Commentary Magazine


The Missile Threat Goes Beyond Ukraine

The downing of Malaysian Air flight 17 continues to dominate headlines, as reporters (and the U.S. government) shift their attention back to Russia and Russia’s proxy militias in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. It would be a mistake to limit concern to overflights of eastern Ukraine, or to focus only upon the question of culpability in this instance. Rather, it’s time to look at the downing of the Malaysian passenger jet as a possible window into the future.

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The downing of Malaysian Air flight 17 continues to dominate headlines, as reporters (and the U.S. government) shift their attention back to Russia and Russia’s proxy militias in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. It would be a mistake to limit concern to overflights of eastern Ukraine, or to focus only upon the question of culpability in this instance. Rather, it’s time to look at the downing of the Malaysian passenger jet as a possible window into the future.

Several thousand surface-to-air missiles went missing in Libya in part because the White House chose to lead from behind and so did not work to secure Libya’s substantial arms caches. While airlines scramble to avoid Ukrainian airspace, they still fly over other contested regions. Less than two weeks ago, I flew on an American carrier from Washington to Dubai: we traversed Turkey and avoided Syria, but then appeared to fly over portions of Iraq which were newly seized by the Islamic State.

Terrorists with weaponry that can blow planes out of the sky may increasingly become the new normal. The question for policymakers is what to do about it. Only Israel equips its civilian jets with measures to counter missile threats. In 2002, terrorists attacked an Israeli charter flight leaving Mombasa. The missiles failed to hit their target, in part because of Israeli countermeasures.

The U.S. government is infamous for always defending against the last terrorist attack. TSA agents continue to pat down grandmothers in order to confiscate hidden water bottles. That may be all well and good, but increasingly it provides security theater rather than real security. If the growing threat is from below, the question the White House and airline industry should answer is what steps are they taking to defeat a surface-to-air missile aimed at a civilian jetliner, or whether they will simply wait to act until terrorists down an American-flagged aircraft.

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Abolishing the Corporate Income Tax

Megan McArdle at Bloomberg View has a terrific article today arguing that the corporate income tax should be abolished. She points out that it has become “a sort of long chess match.” The government makes a move and the armies of tax lawyers and accountants make a countermove. This has consequences:

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Megan McArdle at Bloomberg View has a terrific article today arguing that the corporate income tax should be abolished. She points out that it has become “a sort of long chess match.” The government makes a move and the armies of tax lawyers and accountants make a countermove. This has consequences:

Every new law has possible intersections with every other tax law in existence. As the number of laws grows, the number of possible intersections grows even faster. And each of those intersections represents both a possible way to avoid taxes and a potential for unintended consequences that inadvertently outlaw something Congress never intended to touch. This growing complexity makes it more and more difficult for either companies or lawmakers to forecast the ultimate effects of new tax laws. That’s bad. It’s also expensive.

There’s a perfect example of this blobification of the tax code with the personal income tax. The 1913 original was all of 14 pages long. But the 1942 Revenue Act, which brought the income tax to the middle class to help finance World War II, was 15 times as long at 208 pages. But of those 208 pages fully 162 dealt with closing, or defining, loopholes uncovered by tax lawyers in earlier revenue bills.

And while people are all more or less alike except for the size of their incomes, different industries can be very different indeed. For instance, there are,

tech firms whose only assets are a few computers and a handful of programmers to airlines and aluminum mills that run huge workforces and buy lots of heavy equipment meant to last decades. If you ignore expenses and just tax revenue, you’ll either end up giving the tech firms a hell of a deal or handing low-margin businesses such as grocery stores a tax bill for 800 percent of their profits.

Megan points out that abolishing the corporate income tax would bring howls of protest from the left that corporations aren’t paying “their fair share.” But corporations, of course, don’t pay the corporate income tax. Instead it’s paid by some combination of workers, with lower wages; customers, with higher prices; and shareholders, with lower profits. The particular combination depends on the economic circumstances of each industry. And abolishing the corporate income tax (which was, anyway, only intended to be a stopgap until a personal income tax amendment could be ratified) would have many extremely positive effects for the American economy.

  • It would then be fair to tax dividends as ordinary income, which they are not now. That means that rich stockholders would pay 39.6 percent on that income, not 20 percent as now.
  • Corporations would repatriate trillions in profits now held overseas to avoid U.S. taxes and invest much of that money here.
  • Foreign corporations would flock to the United States instead of U.S. corporations moving their headquarters overseas.
  • Corporations would concentrate on pre-tax income, which is a function of economic success in the marketplace, not after-tax income, which is a function of lobbying success in Washington.
  • Tens of thousands of tax lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, and IRS agents would be out of work and would have to find something economically productive to do.
  • Corporations would have much less interest in providing perks to their executives that the corporation can write off instead of taxable salaries.
  • There would be a race among the 50 states to lower or abolish their own corporate tax rates.

In 2013, the corporate income tax brought in $274 billion, slightly less than 10 percent of total federal revenue. That would be a considerable hit on federal revenues, but the positive economic effects would quickly offset much of that loss. The long-term effect would be to increase federal revenues substantially. If there is to be a deficit, this would be a damn good reason for running one short-term.

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Israel Now Criticized for Wanting Peace

Because there are only so many complaints that can be lodged at Israel (thought the well does seem bottomless at times), it was perhaps inevitable that the criticism of the Jewish state would produce some strange narratives. Those who feel compelled to oppose whatever Israel is doing at any given time are going to have to latch on, occasionally, to counterintuitive accusations. And a recent critique of Israeli policy fits that bill.

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Because there are only so many complaints that can be lodged at Israel (thought the well does seem bottomless at times), it was perhaps inevitable that the criticism of the Jewish state would produce some strange narratives. Those who feel compelled to oppose whatever Israel is doing at any given time are going to have to latch on, occasionally, to counterintuitive accusations. And a recent critique of Israeli policy fits that bill.

Portraying Israel as the warlike aggressor gets increasingly ridiculous, as Hamas initiates each round of violence with indiscriminate rocket attacks against civilians in much of the country, including Israel’s major port city, its capital, and the area near its major international airport. Additionally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has exhibited restraint, attempting to stave off the need for a limited ground incursion, which has now commenced, with repeated attempts at a truce. And that, apparently, is the new objection to Israel’s actions.

BuzzFeed’s Sheera Frenkel reports on two consecutive efforts by Israel to get Hamas to “yes” in talks for a truce:

“There were talks, and they were a step in the right direction, but to declare that a cease-fire agreement was reached is premature,” said one Palestinian official currently in Cairo on the delegation. “Hamas has made it clear that their demands have not yet been met, and there are further discussions to be held.” This appeared to echo previous concerns when a cease-fire deal was announced by Israel on Tuesday, despite claims from Hamas that it had not been consulted and would not have accepted the offer.

Chief among the demands of Hamas, he said, was that Egypt open its Rafah crossing with Gaza, and Israel ease the naval blockade of Gaza.

“We do not understand the reports currently in the media, they are misleading,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as the group had agreed not to speak to media until a cease-fire was officially announced. He added that it was his suspicion that someone from the Israeli delegation leaked information to the BBC, in the hopes that announcing a cease-fire deal would pressure Hamas into agreeing to the offer already on the table.

Israel tried to get a ceasefire–not just a temporary humanitarian ceasefire, but a cessation of the current round of violence–on Tuesday, but couldn’t get Hamas to sign on. They tried again, and the Palestinians accused Israel of leaking news of an agreement in order to pressure Hamas to accept the truce. The Israelis, in other words, stand accused of being too aggressively peace-minded.

There was a similar complaint, though concerning a different era, in the July 12 edition of the Economist. The magazine ran a book review on Ahron Bregman’s latest history of the post-1967 conflict. According to the review, Bregman–who served in the Israel Defense Forces during its first Lebanon war and subsequently left Israel “unhappy about the country’s policy towards the Palestinians,” according to the Economist–accuses then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak of manipulating the U.S. and Yasser Arafat into the peace process. From the review:

In 1999 Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Barak, lured Mr Clinton, Mr Bregman suggests, into one failed summit after another, providing Mr Barak with enough cover to allow him to claim that Israel had no partner for peace.

After persuading Mr Clinton to tempt President Assad to Geneva in March 2000 with the promise of ground-breaking proposals, says the author, Mr Barak back-pedalled on an earlier Israeli promise of a full withdrawal. Hours before the summit was due to start, Mr Barak insisted that Israel should keep a sliver of land, 400 metres wide, on the edge of the Sea of Galilee. Mr Assad withdrew.

Four months later Mr Barak persuaded Mr Clinton to try again, cajoling a wary Yasser Arafat to negotiate a final settlement at Camp David.

Yet Barak didn’t walk away from the deal on the table; Arafat did. Bregman seems to paint Barak as a serial flake, ending the prospect of peace with Syria and “cajoling” Arafat to a peace summit in order that Barak’s grand gamble would fail, forever tarnishing his legacy and beginning the end of his career as a potential premier and heralding the descent of his Labor Party into near-irrelevance.

No one looks very intelligent claiming that Israel is run by warmongers. So the new plan is to condemn Israel for its enthusiasm for peace negotiations. Israelis have long known that whatever they do, they’ll be criticized for it, and this appears to be just the latest iteration of Israel’s opponents’ fundamental hypocrisy.

