Commentary Magazine


Topic: ambassador

Lebanon: To Encourage the Others

John Bolton has a superb opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times today reminding us that Lebanon is a nearer prospective loss to liberalism than Egypt. Today’s concern for Egypt is about the opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power. The nature of the potential stakes remains uncertain; Mubarak and Omar Suleiman have made explicit declarations of intent, but there is no clarity or political coherence from the opposition forces.

In Lebanon, by contrast, Hezbollah has already made its move. It has run the course the Muslim Brotherhood could in Egypt, first securing a role in the coalition government — without renouncing terrorism or political thuggery — and then leveraging that role to install the government of its choice. The choices for foreign governments are clear in Lebanon: either reject Hezbollah’s control of the country or accept it.

Ambassador Bolton is categorical: “We must refuse to recognize any Hezbollah-dominated government as legitimate, at least until Hezbollah fully disarms and becomes a real political party.” The timetable for concrete action will be driven in part by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, whose next public event, on February 7, is a hearing related to the confidential indictments issued in January for the 2005 assassinations. That timetable is a good thing; an independent process with scheduled events is guaranteed to present public decision points for foreign leaders. If a new Hezbollah-backed government terminates Lebanese cooperation with the tribunal, the reaction of the U.S. and other nations, one way or another, will be impossible to spin.

There is grave danger, as Bolton suggests, in failing to counter Hezbollah’s effective coup in Lebanon. Conversely, the payoff from countering it would be particularly high. Hezbollah’s method of government infiltration is a model for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements across the Arab world. It can be allowed to stand or it can be opposed and reversed; either response will encourager les autres — encourage the others.

The number of others who need “encouraging,” one way or the other, is growing with the unrest in Egypt. In their different ways, Jordan, Algeria, and Yemen have all, in the past 48 hours, joined Tunisia in opening doors formerly closed to the Muslim Brotherhood. There is a great deal at stake, but the timing could hardly be better for making an example of Hezbollah. Its takeover of Lebanon, opposed by the Arab world, adds urgency to the theme retailed by the Muslim Brotherhood that the old governments are corrupt and ineffective. If we want the Arab nations to have breathing room in which to take genuine steps toward pluralism and democracy, one of the best things we could do is decisively block Hezbollah’s assault on those elements in Lebanon.

John Bolton has a superb opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times today reminding us that Lebanon is a nearer prospective loss to liberalism than Egypt. Today’s concern for Egypt is about the opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power. The nature of the potential stakes remains uncertain; Mubarak and Omar Suleiman have made explicit declarations of intent, but there is no clarity or political coherence from the opposition forces.

In Lebanon, by contrast, Hezbollah has already made its move. It has run the course the Muslim Brotherhood could in Egypt, first securing a role in the coalition government — without renouncing terrorism or political thuggery — and then leveraging that role to install the government of its choice. The choices for foreign governments are clear in Lebanon: either reject Hezbollah’s control of the country or accept it.

Ambassador Bolton is categorical: “We must refuse to recognize any Hezbollah-dominated government as legitimate, at least until Hezbollah fully disarms and becomes a real political party.” The timetable for concrete action will be driven in part by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, whose next public event, on February 7, is a hearing related to the confidential indictments issued in January for the 2005 assassinations. That timetable is a good thing; an independent process with scheduled events is guaranteed to present public decision points for foreign leaders. If a new Hezbollah-backed government terminates Lebanese cooperation with the tribunal, the reaction of the U.S. and other nations, one way or another, will be impossible to spin.

There is grave danger, as Bolton suggests, in failing to counter Hezbollah’s effective coup in Lebanon. Conversely, the payoff from countering it would be particularly high. Hezbollah’s method of government infiltration is a model for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements across the Arab world. It can be allowed to stand or it can be opposed and reversed; either response will encourager les autres — encourage the others.

The number of others who need “encouraging,” one way or the other, is growing with the unrest in Egypt. In their different ways, Jordan, Algeria, and Yemen have all, in the past 48 hours, joined Tunisia in opening doors formerly closed to the Muslim Brotherhood. There is a great deal at stake, but the timing could hardly be better for making an example of Hezbollah. Its takeover of Lebanon, opposed by the Arab world, adds urgency to the theme retailed by the Muslim Brotherhood that the old governments are corrupt and ineffective. If we want the Arab nations to have breathing room in which to take genuine steps toward pluralism and democracy, one of the best things we could do is decisively block Hezbollah’s assault on those elements in Lebanon.

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Birthright Confusion Caps Off Worst Week Ever for J Street

If 2010 was a bad year for J Street, 2011 looks like it’s shaping up to be even worse. In the past week, the organization has been denounced by its most prominent supporter in Congress — Rep. Gary Ackerman — and by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.

And now J Street is facing another problem. A few days ago, the group announced it would be sponsoring a Birthright trip to Israel and posted a sign-up page for the program on its website. But now Birthright is denying it was ever involved with the trip:

A Birthright official told Haaretz that about three months ago they were approached by “The Israel Experience,” one of the trip providers, with this idea, but said that they are not interested in trips dedicated to a specific political experience. “Since then we didn’t have any requests from them,” he said. “And then we saw to our astonishment the press release of J Street that they are “leading the trip” — there is no such thing in our practice. We had no direct contact with J Street, no formal request was submitted.”

However, J Street disputes Birthright’s account of the situation. According to Moriel Rothman, president of J Street’s student arm, which reportedly organized the trip, Birthright had initially approved the program.

“[W]e are deeply troubled by Birthright’s abrupt decision to cancel our trip,” said Rothman. “Revoking this previously-approved opportunity, planned in concert with accredited Birthright trip organizer Israel Experience, sends exactly the wrong message to our community and to our students. And it is a painful message to receive.”

A series of e-mails obtained by Haaretz appears to partially back up J Street’s version of the story. The correspondence reportedly shows that J Street had submitted a proposal to an accredited Birthright trip organizer, who responded that the draft was “perfect.” However, it’s unclear from the article whether the trip was ever officially approved:

The pro-Israel lobby submitted to Haaretz email correspondences between an official from The Israel Experience and a J Street Campus representative, which show that JStreet sent the draft regarding the announcement of the trip for approval – and they received it. The Israel Experience official defined the draft as “perfect.” So it seems that the miscommunication occurred somewhere between “Birthright” and one of the trip organizers.‬

So what happened? Was there a missed communication somewhere between the trip organizer and Birthright leadership? Or did Birthright initially approve the program and then back out under outside pressure? At this point, it isn’t clear, and multiple requests for comment from Birthright over the past few days have not been returned.

If 2010 was a bad year for J Street, 2011 looks like it’s shaping up to be even worse. In the past week, the organization has been denounced by its most prominent supporter in Congress — Rep. Gary Ackerman — and by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.

And now J Street is facing another problem. A few days ago, the group announced it would be sponsoring a Birthright trip to Israel and posted a sign-up page for the program on its website. But now Birthright is denying it was ever involved with the trip:

A Birthright official told Haaretz that about three months ago they were approached by “The Israel Experience,” one of the trip providers, with this idea, but said that they are not interested in trips dedicated to a specific political experience. “Since then we didn’t have any requests from them,” he said. “And then we saw to our astonishment the press release of J Street that they are “leading the trip” — there is no such thing in our practice. We had no direct contact with J Street, no formal request was submitted.”

However, J Street disputes Birthright’s account of the situation. According to Moriel Rothman, president of J Street’s student arm, which reportedly organized the trip, Birthright had initially approved the program.

“[W]e are deeply troubled by Birthright’s abrupt decision to cancel our trip,” said Rothman. “Revoking this previously-approved opportunity, planned in concert with accredited Birthright trip organizer Israel Experience, sends exactly the wrong message to our community and to our students. And it is a painful message to receive.”

A series of e-mails obtained by Haaretz appears to partially back up J Street’s version of the story. The correspondence reportedly shows that J Street had submitted a proposal to an accredited Birthright trip organizer, who responded that the draft was “perfect.” However, it’s unclear from the article whether the trip was ever officially approved:

The pro-Israel lobby submitted to Haaretz email correspondences between an official from The Israel Experience and a J Street Campus representative, which show that JStreet sent the draft regarding the announcement of the trip for approval – and they received it. The Israel Experience official defined the draft as “perfect.” So it seems that the miscommunication occurred somewhere between “Birthright” and one of the trip organizers.‬

So what happened? Was there a missed communication somewhere between the trip organizer and Birthright leadership? Or did Birthright initially approve the program and then back out under outside pressure? At this point, it isn’t clear, and multiple requests for comment from Birthright over the past few days have not been returned.

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Wolfowitz on the Convulsions in Egypt

In an interview with the Spectator (UK), Ambassador Paul Wolfowitz makes some insightful observations as they relate to the revolution now unfolding in parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

According to Wolfowitz, (a) the predominant sentiment in the streets is not strongly Islamist; (b) Islamists, however, are hurrying to get into the game — and in Egypt, the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood increases the risk of a bad outcome; (c) Western governments can be a positive force on behalf of genuine freedom and against attempts to impose a new kind of tyranny of the Islamist variety; and (d) we can’t be a positive force if we are seen as propping up a hated tyrant or, worse, if we are perceived as encouraging the kind of bloody crackdown that could at best produce an artificial “stability” for a relatively short period of time.

“The possibility of a bad outcome is very real, particularly because we did nothing to encourage more evolutionary change earlier,” Wolfowitz says, “but I believe we have a better chance of a good outcome if we support positive change than if we support the status quo.”

He mentions democratic transitions over the past several decades, in places like the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Indonesia, Central and Eastern Europe, and nations (like Chile) in Latin America. “Few of these countries would qualify as Westminster-style democracies,” according to Wolfowitz, “but most are far better off as a result of these democratic transitions, and so are we.”

So far, he says, Tunisia and Egypt seem to be following this paradigm.

If Arab nations had started the kind of political reform some were advocating years ago, the current convulsions would not be happening. But Egypt is where Egypt is, and the goal of the United States should be to assist the pro-democracy forces there as best we can. Pessimism, fatalism, and lamentations are not a particularly useful guide to policy, especially when events are still unfolding and can, with a mix of skill and luck, go our way.

Nothing good is guaranteed, but nothing bad is inevitable.

In an interview with the Spectator (UK), Ambassador Paul Wolfowitz makes some insightful observations as they relate to the revolution now unfolding in parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

According to Wolfowitz, (a) the predominant sentiment in the streets is not strongly Islamist; (b) Islamists, however, are hurrying to get into the game — and in Egypt, the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood increases the risk of a bad outcome; (c) Western governments can be a positive force on behalf of genuine freedom and against attempts to impose a new kind of tyranny of the Islamist variety; and (d) we can’t be a positive force if we are seen as propping up a hated tyrant or, worse, if we are perceived as encouraging the kind of bloody crackdown that could at best produce an artificial “stability” for a relatively short period of time.

“The possibility of a bad outcome is very real, particularly because we did nothing to encourage more evolutionary change earlier,” Wolfowitz says, “but I believe we have a better chance of a good outcome if we support positive change than if we support the status quo.”

He mentions democratic transitions over the past several decades, in places like the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Indonesia, Central and Eastern Europe, and nations (like Chile) in Latin America. “Few of these countries would qualify as Westminster-style democracies,” according to Wolfowitz, “but most are far better off as a result of these democratic transitions, and so are we.”

So far, he says, Tunisia and Egypt seem to be following this paradigm.

If Arab nations had started the kind of political reform some were advocating years ago, the current convulsions would not be happening. But Egypt is where Egypt is, and the goal of the United States should be to assist the pro-democracy forces there as best we can. Pessimism, fatalism, and lamentations are not a particularly useful guide to policy, especially when events are still unfolding and can, with a mix of skill and luck, go our way.

