Commentary Magazine


Why Americans Go to War

I wonder what it says about the modern “progressive” mindset that Paul Krugman can only imagine two reasons to wage war: for profit or for the political advantage of the leader who initiates hostilities. He (rightly) debunks the idea of waging war to make money in most cases, but is sympathetic to the idea that some leaders initiate hostilities to bolster domestic support–he thinks Vladimir Putin is one such today and that the Chinese leaders could be another example in the future although why he thinks that George W. Bush belongs in the same category is unclear. (Krugman argues that the Iraq War helped Bush win reelection but in fact it nearly cost him the 2004 election and in any case the political consequences were unforeseeable, and I believe irrelevant, when Bush launched the war in 2003.)

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I wonder what it says about the modern “progressive” mindset that Paul Krugman can only imagine two reasons to wage war: for profit or for the political advantage of the leader who initiates hostilities. He (rightly) debunks the idea of waging war to make money in most cases, but is sympathetic to the idea that some leaders initiate hostilities to bolster domestic support–he thinks Vladimir Putin is one such today and that the Chinese leaders could be another example in the future although why he thinks that George W. Bush belongs in the same category is unclear. (Krugman argues that the Iraq War helped Bush win reelection but in fact it nearly cost him the 2004 election and in any case the political consequences were unforeseeable, and I believe irrelevant, when Bush launched the war in 2003.)

But the broader failing of Krugman’s article–amazing for a man who, whatever you think of his politics, is highly intelligent and broadly educated–is that he entirely omits a major reason why countries fight wars: to defend their liberties. Krugman is presumably familiar with the theory of “just war,” but there is no sign of it in his article that assumes that all wars are initiated for one ignoble motive or another. This is perhaps an indication of how far liberalism has come from the fighting faith of its greatest champions–presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

They were familiar with war and yet did not dismiss it as nothing more than a crass, self-interested undertaking. Recall Kennedy’s famous inaugural address: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Or FDR’s D-Day prayer in 1944: “Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war. For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.”

America’s brave troopers today fight for freedom in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, all the while yearning, as FDR said, “for the end of battle” when they can return home. They are not there to seize natural resources or to pump up a president’s approval ratings–nor, for all of my differences with President Obama, do I believe he has ordered troops into harm’s way for such nefarious purposes. War may be a brutal, ugly business, and one that should never be undertaken lightly; but it is also the essential safeguard of peace and freedom. Presumably Krugman understands that, but his failure to take note if it is nevertheless startling–and telling.

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Rick Perry and Our Dysfunctional Politics

I had two initial responses to the outrageous indictment of Texas Governor Rick Perry. One was to feel the same outrage about the criminalization of politics that John Steele Gordon discussed yesterday. The other was to assume that the prospect of this prosecution, no matter how unfair it would prove to be, would derail his hopes for another run at the presidency. However, I might have been wrong about my second reaction and the reason for that re-evaluation speaks volumes about how dysfunctional our political system has become.

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I had two initial responses to the outrageous indictment of Texas Governor Rick Perry. One was to feel the same outrage about the criminalization of politics that John Steele Gordon discussed yesterday. The other was to assume that the prospect of this prosecution, no matter how unfair it would prove to be, would derail his hopes for another run at the presidency. However, I might have been wrong about my second reaction and the reason for that re-evaluation speaks volumes about how dysfunctional our political system has become.

First, let’s not mince words about the egregious nature of the indictment and what it means about how out-of-control prosecutors can derail democracy. It should be remembered that what happened here was that a Democratic prosecutor who had disgraced her office with a drunk driving violation and abusive behavior toward police refused to resign. Perry used a threat of a veto of her budget to try to force that resignation. The special prosecutor in the case alleges that using that threat — something that was obviously in the service of the public good — was an illegal abuse of power. That is absurd and you have to be a hardcore Democratic partisan to think that it is even remotely reasonable for a prosecutor to treat a public policy dispute — especially one in which the governor was clearly on the side of ethics — as a criminal matter.

But in a normal political atmosphere, any criminal indictment, no matter how ill-considered and fated to be eventually overturned, is generally enough to kill a political career. But in Perry’s case that might not be so.

We are now at a point in our political history where it is understood that trials such as the one to which Perry may be subjected are merely politics by other means rather than a third rail event that disqualifies the defendant no matter the eventual legal outcome. In the past, politicians who were victimized by prosecutorial overreach were left at the end of the process asking where they could go to get their good names back even if they had retained their freedom. The correct assumption was that any judicial process even one that led to acquittal or vindication through convictions being thrown out on appeal was ultimately disqualifying even when innocence was eventually established.

But something has changed in American politics and Perry’s decision to go on with planned appearances in New Hampshire in spite of his difficulties illustrates the altered atmosphere.

As this Politico story indicates, we’re now at the point where much of the public understands that partisanship and the criminalization of politics has gotten out of hand. With many prominent Democrats, including former Obama advisor David Axelrod, acknowledging that the indictment of Perry is something of a farce, the opprobrium that normally attaches to any object of prosecution is starting to wear off.

Just as importantly, the willingness of prosecutors to inject themselves into the political process in this manner is not only seen as illegitimate but it may also enhance Perry’s appeal among Republicans. Rather than causing him to be viewed as a leper because of the indictment, it may well make conservatives see him as a folk hero or at least a victim, which in our contemporary culture may just as good if not better for the purpose of enchancing popularity.

Lest anyone think this is a reaction confined only to the right, there are already some examples of the same thing happening on the left. Historically, African-Americans have tended to rally around one of their own when they came under attack from prosecutors. The ability of Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to win re-election in the 1960s despite being thrown out of the House of Representatives by other Democrats illustrates this trend. More recently, the news that Philadelphia Mayor John Street was being investigated by the Bush administration Justice Department on corruption charges in 2003 turned a tight re-election race into a landslide for the incumbent as black Philadelphians treated the probe as proof of bad faith on the part of Republicans, not of Street’s questionable conduct in office. Now it appears the right seems to feel the same way about such investigations of their leaders though, to be fair, those cases were far more substantive than the tissue of insinuations lodged against Perry.

If we are now at the point where no one trusts prosecutions of politicians this is a terrible development because it shows how badly split we are becoming as a nation. With some on the left willing to countenance this kind of judicial smearing of a conservative, it’s only understandable that Republicans won’t hold it against Perry. Indeed, it may well enhance his standing and, like the massive over-reaction against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker from left-wingers who resisted his reform efforts that led to a recall election, the Travis County prosecutors may have made Perry into a right-wing folk hero. I still think Perry is unlikely to become a first tier primary candidate in 2016, let alone the GOP nominee, but this indictment may prove to be a badge of honor that will cause many Republicans to put aside their memories of his “oops” moments in 2012.

However, the long-term impact of this development may do more to harm the cause of public ethics than to help or hurt Perry’s already dubious chances of winning the presidency. Holding public officials accountable for genuine corruption and abuse of power — such as the willingness of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to quash an ethics commission probe when it hit too close to home and involved some of his supporters — is essential to the survival of democracy. By abusing the judicial process in this manner, Texas prosecutors have undermined the rule of law as well as exacerbated an already perilous political divide.

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Obama’s Hubris is His Undoing

Historians will have the rest of the century to unravel the mess that is the Barack Obama presidency. While they can explore these years of foreign policy disaster and domestic malaise at leisure, the rest of us have 29 more months to see just how awful things can get before he slides off to a lucrative retirement. But those who want to start the post-mortem on this historic presidency would do well to read Jackson Diehl’s most recent Washington Post column in which he identifies Obama’s hubris as the key element in his undoing.

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Historians will have the rest of the century to unravel the mess that is the Barack Obama presidency. While they can explore these years of foreign policy disaster and domestic malaise at leisure, the rest of us have 29 more months to see just how awful things can get before he slides off to a lucrative retirement. But those who want to start the post-mortem on this historic presidency would do well to read Jackson Diehl’s most recent Washington Post column in which he identifies Obama’s hubris as the key element in his undoing.

As our Pete Wehner wrote earlier today, the president’s reactions to what even Chuck Hagel, his less-than-brilliant secretary of defense, has rightly called a world that is “exploding all over” by blaming it all on forces that he is powerless to control. As Pete correctly pointed out, no one is arguing that the president of the United States is all-powerful and has the capacity to fix everything in the world that is out of order. But the problem is not so much the steep odds against which the administration is currently struggling, as its utter incapacity to look honestly at the mistakes it has made in the past five and half years and to come to the conclusion that sometimes you’ve got to change course in order to avoid catastrophes.

As has been pointed out several times here at COMMENTARY in the last month and is again highlighted by Diehl in his column, Obama’s efforts to absolve himself of all responsibility for the collapse in Iraq is completely disingenuous. The man who spent the last few years bragging about how he “ended the war in Iraq” now professes to have no responsibility for the fact that the U.S. pulled out all of its troops from the conflict.

Nor is he willing to second guess his dithering over intervention in Syria. The administration spent the last week pushing back hard against Hillary Clinton’s correct, if transparently insincere, criticisms of the administration in which she served, for having stood by and watched helplessly there instead of taking the limited actions that might well have prevented much of that country — and much of Iraq — from falling into the hands of ISIS terrorists.

The same lack of honesty characterizes the administration’s approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the nuclear negotiations with Iran, two topics that Diehl chose not to highlight in his piece.

Obama wasted much of his first term pointlessly quarreling with Israel’s government and then resumed that feud this year after an intermission for a re-election year Jewish charm offensive. This distancing from Israel and the reckless pursuit of an agreement when none was possible helped set up this summer’s fighting. The result is not only an alliance that is at its low point since the presidency of the elder George Bush but a situation in which the U.S. now finds itself pushing the Israelis to make concessions to Hamas as well as the Palestinian Authority, a state of affairs that guarantees more fighting in the future and a further diminishment of U.S. interests in the region.

On Iran, Obama wasted years on feckless engagement efforts before finally accepting the need for tough sanctions on that nation to stop its nuclear threat. But the president tossed the advantage he worked so hard to build by foolishly pursuing détente with Tehran and loosening sanctions just at the moment when the Iranians looked to be in trouble.

On both the Palestinian and the Iranian front, an improvement in the current grim prospects for U.S. strategy is not impossible. But, as with the situation in Iraq, it will require the kind of grim soul-searching that, as Diehl points out, George W. Bush underwent in 2006 before changing both strategy and personnel in order to pursue the surge that changed the course of the Iraq War. Sadly, Obama threw away the victory he inherited from Bush. If he is to recover in this final two years in office the way Bush did, it will require the same sort of honesty and introspection.

