Commentary Magazine


What to Do About ISIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elizabeth Warren’s Temptation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Training Free Syrians in Turkey Is a Bad Idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stephen Harper’s Moral Clarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Protest Against Anti-Semitism in Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Lawless Presidency Will Destroy Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama Is Now Lying About His Lies

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

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

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

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

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

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Kerry Lets Abbas Off the Hook Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Could Oman be the Next Crisis?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Turkey: Beware the Jewish Olive Tree!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Gruber Blackout and a Partisan Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Clarifying the Reagan Record (and Correcting Don Devine)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Midterms, the Jewish Vote, and Liberalism’s Price of Admission

In the wake of the Republican victory in the 2014 midterms, the left aimed some of its most spiteful rhetoric at the women and minorities elevated into office in the GOP wave. Perhaps the most cringe-inducing display of delegitimization belonged to the author Darron T. Smith, who wrote in the Huffington Post that Utah Republican Mia Love “might look black, but her politics are red.” Yet strangely enough, the best way to understand liberal anger at Republican African-Americans and women is through this Atlantic piece analyzing the Jewish vote in the midterm elections.

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In the wake of the Republican victory in the 2014 midterms, the left aimed some of its most spiteful rhetoric at the women and minorities elevated into office in the GOP wave. Perhaps the most cringe-inducing display of delegitimization belonged to the author Darron T. Smith, who wrote in the Huffington Post that Utah Republican Mia Love “might look black, but her politics are red.” Yet strangely enough, the best way to understand liberal anger at Republican African-Americans and women is through this Atlantic piece analyzing the Jewish vote in the midterm elections.

In “Are Democrats Losing the Jews?” Emma Green attempts to understand why Democrats’ share of the Jewish vote decreased and what that means both for American Jews and the Democratic Party going forward. The unfortunate aspect to Green’s story is that she has the facts in front of her, so her conclusion is the result of ignoring, not utilizing, the information at her disposal. Though at various points in the article she seems to begin to understand the issue, in the end she concludes with a statement that sets a new standard for being wrong about the Jewish vote.

Green notes that although Democrats usually enjoy an overwhelming majority of the Jewish vote, at times truly terrible presidents cost their party a notable swath of those votes. Jimmy Carter, for example, only received 45 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980. Seen in that light, it’s not terribly surprising that although President Obama’s name wasn’t on the ballot in the midterms, his relentless attacks on Israel’s government and his downgrading of the U.S.-Israel military alliance while Israel was at war were bound to cost Democrats some of the Jewish vote.

Green then digs into last year’s Pew report on Jewish identity and assimilation. She attempts to draw some conclusions:

But these statistics do provide some context for what’s happening among Jewish voters. In 2006, 87 percent of Jews voted for Democratic candidates for the House, as did 50 percent of white Catholics and 37 percent of white Protestants—a 37- and 50-percentage point difference, respectively. In 2014, those gaps narrowed: There was only a 12-point difference between Jews and white Catholics, and a 40-point difference between Jews and white Protestants. Those are still big differences, obviously, but the conclusion is there: Jews are voting more like white people.

Put aside the “Jews are voting more like white people” remark: it’s clumsy and obviously silly, but we know what Green was trying to say. She then says that Republicans aren’t necessarily going to start winning the Jewish vote. “But,” she concludes, “it may be that, as a people as much as a voting bloc, Jews are becoming less influenced by their Jewishness.”

And here we have the liberal mindset perfectly distilled. Just like Darron Smith thinks blacks who don’t vote for Democrats are in some way voting against their “blackness,” and Ann Friedman can write that Republican women aren’t “truly pro-woman,” the idea undergirding Green’s conclusion is that liberalism is political Judaism. Of course that’s insulting to those who take their Jewish faith seriously, and it’s certainly a creepy parallel to the “price of admission” ideology of leftism going back to the French Revolution. But it’s also, crucially, wrong.

There has been no major swing of the Jewish vote away from Democrats, and there likely won’t be. But incremental gains by the GOP are not evidence of Jews being less Jewish; they’re exactly the opposite. Although the Orthodox are far from being anywhere close to a majority of American Jews–and will remain far from it for quite some time, even if current trends hold–they are still increasing their share of American Jews. As the numbers have increased, so has their political activism. And they are much more likely to care not only about Israel but about issues like school choice and economic liberty, to say nothing of religious liberty. (Pew found that “57% of Orthodox Jews describe themselves as Republicans or say they lean toward the Republican Party.”)

