Commentary Magazine


Domestic Radicalization and the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Israel appears to be facing a do-it-yourself terrorist offensive. By my count, based on data from this website, ten Israelis have been killed, and many more injured, since October 22 in low-tech attacks.

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Israel appears to be facing a do-it-yourself terrorist offensive. By my count, based on data from this website, ten Israelis have been killed, and many more injured, since October 22 in low-tech attacks.

The trend began on October 22 when a Palestinian rammed his car into a crowd waiting at a light-rail station in Jerusalem. A three-month-old girl and a 22-year-old woman were killed; 8 people were wounded.

On November 5, another Palestinian man drove another car into a light-rail station, this time killing a Border Police officer and injuring 14 individuals.

On November 10, in two separate incidents, Palestinian attackers stabbed and killed a 25-year-old woman near the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut and a 20-year-old soldier who was waiting at a train station in Tel Aviv. Two others were injured in the former attack.

And now on November 17, two attackers armed with a hatchet, knives, and a gun entered a synagogue in West Jerusalem and killed five people, one of them a policeman, the other four immigrants who held either joint U.S.-Israeli or joint British-Israeli citizenship. In addition three of the dead were rabbis.

This is the worst single terrorist attack in Israel in three years and arguably the worst spate of attacks since the defeat of the second intifada a decade ago. In some ways the reliance of these attackers on such primitive weapons–knives and hatchets and cars–is a sign of how successful the Israeli security services have been in shutting down the elaborate suicide-bomber networks which once terrorized Israel. This summer the Iron Dome system, moreover, showed that Israel was more or less safe from rocket attack. So terrorists have to resort to crude attacks with little planning to sow mayhem.

But as we are seeing, even crude attacks can be deadly–and not just in Israel. These “lone wolf” attacks are similar in spirit to those that we have recently seen in Ottawa, New York, Boston, and other place where fanatics inflamed by jihadist propaganda have set out to inflict indiscriminate casualties. Such attacks are inherently less deadly than more planned operations carried out by teams of people–but they are also much harder to stop.

The problem is that such attacks are typically carried out by radicalized Muslims who are citizens of the countries they attack, whether living in East Jerusalem or Cambridge, Massachusetts. And they are radicalized by propaganda that is all but impossible to stop, given the ability of jihadists to get their message out via the Internet.

For the U.S., this so far has been a relatively limited if still dangerous trend because so few American Muslims have been radicalized. For Israel, it is a rather more serious problem given that there are an estimated 1.6 million Arab citizens of Israel. If a substantial number become radicalized, Israeli leaders will face a true nightmare scenario.

Luckily that has not happened and is unlikely to happen despite all of the efforts by groups such as Hamas to raise an internal insurgency. In fact, although Arab Israelis gripe (understandably) about being second-class citizens, most realize they have richer and freer lives than if they lived in one of the dysfunctional Arab states that surround Israel.

Terrible as the recent attacks have been–and worse may be to come–the real story here may be how few Arab residents of Israel have chosen to take up arms against the Jewish state. That is, in part, to be sure, a tribute to the vigilance of the Israeli security services, but it is also a result of the fact that Israel is not a bad place to live even if you’re not Jewish.

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Keystone Scramble Shows Dems Already Forgetting Midterms Defeat

Republican losses typically produce an outpouring of concern trolling from Democrats, eager to “help” Republicans turn their fortunes around. The advice usually includes loosening the hold of the base on the party’s agenda, to become less extreme; paying more attention to polls; and buying into a proactive, productive legislative agenda. Yet now that Democrats have been on the wrong end of a national wave, will they take their own advice? Not if the machinations around the Keystone XL pipeline are any indication.

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Republican losses typically produce an outpouring of concern trolling from Democrats, eager to “help” Republicans turn their fortunes around. The advice usually includes loosening the hold of the base on the party’s agenda, to become less extreme; paying more attention to polls; and buying into a proactive, productive legislative agenda. Yet now that Democrats have been on the wrong end of a national wave, will they take their own advice? Not if the machinations around the Keystone XL pipeline are any indication.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Democrats have for years opposed the pipeline, which would bring oil from Canada’s tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries. But Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu is facing an uphill battle in her December 6 runoff election against Republican Representative Bill Cassidy. Keystone would be a “boon” for Louisiana, as even the New York Times admits, so Landrieu is trying to push Keystone across the finish line hoping it’ll drag her there along with it.

Were the situation reversed, Democrats would be doing what Republicans are now: imploring them to stop getting in their own way and support the pipeline. After all, it’s popular, it would show the Democrats can support a legislative agenda that brings jobs to an important industry, and it’s only been sidelined so far because President Obama is hostage to the bidding of his extremist base. And yet, Landrieu is not having an easy time getting enough Democrats to join the 60-vote threshold for the vote expected to be held early this evening.

Of course, even if Landrieu can get the votes in the Senate, the Keystone vote is already a less-than-perfect subject for a Hail Mary, as the Times notes:

On Friday, a Keystone bill sponsored by Mr. Cassidy passed the House. Ms. Landrieu is now close to mustering a filibuster-proof 60 Senate votes in favor of the pipeline in the Senate. She told reporters on Friday that she had 59 votes and was reaching out aggressively to colleagues to round up the critical final vote necessary to send the bill to Mr. Obama’s desk.

That’s right–she’s been handed the baton by her rival, Bill Cassidy. It’s not as though Landrieu is in favor and her opponent isn’t. Landrieu is no better on the issue than Cassidy; in reality, she’s playing catch-up because of Democratic opposition to the plan. It’s unclear how passing the Keystone bill would give her the boost she needs to beat Cassidy, though the high-profile scramble for votes would seem to at least help her by elevating her profile.

But that’s only if it passes. And right now, Democrats aren’t so sure it’s worth helping her reelection, in part because it’s no guarantee they’ll retain the seat even if the bill passes. Here’s Politico:

With Keystone apparently stuck on 59 votes — one shy of the amount needed for passage — Landrieu has turned into a one-woman Senate whip, seeking a vote set for Tuesday night that would show her clout in oil-rich Louisiana ahead of her Dec. 6 runoff. …

Much of the focus of Monday’s guessing games was on Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who hails from a fossil fuel state and whose upcoming retirement could leave him with little to lose. But he said Monday evening that he’s voting no.

Another rumored waverer was Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats. He indicated he’s still leaning no but said, “I’ll make a decision when I vote.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said she’s voting no because she doesn’t think “Congress should be siting pipelines.”

And what if she does get that 60th vote? Back to the Times:

Even if the Senate supports building the pipeline in a vote on Tuesday night, President Obama is likely to veto the measure on the grounds that an environmental review of the process remains incomplete.

Nonetheless, the events of this week suggest that after the expected veto, Mr. Obama may eventually approve the pipeline, which would run from the oil sands of Alberta to the Gulf Coast. The project is anathema to the environmentalists who are part of the president’s political base.

Obama, who isn’t running again, is expected to choose his extremist base over a member of his party trying desperately to hold her seat. And that environmentalist base has not become any more moderate or levelheaded over the course of this administration; the liberal interest group MoveOn.org sent an email today about the Keystone vote with subject line: “Game over for our planet?”

The Times report also notes that in early 2015 there will be more Republicans in the Senate and thus fewer lawmakers held hostage to a fringe element of the liberal base. In such a case, an Obama veto now (if this bill passes) will invite yet another Keystone bill sent to his desk next year, and this one will be closer to having enough votes to even override his veto. If he’s going to deal with that kind of repeated showdown, the Times reports, he may want a trade.

And maybe he’ll get one. Or maybe he’ll have no leverage. Either way, it won’t do much for Landrieu in 2015. Not that the president cares much one way or the other.

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Kerry Calls Out Palestinian Incitement; Will Anything Change?

Many aspects of this morning’s barbaric terrorist attack on a Jerusalem synagogue, in which armed Palestinians murdered four Jews, are quite similar to past attacks. Americans were among the victims, for example; the Palestinians celebrated the killing of innocent Jews, encouraging their children to grow up and do the same; and the media–CNN especially, but also Canada’s CBC and others–covered the attack in ways that made them indistinguishable from Palestinian government-run propaganda outlets. But one thing was different: a heartening and truly revealing statement from Secretary of State John Kerry.

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Many aspects of this morning’s barbaric terrorist attack on a Jerusalem synagogue, in which armed Palestinians murdered four Jews, are quite similar to past attacks. Americans were among the victims, for example; the Palestinians celebrated the killing of innocent Jews, encouraging their children to grow up and do the same; and the media–CNN especially, but also Canada’s CBC and others–covered the attack in ways that made them indistinguishable from Palestinian government-run propaganda outlets. But one thing was different: a heartening and truly revealing statement from Secretary of State John Kerry.

Kerry has been, up to this point, playing an undeniably dangerous and counterproductive role in the peace process. He has used the negotiations as a vanity project, not a serious attempt to solve an intractable problem. But the worst part of Kerry’s destructive bumbling has been the State Department’s refusal to hold PA head Mahmoud Abbas accountable for his steady incitement of terror.

There is no question that Abbas’s incitement is partially responsible for the recent spate of terror attacks in Israel’s capital. And yet the State Department took Abbas’s side each time it had the chance, defending him as a man of peace. As I wrote in late October, spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked about Abbas’s incitement and here is what she said:

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.

When you excuse the murder of innocents, you get more murder of innocents. And that’s exactly what happened, and what continued to happen, as Kerry’s State Department and the Obama White House sought to pick childish fights with Benjamin Netanyahu instead of acting like adults or playing a constructive role in the conflict.

There was never any doubt that Obama and Kerry’s behavior would encourage more bloodshed. Yet something has apparently changed:

Kerry telephoned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to offer condolences following the gruesome killing spree by Palestinian assailants at a Jerusalem synagogue, while other world leaders also expressed horror at the attack.

Kerry, in London for talks on Iran and the Middle East, called the assault an “act of pure terror and senseless brutality” and called on the Palestinian leadership to condemn it “in the most powerful terms.”