But, unfortunately, that seems to be exactly the qualities that are absent from this otherwise brilliant politician. Obama is a great campaigner — a talent that is still on display every time he takes to the road to blame Republicans for the problems he created — and is still personally liked by much of the electorate (even if his charms are largely lost on conservative critics such as myself). But he seems incapable of ever admitting error, especially on big issues. At the heart of this problem is a self-regard and a contempt for critics that is so great that it renders him incapable of focusing his otherwise formidable intellect on the shortcomings in his own thinking or challenging the premises on which he has based his policies.

Saying you’re wrong is not easy for any of us and has to be especially hard for a man who has been celebrated as a groundbreaking transformational figure in our history. But that is exactly what is required if the exploding world that Obama has helped set in motion is to be kept from careening even further out of control before his presidency ends. The president may think he’s just having an unlucky streak that he can’t do a thing about. While it is true that America’s options are now limited (largely due to his mistakes) in Syria and Iraq, there is plenty he can do to prevent things from getting worse there. It is also largely up to him whether Iran gets a nuclear weapon or Hamas is able to launch yet another war in the near future rather than being isolated. But in order to do the right things on these fronts, he will have to first admit that his previous decisions were wrong. Until he shed the hubris that prevents him from doing so, it will be impossible.

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Another Nail in the Dems’ Senate Coffin?

Just when pundits were starting to agree that the odds are tipping in favor of the Republicans winning control of the Senate this November, reports of inquiries about potential misconduct by Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu may make the embattled Red state Democrat’s re-election fight may be another nail in her party’s midterms coffin.

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Just when pundits were starting to agree that the odds are tipping in favor of the Republicans winning control of the Senate this November, reports of inquiries about potential misconduct by Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu may make the embattled Red state Democrat’s re-election fight may be another nail in her party’s midterms coffin.

The story, published Friday night by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, reveals that in response to charges from her Republican challengers that she has been paying for campaign expenses, including flights, from official government funds rather than her private account, the senator has ordered an inquiry into the records of her office during the last 18 years she has been in the Senate. While the senator may hope this gesture may quiet her critics, the inquiry by her own legal counsel will not convince many people of her innocence even if it exonerates her. If anything, it draws more attention to allegations that could be both embarrassing and result in serious ethics charges.

Unfortunately, for the senator, her lawyer won’t be the only one looking into her affairs. On Thursday, CNN reported that Landrieu had reimbursed the Senate the $5,700 charge for a charter flight home from Washington for a campaign appearance. Anyone who thinks that was the first such instance in which the Louisiana senator has played that trick is probably willing to buy a bridge across the Mississippi. If the Senate Ethics committee, or the Justice Department were to do some serious digging into her records, the results might require more than a mere reimbursement check.

Will this tip what was already looking like a dead heat between Landrieu and Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy into a likely GOP pickup? It’s hard to say.

Landrieu may be a Democrat in a state that votes Republican in presidential elections but she is a formidable politician. As I noted back in April, her strong constituent service and expertise in bringing home federal dollars to Louisiana has given her more than a fighting chance and even the neutrality, if not support, of some local Republican officials. Her family name is a popular brand in the state stemming from the ability of her father Moon, to manage to be that rare Louisiana Democrat who didn’t wind up in jail at some point during his career. Though there were plenty of questions raised about corruption involved in the building of New Orleans’ Superdome and other projects built while he was mayor, the former congressman, secretary of Housing and Urban Development and federal judge was never charged or convicted of anything. The same is true of Landrieu’s brother Mitch, the current mayor of the Big Easy.

But an even bigger edge for her is that the culture of politics in the state is such that ethical violations are rarely seen as fatal to the future of an officeholder the way they are in other, less easygoing places. To take just the most recent example, David Vitter, Landrieu’s Republican colleague in the Senate, survived his involvement in a prostitution scandal and may well succeed Bobby Jindal as governor of Louisiana in 2015. The list of Louisiana politicians who served jail time, let alone those who labored under ethical clouds, in the last century is too long to include in this piece. Suffice it to say that in the context of that state’s politics, looting the public treasury to pay for a campaign doesn’t exactly make Landrieu an outlier.

Nevertheless, the timing of the revelations isn’t going to help her just at a time when polls recently showed Cassidy to have finally caught and passed the incumbent, albeit by a statistically insignificant one percentage point margin.

Her difficulties are also significant because of all the endangered red state Democrats Landrieu seemed to be the one most likely to survive a tough challenge. If this race starts slipping away from her, then the chances of the Democrats holding the Senate will rest on Kay Hagen in North Carolina and Mark Pryor in Arkansas. Both are currently trailing their GOP opponents with the race to hold another Democratic seat in Iowa also starting to look like an uphill slog.

It won’t take much to tip any one of these elections from one party to the other. Which means that even in ethically challenged Louisiana, Landrieu’s using taxpayer dollars to fund her electioneering might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for a Democratic Party that needed its Senate candidates to run perfect campaigns to have a chance to keep control of one house of Congress this fall.

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The Criminalization of Politics

On April 13, 2013, Rosemary Lehmberg was pulled over for dangerous driving. She was found with an open bottle of vodka in the car, which is against the law, and her blood-alcohol level was .239 percent. (The legal limit is .08 percent. As a rule of thumb, at .1 you’re happy, at .2 you’re drunk, at .3 you’re passed out, and at .4 you’re dead. In other words, to use the technical term, she was blotto.) Taken to the police station, she was abusive and uncooperative to the point of being put in handcuffs and leg irons. She pled guilty to DWI and was sentenced to 45 days in jail and a $4000 fine. She served 20 days. Her license was suspended for 180 days.

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On April 13, 2013, Rosemary Lehmberg was pulled over for dangerous driving. She was found with an open bottle of vodka in the car, which is against the law, and her blood-alcohol level was .239 percent. (The legal limit is .08 percent. As a rule of thumb, at .1 you’re happy, at .2 you’re drunk, at .3 you’re passed out, and at .4 you’re dead. In other words, to use the technical term, she was blotto.) Taken to the police station, she was abusive and uncooperative to the point of being put in handcuffs and leg irons. She pled guilty to DWI and was sentenced to 45 days in jail and a $4000 fine. She served 20 days. Her license was suspended for 180 days.

This sort of thing happens every night in every city in the country. What made this unusual was that Lehmberg is the district attorney of Travis County, Texas, which is the county where Austin, the state capital, is located. That gives the district attorney of Travis County a lot of power to investigate public corruption. Indeed she heads the state’s Public Corruption unit.

Governor Rick Perry, not unreasonably, thought she had disgraced herself and should resign her office. She refused. To force her out, he threatened to veto the appropriation for the Public Corruption unit and, when she stilled refused, vetoed it.

For this the governor was indicted by a special prosecutor on two felony counts that, in theory, could send him to jail for the rest of his life. He is charged with, “misus[ing] government property, services, personnel, or any other thing of value belonging to the government that has come into the public servant’s custody or possession by virtue of the public servant’s office or employment.”  According to the special prosecutor, threatening a veto is a “misuse.” Since a veto is neither a person nor a thing, it’s hard to see how this applies.

Further, he is accused of, “influenc[ing] or attempt[ing] to influence a public servant in a specific exercise of his official power or a specific performance of his official duty or influenc[ing] or attempt[ing] to influence a public servant to violate the public servant’s known legal duty.” The statute excepts, “an official action taken by the member of the governing body.” But, again, the prosecutor argues that while issuing a veto is an official action, threatening to do so is not.”

I imagine every chief executive in the history of the country has, at one time or another threatened a veto in order to get what he or she wanted. That’s called politics. President Obama has threatened a veto dozens of times in his five and half years in office.

This is about as blatantly a political indictment as can be imagined. Jonathan Chait, no fan of Rick Perry, calls it unbelievably ridiculous. Even David Axelrod called the indictment “pretty sketchy.” Indeed the blow back from left, right, and center is so intense that Perry may well be the first public official to actually gain political clout from being indicted.

This is by no means the first time that the Travis County District Attorney has misused his power for political purposes. In 1993, he indicted Kay Bailey Hutchinson, newly elected to the United States Senate, for misuse of her office as Texas State Treasurer. The case collapsed in minutes after the trial began and the judge ordered the jury to find her innocent. In 2005, he indicted U. S. Representative Tom Delay, the majority leader of the House, for misusing campaign funds and money laundering. The judge threw out one charge, but the jury convicted on the other two. Last year, the state appeals court reversed the trial court and acquitted Delay.

Nor is it just Travis County, Texas. The Democratic district attorney of Milwaukee tried to go after Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska had his conviction for bribery overturned after a farrago of misconduct by the prosecutors was revealed. This is part of what Rick Hasen calls, “the criminalization of politics.” It is, to put it mildly, a disturbing trend and a mortal threat to American democracy.”

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Obama Still Feeling Sorry for Himself

Under a barrage of criticism for how he’s mishandled American foreign policy, President Obama is once again feeling sorry for himself.

“Apparently,” he said at a press conference earlier this month, “people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world.”

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Under a barrage of criticism for how he’s mishandled American foreign policy, President Obama is once again feeling sorry for himself.

“Apparently,” he said at a press conference earlier this month, “people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world.”

About this answer, I’d say several things, starting with this one: When he ran for president, he spoke as if America did control everything in the world and therefore that everything that went wrong in the world was the fault of his predecessor. In other words, Mr. Obama spoke in exactly the terms he now complains his critics do. Having been humiliated by events, President Obama is now telling us that the world is a mighty complicated place – who knew? — and American power is so darn limited. In other words: Don’t blame me. I’m only the president. What on earth can I do?

Second, it wasn’t Mr. Obama’s critics, but Mr. Obama himself, who set the soaring expectations of what would be achieved if he were elected president. It is Mr. Obama, not others, who claimed his candidacy would “ring out across this land as a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, make this time different than all the rest.” (Just in case the point was lost on us, Mr. Obama ended by saying, “Yes we can. Yes we can. Yes we can.”)

But that’s not all.