The Orthodox Union took some heat from other corners of the Jewish world for supporting the Catholic-driven attempts to allow religious exemptions from the Obama administration’s contraception mandate. The OU’s Nathan Diament explained that the organization did so not because it opposes birth control but because “we, particularly as a religious minority in the United States, must stand in solidarity with people of all faiths in demanding the broadest protections for rights of conscience in the face of government (and socio-cultural) coercion to the contrary.”

It’s no surprise that as the share of observant Jews increases, those Jews will be less likely to support a Democratic Party that is increasingly hostile to religious freedom and faith more generally, and instead support a Republican Party that seeks to protect religious practice from the authoritarian instincts of statist liberalism. Green could not be more wrong, in other words, about Jewish identity and voting trends. But her analysis was just one more example that modern liberalism requires its adherents to sacrifice all other aspects of their identity for The Cause. If minorities must choose between their community and leftist doctrine, it’s encouraging that many of them choose the former.

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Pelosi’s Bad Memory and ObamaCare Lies

Reacting today to the furor caused by the revelations about the administration’s ObamaCare lies, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did her best to dismiss the controversy. As far as the woman who rammed the Affordable Care Act through Congress on a party-line vote was concerned, Jonathan Gruber is a nobody who had no role in its passage. But unfortunately for her, a C-Span archival tape from 2009 was quickly uncovered that shows the former speaker citing Gruber as an authority on the bill. Ouch. But after we’re done chuckling at Pelosi’s chutzpah and calculating the impact of this latest Democratic fib on the course of the debate, this might be another moment for us to ponder just how much damage the cynical push for ObamaCare did to the fabric of American democracy.

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Reacting today to the furor caused by the revelations about the administration’s ObamaCare lies, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did her best to dismiss the controversy. As far as the woman who rammed the Affordable Care Act through Congress on a party-line vote was concerned, Jonathan Gruber is a nobody who had no role in its passage. But unfortunately for her, a C-Span archival tape from 2009 was quickly uncovered that shows the former speaker citing Gruber as an authority on the bill. Ouch. But after we’re done chuckling at Pelosi’s chutzpah and calculating the impact of this latest Democratic fib on the course of the debate, this might be another moment for us to ponder just how much damage the cynical push for ObamaCare did to the fabric of American democracy.

Just to put this in perspective, here’s what Pelosi said today about Gruber while refusing to answer a question about his admissions:

I don’t know who he is and he didn’t help write our bill.

Here’s what she said in November 2009:

We’re not finished getting all of our reports back from CBO, but we’ll have a side by side to compare. But our bill brings down rates. I don’t know if you have seen Jonathan Gruber of MIT’s analysis of what the comparison is to the status quo versus what will happen in our bill for those who seek insurance within the exchange. And our bill takes down those costs, even some now, and much less preventing the upward spiral.

Judging by Pelosi’s convenient memory loss today, the conviction among those who foisted ObamaCare on the nation that they can always count on “the stupidity of the American voter” wasn’t just something invented by Gruber.

But as with Gruber’s comments, there will be plenty of people on the left who will dismiss this as nothing but a minor kerfuffle, a footnote to the achievement of the great liberal dream of a national health-care act. But words and deeds have consequences.

The problem with ObamaCare was, as Gruber has acknowledged, that if the voters or even the Congress that voted on it had understood what was in the bill, it could not have succeeded in gaining a majority, even one without a single Republican vote. Throughout the debate over the bill and its implementation, the one consistent theme has been dishonesty. From Pelosi’s own statement that the law had to be passed for members to know what was in it, to the president’s lies about consumers keeping their coverage and doctors, to the delay in enforcing the individual mandate and other provisions, to the current debacle over Gruber, advocates of the misnamed Affordable Care Act have never stopped lying or talking down to the American people.

In the last 60 years, we have seen confidence in government and politics decline bit by bit to the current situation where politicians of both parties are about as well respected as street walkers. This was the result of a series of unfortunate decisions and scandals that started with Vietnam, continued with Watergate (and every other subsequent scandal that generally is referred to by adding the word “gate” to something), was compounded by the distorted debate about Iraq, and now seems to be reaching a crescendo with ObamaCare.

One doesn’t have to hold a particular position on any of these issues to understand that when the American people perceive they have been deceived, it hurts more than the party caught lying. It hurts confidence in democracy and the rule of law. President Obama came into office and even reelected in 2012 buoyed by a wave of optimism about the nation that his historic election as our first African-American president created. But instead of building on the confidence placed in him, he resorted to the lowest and most cynical tactics to get his way on health care. Like Gruber and Pelosi, he undoubtedly felt the ends justified the means and that if it took a few lies to get his bill passed, it would be worth it. In the course of that campaign, he and his supporters called their Tea Party opponents who had raised up in protest against this massive expansion of federal power every vile name in the book and branded them as racists. Now today, unashamed, they look back on the lies they told and tell us to just move on since the debate is supposedly over.

