Commentary Magazine


Obama, Media Call for Segregation in Israel

The most concerning aspect to the periodic arguments between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is not that they fight, but what they fight about. No one expects a disagreement about how to approach the Iranian nuclear program not to raise the temperature a bit; it’s something many Israelis consider an existential threat and it would shift the balance of power in global politics further away from the West while isolating Israel even more. If the two are going to argue, in other words, argue over something important.

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The most concerning aspect to the periodic arguments between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is not that they fight, but what they fight about. No one expects a disagreement about how to approach the Iranian nuclear program not to raise the temperature a bit; it’s something many Israelis consider an existential threat and it would shift the balance of power in global politics further away from the West while isolating Israel even more. If the two are going to argue, in other words, argue over something important.

But you can tell the relationship is really on the rocks by the fights the Obama administration chooses to pick, most recently on two issues: Jewish construction in Givat Hamatos, a Jerusalem community just over the green line, and the private sale of existing homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan from Arabs to Jews. The case of Givat Hamatos is standard fare for fights over settlements: although the Obama administration is wrong here (as usual), it’s a petty but classic fight to pick for American officials looking to take potshots at Israel. (Though the optics of telling black Ethiopian immigrants they must live in substandard housing is not the Obama administration’s proudest moment, to be sure.)

The Givat Hamatos tiff, therefore, doesn’t speak well of Obama, but doesn’t really break any new ground. That’s not true of Silwan. Obama’s objection to a Jew legally buying a home from an Arab in Jerusalem is nothing less than ethnic segregationism, and press secretary Josh Earnest’s classification of such a home as an “occupation” is the kind of pro-Palestinian propaganda the parroting of which is, quite frankly, evidence of a level of surpassing ignorance shocking even for the Obama administration. (Discrimination which the New York Times endorsed as well.) On that note, this nugget from an earlier Times of Israel story about the controversy jumps out:

When asked about Netanyahu’s allegations that the US was telling Jews that they could not buy houses in the Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, which several Jewish families moved into earlier the week, Psaki did not clarify Washington’s position regarding the Ir David group’s independent purchase of Arab-owned houses there.

Instead, Psaki said that there were questions involving building permits and construction — an answer that seemed to address the municipality’s involvement in Givat Hamatos rather than the private initiative in Silwan.

It wasn’t clear that Jen Psaki even knew what she was being asked about. The degree to which this administration’s advisors and spokesmen are uninformed about issues on which they pronounce judgment is simply incredible.

It’s indefensible, so it’s strange for the Obama administration and its allies in the press to continue pushing the segregationist line. Netanyahu can’t quite believe it either, saying over the weekend that ethnic segregationism is “against the American values.” This is obviously true. But it caused a bit of a stir in part because of how news organizations chose to play the story. And here we have a great example of the split in Israel over journalistic ethics, between honest publications and publications like Haaretz. Both Haaretz and the Times of Israel ran the AP story on Netanyahu’s comments. Here’s the Times of Israel’s headline:

PM: US East Jerusalem critique is ‘against American values’

Accurate and precise. And here’s Haaretz’s headline:

Netanyahu: It’s un-American to rebuke Israel over Jewish homes in Jerusalem

Clearly false and intentionally provocative. Now, to be fair to Haaretz, they weren’t the only ones to run with a false headline. They appear to have run a modified version of the original headline but keeping the formulation. The Times of Israel chose to say something true instead. The Associated Press did not exactly cover itself in glory this weekend.

But Netanyahu’s comments were less an attempt to escalate a bizarre diplomatic incident and more a way of throwing up his hands, as if to say, “Mr. President, what do you honestly expect me to do about this?” Can the Israeli prime minister possibly–assuming he even wants to comply with the American president’s order–intervene to overturn a legal sale because it was made from an Arab to a Jew? What on earth could Obama be expecting here? That Israel be the one Western country to legally restrict Jewish property rights? In the year 2014? In Jerusalem? Does the president even understand what he’s asking here?

The safe bet is generally to answer such questions in the negative: no, Obama does not understand what he’s saying. That is usually the case, especially with regard to the Middle East, where his knowledge of history and politics has always been alarmingly limited. But at some point, ignorance ceases to be an excuse. These are important issues, and they have immediate ramifications not just for geopolitics but also for the safety of those involved, the Middle East being the tinderbox it is. It’s time for the president to swallow his pride, crack open a book and a map, and start making sense.

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The Judaism of Self-Congratulation

On Rosh Hashanah this year, about thirty students, faculty, and other members of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign community gathered near a creek to “perform a special version of the ritual of tashlich.” I have not participated in this ritual since I was a child, but unless a great deal has changed in the past thirty years, I take it still to be about casting away one’s sins. What was special about this version of tashlich is that it was entirely about denouncing other people.

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On Rosh Hashanah this year, about thirty students, faculty, and other members of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign community gathered near a creek to “perform a special version of the ritual of tashlich.” I have not participated in this ritual since I was a child, but unless a great deal has changed in the past thirty years, I take it still to be about casting away one’s sins. What was special about this version of tashlich is that it was entirely about denouncing other people.

The Facebook page devoted to the holy episode says it all: “Rosh Hashanah Tashlich Service for Palestine and Professor Salaita.” For this group, purporting to represent progressive Judaism, one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar was a convenient backdrop for a bit of political theater, to draw attention to the plight of Steven Salaita, whose job offer at the University of Illinois was rescinded, apparently on account, at least in part, of a series of virulently anti-Israeli statements he made on Twitter. “Most” of the students “wore stickers of the sideways letter ‘I’ over their mouths, as in previous protests of the Salaita firing, to symbolize censorship at the university. The stickers used at the tashlich service, however, contained an image of the Israeli flag inside the sideways ‘I’, symbolizing the particularly harsh censorship of dissenting views on Israel in particular.” In short, the high holidays are now about repenting for the sin of being oppressed by the Israel lobby.

To be fair, the group pretended to be repenting for other individual sins, as well as the collective sins of the Jewish community, including, “allowing violence against Palestinians to be committed in our name as Jews and as Americans and “not speaking out against anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia.” But since the protesters are already engaged in drawing attention to and condemning what they see as the sins of Israel and America against Arabs and Muslims, they are at most repenting for taking the occasional day off from their smug and self-righteous attacks on unenlightened Israeli and American Jews. Their decision to devote a day set aside for self-examination and repentance to yet another pompous display signals that there will be no more days off. To be sure, all this is now part of the playbook of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group for whom the sum and substance of Judaism is criticism of Israel and the United States insofar as it refuses to cast Israel off. But the loathsomeness of this particular activity, because it turns even the high holy days into an opportunity for activists to hit Israel with one hand and pat themselves on the back with the other, remains fresh.

Meanwhile “If Not Now When,” a group formed “by former J Street staffers and Occupy organizers” decided to make a whole week of it, holding protests “outside of prominent Jewish institutions in New York” that spread to Philadelphia and Washington D.C. Participants “wore black, instead of the ceremonial white, to symbolize the impurity of the Jewish soul.” Very nice, but I can find no reference to a protest on Yom Kippur itself. Perhaps this crew is not yet completely shameless. But there’s always next year.

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Obama Should Apologize, Not Biden

For most casual observers, it will be filed under the category of “Biden being Biden.” But the story of the apology to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tells us more about the Obama administration’s dysfunctional foreign policy than it does about the vice president’s predilection for saying embarrassing things. But rather than apologizing to Erdoğan for telling the truth about the Turks facilitating the rise of ISIS by letting Islamists enter Syria, it is Biden’s boss, President Obama, who should admit that it was his foolish decisions that did more to create the disaster in Iraq and Syria that allowed the rise of Islamist terrorists.

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For most casual observers, it will be filed under the category of “Biden being Biden.” But the story of the apology to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tells us more about the Obama administration’s dysfunctional foreign policy than it does about the vice president’s predilection for saying embarrassing things. But rather than apologizing to Erdoğan for telling the truth about the Turks facilitating the rise of ISIS by letting Islamists enter Syria, it is Biden’s boss, President Obama, who should admit that it was his foolish decisions that did more to create the disaster in Iraq and Syria that allowed the rise of Islamist terrorists.

Biden’s statement at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government was the textbook definition of a gaffe: telling an embarrassing truth. He was quoted as saying that Erdoğan admitted to him that Turkey had erred by letting Islamists flood over the border when it was aiding Syrian rebels against the Assad regime and that they are now trying to be more selective about the people that are allowed to cross into the war zone. Since Turkey was willing to aid anyone who said they were willing to fight Assad, they deserve some blame for allowing ISIS to be armed and giving them the time and the space needed to begin their offensive that ultimately brought much of Syria and Iraq under the control.

That hit a little too close to the truth for Erdoğan, who demanded an apology and the always biddable Biden complied even though he also wrongly praised the Turks for their belated decision to join the anti-ISIS alliance, something that our Michael Rubin pointed out didn’t mean exactly what Biden thought it did.

