Commentary Magazine


Topic: democracy

Pelosi’s Bad Memory and ObamaCare Lies

Reacting today to the furor caused by the revelations about the administration’s ObamaCare lies, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did her best to dismiss the controversy. As far as the woman who rammed the Affordable Care Act through Congress on a party-line vote was concerned, Jonathan Gruber is a nobody who had no role in its passage. But unfortunately for her, a C-Span archival tape from 2009 was quickly uncovered that shows the former speaker citing Gruber as an authority on the bill. Ouch. But after we’re done chuckling at Pelosi’s chutzpah and calculating the impact of this latest Democratic fib on the course of the debate, this might be another moment for us to ponder just how much damage the cynical push for ObamaCare did to the fabric of American democracy.

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Reacting today to the furor caused by the revelations about the administration’s ObamaCare lies, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did her best to dismiss the controversy. As far as the woman who rammed the Affordable Care Act through Congress on a party-line vote was concerned, Jonathan Gruber is a nobody who had no role in its passage. But unfortunately for her, a C-Span archival tape from 2009 was quickly uncovered that shows the former speaker citing Gruber as an authority on the bill. Ouch. But after we’re done chuckling at Pelosi’s chutzpah and calculating the impact of this latest Democratic fib on the course of the debate, this might be another moment for us to ponder just how much damage the cynical push for ObamaCare did to the fabric of American democracy.

Just to put this in perspective, here’s what Pelosi said today about Gruber while refusing to answer a question about his admissions:

I don’t know who he is and he didn’t help write our bill.

Here’s what she said in November 2009:

We’re not finished getting all of our reports back from CBO, but we’ll have a side by side to compare. But our bill brings down rates. I don’t know if you have seen Jonathan Gruber of MIT’s analysis of what the comparison is to the status quo versus what will happen in our bill for those who seek insurance within the exchange. And our bill takes down those costs, even some now, and much less preventing the upward spiral.

Judging by Pelosi’s convenient memory loss today, the conviction among those who foisted ObamaCare on the nation that they can always count on “the stupidity of the American voter” wasn’t just something invented by Gruber.

But as with Gruber’s comments, there will be plenty of people on the left who will dismiss this as nothing but a minor kerfuffle, a footnote to the achievement of the great liberal dream of a national health-care act. But words and deeds have consequences.

The problem with ObamaCare was, as Gruber has acknowledged, that if the voters or even the Congress that voted on it had understood what was in the bill, it could not have succeeded in gaining a majority, even one without a single Republican vote. Throughout the debate over the bill and its implementation, the one consistent theme has been dishonesty. From Pelosi’s own statement that the law had to be passed for members to know what was in it, to the president’s lies about consumers keeping their coverage and doctors, to the delay in enforcing the individual mandate and other provisions, to the current debacle over Gruber, advocates of the misnamed Affordable Care Act have never stopped lying or talking down to the American people.

In the last 60 years, we have seen confidence in government and politics decline bit by bit to the current situation where politicians of both parties are about as well respected as street walkers. This was the result of a series of unfortunate decisions and scandals that started with Vietnam, continued with Watergate (and every other subsequent scandal that generally is referred to by adding the word “gate” to something), was compounded by the distorted debate about Iraq, and now seems to be reaching a crescendo with ObamaCare.

One doesn’t have to hold a particular position on any of these issues to understand that when the American people perceive they have been deceived, it hurts more than the party caught lying. It hurts confidence in democracy and the rule of law. President Obama came into office and even reelected in 2012 buoyed by a wave of optimism about the nation that his historic election as our first African-American president created. But instead of building on the confidence placed in him, he resorted to the lowest and most cynical tactics to get his way on health care. Like Gruber and Pelosi, he undoubtedly felt the ends justified the means and that if it took a few lies to get his bill passed, it would be worth it. In the course of that campaign, he and his supporters called their Tea Party opponents who had raised up in protest against this massive expansion of federal power every vile name in the book and branded them as racists. Now today, unashamed, they look back on the lies they told and tell us to just move on since the debate is supposedly over.

But whether or not it is over—and, as I argued earlier, it is far from over—the damage they’ve done to the country and the government will live on. Leader Pelosi doesn’t have amnesia but she and everyone else who took part in this disgraceful episode should be deeply ashamed.