Nothing good is guaranteed, but nothing bad is inevitable.

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Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren Blasts J Street

It looks like the feud between Michael Oren and J Street has been re-opened after the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. took a shot at the organization during an interview with the Daily Caller. Oren seemed specifically annoyed over J Street’s e-mail-blast attack on Rep. Gary Ackerman last week:

“They claim they’re pro-Israel,” he said, providing a less than ringing endorsement of the George Soros-funded organization. “They are calling for Israel to be condemned in the Security Council for the settlements and they are condemning some of our best friends on the Hill. So they can call themselves what they like.”

The relationship between Oren and J Street has been rocky from the beginning. The ambassador turned down an invitation to speak at the group’s first conference in 2009, and he also referred to J Street’s views as dangerous to Israel’s security. But they appeared to mend relations last winter, based on a series of mutually fawning media interviews and private discussions. In February, Oren claimed that J Street had moved “much more into the mainstream” and said that “[t]he J Street controversy has come a long way toward resolving.” The ambassador even held a private meeting with J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami in April.

But Oren’s statement to the Daily Caller is a sure sign that J Street is on the outs with the embassy again.

Probably sensing this, J Street took a desperate measure this afternoon. You know things have hit rock bottom if Ben-Ami starts apologizing:

Too often, we descend to the level of those with whom we disagree and our campaigns and actions become too personal.

This happened last week with Congressman Gary Ackerman, when we reacted sharply to statements regarding J Street to which we objected. We may disagree with him over policy matters at times — but he and we share important larger goals for the United States, Israel and the Jewish people. Our discussions with him and with all those with whom we may disagree at times should be conducted with respect.

So allow me to apologize for the tone of our email on Friday.

Oren began mending his relationship with J Street after the group appeared to be gaining influence with members of Congress and Obama administration officials. But in less than a year, J Street has lost any political clout it once had, and the embassy doesn’t have much of a reason to work with it anymore.

It looks like the feud between Michael Oren and J Street has been re-opened after the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. took a shot at the organization during an interview with the Daily Caller. Oren seemed specifically annoyed over J Street’s e-mail-blast attack on Rep. Gary Ackerman last week:

“They claim they’re pro-Israel,” he said, providing a less than ringing endorsement of the George Soros-funded organization. “They are calling for Israel to be condemned in the Security Council for the settlements and they are condemning some of our best friends on the Hill. So they can call themselves what they like.”

The relationship between Oren and J Street has been rocky from the beginning. The ambassador turned down an invitation to speak at the group’s first conference in 2009, and he also referred to J Street’s views as dangerous to Israel’s security. But they appeared to mend relations last winter, based on a series of mutually fawning media interviews and private discussions. In February, Oren claimed that J Street had moved “much more into the mainstream” and said that “[t]he J Street controversy has come a long way toward resolving.” The ambassador even held a private meeting with J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami in April.

But Oren’s statement to the Daily Caller is a sure sign that J Street is on the outs with the embassy again.

Probably sensing this, J Street took a desperate measure this afternoon. You know things have hit rock bottom if Ben-Ami starts apologizing:

Too often, we descend to the level of those with whom we disagree and our campaigns and actions become too personal.

This happened last week with Congressman Gary Ackerman, when we reacted sharply to statements regarding J Street to which we objected. We may disagree with him over policy matters at times — but he and we share important larger goals for the United States, Israel and the Jewish people. Our discussions with him and with all those with whom we may disagree at times should be conducted with respect.

So allow me to apologize for the tone of our email on Friday.

Oren began mending his relationship with J Street after the group appeared to be gaining influence with members of Congress and Obama administration officials. But in less than a year, J Street has lost any political clout it once had, and the embassy doesn’t have much of a reason to work with it anymore.

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It’s Not Now, Nor Has It Ever Been, About Israel

In the New York Post today, I argue that the Egyptian street revolution will bring to an end the decades-long argument that the causes of instability in the Middle East have their root in the relations between Israel and the Arabs:

If there were a Palestinian state today, and Israel had been crammed back into its pre-1967 borders, would this week’s street revolt in Cairo look any different?

If there were a Palestinian embassy in Washington today, would Hosni Mubarak have been any more mindful of the eventual consequences of his iron-fisted fecklessness in refusing a transition to a more representative Egypt because there was an ambassador from Palestine in Washington?

No one has ever been able to offer a convincing explanation for what role the anti-Zionist struggle, emotionally stirring though it may be, might play when it comes to, say, the price of bread in Tunis, the unemployment rate in Cairo or the prospects for economic growth in Yemen.

You can find the piece here.

In the New York Post today, I argue that the Egyptian street revolution will bring to an end the decades-long argument that the causes of instability in the Middle East have their root in the relations between Israel and the Arabs:

If there were a Palestinian state today, and Israel had been crammed back into its pre-1967 borders, would this week’s street revolt in Cairo look any different?

If there were a Palestinian embassy in Washington today, would Hosni Mubarak have been any more mindful of the eventual consequences of his iron-fisted fecklessness in refusing a transition to a more representative Egypt because there was an ambassador from Palestine in Washington?

No one has ever been able to offer a convincing explanation for what role the anti-Zionist struggle, emotionally stirring though it may be, might play when it comes to, say, the price of bread in Tunis, the unemployment rate in Cairo or the prospects for economic growth in Yemen.

You can find the piece here.

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A Policy That Pleases No One

In a private meeting with British MEPs on Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to Britain Louis Susman is reported to have said: “Washington wants a clearer British commitment to remain in the EU. … [A]ll key issues must run through Europe.” He was not expressing a personal preference. He was reiterating the administration’s policy. After all, it was the vice president who last May described Brussels as “the capital of the free world.” But this is not a policy that is likely to achieve results satisfactory to anyone.

I wrote my doctoral thesis on the first British application to the EEC in 1961 and, more broadly, on the European issue in British politics from 1956 to 1963, so I’ve had 10 painful years of slogging through thousands of pages of public and private documents on this subject. The reactions of the British people to the negotiations to enter the EEC in 1961 to 1963 are particularly relevant to the ambassador’s statement and the administration’s policy. Harold Macmillan’s government took these reactions so seriously that it carried out a secret survey of public opinion — surveying the public in this way was then a rather novel idea — to figure out if it was winning or losing, and why. (As it happened, it was losing,)

The survey found that opposition to joining the EEC centered, first, on loyalty to kith and kin in the Commonwealth. Second came the somewhat parochial concerns of the farmers, who were worried (and how wrong they turned out to be) that the Common Agricultural Policy wouldn’t ship enough money their way. Less significant than both of these sentiments, but still important, came the belief that Britain was only entering Europe because the U.S. had ordered it to do so and that the U.S. was collaborating with the EEC in an attack on British sovereignty. As a matter of fact, this was not fully true. The U.S. did strongly support British entry, but Macmillan wasn’t simply being ordered around. He had his own reasons for his policy. Indeed, he had so many reasons that it is almost impossible to answer the seeming simple question “Why did Britain apply for entry?” Read More

In a private meeting with British MEPs on Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to Britain Louis Susman is reported to have said: “Washington wants a clearer British commitment to remain in the EU. … [A]ll key issues must run through Europe.” He was not expressing a personal preference. He was reiterating the administration’s policy. After all, it was the vice president who last May described Brussels as “the capital of the free world.” But this is not a policy that is likely to achieve results satisfactory to anyone.

I wrote my doctoral thesis on the first British application to the EEC in 1961 and, more broadly, on the European issue in British politics from 1956 to 1963, so I’ve had 10 painful years of slogging through thousands of pages of public and private documents on this subject. The reactions of the British people to the negotiations to enter the EEC in 1961 to 1963 are particularly relevant to the ambassador’s statement and the administration’s policy. Harold Macmillan’s government took these reactions so seriously that it carried out a secret survey of public opinion — surveying the public in this way was then a rather novel idea — to figure out if it was winning or losing, and why. (As it happened, it was losing,)

The survey found that opposition to joining the EEC centered, first, on loyalty to kith and kin in the Commonwealth. Second came the somewhat parochial concerns of the farmers, who were worried (and how wrong they turned out to be) that the Common Agricultural Policy wouldn’t ship enough money their way. Less significant than both of these sentiments, but still important, came the belief that Britain was only entering Europe because the U.S. had ordered it to do so and that the U.S. was collaborating with the EEC in an attack on British sovereignty. As a matter of fact, this was not fully true. The U.S. did strongly support British entry, but Macmillan wasn’t simply being ordered around. He had his own reasons for his policy. Indeed, he had so many reasons that it is almost impossible to answer the seeming simple question “Why did Britain apply for entry?”

The problem with the Obama administration’s policy — which has basically been the policy of most U.S. administrations since 1961, with the partial exception of the more Euroskeptic tenure of George W. Bush — is that it raises these concerns about American bullying all over again, and raises them in a uniquely unhelpful way. Let us suppose for a moment that you desire — as I do not — that Britain should remain in the EU. U.S. declarations to this effect do nothing to convince those skeptical of this policy, because they suggest that the U.S. is cooperating with the EU to destroy British sovereignty, which is precisely why the skeptics are opposed to EU membership in the first place. Americans who desire Britain to stay in will best achieve this aim by not talking about it.

On the other hand, if you favor British withdrawal, it is regrettably true that the ambassador’s statements will anger the Euroskeptics — who tend to be more pro-American — and damage the Special Relationship by suggesting that the Americans have more or less given up on the idea of Britain as a sovereign and self-governing partner. The result is not to encourage strong Anglo-American relations; it is to encourage weaker British relations with both Europe and the U.S. Paradoxically, again, Americans who believe Britain should leave the EU have little to gain from statements like the ambassador’s, no matter how much public uproar they cause in Britain.

I am tempted to say it’s amazing that the administration has come upon a policy in this realm that will not achieve good results for anyone, no matter what they believe. But, as events in other parts of the world are illustrating, they seem to have a positive knack for this kind of thing.

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Obama’s Moment to Redefine the Modern Middle East

Somehow it’s hard to get too worked up about the formalized rituals of the State of the Union when real news is happening half a world away. In the Middle East, revolutions, for good and for ill, are breaking out, while back in Washington, President Obama is touting the latest clean-energy boondoggles. All he had to say about the ongoing, exciting events was one line: “the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of the people.” What about the people of Lebanon? Or of Egypt? Don’t they deserve support too? And don’t the Tunisians battling for democracy against the security forces of the old regime deserve more than a throwaway line near the end of an hour-long address?

It is quite possible, even likely, that recent upheavals will amount to little. Many people, myself included, got our hopes up in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution overthrew Syrian domination in Lebanon and the people of Iraq turned out in droves to vote. Those hopes were swiftly dashed; indeed, this week the representative of the Cedar Revolution, Saad Hariri, ignominiously lost the prime minister’s job as Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran flexed their muscles. But it is also possible — not likely but possible — that the toppling of the Tunisian regime could have a ripple effect in this sclerotic region. This could be the most important moment for American diplomacy since the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

Certainly there is little precedent for the mass outpouring of protest in Egypt against the Mubarak regime, which is just as decrepit as was the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. The stakes in Egypt, however, are much higher, given that it’s much bigger than Tunisia and has a much larger, active Muslim Brotherhood that could take advantage of chaos to seize power.

