Commentary Magazine


David Frum: COMMENTARY Is Reason’s Champion

In a time of passion, COMMENTARY champions reason. Against lies, COMMENTARY speaks for truth. Confronting those who would doom to death the Jewish people, COMMENTARY is a magnificent continuing achievement of American Jewish life.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

In a time of passion, COMMENTARY champions reason. Against lies, COMMENTARY speaks for truth. Confronting those who would doom to death the Jewish people, COMMENTARY is a magnificent continuing achievement of American Jewish life.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

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Bennett Routs Indyk, In a Victory for Truth

Over the weekend, the Brookings Institution held its annual Saban Forum, designed to better facilitate the practice of American think-tankers lecturing Israelis on their own country. The forum heard from high-ranking American and Israeli officials, such as Vice President Joe Biden, professional speech-giver Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the main event was surely the “conversation” between Israeli economy minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party and Middle East arsonist extraordinaire Martin Indyk.

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Over the weekend, the Brookings Institution held its annual Saban Forum, designed to better facilitate the practice of American think-tankers lecturing Israelis on their own country. The forum heard from high-ranking American and Israeli officials, such as Vice President Joe Biden, professional speech-giver Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the main event was surely the “conversation” between Israeli economy minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party and Middle East arsonist extraordinaire Martin Indyk.

Bennett’s challenge was twofold. First, he had to exhibit restraint and treat Indyk as a legitimate interlocutor. Indyk, of course, has spent the past decade and a half representing Democratic U.S. governments in the peace process intent on undermining the sitting Israeli prime minister, subverting Israeli democracy, and poisoning the well by badmouthing Israeli officials to the press behind their backs. The current violent turmoil in and around Jerusalem is a hangover from the failed peace talks. And the failed peace talks were due in large part to Kerry’s team, led by Indyk.

The second part of Bennett’s challenge was to recognize that amid current or former Obama administration officials, he had a tough crowd. That was only exacerbated by the upcoming Israeli elections. Before the last elections liberal American journalists and commentators, whose opinions are considered fringe in Israel but who live in a bubble of unearned self-righteousness here in the States, engaged in a collective freakout over the prospect of Naftali Bennett succeeding. He was projected to win as many as fifteen seats; they projected the end of the world.

Both were wrong: Bennett fell to a late surge by Yair Lapid, and the earth didn’t open up and swallow humanity whole as punishment for the electoral success of religious Zionists. Now there is another Israeli election looming; Bennett is projected to fare rather well; and liberal American commentators and journalists are once again, like the late Harold Camping, marking their calendars for the reckoning.

It was into this atmosphere that Bennett sat down for his on-the-record discussion with Indyk, after which he took questions from the audience. The transcript is here, and I recommend the full discussion, but there are a couple of points worth highlighting.

Bennett’s strategy was to be a forceful defender of Israel without lapsing into humorlessness. He succeeded, and at no point in this discussion was that success more impressive than when Indyk–who took potshots at the Israeli government after the talks’ collapse and was later found to be rambling at a bar to all who would listen about Israel’s perfidy–accused Bennett of being disrespectful to the U.S. government. It was milestone in the annals of hypocrisy, a particular talent of Indyk’s that repeated failure has only sharpened.

But Bennett was unafraid to hit back. He repeatedly made an important point that generally goes ignored in the Western press: Israel’s citizens make their own decisions. He knew his audience, he just refused to kowtow to it. When Indyk kept badgering him about global opinion, Bennett said:

Now, it’s the people of Israel — I want to point something out. The audience here and, you know, these sort of conferences does not at all — if I put a poll here probably Zahava Gal-On would be prime minister and maybe Tzipi Livni number two. The only problem with Israel is that for some strange reason they put the polling booths all across Israel and they actually let the public speak up. And the public, which is a very healthy public, does not think that Jerusalem should be split. It does not think that our land is occupied. It does not want to commit suicide.

Later, Bennett pressed Indyk on the fact that the peace process was supposed to bring, you know, peace. And yet, everyone wants to continue without learning from those failures. When Indyk told Bennett “I just think you live in another reality,” Bennett responded:

How many missiles need to fall on Ashkelon until you’ll wake up? How many? How many people need to die in our country until you wake up from this illusion? You know, the Oslo process took more than a thousand lives in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, and I didn’t hear anyone say, you know what, I made a mistake. When are you going to wake up? When is Tzipi Livni going to wake up?

This will not endear him to his critics on the left, especially in America. But it will be seen as a breath of fresh air to the reality-based community. And when Indyk foolishly propagated the long-debunked myth of the so-called root causes of terrorism that put the blame on Israel, Bennett shot back: “Right, because that’s why ISIS is cutting off heads because of Judea and Samaria. Come on, give me a break.”

One of the most important comments Bennett made was an otherwise unremarkable line about Israel’s reputation. In response to Indyk’s warning of Israel’s isolation, Bennett said that Israel’s government has to learn to change the conversation and challenge the false accusations leveled against its democracy: “if something is false and it’s repeated enough times, it becomes sort of common wisdom. We have to undo that.”

And in this Bennett was also revealing something else: one reason for the rise of Bennett and others on the right is the fact that the international community–including now the Obama administration–pulls the conversation so far to the left that Israel must defend itself. The more the world delegitimizes Israel’s rights, the more Israel will need to put those like Naftali Bennett front and center, to pull the conversation back closer to sanity. It’s ironic that the Martin Indyks of the world lament the rise of people like Naftali Bennett, when they do so much to bring it about.

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Bobby Jindal’s Bad Advice

Bobby Jindal is a bright guy and a fine governor, which is why it surprises me when he advances foolish ideas.

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Bobby Jindal is a bright guy and a fine governor, which is why it surprises me when he advances foolish ideas.

Take Jindal’s recent appearance on “The Laura Ingraham Show,” in which he pounded congressional Republicans for not pushing a strategy to oppose the president’s executive order on amnesty that would almost surely lead to a government shutdown.

Governor Jindal declared himself “extremely disappointed” with congressional Republicans who are, in Ingraham’s words, “defanging themselves on the power of the purse.” The Louisiana governor got in the requisite jabs at “the establishment in D.C.” and framed this battle as yet another William Wallace moment. “Why aren’t we willing to fight at least a couple of years to get our freedom back… let’s start the fight, let’s win the fight.”

“Sometimes, we don’t have the courage of our convictions and our principles,” according to Jindal. “If all we do is become cheaper visions of the Democratic Party, there is going to be a revolt against our Republican officials.”

Let’s see if we can untangle Jindal’s argument, starting with this observation: The issue is not, as Jindal and those who agree with him say or imply, that one side opposes Obama’s executive order while the other side supports it. Every conservative I know has been critical, often fiercely critical, of what the president has done. (I referred to it as “an act of constitutional infamy.”) The question is whether the tactic Jindal and others on the right recommend would achieve what they want. The answer is no, just as it was in 2013, when the same basic approach was employed to defund the Affordable Care Act.

No one remotely in touch with political reality believes Mr. Obama will reverse his executive order, just as no one could possibly have believed Obama would deliver a death blow to his signature domestic achievement in 2013. (We got the shutdown, and Obamacare wasn’t defunded.) The only issue, then, is whether the tactic Jindal and others are recommending would politically help the GOP and conservatism, since it has no chance of succeeding substantively. And here, too, the answer is no.

As I pointed out recently, the Republicans are actually in worse shape to pull this off now than they were in October 2013, with the public more inclined to blame Republicans now than they were then. And what Republicans in Congress did then blew up on the GOP, leading to its worst approval ratings on record. They spent many months working to repair the damage.

Some of those who supported the tactics that led to the government shutdown argue that the 2014 midterm elections vindicate what they did. “The shutdown worked,” they declare. This is bizarre. Republicans did so well not because of the shutdown but in spite of it. It had very negative, but not terminal, effects on the GOP. To hold up the 2013 government shutdown as a model is a mistake.