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Downing of Plane Shows West Cannot Ignore Russia-Ukraine Escalation

On September 1, 1983, Soviet fighter aircraft shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007 which had inadvertently entered Soviet airspace on its way from Anchorage to Seoul. All 269 people on board were killed. President Reagan swiftly condemned “this crime against humanity,” which only redoubled his desire to bring down the “evil empire” (as he had called the Soviet Union earlier that year).

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On September 1, 1983, Soviet fighter aircraft shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007 which had inadvertently entered Soviet airspace on its way from Anchorage to Seoul. All 269 people on board were killed. President Reagan swiftly condemned “this crime against humanity,” which only redoubled his desire to bring down the “evil empire” (as he had called the Soviet Union earlier that year).

We can only hope for similar moral clarity today from the U.S. and Europe in the aftermath of the equally outrageous shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine with 295 people on board including more than 20 American citizens. The exact circumstances remain murky, but there is a strong circumstantial case, based on what we already know, that this was the work of pro-Russian separatist rebels who had been provided by the Kremlin with an advanced Buk anti-aircraft missile system. As Julia Ioffe of the New Republic notes, “there are now screenshots floating around the Russian-language internet from what seems to be the Facebook page of Igor Strelkov, a rebel leader in eastern Ukraine, showing plumes of smoke and bragging about shooting down a Ukrainian military Antonov plane shortly before MaH 17 fell. ‘Don’t fly in our skies,’ he reportedly wrote. If that’s true, it would seem rebels downed the jetliner, having mistaken it for a Ukrainian military jet.”

Certainly it would not be surprising to see the rebels, or their Russian sponsors, shooting down suspected Ukrainian aircraft. In fact, just before the Malaysian airliner went down, the Ukrainian government had accused a Russian fighter plane of shooting down one of its own fighters in Ukrainian airspace on Wednesday. Just a few days before that, Ukraine accused Russian rebels of shooting down a Ukrainian transport aircraft.

This is becoming rather too regular an occurrence to be ignored. The deaths of all those innocent passengers and crew aboard the Malaysian aircraft, who were in no way party to this conflict, makes it impossible for the West to look away from Russian aggression or for Russia to escape culpability. Even if the shooting down of the Malaysian aircraft was accidental and not ordered by the Kremlin, as seems likely, Vladimir Putin is nevertheless ultimately responsible. If you hand a bazooka to a hyperactive teenager and he destroys your neighbor’s house, the person providing the weapon is just as culpable as the one firing it.

And there is no doubt that anti-aircraft missiles, along with tanks and other advanced weaponry, have been provided to pro-Russian separatists, many of them Russian citizens and even members of the Russian intelligence and military services, by the Russian state. You don’t pick up an anti-aircraft missile at your local military surplus store the way you might an AK-47.

The question now is what we–meaning we in the West–are going to do about this outrageous act of villainy. John McCain said that if Russian involvement is proved, there will be “hell to pay.” I certainly hope so. What would this “hell” consist of?

No one is contemplating the use of Western military force against Russia or even Russian separatists in Ukraine, but certainly there is much that the U.S. and its European allies could do to provide military equipment and training to the Ukrainian armed forces to enable them to defeat Putin’s minions–something that we have been afraid to do until now for fear of triggering Russian escalation. As if shooting down civilian aircraft isn’t escalation enough.

There is also a need, as I have written before, to station substantial numbers of American ground forces in frontline NATO states including Poland and the Baltics to make clear that they will stand up to Russian aggression if directed their way. Seeing U.S. troops on his doorstep is pretty much the last thing Putin wants, and that’s precisely why we should do so. In addition the U.S. needs to end its ill-considered military drawdown and rebuild our strength to confront our enemies as Ronald Reagan did.

Finally the U.S. and Europe need to beef up their limited slate of sanctions against Russia. Just yesterday President Obama announced fresh sanctions against several Russian financial institutions and oil and gas producers which are, inter alia, being barred from the U.S. market. This stops well short of the “sectoral” sanctions on the Russian financial and energy sectors that President Obama had previously threatened, and the European Union pusillanimously refused to go even that far. The EU only promised to block future loans for projects in Russia by European development banks. Perhaps now the EU will get off its knees and join the U.S. in truly broad sanctions that will do real damage to the Russian economy.

Oh and perhaps now the French government will consider not delivering to Russia two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships that will considerably enhance Moscow’s ability to terrorize its neighbors.

I say “perhaps” advisedly because this is what should happen–but probably won’t. Even now there will be voices of detente cautioning that we don’t want to “isolate” or “corner” Russia. But if the murder of 295 innocents is not enough for the West to finally stand up to Russia’s barely disguised aggression in Ukraine, it is hard to know what it will take.

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Reform Conservatism, Foreign Policy, and Epistemic Closure

The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

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The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

In making the case for the necessity of an expanded debate on foreign policy, Douthat references two prominent paleocons, a left-wing opinion writer, and the “Israel Lobby” conspiracist Andrew Sullivan, none of whom has a fresh or coherent take on GOP foreign policy. In his one exception, he briefly mentions his coauthor Reihan Salam, a self-described neoconservative, but quickly insists that Salam’s worldview is “highly idiosyncratic, and takes as a given that the Iraq invasion was a folly”–in other words, he’s far enough removed from what Douthat refers to as “Cheneyism.”

I have a few thoughts. The first is that, if I conducted a discussion on domestic-policy reform conservatism while excluding actual reform conservatives, how informative do you suppose that would be? The second is, Douthat worries about affiliation with identifiably neoconservative and hawkish organizations, which presumably is why he doesn’t even mention our own Pete Wehner, himself one of the prominent reformicons.

And that leads to the third point, which is closely related. I understand the realist right’s desire to see their own policy preferences reflected in the Republican Party’s agenda. And I welcome them to the debate many of us are already having, regardless of the mistakes I think they made. For example, the realist approach to Russia has been a complete and total failure–one with consequences. The realist fantasy of strongman-stability in the Middle East is currently in flames, with the death toll rising (and rising and rising). The realist take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as we see, is disastrous, etc. But I’m happy for the realists to finally be engaging this debate, and I’m not interested in putting them in cherem just because they’ve been wrong as often as they have.

If you can’t name any hawks you’ve been reading on the subject, perhaps you haven’t been reading enough hawks. So let me do some outreach. Here at COMMENTARY, we’ve been having this debate for years, and it continues. Here, for example, is John Agresto–who served in the Bush administration in Iraq–critiquing the policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia. The article is followed by Abe Greenwald’s response. It’s a thoughtful debate on the relationship between democracy and liberalism and the thorny issue of culture.

More recently, here is my essay on the war on terror in which I engage the criticism of it from all sides–left, right, and center, and offer my own critique of some of the right’s approach to the war on terror. Here is Joshua Muravchik on “Neoconservatives and the Arab Spring.” Those are broad topics, and perhaps reformicons would like discussions with specific relevance to current debates. Should we arm the Syrian rebels? Here is Michael Rubin arguing no; here is Max Boot arguing yes. Here is Pete Wehner on nonintervention and global instability. Here is Michael Auslin on Ukraine and North Korea; Jamie Kirchick on Russia; Jonathan Foreman on Afghanistan.

I could go on. And it’s certainly not just here at COMMENTARY either. I realize that none of the links I’ve offered are in themselves a complete blueprint for a foreign-policy agenda. But neither is vague nostalgia for the days of James Baker. (Reform conservatives looking to shake things up by revivifying the administration of George H.W. Bush because they’re unhappy with the administration of George W. Bush is no more groundbreaking or creative than those on the right who just repeat the word “Reagan” over and over again–which, by the way, includes the realists’ beloved Rand Paul.)

My point in here is that there has been an ongoing debate, assessment, and reassessment of conservative internationalism, neoconservative foreign policy, and interventionist strategy on the right. If conservative reformers truly want a debate, they’ll need to engage the arguments already taking place instead of talking amongst themselves about the conservative movement’s hawkish establishment.

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Israel’s Critics Wage War on Reality

It tells you all you need to know about Hamas that its biggest victory to date against Israel–one that is no doubt being celebrated in the fortified bunkers that house its leadership–was the death of four young Palestinian boys on a Gaza City beach on Wednesday. The boys were apparently killed by an Israeli bomb or missile.

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It tells you all you need to know about Hamas that its biggest victory to date against Israel–one that is no doubt being celebrated in the fortified bunkers that house its leadership–was the death of four young Palestinian boys on a Gaza City beach on Wednesday. The boys were apparently killed by an Israeli bomb or missile.

Needless to say, the Israel Defense Forces do not deliberately target children–any more than do the armed forces of the United States or other civilized powers. That is both morally abhorrent and strategically stupid: What possible purpose can be served in killing children? But while deeply harmful and counterproductive for Israel, this inadvertent strike was a big win for Hamas. It produced the most coveted of victories in modern warfare: a front-page picture, taken by the storied New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks, of one dead boy lying on the Gaza sand and another being carried in a man’s arms.

There is no surer or better way for Hamas to make its propaganda point, which is the only point of this entire exercise from its standpoint. Hamas, like other terrorist groups, knows it cannot win a military victory against a much more powerful enemy, but it can win a public-relations victory by fostering the illusion that Israel is the aggressor and the Palestinians its victims.

Such an image is as powerful as it is misleading. All informed observers know the facts.

They know that Israel accepted a cease-fire to end this conflict while Hamas rejected it.