But whether or not it is over—and, as I argued earlier, it is far from over—the damage they’ve done to the country and the government will live on. Leader Pelosi doesn’t have amnesia but she and everyone else who took part in this disgraceful episode should be deeply ashamed.

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George Will’s Dizzying Shift on the Iraq War

In his column today, George Will writes this:

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In his column today, George Will writes this:

The last eleven years have been filled with hard learning. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the worst foreign-policy decision in U.S. history, coincided with mission creep (“nation building”) in Afghanistan. Both strengthened what can be called the Republicans’ John Quincy Adams faction: America ”goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

On Iraq, he’s simply wrong. Because of the success of the surge, the Iraq war–unlike, say, the Vietnam War–was won. (For the record, the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War was around 58,000; in the Iraq War, it was around 4,500.) As Charles Krauthammer wrote:

Al-Qaeda in Iraq had been routed, driven to humiliating defeat by an Anbar Awakening of Sunnis fighting side-by-side with the infidel Americans. Even more remarkably, the Shiite militias had been taken down, with U.S. backing, by the forces of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They crushed the Sadr militias from Basra to Sadr City.

Al-Qaeda decimated. A Shiite prime minister taking a decisively nationalist line. Iraqi Sunnis ready to integrate into a new national government. U.S. casualties at their lowest ebb in the entire war. Elections approaching. Obama was left with but a single task: Negotiate a new status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) to reinforce these gains and create a strategic partnership with the Arab world’s only democracy.

But as Krauthammer argues, President Obama blew it by failing to secure the SOFA; and in blowing it, Mr. Obama lost the war. That failure is not attributable to what happened in 2003; it’s attributable to what happened in 2011.

I do want to add a few more thoughts on George Will and the Iraq war. Prior to it, there was no more articulate advocate for the war. In an October 8, 2002 interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose, for example, Will said:

I think the answer is that we believe, with reason, that democracy’s infectious. We’ve seen it. We saw it happen in Eastern Europe. It’s just — people reached a critical mass of mendacity under those regimes of the East block, and it exploded. And I do believe that you will see [in the Middle East] a ripple effect, a happy domino effect, if you will, of democracy knocking over these medieval tyrannies . . . Condoleezza Rice is quite right. She says there is an enormous condescension in saying that somehow the Arab world is just not up to democracy. And there’s an enormous ahistorical error when people say, “Well, we can’t go into war with Iraq until we know what postwar Iraq’s going to look like.” In 1942, a year after Pearl Harbor, did we have a clear idea what we were going to do with postwar Germany? With postwar Japan? Of course not. We made it up as we went along, and we did a very good job. . . .

Mr. Will applauded bringing “instability” to the Middle East and countries like Egypt. “What is so wonderful about the stability of Egypt?” he asked. And when asked, “Do you think [Iraq] will be a quick and easy conflict, if it comes to that,” Mr. Will answered, “Fairly quick, yes.”

Will then said this about Afghanistan and nation-building:

[Afghanistan is], to put it mildly, a work in progress. The president, I think, admits this. This was part of his education as president, to say that his hostility to nation-building was radically revised when he saw what a failed nation, Afghanistan, a vacuum, gets filled with. Political nature abhors a vacuum, and when it fills up with the Taliban and the leakage of violence to these private groups, essentially, like al Qaeda, then you have to say, “Well, I’ve revised that. We’re going to have to get into the nation-building business.”

Will also distinguished between Afghanistan and Iraq when it comes to nation-building:

It’s different in Iraq because Iraq is a big, rich country with a middle class, with universities. . . .

He added:

But you know, regime change didn’t just arise as a subject recently. We did it in Grenada, Panama, Serbia. Would the world be better off if Milosevic were back in Serbia? Noriega in Panama? I don’t think so.

Mr. Will is a marvelous writer who helped shape my own political and philosophical views. I admire him, and it’s certainly fine for people to change their mind. But I do believe that now that he’s claiming Iraq is “the worst foreign-policy decision in U.S. history,” Will might want to admit from time to time that he believed, pre-Iraq war, it was a terrific and necessary idea.

Beyond that, it might be helpful, and it would certainly be interesting, for Mr. Will to explain his own fairly dramatic evolution on national security and foreign policy. He’s in a very different place philosophically than he was during the 1970s through the mid-2000s. (Let’s just say he was not then a member of the “John Quincy Adams faction” of the GOP.) Let me suggest, in a genuinely respectful way, that given his influential place in conservatism, Will owes us an explanation for these changes–and an explanation for why he now believes he got so much wrong then and why he’s so right now.