Turkey’s status as a NATO ally and their geo-strategic position means that Washington will always need to tread carefully around Ankara’s interests even though it is clear that the goals of Erdoğan’s Islamist government are antithetical to those of the United States.

But if high-ranking Obama administration officials are so eager to apportion blame for ISIS’s ongoing strength they should look at a mirror rather than at Turkey.

Erdoğan’s desire to overthrow the Assad regime was no secret and led Turkey to make common cause with many undesirable elements. Indeed, as Michael Rubin noted, the authorization of the use of force in Syria by Turkey is about their desire to suppress Kurds, not to battle ISIS.

But Turkey’s unchecked mischief making in Syria was only made possible by Erdoğan’s erstwhile best buddy Barack Obama, who stood by and did nothing about Syria when U.S. intervention early on would have toppled Assad more easily while also making it far less likely that ISIS would have arisen in this fashion.

More to the point, while the president blamed U.S. intelligence for failing to anticipate ISIS gaining strength—something that is a blatant lie since it warned Obama of the dangers of the course he was following—it is more than obvious that the administration chose to let the Turks run amok because of its reluctance to face up to the need for America to lead in the region. By ignoring the advice of his more sober senior advisers like Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, and pulling out of Iraq and dithering on Syria while he was cozying up to Erdoğan, it was Obama who created the power vacuum that gave ISIS its opportunity.

But as we survey the unfolding tragicomedy of the administration’s relations with Turkey, we’d also do well to ponder what the loose-lipped vice president will be saying about our current problems a year or two from now. If President Obama sticks to his current policy of desultory bombing of ISIS with no effective ground forces opposing the Islamists, the threat from these terrorists will grow rather than recede. Since the president is still more interested in withdrawing from the region and striking deals with its more dangerous actors such as Iran rather than in backing our endangered moderate Arab allies or Israel, before too long it will be necessary to construct another cover story to account for the disasters that will follow.

When Biden is asked in late 2015 or in 2016 who or what created the disaster in Iraq and Syria or the next domino to fall, there’s no telling who the scapegoat will be. But no matter which country receives the veep’s inevitable apology, the real answer will always be Barack Obama.

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Appeasement of Iran Should Be Unthinkable

The secret nuclear negotiations that have been going on recently between Iran and the States have, to date, yielded no results. But given the recent statements from both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry indicating their continuing zeal for a deal with Tehran, one shouldn’t discount the possibility that sometime in the coming month or those that follows, they will yield enough to the ayatollahs to secure some kind of agreement. If so, the question Americans will have to answer is whether they want to live in a world in which the administration’s drive for détente with Iran yields a new nuclear power.

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The secret nuclear negotiations that have been going on recently between Iran and the States have, to date, yielded no results. But given the recent statements from both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry indicating their continuing zeal for a deal with Tehran, one shouldn’t discount the possibility that sometime in the coming month or those that follows, they will yield enough to the ayatollahs to secure some kind of agreement. If so, the question Americans will have to answer is whether they want to live in a world in which the administration’s drive for détente with Iran yields a new nuclear power.

The president’s rhetoric on Iran has always been good. He pledged to stop Iran when he first ran for president in 2008 and went even further in 2012 as he vowed not to terminate its nuclear program. But last year’s interim nuclear revealed that his desire to “engage” Iran is clearly greater than any fears about giving the Islamist regime the ability to achieve their nuclear ambition if they are determined to do so. Last year’s deal was achieved only by the U.S. abandoning the considerable economic and military leverage it had over Iran. If Obama is to get another, he will have to go further and gut sanctions altogether while allowing Tehran to retain its nuclear infrastructure in exchange for precautions that cannot be enforced and can easily be reversed by the Iranians. The farcical nature of some of the proposals intended to ensure that Iran will not get a bomb indicates just how desperate the U.S. is to get any sort of deal that could allow the president to pretend that he had kept his promises.

But for the moment, let’s ignore the details and just think about what it will mean for the U.S. to end Iran’s isolation. Advocates for Iran, such as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen consider a “thinkable ally.” Cohen has long been besotted with the Islamist regime, going so far in 2009 to write a series of embarrassing columns in which he sought to argue that Jews were actually treated well by one of the planet’s most anti-Semitic regimes. Now he has returned to his dream and normalizing relations with the Islamist tyranny and believes the president can make it a reality if only he will stop worrying about Iran lying about its nuclear dreams and the fact that it is the world’s leading state sponsor of Islamist terrorism.

A world in which such a result is thinkable is one in which the United States will, despite the president’s stated goal of fighting ISIS, be complicit in the transformation of the Middle East into one dominated by Iran and its allies which include Bashar Assad’s murderous Syrian regime, Hezbollah and Hamas. It is one in which both moderate Arab regimes and Israel will rightly fear for their safety and which a newly empowered Iran will be able to threaten the West with the ballistic missiles, the U.S. isn’t interested in negotiating about and a nuclear program that will be easily converted to a weapon.

Americans are rightly afraid of ISIS and applaud the president’s desire to eliminate it. But if the U.S. surrenders to Iran in the nuclear negotiations, what will follow will be far more perilous than anything that ISIS could possibly achieve. This is not something sane persons should consider “thinkable.”

In the next 24 hours, Jews around the world will observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, during which they will contemplate their shortcomings and ask forgiveness for their sins. But we hope the president and those implementing his policies toward Iran will do the same about their plans. We don’t know what the world will look like a year from now. But if the U.S. does not step back from its course of appeasement of Iran, we know it will be even more dangerous than it is now.

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Hitting ISIS Everywhere But Where it Matters

The Pentagon today announced another set of airstrikes against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq:

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The Pentagon today announced another set of airstrikes against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq:

In Syria, one strike south of Al Hasakah destroyed an ISIL garrison, while one strike southeast of Dayr Az Zawr destroyed two ISIL tanks. Two strikes north of Ar Raqqah struck two modular oil refineries and an ISIL training camp, while another strike northeast of Aleppo struck an ISIL occupied building. One strike against an ISIL artillery piece west of Ar Raqqah was not successful.

What’s curious is what was not targeted. Over the past couple weeks; the Islamic State has been on the offensive against the Kurdish-held town of Kobane (‘Ain al-Arab). The Islamic State has been as brutal as it was in Sinjar, and recently even beheaded a group of captured Kurds, including women. Kurds may govern Kobane but the Kurdish administration has given shelter and protection to tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs and Christians. As the Islamic State advances, more than 100,000 refugees have flooded into Turkey. In the Pentagon, one strategic briefer tactlessly called the massacres and mass flight of population as “a tactical withdrawal.”

And yet, despite the heat of the battle around Kobane the United States and its Gulf allies did nothing to strike at Islamic State forces besieging the Kurds. It would be as if Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared that the United States would enter the war against Japan, and then proceeded to bomb Argentina. Given that President Obama has insisted that he approve every strike inside Syria, the only logical conclusion is that Obama does not want to protect Kobane, perhaps out of deference to Turkey, which is suspicious of any Kurdish entity.

This is shortsighted: Syrian Kurds may not be perfect, but they are largely secular, moderate, and tolerant. And despite their links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which once waged an insurgency inside Turkey, those days are over: The Turks and PKK have been in peace talks and have abided by a ceasefire for over 18 months.

As the Islamic State advanced on the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, Obama scrambled to utilize airpower to stop the terrorist advance. That he will not do so in an analogous case inside Syria shows the complete lack of strategic coherence to U.S. actions. If military action is going to be effective, it should occur where the fighting is: not dozens of miles away.

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Is Rubio Not Ready or Just Willing to Think?

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is not very happy with one of his Republican colleagues. During the course of an interview with the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes published today in which he floated the possibility of running for president, Graham dismissed the possibility that Florida’s Marco Rubio should also be considered for the Republican nomination. It’s hard to tell if he’s serious about 2016 but his criticism of Rubio, who, as Hayes pointed out, is at least as strong a voice on foreign policy as Graham, deserves a thorough examination.

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South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is not very happy with one of his Republican colleagues. During the course of an interview with the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes published today in which he floated the possibility of running for president, Graham dismissed the possibility that Florida’s Marco Rubio should also be considered for the Republican nomination. It’s hard to tell if he’s serious about 2016 but his criticism of Rubio, who, as Hayes pointed out, is at least as strong a voice on foreign policy as Graham, deserves a thorough examination.

The possibility of a Rubio candidacy came up in this context because if the Republican Party were really turning back to its roots as a bulwark of support for national security and away from the isolationist wing led by Senator Rand Paul, then Rubio would appear to be one of the obvious choices as leader. While Graham and his pal Senator John McCain have been the loudest voices on behalf of interventionist policies, no one in the Senate has been as eloquent on the need for a coherent and strong U.S. foreign policy than Rubio.

But while McCain praised Rubio Graham gave his younger colleague the back of his hand in his conversation with Hayes:

I asked Graham about Rubio. Hasn’t he been making many of the arguments you’d be likely to make? Graham wasn’t impressed. “He’s a good guy, but after doing immigration with him—we don’t need another young guy not quite ready,” said Graham. “He’s no Obama by any means, but he’s so afraid of the right, and I’ve let that go.”

