Commentary Magazine


Democrat Midterm Woes May Impact 2016

With just over a week left before the midterm elections, most of the battleground states that will decide control of the Senate are still in play. That is allowing Democrats to believe that just the right amount of last minute cash infusions or voter turnout efforts will allow them to hold on to a share of power on Capitol Hill. But with yet another new major poll showing that Republicans are expanding their edge on the question of who should control Congress and with polls of battleground states also showing momentum edging toward the GOP, the Democrats’ reliance on gender — their 2012 trump card — is proving to be a crucial mistake that could have an impact on the next presidential election.

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With just over a week left before the midterm elections, most of the battleground states that will decide control of the Senate are still in play. That is allowing Democrats to believe that just the right amount of last minute cash infusions or voter turnout efforts will allow them to hold on to a share of power on Capitol Hill. But with yet another new major poll showing that Republicans are expanding their edge on the question of who should control Congress and with polls of battleground states also showing momentum edging toward the GOP, the Democrats’ reliance on gender — their 2012 trump card — is proving to be a crucial mistake that could have an impact on the next presidential election.

With so many key races still remaining tight, it is still possible to argue that 2014 isn’t a wave election in the manner of past midterm landslides such as the GOP landslide in 2010 or the Democratic earthquake of 2006. But the telltale signs of disaster are clear for President Obama’s party. It’s not just that The Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Annenberg Center poll shows Republicans gaining ground in crucial Senate races or the stories reporting that Democrats have already conceded that they are going to lose even more ground in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. Rather, it’s the polling that shows their reliance on the so-called gender gap was a mistake. Merely labeling Republicans as ogres waging a “war on women” not only won’t be enough to save them next week, it is also possible that the assumption that the same factors that allowed Democrats to easily win the last two presidential elections may not necessarily apply in 2016.

Democrats have consoled themselves throughout the current election cycle by pointing to the fact that the key races of 2014 are almost all being held in deep red states. Combined with the lower turnouts that are usual in midterms and the normal burden that falls on the party of the incumbent president in his second term and it was possible to argue that any outcome — even a disaster on the scale of 2010 — could be discounted. Based on the almost complete turnabout from the Republican tide of 2010 to the Obama re-election two years later, there seemed no reason to worry that defeat this year would diminish Democratic chances of repeating the same formula in 2016 that allowed them to win in 2008 and 2012.

In both those years, Barack Obama rode a tidal wave of minority voters and support from women into the White House. More than that, the war on women meme also allowed his party to hold onto Senate seats in 2012 that they had seemed certain to lose. The tactic seemed so foolproof that Democrats like Mark Udall have doubled down on the idea to the exclusion of almost everything else in his bid for re-election to his Colorado Senate seat.

But in Colorado, as elsewhere, the same drumbeat about GOP troglodytes seeking to victimize helpless females isn’t working. Part of it can be put down to Democrats facing smarter Republican candidates like Udall’s opponent Rep. Cory Gardner, who aren’t making idiotic gaffes about pregnancy and rape. But the real problem is that when faced with genuine threats to their well being such as a sluggish economy, as well as worries about whether an incompetent Obama administration is up to the challenges from Ebola and ISIS, women are refusing to fall for the Democrats exploitation. Whereas voters in 2010 were up in arms about rising taxes and debt and ObamaCare, after six years of Democratic government that is all hope and no change, they are thinking about alternatives.

If in fact they do as well as pollsters think they may next week, Republicans shouldn’t, as they did after 2010, simply assume that they could win in 2016 just by showing up. Their party is just as unpopular as the Democrats and two years in control of both Houses of Congress will give them plenty of opportunities to remind voters of what they don’t like about the GOP. But what 2014 may do is to remind the chattering classes that like time, politics doesn’t stand still. If Democrats are to win in 2016, it won’t be playing the same songs that won them the love of the voters in 2012. The war on women is failing them this year and will fail again — even with a woman on the top of the ticket — if that’s all they have to say for themselves in the next presidential year.

American voters may be seduced every now and then by a would-be messiah but sooner or later they revert to their usual requirements in leaders: competence and sobriety. Republicans flunked that test during George W. Bush’s second term just as Democrats are doing them same during Barack Obama’s swan song. Republicans failed to learn the lessons of 2006 and sought to run in 2008 on the issues that had given them victories in the past and wound up losing again in 2008. Instead of pretending that more war on women talk will solve their problems, Democrats should realize that they might be repeating that pattern.

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Islamism’s Appeal to the Discontented

There are striking similarities between Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who killed a Canadian soldier in Ottawa, and Zale Thompson, who wounded two New York police officers with a hatchet. Both were loners raised in North America with a history of drug use, petty crime, and apparent mental problems who turned for salvation to a radical form of Islam. Apparently motivated by jihadist websites, they each committed heinous acts of terrorism against what they mistakenly believed were the enemies of Islam. In this respect they were not that different from Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Chechen-American brothers who carried out the Boston marathon bombing in 2013.

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There are striking similarities between Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who killed a Canadian soldier in Ottawa, and Zale Thompson, who wounded two New York police officers with a hatchet. Both were loners raised in North America with a history of drug use, petty crime, and apparent mental problems who turned for salvation to a radical form of Islam. Apparently motivated by jihadist websites, they each committed heinous acts of terrorism against what they mistakenly believed were the enemies of Islam. In this respect they were not that different from Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Chechen-American brothers who carried out the Boston marathon bombing in 2013.

Sadly we can expect more such “lone wolf” attacks in the future, which are almost impossible to predict and very difficult to prevent. One obvious line of defense is to maintain vigilant surveillance of the Internet–which is what the NSA was doing before some of its most successful programs were exposed and curtailed by the traitor Edward Snowden. People who regularly surf jihadist websites should trigger alarm bells somewhere. But even that will not keep us totally safe from such individuals who find in radical Islam the same kind of solace that previous generations of troubled loners found in extreme political movements such as Nazism, fascism, and Communism or in religious cults such as David Koresh’s Branch Davidians or in James Jones’s People’s Temple.

One of the striking aspects of the history of terrorism, as I noted in my book Invisible Armies, is that radical groups tend to follow intellectual fads. Some of the first modern terrorists were motivated to hurl bombs in the 19th century because of their allegiance to Nihilism or anarchism. Those ideas were edged into irrelevance by the rise of Communism as the dominant ideology of the revolutionary set. In the 1960s-70s another wave of terrorists were motivated by admiration for the likes of Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong. These were the “radical chic” revolutionaries such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Red Army Faction, the Weather Underground, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Their decline by the 1980s can be traced to the general loss of appeal of Communism. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was not easy anymore to find anyone willing to fight and die for proletarian ideals.

But by then another new ideology–Islamism–was already on the rise, offering the appeal of earthly paradise for troubled and disgruntled individuals eager to rebel against their society. Like these previous “isms,” Islamism offers the possibility of a meaningful and even heroic existence to young men otherwise doomed to live out their lives as nonentities. So potent is the appeal of this radical ideology that it even has some appeal to non-Muslims who convert simply so they can become terrorists or at least fellow travelers of terrorists. Oddly enough one of these converts is Carlos the Jackal, the Venezuelan Marxist revolutionary who once committed terrorism in the name of Palestine and then converted to Islam while sitting in a French prison.

History suggests that the appeal of Islamist ideology for adventurers and malcontents will only dim once it is definitively exposed to be as bankrupt a governing philosophy as anarchism or Communism. Unfortunately that will not happen anytime in the near future–groups such as ISIS, horrific as they may seem to most people, still maintain a potent allure for some no matter how many atrocities they commit, or perhaps because they are committing so many atrocities. Defeating ISIS and its ilk on the battlefield will not instantly or permanently remove their ideological appeal. But it’s a good start. Only movements that seem to have some chance of success are likely to draw many recruits.

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Korea’s Lesson for Afghanistan

One of the more controversial issues in recent years when it comes to South Korea’s close relationship with the U.S. has been the transfer of wartime “operational command” of Korea’s armed forces to, well, Koreans. Ever since the establishment of a United Nations command, led by the United States, in the dark days of the Korean War, a U.S. four-star general has been appointed to lead both Korean and U.S. forces in wartime. Peacetime control of the Korean military returned to Seoul in 1994 and deadlines had been set–and regularly missed–to turn over wartime “opcon”: first in 2012, then in 2015.

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One of the more controversial issues in recent years when it comes to South Korea’s close relationship with the U.S. has been the transfer of wartime “operational command” of Korea’s armed forces to, well, Koreans. Ever since the establishment of a United Nations command, led by the United States, in the dark days of the Korean War, a U.S. four-star general has been appointed to lead both Korean and U.S. forces in wartime. Peacetime control of the Korean military returned to Seoul in 1994 and deadlines had been set–and regularly missed–to turn over wartime “opcon”: first in 2012, then in 2015.

Now, at the request of the South Koreans, the deadline has been lifted altogether for a “conditions based” approach that makes a lot more sense: in short, the U.S. will transfer opcon when the Koreans feel ready to assume it. South Korean officials have suggested that date won’t arrive until the mid-2020s. The Obama administration is to be commended for willing to allow the U.S. to play the lead military role on the peninsula until then.

Yet that raises an obvious question: if the U.S. stand-down in Korea is to be “conditions based,” why not in Afghanistan?

President Obama announced that he would reduce the U.S. force in Afghanistan to less than 10,000 by the end of this year and withdraw the troops altogether by the end of 2016. This is not conditions-based at all–it is based on a White House timeline that has nothing to do with on-the-ground reality.

The struggle against the Taliban continues to rage unabated. Just between March and August of this year, the Afghan National Security Forces lost more than 3,300 men–more than the U.S. has lost in 13 years of war. The Afghans are still able to hold off the Taliban, but only with continuing U.S. help. Withdraw the help, even as Pakistan continues its support for the Taliban, and the likely result will be a disintegration similar to what occurred in Iraq following the U.S. pullout in 2011.

