Commentary Magazine


Topic: Colin Powell

Hamas, Three Months After

It has been three months since Hamas took power in Gaza, and what a short, strange trip it’s been. In the beginning, Hamas spokesmen assuaged the consciences of credulous op-ed page editors everywhere with submissions that promised an enlightened, progressive Islamist government. One spokesman wrote in the New York Times that “Our sole focus is Palestinian rights and good governance.” He also said in a Washington Post op-ed that Hamas’s ambitions in Gaza are actually western ambitions: “self-determination, modernity . . . and freedom for civil society to evolve.” Another wrote, in the Los Angeles Times, that “Gaza will be calm and under the rule of law—a place where all journalists, foreigners, and guests of the Palestinian people will be treated with dignity.” (At the time he offered no word on how many yoga studios and organic food stands would be opened.)

The English-language spokesmen for Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups have long since mastered the democratic political lexicon, and the number of westerners eager to be taken in by such clichés has always been high. But now that Hamas has been in power for a quarter-year, it has an actual political track record to observe. And this record shows that Hamas, in defiance of the fervent wishes and predictions of its western apologists, has behaved exactly as many of us predicted at the beginning of the summer: In ideology, ambition, and style of governance, Hamas has come to resemble most closely its major regional patron, Iran.

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It has been three months since Hamas took power in Gaza, and what a short, strange trip it’s been. In the beginning, Hamas spokesmen assuaged the consciences of credulous op-ed page editors everywhere with submissions that promised an enlightened, progressive Islamist government. One spokesman wrote in the New York Times that “Our sole focus is Palestinian rights and good governance.” He also said in a Washington Post op-ed that Hamas’s ambitions in Gaza are actually western ambitions: “self-determination, modernity . . . and freedom for civil society to evolve.” Another wrote, in the Los Angeles Times, that “Gaza will be calm and under the rule of law—a place where all journalists, foreigners, and guests of the Palestinian people will be treated with dignity.” (At the time he offered no word on how many yoga studios and organic food stands would be opened.)

The English-language spokesmen for Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups have long since mastered the democratic political lexicon, and the number of westerners eager to be taken in by such clichés has always been high. But now that Hamas has been in power for a quarter-year, it has an actual political track record to observe. And this record shows that Hamas, in defiance of the fervent wishes and predictions of its western apologists, has behaved exactly as many of us predicted at the beginning of the summer: In ideology, ambition, and style of governance, Hamas has come to resemble most closely its major regional patron, Iran.

The new climate in Gaza is fearsome. Hamas has banned unapproved public gatherings, routinely beaten political opponents, intimidated journalists, and imposed a de facto regime of shari’a law. The internal purge continues, with regular death threats against Fatah loyalists and in many cases the firings of Fatah-associated doctors and other professionals. The only parts of the Gaza economy that still have a pulse are those bankrolled by foreign aid. In a long report in yesterday’s Washington Post, Scott Wilson gives readers a taste of the new Gaza:

After Friday prayers in recent weeks, Fatah supporters have marched through Gaza’s streets in protest against the Hamas administration. “Shia! Shia!” the demonstrators shouted, an insulting reference to the Sunni Muslim movement’s inflexible Islamic character and financial support from the Shiite government of Iran.

Their numbers have swelled into the thousands, and Hamas’s patience appears exhausted. The Palestinian Scholars League, an Islamic council dominated by Hamas clerics, issued a fatwa early this month prohibiting outdoor prayer.

The past three months have also been a test of the theory that power would moderate Hamas. After Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006, many people—including President Bush—predicted that a certain pragmatism finally would be forced on the Islamist group, and that it would be compelled to shift its focus from terrorism to the humdrum of daily governance.

But the decline of Gaza has not given Hamas’s leaders a moment’s pause in their pursuit of an external war against Israel and an internal war against Fatah. Rockets are fired from Gaza on a daily basis, and attempted infiltrations of Israel, many of them for the purpose of abducting another IDF soldier, are a regular occurrence. In many ways Hamas has been emboldened by the continued arrival, regardless of its terror war, of foreign aid money and water and electricity from Israel. Hamas, in other words, has been given the ability to run a consequence-free jihad.

The only good news to come out of all this is that at least for now, the movement to “engage” Hamas—most popular in Britain and Europe—has fallen into dormancy. Such calls might be revived as planning for the Bush administration’s regional conference intensifies, but the Hamas leadership may yet prove to be so ideologically stubborn and politically obtuse that even people like Daniel Levy and Colin Powell will not be able to help.

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The “Israel Lobby” Strikes Again

It’s hardly a secret that Israel was always skeptical about the war in Iraq, as this commentary from the eminent scholar Martin Kramer shows.

Now, for those tempted to dismiss Kramer as a tool of the Zionist conspiracy, there’s this recent, widely circulated report. It repeats the points Kramer made: Israel warned the U.S. against an Iraq invasion in 2002, and Israelis were adamant in their objections to the war. This time, however, the news comes from an unimpeachable source: Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff. (I’d like to see people paint him as a lackey of the neocons.)