Mr. Obama spoke about how his presidency would “heal the planet” and stop the rise of the oceans. He would usher in unprecedentedly good relations with the world, including the Arab and Islamic world. The president promised a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world. There would be extraordinary strides taken toward peace between Israel and Palestinians. Relations with Russia would be “reset.” He’d successfully pivot to Asia. America would work cooperatively with China. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan would end responsibly. The tide of war would recede. He would usher in an era of “smart diplomacy.” Apparently Mr. Obama has forgotten he said all this. We’ll do him the favor of reminding him.

Mr. Obama, in his statement during the press conference earlier this month, is also employing a favorite device of his: creating straw men as a way to discredit serious criticisms of him. No one I know assumes the United States is omnipotent. As a friend of mine put it, he’s content to hold the president to a much more pedestrian standard: has the actions Obama taken and, more importantly, the actions he has not taken, made the challenges he faced worse or better?  By that very modest standard, he told me, Mr. Obama has utterly failed.

“I certainly do not think President Obama is responsible for all of the world crises that have taken place during his time in office,” my former White House colleague William C. Inboden, told the New York Times’ Peter Baker. “But he is responsible for actions and attitudes he took that have contributed to some of those crises — and he is also responsible for how he responds, or fails to respond.”

Just so.

The president is desperately trying to escape blame for his failures. But those days are long gone. I would hope that someone in the president’s inner circle, who has standing in his life, would urge him to at least conduct himself in a manner that doesn’t come across as petulant, thin-skinned, and undignified. But that appears to be asking too much of Mr. Obama. He is not emotionally equipped to handle failure with even minimal grace.

His presidency is going down; and he’s determined to look small-minded and bad-tempered in the process.

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The Future of Liberal Jewry in a Nutshell

Last year, a study on the American Jewish population published by the Pew Research Center made it plain that non-Orthodox Jewry in this country was in crisis. The devastating statistics about rising rates of intermarriage, assimilation and declining rates of affiliation painted a Portrait of Jewish Americans that left little doubt that liberal Jewry was in crisis. Since then, many in the Reform and Conservatives denominations, especially their leaders, seem to be in denial about the seriousness of the problem, but a story in today’s New York Times illustrates their dilemma nicely.

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Last year, a study on the American Jewish population published by the Pew Research Center made it plain that non-Orthodox Jewry in this country was in crisis. The devastating statistics about rising rates of intermarriage, assimilation and declining rates of affiliation painted a Portrait of Jewish Americans that left little doubt that liberal Jewry was in crisis. Since then, many in the Reform and Conservatives denominations, especially their leaders, seem to be in denial about the seriousness of the problem, but a story in today’s New York Times illustrates their dilemma nicely.

The article concerns the decision of Rabbi Andrew Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn to leave the rabbinate and pursue a new career in poverty work. On the surface, there’s nothing particularly significant about this. Rabbis, like lots of other professionals, often change their professions in mid life. As the rabbi says, the shift is neither a crisis of faith nor a contradiction of his life’s work as there is no inherent contradiction between being a Reform rabbi and being a poverty activist.

But the Times was not wrong to highlight this story as being something of a metaphor for liberal Jewry. Bachmann was widely seen as being among the best and the brightest in the Reform rabbinate and a man who had transformed his synagogue into a vibrant center attracting congregants eager to be a part of his vision of social activism. His decision to leave doesn’t mean that Beth Elohim will collapse. But it does show that when you start treating Judaism as merely a vehicle for liberal social activism, it’s difficult to resist the impulse to eliminate the middleman. Bachmann may not be renouncing his faith or even his calling as a rabbi but, as we learn in the Times account of his decision making process that he has discovered that he’s a lot more interested in spending his life advancing the anti-poverty agenda than in teaching Judaism to a generation of Jews who are desperately in need of leaders able to reach them.

One needs to be careful about going too far with this line of reasoning, but, it’s difficult to criticize the Times for assuming that there is a connection between the rapid decline in affiliation and synagogue attendance and the way many non-Orthodox Jews believe their faith is synonymous with liberal activism rather than a civilization and a people that transcends the particular political fashion of our own time.

Those who wrote about the Pew Survey rightly focused on statistics that showed the overwhelming majority of non-Orthodox Jews are intermarrying and the secondary results that show that the children of such marriages are exponentially less likely to be Jewishly educated, affiliate with the Jewish community or regard themselves as “Jews by religion.” Those numbers point in only one direction and it is one that means that within a few generations most of the descendants of those who currently call themselves Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist Jews will have left the Jewish community and have only the most meager and vestigial ties to their origins.

But just as telling as the intermarriage numbers were those that explored what it means to be a Jew to those who still do consider themselves Jewish. Relatively few see it as having anything to do with religious faith or being part of the Jewish people. More think it is a function of having a sense of humor than being connected to the State of Israel. When asked what defines Judaism and Jewish identity, most eschew all those elements that are the defining characteristics of Judaism and, instead, focus on those that apply equally to all faiths, such as a desire to promote social justice.

Jewish identity and faith has always contained within it a lively mix of the universal and the particular. But in the universe of liberal American Jewry, the balance is skewed toward the former. As Cynthia Ozick memorably said, “universalism is the particularism of the Jews.”

As such, liberal Jews are far less likely to resist the blandishments of assimilation since there is very little difference between their view of their faith and the secular political version of liberalism. However, as many in these denominations have discovered, it is a lot easier to devote yourself to a liberal cause without tugging along your Jewish baggage. In a movement that treats anti-poverty work as synonymous with faith, who can blame Rabbi Bachmann for deciding to stop trying to feed the hungry in a Jewish context and instead just cut straight to the chase?

As I wrote in the November 2013 issue of COMMENTARY, this exodus of non-Orthodox Jews is largely the function of free society in which Americans have a choice as to whether they will retain their faith and the breakdown in barriers between faiths that has caused non-Jews to be willing to marry Jews. But it is exacerbated by a societal trend in which the overwhelming majority of American Jews have lost all sense of what it means to hold onto a viable Jewish identity that can be handed down to subsequent generations. If you believe, as most do, that Judaism can be summed up in the phrase “tikkun olam” — a concept about repairing the world that has become a tired cliché and been stripped of its particular Jewish meaning or, as the old quip goes, the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in, why be a Jew at all?

The answer from all too many liberal Jews is that there is no real reason to stick with Judaism and the result are the numbers that the Pew Center published. Sadly, both the leaders of the Conservative movement and Bachmann’s Reform movement, have taken a blasé attitude toward the Pew statistics, claiming that their impact is either being exaggerated or misinterpreted rather than raising an alarm. That sort of complacence is on display in the quotes in the Times article from both Bachmann and Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs. They urge Jews not to “build a wall around their Judaism in an effort to preserve it. But it’s difficult to view the catastrophic numbers in a context other than one in which the consequences of not preserving distinctions or viewing Judaism as religious liberalism are becoming apparent. As scholars Jack Wertheimer, Steven Cohen and Steven Bayme have pointed out, the only way to preserve non-Orthodox Jewry is to emphasize both Jewish particularity as well as seek to promote endogamy.

Rabbi Bachmann isn’t leaving Judaism but that is exactly what most non-Orthodox Jews are doing. If even he sees a life devoted to Jewish teachings as somehow not fulfilling enough to suit his needs, how can anyone else argue that it is reasonable to expect his congregants not to shuck off Jewish particularism just as easily?

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The Presidency is Breaking Obama Even As Obama Has Broken the Nation

One of the nation’s best radio talk show hosts, Hugh Hewitt, interviewed Joe Scarborough, the host of one of the best political shows on television. According to Mr. Scarborough

This is a president that does go out of his way to show that he’s not paying attention to what anybody says. He’s going to do exactly what he wants to do, and he’s going to be stubborn about it. He is politically, he is either politically tone deaf or he just doesn’t give a damn. And I tend to believe based on everything I’ve heard from people who work inside the White House, and we’ve got a lot of friends there, and based on my friends who are senior Democratic senators, this president has checked out… He wants to be the next, I hear it time and time again from his close political allies. This man wants to be an ex-president.

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One of the nation’s best radio talk show hosts, Hugh Hewitt, interviewed Joe Scarborough, the host of one of the best political shows on television. According to Mr. Scarborough

This is a president that does go out of his way to show that he’s not paying attention to what anybody says. He’s going to do exactly what he wants to do, and he’s going to be stubborn about it. He is politically, he is either politically tone deaf or he just doesn’t give a damn. And I tend to believe based on everything I’ve heard from people who work inside the White House, and we’ve got a lot of friends there, and based on my friends who are senior Democratic senators, this president has checked out… He wants to be the next, I hear it time and time again from his close political allies. This man wants to be an ex-president.

So the president — with crises breaking out across the globe, the economy still staggering, and unrest and despair in America rising — seems to have grown bored with the job. This is on one level an astonishing thing; on the other, it has the ring of truth. I say that in part because Mr. Scarborough is speaking to Democrats, not simply Republicans, on this matter. His sources are excellent. Yet one also sees Obama’s indifference in how he conducts himself, as well as stories leaked by the White House about his “restlessness.”

What could possibility explain this attitude? It may be that Mr. Obama was drawn to the job not for the right reasons but because he viewed the presidency as a new mountain to climb, a prize to win, as a way to feed his unusually large ego (even for a politician). It may also be that Mr. Obama, with his presidency crumbling, is like a petulant child who wants to pick up his marbles and leave. He was fine serving as president when he was adored and well liked; now that things are going south he appears to have emotionally “checked out,” to use Scarborough’s phrase.

The problem with this is that Mr. Obama is disengaging (a) after having done extraordinary damage to America and (b) at a moment when the world is convulsing because of the void left by Obama’s (and therefore America’s) diffidence and passivity. An increasingly insouciant commander-in-chief is not what’s needed at this particular time, given the multiplying threats and increasing disorder in the world.

It’s very much beginning to look at if Barack Obama saw the presidency as primarily a way to satisfy his narcissism. What’s happened instead is the presidency is breaking him, even as he is breaking the nation.

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Who will be Turkey’s Medvedev?

As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan prepares to move to the presidential palace and to transform that office from its former ceremonial and constitutional role into that of strongman policymaker, there will be a change in the premiership.

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As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan prepares to move to the presidential palace and to transform that office from its former ceremonial and constitutional role into that of strongman policymaker, there will be a change in the premiership.