President Obama can help Afghanistan to avoid this dire fate by extending to that country the same logic he has just applied to South Korea: namely, that U.S. troop drawdowns should be based on conditions on the ground, not on artificial deadlines dictated from Washington for political reasons.

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Europe’s Iran Pivot

With the November 24 deadline for an agreement on Iran’s illegal nuclear program fast approaching, there is every reason to suspect that the Obama administration may be about to sign off on a woefully inadequate deal that would leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state. As we saw with the interim agreement last fall, Iran received an easing of sanctions in return for what were essentially token concessions–concessions that Iran has already failed to stand by, with international inspectors still being blocked from such key sites as those at Parchin. With the prospect of the administration making a deal with the Iranians that would bring down what remains of the sanctions regime, European businesses are gearing up to resume economic ties with Iran, while the Iranian lobby in Europe is working overtime.

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With the November 24 deadline for an agreement on Iran’s illegal nuclear program fast approaching, there is every reason to suspect that the Obama administration may be about to sign off on a woefully inadequate deal that would leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state. As we saw with the interim agreement last fall, Iran received an easing of sanctions in return for what were essentially token concessions–concessions that Iran has already failed to stand by, with international inspectors still being blocked from such key sites as those at Parchin. With the prospect of the administration making a deal with the Iranians that would bring down what remains of the sanctions regime, European businesses are gearing up to resume economic ties with Iran, while the Iranian lobby in Europe is working overtime.

Despite the fact that Tehran appears in no mood to make any kind of serious compromise on its nuclear program, with the initial six-month negotiating period having already been extended once, the administration has now run out of time for a diplomatic process that never showed any real sign of going anywhere to begin with. But now it appears that both the Iranians and their European trading partners anticipate that a lifting of the sanctions could be imminent. Indeed, earlier this month two separate trade fairs held in Iran featured a host of European companies, with businesses from Spain, France, Italy, Denmark, Britain, and Germany.

But it is also in Europe itself that commercial relations are being reestablished. In both Britain and Germany, concerted efforts are underway to revive Europe’s economic ties with Iran, and friends of the regime in Tehran are playing a leading role in lobbying for normalization. Perhaps most significant so far has been the gathering of the Europe-Iran Forum in London last week, which was officially convened in anticipation of the “expected rollback of the current international sanctions against Iran.”

Nor was this some fringe event. Such prestigious names as Sotheby’s auction house and Dentons law firm turned out for the gathering, and they were accompanied by senior figures such as the chief executive of WPP Martin Sorrell, the director of the Middle East and North Africa department of Britain’s Foreign Office Edward Oakden, the former French Foreign Minister Hubert Verdine, Britain’s former ambassador to Iran Richard Dalton, and of course, Tehran’s most prominent advocate in the UK: former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. To give a sense of just what an enthusiastic proponent for Iran Straw has now become it is worth recalling that earlier this year during a meeting in parliament he asserted that, “Tehran feels like Madrid or Athens rather than Cairo or Mumbai.” A ridiculous claim, when the public executions and state enforced oppression in Iran’s capital makes Athens under the Junta of 1960s, or Franco’s Madrid for that matter, look positively liberal.

As it was, a touch of the Iranian attitude toward press freedom even appeared to find its way into the proceedings at the Europe-Iran Forum meeting. For while Iran’s state controlled media outlets attended in force, the Wall Street Journal’s  Sohrab Ahmari was denied access on the grounds that there wasn’t space. And such initiatives as this one appear to only be the beginning. Last week it was also announced that a ten-man delegation of Iranian business figures will be traveling to Germany next month and will be making visits to Berlin, Hanover, and Hamburg. And it is particularly noteworthy that included in this delegation organized by the German-Iran Chamber of Commerce are key figures from sanctioned industries such as gas and oil, as well as from Iran’s financial sector.

The problem is that, just as European business is seeking to read the signals being put out by Washington, so too are the Iranians carefully watching attitudes in other parts of the West. As Tommy Steiner of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya recently told the Jerusalem Post: “overly eager, not to say drooling, business executives might send a different message to Iran – suggesting they are open for business with Iran no matter what. That is the kind of message that could kill the negotiations.”

The reality is that perceived weakness on the part of the Obama administration is being read by both the Iranians and the Europeans, with each having a knock-on effect upon the other, so working to undermine the international consensus for a tough stance on Iran. And while there may still be multiple UN Security Council resolutions in place prohibiting Iran’s nuclear program, the end result of Obama’s negotiations with Iran may be to achieve nothing more than the erosion of the international consensus that made those resolutions possible.

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Why Jeb Bush Is Right and Grover Norquist Is Wrong

According to an article in Politico:

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According to an article in Politico:

Jeb Bush has a tax problem.

The former Florida governor has said he could accept tax increases in a hypothetical deficit-cutting deal. Never mind that he added that would come only in exchange for major federal spending cuts, or that he repeatedly cut taxes as governor.

Tax hikes are still apostasy in Republican circles, and the stance could be a big problem for Bush if he decides to seek the party’s presidential nomination in 2016.

Bush’s views are already pitting him against one of his party’s most influential activists, Grover Norquist, the high priest of anti-tax orthodoxy who’s convinced nearly every elected Republican to sign a pledge not to raise taxes.

“Mind-boggling,” Norquist said of Bush.

Actually, it isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be.

Set aside for the moment your view of Jeb Bush and the 2016 presidential race. Let’s instead examine this broader argument with some care, beginning with putting the story in context.

As Politico points out, during a June 2012 House Budget Committee hearing, Bush was asked about a theoretical deficit plan that would actually cut $10 in spending in exchange for a dollar in tax increases. This was a question first posed to Republican presidential candidates by Byron York and Bret Baier and was rejected by all eight of them. (I criticized that response at the time.) Governor Bush’s response was different than the Republicans running for president. “If you could bring to me a majority of people to say that we’re going to have $10 of spending cuts for $1 of revenue enhancement — put me in, Coach,” he said.

Note well what Bush didn’t say. He didn’t say he believed we as a nation are under-taxed. In fact Bush, as governor of Florida, had a sterling tax-cutting record, having cut them every year he was governor (a period covering eight years and totaling nearly $20 billion). What Bush said is that if you could actually get a 10-to-one ratio in spending cuts to tax increases–that after all was the premise of the thought experiment–he’d do it. So, I would think, would any conservative interested in limiting government.

I not only understand the case for lower taxes; I support tax cuts. But it’s not an inviolate principle. The question on these things is always context. Higher taxes in exchange for what? Which taxes are we talking about? And what else might be considered in any such deal (e.g., reforming Medicare by replacing the current fee-for-services system with a premium support one)?

People I respect believe the no-new-tax pledge has done more good than harm, that without it Republicans would be far more inclined to raise taxes. That’s not an unreasonable stance. But for conservatives to say, as many now do, that there’s no scenario in which taxes could ever be raised–and to pledge to oppose a tax increase regardless of circumstances–strikes me as misguided. Nor do I believe most Republicans, if you had a long, honest conversation, would be that absolutist. The right level of taxation is a prudential, not a theological, matter; it needs to be seen in the context of other economic conditions and possible gains in other areas.

This debate highlights a danger for conservatism, which is that certain policies are elevated to dogma, to canon. It takes a reasonable starting point in a negotiation and turns it into a non-negotiable end point. Vin Weber, a principled conservative, said Bush’s answer on the tax issue “was totally right, and if we’re ever going to deal with the long-term debt question, Republicans are going to have to come to grips with that.”

This debate also exposes a mindset that views compromise per se as unprincipled, a capitulation, a sign of weakness. This is a deeply unconservative attitude and quite at odds with what James Madison and the other Federalist founders believed. The Constitution itself was the result of a whole series of difficult, reluctant, remarkable compromises. That’s why it’s so odd that those who consider themselves “constitutional conservatives” are often the ones who react most strongly against even the idea of compromise.

One other thing. If the attitude many of those on the right have toward taxes today existed in the 1970s and 1980s, Ronald Reagan would have been considered a heretic. I say that because Reagan himself signed into law what his biographer Lou Cannon called “the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor in the history of the United States”; and as president he signed a tax increase (TEFRA) that at the time was the largest in American history. As president Reagan, in fact, raised taxes multiple times.

Now my own view is that Reagan’s record, including his record on taxes, needs to be seen in whole–and seen in whole it was outstanding. He was responsible for cutting the top rate from 70 percent to, when he left office, 28 percent, which helped catalyze our economy; and his 1986 tax reform plan was a tremendous achievement. Yet Reagan did raise taxes.

It’s true that President Reagan came to regret his 1982 tax increase. But it’s important to keep this in mind: He agreed to it, he said, assuming he’d get $3 of spending cuts for every dollar in tax increases. (He didn’t, though the reality is somewhat complicated.) If that result had in fact come to pass, would the deal have been wrong? Would today’s anti-tax advocates torch him for his apostasy? Would he be vilified as a RINO? Would he be vulnerable to a primary challenge?

It tells us something about some currents within conservatism that a governor with a sterling tax cutting record, in expressing support for a theoretical deal far more conservative than what Ronald Reagan was willing to accept, would be the object of harsh criticisms.

My guess is that this kind of approach to politics, while still embraced in some quarters, is losing influence. At least I hope so. Not because I want higher taxes, but because I don’t think conservatism is a rigid, adamantine ideology; that the quest for political purification is fraught with danger; and because conservatives shouldn’t assume that any deal that gives you less than everything is a bad deal. Conservatives shouldn’t treat a debate about tax rates as a metaphysical matter.