Police said two attackers from East Jerusalem entered the synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood shortly after 7 a.m. and began attacking worshipers at morning prayers with a gun, a meat cleaver, and an ax. Both terrorists were killed by police.

Kerry blamed the attack on Palestinian calls for “days of rage” and said Palestinian leaders must take serious steps to refrain from such incitement.

So who’s right–old Kerry or new Kerry? Clearly, new Kerry is a vast upgrade. But there are two disquieting characteristics of this transformation that will temper enthusiasm for the secretary of state’s newfound moral compass.

The first is that Jews can be forgiven for thinking that the world sees them as sacrificial pawns. Today’s victims are of course not the first deaths in the Palestinians’ latest not-quite-intifada. And they were not the first Americans killed either. And they were not the first victims of Abbas’s incitement or his directive to take action against Jews in Jerusalem. The sad fact is that the world regards a certain amount of Jewish blood as the cost of doing business–not worth getting all worked up about.

The word for that is “expendable.” And that’s what the families of victims and those who survived previous attacks understand all too well: their loved ones were expendable to the international community and, most painfully, to the government of the United States of America. A line has now been crossed, apparently, and the Jews under attack are no longer considered expendable. But it’s unfortunate that the line was there to begin with.

The second disquieting facet of this is the age-old question: What now? That is, now that Kerry has admitted the role Palestinian incitement plays in Palestinian terror, what will he do about it? The answer is almost certainly: Nothing. The U.S. government is not going to defund the Palestinian Authority; Netanyahu has in the past fought for continued funding of the PA on the premise that Abbas must be propped up. Israel is doing its part by keeping the IDF in the West Bank; the U.S. does its part by keeping up the flow of cash.

Abbas condemned today’s attack, so perhaps Kerry’s new posture is at least keeping up the appearance of peace all around. And appearances can help. But incitement is not just about public statements from Abbas promoting violence–though he has been making such statements throughout the recent terror campaign. It’s about a system of education and Palestinian media that incites and demonizes Jews. Until the U.S. and the broader international community finds a way to crack down on this government-run culture of demonization, peace will remain farther than Kerry or his European counterparts like to pretend.

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Survey Reveals Extent of French Muslim Anti-Semitism

A new survey has been published revealing the extent of anti-Semitism in France. But what the survey exposed most starkly was the drastic degree to which the Muslim population in France–on the whole–adheres to a radically anti-Semitic outlook. The survey exposes a worrying reality, one in which a sizable minority of the French population holds views about Jews that are by any measure bigoted. Yet when one looks at how French Muslims responded to the same questions in the survey, we see a picture of a religious and ethnic community in which an alarming majority appear to be feverishly anti-Semitic.

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A new survey has been published revealing the extent of anti-Semitism in France. But what the survey exposed most starkly was the drastic degree to which the Muslim population in France–on the whole–adheres to a radically anti-Semitic outlook. The survey exposes a worrying reality, one in which a sizable minority of the French population holds views about Jews that are by any measure bigoted. Yet when one looks at how French Muslims responded to the same questions in the survey, we see a picture of a religious and ethnic community in which an alarming majority appear to be feverishly anti-Semitic.

The recent French survey, which posed the same set of questions to both the general population and to those from Muslim backgrounds, came back with some alarming findings. It is disconcerting that, as the survey revealed, 25 percent of Frenchmen believe Jews have too much influence over the nation’s economy. But compare that to the survey’s parallel finding that 74 percent of French Muslims endorse such a view. When asked if they thought that France’s media is controlled by the Jews, 23 percent of the general population said that they did. That, however, pales in comparison when held up against the 70 percent of the French Muslims polled who held such a belief.

Interestingly, when respondents were asked a question about whether Jews exploit the Holocaust, the gap between the Muslim and general populations diminished somewhat. On this question a much larger than usual proportion of the general population, 32 percent, came out with an anti-Semitic position, answering in favor of the view that Jews use the Holocaust for their own benefit. Yet among French Muslims the numbers holding this anti-Jewish view was down on previous questions, albeit with 56 percent still answering in the affirmative.

Nor do these questions relate to Israel. When both groups were asked about the existence of a global Zionist conspiracy, both seemed less taken with this suggestion than they were with some of the others. So while 16 percent of the general population confirmed that they believe in such an outlandish notion, a similarly reduced proportion of the Muslims polled, 44 percent, held such a view.

This may be surprising. No doubt many would claim that what appears to be anti-Semitism on the part of French Muslims is in fact a somewhat high-spirited expression of solidarity for their Muslim brothers the Palestinians. And yet, according to this survey at least, French Muslims weren’t so taken with the idea of a Zionist plot. Far more popular, however, was the good old-fashioned conspiracy theory that says that Jews control the media and economy. These notions that were once the staple of European anti-Semitism now appear to have been taken up with far greater enthusiasm by the continent’s Muslim immigrants.

The findings from this survey would appear to confirm the picture painted by another from just over a year ago. That survey—released by Europe’s Agency for Fundamental Rights—found Europe’s Jews reporting that a greatly disproportionate degree of the anti-Semitism that they experienced came from the left and those identified as “Muslim extremists” than from any other group. So for instance in France, 73 percent of Jews surveyed said that they had witnessed or experienced anti-Semitism from someone with “Muslim extremist views.”

The problem with that survey was that it simply monitored the Jewish perception of anti-Semitism and so could all too easily be dismissed as nothing more than paranoia from a community that has convinced itself that it is being picked on. That has been a problem across Europe; take this piece from August that the BBC produced, seemingly with no other purpose than to downplay and question the notion that anti-Semitism is on the rise in the West.

And if there have been those who for political reasons have been reluctant to admit that anti-Semitism is a growing problem in Europe, then these same people have tended to be all the more stubborn about conceding the role that parts of Europe’s Islamic population is playing in this trend. When the infamous 2012 terror attack took place on the Jewish school in Toulouse, there was no shortage of those in the media who volunteered the hypothesis that this would turn out to be another far-right Anders Breivik-style attack. By the time of the shooting at Brussels’s Jewish Museum last May, most were prepared for news that this was the work of yet another Islamist radical.

With the anti-Jewish riots witnessed in Paris this summer, accompanied as they were by overtly anti-Semitic protests in Germany and a rise in violent anti-Semitism in Britain, European leaders do now seem ready to acknowledge that they have a problem on their hands. As yet, however, any open and public discussion of which groups are driving that problem is still well off the cards.

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What Should Republicans Do to Stop This Aggressively Unconstitutional President?

It’s hard to overstate how irresponsible President Obama would be to go forward, as he almost surely will, with his sweeping executive order on amnesty. Ross Douthat of the New York Times has written a fine column on why doing so would be, in his words, a “disgrace.” What the president is on the verge of doing would do tremendous, long-term damage to our political culture and our constitutional order. It would set a dangerous precedent. And it would be an act of extraordinary selfishness.

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It’s hard to overstate how irresponsible President Obama would be to go forward, as he almost surely will, with his sweeping executive order on amnesty. Ross Douthat of the New York Times has written a fine column on why doing so would be, in his words, a “disgrace.” What the president is on the verge of doing would do tremendous, long-term damage to our political culture and our constitutional order. It would set a dangerous precedent. And it would be an act of extraordinary selfishness.

By now none of this should  surprise us. Yet on some level it’s hard to believe an American president would do something that is, as a friend of mine puts it, “constitutionally unconscionable”–and so at odds with what Obama himself has said repeatedly. Yet we are where we are, and Republicans need to prepare to respond to the president’s provocations.

What to do?

Some of the same people who embraced the stratagem that led to the government shutdown in 2013–they thought it would be a marvelous, can’t-miss, the-nation-will-rally-to-our-side idea–are eager to do the same thing again. The problem, of course, is that the government shutdown was a failure, for reasons I sketched out here. It didn’t achieve its purpose (repealing the Affordable Care Act), the public hated the shutdown, and by an overwhelming number Americans blamed Republicans for it. We know as an empirical fact that the GOP badly hurt its reputation with the public, and it took time to repair it. It doesn’t help that the same people who were so sure of the Ted Cruz-led gambit now refuse to admit it turned out much different, and much worse, they they said it would. In fact, some of them are even claiming it worked, which is simply silly.

That said, I’m not in principle opposed to creating a series of showdowns over funding the government to try to force the president to back down on his expected plan to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants (just as I wasn’t opposed to it as a means to defund the Affordable Care Act). The issue for me is one of efficacy and prudence. Will it work–or will it backfire? Will it help strengthen the conservative cause or set it back? Will Mr. Obama be forced to back down, or will he emerge stronger and Republicans weaker?

The issue has nothing to do with how much one opposes ObamaCare or is troubled by the president’s unconstitutional actions related to illegal immigrants. The most vocal advocates for government shutdowns often frame this as if they’re strongly opposed to the president’s agenda whereas those who are wary of the shutdown are not. That’s simply not the case. The difference has to do with tactics, not with the end goals. (Representative Paul Ryan thought the steps Republicans took that eventually led to the shutdown were unwise, and he’s done far more than almost anyone you can name to undo ObamaCare and advance a conservative governing agenda.) The mistake is to assume that simply because you support a particular approach the rest of America will, too; that because you think the nation should see things just as you do means it will.

Because I believe that what the president is about to do is egregious–constitutionally and institutionally, as an aggressive attack on the role of Congress and the separation of powers–I’m open to all sorts of recourses. Certainly Republicans in Congress need to respond in some manner. Those advocating a government shutdown aren’t being moronic or irresponsible; they want to protect our constitutional form of government. But neither are those who are warning against a shutdown being weak, impotent, or cowardly. It’s a matter on which intelligent people can disagree.

