Commentary Magazine


Remembering D.G. Myers

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

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

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

Real Presences by George Steiner, February 1990

The Best American Poetry, January 1992

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

The November Criminals, June 2010

Let Franzen Ring, December 2010

Don’t Eat That Lotus, February 2011

The Art of Being First, November 2011

Bearing Witness, December 2011

A Fitting Finale, November 2012

Literary Commentary, 2011-2012

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What Ashraf Ghani Needs from the U.S.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama, the Anti-Truman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Times does carefully draw attention to this fact:

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

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

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

Later in the interview, Obama said:

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

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

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

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

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

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The New Year, Israel, and Two Powerful Sermons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Government Shutdown A Year Later

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

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

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

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

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

 The story goes on to report the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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Mr. Holder, You’re No Bobby Kennedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Pause to Account for Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Banking on Terror: The Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Iran Outwits Obama in the Middle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Has Obama Finally Grown Up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Obama Left Unsaid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ken Burns’s Roosevelt Series for Dummies

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

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

TR: 50 percent good; 50 percent bad

Good

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

Bad

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

FDR: 75 percent good; 25 percent bad

Good

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

Bad

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

ER: 99.5 percent good; 0.5 percent bad

Good

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

Bad

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

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A Haunting Feeling About Obama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISIS, on the other hand, is.

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Abbas’s Fake Civil-Rights Struggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama Discovers the Value of Credibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Israel and the Unasked Question on Syria

The unleashing of the campaign of U.S. air strikes on terrorist targets throughout Syria last night may be the beginning of an offensive that will, as President Obama claimed this morning, “take the fight” to ISIS. If so, the bombings must be judged to be a commendable, if belated instance of presidential leadership. But as even the president’s cheering section at MSNBC and other liberal strongholds suddenly take on the appearance of being “war lovers,” it’s fair to wonder about one question that was uppermost on the minds of most of the media this past summer when other terrorists were being pounded from the air: what about the civilian casualties and infrastructure damage?

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The unleashing of the campaign of U.S. air strikes on terrorist targets throughout Syria last night may be the beginning of an offensive that will, as President Obama claimed this morning, “take the fight” to ISIS. If so, the bombings must be judged to be a commendable, if belated instance of presidential leadership. But as even the president’s cheering section at MSNBC and other liberal strongholds suddenly take on the appearance of being “war lovers,” it’s fair to wonder about one question that was uppermost on the minds of most of the media this past summer when other terrorists were being pounded from the air: what about the civilian casualties and infrastructure damage?

Accounts of the attacks on ISIS targets as well as those on the Khorasan group speak of strikes on bases, training camps, and checkpoints as well as command-and-control centers in four provinces and having been in the vicinity of several Syrian cities. Many terrorists may have been killed and severe damage done to the ability of both ISIS and the Khorasan group to conduct operations. The first videos of the aftermath of the bombings show members of the groups digging out the rubble and seeking survivors of the attacks. The surrounding area appears to be one of built-up structures. While some of these bases and command-and-control centers may well have been in isolated places, it is likely that many, if not most, were in the vicinity of civilian residences. All of which leads to the question that almost no one, at least in the American media, is asking today: what about civilian casualties or damage to infrastructure facilities that might severely impact the quality of life of those who live in these areas?

If we are being honest, the answer to such queries is clear: we don’t know. American forces conduct such operations under rules of engagement that seek to limit if not totally eliminate non-military casualties. But even under the strictest limits, civilians are killed in war. It is also to be hoped that all of the strikes were conducted with perfect accuracy, but that is the sort of thing that generally only happens in movies. In real life, war is conducted in an environment in which a host of factors make perfection as unattainable as it is in every other aspect of life. Which means it is almost certain that at least some Syrian civilians (a population that may include supporters of the terrorists and some who are essentially their hostages) were killed and wounded last night.

If anyone were thinking about that fact today, you wouldn’t know it from watching any of the cable news networks. The impact of the strikes on individuals in Syria or any potential damage to civilian infrastructure is of no interest to the commentators or the anchors. Instead, the conversation about the attacks on terror targets focuses solely on how effective the strikes have been, the role of U.S. allies, and whether these actions will be followed up with sufficient ground force actions that will make it possible to truly defeat ISIS or any al-Qaeda affiliates currently running riot in the region. The only criticisms being voiced are those about the president’s lack of a specific authorization from Congress for these actions, whether U.S. forces will have to fight on the ground there, or if the attacks have gone far enough.