We all have roles to play, and governing is different than critiquing those who do. The former certainly need to be prodded now and then by activists and commentators; I do a fair amount of that myself. But activists and commentators need to understand that while we need to strive for the ideal, the ideal can’t become the standard by which we judge politicians. Nor is every issue a hill to die on. And, as the greatest American conservative of them all warned, there’s not a lot to be won, and even a lot to be lost, by going over the cliff with our flags waving.

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Something Is Rotten at Foggy Bottom

After the Wall Street Journal broke the news that President Obama reined in the U.S.-Israel military partnership while Israel was at war, it could not be plausibly denied that Obama has sought to downgrade the special relationship. But the story was alarming not only because of the lengths Obama was willing to go to tie Israel’s hands but also because it showed the president was chipping away at the rest of the U.S. government’s ability to pick up the slack when Obama tried to hamper Israel’s ability to defend itself.

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After the Wall Street Journal broke the news that President Obama reined in the U.S.-Israel military partnership while Israel was at war, it could not be plausibly denied that Obama has sought to downgrade the special relationship. But the story was alarming not only because of the lengths Obama was willing to go to tie Israel’s hands but also because it showed the president was chipping away at the rest of the U.S. government’s ability to pick up the slack when Obama tried to hamper Israel’s ability to defend itself.

That has always been the silver lining, and it’s always annoyed much of the American left: other American governmental institutions, such as Congress and the military, are consistently pro-Israel and can thus keep the relationship strong when a president tries to weaken it. And it’s also why it should be of great concern now that another American governmental institution that is usually far less pro-Israel is becoming, under Secretary of State John Kerry, even more antagonistic toward Jerusalem than usual: the U.S. State Department.

Much has been made about the unimaginably incompetent and incoherent management of Foggy Bottom’s communications under spokeswomen Marie Harf and Jen Psaki. But it’s too easy–and not totally accurate–to dismiss Harf and Psaki as misplaced campaign attack hacks. They are out of place at State, but they are there for a reason. And the culture of the diplomatic corps more broadly also resembles the same spiteful ignorance routinely displayed by the president and his secretary of state. The latest example is the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem’s memo to employees referring to Wednesday’s terror attack, in which a Palestinian murdered a Jewish baby, as a “traffic incident.”

After that terror attack, Harf had initially told both sides to exercise restraint. At yesterday’s briefing, Jen Psaki was asked about one of the major sources of gasoline being poured on this fire: the incitement to violence coming from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Here is the exchange:

QUESTION: I’m not making any relation, but there’s been some concern over the last week or two about comments by President Abbas that believe to have incurred incitement. And are you concerned about that? You haven’t really spoken out about that. Do you in any way feel that this is inciting Palestinians to take actions into their own hands?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, Elise, one, I mean, we obviously believe that the act last night warrants condemnation evidence (sic) by the statement we released last night. I’m not going to characterize the comments made or not made by President – Prime Minister Netanyahu or the response from President Abbas.

QUESTION: Well, if you haven’t really received a condemnation from President Abbas, then don’t you think you should offer one?

MS. PSAKI: I think our view of it is clear by – evidenced by our statement last night. I would point you to him on any comments that they would like to make.

QUESTION: But what about his comments, like, over the past – I mean, there has just been several comments that people have remarked about that seem to be incurring incitement. Is that not concerning?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t think that’s – as you know, President Abbas has renounced violence and consistently sought a diplomatic and peaceful solution that allows for two states. I don’t have any other analysis for you to offer.

That’s right, all Psaki would say is that Abbas “has renounced violence and consistently sought a diplomatic and peaceful solution”–an obviously false statement–along with the strident insistence that she doesn’t “have any other analysis for you to offer.”

It’s worth pointing out that in the very same press briefing Psaki confirmed that the victim of the Palestinian terror attack in Jerusalem was an American citizen. So even Americans not totally inclined to defend Israel from terrorism would, theoretically, be fairly embarrassed by Psaki’s pusillanimous, kowtowing claptrap.

The degree to which this administration will go to avenge perceived slights would make a middle-schooler uncomfortable. While Psaki has nothing to say about deadly anti-Semitic incitement from Abbas even when it’s followed by the murder of an American baby, the State Department reserves its outrage for Israeli officials who disagree on the record with Kerry.

And sometimes the administration goes further. Not only did officials hit back at Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon for criticizing Kerry during the peace negotiations, but they’ve continued to hold a grudge. Yaalon, in Washington to meet with Chuck Hagel, was reportedly denied permission to meet with Kerry, Vice President Biden, or Susan Rice:

On the diplomatic front, Ya’alon met with the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, the only other key official to sit down with the Israeli defense minister aside from Hagel. But he received little respite from the sour reception, as Power emphasized her grievance with settlement construction beyond the Green Line.

They didn’t want him meeting with most of the important officials, but they were happy to have Samantha Power yell at him. The choice of Samantha Power, rather than someone with real influence or broad knowledge of the Middle East and world affairs, is telling. But it’s not altogether out of the ordinary.

The Obama administration’s public temper tantrums are at this point a regular feature of the president’s second term. That they’re directed at allies is becoming commonplace but still disturbing. That the State Department seems to prioritize retribution against Israel over holding those who kill American citizens accountable unfortunately encapsulates American diplomacy in the age of Obama and Kerry.

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Terror in Jerusalem: Nir Barkat’s Moment of Truth

Yesterday, after a Palestinian terrorist murdered a Jewish baby at a Jerusalem rail stop, the reaction that mattered most was that of Palestinians in Jerusalem: would they see the killing of an innocent baby as an indication they should tone down their recent campaign of incitement and violence? And the next reaction to look for was that of a man facing his toughest challenge yet as mayor of Jerusalem: Nir Barkat.

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Yesterday, after a Palestinian terrorist murdered a Jewish baby at a Jerusalem rail stop, the reaction that mattered most was that of Palestinians in Jerusalem: would they see the killing of an innocent baby as an indication they should tone down their recent campaign of incitement and violence? And the next reaction to look for was that of a man facing his toughest challenge yet as mayor of Jerusalem: Nir Barkat.

The Palestinians answered by not only continuing to riot but actually stepping up their targeting of young children, attacking a Jewish kindergarten. Barkat responded by touring the area and promising a crackdown:

“We must restore quiet to Jerusalem,” Barkat declared. “I have been saying for months that the situation here is intolerable, and we must act decisively to stop the violence. It is clearer than ever that we must place police inside Arab neighborhoods to prevent unrest, with a large presence and well-equipped forces, acting to restore order to the city.

Jerusalem’s stability is in some ways quite an achievement. Considering its religious significance, the disputed claims on its sovereignty, its ethnic diversity, its high profile, and its history, governing Jerusalem requires a deft touch. That’s more or less how former Jerusalem mayor (and later prime minister) Ehud Olmert described it in a 2002 interview with the Houston Chronicle that is worth re-reading now, especially since it took place just as the Jerusalem light rail was about to be constructed and during the second intifada. Here’s Olmert on the challenge of being mayor of Jerusalem:

Q: Is it stressful being the mayor of Jerusalem right now?

A: Oh, it’s a very pleasant job. It’s boring. There’s nothing to do. Sometimes you ask yourself, what am I going to do next?

I’m kidding. This is a difficult job. Very difficult, but humanly possible. You just have to know how to work with people and to understand their needs and their sensitivities and their fears and pains. That, I think, was my main job in the past couple of years — to understand the fears and pains of people in the community. Both Jews and Palestinians, by the way.

That question ends the interview. Earlier he had been asked about the fact that on top of everything, he had to deal with union strikes during an intifada and at a time when the city’s already suffering financially. He was asked how he managed to make budget. His answer is–well, it’s pretty Olmertian:

Q: Has terrorism affected sales tax and other local tax revenue?

A: I have losses. And I don’t quite make up for all of them. That’s part of the reason I say we have a going crisis, because I can’t make up all of them. What I try to do is to get revenues from the (national) government. I think over the years I’ve developed some techniques for how to pull in a lot of money from the government, without the government knowing it sometimes.

I’m one of very few mayors in Israel’s history who was first in the national government. I was a Cabinet minister, I was a member of Parliament for many, many years before I became mayor, so I know all the ins and outs.

It’s an improvisational job. But the most interesting part of the interview is about the light rail. Amidst all the unrest, Olmert was pushing to better integrate the city’s Arab population. It was a logical approach to the tension and alienation in Israel’s capital, and it was also a gracious note to strike while the city seemed to be boiling over:

Q: I understand you are about to construct light rail in Jerusalem. Has it been controversial?

A: No, I must say that from day one we have put enormous emphasis on building up relationships with the communities in order to go one step ahead by sharing with them the constraints, the difficulties, (but also) the possible ramifications if a serious, comprehensive answer to transportation will not be provided.

Q: No one thinks it’s too much more expensive than running buses?

A: No. Everyone knows that the main street in Jerusalem, the Jaffa Road, you have — sometimes during the rush hour — 250 buses in one hour. If you understand what it means in terms of the traffic jam and the impact on the environment, you’d understand why so many people are looking with hope that light rail will make a big difference.

This is one of the most discouraging aspects of the current strife in Jerusalem. The light rail, with its stops throughout the city, was–or should have been–a symbol of coexistence. Instead it’s been the target of repeated Palestinian attacks.

It’s important not to exaggerate the significance, of course. Transportation hubs are always going to be targets, so the lesson here is less about judging the light rail to be a failure of some sort (it’s clearly not) than the echoes of past violence. Mahmoud Abbas was famously opposed to Yasser Arafat’s decision to launch the second intifada, but there are real questions as to how much Abbas can control. If he does have control, then what’s happening now is truly ominous. He can’t have it both ways.

Of course, one thing Abbas does have control over is his own rhetoric, not to mention that of the PA’s media organs. As he has counseled violence, Palestinians have listened. As he has sought to outlaw coexistence with Jews, Palestinians have listened. And as his government’s media outlets have dehumanized Jews, Palestinians have listened. Maybe Abbas can prevent a new intifada, maybe not. But he almost certainly can start one. And Barkat appears to be taking no chances.

