Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Libya Debacle

Think back with me, if you will, to a time not all that long ago when the American intervention in Libya was held up as a model by President Obama.

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Think back with me, if you will, to a time not all that long ago when the American intervention in Libya was held up as a model by President Obama.

“Forty-two years of tyranny was ended in six months. From Tripoli to Misurata to Benghazi — today, Libya is free,” Mr. Obama told the United Nations on September 21, 2011. “Yesterday, the leaders of a new Libya took their rightful place beside us, and this week, the United States is reopening our embassy in Tripoli. This is how the international community is supposed to work — nations standing together for the sake of peace and security, and individuals claiming their rights.”

So Libya is how it’s supposed to work, is it? That is the example the president likes to hold up when he referred to “smart diplomacy” and the virtues of America “leading from behind”?

So how are things going in Libya?

For one thing, the United States shut down its embassy in Libya earlier this summer and evacuated its diplomats to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort amid a significant deterioration in security in Tripoli. “Due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the US embassy in Tripoli, we have temporarily relocated all of our personnel out of Libya,” a State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said.

And today, on the front page of the New York Times, is a story by David Kirkpatrick titled, “Strife in Libya Could Presage Long Civil War.”  According to Mr. Kirkpatrick:

Three years after the NATO-backed ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the violence threatens to turn Libya into a pocket of chaos destabilizing North Africa for years to come. Libya is already a haven for itinerant militants, and the conflict has now opened new opportunities for Ansar al-Shariah, the hard-line Islamist group involved in the assault on the American diplomatic Mission in Benghazi in 2012… In a broad series of interviews on a five-day trip across the chasm now dividing the country — from the mountain town of Zintan, through Tripoli to the coastal city of Misurata — many Libyans despaired of any resolution. “We entered this tunnel and we can’t find our way out,” said Ibrahim Omar, a Zintani leader. Towns and tribes across the country are choosing sides, in places flying the flags of rival factions, sometimes including the black banners of Islamist extremists.

The story goes on to say this:

Even the first years after Colonel Qaddafi’s ouster were better, said Hisham Krekshi, a former Tripoli councilman, savoring a few hours of uninterrupted electricity in the upscale cafe that he owns, its tables and the street deserted. “This is a war, and a lot of innocent people are dying.”

The reason the debacle in Libya isn’t getting more attention is because there are so many other catastrophes that are unfolding in the rest of the world–Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Afghanistan, Crimea, Ukraine, the South China Sea, et cetera–that we are at the point where they are overloading our ability to process it all. Call it the geopolitical version of sensory overload.

These disaster aren’t all Mr. Obama’s fault, of course; but his policies have in every instance made things worse, and in some cases they have made things far worse. As bad as things seem now, they are probably worse than we imagine. It will take years, and in some cases probably decades, to undo the damage of the Obama era. The sheer breadth and scope of his incompetence in the world arena–virtually no continent and very few countries have been spared–is quite remarkable. It almost makes one long for the days of Jimmy Carter.

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Another Russian Invasion on the Horizon?

On August 19, the New York Times carried an interesting story on the “fading rebellion” in eastern Ukraine, where Vladimir Putin appeared to be “maneuvering for a face-saving settlement.” The Russians were on the run. In the high command of the separatist rebellion, they’d been replaced with inexperienced Ukrainian locals. But three days later the Times poured cold water on its own optimism:

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On August 19, the New York Times carried an interesting story on the “fading rebellion” in eastern Ukraine, where Vladimir Putin appeared to be “maneuvering for a face-saving settlement.” The Russians were on the run. In the high command of the separatist rebellion, they’d been replaced with inexperienced Ukrainian locals. But three days later the Times poured cold water on its own optimism:

Russia on Friday escalated tensions with Ukraine to the highest level since its stealthy invasion of Crimea in the spring, sending more than 200 trucks from a long-stalled aid convoy into rebel-held eastern Ukraine over the objections of Kiev and, NATO said, conducting military operations on Ukrainian territory.

In other words, Russia had invaded Ukraine. Again.

And three days after that–today–the Times has arrived with more bad news: “Russia Says It Will Send Another Aid Convoy to Ukraine.” Russia was planning to invade Ukraine again, again.

The first invasion, of the Crimean peninsula, was greeted with harsh words from American and European leaders, impressing upon Putin what a bully he was being. They made it clear they strenuously objected to his behavior. (I have in the past likened the West’s condemnation of Putin to the way the teachers would deal with the Gilly character on Saturday Night Live. I think the comparison holds up pretty well.)

Putin assessed that he was to be hit with a guilt trip and some token sanctions for his Crimean adventure, shrugged it off, and went back for more. He was hit with some more token sanctions, and then some more serious sanctions. None of it deterred him.

On Friday, he invaded eastern Ukraine, and was immediately rewarded with the rest of the world falling all over itself to avoid using the term “invasion.” Putin probably could not believe his good fortune, to have Western leaders and their media so pusillanimous. As long as we’re all playing silly word games, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov decided to join in:

Mr. Lavrov said that Ukraine and the Red Cross created “artificial delays” for the first convoy, but said that Russia was ready to continue acting with complete transparency that would allow for inspections of future convoys. “The fact that the first convoy eventually delivered aid with no excess or incidents gives us reason to hope that the second one will go much more smoothly,” he said.

Ukraine’s response:

Mr. Lavrov’s statements came as the authorities in Kiev charged that Russia had sent a column of armored vehicles across the border, and a day before a summit meeting in Minsk, Belarus, where President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Mr. Poroshenko will meet for the first time since early June. They will be joined by representatives of the European Union and the Russia-led Customs Union, including the presidents of Kazakhstan and Belarus.

And then the requisite moral equivalence from the Times:

Although the talks offer some hope for a negotiated settlement to the conflict in east Ukraine, both Mr. Putin and Mr. Poroshenko are under strong pressure from nationalists at home to stand firm.

This is a slightly weaker, but still fairly absurd, formulation of one of the media’s favorite tropes. Here’s Bill Keller comparing Iranian “hardliners” to American “hardliners”–in this particular case, that means comparing a former American ambassador to the United Nations and presidential advisor to the head of a violent Iranian paramilitary group personally sanctioned by Washington for human-rights abuses.

The Times has also used the formulation with regard to democratically elected Israeli politicians and Palestinian terrorists. And now we hear about Ukrainian and Russian nationalists spoiling for a fight.

The problem here is that one of those countries has invaded the other twice this year. So-called “nationalists” in Ukraine are simply Ukrainians objecting to being invaded with lethal force. “Nationalists” in Russia are, in this case, not really nationalists at all but ethnic imperialists.

There is currently a land war in Europe. Russia is threatening to expand that European land war. The cause of this is not dueling nationalisms but militaristic autocracy encountering self-defense. And by the way, this war may already include Russian war crimes, including the following:

Mr. Lavrov was also questioned about a rebel military parade held Sunday in the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, where prisoners of war from the Ukrainian Army were paraded through the streets by armed guards bearing bayonets.

Lavrov responded that he didn’t see a problem with it. Perhaps the West could help Kiev spell it out for him. They could start by using the word “invasion” a bit more freely.

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All the Anti-Israel News That Fits

Bashing the New York Times’s coverage of the Middle East is a full-time occupation for some, but today the grey lady published a story out of Gaza that had to make even its most loyal readers wince. In a summer when much of the press, and in particular the Times Jerusalem Bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, seemed to disgrace themselves by their lack of coverage of Hamas terror activities in Gaza, today’s piece marked a new low that is likely to reinforce the paper’s unfortunate reputation for anti-Israel bias.

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Bashing the New York Times’s coverage of the Middle East is a full-time occupation for some, but today the grey lady published a story out of Gaza that had to make even its most loyal readers wince. In a summer when much of the press, and in particular the Times Jerusalem Bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, seemed to disgrace themselves by their lack of coverage of Hamas terror activities in Gaza, today’s piece marked a new low that is likely to reinforce the paper’s unfortunate reputation for anti-Israel bias.

The story concerns what the headline says was a teenager’s “ordeal as a captive of Israelis.” In it, 17-year-old Ahmed Jamal Abu Raida claims that he was captured by Israeli forces during the recent fighting in Gaza and then threatened, beaten, tortured, used as a human shield, and then forced to search for terror tunnels. But, as the article, which appears under the bylines of Times stringer Fares Akram and Rudoren, related, there are some problems with his story. Despite the detailed narrative provided by Abu Raida, he has no proof of any of it. The teenager couldn’t so much as show the Times correspondents a single bruise. Nor did his family take pictures of his terrible state when he was returned to them after his release from custody. They also say they disposed of the clothing he wore even though it might have bolstered his story or provided evidence that his story was true.

Oh, and one more thing about his family. Abu Raida is not your stereotypical poor Gazan kid. His father is, in fact, a high-ranking official in the Hamas government of Gaza.

Now it is entirely possible that a young Palestinian with close ties to Hamas who was captured in the area where terror tunnels were found had nothing to do with any terrorist activity and may have been roughly treated by Israeli soldiers. Indeed, the fact that Abu Raida was released after a relatively short time in Israeli hands indicated that the Israelis felt that he was not a combatant.

But the question here is not so much whether we believe the teenager has embellished the story of his time in Israeli hands to appear like a greater victim/hero in the eyes of his family and other Palestinians or if his allegations are a concerted attempt by his father’s colleagues to put forward another false smear of the nation they seek to destroy. The real question is why the publication that still deems itself America’s newspaper of record would choose to go to print with a story that it admits it cannot independently verify and whose source is, to put it mildly, not someone who could be considered an objective or reliable witness where Israel is concerned.

You don’t have to have to be an expert on the Middle East or an experienced journalist to understand the reason why Hamas and a pro-Palestinian NGO brought Abu Raida forward with his tale of wicked Israelis insulting Allah and threatening to let dogs tear him apart. After several weeks of Israelis pointing out that Hamas was using the population of Gaza as human shields, the terror group and its allies were desperate to come up with a counter story that would reverse the narrative and make it appear as if the Israel Defense Forces were using Palestinians in this manner.