At a moment like this, it would be comforting to see in the Oval Office an old diplomatic hand like George H.W. Bush — and I say this as someone who was never a big fan of the elder Bush. I do think, however, that despite some missteps (google the Chicken Kiev speech if you’re under 40), he did a brilliant job of managing a volatile situation. I do not mean to slight the contributions of brave dissidents or even of Mikhail Gorbachev, but nevertheless, the creation of democracies across Eastern Europe is in substantial measure the legacy of Ronald Reagan and his predecessors going back to Truman, who confronted the “evil empire,” and of Bush the Elder, who skillfully managed its dissolution. Read More

Somehow it’s hard to get too worked up about the formalized rituals of the State of the Union when real news is happening half a world away. In the Middle East, revolutions, for good and for ill, are breaking out, while back in Washington, President Obama is touting the latest clean-energy boondoggles. All he had to say about the ongoing, exciting events was one line: “the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of the people.” What about the people of Lebanon? Or of Egypt? Don’t they deserve support too? And don’t the Tunisians battling for democracy against the security forces of the old regime deserve more than a throwaway line near the end of an hour-long address?

It is quite possible, even likely, that recent upheavals will amount to little. Many people, myself included, got our hopes up in 2005 when the Cedar Revolution overthrew Syrian domination in Lebanon and the people of Iraq turned out in droves to vote. Those hopes were swiftly dashed; indeed, this week the representative of the Cedar Revolution, Saad Hariri, ignominiously lost the prime minister’s job as Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran flexed their muscles. But it is also possible — not likely but possible — that the toppling of the Tunisian regime could have a ripple effect in this sclerotic region. This could be the most important moment for American diplomacy since the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

Certainly there is little precedent for the mass outpouring of protest in Egypt against the Mubarak regime, which is just as decrepit as was the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. The stakes in Egypt, however, are much higher, given that it’s much bigger than Tunisia and has a much larger, active Muslim Brotherhood that could take advantage of chaos to seize power.

At a moment like this, it would be comforting to see in the Oval Office an old diplomatic hand like George H.W. Bush — and I say this as someone who was never a big fan of the elder Bush. I do think, however, that despite some missteps (google the Chicken Kiev speech if you’re under 40), he did a brilliant job of managing a volatile situation. I do not mean to slight the contributions of brave dissidents or even of Mikhail Gorbachev, but nevertheless, the creation of democracies across Eastern Europe is in substantial measure the legacy of Ronald Reagan and his predecessors going back to Truman, who confronted the “evil empire,” and of Bush the Elder, who skillfully managed its dissolution.

Unfortunately, instead of someone like Bush, who had served as an ambassador, CIA director, and vice president, we have in the Oval Office a president with no foreign-policy credentials. This president seems to think that the entire region revolves around the moribund Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” Already Obama missed a crucial opportunity in the summer of 2009 to encourage the Green Revolution in Iran. Let us hope that will be a learning experience. This time around, we need a president fully engaged in the moment — a president who will speak for the aspirations of the people of the Middle East (more than one line, please), while also working to provide a soft landing for longtime dictators and to ensure that radicals don’t seize power.

For all his lack of experience, Obama is no newcomer to the job. He is a fast learner, and he has a gift for rhetoric the likes of which always eluded George H.W. Bush. This may very well be his moment: the moment for redefining the modern Middle East. He should seize it — if he’s not too distracted with the domestic priorities that as usual dominated the State of the Union.

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A Consequential Event, a Tectonic Shift, a Silent President

Elliott Abrams writes that Hezbollah’s power grab in Lebanon is a “consequential event” — reflecting the continuing reduction of American influence in the Middle East as Iranian influence continues to rise:

The last straw may have been the decision to send an ambassador to Syria by recess appointment despite the Senate’s unwillingness to confirm the Administration’s candidate. That foolish gesture must have indicated to the Syrians and to Hizballah that the Administration had learned nothing from two years of insults and rebuffs by Damascus.

It is not clear that the administration has learned anything either from two years of insults and rebuffs by Iran. Iran deigns to take a meeting in Istanbul: the Minutes of the prior meeting 15 months ago are read and approved; Iran refuses to discuss any New Business unless sanctions are ended; the meeting ends without scheduling another one. A Turkish nuclear expert says the walkout means Iran is going to ride out the sanctions, which no one describes as “crippling.” Bad Rachel has a devastating summary of Obama’s “efforts to force engagement down the throats of our enemies.”

Boker tov, Boulder! has an illustrated round-up, with a comment by Mannie Sherberg that Lebanon may signal a “tectonic shift” in Middle East politics — with “much more quivering and quaking in Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt” than Israel:

Throughout modern history, we in the West have assumed that the Middle East was — and would remain — a Sunni region of the world with a small and insignificant minority of Shi’ites. That changed, of course, in 1979, but even then — with the single exception of Iran — the Middle East remained predominantly Sunni. Suddenly, with Hezbollah’s takeover of Lebanon, it and Iran — with a compliant Syria in-between — make up a very large chunk of the Middle East. … With Tunisia facing a very uncertain future, and with Egypt on the brink of what could be radical change, the next few years could see unimaginable turmoil in the Muslim world.

Barry Rubin writes that it is a very sad day for the Middle East and Western interests:

What do you think the rest of the region is going to take away from this? America cannot or will not protect you. Islamism and Iran are the wave of the future. Submit or die. And that’s even before Tehran gets nuclear weapons. The way things are going, maybe Iran doesn’t even need them.

And where is the United States? Asleep. … An American government that will put all of its resources into preventing the construction of apartment buildings in east Jerusalem can barely be roused to prevent the construction of an Islamist-dominated state in a country of tremendous strategic significance.

In a one-hour, 7,000-word speech to Congress and the nation last night, President Obama devoted one sentence to Iran, saying that because of a “diplomatic effort,” it now faces “tougher sanctions, tighter sanctions than ever before.” In last year’s speech, he emphatically promised “growing consequences” if Iran continued to ignore its obligations. Last night, he made no such promise.

About Lebanon, he had nothing to say.

Elliott Abrams writes that Hezbollah’s power grab in Lebanon is a “consequential event” — reflecting the continuing reduction of American influence in the Middle East as Iranian influence continues to rise:

The last straw may have been the decision to send an ambassador to Syria by recess appointment despite the Senate’s unwillingness to confirm the Administration’s candidate. That foolish gesture must have indicated to the Syrians and to Hizballah that the Administration had learned nothing from two years of insults and rebuffs by Damascus.

It is not clear that the administration has learned anything either from two years of insults and rebuffs by Iran. Iran deigns to take a meeting in Istanbul: the Minutes of the prior meeting 15 months ago are read and approved; Iran refuses to discuss any New Business unless sanctions are ended; the meeting ends without scheduling another one. A Turkish nuclear expert says the walkout means Iran is going to ride out the sanctions, which no one describes as “crippling.” Bad Rachel has a devastating summary of Obama’s “efforts to force engagement down the throats of our enemies.”

Boker tov, Boulder! has an illustrated round-up, with a comment by Mannie Sherberg that Lebanon may signal a “tectonic shift” in Middle East politics — with “much more quivering and quaking in Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt” than Israel:

Throughout modern history, we in the West have assumed that the Middle East was — and would remain — a Sunni region of the world with a small and insignificant minority of Shi’ites. That changed, of course, in 1979, but even then — with the single exception of Iran — the Middle East remained predominantly Sunni. Suddenly, with Hezbollah’s takeover of Lebanon, it and Iran — with a compliant Syria in-between — make up a very large chunk of the Middle East. … With Tunisia facing a very uncertain future, and with Egypt on the brink of what could be radical change, the next few years could see unimaginable turmoil in the Muslim world.

Barry Rubin writes that it is a very sad day for the Middle East and Western interests:

What do you think the rest of the region is going to take away from this? America cannot or will not protect you. Islamism and Iran are the wave of the future. Submit or die. And that’s even before Tehran gets nuclear weapons. The way things are going, maybe Iran doesn’t even need them.

And where is the United States? Asleep. … An American government that will put all of its resources into preventing the construction of apartment buildings in east Jerusalem can barely be roused to prevent the construction of an Islamist-dominated state in a country of tremendous strategic significance.

In a one-hour, 7,000-word speech to Congress and the nation last night, President Obama devoted one sentence to Iran, saying that because of a “diplomatic effort,” it now faces “tougher sanctions, tighter sanctions than ever before.” In last year’s speech, he emphatically promised “growing consequences” if Iran continued to ignore its obligations. Last night, he made no such promise.

About Lebanon, he had nothing to say.

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Lebanon: Too Quiet?

As the situation goes from bad to worse in Lebanon, there are odd little signs. Chief among them are the comments made by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal when he quit the Saudis’ mediation effort in Beirut on Wednesday. Saying the situation was dangerous, he told Al-Arabiya: “If the situation reaches full separation and (regional) partition, this means the end of Lebanon as a state that has this model of peaceful cohabitation between religions and ethnicities.”

These words have meaning. It’s arresting enough that the Saudis have pulled out; they have been particularly assiduous about diplomacy in Lebanon, overlaying repeated bromides about unity and cohabitation on their campaign to retain Sunni Arab influence there. Pulling out of the mediation effort with bridge-burning rhetoric is uncharacteristic of the Saudis to an even greater degree. Meanwhile, envoys from Turkey and Qatar also suspended their mediation efforts on Thursday, announcing that they needed to consult with their governments. All things being equal, these pullouts don’t make sense. The parties in question have a history of intensive prior engagement in Lebanon, particularly in the 2006 and 2008 crises. Nothing suggests they are suddenly content to leave Lebanon’s fate to Syria and Hezbollah.

But all things may not be equal. It’s quite possible that the regional nations are not losing their interest in Lebanon: they are losing their interest in the mediation process with the unity government. The Turks and the Sunni Arabs may not agree on all their strategic objectives, but they can see what is obvious: that the unity government of Lebanon has become, in key ways, a convenience for Hezbollah and Iran. Its perpetual weakness gives Hezbollah latitude, while at the same time making the commitment of other governments to it a net disadvantage for their long-term goals.

Nothing in Lebanon changes quickly. There is a prospect for a new unity government, with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt joining Hezbollah in backing perennial prime-minister-of-convenience Omar Karami. Karami’s stints as a figurehead have lasted only a few months each time, but the fiction of business as usual in Lebanon could persist for a while; it may even involve some passing interest in Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal for a multi-party contact group.

The words of Saud al-Faisal, however, are the most striking feature of the current crisis. Set next to the news that the chief of the Lebanese armed forces has been in Syria this week, consulting directly with Bashar al-Assad on military cooperation, they have an ominous ring. Any alternative to the status quo in Lebanon will involve foreign arms taking on Hezbollah. With regional nations abandoning the mediation effort, and the Saudi statement implying that something other than the unity-government construct is in prospect, the commitment to the status quo is looking weak.

The U.S. government might still play a decisive role, but the conditions are not propitious. The timing of Ambassador Robert Ford’s arrival in Syria — this week — makes it more likely that the U.S. will simply be seen as endorsing a Syrian-backed deal to install Omar Karami as prime minister. That move — a convenience to buy time — would merely put the status quo on life support. With no U.S. plan to prevent Hezbollah and Iran from exploiting the status quo in Lebanon, the other nations of the region are planning for a future beyond it.

As the situation goes from bad to worse in Lebanon, there are odd little signs. Chief among them are the comments made by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal when he quit the Saudis’ mediation effort in Beirut on Wednesday. Saying the situation was dangerous, he told Al-Arabiya: “If the situation reaches full separation and (regional) partition, this means the end of Lebanon as a state that has this model of peaceful cohabitation between religions and ethnicities.”

These words have meaning. It’s arresting enough that the Saudis have pulled out; they have been particularly assiduous about diplomacy in Lebanon, overlaying repeated bromides about unity and cohabitation on their campaign to retain Sunni Arab influence there. Pulling out of the mediation effort with bridge-burning rhetoric is uncharacteristic of the Saudis to an even greater degree. Meanwhile, envoys from Turkey and Qatar also suspended their mediation efforts on Thursday, announcing that they needed to consult with their governments. All things being equal, these pullouts don’t make sense. The parties in question have a history of intensive prior engagement in Lebanon, particularly in the 2006 and 2008 crises. Nothing suggests they are suddenly content to leave Lebanon’s fate to Syria and Hezbollah.