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“Greatness,” Humility, and the Presidency

It is rare that several seemingly unconnected stories on quite different topics can turn out, when read together, to make a cohesive and profound point on the nature the American presidency. But that is the case today. The first story is Jeff Shesol’s piece in the New Yorker on the newfound humility of the followers of President Obama, once the lightbringer and redeemer but now, astonishingly to them, human. And although there is a point hidden in this tale of political woe, it is a point Shesol misses.

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It is rare that several seemingly unconnected stories on quite different topics can turn out, when read together, to make a cohesive and profound point on the nature the American presidency. But that is the case today. The first story is Jeff Shesol’s piece in the New Yorker on the newfound humility of the followers of President Obama, once the lightbringer and redeemer but now, astonishingly to them, human. And although there is a point hidden in this tale of political woe, it is a point Shesol misses.

The piece is headlined “Obama and the End of Greatness.” The story is a close relative of the “America the ungovernable” narrative, in which failed Democratic presidents inspire liberal commentators to decide that if someone like Obama can’t succeed, the job is too difficult for one man. That narrative is false, of course; Obama is simply not very good at his job and has personality traits that compel him to lash out and blame others instead of changing course. The Shesol conceit is similar: Obama turned out not to be a great president but perhaps we don’t need or can’t have or shouldn’t expect great presidents at all.

This, too, is wrong. But it’s wrong in an interesting way. Obama was the one who raised expectations, and his followers merely echoed his vainglorious messianic pronouncements. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine the country agreeing on a “great” modern president if only because the two major parties have moved so far apart that they now view governing in completely different ways. Liberals would measure a great president according to how much legislation he passed giving himself and the government he leads, essentially, more power. Conservatives aren’t opposed to governing–as the left often accuses them of being–but rather see good governance from the executive in terms of devolving power back to the people.

Yet as humble as we should be about presidential greatness, a couple of other stories today indicate that letting Obama off the hook requires some sleight of hand. One story is on former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer’s interview with the Times of Israel on the U.S.-Israel relationship under Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Although each is only one person overseeing a government that tends to get along quite well most of the time with the other, Kurtzer said:

The bad blood between Obama and Netanyahu “informs the entire relationship because bureaucracies and political systems tend to take their energy from the leadership,” Kurtzer told The Times of Israel on Tuesday in Jerusalem. “And if the two leaders are not getting along, as they don’t, then you’ve got a problem.”

This can be seen quite clearly in the case of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, as Obama personally intervened in what are usually lower-level interactions in order to suspend weapons transfers to Israel during wartime. But the point is a more general one: despite the media’s disdain for this particular criticism of Obama, there really is such a thing as leadership, and it really does affect the energy and attitude of other public servants. If anything this is even more the case under a Democrat, since–as we’ve seen with the IRS targeting and the manifold shenanigans of Eric Holder’s Justice Department, among others–the federal bureaucracy tends to share the left’s worldview and takes its cues from the top.

And the other story that brings all this together is Eliana Johnson’s preview of Rand Paul’s major foreign-policy speech tonight. Johnson was given an advance text of the speech, and writes about the realism Paul hopes to inject into American foreign policy. This is a familiar tune, but it’s understandable that Paul feels the need to address it again, since he still finds himself accused of isolationism that he vigorously denies. It will probably help–and is unlikely to hurt–to spell out in detail (if that’s what he intends to do) just how his policy instincts can be applied to specific threats.

But this part of Johnson’s story jumped out: “In the realm of foreign policy, however, Paul paints himself as hardheaded and rational. His lodestars are the Cold War strategist George F. Kennan and the Reagan-era secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger.” I would say, first of all, that Republicans unnerved by what they see as Bakerite instincts will probably not be overjoyed by references to Caspar Weinberger. But more important was the context Johnson provided to Kennan’s belief in prioritizing vital over peripheral interests:

At times, however, he found it difficult to distinguish between them, initially opposing the Truman Doctrine to aid free people resisting Communist expansion because the strategy was too universalistic, then changing his mind, saying he had underestimated the importance of psychological warfare, of pushing back against the Soviets even when vital American interests were not under attack.

This is a good example of something that is often overlooked. Kennan has achieved a kind of mythical stature, and it’s true he made important contributions to American diplomacy in the early Cold War years. However, Harry Truman was the visionary (perhaps along with Acheson), not Kennan. Truman’s understanding of how to build a stable, democratic postwar order was superior to Kennan’s, and it isn’t even close (this is perhaps because democracy wasn’t exactly Kennan’s guiding principle). Kennan may have been a distinguished intellectual, but Truman ran circles around him. Had Kennan’s vision been followed instead of Truman’s, we would be living in a far different, and more troublesome, world.

Which brings us back around to the question of presidential greatness, and gives us a fuller picture of why Obama is inspiring such defeatism among his fans and pessimism among the political class. Presidents govern the country they’ve inherited, and navigate the world as it is. Few faced greater challenges or disorder than Truman, and few acquitted themselves so superbly. The lesson for Obama, his fans, and those who seek to succeed him isn’t that greatness is impossible, but that it only seems that way when you’re looking for it in all the wrong places.

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It’s Time for HRW’s Ken Roth to Go

Ken Roth has now been executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) for more than two decades; indeed, he has become an institution there. But if HRW is going to retain any credibility, it is time to demand Roth resign or be fired.

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Ken Roth has now been executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) for more than two decades; indeed, he has become an institution there. But if HRW is going to retain any credibility, it is time to demand Roth resign or be fired.

Here’s the problem: On October 22, a car driven by a known Hamas activist slammed into a light rail stop, injuring several Israelis and Americans, and killing a three-month-old girl. The driver of the car tried then to flee on foot, but was shot (and has since succumbed to his wounds). Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack. Seems pretty cut-and-dried. Not to Roth, who wasted no time casting doubt.

This is what Roth had to say on Twitter:

“Palestinian deadly crash into train stop. Israel calls it ‘terrorist attack…typical of Hamas’ http://trib.al/EIkJp01 

To call the attack in Jerusalem simply a car crash is like calling the 9/11 attacks a plane crash, or to call ISIS’s enslavement and rape of Yezidi women as mere groping. The contempt with which Roth holds Israel is legendary. Five years ago, its founding chairman even took to the New York Times to lament HRW’s bias and politicization under Roth.

Let us, for a moment, consider that maybe the cause of the crash was uncertain and that Hamas hadn’t claimed responsibility. Seth Mandel has addressed some of the shoddy press reporting of the incident. But a serious human-rights organization and its executive director should do more than regurgitate instant press headlines. Cognizant of its reputation and wanting its statements to carry moral weight, it should slowly and carefully gather evidence before speaking. It is this sense of process that Roth once may have understood but now eschews.

While Roth’s tweets and statements about Israel and the Palestinians often take a polemical if not unhinged tone, they are only the tip of the iceberg. In early September, I compared a series of Roth’s tweets to each other and to HRW’s reporting regarding a massacre in Egypt and came to the unfortunate conclusion that Roth appeared to simply make up numbers as the politics suited him. Roth’s tenure is also marked by an incident in which his employee Sarah Leah Whitson held a fundraiser in Saudi Arabia promising to use Saudi money donated to counter the influence of “pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations.” Take Roth’s inaction in that incident as an endorsement of her conspiratorial worldview. Under Roth, HRW also partnered with Al-Karama, a group whose founder ended up being designated an al-Qaeda financier. Rather than rescind, reinvestigate, and, if necessary, revise the reports in which Roth and HRW used the tainted information, Roth did nothing.

Directly because of Roth’s leadership, his statements, his decisions, and his tweets, HRW now is much less of a human-rights organization, and is instead a shrill and biased political advocacy group. This is a shame, because there is much human-rights work to be done. But so long as Roth tweets first and asks questions later and allows his Twitter feed to demonstrate a deep personal bias, then HRW cannot accomplish its mission. If Roth truly cares about the organization over which he has presided for 21 years, it is time for him to leave. If he does not have the grace to do so, then the onus is on HRW to let him go and start the hard work of rebuilding its reputation and instituting safeguards to ensure that never again will its employees’ political projects trump methodology and process.

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A Case Study in Media Bias: Today’s Jerusalem Terror Attack

I mentioned today’s Jerusalem terror attack in my earlier post, but I think it’s worth returning to in light of the information we now have as well as the bias-on-steroids we witnessed in the aftermath of the deadly attack. The only way to understand how major media outlets could behave so disreputably is to keep in mind a point I’ve made here before: the perseverance of the Palestinian narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict depends entirely on the ignorance and dishonesty of the Western press.

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I mentioned today’s Jerusalem terror attack in my earlier post, but I think it’s worth returning to in light of the information we now have as well as the bias-on-steroids we witnessed in the aftermath of the deadly attack. The only way to understand how major media outlets could behave so disreputably is to keep in mind a point I’ve made here before: the perseverance of the Palestinian narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict depends entirely on the ignorance and dishonesty of the Western press.

Here, briefly, is what happened:

A three-month-old girl was killed Wednesday afternoon and eight others were injured when a car crashed into a crowd at a light rail station in Jerusalem in what officials said was a likely terrorist attack.

A suspect, identified by an Israeli official as a member of terror group Hamas, attempted to flee the scene on foot and was shot by police, a police spokesperson said.

And here, also via the Times of Israel, is the aftermath:

Major clashes took place Wednesday evening between Palestinians and Israeli police forces in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Silwan and Issawiya, following a suspected terrorist attack in which a three-month-old Israeli girl was killed.

Dozens of masked Palestinians set tires and dumpsters ablaze and threw stones and Molotov cocktails at police officers in Silwan and Issawiya, police said in a statement.