Graham’s problem with Rubio stems from the fact that after joining the bipartisan group backing a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013, Rubio eventually backed away from the legislation once it stalled in the House. While McCain, Graham and the other members of the bipartisan gang of eight that championed the reform package have stuck to their plan, Rubio now says that conservatives who demanded that the border security portion of the bill be done first before any changes in the immigration system — especially the effort to legalize illegal immigrants and/or grant them a path to citizenship — should be implemented.

For Graham, who is being pushed to think about running for president by his friend McCain, this shift by Rubio shows he doesn’t have the right stuff.

Graham is right to note that Rubio hasn’t always looked like a future president in the past two years. While, as McCain notes, his record on foreign policy has been “very impressive,” there have been moments when he looked uncertain and a bit too interested in tagging along with Republican elements who don’t share his views. The beating he took from the party’s hardliners on immigration did take a toll. But Graham is wrong to castigate Rubio for rethinking his stand on the reform bill. If anything, his willingness to react to events and draw conclusions from them rather than doggedly stick to an ideological position that had been mistaken is a sign of maturity, not inexperience.

The surge of illegals over the border in Texas this year showed that rather than fixing the immigration system, the talk of granting illegals a path to citizenship without first securing the border had created a new incentive for people to cross the border. Moreover President Obama’s threats, renewed last night, to act unilaterally to trash the rule of law and legalize illegals shows that this administration can’t be trusted to enforce any immigration law passed by Congress.

By adjusting his position, Rubio opened himself up to charges of being a flip-flopper and abandoning his positions in order to curry favor with conservatives. But in doing so, he also demonstrated an ability to address difficult issues soberly and in a manner that enables him to make decisions based on reality rather than an ideological position. That’s pretty much the opposite of the pattern demonstrated by Barack Obama, that Graham rightly disdains.

Graham’s chances of winning the Republican nomination are virtually non-existent. While he’s part of the GOP mainstream on foreign policy, no one who has spent so much time offending the party’s base is going to be its standard bearer in 2016. By contrast, though Rubio made a lot of enemies because of his immigration stand, as a former Tea Party insurgent, he has a lot better chance of reconciling with the conservative base than Graham.

But what’s really interesting about this discussion is that while earlier in the year it looked as if the GOP presidential field would not have any strong entries that championed a strong foreign policy, now the roster of potential candidates representing that point of view seems to be getting crowded. Potential symbolic candidacies like those of Rep. Peter King and former UN Ambassador John Bolton may be joined by Rubio and Graham as well as Senator Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum, both of whom also share many of the views espoused by McCain and other GOP hawks.

Graham’s carping about Rubio notwithstanding, the real news here is that as the isolationist moment in American politics ends, the GOP’s natural leaders on foreign policy are reasserting themselves.

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Obama Deportation Pledge Is Dem Dilemma

When it comes to immigration, President Obama and his party are between a rock and a hard place. But the president’s efforts to finesse the issue of deportations of illegal immigrants are creating as many problems for Democrats as they are solving. By postponing plans to issue executive orders that would effectively legalize millions of illegals, the president alienated Hispanics. But by publicly promising to do so only after the midterm elections in November, as he did last night in a speech to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala, he may be dooming the red-state Democratic incumbents he sought to help by putting off the moves in the first place.

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When it comes to immigration, President Obama and his party are between a rock and a hard place. But the president’s efforts to finesse the issue of deportations of illegal immigrants are creating as many problems for Democrats as they are solving. By postponing plans to issue executive orders that would effectively legalize millions of illegals, the president alienated Hispanics. But by publicly promising to do so only after the midterm elections in November, as he did last night in a speech to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala, he may be dooming the red-state Democratic incumbents he sought to help by putting off the moves in the first place.

No matter where you come down on the issue of immigration reform, the president’s plans to effectively nullify existing laws by executive fiat and allow millions of people to stay who might otherwise be deported is an egregious abuse of power. Those who want Congress to act to repair the country’s broken immigration system may well criticize the House of Representatives for failing to either pass the bipartisan comprehensive reform bill produced by the Senate or to move their own bill or bills. But their decision to hold off on such legislation does not entitle the president to act as if he can govern on his own without congressional consent.

But that is exactly what his restive Hispanic supporters have been demanding that he do for the last six years. Democrats need Hispanic voters to vote this fall in something like the same huge numbers that turned out for the president in 2012 in order to have a shot at holding on to the Senate. But many who blame the president for the high number of deportations of illegals that have been carried out on his watch have lost patience and see no reason to flock to the polls. That’s especially true in states where Democrats have opposed unilateral action by the president because they understand just how unpopular such moves are with most voters.

So in order to convince Hispanics to be good soldiers in the Democrat army, he is promising again that he will trash the rule of law and stop the deportations once the midterms are over. But the irony is that one of the Democrats most in need of those Hispanic voters not only opposed the president’s executive orders but also has demanded that he not use them even after November. North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan is one of the few embattled Democrats fighting for reelection this year that are still favored to win. But the more the president talks about overturning the laws and allowing millions of illegals to evade deportation, the worse her chances of holding onto a slim lead over Republican Thom Tillis look. Nor, even after Obama’s latest promises, is it likely that Hispanics will feel very enthusiastic about backing Hagan.

It should be understood that while a majority of Americans understand that the immigration system needs to be fixed and a solution found for the more than 11 million people who are already here illegally, they are not sanguine about measures that may invite even more illegal immigration in the future. The crisis at the Texas border this past summer highlighted the fact that reform efforts and the president’s statements have helped create a new surge of illegals. That has changed the debate about the issue in a way that places the president’s threats of unilateral action directly contrary to the will of the public and the Constitution.

The pledge to stop the deportations makes sense if the Democrats’ priority this year was to energize their base of minority voters. But the midterms are largely being fought in swing or red states where Republicans can just as easily batter their opponents by speaking of what the president has said he will do as they can by criticizing what he has already done. The GOP record on immigration isn’t good and ultimately they need to find a response to the issue that speaks of more than border security if they ever hope to make a dent in the Hispanic vote. But if Democrats think they can hold Congress by Obama acting in a manner that may well set off an even greater surge of illegals that will also hope to be eventually granted amnesty, they are mistaken.

The president’s plans undermine the rule of law while not really fixing the problem. But the more he talks about this sensitive issue, the more harm he is doing to the cause of his party.

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Humility as a Democratic Virtue

In the New Republic, John Gray, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics, has written a withering review of Richard Dawkins’s autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist.

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In the New Republic, John Gray, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics, has written a withering review of Richard Dawkins’s autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist.

Professor Gray, a self-professed atheist, criticizes his fellow atheist Dawkins for knowing “practically nothing of the philosophy of science, still less about theology or the history of religion.” His attack on religion “has a crudity that would make a militant Victorian unbeliever such as T.H. Huxley … blush scarlet with embarrassment.” But beyond that is Dawkins’s “tone of indulgent superiority.” He “shows not a trace of skepticism anywhere in his writings.” In comparison with Blaise Pascal, a man of relentless intellectual energy, “Dawkins is a monument to unthinking certitude.” Dawkins is, according to Gray, a dogmatist whom he contrasts with Charles Darwin, who understood science was “a method of inquiry that enabled [Darwin] to edge tentatively and humbly toward truth.”

On this matter of humility, I’m reminded of what Benjamin Franklin, near the end of his life, said. Although having some concerns about the Constitution, Franklin sacrificed them for what he called “the public good.” In urging a unanimous vote approving the Constitution, he made this marvelous appeal: “On the whole, sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it, would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility…”

Humility, it turns out, is quite an important, if underrated, democratic virtue.

Our system of government is based on the belief that no one has all the answers and so no one gets all of the power. Since none of us has the whole of truth, the question is how we can construct our lives in a way that moves us a bit closer to it. Part of the answer requires us to escape our political, philosophical and theological silos, at least now and then, in order to gain the perspective of others to help us see things to which we may be blind. Humility presupposes that there is collective wisdom and that we have something to learn from others, including from those with whom we might have fairly deep disagreements.

To be sure, I don’t expect mass conversions from one political faith to another. Rachel Maddow isn’t going to adopt the philosophy of Rush Limbaugh. Nor do I believe that the truth is always at the mid-point between opposing points of view. As a political/philosophical conservative and a Christian, I have made certain fundamental judgments about life, human nature, and reality. But what humility can do is create the conditions to better understand the values and premises that shape other people’s narrative, their worldview, their “script.”

A person who has made this point particularly well is the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. One of his gifts is the ability to explain the assumptions and belief systems of people who hold very different views. That doesn’t eliminate the differences; but what it can do is to help us better appreciate the factors that lead people to arrive at very different places and therefore keep us from demonizing one another. (For those who care about such things, partisan antipathy has risen quite dramatically in the last two decades. We’re more inclined than in the past to believe that our political opponents aren’t just wrong but malicious.)