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Why Obama Should Have Skipped Burma

President Obama arrived in Burma on his trip through Asia to meet with Burmese leaders and gauge the country’s Democratic progress. He shouldn’t have. His presence papers over a the massive human-rights abuses of Burma’s minority Rohingya Muslims that flirt all too seriously with becoming a full-blown genocide. Obama should have canceled his visit.

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President Obama arrived in Burma on his trip through Asia to meet with Burmese leaders and gauge the country’s Democratic progress. He shouldn’t have. His presence papers over a the massive human-rights abuses of Burma’s minority Rohingya Muslims that flirt all too seriously with becoming a full-blown genocide. Obama should have canceled his visit.

Although the predominantly Buddhist Burmese establishment’s treatment of the Rohingya has long been objectionable, it is now taking place against the backdrop of presidential visits and increased diplomatic and economic ties with the U.S. Additionally, the oppression of the Rohingya appears to have gotten markedly worse over the past year–as the Burmese government has taken advantage of the sanctions relief given by the West.

To be sure, the Burmese governing military junta did take steps toward democratic rule, and the political system has enjoyed more openness as a result. The most high-profile change has been the freeing from house arrest of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who now has a seat in parliament. But the Obama administration, which badly flubbed its early diplomatic outreach to Burma before Hillary Clinton had more luck on a second try, seemed desperate for a foreign-policy win. Suu Kyi understood this, as did others who advised the Obama administration to proceed with caution, and to make sure the Burmese government was really earning its sanctions relief and legitimization among the international community.

Suu Kyi was right to be skeptical about the Obama administration’s ability to navigate the nuances of Burmese politics and appreciate the need for incremental progress over photo ops. She is not keeping silent about her concerns, as the Wall Street Journal reports, and the impression that the Obama administration embraced her democratic idealism only to advance their desire for upgraded bilateral ties and then abandon them when they began to be seen as impediments:

The country’s democratic evolution over the past four years has stumbled amid recent setbacks, creating a division between Mr. Obama and Ms. Suu Kyi, the former political prisoner who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle to end decades of military rule that impoverished her country.

Their disagreement over progress since the military started a transition to civilian rule in 2010 is striking, given the Obama administration for years based its policies toward Myanmar around Ms. Suu Kyi’s ideas and political experience.

In a news conference last week, Ms. Suu Kyi said the U.S. was optimistic about progress. She said she would “challenge those who talk so much about the reform process” to show her what significant steps have been taken toward democratization over the past two years.

It’s worth going into some detail on that democratic “stumbling.” It’s far worse than it sounds. First, there’s the anti-Rohingya violence: “Religious violence since 2012 has killed hundreds of Rohingya Muslims and displaced more than 140,000 in Rakhine State. Survivors live as virtual prisoners in camps or in segregated villages, subject to restrictions on travel, and, in some areas, marriage and the number of babies they can have.”

More recently, there’s been a campaign of ethnic cleansing that warrants more than a tsk-tsk from Obama. The Burmese government has decided to classify the more than 1 million Rohingya as ethnic Bengalis. That is, they want to make official their denial of the existence of Burmese Rohingya. They have used the census as the means to do so:

Almost all Rohingya were excluded from a U.N.-funded nationwide census earlier this year, the first in three decades, because they did not want to register as Bengalis. And Thein Sein is considering a “Rakhine Action Plan” that would make people who identify themselves as Rohingya not only ineligible for citizenship but candidates for detainment and possible deportation. …

Many villages were placed under lockdown, with police checkpoints set up to make sure only those who have cooperated could leave, more than a dozen residents confirmed in telephone interviews with The Associated Press.

In other villages, the names of influential residents were posted on community boards with verbal warnings that they face up to two years in jail if they fail to convince others to take part in the registration process, Lewa said. Other Rohingya say officials forced them to sign the papers at gunpoint, or threatened that they would end up in camps like those outside Sittwe if they didn’t comply, she said. In some cases residents say authorities have shown up after midnight and broken down doors to catch residents by surprise and pressure them to hand over family lists.