They know that Israel gave up all of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians in 2005 in the hope that peace would break out but that the result has only been an unending series of attacks on Israel that no nation could possibly tolerate.

They know that the IDF is careful to keep civilian casualties to a minimum but this is hard to do because Hamas deliberately places its headquarters and rocket-launching sites in the midst of civilian neighborhoods in the knowledge that this will either deter Israeli strikes or, if Israeli strikes occur nevertheless, they will result in collateral damage which Palestinian propagandists can use against Israel.

They know, finally, that it is Hamas, not Israel, that indiscriminately targets civilians by firing hundreds of rockets into Israel seemingly at random.

Israel is, in some ways, a victim of its own success because its Iron Dome anti-rocket system has shot down so many of the Hamas rockets that only one Israeli has been killed in the entire war–and he was a victim of a mortar shell, not a rocket. In the battle of victims, Israel is losing–there are more dead Palestinians than dead Israelis. But that does not make the Hamas cause just, any more than the fact that, in World War II, the U.S. armed forces inflicted a lot more casualties on Germany and Japan than they themselves suffered made the cause of the Nazis and Japanese militarists a just one.

Those are the incontrovertible facts. But what are facts before the power of an image?

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Iran Negotiations: the Neverending Story

The Associated Press is reporting what has to vie for the least shocking bit of news this week: Secretary of State John Kerry is preparing to extend the nuclear diplomacy with Iran beyond the deadline. The real news here–though again, not terribly surprisingly–is that the two sides are, according to the AP, getting ready to stop talking before the deadline actually hits. The talks have apparently become somewhat pointless at the current juncture:

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The Associated Press is reporting what has to vie for the least shocking bit of news this week: Secretary of State John Kerry is preparing to extend the nuclear diplomacy with Iran beyond the deadline. The real news here–though again, not terribly surprisingly–is that the two sides are, according to the AP, getting ready to stop talking before the deadline actually hits. The talks have apparently become somewhat pointless at the current juncture:

Both sides had been prepared to talk until Sunday, the informal deadline for the negotiations. But two diplomats have told The Associated Press the talks will probably wind down Friday, because the differences won’t be bridged by Sunday.

The diplomats demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge confidential information. One said the two sides opposed going on until the final hours of the informal deadline because they felt that would give the impression they were desperate for a solution.

Two things we learn from that excerpt. One, the two sides are so far apart that they have no hope of meeting the deadline. Two, they don’t want to “give the impression” they’re desperate for a deal because, let’s face it, this process is pretty much just for show–hence the two sides being so far apart as to make continued talks meaningless in the near term.

Why might that be? We know, from Kerry’s past experience letting the Iranians run circles around him, that the American side would like some kind of deal–something that kicks the can down the road but produces a piece of paper the Obama White House can pretend solves a problem. But going by the administration’s talking points, the Iranians should want a deal far more. After all, despite President Obama’s best efforts, the Congress has instituted some sanctions, though Obama has worked assiduously to delay them or water them down.

Well, about those sanctions. Eli Lake has some bad news:

As U.S. and allied negotiators try to hammer out a nuclear deal with Iran this week in Vienna, they will have less economic leverage on their Iranian counterparts than they had a year ago.

That is the conclusion of a new study from Roubini Global Economics and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, two groups that have analyzed Iran’s economy—and the international sanctions imposed on the country’s banks, oil exports and leading regime figures.

Their report concludes that in the last year as the United States and other Western countries have begun to ease some of the sanctions on Iran as an inducement to negotiate an end to the country’s nuclear weapons program, the Iranian economy has begun to recover.

The recovery of Iran’s economy is a good thing for the Iranian people, who suffered a currency in free-fall, staggering inflation and a contraction of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. But at the same time, the economic sanctions that President Obama has credited with forcing Iran to begin these negotiations have appeared to lose their bite, according to the study that is scheduled to be released Monday.

The administration has made this mistake elsewhere. When Kerry decided he wanted to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he found a Palestinian leadership hesitant to even come to the table. In order to get negotiations started, Kerry pressured the Israeli government to make concessions, which included releasing terrorist murderers.

Everyone not born yesterday understood what would come next: the Palestinians would accept the concessions, come to the table, and with the deadline approaching find some pretext to walk away, pocketing the concessions without giving anything up and without coming close to a deal. When the talks collapsed, there was a high degree of probability that a Palestinian faction would instigate violence. And that’s exactly what happened.

The idea of “preconditions for negotiations,” in whatever form, is usually counterproductive. There are always exceptions, of course. But generally speaking anyone who needs concessions to even come to the negotiating table doesn’t really want to be at the negotiating table. In the case of Iran, unless their leadership feels squeezed economically time will be on their side.

Obama and Kerry had leverage: economic sanctions. They used up much of that leverage just to get the Iranians to the table, and now the Iranian leadership wants to run out the clock. Thanks to the weakening of the sanctions, and the lack of stronger sanctions to begin with, they’re in a position to do so. And Kerry seems prepared to play along.

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Elizabeth Warren Stops Pretending

Yesterday on Twitter, the Senate Democrats sent out a message that seemed to attribute the following paraphrased declaration to Elizabeth Warren: “Remember the government shutdown? That was started by a GOP effort to let employers deny workers access to birth control.” Because it was unclear, and because this statement is so utterly and obviously false, Twitter users were left wondering if Warren could really have said something so outrageously fictitious. It turned out that, yes, Warren made this comment, having finally and fully descended into self-parody.

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Yesterday on Twitter, the Senate Democrats sent out a message that seemed to attribute the following paraphrased declaration to Elizabeth Warren: “Remember the government shutdown? That was started by a GOP effort to let employers deny workers access to birth control.” Because it was unclear, and because this statement is so utterly and obviously false, Twitter users were left wondering if Warren could really have said something so outrageously fictitious. It turned out that, yes, Warren made this comment, having finally and fully descended into self-parody.

The Washington Examiner’s Ashe Schow posted the video and transcript of Warren’s remarks in context. Here is what the senator said:

In 2012, the Republicans tried to pass the Blunt amendment, a proposal that would have allowed employers and insurance companies to deny women access to health care services based on any vague moral objections.

Democrats said ‘no.’ The president said ‘no.’ The American people said ‘no’ to this offensive idea.

But instead of listening to the American people, Republicans in Washington doubled down.

Remember last year’s government shutdown that nearly tanked our economy? That fight started with a GOP effort to hold the whole operation of the federal government hostage in order to try to force Democrats and the president to let employers deny workers access to birth control.

Well, we rejected the hostage-taking. Democrats said ‘no.’ The president said ‘no.’ The American people said ‘no’ to this offensive idea.

Schow explains, in case any readers were foolish enough to believe Warren, how none of Warren’s claim is true. The government shutdown, of course, was not about birth control but about a budget impasse and features native to ObamaCare (which the contraception mandate was not), and their selective enforcement.

Additionally, no one, under any reading of this controversy, was trying to “deny women access” to anything. The only question was whether some companies with religious objections to possible abortifacients would be forced to pay for services that violate their beliefs while still paying for 80 percent of birth control products. But again, that wasn’t the issue over which the government was shut down anyway.

As I have noted, joining the Senate seems to have erased any attempt at seriousness left over from Warren’s previous career as a consumer advocate. Conservatives have been disappointed because the intellectual bankruptcy of modern liberalism has left them with few liberals capable of conducting an intelligent debate on policy. Warren seemed to present a real challenge to conservatives, but she dropped her academic pretensions before she even joined the Senate, having run her campaign not on policy but on fabricated “war on women” victimhood and rants against “Big Oil.”

Warren has revealed herself to be a conventional leftist, and that’s why her made-up storylines about birth control actually matter. As Mary Katherine Ham notes over at Hot Air:

Back in 2013, at the time of the shutdown, she was saying the same thing because the entire strategy for this great, fresh intellectual hope of the Democratic Party is to yell about how no one can achieve anything outside the collective, and unless the collective provides every single necessity for basic living, free of cost, we are cast into the darkest of ages. It makes no difference to her that birth control was readily available to everyone, subsidized and provided free by the government, and covered by almost all employer-based insurance plans before a bureaucrat at Health and Human Services decided to force every employer in America to provide it without a copay, regardless of their religious beliefs. It was even available to Hobby Lobby employees before the Hobby Lobby case was decided and will remain available to them after that decision.

Indeed, the left was overjoyed at the prospect of Warren joining the Senate because it would put a faux-intellectual sheen on their unflinching statist impulses. Warren wasted no time in delivering on that promise, but she has gradually lost the ability to act as though there’s more to her liberalism than increasing and overusing government authority. After a center-left think tank criticized Warren’s Occupy Wall Street populism, she used her perch on the Senate Banking Committee to demand that think tanks disclose their Wall Street donors to discredit any pro-business scholarship and so she would know precisely who in the private sector dared criticize her.

Warren is fighting a battle against reality and good governance in the name of expanded and intrusive government power. She has also, apparently, given up pretending otherwise.

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The Nobility of Politics

William Kristol, among his many duties, hosts Conversations with Bill Kristol, which feature in-depth conversations with leading figures in American public life. (The interviews are sponsored by the Foundation for Constitutional Government, a not-for-profit organization devoted to supporting the serious study of politics and political philosophy.) Among those interviewed by Kristol are Elliott Abrams, Leon and Amy Kass, Charles Murray, and Harvey Mansfield.