If you want to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict, those two stories are a good introduction. The Israeli government built rail access to Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem to better integrate them into Israeli society. Arab Jerusalemites have made the very instruments of Israeli outreach and integration into targets of sporadic violence. That violence resulted, today, in a member of a Palestinian terror group carrying out an attack and murdering a baby. In response, the Palestinians rioted. Welcome to Jerusalem 2014.

But that’s not the end of the lesson. The media’s reaction to the murder was stomach turning–and, unfortunately, not atypical.

The Associated Press got plenty of attention for its initial headline of the story: “Israeli police shoot man in east Jerusalem.” As CAMERA noted, “there were clearly enough details available at the time, even with the news still in the hazy ‘breaking’ stage, that the inappropriate and misleading headline should never have appeared on the story. The story opened by noting that a driver ‘slammed into a crowded train stop’ and was thought to be a ‘terror attack.’”

Indeed. CAMERA went on to note that about an hour later, the AP re-released the story with the following headline: “Car slams into east Jerusalem train station.” You’ll notice that this, too, is repellant behavior by the AP. Many others noticed as well, and said so. To say getting the truth from the AP on Israel is like pulling teeth would be an understatement. But finally, the truth appeared; the headline currently on the story is: “Palestinian kills baby at Jerusalem station.”

But the AP wasn’t alone. Scanning the BBC, I had noticed their initial headline (since changed as well): “Nine hurt as car hits pedestrians at Jerusalem station.” As the Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman pointed out, the headline on the version he saw, and took a screenshot of, was “Car hits people at Jerusalem station.” Either the BBC was deliberately downplaying the story, or the editor in charge thought he was posting a story about an evil car magically becoming sentient only to lash out, like Black Sabbath’s Iron Man, at the humans around him.

Later in the day, after executives at the BBC located a shred of integrity hidden somewhere in the sofa cushions, that was changed as well. It now reads: “Jerusalem car ‘attack’ kills baby at rail station.” I say “a shred of integrity” because the BBC still saw fit to wrap “attack” in scare quotes. What are the options, here? Was it a car “love tap”? It was a terrorist attack, perpetrated by a member of a terrorist organization.

After the attack and the Jerusalem mayor’s declaration that the murdered baby was an American citizen, the bright shining star at the State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf, apparently could only muster the following, as reported by the Times of Israel: “The Israelis are currently looking into the incident. We are in touch with them and we’ll see what more information we can get, also urge all sides to exercise restraint and maintain calm.” I suppose if the driver of the car had said something mean about John Kerry, she’d really let him have it.

In any event, all sides are not exercising restraint and maintaining calm. Only the Israeli side is. The Palestinians are agitating for more, relying on an international press to obfuscate and deploy scare quotes as needed.

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Americans’ Declining Trust in Our Public Institutions

Two days ago I wrote a piece on the anxiety of Americans in which I mentioned they are less trusting of our public institutions. Today in a story in the New York Times, written by the outstanding reporter Peter Baker, we’re told this:

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Two days ago I wrote a piece on the anxiety of Americans in which I mentioned they are less trusting of our public institutions. Today in a story in the New York Times, written by the outstanding reporter Peter Baker, we’re told this:

Polling by Gallup shows that since June 2009, in the heyday of the new Obama presidency, public confidence in virtually every major institution of American life has fallen, including organized religion, the military, the Supreme Court, public schools, newspapers, Congress, television news, the police, the presidency, the medical system, the criminal justice system and small business.

Mr. Baker goes on to point out that the only institutions that Gallup tested that showed slight improvement from June 2009 to June 2014 were banks, organized labor, big business, and health maintenance organizations–yet all four of them had the confidence of just roughly a quarter of the population or less.

The Times story discusses the incompetence of the president, which I believe is by now indisputable. But whether I am right or wrong, this decreasing confidence in our institutions is problematic. For one thing, it indicates that many of the institutions that are central to our lives are not working as well as they have in the past.

To be sure, some institutions (like the military, the police, and organized religion) maintain a fair amount of trust, while others (particularly our political institutions) do not. The public’s verdict on the institutions they deem trustworthy and those they don’t seems quite reasonable to me. There’s a crisis of confidence in some of our institutions and not in others; but a decreasing confidence in almost all of them. And this leakage of trust needs to be seen, I think, in the broader context of a nation that is increasingly anxious, isolated, and feeling vulnerable. Americans sense they’re traveling more through valleys than the uplands.

I’ve argued before that the reform and modernization of our public institutions is one of the great tasks, including one of the great political tasks, before us. This Times story and the polling data it relies on is more evidence why that’s necessary; and why, if conservatives and Republicans at every level of government find the right way to talk about and begin to address these challenges, they will be earn the esteem of their fellow citizens. And maybe their votes, too.

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Obama’s Gift to Republicans

One of the more amusing things to observe as we get closer to the midterm elections is the great push-and-pull that’s going on between Democratic candidates and the president.

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One of the more amusing things to observe as we get closer to the midterm elections is the great push-and-pull that’s going on between Democratic candidates and the president.

A nearly endless number of Democrats are distancing themselves from Mr. Obama, including those who have voted with him 99 percent of the time. Perhaps the most comical performance so far was by Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat in Kentucky who’s challenging Mitch McConnell. Ms. Grimes has repeatedly refused to say whether she voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 and 2012, including invoking a high constitutional principle to keep her sacred little secret.

It’s now gotten to the point where even the chairwoman of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, distanced herself from the president of her own party. And here’s what really wonderful about this: Mr. Obama won’t let Democrats run from him. He’s like their hound of heaven.

Earlier this month, in a speech to Northwestern University, the president said, “I am not on the ballot this fall. Michelle’s pretty happy about that. But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them.” And just in case that message was lost on folks, earlier this week, in an interview on Al Sharpton’s radio show, Mr. Obama said this:

some of the candidates there, you know, it is difficult for them to have me in the state because the Republicans will use that to try to fan Republican turnout. The bottom line is, though, these are all folks who vote with me — they have supported my agenda in Congress.

And this:

This isn’t about my feelings being hurt. These are folks who are strong allies and supporters of me. And I tell them, I said, you know what, you do what you need to win. I will be responsible for making sure that our voters turn up.

Now in this case, the president is absolutely right; every one of the Democratic incumbents on the ballot this November is a stalwart supporter of the Obama agenda. But they’re frantically trying to pretend they’re not; and the president, in denying them this fiction, is complicating their lives immeasurably.

Surely Mr. Obama knows all this. But the man senior aides referred to as the “black Jesus” during the 2008 campaign–a person who sees himself as a world-historical figure, healer of the planet, the symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions, and all the rest–isn’t going to go gently into the good night. No siree. His vanity won’t allow it.

As a result, Mr. Obama is, for Republicans, the gift that keeps on giving. And giving. And giving.

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Europe Pretends Palestinians Don’t Exist

A recurring obstacle to peace in the Middle East is the West’s refusal to grant Palestinians agency. The desire to blame Israel or “the occupation” (a term which itself has begun colonizing Israeli land to the point of meaninglessness) for every Palestinian crime treats the Palestinians as if they have no self-control and are incapable of independent thinking. Such an attitude will necessarily prevent them from realizing statehood because it withholds the very independence their Western advocates claim to support. The latest story out of Europe is a remarkable escalation of this behavior.

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A recurring obstacle to peace in the Middle East is the West’s refusal to grant Palestinians agency. The desire to blame Israel or “the occupation” (a term which itself has begun colonizing Israeli land to the point of meaninglessness) for every Palestinian crime treats the Palestinians as if they have no self-control and are incapable of independent thinking. Such an attitude will necessarily prevent them from realizing statehood because it withholds the very independence their Western advocates claim to support. The latest story out of Europe is a remarkable escalation of this behavior.

Haaretz reports that the European Union is considering essentially removing the Palestinians from the process while also advocating religious and ethnic apartheid against Jews in Jerusalem. The paper has obtained an internal EU document that purports to suggest opening negotiations with Israel over reducing Jewish rights in the Jewish state. I wrote nearly two years ago that the emergence of the EU’s “red lines” are incompatible with Israel’s red lines, and thus the relationship between Israel and the increasingly antidemocratic EU would only continue to deteriorate. The Haaretz report is late to this notion, but confirms the prediction:

The two-page document defines several of the EU’s “red lines” regarding Israeli actions in the West Bank:

1. Construction in the Givat Hamatos neighborhood, beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem. …

2. Construction in the E1 area between Ma’aleh Adumim and Jerusalem. …

3. Further construction in the Har Homa neighborhood in Jerusalem, beyond the Green Line.

4. Israeli plans to relocate 12,000 Bedouin without their consent in a new town in the Jordan Valley, expelling them from lands in the West Bank, including E1. …

5. Harming the status-quo at the Temple Mount: The document said that attempts to challenge the status-quo have led to instability in East Jerusalem and increased tensions.

The clearest implication from this document is that according to the Europeans, the Palestinians simply don’t exist–not in any meaningful way outside of an abstract collection of non-Jews the Europeans intend to use as tools to further box in the Jews of the Middle East.

In 2011, Newt Gingrich found himself in hot water with the liberal press for saying the Palestinians were an “invented” people. His critics misunderstood the point he was trying to make, which is that Palestinian Arab nationalism as a unifying ideology is a recent phenomenon. He said as much not to disenfranchise the Palestinians but to defend the Jews of Israel from such disenfranchisement, in which the international community buys into Arab lies about Israel in order to delegitimize the Jewish state.

But Gingrich’s comments pale in comparison to the European Union’s new posture. To Gingrich, a century ago the Palestinians didn’t exist. To the Europeans, the Palestinians don’t currently exist. They do not want a true peace process, which would require good-faith negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. They want some clumsy 21st century neocolonialist glory in pretending that Brussels isn’t a global joke but rather a crusading imperial bureaucracy on the march dictating the boundaries of a changing Middle East. It isn’t enough that Europe has made its Jews feel unwelcome enough to flee the continent; they must also evict Jews thousands of miles away.