That the Times would choose to highlight this story and grant it the imprimatur of its pages is that the newspaper and many other mainstays of the liberal mainstream media have been angrily pushing back against accusations that they deliberately downplayed the way Hamas used mosques, hospitals, schools, and shelters and other heavily populated civilian areas to launch rockets at Israeli cities as well as to use them as entrances for terror tunnels. Throughout the course of the recent war, the Times hasn’t published photos of Hamas fighters. Nor did most members of the press manage to stumble into any of the thousands of rocket launches that were going on in the narrow strip right under their noses.

The explanation for this reluctance to photograph or report on Hamas using civilians as human shields in this manner isn’t a puzzle. Reporters were either intimidated into silence (something that Hamas boasted about) or they were sufficiently biased against Israel as to be unwilling to do anything to tell the truth about Palestinian terror activity. But despite the obvious nature of this glaring omission in their coverage, journalists like Rudoren openly scoffed at critics and denied that anything was amiss. Indeed, Rudoren mounted a spirited defense of the integrity of the foreign press in Gaza and insinuated that their critics were the ones who were biased.

But Rudoren’s decision to embrace a story that smears Israel even though she can’t independently verify, let alone prove, that a word of it is true gives the lie to any claims of journalistic integrity. Suffice it to say that if an Israeli who was the son of a Likud minister in the Netanyahu government were to come forward with a tale of Arab wrongdoing with the same lack of proof, they would be dismissed out of hand. If a story were to be published about such an accusation, it would be focused on an effort to debunk it and to portray the claim as transparent propaganda, not a credulous heart-rending account of suffering.

For the Times to go whole hog on Abu Raida’s tale says less about Hamas than it does about their own bias. It’s little surprise that Hamas would attempt to produce new Pallywood productions designed to harm Israel’s reputation at a time when the group’s cynical decision to launch a war and to conduct terror operations should be undermining any foreign support for their cause. But it is shocking that professional journalists that take umbrage at even the slightest accusations of bias lobbed in their direction would decide to print a story that is nothing more than a Hamas press release. The Abu Raida story is but a tiny footnote in the overall narrative of the fighting that has been going on in Gaza. But it provides new and damning evidence of the Times’s bias against Israel and the decline of the professional standards of its reporters and editors.

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The Walker Smear and the Rule of Law

Back in June, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Democratic and union opponents took a flyer on an attempt to smear the 2016 presidential hopeful as a lawbreaker. The story quickly collapsed once it became clear that Walker was not actually the object of any criminal probe regarding his state’s arcane campaign-finance laws. But now the same media outlets that trumpeted the original misleading story and then buried the subsequent news that discredited it are back at it again trying to revive the non-scandal with new articles. But the problem with this round of accusations is the same as with the first one. Walker doesn’t appear to have violated any laws.

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Back in June, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Democratic and union opponents took a flyer on an attempt to smear the 2016 presidential hopeful as a lawbreaker. The story quickly collapsed once it became clear that Walker was not actually the object of any criminal probe regarding his state’s arcane campaign-finance laws. But now the same media outlets that trumpeted the original misleading story and then buried the subsequent news that discredited it are back at it again trying to revive the non-scandal with new articles. But the problem with this round of accusations is the same as with the first one. Walker doesn’t appear to have violated any laws.

The original accusation that Walker had illegally coordinated independent campaign contributions during the 2012 attempt to recall him from office was big news back in June. Publications such as the New York Times and Politico treated the release of some documents from a convoluted litigation stemming from campaign-finance law investigations as damning evidence of Walker crossing the line between legal and illegal activity. The allegations were big political news for a day or two, but were just as quickly forgotten when a closer reading of the facts made it clear that a judge had already halted the investigation as a politicized fishing expedition before the stories were even published. The embarrassment of those who had treated this as a sign that Walker was doomed was compounded a week later when the lawyer for the prosecutors that had tried to pursue the investigation admitted that even if it were allowed to complete its work, Governor Walker was not actually the object of any criminal probe despite claims to the contrary from the press.

So what prompted the news stories that appeared in the New York Times and Politico on Friday? The headlines of the pieces make it seem as if newly released emails prove that Walker is in trouble. But again, once you take the trouble to read the stories, the notion that this is a scandal that has, as the Times helpfully insinuates, “clouded the White House prospects of Mr. Walker” falls flat again.

The emails that were released by the prosecutors talk a lot about efforts to raise money to help Walker, but there is no actual evidence that he broke any laws. Just tidbits from his staff to the governor discussing the efforts to raise money to combat the massive influx of union and liberal money into the state that was aimed at reversing the verdict of the voters in 2010 when Walker and a Republican majority in the state legislature were elected on a platform to reform the state’s finances. The only thing the documents prove is that Walker might have encouraged support for those seeking to oppose the efforts of his opponents. That this might have been so is neither shocking nor evidence of criminal behavior. It is exactly what every other politician in the country does in order to navigate the forest of campaign finance laws that have done nothing to make the system more transparent but have provided plenty of work for lawyers. It is little wonder that a federal judge shut down the investigation as an unconstitutional attempt to suppress the free speech rights of some of the groups involved, such as the Wisconsin Club for Growth.

But what is going on here is bigger than the political nastiness inspired by the 2011 effort by union thugs and their Democratic supporters to stop Walker and the Wisconsin legislature from changing laws that allowed state workers to hold the taxpayers hostage. What those behind this effort, ably assisted by the liberal media, are trying to do is no different from what happened earlier this month in Texas when Democrats managed to indict Governor Rick Perry for using his veto power to force the resignation of a prosecutor who had disgraced herself by being caught driving while drunk. In both Wisconsin and Texas, liberals have decided that the only way to derail politicians they can’t beat at the polls is to try and trump up legal cases against them. While no one expects Perry to ever serve a day in jail on such absurd charges and Walker isn’t even in personal legal peril, the point here is not so much to imprison these Republicans but to discredit them. The assumption is that legal trouble of any kind—even when they are the result of investigations with obvious political motives—will be enough to damage them for 2016. In Walker’s case, those behind these cases as well as their media collaborators are also hoping that their smears will make it easier to beat him in what shapes up to be a tough reelection race this fall in a battleground state.

The majority of voters are too smart to be fooled by these smears, and it’s likely that the efforts to take them down by such underhanded means will actually boost the popularity of both Perry and Walker among Republicans. But even if neither man is actually hurt by these cases, both liberals and conservatives should be worried about this political trend.

One of the hallmarks of dictatorships is the use of law to punish political opponents. The thing that has always separated the United States from banana republics and vicious authoritarian regimes such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the inability of either political leaders or parties to imprison their rivals. But what we are witnessing in Texas and Wisconsin is the breakdown of the rule of law that should protect us against the kind of savage reprisals against those who would challenge Putin that we see in contemporary Russia.

As the trial of Bob MacDonnell, the former Republican governor of Virginia and the ongoing ethics probe of New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo shows, there are enough real scandals involving abuses of power or corruption to occupy the press and the public. But what is so awful about the attempts to take down Perry and Walker is the willingness of the political left to prioritize their naked lust for power over the rule of law. That a partisan press should seek to aid these efforts to play politics by other means rather than expose them is a disgrace. This is a trend that Americans should deplore no matter what they think about those governors or their ideology.

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Bias, Blood Libels, and the Media’s Race to the Bottom

If you are looking for a single headline that best sums up the state of American reporting on Israel, the Algemeiner has provided a good candidate: “TIME Magazine Retracts IDF Organ Theft Claim Following Criticism.” Do Jews kill gentile children to harvest their organs? It’s a question that has echoed throughout the ages, and was asked–and initially answered in the affirmative–by a major institution of American journalism in 2014. That question raises another one: Have the editors at Time magazine completely lost their minds?

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If you are looking for a single headline that best sums up the state of American reporting on Israel, the Algemeiner has provided a good candidate: “TIME Magazine Retracts IDF Organ Theft Claim Following Criticism.” Do Jews kill gentile children to harvest their organs? It’s a question that has echoed throughout the ages, and was asked–and initially answered in the affirmative–by a major institution of American journalism in 2014. That question raises another one: Have the editors at Time magazine completely lost their minds?

The headline is great in part because it shows that Time removed the sick fabrication only “following criticism.” Was the criticism unexpected? But read past the headline, and it only gets worse for Time. Here’s the lede: “Time Magazine retracted a report on Sunday which claimed the Israeli army harvested dead Palestinians’ internal organs after a watchdog group accused the publication of propagating a ‘blood libel.’”

That’s putting it kindly. The watchdog group–HonestReporting–did not so much “accuse” Time of propagating a blood libel as point out that Time was obviously propagating a blood libel. Is there another term for Time’s medieval delusions?

What happened was the following: Time produced a video about the Israel Defense Forces. At one point in the video, the narrator says that the “IDF is not without controversy.” That’s because, according to the video, “in 2009 a Swedish report came out exposing some Israeli troops of selling organs of Palestinians who died in their custody.”

Of course, it did nothing of the sort. A Swedish report had not only not “exposed” such activity but the author of its blood libel said: “whether it’s true or not – I have no idea, I have no clue.” Time has flirted with turning Jewish stereotypes into “reporting” before–remember Karl Vick’s contention that the Jews were too rich and concerned with their money to care about peace with the Palestinians?–but never quite like this. Why Time magazine sees its role as the sewage treatment plant for the rotting refuse of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories is another question worth asking.

But also key here is the role of rumor–whether of the blood libel variety or simple unsubstantiated terrorist propaganda–in the West’s reporting on Israel’s conflict with Hamas. There is, in fact, real reporting being done. Just not by reporters.

For example, over at the popular Israel blog Israellycool, one of its primary contributors, Dan Smith, looked into the UN’s recently released report on damage to Gaza during the first month of Operation Protective Edge. Smith has used this “crisis atlas” to create interactive Google maps of the damage to compare with population maps and maps of terrorist targets in Gaza to create a picture of where the IDF is attacking and why. (He also repeats the crucial reminder that since so many Hamas rockets and mortars misfire, some of the damage is due not to Israeli strikes but to Hamas.)