If you believe as I do that a government shutdown would in the end hurt more than help the conservative cause–that it simply won’t achieve its aim and it will cause collateral damage in the process–the obvious thing to do is to shift the fight onto terrain that is more favorable to the GOP. Republicans should therefore amass all the actions at their disposal to inflict maximum damage on Mr. Obama while not walking into his government shutdown trap. I wonder, for example, whether Republicans might simply refuse to act on the president’s judicial and Cabinet nominees unless and until he undoes his (forthcoming) executive action. Can similar steps be taken on a range of other issues? Can Republicans basically hit the “off” switch when it comes to the normal procedures and cooperation that takes place between a president and Congress, regardless of which party is in control?

It does strike me that we are facing an exceptional situation; that the president is inviting this needless confrontation and that he needs to pay quite a high price for it. It won’t be as high as many of us wish, but we have to adjust around that fact. The challenge for conservatives is to act in ways that are wise and realistic; that are guided not by fury but by clear thinking; and that ultimately persuade people to our point of view. We need calm, sober, intelligent, and enlightened individuals who can advance the arguments for constitutionalism and the rule of law. Because right now we have a president who is subverting both.

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Israel’s Waiting Game

These days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must feel like Jim Carrey’s character in the Truman Show when, while he’s sitting on a beach, it suddenly starts to rain only on Truman. Once he steps out of the rain, it follows him until the rain-control glitch is fixed and the “sky” opens up, soaking Truman in the ensuing, and inescapable, downpour. But at least by that time he had incontrovertible proof that, yes, they were out to get him.

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These days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must feel like Jim Carrey’s character in the Truman Show when, while he’s sitting on a beach, it suddenly starts to rain only on Truman. Once he steps out of the rain, it follows him until the rain-control glitch is fixed and the “sky” opens up, soaking Truman in the ensuing, and inescapable, downpour. But at least by that time he had incontrovertible proof that, yes, they were out to get him.

Yesterday, the Times of Israel reported that ultra-Orthodox political leaders claimed to have been approached to join an alternative coalition with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Labor, which would replace the current coalition. In other words, rearrange the government to exclude Likud. Lapid denies that such a move is afoot, and it’s likely the leaking of the story was meant more as a warning than an imminent threat.

Meanwhile, Jerusalem continues to simmer. More clashes in the city took place over the weekend, and an Arab driver of an Egged bus appeared to have committed suicide. There is no evidence to the contrary, but Palestinians nonetheless have circulated rumors that the Jews were somehow involved, raising the prospect of “retaliation” of some sort and now apparently an Arab Egged strike.

And then today Haaretz’s Barak Ravid got his hands on an internal European Union document that outlines sanctions against Israel that EU countries could take if Israel continues to build homes for Jews in Jerusalem and makes land designations that confuse ignorant Eurocrats. It doesn’t matter that Israel isn’t doing quite what the EU accuses it of, nor that the EU is wrong about what will bring peace and what will prevent it.

The real news of the EU document is that the EU has foreclosed the possibility that facts and rationality will determine Israel-Europe relations. Brussels is getting quite serious about being completely unserious. Today’s EU “red lines” are just that–today’s. Once conceded, they’ll find some more demands to chip away at Israeli sovereignty and further restrict Jewish rights.

After Haaretz published the leak, the EU explained to Ravid that they were not ready to deploy that threat just yet, in an utterly unconvincing (perhaps intentionally so?) response:

“It certainly was not on the ministers’ table today and it was not at the heart of today’s discussion,” Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs said, adding that she had read the report in Haaretz. “There was certainly no question of isolating or sanctioning anybody, rather how can we re-motivate people to get into a dialogue again, how to start a positive process with the Israelis and Palestinians to re-launch a peace process.”

Nonetheless, the foreign ministers’ meeting ended with a formal condemnation of Israeli building of settlements over the Green Line and a hint regarding punitive measures against Israel.

“Recalling that settlements are illegal under international law, the EU and its Member States remain committed to ensure continued, full and effective implementation of existing EU legislation and bilateral arrangements applicable to settlement products,” read the announcement. “The EU closely monitors the situation and its broader implications and remains ready to take further action in order to protect the viability of the two-state solution.”

When it rains, it pours, and when it pours, the UN is usually there to toss a bucket of water as well. Today Assistant Secretary-General Jens Toyberg-Frandzen got in on the act, warning that more violence in and around Jerusalem “is never too far below the surface.” He was happy to place the blame on Israel for settlements etc. (the standard way to excuse Palestinian terrorism), doing his part to contribute to the conflict’s self-fulfilling prophecy: if you excuse Palestinian terrorism, there will be more of it. But on the bright side, the esteemed assistant secretary-general had some good news–sort of:

On a positive note, Toyberg-Frandzen said a UN-brokered agreement to get building materials into Gaza to rebuild the territory following this summer’s war between Israel and Hamas allowed 1,086 Gazans to purchase construction materials by Nov. 13. He said it is also encouraging that Israel plans to increase the number of trucks with construction materials entering Gaza from the current 300 to 800 daily.

Of course construction materials help Hamas in two ways: they either resell them at a premium to those who actually need them, or they take them for themselves to build terror tunnels and other threats to Israel. Again, that’s the supposed “positive note”: the UN is helping Hamas get back on its feet.

So what is Netanyahu to do? Not much, in fact. The numbers still favor his Likud party even if early elections are called. And there won’t be a national consensus over specific action because it’s unclear what action can or should be taken to put Jerusalem at ease. Mahmoud Abbas either can’t or won’t get Palestinians in Jerusalem to stop the violence, so there’s no partner on the Palestinian side. And there does not appear to be a way to dislodge the political right from its perch, so Israelis know that they are unlikely to find an alternative to Netanyahu who brings more upside without substantial downside as well.

Israeli governments aren’t known for their stability. That was thought to only get worse as the two major parties lost their respective virtual monopolies on the right and left. But surprisingly enough, Israeli democracy is proving resilient. It turns out that Israelis are much harder to intimidate and bully than the Palestinians, the UN, and the EU thought.

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Government at Work

The great comic writer Robert Benchley once wrote a short story in which his friend, Mr. McGregor, says that he has lost a locomotive. “How do you lose a locomotive?” Benchley, not unreasonably, asks. Mr. McGregor hasn’t the faintest idea. He just can’t remember where he put it. As they’re discussing how to lose a locomotive, the phone rings and when Benchley hangs up he says, “What were we talking about?” Mr. McGregor can’t remember and they change the subject.

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The great comic writer Robert Benchley once wrote a short story in which his friend, Mr. McGregor, says that he has lost a locomotive. “How do you lose a locomotive?” Benchley, not unreasonably, asks. Mr. McGregor hasn’t the faintest idea. He just can’t remember where he put it. As they’re discussing how to lose a locomotive, the phone rings and when Benchley hangs up he says, “What were we talking about?” Mr. McGregor can’t remember and they change the subject.

Well the Pentagon has, apparently, lost $6.6 billion in $100 bills, according to the American Spectator. That’s about one percent of the total supply of American currency, more than $20 for each man, woman, and child in the American population:

It’s little wonder the money disappeared. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration flooded the country with cash for reconstruction and other projects. It was a cash delivery that made the post-World War II Marshall Plan pale by comparison.

Pentagon officials determined that one giant C-130 Hercules cargo plane could carry $2.4 billion in shrink-wrapped bricks of $100 bills. They sent an initial full planeload of cash, followed by 20 other flights to Iraq by May 2004 in a $12 billion haul that U.S. officials believe to be the biggest international cash airlift of all time. The handling of the cash was haphazard at best, and totally lacking in financial controls.

Banks keep careful cash controls for both tellers, responsible for their draws, and head tellers, responsible for the whole branch. If more than a few dollars goes missing, someone gets fired. Apparently this vast hoard of cash was kept in the vault of one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. (One wonders what Saddam Hussein’s reaction would have been to that much money going missing—it wouldn’t have been pretty.)

After numerous audits, the Pentagon just stopped looking for it:

Astonishingly, in June 2011 the Pentagon and the Iraqi government closed the books on the program that handled the disappeared $6.6 billion in cold, hard cash. They just gave up. But before shutting the program down, federal auditors admitted that that some or all of the cash may have been stolen, not just misplaced in an accounting error. Stuart Bowen, special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, an office created by Congress, said the missing $6.6 billion may be “the largest theft of funds in national history.”

Seeing as the Pentagon needed a C-130 to move just one-third of that much money, that’s a pretty safe bet. Eat your heart out, Willy Sutton.

And liberals wonder why conservatives don’t trust government to run the nation’s health-care industry.

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Immigration, the Media, and Fictitious Conservative Heartlessness

President Obama’s threat to order an executive amnesty has touched off several simultaneous debates about the plan to legalize millions of illegal immigrants with the stroke of a pen. Left and right are arguing over: the premise of the plan that something must be done; the legality/constitutionality of the move; whether the actual policy aim would be attractive if done through Congress; whether the move would torpedo–again–comprehensive immigration reform; the resulting effect of the plan on future immigration; and other issues. And while the media have dumbed down this debate, no one has done so more plainly and in the service of self-aggrandizement than CNN’s Brian Stelter.

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President Obama’s threat to order an executive amnesty has touched off several simultaneous debates about the plan to legalize millions of illegal immigrants with the stroke of a pen. Left and right are arguing over: the premise of the plan that something must be done; the legality/constitutionality of the move; whether the actual policy aim would be attractive if done through Congress; whether the move would torpedo–again–comprehensive immigration reform; the resulting effect of the plan on future immigration; and other issues. And while the media have dumbed down this debate, no one has done so more plainly and in the service of self-aggrandizement than CNN’s Brian Stelter.

Stelter, the former New York Times media writer, hosts the Sunday morning show Reliable Sources, which examines the media coverage of major issues. Yet rather than offering some much-needed criticism, Stelter’s show has an unfortunate tendency to further elevate the media’s sense of self-importance. A case in point was yesterday’s “Red News/Blue News” segment on immigration.

The point of the regular segment is ostensibly to show how conservative and liberal outlets are covering a story, often talking right past each other. But yesterday Stelter took the opportunity to declare that the media weren’t reflecting the debate on the right and on the left; they were, instead, setting the terms of the debate for the brainwashed masses.