Meanwhile, the sanctions relief is mainly helping those in power, as the AP reports today: “The military controls the parliament and is blocking popular opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s path to the presidency. Business conglomerates linked to the old guard remain the engines of the economy and the main beneficiaries of more than $10 billion in post-junta foreign investment and aid.”

It looks as though the Obama administration got played. There’s no question conditions have improved somewhat. But the Burmese leaders, especially President Thein Sein, made a bet the international community has made before, and will again: the Obama administration and its European partners will have a far easier time reducing sanctions than reapplying them should backsliding occur. And they also know the president’s preference for photo ops and desperate diplomacy in place of the hard slog of serious progress. Obama’s visit to Burma today was a mistake; but it’s doubtful he ever seriously considered taking a stand and admitting the great Burmese opening is mostly a façade covering up monstrous crimes while the world turns its gaze.

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ObamaCare Lies and Democracy

In a video that has gone viral over the last few days, one of the principal architects of ObamaCare confessed at an academic conference that the law was drafted in such a manner as to deliberately deceive both the Congressional Budget Office and the American people. MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber tried to walk back his October 2013 remarks in a softball interview with Ronan Farrow on MSNBC this afternoon yet there’s no denying that his embarrassing moment of candor in which he said the bill passed because of a “lack of transparency” and the “stupidity of the American voter” will influence the ongoing debate about the law. But while the mainstream media has spent the years since the misnamed Affordable Care Act passed mocking its conservative opponents, this ought to be a moment when Americans take stock of the corrosive impact on our democracy of the cynicism to which the president and his congressional allies sank during the campaign for his signature health-care legislation.

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In a video that has gone viral over the last few days, one of the principal architects of ObamaCare confessed at an academic conference that the law was drafted in such a manner as to deliberately deceive both the Congressional Budget Office and the American people. MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber tried to walk back his October 2013 remarks in a softball interview with Ronan Farrow on MSNBC this afternoon yet there’s no denying that his embarrassing moment of candor in which he said the bill passed because of a “lack of transparency” and the “stupidity of the American voter” will influence the ongoing debate about the law. But while the mainstream media has spent the years since the misnamed Affordable Care Act passed mocking its conservative opponents, this ought to be a moment when Americans take stock of the corrosive impact on our democracy of the cynicism to which the president and his congressional allies sank during the campaign for his signature health-care legislation.

In a sense, Gruber’s statement doesn’t exactly break new ground. After all, if then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could say that ObamaCare had to be passed before its contents could be understood, it’s not much of a revelation if one of its designers fesses up about the deceptions involved in the project and the breathtaking cynicism of its Democratic backers. Like the president’s repeated lies about consumers being able to keep their existing health insurance and doctors if they liked them, Gruber’s confession makes it clear that deception was at the heart of the debate on a law that overturned a key sector of the American economy.

For those who haven’t yet read or seen it, here’s what Gruber said at a University of Pennsylvania conference last year:

This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure that the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) did not score the mandate as taxes. If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. Okay. So it was written to do that. In terms of risk-rated subsidies, if you had a law that said healthy people are going to pay in — if you made it explicit that healthy people pay in, sick people get money, it would not have passed. Okay.

Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically call it the stupidity of the American voter, or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical in getting the thing to pass, and, you know, it’s the second best argument. And I wish Mark was right, we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not. So there are things I’d wish I could change, but I’d rather have this law than not.

These remarks should weigh heavily on the consciences of the Obama administration and its allies who rammed it through Congress on a narrow party-line vote without knowing what was in it. Nor should it escape the notice of the Supreme Court as it weighs the arguments in King v. Burwell this session as it struggles with the question of whether the text of the law should be ignored in order to justify the administration’s efforts to roll out the health-care scheme. Liberals argue that the true intentions of the law’s authors should trump the fact that it was drafted so sloppily that it can easily be interpreted in such a way as to render the implementation of the legislation illegal. But since those who did the drafting are now being revealed as having deliberately lied about its contents, it seems quite appropriate that the Court stick to the text and the public arguments made at the time, not the secret agenda behind the law.