And all this time, I thought the war in Iraq was launched at the behest of the Lobby, to serve Israel’s interests.

It’s hardly a secret that Israel was always skeptical about the war in Iraq, as this commentary from the eminent scholar Martin Kramer shows.

Now, for those tempted to dismiss Kramer as a tool of the Zionist conspiracy, there’s this recent, widely circulated report. It repeats the points Kramer made: Israel warned the U.S. against an Iraq invasion in 2002, and Israelis were adamant in their objections to the war. This time, however, the news comes from an unimpeachable source: Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff. (I’d like to see people paint him as a lackey of the neocons.)

And all this time, I thought the war in Iraq was launched at the behest of the Lobby, to serve Israel’s interests.

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No More Civilians

On Thursday, the Taliban, declaring “victory,” freed the last of the South Korean hostages it seized in mid-July. The release came after weeks of negotiations between the group and Seoul. Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, promised more kidnappings of foreigners. “We will do the same thing with the other allies in Afghanistan, because we found this way to be successful,” he explained.

The Taliban’s abductions show once again that Islamic fanatics acknowledge no boundary between civilians and military combatants. Osama bin Laden made the point after September 11 in his “letter to the American people.” His missive argues that Americans choose their government, are responsible for its policies domestic and military, and pay for them with their taxes. Thus, in Bin Laden’s view, they are legitimate military targets.

People everywhere disagree with the world’s most famous terrorist. Colin Powell eloquently expressed this view in his article in the January/February 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs:

The civilized world has spent more than a thousand years trying to limit the destructiveness of war. Drawing a distinction between civilians and combatants has been an essential part of this process. But terrorism aims to erase that distinction. We cannot allow this to happen, not because we want to “make the world safe” again for major conventional war, but because we must reassure people everywhere that the world has not just traded one kind of danger for another with the end of the Cold War.

The problem with Powell’s argument is that, despite what we may want and what we hold dear, we have in fact traded dangers. Today, we believe we are noncombatants, but in the struggle that defines our era, we indeed stand on one side. And, whether we like it or not, our adversaries have made us targets. So we may admire Powell’s fine sentiments on the distinction between civilians and soldiers, but the world, unfortunately, has changed. We are not going to prevail over our adversaries if we ignore the lesson that the Taliban gave the South Koreans—as well as the rest of us—Thursday. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, there are no more civilians.

On Thursday, the Taliban, declaring “victory,” freed the last of the South Korean hostages it seized in mid-July. The release came after weeks of negotiations between the group and Seoul. Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, promised more kidnappings of foreigners. “We will do the same thing with the other allies in Afghanistan, because we found this way to be successful,” he explained.

The Taliban’s abductions show once again that Islamic fanatics acknowledge no boundary between civilians and military combatants. Osama bin Laden made the point after September 11 in his “letter to the American people.” His missive argues that Americans choose their government, are responsible for its policies domestic and military, and pay for them with their taxes. Thus, in Bin Laden’s view, they are legitimate military targets.

People everywhere disagree with the world’s most famous terrorist. Colin Powell eloquently expressed this view in his article in the January/February 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs:

The civilized world has spent more than a thousand years trying to limit the destructiveness of war. Drawing a distinction between civilians and combatants has been an essential part of this process. But terrorism aims to erase that distinction. We cannot allow this to happen, not because we want to “make the world safe” again for major conventional war, but because we must reassure people everywhere that the world has not just traded one kind of danger for another with the end of the Cold War.

The problem with Powell’s argument is that, despite what we may want and what we hold dear, we have in fact traded dangers. Today, we believe we are noncombatants, but in the struggle that defines our era, we indeed stand on one side. And, whether we like it or not, our adversaries have made us targets. So we may admire Powell’s fine sentiments on the distinction between civilians and soldiers, but the world, unfortunately, has changed. We are not going to prevail over our adversaries if we ignore the lesson that the Taliban gave the South Koreans—as well as the rest of us—Thursday. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, there are no more civilians.

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Hot Air in Aspen

Imagine going to the Heritage Foundation to see Ronald Reagan in the late 1980’s. Or listening to Margaret Thatcher at a National Review dinner at around the same time. Or applauding Charlton Heston at the NRA’s annual meeting. This must be the feeling that liberals get during a week of activities at the Aspen Festival of Ideas. A mix of political camaraderie, self-righteousness, and triumphalism oozed from every panel discussion and roundtable.