After playing a clip of Fox host Megyn Kelly interviewing GOP Senator Jeff Sessions about the executive amnesty and before putting up a clip of Charles Krauthammer using a form of “the I word,” as Stelter calls it–impeachment–Stelter says this:

Notice what the banner on the screen said. It said, “Plan May Let Millions of Illegals Stay,” illegals.

And when “The New York Times” confirmed FOX’s scoop in advance on Thursday, “The Times” headline said, plans may allow millions of immigrants to stay and work, immigrants.

See, it’s not really the numbers that are in dispute here. It’s not the facts or the figures. It’s the language, it’s the narrative. By Thursday, the FOX narrative was about lawlessness, President Obama acting unlawfully.

Stelter apparently wasn’t even listening to clip he played, because what he said is just plain wrong. But first, here’s how the “blue news” played it. “What you will almost never hear on FOX, though, what you’re unlikely to see on red state is the blue news narrative,” Stelter says. “That’s a very different one. That narrative is about families being wrecked by deportations and about a president standing up for what’s right and delivering on a campaign promise.”

Stelter then played a couple clips from liberal outlets, which included this exchange from MSNBC:

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These are American families that are being torn apart by a policy that doesn’t work.

ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: So why can’t a story like that move conservatives?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don’t understand how anyone couldn’t see the pro-family aspects of what we’re talking about here.

At that point, Stelter sought to wrap up the segment by imparting the following piece of wisdom to his viewers:

And I will try to answer that question for you. It’s because red news and blue news are talking about two separate things.

In this case, MSNBC is talking about what they would say is morality, while FOX is talking about what they would say is legality. Morality and legality.

There are two reactions to this. The first is that Stelter apparently believes that conservatives don’t see the liberal side of this issue because they watch Fox News, and vice versa. The idea that Fox brainwashes its viewers rather than reflecting the debate they’re having amongst themselves but can’t find on the other mainstream media channels is certainly a popular idea among leftists who want to discredit both Fox and the conservative movement.

Though most intelligent people know it’s just a caricature, the left’s extreme partisans don’t know or don’t care. For Stelter to trade in this tells you that media critics, like the supposedly nonpartisan “fact checker” columnists in newspapers, are simply joining the debate on one side, not enlightening their audience with honest assessments. And in defense of liberal viewers, the same can be said of Stelter’s judgment of “blue news.” I can assure Stelter that MSNBC and its nine viewers are not setting the agenda of American liberalism.

The second response to Stelter’s segment is to note that even the Fox programs that his staff researchers watch for his show prep don’t say what Stelter says they say. Here is the text of the brief clip Stelter played of Sessions’s response to Kelly:

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: And every one of these individuals are going to be given a photo I.D., a Social Security number, and the right to take a job in America, jobs that too few exist and too many Americans are looking for. It’s just the wrong policy and it will incentivize more illegality in the future.

So is it true that, as Stelter says, “it’s not really the numbers that are in dispute here. It’s not the facts or the figures”? Certainly not. Sessions is talking about the impact on employment and the number of jobs available as well as the warning that the practical effect of the executive amnesty will be far larger in number because it will incentivize further illegal immigration. And although Stelter would like to portray the right (with a nod to the MSNBC hosts he excerpts) as cold and impervious to the human factor, the opposite is the case. It’s just that Sessions is talking about the human cost to current citizens and future immigrants.

And it’s not as though the right doesn’t have an ongoing debate about the degree of compassion due illegal immigrants. We talk about that here at COMMENTARY quite often, but that aspect of the debate has been elevated for a couple of years now since both Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich used their 2012 presidential candidacies as a platform to advocate for keeping immigrant families together even if they came here illegally.

Maybe Stelter just watched a few minutes of Fox and didn’t see such an argument advanced. But that’s no excuse to play liberal talking heads leveling that accusation and then pretty much endorsing it (“I will try to answer that question for you”) instead of challenging it, all so conservatives could fit into the neat box that allows Stelter to condemn the supposed insularity of his cable competitors.

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What to Do About ISIS

It is easy to call ISIS’s beheading of poor Peter Kassig–a former U.S. Army Ranger turned humanitarian aid worker in Syria–an act of “pure evil,” as President Obama has done. It is considerably harder to know how to oppose such evil effectively. And that is where the president has so far fallen short. To take only one example, the U.S. air campaign against ISIS is ten times smaller than the one against the Taliban in the fall of 2001. And the total number of troops authorized for the mission–now 3,000–is well short of what serious experts believe is necessary, with most realistic estimates falling in the range of 10,000 to 25,000.

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It is easy to call ISIS’s beheading of poor Peter Kassig–a former U.S. Army Ranger turned humanitarian aid worker in Syria–an act of “pure evil,” as President Obama has done. It is considerably harder to know how to oppose such evil effectively. And that is where the president has so far fallen short. To take only one example, the U.S. air campaign against ISIS is ten times smaller than the one against the Taliban in the fall of 2001. And the total number of troops authorized for the mission–now 3,000–is well short of what serious experts believe is necessary, with most realistic estimates falling in the range of 10,000 to 25,000.

In this just-released Council on Foreign Relations policy innovation memorandum, I outline my view of what a real strategy designed to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS would look like. As you will see, I call for not only increasing the military effort but also doing more to train and mobilize Sunni tribes on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, while extending our fight to the Assad regime in order to convince Sunnis to join the anti-ISIS campaign.

I also argue for preparing now to build a postwar order in both Syria and Iraq, unpalatable as the thought of “nation building” might be for some. It is hard to over-stress the importance of the latter point, because only by sketching out a hopeful future will the U.S. convince Syrians and Iraqis to risk their lives to fight ISIS. Declaring a no-fly zone over all or part of Syria would be an important first step in this regard because it would allow the Free Syrian Army to train and a free Syrian government to organize.

Sadly there is little sign so far that President Obama is willing to mount such a serious effort. But it is just possible that continuing outrage over ISIS beheading Americans could force his hand.

And for those who think that ISIS is deliberately trying to lure U.S. troops into Iraq and Syria: At the moment the desultory U.S. campaign is playing into their hands by allowing them to tell their followers that they have stood up to the Great Satan. A more effective U.S.-led campaign would not be so welcome to ISIS if it resulted in its dismemberment and defeat as previously happened to its forerunner, al-Qaeda in Iraq.

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Elizabeth Warren’s Temptation

When Senate Democrats tapped Elizabeth Warren to be their official liaison to their party’s left-wing base last Thursday, it was yet another indication of the Massachusetts senator’s stature as a liberal icon. As Politico reports, that same day Warren was also besieged by those in attendance at a meeting of major liberal donors with calls for her to run for president in 2016. But while Warren and figures close to her continue to insist that she has no interest in opposing presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton, she could hardly be blamed for wondering if her decision to rule out such a race had been premature. Unlike most of the veteran politicians in both parties whose desire for the White House is no secret, we don’t know whether Warren truly wants to be president. But if she does, she may probably never have a better chance.

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When Senate Democrats tapped Elizabeth Warren to be their official liaison to their party’s left-wing base last Thursday, it was yet another indication of the Massachusetts senator’s stature as a liberal icon. As Politico reports, that same day Warren was also besieged by those in attendance at a meeting of major liberal donors with calls for her to run for president in 2016. But while Warren and figures close to her continue to insist that she has no interest in opposing presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton, she could hardly be blamed for wondering if her decision to rule out such a race had been premature. Unlike most of the veteran politicians in both parties whose desire for the White House is no secret, we don’t know whether Warren truly wants to be president. But if she does, she may probably never have a better chance.

Unlike most efforts to persuade a person to run for president, the would-be candidate or friendly media isn’t orchestrating the Warren boomlet. Rather, it seems to be a genuine uprising on the part of many liberals against the impending coronation of Hillary Clinton and what is perceived on the left as her establishment cronies whose loyalty to hard-core liberal ideology on domestic and foreign issues is very much in question.

Moreover, Republicans aren’t the only ones who have noticed that the willingness of most Democrats to assume that she will be President Obama’s successor can’t conceal her weakness as a candidate. Clinton’s book tour was a gaffe-ridden public-relations disaster rather than a triumph. Her interventions in the midterms demonstrated the weakness of the Clinton brand. Even worse, her attempts to play to the left and imitate Warren, such as her absurd suggestion that corporations don’t create jobs, fell flat and once again her lack of authentic convictions.

No sensible politician would take on the Clinton machine blithely. The Clintons have wisely attempted to try and sew up the Democratic nomination so as to avoid the possibility of another charismatic challenger jumping in to take it from her as Barack Obama did in 2008. The strategy seems foolproof if for no other reason that the weak Democratic bench seems to be populated only with gadflies like Bernie Sanders and James Webb or lightweights like outgoing Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. But if there is anyone who can fit the Obama profile of a candidate who has a better connection with the base than Clinton, it’s Warren.

The Warren rationale also could tap into the fact that both party’s bases take it as a matter of faith that it is smarter to run conviction politicians who are true believers than establishment-style moderates. Liberals are convinced that the Democrats lost the midterms because they ran away from Obama and tried to move to the center instead of highlighting left-wing talking points. A Warren candidacy plays right into this belief that Clinton may be a loser in spite of her generally strong favorability ratings because she has spent her career trying to be all things to all people.

Like Obama, Warren’s candidacy could not have been predicted only a few years ago. In just two years, Warren has gone from being an obscure figure whose chief ambition was to lead a new federal regulatory agency (Republicans have long since realized that blocking her appointment as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau backfired) to being a leader in a party that seems to have lost touch with its grass roots and has few other rising stars.

Assuming that she has any appetite for the presidency, and few who are offered a chance for it have the character to say no, there are two key questions to be asked.

One is whether there is an issue on which her candidacy could be leveraged in the same manner that Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War both endeared him to the liberal base and differentiated him from Clinton in 2008. Economic populism would be Warren’s chief issue but while Clinton’s record is weak, there is no equivalent to her vote for the Iraq War to hold against her. Warren could however compensate for that by putting herself forward as a fresh face for a party that may not wish to be dominated by the Clintons and their baggage. A Warren candidacy would also not suffer, as would any male Democrat challenging Clinton, from the idea of stopping the country from electing its first female president.