But leaving aside the debate about ObamaCare, Gruber’s quote and even his recent mea culpa in which he says he “spoke inappropriately” indicates that for Obama’s acolytes, winning means never having to say you’re sorry. Since they believed that this massive expansion of federal power that may wind up hurting as many people as it helps was the key goal of the administration, like Gruber, its apologists aren’t apologizing for having lied. What they regret is Gruber’s moment of weakness in which he foolishly told the truth about it.

Seen in that light, this is not so much about a gaffe as it is about the theory of politics that animates the Obama administration.

Though he came into office pledging the most transparent administration in history, what he has presided over is the one that is the most opaque, both in terms of its attitude toward the press as well as its belief that it can lie to the American people with impunity. Nations often believe that ends justify the means. Indeed, it would be impossible for wars to be fought otherwise. But however questionable such practices may be, it is one thing to rationalize wartime decisions, quite another to turn a blind eye to a philosophy that treats the American people as the enemy to be deceived.

They were not the first administration to lie to the American people about a policy question. But in passing ObamaCare, the president and his minions reached an all-time low in mendacity in order to get the desired result. Yet while some have benefited from ObamaCare, others have not. The administration and its supporters may believe all the lies are justified because of the expansion of health care to some. Yet in the coming year, as the individual mandate is implemented, more will suffer as the law wreak havoc on employment and the costs of premiums may skyrocket.

But the true legacy of ObamaCare may not just be the mess it has made of the health-care industry or the benefits some may have derived from it. It may instead mark another watershed moment in the history of American politics in which citizens came to understand that those who claim to have their best interests at heart would not scruple about lying to them about their intentions. The ends here not only did not justify the means but they also degraded American democracy in a way that we may never entirely recover from.

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How Lobbyists Reflect Countries They Support

In certain corridors of Washington, in smug discussions in university faculty lounges, and in the fevered conspiracies of the Middle East and Turkey, much is made of the “Israel lobby.” While broadly speaking, figures such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, or former diplomat Chas Freeman use the term broadly in order to suggest dual loyalty on the part of those with whom they disagree in the policy debate, more narrowly, the idea of an Israel lobby usually surrounds the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which operates under the slogan, “America’s pro-Israel lobby.”

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In certain corridors of Washington, in smug discussions in university faculty lounges, and in the fevered conspiracies of the Middle East and Turkey, much is made of the “Israel lobby.” While broadly speaking, figures such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, or former diplomat Chas Freeman use the term broadly in order to suggest dual loyalty on the part of those with whom they disagree in the policy debate, more narrowly, the idea of an Israel lobby usually surrounds the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which operates under the slogan, “America’s pro-Israel lobby.”

But AIPAC is hardly the only lobby in Washington. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), the de facto lobby of the Islamic Republic of Iran, works tirelessly to reduce sanctions and alleviate pressure on the Iranian regime. Saudi Arabia and Qatar spread money around and successfully tempt many former ambassadors with lucrative golden parachutes. Turkey supports a multitude of organizations such as the American Turkish Council or the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TUSIAD).

It is easy to demonize lobbying in Washington, but it is not simply about money: many lobbyists truly believe in the cause they espouse and argue, and they advocate for those causes just the same as a paid member of Greenpeace, the Audubon Society, or the Human Rights Campaign might. If someone believes that a strong U.S.-Israel relationship benefits American national security and reflects American values more than, say, a strong U.S.-Iranian relationship or any U.S. relationship with Hamas or Hezbollah, than it makes sense to support AIPAC. If one would rather see normalized ties between Washington and Tehran, regardless of the Islamic Republic’s ideology and sponsorship of insurgencies and militias, then it makes sense to support a group like NIAC.

What is truly interesting about these foreign-policy lobbies, however, is just how much they have come to reflect the countries with which they seek greater U.S. strategic alignment.

Take AIPAC: At present, its president is Bob Cohen, elected in 2013. Before him, it has had well over a dozen presidents and executive directors, most serving just two or three years before the membership elected a new leader. As such, AIPAC has very much reflected the democratic nature of both the United States and Israel. As in Israel and the United States, its audience actively debates issues—there is seldom an easy consensus in AIPAC circles and contrary to the caricatures put out by some in more fringe circles, AIPAC remains a big tent, with its rank-and-file actually leaning toward the liberal and progressive within the American political context.