I recommend reading Smith’s whole post, especially but not solely for the various maps. But Smith makes the following point about what the UN’s numbers–almost certainly exaggerating Israel’s culpability, it should be noted–reveal (emphasis in the original):

It now becomes very clear that most of the damage was caused to 5 locations right on the border with Israel. The rest of the Gaza Strip was, for the most part, undamaged. The main population areas of Gaza city, Jabaliya, Khan Yunes, Rafah and Deir el-Balah were disproportionately undamaged.

If we do a rough estimate of the damage area, it is once again clear the vast majority of the Gaza Strip was unscathed. With a fairly generous estimation that a damage point has a 25 meter radius – the footprint of a house, or the blast radius of a bomb – the total damage area of the 12,433 impacts was in the order of 15 KM2. The land area of the Gaza strip is 360 Km2. In other words, less than 5% of the land was affected.

It may not seem earth shattering, especially because it is unlikely to change many minds; the critics of Israel’s right to self-defense have never been particularly susceptible to facts. But it’s a glaring example of what the “official” media, the mainstream press, isn’t doing much of.

There isn’t nearly enough thoughtful analysis in the media or reporters willing to examine and question the assumptions and propaganda they’re fed by Hamas and its NGO allies, instead using reporters on the ground who worship Yasser Arafat. This is often the case when Israel is at war; in 2006, the Reuters practice of using photoshoppers masquerading as photographers led to the application of the term “fauxtography” to Reuters’ work in the Middle East.

But this lack of reporting appears to have spread to Time, and in a particularly offensive way. As hard as it is to believe, media coverage of Israel is actually deteriorating. The race to the bottom hasn’t stopped; it’s just gotten more crowded.

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Why Are We Letting Qatar Play This Game?

Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, calls out Qatar in a New York Times op-ed today pointing out how that small, oil-rich sheikhdom has become a leading financier of extreme Islamist groups such as Hamas and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria:

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Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, calls out Qatar in a New York Times op-ed today pointing out how that small, oil-rich sheikhdom has become a leading financier of extreme Islamist groups such as Hamas and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria:

It harbors leading Islamist radicals like the spiritual leader of the global Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who issued a religious fatwa endorsing suicide attacks, and the Doha-based history professor Abdul Rahman Omeir al-Naimi, whom the United States Department of Treasury has named as a “terrorist financier” for Al Qaeda. Qatar also funds a life of luxury for Khaled Meshal, the fugitive leader of Hamas.

And of course its Al Jazeera TV station regularly broadcasts in favor of extremist Islam.

Prosor, because of the position he holds in the Israeli government, can’t offer much of a solution to this problem beyond “isolating” Qatar, but retired General Jack Keane and Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute are under no such restrictions. They have an excellent suggestion: “We have alternatives to our Combined Air and Operations Center in Doha, the al Udeid air base, other bases and prepositioned materiel. We should tell Qatar to end its support for terrorism or we leave.”

It is high time that the U.S. government delivered the ultimatum they suggest. For too long Qatar has gotten away with playing both sides of the street–supporting radical Islam while also hosting the U.S. military. One suspects its wily rulers think they are covering themselves no matter what happens in the region by ingratiating themselves both with the jihadists and the “Great Satan.” It’s understandable why Qatar would play this game. Less understandable is why the U.S. government would tolerate it.

It’s about time President Obama borrowed a page from his predecessor and told Qatar (as George W. Bush never did): “You’re either with us or against us.”

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A Clear-Eyed Assessment of ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is certainly a growing menace–in fact the most immediate threat that we face in the Middle East. And a formidable threat it is, having taken control of an area the size of the United Kingdom in Syria and Iraq. Its fighters are estimated to number as many as 17,000, and, after having looted Iraqi stockpiles, they are well equipped both with weapons (many of them Made in America) and money. ISIS has just demonstrated its growing reach by seizing the Tabqa air base from Bashar Assad’s regime, thus giving it effective control of Raqqa province in Syria where its de facto capital is located. But let’s not exaggerate the power that they possess.

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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is certainly a growing menace–in fact the most immediate threat that we face in the Middle East. And a formidable threat it is, having taken control of an area the size of the United Kingdom in Syria and Iraq. Its fighters are estimated to number as many as 17,000, and, after having looted Iraqi stockpiles, they are well equipped both with weapons (many of them Made in America) and money. ISIS has just demonstrated its growing reach by seizing the Tabqa air base from Bashar Assad’s regime, thus giving it effective control of Raqqa province in Syria where its de facto capital is located. But let’s not exaggerate the power that they possess.

The Guardian quotes one “regional diplomat” (whoever that may be) as saying:

The Islamic State is now the most capable military power in the Middle East outside Israel. They can determine outcomes in a few days that the Syrian rebels took two years to influence. Their capacity is in sharp contrast to the Syrian regime, which is only able to fight one battle at a time and has to fight hard for every success.

In the first two months of its life, the so-called Caliphate has achieved unparalleled success. It is in the process of creating foundations for substantial financial, military and political growth. It is the best equipped and most capable terror group in the world. It is unlike anything we have ever seen.

It’s true that ISIS has become the most capable terror group in the world–and far from the “junior varsity” that President Obama labeled it. But let’s put that achievement into perspective. As I argued in my book, Invisible Armies, terrorist groups are generally less capable than guerrilla forces, which are generally less capable than conventional armies. (Possessing weapons of mass destruction can upend that hierarchy but ISIS thankfully doesn’t have any WMD–yet.) Pretty much all terrorist groups aspire to become guerrilla armies, which in turn aspire to become conventional armies. In other words, calling a group the most powerful terrorist force in the world is akin to saying that a baseball team is the best in the minor leagues–it’s not the same thing as suggesting that it can beat the New York Yankees.

True, ISIS has been trying to progress from being merely a terrorist group to being a guerrilla and even a conventional army that is capable of seizing and holding terrain. It is also trying to develop a rudimentary administrative capacity to administer all the territory it has seized. And it has been making some dismaying leaps in capability, but it also displays considerable weakness.

Look, for example, how easily it was driven away from Mosul Dam by Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers with the help of U.S. airpower. As I have previously argued, the beheading of James Foley was another act of desperation designed to show that the group is still relevant. So too of news that it has just executed its own intelligence chief in Aleppo on suspicion of being a British spy–whether the charge was true or not, it is a sign of ISIS’s weakness and the extent it is feeling the strain of even the very limited counteroffensive it has encountered in northern Iraq.

To speak of ISIS in the same breath as the IDF–one of the most professional and capable military forces in the world, with 176,000 active-duty personnel, nearly 4,000 tanks and 10,000 armed fighting vehicles, almost 700 aircraft, 110 navy ships, and, lest we forget, nuclear weapons–is laughable. As a fighting force ISIS doesn’t even stack up very well with the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iran, or Saudi Arabia (although the latter is the weakest of the bunch): any one of those could crush ISIS if it were fighting on its home soil. The reason ISIS has looked so formidable is that it is operating in the territory of two states, Syria and Iraq, which have seen a calamitous breakdown in central government authority. Its gains to date are more a reflection of the weakness of Bashar Assad and Nouri al Maliki than of its intrinsic strength.

While ISIS is a clear and present danger to the U.S. and its allies, let’s not make these black-clad jihadist fanatics out to be ten-foot-tall supermen. ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was soundly thrashed in Iraq in 2007-2008 and it could be again if the U.S. got serious about destroying it.

So far, alas, there is no such sign of seriousness coming from the White House, which continues to dither as ISIS gains new ground. The longer we wait to deal with ISIS, the more formidable it will get and the harder to dismantle.

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Why Back a Group Committed to Murder?

In the wake of the horrifying filmed murder of journalist James Foley, the international community seems to be united behind efforts, however disjointed and perhaps insufficient, to stop ISIS. Yet at the same time, many of the same voices as well as much of the Western diplomatic corps seems intent on saving another terror group in Hamas which revolves as much around murder as does ISIS.

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In the wake of the horrifying filmed murder of journalist James Foley, the international community seems to be united behind efforts, however disjointed and perhaps insufficient, to stop ISIS. Yet at the same time, many of the same voices as well as much of the Western diplomatic corps seems intent on saving another terror group in Hamas which revolves as much around murder as does ISIS.

It must be conceded that a lot of the protests and the diplomatic efforts aimed at propping up Hamas are generated by sympathy for the people of Gaza. The residents of the strip ruled by the Islamist group have suffered terribly as a result of the war that Hamas launched this summer and still refuses to end as they reject and violate each cease-fire deal offered them.

But the agitation to “Free Gaza” being heard on the streets of Western cities and in the media isn’t focused on freeing Gaza from Hamas but in support of the group’s demands that the international blockade of the strip ends. While that might make it a little easier for humanitarian assistance to reach the Palestinians (though it is often forgotten that Israel has sent convoys with such aid across the border and evacuated the wounded from Gaza every day during the conflict), everyone knows the main impact of easing the restrictions on the strip would be to help Hamas replenish its arsenal and to rebuild its command centers, bunkers, and terror tunnels.

Thus, the American initiative to re-start the stalled cease-fire talks in Gaza by involving Hamas allies Turkey and Qatar can have only one possible outcome: a new deal that would allow the terror group to exact concessions from Israel and Egypt. Those pressuring Israel to cease defending its people against the incessant rocket fire on its cities from Gaza aren’t so much helping the Palestinian people as they are empowering Hamas to go on shooting and killing.

This is a key point for those expressing anger at Israeli counter-attacks on Hamas should remember. Hamas’s goal isn’t to force Israel to leave the West Bank or to negotiate a peace deal offering the Palestinians an independent state. Israel has already offered the Palestinians such deals a number of times only to have the more moderate Fatah and the Palestinian Authority turn them down.

Rather, as recent events have made clear, Hamas’s only strategy now is to kill as many Jews as possible.

What else can explain rocket and mortar fire aimed at Israeli civilians every day? The death of 4-year-old Daniel Tragerman—killed by a mortar hit on his parents’ car on Friday—and the hundreds of missiles that have continued to rain down on Israel this past week are sending a message to the world, if only it will listen.

This weekend, Hamas’s so-called political leader, Khaled Meshaal, informed the world from his Qatar hideout that members of his group were, in fact, responsible for the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers that set in motion hostilities this summer. This lust for murder was underlined by the group’s decision to follow up on the kidnapping by launching a war of attrition that has sent thousands of rockets down on Israel as well as the attacks launched from their terror tunnels.