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William Kristol, among his many duties, hosts Conversations with Bill Kristol, which feature in-depth conversations with leading figures in American public life. (The interviews are sponsored by the Foundation for Constitutional Government, a not-for-profit organization devoted to supporting the serious study of politics and political philosophy.) Among those interviewed by Kristol are Elliott Abrams, Leon and Amy Kass, Charles Murray, and Harvey Mansfield.

My intention is to eventually focus on each of the conversations, which are fascinating. But I want to start with the discussion Kristol had with his former teacher, Dr. Mansfield, a longtime professor of political philosophy at Harvard.

Professor Mansfield started out intending to be a political scientist but moved to political philosophy. A teacher of Mansfield’s, Sam Beer, convinced him that political science needed a theoretical background, a foundation underneath it. As an undergraduate, Mansfield concluded that:

political science was not enough by itself because it doesn’t judge. When you study facts, facts ask to be judged. A fact presents itself as something, which is either good or bad – and people who deal with facts either deserve to be praised or blamed.

It doesn’t seem really possible to stop and say, “I’m not going to be concerned with evaluation.” Political philosophy is concerned with evaluation because political facts aren’t sufficient by themselves and they ask to be judged.

This is quite a crucial point; it is what’s known in philosophy as the facts-value distinction, in which facts are considered “what is” and values are “what ought to be.” Facts may be true and explain the material world, but they can’t see beyond the material to help us understand the good, the beautiful and the true. They can’t elucidate what is justice and why human beings have inherent dignity. Facts alone can’t impart wisdom or explain what is right and moral. They can’t quite make sense of statements like “My kingdom is not of this world” and “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

One of the distinctions between the ancients and the moderns–with Machiavelli being considered the founder of modern political philosophy–is that the former, most especially Plato and Aristotle, were more concerned with “the invisible standing behind the visible and necessary to it,” in Mansfield’s words. In Book VII of Aristotle’s Politics, for example, we’re told about the primacy of the good of the soul and that “the best way of life, both for states and for individuals, is the life of goodness.” Moderns, on the other hand, begin from what is visible and are never really able to transcend it.

To be sure, in politics, as in life, facts matter. We can’t operate in our own universe; we have to lead our lives within the four corners of reality. Politics, then, is about respecting facts and being empirically minded. But politics rightly understood is also about ascertaining what the good life and the proper end of the state are. Political philosophy should not aim for the “transvaluation of values”; its aim should be promoting virtue (arête) and human flourishing (eudaimonia).

In speaking about Aristotle, Professor Mansfield says this:

he much more criticizes Plato than, I think, is necessary for him to do. And this too is perhaps a kind of stance on Aristotle’s part to show that Plato had this failing – or maybe it isn’t altogether a failing – of giving too low a view of politics. Politics deserves – there’s a certain nobility to it, in fact, a terrific nobility to it.

And, so Aristotle wanted to bring to our attention the splendor of politics and of the moral virtue that people show in politics. And he thought that Plato had not done this sufficiently. And, so on every page, so to speak, there is a kind of critique of Plato and then Aristotle’s Ethics – there’s an, actually, statement of disagreement with his revered teacher, which he says that he loves his friend, but he loves the truth more, the most beautiful kind of criticism you could give or get.

The nobility and splendor of politics is often obscured; that is the product of being broken people, often passionately holding competing points of view, imperfectly trying to order our lives together. Yet at its deepest level, beneath all the conflict and noise and triviality, there is–there has been, there can be–an ennoblement to politics. From time to time it can bend the arc of the moral universe a bit closer toward justice, make life a little more decent, treat people somewhat more humanely. And that’s actually something worth reminding ourselves about now and then, as Professor Mansfield and his former student Bill Kristol do in their splendid conversation.

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Are Israel’s Enemies Losing Ground in the PR War?

There is something different about the reaction to the latest Israel-Gaza conflict. The level of anger, the amount of hate, the fury being directed against Israel by protesters seems more unhinged, more ferocious, and, one is tempted to say, more disproportionate than ever before. But perhaps as a result something else is happening. One senses that a growing number of commentators and observers are seeing Israel’s detractors with new eyes. Both Hamas and its apologists are coming under real criticism unlike during either of the previous Gaza conflicts. It is possible that those who demonize Israel are beginning to expose themselves for what they are and with that comes the possibility of that movement becoming increasingly consigned to the fringes.

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There is something different about the reaction to the latest Israel-Gaza conflict. The level of anger, the amount of hate, the fury being directed against Israel by protesters seems more unhinged, more ferocious, and, one is tempted to say, more disproportionate than ever before. But perhaps as a result something else is happening. One senses that a growing number of commentators and observers are seeing Israel’s detractors with new eyes. Both Hamas and its apologists are coming under real criticism unlike during either of the previous Gaza conflicts. It is possible that those who demonize Israel are beginning to expose themselves for what they are and with that comes the possibility of that movement becoming increasingly consigned to the fringes.

The backlash against Israel has been almost incomprehensible. Those attending a pro-Israel demonstration in Los Angeles were violently set upon by armed Palestinian supporters leading to a police officer firing his gun in an apparent effort to regain control over the situation. In Boston a pro-Israel activist was attacked by a woman screaming “Jewish go to hell!” In London a mob gathered outside the Israeli embassy, brandishing placards proclaiming a “Palestinian Holocaust” to be underway and accusing Israel’s prime minister of being “Hitler’s clone.” By the following morning a Jewish family home in that city was daubed with swastikas and days later a Jewish lady was randomly assaulted by demonstrators. Similarly, violent protests erupted in several German cities and in Antwerp the crowd openly chanted “slaughter the Jews.” But the most shocking scenes took place in Paris, where one synagogue was firebombed, while another came under siege from an angry mob that trapped Jewish worshipers inside the building for several hours.

What has made these events all the more outrageous is the utter disconnect between the levels of rage and the actual events that anti-Israel campaigners purport to be so enraged by. Not only did Hamas force this conflict with an unprovoked barrage of rockets targeting Israeli civilians, and not only has Hamas ignored all efforts for a ceasefire, but the casualty figures in Gaza are still dramatically lower than in all comparable conflicts and they have also remained far lower than during the first Israel-Gaza war in 2009. It should be clear to any honest observer that despite Hamas’s use of human shields, Israel is going to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilians wherever possible. Hamas on the other hand is indiscriminately targeting Israel’s civilians with a large and highly sophisticated arsenal supplied by Iran. Seventy percent of Israel’s population is within reach of Hamas’s long range Fajr-5 missiles and the terror group is equipped with anti-tank mortars and even unmanned drones.

What is all the more galling is that onlookers who never seemed visibly troubled by far more horrendous conflicts in the region, and who would never have turned out to protest the casualty figures of their own governments’ military interventions, have obsessively condemned Israel at every turn. And the rhetoric from those doing the condemning has become wildly visceral, with the most appalling comparisons between the Jewish state and Nazi Germany, coupled with the equally sickening #HitlerWasRight hashtag.

Yet behavior this extreme can’t go unnoticed indefinitely. It has long been suggested, and not without justification, that the media bears a great deal of responsibility for provoking much of these anti-Israel sentiments. The British media has been particularly notorious in the past and indeed during this latest round of hostilities much of the reporting has been just as misleading. However, alongside this dishonest reporting there has been a growing chorus of voices speaking in opposition to the prevailing anti-Israel sentiment.

At the Telegraph, in response to the latest frenzy of Israel bashing, several writers have spoken-up, with a particularly strong piece by Dan Hodges reminding readers that history demonstrates why Israel cannot afford weakness. At the Spectator Rod Liddle authored a post bluntly titled “Will the BBC Accept that Hamas Wants to Kill Lots of Jews?” And Hugo Rifkind, also of the Spectator, went with “If Britain Was Being Shelled, as Israel Now is, How Would We Respond?” Even the left-leaning Independent ran a piece asking why no one cares about Palestinians starved by Assad. But perhaps the most blistering attack on the anti-Israel crowed came from Brendon O’Neil with his outspoken editorial: “There’s Something Very Ugly in This Rage Against Israel: the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism gets thinner every day.”

The point is that–despite how hostile the British media has typically been to Israel–if these writers can come to see the campaign against Israel for what it is, then ultimately any reasonable person, confronted with the reality of this phenomenon, should be capable of seeing the inherent bigotry of this hateful movement. And a similar shift could well emerge at the diplomatic level too. The way in which the Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird recently slammed the UN human rights commissioner for her disingenuous words against Israel’s military operation, or the fact that Australia’s Ambassador Dave Sharma took to twitter to highlight the reality of Hamas rockets, is all a far cry from the atmosphere in 2009.

None of this is to suggest that some grand awakening has taken place. The New York Times and Guardian aren’t changing tune. But as the campaign against Israel becomes ever more extreme and violent, there is a chance for the fair-minded to see things anew.

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Erdoğan’s Projection of Hatred

Israel’s exercise of self-defense brings out the worst in those prone to hate the Jewish state, or Jews themselves. Hence, protestors of the Israeli campaign against Hamas—action brought on by Hamas’s kidnapping and killing of Israeli (and American) teens and the launching of rockets itself—in Paris sought to sack synagogues. German police allowed anti-Israel protestors to use a police megaphone to incite the crowd with anti-Semitic chants. A University of Michigan professor turned polemicist was particularly unhinged with this piece as he performs intellectual somersaults to ignore the fact that Gaza is not occupied, Hamas is motivated by ideology rather than grievance, and that Hamas’s charter blesses genocide against not Israelis but Jews everywhere. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s authoritarian and virulently anti-Semitic ruler, can be counted on to take hatred to a new level.

