on any potential liberalization or separatism in areas it controls or hopes to control. As I wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal, Beijing is comfortable risking greater blowback to try and stamp out even moderate voices, such as Uighur academic Ilham Tohti, who was given a life sentence for criticizing the government. China’s military and police presence has been strengthened in both Xinjiang and Tibet in recent years, and there has been no reduction in the military threat to Taiwan. Even smaller issues, such as occupied Indian territory or territorial disputes in the South China Sea, have seen Beijing’s position harden and its military activities increase.

These are worrisome signs that President Xi Jinping, who is just 18 months into a decade-long rule, is comfortable flexing Chinese muscle, intimidating his neighbors, and cracking down on domestic unrest. Whether out of confidence or fear, Beijing is adopting a far more antagonistic attitude that makes it ever harder for it to back down.

That is why what happens now in Hong Kong is so important. If a tiny island of 7 million people can successfully oppose Beijing’s will, then the gates will be opened to the dissatisfied in Xinjiang and Tibet, on Taiwan, and possibly even on the mainland. This is something that Beijing cannot allow. Yet should the People’s Liberation Army move out of their Hong Kong barracks to support the territory’s police, or other pressure be put on the island’s government to suppress the demonstrators, then the fiction of Hong Kong independence and of China’s essentially benign nature will be exploded.

Sadly, such brutality did not prevent China from scaling even greater heights 25 years ago after Tiananmen, but today such an outcome it will mean either a China of far greater strength and influence, or an Asia of greater instability and possibly conflict, or possibly both.

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Remembering D.G. Myers

Last Friday, the world of literary criticism and the COMMENTARY community lost a major voice when D.G. Myers passed away after a long and courageous battle against cancer. David taught English literature for more than two decades at Texas A&M and then later at the Ohio State University. He was the author of The Elephants Teach, a definitive history of creative writing as well as of A Commonplace Blog, where he shared his thoughts about books, politics, and culture. He also contributed to COMMENTARY from 1989 to 2012. His reviews, both in the print magazine and in his Literary Commentary blog that he wrote from 2011 to 2012, were consistently insightful and provided readers with a voice of sanity and support for the best in the Western tradition against those seeking to dumb down our culture.

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Last Friday, the world of literary criticism and the COMMENTARY community lost a major voice when D.G. Myers passed away after a long and courageous battle against cancer. David taught English literature for more than two decades at Texas A&M and then later at the Ohio State University. He was the author of The Elephants Teach, a definitive history of creative writing as well as of A Commonplace Blog, where he shared his thoughts about books, politics, and culture. He also contributed to COMMENTARY from 1989 to 2012. His reviews, both in the print magazine and in his Literary Commentary blog that he wrote from 2011 to 2012, were consistently insightful and provided readers with a voice of sanity and support for the best in the Western tradition against those seeking to dumb down our culture.

David left behind his wife Naomi and children Dov, Saul, Isaac, and Miriam as well as many colleagues and friends who will always think of his humor and brilliant insights on a host of topics with affection. Below are links to Literary Commentary and a few of his review essays that appeared in the magazine. May his memory be for a blessing.

Real Presences by George Steiner, February 1990

The Best American Poetry, January 1992

The Never-Ending Journey (books on Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Whittaker Chambers and anti-Communism), October 2009

The November Criminals, June 2010

Let Franzen Ring, December 2010

Don’t Eat That Lotus, February 2011

The Art of Being First, November 2011

Bearing Witness, December 2011

A Fitting Finale, November 2012

Literary Commentary, 2011-2012

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What Ashraf Ghani Needs from the U.S.

Hamid Karzai was no George Washington or Konrad Adenauer or Kemal Mustafa Ataturk or David Ben-Gurion. He was not, in short, a great nation builder who will be remembered fondly by generations of his countrymen. He had an opportunity to join the ranks of those great state builders but instead he will be remembered as a petty, paranoid, and mercurial leader who presided over massive corruption, governmental incapacity, and a growing insurgency. Not all this was his fault, to be sure, and not even George Washington could have transformed Afghanistan in a decade. But it’s fair to say that Karzai’s failures as a leader contributed to Afghanistan’s problems during his watch.

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Hamid Karzai was no George Washington or Konrad Adenauer or Kemal Mustafa Ataturk or David Ben-Gurion. He was not, in short, a great nation builder who will be remembered fondly by generations of his countrymen. He had an opportunity to join the ranks of those great state builders but instead he will be remembered as a petty, paranoid, and mercurial leader who presided over massive corruption, governmental incapacity, and a growing insurgency. Not all this was his fault, to be sure, and not even George Washington could have transformed Afghanistan in a decade. But it’s fair to say that Karzai’s failures as a leader contributed to Afghanistan’s problems during his watch.

In the end, nothing became Karzai better than the manner in which he left office–which is to say voluntarily. He did not try to hang on to power indefinitely as many feared he would. Nor did he try to install one of his brothers as his successor. On Monday he presided over the first peaceful transition of power from one elected leader to another in Afghanistan’s long history.

Now the problems that Karzai couldn’t handle are being handed to Ashraf Ghani. Ghani is a very smart man who has a long history of being an effective governmental analyst and reformer, including his stint as Afghanistan’s finance minister. If anyone is qualified to tackle Afghanistan’s problems, he is–even though his problems are in many ways greater than Karzai’s already because, in addition to everything else, Ghani has to deal with his defeated challenger Abdullah Abdullah. As the price of giving up his fight to contest the election results, Abdullah was promised a vague and extra-constitutional role as “chief executive” of the new government. Simply getting along with Abdullah will be a Herculean challenge for Ghani, in addition to trying to make the government more effective and more honest.

It would greatly help Ghani if President Obama were to rethink his dangerous pledge to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 2017. The Afghan security forces are simply not ready to go it alone against the still dangerous Taliban insurgency and they will not be ready by 2017 either. Simply removing the air cover that U.S. forces have provided to their Afghan allies–something that is scheduled to happen by the end of this year–will vastly increase the danger from the Taliban. Indeed just in recent days Afghan troops required “NATO air support” to retake a town in Ghazni province that had fallen into Taliban hands.

With a continuing U.S. troop presence, Ghani has a chance to manage Afghanistan’s problems. Without it, the outlook is hopelessly bleak.

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Obama, the Anti-Truman

There are three ways to read Barack Obama’s epic buck-passing from Sunday night’s interview on 60 Minutes. There is the literal reading: Obama, in trying to fend off blame for his administration’s failure regarding ISIS, said “Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” referring to the intel community.

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There are three ways to read Barack Obama’s epic buck-passing from Sunday night’s interview on 60 Minutes. There is the literal reading: Obama, in trying to fend off blame for his administration’s failure regarding ISIS, said “Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” referring to the intel community.