The other question is whether 2016 really is Warren’s best opportunity. Should Clinton lose to a Republican in 2016, Warren might be the presumptive front-runner for 2020. If she wins, the Democratic nomination wouldn’t be open again until 2024. But here the comparison with Obama argues in favor of her running now. Obama could have waited his turn in 2008 and looked to the future but rightly understood that he would never have a better opening in any other year. Warren could wait but although she is new to elective politics, she is not young. At 65 now, the idea of waiting until 2024 when she would be 10 years older may not be realistic.

But the most important argument in favor of her running is the fact that the grass roots of her party would embrace her. Rather than merely having a liaison to the Democratic leadership to the Senate, most liberals would prefer to be running the show. It’s clear the Democratic base agrees with President Obama’s decision to ignore the verdict of the midterm elections and push ahead with a radical left-wing agenda regardless of the consequences. That same spirit would pump life into a Warren candidacy in which Democrats could swing away at Wall Street without having to worry about offending a key Clinton constituency.

Against anyone else, Clinton would have no trouble in the primaries. But Warren would change the political equation. With Clinton looking vulnerable, Warren still has time to reconsider her decision to stay out of the 2016 fray. If she does, she may find her path to the nomination is not as steep as the Clintons would like us to believe. If she is at all tempted by the presidency, now may be her moment.

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Training Free Syrians in Turkey Is a Bad Idea

In 1997, against the backdrop of U.S. diplomatic outreach toward the Taliban, John Holzman, at the time the number two diplomatic official at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, suggested that the United States encourage engagement between the Taliban and “moderate Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and perhaps Indonesia.” Egypt and Indonesia were certainly moderate, but to suggest that pre-9/11 Saudi Arabia would be a great venue to encourage Taliban moderation illustrates perfectly both how too many diplomats turn a blind eye to Islamist ideology promoted by allies and also treat engagement and multilateralism as panaceas.

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In 1997, against the backdrop of U.S. diplomatic outreach toward the Taliban, John Holzman, at the time the number two diplomatic official at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, suggested that the United States encourage engagement between the Taliban and “moderate Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and perhaps Indonesia.” Egypt and Indonesia were certainly moderate, but to suggest that pre-9/11 Saudi Arabia would be a great venue to encourage Taliban moderation illustrates perfectly both how too many diplomats turn a blind eye to Islamist ideology promoted by allies and also treat engagement and multilateralism as panaceas.

Fast forward 17 years. What Pakistan once represented vis-à-vis the Taliban, today Turkey represents vis-à-vis many of the most extreme factions among the Syrian rebels. President Obama has made the training of “moderate” Syrian rebels a central pillar of his strategy to take on ISIS inside Syria and a way to diminish the need for ground combat forces which he is loath to deploy back to Iraq and Syria.

Let’s put aside the fact that training such forces would take more than a year and that they would be inserted against an ISIS foe which is now battle-hardened and brutal. And let’s also put aside the fact that there haven’t been any serious lessons learned as to why the military training program implemented in Iraq by such military luminaries as David Petraeus and current chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey has proven such an abject failure.

In order to implement their free Syrian training program, President Obama, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Secretary of State John Kerry have apparently decided to work primarily through Turkey:

Military officials from the United States and Turkey have met at the Turkish General Staff’s headquarters in Ankara for a third time to discuss equipping and training moderate Syrian rebels, and agreed on using the Hirfanlı military training center in Kırşehir for the training ground. Officials from both the United States European Command (EUCOM) and the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and high-ranking Turkish military officials agreed on a number of points about the training of Syrian opposition fighters in Turkey. Free Syrian Army (FSA) members, including Syrian Turkmens will be trained at the Hirfanlı gendarmerie training center in Kırşehir, sources told to the Hürriyet Daily News. U.S. officials will also take part in the training. The U.S. will primarily provide weapons and ammunition for the Syrian opposition, with the costs of the training also expected to be provided by Washington.

In other words, the United States will provide the money and the weapons, but defer to their Turkish counterparts the training. So, as Hagel seeks to implement Obama’s plan, he chooses to rely on a country that targets the secular, and promotes the radical. Rather than smother extremism inside Syria, such a plan will fan its flames.

When a similar plan was worked up before the Iraq war, Hungary stepped up to the plate. Whether or not that plan was effective—it was rushed by the time diplomats and lawyers hashed out its modalities—at least the Pentagon recognized that venues with a vested interest in Iraq and those which had a radically different vision from the United States should not be part of such sensitive missions. Training the Free Syrian Army at this point might be more symbolic than effective. But if that’s the path the Obama administration seeks to go down, let us hope that the end result would be better than Holzman’s plan to use Saudi Arabia, Al Qaeda’s original underwriters, to “moderate” the Taliban.

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Stephen Harper’s Moral Clarity

At a time when there is all too little bold and principled leadership among Western leaders–when memories of Reagan and Thatcher, to say nothing of Roosevelt and Churchill, grow increasingly distant–Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada, stands out.

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At a time when there is all too little bold and principled leadership among Western leaders–when memories of Reagan and Thatcher, to say nothing of Roosevelt and Churchill, grow increasingly distant–Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada, stands out.

He has already become well known for his full-throated, principled defense of Israel. For example this summer, when most Western leaders were condemning both Hamas and Israel as if a liberal democracy were equally culpable for a war started by a terrorist state, Harper spoke out forcefully and rightly: “The indiscriminate rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel are terrorist acts, for which there is no justification. It is evident that Hamas is deliberately using human shields to further terror in the region… Failure by the international community to condemn these reprehensible actions would encourage these terrorists to continue their appalling actions.”

And this weekend Harper was equally blunt–and equally right–in admonishing Vladimir Putin at the G20 meeting in Australia. He told Putin: “I guess I’ll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine.” This caused Putin to bluster, “That’s impossible because we are not there,” as if Russian tanks, soldiers, and artillery had not crossed en masse into Ukrainian territory.

It is easy to say that Harper’s comments are inconsequential because Canada doesn’t matter much on the world stage. And it’s true that such strong words would carry more weight if coming from Barack Obama. But that is impossible to imagine because President Obama has never once spoken with the kind of moral clarity that Harper exhibits on a regular basis.

What makes his language especially bracing–and politically brave–is that Canada has been far more liberal and less hawkish in its international politics than the United States. It is not the kind of place where you score points for defending Israel or offending the president of Russia. But whatever they may think of the specifics of his comments, Canadian voters clearly appreciate that Harper calls it like he sees it. That helps to explain why he is already in his third term in office.

It’s truly a shame that more leaders do not share Harper’s outlook or his willingness to express his views in plain language. Because of this deficit of leadership, criminals like Putin can show up at international meetings and be treated as respected statesmen instead of the rogues that they actually are. Quite aside from any concrete sanctions that Russia should suffer for its aggression, simply calling out Putin and exiling him from polite society would increase the cost to him of his actions since he transparently wants to be taken seriously and treated respectfully on the international stage. Putin would not be getting away with as much as he gets away with if there were more Stephen Harpers not just in Ottawa but in Washington, London, Paris, and Berlin.

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Protest Against Anti-Semitism in Turkey

Turkey was once one of the most religiously tolerant majority Muslim societies in its attitude toward Jews. The reason wasn’t so much tolerant political culture, but rather a belief that the Jews were a tranquil, loyal minority. After all, Turkish school books taught that while Greeks, Armenians, and Arabs all rose up against the Ottomans, the Jews did not. Hence, Turkey boasted along with Iran either the second or third largest Jewish community in the Middle East after Israel itself.

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Turkey was once one of the most religiously tolerant majority Muslim societies in its attitude toward Jews. The reason wasn’t so much tolerant political culture, but rather a belief that the Jews were a tranquil, loyal minority. After all, Turkish school books taught that while Greeks, Armenians, and Arabs all rose up against the Ottomans, the Jews did not. Hence, Turkey boasted along with Iran either the second or third largest Jewish community in the Middle East after Israel itself.

In recent years, of course, this has changed. Just as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used his consolidation of control over state media to fan the flames of anti-Americanism, so too has he used it to stoke anti-Semitism far beyond the Islamist circles in which he grew and from which he emerged. Jews are now contemplating the end of their millennia-long presence in Anatolia.

Against the backdrop of Hamas’s missile strikes on Israel and the Israeli military response, Samil Tayyar, an AKP member and the head of constitutional commission, tweeted “may your ancestors perish, may your Hitlers be abundant” and, of course, a Turkish shopkeeper made headlines with the sign, “The Jew dogs cannot come in here.” This month has been particularly bad, as vandals attacked one of Istanbul’s most prominent synagogues on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, significant not only for that date but also because it was so close to the 11 anniversary of the al-Qaeda attack on the synagogue that in a different time and place Turks had condemned.

It’s important to recognize that not all Turks have succumbed to the hateful populism pushed forward by Erdoğan, the Turkish government, and even some members of the Turkish foreign ministry. This past weekend, a handful of Turks held a protest to condemn the anti-Semitism which has flourished inside Turkey. From “The Radical Democrat,” a blog which is also on the forefront of anti-censorship efforts inside Turkey:

In order to protest against the rising anti-Semitism in Turkey and commemorate the horrific events of the past, Say Stop has held a protest meeting with dozens of participants. When activists were gathering in Galatasaray Square in Taksim’s Istiklal, right next to the venue was placed ten times more policemen than activists as usual. The moment banner was opened, interestingly enough some people came to ask questions in English, thinking anyone protesting anti-Semitism would come from abroad and not from within Turkey….

Too often, American and European diplomats find it “sophisticated” to ignore incitement, human rights, and the hateful ideologies promoted by adversaries. Had they held Erdoğan accountable for his statements from the start, Turkey might not have descended to the point it is now. But whether in Iran, Venezuela, Russia, or Turkey, it should never been too late to lend a hand and give a platform to those within their respective countries who at great personal risk to themselves speak out in favor of tolerance, individual liberty, and freedom.