Erdoğan has announced that he will choose his successor on August 21. Several names have been floated. When I was in Turkey earlier this, several people suggested that Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan might take the post. On paper he seems qualified: he was previously minister of foreign affairs and also minister of finance, and in his deputy premiership, he also has special responsibility for the treasury. That may also be his undoing. Erdoğan is politically savvy but he does not have any firm grasp of the economy. Certainly, he implemented no-nonsense reforms which were long overdue and for that he gets credit, but he also was fortunate enough to hold power against the backdrop of a demographic dividend and in the aftermath of massive currency devaluation. The Turkish economy had hit rock bottom shortly before Erdoğan’s Islamist party won election. Rebounds are often time of great prosperity, especially if the starting point is the economy’s nadir. Today, however, the Turkish economy is tenuous at best. Currency devaluation has undercut Turks’ buying power, and personal debt is up more than 3,000 percent. People are living on credit, and eventually the banks will call in the debt or risk failure. Against this backdrop, Babacan has sought reforms that Erdoğan neither wants nor understands.

Others have suggested that Ahmet Davutoğlu, architect of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman foreign policy. Davutoğlu’s policy has on the face of things been a disaster: He has embraced Hamas over the Palestinian Authority; looks at Israel with anti-Semitic disdain; was for Assad before he was against him; oversaw perhaps the covert Turkish flirtation with ISIS; and cast his lot with the Muslim Brotherhood over Egypt. In short, he has made Turkey into a pariah in the region, but his ideological radicalism and fealty to Erdoğan’s ambitions to be sultan in reality if not in name, makes him another prime candidate.

Others suggest Bülent Arınç, another Erdoğan deputy who, while serving as parliamentary speaker once warned the constitutional court that the AKP could dissolve them if they kept finding AKP legislation unconstitutional. He, too, has the right ideological pedigree. Other candidates might also take the prize, all of them handpicked for their loyalty to Erdoğan.

Make no mistake, though: It doesn’t matter who becomes Turkey’s Dmitry Medvedev because just as in Russia, the premiership will be irrelevant. Erdoğan has become the Turkish equivalent of Vladimir Putin. He is an authoritarian dictator, a strong man, and internally as intolerant as the Islamic State even if he too refined to show it directly. That the premiership no longer matters in Turkey, that any appointment will be as irrelevant as Putin’s placeholder was in Russia, shows just how far Turkey has fallen. It is now just another third world dictatorship, and will ultimately be just as much a failure. Unfortunately, the damage Erdoğan can do before that happens will remain considerable.

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What Happened to the Press in Gaza?

Yesterday, the spokeswoman for the Hamas government in Gaza let the shoe drop. Isra al-Mudallal told a Lebanese television station that the Islamist group routinely intimidated foreign journalists in efforts to “persuade” them to stop trying to take pictures of rocket launches or Hamas fighters.

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Yesterday, the spokeswoman for the Hamas government in Gaza let the shoe drop. Isra al-Mudallal told a Lebanese television station that the Islamist group routinely intimidated foreign journalists in efforts to “persuade” them to stop trying to take pictures of rocket launches or Hamas fighters.

This admission jibes with the complaint issued earlier this week by the Foreign Press Association about Hamas intimidation and interference with reporters in Gaza. Indeed, it explains a lot about the fact that, as I noted last week, throughout the four weeks of fighting, the hordes of foreign reporters that flooded the strip failed to produce a single video of the thousands of rockets shot at the Jewish state or of the armed Hamas cadres that were fighting the Israel Defense Force. Indeed, the first videos of Hamas terrorist activity launches only came in the waning days of the conflict and were released by Finnish and Indian TV only after their reporters had left Gaza? Until then, the only videos coming out of Gaza were those that bolstered the Palestinian narrative about Israeli attacks on civilians as pictures of dead children played in an endless loop on cable news stations.

Yet when put to the question about what was going on in Gaza, most members of the foreign press weren’t very forthcoming about what was, admittedly, a difficult problem. Some claimed they never saw a Hamas fighter or that a massive force numbering thousands operating in what we were endlessly told was a tiny and densely populated area operated out of sight. Others denied the charge of intimidation and claimed to have not seen any evidence of Hamas using civilians as human shields even though they know that the terrorist group was operating in and around civilian targets continuously.

While none of those who knuckled under to Hamas intimidation should be nominated for any awards for journalistic integrity, let alone courage, it’s easy to sympathize with their plight. Hamas is a terrorist organization whose members have no scruples about violence. It plays for keeps and reporters in areas under their control who don’t get with the program do run a very real risk of never seeing their homes and families again.

But the frustrating thing about this situation is not just that the foreign press was forced to tell only part of the story that was happening in Gaza. It is that most of them seem to think there was nothing wrong with their coverage. Indeed, many seem not to have needed a talking-to from Hamas thugs in order to agree with al-Mudallal that the only proper thing to do in Gaza for a journalist was to take as many pictures of injured Palestinian civilians while ignoring the fact that they were put in harm’s way by terrorists shooting and tunneling from within their midst, including the vicinity of schools, hospitals and mosques.

What’s even more interesting is that one journalist who reported from the Israeli side of the border, New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren, protested the Foreign Press Association complaint against Hamas. On Monday, Rudoren tweeted that: “Every reporter I’ve met who was in Gaza during war says this Israeli/now FPA narrative of Hamas harassment is nonsense.”

That may well be true since so many of those who reported for the Times and the broadcast and cable news networks seemed to think the narrative of this war was solely about Israeli attacks on Gaza while ignoring or minimizing the fact that Hamas started the war and launched thousands of rockets and prepared dozens of terror tunnels, the purpose of which was to kill as many Jews as possible. This selective presentation of information about the fighting skewed both the coverage and the climate of public opinion in most of the world. The lies by omission committed by journalists helped feed an atmosphere in which anti-Semitism became respectable in Europe, Asia and Africa and caused even some fair-weather friends of Israel in this country to claim that Israeli beastliness was undermining the Jewish state’s right to self-defense.

This shouldn’t be terribly surprising to those who have closely followed the media’s coverage of the conflict in recent years. Hamas spokeswoman al-Mulladal was, after all, treated by many in the press as a symbol of the new, moderate and modern Hamas as this profile published in Germany’s Der Spiegel in the weeks before the fighting started testifies.

This blatant media bias isn’t bothering most Israelis who long ago gave up on the idea of getting a fair shake from a foreign press corps that often arrives in the region deeply prejudiced against Zionism and determined to find stories that fit with their pre-existing biases about the Palestinians. But it should profoundly upset those who care about the profession of journalism.

We’ve heard a lot in the last weeks about whether Israel and its friends have drawn the proper conclusions from this war as pundits warned them that the coverage of Palestinian casualties would cost them dearly in the court of public opinion. But we’ve heard very little soul searching from journalists about the crisis in their profession that the failure of reporters operating in Gaza highlights.

It is no cliché to say, as Americans have been repeating since the earliest days of our republic, that a free press is essential to a functioning democracy. But journalists who set out to distort the truth about a major conflict and skew their reporting to further isolate the one Jewish state on the planet and boost their image of a bloodthirsty terrorist organization have lost their moral compass as well as their professional integrity. It may well be that the controversy over the missing pictures in Gaza will soon fade from memory and the press will, as is their wont, go back to business as usual blasting Israel and ignoring the ethical questions raised by their one-sided actions. But no one who reads al-Mudallal’s admission and ponders the otherwise inexplicable failure of journalists to tell both sides of the story will ever trust Rudoren or any of her colleagues again.

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Understanding A Simple Question

The 19th-century British prime minister Lord Palmerston once joked about a thorny diplomatic question of his day that, “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.”

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The 19th-century British prime minister Lord Palmerston once joked about a thorny diplomatic question of his day that, “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.”

But while the Schleswig-Holstein question might have been hard to understand, the Israel-Palestinian question is not.  Indeed, as Dennis Prager explains in this short lecture, it couldn’t be simpler.

To be sure, while the question is simple, the solution, all too obviously, is not. It has defied the best efforts of men and women of good will for 67 years.

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Drawing Conclusions From the Myth of Middle East Moderates

In today’s Washington Post, that inveterate peddler of foreign policy conventional wisdom Fareed Zakaria tells a great truth about the myth of Arab moderation. That he does so in order to cover up for the failures of President Obama and while also hedging his bets about the Palestinians does not detract from the general truth of his thesis.

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In today’s Washington Post, that inveterate peddler of foreign policy conventional wisdom Fareed Zakaria tells a great truth about the myth of Arab moderation. That he does so in order to cover up for the failures of President Obama and while also hedging his bets about the Palestinians does not detract from the general truth of his thesis.

Zakaria is merely stating what has long been obvious to critics of the political culture of the Arab and Muslim world. In that toxic environment, “moderation” is political poison and extremism, especially of the Islamist variety has become mainstream. As Zakaria rightly notes, the dynamic that has brought ISIS to the brink of overrunning Iraq has been manifested throughout the Middle East over the last generation as Islamists have become more powerful and their so-called moderate opponents have become less moderate as well as unpopular.

The purpose of this Obama cheerleader’s detour into reality is not, however, to debunk the fantasy that Israel must make concessions to the Palestinians in order to strengthen their moderates. Nor is he seeking to pour cold water on those promoting the delusion that Iran’s leaders are becoming more moderate and that justifies American appeasement of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Those are two fallacies that Zakaria is perfectly happy to continue promoting in his writing and on the bully pulpit he occupies on CNN.

No, the only reason that Zakaria is interesting in shooting down the idea of Arab moderation is because that is a convenient way to defend the Obama against the criticisms lodged against him by Hillary Clinton last week in her Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Clinton rightly noted that an early and vigorous Western intervention in Syria would have probably toppled the brutal Assad regime. But even more importantly, the chaos that stemmed from the protracted civil war there led to the rise of ISIS, a vicious Islamist terror group that has overrun parts of Syria and much of Iraq.

But Zakaria is determined to absolve Obama and therefore declares that there were never any real moderates in Syria and that any Western intervention would have been in vain. Like the president, whose alibi for a record of almost unbroken foreign policy failure during his time in office is that the world is a complicated and confusing place he can’t be expected to do much about, let alone fix, Zakaria’s response to Syria is to throw up his hands and to say that nothing could be done.