Here’s another observation made by Professor Haidt worth considering: We often “sacralize” issues and even reason itself, to the point that it can become an obstacle to discerning truth. How? Because like lawyers preparing a legal brief, we employ reason to confirm bias. “The only cure for the confirmation bias,” Haidt says, “is other people. So if you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason.” In recounting his own professional experience, he says, “we end up being forced to work together, challenging each other’s confirmation biases, and truth emerges.” Professor Haidt goes on to say, “Wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other.”

Humility properly understood, then, leaves us open to having our views scrutinized, refined, and enlarged. Call it the anti-Richard Dawkins approach to things: doubting our own infallibility, a bit of charity in our judgment toward others, a willingness to consider other points of view. These traits are easier to admire in others than to embrace ourselves. But they are ingredients of a healthy democratic culture and, based on those whom I most respect, elements to more fulfilling lives.

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It’s Time to Talk About Serious IRS Reform

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, the Washington Post noted an amusing coincidence: “Almost a quarter century ago, Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson served as Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate committee. Now he chairs the Senate panel investigating the current White House fund-raising scandal.” The timing was interesting because, as the Post explained, the “controversy came to light last year because of the reforms of Watergate, including requirements that campaigns and political parties regularly submit lists of their contributors to the Federal Election Commission.”

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On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, the Washington Post noted an amusing coincidence: “Almost a quarter century ago, Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson served as Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate committee. Now he chairs the Senate panel investigating the current White House fund-raising scandal.” The timing was interesting because, as the Post explained, the “controversy came to light last year because of the reforms of Watergate, including requirements that campaigns and political parties regularly submit lists of their contributors to the Federal Election Commission.”

The Post went on to list seven major reforms that stemmed either from the scandal itself or the atmosphere of distrust in government in the wake of Watergate. Of course these reforms had at best a mixed record. And some of them, like the campaign-finance reforms, ended up strengthening the government’s hand over Americans, reducing transparency, and infringing on voters’ constitutional rights. There was also the famed Church Committee, designed to expose abuses in the intel community and rein in its associated federal agencies.

And it is quite clear that while some have called for a new Church Committee in the wake of Moscow defector Edward Snowden’s theft and dissemination of American secrets to investigate the intel community, what is really needed is a full accounting and reform of a different federal agency: the IRS.

We have covered here exhaustively the massive abuse-of-power scandal surrounding the IRS’s targeting of conservatives ahead of the 2012 presidential election, and doing so at the encouragement of prominent Democrats. That surely should be enough to prompt a full investigation–especially since it was revealed that Eric Holder’s Justice Department is apparently coordinating with congressional Democrats to undermine the investigation and protect the IRS. But there’s another IRS scandal brewing, and it suggests the agency is long overdue for a reckoning.

John Fund notes that the private-jet company NetJets has been in a tax dispute with the IRS, and is claiming the IRS–you guessed it–destroyed evidence by having “wiped clean a number of computer hard drives containing emails and other electronic documents that the Government was required to produce.” Fund provides the background to the case:

NetJets sued the IRS in 2011, claiming that it improperly applied a ticket tax on users of its aircraft that is meant for commercial airline passengers. The IRS countersued claiming that NetJets “has failed, neglected or refused to pay its federal tax liabilities . . . in full.” But its argument was undercut in 2012 when Congress changed the tax code to make it clear the air-passenger-ticket tax doesn’t apply to private firms such as NetJets, whose customers buy time-shares in planes operated by the company.

In its latest court filing, NetJets claims the IRS has been concealing evidence. Its lawyers say the computers of three key IRS employees were wiped clean, including the computer of “an excise-tax policy manager and a key decision maker regarding the application of the section 4261 ticket tax to whole and fractional aircraft-management companies.”

Amazing. The agency assigned to take your money at will covers its tracks by destroying evidence, apparently routinely. I had noted in the past that destroying evidence seems to have become the IRS’s key strategy in the targeting scandal. It appears to be its policy with regard to disputes in general. It should go without saying that at this point there is really no denying the agency needs serious reform.

That poses its own challenges, to be sure. For one, high-level Democrats in the president’s Cabinet and in Congress are supporting and enabling the IRS here, so Democrats are unlikely to be very cooperative in the kind of investigation that would expose them to transparency and accountability as well.

Another challenge is the law of unintended consequences. As we saw with some of the post-Watergate reforms, giving politicians the power to pass sweeping regulations often just exacerbates existing problems. The regulatory regime is partly to blame for the current IRS scandal as it is, because the agency was tasked with being the gatekeeper to Americans’ political activism. Since the IRS is a creature of big-government bureaucracy, it went after the Americans who supported limited-government causes. The current regulatory regime governing the IRS pits the American government against the people, with the inevitable results.

Additionally, if the IRS has been routinely destroying evidence or deleting emails it’s supposed to save then it’s already breaking the law. There’s not much sense in going through a reform process if the result is only to take something that’s currently illegal and make it super-duper-illegal. That would be classic Washington behavior, and it should be avoided.

Perhaps the best answer is a much-simplified tax code and fewer rules limiting political speech. The IRS can’t abuse power it doesn’t have, after all. In fact, serious tax reform would be saving the IRS from itself–think of all the computers and phones it won’t have to completely destroy each year in an attempt to evade accountability.

Whatever the case, it would be criminal–figuratively, though very possibly also literally–for the scandals to pass without reforming the agency.

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The Jobs Report

This month’s jobs report is a distinct improvement over last month’s mediocre results. The economy created 248,000 jobs, somewhat above the recent average of about 228,000. Unemployment fell two-tenths of a percent to 5.9 percent, the lowest since July 2008, as the financial crisis was rapidly building. Previous months’ estimates were raised as well. The August estimate had originally been 148,000 jobs. That was raised to 180,000.

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This month’s jobs report is a distinct improvement over last month’s mediocre results. The economy created 248,000 jobs, somewhat above the recent average of about 228,000. Unemployment fell two-tenths of a percent to 5.9 percent, the lowest since July 2008, as the financial crisis was rapidly building. Previous months’ estimates were raised as well. The August estimate had originally been 148,000 jobs. That was raised to 180,000.

There are still 9.3 million unemployed. That is down 329,000 from the previous month. But notice that that number is well above the 248,000 new jobs created. So the unemployment rate is going down, at least in part, because of people dropping out of the work force, not because they found work. The labor force participation rate fell .1 percent to 62.7 percent. Before the recession, it was at about 66 percent. There are 7.1 million working part-time when they would prefer to be in full-time jobs.

Yesterday President Obama was at Northwestern University touting his administration’s economic performance. George Will, on last night’s Special Report with Bret Baier, was less than impressed:

The president went to the state of Illinois to brag about the economy. Illinois has 300,000 fewer jobs than it had in 2008. For the last four years in the state of Illinois, the number of new food stamp recipients has increased twice as fast as the number of new job recipients. He was speaking in Illinois on a college campus. He did not mention that 40 percent of recent college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed — that is, in jobs that don’t require college degrees — and one in three recent college graduates is living at home with their parents.

No wonder that 58 percent of the country thinks that we’re still in recession when the recession, technically, ended over five years ago, in June 2009.

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Faltering Obama Still Blaming Messenger

Fox News may be demolishing its more liberal cable news rivals in the ratings but to Democrats it’s still the bogeyman. That’s why President Obama took the opportunity to criticize the network during a speech defending his economic record at Northwestern University today. But in doing so, the president not only demonstrated the weakness of his position but also why he doesn’t understand Fox’s appeal.

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Fox News may be demolishing its more liberal cable news rivals in the ratings but to Democrats it’s still the bogeyman. That’s why President Obama took the opportunity to criticize the network during a speech defending his economic record at Northwestern University today. But in doing so, the president not only demonstrated the weakness of his position but also why he doesn’t understand Fox’s appeal.

During his speech, the president said this about Fox and its audience:

A true opposition party should have the courage to lay out their agenda. Hopefully also grounded in facts. There’s a reason fewer Republicans are preaching doom on the deficits – because the deficits have come down at almost a record pace and they’re now manageable. There’s a reason fewer are running against ObamaCare – because while good, affordable health care might still be a fanged threat to freedom of the American people on Fox News, it turns out it’s working pretty well in the real world.

There’s a lot to unwrap in just one paragraph but let’s try to hit the major points.

First, the notion that Republicans are not running on their party’s principles on spending, taxes, and the deficit is the sort of thing only a person living inside the White House echo chamber could believe. Across the country, GOP candidates are doing just that as they continue to capitalize on the voters’ disillusionment with the president’s liberal agenda and failed leadership.

Though, due to the faltering economy and the nation’s focus on the president’s foreign-policy failures, ObamaCare is not as potent an issue this fall as it was in the past, he’s kidding himself if he thinks it is going away. As I noted yesterday, successful court challenges will ensure that it remains on the agenda in the coming year. And if the courts don’t eviscerate the law, skyrocketing insurance costs and the possibly devastating impact on employment as the employer mandate goes into effect will put it back on the national agenda.

If anybody is running away from their party and its leader this year, it’s Democrats. Most Democrats locked in tough fights are not only avoiding Obama like the plague; they are also denying any connection to him. In what may be a new low point of embarrassment for the Democrats, Kentucky Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes refused to answer when repeatedly asked if she had voted for the president’s reelection in 2012.