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A Lawless Presidency Will Destroy Itself

There is no longer any doubt that perhaps within a matter of days, the president will issue executive orders that grant amnesty to up to 5 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States. While the administration is hoping the discussion that ensues will still be about the merits of immigration reform, they should understand that the president’s decision to use his executive authority to treat law enforcement as a function of his personal whim is bound to change the debate to one about an assault on constitutional principles. This means that rather than debating what can be done to stop him in the short term (the correct answer is not much), observers should be pondering the long-term effects of this move on both the future of immigration reform and the fortunes of our two political parties. The answers to both of these questions may not bring much comfort to the president and his supporters.

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There is no longer any doubt that perhaps within a matter of days, the president will issue executive orders that grant amnesty to up to 5 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States. While the administration is hoping the discussion that ensues will still be about the merits of immigration reform, they should understand that the president’s decision to use his executive authority to treat law enforcement as a function of his personal whim is bound to change the debate to one about an assault on constitutional principles. This means that rather than debating what can be done to stop him in the short term (the correct answer is not much), observers should be pondering the long-term effects of this move on both the future of immigration reform and the fortunes of our two political parties. The answers to both of these questions may not bring much comfort to the president and his supporters.

The GOP-controlled Congress doesn’t appear to have legislative options that won’t involve funding measures that can be portrayed as a new government shutdown. Though it would take presidential vetoes to kick off such a confrontation, with the help of a still docile mainstream media (see Grubergate), Republican leaders understand that this is a political trap they need to avoid. However, what Democrats who assume the mass amnesty will transform the political landscape in their favor and doom Republicans to perpetual defeat are ignoring is that the executive orders will change the terms of the debate about this issue. Though there may be no way of rescinding these orders while Obama remains in office, the real political trap may be the one that the president’s arrogant assumption of unprecedented personal power may be setting for his party.

As for the justification for this action, the notion that the president must act because Congress has not done so is utterly unconvincing even for those who support the cause of immigration reform.

The presence of an estimated 11 million illegals within our borders is a problem that must eventually be dealt with in a sensible manner. Mass deportations are neither feasible nor desirable, especially with those targeted by the president’s orders that may have children or other family members who are either citizens or legal residents. It is also true that many Republicans that supported the bipartisan immigration compromise that passed the Senate last year signed on to a process that would have given illegals a path, albeit a difficult one, to citizenship.

However, the need to address the problem doesn’t justify the president’s stand.

A measure that is imposed outside of the law that is not directly tied to border security and a reform of a broken immigration system does not solve the problem. If anything, as we saw last summer, such measures only encourage more illegal immigration. That surge of illegals proved that critics of the bipartisan bill were right and those of us (including me) who supported it were wrong. The border must be secured first and then and only then will it be possible to start sorting out those who are still here without permission. That was the approach favored by many in the House of Representatives last year and a new attempt at a fix to the problem should start there rather than trying to resurrect the Senate bill as the president demands.

That is why the administration’s narrative about the executive orders is simply false. Far from the president stepping in to provide a solution where Congress failed, what he is doing is making the problem worse, not better.

Far worse is the manner in which he is doing it.

It is, strictly speaking, within the president’s lawful authority to direct agencies operating under him to exercise prosecutorial discretion. But to do so on a mass scale isn’t merely unprecedented. It breaks new ground in the expansion of executive authority. As much as the president thinks the current law is inadequate to deal with the problem of illegal immigration, it is not up to him to unilaterally legislate a new solution. Only Congress may re-write the laws of the land. The idea of a president acting unilaterally to invalidate existing statutes in such a way as to change the status of millions of persons, however sympathetic we may be to their plight, places Obama outside the law and blaming Congress for inaction does not absolve him.

Nor can it be justified as falling within the executive’s right to act in a crisis.

There are circumstances when, usually in wartime, a crisis looms and broad presidential discretion is unavoidable. But as much as advocates for the illegals may trumpet their plight, this is not a ticking bomb that requires the normal constitutional order to be set aside. If majorities in both the House and the Senate could not be found to support a measure the president deemed important, he had the normal recourse of going to the people and asking them to elect a Congress that will do so. Unfortunately for those who claim that the president has no choice but to bypass Congress, we have just undergone such an election and the people’s answer was a resounding rebuff to the White House. The president may think it is in his interest to pretend as if the midterms should not determine his behavior in his final two years in office but it was he who said his policies were on the ballot. While there was an argument prior to November 4 that claimed that it was the GOP-controlled House that was thwarting public opinion on immigration, that claim disappeared in the Republican sweep.

That brings us to the long-term political consequences of this act.

While much has been made of the impact of amnesty on the Hispanic vote, with these orders the president is digging Democrats a hole that they will have difficulty climbing out of in the next two years.

Hispanics may be grateful for the temporary end of the deportations but it will not escape their notice that in doing so the president has ended any chance of immigration reform for the rest of his term. Nor will they be unaware that a GOP successor will invalidate amnesty with a stroke of the pen as easily as the president has enacted them. Republicans will rightly understand that there is no dealing with an administration that would rather go outside the law than first negotiate in good faith with a newly elected Congress on immigration. Nor can they be blamed for thinking any deal based on promises on border enforcement will be worthless with a president who thinks he has the right to simply order non-enforcement of the laws he doesn’t like.

Even more to the point, the orders will create a backlash among the rest of the electorate that always results when presidents begin to run afoul of both the law and public opinion. A lawless presidency is something that is, by definition, dysfunctional, and that is a term that has already defined Obama’s second term up until this point. Democrats who are counting on wild applause from their base should understand that just as Republicans learned that domination by their Tea Party wing undermines their electoral viability, they too should be wary of governing from the left.

The spectacle of mass amnesty without benefit of law will shock ordinary voters, including many who are Democrats or who think the immigration system should have been fixed. After the orders, responsibility for the failure to do so will rest on Obama, not the Republicans. What the president may be doing with these orders is to remind the voters that parties that grow too comfortable with exercising authority without benefit of law must be taught a lesson, one that will be paid for by his would-be Democratic successor in 2016. Rather than building his legacy, the president may actually be ensuring that his time in office is remembered more for his lack of respect for the rule of law than any actual accomplishments.

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Obama Is Now Lying About His Lies

This is getting pathological. According to this story in Politico, President Obama, when asked whether he had intentionally misled the public in order to get the law passed, he replied: “No. I did not.” He actually did, repeatedly. Here’s just one example–on the president’s pledge that “If you like your health-care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health-care plan, period”–that comes to us courtesy of Glenn Kessler, who works for that well-known right-wing outlet the Washington Post.

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This is getting pathological. According to this story in Politico, President Obama, when asked whether he had intentionally misled the public in order to get the law passed, he replied: “No. I did not.” He actually did, repeatedly. Here’s just one example–on the president’s pledge that “If you like your health-care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health-care plan, period”–that comes to us courtesy of Glenn Kessler, who works for that well-known right-wing outlet the Washington Post.

Mr. Obama added this: “I would just advise every press outlet here: Pull up every clip and every story. I think it’s fair to say there was not a provision in the health care law that was not extensively debated and was fully transparent. It was a tough debate.”

Mr. Obama is confusing some things. The issue isn’t whether there was an extensive and tough debate. There was. The issue is whether the president and his White House, during that debate, intentionally misled us. He and they did, all the time, on all sorts of matters related to the ACA. The conservative criticisms of the president were entirely on the mark. They were the truth-tellers; the president was not.

No American can take joy in saying this, but the evidence clearly warrants it: We have a president who is lying about his lies. It’s not good for him, for the office of the presidency, or for our political culture. He might try telling the truth. At this point it won’t salvage his presidency, but it might begin to repair some of the extraordinary damage to his credibility.

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Kerry Lets Abbas Off the Hook Again

After a summit held in Jordan with its King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pronounced himself satisfied that the dispute over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is on its way to being resolved. After hearing from both the Israelis and the Jordanians as well as meeting separately with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, Kerry admonished the parties to make good on their pledges to take “concrete steps” to ease tensions. Let’s hope Kerry is right that the worst is over in this latest episode and that a series of murders of Jews will prove to be a passing incident rather than a new intifada. But by giving Abbas a pass for his material role in inciting the violence, Kerry once again proved tone deaf to the reality of the conflict and the reason why his peace initiative failed.

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After a summit held in Jordan with its King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pronounced himself satisfied that the dispute over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is on its way to being resolved. After hearing from both the Israelis and the Jordanians as well as meeting separately with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, Kerry admonished the parties to make good on their pledges to take “concrete steps” to ease tensions. Let’s hope Kerry is right that the worst is over in this latest episode and that a series of murders of Jews will prove to be a passing incident rather than a new intifada. But by giving Abbas a pass for his material role in inciting the violence, Kerry once again proved tone deaf to the reality of the conflict and the reason why his peace initiative failed.

The problem with Kerry’s evenhanded approach to the dispute disregards what actually happened. Israel has maintained the status quo on the Temple Mount in which Muslim religious authorities have complete control of the ancient site and Jews are allowed to visit but forbidden to pray. Some Jews have urged this be changed to give them the right to worship there too but the Netanyahu government, following in the footsteps of all its predecessors, has blocked this effort.

But that hasn’t satisfied the PA which has used this issue as a way to compete with Hamas in the battle for Palestinian public opinion. Rather than seeking to promote calm, Abbas deliberately ratcheted up tensions in recent month as he called on his people to do everything necessary to prevent Jews from “contaminating” the Temple Mount with their presence. When one Palestinian attempted to murder an activist who advocated Jewish prayer there, Abbas praised him as a “martyr” and said he went straight to heaven after being shot by police. Though many, including the New York Times, have tried to put forward the idea that the growing violence constitutes a “leaderless” intifada, the truth is, the unrest and violence is the direct result of two decades of PA incitement via its official media and schools. Abbas’s statements as well as the daily drumbeat of incitement from the PA media has created an atmosphere of religious war in which Muslims think the Jews are going to blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount. The result has been entirely predictable in the form of a rash of “lone wolf” terror attacks on Jews — applauded by both Hamas and Fatah — that have taken several lives.