Of course, Europe’s track record of manufacturing countries and borders in the Middle East is about as good as one would expect when the goal was to divide the region against itself: the record is terrible. So now that those European-imposed or inspired borders are collapsing in a regional societal disintegration, it’s doubtful anyone is silly enough to take Europe’s advice on what the new boundaries should be once the dust settles, if it settles.

But the more pressing concern is that Europe’s latest antics will only serve to encourage and justify more violence against Jews. If Europe is going to back the Palestinian position on not rocking the boat on the Temple Mount, Brussels might want to remember that Mahmoud Abbas recently counseled violence, if necessary, to stop Jews from visiting their holy site. More terror struck Jerusalem today, and I imagine Israelis would appreciate Europe not pouring more gasoline on the fire.

It also demonstrates the absurdity of the European idea of negotiations. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Brussels seems to want a European-Israeli peace process. Europe’s peculiar take on this, however, is less like true negotiations and more like an advance warning. Wanting to “discuss” unspecified retribution against Israel if it doesn’t do as Europe says is not really a discussion at all, but a weasel-worded string of threats.

They’re also nonsensical and unreasonable. The EU’s red lines, especially on issues like E-1, contradict both the Olmert peace plan and the Clinton peace parameters. Following the EU’s advice, in other words, will make an agreement with the Palestinians virtually impossible. Which perhaps explains why the Europeans have taken the Palestinians out of the equation.

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Accountability for Military Contractors

That took long enough. Back in 2007 Blackwater contractors opened fired in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, claiming they were under attack from insurgents. But numerous eyewitnesses said the shooting, which killed 17 Iraqis, was unprovoked. Four of those involved have finally been convicted in federal court in Washington D.C.–one of murder, the other three of manslaughter.

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That took long enough. Back in 2007 Blackwater contractors opened fired in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, claiming they were under attack from insurgents. But numerous eyewitnesses said the shooting, which killed 17 Iraqis, was unprovoked. Four of those involved have finally been convicted in federal court in Washington D.C.–one of murder, the other three of manslaughter.

That is a step forward in holding contractors accountable for their conduct on the battlefield, but only a small step. After all, it took seven years to conclude this case–not that it’s concluded now since the defendants are likely to appeal. That is hardly the definition of expeditious justice. But it’s more than prosecutors have been able to accomplish in the past since only eight other individuals have been charged under statutes designed to hold contractors accountable for their battlefield conduct.

There is an imperative to do better because as the U.S. military continues its unfortunate downsizing it will have to remain reliant in the future on contractors–but their actions can detract from mission objectives if they alienate locals in the process of delivering goods or dignitaries from Point A to Point B. In the new issue of Foreign Affairs I suggest a possible reform as part of a larger look at “lessons learned” from twelve years of nonstop war:

One possible model is the way that U.S. commanders exercise authority over foreign troops. Just as the troops from contributing nations plug into a U.S.-led command structure, contractors could, too. In the future, the U.S. government should write its contracts differently. Security firms working for any branch of the U.S. government, including the State Department and USAID, and operating on a battlefield where the U.S. military is present should fall under the operational control of a senior U.S. military officer who has the power to revoke their contracts and prosecute their employees in case of misdeeds.

I am open to other ideas. But clearly something needs to be done to ensure that contractors in the future are held to the same standards as U.S. soldiers because in the places where they operate, locals do not make fine distinctions between different types of armed Americans.

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Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force

When it comes to the Arab world, Norman Cigar, research fellow at the Marine Corps University, is one of my favorite analysts and writers. His Arabic is great, and his research often taps resources and tackles subjects other writers and academics ignore.

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When it comes to the Arab world, Norman Cigar, research fellow at the Marine Corps University, is one of my favorite analysts and writers. His Arabic is great, and his research often taps resources and tackles subjects other writers and academics ignore.

Such is the case with his latest report (.pdf), “Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force: The Silent Service,” published last month by Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University, but just showing up in my mailbox yesterday.

Cigar traces the birth of Saudi Arabia’s strategic rocket force in purchases three decades ago from China taken against the backdrop of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and outbreak of Iran-Iraq War. Why China? The Reagan administration, the AWACs sale notwithstanding, refused Saudi requests to purchase American missiles.

Saudi Arabia quickly came to appreciate the benefits of building a strategic rocket force. Drawing from Arabic sources, Cigar writes, “The Saudis have continued to view SSMs [surface-to-surface missiles] as an effective and cost-effective weapon system, with one senior officer highlighting SSMs’ speed, range, accuracy, the difficulty of defending against them, their relative lower cost compared to airpower, and ‘the ability to carry warheads with immense destructive power and great lethality, especially nuclear and chemical ones.’”

The report continues to examine Saudi operational thinking and Saudi concepts of deterrence. And while so much in Saudi Arabia is superficial or for show only, Cigar convincingly shows that this is not the case with Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Rocket Force. After all, rather than simply purchase some shiny missiles here and there to be unveiled during parades and on national days, the Saudis have built up a formidable infrastructure to support their missile program, including multiple bases as well as support and maintenance facilities.

With some of its arsenal aging, Cigar also traces reports that Saudi Arabia might have sought to finance Egyptian missile purchases from Russia with the intent of acquiring those missiles themselves, perhaps even for a strike against Iran. However, as Cigar notes, Saudi efforts to upgrade its missile arsenal also suggest a Plan B in case Iran does go nuclear: Not a strike against Iran, but rather quickly matching or exceeding Iran’s capabilities, perhaps by purchasing nuclear technology, while having the same or even better means to deliver nuclear warheads.

The whole report is worth reading. Saudi Arabia might now appear “moderate” but that has less to do with real reform inside the Kingdom than its juxtaposition with more radical groups such as ISIS and the Taliban, as well as the increasing promotion of radicalism by Qatar and Turkey. Stability is far from certain within Saudi Arabia as the monarchy—traditionally passed from brother to brother—approaches a generational change with all the attendant incumbent factional struggle. What is pro-Western today could be reactionary tomorrow. That does not mean undue pessimism is warranted: Saudi Arabia could continue to promote responsible leadership in the region and transform itself into a force for stability. Regardless, Saudi Arabia’s growing strategic rocket force, should certainly be on the radar of anyone following regional threats and balance of power. Thank you, Norman Cigar and the Marine Corps University, for ensuring this topic received a full airing.

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“It’s the Ideology, Stupid.”

Seeking to unseat President George H.W. Bush during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton campaign strategist James Carville coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” to remind Clinton campaign workers that they should focus on the economy as the key to defeating Bush, whose popularity in March 1991 peaked at more than 90 percent.

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Seeking to unseat President George H.W. Bush during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton campaign strategist James Carville coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” to remind Clinton campaign workers that they should focus on the economy as the key to defeating Bush, whose popularity in March 1991 peaked at more than 90 percent.

Well, given Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent quip that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict motivated ISIS recruits, perhaps it’s about time to revise that slogan to “It’s the Ideology, Stupid.” Now, I don’t mean to actually call John Kerry stupid. Just as someone needs to be valedictorian of the summer school class, Kerry might just as well be considered the valedictorian of the Obama administration. If his competition is Chuck Hagel or Joe Biden or possibly even President Obama himself, Kerry might as well be a shining star.

But the notion Kerry embraces that terrorism is motivated by grievance rather than ideology is politically correct nonsense. One of the biggest academic proponents of this argument has been University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape. In recent years, he has doubled down on the argument that grievance rather than ideology (let alone religious ideology) motivates terror. The problem is that, as Martin Kramer has exposed, Pape shamelessly massaged and cherry picked his statistics to support a thesis which flies in the face of evidence. No wonder that Pape apparently worked with the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group which apologizes for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and has been an unindicted co-conspirator in a terrorism finance trial, in order to inflate his book sales. But, then again, let’s not condemn Pape for hiding such things: His career has been built on obfuscating motives.

The simple fact is that reality flies in the face of Kerry’s assertion and Pape’s theories. First off, let’s not forget that even the United States intelligence community recognized the threat posed by Islamist radicalism in the years before the partition of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel, nor does the radicalism of those attacking women and minorities in the suburbs of Paris, or targeting homosexuals on the streets of London, have anything to do with Israel.

Secondly, the most oft-cited grievances—poverty and lack of education—have no statistical link to terror. Suicide bombers tend not to be those with the least opportunities; rather, they tend to be those from educated, middle-class backgrounds. In the Gaza Strip, Pakistan, Turkey, and elsewhere, recruitment occurs in the schools. Nor do we see a rash of terrorists and murders arising from the ten poorest countries on earth. With tongue in cheek, if the United States were to base its counterterrorism policy solely on statistics, then its counterterrorism policy would seek to increase poverty and decrease education. At least we can be grateful, however, that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hasn’t simply classified ISIS as perpetrators of “workplace violence.”

Thankfully, Katie Gorka through the Council on Global Security has now published a new white paper entitled, “The Flawed Science Behind America’s Counter-Terrorism Policy,” in which she provides both historical context to the cost of focusing on grievance as the motivator of terrorism and demonstrates how ignoring Islamist ideology costs lives. The whole report is worth reading. Obama and Kerry may be too set in their ways and more inclined to make excuses that question progressive doctrines, but let us hope that those who seek to take their place after the next election will read Gorka’s work. The cost of not doing so and continuing to tilt at politically correct windmills will be paid in lives.