Then there is the classic Obama-is-disappointed-in-America-yet-again framing, which is not flattering to Obama but better than the truth. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post went this route. Here’s the Times: “President Obama acknowledged in an interview broadcast on Sunday that the United States had underestimated the rise of the Islamic State militant group.” And the Post: “The United States underestimated the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, President Obama said during an interview.”

If you’ve followed the events of the past year, you’ll notice that neither of those spin cycles is true and so there must be a third option. There is: the truth, which is that Barack Obama underestimated ISIS despite the intel community trying desperately to explain it to him since day one. And thus, tired of getting thrown under the bus, the intel community has pointed out to Eli Lake at the Daily Beast that what the president said is completely divorced from reality:

Nearly eight months ago, some of President Obama’s senior intelligence officials were already warning that ISIS was on the move. In the beginning of 2014, ISIS fighters had defeated Iraqi forces in Fallujah, leading much of the U.S. intelligence community to assess they would try to take more of Iraq. …

Reached by The Daily Beast after Obama’s interview aired, one former senior Pentagon official who worked closely on the threat posed by Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq was flabbergasted. “Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting,” the former official said.

Is the president reading his intelligence reports? He must be. The more likely explanation of the two is that Obama knows exactly what happened–he messed up, royally–and is blaming others because it’s unpalatable for him to admit that six years into his presidency, he’s older but no wiser.

The Times does carefully draw attention to this fact:

In citing Mr. Clapper, Mr. Obama made no mention of any misjudgment he may have made himself. Critics have repeatedly pointed to his comment last winter characterizing groups like the Islamic State as a “JV team” compared with the original Al Qaeda.

Right. Though “any misjudgment he may have made” actually refers to this particular misjudgment, which he’s blaming on others, that we know for sure he made.

Just as interesting is why he made that egregious mistake. Part of it, surely, is his utter lack of knowledge of world history and politics. But that’s not enough of a reason, especially considering the fact that the U.S. intel community has been trying to remedy that by laying it all out there for him. Knowledge has been accumulated and summarily dismissed by Obama as distinctly unimportant. What matters to him is his cloistered worldview and fealty to ideology.

Later in the interview, Obama said:

Now the good news is that the new [Iraqi] prime minister, Abadi, who I met with this week, so far at least has sent all the right signals. And that’s why it goes back to what I said before, Steve, we can’t do this for them. We cannot do this for them because it’s not just a military problem. It is a political problem. And if we make the mistake of simply sending U.S. troops back in, we can maintain peace for a while. But unless there is a change in how, not just Iraq, but countries like Syria and some of the other countries in the region, think about what political accommodation means. Think about what tolerance means.

One hopes the president isn’t holding his breath. Obama returns to this trope time and again: it’s a political solution that’s needed, not a military solution. But security, as always, must precede any political solution. And that doesn’t come about by telling the warring parties to “Think about what tolerance means.”

Here, for example, is the lede of the New York Times story on a truly momentous occasion out of Afghanistan: “Ashraf Ghani, the former World Bank technocrat and prominent intellectual, on Monday became the first modern leader of Afghanistan to take office in a peaceful transfer of power.”

It was far from inevitable. The election Ghani won produced a bitter accusation of fraud and a threat to plunge the country into what would essentially be a new civil war. What made the difference? As our Max Boot has written, the crucial distinction between Afghanistan and other such conflicts in which the U.S. played a role is the fact that when John Kerry flew in to broker a solution to the crisis, there were tens of thousands of American troops in the country. “That,” Max wrote, “gives any American diplomat a lot of leverage should he choose to use it.”

President Obama doesn’t like to face up to the fact that his obsession with getting out of Iraq played a role in undermining the very “political solution” he hoped for. Now ISIS is collapsing borders and beheading Westerners, and they surely can’t be expected to “Think about what tolerance means.” The president made policy based on what he wanted to be true, in all likelihood knowing full well it wasn’t. He continues to be the anti-Truman, passing blame around when he deserves the lion’s share of it.

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The New Year, Israel, and Two Powerful Sermons

As Jews gathered last week to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, one major question haunting the American Jewish community was this: How would its rabbis handle the issue of the summer’s war and the response to it here and abroad? Everywhere, one heard the complaint that Israel has become a divisive topic in synagogues, so much so that rabbis are too frightened to speak on it for fear of alienating someone. In New York City, the epicenter of the community (it and its environs are home to 40 percent of America’s Jews), two rabbis would not remain silent, and they deserve every blessing.

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As Jews gathered last week to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, one major question haunting the American Jewish community was this: How would its rabbis handle the issue of the summer’s war and the response to it here and abroad? Everywhere, one heard the complaint that Israel has become a divisive topic in synagogues, so much so that rabbis are too frightened to speak on it for fear of alienating someone. In New York City, the epicenter of the community (it and its environs are home to 40 percent of America’s Jews), two rabbis would not remain silent, and they deserve every blessing.

Elliot Cosgrove holds the pulpit at Park Avenue Synagogue—the largest conservative shul in the city (with a storied history that includes the tenure of Milton Steinberg, the novelist and community leader who was the model mid-century American rabbi). His beautiful, wrenching sermon can be found here in its entirety. He begins with the story of his British cousins, set upon violently as children 20 years in the city of Manchester by anti-Semitic thugs who shouted “kill the Jews” as local residents shut their doors and refused to help. All four eventually moved to Israel; two fought in the war this summer:

I wondered if Rafi, uniform on and rifle in hand, called on to defend his nation, was remembering the day when he–a yiddische boy in his school blazer–banged in vain on a neighborhood door crying for help. Never again would he allow his safety and the safety of his brothers to be dependent on the kindness of strangers. And I wondered if Benji, now in his third tour of duty, was recalling that day when he froze in horror, believing that somehow his enemy would play by the same moral standards as he did. Never again would a naïve belief in the goodness of humanity lead him to hesitate in fulfilling his obligation to defend himself as his attackers prepared their assault. It would be his decision–his and his country’s alone–to choose the moment and manner by which his destiny would be shaped and his safety secured. I wondered if, twenty years later, my cousins could see the accordion-like nature of their personal history playing out in the events of their lives.

Like I said, you can read the whole thing here.