But all things may not be equal. It’s quite possible that the regional nations are not losing their interest in Lebanon: they are losing their interest in the mediation process with the unity government. The Turks and the Sunni Arabs may not agree on all their strategic objectives, but they can see what is obvious: that the unity government of Lebanon has become, in key ways, a convenience for Hezbollah and Iran. Its perpetual weakness gives Hezbollah latitude, while at the same time making the commitment of other governments to it a net disadvantage for their long-term goals.

Nothing in Lebanon changes quickly. There is a prospect for a new unity government, with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt joining Hezbollah in backing perennial prime-minister-of-convenience Omar Karami. Karami’s stints as a figurehead have lasted only a few months each time, but the fiction of business as usual in Lebanon could persist for a while; it may even involve some passing interest in Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal for a multi-party contact group.

The words of Saud al-Faisal, however, are the most striking feature of the current crisis. Set next to the news that the chief of the Lebanese armed forces has been in Syria this week, consulting directly with Bashar al-Assad on military cooperation, they have an ominous ring. Any alternative to the status quo in Lebanon will involve foreign arms taking on Hezbollah. With regional nations abandoning the mediation effort, and the Saudi statement implying that something other than the unity-government construct is in prospect, the commitment to the status quo is looking weak.

The U.S. government might still play a decisive role, but the conditions are not propitious. The timing of Ambassador Robert Ford’s arrival in Syria — this week — makes it more likely that the U.S. will simply be seen as endorsing a Syrian-backed deal to install Omar Karami as prime minister. That move — a convenience to buy time — would merely put the status quo on life support. With no U.S. plan to prevent Hezbollah and Iran from exploiting the status quo in Lebanon, the other nations of the region are planning for a future beyond it.

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The Beginning of the End of Swiss ‘Active Neutrality’?

Since the introduction of global sanctions against Iran last year, encompassing 33 countries, Switzerland has defied the West, including the Obama administration and the EU, by touting its “active neutrality” position, whatever that means.

Today, however, the Swiss government relented and announced that it will fall into line with EU sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector.

WikiLeaks cables have documented the tensions between the U.S. government and the Swiss government over the latter’s overly cordial relations with Iran. Yet WikiLeaks did not ambush any of the seasoned observers of Swiss-U.S. and Swiss-Israeli relations. The Swiss Foreign Ministry has gone to great lengths to maximize their gas and other economic deals with the mullah regime. One need only recall Micheline Calmy-Rey, the Swiss foreign minister who in 2008 enthusiastically embraced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran.

The purpose of her Tehran visit was to sign off on the estimated 18-22 billion euro EGL gas deal with the National Iranian Gas Export Company (NIGEC). The gas revenues from the deal with NIGEC, whose parent company, National Iranian Gas Company, was placed on Britain’s Proliferation Concerns List in February 2009, would end up funding Iran’s nuclear-weapons program as well as its wholly owned subsidiaries, Hamas and Hezbollah.

EGL is a Swiss state-owned gas giant, and the Bush administration and Israel protested vehemently and publicly against the deal back in 2008. WikiLeaks simply reiterated the U.S. anger that was already out there. Israel summoned the new Swiss ambassador at the time to bitterly complain about the Swiss jeopardizing the security of the Mideast region.

Calmy-Rey, a leader of the Social Democratic Party, has a troubling record on Iran. In 2006, while meeting with an Iranian delegation on the nuclear crisis, she proposed seminars on different perspectives of the Holocaust. That helps to explain why Roger Köppel, the owner and editor-in-chief of the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche, wrote a Wall Street Journal Europe piece entitled, “Somebody Stop Calmy-Rey.”

Roger Köppel neatly captured the alliance of the loony Swiss left and fanatical Iranian Holocaust deniers. “One must understand the enormity of this: Ms. Calmy-Rey suggested a debate in Switzerland with Iranian Holocaust deniers on whether the murder of 6 million Jews actually happened. Fortunately, nothing came of this idea. It would not only have been outrageous, but also illegal, since genocide denial is a crime in Switzerland.”

While the statement that Switzerland’s “active neutrality” on the Iranian nuclear threat is welcome, the true test of its intentions will be the termination of the EGL-Iran gas deal.

Since the introduction of global sanctions against Iran last year, encompassing 33 countries, Switzerland has defied the West, including the Obama administration and the EU, by touting its “active neutrality” position, whatever that means.

Today, however, the Swiss government relented and announced that it will fall into line with EU sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector.

WikiLeaks cables have documented the tensions between the U.S. government and the Swiss government over the latter’s overly cordial relations with Iran. Yet WikiLeaks did not ambush any of the seasoned observers of Swiss-U.S. and Swiss-Israeli relations. The Swiss Foreign Ministry has gone to great lengths to maximize their gas and other economic deals with the mullah regime. One need only recall Micheline Calmy-Rey, the Swiss foreign minister who in 2008 enthusiastically embraced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran.

The purpose of her Tehran visit was to sign off on the estimated 18-22 billion euro EGL gas deal with the National Iranian Gas Export Company (NIGEC). The gas revenues from the deal with NIGEC, whose parent company, National Iranian Gas Company, was placed on Britain’s Proliferation Concerns List in February 2009, would end up funding Iran’s nuclear-weapons program as well as its wholly owned subsidiaries, Hamas and Hezbollah.

EGL is a Swiss state-owned gas giant, and the Bush administration and Israel protested vehemently and publicly against the deal back in 2008. WikiLeaks simply reiterated the U.S. anger that was already out there. Israel summoned the new Swiss ambassador at the time to bitterly complain about the Swiss jeopardizing the security of the Mideast region.

Calmy-Rey, a leader of the Social Democratic Party, has a troubling record on Iran. In 2006, while meeting with an Iranian delegation on the nuclear crisis, she proposed seminars on different perspectives of the Holocaust. That helps to explain why Roger Köppel, the owner and editor-in-chief of the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche, wrote a Wall Street Journal Europe piece entitled, “Somebody Stop Calmy-Rey.”

Roger Köppel neatly captured the alliance of the loony Swiss left and fanatical Iranian Holocaust deniers. “One must understand the enormity of this: Ms. Calmy-Rey suggested a debate in Switzerland with Iranian Holocaust deniers on whether the murder of 6 million Jews actually happened. Fortunately, nothing came of this idea. It would not only have been outrageous, but also illegal, since genocide denial is a crime in Switzerland.”

While the statement that Switzerland’s “active neutrality” on the Iranian nuclear threat is welcome, the true test of its intentions will be the termination of the EGL-Iran gas deal.

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Morning Commentary

The street riots in Tunisia could lead to a democratic revolution, but they could also lead to the rise of an extremist government, like the 1979 Islamic revolution did in Iran. In the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum writes about the potential outcomes of Tunisia’s political transition: “A month ago, they turned to street protests. So far, this is not an Islamic revolution — but it isn’t a democratic revolution yet, either. Instead, we are witnessing a demographic revolution: the revolt of the frustrated young against their corrupt elders. Anyone who looked at the population numbers and job data could have guessed it might happen, and, as I say, many did.”

Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, Natan Sharansky, Alan Dershowitz, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and other Jewish leaders spoke out against the anti-Israel delegitimization movement at a south Florida summit on Sunday. While the boycott and divestment campaign hasn’t entered the mainstream in the U.S., it has been increasingly problematic in Europe: “‘When there is a boycott of Israeli products — buy them. When trade unions and universities want companies to divest of their holdings in Israeli companies — invest in them. When there is a speaker from Israel — attend the speech and make sure the speaker can be heard,’ Oren said. Most of all, ‘We must educate our community about BDS. We must unite actively to combat it,’ he said.”

Claudia Rosett wonders when Saudi Arabia is going to send Israel a thank-you note for Stuxnet. After all, if WikiLeaks has shown us anything, it’s that the Saudis fear a nuclear Iran almost as much as Israel and the U.S. do: “But if the broad picture painted by the Times is accurate (and there are gaps in the trail described), then surely there is another group of countries which for more wholesome reasons owe a profound thank you to Israel. Prominent among this crowd are the Middle East potentates, from the king of Saudi Arabia to the king of Bahrain to the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, whose private pleadings — as made to U.S. officials and exposed by Wikileaks — were to do whatever it takes to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

Stuxnet may be the first instance of cyberwarfare, writes Spencer Ackerman. But how far can these types of attacks go in helping us attain our national-security goals? “That also points to the downside. Just as strategic bombing doesn’t have a good track record of success, Stuxnet hasn’t taken down the Iranian nuclear program. Doctrine-writers may be tempted to view cyberwar as an alternative to a shooting war, but the evidence to date doesn’t suggest anything of the sort. Stuxnet just indicates that high-level cyberwarfare really is possible; it doesn’t indicate that it’s sufficient for achieving national objectives.”

Happy MLK Day. Foreign Policy’s Will Inboden asks President Obama to remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for human rights and justice when he meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao this week: “As my Shadow Government colleague Mike Green pointed out in his excellent preview of the Hu visit, China’s imprisonment of democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo means that the White House meeting this week will be ‘our first summit (indeed, our first state visit) between a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a world leader who is imprisoning another Nobel Peace Prize laureate.’ Martin Luther King Jr. also won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1964.”

The street riots in Tunisia could lead to a democratic revolution, but they could also lead to the rise of an extremist government, like the 1979 Islamic revolution did in Iran. In the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum writes about the potential outcomes of Tunisia’s political transition: “A month ago, they turned to street protests. So far, this is not an Islamic revolution — but it isn’t a democratic revolution yet, either. Instead, we are witnessing a demographic revolution: the revolt of the frustrated young against their corrupt elders. Anyone who looked at the population numbers and job data could have guessed it might happen, and, as I say, many did.”

Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, Natan Sharansky, Alan Dershowitz, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and other Jewish leaders spoke out against the anti-Israel delegitimization movement at a south Florida summit on Sunday. While the boycott and divestment campaign hasn’t entered the mainstream in the U.S., it has been increasingly problematic in Europe: “‘When there is a boycott of Israeli products — buy them. When trade unions and universities want companies to divest of their holdings in Israeli companies — invest in them. When there is a speaker from Israel — attend the speech and make sure the speaker can be heard,’ Oren said. Most of all, ‘We must educate our community about BDS. We must unite actively to combat it,’ he said.”

Claudia Rosett wonders when Saudi Arabia is going to send Israel a thank-you note for Stuxnet. After all, if WikiLeaks has shown us anything, it’s that the Saudis fear a nuclear Iran almost as much as Israel and the U.S. do: “But if the broad picture painted by the Times is accurate (and there are gaps in the trail described), then surely there is another group of countries which for more wholesome reasons owe a profound thank you to Israel. Prominent among this crowd are the Middle East potentates, from the king of Saudi Arabia to the king of Bahrain to the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, whose private pleadings — as made to U.S. officials and exposed by Wikileaks — were to do whatever it takes to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

Stuxnet may be the first instance of cyberwarfare, writes Spencer Ackerman. But how far can these types of attacks go in helping us attain our national-security goals? “That also points to the downside. Just as strategic bombing doesn’t have a good track record of success, Stuxnet hasn’t taken down the Iranian nuclear program. Doctrine-writers may be tempted to view cyberwar as an alternative to a shooting war, but the evidence to date doesn’t suggest anything of the sort. Stuxnet just indicates that high-level cyberwarfare really is possible; it doesn’t indicate that it’s sufficient for achieving national objectives.”