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Abbas’s Palestine Is the Real Apartheid State

In recent weeks, critics of Israel have been crying foul over the fact that Jews have moved into some apartments in East Jerusalem neighborhoods. The fact that the homes were legally purchased and that the new residents were merely attempting to reside in the country’s as-yet-undivided capital was seen as irrelevant since the presence of Jews in Arab-majority areas is considered to be an obstacle to a potential partition of the city should a peace agreement with the Palestinians ever be signed. But even if we were to concede that such moves do infuriate Arabs, surely no one, not even Israel’s most adamant opponents, would be comfortable with laws that banned the presence of Jews in parts of Jerusalem or anywhere else. Right? Wrong.

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In recent weeks, critics of Israel have been crying foul over the fact that Jews have moved into some apartments in East Jerusalem neighborhoods. The fact that the homes were legally purchased and that the new residents were merely attempting to reside in the country’s as-yet-undivided capital was seen as irrelevant since the presence of Jews in Arab-majority areas is considered to be an obstacle to a potential partition of the city should a peace agreement with the Palestinians ever be signed. But even if we were to concede that such moves do infuriate Arabs, surely no one, not even Israel’s most adamant opponents, would be comfortable with laws that banned the presence of Jews in parts of Jerusalem or anywhere else. Right? Wrong.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas reacted to the fact that Jews have bought homes from Palestinians in parts of Jerusalem by vowing to toughen existing PA laws that forbid such sales. Yes, that’s right. In “Palestine”—be it the existing PA or Hamas states or the future independent Palestinian state that Europe is so eager to recognize even without it having to make peace with Israel—it is against the law to sell land or a home to a Jew.

The question of whether Jews should move into majority Arab neighborhoods or towns is a question of judgment. Let’s ignore for the moment the fact that the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected any peace deal that would give them an independent state and a share of Jerusalem since it would require them to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. It is possible to argue that the two communities are better off living separately. But voluntary separation is one thing, legal restrictions on the right of Jews to live in some areas is something very different.

After all, in the State of Israel, which is routinely and falsely accused of being an “apartheid state,” Arabs may live where they please. When some areas have tried to restrict sales of property to Arabs, Israel’s courts have ruled that this is inconsistent with the principles enunciated in the country’s basic laws. While Israel is not a perfect society and the Arab minority faces challenges that are often rooted in the century-old war over the land, the principle of equality before the law for all citizens is upheld.

But in “Palestine,” not only are there no courts or government to prevent individuals or groups from discriminating, but there it is the government itself that both promulgates and ruthlessly enforces such bias.

As the Times of Israel reports:

According to the official Palestinian Wafa news agency, Abbas on Monday imposed a sentence of hard labor for life on “anyone diverting, renting or selling land to an enemy state or one of its subjects.”

Jordan’s penal code number 16 article 114, applicable in the Palestinian territories, previously subscribed “temporary hard labor” to perpetrators of the crime.

In practice, this means Jews may not buy, rent, or sell land. In other words, should the state of Palestine that sits in the United Nations ever become a real sovereign country it will be the apartheid state, not democratic Israel.

The purpose of such laws is to thwart the Zionist enterprise by which Jews have returned to their ancient homeland by legally purchasing land. But the motivating factor here is Jew hatred. Should Palestine ever become a reality, the neighborhoods where Jews have bought homes would be part of it. At that point these few Jews would be no threat to the Arab majority. But the Palestinian vision of statehood remains one in which Israel would be a country where Jews and Arabs live while Palestine will be a Judenrein—Jew-free—entity.

The point here is that peace is possible if both sides are prepared to compromise and recognize each other’s legitimacy. But the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority of Abbas, that both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry constantly praise as a true peace partner for Israel, is not only not interested in compromising. It is also promulgating and attempting to enforce laws that are based in anti-Semitic incitement. Were Israel to ban Arabs from moving into homes they owned in West Jerusalem, it would prompt an international outcry and condemnations from the United States. But instead America condemns Jews who move into Arab neighborhoods and stays silent when Abbas seeks to treat those who sell to Jews as criminals.

Instead of the Jewish home buying in Jerusalem being an obstacle to peace as Israel’s critics claim, it is the Arab attempt to criminalize selling to a Jew that best illustrates why peace is not yet possible.

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Tom Steyer and the Right to Free Speech

Democrats have spent much of the last year trying to fuel outrage about the efforts of what they claim is nothing less than a plot by rich conservatives to purchase American democracy. At the center of that campaign is an effort to demonize the Koch brothers with a secondary role being played by Sheldon Adelson. But, as the New York Times reports today, liberal environmentalist Tom Steyer has now exceeded Adelson as the country’s largest donor to Super PACs with at least $55 million dollars donated in the last year to help defeat Republicans in the 2014 midterms. While Steyer is within his rights to spend his money as he likes, his move into first place in the Super PAC rankings effectively demonstrates not only the hypocrisy of attacks on the Kochs but the disingenuous nature of the Democrats’ claim that the GOP is buying the election.

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Democrats have spent much of the last year trying to fuel outrage about the efforts of what they claim is nothing less than a plot by rich conservatives to purchase American democracy. At the center of that campaign is an effort to demonize the Koch brothers with a secondary role being played by Sheldon Adelson. But, as the New York Times reports today, liberal environmentalist Tom Steyer has now exceeded Adelson as the country’s largest donor to Super PACs with at least $55 million dollars donated in the last year to help defeat Republicans in the 2014 midterms. While Steyer is within his rights to spend his money as he likes, his move into first place in the Super PAC rankings effectively demonstrates not only the hypocrisy of attacks on the Kochs but the disingenuous nature of the Democrats’ claim that the GOP is buying the election.

Though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has made the libertarian Koch brothers the centerpiece of his and other Democratic efforts to portray the conservative and Tea Party pushback against the Obama administration’s big-government agenda as nothing less than an “anti-American” conspiracy to defraud the republic, Steyer’s efforts and those of many other wealthy liberals give the lie to these claims. Steyer has been pouring money into Democratic campaigns like it was water in the last few months. Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action Committee reported yesterday that it had received $15 million from the billionaire that it, in turn, is distributing to Democrats in battleground races. He also gave $15 million in August.

Democrats say Steyer’s efforts shouldn’t be lumped in with those of the Kochs because the latter are venal while he is principled (though Reid exempts Adelson from his critique so as to avoid his Nevada resident aiming his considerable fortune at his own career). But this is nothing short of slander. As they have consistently demonstrated over the years, the Kochs’ belief in libertarian principles is no less rooted in ideology than Steyer’s belief that the world is melting and must be saved from global warming. Moreover, Koch Industries are so diversified that it is almost impossible to make a coherent argument that any measures they support are likely to make more money for them than they could lose. Moreover, the list of prominent Democratic donors that made money off of crony capitalist “green” deals with the government—of which the Solyndra scam was just the most prominent—undermines any notion that one party has cleaner hands than the other with respect to fundraising.

Liberals also contend that talk about Democratic hypocrisy on campaign finance is silly because it is wrong to ask one party to unilaterally disarm in a tough fight when the other side is deploying major donors who are willing to give millions to advance their cause. They have a point. But what they miss about all this is that their constant complaints about the supposedly disastrous impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision is that the bipartisan billionaire competition shows the system is working as it should.

Liberals think even more restrictive campaign-finance laws that would limit the ability of Americans to express their opinions would better serve the country. But that would mean less political speech and less debate about issues and candidates. That would make the mainstream media—to which such restrictions would not apply—even more powerful. It would also help incumbents who are better placed to attract publicity in an environment where challengers would be hard placed to raise enough money to get noticed. Outsiders on both the left and the right would have trouble making their voices heard. But that wouldn’t make the system more democratic.

While many people profess to be disgusted by the importance of money in politics, these scruples ignore the fact that money has, and always will, play a role in elections. The only question is whether we will have laws that protect the right of all Americans to exercise their right to political speech or if we will create one in which a liberal establishment that dominates the media can game the system. Both liberals and conservatives have benefited from Citizens United; the only difference is that liberal big donors pretend to be disgusted by the freedom they are afforded. Steyer’s ideas have as much right to be heard as those of the Kochs or those of the New York Times editorial page. The push to shut down political speech is a thinly veiled effort to manipulate the system. And that is a lot worse than hypocrisy.

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Gay Marriage and the Myth of Progressive American Secularism

Over the last few days a story has made the rounds about the state of Idaho coercing pastors into officiating same-sex weddings or risk a fine and jail time. The story has changed a bit, but its disturbing core remains. And there’s an aspect to this scandal that shows what’s been missing from our debate over the thought police’s consistent targeting of religious believers.

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Over the last few days a story has made the rounds about the state of Idaho coercing pastors into officiating same-sex weddings or risk a fine and jail time. The story has changed a bit, but its disturbing core remains. And there’s an aspect to this scandal that shows what’s been missing from our debate over the thought police’s consistent targeting of religious believers.

On Saturday, the faith group Alliance Defending Freedom posted a press release about the Knapps, a married couple both of whom are ordained ministers. The Knapps own and run the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The state recently passed an anti-discrimination law that applies to the state’s businesses. Hitching Post is a for-profit chapel. Thus, according to state officials, the law plainly applies without exception to the Knapps.

The ADF press release was a bit ahead of itself. “Officials threaten to punish senior citizen couple – both ordained pastors – if they decline to officiate same-sex ceremonies,” it said up top. But the threat, really, was as-yet implied. The state did, however, confirm that the law applies to the Knapps, and the Knapps have since refused to perform a wedding ceremony for a same-sex couple. The clock, then, is ticking–though as of Monday the Knapps had not been charged. They are suing the state to ensure they won’t be, by asking a federal judge to bar enforcement.

Over at the Federalist, Robert Tracinski makes an astute observation:

No one ever expects the Secular Inquisition.

Except that we actually did expect it. In fact, it’s inherent in the fundamental basis of the left’s arguments for gay marriage.