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Israel’s exercise of self-defense brings out the worst in those prone to hate the Jewish state, or Jews themselves. Hence, protestors of the Israeli campaign against Hamas—action brought on by Hamas’s kidnapping and killing of Israeli (and American) teens and the launching of rockets itself—in Paris sought to sack synagogues. German police allowed anti-Israel protestors to use a police megaphone to incite the crowd with anti-Semitic chants. A University of Michigan professor turned polemicist was particularly unhinged with this piece as he performs intellectual somersaults to ignore the fact that Gaza is not occupied, Hamas is motivated by ideology rather than grievance, and that Hamas’s charter blesses genocide against not Israelis but Jews everywhere. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s authoritarian and virulently anti-Semitic ruler, can be counted on to take hatred to a new level.

Here, for example, is Erdoğan comparing Israel’s policy to Hitler’s, while accusing Israel of perpetrating state terrorism. The irony here is that it was under Erdoğan that Mein Kampf became a Turkish best-seller, apparently because of mysterious Turkish subsidies, and a Turkish film endorsed by Erdoğan’s wife brought blood libel to the big screen. There’s a reason why Turkey’s centuries-old Jewish community is now beginning to flee.

But what about the charge of state terrorism? Hamas, of course, is in violation of the Geneva Accords by hiding among civilians, eschewing uniforms, and placing weaponry in homes, schools, and mosques. Despite this, Israel, however, has bent over backwards to prevent civilian casualties. They are the only military force in the world to utilize roof-knocking, for example, to warn civilians to evacuate buildings in which Hamas built bomb factories or sheltered terrorists.

But what about Turkey? On December 28, 2011, Turkish fighter jets fired at a column of unarmed Kurds near the border, killing 34, half of whom were children. While Erdoğan has claimed that Muslims don’t kill Muslims, dozens of widows, parents, and orphans beg to differ. And while Erdoğan claims that Israel pays money for the deaths of those on the Mavi Marmara, he has refused to pay compensation for the Kurds for whose deaths he is responsible. That’s certainly reflective of Erdoğan’s hypocrisy. But taken together, it creates a certain irony: a racist, hate-mongering ruler who censors the press, slaughters innocents on the basis of their ethnicity, and then accuses others of acting like Hitler. Perhaps when Erdoğan invokes such analogies, he projects a bit too much?

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The Anti-Rand Paul GOP Primary

The 2014 midterms are months away but the 2016 Republican presidential race is already heating up–though on foreign policy, an issue that isn’t usually a significant factor. But while this debate is generating a fair amount of heat, the real competition isn’t really so much between Senator Rand Paul, the leader of the libertarian wing of the GOP, as it is between those seeking to assume the leadership of those who are determined to stop the Kentucky senator.

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The 2014 midterms are months away but the 2016 Republican presidential race is already heating up–though on foreign policy, an issue that isn’t usually a significant factor. But while this debate is generating a fair amount of heat, the real competition isn’t really so much between Senator Rand Paul, the leader of the libertarian wing of the GOP, as it is between those seeking to assume the leadership of those who are determined to stop the Kentucky senator.

That’s the upshot of a pair of dueling op-ed articles published this week in which Texas Governor Rick Perry and Paul laid out their respective positions on foreign policy. Perry pulled no punches in an article published in the Washington Post last Friday as he labeled Paul an “isolationist.” Perry rightly pointed out that the positions Paul advocates would weaken America’s defense and standing around the world even more than President Obama’s disastrous policies, especially as a terrorist threat becomes more pronounced in the Middle East.

Paul argued in a response published yesterday in Politico that he was a realist, not an isolationist. But he gave away the game by claiming the difference between them was about his unwillingness to order Americans into Iraq, a signal that he intends to stick to a stance in which the use of U.S. power, as well as its exercise of influence, would be shelved in a Paul presidency.

Paul’s advantage here is that he is the unchallenged spokesman for the growing isolationist spirit within the GOP and the nation. He has inherited his father’s extreme libertarian base and expanded with a slick appeal rooted in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan war weariness. That gives him a sizable chunk of Republican primary voters and accounts for the fact that early polls show him with a slim plurality in a large field of potential candidates.

But it doesn’t guarantee Paul the nomination. To the contrary, though Paul is a formidable contender, there’s no reason to believe that the party that has championed strong defense and foreign policies for generations is morphing into the sort of organization where an extremist like Ron Paul, or even his son, who espouse foreign-policy views that are arguably to the left of Obama, speaks for the majority.

But Paul could succeed if the candidates who espouse mainstream GOP views on foreign policy siphon support from each other and allow him to slip through to victory. That’s why the fiercest fight in the upcoming campaign will not be between Paul and those who disagree with him but in the virtual primary as Republican foreign-policy hawks seek to claim the mantle as the anti-Paul candidate.

This will be especially important because although most voters will always be more concerned about the economy and domestic issues, the differences between the candidates on most of the other issues will be minimal. As things stack up now, other than immigration reform, foreign policy may be the only point on which there are significant differences among the Republicans.

Who will be competing in the anti-Paul primary?

The first name that comes to mind is Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor’s decision to remind voters of his opposition to gay marriage made it clear that he’s still interested in running for president despite his ongoing Bridgegate troubles. And he fired a shot across Paul’s bow last year on the question of intelligence gathering that indicated a willingness to stake out ground to the libertarian’s right on defense policy. But Christie is still regarded by many in the grass roots as a moderate who will have problems drawing support from a party that has shifted to the right. More to the point, his expertise on foreign affairs appears to be minimal. While no one should underestimate Christie in a fight, this is not a man who is likely to gain any advantages by speaking about non-domestic or economic issues.

The other principal contender for the title of anti-Paul is Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Rubio has spent the last year giving speeches on foreign affairs and has the chops to make a strong case for himself as the most able spokesman of his generation for a strong American foreign policy. Based on his statements, Rubio is a clear choice to be the leading advocate for a strong America in his generation. But the jury is still out on whether Rubio can overcome a poor 2013 in which conservatives attacked him on immigration and Paul and Ted Cruz won the affection of the Tea Party (a group that once regarded him as a favorite).

There are others who would like use foreign policy to emerge from the pack of GOP candidates. Outliers like former ambassador John Bolton and Rep. Peter King want to run on foreign policy but neither seems capable anything more than a symbolic candidacy. 2012 runner-up Rick Santorum has the expertise learned during years in the Senate and would give Paul a run for his money by articulating the case for stopping Iran and not allowing Islamists or the Russians to run the U.S. out of the Middle East. But while it would be foolish to underestimate Santorum (as I and just about everyone else did in 2012), he still looks right now to be a second-tier candidate until the contrary is proven.

There is also the possibility that someone else, such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, will emerge as a rival to Paul. But Walker must first win reelection and then must articulate some strong positions on foreign policy, something that so far he has not done.

It is into that confusing array of contenders that Perry is seeking to inject himself. Perry’s disastrous 2012 run would have seemed to eliminate him from future consideration but after his very good week showing up Barack Obama on illegal immigration, the Texas governor seems to be a much more serious contender now than he did only a few weeks ago.

Perry doesn’t know as much about foreign policy as Rubio, Santorum, Bolton, or King and anyone who remembers his debate performances the last time around must regard his 2016 hopes as a long shot at best. But in contrast to his late start last time around, Perry is going in hard this time and seems better prepared. Moreover, by seeking to establish himself as the heir to the Reagan wing of the GOP (as opposed to Paul’s seeming effort to channel the spirit of Robert A. Taft, the isolationist champion of the 1940s), Perry has correctly targeted an issue that could give him a leg up in a battle that is only just starting.

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The Republican Party and Single Women

I’ve written in the past about the demographic problems facing the Republican Party, especially during presidential years. My basic point is that Republicans do best with demographic groups that are contracting and worst with demographic groups that are expanding. Which means the GOP faces systemic, not just transitory, challenges.

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I’ve written in the past about the demographic problems facing the Republican Party, especially during presidential years. My basic point is that Republicans do best with demographic groups that are contracting and worst with demographic groups that are expanding. Which means the GOP faces systemic, not just transitory, challenges.

A recent story in the New York Times highlights just one of the demographic groups that is both growing and becoming less reliably Republican: single women. Here are some facts, as laid out in the Times story:

  • Half of all adult women over the age of 18 are unmarried—56 million, up from 45 million in 2000.
  • Single women now account for one in four people of voting age. In 2012, 58 percent of single women voted. (During this year’s mid-term, this number could slide by one-third, to roughly 39 percent, according to the Voter Participation Center. Many unmarried women do not turn out to vote during non-presidential elections.)
  • Single women have become Democrats’ most reliable supporters, behind African-Americans.
  • In 2012, two-thirds of single women who voted supported President Obama.

“You have a group that’s growing in size, and becoming more politically concentrated in terms of the Democrats,” according to Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago.

Single women tend to be socially liberal–but, according to the Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, “the issues they really care about are economic.” Ruy Teixeira, a political demographer at the Center for American Progress, says unmarried women, and especially unmarried mothers, have greater economic vulnerability.