All this is in stark contrast to the reaction to Israeli attacks on Hamas in Gaza this past summer.

Almost all of the targets struck by the Israelis were similar to those in Syria that were hit by the Americans. Moreover, unlike the case with ISIS and Khorasan, the Israeli efforts were not primarily preemptive in nature. After all, the U.S. is attacking ISIS in part because of its depredations in the region but also because of the very real likelihood that if they are left unmolested, they will eventually turn their barbaric attentions to attacks on the United States. Israel struck back at Hamas because the terror group doesn’t merely intend to destroy the State of Israel and slaughter its Jewish population but because it was launching thousands of rockets at Israeli cities and towns and seeking to use terror tunnels to kidnap and kill even more Jews.

But rather than give the Israelis the same benefit of the doubt about their good intentions and efforts to limit collateral damage, the international community denounced the Israeli counter-attacks. News coverage focused almost completely on civilian casualties and the impact of the war on ordinary Palestinians rather than, as is the case today with U.S. efforts, on the military question of how best Hamas might be defeated.

Why aren’t we talking about civilian casualties in Syria? There are a number of reasons.

The Western media has more or less ignored the horrific nature of the Syrian Civil War since its inception three years ago. Hundreds of thousands have already died but apparently the media sees little reason to start caring about it now just because Americans are involved.

Another is the lack of Western media on the ground in Syria. That is understandable given what has happened to some of the Western freelance journalists who were kidnapped and beheaded by ISIS. By contrast, Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists welcomed Western journalists into Gaza and allowed them to do their jobs in safety provided, of course, that they concentrated their efforts on reinforcing the narrative about the conflict that told only of civilian casualties while largely ignoring the presence of armed fighters and their attacks on Israelis. That the entire Western press corps adhered to these restrictions is a testament to both the ability of Hamas to intimidate journalists and to the fact that many in the press were all too happy to follow these instructions since they were compatible with their own views of the conflict.

Let’s concede that the circumstances of these conflicts are not identical. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is more specific and related to the desire of the Arabs to refuse to share the region with a sovereign Jewish state rather than the more amorphous desire of the Syrian and Iraqi Islamists to set up a new caliphate. Hamas is also a bit more media savvy and has more experience in manipulating its message to appeal to Westerners who are willing to be fooled by terrorists.

But the real difference between the ways these two conflicts are covered has a lot more to do with the identity of the foes of the Islamists than to any of those distinctions. Muslims may slaughter Muslims by the hundreds of thousands, as they have done in Syria, without the world paying much notice. But if a fraction of that number are killed by Israeli Jews, even in a war of self-defense, that is considered intolerable by a world that has always judged Jews and their state by a double standard that has never been applied to anyone else, including the United States. Israelis, who have watched as their efforts to defend themselves have been answered by a rising tide of anti-Semitism around the globe, may be forgiven for no longer giving a damn about international opinion.

The media should continue to focus its coverage on Syria on the question of whether the president’s actions are effective, not whether some accidents or mistakes by U.S. personnel resulted in civilian losses. But you can bet that the same sources will revert to the same stances they took this past summer when Hamas resumes its fight against Israel, as it will sooner or later. When it does, don’t expect any admissions by journalists that they are applying different standards to Israel than they did to U.S. forces. But that is exactly what they will be doing. The term by which such prejudice is usually called is anti-Semitism.

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Iron Dome and the Latest Peace Fantasy

Those who want Israel to strike a permanent peace deal with the Palestinians cannot decide if Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense is a help or a hindrance. Each time Israel fights a war with Hamas, the occasional column appears claiming that Iron Dome impedes peace because Israelis are, in effect, too safe for their own good. But there is the other side of the coin for the peace camp. And that is the belief that Israel’s missile defense will make Israeli military counteroffensives unnecessary and counterproductive.

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Those who want Israel to strike a permanent peace deal with the Palestinians cannot decide if Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense is a help or a hindrance. Each time Israel fights a war with Hamas, the occasional column appears claiming that Iron Dome impedes peace because Israelis are, in effect, too safe for their own good. But there is the other side of the coin for the peace camp. And that is the belief that Israel’s missile defense will make Israeli military counteroffensives unnecessary and counterproductive.