I’d add this: if the approach taken last year was so successful, why don’t those who defend it once again threaten to shutdown the government if the president doesn’t defund the Affordable Care Act? Doesn’t Jindal have the courage of his convictions? Does his reluctance to do this signal that he’s a secret Obamacare supporter?

I understand the need for Republicans to make it absolutely clear that they oppose this Obama-led assault on the separation of powers. The question is how to do so in a way that actually strengthens, not weakens, the political institutions and individuals which can ultimately undo what the president has done.

The Republicans need to advance a conservative governing agenda that is forward-looking, positive, and reconnects them with middle class concerns–and that puts them in the best position to win the presidency in 2016. If Republicans in Congress were to follow the counsel of Jindal and others, it would set back that effort by walking into just the trap the president has set for the GOP. Conservatives would be foolish to give the president and his liberal allies just what they want. Yet some on the right, including the governor of Louisiana, seem intent on doing just that.

Memo to Bobby Jindal: Suicide missions don’t help the cause, and imprudence isn’t conservative. It’s self-destructive.

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Rescue or Ransom? Obama Made Right Call.

This past weekend’s Navy SEAL mission to rescue Luke Somers, an American held by al-Qaeda in Yemen, ended in tragedy when the terrorists holding the photojournalist killed him and his cellmate, South African Pierre Korkie, before they could be rescued. Like all military disasters, the attempt is subject to second-guessing about the risks that were taken. But adding to the anguish of this failure is the revelation that, unbeknownst to the U.S., a South African charity had already negotiated a ransom for Korkie and he was supposed to be released the day after the attempt to free him took place. This opens up President Obama, who personally ordered the mission, as well as the U.S. policy of no negotiations or ransoms for American hostages, to criticism. But as unfortunate as these events may be, the president was right.

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This past weekend’s Navy SEAL mission to rescue Luke Somers, an American held by al-Qaeda in Yemen, ended in tragedy when the terrorists holding the photojournalist killed him and his cellmate, South African Pierre Korkie, before they could be rescued. Like all military disasters, the attempt is subject to second-guessing about the risks that were taken. But adding to the anguish of this failure is the revelation that, unbeknownst to the U.S., a South African charity had already negotiated a ransom for Korkie and he was supposed to be released the day after the attempt to free him took place. This opens up President Obama, who personally ordered the mission, as well as the U.S. policy of no negotiations or ransoms for American hostages, to criticism. But as unfortunate as these events may be, the president was right.

This is not the first time that U.S. policy has been called into question by the outcome of a terrorist kidnapping. Back in September, the family of James Foley, an American who was murdered by his ISIS captors after the U.S. refused to ransom him, criticized the government for not only not saving their son but also for their attempts to prevent them from negotiating a ransom. As far as the Foleys were concerned, the Obama administration had sacrificed their loved one in order to make a political point. The fact that earlier in the year, the same government had negotiated with the Taliban for the freedom of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. solider who had been captured under suspicious circumstances, added hypocrisy to the charges.

But as much as the anguish of the Foleys and the Korkie family is understandable, the president’s decision to choose rescue rather than ransom was entirely correct.

Rather than approach this sad outcome as a human-interest story in which an uncaring government let innocents die to prove a point, our focus should remain on the fact that the West is engaged in a war with Islamist terrorists. Kidnapping is a major source of income for both ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates. These groups profit handsomely from trades for Western hostages and use the funds they acquire to not only kidnap more victims but to strengthen their ability to threaten vital Western interests. Simply put, without the sums they have extracted from European governments in exchange for their citizens, ISIS would not currently be in possession of much of Syria and Iraq.

Unfortunately, the problem with ransoms is not limited to the aid the transactions give to the terrorists. By not coordinating with Western governments, the efforts of groups like the Gift of the Givers charity—the organization that was working for Korkie’s release—make it difficult, if not impossible for the U.S. military to avoid operations that might interfere with a hostage’s release. Instead of castigating the United States for a rescue operation that went wrong, those who, even for altruistic reasons, conduct negotiations that aid the terrorists are ultimately to blame.

The war against Islamist terrorism has dragged on for more than a decade and no end is in sight. Part of the reason for that lies in the inherent difficulties in fighting a movement that can be an elusive if deadly target. Part of it also stems from foolish decisions by the Obama administration that weakened America’s position in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. But those problems notwithstanding, the president and his foreign-policy team cannot be credibly accused of indifference to the lives of Western hostages. Though the administration’s desire to abandon the Middle East and to move to détente with dangerous Iran is a colossal blunder, their commitment to fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda is clear. Those who will blame the president for the deaths of Somers and Korkie need to remember that it is the terrorists who bear all of the responsibility for what happened, not an administration that did the right thing and refused to pay ransoms.

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Why Not Send Development Aid to the Western Sahara?

I spent the last week of November in Morocco in order to attend the Second World Human Rights Forum, an international confab of NGOs working on issues ranging from indigenous language rights, to countering child abuse, to labor issues, to women’s education, to combating torture and providing restitution to its victims.

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I spent the last week of November in Morocco in order to attend the Second World Human Rights Forum, an international confab of NGOs working on issues ranging from indigenous language rights, to countering child abuse, to labor issues, to women’s education, to combating torture and providing restitution to its victims.

The Moroccan Association of Human Rights which, contrary to the reporting of Al Jazeera, is a somewhat obscure group, boycotted (after first demanding and receiving an invitation) the event in protest of, well, it’s never clear when it comes to the Moroccan Association of Human Rights. Yet the fact of the matter is that while far from perfect, Morocco has made great strides in respect for human rights since King Mohammed VI assumed the throne upon his father’s death fifteen years ago. Morocco is the only country, for example, to host a truth and reconciliation committee–with testimony on television no less–without first having regime change. That Mohammed VI encouraged such a process, in effect airing his own father’s dirty laundry, highlights sincerity.

When it comes to language and indigenous rights, Morocco has also been doing the right thing. The Berber language Tamazight is now official, and buildings and documents outside Berber areas now sport it and its distinctive alphabet next to Arabic and French. Berbers also display their own flag, a privilege indigenous groups elsewhere in the Arab world (except in post-war Iraq) and Iran cannot do.

In the Western Sahara, too, the Moroccan government has done the right thing. While Algeria and some other countries dispute Moroccan suzerainty over the Western Sahara, a colonial territory with historic links to Morocco which Morocco occupied upon the Spanish withdrawal, the Moroccan government has flooded the region with resources to spark its economy and provide better schooling, housing, and other infrastructure than is available in much of the rest of country. This coming year, Morocco will begin implementing its regionalization plan, effectively giving the Western Sahara local autonomy, and setting the stage for greater regional autonomy throughout the diverse country.

To support Morocco’s success as it moves forward, the United States should begin providing development assistance directly to the Western Sahara. Traditionally, the United States has avoided doing so because of disputes over the Western Sahara’s status, but U.S. policy now embraces Morocco’s suzerainty over an autonomous Western Sahara. There is no legal impediment to providing development aid to the region, one which I was fortunate to visit a year ago. The irony of the current situation is that the United States essentially aids one side of the dispute—Sahrawi refugees stuck in Algerian refugee camps—through the donations the United States makes to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Program. And yet, USAID refuses to provide assistance to support those refugees who have escaped their Algerian and Polisario captors and decided to return to the Western Sahara. It should be the policy of the United States to end refugee crises, rather the perpetuating them.

The biggest problem the Western Sahara now faces is capacity. The region will soon do far more to govern itself, but the managerial and bureaucratic class in the region has little to no experience doing so. American aid to develop real managerial capacity and build up the independence and autonomy of civil society could be crucial. And Morocco would welcome it. So would the Sahrawis living in Moroccan Western Sahara. How sad and short-sighted it is, then, that rather than assist the one regional state that is stable and secure, has listened to the international community, and is doing the right thing, the United States seems intent on turning its back on an opportunity to make permanent Morocco’s progress and provide a base and a model for local autonomy which could expand stability and democracy well beyond Morocco’s borders.

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A Digital Milestone

Today was a bittersweet day for me. After decreasing the frequency of print newspaper delivery to weekends only, I finally cut the print umbilical cord altogether. I have gone all-digital with my subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Financial Times.