The other was Ammiel Hirsch, whose pulpit is at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue near Lincoln Center—one of the key progressive shuls in American history and the first to employ a female rabbi in the 1970s. The text is not online, though there is video of it here. An excerpt from his powerful talk:

There is a human tendency to assume that our times are unique; that we can break away from history. We have not suddenly appeared on this earth free of all the social vices of the past. Europe was always infected with anti-Semitism: Not all Europeans were anti-Semitic, but enough of them were, so as to make life difficult for our ancestors, at best, and at worst, it led to mass murder – even in the most enlightened and cultured societies…When people introduce the Holocaust against Israel, something deeper is going on. When leaders like Turkey’s Erdogan compare the Nazis with the Israeli government, and the Nazis come out looking better – you know that something deeper is going on. It does not excuse any Israeli wrongdoing, but at some point, even the most enlightened of us cannot suppress the terrible feeling welling up inside that the monster is stirring again, and that this beast is irrational, inexplicable and impossible to eradicate. It is not something that people have reasoned themselves into, and hence it cannot be reasoned out of them… I would say this to Jewish critics of Israel: If you feel compelled to speak, you must speak. If you feel compelled to act, you must act. You must be guided by your own moral compass. But you may want to ask yourselves whether you are contributing to the increasing efforts to weaken, isolate and delegitimize Israel. If that is your intention, so be it; we will never see eye-to-eye. But if that is not your intention, it is not wrong to assess the ramifications of your words and deeds.

To both rabbis, I say what you say in shul when someone performs admirably: Yasher koach. May your strength be increased.

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The Government Shutdown A Year Later

The Wall Street Journal published a story that dealt with the shutdown of the federal government, which occurred nearly a year ago. According to the Journal:

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The Wall Street Journal published a story that dealt with the shutdown of the federal government, which occurred nearly a year ago. According to the Journal:

The Republican Party’s reputation declined sharply after the 2013 government shutdown. But in politics, as in many other walks of life, memories are short.

Over the summer, Democrats tried to rekindle fears that Republicans would again fail to fund the government, but Congress left Washington earlier this month without a major hiccup. With its one-year anniversary right around the corner, the shutdown doesn’t register as a top advertising theme in House and Senate races this year… The GOP is still disliked more than liked, polls show, but that is true of the Democrats, too, and for the Republicans the gap has narrowed by 20 percentage points since the shutdown.

“The Republican Party image may not be stellar, but, boy, it is a lot better than it’s been,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducts the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll with Democrat Fred Yang.

 The story goes on to report the following:

The latest Journal poll this month found negative views of the GOP outweighing positive views among registered voters by 10 percentage points—41% to 31%. That is a major improvement from last October, in the wake of the shutdown, when negative views outweighed positive views by 31 points, or 53% to 22%. The uptick also means the parties are now viewed roughly equally. Negative views of the Democratic Party outweighed positive ones by 6 points. Views of the GOP have become more positive among several sectors of the population, including Latinos, independents and self-identified Republicans.

I highlight this story for several reasons, beginning with the fact that some people who advocated the approach that led to the shutdown–most especially Senator Ted Cruz–are still defending their role in that disaster. Worse, at the time Cruz and other key figures were charging that conservatives who didn’t support their gambit were supporters of Obamacare. They were part of the “surrender caucus.”

This assertion was always untrue, and Cruz & Company had to know it was untrue. Yet they continued to make the assertion, presumably in order to appeal to Tea Party members by portraying themselves as intrepid and anti-establishment, as the William Wallaces of modern-day politics.

This whole thing was ludicrous from beginning to end; many of us predicted in advance how badly it would turn out. It has taken the GOP the better part of a year to undo the damage caused by the shutdown.

This is yet another reminder that conservatives should invest their hopes in politicians who are both principled and prudent. Who are more serious about governing than in mindless symbolism. And who have enough self-control to keep their personal ambitions from injuring their party and conservatism.

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Mr. Holder, You’re No Bobby Kennedy

A few days ago President Obama summoned a press conference to announce the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder. For all the misty-eyed platitudes, it was hard to believe that the president was speaking about the only sitting Cabinet member in U.S. history to be held in contempt of Congress. In fact, only three days ago a federal court dealt the Department of Justice a significant blow, ordering Mr. Holder to hand over a list of the documents it has withheld from the congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious. None of this stopped the president from praising Holder’s “deep and abiding fidelity to one of our most cherished ideals as a people, and that is equal justice under the law.” To the contrary, Holder leaves behind a dubious legacy of selective law enforcement, careless public pronouncements, and partisan abuses inconsistent with the principle of equal justice under the law.

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A few days ago President Obama summoned a press conference to announce the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder. For all the misty-eyed platitudes, it was hard to believe that the president was speaking about the only sitting Cabinet member in U.S. history to be held in contempt of Congress. In fact, only three days ago a federal court dealt the Department of Justice a significant blow, ordering Mr. Holder to hand over a list of the documents it has withheld from the congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious. None of this stopped the president from praising Holder’s “deep and abiding fidelity to one of our most cherished ideals as a people, and that is equal justice under the law.” To the contrary, Holder leaves behind a dubious legacy of selective law enforcement, careless public pronouncements, and partisan abuses inconsistent with the principle of equal justice under the law.

The attorney general is what President Obama correctly called “America’s lawyer, the people’s lawyer.” His principal functions are to uphold the Constitution of the United States and enforce the laws duly enacted by the elected representatives of the people. At least, that’s his job in theory. In practice, Holder has behaved more like the President’s hired gun than the people’s lawyer. This was underscored by a slip of the tongue as Holder spoke yesterday: “Over the last six years,” he remarked, “our administration”–and then, correcting himself–“your administration, has made historic gains in realizing the principles of the founding documents[.]” Honest mistake or Freudian slip, there was truth in Holder’s faux pas: this attorney general has faithfully pushed the president’s political agenda, even at the expense of the rule of law.

In his six years as attorney general, Holder has become more notable for not enforcing federal law than for enforcing it–and this should be troubling to all Americans. If we are truly to live in a government of laws and not of men, all people must be afforded equal treatment under generally applicable laws. The attorney general is in a singular position to ensure this through his prosecutorial and enforcement powers. But, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, when the president has been unable to reform existing laws through the political process, Holder has effectively nullified them by refusing to defend or enforce the statutes in question. This was the case when the DOJ refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act from judicial challenge, and it remains the case now that the DOJ refuses to enforce provisions of federal immigration and drug-control law.

All this suggests a baldfaced contempt for the role of Congress in the lawmaking process and a deep distrust of the judiciary as the proper arbiter of constitutional disputes. Under Holder’s leadership, the Department of Justice provided the executive with a way of bypassing constitutionally ordained processes, creating law and policy by executive fiat. And this subverts the very spirit of the Constitution that Holder is sworn to defend, replacing the majesty of the law with a kind of leering cynicism for political and judicial processes.

This cynicism made it all the more jarring when both Obama and Holder attempted to don the mantle of Robert F. Kennedy through repeated appeals to his legacy in yesterday’s statements. In May 1961, only a few months after the University of Georgia campus exploded with violence in response to a court’s desegregation order, Bobby Kennedy spoke to the university’s law students about Brown v. Board of Education. “I happen to believe that the 1954 decision was right,” he said. “But my belief does not matter. It is now the law. Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law. And we both respect the law. By facing this problem honorably you have shown to all the world that we Americans are moving forward together, solving this problem under the rule of law.”