But let’s forget about the specifics of the president’s boasts about the economy or his faux confidence on the staying power of the misnamed Affordable Care Act. Instead, let’s contemplate the dismaying spectacle of a sitting president of the United States obsessing about a cable network and treating it and its audience as if they were his enemy.

As Greg Gutfeld, one of the hosts of Fox’s The Five program quipped in response: “He [Obama] bashes FNC [Fox News Channel] more than ISIS, and we don’t behead anybody.” But jokes aside, the president’s continuing obsession with Fox is itself an interesting commentary on his disconnect with much of the nation.

The difference between Fox’s coverage of ObamaCare and that of much of the mainstream media is not so much that the network portrays ObamaCare as a “fanged threat to freedom” but that on MSNBC and CNN, not to mention the broadcast networks and the New York Times, critiques of the law or even discussions about its effectiveness, its impact on the economy, or on individual rights are often hard to find. Fox has become the dominant cable news network not so much because it is conservative as because it is the one place viewers know they can go to find alternative views to that of the liberal media establishment that has so often acted as the president’s unpaid cheering section.

The president may get a laugh from his liberal base and media sycophants when he attacks Fox but every time he does so he only betrays his weakness and his lack of comfort with opposing views. As his party heads toward a disastrous midterm defeat that will officially seal his fate as a powerless lame duck, the president would do better to stop blaming the media messengers and start pondering his own failures.

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Jew-Free Jerusalem Neighborhoods Won’t Bring Peace

At first it seemed as if Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu escaped his meeting in the White House with President Obama yesterday without a renewal of their long running feud. But before the day was over, it was clear that the administration’s predilection for picking pointless fights with the Israelis hasn’t faded away even as the president appears to be more interested in fighting ISIS than in brokering Middle East peace. By focusing once again on Jewish building in Jerusalem and representing Israel’s actions as an obstacle, the U.S. was not only allowing itself to be distracted from the real problems in the Middle East. By reaffirming its opposition to Jews living in part of their capital, the Americans are also adopting a standard that will make real peace impossible.

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At first it seemed as if Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu escaped his meeting in the White House with President Obama yesterday without a renewal of their long running feud. But before the day was over, it was clear that the administration’s predilection for picking pointless fights with the Israelis hasn’t faded away even as the president appears to be more interested in fighting ISIS than in brokering Middle East peace. By focusing once again on Jewish building in Jerusalem and representing Israel’s actions as an obstacle, the U.S. was not only allowing itself to be distracted from the real problems in the Middle East. By reaffirming its opposition to Jews living in part of their capital, the Americans are also adopting a standard that will make real peace impossible.

As Eugene Kontorovich wrote earlier today, the willingness of the Obama administration to use the essentially deceptive terminology of marginal Israeli left-wing groups about settlements distorts the discussion. If you count every apartment built as a “new settlement” you get the impression that Israel is building hundreds, if not thousands of new neighborhoods and towns every year. In fact all they are doing is building homes in existing Jewish communities, the vast majority of which are located in areas that would, even under the parameters that have been suggested by the Obama administration, remain inside Israel even in the event of a peace treaty with the Palestinians.

But the arguments raised yesterday by the administration about new Jewish homes in Jerusalem—which echoed widespread condemnation of these projects by most of the international community—is troubling for more than just the usual reasons. If President Obama and his State Department truly believe that the presence of Jews in some neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem is an obstacle to peace that must be removed in order for an accord to be reached, then what they are doing is tacitly endorsing an Arab demand for Jew-free zones in the ancient capital as well as a Judenrein Palestine.

As Netanyahu pointed out, the notion that it is immoral for Jews to buy property or build homes in parts of the city but that there is nothing wrong with Arabs doing the same in neighborhoods that are predominantly Jewish is inherently prejudicial. The double standard here is appalling. Arabs build (often illegally) throughout the Arab majority neighborhoods of the city and no one thinks twice about it even though, if we were to use the same standard by which Israel is judged, that, too, could be construed as an obstacle to peace.

But the real problem is that treating Jewish building in the territories and especially in Jerusalem as offensive almost by definition confirms the Arab belief that there is something inherently illegitimate about the Jewish presence in the country. It is that concept and not Israeli actions that still constitutes the primary obstacle to peace.

After all, if the Palestinians’ main priority was in establishing an independent state alongside Israel they could have accepted peace offers from Israel that would have given them almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a large share of Jerusalem. But they turned those offers down in 2000, 2001, and 2008 and refused to negotiate seriously with Israel again this year even though Netanyahu had already signaled a willingness to compromise on territory. It wasn’t settlements that stopped them from grabbing independence but the fact that recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish no matter where its borders are drawn was still anathema in their political culture. Indeed, when Hamas, which commands the support of the majority of Palestinians and far more than the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas, speaks of the “occupation,” they are not referring to the West Bank but to all of pre-1967 Israel.

While the majority of Israelis have drawn the appropriate conclusions from Palestinian rejectionism and understand that peace is nowhere in sight, most still hope that someday this will change. But there is no chance that the political culture of the Palestinians will one day make it possible for compromise over the land until the West stops giving moral support to demands for Jew-free zones.

Netanyahu does well to ignore these latest complaints just as he has done in the past, to the applause of the vast majority of Israelis, when the U.S. attacked the right of Jews to live in Jerusalem. If the Palestinians someday make peace and Jerusalem is split, does President Obama really think it can be done on the basis that both Jews and Arabs would populate the Israeli parts but that the Palestinian areas will be ethnically cleansed of all Jews? If so, then their bitter criticism of Jews moving into Silwan or the mixed neighborhood of Givat Hamatos makes sense. But if the goal is to have an open city in which coexistence prevails, then these arguments are counter-productive.

There are reasons why Israelis are wary about the idea of leaving behind Jews in areas that will, at least in theory, become a Palestinian state. Most revolve around the fact that such holdouts will become immediate targets for terrorist murderers. But if the Palestinians are told by the United States that it is perfectly OK for them to demand that no Jew is allowed to live in areas that they might control, including in Jerusalem, then there is no incentive for them to make peace on any terms.

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Turkish Vote Less than Meets the Eye

CNN is reporting that the Turkish parliament has approved military action against the Islamic State (ISIS). This may be the headline that Turkey wants, but it is not actually what the Turkish parliament has done. The Turkish parliament has instead voted to authorize its army to operate in Iraq and Syria. This extends a mandate that was approved two years ago but was about to expire. Hence, had Turkey previously wanted to operate against ISIS, it could have. More importantly, the Turkish motion did not specify a target. This means that the Turkish authorization could just as readily allow operation against Syrian Kurds who are fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked groups, or against the Bashar al-Assad regime.

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CNN is reporting that the Turkish parliament has approved military action against the Islamic State (ISIS). This may be the headline that Turkey wants, but it is not actually what the Turkish parliament has done. The Turkish parliament has instead voted to authorize its army to operate in Iraq and Syria. This extends a mandate that was approved two years ago but was about to expire. Hence, had Turkey previously wanted to operate against ISIS, it could have. More importantly, the Turkish motion did not specify a target. This means that the Turkish authorization could just as readily allow operation against Syrian Kurds who are fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked groups, or against the Bashar al-Assad regime.

The Turkish vote means that Ankara could be helpful should it so choose, but it might simply stop at the appearance of being helpful, especially if American reporters and news organizations like CNN transpose their own goals onto a Turkish government which too often in recent years has operated against Western interests rather than in their favor.

Only the coming days will tell. But let us hope that neither the Pentagon nor the State Department let Turkey off the hook or accept pretend partnership rather than substantive cooperation.

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Politicians Should Shut Up About Ebola

Dystopian nightmares have always been a staple of film and television but the producers of The Last Ship, a successful new television show, are probably grateful that the discovery of a case of the Ebola virus here in the United States didn’t happen when their program was having its debut this past summer. While a show about a pandemic that kills much of the world’s population didn’t seem too scary in July, it might have hit a little too close to home now. But even without more hysteria about the possible dangers from an out-of-control virus being whipped up by the entertainment industry, this is not the moment for the media or politicians to be encouraging panic or undermining confidence in government and health-care officials dealing with the crisis.

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Dystopian nightmares have always been a staple of film and television but the producers of The Last Ship, a successful new television show, are probably grateful that the discovery of a case of the Ebola virus here in the United States didn’t happen when their program was having its debut this past summer. While a show about a pandemic that kills much of the world’s population didn’t seem too scary in July, it might have hit a little too close to home now. But even without more hysteria about the possible dangers from an out-of-control virus being whipped up by the entertainment industry, this is not the moment for the media or politicians to be encouraging panic or undermining confidence in government and health-care officials dealing with the crisis.