Happy MLK Day. Foreign Policy’s Will Inboden asks President Obama to remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for human rights and justice when he meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao this week: “As my Shadow Government colleague Mike Green pointed out in his excellent preview of the Hu visit, China’s imprisonment of democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo means that the White House meeting this week will be ‘our first summit (indeed, our first state visit) between a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a world leader who is imprisoning another Nobel Peace Prize laureate.’ Martin Luther King Jr. also won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1964.”

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Let Us Not Praise Pro-Terrorist Newspapers

As Alana noted this morning, Jeffrey Feltman, the former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, wrote a devastating letter to the New York Times, expressing his irritation with a piece it ran praising the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper as, among other things, dynamic and daring. “Al Akhbar is less maverick and far less heroic than your article suggests,” Feltman writes. “Al Akhbar will no more criticize Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, than Syria’s state-run Tishreen newspaper would question the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.”

Al Akhbar is a totalitarian propaganda sheet and, like all such organs of disinformation, routinely publishes fiction as well as news and analysis. “The hilariously erroneous accounts of my activities reported as fact in [the] newspaper provoked morning belly laughs,” Feltman added.

I wish I could say it’s bizarre that a vastly superior and more professional newspaper such as the New York Times would find anything at all nice to say about a crude rag in a semi-democratic country that actually does have decent newspapers, but this is typical of a scandalously large percentage of Western reporters who parachute into or set up shop in Beirut.

Here is Feltman again: “One of the curiosities I discovered as ambassador to Lebanon was the number of Western journalists, academics and nongovernmental representatives who, while enjoying the fine wines and nightlife of Beirut, romanticized Hezbollah and its associates like Al Akhbar as somehow the authentic voices of the oppressed Lebanese masses. Yet, I don’t think that many of those Western liberals would wish to live in a state dominated by an unaccountable clerical militia and with Al Akhbar providing the news.”

The New York Times is usually better than this. Eli Khoury, one of the founders of the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation and publisher of the news website NOW Lebanon, once made a trip to the offices of the New York Times editorial board after they published some obnoxious articles about Lebanon’s pro-democracy movement.

“I said, ‘Listen guys,’” Khoury told me. “‘Lebanon is a country that didn’t need the help of the U.S. Army. You guys didn’t have to bomb our country. We’re talking about a bunch of grassroots democrats who went into the streets and seized their own thing with their own hands. And they expect democrats in the rest of the world to support them.’ Since then the New York Times has not done one single bad story about Lebanon.”

Maybe he needs to go back.

As Alana noted this morning, Jeffrey Feltman, the former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, wrote a devastating letter to the New York Times, expressing his irritation with a piece it ran praising the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper as, among other things, dynamic and daring. “Al Akhbar is less maverick and far less heroic than your article suggests,” Feltman writes. “Al Akhbar will no more criticize Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, than Syria’s state-run Tishreen newspaper would question the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.”

Al Akhbar is a totalitarian propaganda sheet and, like all such organs of disinformation, routinely publishes fiction as well as news and analysis. “The hilariously erroneous accounts of my activities reported as fact in [the] newspaper provoked morning belly laughs,” Feltman added.

I wish I could say it’s bizarre that a vastly superior and more professional newspaper such as the New York Times would find anything at all nice to say about a crude rag in a semi-democratic country that actually does have decent newspapers, but this is typical of a scandalously large percentage of Western reporters who parachute into or set up shop in Beirut.

Here is Feltman again: “One of the curiosities I discovered as ambassador to Lebanon was the number of Western journalists, academics and nongovernmental representatives who, while enjoying the fine wines and nightlife of Beirut, romanticized Hezbollah and its associates like Al Akhbar as somehow the authentic voices of the oppressed Lebanese masses. Yet, I don’t think that many of those Western liberals would wish to live in a state dominated by an unaccountable clerical militia and with Al Akhbar providing the news.”

The New York Times is usually better than this. Eli Khoury, one of the founders of the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation and publisher of the news website NOW Lebanon, once made a trip to the offices of the New York Times editorial board after they published some obnoxious articles about Lebanon’s pro-democracy movement.

“I said, ‘Listen guys,’” Khoury told me. “‘Lebanon is a country that didn’t need the help of the U.S. Army. You guys didn’t have to bomb our country. We’re talking about a bunch of grassroots democrats who went into the streets and seized their own thing with their own hands. And they expect democrats in the rest of the world to support them.’ Since then the New York Times has not done one single bad story about Lebanon.”

Maybe he needs to go back.

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Morning Commentary

Concern is growing over China’s advancing military capabilities. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met with civilian leaders in Beijing today, Chinese bloggers and news agencies produced photos that appear to show the country’s new stealth fighter taking its first test flight: “That message undercuts the symbolism of Mr. Gates’ visit, which is designed to smooth military relations ahead of a state visit to the U.S. next week by Chinese President Hu Jintao.”

The insta-politicization of the Arizona shooting — by both Twitter activists and serious political leaders — is just another example of why Americans are becoming increasingly fed up with both the Republican and Democratic parties, writes Reason’s Nick Gillespie: “How do you take one of the most shocking and revolting murder sprees in memory and make it even more disturbing? By immediately pouncing on its supposed root causes for the most transparently partisan of gains.”

Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin outlines the possible replacements for the top positions on Obama’s foreign-policy team in 2011. The most likely candidates to replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates — who is expected to step down after early next spring — are John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Michele Flourney, Gates’s current undersecretary for policy; and CIA chief Leon Panetta.

The IDF is fighting back at criticism over its use of tear gas at an anti-Israel protest in Bil’in, by launching a YouTube campaign showing demonstrators throwing rocks and attempting to tear down fences at the same rally.

A former ambassador to Lebanon responds to the New York Times’s shameful fluff story about a radical Lebanese, Hezbollah-praising newspaper: “Sadly, Al Akhbar is less maverick and far less heroic than your article suggests. Al Akhbar will no more criticize Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, than Syria’s state-run Tishreen newspaper would question the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.”

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the chair of the Pakistan ruling party and son of the late Benazir Bhutto, has vowed to keep fighting the country’s blasphemy laws after the assassination of Salman Taseer: “‘To the Christian and other minority communities in Pakistan, we will defend you,’ he said at a memorial ceremony in London for Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province who was killed by his own security guard last week. ‘Those who wish to harm you for a crime you did not commit will have to go through me first.’”

Concern is growing over China’s advancing military capabilities. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met with civilian leaders in Beijing today, Chinese bloggers and news agencies produced photos that appear to show the country’s new stealth fighter taking its first test flight: “That message undercuts the symbolism of Mr. Gates’ visit, which is designed to smooth military relations ahead of a state visit to the U.S. next week by Chinese President Hu Jintao.”

The insta-politicization of the Arizona shooting — by both Twitter activists and serious political leaders — is just another example of why Americans are becoming increasingly fed up with both the Republican and Democratic parties, writes Reason’s Nick Gillespie: “How do you take one of the most shocking and revolting murder sprees in memory and make it even more disturbing? By immediately pouncing on its supposed root causes for the most transparently partisan of gains.”

Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin outlines the possible replacements for the top positions on Obama’s foreign-policy team in 2011. The most likely candidates to replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates — who is expected to step down after early next spring — are John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Michele Flourney, Gates’s current undersecretary for policy; and CIA chief Leon Panetta.

The IDF is fighting back at criticism over its use of tear gas at an anti-Israel protest in Bil’in, by launching a YouTube campaign showing demonstrators throwing rocks and attempting to tear down fences at the same rally.

A former ambassador to Lebanon responds to the New York Times’s shameful fluff story about a radical Lebanese, Hezbollah-praising newspaper: “Sadly, Al Akhbar is less maverick and far less heroic than your article suggests. Al Akhbar will no more criticize Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, than Syria’s state-run Tishreen newspaper would question the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.”

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the chair of the Pakistan ruling party and son of the late Benazir Bhutto, has vowed to keep fighting the country’s blasphemy laws after the assassination of Salman Taseer: “‘To the Christian and other minority communities in Pakistan, we will defend you,’ he said at a memorial ceremony in London for Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province who was killed by his own security guard last week. ‘Those who wish to harm you for a crime you did not commit will have to go through me first.’”

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Morning Commentary

House Republicans announced a vote to repeal health-care reform on Jan. 12, naming their bill the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.” But even if the legislation passes the House, it’s almost certain to be blocked in the Senate: “The repeal effort is not expected to succeed, given that Democrats maintain control of the Senate and the president can veto the legislation. But Republicans could embarrass the White House if they persuade a number of Democrats to vote with them and, over the long term, plan to try to chip away at pieces of the law.”

Iran has invited Russia, China, the EU, and Arab nations on an all-expenses-paid tour of its nuclear facilities in an attempt to gain support before its next round of nuke talks with the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

It looks like Hillary Clinton’s brief meeting with Hugo Chavez over the weekend helped diffuse some of the diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela. The Obama administration announced yesterday that it is considering nominating a new ambassador to Venezuela after Chavez very publicly rejected the last proposal.

Those who want to see massive cuts in the defense budget are dangerously underestimating the threats the U.S. will face in the coming years, warn Alvin S. Felzenberg and Alexander B. Gray in National Review. With the growing aggression of countries like Russia, China, Venezuela, and Iran, the military needs to be able to adapt in response to new challenges: “Counterinsurgency warfare and Predator-drone strikes against transnational terrorists certainly defined much of the last decade. But the next decade will witness increasing competition among nation-states for control of valuable resources and the exertion of influence worldwide.”

Apparently, Guam is a touchy subject for Michael Steele. During an interview with the Weekly Standard’s John McCormack, the embattled RNC chair went on the defensive about his spending decisions in U.S. territories: “Okay, so when you’re chairman you make that decision, and then you deal with the chairman and the national committeeman and the national committeewoman sittin’ on the phone with you, screaming at you for not helping them for $15,000. We won the governorship. The most wins here and now you’re going to sit back here and parse? Oh, well, gee if you had taken $15,000 from there and put it over here — tell me the seat you could have won with that, when you know you could have helped them out and won a groundbreaker for them in Guam.”

The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum has an intriguing theory about what may have prompted the Kremlin’s recent bad behavior: “[P]erhaps the explanation is very simple: Oil is once again above $90 a barrel — and the price is rising. And if that’s the reason, it’s nothing new. In fact, if one were to plot the rise and fall of Soviet and Russian foreign and domestic reforms over the past 40 years on a graph, it would match the fall and rise of the international oil prices (for which domestic crude oil prices are a reasonable proxy) with astonishing precision.”

House Republicans announced a vote to repeal health-care reform on Jan. 12, naming their bill the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.” But even if the legislation passes the House, it’s almost certain to be blocked in the Senate: “The repeal effort is not expected to succeed, given that Democrats maintain control of the Senate and the president can veto the legislation. But Republicans could embarrass the White House if they persuade a number of Democrats to vote with them and, over the long term, plan to try to chip away at pieces of the law.”

Iran has invited Russia, China, the EU, and Arab nations on an all-expenses-paid tour of its nuclear facilities in an attempt to gain support before its next round of nuke talks with the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

It looks like Hillary Clinton’s brief meeting with Hugo Chavez over the weekend helped diffuse some of the diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela. The Obama administration announced yesterday that it is considering nominating a new ambassador to Venezuela after Chavez very publicly rejected the last proposal.

Those who want to see massive cuts in the defense budget are dangerously underestimating the threats the U.S. will face in the coming years, warn Alvin S. Felzenberg and Alexander B. Gray in National Review. With the growing aggression of countries like Russia, China, Venezuela, and Iran, the military needs to be able to adapt in response to new challenges: “Counterinsurgency warfare and Predator-drone strikes against transnational terrorists certainly defined much of the last decade. But the next decade will witness increasing competition among nation-states for control of valuable resources and the exertion of influence worldwide.”