If the rule of law is to mean anything in this nation, it must command the respect of those sworn to uphold and defend it. Attorney General Holder’s successor, whoever that may be, would do well to remember that.

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A Pause to Account for Ourselves

Today, President Obama gave a speech at the United Nations that almost seemed as if he has taken account of the foreign policy blunders that have been the hallmarks of his six years in office and is trying to chart a different cause. His very different tone was not accompanied by any admission of error but nonetheless the juxtaposition of his shift to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah was quite apt, as this is a day when all persons should think about taking stock of their past offenses and mistakes.

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Today, President Obama gave a speech at the United Nations that almost seemed as if he has taken account of the foreign policy blunders that have been the hallmarks of his six years in office and is trying to chart a different cause. His very different tone was not accompanied by any admission of error but nonetheless the juxtaposition of his shift to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah was quite apt, as this is a day when all persons should think about taking stock of their past offenses and mistakes.

Sundown tonight marks the start of the Jewish New Year that begins with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. The ten days from the beginning of this festival until the end of Yom Kippur next week are known in Judaism as the Days of Awe. During this time, Jews are asked to reflect on their deeds in the past year and seek to account for them to their Creator as well as their fellow human beings. But this period of introspection should cause all of us to think about the same questions. Indeed, as Americans now take stock of the war against Islamist terrorists that they have been dragged back into against their will, it is an apt moment to look at issues facing the nation in a sober and honest manner.

Though my point of reference is Jewish tradition, the notion of accountability also speaks directly to any democracy based on the concept that the public must judge leaders. While politicians and pundits fill up the 24/7 news cycle with endless debate every day, the real question is whether it is possible to give our political culture the unsparing assessment it requires if we are to preserve our republic and its institutions in a manner befitting the ideals upon which it was founded. That is why appeals to fear as well as mindless defenses of the status quo are the antipathy of the heshbon nefesh—or accounting of the soul—that Rosh Hashanah asks us to perform each year.

One of the keynotes of our political life in the last year, as well as those that preceded it, is the never-ending attempt of our parties and ideological factions to demonize their political opponents. But the dawn of the New Year represents an opportunity to step back and realize that efforts to brand leaders, parties, and movements as being beyond the pale has done much to undermine any hope for a resolution of our national problems.

Abroad we have seen the way the natural American desire to withdraw ourselves from difficult problems only made the threat from Islamist terror worse. For the moment, strident voices of isolationism have been quieted as the nation realizes the awful nature of the peril we face, but the impulse to ignore these problems is always there and must be answered directly.

Just as important, we have seen the failure of much of our media to give sufficient attention to genuine scandals that go to the heart of the concept of accountability on the part of a democratically elected government. Elsewhere, it also failed to adequately cover the rising tide of anti-Semitism and viciously distorted Israel’s efforts to defend its people against rocket attacks and terrorist tunnels.

In the coming 12 months, Americans will find themselves dealing with another war in the Middle East that can’t be avoided. And unless the president is able to match deeds to his new rhetoric, the nuclear threat from Iran that dwarfs even that of ISIS will only grow more serious. Nor should we allow those who continue to seek to delegitimize Israel or its supporters to go unanswered.

The passage of the calendar also reminds us at COMMENTARY of the urgency of our task to speak up in defense of Zionism and Israel; to bear witness against the scourge of anti-Semitism; and to support the United States as well as the best of Western civilization. Our work is, as our editor John Podhoretz wrote back in February 2009, an act of faith in the power of ideas as well as in our own nation, and as we take inventory of our personal lives we also seek to rededicate ourselves to the causes to which our magazine is devoted.

Jewish liturgy tells us that the fate of all humanity is decided during these Days of Awe, but it also says that teshuva (repentance), tefilla (prayer), and tzedaka (acts of justice and charity) may avert the severe decree. In that spirit of reflection and dedication to carrying on our task of informing and educating our readers in the coming year, we at COMMENTARY wish you all a happy, healthy, and peaceful New Year. We’ll be back next week after the holiday.

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Banking on Terror: The Verdict

Earlier this week, the jury in a federal courtroom in New York City handed down a verdict that should stand as a precedent for future counter-terrorism efforts. In this case America’s judicial system proved itself capable of doing something the government has not managed to do: holding financial institutions in supposedly moderate Arab countries responsible for their complicity in Hamas terrorism.

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Earlier this week, the jury in a federal courtroom in New York City handed down a verdict that should stand as a precedent for future counter-terrorism efforts. In this case America’s judicial system proved itself capable of doing something the government has not managed to do: holding financial institutions in supposedly moderate Arab countries responsible for their complicity in Hamas terrorism.

The case, Linde v. Arab Bank, is the result of a lot of hard work by the Israel Law Center to trace those who helped fund Hamas’s terror campaign during the second intifada more than a decade ago. During the course of that terrorist war of attrition launched after the Palestinians rejected an Israeli peace offer in 2000, suicide bombers and other killers murdered more than a thousand Israelis and Americans. The 297 plaintiffs in the case are the survivors or the families of those Americans killed in 24 separate Hamas terror attacks from 2001 to 2004. It was during this period that Hamas operatives operating under the aegis of the so-called Saudi Committee used a branch of the Arab Bank in Beirut to fund activities of the terror group including providing bonuses to the families of suicide bombers as a reward for the slaughter inflicted by the terrorists.

The bank claimed it didn’t know the account was being used for terrorist activities but this excuse was exposed as a blatant lie during the course of the trial. More importantly, it sought to quash the case and to refuse to divulge information about its accounts. In that effort, it was supported by the U.S. State Department that seeks, as is its wont, to appease both the Saudis and the Jordanians even if that means excusing the funding of terror.

Fortunately, the courts would not let the bank get away with withholding information and the jury was also not persuaded by the idea that those who launder money for terrorists should have impunity for their illicit activities.

The point here is not merely one of law but of policy. After 9/11 the United States moved heaven and earth to cut off every possible method for financing al-Qaeda. But that effort, which forced even Arab allies to cooperate with the restrictions was not uniformly applied to Hamas during that period. With the connivance of their friends in the Arab world who call themselves allies of the West, Hamas was been able to keep the flow of money into their coffers long after it was clear that there was little functional difference between the Palestinian group and other Islamists.

Those who claim the Arab banking system will collapse if the verdict is upheld are being hysterical. The Arab Bank should pay the victims billions but we need not hold a benefit for its owners. Like all criminals, they must pay for their misdeeds. More importantly, their plight should stand as a warning to others in the Arab world that those who fund terror will, sooner or later pay a serious price for doing so.

Let us hope that the appeals courts will be as sensible as the trial judge and the jury and uphold this decision. Like them, the appeals courts should understand that there is more at stake here than money. Hamas terrorists and their bankers should not be allowed to get away with murder.