To be sure, Republicans can win presidential elections without carrying a majority of single women. (Among married women, a slim majority supported Mitt Romney, while he won the male vote by eight points.) But it will be tough to win those elections if the Republican nominee for president loses the female vote by 12 points and single women by 36 points, as was the case in 2012.

I wouldn’t advise, and because I’m a social conservative I wouldn’t want, the GOP to become a socially liberal party. But that doesn’t mean certain things can’t be done. They include giving more prominent public roles to responsible women in the party (for example, Kelly Ayotte and Cathy McMorris Rodgers). It means nominating a presidential candidate who is principled but not seen as the aggressor on social issues. Grace and a gladsome spirit beat a zealous and judgmental one. And it means putting cultural issues in the context of a decent and humane social order.

In addition, Republicans would be wise to enlarge the social issues they speak about. Liberals and the elite press will want to keep the focus on issues like contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. Republicans need to counter by speaking in compelling ways about the intellectual and moral education of the young, about education as the civil-rights struggle of this generation, and protecting children from harm, including drug use and standing against drug legalization. They need to speak about an agenda focused on social mobility and helping people gain the skills they’ll need to succeed in a 21st century economy. Republicans also need to make it clear they want to strengthen, rather than weaken, the social safety net, including about the purposes of government in ways that reassures rather than unnerves people, especially those who are most vulnerable.

The GOP is hardly in danger of disappearing; in fact, it looks very much like it will take control of the Senate in addition to maintain control in the House. The Republican Party still possesses considerable strengths. The public is highly skeptical of much of the agenda of the Democratic Party. It helps, of course, that the Obama presidency is breaking apart and so, in many respects, is liberalism. Which means voters, including single women, are likely to give a fresh look to Republicans. It’ll be interesting to see what they find, how welcome they feel, and how they respond.

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A Maoist in Gaza

Despite the flurry of reports from Gaza today, very few news outlets picked up on Hamas’s declaration that it had closed the Erez border crossing into Israel, citing “Israeli shelling” as the reason for doing so. The move, reported AFP, left stranded a group of Palestinians who had arrived at Erez early in the morning, “some of whom were scheduled to enter Israel for cancer treatment.”

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Despite the flurry of reports from Gaza today, very few news outlets picked up on Hamas’s declaration that it had closed the Erez border crossing into Israel, citing “Israeli shelling” as the reason for doing so. The move, reported AFP, left stranded a group of Palestinians who had arrived at Erez early in the morning, “some of whom were scheduled to enter Israel for cancer treatment.”

Sadly, these patients may have to wait a while before attempting the journey again, as Hamas subsequently announced that the border crossing will remain closed until it receives an “international guarantee that the crossing, and the route between the two sides of the crossing, will not be bombed by Israel.” In the interim, their other option is to ascertain whether Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor currently in Gaza City, is willing to take time out of his busy media schedule to assist them.

Over the last couple of days, Gilbert has become an unofficial spokesman for the Hamas regime, giving interviews like this one in which he accused Israel of “deliberately” targeting civilians, “particularly women and children.” Pro-Palestinian activists on social media platforms have been eagerly reporting Gilbert’s every move, lauding him with such terms as “hero” and “great humanitarian.” Among Gilbert’s admirers is Chris Gunness, the spokesman for UNRWA, the UN agency devoted exclusively to Palestinian refugees, who repeatedly tweeted the doctor’s email address and cell phone number, describing him as a “brilliant interviewee” on the “impact of the conflict on civilians.”

One does not, however, have to dig very deep to discover that the halo effect around Gilbert masks some very disturbing affiliations. To begin with, Gilbert is an active member of Norway’s Red Party, a Maoist organization formed in 2007, which begs the question as to how someone who perpetuates the ideology of a tyrant who murdered 45 million of his own people over four years can be described as a “humanitarian.” Nor does Gilbert have a track record of helping anyone other than the Palestinians; as the journalist Benjamin Weinthal revealed on Twitter, his emails and phone calls to Gilbert asking the doctor why he wasn’t treating victims of the slaughter in Syria were met with silence.

Gilbert’s reputation is derived not from his medical work, but from his frequent verbal assaults on Israel and the United States, which stretch back to the early 1980s, when he became active in Palestinian solidarity work. As the Israeli watchdog NGO Monitor pointed out in a statement urging media organizations to treat Gilbert’s comments on Gaza with extreme caution, a few days after the al-Qaeda atrocities of September 11, 2001, Gilbert gave an interview to the Norwegian daily Dagbladet in which he stated, “The oppressed also have a moral right to attack the USA with any weapon they can come up with.” Chairman Mao himself couldn’t have put it better.

None of this has eroded Gilbert’s celebrity; arguably, it’s enhanced it. When he and his colleague Erik Fosse visited Gaza during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, their expenses were covered by a Norwegian NGO that is funded by the Norwegian government. While the two doctors were in Gaza, spending an inordinate amount of time talking to journalists about Israeli “war crimes,” they received a phone call from no less than Jens Stoltenberg–then Norway’s prime minister, now the incoming secretary-general of NATO–who assured them that “all of Norway is behind you.” A subsequent book about their experiences in Gaza was praised by Norway’s Foreign Ministry, which said that conveying their impressions was “not their duty, but their responsibility,” given that in such dire situations, “civilians become voiceless.”

No wonder, then, that Gilbert now feels licensed to elevate the political goals of his current Gaza mission above any medical considerations. Speaking to a reverential Amy Goodman on the left-wing Democracy Now! show, Gilbert went so far as to say, “As a medical doctor, my appeal is don’t send bandages, don’t send syringes, don’t send medical teams. The most important medical thing you can do now is to force Israel to stop the bombing and lift the siege of Gaza.”

As Operation Protective Edge enters its second week, we can expect Gilbert to make ever more outlandish statements the longer he remains in Gaza. But that won’t stop media organizations from trumpeting Gilbert’s medical credentials–as did Britain’s Channel 4 News, which billed him as “a Norwegian volunteer surgeon at Shifa Hospital in Gaza,” thereby encouraging its audience to take the good doctor at his word–while ignoring the fact that he is an integral element of the Hamas propaganda network.

But that, ironically, is what underlies Gilbert’s appeal. He tells Europeans what they want to hear: that Israel has made Gaza into a prison camp, and that nothing is more noble than the Palestinian determination to resist. Once you succeed in getting that message across, what does it matter whether Hamas rejects a ceasefire, or invites a firm Israeli response by sending even more missiles over the border?

As tempting as it is to dismiss Gilbert as a crazy Norwegian Maoist in Gaza, the reality is that he is using his media appearances to stoke the libel of the century: namely, that Israel, in the words of the Palestinian Authority’s foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki, is engaged in “a genocide against the Palestinian people in all territories.”

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How Not to Promote Immigration Reform

Today, America’s most prominent illegal immigrant arrived at the border between Mexico and the United States to demonstrate his solidarity with the tens of thousands of people streaming into the country without permission. But the stunt by which former journalist Jose Antonio Vargas got himself arrested did more to undermine support for immigration reform than to foster sympathy for the illegals.

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Today, America’s most prominent illegal immigrant arrived at the border between Mexico and the United States to demonstrate his solidarity with the tens of thousands of people streaming into the country without permission. But the stunt by which former journalist Jose Antonio Vargas got himself arrested did more to undermine support for immigration reform than to foster sympathy for the illegals.

Vargas became a national figure three years ago when the former Washington Post reporter outed himself in the New York Times as an illegal immigrant. Vargas came to the United States at 12 from the Philippines to live with his grandparents who were naturalized citizens. But he was brought here by a “coyote” without a legal visa and spent the rest of his life lying about his status and using fake documents. After graduating college he consulted an immigration lawyer who told him his only path to citizenship was to return to his home country, wait ten years and then apply to come back with permission. On the cusp of a successful career he refused and continued lying even as he was part of a Post team that won a Pulitzer. Eventually, he tired of the deceit as he continued to rise in mainstream journalism and decided to put himself forward as a symbol of the plight of the so-called “dreamers”—people who were brought to the country illegally as kids and who went on to make a contribution to society.

After revealing himself to be an illegal Vargas faced no consequences. To the contrary, he became a media star, founding a group backing the rights of illegals, testifying before Congress, making documentary films, and writing. So perhaps with the backing of liberals who have lionized him as an example of why illegal immigrants should be given a path to citizenship he may have felt he had impunity to come and go as he pleased even though he remains in the United States without anything but a Philippine passport.

But when he went through an airport security line at McAllen-Miller International Airport on the Texas border today, Transportation Security Administration agents detained him. His arrest has prompted calls for his release by immigration advocates who see him as having put himself on the line to draw attention to the plight of the thousands of children and adults who have surged across the border in recent months.

But if immigration reform advocates think this stunt will help their cause they are mistaken.

The problem for the Obama administration and others who believe a broken system must be changed is that their calls for legalization for undocumented aliens have prompted another wave of illegal immigration. Even those of us who believe that calls for the government to deport the 11 million illegals here now are ridiculous must understand that the president’s actions designed to help the dreamers and advocacy for “amnesty” have created exactly the mess that immigration reform critics predicted.

Even more to the point, the use of Vargas as the poster child for the campaign for legalization doesn’t work quite the way his supporters think it does. Nor does it make a good argument for letting the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who have arrived illegally stay.