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For Dems, All Roads Lead to Hillary

The conventional wisdom on whether the shellacking experienced by the Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections was good for Hillary Clinton’s prospects is shifting slightly. It began even before the elections, when the writing was on the wall. “If Democrats lose the Senate, the 2016 Democratic nominee can run against Congress and Senate Democrats would be poised to recapture it in two years,” a senior Capitol Hill Democrat told TIME magazine’s Zeke Miller for an October 15 story.

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The conventional wisdom on whether the shellacking experienced by the Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections was good for Hillary Clinton’s prospects is shifting slightly. It began even before the elections, when the writing was on the wall. “If Democrats lose the Senate, the 2016 Democratic nominee can run against Congress and Senate Democrats would be poised to recapture it in two years,” a senior Capitol Hill Democrat told TIME magazine’s Zeke Miller for an October 15 story.

Miller continued: “In Democrats’ telling, likely-candidate Hillary Clinton could run on a narrative of Republican obstruction to passing legislation on issues like income inequality, raising the minimum wage, and equal pay for women.” Indeed, President Obama’s attempts to run against a “do-nothing Congress” were always ridiculous, since the Democrats controlled the Senate, shut the GOP out of the process, and everything had to go through Harry Reid (and thus, Obama) to make it to the Senate floor. But once the Republicans actually won the Senate and controlled both houses of Congress, the thinking went, the fiction of a do-nothing Congress controlled by the other side becomes plausible.

After the election turned out even worse for Democrats than expected, this spin held steady. It was argued that when Democrats lost the race to succeed Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, it weakened an already shaky prospective challenger to Clinton. And as one Democratic operative told the Washington Post, Republicans would likely spend the next two years trying to undo some of the Obama administration’s handiwork, enabling Hillary to “both make the case against the Republicans while currying favor with the Obama base.”

As time went on, however, the Democrats’ attempts to spin the loss caused a clash of two self-soothing narratives. The idea that a Republican majority could help Hillary be the savior in 2016 ran up against the White House’s preferred narrative: that the low turnout of the midterms compared to presidential elections meant the Democrats really didn’t have a crisis on their hands. They didn’t need a savior because, they argued, demographics still favored them in presidential years. That meant that not only were they in good shape for 2016, but that a good turnout could give them back the Senate only two years after losing it.

Such consolation was temporary, however, when Democrats realized the implications of their spin: gridlock, not liberal triumph. After all, if they would struggle in midterm congressional elections, it meant they could kiss their emerging Democratic majority goodbye. All of a sudden it didn’t matter quite so much if 2014 was good for Hillary’s 2016 hopes: they already held a built-in advantage in presidential elections. And yet, here’s the situation in which they found themselves the morning after, as the Washington Post reported:

While the GOP is likely to control 54 percent of all Senate seats and 56 percent (or so) of the House come January, it also will now control more than two-thirds of state legislative chambers across the country — as in nearly seven in 10. And given Republicans also won at least 31 governorships, they are basically in control of the state government in 24 states. That could soon hit 25 if they win the still-undetermined governor’s race in Alaska.

That meant, according to the WaPo, “47.8 percent of Americans will now be led by GOP-controlled governments with little/no ability for Democrats to thwart them. …Democrats, meanwhile, will govern unilaterally in states with just 15.6 percent of Americans — less than one-sixth of the country. And that’s with the nation’s biggest state, California, firmly in their back pocket. Without that, they would govern over just 3.5 percent (less than one-25th) of the nation’s residents.”

The new spin was that Democrats had to find some way to animate their base so they could chip away at local Republican dominance. One way to do that would be to draft a challenger to Hillary Clinton from the left. There are not many to choose from after Elizabeth Warren, who almost certainly isn’t running. Jim Webb isn’t a threat to Hillary, and neither is the self-described socialist Bernie Sanders. What to do?

A better idea, as Noam Scheiber points out in a smart piece for the New Republic, is to expand the coalition. That’s what Republicans did to win these midterms so resoundingly. Democrats need to win back some–not all, nor even most, just some–white working-class voters, Scheiber writes. Democrats’ ability to do so has deteriorated because the populism that appeals to some of their voters repels other voters, and the same goes for social issues.

What can Democrats do to solve this puzzle? Scheiber has good news: once again, it’s a problem that is in the process of solving itself. Thus:

there’s a coalition available to Democrats that knits together working class minorities and college-educated voters and slices heavily into the GOP’s margins among the white working class. … The basis of the coalition isn’t a retreat from social progressivism, but making economic populism the party’s centerpiece, as opposed to the mix of mildly progressive economic policies (marginally higher taxes on the wealthy, marginally tougher regulation of Wall Street) and staunchly progressive social policies that define the party today.