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How Iran Outwits Obama in the Middle East

While Iran’s role as a leading sponsor of global terrorism is well known, far less coverage is given to Iranian leaders’ strategic acumen. Yet it’s clear that a theme has emerged in the Middle East: long engaged in a proxy war against America, Tehran is now, in the age of Obama, simply running circles around Washington.

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While Iran’s role as a leading sponsor of global terrorism is well known, far less coverage is given to Iranian leaders’ strategic acumen. Yet it’s clear that a theme has emerged in the Middle East: long engaged in a proxy war against America, Tehran is now, in the age of Obama, simply running circles around Washington.

There are three kinds of Mideast engagements with Iran. In all three, Iran is a step ahead of the Obama administration. The first category is direct military engagement. The United States military is involved in conflict in Iraq and Syria. In both countries, the U.S. has been treated to characterizations that America is more or less acting as Iran’s air force: in Iraq, that comparison is made directly; in Syria, it is by acting essentially as Bashar al-Assad’s air force–and Assad is an Iranian proxy hanging on to power in large part through Iran’s investment.

The second category includes conflicts in which America’s allies are up against Iranian proxies. Israel, for example, fought a summer war against Hamas, an Iranian client firing Syrian missiles delivered by Iran. Far from understanding what was taking place, the Obama administration played right into Iran’s hands by distancing itself from Sisi’s Egypt and not only pressuring Israel to give in to Hamas’s terror but even sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Cairo with a ceasefire agreement reflecting the wishes of Hamas’s patrons. When Israel objected, President Obama took retribution against Jerusalem, withholding arms transfers while Israel was under fire.

This includes Lebanon as well, where Iranian proxies not only occasionally attack Israel but have a chokehold on a the government. The West has occasionally stepped up in Lebanon, such as when it galvanized outrage at Syria to help force Assad’s expulsion from its neighbor. But most of the time, the West has been unwilling or unable to protect Lebanon’s sovereignty. And as Jonathan wrote earlier in the week, concern about ISIS terrorism is raising the possibility of legitimizing and mainstreaming Hezbollah.

And then there is the direct American engagement with Iran on its nuclear program. On this, the Iranians saw early on that Obama and Kerry wanted a deal of some sort that would kick the can down the road while enabling the president to claim progress. It’s doubtful any such plan was more obviously bush league than begging the Iranians to disconnect some pipe rather than dismantle the program. But the limitless diplomacy, in which deadlines float past with nary a thought, has done its damage as well by giving the Iranians additional leverage–and a powerful bargaining chip–on other issues on which the U.S. would want Iranian cooperation.

Aside from these three, there is evidence of a fourth category in the Middle East: a state like Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Putinesque turn away from democracy, human rights, and the West more generally has been conducted publicly, but even here there appears to be malign Iranian influence. Former Naval War College professor John Schindler has a fascinating post discussing the Turkish government’s connections to Iranian intelligence. He writes:

The key player in this plot is a shadowy terrorist group termed Tawhid-Salam that goes back to the mid-1990s and has been blamed for several terrorist incidents, including the 2011 bombing of the Israeli consulate in Istanbul, which wounded several people, as well as a thwarted bombing of the Israeli embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, in early 2012. Tawhid-Salam, which also goes by the revealing name “Jerusalem Army,” has long been believed to be a front for Iranian intelligence, particularly its most feared component, the elite Quds (Jerusalem) Force of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (Pasdaran), which handles covert action abroad, including terrorism in many countries. It also is believed to be behind the murders of several anti-Tehran activists in Turkey in the 1990’s, using Tawhid-Salam as a cut-out.

Yet nothing has been done to crack down on the group in Turkey. Schindler continues:

This may have something to do with the fact that Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkish intelligence, is apparently on the Pasdaran payroll too, and may have secret ties to Tehran going back almost twenty years. Rumors about Fidan, a member of Erdoğan’s inner circle, who has headed the country’s powerful National Intelligence Organization (MİT) since 2010, have swirled in counterintelligence services worldwide for years. Israeli intelligence in particular, which once had a close relationship with MİT, has long regarded Fidan as Tehran’s man, and has curtailed its intelligence cooperation with Turkey commensurately, believing that all information shared with Fidan was going to Iran.

Privately, U.S. intelligence officials too have worried about Fidan’s secret ties, not least because MİT includes Turkey’s powerful signals intelligence (SIGINT) service, which has partnered with NATO for decades, including the National Security Agency.

I recommend reading the whole thing, but the Turkish connection serves to fill out the picture of Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. Tehran has continually played Washington, setting fires and then offering to help Obama put them out, for a price. It’s a predictable racket, but Obama keeps falling for it.

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Has Obama Finally Grown Up?

For most of his six years as president, Barack Obama has behaved as if the U.S. could opt out of the war Islamist terrorists have been waging on it and to pretend that outreach or the magic of his personality could bridge the gap with the Muslim and Arab worlds. But in his speech today to the United Nations General Assembly, the president seem to find a new, tougher, and more realistic voice about this threat. Instead of pious liberal platitudes at times he sounded like the grown up America needs at its helm. While the change is heartening, it remains to be seen if the means he is rallying to meet the threat is equal to the challenge he outlined.

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For most of his six years as president, Barack Obama has behaved as if the U.S. could opt out of the war Islamist terrorists have been waging on it and to pretend that outreach or the magic of his personality could bridge the gap with the Muslim and Arab worlds. But in his speech today to the United Nations General Assembly, the president seem to find a new, tougher, and more realistic voice about this threat. Instead of pious liberal platitudes at times he sounded like the grown up America needs at its helm. While the change is heartening, it remains to be seen if the means he is rallying to meet the threat is equal to the challenge he outlined.

The contrast between Obama’s speech today and previous statements, such as his June 2009 address to the Arab and Muslim worlds in Cairo, Egypt was stark. Rather than placing the blame for conflicts on the West and, in particular, the United States, Obama seems finally to have woken up to the fact that engagement won’t make radical Islam go away. In its place, the president spoke up forcefully in recognition of the fact that there is no alternative to the use of force against radical Islamists such as the al-Qaeda affiliates and the ISIS group running amok in Syria and Iraq:

No God condones this terror. No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.

Even more importantly, he recognized that the foundation of any effort to deal with these terrorists must come from recognition by Muslims and Arabs to clean up their own house:

It is time for the world – especially Muslim communities – to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIL.

It is the task of all great religions to accommodate devout faith with a modern, multicultural world. No children – anywhere – should be educated to hate other people. There should be no more tolerance of so-called clerics who call upon people to harm innocents because they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim. It is time for a new compact among the civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source: the corruption of young minds by violent ideology.