Even if you support a pragmatic solution to the dilemma of those already here illegally, the idea that anyone in Central America or anyone else has the right to simply storm the border or sneak in and then demand legal status is neither logical nor a sustainable argument.

After all, why should those who have arrived here illegally recently be put at the head of the line of those seeking entry to the country by legal means? What gives Vargas or anyone else the right to flout the law without ever having to face the consequences?

If there is to be immigration reform it must, as the bipartisan Senate coalition that passed a reform bill last year realized, be part of a scheme that secures the border and restores order to the current chaos. But if Vargas and other illegals are determined to demand that illegals be given the right to enter with impunity, all reform will accomplish will be a repeat of the failed Reagan-era experiment in which amnesty was followed by another wave of illegals.

Yet by highlighting people like Vargas, immigration advocates are sending a signal that what they want is a situation in which the border will be erased and the laws, whether they are tough or more liberal, will be rendered meaningless. After all, at some point we will have new laws that will theoretically have to be enforced even if they are preceded by giving a pass to those who have already broken the law.

Vargas was released quickly and I doubt he will ever be deported. But if immigration reform is ever to succeed it won’t be by telling Americans that laws are irrelevant.

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Diane Ravitch’s Sexist and Tendentious Attack on an Education Reformer

In the past I’ve had my differences with Jonathan Chait, but he does a splendid job of eviscerating Diane Ravitch, an education historian who has become among the most prominent defenders of teacher unions.

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In the past I’ve had my differences with Jonathan Chait, but he does a splendid job of eviscerating Diane Ravitch, an education historian who has become among the most prominent defenders of teacher unions.

Ms. Ravitch has undergone a radical change in her views. She was once a vocal advocate for reforms; she’s now among the fiercest public critics of reform. More on that in a moment, but let me begin by setting the context.

The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi did a profile of Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchor turned education-reform activist. One of Ms. Brown’s concerns is teacher tenure, which she (rightly) believes protects terrible teachers from accountability and creates the wrong metric by which to judge teachers. Apparently this was too much for Ms. Ravitch, who said this:

“I have trouble with this issue because it’s so totally illogical,” says Diane Ravitch, an education historian. “It’s hard to understand why anyone thinks taking away teachers’ due-process rights will lead to great teachers in every classroom.”

As for Brown, Ravitch is dismissive: “She is a good media figure because of her looks, but she doesn’t seem to know or understand anything about teaching and why tenure matters. . . . I know it sounds sexist to say that she is pretty, but that makes her telegenic, even if what she has to say is total nonsense.”

To which Chait responds, “Why, yes, that does sound rather sexist.” He goes on to explain why the elimination of our current system of teacher tenure would help attract better teachers, including pointing out that last-in, first-out hiring rules lead to teachers being let go regardless of quality. “The basic problem is that some proportion of American teachers is terrible at their job and immune to improvement, yet removing them is a practical impossibility,” Chait writes. (He supplies an overview of the research here.)

“In most fields,” Chait adds, “your pay is based on your perceived value rather than on the number of years you have spent on the job.” He goes on to say of various reforms, “nearly all of them work better than paying people on the basis of how long they’ve held a job and making it functionally impossible to fire them for being terrible at their job.”

Some final thoughts, the first of which is that it’s a shame that Ravitch has become such an angry and embittered critic of those arguing for many of the reforms she once favored. In a devastating COMMENTARY magazine review of Ravitch’s book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Liam Julian of the Hoover Institution wrote her book was “nothing less than an act of emotional and ideological capitulation to those who fought her tooth and nail all along the way.” Changing one’s mind is not in principle wrong, of course, but in Ms. Ravitch’s case her complete shift on education reminds me of the words of Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons: “Listen, Roper. Two years ago you were a passionate Churchman; now you’re a passionate — Lutheran. We must just pray that when your head’s finished turning, your face is to the front again.”

In the course of her volte-face, Ms. Ravitch hasn’t simply shifted her views; she’s gone from being a serious scholar to an intemperate polemicist. (See Sol Stern’s Autumn 2013 essay in City Journal, “The Closing of Diane Ravitch’s Mind,” for more.) Her sexist attack on Campbell Brown, while ludicrous, was entirely in keeping with her corrosive and dyspeptic rhetoric these days.

As for Ms. Brown, she put things rather well in the profile by Farhi:

I’m a mom, and my view of public education begins and ends with the fundamental question: Is this good for children? In a situation where it’s the child or the adult, I’m going with the child…. Tenure is permanent lifetime employment. There’s no reason why anyone’s job should become untouchable for the rest of their life.

To be an advocate for the education and wellbeing of children is a rather high calling, even if the advocate happens to be attractive as well.

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America: the Popular Hegemon

There’s a lot to chew over in the new international survey from the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The headline on Pew’s own website leads with international opposition to U.S. surveillance and the use of drones but, despite this, the U.S. remains pretty popular–viewed favorably by 65 percent of the world and unfavorably by just 25 percent.

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There’s a lot to chew over in the new international survey from the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The headline on Pew’s own website leads with international opposition to U.S. surveillance and the use of drones but, despite this, the U.S. remains pretty popular–viewed favorably by 65 percent of the world and unfavorably by just 25 percent.

Those numbers are all the more impressive when you compare the standing of America’s rivals. Russia’s negative ratings have spiked–now 43 percent of those surveyed view Putinland unfavorably while 34 percent have a positive view. As for China–whose diplomatic offensive at American expense has often been noted–it outscores the U.S. in popularity in only one region: the Middle East. Everywhere else–Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America–the U.S. is more popular.

When asked which country is their top ally, respondents in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam all answered the “U.S.” Only respondents in Malaysia and Pakistan described China as their top ally and the U.S. as their top threat. In Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, China was described as the top threat. (Indonesians seem confused–they named the U.S. as both the top ally and the top threat.)

Even more interesting is the fact that large majorities in all of China’s neighbors–and even in China itself–are worried that “territorial disputes between China and neighboring states could lead to a military conflict.” The survey indicates that more than 90 percent of those surveyed in the Philippines are worried as are more than 80 percent of those surveyed in South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Even in China itself more than 60 percent of those surveyed are worried about war.

The implication is clear: the U.S. still has a lot of capital in the world while China is rapidly dissipating whatever goodwill it might once have enjoyed with its aggressive and bombastic behavior. Obviously there is a lot more to foreign policy than popularity–it would be nice to be respected, not just liked–but nevertheless the survey does show an important and often under-appreciated source of American strength: namely the fact that most people around the world do not view us as a threat, no matter how powerful we may be, even when American behavior (e.g., on surveillance and drones) comes in for so much criticism. We are the benevolent superpower, the popular hegemon–not just in our own minds but in the minds of most other people around the world.

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The ‘Unsustainable Status Quo’ and Gaza

Speaking yesterday at the White House Iftar dinner yesterday, President Obama reiterated his support for a peace agreement that would end what he called the “unsustainable status quo” between Israel and the Palestinians. But while his support for peace is appropriate, his inability to connect the dots between the fighting in Gaza and his hopes demonstrates anew the administration’s tone-deaf approach to the Middle East.

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Speaking yesterday at the White House Iftar dinner yesterday, President Obama reiterated his support for a peace agreement that would end what he called the “unsustainable status quo” between Israel and the Palestinians. But while his support for peace is appropriate, his inability to connect the dots between the fighting in Gaza and his hopes demonstrates anew the administration’s tone-deaf approach to the Middle East.

The president deserves credit for making it clear that the United States supports Israel’s right to self-defense against what he rightly termed “inexcusable attacks” by Hamas rockets from Gaza. That he did so at a dinner for American Muslims is doubly welcome. But it is discouraging to see that the administration’s mindset about Middle East diplomacy is unaffected by events on the ground.

President Obama is right in the sense that resolving the situation requires more than just a cease-fire. But the knee-jerk impulse to try to revive talks between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority as a response to the crisis reflects a profound lack of understanding about why peace has eluded the region up until now.

Israelis rightly think that any cease-fire with Hamas must do something more than simply allow the terrorist group to remain in place ruling Gaza as an independent state in all but name with a rocket arsenal that can be employed any time the Islamists feel like starting another round of fighting. But the president appears uninterested in either diplomacy or support for action that would oust Hamas or strip it of its weapons. Instead, he is focused on another attempt to forge an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority.

The PA and its leader Mahmoud Abbas preferred to conclude a unity agreement with Hamas this spring instead of sticking to peace negotiations with Israel. But that didn’t impact Obama’s glowing view of Abbas or cause him to cut aid to the PA even though the law requires him to cease the flow of U.S. taxpayer dollars to any entity in cahoots with terrorists. Rather than Abbas influencing Hamas to embrace peace as the Americans hoped, he has become a helpless bystander as his partners dragged the region back into war via terrorism and rocket fire aimed at Israel’s cities.

That should have signaled to the U.S. that its faith in Abbas as a reliable partner for peace with Israel was misplaced. But the flare-up of Hamas terror in the form of the kidnapping of three Jewish teenagers last month and the subsequent barrage of hundreds of rockets on Israeli citizens should do more than spur U.S. efforts to broker a cease-fire or to revive peace talks. Hamas’s ability to revert to violence any time it wants is doing grave damage to support for a two-state solution inside Israel. If a cease-fire leaves them in place, it could kill it altogether.