Only in its third year, this week-long conference, co-sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly and the Aspen Institute, has quickly established itself as the intellectual Woodstock for the wealthy and well-meaning. Bill Clinton made his annual pilgrimage—Aspen is his new Renaissance festival, apparently—and was reliably greeted as healer and seer for those who have had to endure two terms of Republican rule. This year Hillary joined him for some nighttime high-dollar fund-raising. The old Clinton crowd showed up, too: there rarely seemed to be a panel without Rahm Emmanuel, Gene Sperling, Madeline Albright, David Gergen, or Justice Stephen Breyer. True, there were a few Republicans thrown in for appearances, but mostly of the safe variety: Colin Powell or Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Karl Rove showed up on the final day for a ritual yet respectful skewering, just so everyone could feel bi-partisan and open-minded.

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Imagine going to the Heritage Foundation to see Ronald Reagan in the late 1980’s. Or listening to Margaret Thatcher at a National Review dinner at around the same time. Or applauding Charlton Heston at the NRA’s annual meeting. This must be the feeling that liberals get during a week of activities at the Aspen Festival of Ideas. A mix of political camaraderie, self-righteousness, and triumphalism oozed from every panel discussion and roundtable.

Only in its third year, this week-long conference, co-sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly and the Aspen Institute, has quickly established itself as the intellectual Woodstock for the wealthy and well-meaning. Bill Clinton made his annual pilgrimage—Aspen is his new Renaissance festival, apparently—and was reliably greeted as healer and seer for those who have had to endure two terms of Republican rule. This year Hillary joined him for some nighttime high-dollar fund-raising. The old Clinton crowd showed up, too: there rarely seemed to be a panel without Rahm Emmanuel, Gene Sperling, Madeline Albright, David Gergen, or Justice Stephen Breyer. True, there were a few Republicans thrown in for appearances, but mostly of the safe variety: Colin Powell or Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Karl Rove showed up on the final day for a ritual yet respectful skewering, just so everyone could feel bi-partisan and open-minded.

But what struck me in the four days of sessions I attended was not Bush-hatred (or any particular display of partisanship), but rather the insipid and anodyne quality of the ideas under such grave discussion. After just two days, it was clear that the assembled crowd of the good and the great strongly believed that teachers should be paid more, that more investments need to be made in early childhood education, that energy and environment issues ought to be at the top of the national agenda, and that far too many college graduates want to become hedge fund managers. In dozens of panels, there were certainly exceptions, but I would refer anyone interested to the Aspen Festival blog posts by Ross Douthat, whose dry yet incisive commentaries captured the hollowness of this gathering of worthies.

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Al Gore’s Hypothetical Candidacy

Al Gore’s Oscar was as predictable as the thunderous ovations he received at the Academy Awards last night. But it was also a reminder that there is nothing Democrats love more than a politician who isn’t actually running for President. Ever since liberals began mythologizing JFK, the party’s nominees invariably fail to measure up. It’s as if any politician who has the guts to enter the arena and dirty his hands immediately loses “purity,” and faces a cynical column from Joe Klein. As a result, come primary season, the Democratic chattering class always falls in love with a hypothetical candidate: Mario Cuomo, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Colin Powell, The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlett.
This is the real meaning behind last week’s Hillary-Obama feud. Hillary is the most successful fundraiser in the party’s history. Her name is known to 100 percent of voters—something that no Democrat has ever achieved this early in a presidential campaign. Yet no one should be surprised, now that she is in reach of becoming the party’s nominee, that the same political and financial backers who cheered her during her White House days are racing to tear her down.

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Al Gore’s Oscar was as predictable as the thunderous ovations he received at the Academy Awards last night. But it was also a reminder that there is nothing Democrats love more than a politician who isn’t actually running for President. Ever since liberals began mythologizing JFK, the party’s nominees invariably fail to measure up. It’s as if any politician who has the guts to enter the arena and dirty his hands immediately loses “purity,” and faces a cynical column from Joe Klein. As a result, come primary season, the Democratic chattering class always falls in love with a hypothetical candidate: Mario Cuomo, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Colin Powell, The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlett.
This is the real meaning behind last week’s Hillary-Obama feud. Hillary is the most successful fundraiser in the party’s history. Her name is known to 100 percent of voters—something that no Democrat has ever achieved this early in a presidential campaign. Yet no one should be surprised, now that she is in reach of becoming the party’s nominee, that the same political and financial backers who cheered her during her White House days are racing to tear her down.

But this will be a short-lived story. It is a safe bet that buyer’s remorse over Barack Obama will set in by this fall as E.J. Dionne, Arianna Huffington, and Jonathan Alter complain about his failings. (In fact, Joe Klein has already started.)

In the meantime, these early grenades tossed in Hillary’s direction are, I would argue, ultimately good for her candidacy. A fractious, heated primary, with Obama, Edwards, and possibly Gore lining up to her Left allows her to pursue a centrist triangulation strategy that makes her seem measured, reasonable, and non-ideological. Were Hillary to be the party’s runaway favorite this early on, we would be reading nothing but stories about her shady dealings with cattle futures and the Rose law firm. Instead, we will be reading more about how this really ought to be Al Gore’s time.

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