That is exactly right. While in Cairo he pretended that there was no real conflict, now he seems to understand that while this needn’t be a clash of civilizations between the West and the East, the rhetoric of his predecessor about nations having to choose whether they were with the U.S. or not is closer to the mark than the platitudes he used to spout. Having come into office acting as if the commitment of President George W. Bush to fight a war against Islamist terror was a historical mistake that could be redressed by conciliatory speeches and withdrawals of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama now seems to have learned the error of his ways. The delusion that the U.S. could bug out of the war in Iraq and ignore the crisis in Syria without cost has been exposed by the rise of ISIS. Though he continues to insist that American ground troops won’t take part in this latest round of a war that began long before he took office, there can at least be no mistaking that the U.S. is back in the fight and understands that this time there can be no premature withdrawals or foolish decisions to opt out of the conflict.

Such tough-minded and more realistic positions also characterized the president’s attitude toward other, not entirely unrelated issues.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he stuck to his belief in a two-state solution and his commitment to making it a reality. But he also finally acknowledged a major truth:

The situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure anyone of the illusion that this conflict is the main source of problems in the region; for far too long, it has been used in part as a way to distract people from problems at home.

While relations remain frosty between Washington and Jerusalem, at long last, with this speech, the administration seems to have rid itself of the delusion that pressuring Israel into territorial concessions would solve all the problems of the Middle East.

Also to his credit, the new hard line from Obama was not limited to the Middle East. His rhetoric about Russian aggression against Ukraine was equally tough and left no room for doubt that the United States supports Kiev against the Putin regime’s provocations and will stand by its NATO allies in Eastern Europe.

And though the president has repeatedly weakened the West’s position in negotiations over the threat from Iran’s nuclear program, here, too, he was at least ready to again demand that Tehran commit to a process that will make the realization of their ambitions impossible.

Leaving aside recriminations about all the mistakes that preceded this moment, it must be acknowledged that the president has gone a long way toward correcting some, though not all, of his most egregious foreign-policy errors. But the problem is that it will take more than rhetoric to address these challenges.

Without adequate resources, American military efforts in Iraq and Syria are bound to fail. Nor can we, if we really believe that ISIS and other al-Qaeda affiliates are a genuine threat to U.S. security, rely entirely on local Arab forces to do a job they have proved unable to do for years. As our Max Boot wrote earlier today, America can’t bomb its way out of this problem.

Nor can the challenges from Iran and its terrorist allies waging war against Israel be met with only words. The same is true for the effort to halt Russia’s campaign to resurrect the old tsarist and Soviet empires. Without military aid to Ukraine and similar efforts to bolster the Baltic states and Poland, Vladimir Putin will dismiss the president’s speech as empty bombast.

By giving a speech that included major elements that often sounded like those given by his predecessor, the president turned a corner today in a speech that seemed to embody his transformation from a man lost in his own delusions and ego to one who knew he was the leader of a nation embroiled in a generations-long war not of its own choosing. But in the coming weeks and months and the last two years of his presidency, he will have to match his actions to the fine rhetoric we heard today. Based on his past history, it is impossible to be optimistic about Obama’s ability to meet that challenge. Throughout his address, the president seemed to be drowning in multilateral platitudes and the kind of liberal patent nostrums that have helped bring us to this terrible moment in history. But at least for a few minutes on the UN podium, the president gave us the impression that he understands the large gap between the illusions that helped elect him president and the harsh reality in which the nation now finds itself.

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What Obama Left Unsaid

A year ago President Obama was contemplating bombing Syria in order to punish Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons. Now U.S. warplanes are actually bombing Syria–but not Assad’s forces. This week’s air strikes targeted only ISIS and the Khorasan group, a subset of the Nusra Front, which is fighting against Assad’s regime. There are credible reports that the U.S. gave a heads-up about the airstrikes to the Iranian and Syrian regimes but not to the Free Syrian Army, our ostensible allies on the ground.

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A year ago President Obama was contemplating bombing Syria in order to punish Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons. Now U.S. warplanes are actually bombing Syria–but not Assad’s forces. This week’s air strikes targeted only ISIS and the Khorasan group, a subset of the Nusra Front, which is fighting against Assad’s regime. There are credible reports that the U.S. gave a heads-up about the airstrikes to the Iranian and Syrian regimes but not to the Free Syrian Army, our ostensible allies on the ground.

The Free Syrian Army forces have no love lost for ISIS and they have fought against its fanatical fighters whose activities have been largely focused not on resisting the Assad regime but on consolidating control of rebel-held areas. But the Free Syrian Army has worked with Nusra against the Assad regime and its leaders are understandably perplexed by the U.S. failure to target Assad.

McClatchy reports from Turkey: “By focusing exclusively on Islamic State insurgents and al Qaida figures associated with the Khorasan unit of the Nusra Front, and bypassing installations associated with the government of President Bashar Assad, the airstrikes infuriated anti-regime Syrians and hurt the standing of moderate rebel groups that are receiving arms and cash as part of a covert CIA operation based in the Turkish border city of Reyhanli.”

It is hard to figure out if Obama, who has publicly been on record as demanding Assad’s departure from power since 2011, is even interested in hastening regime change anymore. Anyone listening to his United Nations speech today would have been left perplexed. While Obama had a long and fiery denunciation of ISIS’s “network of death,” he mentioned Assad only once: “Together with our partners, America is training and equipping the Syrian opposition to be a counterweight to the terrorists of ISIL and the brutality of the Assad regime,” he said. “But the only lasting solution to Syria’s civil war is political – an inclusive political transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens, regardless of ethnicity or creed.”

That’s a long way from Obama’s statement in August 2011: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Nor, it should be noted, did Obama have any harsh words for Iran, which is sponsoring Assad’s murderous attacks on his own people. Rather than denouncing Iran (whose support for terrorism went unmentioned), he offered the mullahs yet another olive branch: “My message to Iran’s leaders and people is simple: do not let this opportunity pass. We can reach a solution that meets your energy needs while assuring the world that your program is peaceful.”

The fact that Obama is no longer demanding Assad’s resignation and that U.S. aircraft are not targeting any regime installations suggests that Obama may view Assad and his Iranian patrons as de facto allies against ISIS. This, sadly, is more evidence of the theory that Michael Doran and I have previously advanced that Obama is trying to engineer an entente with Tehran that would turn Iran into America’s partner in the Middle East. He may even be going easy on Assad to win Iranian support for a nuclear deal.

If so, this is a tragically misguided policy that will make the U.S. complicit in Iranian-sponsored war crimes while actually undermining our goal of turning Sunni tribes in both Iraq and Syria against ISIS: The Sunnis will not fight if they perceive the opposition to ISIS as being dominated by Iran and Assad. The president would be better advised to pursue a more evenhanded strategy of bombing both ISIS and the Assad regime. Otherwise we risk “degrading” one group of violent, anti-American fanatics while empowering a competing group of violent, anti-American fanatics.