Tracinski has no objection to gay marriage, and in fact considers himself “an advocate of secularism—including secular morality and a secular basis for liberty.” He therefore opposes coercing couples like the Knapps because he doesn’t want his “views similarly discredited by association with the oppressive acts of a new Secular Inquisition.” When he says “similarly discredited,” he is referring to the fact that the Spanish Inquisition “served to discredit religion by associating it with brutality.”

Perhaps. But there’s another way of thinking about this: we should operate under the assumption that there is no secular party in this drama at all.

On October 1, Mosaic Magazine republished Irving Kristol’s 1991 COMMENTARY essay on “The Future of American Jewry.” (Mosaic has just published an e-book of Kristol’s writings on Judaism.) It is a trenchant–and just as relevant today as it was then–take on American Judaism and its entanglement with secular humanism.

About the emergence of the “American creed” of toleration mixed with relegating religion in America to a more private role, Kristol wrote:

Historians call this phase of our intellectual history, now more than a century old, “secularization,” and they point to analogous developments in other lands to sustain the thesis that secularization is an integral part of modernization. It is impossible to argue with this thesis, for which the evidence is overwhelming. But it is possible and legitimate to question the explanatory power of the concept of secularization. Something important happened, that is certain. Secularization is doubtless as good a shorthand term as any to describe what happened. It is not, however, a useful concept if one wishes to explain what happened. For what we call secularization is an idea that only makes sense from a point of view that regards traditional religions as survivals that can, at best, be adapted to a nonreligious society.

Instead, he explained, in what might be the single best one-paragraph précis of left-liberalism then and now:

When we look at secularization without an ideological parti pris, we can fairly—and, I would suggest, more accurately—describe it as the victory of a new, emergent religious impulse over the traditional biblical religions that formed the framework of Western civilization. Nor is there any mystery as to the identity of this new religious impulse. It is named, fairly and accurately, secular humanism. Merely because it incorporates the word “secular” in its self-identification does not mean that it cannot be seriously viewed as a competitive religion—though its adherents resent and resist any such ascription. Such resentment and resistance are, of course, a natural consequence of seeing the human world through “secularist” spectacles. Because secular humanism has, from the very beginning, incorporated the modern scientific view of the universe, it has always felt itself—and today still feels itself—“liberated” from any kind of religious perspective. But secular humanism is more than science, because it proceeds to make all kinds of inferences about the human condition and human possibilities that are not, in any authentic sense, scientific. Those inferences are metaphysical, and in the end theological.

Kristol wrote that in 1991, but in some ways was ahead of his time. Seventeen years later the Democratic Party nominated for president a man who appealed directly to the left’s religious zealotry by painting himself as a progressive prophet and redeemer. Announcing that his looming nomination victory “was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” is the language of a religious fanatic, which Obama is and which his followers are as well.

And this is a religious country. Obama won, after all, promising various forms of redemption to his supporters. But the Obama phenomenon was only possible because the demand for such a false prophet existed in the first place. In fact, anyone who has observed American politics and religious discourse in recent years will be aware that when it comes to evangelism, those professing to be godless or secular or progressive are the most thorough. (For a clever take on this, watch Portlandia’s hipster version of door-knocking missionaries. Example: approaching Seattle residents with the line, “We were wondering if you were interested in accepting Portland into your life.”)

Atheists have begun to bring that spirit to life. Last year, the Associated Press detailed the rise of “atheist mega-churches” around the world. (Complete with “Born Again Humanist” bumper stickers.) That movement inspired a column in (where else?) the Guardian railing against the idea of a church for nonbelievers. As the column’s author Sadhbh Walshe, a devout nonbeliever, wrote:

I would have thought the message of atheism (if there needs to be one) is that churches and ritualized worship (whatever the focus of that worship might be) are best left to the people who feel the need to have a God figure in their lives.

Ah, but Walshe is right! The trappings of religion are for “people who feel the need to have a God figure in their lives.” And that is, it appears, most people. Especially in Western countries with religious heritage but aggressive and modern nihilistic instincts. The “secular” left needs a God figure just as much as the religious right. The difference is that the religious right eschews Inquisitions, and the left is just learning how effective they can be. Just ask the Knapps.

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Congress Can Stop Obama’s Iran Appeasement End Run

While most of the attention on the Iran nuclear issue has rightly been on the negotiations being conducted by the U.S. and its allies with Tehran, the Obama administration is already planning for the aftermath of what it hopes will be a new agreement. But rather than preparing for an effort to persuade Congress of the merits of its diplomatic efforts, the president is planning on an end run around the laws it passed and unilaterally suspending enforcement of the sanctions on Iran. In doing so, he will not only be continuing a path he has pursued on issues such as immigration but will go even further in violating the constitutional requirement that the legislative branch approve all treaties with foreign powers.

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While most of the attention on the Iran nuclear issue has rightly been on the negotiations being conducted by the U.S. and its allies with Tehran, the Obama administration is already planning for the aftermath of what it hopes will be a new agreement. But rather than preparing for an effort to persuade Congress of the merits of its diplomatic efforts, the president is planning on an end run around the laws it passed and unilaterally suspending enforcement of the sanctions on Iran. In doing so, he will not only be continuing a path he has pursued on issues such as immigration but will go even further in violating the constitutional requirement that the legislative branch approve all treaties with foreign powers.

The president’s problem isn’t limited to the fact that many Americans are rightly worried that the deal in the works with Iran is one that won’t do much to prevent the Islamist regime from eventually realizing its nuclear ambition. It’s that the economic sanctions that were imposed on Iran by laws enacted by Congress must be rescinded in the same manner that they were passed: by a vote. If the agreement that the U.S. is pushing hard to conclude with Iran is a good one, then the president and Secretary of State John Kerry should have no problem selling it to Congress, which could then simply vote to rescind the sanctions.

But such a vote would require hearings and a full debate on the matter. During the course of that debate, it almost certainly would become clear that what the administration is prepared to allow Iran would fall far short of the president’s campaign pledges to end Tehran’s nuclear program or to prevent it from ever getting a bomb. The administration has already publicly floated some of the terms it is offering the Iranians. While last year’s weak interim deal tacitly endorsed Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium that could be used for a weapon, the U.S. has retreated further from its initial tough position and is now prepared to allow the Iranians to have at least 1,000 centrifuges that could process the material to build nuclear fuel. Since the Iranians are insisting with their usual persistence that they be allowed to keep all of their centrifuges, most observers now assume that the U.S. will agree to a deal that will allow them to have thousands.

In order to save face, American negotiators have reportedly suggested that the pipes connecting the centrifuges be disconnected, a pathetic stance that further undermines American credibility since it is understood that they can easily be reconnected anytime the ayatollahs deem it in their interest. The same can be said of Iran’s agreement to deactivate its existing stockpile of enriched uranium since that too can be reversed with ease.

Seen in that light any agreement—assuming the Iranians are willing to agree to another weak deal rather than simply waiting until the international coalition Obama is leading unravels—will be difficult to sell to a skeptical Congress that pushed an unwilling administration into agreeing to the sanctions in the first place.

In order to evade the law, the president will have to do two things.

First, he will have to declare that any agreement will be merely an informal add-on to existing international deals rather than a treaty and so avoid a constitutionally required two-thirds ratification vote in the Senate he’d be unlikely to win. That will be a blatant lie but since the move would have to be taken to court, it’s a gamble he’d likely win.

Second, he will have to unilaterally suspend enforcement of the sanctions on Iran passed by Congress rather than have them rescinded. As even the New York Times notes in its article on the topic yesterday, that is not a stance even most Democrats would tolerate.

More to the point, the president’s prepared end run also signals the resumption of a political battle over renewed sanctions that the administration thought it had conclusively won last winter. At the time, majorities in the House and the Senate were prepared to enact even tougher restrictions on commerce with Iran that would have tightened the noose on Tehran’s oil business. But, with the able assistance of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the president was able to stop the Senate from voting on the measure proposed by Senator Robert Menendez, the Foreign Relations Committee chair and Senator Mark Kirk. Supporters of more sanctions (which would not have gone into effect until the next phase of negotiations with Iran was pronounced a failure) were branded “warmongers” who didn’t want to give diplomacy a chance and thus effectively silenced.

But this time that strategy won’t work.

After a year of talks that have been dragged beyond the original six-month deadline and may yet be further extended as Iran continues its decade-old strategy of running out the clock on the West, it is no longer possible to argue that Obama needs to be given an opportunity to test the good will of the Iranians. Nor can the president pretend that the current terms are anything but a transparent surrender to Iranian demands and not a fulfillment of his pledges.

That’s why Menendez is prepared to try again this fall when Congress returns to Washington after the midterm elections. As the Times reports:

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat, said over the weekend that, “If a potential deal does not substantially and effectively dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program, I expect Congress will respond. An agreement cannot allow Iran to be a threshold nuclear state.” He has sponsored legislation to tighten sanctions if no agreement is reached by Nov. 24.

If that weren’t enough of a threat to force the administration to stiffen its spin in negotiations with Iran, there is also the real possibility that in January the president will not be able to rely on Reid to spike sanctions legislation. If, as they are favored to do, the Republicans take control of the Senate, it is highly likely that Obama will find himself presented with new sanctions legislation on his desk in the new year whether or not he has signed off on a deal with Iran.

This is a crucial moment in the negotiations with Iran when the outcome is not yet determined. Unfortunately, the president’s efforts to loosen sanctions have already undermined international support for isolating Iran. With the possibility of a new deal, they are on the verge of complete collapse. But renewed and even tougher sanctions on Iran will signal to Europe that their expectations of a return to business as usual with Iran were a bit premature.

While the president thinks he can evade his constitutional requirements to let Congress vote on a treaty or rescind another law he doesn’t like, members of both parties appear ready to respond appropriately to this lawless plan. Unlike environmental regulations or even immigration laws, appeasement of Iran isn’t something that can be imposed on the country by presidential whim.

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