Apparently, Guam is a touchy subject for Michael Steele. During an interview with the Weekly Standard’s John McCormack, the embattled RNC chair went on the defensive about his spending decisions in U.S. territories: “Okay, so when you’re chairman you make that decision, and then you deal with the chairman and the national committeeman and the national committeewoman sittin’ on the phone with you, screaming at you for not helping them for $15,000. We won the governorship. The most wins here and now you’re going to sit back here and parse? Oh, well, gee if you had taken $15,000 from there and put it over here — tell me the seat you could have won with that, when you know you could have helped them out and won a groundbreaker for them in Guam.”

The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum has an intriguing theory about what may have prompted the Kremlin’s recent bad behavior: “[P]erhaps the explanation is very simple: Oil is once again above $90 a barrel — and the price is rising. And if that’s the reason, it’s nothing new. In fact, if one were to plot the rise and fall of Soviet and Russian foreign and domestic reforms over the past 40 years on a graph, it would match the fall and rise of the international oil prices (for which domestic crude oil prices are a reasonable proxy) with astonishing precision.”

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Should We Feel Encouraged About an Iranian Nuke in Three Years?

Israel’s deputy prime minister, Moshe Ya’alon, caused something of a stir on Wednesday when he told Israel Radio that he believed Iran would be capable of creating a nuclear weapon within three years. But as alarming as that may sound, it seems that Ya’alon, the former IDF chief of staff who currently also serves as strategic affairs minister, was sounding a note of optimism, since he credited the delay to “technological difficulties.”

This is being widely interpreted as meaning the Israelis believe the Stuxnet virus has dealt the Iranian nuclear program a serious setback. On Fox News, John Bolton speculated that this statement may mean “Stuxnet worked better than some of us thought.” While the former UN ambassador admitted that it was “hard to know the truth” about the state of Iran’s progress toward a nuclear capability, he said the one thing we do know about their program is “that they are determined” to achieve it.

Given that we know very little about Stuxnet or any other covert action undertaken by either the United States or Israel, it’s difficult to assess the current level of danger of an Iranian breakthrough. It may be that Israel is trying to dampen speculation about an imminent IDF attack on Iranian targets, but it is not clear whether such an attack would be launched in the face of almost certain American opposition.

While some may take comfort from Ya’alon’s statement, it is not exactly encouraging to know that, in spite of all the difficulties they have encountered, Iran is likely to be in possession of a nuclear weapon by the end of 2013. Even if we believe that Stuxnet has been a success, all it has accomplished is to push off the day of reckoning, and not by all that much. We already know that diplomacy won’t work; that serious sanctions are unlikely to ever gain international support; and, as we learned last week, that even the United States is not enforcing those sanctions against Iran that are already in place.

Bolton noted that “the Iranians have zero fear” of an American attack on their nuclear facilities so long as Barack Obama is president, and he is almost certainly right about that. The Iranians have taken Obama’s measure in the last two years, and their actions speak volumes about their lack of respect for the president and their belief that he is not to be taken seriously as a world leader. They have mocked U.S. efforts at diplomacy and disregarded America’s half-hearted attempts to mobilize world opinion against Tehran. So even if the virus or other clandestine operations have hampered the Iranians, the mullahs and Ahmadinejad have good reason to feel optimistic about their chances of ultimate success. If the best face we can put on this problem is the certain knowledge that in the absence of a U.S. and/or Israeli attack, an Iranian bomb will exist in three years, the Ya’alon announcement is no cause for celebration.

Israel’s deputy prime minister, Moshe Ya’alon, caused something of a stir on Wednesday when he told Israel Radio that he believed Iran would be capable of creating a nuclear weapon within three years. But as alarming as that may sound, it seems that Ya’alon, the former IDF chief of staff who currently also serves as strategic affairs minister, was sounding a note of optimism, since he credited the delay to “technological difficulties.”

This is being widely interpreted as meaning the Israelis believe the Stuxnet virus has dealt the Iranian nuclear program a serious setback. On Fox News, John Bolton speculated that this statement may mean “Stuxnet worked better than some of us thought.” While the former UN ambassador admitted that it was “hard to know the truth” about the state of Iran’s progress toward a nuclear capability, he said the one thing we do know about their program is “that they are determined” to achieve it.

Given that we know very little about Stuxnet or any other covert action undertaken by either the United States or Israel, it’s difficult to assess the current level of danger of an Iranian breakthrough. It may be that Israel is trying to dampen speculation about an imminent IDF attack on Iranian targets, but it is not clear whether such an attack would be launched in the face of almost certain American opposition.

While some may take comfort from Ya’alon’s statement, it is not exactly encouraging to know that, in spite of all the difficulties they have encountered, Iran is likely to be in possession of a nuclear weapon by the end of 2013. Even if we believe that Stuxnet has been a success, all it has accomplished is to push off the day of reckoning, and not by all that much. We already know that diplomacy won’t work; that serious sanctions are unlikely to ever gain international support; and, as we learned last week, that even the United States is not enforcing those sanctions against Iran that are already in place.

Bolton noted that “the Iranians have zero fear” of an American attack on their nuclear facilities so long as Barack Obama is president, and he is almost certainly right about that. The Iranians have taken Obama’s measure in the last two years, and their actions speak volumes about their lack of respect for the president and their belief that he is not to be taken seriously as a world leader. They have mocked U.S. efforts at diplomacy and disregarded America’s half-hearted attempts to mobilize world opinion against Tehran. So even if the virus or other clandestine operations have hampered the Iranians, the mullahs and Ahmadinejad have good reason to feel optimistic about their chances of ultimate success. If the best face we can put on this problem is the certain knowledge that in the absence of a U.S. and/or Israeli attack, an Iranian bomb will exist in three years, the Ya’alon announcement is no cause for celebration.

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Morning Commentary

It looks like President Obama has finally found some backbone in his diplomatic spat with Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan president rejected the U.S.’s choice for ambassador to Caracas and dared Obama to cut diplomatic ties with the country. Today Obama responded by kicking the Venezuelan ambassador out of the U.S.

Americans are still displaying a lack of confidence in both political parties, according to a new poll released by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation. While pundits from all parts of the political spectrum have lauded President Obama’s successes during the lame-duck session of Congress, a plurality of Americans remains skeptical about the president’s ability to push his policies, according to the survey. And even though a majority of the public agrees that GOP control of the House will benefit the country, that optimism isn’t necessarily due to increased trust in the Republican Party. Only a quarter believe that the Republicans will do a better job running Congress than the Democrats.

The U.S. State Department has come out strongly against the Palestinian Authority’s newest effort to push through a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction, suggesting that the Palestinians may be alienating the best friend they’ve had in the White House for years. However, State Department officials still haven’t commented specifically on whether the U.S. would veto the resolution.

The Huffington Post reported recently that the number of uninsured Americans has soared to “over 50 million.” But is that really the case? At the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey H. Anderson notes that the numbers come from a recent report published by the Census Bureau, which even the bureau has admitted was largely inaccurate: “The Census report also admits within its own pages that recognition of its inaccuracy led to ‘a research project to evaluate why CPS ASEC estimates of the number of people with Medicaid are lower than counts of the number of people enrolled in the program from CMS’ — in other words, to evaluate why the CPS ASEC lists millions of Americans as being uninsured while the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which runs Medicaid and keeps the official tally of enrollees, says that these people are on Medicaid.”

Islamists are apparently still having trouble getting over that Danish Mohammed cartoon from six years ago. Five terror suspects were arrested in Denmark and Sweden yesterday for plotting to attack the Jyllands-Posten newspaper headquarters, which published the cartoon in 2005.

With the rest of the world unwilling to combat the growing problem of Somali pirates, the transitional federal government of Somalia has finally taken the problem into its own hands by creating a paramilitary force to fight piracy. Sources say that the militia is being funded by donors in Muslim countries, including the United Arab Emirates.

Ron Radosh joins the growing ranks of writers criticizing New Yorker editor David Remnick’s hostile rant against Israel last week. Radosh also highlights the insidious anti-Israel sentiment among today’s liberal Jewish intellectuals: “Today’s New York intellectuals are a pale imitation of their ancestors. The original group had a fidelity to the truth, and to bold assertions  they believed to be true, regardless of whom they offended. Today’s group, of which Remnick is most typical, runs to join their fellow leftist herd of no longer independent minds in Britain, assuring them of their loyalty to the influential [among] journalists and opinion makers, and if they are Jewish, making their assurance known by joining in the stampede to dissociate themselves from defense of Israel.” Jonathan Tobin discussed Remnick’s Israel problem in CONTENTIONS on Sunday.

It looks like President Obama has finally found some backbone in his diplomatic spat with Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan president rejected the U.S.’s choice for ambassador to Caracas and dared Obama to cut diplomatic ties with the country. Today Obama responded by kicking the Venezuelan ambassador out of the U.S.

Americans are still displaying a lack of confidence in both political parties, according to a new poll released by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation. While pundits from all parts of the political spectrum have lauded President Obama’s successes during the lame-duck session of Congress, a plurality of Americans remains skeptical about the president’s ability to push his policies, according to the survey. And even though a majority of the public agrees that GOP control of the House will benefit the country, that optimism isn’t necessarily due to increased trust in the Republican Party. Only a quarter believe that the Republicans will do a better job running Congress than the Democrats.

The U.S. State Department has come out strongly against the Palestinian Authority’s newest effort to push through a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction, suggesting that the Palestinians may be alienating the best friend they’ve had in the White House for years. However, State Department officials still haven’t commented specifically on whether the U.S. would veto the resolution.

The Huffington Post reported recently that the number of uninsured Americans has soared to “over 50 million.” But is that really the case? At the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey H. Anderson notes that the numbers come from a recent report published by the Census Bureau, which even the bureau has admitted was largely inaccurate: “The Census report also admits within its own pages that recognition of its inaccuracy led to ‘a research project to evaluate why CPS ASEC estimates of the number of people with Medicaid are lower than counts of the number of people enrolled in the program from CMS’ — in other words, to evaluate why the CPS ASEC lists millions of Americans as being uninsured while the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which runs Medicaid and keeps the official tally of enrollees, says that these people are on Medicaid.”

Islamists are apparently still having trouble getting over that Danish Mohammed cartoon from six years ago. Five terror suspects were arrested in Denmark and Sweden yesterday for plotting to attack the Jyllands-Posten newspaper headquarters, which published the cartoon in 2005.

With the rest of the world unwilling to combat the growing problem of Somali pirates, the transitional federal government of Somalia has finally taken the problem into its own hands by creating a paramilitary force to fight piracy. Sources say that the militia is being funded by donors in Muslim countries, including the United Arab Emirates.

Ron Radosh joins the growing ranks of writers criticizing New Yorker editor David Remnick’s hostile rant against Israel last week. Radosh also highlights the insidious anti-Israel sentiment among today’s liberal Jewish intellectuals: “Today’s New York intellectuals are a pale imitation of their ancestors. The original group had a fidelity to the truth, and to bold assertions  they believed to be true, regardless of whom they offended. Today’s group, of which Remnick is most typical, runs to join their fellow leftist herd of no longer independent minds in Britain, assuring them of their loyalty to the influential [among] journalists and opinion makers, and if they are Jewish, making their assurance known by joining in the stampede to dissociate themselves from defense of Israel.” Jonathan Tobin discussed Remnick’s Israel problem in CONTENTIONS on Sunday.