Ebola is the perfect cable news story in that there is very little actual news to report but affords plenty of opportunities for talking heads and various kinds of experts to opine about minute details that don’t advance our understanding of what is going on. In that sense, Ebola is just like the aftermath of the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri or the Trayvon Martin murder trial. But rather than merely appealing to our appetite for crime stories or the political prejudices of the moment, the discussion of Ebola goes to the heart of some our primeval fears about disease and extinction. And that is exactly why those inclined to treat it as some kind of political football need to take it down a notch.

A classic example of the tendency to grasp at any chance to be part of the news cycle came yesterday when Senator Rand Paul stoked fears about the government’s handling of the disease while riding his favorite isolationist hobby horse:

The Kentucky Republican, appearing on “The Laura Ingraham Show” on Wednesday, said the CDC and the Obama administration are giving off a false sense of security.

“This could get beyond our control,” said Paul, an ophthalmologist. …

CDC Director Tom Frieden — emphasizing both the sophistication of the U.S. public health system and the difficulty of transmitting a disease like Ebola — has said repeatedly that he has “no doubt that we’ll stop this in its tracks in the U.S.”

Paul, though, on Wednesday questioned Frieden’s statements and said health officials might be underestimating the disease’s potential impact in the U.S. and worldwide.

“I think because of political correctness we’re not really making sound, rational, scientific decisions on this,” the senator said. “It’s a big mistake to underestimate the potential for problems worldwide.”

Paul, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, also expressed concern about President Barack Obama’s plan — announced earlier this month — to send up to 3,000 troops to combat Ebola in West Africa, the major hub of the disease.

“You also have to be concerned about 3,000 soldiers getting back on a ship,” he said, expressing concern about the spread of disease in close quarters. “Can you imagine if a whole ship full of our soldiers catch Ebola?” he asked later.

In this case, Ebola gave Paul a double whammy: an opportunity to claim the administration was failing and a chance to cast doubt on the wisdom of foreign deployments of U.S. troops.

But while it is entirely possible that an eye doctor knows more about pandemics than your average journalist, it’s not yet clear that there is any reason to doubt the ability of the government to handle what looks to be a problem that is not out of control or that there is any political advantage to be gained here for Republicans. Which means that rather than getting out front of the story, politicians, including potential presidential candidates, should probably be keeping their mouths shut.

That’s true even though it’s clear now that some of President Obama’s assurances about the threat have proven to be off base. As the Washington Examiner’s Byron York notes today, the president’s comments about the problem delivered two weeks ago during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control’s Atlanta headquarters don’t seem to have held up. It turns out that American hospitals were not as well prepared for the problem as he, and the rest of us, hoped and the result is that the person currently hospitalized with the Ebola virus in Dallas entered the country and may have infected others before his symptoms were diagnosed.

But even if we concede that the system wasn’t foolproof and health-care personnel not entirely ready to deal with it, the president was also probably right when he said America’s “world class facilities and professionals” can respond effectively to the outbreak and that there is no reason for anyone to be panicking. And while tough questions deserve to be asked about what happened in Dallas and the measures being implemented to deal with any other possible cases coming into the country, this is not the moment for opinion leaders to be sounding the doom and gloom theme or shoehorning Ebola into a grand narrative about the administration’s incompetence.

Of course, if a Republican were in the White House, we would probably be listening to lectures on CNN and MSNBC about how conservative racism was increasing the chances of an epidemic. But Barack Obama is no more responsible for Ebola than George W. Bush was for bad weather in the Gulf of Mexico or the flight of first responders in New Orleans and reasonable conservatives should not pretend otherwise.

It is interesting to note that the program I alluded to earlier in this piece is a perfect mixture of paranoia and patriotic faith. The Last Ship, which could best be described as The Andromeda Strain meets On the Beach with a heavy dose of Tom Clancy (a Navy destroyer is the real star of the show), was good if gruesome fun and celebrates the heroism of the U.S. Navy as much it indulges the viewing public’s desire to be scared and to jeer at villains whose nationality tends to reflect the news (in this case, the bad guys are Russians, thank you Vladimir Putin). In it, the dedication and courage of American sailors triumph over all obstacles to bring a cure home to a nation devastated by a plague.

We need not have the same blind faith in the CDC or the government that we are asked to have in the protagonists of the show. But neither should we stand for politicians looking to exploit a health crisis that cannot be blamed on President Obama’s policy failures. The odds are, the country will survive this scare before the press moves on to the next big story. Those who think they can score points by betting on the opposite result may be relying on the public’s short attention span. But they would still be better off avoiding feeding panic when none is necessary.

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De Blasio vs. the NYPD–and Public Safety

If you were looking for a moment when the wheels truly seemed to be coming off the Bill de Blasio administration’s relationship with the NYPD, the late-August call by a prominent police union to oppose bringing the Democratic National Convention to Brooklyn is a good candidate. The idea had been floated for Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to host the DNC, but the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, Ed Mullins, had some choice–and public–words for the mayor:

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If you were looking for a moment when the wheels truly seemed to be coming off the Bill de Blasio administration’s relationship with the NYPD, the late-August call by a prominent police union to oppose bringing the Democratic National Convention to Brooklyn is a good candidate. The idea had been floated for Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to host the DNC, but the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, Ed Mullins, had some choice–and public–words for the mayor:

“While the Barclays Center is still new and glistening, the great city in which it stands is lurching backwards to the bad old days of high crime, danger-infested public spaces, and families that walk our streets worried for their safety,” Mullins wrote in an open letter running in Tuesday’s editions of the New York Post and The New York Times.

Mullins said de Blasio’s administration has made “dangerous choices” and as a result, the “degradation of our streets is on the rise.”

He added, sourly, “Right now, we don’t have a mayor who supports the police.” Mullins’s point was ostensibly that the NYPD shouldn’t have any additional burden put on it–indeed, that such a request would be chutzpahdik–while they’re being constantly second-guessed by a new administration. But it’s clear that the feeling had been building for some time and needed an outlet.

It’s worth keeping that moment in mind reading the latest news on the de Blasio administration’s ongoing power struggle with the NYPD. The background, briefly: de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, has been so involved with the administration that mayoral counsel Henry Berger is arguing she should legally be considered a consultant in order to shield her correspondence with the administration from reporters. McCray’s chief of staff, Rachel Noerdlinger, thus enjoys a high degree of access.

Noerdlinger, it was revealed by DNAinfo last week, is in a relationship with a man convicted of homicide and drug charges and who refers to police in derogatory language and nearly ran a cop off the road in New Jersey last year. De Blasio is sticking by Noerdlinger, who used to work for Al Sharpton. And now the Washington Free Beacon has unearthed something that New Yorkers probably had forgotten but the police groups might not have:

Rachel Noerdlinger, the controversial chief of staff to New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray, once called for boycotts of a local police union and all of its supporters, a position that could cause more headaches for Mayor Bill de Blasio as he seeks to minimize the fallout over Noerdlinger’s relationship with a convicted killer who has made disparaging comments about the police.

Noerdlinger, the longtime top aide to de Blasio’s wife, has been engulfed in controversy after it came to light that she is dating a convicted murderer and drug dealer who has called cops “pigs” and expressed distaste for white people.

The unearthing of these remarks by ex-con Hassaun McFarlan is said to have raised “serious concerns about Noerdlinger having a seat at top-level” New York Police Department (NYPD) meetings, according to the New York Daily News.

Noerdlinger in 2000, while working as Sharpton’s spokeswoman, called for the boycotting of companies that donated to the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which had been helping to pay for the defense of New York policemen acquitted on charges of murdering Amadou Diallo. The comments came at a time of high tensions in the city over the Diallo case.

As the New York Post reported at the time, Noerdlinger’s boycott call was made at the same time prominent Harlem Rev. Calvin Butts was stirring up public anger against both the police and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani:

“There are many who are calling for calm, but I am not one,” he told The Post. “I think that people ought to be agitated, they ought to be active.”

Earlier in the day, Butts told worshippers, “There is an evil that permeates the place called City Hall,” and called on New Yorkers to stand up for their rights.

“There is no chance that your police will not be resisted. They must be resisted, they will be resisted,” he said in a sermon.

The benevolent associations, unions, and other police groups likely remember that controversy quite well. If so, they also remember the support they tended to get from the Giuliani administration, in stark contrast to the atmosphere of distrust building around de Blasio. The revelation that the administration now has someone on board who had been calling for a boycott of the PBA makes it easier to understand why someone like Mullins at the SBA sees a proliferation of red flags around this administration.

De Blasio has not proved successful at maintaining public safety while reining in police procedure. Actions have consequences, and a lot of New Yorkers remember well the consequences the last time distrust of the NYPD was allowed to drive public safety policymaking. And if de Blasio doesn’t remember that, he’s clearly got staffers who can remind him.

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The Peace Camp’s Recycled Outrage

Defining “settlements” has always been difficult. The relevant international law instruments speak only of people being “transferred or deported” by an occupying power. However, most Jews in the West Bank have not been moved there by the Israeli government (that is why they are called settlers, not transferees and deportees).

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Defining “settlements” has always been difficult. The relevant international law instruments speak only of people being “transferred or deported” by an occupying power. However, most Jews in the West Bank have not been moved there by the Israeli government (that is why they are called settlers, not transferees and deportees).