To be fair, the Syrian opposition was never very impressive and is now totally overshadowed by the extremists in the field against Assad. But to assert that inaction was the only reasonable option in Syria is to promote a different kind of myth. History is fluid, not set in stone. As uncertain as the situation in Syria was three years ago, there’s little doubt that Assad was on the ropes and, like Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, would have fallen if Obama (who kept predicting the demise of that regime) had acted. While it is possible the country would have descended to chaos as was the case in Libya where the president’s lead from behind style led to disaster, could it have been worse than what is happening now, with the country divided between Iran’s ally Assad and Islamists who are also threatening to take over Iraq?

But even if we leave the Syria out of the discussion, what’s most disappointing about Zakaria’s truth-telling about the missing Muslim and Arab moderates is that even as he tries to debunks Clinton’s criticisms of Obama, he refuses to connect the dots between his thesis and the president’s Middle East policies that he has supported.

Zakaria insists that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is a genuine moderate. But, if he was being consistent or had a shred of intellectual integrity, he would note that the same dynamic that has driven other moderate regimes to extremism has applied to Abbas as well. Abbas talks like a moderate at times when speaking to Westerners or left-wing Israelis. But his refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn or to denounce Palestinian Islamists gives the lie to the talk about his moderation, although even the Israeli government regards him as a necessary evil these days.

Zakaria also distorts the truth when he says the reason why there have been no Palestinian elections in recent years (Abbas is currently serving the 10th year of a four-year presidential term) is that the Israelis and the West have postponed them. That is nonsense even though he’s right when he says there is good reason to believe the Hamas terrorists might win. The autocratic and utterly corrupt Fatah run by Abbas needs no prompting from the Israelis or the Americans to act to protect themselves from the trappings of democracy.

But the main failing of Zakaria’s piece is that he refuses to draw the proper conclusion from his correct diagnosis about the failure of Arab moderation. If it is a fantasy to imagine that there are no moderates who can make peace with the Jewish state and live with the West without resorting to terror or nuclear blackmail, then it behooves the U.S. to stop trying to hammer the Israelis into making dangerous concessions that will only strengthen Hamas in Gaza. It would also be good reason for Obama to sober up about the prospects of détente with Iran and to realize that rather than loosening sanctions on Tehran, tougher ones along with a credible threat of force is the only way to avert the nuclear threat.

For Zakaria, Arab and Muslim moderation is a myth. But only a myth when it serves the purpose of absolving Obama from his responsibility to lead, not when it comes to pressuring Israel or appeasing Iran.

Update: This afternoon, The Washington Post responded to complaints such as the one I made about Zakaria’s wrongly blaming Israel for the failure to hold Palestinian elections. It reads as follows:

An earlier version of this column erred in stating, “the Israeli government and the West have happily postponed elections in the West Bank.” The elections have been postponed by the Palestinian Authority.

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Abadi, Maliki, Da`wa and Iraqi Reality

Many analysts are making much of the fact that the Haider al-Abadi, the nominee for the Iraq premiership, spent his exile in the United Kingdom rather than in Iran or Syria as outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did, and suggest that this means al-Abadi will be more moderate and less prone to accept Iranian dictates.

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Many analysts are making much of the fact that the Haider al-Abadi, the nominee for the Iraq premiership, spent his exile in the United Kingdom rather than in Iran or Syria as outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did, and suggest that this means al-Abadi will be more moderate and less prone to accept Iranian dictates.

Da`wa—the political movement to which both Maliki and Abadi belong—has always been fissiparous. And years of exile simply made it worse. Back in 2008, Iraqi-British scholar Sama Hadad published an excellent analysis of the impact of the separate exiles in a report on Arab dissident movements for AEI; you can download it here (Sama’s chapter begins on page 32), but the key section—with footnotes removed—is here:

In 1958, Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr, with support from other young scholars, established the Islamic Da’wa Party, which, up until his execution, was the only Iraqi Shi’a Islamic Party. Al-Sadr was the key architect of the party and was its intellectual driving force. The party established most its leadership force from the educated middle class and Al-Sadr tried to instill within them the ideas he was developing. The Ba’athist government in Iraq, however, deemed membership in or association with the Islamic Da’wa Party to be a capital offense. Many Da’wa members fled Iraq, mainly to Iran.

For the thousands of Iraqis who had found sanctuary in Iran, the nostalgia for their homeland and their desire for an Islamic state mixed in with the sense of revolution that was still prevailing in Iran, attracted them to wilayat al-faqih[the philosophy of guardianship of clerical jurists espoused by Ayatollah Khomeini]. For some in the Da’wa Party this fascination did not last long. During the 1980s the Iranian government measured any group’s commitment to the revolution by their belief in wilayat al-faqih. The Revolutionary authorities censored or banned any group that challenged the concept of wilayat al-faqih. This placed Da’wa in a tight spot, unable to publicly exchange ideas with their members other than those that conformed to wilayat al-faqih.

Iranian authorities sensed growing disagreement among leading Da’wa members as to how pro- wilayat al-faqih they should be. Capitalizing on this disagreement, Iran sought to fragment the party and establish groups more loyal to wilayat al-faqih. The Da’wa party attempted to salvage the situation by not challenging wilayat al-faqih, but throwing out any members who publicly supported it.

The most prominent group to emerge from the fragmentation of the Da’wa party, under the guardianship of Iran, was the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Led by Mohammed Baqir Al-Hakim, SCIRI fully embraced wilayat al-faqih.

Da’wa members fled Iranian repression and regrouped in London. The discord of the 1980s and 1990s, however, meant that Da’wa did not significantly extrapolate from Al-Sadr’s theories.

The most significant step taken was the publication in London of ‘Barnamajuna’ (Our Program). Barnamajuna emphasized the need for democracy, free markets, and abandoned the call for an Islamic Republic in Iraq, perhaps as a backlash from their negative experience in Tehran. There was a clear shift from the belief of the early 80s in the will of the faqih (scholar) over the people, similar to wilayat al-faqih, to the belief in the superiority of the will of the people.

A senior Da’wa Party political source stated at the time, “[al-Da’wa] shall accept everything that the public will accept. Even if they choose a perfectly non-Islamic regime. If they do not choose Islam, this means that they are not prepared for it. If Islam is imposed, it will become an Islamic dictatorship and this would alienate the public.” This marked a clear re-affirmation of Al-Sadr’s wilayat al-ummah [rule by the community].

A relevant point brought out further in the essay is that Da`wa’s intellectual development in the United Kingdom was more dynamic, but still restrained by the fact that the Iranian regime more or less held the majority of Da`wa activists hostage in Iran. Should Da`wa activists in London grow too vocal in proposing alternate interpretations of governance than espoused by Khomeini and his successor and current Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, then Da`wa exiles in Iran might suffer. When I visited Iran for my second time in 1999, I met a number of Iraqi Shi‘ite exiles in the center of that country, and they had nothing good to say about the Iranian repression they suffered and the indignities Iran put upon their children.

Iraq’s liberation, however, provide an opportunity for the two main Da`wa communities to reunite; a renaissance in exegesis took place. Much of this was not to Iran’s liking. When it came to governing philosophy and religious interpretation, differences that might have existed between those who spent their exile in Iran versus those who lived those decades in Britain disappeared with time, Da`wa might split personalities, ambitions, or portions of the debate but to suggest that Abadi is enlightened while Maliki was not is simply inaccurate. Enlightenment is relative, but the two men likely now share many of the same interpretations.

Enter Iran: Iranians know the Iraqi Sh‘ites do not particularly embrace Khomeini’s viewpoints. That does not make Iraqi Shi‘ites into American clones or necessarily pro-Western; rather, it makes Iraqi Shi‘ites, well, Iraqi Shi‘ites. The Iranian government has responded by sponsoring militias to impose through force of arms what isn’t necessarily in the hearts and minds of the vast majority of Iraqi Shi‘ites. These militias remain a major problem, alongside their opposites on the Sunni side: radical Islamists sponsored by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia; and ethnic and sectarian chauvinist Baathists embraced by Jordan. Alas, empty calls for an inclusive government do nothing to address this basic problem, nor would forcing all factions under a big tent lead to anything other than infighting and paralysis. Iraqis don’t insist that Jesse Jackson and Dick Cheney share a desk, or Samantha Power and Pat Buchanan; that we do the equivalent to Iraqis is unfortunate.

Let us hope Abadi can rally Iraqis against ISIS but, to do that, he will have to defeat not only ISIS itself, but those who have given the group help and solace. Maliki saw the problem growing and begged the White House and visiting Senators like John McCain to understand how radicalized the Syrian opposition had become. To believe that Maliki and Abadi are respectively Satan and savior, or that they represent different Iraq’s or different philosophies is misguided. The two men are realists; it is the White House that too often is not.

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How the West Helps Suppress Gaza Dissent

With the fighting in Gaza seemingly winding down, stories are starting to trickle out about Gaza residents’ unhappiness with Hamas for starting a new war every few years. The Associated Press devoted its “big story” to the topic yesterday; the Washington Post ran a similar story on August 12. Seemingly, that’s an encouraging development. But closer analysis leaves little ground for optimism.

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With the fighting in Gaza seemingly winding down, stories are starting to trickle out about Gaza residents’ unhappiness with Hamas for starting a new war every few years. The Associated Press devoted its “big story” to the topic yesterday; the Washington Post ran a similar story on August 12. Seemingly, that’s an encouraging development. But closer analysis leaves little ground for optimism.

First, the criticism was primarily over tactics: People objected to Hamas launching rockets from their backyards or thought it should have accepted a cease-fire earlier. But as the Washington Post noted, there was virtually no disagreement over strategy: “Most Palestinians, even Hamas’s biggest detractors, say they back the current war against Israel, believing it is the only way to achieve the short-term Palestinian demands of lifting the Israeli and Egyptian economic blockades of Gaza and opening the strip’s border crossings.”

In other words, Palestinians still haven’t grasped the simple fact that the blockade was imposed in response to the nonstop rocket fire on Israel from Gaza, and its primary goal is to limit Hamas’ ability to import war materiel. They have evidently forgotten that when Israel first withdrew from Gaza in mid-2005, a U.S.-brokered agreement arranged for the border crossings to open under Palestinian Authority and European supervision; only two years and thousands of rockets later, after Hamas booted the PA out of Gaza in mid-2007, did both Israel and Egypt institute stringent restrictions at the crossings. Thus instead of concluding that the best way to get Israel to end the blockade would be to stop shooting at it, Palestinians still think the best way to end the blockade is to bombard Israel with even more rockets.