This is, of course, straight out of the traditional playbook of Palestinian nationalism having been first employed by Haj Amin el-Husseini, the pre-World War Two mufti of Jerusalem and Nazi ally, who helped incite several pogroms against Jews. As it was then, the point of the manufactured furor is not to push back against mythical Jewish attacks on Muslim rights or the mosques but to deny any rights — either historical or political — for Jews in Jerusalem or anywhere else in the country. As with the rest of a conflict that the PA could have ended several times in the last 15 years had it accepted Israeli peace offers of independence, pouring oil on this fire is a function of Palestinian resistance to the idea of any Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem or Israel, not a dispute that can be solved by good faith negotiations.

In playing the Temple Mount card, Abbas is walking a fine line between an attempt to boost his stock vis-à-vis Hamas and suicide since it is Israel that protects him against Hamas. Jordan, which has been forced by Abbas’s antics to condemn Israel as well, is similarly dependant on support for Israel, but can’t be seen to be against Palestinian terror if it is perceived as a “defense” of Arab rights.

But while we hope that this chapter is coming to a close, Kerry’s complacent pox on both your houses approach to Israel and the PA is only encouraging more Palestinian intransigence and violence. What was needed here was a direct U.S. condemnation of Abbas’s egregious incitement that led to bloodshed. But in its absence the likelihood grows that Abbas will continue to court disaster in his effort to boost his waning political clout in the West Bank. Kerry and President Obama’s continued effort to portray Abbas as a force for peace while flinging insults at Netanyahu is a formula for more unrest as well as an attack on the U.S.-Israel alliance.

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Could Oman be the Next Crisis?

In 1970, with British help and support, Qaboos bin Sa‘id overthrew his father and took the reins of powers in the Sultanate of Oman. Sultan Qaboos was an enlightened monarch, and firmly guided the xenophobic and isolationist state back into the modern world. Oman has since been a model of neutrality and tolerance, often acting as a bridge between regional adversaries (it is no coincidence that Oman served as the initial go-between for U.S.-Iran talks). Nevertheless, when push came to shove, Oman has done what is needed to combat terrorism. U.S. aircraft based in Oman launched some of the initial airstrikes against the Taliban during Operation Enduring Freedom.

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In 1970, with British help and support, Qaboos bin Sa‘id overthrew his father and took the reins of powers in the Sultanate of Oman. Sultan Qaboos was an enlightened monarch, and firmly guided the xenophobic and isolationist state back into the modern world. Oman has since been a model of neutrality and tolerance, often acting as a bridge between regional adversaries (it is no coincidence that Oman served as the initial go-between for U.S.-Iran talks). Nevertheless, when push came to shove, Oman has done what is needed to combat terrorism. U.S. aircraft based in Oman launched some of the initial airstrikes against the Taliban during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Oman is also strategically important. For all Western policymakers fret about Iranian activities in the Strait of Hormuz, they often forget that Oman occupies one side of the important waterway. Should Iran gain a toehold on both sides of the Strait, the calculus of Persian Gulf security would change.

Alas, the status quo cannot last forever. Sultan Qaboos is aging. A “confirmed bachelor,” Qaboos has produced no offspring. Succession looms. And, perhaps never closer than now. ForeignPolicy.com today has an interesting piece speculating that Qaboos, who will turn 74 next week, may be on his deathbed. The Sultan has in recent weeks sought to dispel the rumors that he suffers from terminal colon cancer, but his frail appearance and his subsequent cancellation of his forthcoming national day appearance have added fuel to the fire.

In theory, when Qaboos dies, a new leader is supposed to be chosen by consensus among the leading factions of the royal elite. But if there is no consensus, then a letter that Qaboos will leave should help determine that successor. The problem is that surrounding countries have everything to gain and nothing to lose by disputing the authenticity of such a letter or by putting forward fraudulent copies favoring their own proxy. While it’s doubtful that Oman will make as radical a political shift as it did as a result of the last succession, the failure of the White House to adopt a proactive strategy toward the region does put its future in doubt. While Washington shouldn’t necessarily muck about in Omani royal politics, it is a vital interest to protect the integrity of the process and prevent Iran from doing so.

There are a few nightmare scenarios. One is that a pro-Iranian ruler will become Oman’s next leader. Another is an outbreak of fighting. This is farfetched, of course. Just as Saudi troops invaded Bahrain to prevent a Shi‘ite triumph over the Khalifa ruling family, it would not sit idly while another friendly monarchy fell to what it considers hostile forces. Then again, Oman is neither Sunni nor Shi‘ite, and so long as the monarchy isn’t threatened—and it won’t be—then Saudi Arabia might choose more subtle ways to interfere.

Herein lays another danger. Should both Iran and Saudi Arabia begin supporting proxy figures or movements, it might not be long before this undercut Omani stability in other ways. After all, Oman has been a pillar of stability for decades, but then again so was Syria; at least since Hafez al-Assad staged his 1970 coup. Oman could also face the resurgence of regional tension; it wasn’t too long ago in the scheme of things that it fought an insurgency against communist rebels in Dhofar.

Let us hope that Qaboos overcomes his current health crisis but, realistically, septuagenarian leaders do not last forever. The United States should hope for the best in Oman, but it’s long past time when U.S. officials should plan for the worst. Alas, planning for the worst case is something to which too often American strategists across administrations seem adverse. We should not be. Oman is too important to lose.

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Turkey: Beware the Jewish Olive Tree!

Because of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s sectarianism, Turkey has become quite an inhospitable place to be a religious minority, whether Jewish, Christian, Alevi, or Yezidi. Over the last several years, Turkish militants have murdered or attempted to murder priests in Turkey. Whereas the Turkish government has sought sympathy for the refugee crisis that has resulted from the Islamic State’s rise in neighboring Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s treatment of refugees differs wildly based on their religion. Simply put, when Turkey distributed humanitarian aid, Yezidis need not apply. And, as for the Alevis—basically a Shi‘ite offshoot sect that accounts for at least one-fifth of Turkey’s population—Erdoğan has refused to recognize their places of worship and deemed their children should be educated only in Sunni doctrine. The Jews are facing unprecedented anti-Semitism to the point where the community has begun to pick up and leave, much as most of the Iranian Jewish community did during and after Iran’s Islamic revolution.

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Because of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s sectarianism, Turkey has become quite an inhospitable place to be a religious minority, whether Jewish, Christian, Alevi, or Yezidi. Over the last several years, Turkish militants have murdered or attempted to murder priests in Turkey. Whereas the Turkish government has sought sympathy for the refugee crisis that has resulted from the Islamic State’s rise in neighboring Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s treatment of refugees differs wildly based on their religion. Simply put, when Turkey distributed humanitarian aid, Yezidis need not apply. And, as for the Alevis—basically a Shi‘ite offshoot sect that accounts for at least one-fifth of Turkey’s population—Erdoğan has refused to recognize their places of worship and deemed their children should be educated only in Sunni doctrine. The Jews are facing unprecedented anti-Semitism to the point where the community has begun to pick up and leave, much as most of the Iranian Jewish community did during and after Iran’s Islamic revolution.

So just how bad has anti-Semitism become inside Turkey? Erdoğan has, of course, been no friend to Turkey’s environmentalist movement. The Gezi Park protests began as an effort to save one of the few remaining green spaces in central Istanbul against government-sponsored development but morphed into a wider opposition movement as a result of Erdoğan’s heavy-handed tactics. Over subsequent months, Erdoğan has accelerated development which has raised the ire of those seeking to protect Turkey’s green spaces. Now, it seems, Erdoğan’s supporters have found a new and creative way to justify the bulldozing of trees. From a Turkish column explaining a whispering campaign promoting the ideas that olive trees are ‘pro-Jewish’ and therefore should be destroyed. A Turkish interlocutor translates the key passage:

Close to the end of the World, a war will break out between the Muslims and Jews which will be won by the Muslims. The Jews will start to run away and hide behind trees. All such trees will yell “There is a Jew hiding behind me come and kill him/her.” Only the olive tree will not give away the Jews. Because the olive is a Jewish tree, that is why Israel is promoting the planting of olive trees.

Therefore, it seems, it is desirable to cut down olive trees. Hence, there should be no complaints as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) destroys thousands if not hundreds of thousands of olive trees in Western Turkey to clear land for mining and industrial development. It’s all meant simply to prepare the world for the end of days and the annihilation of the Jews.

Sure, Mr. Obama. Turkey belongs in Europe. What could possibly go wrong?

 

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The Gruber Blackout and a Partisan Media

It will be some time before we know for certain whether the fallout from Jonathan Gruber’s embarrassingly candid revelations about the deceptions at the heart of ObamaCare will have a substantive impact on its future. Given the relevance of much of what he’s said to the Supreme Court’s deliberations about a challenge to the legality of its crucial subsidies, don’t bet against what some are calling Grubergate being considered a turning point in the history of this misbegotten legislation. But no matter what happens in the Court or in Congress, the story has already provided us with a fascinating insight into another kind of pretense: the supposed objectivity of the mainstream media which has, for the most part, ignored this story.

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It will be some time before we know for certain whether the fallout from Jonathan Gruber’s embarrassingly candid revelations about the deceptions at the heart of ObamaCare will have a substantive impact on its future. Given the relevance of much of what he’s said to the Supreme Court’s deliberations about a challenge to the legality of its crucial subsidies, don’t bet against what some are calling Grubergate being considered a turning point in the history of this misbegotten legislation. But no matter what happens in the Court or in Congress, the story has already provided us with a fascinating insight into another kind of pretense: the supposed objectivity of the mainstream media which has, for the most part, ignored this story.