But recent months have seen an unprecedented broadening of the concept of settlement activity to include things that do not involve Jews moving and, in this week’s dust-up, things that have already happened. The peace camp has been defining settlements down.

The Israeli government has not issued new authorizations for the building of new homes in the “settlements” since before the collapse of negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas. Even Peace Now grudgingly concedes a “semi-freeze.” Yet the absence of new tenders creates a problem for peace processors: they traditionally blame any foot-dragging by Abbas on these tenders, and insist that if Israel desisted, the primary obstacles to fruitful negotiations would be removed.

Yet as the moratorium grows longer, Abbas has, contrary to peace-process predictions, only moved farther away from negotiations. Indeed, he has fully adopted a new strategy of using international pressure to give him his demands without the trouble of having to make compromises.

Unable to blame “new settlement activity,” the peace camp, uncritically parroted by the media, has defined settlements down. Anything is now called “new” settlement activity. Last month, Peace Now treated a surveying decision that certain lands were not owned by private parties–Jewish or Arab–as a massive outrage, though the technical and administrative action would not result in a single hut being built for a single Jew.

Now, lacking new activity to decry, the peace camp seizes on old projects, planned by prior governments, and passes them off as new. This is the story behind this week’s outrage over the Givat Hamatos neighborhood in Jerusalem. The area is one where Jews already live, and immediately abuts the huge neighborhood of Gilo. It is “over” the Green Line by a few meters.

However, this project received final approval in 2012. This week’s outrage is literally a rewarming of the statements from two years ago.

Daniel Seidemann is an influential European-funded activist focusing on keeping Jews out of parts of Jerusalem formerly occupied by Jordan. His NGO said this when the plan was adopted back then:

Givat Hamatos is happening NOW, and approval of just the first part of the plan – Givat Hamatos A – suffices in having the full detrimental impact of the scheme… Construction of Givat Hamatos, whether private or public. (sic) can take place within a few short months, since building permits may be issued at any time.

Perhaps the action two years ago was not final? No, the NGO reported back then that it was indeed “final.” So by definition no new decision of substance has been taken since–but that has not stopped Peace Now and Seidemann from recycling the outrage, which resulted in raining the ire of the U.S. down on Israel, or as they see it, on Netanyahu.

Part of the problem is the permanent industry of European-funded settlement snoops. They count every new shack and every new permit (whereas ironically the EU has a limited grasp on how many Turkish settlers are on its own territory). They will not be silent simply for lack of what to report. One wonders if they will be even silent if all their political demands were realized, or whether they would, as has happened in Gaza, define occupation down.

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Obama’s Conflict with Israel Is Sidelined, Not Resolved

President Obama gritted his teeth yesterday and sat down for a meeting in the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Even at the best of times, the president isn’t good at faking bonhomie and there was little evidence of the usual pretense of good fellowship during the media portion of the session. He doesn’t like Netanyahu, but given his current emphasis on the war against ISIS and the utter collapse of the peace process with the Palestinians, Obama had little choice but to try and downplay his difference with the prime minister. Yet as a scathing State Department statement about Jerusalem issued later in the day revealed, the administration’s conflict with Israel has been sidelined but is far from finished.

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President Obama gritted his teeth yesterday and sat down for a meeting in the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Even at the best of times, the president isn’t good at faking bonhomie and there was little evidence of the usual pretense of good fellowship during the media portion of the session. He doesn’t like Netanyahu, but given his current emphasis on the war against ISIS and the utter collapse of the peace process with the Palestinians, Obama had little choice but to try and downplay his difference with the prime minister. Yet as a scathing State Department statement about Jerusalem issued later in the day revealed, the administration’s conflict with Israel has been sidelined but is far from finished.

As always, Netanyahu’s statement was a bit closer to reality than that of the president. He highlighted, as he did in his United Nations speech earlier this week, the prospect that the path to peace might come through the good offices of moderate Arab nations in the region rather than relying solely on direct talks with a reluctant Palestinian Authority. Obama pointedly ignored this possibility even though Secretary of State John Kerry is reportedly trying to revive his failed peace initiative using this very same strategy.

This ought to have been a moment for some reconciliation between the two feuding leaders. After nearly six years of non-stop bickering, the president had at least one moment of clarity last week when he told the UN General Assembly that the rise of ISIS and the conflicts in Iraq and Syria proved that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wasn’t the cause of all the trouble in the region. That’s a basic truth that it took him years to learn since he has acted and spoken for most of his time in the White House as if Israeli-Palestinian peace would magically transform the Middle East despite the myriad conflicts between Arabs and Muslims that would go on even if Israel disappeared.

The collapse of Kerry’s peace initiative after Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas signed a unity pact with Hamas rather than a deal with Israel also should have signaled a course change for the administration. The 50-day war between Israel and Hamas illustrated both Abbas’s irrelevance and his inability to make peace even if he wanted to do it. Hamas’s increased popularity and its determination to use any territory under its control as a terror base also renders the U.S. pressure on Israel to surrender the West Bank, which might well become after such a move another stronghold of radical Islamists like Gaza, a mad scheme that is neither in the interests of the Jewish state or its superpower ally. Whatever the differences between the two governments, this was a good moment for stepping back and emphasizing their shared agenda against Islamist terror.

But this president can’t let go of his obsessions and no one in the Israeli government, least of all its leader, should be under the impression that the changed circumstances that forced Obama to alter his approach will mean smooth sailing until January 2017.

The chief source of tension is obviously Iran. Though Netanyahu tried to make the analogy between the threat from ISIS and that of the Islamist regime and Hamas, the U.S. is not buying it. Both Obama and Kerry are determined to make some sort of nuclear deal with Tehran. If the interim accord they signed last year is any indication, if they get their wish it will be a weak and unenforceable agreement that will do little to stop the Iranians from realizing their ambition. Nor is there any U.S. inducement that can or should cause the Israelis to cease to worry that such a strategy puts them and the West in mortal peril.

As for the Palestinians, though Obama will have his own reasons for thwarting any end run around the peace process by Abbas to get the UN to enact new anti-Israel measures, the administration looks as if it is determined to resume hounding Israel on settlements even though the Hamas war demonstrated anew that the Palestinian impulse to conflict has nothing to do with the location of a future border or the presence of Jews in any particular place. Moreover, even if talks with the Arab states do proceed, it should be clear even to the dullest staffer in the West Wing or Foggy Bottom that moderate Arab states want Israel’s help in fighting Islamists and have little interest in risking their own popularity trying to broker a deal that the Palestinians don’t want no matter how much the Israelis are prepared to give.

If there is anything we have learned about Barack Obama in the last six years it is that he is not a man prepared to admit mistakes (just ask Jim Clapper). For relations between Israel and the United States to really improve—as opposed to the arguments just cooling down every now and then—it will require the president to admit that his idée fixe about settlements won’t bring peace or help the U.S. rally allies in the fight against genuine threats to American security. He will also need to realize that his never-flagging desire for engagement with Iran is bringing the world closer to the nuclear brink, not averting that danger.

For now, Obama’s feud with Netanyahu is on his back burner as he tries to avoid disaster in Iraq and Syria and his party is poised to be beaten in the midterm elections. But it will be back soon. Israelis should be prepared for being back in his cross hairs sooner rather than later.

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The Debate We’re Not Having About Syria

There is a stunning gap in the public conversation about the war that President Obama is now waging on ISIS. We have paid some attention to the political future of Iraq, on the correct assumption that a longterm victory against ISIS in that country requires having a state in Baghdad capable of winning support from all of Iraq’s sectarian communities. Hence the administration’s successful push to replace Nouri al-Maliki with Haidar al-Abadi. Whether Abadi lives up to his billing as a more inclusive leader remains to be seen, but what is stunning to me is that we are not even having this conversation about Syria. What kind of political settlement would we like to see in Syria and how to achieve it?

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There is a stunning gap in the public conversation about the war that President Obama is now waging on ISIS. We have paid some attention to the political future of Iraq, on the correct assumption that a longterm victory against ISIS in that country requires having a state in Baghdad capable of winning support from all of Iraq’s sectarian communities. Hence the administration’s successful push to replace Nouri al-Maliki with Haidar al-Abadi. Whether Abadi lives up to his billing as a more inclusive leader remains to be seen, but what is stunning to me is that we are not even having this conversation about Syria. What kind of political settlement would we like to see in Syria and how to achieve it?

At the moment we are bombing ISIS a little bit in Syria as well as Iraq, while also planning to train on a very small scale elements of the Free Syrian Army–about 5,000 fighters are expected to be trained next year. How can anyone expect 5,000 fighters to defeat the 20,000-30,000 men under arms for ISIS? And if the Free Syrian Army doesn’t step forward, isn’t there a real danger of the Assad regime regaining lost ground because of the U.S. campaign against ISIS? Those are questions the administration has refused to answer, at least publicly.