This argument, offered in today’s Washington Post by American University associate professor Boaz Atzili, suggests a two-track process: Israelis should negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians while hiding under their desks until peace arrives. Iron Dome, should its accuracy be maintained and eventually improved, would thus give Israelis the cover they need to hold their fire. There are serious flaws here, even under current, realistic best-case scenarios. These flaws become clear when Atzili gets around to scripting out such a defensive posture in practice:

So what might a defensive Israeli campaign look like? In response to a massive launching of rockets from the Gaza Strip, Israel would respond by mobilizing its truly defensive capabilities: People in the targeted area would remain in bomb shelters and fortified rooms, the Iron Dome would target missiles aimed at large population centers, and the IDF would augment its forces to guard the borders and try to intercept Hamas attempts to infiltrate by sea or tunnels. There could be casualties on the Israeli side, but these are likely to be fewer than in the last few rounds of war.

As opposed to these recent bouts of violence, Hamas is likely to face strong international pressure to stop launching rockets, which it would not be able to deflect as retaliation for Israel’s action. Internally, as well, Hamas would not enjoy the same support it has received from the residents of Gaza if it cannot portray its action as defensive. In all likelihood, these pressures would result in a much more speedy cessation of the firing from the Gaza Strip. And there would be no pictures of devastation on the Palestinian side. Israel, for once, would appear in the eyes of the world (and not only in its own eyes) as the just side, and would be able to reap the diplomatic rewards.

I’m sorry, have you met Hamas–or the international community?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think everything in that scenario is wrong. Let’s take the second part first. What “internal pressure” would Hamas face if Gazans aren’t affected by Hamas’s actions? It’s unclear how or why they would push back on Hamas if the terror group were getting free shots at the Jews next door. The obvious answer is: they wouldn’t. There is no evidence to support the assertion that Gazan Palestinians would feel bad about rocketing Israeli population centers and thus pressure their terrorist leaders to take it easy and sue for peace. It does not make any sense, it is not consistent with the history of the conflict, and it would be irresponsible for Israeli officials to put their citizens’ lives on the line while they chase this unicorn.

But it’s not just the strange faith in Palestinian sympathy toward Israel that makes this plan unfeasible. It’s also the expectation that Israel could afford–psychologically or financially–to wait out Hamas’s unchallenged rocket barrage. Six civilians were killed in this summer’s war, and there’s no reason to think the toll wouldn’t have been higher during that same time period had Hamas been given free rein and all the time in the world to set up its attacks.

And since the idea that a Hamas rocket offensive would conclude in less time without an Israeli military campaign is absurd, the civilian death toll would no doubt be higher. That would lead to greater calls for a counteroffensive, which the IDF would undertake. The alternative, to abandon civilians to live under terror, would be indefensible. And let’s remember that Israel was able to neutralize those tunnels because of the ground incursion. Without that, the tunnels survive the war.

Economically, here are the figures from Ynet on the Gaza war’s toll on Israel:

Meanwhile, nearly 3,000 claims for damage have been submitted to the Israel Tax Authority, which has so far paid some $20 million for direct damages and another $21 million for missed work days and other indirect damage. …

Israel’s Ministry of Tourism reports that tourism for July dropped by 26 percent from the same period last year. The sector, comprising about 7 percent of the Israeli economy, has lost at least $566 million, according to the figures.

Israel’s Manufacturers Association estimated the total economic impact on Israeli manufacturers for the first round of the conflict at about 1.2 billion shekels, with factories in the south accounting for 40 percent of this figure, and facilities in Haifa and the center of the country incurring half the losses.

Morally and economically, Israel cannot abandon its citizens to their enemies. Iron Dome is a major defense breakthrough and it no doubt saves lives. But it still entails Israelis running to bomb shelters when rockets are launched at or near population centers. The country can’t live underground, and it can’t live in perpetual, paralyzing fear every moment of every day. Iron Dome cannot be Israel’s only line of defense.

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Yesterday’s Real News Out of Iraq and Syria

There were three big stories yesterday out of Iraq and Syria. Question: which is the most significant?

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There were three big stories yesterday out of Iraq and Syria. Question: which is the most significant?

Story No. 1: The U.S. Navy and Air Force, in cooperation with five Arab allies (Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE) launched a series of air strikes and cruise missile strikes on ISIS targets in and around Raqaa, Syria. Separately, the U.S. launched air strikes against the Khorasan group, another jihadist terrorist organization in Syria, closely linked with the Nusra Front, which was said to be plotting attacks against Western targets.