These actions were not related to or motivated by specific Israeli policies or settlements but by a desire to fulfill Hamas’s genocidal covenant that calls for the destruction of Israel and the massacre and/or eviction of its Jewish population. Those are cold hard facts that those seeking to support “Free Gaza” on the streets and in the media should think about. Those facts should also lead the Obama administration and its European allies to think twice about concocting a diplomatic escape hatch for Hamas. Like ISIS, Hamas is all about terror and murder. As is generally recognized with ISIS, the only rational response to such a group is to eradicate them and to free Palestinians and Israelis from their reign of terror.

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Don’t Dismiss Perry’s Border Terror Charge

Rick Perry was in Washington yesterday speaking to the Heritage Foundation to a crowd swelled by the sympathy generated for him by the absurd charges on which an out-of-control Texas prosecutor indicted him. But not all of the attention generated related to that partisan farce. Perry also made a splash by attempting to link the crisis at the Texas border to concerns over terrorism. For that he has been widely lambasted by the liberal media. Is the scorn merited?

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Rick Perry was in Washington yesterday speaking to the Heritage Foundation to a crowd swelled by the sympathy generated for him by the absurd charges on which an out-of-control Texas prosecutor indicted him. But not all of the attention generated related to that partisan farce. Perry also made a splash by attempting to link the crisis at the Texas border to concerns over terrorism. For that he has been widely lambasted by the liberal media. Is the scorn merited?

It must be conceded that Perry’s attempt to conflate the border issue with the heightened interest about terrorism in the wake of the rise of ISIS in Iraq sounds suspiciously like a speech constructed by a marketing focus group. With the murder of journalist James Foley leading the news everywhere this week, the willingness of Perry to chime in about the threat by tying it to an issue on which he does have some standing to speak struck many as superficial. More than that, they mocked his warnings about terrorists crossing our southern border as divorced from reality and merely an attempt to scare potential Republican primary voters with the sort of red meat they love.

To take just one example, a blogger at the left-wing ThinkProgress site cited State Department and Pentagon statements to the effect that there was no evidence that either al-Qaeda or Hezbollah were operating in the Western Hemisphere. If that is true, then Perry is displaying the kind of foolishness that earned him such scorn during his disastrous presidential debates in 2012 or just blowing smoke in order to deceive the public.

But instead of dismissing the Perry reboot as another example of his dimwittedness, media critics would do well to look into the subject a little more closely. As it happens, despite Obama administration attempts to downplay the issue, the question of Islamist terror in the Western hemisphere is not a figment of Perry’s imagination or a red herring designed to inflame passions about border security. Terror groups such as Hezbollah that are backed by Iran have already been operating in Central and South America. As CNN reported in June of last year, there was plenty of evidence of terror activity as Iran and Hezbollah mined these regions for both funding and recruits.

As is the case of the Taliban, terror groups are heavily involved in the illegal drug trade. But the trail in the Southern Hemisphere doesn’t begin or end with connections to the trafficking of cocaine. As a report from the American Enterprise Institute from last year shows, Hezbollah does not operate as a “lone wolf” on this side of the Atlantic. Nor are its activities limited to Iran’s ally Venezuela, as there is reason to believe it is operating throughout the continent. As to the specific claim that there is no evidence of Hezbollah activity in Mexico, here’s what the AEI report said:

In recent years, Mexico has arrested numerous individuals associated with Hezbollah engaging in criminal activities – including smuggling of persons across the U.S. southwest border. For example, in September 2012, a Lebanese-born U.S. citizen, convicted in 2010 for a credit card scheme that raised $100,000 for Hezbollah, was arrested in Merida by Mexican authorities. Rafic Mohammad Labboun Allaboun, an imam from a mosque in San Jose, California, was traveling with a falsified passport issued by Belize. He was extradited to the United States.

If that is so, then what is to stop Hezbollah or any allied or rival Islamist group from using Central American connections to begin exporting its activities to the United States? Surely not the porous border with Mexico that has been flooded by tens of thousands of children attempting to enter the country illegally. Nor, given the high success rate of poorly organized coyotes, is there reason to believe the current security arrangements would stop a terror group from infiltrating the U.S., especially now that ISIS is on the rise and seeking to inflict greater pain on an American enemy that is bombing its positions in Iraq.

Instead of laughing off Perry’s rhetoric or pretending that Islamists have no interest in attacking the U.S. via its exposed southern border, Americans ought to be echoing the governor’s concerns. For the last few years, both liberals and libertarians on the right have been claiming that the threat from Islamist terror has been hyped out of proportion and vastly exaggerated. But the events unfolding in Iraq show that terrorism not only survived the death of Osama bin Laden but also may have metastasized on President Obama’s watch. A September 10th mentality may still be fashionable in some quarters of both major political parties but it does not constitute a viable approach for either foreign or security policy in 2016.

We don’t know whether Rick Perry will turn out to be a credible presidential candidate in 2016. But those who are laughing at his border terror speech are the ignoramuses in this particular debate, not the governor.

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A War of Attrition Hamas Won’t Win

Hamas terrorists scored one of their few “victories” in their war with Israel today when a mortar fired from Gaza struck a car across the border in Israel killing a four-year-old child. But while this may encourage the Islamists to believe they can win a long-running battle of attrition and force the Jewish state and/or Egypt to make concessions that will enable Hamas to hold onto Gaza as well as to rearm, the leaders of the terrorist movement are making a big mistake.

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Hamas terrorists scored one of their few “victories” in their war with Israel today when a mortar fired from Gaza struck a car across the border in Israel killing a four-year-old child. But while this may encourage the Islamists to believe they can win a long-running battle of attrition and force the Jewish state and/or Egypt to make concessions that will enable Hamas to hold onto Gaza as well as to rearm, the leaders of the terrorist movement are making a big mistake.

Palestinians will celebrate the death of the four-year-old as an act of revenge for all those who were killed in Gaza this summer as part of the war launched by Hamas. But while the foreign press that has either been intimidated by Hamas or willingly touts their point of view will try to place this event in a context in which many Palestinian children have died, the fact remains that Israel is shooting at terrorists who hide among civilians. Hamas aims its weapons specifically at civilians. Though almost all of its rockets aimed at Israeli citizens have been shot down or fell helpless in open areas, the Iron Dome missile defense system can’t stop mortar fire shot directly over the border and occasionally one hits its target.

Israelis know that if most of Hamas’s rockets were as successful as their one mortar shell today, perhaps the world would regard their plight with more sympathy. But in the absence of scores or hundreds of dead Jews, one child’s murder along with the terrorization of huge portions of their country isn’t likely to generate empathy for them.

Yet neither grief over today’s atrocity or a sense of isolation as the world treats the ongoing war on the Jewish state as an excuse for a surge in anti-Semitism will give Hamas the advantage it thinks it can win by refusing to halt the hostilities.

Hamas’s strategy in the cease-fire talks is clear. It knows that Israel’s government is not interested in paying the high price in casualties and international criticism that will result from another Gaza ground offensive whose object would be the elimination of the Islamist hold on the strip. But it knows that in order to justify its decision to go to war against Israel this summer to ordinary Palestinians it must produce some kind of concessions from the Jewish state. Their objective remains the loosening or the removal of the blockade of Gaza that has been enforced since the terrorist group seized the strip in a 2007 coup.

By continuing to make Israel bleed over the course of the coming days, weeks, or months without bringing down upon themselves the anger of the world, Hamas believes it can weaken the resolve of the Israelis and perhaps even generate some pressure on Egypt’s government as well. This belief is rooted in a common misperception about the Israelis that is often voiced throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. While they are forced to acknowledge Israel’s military, technological, and economic superiority over its enemies, they believe the Jews have a weak point that can be ruthlessly exploited.

Unlike Hamas, which cold-heartedly and deliberately puts Palestinian civilians in harm’s way in order to protect its fighters and arsenal, Israel prioritizes the protection of its population. Moreover, it goes to great lengths to redeem hostages, even paying for the remains of dead Israelis with live terrorist prisoners. That leads the Islamists to believe that no Israeli government can go on watching as its citizens are picked off and forced to run for shelter even when the Iron Dome is knocking down Hamas’s rockets. Thus, they think that if they can only hold on while they keep shooting, sooner or later the Israelis will buckle and grant them the victory they truly crave.

Hamas knows that any loosening of the blockade won’t do much for Palestinian civilians, but it will allow them to replenish their supply of rockets and other arms as well as to acquire the materials to start digging more tunnels aimed at facilitating terror attacks on Israeli civilians. Moreover, Hamas also knows that the talk about putting the Palestinian Authority in charge of border crossings in order to prevent the flow of arms is a joke. The PA is both weak and corrupt and its forces haven’t a prayer if forced to line up against Hamas cadres even if they were willing to take them on, which they almost certainly have no intention of doing.

The belief in the utility of a war of attrition against Israel is widely accepted by both the Jewish state’s enemies and many of its friends who think the status quo, whether in the West Bank or along the border with Gaza, is unsustainable. But they are wrong. The assumption that Israel can’t hold on in the face of this terrible threat with a clear end to it in sight is unfounded.

From the first day of its existence, Israel has always been faced with confrontations and dilemmas that seemed to be unsustainable. And yet they have been sustained while Israel not only survived but also thrived. The Arabs have always believed that in a long-term conflict the Jews would tire of having to defend their country against a siege aimed at their destruction. But after 66-plus years, it’s time for them to admit they were wrong.

As unpleasant as the standoff in the West Bank may be and as bloody as the border with Gaza has become, the overwhelming majority of Israelis know they have no alternative but to keep fighting and refusing to die. The fact that there is no “solution” in sight for the conflict, whether of the two-state kind or any other variety, is disheartening. But it hasn’t weakened the resolve of the Israeli people to carry on with their lives. Moreover, the experiences of the post-Oslo era have convinced most that any further concessions, such as the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 that created the Hamasistan that continues to shoot at Israeli cities, are a mistake that should not be repeated.

Hard as it may be for some to understand, the Middle East conflict really is as simple as this: the Jews have returned to their land, never to be separated from it again. And not all the mortars and rockets fired from Hamas will change that fact. If anyone appears tired, it is Hamas, which is rapidly running out of options and reduced to mass executions outside of Gaza mosques in order to maintain their rule. Those expecting Israel to lose this battle of attrition are backing the wrong horse.