The virtual blackout of coverage of Gruber’s remarks in the broadcast networks and major newspapers such as the New York Times is, on its face, astonishing. That so many of these outlets that generally fall under the rubric of liberal mainstream media to have all come to the same conclusion that the Gruber story wasn’t news speaks to the way that members of this herd all tend to walk in lockstep on major political issues. But the defense of these decisions doesn’t wash.

As Howard Kurtz, former media columnist at the Washington Post and CNN said from his current perch at Fox:

On what planet is this kind of embarrassing admission not news? Maybe on that comet where the spaceship just landed.

Even Brian Stelter, his successor at CNN, conceded that the decision to ignore the story was wrong even as he, a liberal as opposed to the more centrist Kurtz, sought to rationalize the decision:

Whenever you think there is a conspiracy it is really just something much more mundane, in this case I think it is the fact that this is a video that is a year plus old, and it is something that, we’re talking about a story that has been debated and debated and debated and so covered endlessly, I think oftentimes in newsrooms, there’s a sense that well, what’s actually new here? But, that said, the quote, the word stupid, that is news. And the way it is being used by conservatives, that is news, so that is why it should be covered by the nightly newscasts and CNN.

As for the idea that there is nothing new, let’s unwrap that contention. Gruber was well known to be a major player on ObamaCare and his statements about deceiving the Congressional Budget Office and counting on the “stupidity” of the American people would, in any context, be considered newsworthy. Anything that casts further doubt on the legality of the legislation—especially since some of Gruber’s comments contradict the liberal position on the King v. Burwell lawsuit—or provide fodder for congressional opponents who will seek to chip away at the Affordable Care Act is in and of itself also newsworthy.

The only reason why editors would chose not to treat it as worthy of coverage would be their desire to help the administration end the debate about its signature legislative achievement. To those who would say that critics of the mainstream media’s blackout on Gruber are indulging in conspiracy theories, I would answer by simply asking them to imagine a similar case in which a Republican administration with popularity ratings as low as those of President Obama in which a key figure in the formation of one of that government’s policies were found to have spoken in such a manner in public on video.

It is simply impossible to imagine that the New York Times would have treated such statements as a non-story. But that’s what they did this week. Search the New York Times website and, as of Friday afternoon, there isn’t a single mention of the Gruber controversy save for one opinion article in its Upshot section in which the significance of the story is downplayed. But there is nothing in the news sections or in the print edition of any part of the paper. Even if, as Neil Irwin wrote in the Upshot, this sort of thing were business as usual in Congress and the government, the Times would not have hesitated to treat evidence of such misconduct—let alone lies told to facilitate an attempt to remake one sixth of the American economy—by conservatives as front-page news.

The broadcast networks similarly shut down the story over the course of the week with no references until the last day and then only in passing. As for the cable networks, Fox has predictably run with it but with the exception of Jake Tapper’s show, CNN also largely kept away from it for days while MSNBC granted Gruber a softball interview with its least journalistic host—Ronan Farrow—whose only intent was to dismiss the whole thing.

That conservative outlets would treat Grubergate as earthshaking and liberal ones would say there’s nothing to talk about is understandable since there are partisan implications to the story. But while Fox and MSNBC are understood to be sources whose political slant is well known and the same is true for print and online publications that make no secret of their editorial missions, newspapers like the Times and networks like ABC, NBC, and CBS still hold themselves out as representatives of objective journalism. That this is an easily exposed pretense has not been much of a secret for a long time. The networks and the Times are as ideologically biased as the Rush Limbaugh Show on radio. The only difference is that Rush and other political talkers and writers don’t pretend to be sitting on Mount Olympus impartially giving the people the news.

Even in the world of opinion writing it is necessary to acknowledge the other side’s arguments if only to disprove them. But for liberals in the mainstream media, news that works against their side is something that must be contained if not simply thrown down an Orwellian memory hole. While President Obama and the Democrats should be ashamed of their role in lying to the American people about ObamaCare, their cheerleaders in the mainstream press should be just as embarrassed. That apologies won’t be forthcoming from either tells us all we need to know about the contempt for democracy and truth that is now routine in these precincts.

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Clarifying the Reagan Record (and Correcting Don Devine)

Don Devine recently wrote a critical piece about the COMMENTARY essay authored by my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Henry Olsen and me on Ronald Reagan. In an email he sent out accompanying his column, Mr. Devine declared that it “really burns” him that we “distort[ed] Reagan.” Which just goes to show that people shouldn’t write responses when they’re enraged.

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Don Devine recently wrote a critical piece about the COMMENTARY essay authored by my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Henry Olsen and me on Ronald Reagan. In an email he sent out accompanying his column, Mr. Devine declared that it “really burns” him that we “distort[ed] Reagan.” Which just goes to show that people shouldn’t write responses when they’re enraged.

Henry has already responded to Mr. Devine, explaining with intelligent care what Devine’s errors in analysis are. We didn’t distort Reagan at all; and if we did, you’d have to look to places other than Devine’s column to know where the distortions occurred.

I do want to correct Devine on one factual point. He wrote:

They [Olsen and I] do concede Reagan was “unwavering” on cutting marginal tax rates, implementing Reaganomics generally, firing the air controllers, and winning the Cold War. Yet, he “did not roll back government to the extent he promised” He did plan to cut Social Security but quickly retreated. By the end of his presidency, “federal spending averaged 22 percent of GDP, higher than it was under Carter and the highest it had ever been until the Obama presidency.”

Whoa, just a minute; this is cooking the books. Reagan’s 23 percent tax cut drove down total spending from a projected 23.8 percent. More important, total federal spending includes defense, which Reagan promised to increase and did. If one looks at non-defense discretionary spending, which is what he said he would cut, and a president can control, Reagan decreased this spending absolutely by 9.6 percent over his two terms, the only president in modern times to do so (everyone else posting increases, the two Bushes higher than Carter or Clinton). Even including entitlements, Reagan reduced total domestic spending relatively, from 17.4 to 15.6 of gross domestic product (GDP).

The claims we make and the figures we cite are accurate. The inaccuracies come from Mr. Devine. For one thing, he suggests that a president can only control discretionary spending as opposed to mandatory, and therefore entitlement, spending. (The difference between the two is that discretionary spending stems from authority provided in annual appropriation acts whereas mandatory, or direct, spending is controlled by laws other than appropriation acts.) But of course a president has the ability to cut mandatory spending through legislation. In fact, early on in his presidency Reagan tried to cut future benefits for Social Security recipients, but quickly retreated when a firestorm erupted.

As for “cooking the books”: Mr. Devine’s claim (he provides no sources) that non-defense discretionary spending decreased “absolutely by 9.6 over his two terms” is not quite accurate. In fact, it’s quite wrong.

From 1981 through 1988, non-defense discretionary spending went from $149.949 billion to $173.5 billion–a 15.7 percent increase. (You can see for yourself by going to this CBO link. Discretionary outlays are on the fourth tab of the excel spreadsheet.) And for those interested, total mandatory spending (which can be found on the fifth tab) went from $301.562 billion to $448.195 billion, a 48.6 percent increase. It’s certainly fair to argue that non-defense spending would have been higher had someone other than Reagan been president. But that’s a different claim than saying Reagan actually and “absolutely” cut non-defense spending and significantly undid the welfare state.

As for our assertion that Reagan did not roll back government to the extent he promised: That’s clearly true. He didn’t eliminate Cabinet agencies he wanted to (the Department of Education is but one example). The number of workers on the federal payroll rose during his presidency. Reagan himself admitted he didn’t get the spending cuts he wanted in exchange for agreeing to the TEFRA tax increases. And the reason the budget deficit as a percentage of GDP was higher under Reagan than it was under any modern president prior to Obama was because Reagan got most of his tax cuts and most of his defense increases–but he didn’t get the spending cuts he anticipated.

Reagan is not primarily to blame for that; he faced a Democratic Congress, after all. And as we point out in the essay, Reagan made a prudential and wise judgment in using his political capital not on significantly rolling back the liberal welfare state (there unfortunately wasn’t the public or political will to do this) but in slashing taxes and increasing our defense budget.

As Lou Cannon put it in his book President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, “For all the fervor they created, the first-term Reagan budgets were mild manifestos devoid of revolutionary purpose. They did not seek to ‘rebuild the foundation of our society’ (the task Reagan set for himself and Congress in a nationally televised speech of February 5, 1981) or even to accomplish the ‘sharp reduction in the spending growth trend’ called for in [his] Economic Recovery Plan.” President Reagan did more or less what he could, given the circumstances he faced.

It’s hard to know what explains the anger that burns within Mr. Devine (and a few others on the right) regarding our essay. It was extremely favorable toward Reagan, whom we call “the greatest politician and the greatest president their party has produced since Lincoln.” We credit Reagan with unusual courage, intellectual boldness, and for reshaping American politics. We praise him for his commitment to human dignity and for being exceptionally resolute in attaining his goals while being flexible in his means and methods. We write that Reagan succeeded not because he was simply a “great communicator” but because of the truths he spoke.

But that’s not all. We write, “the [political/GOP] establishment can learn from Reagan’s great conviction that he was elected not to mark time but to make a difference. In this respect, he was more than willing to put forward a governing agenda; he was eager to do so, and wasn’t one to play it safe.” And we offered a fair-minded, balanced, and quite favorable assessment of Reagan’s achievements, which have not been refuted in any serious way. Despite all this the essay qualifies as “propaganda,” according to Mr. Devine. He writes as if we’ve thrown bricks through the stained-glass windows in a cathedral.

This is all quite odd. Part of what’s going on may be confirmation bias. That is, some people on the right may distort Reagan’s actual achievements in order to advance their own particular agendas. They see Reagan as they want to see him, rather than as he was. Some of it may be that Reagan has been mythologized by some conservatives in a way that makes an honest assessment of his presidency impossible. It isn’t enough to call Reagan a historically great president and attest to his many virtues. For some, to point out areas where Reagan didn’t succeed as well as he might have, or to mention areas where he made mistakes, is viewed as impiety, an act of desecration.

It isn’t, and those who see it as such are doing a disservice to a very great man, a very great president, and to history itself.

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