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Today was a bittersweet day for me. After decreasing the frequency of print newspaper delivery to weekends only, I finally cut the print umbilical cord altogether. I have gone all-digital with my subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Financial Times.

As a former newspaperman who once worked at the Los Angeles Times (as an intern, stringer, and later columnist), the Christian Science Monitor (as an assistant national editor), and the Wall Street Journal (as op-ed editor and editorial writer), I never thought I would see the day when a big block of newsprint was no longer delivered to my doorstep every morning. I grew up in the 1980s when the romance of print journalism–cue His Girl Friday and All the Presidents Men and The Paper–still existed, indeed when it was still strong.

This was the era when big news at night meant a call to “stop the presses!”–and that wasn’t just metaphorical. More likely, in reality, the presses kept rolling (stopping them and pulping the papers already printed was costly) but later editions were adjusted with the latest news. But in any case, and despite the advent of television with its nightly newscasts and an upstart all-news channel called CNN, there was still an inseparable relationship between “news” and “print.” I remember going to see the giant printing presses of my hometown Los Angeles Times and thrilling at their speed and power–giant industrial age dynamos pumping out countless millions of newsprint pages every night with a mighty thwack-thwack-thwack.

On a lesser scale, at Cleveland High School in Reseda, California, where I was the editor of both the official school newspaper and the “underground” (i.e., unofficial) newspaper, I remember pasting up pages, taking them to the print shop, and distributing the paper copies myself. My relationship to print was visceral and passionate.

So what happened? In a word, the iPad. Blame or credit Steve Jobs: I have found that it’s simply easier to read newspaper on my iPad, rather than slogging downstairs to pick up the print copy–if it’s there. Often it isn’t–either not delivered or stolen. Or sometimes it’s there and wet. No matter what, there is a hassle involved with a print subscription which only multiplies when you go out of town–you have to remember to suspend delivery.

Once upon a time, when I was traveling (which I do a fair amount), I would have to hunt down a print paper; in Europe, that usually meant finding an International Herald Tribune (now the International New York Times), with its day-old news. The iPad (or any other tablet for that matter) removes all that inconvenience. It not only allows you to get exactly the same newspaper in Kathmandu that you get in New York, it actually delivers stories during the day and at night; so you no longer have to wait until the next morning to find out what happened.

And, no, this isn’t a paid message from Apple. This is an admission wrung out of me almost despite myself.

It is a bittersweet moment for me going all-digital, but in leaving print behind I am decidedly not abandoning my newspaper reading habit. I am merely transferring it to another medium. I continue to believe that what the big newspapers do is essential, even if their newsgathering has now been complemented by numerous online news services from Twitter to the Huffington Post.

But so much of what occurs online is merely passing on the reporting of others; it is a giant self-referential loop. Someone still has to do the essential reporting–to gather the facts, often at great expense and inconvenience. Only mighty news organizations with a tradition of quality journalism have the wherewithal to continue providing this service. I am happy to pay for their product, whether online or in print, and hope they will continue to thrive.

Print may be dying but the news business should live on. I hope.

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An Insider’s Account of Open Hillel

Holly Bicerano is no friend of ours. In her Times of Israel blog, she has defended the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.’s) indefensible divestment vote, denied that Israel’s most recent Gaza incursion was “self-defense,” and complained that Israel is sabotaging Palestinian democracy. It therefore is telling that, for this former member of the Open Hillel Steering Committee and Jewish Voices for Peace, Open Hillel is too dishonest and malicious to command her allegiance.

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Holly Bicerano is no friend of ours. In her Times of Israel blog, she has defended the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.’s) indefensible divestment vote, denied that Israel’s most recent Gaza incursion was “self-defense,” and complained that Israel is sabotaging Palestinian democracy. It therefore is telling that, for this former member of the Open Hillel Steering Committee and Jewish Voices for Peace, Open Hillel is too dishonest and malicious to command her allegiance.

Open Hillel was founded in 2012 at Harvard University. (Aiden Pink’s account of the organization is worth reading in its entirety.) Harvard’s Hillel had refused to co-sponsor an event with Harvard’s Palestinian Solidarity Committee, which supports the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement against Israel. According to Hillel International’s “Standards of Partnership,” a Hillel will not “partner with, house, or host” organizations that support BDS. The Open Hillel movement encourages campus Hillels to defy that standard.

Because Open Hillel claims to stand for “inclusivity and open discourse,” and it is hard to be against those things, it has attracted some support. Vassar College and Swarthmore’s Hillel organizations have officially rejected the Standards of Partnership and declared themselves Open Hillels. But Jonathan Tobin and Ben Cohen have warned in these pages that Open Hillel’s talk of inclusiveness is a ploy. The intent of Open Hillel is a hostile takeover of as many Hillels as its members can gain influence over, with a view to turning Hillel, the central Jewish organization in American campus life, into an instrument of the campaign to turn Israel into a pariah state. Bicerano, an insider, says that Open Hillel’s critics are absolutely right.

“While Open Hillel’s stated aims are open dialogue and inclusiveness,” Bicerano explains, “the organization in actuality has something else in mind. The people who claim that Open Hillel’s main objective is to garner support for the BDS movement may not realize just how right they are.” First, leaders of Open Hillel voted to form a committee to explore an “anti-normalization” campaign “to end joint discussions and programs between Jews and Palestinians unless they subscribe to the BDS movement.” Although the committee allegedly was created to foster “open discussion” about anti-normalization, it has in fact, according to Bicerano, stacked discussions in favor of the campaign.

Moreover, Open Hillel never publicly announced the formation of the committee, presumably because any fool can see that one does not “create open dialogue by empowering people who are against it.” Bicerano concludes, based on her experience on the steering committee, that Open Hillel “has fallen into the hands of anti-normalization activists.”

Second, Bicerano has apparently just noticed that students involved in the BDS movement have no interest in inclusiveness or dialogue. “Bringing pro-BDS groups into Hillel,” she has realized, “will not mean more open dialogue and inclusiveness. From disrupting pro-Israel events to blocking Birthright tables, these groups regularly employ tactics that create a hostile atmosphere for pro-Israel students.” Bicerano even concedes that “anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism often go hand in hand.”

Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership are not perfect. For example, Hillel will not host speakers who hold Israel to a “double standard.” This maddeningly vague guideline would seem to rule out liberal Zionists who adamantly oppose BDS but think that the Jewish state should indeed abide by higher standards than most states. But as Bicerano points out, this guideline has been applied in such a way that advocates of a settlement boycott are “already permitted to speak at Hillel.” It is tolerably clear to a fair-minded observer that what Hillel seeks to prevent is not criticism, even harsh criticism, of Israel, but the use of its name to further the destruction of Israel. Bicerano’s insider confirmation that Hillel is, if anything, understating the extent to which Open Hillel is out to destroy it, is welcome.

Note: Legal Insurrection’s account, of which I just became aware, is here and worth reading.

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Elliott Abrams: How COMMENTARY Does It

It’s notorious, and true, that government officials hardly read anything. Memos, sure; nowadays, emails and tweets as well. But magazines? People barely have time to eat lunch or see their kids, so how can an intellectual monthly affect public affairs?

The question is a good one. How did COMMENTARY do it?

The answer is that officials, like all citizens following American foreign policy, need a way to understand the world around them. When prevailing theories fail, when conventional wisdom is clearly at variance with what they see before their eyes, the outcome for senators and congressmen and White House officials is what the shrinks call cognitive dissonance. They may say one thing but believe another, or simply be unable to square previous beliefs and policies with the clear effects of U.S. conduct. They’ve lost the ability to explain the world.

And then came COMMENTARY, offering month after month of piercing, bracing analysis–and value judgments of right and wrong, and clear writing about American gains and losses. Here was an insistence on looking reality in the face. Here was plain argument, seeking no quarter intellectually and giving none.