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Why an Outlier New Hampshire Poll Might Mean More Trouble for Dems

Democrats wondering if their hopes of keeping the Senate could receive any more hits this week got their answer yesterday: a new poll found Scott Brown trailing incumbent Senator Jeanne Shaheen by just two points. It’s either an outlier or a lagging indicator–more likely an outlier, but bound to give Democrats a scare either way.

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Democrats wondering if their hopes of keeping the Senate could receive any more hits this week got their answer yesterday: a new poll found Scott Brown trailing incumbent Senator Jeanne Shaheen by just two points. It’s either an outlier or a lagging indicator–more likely an outlier, but bound to give Democrats a scare either way.

That’s because if the race appears close, they’ll have to spend time, money, resources, etc. trying to fend off a challenge from an opponent given a new sense of momentum and likely able to improve his own fundraising on the news of apparently improving poll numbers. And at this point, with the way the Democrats’ luck has been going, they’d be tempting fate to dismiss a sign that their standing might be going from bad to worse.

As Andrew Stiles notes over at the Washington Free Beacon, the Democrats’ woes can be chalked up to two prominent factors, in addition to their affiliation with President Millstone: Republicans have recruited good candidates, and Democrats have recruited a mix of bad candidates and bonkers candidates.

The bad candidates include those like Iowa’s Bruce Braley and Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes, the latter a good candidate on paper but an almost shockingly terrible public speaker. There are struggling incumbents like North Carolina’s Kay Hagan and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu. And then there are candidates like the Democrats’ two choices thus far in Montana.

Incumbent Senator John Walsh was running for reelection, but bowed out due to revelations of plagiarism. The Democrats replaced Walsh on the ballot with a state representative and radical leftist named Amanda Curtis. Readers, meet Amanda Curtis:

So the last thing Democrats want to deal with is a possible upset in New Hampshire. And yet, there are good reasons not to ignore this one poll. One such reason is because their opponent is Scott Brown. He did, after all, win Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat after Kennedy died and while promising to vote against the major domestic reform proposal that was being sold in Kennedy’s name. Brown has been an underdog before, and the result was a Republican senator in uber-liberal Massachusetts.

Another is the flipside of one of Brown’s current weaknesses. He has switched states to run for this seat, losing his local-boy authenticity and having to build connections he could take for granted in his original home state. He also opens himself up to the charge of carpetbagging, though it’s not always a terribly effective accusation in the course of an election. But the other side of that coin is that he’s trading in an overwhelmingly liberal state for one with a more conservative streak. As a Republican, he’ll spot his opponent fewer points in New Hampshire than he did in Massachusetts.

Another reason for Democrats not to be too dismissive of the poll is that if Brown ends up winning this election, they will never hear the end of it. He would cause a much larger headache for national Democrats as a senator from New Hampshire than he could from Massachusetts. In both, of course, he gets only one vote. But in New Hampshire he’d have a stronger incumbency and a national profile because of the state’s role in presidential nominations, especially on the Republican side.

That means that if Democrats lose the New Hampshire seat to Brown, they will be witnessing the establishment of a genuine national politician. Unless his career there is a disaster, he will instantly be the subject of presidential speculation (which he will no doubt feed). If he doesn’t run for president, he will at least be a much sought after endorsement for aspiring Republican presidents. The spectacle of early-primary-season New Hampshire will now include a procession to the throne of Scott Brown.

So losing the seat to Brown is more than just another Senate seat, notwithstanding the fact that the midterms might be close enough that one Senate election really can determine who is in the minority and who the majority. Expect, then, this poll to refocus attention on New Hampshire. If that happens, Brown’s fundraising will increase. And if that happens, Shaheen will need more help from the national party and major donors as well. That would draw money away from other races, a serious hit for a party that is already on the defensive for November’s midterms.

Brown is still behind in New Hampshire, and probably by more than this latest poll suggests. But Democrats have already learned how dangerous it is to underestimate him.

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The Consequences of Obama’s Arrogance

On Wednesday, President Obama reacted to the murder of journalist James Foley by ISIS terrorists with comments that seemed unusually angry for a president that is normally most comfortable playing the comedian-in-chief while flaying his political opponents. But, as even the New York Times noted in a surprisingly critical front-page article this morning, his decision to follow this moment of national grief by heading straight to the golf course, where he allowed himself to be photographed laughing and having a good time with his cronies, has rubbed even partisan Democrats the wrong way.

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On Wednesday, President Obama reacted to the murder of journalist James Foley by ISIS terrorists with comments that seemed unusually angry for a president that is normally most comfortable playing the comedian-in-chief while flaying his political opponents. But, as even the New York Times noted in a surprisingly critical front-page article this morning, his decision to follow this moment of national grief by heading straight to the golf course, where he allowed himself to be photographed laughing and having a good time with his cronies, has rubbed even partisan Democrats the wrong way.

As with his original decision to go ahead with his vacation last week despite the fact that Iraq was imploding, what is interesting about this controversy is not so much the time off during a crisis or the golf as the arrogance and contempt for public opinion that this president consistently demonstrates.

As the Times notes, he is not the first president that has been forced to try and strike a balance between his need for a break from the crushing responsibilities of the White House and the need to avoid demonstrating insensitivity to tragic events. But while his predecessors learned, after some mistakes, to steer clear of incongruous juxtapositions, this president doesn’t think he has to do so. As inconsequential as a flap over pictures of Obama cavorting on the links may seem, this may tell us more about the nature of this presidency and his legacy than his defenders or even some of his critics would care to admit.

As I wrote last week, it wouldn’t have killed Obama to postpone his vacation by a day or two to show the country that he was on the job in dealing with an implosion of Iraq that was largely caused by his own mistakes. Similarly, it must have occurred to someone on his staff that maybe heading straight from the Foley statement to the golf course was not only bad optics but also called into question the sincerity of the president’s comments about a subject that had to have touched him deeply.

But this episode is more than just a question of bad tactics. It tells us two important things about the way this president operates.

The first is that even if there was someone working in the vacation version of the West Wing who was smart enough to see this problem coming, we already know that the modus operandi of the Obama inner circle is that this is a president who clearly does not listen to his advisors or suffer to be told that his instincts or opinions are wrong. As much as he loves to preen about his willingness to hear all sides of an issue before he decides policy, this is not a man who brooks disagreement once he makes up his mind whether the issue is great or small.

Second, arrogance is not merely a personal quality of this president; it is a defining characteristic. When faced with a question of whether he should alter his behavior to conform to a sense of public decency or to go ahead and do what he wants, he always seems to prefer the latter.

There is an argument to be made that it is important that presidents not be held hostage to events or to be constantly altering their schedules to avoid the perception of giving offense. The ISIS terrorists who mentioned the president in their message concerning the Foley murder in which they said the fate of their other American hostage rests on whether the president ceases U.S. attacks on the group clearly would like to see him cowering. But it should also be pointed out that part of this president’s foreign-policy problem is that foes, such as Iran, Russia, and terror groups, have long since concluded that Obama is not a serious person, let alone a wartime leader. So long as that is true, the United States must expect that it will continue to be challenged and tested in a manner that might not happen were the president a man who was capable of learning from past mistakes. In this case, a mere matter of public perceptions stops being fodder for cable news political debates and becomes an invitation to mayhem on the part of irresponsible foreign actors who don’t believe Obama is capable of enforcing consequences upon them.

Given the fact that this president has not been gun shy about ordering hits on terrorists, that perception may be false. But the spectacle of Obama guffawing on the golf course right after issuing a statement of warning to ISIS was not one that is likely to deter other terrorists or nations seeking to test America’s will. Arrogance is a characteristic that can trump all others when one is in the public eye. But what all politicians—be they smart or not so intelligent—eventually learn, is that in public life, sooner or later style becomes substance. The fact that President Obama has yet learned this or is simply too stubborn and arrogant to adjust to the realities of his office tells us all we need to know about what a flawed leader he remains.

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RE: The Nasty, Brutish World of Richard Dawkins

I certainly agree that with Pete that Richard Dawkins’s advice on aborting a Down syndrome fetus was somewhere beyond morally obtuse, and he fully deserves the blowback he’s gotten for it.

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I certainly agree that with Pete that Richard Dawkins’s advice on aborting a Down syndrome fetus was somewhere beyond morally obtuse, and he fully deserves the blowback he’s gotten for it.

I also find puzzling that someone who prides himself on his devotion to science should be an avowed, indeed noisy atheist. Atheism, after all, is as much a religion as any other in that it is a belief system that can’t be tested, which is the definition of religion. You can no more prove the nonexistence of God than you can prove His existence. Of course, Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, has sold more than 2 million copies and been translated into 31 languages, so perhaps it was a commercial decision to be an atheist.

I suspect Dawkins might be getting grumpy in his old age (he’s 73), an age when hugely gifted people sometimes begin to become more and more extreme in their views. About ten years ago, Dawkins wrote a fascinating book called The Ancestor’s Tale. It was a history of life on earth, but one that went backwards in time, not forward. It was sort of a paleontologist’s version of Merrily We Roll Along, a Kaufmann and Hart play (and Sondheim musical) where each succeeding scene is set earlier in time. It’s an idea that didn’t work for Kaufmann and Hart, or Sondheim, but it works splendidly for Dawkins. But there was one thing very odd about it. Every hundred pages or so, Dawkins would throw in a completely gratuitous insult

to George W. Bush. In 2004, such insults were a dime a dozen, but it was startling, to say the least, to find one in the middle of a discussion of the Cambrian explosion or the Permian extinction.

But that said, Dawkins is a great scientist and an even better science writer. His gift for making complex subjects and subtle arguments accessible to the intelligent layman is second to none. The book that brought him to fame, The Selfish Gene, has been in print of almost forty years. It is one of those rare books that has you saying, “Ah, now I understand,” on almost every page.

So Dawkins, I think, is just further proof that we are all human, both sublime and ridiculous.

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Does Britain Feel No Shame at the Killing of James Foley?