Perhaps the Obama administration has reconciled itself to Assad staying in power indefinitely as the lesser evil, but the record of the past three years shows that Assad is incapable of ending the Syrian civil war. As long as he sticks around, the war will rage on with all of the catastrophic human cost that implies. It will also mean that there will be room for Salafist extremists to operate in ungoverned parts of the country where the government’s control does not extend. (In the parts of Syria under government control, a different set of extremists–the Shiite fanatics of Hezbollah and the Quds Forces–run wild.) As Frederic Hof, Obama’s former special representative for Syria, just wrote: “Blowing up Islamic State-related targets in Syria has intrinsic merit. Yet so long as the Assad regime exists, Syria will be fertile ground for jihadists and other criminals sporting political agendas. ”

The only way to rescue Syria from its nightmare is to overthrow Assad and install a government capable of keeping order and winning the assent of the country’s various constituent parts. As Hof writes, “The vacuum of state failure filled by the Islamic State will not be plugged until an inclusive national government in Syria replaces an Iranian- and Russian-abetted family business.” By this point, after three years of war fed by three years of American inaction, this admittedly seems a fantastic prospect. But just because we have trouble grappling with the enormity of the challenge doesn’t mean that it ceases to exist.

I commend Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution for at least starting to think about the unthinkable in this essay entitled “We need to Begin Nation-Building in Syria Right Now.” Pollack points out that even if Assad doesn’t fall anytime soon, now is the time to make plans for a post-Assad Syria–the kind of plans we failed to make in Iraq and Libya. Pollack rightly suggests that the U.S. should lead an international effort under UN auspices. “If all of this is addressed in a determined fashion,” he suggests, “the U.S. should provide most of the muscle, the Gulf states most of the money, and the international community most of the know-how.” There is much room for discussion about how such a plan could be implemented, but that’s a discussion we need to have–and we’re not having it.

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Why Panetta’s Lament Is Newsworthy

At the beginning of this year, when former defense secretary Bob Gates released his memoirs, he absorbed a fair amount of condemnation for his timing. In his book he criticized President Obama’s lack of commitment to the wars of which he took command as well as key players in the administration who had been poisoning the well against the military from within the White House. But, as I wrote, the criticism of his timing fell flat, since the book came after the 2012 election and therefore was not designed to undermine the president’s campaign, and it was too early to interfere in any real way with Hillary Clinton’s.

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At the beginning of this year, when former defense secretary Bob Gates released his memoirs, he absorbed a fair amount of condemnation for his timing. In his book he criticized President Obama’s lack of commitment to the wars of which he took command as well as key players in the administration who had been poisoning the well against the military from within the White House. But, as I wrote, the criticism of his timing fell flat, since the book came after the 2012 election and therefore was not designed to undermine the president’s campaign, and it was too early to interfere in any real way with Hillary Clinton’s.

Now we have a second voice from the administration to add to the chorus of ex-officials unhappy with the disastrous foreign-policy decisions made by Obama. That chorus includes Hillary Clinton as well as advisors loyal to her like Vali Nasr. And now it includes, significantly, Gates’s successor at Defense Leon Panetta. Although Gates served both Democratic and Republican administrations and has always been considered a loyal soldier and a man of sober judgment, the fact that he’s a Republican seemed to color some reactions to his criticism of Obama. The same, obviously, cannot be said for Panetta. Opposition to Obama’s rash, hasty, and overly ideological decisions is bipartisan.

In Panetta’s forthcoming memoir, excerpted and adapted in Time magazine, he writes that, as the deadline for combat operations approached, it was clear “withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability then barely holding Iraq together.” There needed to be some residual force maintained until Iraq was ready to shoulder the full burden of its own security and–crucially–stability. According to Panetta:

We had leverage. We could, for instance, have threatened to withdraw reconstruction aid to Iraq if al-Maliki would not support some sort of continued U.S. military presence. My fear, as I voiced to the President and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we’d seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S. Iraq’s stability was not only in Iraq’s interest but also in ours. I privately and publicly advocated for a residual force that could provide training and security for Iraq’s military.

Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy did her best to press that position, which reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs. But the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated. Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.

The White House, he writes, wouldn’t lead the effort because the president was committed to getting out of Iraq, not winning the peace. Panetta does not let Maliki off the hook for the chaos that followed: “Al-Maliki was responsible, as he exacerbated the deep sectarian issues polarizing his country.” But it’s clear the president was, as always, more interested in hewing to bumper-sticker slogans than getting the policy right. The hyper-partisan, intensely ideological Obama would not be swayed.

Panetta’s comments have thus far been met with a more muted response than Gates’s, for a few simple reasons. First, as mentioned, Gates was a Republican holdover from the Bush era and Democrats maintain an ever-present suspicion of the motives of anyone to their right on the ideological spectrum. (Witness yesterday’s New York Times report on how the paper was thoroughly confused by the suggestion that Republicans want Obama to stay alive. What’s in it for them, the left wanted to know.)

Second, Gates’s career was far more defense- and security-centric than Panetta’s, having served in the CIA during the Cold War for several administrations (ultimately rising to director), serving on the National Security Council, and eventually serving as defense secretary for two consecutive presidents. As such, Gates’s views carry a certain amount of authority and gravitas that few possess; he’s been on the inside of national-security policy for nearly half a century.

Third, Gates’s memoir was published before Panetta’s. Whatever the criticism, it’s not going to be particularly revelatory for anyone to “me-too” his predecessor. And fourth, thanks to the rise of ISIS it is now undeniable that Iraq is in freefall and the security arrangements left in place when American troops left were insufficient. The fact that Obama has initiated a new war against ISIS (though he calls it an old war) in a new country is an implicit acknowledgement of that. In other words, it’s hard to argue with Panetta’s conclusion.

But that, paradoxically, ought to be a reason for this to be especially newsworthy. Panetta’s lament serves as an “I told you so,” not a “you’ll be sorry” moment. Even the president’s close advisors understand Obama was wrong, and everybody knows it. It’s safe now to disavow Obama’s Iraq strategy because it’s crystal clear it was a mammoth, deadly failure. The idea that Obama was completely, irresponsibly wrong is not controversial, even among dedicated Democrats. Panetta’s criticism isn’t really news, which is why it should be.

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Turkey’s Jihad Against Online News Portals

In 2002, Reporters without Frontiers ranked Turkey 99th in the world in terms of press freedom. That was a poor showing for a country aspiring to join the European Union, but it still placed Turkey well above countries like Burma, Russia, Ethiopia, and Iraq. No longer. Over his more than decade-long premiership, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used a number of tools to constrain press freedom.

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In 2002, Reporters without Frontiers ranked Turkey 99th in the world in terms of press freedom. That was a poor showing for a country aspiring to join the European Union, but it still placed Turkey well above countries like Burma, Russia, Ethiopia, and Iraq. No longer. Over his more than decade-long premiership, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used a number of tools to constrain press freedom.

After replacing technocrats on Turkey’s banking and tax boards with political loyalists, Erdoğan levelled ever-increasing tax liens against media organizations that criticized him or his agenda. If his targets did not forfeit their media outlets, Erdoğan would confiscate them. While, in theory, these media companies would come up for auction, Erdoğan would ensure that the only permissible bidders would be loyalists to his political party and, preferably, members of his own family.

Erdoğan would simultaneously employ other strategies as well. Turkey imprisons more journalists than Iran and China. It harasses female journalists and has recently begun targeting journalists working for foreign outlets as well. (I have not been immune; after I criticized Turkish corruption, Erdoğan aide Cuneyd Zapsu and (now disgraced and fired) EU Minister Egemen Bağış sued me in a Turkish court). He targeted authors to confiscate unpublished manuscripts; Turkey now prosecutes thought-crime rather than actual crime.

Now, alas, Turkey is no longer willing to simply go after traditional outlets. While Erdoğan’s jihad against social media is long standing, Erdoğan increasingly seeks to control what can be published online. Quite simply, the Internet—and, more broadly, free discourse—frustrates Erdoğan, who would much rather crush dissent than accept the accountability and transparency a free media encourages or address the merits of his opponents’ arguments. As journalists have moved to online outlets to escape Erdoğan’s authoritarian ambitions, the number of Turkish news portals has exploded online.

It is these that Erdoğan now targets. According to “the radical democrat,” a Turkish blog which closely follows free speech, Internet freedom, and individual liberty issues in Turkey:

Today, surprisingly access to Karsi‘s newsportal online was blocked… The portal continues to use a proxy newsportal for now “uncensored news” (sansursuz haber) until it also gets subjected to same treatment. Another surprise news of the day is that newly established “Gri Hat” (Grey Line) newsportal is also taken to court and blocking access is declared, for potential to distribute critical news material which has published the corruption records on the newsportal. Gri Hat was established not more than a month ago by unemployed/fired journalists and it was going to leak more news pieces regarding all kinds of corruption… If alternative/opposed news portals continue getting raided or subjected to threats and give in to such pressure, the future of democracy hangs on spikes in Turkey.

Turkey was never a beacon of freedom. But with Erdoğan’s latest move against Internet portals, it seems determined to fall further in international press freedom rankings, below even Iran, Belarus, and China.

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