Story No. 2: ISIS continued to attack the Kurdish area of north-central Syria, killing large numbers of people and pushing more than 130,000 refugees over the Turkish border.

Story No. 3: ISIS attackers in Anbar Province, Iraq, reportedly killed more than 300 Iraqi soldiers after a weeklong siege of Camp Saqlawiya where some 800 soldiers had been trapped. Few if any Sunni tribal fighters did anything to prevent yet another large Iraqi army formation from suffering annihilation. The Iraqi army showed itself unable to supply its soldiers or to fight effectively.

Judging from the news coverage, story No. 1 is the most important. But in reality I’d argue that No. 2 and especially No. 3 are more significant. No one doubts that the U.S. can launch air strikes on ISIS. The question is whether those attacks will be effective in degrading and eventually destroying this terrorist group. The answer is: not until there is an effective ground force able to take advantage of the disruption created by American bombs. Until that happens, ISIS will stay on the offensive.

We know, of course, that after three years of American neglect the Free Syrian Army is in no position to attack the heart of ISIS-controlled territory in Syria. It is also disheartening to learn that after a similar three years of American neglect, the Iraqi army is in no position to effectively challenge ISIS either. Same goes for the Sunni tribes, which at the moment lack both the will and the means to fight ISIS effectively. The Kurdish peshmerga–the other proxy force we are counting on–are in only marginally better shape. They also need more equipment and training.

What this means is that, however welcome, the U.S. air strikes in Syria are of more symbolic importance than anything else. Their military significance is likely to be scant until the U.S. can do more to train and arm forces capable of mounting ground attacks on ISIS militants. Already six weeks of U.S. air strikes in Iraq have failed to dislodge ISIS from its strongholds; there is no reason to believe that six months of air strikes in isolation will work any better. As former Defense Secretaries Bob Gates and Leon Panetta have said, it will take “boots on the ground” from the United States to galvanize and train the potential anti-ISIS forces. But because President Obama is so far prohibiting U.S. troops from working alongside anti-ISIS fighters in the field, “there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell” of the current strategy succeeding–to quote the succinct summary of retired Gen. Jim Conway, former commandant of the Marine Corps.

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Last Night, While the Bombs Were Flying…

…COMMENTARY held its fifth annual Roast in New York City, with an audience of 400. So, as my colleague Seth Mandel said, this is one war they can’t blame on us. Our roastee was Charles Krauthammer, the million-copy-selling author of Things That Matter. (A million copies, I said. Big deal. I just wrote my millionth tweet.) Read More

…COMMENTARY held its fifth annual Roast in New York City, with an audience of 400. So, as my colleague Seth Mandel said, this is one war they can’t blame on us. Our roastee was Charles Krauthammer, the million-copy-selling author of Things That Matter. (A million copies, I said. Big deal. I just wrote my millionth tweet.) Bret Stephens showed a nice letter he received from a lawyer in Texas named Harriet, who also sent along the scalp Charles Krauthammer had detached from her head in 2005. Rich Lowry detailed the horror of serving as Charles’s research assistant nearly a quarter-century ago and entering a misspelling into one of Krauthammer’s columns, for which, at long last at the end of the evening, Charles forgave him. On videotape, Bret Baier and Brit Hume showed us some psychoanalytic sessions in which they confessed all manner of anxieties to the Harvard-trained psychiatrist. Bill Kristol wondered whether his old friend Charles had gotten a swelled head until, he reported, he received a phone call: “Bill, this is Dr. Krauthammer.” And Elliott Abrams described the terror he felt driving down Connecticut Avenue in D.C. in Charles’s van with Charles behind the wheel.

A great time, it would have appeared, was had by all, especially as a result of Charles’s own concluding remarks, in which he expressed wonderment at the workings of serendipity and his deep gratitude for, despite one very bad turn, an extraordinarily lucky life. One of the running gags through the evening was general bewilderment at Charles’s television stardom, given his forbidding demeanor. The answer may lie in the spirit of his concluding remarks–that underneath the biting commentary and the deadpan wit, there is a remarkably, indelibly capacious spirit.