And it mattered. It shamed some people, and emboldened others; COMMENTARY demanded that we conform policy to the opportunities and dangers that really faced America. In years of confusion and obfuscation, that striking clarity changed policies, and changed American conduct, because it changed the way we understood the world.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

It’s notorious, and true, that government officials hardly read anything. Memos, sure; nowadays, emails and tweets as well. But magazines? People barely have time to eat lunch or see their kids, so how can an intellectual monthly affect public affairs?

The question is a good one. How did COMMENTARY do it?

The answer is that officials, like all citizens following American foreign policy, need a way to understand the world around them. When prevailing theories fail, when conventional wisdom is clearly at variance with what they see before their eyes, the outcome for senators and congressmen and White House officials is what the shrinks call cognitive dissonance. They may say one thing but believe another, or simply be unable to square previous beliefs and policies with the clear effects of U.S. conduct. They’ve lost the ability to explain the world.

And then came COMMENTARY, offering month after month of piercing, bracing analysis–and value judgments of right and wrong, and clear writing about American gains and losses. Here was an insistence on looking reality in the face. Here was plain argument, seeking no quarter intellectually and giving none.

And it mattered. It shamed some people, and emboldened others; COMMENTARY demanded that we conform policy to the opportunities and dangers that really faced America. In years of confusion and obfuscation, that striking clarity changed policies, and changed American conduct, because it changed the way we understood the world.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

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Anticorruption or Power Grab in China?

After Stalin died, his longtime secret police chief, the sadistic Lavrentiy Beria, was arrested and shot in 1953 on the orders of the Politburo. A similar fate–minus, for the time being, the execution–seems to have befallen Zhou Yongkang, a former head of the Politburo Standing Committee in China with responsibility for domestic security. On the orders of President Xi Jingping, and with the compliance of the Politburo, he has been arrested and charged with a raft of offenses including bribery, disclosing state secrets, and adultery.

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After Stalin died, his longtime secret police chief, the sadistic Lavrentiy Beria, was arrested and shot in 1953 on the orders of the Politburo. A similar fate–minus, for the time being, the execution–seems to have befallen Zhou Yongkang, a former head of the Politburo Standing Committee in China with responsibility for domestic security. On the orders of President Xi Jingping, and with the compliance of the Politburo, he has been arrested and charged with a raft of offenses including bribery, disclosing state secrets, and adultery.

His arrest is shocking because in the past current and retired Communist kingpins were considered invulnerable. No longer. The Bo Xilai arrest was only a start to a wider purge of corrupt officials that Xi Jinping is carrying out. But is good government really his motive–or is he simply interested in accumulating more power for himself and is he using the anti-corruption crusade as a cover to depose various rivals?

There is division on this question among Sinologists but the bulk of the evidence points to the latter conclusion–that Xi Jinping is accumulating personal power unprecedented for any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong under the guise of fighting corruption. Indeed it is striking that, even amid this anti-corruption campaign, China is viewed in the Transparency International survey as being more corrupt than ever.

China actually dropped 20 places to rank 100th in corruption among the 175 nations surveyed. The New York Times quotes a Transparency International spokesman saying that the anticorruption drive is missing “stronger laws on bribery, access to information, whistle-blower protection, more open budgets and asset declarations.” In short, what is missing is the rule of law.

Unfortunately, it appears that China is not seeing the impartial application of rules against bribery. What it is seeing is a highly selective personal vendetta carried out by one Communist boss against other Communist bosses. That is not going to reduce the longterm questions about China’s future, which is undermined by corruption and lack of accountability and freedom

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Feinstein Putting Petty Politics above National Security

During the Bush administration and in the wake of 9/11, CIA interrogation policy and extraordinary rendition became a lightning rod for controversy (never mind that the Clinton administration had also embraced rendition). In short, terror suspects were often snatched and transferred for interrogation to other countries, some of which allegedly engage in torture. Senate Democrats launched an investigation, and Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, planned to release the report this week.

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During the Bush administration and in the wake of 9/11, CIA interrogation policy and extraordinary rendition became a lightning rod for controversy (never mind that the Clinton administration had also embraced rendition). In short, terror suspects were often snatched and transferred for interrogation to other countries, some of which allegedly engage in torture. Senate Democrats launched an investigation, and Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, planned to release the report this week.

On Friday, Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin broke the news that:

Secretary of State John Kerry personally phoned Dianne Feinstein… to ask her to delay the imminent release of her committee’s report on CIA torture and rendition during the George W. Bush administration, according to administration and Congressional officials. Kerry was not going rogue — his call came after an interagency process that decided the release of the report early next week, as Feinstein had been planning,  could complicate relationships with foreign countries at a sensitive time and posed an unacceptable risk to U.S. personnel and facilities abroad.  Kerry told Feinstein he still supports releasing the report, just not right now.

Kerry is absolutely right to delay the report; he would be even more correct to ask Feinstein to table the report forever, if he and she valued the protection of American national interests over petty political vendettas. After all, if Feinstein were truly acting on principle, she would have targeted President Bill Clinton for investigation with the same gusto with which she came after the Bush administration. According to Washington Post columnist and former Bush administration speech writer Marc Thiessen:

…The men who decided to carry out the first extraordinary rendition of a terrorist target — over the legal objections of the White House counsel’s office — were Al Gore and Bill Clinton, according a description of the meeting by the counterterrorism adviser, Richard Clarke, in his memoir, “Against All Enemies.”

Back to Feinstein: Rogin provides further details on how Feinstein has sought to have the report identify in reality if not in name the countries which assisted the United States with extraordinary rendition:

Feinstein was able to ensure that her release would include information about countries that secretly helped the CIA hide and abuse prisoners, although those countries would not be named directly.

This illustrates the unfortunate and growing tendency in Congress and within the Obama administration to treat allies with disdain. If blogger and writer Jeffrey Goldberg is to be believed, a senior Obama administration official called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “chickenshit” and bragged about how Netanyahu couldn’t possibly strike at Iran, hardly a sign of gratitude to a leader who agreed to delay any military strike against Iran at the request of President Obama. Rather than thank Israel for its deference, the White House deliberately sought to humiliate its ally.

In the days, months, and, indeed, years after 9/11, allies bent over backwards to help the United States respond to a growing terror scourge unlike anything the world had ever seen. Some did so reluctantly. Some disagreed with American policy, but bit their tongue and cooperated simply because that is what allies do in times of need when they receive such a request. Feinstein, however, is willing to punish them simply because she does not like George W. Bush. Make no mistake, Feinstein and Kerry may see the world through a partisan lens, but most U.S. allies support what the United States stands for regardless of who occupies the Oval Office. To embarrass these countries for domestic partisan reasons is short-sighted.

The next time the United States has a request—and it won’t matter what party occupies the White House or controls the Congress or what exactly the United States asks—it will be all the more difficult if not impossible to achieve international cooperation. After all, allies might conclude it simply isn’t worth the political risk that they will be targeted because of Washington vendettas that have absolutely nothing to do with them. Feinstein might believe that the United States will never face a parallel to what occurred during the Bush administration, but the nature of crises is that they are simply unpredictable.

Senators should be able to see the big picture, and they should never subordinate national security and national interests to short-term and cynical political agendas. The bigger threats now are the those posed by Russia, Iran, and China, countries which do far worse than the United States on a daily basis. Exposing American operations doesn’t convince the world the Americans are clean; it simply feeds the propaganda outlets in Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing.

Don’t like CIA methods and extraordinary rendition? By all means, use all legislative and oversight power to put an end to it. But don’t drag allies into a political debate or air dirty laundry publicly. Don’t damage relations. Trust is at the heart of alliances, and once destroyed, it will never be rebuilt. Let us never punish allies and their leaders for standing by America when the request comes, no matter what politicians may, in hindsight, think of that request.