Scheiber raises one glaring weakness in this strategy: Hillary’s not a great fit for the role. And that, in the end, tells us why Democrats will end up with Hillary anyway, and that even if she doesn’t give them their permanent majority she’s still their best choice. The Democrats don’t have anyone on their bench who is both a populist firebrand and can win. So we’re back to square one: Democrats can run a populist from Hillary’s left. Hillary will mimic whatever populism she needs to, even though she doesn’t mean it, to win the nomination. And the Occupy Democrats will recede back into irrelevance.

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The Jacobin Right

A few voices on the right, some of them safely ensconced in their underground command post, deep in the bowels of a hidden bunker, are attempting to rewrite history. In this case, after the GOP sweep last week, they want to justify their support for the approach that led to the October 2013 government shutdown. One radio talk show host, Mark Levin, said, “The shutdown worked.”

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A few voices on the right, some of them safely ensconced in their underground command post, deep in the bowels of a hidden bunker, are attempting to rewrite history. In this case, after the GOP sweep last week, they want to justify their support for the approach that led to the October 2013 government shutdown. One radio talk show host, Mark Levin, said, “The shutdown worked.”

That’s an impossible position to credibly defend. The government shutdown didn’t achieve a single one of its purposes, including its main one: defunding the Affordable Care Act. Everyone knew the GOP was uniformly against the ACA; it didn’t take the government shutdown to convince them of it. Polling shows that by overwhelming numbers the public didn’t like the government shutdown and by huge margins (53 percent to 31 percent), they blamed Republicans for it. “Americans have come to hold a harshly negative view of the Republican Party during the government shutdown, giving the GOP a far larger share of the blame for a political brawl that many believe is harming the economy,” the Wall Street Journal wrote at the time. Moreover, the image of the GOP fell to a record low in the aftermath of the shutdown. Republicans spent the last year climbing out of the hole they put themselves in. Simply because the shutdown didn’t ruin the Republican Party for generations to come doesn’t mean it was a smart idea.

What’s more interesting to me is to see this latest example of “epistemic closure” on display. I long ago came to expect this from the left; what’s a little more surprising to me is the degree to which some people on the right–or at least who claim to represent the right–succumb to it.

This probably should not be a revelation. After all, in some cases–Mr. Levin comes to mind–we’re dealing not so much with conservatives as dogmatists. (I should interject here that I’ve gone around the block before with Mr. Levin, who is certainly a passionate advocate for his views.) They are spending more and more of their time and energy targeting those they perceive as heretics, the impure in our midst.

To support their case, these self-appointed enforcers of conservative purity often invoke Ronald Reagan and claim to be his heirs. In fact, in many respects they don’t understand him very well at all. They twist Reagan this way and that, like Stretch Armstrong, to make him appear to match their own dispositions and patterns of thought and biases. Their absolutist mindset, if applied to the Reagan record–on amnesty (Reagan was for it), on raising taxes (Reagan passed what at the time was the largest tax increase in American history), on abortion (as governor, Reagan liberalized abortion laws), on campaigning for liberal Republicans (he chose Richard Schweiker to be his vice presidential nominee in 1976)–would have drawn their wrath. By their own logic, Reagan would have to have been deemed a RINO (Republican In Name Only).

This would be absurd, of course; Reagan was a great president and a great conservative. Judged for the totality of his acts and in his historical context, his record, while not flawless, was extremely impressive. Yet he could not even approach the standards of purity embraced by today’s radicals on the right. They are, to coin a phrase, the Jacobin Right. By this I mean they permit no deviation from what they view as the one true party line. It’s one thing to have substantive differences with people; it’s another to continually portray those with whom you differ as unprincipled and heretical. Not every policy or tactical difference rises to the level of fundamental and unforgivable transgressions against conservative orthodoxy.

These individuals have become to conservatism what Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips were to Reagan during his day: ideologues, often agitated and angry, who seem to draw energy from attacking those they deem to be apostates. How glorious it is to be a True Believer in an unfaithful age.

The important point, I think, is that these voices, while loud as ever, are losing influence. The Republican Party seems to have found a way to be both conservative and reasonable, principled and prudent. Those on the fringe appear to find this intolerable. They want to, in the words of Reagan, go over the cliff with all flags flying. That’s up to them. They just shouldn’t try to take Reagan’s party down with them.