Even worse, however, is that both Washington and Europe seem hell-bent on proving them right. One might have thought the discovery that Hamas diverted enormous quantities of imported cement – enough, as one Israeli officer noted, to build “two hospitals, 20 clinics, 20 schools, and 100 kindergartens” – into building tunnels to attack Israel would have led the West to realize that Israel’s insistence on regulating construction imports had some merit. Instead, Western leaders are pressing Israel to agree to significant concessions during the Cairo cease-fire talks. On July 27, for instance, a White House readout of a call between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Obama had demanded a cease-fire “that both allows Palestinians in Gaza to lead normal lives and addresses Gaza’s long-term development and economic needs,” while relegating Israel’s demand for Gaza’s disarmament to an ever-elusive “lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” – i.e., the far-distant future.

In short, the West has been pressuring Israel to show Gaza residents that Hamas’ strategy works, and that a war every few years really will force it into concessions. And Israel has begun capitulating to this pressure, having reportedly agreed to several steps to ease the blockade, though not yet to removing it totally.

Even without this, the chances of Gaza residents revolting against Hamas were slim, given the organization’s reign of terror. As one Gazan critical of Hamas bluntly told Haaretz last week, “One mustn’t express an opinion about the war. They’ll make you trouble if you say anything. I speak my mind, but others, if they say what they think, they’ll say they’re collaborators, or they’ll beat them or even kill them.” AP similarly warned that “Under Hamas rule, it’s rare and dangerous to share even as much as a hint of criticism of the government with outsiders”; indeed, few Hamas critics quoted in any of the articles were willing to be identified by name.

But if Hamas had nothing to show for its endless wars, even cowed Gazans might someday decide they’d had enough. Instead, Hamas seems likely to return from Cairo with Israeli concessions that will force even its critics to shut up and admit that its strategy works. It’s hard to imagine a better way to ensure that the countdown to the next Israel-Hamas war will be short.

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Maliki’s Exit Doesn’t Change a Thing

It’s popular to blame sectarian violence in Iraq on the person of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It’s also wrong. Maliki reflects many in the political class. Almost any politician in Iraq thinks to some extent through a sectarian or an ethnic lens simply because Iraqi political parties are organized largely around ethnic or religious identity, instead of economic or social philosophy.

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It’s popular to blame sectarian violence in Iraq on the person of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It’s also wrong. Maliki reflects many in the political class. Almost any politician in Iraq thinks to some extent through a sectarian or an ethnic lens simply because Iraqi political parties are organized largely around ethnic or religious identity, instead of economic or social philosophy.

Politicians react to events; they are seldom consistent over time. That Maliki became more sectarian with time is indisputable. So too is the reality that he was pushed into a sectarian corner. Many analysts point to the arrest warrant for former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi issued on Maliki’s watch as evidence that Maliki sought to pursue sectarian vendettas. The evidence against Hashemi was pretty overwhelming, though. To absolve him of guilt simply because he was Sunni and the prime minister was Shi‘ite is ridiculous. And while former Finance Minister Rafi Issawi also found himself accused of capital crimes, those who would absolve Issawi ignore the fact that Issawi’s accusers were Sunni and he voluntarily has paid blood money to them. Maliki also cracked down on Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi at times, suggesting his politics were more complicated than sectarianism. If a prime minister does not target terrorists then he is accused of failing to ensure security; if he does go after Sunni terrorists, he is accused of being sectarian, and if he goes after Shi‘ites sponsoring death squads, then he is accused of being authoritarian by cracking down on rivals. So is Maliki blameless? Absolutely not. His fault was not that his government pursued Sunnis accused of crimes, but that too often the decision about who to pursue appeared sectarian.

Iraqi Sunni figures are not without blame. Take Prime Minister Nouri l-Maliki’s raid on a protest camp in Ramadi late last year. It is absolutely true that most of those at the camps were young, unemployed local Sunni Arabs who were not prone to Al Qaeda. It is also true that the timing of the raid was motivated by politics. But it is just as true that Al Qaeda had a presence at the camp, as videos of sermons endorsing Al Qaeda and protestors waving Al Qaeda flags show. To also suggest that Al Qaeda was not present but materialized and seized Ramadi and Fallujah in outrage within days beggars belief. The simple fact is that Al Qaeda and its sympathizers have long sought shelter in Iraq’s Sunni-led provinces, and Sunni politicians have allowed them to on the belief that they could be a useful wedge against the central government.

Indeed, too often it appears that Iraq’s Arab Sunni political leaders are the most sectarian in Iraq. The basic problem is that the majority of Sunni leaders refuse the legitimacy of any Shi‘ite-led central government. That Baathists and Sunni tribal leader colluded with the Islamic State is not so much the result of frustration, but rather of malice. They saw such collusions as a means to an end, the end being not winning greater compromise in Baghdad, but rather winning control in Baghdad.

But didn’t the surge present a model? Certainly it was militarily brilliant and had great success in the short-term. But it was politically and culturally Pollyannaish and, effectively, convinced those disdainful of Baghdad for sectarian reasons that they could win through violence what they could not win politically. Some Sunni tribal figures joined the surge so long as the money was right. Some prominent U.S. generals were willing also to promise them continued funding and then lay the bill at Maliki’s desk, regardless of whether they had the authority to do so or not. And while Baathists, too, have shown that they are willing to cooperate for a time; they are not willing to forfeit their basic animus toward Shi‘ites, whom they castigate as Fifth Columnists. That was why General David Petraeus’ empowerment of Baathists in Mosul was so shortsighted and disastrous, and led to countless deaths in the November 2004 uprising. The point is this: When Maliki—and almost every other politician in Baghdad—warn that the Sunni officer corps seeks a coup to change not just the prime minister but the entire system, they are not paranoid. Instead, they are right. To push for the restoration of so many former Sunni military officers into the Iraqi army would endanger the Iraqi state and justify the Iranian propaganda which suggests that Iraqi Shi‘ites might not like their Persian brethren, but have no choice but to accept their protection.

So what must be done?

  • It’s essential to realize that sectarianism in Iraq isn’t a Shi‘ite against Sunni phenomenon but is often more acute the other way. I have never met a Sunni politician who, after a couple hours of discussion and maybe a couple whiskeys, didn’t acknowledge that they sought to restore Sunni control over the Shi‘ite population.
  • It’s also important to recognize that many Sunni leaders have their hands sullied by terrorism. Getting the Turkish or Qatari governments to vouch for their innocence is like getting Ted Bundy to assure the world of Jeffrey Dahmer’s innocence.
  • There should be no redemption for any figure that cooperated in anyway with ISIS or with the current uprising. Perhaps they thought they could use ISIS but retain control. That alone should disqualify their judgment into the future.
  • It’s long past time senior American military officers who have spent years in CENTCOM’s area of operation recognize that the clientitis that affects career State Department Arabists can also infect them. Generals interact with their effete and elite counterparts, and too often accept their complaints and adopt their biases. When it comes to anti-Shi’ite bias, how frustrating it is to see so many Americans more sectarian than Iraqis.
  • If the goal is to undermine Iranian influence, then it becomes essential to have a real presence in Iraq, one that Iraqis of all stripes can use to push back against Iranian Qods Force chief Qassem Suleimani’s demands. Sometimes there is no substitute for a base, be it in Iraqi Kurdistan or in southern Iraq.
  • Likewise, if the goal is economic opportunity, then no effort should be spared to build and improve the Iraqi private sector. This should not be left at the hands of USAID. The staffers at that dysfunctional and wasteful organization don’t know the first thing about free market enterprise. Rather, it’s time to do what the Iraqis have been asking for all along: Send in American businessmen to invest in small projects: hotels, local manufacturing, etc.
  • Bolstering the private sector is also important since every Iraqi ministry has about ten times the employees it needs to function. Bloated state payrolls might work when the price of oil is high, but what goes up also comes down, and the bloated bureaucracy is a ticking time bomb.
  • And, finally, federalism needn’t be a dirty word. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States centralized the government in part because it was just easier for the State Department and Pentagon to handle that way. But, instead of building a huge bureaucracy in Baghdad, why not simply leave defense and foreign affairs in Baghdad, and distribute Iraq’s oil revenue not only to the provinces to decide what to do with, but directly to the districts. Let them compete for the best model, and replicate the tale of two cities—Kirkuk and Mosul—throughout the whole country. The key is that federalism should be based on administrative district, and not on ethnicity or sectarian identity.

Good luck to Iraq’s prime minister. He has huge problems to overcome. But let’s not make them worse by confusing Shi‘ism and Iran, or by incentivizing terror by forcing concessions in its face.

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The Arab Bank and the Future of Terror

A lot of lip service is paid these days by both the U.S. government and the mainstream media about the need to stop terrorism and to isolate those who support it. But a trial that began on Thursday in federal court in New York City may have as much to do with whether it will be possible to isolate terrorists and their funders as anything done by Washington.

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A lot of lip service is paid these days by both the U.S. government and the mainstream media about the need to stop terrorism and to isolate those who support it. But a trial that began on Thursday in federal court in New York City may have as much to do with whether it will be possible to isolate terrorists and their funders as anything done by Washington.

The case is Linde v. Arab Bank, a lawsuit that seeks to hold the Arab Bank, a Jordanian bank with branches throughout the Middle East accountable for the fact that it served for six years as the conduit for funding the Hamas terrorist organization. It was the Arab Bank to which families of Hamas suicide bombers and other terrorists to collect payment for their services. While the operations of Hamas fundraisers in the United States, like the Holy Land Foundation (for which the Council on American Islamic Relations or CAIR initially served as a political front) have been shut down by the federal government, this is the first time a foreign bank that was used to funnel money to Hamas will be called to account in court for its role in promoting murder and mayhem.

The case, which has taken many years of hard work and complicated litigation by the Israel Law Center to bring to court. The 297 plaintiffs in the case are the survivors or the families of those Americans killed in 24 Hamas terrorist attacks from 2001 to 2004 when the Arab Bank was laundering money for the group. But the bank hasn’t been their only opponent. From the inception of this case, the U.S. State Department has fiercely opposed efforts to enforce the federal Anti-Terrorism Act that specifically targets the funders of acts of terror committed against Americans.

As I noted back in April, the State Department backed the refusal of the bank to comply with court rulings that required it to produce records of its clients but fortunately the U.S. Supreme Court turned down their appeal leaving Judge Nina Gershon to tell the jury in the case that it may infer from their non-compliance that it did provide financial services to terror groups via Saudi funders.