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Shuffling the Deck Won’t Topple Netanyahu

The announcement this week of early elections for Israel may have been, at least in part, precipitated by polls showing that the results of a new vote would great strengthen the hand of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But after six years of Netanyahu at the top of the heap, not unsurprisingly, there is a lot of “anybody but Bibi” talk ricocheting around the Internet that posits that the Israeli public is ready for a change in leaders even if there doesn’t seem to be a viable alternative to him or a willingness to reject his policies on the peace process. Equally unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of volunteers to be the PM’s replacement and opposition figures as well as coalition rivals are negotiating furiously with each other for new alignments that might somehow magically unseat Netanyahu. But while a lot can happen in the three months until the election, neither the boredom with Bibi or any combination of new elections slates seems likely to produce a formula in which he is not sworn in for a fourth term sometime next Spring.

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The announcement this week of early elections for Israel may have been, at least in part, precipitated by polls showing that the results of a new vote would great strengthen the hand of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But after six years of Netanyahu at the top of the heap, not unsurprisingly, there is a lot of “anybody but Bibi” talk ricocheting around the Internet that posits that the Israeli public is ready for a change in leaders even if there doesn’t seem to be a viable alternative to him or a willingness to reject his policies on the peace process. Equally unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of volunteers to be the PM’s replacement and opposition figures as well as coalition rivals are negotiating furiously with each other for new alignments that might somehow magically unseat Netanyahu. But while a lot can happen in the three months until the election, neither the boredom with Bibi or any combination of new elections slates seems likely to produce a formula in which he is not sworn in for a fourth term sometime next Spring.

Most of Netanyahu’s foreign critics are blowing smoke when they claim that the Israeli people are about to reject him because they are dissatisfied with his inability to make peace with the Palestinians. After 20 years of failed attempts to trade land for peace and the growing volume of terror attacks fueled by incitement by the country’s so-called partner, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, only a minority of Israelis have the least faith in the prospects of peace. But as is the case in any democracy, a feeling of exhaustion with Netanyahu after three terms as PM and a desire for a change is to be expected.

Indeed, the less than satisfactory results of last summer’s war with Hamas, a sluggish economy and justified dismay at the way the prime minister turned a pointless dispute with his fractious coalition allies into a move to entirely unnecessary elections ought to form a rationale for his ouster. But as even his most bitter enemies on the left concede, there is no one on either side of the left-right divide who strikes anyone as a likely replacement.

The Knesset’s vote to dissolve was quickly followed by intense negotiations on the part of the various parties to set up informal or formal alliances. On the one hand Netanyahu seems to have struck a bargain with his chief rival on the right, Naphtali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party in which the two would run separately but work together after the vote to set up a government. Other members of the recent government, including Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beytenu and Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid may also work together in conjunction with the real wild card of the vote: Moshe Kahlon, the former Likud Cabinet member who is starting his own populist party. At the same time, Tzipi Livni of Hatnua is shopping for a new electoral home (her fourth in the last decade after stints in Likud, Kadima and her current roost) in either Labor or Yesh Atid since the chances of her splinter group getting back into the Knesset on its own steam are not great.

This is all fascinating stuff for Zionist political junkies but the bottom line here remains the fact that no matter how you reshuffle the political deck in Israel, you still come up with the same amount of cards on both the left, the right and the center. The stock and likely haul of Knesset seats for Lapid, Lieberman and Livni are all declining. Lapid may lose as many as half his seats. The Likud will likely gain seats from its current total (in the last election it split seats with Lieberman’s party and wound up with a smaller total than it could have gotten on its own) while Bennett’s party looks to gain even more. Kahlon’s new entity will likely pick off Lapid and Livni’s losses and may eat into Likud’s gains as Kahlon tries to position himself as being “a little right of center.” Anything can happen in 90 days of campaigning but the net result of all the maneuvering and politicking is probably going to be an overall gain for the right-wing parties and stasis among the centrists.

Even more important, and deeply discouraging for Netanyahu’s foreign detractors is that the parties of the Israeli left show no signs of being able to profit from the ennui and dissatisfaction with the prime minister. Labor head Yitzhak Herzog is well liked but, at least to date, considered something of a political cipher. The once dominant Labor Party appears headed at the moment to a loss of seats rather than gaining. Meretz, its ally to the left is not doing well either.

That, along with the expected gains for the right, stems from the fact that security issues are more important this time than in the last vote when domestic concerns about the economy made Lapid the star of the election. All of which brings us back to where we started in discussing the unrealistic hopes of those who believe Israel needs to be saved from itself. The overwhelming majority of Israeli voters do not want a government that will bow to pressure from an American president that they have good reason not to trust or a European community they regard as being influenced by a rising tide of global anti-Semitism.

The campaign will be difficult for Netanyahu and he won’t have an easy time negotiating a new coalition agreement even if the current trends hold and the parties of the right have a governing majority even before adding religious or centrist parties to the mix. But the reshuffle of the deck that we are currently witnessing doesn’t seem to be likely to prevent a fourth term for the prime minister. President Obama and his J Street friends may be praying for an “anybody but Bibi” result next March. But the old political axiom that says you can’t beat somebody with nobody would appear to trump those hopes.

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Monsanto For the Win!

On Wednesday night, Intelligence Squared U.S. held an enlightening debate on genetically modified foods on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (video here). As anyone with a web browser knows, companies like Monsanto are now routinely portrayed in the media (especially social media) as the epitome of corporate evil. The idea is that GMO companies are remorselessly destroying the earth and poisoning mankind with Frankenstein foods in order to line the pockets of their one-percenter CEOs. Well, a fascinating thing happened very early in the debate that shed light on all this. Charles Benbrook, a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources was asked about the scientific consensus, developed over 20 years, on the health impact of genetically modified food. Here’s his response:

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On Wednesday night, Intelligence Squared U.S. held an enlightening debate on genetically modified foods on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (video here). As anyone with a web browser knows, companies like Monsanto are now routinely portrayed in the media (especially social media) as the epitome of corporate evil. The idea is that GMO companies are remorselessly destroying the earth and poisoning mankind with Frankenstein foods in order to line the pockets of their one-percenter CEOs. Well, a fascinating thing happened very early in the debate that shed light on all this. Charles Benbrook, a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources was asked about the scientific consensus, developed over 20 years, on the health impact of genetically modified food. Here’s his response:

I’ve read essentially all the statements by various bodies. And here’s what they essentially all say. They use slightly different words. They say that genetic – the genetic engineering of food as a technology does not create any new or different potential risks in the modified foods that other forms of plant breeding don’t. Several of the reports, including both of the two national academy of science reports that specifically address this say that there is a possibility that genetically engineered foods may pose higher risk of that nature, but we really don’t know. They also all say that there’s no convincing evidence now or at this point that there’s been acute health problems in the U.S. population from the consumption of genetically engineered foods. And then they all go on to call for further investment in the development of more sensitive, scientific techniques to assess the possibility risks, and they also call for post approval surveillance. Most of the recommendations for better science, more careful risk assessment and post market surveillance that have been made for over 15 years, and these reports have not been acted upon.

Here’s why this was fascinating: Benbrook was on the team arguing against GMOs. He’s the cream of the anti-GMO crop and he concedes that there’s essentially no evidence of baleful health effects owing to genetically modified foods. Sure, he insinuates that the 20 years of studies might be the wrong studies. But that’s just the weak sauce offered up by devoted adherents of all failed ideologies—true communism has yet to be tried, you know?

The rest of the night went the same way. Crop yield, environmental concerns, you name it—it was a clean sweep for the pro-GMO side. At one point Benbrook’s anti-GMO teammate Margaret Mellon, a former senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, conceded that she had no interest in banning GMOs at all. Rather, she just thinks they haven’t done as much good as they were intended to do and should therefore be “set off to the side of the stage.”

It was an official trouncing. In an audience vote taken before the debate 32 percent were in favor of genetically modified foods and 30 percent were against (the rest were undecided). After the debate, 60 percent were for and 31 percent against.

We see here the intellectual gulf that separates the hyperbolic social-media activist and the thoughtful expert in the field. Progressive Facebook crusaders are forever telling us we’re anti-science if we don’t accept their doomsday prophecies. Tell it to the scientists.