As more facts emerge about the horrible murder of U.S. journalist James Foley, it looks increasingly likely that his killers were three British jihadists. With Britain’s longstanding export-jihad now making some serious headlines you might have thought that the national debate in Britain would by now have become a storm of outrage and shame. But you wold be wrong.

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As more facts emerge about the horrible murder of U.S. journalist James Foley, it looks increasingly likely that his killers were three British jihadists. With Britain’s longstanding export-jihad now making some serious headlines you might have thought that the national debate in Britain would by now have become a storm of outrage and shame. But you wold be wrong.

Observers have warned that the British fighters for the Islamic State are among the most vicious and brutal, and yet there is no sense of shame or culpability gnawing away at the British soul, despite the havoc and terror that British jihadists are causing in Iraq and Syria. The news reporting is procedural, the politicians sound tired, apathy permeates the conversation every time the subject is raised. The only time that any flicker of alarm or interest can be detected is when it is pointed out that these people, hardened by battle and radical Islam, might return to Britain to continue their fight from the streets of British cities.

Even then, those in power plead powerlessness, running through a list of excuses as to why it won’t be so easy to prevent the jihadists from coming home to roost. Yet given that these individuals have joined an enemy fighting force, it is not at all clear why Western countries won’t simply strip these individuals of their citizenship in absentia. After all, with the shootings at the Jewish school in Toulouse and the Jewish museum in Brussels, we have already seen just how dangerous European Islamists returning from jihad can be.

There was of course serious public outrage in 2013 when two British Muslims murdered the soldier Lee Rigby on a south London sidewalk one quiet afternoon in May. Even then, however, the national debate was rapidly reoriented from discussing the culture and community that the killers had emerged from to instead initiating a wave of handwringing and finger pointing about whether the backlash to the murder had been Islamophobic.

Not only did the British public stand accused of having reacted with hatred to Rigby’s murder, but for many left-wing commentators, they also stood accused of having caused the murder through their Islamophobia. And once again, inasmuch as anyone is undertaking any soul searching at all over what British born Muslims are perpetrating in Iraq and Syria, there are those who are attempting to suggest British society has driven these young men to jihadism by alienating and discriminating against them.

So far this accusation has not stuck. But Britain must recognize that it does indeed bear culpability for the fact that British bred jihadists have murdered an American journalist in Iraq. Britain has alienated its young Muslims, but not through bigotry and Isamophobia. For decades Muslim immigrants experienced no more hostility than the many others who made their way to Britain from the former colonies.

The reality is that ever since the early 1990s, British authorities embraced an ethos of multiculturalism that told immigrant groups that they should not integrate into the British way of life. The message was either that there was no such thing as British culture, just a conglomeration of other cultures, or that British culture was backward and not of any value. From schools, to local government, to social workers, the message was parroted that immigrant groups should embrace and reinforce their own cultures.

The fruits of this flawed policy of wilful alienation was the milieu from which Britain’s jihad export industry would eventually emerge. Britain must take responsibility for this, and for the fact that for years it has been the most conservative and hardline Muslim groups that the British government has empowered with the mantle of communal leadership, often misguidedly embracing these people as the chief representatives of the entire Islamic population in Britain. Indeed, even today politicians praise Muslim community leaders for allegedly working tirelessly to combat radicalization among their youth. And yet, with more British Muslims off on jihad than serving in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, one wonders just how much praise is really in order.

Following the news of the murder of James Foley a woman named Kadijah Dare took to the Internet to declare her intention to become the first female to behead a westerner in Syria. Ms. Dare hails from Lewisham in east London. Britain should feel a deep sense of shame that this is what it is exporting to the world. And along with shame it is about time that the British public expressed the kind of outrage that will force noticeable and substantial action against the subculture that is generating this horror.

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Why Billions to Rebuild Gaza Will Go to Waste Yet Again

Though the fighting in Gaza shows no sign of ending, much of the world is already focusing on the next step–pouring billions of international aid dollars, for the umpteenth time, into repairing the damages caused by Hamas’s aggression. Germany, France, and Britain are working on a UN Security Council resolution dictating the terms of a cease-fire and reconstruction, while UN special envoy Robert Serry briefed the council on Gaza’s reconstruction needs earlier this week. All the international players agree that some form of international monitoring is needed to keep Hamas from diverting reconstruction aid into rebuilding its war machine. But that raises the question of who can provide this monitoring.

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Though the fighting in Gaza shows no sign of ending, much of the world is already focusing on the next step–pouring billions of international aid dollars, for the umpteenth time, into repairing the damages caused by Hamas’s aggression. Germany, France, and Britain are working on a UN Security Council resolution dictating the terms of a cease-fire and reconstruction, while UN special envoy Robert Serry briefed the council on Gaza’s reconstruction needs earlier this week. All the international players agree that some form of international monitoring is needed to keep Hamas from diverting reconstruction aid into rebuilding its war machine. But that raises the question of who can provide this monitoring.

Serry, who apparently inhabits a parallel universe, blithely asserted that the UN has successfully monitored projects in Gaza in the past and can do so today as well. This, of course, is the same UN that was shocked to discover Hamas rockets stored in three UNRWA schools in Gaza–and then promptly handed the rockets back to Hamas. It’s the same UN that allowed Hamas to booby-trap a UN clinic, resulting in its destruction when Hamas blew it up to kill nearby Israeli soldiers. It’s the same UN whose Gaza teacher’s union–i.e., the people who educate students at UNRWA schools–is run by Hamas, which controls all 11 seats on the union’s board, and whose “educators” include prominent members of Hamas’s military wing. And it’s the same UN whose own auditor recently released a damning report on the UN Development Program’s procurement in Gaza.

Inter alia, this report found that contract employees performed “core” procurement tasks that only regular staffers are supposed to perform, including for “significant” construction projects; that the UN wasn’t “monitoring and recording actual work” performed by contract employees handling “core” functions; that at least $8 million in construction spending was falsely recorded at far lower prices, thereby shielding it from scrutiny by higher-level officials who must approve major outlays; that many payments and receipts weren’t recorded; and that UNDP didn’t use an electronic fund transfer system that would let it monitor bank transactions and detect those “not made by UNDP.” In short, contrary to Serry’s assertion that “UN construction materials were not used for the [Hamas] tunnels,” the UN has no clue what was happening at its construction programs in Gaza.

Thus believing the UN could effectively monitor Gaza’s reconstruction is like believing cats can guard cream. Yet the main alternative–entrusting this task to the Palestinian Authority, bolstered by some unspecified “international monitoring and verification mission,” as the EU-3 proposes–is equally unrealistic.

Writing in The New Republic this week, Alexander Joffe and Asaf Romirowsky made a thoughtful case for the PA alternative, despite acknowledging that the PA is “monumentally corrupt.” And in principle, I agree with them. The fact that education, health, welfare, and development are currently largely handled by UNRWA encourages dysfunctional Palestinian government; Palestinian leaders can get away with being corrupt, irresponsible, and even diverting massive resources into rockets and tunnels precisely because the international community takes care of providing basic services to the public. Thus it’s long past time to defund UNRWA and force Palestinian governments–whether the PA or Hamas–to take responsibility for their own people.

But as veteran reporter Khaled Abu Toameh wrote this week, the idea that PA President Mahmoud Abbas can reassume control of Gaza now is ridiculous. First, he can’t afford to be seen as returning to Gaza “aboard an Israeli tank.” Second, Hamas remains the dominant military power in Gaza; Abbas’s forces are incapable of doing anything Hamas opposes, and even trying would be dangerous: Over the past month, Hamas has shot dozens of members of Abbas’s Fatah party just for daring to leave their homes. In other words, the PA can neither stop Hamas from firing rockets nor prevent it from diverting reconstruction aid. So all its return to Gaza would do is free Hamas of responsibility for day-to-day governance and allow it to focus all its energies on preparing for the next war.

In short, no international monitoring system can keep Hamas from rebuilding its war machine as long as it remains the dominant force in Gaza. And since the international community is vehemently opposed to letting Israel wage the kind of military operation needed to destroy Hamas, that means the billions it will soon spend to rebuild Gaza will be as wasted as all the previous billions were: All the gleaming new buildings will be destroyed again in another few years, when the next war erupts.

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From Jayvee to Juggernaut: What Terrorists Learn from Obama’s Mistakes

The press has begun reminding the Obama administration that the president had earlier referred to terrorist groups like ISIS as petty wannabes: “a jayvee team.” Yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described them as an unprecedented threat and more worrisome, from a national-security perspective, than al-Qaeda. How did such a ragtag band of impostors become, in less than a year, the most imposing group out there? The answer is easy: they never were a jayvee team. To understand where the Obama administration went wrong, it’s instructive to revisit Obama’s full answer to the New Yorker’s David Remnick for that January story.

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The press has begun reminding the Obama administration that the president had earlier referred to terrorist groups like ISIS as petty wannabes: “a jayvee team.” Yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described them as an unprecedented threat and more worrisome, from a national-security perspective, than al-Qaeda. How did such a ragtag band of impostors become, in less than a year, the most imposing group out there? The answer is easy: they never were a jayvee team. To understand where the Obama administration went wrong, it’s instructive to revisit Obama’s full answer to the New Yorker’s David Remnick for that January story.

After making the “jayvee” comment–which Remnick called “an uncharacteristically flip analogy”–Obama expanded on his thinking. He said: “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

The major folly here was not, therefore, Obama underestimating one particular terrorist group or another. And it was not in the president’s naïve assumption that jihadists in particular hotspots don’t have global ambitions. Those are mistakes, surely. But the worst part was really in Obama’s complete lack of understanding in how individual terrorists operate.

Obama has always tried to draw lines between al-Qaeda and other groups because he wants to limit American action. But those lines were and are arbitrary. And because of that, Obama has tended to think of “new” terrorist groups as freshmen starting out at the bottom of the food chain. In fact, not only do they blur lines between groups and switch allegiances, but all terrorist groups benefit from the transnational architecture built over decades by Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and other trailblazers.

A Washington Post story from earlier this month offered a good example of this:

U.S. spy agencies have begun to see groups of fighters abandoning al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Africa to join the rival Islamist organization that has seized territory in Iraq and Syria and been targeted in American airstrikes, U.S. officials said.