At stake here is whether, as the State Department argues, it is unfair for foreign banks that comply with laws in their own countries, to be brought to book in the U.S. for their role in spreading terror. Given the enormous financial resources behind the defense as well as the opposition of the diplomatic establishment to any effort to treat Hamas in the same manner that al-Qaeda and its funders have been dealt with by the courts the odds have always been against the plaintiffs.

But even a cursory look at the facts of the case shows that if the courts take the law as seriously as they should, this is an open and shut case. Despite its pleas of innocence, there’s little doubt that the Beirut branch of the Arab Bank knew exactly what it was doing when it took the money from Hamas spokesperson Osama Hamdan and then subsequently distributed to the relatives of terrorists who blew themselves up in some of the most horrific acts of terrorism of the last decade including the 2001 Sbarro Pizza bombing in Jerusalem. Under U.S. law, Americans who were killed or injured in such acts of terrorism have a right to sue those who funded the murderers.

Yet some observers, like those quoted in a New York Times article on the case, believe a victory for the plaintiffs will make it harder for banks to do business in “strife torn areas” of the globe. They further argue that a ruling against Arab Bank would set a precedent in which all financial institutions could be held accountable for the crimes of their clients.

But this is nonsense. Banks are not liable if criminals have accounts there. But when banks become the conduit for the movement of funds to terrorism, they are not playing a passive role in the crime. They are directly facilitating groups that traffic in murder for ideological reasons. In the case of Arab Bank, which openly supported the siege of Israel in its own publications, the defense that it didn’t know what it was doing is hardly credible.

Moreover, as we have learned in the last decade since 9/11, straightforward law enforcement efforts aren’t enough to shut down terrorism. The only way to effectively choke off terror groups like al-Qaeda or Hamas is to shut down their financial networks that use institutions like the defendant to both bankroll their operations and provide what amounts to insurance policies for suicide bombers.

If the plaintiffs in Linde v. Arab Bank prevail, as they should, it will deal a critical blow to Islamists and others who use the banking system to launder the vast sums they get from Arab and other Muslim sources to pursue a genocidal war against Jews and Israel. If they do, the State Department will complain but the world will be a lot safer.

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Exit Maliki

It’s certainly good news that Nouri al-Maliki read the writing on the wall and decided to end his last-ditch resistance to giving up the job of prime minister of Iraq. How good the news is remains to be determined.

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It’s certainly good news that Nouri al-Maliki read the writing on the wall and decided to end his last-ditch resistance to giving up the job of prime minister of Iraq. How good the news is remains to be determined.

For one thing, although the U.S. undoubtedly played a role in forcing him from office (for which President Obama and Vice President Biden deserve credit), just as important if not more so was Iran, which refused to back Maliki after it became clear that large segments of the Shiite community, led by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, were disenchanted with the prime minister. If Iran and especially its Quds Force under the command of General Qassem Suleimani had continued to support Maliki, he would probably have remained in office. But the Iranians value Shiite unity above all and so they pulled out the rug from under Maliki.

That’s a positive development, but a disturbing reminder of the outside influence that Iran continues to exercise in Iraq–which itself is a large part of the reason why so many Sunnis, intensely hostile to the “Persians” (as they refer to Shiites, both Iraqi and Iranian), are willing to side with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

We know little about Maliki’s putative successor, Haider al-Abadi. What little we have heard is good–he is said to be less insular, less sectarian, and less conspiracy-minded than Maliki. It helps that, while Maliki spent long years of exile from Baathist Iraq in Syria and Iran, Abadi spent part of his exile in Britain where, one hopes, he gained greater appreciation for democratic norms than Maliki has exhibited. But Abadi comes from the same Dawa Party as Maliki, and that party is part of the Shiite establishment that backed Maliki as he was victimizing Sunnis in recent years. The challenge for Abadi, and it is a big one, will be to show that he is not Maliki Redux–that he is genuinely willing to share power instead of trying to set himself up as another autocrat.

Part of the challenge will be for Abadi to voluntarily give up some of the authority that Maliki accumulated in extra-constitutional fashion–never an easy thing for any politician in power to do. In particular Maliki set up the Office of the Commander-in-Chief to allow him to circumvent the normal command structure and directly order the armed forces to perform his bidding, which usually meant targeting Sunnis. Abadi, as a first step, must disband this office and promise to respect the chain of command.

He must also weed out sectarians that Maliki appointed to the officer corps and work to hand power back to a professional officer corps, many of whom will be Sunnis. Moreover, he must end Maliki’s reliance on Iranian-directed militias. And he must not horde for himself the security ministries–Interior and Defense–as Maliki did; he needs to appoint a prominent Sunni to at least one of these posts.

This will not be easy for Abadi to do even with the best of intentions–and we have little idea of what his intentions are. Much of the Shiite establishment is sure to resist any diminution of its power and in this it is likely to have Iranian backing. It is imperative that the U.S. make a bigger commitment to Iraq not only to fight ISIS directly but also to push Abadi in a moderate, inclusive, non-sectarian direction that will make it possible to woo Sunni tribes away from the terrorists.

The Third Iraq War is hardly won yet. It has, indeed, barely been joined. Much work remains to be done including the dispatch of much greater military forces by the U.S. and its allies to work with the Iraqi security forces, Kurdish peshmerga, and Sunni tribes. And it is far from clear whether President Obama has the will to do that. At most one battle, albeit an important one, has just been won with Maliki’s imminent removal. The challenge now will be to consolidate this political beachhead. The greatest danger is giving in to excessive euphoria–to imagine that Iraq’s problems are now solved. Actually Iraq’s challenges are just beginning.

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Popularity, Leadership, and War Weariness

It is an axiom of our contemporary political scene that a war weary American public will never stand for anything that smacks of a return of U.S. troops to Iraq. That may still be true, but as a vicious terrorist Islamist group is overrunning that tortured country, the assumption that Americans are pleased with President Obama’s foreign policy may be mistaken.

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It is an axiom of our contemporary political scene that a war weary American public will never stand for anything that smacks of a return of U.S. troops to Iraq. That may still be true, but as a vicious terrorist Islamist group is overrunning that tortured country, the assumption that Americans are pleased with President Obama’s foreign policy may be mistaken.

A new Fox News poll continues the steady drumbeat of negative opinion surveys for the president. Though Americans approved of his decision to authorize air strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq by an overwhelming 62-25 percent margin, the public’s dissatisfaction with President Obama’s performance on virtually every foreign-policy category matches or even exceeds its disapproval of his domestic performance. On Iraq, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Ukraine, and foreign policy in general a majority of Americans gave the president a thumbs down.

While one should be cautious in extrapolating approval for a larger intervention in the Iraq crisis, these numbers ought to sober up many on the left who still seem to think the public is incapable of re-evaluating U.S. policy on even as contentious an issue as the Iraq war. Though it’s doubtful many Americans are eager to revisit the low points of U.S. involvement in Iraq, the assumption that Obama can simply ignore the mess he helped create in the Middle East because Americans are war weary may be incorrect.

Of course, for some in the media it will always be 2006 as far as Iraq is concerned. The New York Times’s publication of a highly offensive “op-art” cartoon by R.O. Blechman mocked the plight of starving Yazidis who are trapped on a mountain while fleeing ISIS murderers illustrated the imbecilic nature of much of what passes for commentary in the liberal mainstream media. Like the way most Americans ignored the plight of the boat people forced to flee South Vietnam after the U.S. abandoned that country to its Communist conquerors, apparently the collateral damage from Obama’s decision to bail on Iraq doesn’t prick the conscience of the Times opinion page editors.

The same spirit was manifested on MSNBC yesterday in an interesting exchange between Rep. Peter King and MSNBC personality Thomas Roberts on the network’s Morning Joe program. The New York Republican was discussing his view that the U.S. needs to be doing more to stop the advance of ISIS terrorists in Iraq when the left-leaning station’s Roberts challenged him, claiming that the American people approved of the president’s bugout from Iraq and that to reverse that verdict in any way merely because of King’s views about the current situation there amounted to anti-democratic activity comparable to that of ISIS.

This is the sort of argument that is so stupid as to be almost not worth refuting, though King did so gallantly despite Roberts’ attempts to shout him down by rightly asserting that if popularity on an issue must dictate policy then Winston Churchill should not have warned Britons of the consequences of popular appeasement stands by their government.

But the problem with the new isolationism that is supposedly sweeping the nation and deterring the administration from taking decisive action to save Kurdistan ad the rest of Iraq from the clutches of ISIS is that to stick to that line you’ve got to ignore the pictures of those starving Yazidis on the mountaintop that the Times dismissed as a bunch of “Arabs” (sic) who had seized on a good tactic to get U.S. assistance.

Americans may not want to pay the full price of involvement in that war but they are also, as the poll numbers indicate, profoundly uncomfortable with the policies of a president who remains bent on facilitating a U.S. retreat from the world stage.

As King correctly said, leadership is not always doing what is popular. Staying out of wars is rarely the sort of thing that gets a politician in trouble. But to assume that standing by impotently as a nation that thousands of Americans died to liberate from Saddam Hussein and to keep out of the clutches of al-Qaeda terrorists is now lost to the same band of Islamist cutthroats is not as smart as the Times and MSNBC may think.

Moreover, as it has been pointed out repeatedly, allowing the so-called “caliphate” established in Syria and Iraq to remain in place unmolested (as opposed to merely saving the Kurds and Yazidis from further incursions) constitutes a profound threat to U.S. security comparable to the re-establishment of the Taliban in Afghanistan as they were prior to 9/11.

Americans are always weary of, or wary of, war until they are attacked. Historians will debate the merits of the original decision to go into Iraq but even if we were to concede it was a mistake, there is no putting that genie back in the bottle. The focus of much of the post-9/11 U.S. security policy has been to ensure that the U.S. homeland remains safe. One needn’t be a neoconservative booster of a new Iraq war to understand that in this case apathy about the situation in that country is comparable to complicity in the creation of a new terror base. Preventing that from happening requires leadership. Which is to say that a president who is not afraid to contradict conventional wisdom about Iraq or the need to resist a nuclear Iran is necessary to avert a catastrophe.