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The Last Day of Congressional Democrats

The outcome of tomorrow’s Louisiana Senate runoff election is not in much doubt. With the most recent state poll showing Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy with a whopping 26-point lead over incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, it is a virtual certainty that the last vote of the 2014 midterms will ensure that the GOP will have a 54-46 Senate majority in January. Even before the votes are counted, the result is being rightly touted as the end of the Democratic Party in the South. But while the reasons for this are worth examining, it’s also important to point out that the implications of this trend have more than a regional impact. Just as the Democrats have developed a built-in advantage in the Electoral College in presidential elections, a new solid South in the hands of the Republicans means they have now acquired an equally potent edge that should allow them to retain control of Congress for the foreseeable future.

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The outcome of tomorrow’s Louisiana Senate runoff election is not in much doubt. With the most recent state poll showing Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy with a whopping 26-point lead over incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, it is a virtual certainty that the last vote of the 2014 midterms will ensure that the GOP will have a 54-46 Senate majority in January. Even before the votes are counted, the result is being rightly touted as the end of the Democratic Party in the South. But while the reasons for this are worth examining, it’s also important to point out that the implications of this trend have more than a regional impact. Just as the Democrats have developed a built-in advantage in the Electoral College in presidential elections, a new solid South in the hands of the Republicans means they have now acquired an equally potent edge that should allow them to retain control of Congress for the foreseeable future.

As Nate Cohn writes in the New York Times’s Upshot section, though most put the shift of the South into the GOP column down to race, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Democrats survived and even thrived at times in the Deep South decades after Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” enabled Republicans to flip the region into the GOP column in presidential elections. But the steady drift of the Democratic Party to the left on social, cultural, and economic issues has now alienated most voters in these states and left moderate Democrats like Landrieu increasingly isolated from both their constituencies and their national party.

As Cohn notes, blaming this solely on alleged white racism or on a backlash against President Obama ignores the fact that Democratic losses in the South can be traced to the way the party has embraced liberal issues that energize its northern and urban base but which alienates southerners:

Yet nonracial factors are most of the reason for Mr. Obama’s weakness. The long-term trends are clear. Mr. Kerry, for instance, fared worse than Michael Dukakis among most white Southerners, often losing vast swaths of traditionally Democratic countryside where once-reliably Democratic voters had either died or become disillusioned by the party’s stance on cultural issues. It seems hard to argue that the Democrats could have retained much support among rural, evangelical Southern voters as the party embraced liberalism on issues like same sex marriage and abortion.

The loss of so many House seats in the South for Democrats is often also blamed on gerrymandering. But there, as much if not more than anyplace in the country, it’s the Voting Rights Act that is at fault. By piling as many black voters as possible into absurdly shaped majority-minority districts, the legislatures have obeyed the law’s mandate and ensured the survival of a large number of black Democrats. But given the fact that southern whites now vote for Republicans in the same kind of uniform manner as blacks do for Democrats, the practice has also made it impossible to create swing districts in the South.

It is true that the two southern states where a majority of the population was born elsewhere—Virginia and Florida—remain competitive for the Democrats. But elsewhere, white Democrats are becoming a rarity.

This changes nothing in presidential elections since Republicans have been winning most of the South since Lyndon Johnson was president. But the collapse of support for moderate southern Democrats gives the GOP a built-in advantage in retaining both House and Senate majorities. Many have claimed the Republicans’ 2014 victory will be short-lived since the 2016 election map forces them to defend so many seats, including a number in states where Democrats should be expected to prevail especially in a presidential year. But the losses of seats in West Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Louisiana strips away the Democrats’ firewall that might have enabled them to mount a quick comeback in 2016 with what is expected to be a strong presidential candidate on the top of the ticket.

Pundits have spent most of the last two years focusing exclusively on the problems Republicans have experienced with minority voters in an electorate that gets less white every year. But, as I noted yesterday, the Democrats’ decision to expend all their political capital on ObamaCare when they controlled Congress from 2008 to 2010, rather than concentrating on economic issues, made a return to power for the GOP inevitable. They appear to be making the same mistake now by enacting policies—now via lawless executive orders issued by President Obama rather than legislation—on immigration that alienate more white middle and working class voters while not significantly improving their already dominant position with minorities.

All of this presents serious problems to a Democratic Party that is no longer competitive in southern states. By tying their fate so firmly to a strategy based on black and Hispanic voters, Democrats are telling a large portion of the nation to go jump in a lake. Though whites are no longer as numerous as they once were, they still are a large majority of the population. That means the GOP’s hold on white males in particular is so great as to now make their abandonment of the Democrats a far greater demographic disaster than the problems Republicans have with Hispanics.

In a sense today may be the last day of the Southern Democratic Party. But it may also be the last day when the national Democratic Party had any hope of returning to power in the Senate for some time to come.

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Heather Mac Donald: COMMENTARY’s Inestimable Gift

Anyone looking for a definitive exposition of a significant historical moment—whether UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, say, or the battles over “general education” at Harvard—has at his fingertips an inestimable gift: COMMENTARY’s archives, which contain countless gems of reporting and analysis. Today’s generation of COMMENTARY writers is building an equally invaluable store of knowledge for future researchers and scholars.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

Anyone looking for a definitive exposition of a significant historical moment—whether UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, say, or the battles over “general education” at Harvard—has at his fingertips an inestimable gift: COMMENTARY’s archives, which contain countless gems of reporting and analysis. Today’s generation of COMMENTARY writers is building an equally invaluable store of knowledge for future researchers and scholars.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

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The Case Against Ad Hominem Arguments

Mike Gallagher is a popular radio talk-show host. I’ve long had a cordial relationship with him, and I’ve appeared on his program many times. But Gallagher and I sometimes occupy very different rooms within the conservative mansion. He usually has me on when we disagree on something, and Thursday was no exception. He took issue with my piece on the killing of Eric Garner by Officer Daniel Pantaleo.

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Mike Gallagher is a popular radio talk-show host. I’ve long had a cordial relationship with him, and I’ve appeared on his program many times. But Gallagher and I sometimes occupy very different rooms within the conservative mansion. He usually has me on when we disagree on something, and Thursday was no exception. He took issue with my piece on the killing of Eric Garner by Officer Daniel Pantaleo.

One of the arguments Gallagher made is that the shooting of Michael Brown, who, the preponderance of evidence showed, assaulted and attacked Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, was very nearly the same as the Pantaleo-Garner incident. This strikes me as bizarre. As Andrew McCarthy, the outstanding former federal prosecutor, wrote, “there is a difference between resisting arrest by not cooperating, as Garner was doing in Staten Island, and resisting arrest by violent assaults and threats of harm, as Michael Brown did in Ferguson.”

But I want to focus on another exchange we had. In this instance, Gallagher accused me, Charles Krauthammer, and Bill O’Reilly of “throwing the other side [liberals] a bone.” We decided to “feign disappointment with the grand jury decision to just show that we’re just trying to spread around the love a little bit here.” There was “a little bit of a contrived reaction on this issue.”

My response was that this kind of ad hominem criticism doesn’t really advance serious public debate. And there’s no end to this. To illustrate the point, I told Gallagher it’s the same thing I (or anyone else, for that matter) could do with him: go on his show and accuse him of putting forward views he can’t possibly believe for ratings, in order to play to his right-wing audience. You can see how frivolous and adolescent this can get. To slightly amend the philosopher Sidney Hook, before impugning an opponent’s motives, answer his arguments. (To be fair, Gallagher did back away from his claims a bit in the show.)

But there’s a deeper point to be made here. The reason Gallagher made this accusation against Krauthammer, O’Reilly, and me is because he simply can’t comprehend why we would hold the views we do. Gallagher considers his views so self-evidently right, and ours so self-evidently wrong, that the only explanation he can think of to make sense of things is that our views are inauthentic and manufactured.

This puts the spotlight on a widespread malady we find in several disciplines, including theology, philosophy, and politics: (a) the belief that I possess the whole truth; and (b) the inability to even entertain the idea that those who hold views different than mine might have some validity. In this case, to believe that a New York cop might have used too much force against Eric Garner is completely irrational and illogical; no conservative could believe such a thing. Hence the charge that our views are contrived.