The movements are seen by U.S. ­counterterrorism analysts as a worrisome indication of the expanding appeal of a group known as the Islamic State that has overwhelmed military forces in the region and may now see itself in direct conflict with the United States.

“Small groups from a number of al-Qaeda affiliates have defected to ISIS,” as the group is also known, said a U.S. official with access to classified intelligence assessments. “And this problem will probably become more acute as ISIS continues to rack up victories.”

The influx has strengthened an organization already regarded as a menacing force in the Middle East, one that has toppled a series of Iraqi cities by launching assaults so quickly and in so many directions that security forces caught in the group’s path have so far been unable to respond with anything but retreat.

Nobody defects to the jayvee team. And it’s been fascinating to watch the Obama administration come to terms with that realization, and adjust its rhetoric accordingly. Every time the administration is confronted with the fact that the global war on terror was not a made-up construct in a fit of warmongering pique but a logical reaction to the fluid, metastasizing threat of global jihadist groups, it struggles to explain its own meaningless distinctions.

So our enemy was al-Qaeda, not terrorism or terrorists more broadly. That, of course, was completely and recklessly false. So now that we have a non-al-Qaeda threat, how does the administration justify its uncompromising fury toward just one group? Here’s Hagel:

“They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They’re tremendously well-funded. This is beyond anything that we’ve seen,” Hagel said, adding that “the sophistication of terrorism and ideology married with resources now poses a whole new dynamic and a new paradigm of threats to this country.”

But that’s not really true either. They’re sophisticated, ideological, militarily advanced, and “tremendously well-funded.” But does Hagel think that doesn’t describe any terror groups that preceded them? Would he not have said that about al-Qaeda? Would he not say that has been true of Hezbollah for decades now? You could even argue it described the Taliban once upon a time.

The point is not to split hairs. The point is that the administration made a grave and dangerous error in its attitude toward al-Qaeda, claiming the fight could be limited to card-carrying and dues-paying members of that one club. Obama is simply repeating that mistake again with ISIS. Who will be the next jayvee team that turns into a juggernaut? Whoever it is, they will almost certainly take Obama by surprise.

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Sanctions and Appeasement: 1941 and 2014

There are reasons to doubt whether the sanctions that have been enacted against Russia as a result of its aggression against Ukraine will work. But the argument made against them in today’s New York Times by Paul Saunders about the analogy between today’s sanctions and those imposed on Japan in 1941 isn’t one of them.

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There are reasons to doubt whether the sanctions that have been enacted against Russia as a result of its aggression against Ukraine will work. But the argument made against them in today’s New York Times by Paul Saunders about the analogy between today’s sanctions and those imposed on Japan in 1941 isn’t one of them.

The executive director of the “realist” Center for the National Interest think tank is clearly opposed to Western sanctions on Russia. Instead, he says, the U.S. should be offering the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin some carrots along with the threat of a stick or two. He worries that that the constant attacks on Russian policy combined with President Obama’s lack of credibility will not only not deter Putin from more adventurism; he thinks it might actually impel Moscow to do the unthinkable and launch invasions of former Soviet republics that are today NATO allies of the U.S. like the Baltic states.

Saunders is right that no matter what policy the administration pursues, without Russia believing that Obama is serious about stopping them, nothing will work. In that sense, sanctions may well ultimately fail.

But Saunders’ argument that the only applicable precedent for the standoff with Russia today is the failed attempt by the United States to force Japan to cease its campaign of aggression in Asia is completely off the mark.

Saunders is correct that the U.S.-Japan dispute involved miscalculations on both sides. President Franklin Roosevelt feared that Japanese aggression in Asia and the Pacific would ultimately end in armed conflict. Yet the oil embargo imposed on the Japanese Empire and the seizure of their assets in the U.S. was an attempt to give Tokyo a chance to back down before it was too late. Rather than seizing an opportunity for negotiations that might have provided them with a chance to avoid a suicidal war, Japanese militarists saw the sanctions as a challenge to their legitimacy that must be met with further aggression. Hence, rather than slow down the path to war, the embargo may have speeded it up.

From this, Saunders draws the lesson that great powers can’t be deterred by economic sanctions, only incited to up the ante in a game of international poker. The Japanese wrongly thought Roosevelt was bluffing and believed the U.S. was too materialistic and spiritually weak to wage a war of annihilation against them. Perhaps, similarly, the Russians today believe, not without some justification, that the Obama administration will ultimately back down if push comes to shove. The fear that Iran has the same evaluation of Obama’s character and fortitude makes the current nuclear negotiations with Tehran all the more perilous.

But the analogy with Japan gives Putin and Russia too much credit. Japan was vulnerable to economic sanctions because of its lack of national resources and dependence on oil imports. But it was also an expanding empire with a crack military machine whose hunger for great power status and hemispheric hegemony was such that it could not be stopped by negotiations or bought off. It had been waging an active genocidal war of aggression in China since 1937 and its occupation of Indochina (today’s Vietnam) illustrated its intentions to expand even further. There was never any chance that anything short of war would ever force Japan to give up its Chinese conquests or their dream of Pacific domination.

By contrast, as dangerous as Putin might be, his nation is a shell of a once formidable empire with a ramshackle military that struggled to deal with Chechen rebels and is now flummoxed by the ragtag army opposing them in eastern Ukraine. Though it stole a march on the Ukrainians and seized Crimea with ease, the Russians appear to be in retreat with little sign that they would dare risk a conflict with the West by attacking members of NATO. Putin would like to reassemble the old Tsarist and Soviet empires. But if the U.S. and its European allies were sufficiently determined to punish Russia—something that is still in doubt even after the atrocity of the shooting down of a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine by Russian loyalists—Moscow would be put in a difficult spot with little alternative but to back down.

But Saunders, stuck as he is in his realist mindset, seems to miss a broader point about the arc of American foreign policy than just the narrow question of the utility of sanctions. The “proud empire” of Japan that the U.S. sought to deter was an ally of Nazi Germany and already guilty of unimaginable atrocities when sanctions were imposed on them. A U.S. deal that would have left them in possession of China was not an option, even for an American government that would have preferred not to fight. The notion of a reasonable accommodation between the U.S. and Japan was not merely far-fetched but immoral, something that Roosevelt, though hopeful of staying out of the war that had already begun in Europe and Asia, seemed to understand. Just as appeasement of Japan’s ally Germany failed, so, too, would the course of action that Saunders seems to think would have been a good idea.

America’s embrace of sanctions against nations like Japan and Russia is a function of its values and interests, not merely a calculated effort to pursue a great power agenda. Feeding the appetite of nations like Japan and Russia for small nations never works. While some policymakers are too glib about using World War Two-era analogies about the dangers of appeasement, rethinking the virtues of such a discreditable course of action is even more misguided.

Saunders’ fears of a too-forceful use of American economic power is not only misplaced with respect to Russia; the idea that the goal of these confrontations is splitting the difference with aggressors is his real mistake. Offering Japan enough carrots in order to avoid an attack on U.S. territories would have been a disaster. The same is true of any misguided effort to buy off Putin.

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Like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, Hamas Is Fair Game

Hamas supporters came out in their thousands today in Gaza for the funerals of three senior commanders of the terror group’s “military” wing. The trio, along with their chief, Mohammad Deif, whose fate is still unknown, was targeted by Israeli air strikes after days of renewed rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli cities. While no one blinks an eye when the U.S. takes out leaders of al-Qaeda affiliates and other jihadists throughout the Middle East, the deaths of these Hamas figures is being discussed as a provocation that may well lead to more fighting that could have been avoided. But the attempt to draw any meaningful distinctions between Hamas and al-Qaeda or ISIS murderers in Syria and Iraq is mistaken.

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Hamas supporters came out in their thousands today in Gaza for the funerals of three senior commanders of the terror group’s “military” wing. The trio, along with their chief, Mohammad Deif, whose fate is still unknown, was targeted by Israeli air strikes after days of renewed rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli cities. While no one blinks an eye when the U.S. takes out leaders of al-Qaeda affiliates and other jihadists throughout the Middle East, the deaths of these Hamas figures is being discussed as a provocation that may well lead to more fighting that could have been avoided. But the attempt to draw any meaningful distinctions between Hamas and al-Qaeda or ISIS murderers in Syria and Iraq is mistaken.

The targeted killings of this latest group of Hamas murderers will, no doubt, set off the usual chorus of critiques of Israel from those who will claim that this action will somehow be the cause of more violence. As with acts of Israeli self-defense, we will be told that their deaths will sow the seeds of new generations of terrorists.

Throughout the history of Israel’s battles with Palestinian terror factions, Israel’s security services have been constantly lectured about the costs of their successes as well as their near misses.

Whenever attempts to take out known terrorists fail or result (as is often the case with similar attacks by the U.S. on al-Qaeda figures) in casualties among civilians or family members of the targets, Israel is lectured for its inability to differentiate between combatants and non-combatants. But when it does manage to take out Hamas members personally responsible for terror attacks, it is then told that doing so will anger the Palestinians so much that it will only cause them to double down on their war on the Jewish state.

But this is a circular argument. Palestinian terrorists have been waging war on the Jewish presence in the country for almost a century. Their determination to keep fighting has not been deterred by the Jewish acceptance of various partition plans to share the country or peace offers. Nor has it ever been primarily motivated by any particular Israeli counter-attack or defensive measure. Hamas will continue attacking Israel—as it has this week after the collapse of the latest ceasefire—not because they’re upset about what happened to Deif and his comrades but because their belief system will not allow them to make peace, no matter what the Israelis do. The next generations of terror are not motivated so much by specific tales of “martyrs”—be they terrorist killers or civilian casualties—as they are by the mission of avenging the real offense given by Israelis: their presence in their historic homeland that Hamas and other Palestinian factions believe should be cleansed of Jews.

It is precisely the implacable nature of the conflict with Hamas that makes the distinctions drawn between U.S. strikes on al-Qaeda and now ISIS so unfair and misleading.

While House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other credulous liberals may believe the propaganda spewed by Hamas ally Qatar about it being a social welfare organization, the truth is that it is just as much a terror group as those more notorious groups that target Westerners and Americans. Though much of the Western media seems intent on sanitizing Hamas and ignoring its use of human shields, it needs no lessons in brutality from either al-Qaeda or ISIS, as the deaths of the Palestinians who have been killed for dissenting from their tyrannical rule of Gaza could attest.