President Obama was reelected on a platform that asserted that it was OK to back off from the world stage because Osama bin Laden was dead and al-Qaeda was defeated. As the Benghazi attack and current events in Syria and Iraq prove, that was a false assumption and increasingly Americans realize they were duped. A few opinion polls won’t reverse a decade-long trend but those who take it as a given that non-intervention in Iraq is synonymous with the will of the American people may be misinterpreting a natural reluctance a to re-engage in a difficult conflict. What they want is presidential leadership that will help keep them and the world safe, and that is exactly what they are not getting from President Obama.

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Ferguson and the Right: the Geography of Community Policing

One of the stranger reactions to yesterday’s disturbing standoff between a militarized county police force in Ferguson, Missouri and protesters was for leftist commentators to accuse libertarians and limited-government conservatives of insufficient outrage. Paul Waldman wrote an absolutely ridiculous version of this yesterday at the Washington Post, asking where all the libertarians were. In the process, he revealed that leftists apparently think if libertarians don’t work for Reason magazine, they don’t exist. (Why he missed libertarians who write for the same newspaper he does goes unexplained.)

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One of the stranger reactions to yesterday’s disturbing standoff between a militarized county police force in Ferguson, Missouri and protesters was for leftist commentators to accuse libertarians and limited-government conservatives of insufficient outrage. Paul Waldman wrote an absolutely ridiculous version of this yesterday at the Washington Post, asking where all the libertarians were. In the process, he revealed that leftists apparently think if libertarians don’t work for Reason magazine, they don’t exist. (Why he missed libertarians who write for the same newspaper he does goes unexplained.)

But foolishness aside, it did raise an interesting point: namely, the fact that this issue blurs ideological lines, as well as the fact that libertarians have raised their profile sufficiently to be on speed dial in case of emergency. The issue of heavyhanded policing itself does not divide the left, but it does divide the right. And that is a topic Ben Domenech has covered before and returned to again this morning in the wake of the Ferguson coverage. Domenech writes that attitudes toward the police can be something of a Rorschach test for libertarians and conservatives:

If you want an indication about where someone sits on the dividing line between conservative and libertarian, sometimes it’s as simple as how they answer this question: how do you feel about cops? Do you naturally tend to trust them, viewing them as a necessary and needed hedge acting in defense of law and order? Or are you naturally suspicious of them, believing them to be little more than armed tax collectors and bureaucrats with a tendency to violence and falsehood in service of their whims? Are cops the brave individuals who stand between the law-abiding and those who would rob, rape, and kill, or are they the low-level tyrannical overpaid functionaries of the administrative state, more focused on tax collection in the form of citations, property grabs, and killing the occasional family dog?

This isn’t to say that only libertarians are suspicious of cops. There has always been a strain of conservatism very skeptical of government power, and as police forces have become more interested in seizing assets and ignoring complaint, many conservatives have become openly critical of their behavior. Indeed, Mary Katharine Ham has a great response to what we’re seeing in Ferguson, as does Kevin Williamson. But how you answer that initial question will tell you a lot about your political assumptions regarding authority.

I would say, however, that there’s another dividing line here. How you feel about cops depends on your experience with them, and your experience with them often depends–aside from race, of course–on geography.

Look at the pictures of last night’s standoff in Ferguson. The complaints are not just about arbitrary arrests or a media crackdown. The complaints also have to do with the county police rolling in on military-style vehicles and wearing the kind of body armor and fielding the kinds of weapons–and pointing them at unarmed protesters–we usually associate with a war zone. Ferguson is not a war zone.

But intense and effective policing, even of high-crime areas, doesn’t have to look that way. In fact, a police force that looks the way it did in Ferguson last night is almost certainly an indication of counterproductive policing. (And thus raises questions about whether the police were actually sufficiently trained to use the weaponry they had with them.)

I work in New York City, and until recently lived in Washington Heights in Manhattan. It is a neighborhood with a troubled history. It’s also ethnically diverse and immigrant-heavy, and so it’s normally a model of a stable civil society brimming with energy–strivers with large families just trying give everyone in their world a better life. But it has also been a beneficiary of better policing. In 1987, the New York Times proclaimed it the city’s “murder capital.” Today, along with next-door Inwood, it is safer than all Manhattan neighborhoods except the Upper West Side and Upper East Side.

Having lived in Washington Heights twice a decade apart, I saw the improvement, though it began before I first moved to the neighborhood. The Heights were part of the general decline in New York City crime under the proactive policing efforts begun after David Dinkins’ atrocious term as mayor. And here’s the thing about the Heights: it did this without putting tanks on the streets and snipers on the roofs.

Proactive policing is not synonymous with militarized policing–not by a long shot. I have been amazed time and again by the calm under fire demonstrated by the NYPD. It’s almost exactly the opposite of what we saw in Ferguson. In Ferguson, the police showed up prepared for war; that in itself is an escalation, and it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So conservatives and libertarians may have very different instinctive responses to the police. But controlling for other factors, including race–black New Yorkers gave former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly 63 percent approval last year–it’s impossible to truly understand how a population sees the police without taking into account the geographic distinctions between them. Sometimes the most effective police forces fighting the most sophisticated threats are the ones who make the best argument against militarized law enforcement.

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Israel Should Ignore Obama’s Tantrum

Last month as the fighting raged in Gaza, news about the United States resupplying the ammunition stocks of the Israel Defense Forces balanced other, more troubling stories about arguments between the two countries over diplomacy. But it turns out the arguments between the Obama administration and the Israelis were even angrier than we thought. As the Wall Street Journal reports today, the White House has been having a full-fledged temper tantrum over Israel’s unwillingness to take orders from Washington and doesn’t care who knows it. But the best advice friends of Israel can give Prime Minister Netanyahu is to stick to his positions despite the insults being flung in his direction.

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Last month as the fighting raged in Gaza, news about the United States resupplying the ammunition stocks of the Israel Defense Forces balanced other, more troubling stories about arguments between the two countries over diplomacy. But it turns out the arguments between the Obama administration and the Israelis were even angrier than we thought. As the Wall Street Journal reports today, the White House has been having a full-fledged temper tantrum over Israel’s unwillingness to take orders from Washington and doesn’t care who knows it. But the best advice friends of Israel can give Prime Minister Netanyahu is to stick to his positions despite the insults being flung in his direction.

The article, which appears to be based on leaks from high-ranking U.S. officials, revolves around the notion that the administration is furious with Israel. The anger emanating from the White House is, at its core, the function of policy differences about the peace process. It also revolves around Israel’s decision to attempt to reduce Hamas’s arsenal rather than merely shoot down the rockets aimed at its cities. But what really seems to have gotten the president’s goat is the ease with which Jerusalem has been able to circumvent his desire to pressure it to make concessions via the strong support of Congress and the close ties that have been established between Israel’s defense establishment and the Pentagon.

As Seth noted earlier, rather than speeding the necessary ammunition supplies to the IDF, the administration was doing the opposite. But the ammunition transfers were just the last straw for a White House that regards Israel’s government and the wall-to-wall bipartisan pro-Israel consensus that backs it up as a source of unending frustration.

It bears remembering that this administration came into office in January 2009 determined to create more daylight between the positions of the two countries, and that’s exactly what it did. Obama picked pointless fights with Netanyahu over settlements and Jerusalem throughout his first term, culminating in a calculated ambush of the prime minister on a trip to Washington in May 2011 when the president sought to impose the 1967 lines as the starting point for future peace talks. But Netanyahu, who had sought to downplay differences until that point, was having none of it and made clear his resistance. Instead of humiliating the Israeli, Obama was forced to watch as Netanyahu was endlessly cheered before a joint meeting of Congress as if he was Winston Churchill visiting the U.S. during World War Two.

That might have led to a further escalation of the fight between the two governments, but the president’s looming reelection campaign intervened. What followed instead was an administration charm offensive aimed at pro-Israel voters in which all was seemingly forgotten and forgiven even if anger still lingered beneath the surface.

Those tensions have now resurfaced in Obama’s second term. The trigger for much of it was Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to waste much of the last year on an effort to revive peace talks with the Palestinians that no one with any sense thought had a chance of success. Predictably, his failure (which was unfairly blamed by both the secretary and the president on Israel rather than on a Palestinian Authority that remains unable and/or unwilling to make peace) exacerbated the situation and led, albeit indirectly, to this summer’s fighting. Yet rather than learn from this mistake, the administration’s reaction to Gaza has been mostly motivated by pique against the Israelis and an incoherent impulse to frustrate Netanyahu.

But now that the dust appears to have settled in Gaza at least for the moment, where does that leave U.S.-Israel relations? It is true, as John noted earlier, that the alliance seems to have sunk to a point that is roughly comparable to that experienced during the administration of the elder George Bush. Administration officials are openly saying that Netanyahu doesn’t know his place and making implicit threats of retaliation.

But, as was the case in 2011, it’s not clear that Obama and his minions in the West Wing can do anything but complain about Netanyahu to their friends in the press. But the Journal story highlights an important fact. No matter how angry Obama may be about Netanyahu’s refusal to do his bidding and make concessions that make even less sense today than they did a few years ago, there are limits as to how far he can go and what he may do to take revenge for this.

The thing that is driving Obama crazy is not so much Netanyahu’s willingness to say no to him but the fact that Congress and most Americans seem to think there is nothing wrong with it. The president may be, as Aaron David Miller famously said, someone who is “not in love with the idea of Israel” as his recent predecessors have been. But the alliance he inherited from George W. Bush and Bill Clinton is one that is so strong and so deeply entrenched within the U.S. political and defense establishments that there isn’t all that much he can’t do about it.

Try as he might, Obama can’t persuade any Israeli government to endanger its people by repeating the Gaza experiment in the West Bank. Nor will he persuade them to refrain from hitting Hamas hard and opposing negotiations that further empower it. Netanyahu has a relatively united Israeli nation behind him that rightly distrusts Obama. He also can count on the support of a bipartisan consensus in Congress that sees no reason to back an increasingly unpopular and ineffective lame duck president against the country’s only democratic ally in the Middle East.

This administration can still undermine the alliance and America’s own interests by perpetuating this personal feud with the prime minister and exacerbating it by further appeasement of Iran in the nuclear talks. But if Obama couldn’t break Netanyahu in his first term, he won’t do so now. As difficult as it may be to ignore the brickbats flying from Washington, the Israelis can stand their ground against this president sure in the knowledge that most Americans back them and that the next occupant of the Oval Office, whether a Democrat or a Republican, is likely to be far more supportive of this special alliance that Obama disdains.

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