I’m not naive; I know a variety of motivations can drive people to say and do all sorts of things, and sometimes individuals need to be called out. But as a general matter we should attack people’s motivations only in cases where there’s a fair amount of evidence of bad faith. Too often these days this is done reflexively, as a substitute for serious arguments. It’s a manifestation of lazy thinking.

All of us who are in the commentary business believe our views are right and those who hold views different than ours are wrong. Certitude comes with the territory. But there is such a thing as gradations, of where we fall on the continuum; and it does seem to me we live in a time characterized by unusual dogmatism and absolutism. Too many of us haven’t learned what is certainly one of the hardest things in life to learn, which is a certain epistemological modesty, the awareness that my understanding of the world isn’t fully accurate and that other people see things through a different lens than we do. That may make them wrong; it doesn’t make them dishonest or dishonorable.

My guess is that Mike Gallagher got caught up in the moment, which we all do. But it is a cautionary tale, precisely because what happened is so common these days. We really are better off without it.

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NYT on Garner: We Should Have Bad Laws Just Not Enforce Them

To read the New York Times today on the tragic death of Eric Garner is to forget, momentarily, the ideological canyon between right and left in America. Conservatives have not been shy about expressing their outrage both at the excessive force used by police against Garner and at the seemingly bizarre grand jury decision not to indict the officer responsible, despite the video evidence, as the Times reports in its news pages today. Conservatives have also criticized the unintended–and in this case, as in others, deadly–consequences of bad laws. Liberals have pushed back on this, but conservatives got an unexpected (and, one suspects, unintentional) note of support from the New York Times editorial page.

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To read the New York Times today on the tragic death of Eric Garner is to forget, momentarily, the ideological canyon between right and left in America. Conservatives have not been shy about expressing their outrage both at the excessive force used by police against Garner and at the seemingly bizarre grand jury decision not to indict the officer responsible, despite the video evidence, as the Times reports in its news pages today. Conservatives have also criticized the unintended–and in this case, as in others, deadly–consequences of bad laws. Liberals have pushed back on this, but conservatives got an unexpected (and, one suspects, unintentional) note of support from the New York Times editorial page.

Garner was being confronted by police in the first place because he was selling “loosies”–individual cigarettes. The black market for cigarettes was created by New York’s insanely high tax on cigarettes, a so-called “sin tax” because it is meant to dissuade citizens from behavior the state considers too harmful to themselves. It is a way for the nanny state to exert more control over people and to satisfy its desire to use citizens as guinea pigs in a big-government social engineering scheme. The cigarette tax is an effectively regressive tax on low-income communities. The state then sends the police to these low-income communities to enforce it.

Liberals are quite fond of social engineering and taxing low-income communities to grow their leviathan. But liberals aren’t so fond of police. Conservatives have pointed out that this is one of the many contradictions at the heart of modern liberalism. They have used the Garner case to point out that using the state’s enforcers to hassle citizens over bad laws can be deadly. This is unquestionably true, and the Garner case is one example.

That doesn’t negate a possible racial angle–the liberals’ tax scheme, after all, means minorities will be targeted in addition to the already fraught relationship between the police and the black community. And it doesn’t exonerate the police, especially since they apparently used a banned hold on Garner which caused his death. It’s just one factor to consider, and it’s one with a clear policy angle as well.

Today, however, conservatives should read the New York Times editorial on Garner. The Times is a far-left voice, and a reflexive one at that, so you don’t usually need to read the dumbed-down DNC press releases they pass off as editorials. But today’s is interesting. The editorialists mainly focus on the use of excessive force. But then they offer this quite revealing paragraph:

The Garner killing must lead to major changes in policy, particularly in the use of “broken windows” policing — a strategy in which Officer Pantaleo specialized, according to a report in September by WNYC, which found that he had made hundreds of arrests since joining the force in 2007, leading to at least 259 criminal cases, all but a fraction of those involving petty offenses. The department must find a better way to keep communities safe than aggressively hounding the sellers of loose cigarettes.

Read that last sentence again: “The department must find a better way to keep communities safe than aggressively hounding the sellers of loose cigarettes.” In other words, this law should be on the books but cops shouldn’t enforce it.

High regulatory burdens that contradict market demands result in black markets. We don’t have quite the problem with this that some of our European friends do because we haven’t completely abandoned market economics for the administrative state. But we’re getting closer, as the Western left’s program demands. And as we get closer, the left is beginning to notice that the financial burden of a high-tax, overly regulated government is not only shouldered by “Big Oil” or Wall Street or other bogeymen.

Those burdens–especially of taxes, as everybody knows–filter down to those the New York Times’s editors write about with empathy but in whose neighborhoods they would never choose to live. So the Garner case is giving them a window into the sometimes-deadly unintended consequences of the administrative state. Conservatives want to alleviate that burden, and the left won’t speak of it.

But who sounds more compassionate, more rational, more reality-based here? The liberal position, such as that of the New York Times, is that we should have bad laws but not enforce them, undermining the rule of law and creating new classes of criminals in the process. The conservative position is that we shouldn’t have dumb laws, or else that we should reform them.

Of course, conservatives could easily troll the left here and use the left’s argument against them: “If it saves one life…” But the policy stands on its own without resorting to hyperbole: if you overburden your citizens and turn them into classes of criminals and seek to enforce those laws you will send the police after them. This isn’t complicated. And the New York Times, against its own instincts, seems to grasp that.

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Does ISIS Threaten Israel?

Popular wisdom has it that ISIS poses no direct threat to Israel. Yet there is no convincing reason for believing that ISIS is somehow innately disinterested in Israel. Right now it might simply be a question of limited means. But that may not stop others inspired by ISIS ideology from affiliating themselves with this most extreme of jihadist terror groups.

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Popular wisdom has it that ISIS poses no direct threat to Israel. Yet there is no convincing reason for believing that ISIS is somehow innately disinterested in Israel. Right now it might simply be a question of limited means. But that may not stop others inspired by ISIS ideology from affiliating themselves with this most extreme of jihadist terror groups.

The most brazen attempt by ISIS-linked militants to attack Israeli targets came last month when an Islamist group from the Sinai hijacked four Egyptian vessels and made off into the southern Mediterranean with the apparent intent to target either Israeli gas installations or Israeli ships further up the coast. That attempt, which took place November 12 and was ultimately foiled by the Egyptian navy, involved an al-Qaeda linked group which now appears to have shifted its allegiances to ISIS. The name of the terror cell in question, “Ansar Bait al-Maqdis” is itself a direct reference to Jerusalem and the land of Israel: “Bait al-Maqdis.” This is one of many Islamist groups operating in the Sinai, several of which are al-Qaeda affiliated and may be inclined to recognize the authority of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the legitimate caliph of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. ISIS itself was after all in part an outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Still, for Israel the influence of ISIS also strikes far closer to home. It is well known that a number of Israel’s Arab and Bedouin citizens have already left to fight with ISIS. So far the numbers in question have been small; Shin Bet is aware of perhaps just thirty such individuals. But more recently there have been reports of ISIS using social media in an attempt to woo Israeli-Arabs with medical expertise to come to ISIS’s assistance. The concern of course is that at some point these battle-hardened individuals will attempt to return to Israel, or that they will simply seek to form cells in Israel itself.

So far rumours of such ISIS linked cells have remained just that. At the time of the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers this summer, a West Bank group claiming to represent ISIS attempted to take responsibility for the kidnapping. In recent days there have been online postings by a group claiming to be “ISIS–Gaza Province.” Naturally Hamas has denied the existence of an ISIS branch in Gaza, but Hamas has had its own struggle with Salafist splinter groups in Gaza and it is conceivable that some of these would identify with ISIS. The number of Palestinians sympathetic to ISIS is impossible to judge right now, but when images appeared of the ISIS flag being displayed on the Temple Mount, this certainly gave Israelis legitimate cause for concern.