As is the case with ISIS, there is no compromising with Hamas. Just as the Islamist terrorists in Iraq and Syria will not be bribed or cajoled into giving up their goal of imposing their religiously inspired nightmare vision on the world, neither will Hamas be satisfied with anything less than the eradication of Israel and the genocide of its Jewish population.

As with ISIS, there is no “political solution” to a conflict with Hamas, only a military one. So long as Hamas is allowed to remain in power in Gaza, there is no hope for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Like Osama bin Laden and those who seek to kill Americans today, Hamas operatives are fair game for targeted assassinations. While the aim of Israeli Defense Force strikes on Hamas targets may not be any more perfect than those of their American counterparts elsewhere, they provide the only answer to an ideology that can’t be appeased.

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No, Virginia, There Is No Swing Voter

If a tree falls in the forest, and only swing voters are around to hear it, does it make a sound?

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If a tree falls in the forest, and only swing voters are around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Whatever your answer is to the original philosophical question, it should remain unchanged in this version. Swing voters, like political “independents,” are rarely more than science fiction.

That is not to say that voters never change their minds. It’s that when they do so, they tend to trade one opinion for another, not graduate from being undecided (no matter what they tell pollsters). More evidence for this comes from Columbia University’s Andrew Gelman, who takes to the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog to explain the results of his latest political science survey, conducted along with coauthors David Rothschild, Sharad Goel, and Doug Rivers.

At the blog, Gelman quotes the study’s abstract:

How can election polls swing so much given the increasingly polarized nature of American politics, where switching one’s support between candidates is a significant move? We investigate this question by conducting a novel panel survey of 83,283 people repeatedly polled over the last 45 days of the 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign. We find that reported swings in public opinion polls are generally not due to actual shifts in vote intention, but rather are the result of temporary periods of relatively low response rates by supporters of the reportedly slumping candidate. After correcting for this bias, we show there were nearly constant levels of support for the candidates during what appeared, based on traditional polling, to be the most volatile stretches of the campaign. Our results raise the possibility that decades of large, reported swings in public opinion — including the perennial “convention bounce” — are largely artifacts of sampling bias.

He adds:

The short story is much of the apparent changes in public opinion are actually changes in patterns of nonresponse:  When it looked like Romney jumped in popularity, what was really happening was that disaffected Democrats were not responding to the survey while resurgent Republicans were more likely to respond.

Gelman also notes a bit of humorous backstory:

This is a big deal and it represents a major change in my thinking compared to my 1993 paper with Gary King, “Why are American Presidential election campaign polls so variable when votes are so predictable?” At that time, we gave an explanation for changes in opinion, but in retrospect, now I’m thinking that many of these apparent swings were really just differential nonresponse.  Funny that we never thought of that.

That original question, though, arguably has accrued more relevance over the last two decades. It also seems like a fascinating reversal of process. Polls always carried with them a sense of scientific authority (today they are just plain fetishized). So even though the variability of polls in many elections just didn’t seem right, there wasn’t much more to that. The numbers said one thing and instincts or personal experience another. The numbers always won out. Gelman and Co. have flipped the script in a way.

The polling “swings” are consequential, however. As the authors note in their paper, they inspire a narrative of momentum and create a bandwagon effect:

For example, the Romney campaign saw a surge in donations and volunteers in the days following the debate, attributed in part to his perceived viability. Moreover, of the $400 million raised in the month between the debate and election day, donors making rational investment decisions would have likely directed some of their contributions to tighter senatorial elections if they did not believe the race for president was so close. Further, in an age of highly targeted campaign strategies (Hillygus and Shields 2009), misunderstanding voter intent likely affects decisions ranging from state-by-state spending (over $650 million was spent in that final month) to the general tone of the candidates. Finally, major poll movements often extend into the wider world, affecting, for example, stock and commodity prices (Snowberg, Wolfers and Zitzewitz 2007).

This helps explain why Barack Obama’s campaigns have been so successful. In both 2008 and 2012, the GOP presidential nominee was not exactly beloved by the party’s base. Obama had no such struggles. As I wrote here last month, we may scoff at the methods by which the Obama team fires up the Democratic base, but it is undeniable that firing up the base is an important component of a successful campaign.

In 2012 especially, it appeared bizarre that Obama had abandoned “independent” voters for Big Bird and birth control–a strategy that relied on the angry left to power the campaign. There’s a good reason to ignore independents: as I’ve argued before, they don’t exist, at least not in the numbers the media thinks. The country is deeply polarized; according to Pew, “Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history.” Vote swings are not the result of swing voters, and campaigns should plan accordingly.

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Parsing Paul’s ‘Evolution’ on Aid to Israel

Has Senator Rand Paul’s “evolution” on support for Israel and aid to the Jewish state gone far enough? That’s the question the pro-Israel community is asking these days as the 2016 Republican presidential contender attempts to navigate a changed foreign-policy environment in the wake of recent events in the Middle East. But while some credible voices think he should be given credit for moving closer to Israel, skeptics about both his position shifts as well as his ability to bring vast numbers of young voters to his party still have the better argument.

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Has Senator Rand Paul’s “evolution” on support for Israel and aid to the Jewish state gone far enough? That’s the question the pro-Israel community is asking these days as the 2016 Republican presidential contender attempts to navigate a changed foreign-policy environment in the wake of recent events in the Middle East. But while some credible voices think he should be given credit for moving closer to Israel, skeptics about both his position shifts as well as his ability to bring vast numbers of young voters to his party still have the better argument.

One voice raised on behalf of giving Paul a chance to prove himself is Abby W. Shachter, the author of Acculturated, the indispensable cultural blog, who writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune that both left- and right-wing critics of Paul on Israel are mistaken. While acknowledging the doubts about Paul’s sincerity about being a friend of Israel, she thinks friends of Israel shouldn’t consider his longstanding opposition to foreign aid a disqualifying factor. As Shachter notes, his position on aid to Israel has evolved since he began public life as a supporter of his extremist libertarian father’s presidential candidacies. Paul now claims he’s never really advocated ending assistance to Israel and says that even if all foreign aid is eliminated, Israel should be last on the list to be cut and even voted this summer for additional funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system that has saved countless lives from death at the hands of Hamas missiles.

Even more significantly, the recent controversy over President Obama’s willingness to use aid as a lever to pressure Israel may make Paul’s position on the question more defensible. Many Israelis believe the president’s decision to halt ammunition sales and transfers to Israel at the height of the fighting in Gaza so as to force the Jewish state to buckle to his demands about a cease-fire should force their country to ponder whether the price of this aid is too high in terms of their independence and security. If so, then maybe Paul’s position should be regarded as actually one that is helping Israel rather than a threat to its well-being.

Shachter goes even further and cautions conservative friends of Israel to think long and hard about labeling the libertarian senator as a foe of the Jewish state. She believes his ability to bring more young voters to the GOP has caused Democrats to fear him more than other Republicans. If Paul is spurned, she fears Republicans will rue the day they repelled the youth/libertarian voters that support the Kentucky senator, especially if they back libertarian or fringe candidates in November 2016.

But I’m afraid Shachter is giving Paul too much credit for both his “evolution” on the Middle East and his ability to help Republicans win in 2016.

Let’s first understand that Paul’s attempt to spin his record on Israel is blatantly insincere. If the senator has moved far closer to mainstream views on Israel since his presidential ambitions became manifest, that also illustrates just how far he has had to come from his starting point as a supporter of his father’s hostile attitude toward the Jewish state and the need for a strong American position on the Middle East. While he never explicitly singled out Israel for aid cutoffs, it’s also true that he has always opposed any assistance, a position that he still maintains to a large degree.

It is also true that many friends of Israel are rethinking the value of aid since Obama has used the assistance to pressure Israel to adopt policies that are against its interests. Paul is right when he says Israel would be better off if it were not dependent on the United States for military aid. But the problem is that even after the disheartening spectacle of Washington betraying its sole democratic ally in the Middle East in this manner, Israel doesn’t really have an alternative to this aid, no matter how many strings come with it.

The plain fact is that while Israel has a thriving arms industry of its own, if it is to maintain its qualitative edge over its Arab and Muslim foes, it’s going to need continued help from the United States. Without U.S. funding (started under the George W. Bush administration and continued under Obama), the Iron Dome system would not have been deployed as quickly or in the numbers needed to stop Hamas’s rocket offensive this year. Iron Dome might be the most prominent example of the utility of U.S. military assistance, but it is not the only one. Like it or not, Israel needs U.S. weapons and ammunition, especially when it is forced into shooting wars where resupply of stocks becomes necessary. Seen in that context, Paul’s rhetoric about aid cutoffs being to Israel’s benefit is beside the point, if not completely insincere.

Nor does Paul’s opposition to aid make sense even from a strictly American viewpoint. The U.S. has always gained nearly as much from security cooperation with Israel as the recipients. The U.S. not only benefits from Israeli technology and intelligence but the money is almost entirely spent in the United States. The assistance given is as much aid to the U.S. arms industry as it is to Israel.

As for Paul’s ability to bring in hordes of youthful libertarians who can tip the balance in 2016, that may be more of a myth than anything else. As Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog noted earlier this week, polls give us no evidence of any potential for such a massive swing vote. Young liberals may like Paul’s foreign policy, but not much else about the libertarian. But that shouldn’t recommend him to Republicans because the only reason they do like him is that his views are actually to the left of President Obama’s generally weak posture on foreign and defense issues. Even so, there is little evidence that liberals will back a conservative libertarian for president. Nor is it likely that any defection of libertarians, who have been hostile to every GOP presidential nominee for a generation, would be enough to cost Republicans the presidency.

Thus, while Paul should be encouraged to continue to evolve, his position on Israel is still unsatisfactory. More to the point, his position on aid reflects an even greater desire for an American retreat from the Middle East than that of Obama. In the unlikely event that his views truly change, pro-Israel conservatives should give him a chance. Until then, they would do well to seek an alternative that will both support Israel and have a better chance of being elected president.

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