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Afternoon Commentary

Vladmir Putin’s political opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted of money laundering and embezzlement yesterday in what many have denounced as a show-trial. The verdict came as no surprise to Khodorkovsky, who calmly read a book as the judge issued the decision. U.S. officials have offered some token condemnations of the conviction, but clearly the Obama administration is unwilling to take any action that might disrupt the “reset” process with Russia just days after the New START treaty was ratified by Congress.

Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangarai may be brought up on treason charges, after WikiLeaks cables revealed that he privately asked the U.S. to keep sanctions against his country in place: “State media reports have said hardline supporters of the president, Robert Mugabe, want an official inquiry into Tsvangirai’s discussion of international sanctions with the US ambassador in Harare. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party said last week the government should draft a law that makes it a treasonable offence to call for sanctions.” The punishment for high treason is the death penalty in Zimbabwe. Tsvangarai, a longtime foe of the dictatorial Mugabe, has discovered that being inside his government may be as dangerous as being outside of it.

President Obama continues to use the argument that Guantanamo Bay is al Qaeda’s “number one recruitment tool.” But how often do terror leaders actually mention Gitmo? At the Weekly Standard, Thomas Joscelyn scours the transcripts of the public speeches of al Qaeda leaders since 2009, and finds that very few refer to the detention facility.

The unwillingness of many libertarians to compromise ideological principles – even among themselves – prevents the movement from gaining any serious political power, writes Christopher Beam in New York magazine: “It’s no coincidence that most libertarians discover the philosophy as teenagers. At best, libertarianism means pursuing your own self-interest, as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. At worst, as in Ayn Rand’s teachings, it’s an explicit celebration of narcissism. ‘Man’s first duty is to himself,’ says the young architect Howard Roark in his climactic speech in The Fountainhead. ‘His moral obligation is to do what he wishes.’ Roark utters these words after dynamiting his own project, since his vision for the structure had been altered without his permission. The message: Never compromise.”

In case you needed a reminder on what a joke the UN is, Mary Katharine Ham rounded up the top 10 most “UN-believable” moments of 2010. Number 4: “The UN narrowly avoided putting Iran on its Commission on the Status of Women — a sort of sop to the Islamic Republic in the wake of its rejection for the Human Rights Council — thanks to loud push-back from the U.S. and human-rights groups. Perhaps stoning was a bridge too far. But it does now boast Saudi Arabia as a member of the commission. Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, must always wear abaya in public, and are punished for being in public without a male relative as an escort.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas criticizes Israel as an obstacle to peace, and promises that an independent state of Palestine won’t allow a single Israeli within its borders. “We have frankly said, and always will say: If there is an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, we won’t agree to the presence of one Israeli in it,” Abbas told reporters on Saturday. (Cue crickets chirping from the left).

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Goldberg groundlessly worries about whether Israel will soon cease being a democracy: “Let’s just say, as a hypothetical, that one day in the near future, Prime Minister [Avigdor] Lieberman’s government (don’t laugh, it’s not funny) proposes a bill that echoes the recent call by some rabbis to discourage Jews from selling their homes to Arabs. Or let’s say that Lieberman’s government annexes swaths of the West Bank in order to take in Jewish settlements, but announces summarily that the Arabs in the annexed territory are in fact citizens of Jordan, and can vote there if they want to, but they won’t be voting in Israel. What happens then?” Say what you will about Lieberman but, actually, his position has always been that some Arab towns and villages that are part of Israel should be given to a Palestinian state while Jewish settlement blocs are annexed to Israel. That may not be what the Palestinians want or even what many Israelis want but the outcome Lieberman desires would be a democratic and Jewish state.

Vladmir Putin’s political opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted of money laundering and embezzlement yesterday in what many have denounced as a show-trial. The verdict came as no surprise to Khodorkovsky, who calmly read a book as the judge issued the decision. U.S. officials have offered some token condemnations of the conviction, but clearly the Obama administration is unwilling to take any action that might disrupt the “reset” process with Russia just days after the New START treaty was ratified by Congress.

Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangarai may be brought up on treason charges, after WikiLeaks cables revealed that he privately asked the U.S. to keep sanctions against his country in place: “State media reports have said hardline supporters of the president, Robert Mugabe, want an official inquiry into Tsvangirai’s discussion of international sanctions with the US ambassador in Harare. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party said last week the government should draft a law that makes it a treasonable offence to call for sanctions.” The punishment for high treason is the death penalty in Zimbabwe. Tsvangarai, a longtime foe of the dictatorial Mugabe, has discovered that being inside his government may be as dangerous as being outside of it.

President Obama continues to use the argument that Guantanamo Bay is al Qaeda’s “number one recruitment tool.” But how often do terror leaders actually mention Gitmo? At the Weekly Standard, Thomas Joscelyn scours the transcripts of the public speeches of al Qaeda leaders since 2009, and finds that very few refer to the detention facility.

The unwillingness of many libertarians to compromise ideological principles – even among themselves – prevents the movement from gaining any serious political power, writes Christopher Beam in New York magazine: “It’s no coincidence that most libertarians discover the philosophy as teenagers. At best, libertarianism means pursuing your own self-interest, as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. At worst, as in Ayn Rand’s teachings, it’s an explicit celebration of narcissism. ‘Man’s first duty is to himself,’ says the young architect Howard Roark in his climactic speech in The Fountainhead. ‘His moral obligation is to do what he wishes.’ Roark utters these words after dynamiting his own project, since his vision for the structure had been altered without his permission. The message: Never compromise.”

In case you needed a reminder on what a joke the UN is, Mary Katharine Ham rounded up the top 10 most “UN-believable” moments of 2010. Number 4: “The UN narrowly avoided putting Iran on its Commission on the Status of Women — a sort of sop to the Islamic Republic in the wake of its rejection for the Human Rights Council — thanks to loud push-back from the U.S. and human-rights groups. Perhaps stoning was a bridge too far. But it does now boast Saudi Arabia as a member of the commission. Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, must always wear abaya in public, and are punished for being in public without a male relative as an escort.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas criticizes Israel as an obstacle to peace, and promises that an independent state of Palestine won’t allow a single Israeli within its borders. “We have frankly said, and always will say: If there is an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, we won’t agree to the presence of one Israeli in it,” Abbas told reporters on Saturday. (Cue crickets chirping from the left).

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Goldberg groundlessly worries about whether Israel will soon cease being a democracy: “Let’s just say, as a hypothetical, that one day in the near future, Prime Minister [Avigdor] Lieberman’s government (don’t laugh, it’s not funny) proposes a bill that echoes the recent call by some rabbis to discourage Jews from selling their homes to Arabs. Or let’s say that Lieberman’s government annexes swaths of the West Bank in order to take in Jewish settlements, but announces summarily that the Arabs in the annexed territory are in fact citizens of Jordan, and can vote there if they want to, but they won’t be voting in Israel. What happens then?” Say what you will about Lieberman but, actually, his position has always been that some Arab towns and villages that are part of Israel should be given to a Palestinian state while Jewish settlement blocs are annexed to Israel. That may not be what the Palestinians want or even what many Israelis want but the outcome Lieberman desires would be a democratic and Jewish state.

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An Edifice Over an Abyss

Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s valuable interview with Jennifer Rubin (part one on Friday; part two today) contains a useful observation about the current Palestinian push for recognition of a state. Oren says there are two models of Middle East state-building:

In the first, you build from the bottom up. Then you are bestowed or declare independence. The second is that you attain independence and figure out what institutions you will have later. This was the model for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Israel is the first model. We had more than 60 years to build institutions. … Oslo was the classic second model, and Arafat rejected institution building. We saw how that worked out. It’s building an edifice over an abyss.

This reminds me of Ron Dermer’s presentation to AIPAC in May 2009, previewing the one Netanyahu would make days later in his first meeting with President Obama. Dermer described Netanyahu’s plan as a three-track approach: two bottom-up tracks (security and economic development) combined with a top-down one (political negotiations). The goal was not an immediate “peace-to-end-all-peace, deal of the century,” but developments on the ground necessary to make peace possible:

What happened in Annapolis is that the government almost exclusively focused on political negotiation. They invested all their energy … in reaching an elusive agreement. And I agree with Aaron [David Miller] that there is no way now on the Palestinian side to make the sorts of compromises that will be required for a deal on the core issues. Yet despite that, the previous government just decided to negotiate, and negotiate, and negotiate …

What Netanyahu will do – and you will see it in a rather dramatic fashion over the next two years … is work to change the reality on the ground, first through security [by facilitating creation of a Palestinian police force] … and [removing] bureaucratic obstacles to economic development. …

What has happened up to now is to try to build the pyramid from the top down. It doesn’t work that way. You have to … have the Palestinians have rule of law, have a decent economy … and slowly but surely you actually build lots of stakeholders.

In the last two years, security in the West Bank has improved, as has the Palestinian economy – developments for which Netanyahu has been given insufficient credit. But Palestinian society remains steeped in anti-Semitism, and the Palestinian Authority lacks the rule of law: a “president” whose term expired two years ago; an unelected “prime minister;” local elections that were cancelled; and political reform that is, in the words of a former PA minister, “a joke.” The next chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee says it is impossible to track the PA’s use of American aid (“Try looking at their budgets … you’ll never find out where that money goes”).

An undemocratic, anti-Semitic state, unwilling to recognize a Jewish one (much less one with defensible borders), is unlikely to “live side by side in peace.” The Palestinians are pushing the edifice, but the abyss is still there.

Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s valuable interview with Jennifer Rubin (part one on Friday; part two today) contains a useful observation about the current Palestinian push for recognition of a state. Oren says there are two models of Middle East state-building:

In the first, you build from the bottom up. Then you are bestowed or declare independence. The second is that you attain independence and figure out what institutions you will have later. This was the model for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Israel is the first model. We had more than 60 years to build institutions. … Oslo was the classic second model, and Arafat rejected institution building. We saw how that worked out. It’s building an edifice over an abyss.

This reminds me of Ron Dermer’s presentation to AIPAC in May 2009, previewing the one Netanyahu would make days later in his first meeting with President Obama. Dermer described Netanyahu’s plan as a three-track approach: two bottom-up tracks (security and economic development) combined with a top-down one (political negotiations). The goal was not an immediate “peace-to-end-all-peace, deal of the century,” but developments on the ground necessary to make peace possible:

What happened in Annapolis is that the government almost exclusively focused on political negotiation. They invested all their energy … in reaching an elusive agreement. And I agree with Aaron [David Miller] that there is no way now on the Palestinian side to make the sorts of compromises that will be required for a deal on the core issues. Yet despite that, the previous government just decided to negotiate, and negotiate, and negotiate …

What Netanyahu will do – and you will see it in a rather dramatic fashion over the next two years … is work to change the reality on the ground, first through security [by facilitating creation of a Palestinian police force] … and [removing] bureaucratic obstacles to economic development. …

What has happened up to now is to try to build the pyramid from the top down. It doesn’t work that way. You have to … have the Palestinians have rule of law, have a decent economy … and slowly but surely you actually build lots of stakeholders.

In the last two years, security in the West Bank has improved, as has the Palestinian economy – developments for which Netanyahu has been given insufficient credit. But Palestinian society remains steeped in anti-Semitism, and the Palestinian Authority lacks the rule of law: a “president” whose term expired two years ago; an unelected “prime minister;” local elections that were cancelled; and political reform that is, in the words of a former PA minister, “a joke.” The next chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee says it is impossible to track the PA’s use of American aid (“Try looking at their budgets … you’ll never find out where that money goes”).

An undemocratic, anti-Semitic state, unwilling to recognize a Jewish one (much less one with defensible borders), is unlikely to “live side by side in peace.” The Palestinians are pushing the edifice, but the abyss is still there.