Beyond Israel’s own borders ISIS is still being kept at some distance. ISIS is of course strong in Syria, but more to the eastern region of the country. Along Israel’s Golan border there are other extremely hostile Islamist groups, most notably al-Nusra. Israel’s longest border is with Jordan and for the moment secure from ISIS. That said, the Hashemite monarchy has looked particularly weak in recent years and the influx of some 630,000 Syrian refugees into Jordan—a country where a quarter of the population is thought to be sympathetic to Salafism—has hardly been a stabilizing factor. Ironically, the border most secure from ISIS is probably the northern border, on account of the strength of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Nevertheless, ISIS has launched assaults on Lebanese towns along the Syrian border and there is a risk of more intense fighting spreading to that front.

Perhaps the clearest indication of all that ISIS has designs on Israel can be found in the group’s very name. Before rebranding as simply the Islamic State, ISIS went by the Arabic acronym Daesh: al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham. Al-Sham refers to the entirety of the Levant, including Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. It is for this reason that some incarnations of pan-Arabism have viewed Palestine as simply being Southern Syria. But for ISIS, the reference to al-Sham makes very clear the full extent of the group’s ambitions.

Over the summer ISIS’s media wing al-Battar released a series of images and statements depicting the Dome of the Rock and threatening the Jews that ISIS is on its way. The Israeli left knows a security sensitive Israeli public will be all the more averse to territorial concessions and so it is natural it should wish to play down the threat from ISIS. That threat may not be immediate, but Israelis should have no illusions about ISIS’s intentions, or indeed the draw ISIS’s ideology may have for some Palestinian militants.

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The Jobs Report

The American economy showed definite signs of life last month. While the unemployment rate stayed steady at 5.8 percent, the country added 320,000 jobs in November, well above the consensus estimate of 230,000 jobs. That’s the most jobs added in a month since January 2012. Both September and October had their jobs numbers revised upwards as well.

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The American economy showed definite signs of life last month. While the unemployment rate stayed steady at 5.8 percent, the country added 320,000 jobs in November, well above the consensus estimate of 230,000 jobs. That’s the most jobs added in a month since January 2012. Both September and October had their jobs numbers revised upwards as well.

Looking at year-over-year figures, the unemployment rate has dropped from 7 percent in November 2013 to 5.8 percent last month. The number of unemployed has dropped from 10.8 million to 9.1 million. The participation rate, however, was 63 percent a year ago and is 62.8 now, well below the prerecession level.

What has not improved is wages, which are barely keeping pace with inflation. But if the pool of unemployed and underemployed continues to shrink, that will put upward pressure on wages. That, of course, could be negated if the participation rate begins to move back up to prerecession levels.

Having contracted in the first quarter, during a terrible winter, the economy rebounded sharply in the second quarter, growing at a 4.6 percent annual rate. It grew at 3.9 percent in the third quarter. Economists expect growth in the fourth quarter in the 2-2.5 percent range.

So while the American economy is nowhere near showing signs of irrational exuberance, it is doing better than the economies of Japan and most of the eurozone economies. And the fall in oil prices, from about $100 a barrel in January to $66 yesterday, has substantially increased the average American family’s purchasing power.

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Bret Stephens: COMMENTARY Lights the Way

COMMENTARY is America’s most important monthly journal of ideas, period. For nearly seven decades it has published the best and most exciting writing from the most important thinkers: Saul Bellow and Lionel Trilling; Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick; Paul Johnson and Ruth Wisse; Cynthia Ozick and–of course–Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter. Is there anything remotely like it? No. It is the lamp by which America, and Israel, and the Jewish people, may find their way to safety. I’m proud to be published in its pages.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

COMMENTARY is America’s most important monthly journal of ideas, period. For nearly seven decades it has published the best and most exciting writing from the most important thinkers: Saul Bellow and Lionel Trilling; Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick; Paul Johnson and Ruth Wisse; Cynthia Ozick and–of course–Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter. Is there anything remotely like it? No. It is the lamp by which America, and Israel, and the Jewish people, may find their way to safety. I’m proud to be published in its pages.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

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You’ll Never Guess What Happened to This Magazine! Click Here for More!

So, upon its hundredth anniversary, the New Republic has announced its own self-destruction. Once the most important weekly publication in America, TNR had already devolved over the past decade into a 20-issue-a-year magazine until today’s announcement that it would reduce its production to 10 issues. (That’s one fewer than COMMENTARY, which is a monthly with a double issue spanning July and August.) This came after its relatively new owner, Chris Hughes, began saying he didn’t like the word “magazine” and preferred to think of TNR as a “digital media company.”

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So, upon its hundredth anniversary, the New Republic has announced its own self-destruction. Once the most important weekly publication in America, TNR had already devolved over the past decade into a 20-issue-a-year magazine until today’s announcement that it would reduce its production to 10 issues. (That’s one fewer than COMMENTARY, which is a monthly with a double issue spanning July and August.) This came after its relatively new owner, Chris Hughes, began saying he didn’t like the word “magazine” and preferred to think of TNR as a “digital media company.”

Hughes and his chief executive officer, Guy Vidra, lowered the boom today. The magazine’s editor and literary editor are out, the operation is moving to New York from Washington, and it will be transformed into some kind of analogue to the Atlantic, another once-storied American literary institution whose website clicks now appear more important to its leadership than its magazine offerings.

In one sense, this is not a big deal, because in truth, The New Republic has been a shadow of itself for at least a decade. It’s notable that, for all the praise being showered on its current leadership in the wake of their departure, the New Republic’s most successful offering in years was not an article its editors generated but rather an excerpt from William Deresiewicz’s book lambasting the intellectual thinness of the Ivy Leagues—a bit of inadvertent comedy for a magazine whose staff for decades seemed to arrive directly from the matriculation ceremonies at Harvard and Yale.

But what’s striking about the conscious uncoupling of the New Republic from its own tradition—its own “brand,” you might say—is the extent to which it mirrors a larger crisis within the liberal tradition for which it held high an intellectual banner for a century. (We’ll cast a beneficent eye away from the disgraceful years in which it was a Stalinist sheet.)

The election of Barack Obama in 2009 might have heralded a new dawn for the New Republic, given that it suggested a wholesale turn away from the more conservative ideas and politics that had seemed so dominant in the previous 15 years. When that conservative flowering occurred, in fact, a few of us got together and started the Weekly Standard specifically to try and give shape and guidance to the Right following the GOP landslide in 1994.

Our model was the New Republic, which had begun in 1915 to give voice to the Progressive era. And the New Republic was our target as well, given that it was the dominant intellectual publication in Washington. We went right at it, and the Standardstill a weekly and with at least double TNR’s circulation—will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, having become an American institution of significant note because it has always kept its focus.

The New Republic went through ownership spasms that may have distracted or hindered its editors. But still there’s no question 2009 was a potential hinge moment in American political-intellectual life, as the Gingrich Revolution was in 1994. But the fact is that TNR never found its voice in the Age of Obama, either as a sympathetic intellectual leader capable of offering honest and serious criticism to and for those in power (which the Standard has always done for the Right) or as an effectively aggressive intellectual foe against the serious arguments posed against Obamaism by the Right.

Why? I think the answer is that there never was any Obamaism to champion; there was no serious vision of America and the world being laid out by the administration that provided fertile ground out for intellectual cultivation, for voices on the outside to make sense of that serious vision and help it cohere into an argument. (In the 1980s, ironically, it was the New Republic‘s own Charles Krauthammer who did just that in explicating the “Reagan Doctrine,” though even more ironically, he did it in the pages of Time Magazine rather than in TNR.)

What there was, instead, was the increasing reliance on the cheap-shottery of the Internet era—in which TNR and others were driven more by a kind of grinding loathing of the Right than by an effort to create a more effective and serious Center-Left. The magazine foundered because liberals foundered, because Obamaism was a cult of personality that demanded fealty rather than a philosophy that demanded explication.

So I’d argue that what has befallen the New Republic is, in some ways, what has befallen liberalism writ large. It became unserious, and is about to become more unserious still, because that it what has happened to liberalism as a governing philosophy.

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