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Don’t Underestimate Gruber’s OCare Impact

Liberals are in retreat this week as they recover not only from the historic defeat suffered by Democrats in last week’s midterms but also from the fallout from Jonathan Gruber’s confessions about the deceit at the heart of the effort to pass ObamaCare. The three videos that have surfaced in which Gruber strips away the veil of lies from the campaign to pass the misnamed Affordable Care Act is a major embarrassment for the administration. But while many on the right are treating this as a smoking gun that should doom President Obama’s health-care legislation to repeal, liberals are confident that this storm will pass and that the law will survive. But while they are right that nothing—not even a similar admission from the president himself—could wipe it away, they are wrong to think Gruber’s statements haven’t significantly altered the debate and may yet play a crucial role in its destruction.

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Liberals are in retreat this week as they recover not only from the historic defeat suffered by Democrats in last week’s midterms but also from the fallout from Jonathan Gruber’s confessions about the deceit at the heart of the effort to pass ObamaCare. The three videos that have surfaced in which Gruber strips away the veil of lies from the campaign to pass the misnamed Affordable Care Act is a major embarrassment for the administration. But while many on the right are treating this as a smoking gun that should doom President Obama’s health-care legislation to repeal, liberals are confident that this storm will pass and that the law will survive. But while they are right that nothing—not even a similar admission from the president himself—could wipe it away, they are wrong to think Gruber’s statements haven’t significantly altered the debate and may yet play a crucial role in its destruction.

Writing for the Washington Post’s The Fix column, Aaron Blake writes to claim that no matter how much they scream about the videos of Gruber in which he acknowledges that the law was drafted so as to deceive members of Congress, the Congressional Budget Office, and the American people (whose “stupidity” ensured its passage), it won’t have an impact of the future of ObamaCare.

Blake is probably right when he says the debate about the law is already so polarized that nothing will alter the opinions of those who are for or against it. However, in citing the consistency of the polling on the legislation, he should also note that a majority of Americans have always opposed it. This runs contrary to the expectation of both hopeful liberals and fearful conservatives that once implemented, the ACA would become as popular as Social Security or Medicare.

That didn’t happen because unlike those government programs, which were controversial when first suggested but ultimately accepted by everyone, not everyone benefits from ObamaCare. Indeed, there may ultimately be as many, if not more Americans who are net losers from the law than there are winners who now have health insurance. While the disastrous rollout of the law and the exposure of President Obama’s lies about allowing consumers to keep their insurance and doctors if they liked them has already done damage to its reputation, once the more unpopular individual mandates are imposed in 2015 (they were postponed by the president in order to avoid more damage to Democrats in the midterms) and insurance rates start to skyrocket, ObamaCare isn’t going to be winning more fans.

Blake’s also right that this isn’t the first evidence of deceit on the part of the Democrats who passed the law in a party-line vote. Then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s infamous line about the law having to be passed in order “to find out what’s in it” is probably just as bad as anything Gruber said.

Moreover, his conclusion that the law will, in one form or another, remain on the books until 2017 at the earliest, is also inarguable. Repeal or a complete restructuring of the scheme will require a Republican-controlled Congress and a Republican in the White House, something that can’t happen until President Obama’s term in office is over.

But, even if we acknowledge all of this, it must be understood that Gruber’s comments illustrate one basic fact of American political life that liberals have a hard time accepting: the debate about ObamaCare is not only not over, it’s just getting started.

The president and other Democrats have been fond of mocking the GOP-controlled House of Representatives’ repeated votes on repeal. Each such vote was a futile exercise in symbolism since the Democrats still had the Senate and the White House. Further, such votes won’t be any more useful as long as Obama remains in office and Republicans lack a veto-proof majority.

But the impact of the law’s full implementation will, like it or not, generate plenty of debate about how to fix a scheme that is bound to cause more damage in the next two years. This will keep the ObamaCare debate alive and well. And anyone who thinks the Gruber comments won’t be endlessly thrown in the faces of the law’s defenders isn’t paying attention. That matters because whatever the American people think about the law, and most have always rightly disliked it, they don’t like being played for saps by elitist liberals. That means the Gruber admissions will be a gift that keeps on giving for Republicans right through the 2016 elections.

However, the greatest impact of this may be, as Blake acknowledges in passing, on the Supreme Court’s decision in King v. Burwell, the lawsuit that alleges that federal subsidies given in states that don’t have their own insurance exchanges as mandated by the law are illegal. Gruber’s comments illustrate that the insistence on each state having one isn’t, as Paul Krugman alleged earlier this week, a mere “typo” but a glaring flaw in the law that could sink the whole scheme.