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Ken Burns’s Roosevelt Series for Dummies

If you missed the Ken Burns homage to (some of) the Roosevelts, never fear. Here’s just about everything you need to know about it, minus the alluring music.

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If you missed the Ken Burns homage to (some of) the Roosevelts, never fear. Here’s just about everything you need to know about it, minus the alluring music.

TR: 50 percent good; 50 percent bad

Good

  • Conservation/national parks
  • Trust busting
  • Loved animals
  • Invited Booker T. Washington to White House for dinner

Bad

  • Panama Canal
  • Never invited Booker T., or any other black person, for a WH dinner again
  • Hunted animals
  • WARMONGER!!

FDR: 75 percent good; 25 percent bad

Good

  • New Deal
  • WPA
  • Warm Springs
  • Understood need for New World Order
  • Eloquence
  • Averted bank run
  • Fireside Chats
  • Packing Supreme Court
  • Charm
  • Humor (Fala speech)
  • Overcame pain and handicap post Polio
  • Loved his mama

Bad

  • Mama’s boy not popular at Groton/Harvard
  • Japanese internment camps
  • Tricked American people into WWII
  • Failed to integrate armed services
  • Failed to push anti-lynching bill
  • Cheated on Eleanor
  • Refused to allow her to invite Japanese internees to live in the White House
  • Perhaps possibly might somehow have done somewhat better job re: helping Jews escape Hitler?

ER: 99.5 percent good; 0.5 percent bad

Good

  • Civil Rights
  • Women’s rights
  • Human Rights
  • Unions
  • Lesbian?
  • Visited Japanese internment camps
  • Hectored FDR re
    • Japanese internment camps
    • Inviting Japanese internees to live in White House
    • Anti-lynching bill
    • Integrating Armed Services
    • A lot of other undoubtedly admirable things
  • Wrote column every day
  • Tolerated pushy mother-in-law
  • Lived in Greenwich Village

Bad

  • A little on the cold side as a wife/mother
    • (Not her fault–her mother didn’t think she was pretty enough.)

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A Haunting Feeling About Obama

For those who believe that the air strikes we’re conducting against Syria will achieve President Obama’s goal of defeating ISIS, consider this story in yesterday’s New York Times, which begins this way:

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For those who believe that the air strikes we’re conducting against Syria will achieve President Obama’s goal of defeating ISIS, consider this story in yesterday’s New York Times, which begins this way:

After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than a quarter of the country, in part because many critical Sunni tribes remain on the sidelines.

This news comes as we learned over the weekend that ISIS attacked an Iraqi army base, killing upwards of 300-500 Iraqi soldiers. “If the survivors’ accounts are correct,” the Washington Post reports, “it would make Sunday the most disastrous day for the Iraqi army since several divisions collapsed in the wake of the Islamic State’s capture of the northern city of Mosul amid its cross-country sweep in June.”

So while in Iraq we’ve been pounding ISIS from the air for a month and a half, we haven’t begun to fundamentally alter the facts on the ground.

Now keep this in mind: the situation in Iraq, while certainly challenging, is many times less complicated for us than the situation in Syria, which is (a) ruled by an enemy of America; (b) a client state of Iran; and (c) engaged in a ferocious, multi-sided civil war involving forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Free Syrian Army.

In addition, in Iraq there are Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga who are willing to fight ISIS, albeit imperfectly. (Both have suffered serious military reversal this past summer.) Success in Iraq depends on working with Iraq’s Sunni tribes, which happened during the counterinsurgency strategy in 2007-08.

In atomized, hellish Syria we have no such advantages. Which is why if President Obama persists in refusing to allow U.S. “boots on the ground”–if he doesn’t allow American troops to coordinate on the front lines with forces opposing ISIS–we can’t defeat ISIS. That doesn’t mean we can’t inflict damage on it, of course; but inflicting damage is one thing, defeating ISIS is quite another.

The president, in ordering air strikes in Syria, has dramatically escalated our involvement in this war. But one cannot shake the haunting feeling that he’s simply going through the motions; that Mr. Obama is stunned to find himself in this predicament, that his heart and will are not in this war, and that he’s not really committed to winning it.

ISIS, on the other hand, is.

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Abbas’s Fake Civil-Rights Struggle

In New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas went to Cooper Union to give a speech comparing his own efforts to those of the American civil-rights movement. Abbas is struggling for relevance at home and for attention abroad at a time when focus has shifted from the conflict in Gaza to the far bloodier and more dangerous one in Syria and Iraq. But the falsehoods and distortions the Palestinian uttered at the school’s venerable Great Hall deserve to be debunked if only because so many in the international community that have descended on the city never question them.

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In New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas went to Cooper Union to give a speech comparing his own efforts to those of the American civil-rights movement. Abbas is struggling for relevance at home and for attention abroad at a time when focus has shifted from the conflict in Gaza to the far bloodier and more dangerous one in Syria and Iraq. But the falsehoods and distortions the Palestinian uttered at the school’s venerable Great Hall deserve to be debunked if only because so many in the international community that have descended on the city never question them.

The attempt to compare the Palestinians to African-Americans during the American civil-rights struggle is not new. This specious thesis has been trotted out before by Palestinians and even endorsed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It is predicated on the notion that Palestinians are merely struggling for freedom and independence while being repressed by wicked Israelis who covet their land and deprive them of their rights in the same manner as those who enforced Jim Crow laws in the American south prior to the enforcement of federal civil-rights acts. The choice of the venue for Abbas’ address underlines that ploy since it has been the site of many memorable speeches by Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglas, and, most memorably, Abraham Lincoln.

That the Palestinians would seek to continue to portray themselves in this manner is understandable since it is a meme designed to generate sympathy and support for efforts to persuade the UN to vote for measures designed to give them a state without first having made peace with Israel. But while this tired act may work at a General Assembly with a built-in majority that will support any attack on the Jewish state, those who have been paying attention to recent events in the Middle East weren’t impressed.

The purpose of Abbas’s efforts was to split the U.S.-Israel alliance and persuade Americans to support efforts to impose a solution to the conflict on the Israelis. But his calls for Americans to rise up and demand that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “end the occupation” might have been a bit more credible if he had been upfront about both the history of negotiations and the realities of Palestinian politics.

Let’s start with the fact that the Palestinians were offered exactly what they say they want in 2000, 2001, and 2008 and said no. The last such time it was Abbas, rather than his predecessor Yasir Arafat, who fled the talks rather than be put in the position of once again turning down independence if it meant recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state next door. Since then, Abbas has refused to negotiate seriously with Netanyahu despite the fact that the latter endorsed a two-state solution. Instead of agreeing to keep talking with the Israelis as President Obama asked, Abbas made a deal with Hamas and blew up the talks so as to avoid being put in the delicate position of having to agree to something even his own supporters won’t countenance.