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The Media and Anti-Semitism

This week is unfortunately a bit of a perfect storm of conditions that foster anti-Semitism. The High Holidays are approaching, Israel has just fought a war of self-defense, and new terrorist organizations are gaining a foothold in Western societies. Israel’s national Counter-Terrorism Bureau has issued its travel warning for the season, expressing concern over the usual suspects as well as Western Europe. New York hasn’t been immune to the spike in anti-Semitic incidents, and last week Police Commissioner Bill Bratton pointed a finger at the media:

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This week is unfortunately a bit of a perfect storm of conditions that foster anti-Semitism. The High Holidays are approaching, Israel has just fought a war of self-defense, and new terrorist organizations are gaining a foothold in Western societies. Israel’s national Counter-Terrorism Bureau has issued its travel warning for the season, expressing concern over the usual suspects as well as Western Europe. New York hasn’t been immune to the spike in anti-Semitic incidents, and last week Police Commissioner Bill Bratton pointed a finger at the media:

“When (the media) cover something, it tends to attract more attention,” Bratton told reporters following a security briefing for the Jewish High Holy Days at police headquarters.

“But we have seen this before, that when there’s attention paid to an issue, that it brings this about,” Bratton continued. “And when there’s continued attention — and the issue in Gaza, where it stretched over several weeks — we could see a continuing increase.”

Hate crimes are up, according to the city. Bratton tried to downplay recent incidents as “lone wolf” events, though New York State homeland security commissioner Jerome Hauer countered that “Anti-Semitism is rising at a rate we haven’t seen in a long, long time, and I think it will continue to grow.”

Anyone who followed Western coverage of the war in Gaza won’t be too surprised. But Bratton’s comments weren’t ill-phrased off-the-cuff remarks; they were part of a clear message from the NYPD on the role of the press in the uptick in hate crimes. Deputy Chief Michael Osgood focused a bit more on the correlation:

“On July first, the Gaza Strip becomes a major news story and stays consistent in the media through July and August, every single day, every single morning, front page of the New York Times, front page of the Wall Street Journal,” he said.

Around this time, “the group ISIS becomes a major news story and they stay consistent in the news media, [and] that creates what I call an emotional surge.”

Since that time, there has been an average of 18 anti-Semitic cases a month.

“A person who would normally not offend, now offends,” Osgood said, describing the effect of the news. “He’s moved by the emotions.”

It’s a bit refreshing to hear this from the police. The role of the media in stimulating anti-Semitism, especially when it comes to Israel, is no secret. Sometimes this takes the form of outright falsifying events in Arab-Israeli wars–Pallywood on the part of videographers and fauxtography on the part of photojournalists–which are usually the deadlier brand of propaganda. Witness, most famously, the example of the al-Dura affair.

But it’s worth pointing out here that there are very different types of war coverage. As I wrote earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal’s coverage was textured, original, investigative, and informative. The “paper of record,” the New York Times, offered just the opposite: coverage that essentially followed Hamas’s PR strategy. European media had similar coverage with even more violent results: attempted pogroms broke out in Paris and anti-Semitic protests could be found all over Western Europe.

The anti-Semitism is blamed on Israel’s actions, which the rioters see through the prism of the media. An excellent example of this vicious cycle is Human Rights Watch’s director Ken Roth. Jonathan Foreman wrote about Roth’s obsessively anti-Israel Twitter feed for the current issue of COMMENTARY. But even more noxious is the group’s role in pushing an anti-Israel narrative that supposedly comes with the credibility of a “human-rights” group.

It goes like this: HRW researchers get quoted by the New York Times accusing Israel of indiscriminate violence and targeting noncombatants–information that is crucial, in the Times’s own acknowledgement, in forming “the characterization of the conflict.” Then the Times tries to boost HRW’s flagging credibility–lest more people notice the group can’t be trusted–by crediting HRW as a key source in understanding “the Damage and Destruction in Gaza.” Along the way, HRW will be cited in a Times opinion piece on how American support for Israel is unethical.

When Jews the world over suffer at the hands of angry anti-Semites, Ken Roth will come to their aid, blaming Israel in part for violent anti-Semitism in the West. As Jeffrey Goldberg noted, Roth tweeted the following, with a link to an article about it: “Germans rally against anti-Semitism that flared in Europe in response to Israel’s conduct in Gaza war. Merkel joins.” Goldberg commented: “Roth’s framing of this issue is very odd and obtuse.” He added that “It is a universal and immutable rule that the targets of prejudice are not the cause of prejudice.” Roth defended his comments. On Twitter, he responded that, hey, he was just getting his news from the New York Times.

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