In 2012, Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s liberals and ruled ObamaCare constitutional in an opinion that led many to believe he thought it best to keep the Supremes out of a health-care debate that should be decided by the voters and Congress. What the White House should be most worried about is not the way Gruber’s candor is playing on the cable news channels but in Roberts’ mind. The open talk about the lies that led to the legislation’s passage might be enough to convince the chief justice to go along with conservatives who rule against the government and bring the ACA crashing down long before the GOP is able to finish the job.

If so, Gruber will have earned himself a place in American political history as the man whose honesty about his lies took down Obama’s greatest accomplishment.

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Wealthy Terrorists Don’t Need Foreign Aid

Last month, a group of international donors including the United States gathered in Cairo to make pledges to give financial aid to help rebuild Gaza in the wake of the war between Israel and Hamas this past summer. The amount pledged totaled $5.4 billion with the U.S. kicking in a few hundred million. The bulk of the money will go to aid organizations with the Palestinian Authority also getting a share. But while the world was told that all the money would be used for civilian purposes and to help those who lost their homes in the fighting, there was little doubt that the Hamas rulers of the strip would wind up getting their hands on a good deal of it. But the most curious thing about this exercise in international philanthropy was that no one thought to ask Hamas to pay for at least some of the damage they caused by igniting a bloody war. That’s the question that comes to mind today when you read that the Islamists have been named the world’s second-richest terrorist group.

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Last month, a group of international donors including the United States gathered in Cairo to make pledges to give financial aid to help rebuild Gaza in the wake of the war between Israel and Hamas this past summer. The amount pledged totaled $5.4 billion with the U.S. kicking in a few hundred million. The bulk of the money will go to aid organizations with the Palestinian Authority also getting a share. But while the world was told that all the money would be used for civilian purposes and to help those who lost their homes in the fighting, there was little doubt that the Hamas rulers of the strip would wind up getting their hands on a good deal of it. But the most curious thing about this exercise in international philanthropy was that no one thought to ask Hamas to pay for at least some of the damage they caused by igniting a bloody war. That’s the question that comes to mind today when you read that the Islamists have been named the world’s second-richest terrorist group.

According to Forbes Israel, Hamas is the runner-up to ISIS in the competition for the title of wealthiest terror organization. ISIS has $2 billion in assets while Hamas has only $1 billion. The former’s advantage is that it is now in control of some of Iraq’s oil flow and pulls in up to $3 million a day in revenue from that lucrative business. ISIS also was able to loot hundreds of millions from Mosul’s main bank when it seized that city. It also profits from the brisk trade in hostage ransoms with European nations anteing up large sums to save its citizens in ISIS’s hands. To its credit, the Obama administration has refused to play along, a principled policy that has led to the brutal murders of American captives.

Hamas has no oil fields or banks at its disposal. But it has something almost as good: An overpopulated strip of land where more than a million people live at their misery. Though Hamas long maintained an image as an efficient provider of social services to the people of Gaza, the reality is that it is—like its Fatah rivals in the West Bank—more akin to a mafia family than a government and rakes in money extorted or taxed from Gazans hand over fist. Hamas also profited handsomely from control of the smuggling tunnels that used to link Gaza to Egypt and also rakes in huge amounts of aid from its Gulf State patrons like Qatar.

Since Fatah now masquerades as a legitimate government and even a peace partner in the West Bank, it was not listed. But if it were, it’s likely that the considerable assets of this supposedly reformed terror group would also be considerable, considering the amount of money it and its leaders have looted from the billions in international aid that have poured into them since the 1993 Oslo Accords.

But the minutiae about which of these groups has the most cash ignores the more pertinent question about Gaza. While the West has committed itself to waging a half-hearted war to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS” in President Obama’s words, it has chosen to tolerate Hamas and let it remain in control of Gaza, even if it meant condemning a large civilian population to be used as human shields for its terror operations. And it has been allowed to save or re-invest its considerable fortune in rearming its cadres and rebuilding its defenses in the aftermath of the terrorist war it launched this year.

The world looks at the ruined homes of Gaza and rightly expresses its sympathy and its desire to help its people. But the problem with the international aid process is not merely that it is not likely to keep all of the billions coming in out of the clutches of Hamas. It is that so long as we are prepared to tolerate Hamas’s continued sovereignty over the independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza, more war and bloodshed is likely to ensue. The threat from ISIS as it seeks to overrun all of Iraq and Syria is one that the U.S. and its allies needed to address. But the danger of allowing terrorist groups to become rulers of populations is not limited to those places with oil. In the absence of a commitment to overthrow Hamas, money donated to Gaza is an investment in future war, not peace or humanitarian values. Its place on the list of wealthiest terror group mocks the West as much as it does the Palestinians who suffer under their rule.