But the problem isn’t just that the Palestinians keep saying no. It’s that the struggle between the two sides was shown again this past summer to have nothing to do with “occupation” or the peaceful efforts of a people to govern themselves.

While Abbas mentioned the latest fighting in Gaza this year, he ignored the fact that it was set off by the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the subsequent decision by his Hamas rivals to start launching thousands of rockets at Israeli cities. During the course of the 50-day war that followed, Hamas’s actions and the discovery of the network of terror tunnels along the border intended to facilitate mass murder and/or kidnapping of Israelis also put the purpose of their efforts — which were cheered by most Palestinians — into focus. When the Islamists talk about “resisting” the “occupation,” they are not talking about an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank or parts of Jerusalem (things the Israelis have repeatedly offered) or drawing a border that is more generous to the Palestinians than previous efforts. They are, instead, discussing the fulfillment of their goal of destroying Israel and slaughtering its Jewish population.

After all, Israel withdrew every last soldier, settlement, and settler from Gaza in 2005 and instead of an incubator for peace and development, what followed was the transformation of the strip into a large terror base. Gaza is today for all intents and purposes an independent state in all but name. That it is ruled by Hamas rather than Abbas not only underlines his irrelevance but is the reason why Israelis are today even more wary of empowering the leader of the Palestinians on the West Bank. If Israel were to grant Abbas’s wish—with or without his promise that this measure would end the conflict for all time—few doubt that Hamas could overthrow him and install a replica of their Gaza fiefdom in the far more strategically important and larger West Bank.

The basic difference between the civil-rights movement and Palestinian nationalism is that the former laudably sought to gain the rights of blacks without prejudice to those of their white neighbors. The Palestinian drive for self-determination has, unfortunately, always been inextricably linked to the century-long campaign to eradicate the Jewish presence in the land. If Israelis now hesitate to replicate its Gaza experiment in the West Bank it is because Hamas has shown them what happens when withdrawals occur.

Instead of making false analogies about Israel, Abbas should be publicly denouncing the way Hamas used the population of Gaza as human shields and its commitment to terror, not to mention ensuring that the broadcast and print outlets he controls cease fomenting hatred and delegitimization of Israel and Jews.

If Israelis are no longer that interested in Abbas, it’s because the Gaza war proved his irrelevance. If he wants to persuade them to take him seriously, he needs to work for peace among his own people, not waste time smearing Israel when not even his foreign cheerleaders are particularly interested in him.

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Obama Discovers the Value of Credibility

Politico has a perceptive story wondering whether and how President Obama’s decision to extend the war against ISIS to Syria will affect his UN diplomacy as the General Assembly meets this week in New York. The story goes through the two obvious options. On the positive side of the ledger, the inclusion of Arab countries in the coalition “could add momentum to U.S. efforts to form a broad international campaign against the radical Sunni group.” As a counterpoint, however, the high-profile military action could be considered too controversial for some. But then Politico hits the third possibility:

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Politico has a perceptive story wondering whether and how President Obama’s decision to extend the war against ISIS to Syria will affect his UN diplomacy as the General Assembly meets this week in New York. The story goes through the two obvious options. On the positive side of the ledger, the inclusion of Arab countries in the coalition “could add momentum to U.S. efforts to form a broad international campaign against the radical Sunni group.” As a counterpoint, however, the high-profile military action could be considered too controversial for some. But then Politico hits the third possibility:

There are also questions at play about the credibility of the U.N. Since Obama and the Arab countries involved acted without U.N. approval, some may again express doubts about the relevance of the global body, particularly when some countries with veto power are intent on blocking concerted action.

Right–on a fundamental level, it doesn’t much matter what happens to Obama’s UN diplomacy. The president will lead a Security Council session tomorrow intended to gain a broad commitment from countries to “stem the flow of foreign fighters to extremist groups” such as ISIS. And that’s not unimportant. Any commitment, especially from Western Europe or the Arab world, helps.

And that is what tells us that Obama’s decision to strike before the UN gathering, instead of after it, was a strategically smart call. Those who oppose the strikes altogether don’t much care about the timing, unless a delay allows for a congressional vote, of course. But if Obama was planning to go it alone anyway, the timing was shrewd.

After Obama balked on attacking Bashar al-Assad’s regime over the dictator crossing Obama’s not-so-red line on chemical weapons, Obama’s defenders made a very silly attempt at spinning that foreign-policy disaster. They said it was the threat of military force from Obama that made Assad willing to strike a deal to turn over his chemical weapons.

Few bought it. And the deal was a joke: not all chemical weapons were listed, and Assad seems to have fooled Obama and cheated the deal anyway (as many assumed would be the case from the beginning). But now he can actually test the effect that a credible threat of force would have since he’ll have backed up his words with actions. Now when Obama says he might attack, he really might.

But what if his willingness to use force doesn’t rally the UN to America’s cause? That’s OK too, since having attacked without the UN in the first place shows that when he believes American interests are truly at stake, Obama will go around the UN. The lack of UN authorization should never be mistaken for a per se “unjust” war. But had he put the Syria strikes on hold until he could rally the UN, Obama would have left just such an impression, and it would have been more complicated to go it alone and more onerous to get the Arab states on board. Now the U.S. is quite clearly not hostage to the whims of the dictator protection racket that is the United Nations.

In other words, in choosing the timing of his Syria strikes wisely, Obama may have learned a lesson about strategic calculation that his critics, especially on the right, have been imploring him to learn. Obama has, thus far, learned this lesson through failure rather than success.

And it’s not just about largely discredited authoritarian creep mobs like the UN. Obama’s faddish fixation on retrenchment chic and Western Europe’s schizophrenic appetite for confrontation have left NATO countries in Russia’s neighborhood unsure their allies will fulfill their obligations of mutual defense. And so they’ve taken matters, however modestly, into their own hands. As Reuters reported last week:

Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania launched a joint military force on Friday that Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said could start its first exercises in the tense region in the next year.

The three countries and other states in the area have been on high alert since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in March – and Western powers accused Moscow of sending troops to back rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Polish defense officials said the new joint unit could take part in peacekeeping operations, or form the basis of a NATO battle group if one was needed in the future.

NATO, being an alliance of democratic-minded free countries, is far more effective at its tasks than the UN generally is at its own, and there’s no comparison when the matter is the defense of the free world. But NATO isn’t exactly in its prime at the moment. Obama is ambivalent about the organization, democracy is in retreat in Western Europe, and Turkey has become an example of a country that could never be admitted to NATO in its current form were it not already in the alliance.

Going through international organizations can be a great way to give any coalition a sense of legitimacy. But countries have interests, and they protect those interests whether the UN approves or not. Barack Obama is going to address the UN with a simple message: he’s not bluffing. For once, they’ll believe him.

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