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Iraq: Before and After Saddam

The New York Times has a story about Iraq’s parliament’s approving a new government yesterday. With all major political parties and ethnic groups participating for the first time in an Iraqi government, the 325-member parliament approved each of the 34 ministers proposed by Prime Minister Maliki.

There’s no question that the new government is fragile and that the delay in forming a government was frustrating. And the challenges facing Iraq are considerable. “A nation with virtually no democratic track record and a history of sectarian warfare must figure a way to move forward with a government that comprises four major blocs — two Shiite, one Sunni-backed and multi-sectarian, and one Kurdish — each with a different agenda,” according to the Times. But it also points out that against predictions and despite a number of coordinated, deadly attacks that rattled the country, Iraq did not experience an overall rise in violence during the impasse. President Obama called the vote in parliament a “significant moment in Iraq’s history” and “a clear rejection of the efforts by extremists to spur sectarian division.”

Within the story is a quote from Prime Minister Maliki that caught my attention. He told lawmakers he was “very content” — even if he knew that they were not.

“I do not need anybody to sugarcoat me,” Maliki said. “I have not satisfied anybody at all. Everybody is angry with me, and everybody is frustrated with me.”

Such words were unimaginable in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. In 2002, for example, Iraqi officials said the Iraqi president won 100 percent backing in a referendum on whether he should rule for another seven years. There were 11,445,638 eligible voters — and every one of them voted for Saddam. (It’s worth pointing out that Saddam’s performance in 2002 was an improvement on the previous such vote, which gave the Iraqi leader only 99.96 percent support.)

Prime Minister Maliki is no saint and far from a perfect leader, and some people worry that he has authoritarian tendencies or even dictatorial aspirations. But I trust the judgment of Ryan C. Crocker, who was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009 and came to know and respect Maliki. “Maliki’s vision is that the prime minister has to grab every shred of power, or centrifugal forces will kick in and Iraq will become unglued,” said Crocker. “He will try to accrue as much power as he can. But I think Maliki is light years away from being a truly authoritarian or dictatorial figure.”

Iraq unquestionably has a long way to go, and the road to the formation of the new government has been a difficult one. But a fragile democracy is a moral universe away from a totalitarian dictatorship. Read More

The New York Times has a story about Iraq’s parliament’s approving a new government yesterday. With all major political parties and ethnic groups participating for the first time in an Iraqi government, the 325-member parliament approved each of the 34 ministers proposed by Prime Minister Maliki.

There’s no question that the new government is fragile and that the delay in forming a government was frustrating. And the challenges facing Iraq are considerable. “A nation with virtually no democratic track record and a history of sectarian warfare must figure a way to move forward with a government that comprises four major blocs — two Shiite, one Sunni-backed and multi-sectarian, and one Kurdish — each with a different agenda,” according to the Times. But it also points out that against predictions and despite a number of coordinated, deadly attacks that rattled the country, Iraq did not experience an overall rise in violence during the impasse. President Obama called the vote in parliament a “significant moment in Iraq’s history” and “a clear rejection of the efforts by extremists to spur sectarian division.”

Within the story is a quote from Prime Minister Maliki that caught my attention. He told lawmakers he was “very content” — even if he knew that they were not.

“I do not need anybody to sugarcoat me,” Maliki said. “I have not satisfied anybody at all. Everybody is angry with me, and everybody is frustrated with me.”

Such words were unimaginable in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. In 2002, for example, Iraqi officials said the Iraqi president won 100 percent backing in a referendum on whether he should rule for another seven years. There were 11,445,638 eligible voters — and every one of them voted for Saddam. (It’s worth pointing out that Saddam’s performance in 2002 was an improvement on the previous such vote, which gave the Iraqi leader only 99.96 percent support.)

Prime Minister Maliki is no saint and far from a perfect leader, and some people worry that he has authoritarian tendencies or even dictatorial aspirations. But I trust the judgment of Ryan C. Crocker, who was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009 and came to know and respect Maliki. “Maliki’s vision is that the prime minister has to grab every shred of power, or centrifugal forces will kick in and Iraq will become unglued,” said Crocker. “He will try to accrue as much power as he can. But I think Maliki is light years away from being a truly authoritarian or dictatorial figure.”

Iraq unquestionably has a long way to go, and the road to the formation of the new government has been a difficult one. But a fragile democracy is a moral universe away from a totalitarian dictatorship.

With Iraq’s governing achievement in mind, it’s perhaps worth recalling the words of the late Michael Kelly, one of the greatest journalists and columnists of his generation. Mike, who covered the first Gulf war, had been deeply affected by what Iraq under Saddam Hussein had done to the people of Kuwait. He told about the innocent civilians who had been killed, ritualistically humiliated, robbed, beaten, raped, and tortured by Saddam’s forces. “Shattered people were everywhere,” he said. “I watched one torture victim, a big, strong man, being interviewed in the place of his torture by a BBC television crew — weeping and weeping, but absolutely silent, as he told the story.”

Kelly — who died in 2003 while on assignment in Iraq — went on to write this:

Tyranny truly is a horror: an immense, endlessly bloody, endlessly painful, endlessly varied, endless crime against not humanity in the abstract but a lot of humans in the flesh. It is, as Orwell wrote, a jackboot forever stomping on a human face.

I understand why some dislike the idea, and fear the ramifications of, America as liberator. But I do not understand why they do not see that anything is better than life with your face under the boot. And that any rescue of a people under the boot (be they Afghan, Kuwaiti, or Iraqi) is something to be desired. Even if the rescue is less than perfectly realized. Even if the rescuer is a great, overmuscled, bossy, selfish oaf. Or would you, for yourself, choose the boot?

Thanks to the sacrifices and beneficence of America, Iraq is now free from the boot. That may not be everything, but it is quite a lot.

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The Kennedys Leave Washington with a Whimper

Today’s New York Times has an elegiac piece on the last days of Patrick J. Kennedy in Congress. It is a remarkable fact that when the new Congress convenes in January, it will be the first time since 1947 that a member of that family will not hold a federal office. The Times quotes the Brookings Institution’s Darrell M. West, who sees this moment as “a pretty dramatic fall and it’s a symbol of the decline of liberalism.” But that, I think, puts a little too much weight on the meaning of this clan’s long struggle to first acquire and then to retain political power.

The fate of liberalism has little to do with the Kennedys. After all, they pushed their way onto the public square not as liberals but as stridently anti-Communist Democrats. Although in the aftermath of President John Kennedy’s assassination, first Robert and then Ted Kennedy became standard bearers for the liberal myth of Camelot, the idea that this family’s political fortunes are somehow the cause of a political movement’s rise and fall is utterly fallacious.

While America has had other dominant political dynasties (the Adamses, the Roosevelts, and the Bushes being the most important), the Kennedys represented a new twist on the theme. They may have touted themselves as merely following a legacy of public service into politics, but their enduring popularity was more the result of modern celebrity culture and media infatuation than anything else. How else can we explain the way they seemed to rise above scandals involving vehicular homicide, rape, and addiction that would have sunk the fortunes of others who thought to keep their hold on the reins of power?

Even as he leaves Congress for good, Patrick Kennedy is still attempting to burnish the fairy tale that the Kennedys stood for more than just a lust for power. Yet his undistinguished career is a rebuke to the idea that they were about “giving back” to their country. Indeed, from the first moment that his paternal grandfather, Joseph Kennedy, stepped onto the public stage in the 1930s as the chairman of the Federal Securities and Exchange Commission and then ambassador to Britain until his own ignominious career in Congress, Patrick Kennedy’s family has been an exemplar of entitlement and living above and beyond the rules that apply to lesser mortals.

This last Kennedy must also be seen as the poster child for famous scions who have no business in politics. Patrick Kennedy, who entered the Rhode Island legislature at 21 (after being treated for cocaine addiction in his teens) and has been in Congress for 16 years, won and retained office solely on the basis of his famous name. As the Times reports, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder soon after arriving in Congress and behaved accordingly for much of his time there. He will be best remembered for crashing his car into a Capitol barricade in the middle of the night while under the influence, as well as for a bizarre rant during a congressional session during which he berated the press for not covering his speech.

As for liberalism, it will survive, for good or for ill, without the likes of Patrick Kennedy or any of the other equally unfortunate members of his generation that bear the same name. And for all the funereal-like prose of the Times piece, this probably won’t be the last Kennedy in office. There are a great many other members of the family still armed with what’s left of the first Joe Kennedy’s ill-gotten loot and the allure and the insatiable ambition that seems to come with the Kennedy moniker. But, if anything, Patrick Kennedy’s embarrassing and largely pointless public career should stand as a warning to other Kennedys, as well as the descendants of any other famous politician, that there is more to public life than the shallow celebrity that propelled this young man into a position of responsibility he never deserved.

Today’s New York Times has an elegiac piece on the last days of Patrick J. Kennedy in Congress. It is a remarkable fact that when the new Congress convenes in January, it will be the first time since 1947 that a member of that family will not hold a federal office. The Times quotes the Brookings Institution’s Darrell M. West, who sees this moment as “a pretty dramatic fall and it’s a symbol of the decline of liberalism.” But that, I think, puts a little too much weight on the meaning of this clan’s long struggle to first acquire and then to retain political power.

The fate of liberalism has little to do with the Kennedys. After all, they pushed their way onto the public square not as liberals but as stridently anti-Communist Democrats. Although in the aftermath of President John Kennedy’s assassination, first Robert and then Ted Kennedy became standard bearers for the liberal myth of Camelot, the idea that this family’s political fortunes are somehow the cause of a political movement’s rise and fall is utterly fallacious.

While America has had other dominant political dynasties (the Adamses, the Roosevelts, and the Bushes being the most important), the Kennedys represented a new twist on the theme. They may have touted themselves as merely following a legacy of public service into politics, but their enduring popularity was more the result of modern celebrity culture and media infatuation than anything else. How else can we explain the way they seemed to rise above scandals involving vehicular homicide, rape, and addiction that would have sunk the fortunes of others who thought to keep their hold on the reins of power?

Even as he leaves Congress for good, Patrick Kennedy is still attempting to burnish the fairy tale that the Kennedys stood for more than just a lust for power. Yet his undistinguished career is a rebuke to the idea that they were about “giving back” to their country. Indeed, from the first moment that his paternal grandfather, Joseph Kennedy, stepped onto the public stage in the 1930s as the chairman of the Federal Securities and Exchange Commission and then ambassador to Britain until his own ignominious career in Congress, Patrick Kennedy’s family has been an exemplar of entitlement and living above and beyond the rules that apply to lesser mortals.

This last Kennedy must also be seen as the poster child for famous scions who have no business in politics. Patrick Kennedy, who entered the Rhode Island legislature at 21 (after being treated for cocaine addiction in his teens) and has been in Congress for 16 years, won and retained office solely on the basis of his famous name. As the Times reports, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder soon after arriving in Congress and behaved accordingly for much of his time there. He will be best remembered for crashing his car into a Capitol barricade in the middle of the night while under the influence, as well as for a bizarre rant during a congressional session during which he berated the press for not covering his speech.

As for liberalism, it will survive, for good or for ill, without the likes of Patrick Kennedy or any of the other equally unfortunate members of his generation that bear the same name. And for all the funereal-like prose of the Times piece, this probably won’t be the last Kennedy in office. There are a great many other members of the family still armed with what’s left of the first Joe Kennedy’s ill-gotten loot and the allure and the insatiable ambition that seems to come with the Kennedy moniker. But, if anything, Patrick Kennedy’s embarrassing and largely pointless public career should stand as a warning to other Kennedys, as well as the descendants of any other famous politician, that there is more to public life than the shallow celebrity that propelled this young man into a position of responsibility he never deserved.

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