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Will Obama Abandon Israel at the UN? Abbas Wants to Find Out

If you want an indication of how Middle East governments are adjusting their calculus according to the Obama administration’s decision to loudly distance itself from Israel, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s deliberations over his UN strategy is a good place to start. Abbas is planning to ask for a vote requiring Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines at the United Nations Security Council. But he’s unsure about the timing, and President Obama’s flagging support for Israel is one reason why.

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If you want an indication of how Middle East governments are adjusting their calculus according to the Obama administration’s decision to loudly distance itself from Israel, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s deliberations over his UN strategy is a good place to start. Abbas is planning to ask for a vote requiring Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines at the United Nations Security Council. But he’s unsure about the timing, and President Obama’s flagging support for Israel is one reason why.

As Raphael Ahren discusses today at the Times of Israel, the current makeup of the Security Council’s rotating members–the supporting cast to the five permanent members–is not as amenable to Palestinian demands as next year’s roster will be. But then there’s the Obama factor. It would seem prudent for Abbas to wait, since he needs nine votes out of fifteen. But he also knows that if he gets those nine votes, the measure will be subject to the veto power of the permanent members of the council. That really means the United States, in this context. And the Palestinians think this might be their best window to get the U.S. to abandon Israel at the UNSC:

Relations between the White House and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are famously strained, and Barack Obama, now entering the last stretch of his presidency and no longer tied to electoral considerations, could decide to turn his back on Jerusalem.

The US might be reluctant to isolate itself internationally by stymieing a move supported by a large majority of states in the United Nations, including the entire Arab world, especially as Washington seeks allies in its fight against the Islamic State terrorist group.

Despite this being a low ebb in recent years in the U.S.-Israel relationship, I highly doubt Obama will consider sitting on his hands for such a vote at the Security Council, for several reasons. First, though he obviously doesn’t think much of the Israelis, it’s not clear his opinion of the Jewish state has sunk so low as to officially have the U.S. abandon Israel at the UN in favor of the Palestinians.

Second, even if his dislike of Israel has sunk to that level, he probably would still veto the resolution. Obama has indisputably downgraded the U.S.-Israel relationship, most clearly by changing protocol so as to put distance between the two militaries during the last war and by withholding weapons transfers to Israel during wartime. He’s also encouraged a bizarre series of name-calling outbursts aimed at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, which have displayed this administration’s trademark grade-school intellect and overwhelming ignorance of world affairs. But the president tends to take out his anger on Israel in ways that he can always pretend are really just personal spats with Netanyahu.

Obama’s position is that he doesn’t mind being seen as hating Bibi, as long as he can retain plausible deniability that he also dislikes the Israelis who keep electing Bibi. Thus, blessing the Palestinian UN gambit would take away that plausible deniability. Keep in mind stopping the weapons transfer was not something the administration intended to make a public show of; it’s just that while the other mainstream outlets have become Obama’s press shop, the Wall Street Journal is still doing real journalism on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they revealed the breach. Abandoning Israel at the UN Security Council would be a very public acknowledgement that Obama’s obsession with picking fights with Netanyahu is not really about Netanyahu at all.

A third reason Obama would still veto such a resolution is that there are domestic political constraints on his behavior toward Israel. (You’re probably thinking: This is Obama being constrained? Indeed, it’s not a pretty sight.) The Democratic Party has lost the battle to try to convince Americans that Obama is with them on Israel. But they would like not to be saddled with Obama’s reputation. They want to nominate Hillary Clinton, who does not have a great record on Israel but anything’s better than what she’d be replacing. The more Obama attacks Israel needlessly, the more complicated the Democrats’ sales job becomes.

That seems to factor into Abbas’s calculations:

After the midterm elections and the Republican takeover of the Senate earlier this month, Obama is unlikely to get much work done domestically and may want to focus on foreign policy issues that could shape his legacy. Besides a nuclear agreement with Iran, the White House might also want to promote Middle East peace and pressure Israel through a pro-Palestinian resolution at the UN.

The sooner Obama does that the more distance Democrats can try to put between his abandonment of Israel and their reputation rehabilitation efforts. Still, Obama must know that if he allows the vote to go through (if it passes), he will be effectively ceding the peace process entirely to unilateral actions. The United States will become at that moment totally irrelevant to how the process proceeds.

It will either finally kill the peace process once and for all, in which case that would be Obama’s legacy, or it will lead to Israelis and Palestinians abandoning the process and going their own way without mediation, in which case Obama would get no credit for any positive results. Obama may like kicking dirt at Israel, but he probably still likes the spotlight even more.

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