Most Israelis, including many who support Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government, support a two-state solution in principle as the best way out of the conflict. But, unlike most Americans, they have been paying attention to recent events and what they portend for a deal that would require Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, something that it already tried in Gaza. While the assumption is that a pact with Abbas creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank, and presumably a share of Jerusalem, would include security guarantees, the Palestinians are not interested in any diminishment of their future sovereignty and Israelis have good reason not to trust that the U.S. would vigorously enforce any deal.

More to the point, as Hamas continually reminds us, the conflict is about the “occupation.” But when Palestinians use that word, they are referring to Israel within its June 1967 borders, not the West Bank or Gaza, which isn’t occupied anyway.

What the Israelis have learned is that when they withdraw from territory, it becomes a base for terror and there’s little they can do about it even if they are prepared to use massive military force. The world doesn’t permit Israel to seek to oust Hamas or to go in and take out their rocket launchers and it would treat an independent West Bank in the same way. The only problem is that a terror state in the West Bank would be far more dangerous for Israel than even Gaza is today. As Prime Minister Netanyahu said on Friday, a withdrawal, with or without U.S. security guarantees that would probably be meaningless, would create 20 Gazas on their eastern border.

Thus, the invocation of the phrase about an “unsustainable status quo” is likely to ring hollow in Israeli ears. They don’t like the status quo but they also know that the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected an end to the conflict or recognition of the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Unless he is prepared to back action that would rid the region of Hamas and its allies, the president’s anodyne hopes for peace are meaningless. Replacing an admittedly unsustainable status quo with a new reality that would be even more dangerous is not an option for Israel and would do little good for Palestinians, who would suffer from the carnage that their leaders create. So long as the Islamists are allowed to launch rockets at Israel any time they like, the two-state solution is a pipe dream.

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Will Clinton Run as Elizabeth Warren?

The Democratic strategy of outright dishonesty about the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision was nowhere more extreme than in Hillary Clinton’s ludicrous response to the ruling. As I noted at the time, Clinton sounded as though she flew around the world as secretary of state but never got off the plane. She called the ruling “a really bad, slippery slope” and comparable to “a disturbing trend that you see in a lot of societies that are unstable, anti-democratic, and prone to extremism.”

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The Democratic strategy of outright dishonesty about the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision was nowhere more extreme than in Hillary Clinton’s ludicrous response to the ruling. As I noted at the time, Clinton sounded as though she flew around the world as secretary of state but never got off the plane. She called the ruling “a really bad, slippery slope” and comparable to “a disturbing trend that you see in a lot of societies that are unstable, anti-democratic, and prone to extremism.”

In reality, aside from the ignorance this displays about both the societies Clinton visited on her Instagram tour and the country she hopes to lead as president, the ruling was precisely the opposite. It reaffirmed America as a place of religious liberty and a beacon to those fleeing religious persecution in the countries Clinton visited and pretended to pay attention to while the world burned.

But there was another element of irony to Clinton’s remarkably misinformed and mendacious comments: they were a direct challenge to her husband, who as president signed into law, with the encouragement of many Democrats, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act on which the Hobby Lobby ruling was based. What Hillary likened to unstable and anti-democratic societies, her husband called “a standard that better protects all Americans of all faiths in the exercise of their religion.” On signing RFRA, Clinton said:

The free exercise of religion has been called the first freedom, that which originally sparked the development of the full range of the Bill of Rights. Our Founders cared a lot about religion. And one of the reasons they worked so hard to get the first amendment into the Bill of Rights at the head of the class is that they well understood what could happen to this country, how both religion and Government could be perverted if there were not some space created and some protection provided. They knew that religion helps to give our people the character without which a democracy cannot survive. They knew that there needed to be a space of freedom between Government and people of faith that otherwise Government might usurp.

Why has Hillary Clinton moved so far to her husband’s left that she openly equates the religious freedom he championed with the world’s authoritarians? One answer is: anger–specifically, the anger of the Democratic base, which has shifted far to the left from where it was two decades ago. That’s the upshot of an in-depth and informative Politico piece today on Hillary’s balancing act between wanting to remind voters of the economic stability of the 1990s and decrying the pro-business policies that helped bring it about, policies that have fallen out of favor with the Occupy Wall Street base of the Democratic Party and thus with the party’s congressional leaders as well. Headlined “A Clinton approach for angrier times” (though the headline seems to have changed this afternoon) the piece notes:

On a broad range of issues from tax policy and Wall Street reform to religious rights, more than a dozen senior Democratic strategists and people who have worked with the former first family told POLITICO that Hillary Clinton will have to craft a platform that reflects the party’s shift left and populist sentiment across the political spectrum that distrusts entrenched interests and worries about growing wage inequality. Some described this balancing act as one of the most significant issues for the potential presidential candidate.

“This is the most important set of conversations going on right now. We are in a different economic era that requires a different kind of response,” said Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network who shaped the economic message for Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign. “Apple isn’t making the same products they were 20 years ago, so you should not expect any Democrat to obey policies that are over 20 years old.” Rosenberg added that no one in the Hillary Clinton orbit underestimates the task she faces.

Clinton is an insider who is close to Wall Street and who can’t seem to get people to stop shoveling money at her and her family. This might not be an issue in a general election, because Republicans and independents don’t demonize the very idea of wealth and success the way Democrats do. What Clinton seems to fear is someone like Elizabeth Warren–but not necessarily as a candidate. The risk Warren poses to Clinton is surfacing in the populist fury Warren is kicking up around the country as she campaigns for Democratic candidates who need star power but who still want to pretend they don’t know who Barack Obama is.

The Washington Post reports on “a string of recent Warren appearances in red and blue states alike, where Democratic base voters have embraced her fiery message as an envoy to working-class voters frustrated with both Wall Street and the Obama administration.” Warren has ditched the policy-wonk pretense of her pre-Senate days and embraced intellectually shallow, populist messages and policies. What’s troubling for Clinton is that Warren’s shoddy demagoguery is connecting with an extreme-minded, angry liberal base. Whether she directly challenges Clinton for the nomination or not, Clinton is clearly already letting Warren set the agenda.

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A Close Call, and a Warning, in Afghanistan

New details are emerging on the election crisis in Afghanistan and they are pretty harrowing. The New York Times, for example, is reporting that followers of Abdullah Abdullah, the presidential candidate who apparently finished second in the second rounding of voting, were so upset about supposed voter fraud that they “were preparing to take over the centers of government in at least three provinces, and on his word to march on and occupy the presidential palace.” The Times goes on to note that “local mujahedeen commanders were urging action against the palace, expressing confidence that the Afghan security forces, including those guarding President Hamid Karzai, would not fire on them.”

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New details are emerging on the election crisis in Afghanistan and they are pretty harrowing. The New York Times, for example, is reporting that followers of Abdullah Abdullah, the presidential candidate who apparently finished second in the second rounding of voting, were so upset about supposed voter fraud that they “were preparing to take over the centers of government in at least three provinces, and on his word to march on and occupy the presidential palace.” The Times goes on to note that “local mujahedeen commanders were urging action against the palace, expressing confidence that the Afghan security forces, including those guarding President Hamid Karzai, would not fire on them.”

If this had happened, it would have been a catastrophe of the first order. If Abdullah’s followers had resorted to force, it would have reignited the civil war that wrecked the country in the 1990s and provided an opening for the Taliban to seize power. Western aid would have been cut off and Afghanistan would have been on its own.

This dire outcome was only narrowly avoided by a timely phone call from President Obama to Abdullah and by Secretary of State John Kerry’s apparent success in defusing the crisis by negotiating a compromise that calls for all of the ballots to be recounted and for whoever loses the election to assume a new post as “chief executive” (i.e., prime minister) of the government led by the winning presidential candidate. The UN’s top representative in Kabul called it “not just a top-notch diplomatic achievement [but] close to a miracle.”

But the only reason that miracle occurred is that, with 30,000 troops still in Afghanistan and a commitment to keep 10,000 more after this year, the U.S. retains significant leverage to influence Afghan politics.

Imagine if this crisis had happened not in this presidential election but in the next one–in 2019. This is not much of a stretch since both this presidential election and the previous one, in 2009, were marred by accusations of fraud that threatened the foundation of Afghanistan’s fragile democracy. We can hope that no such crisis will occur next time around, but the reality is that the odds of such an imbroglio are high. Stable institutions in a country like Afghanistan, which has been wracked by nonstop conflict since 1979, take decades, not years, to develop.

It is, therefore, deeply unfortunate, and highly irresponsible, that President Obama has unilaterally pledged to give up America’s leverage in Afghanistan by removing our remaining troops by 2017. If he carries out this plan, and if it is not reversed by his successor (which will be hard to do: it’s always easier to maintain a troop commitment than to start a new one), the U.S. will have essentially no leverage on the conduct and aftermath of the 2019 election. In fact the U.S. would be consigning itself to the kind of spectator role it has assumed in Iraq since the pullout of U.S. troops at the end of 2011–and we know how that’s turned out.

It is imperative that Obama correct his blunder in pledging to remove troops by 2017. He should immediately announce that, should Afghanistan’s feuding politicos work out their difference and set up a government with widespread legitimacy that desired U.S. troops to continue serving in their country after 2017, he would accede to their request–or at least allow his successor to make the call. If the president doesn’t do that, he will be casting Afghanistan’s future into serious doubt.

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