NIAC is a different animal entirely. Since its inception more than a decade ago, it has been led by a single leader, Trita Parsi, a dual Swedish-Iranian citizen permanently residing in the United States. NIAC has no regularly scheduled elections and so Parsi seems intent to remain his organization’s leader for life. Indeed, it’s a parallel not lost on Iranian-Americans, who often mock Parsi as the “rahbar,” or supreme leader. NIAC reflects Iranian political culture in other ways as well. While AIPAC tends to ignore criticism or simply argue back, NIAC has responded to criticism with ad hominem attack or by seeking to silence those it dislikes. Hence, it sued an Iranian-American journalist for defamation, a suit it ended up losing after also being sanctioned for seeking to surreptitiously alter its record and for failing to uphold discovery orders.

NIAC also reflects the Islamic Republic’s tendency toward conspiracy theories. The group has been fundraising off a non-existent threat of war with Iran for more than a decade, often aligning with fringe groups like Code Pink, Daily Kos, the Institute for Policy Studies, and WarIsACrime.org in joint letters or actions. While Parsi tones down his public rhetoric, his private writing embraces conspiracies. Hence, his comment “It is not unusual that Israelis run their business under the safety of an American flag.” At a time when it is now agreed that Iran was working on nuclear-weapons components, Parsi sought to defend the regime, answering one person raising concerns regarding Iranian activities, “There is no proof what so ever for Iran’s nuclear ambition. the IAEA just cleared Iran’s nuclear programme for the third time this decade last week. You have been reading too much AIPAC propaganda!” And while both members and leaders of AIPAC take pride in their assimilation into the United States, Parsi denigrates those who leave the Islamic Republic’s interests behind:

Our brothers and sisters did not die for us so we could marry an American and call our child Betty-Sue or Joey, they did not die so we could speak English to our children. WE OWE IRAN OUR LIVES…. There is no substitute for Iran!

The Saudi lobby, of course, like the monarchy itself, likes to operate in the shadows. Whereas AIPAC and NIAC seek to influence ordinary constituents, hence their frequent forums in cities across the country, Saudi lobbyists concentrate on those in the White House and Congress or by seeking to buy the support of prominent universities. Saudi lobbyists would no more hold a public forum in Indianapolis than would Saudi royals hold a public forum in Dhahran: The public is something to be tolerated and imposed upon, but not engaged. Those whose influence Saudi Arabia seeks can expect beneficence beyond their wildest imagination; those who Saudi Arabia deems independent or not useful are ignored.

Turkey may once have been an aspiring democracy, but in recent years, it has become hostile to political pluralism. The Turkish embassy in the United States has moved from representing all of Turkish society to instead substituting as an office for President Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and, according to former Turkish diplomats stationed there, actively maintains a blacklist of those critical of the AKP. Such blacklisting—which has become the norm inside Turkey—extends to the Turkish lobby. Groups like the American Turkish Council understand their access depends on the AKP, and so will seek to limit their interactions to those who embrace the AKP. When they cross the line, they know Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian leaders will have no forgiveness. Hence, former Ambassador James Holmes, after long seeking to cozy up to the AKP and downplay changes inside Turkey, found himself ousted merely for the sin of including articles in a regular news roundup from a newspaper associated with groups disliked by Erdoğan. Such behavior has led to greater fracturing: just as Turkish society has divided along political and religious lines, so too have Turkey’s various lobby and business groups to the point where Turkey has dozens of lobbies, each ineffective, with only the president back in Ankara able to speak on Turkey’s behalf.

In recent years, paranoia about various foreign-policy lobbies has grown. And while pay-to-play is always wrong and should certainly be disclosed, many of the actual lobby groups for various countries do less to whitewash the nature of countries with which they wish the United States to partner, and far more to reflect those countries, whether open or closed, tolerant or intolerant, realistic or conspiratorial.

Lobbying will never go away, but let’s hope that one day all lobbies will be open, transparent, and governed democratically. That would be a sure sign that, finally, principle has triumphed over cash, and democracy really has taken root in the dark corners of the world.

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Don’t Fear Civil Society

Any Republican midterm success is going to be treated by some corners of the media, inevitably, as a version of the “angry white male” meme that is both thoroughly discredited and utterly unkillable. As Tim Cavanaugh wrote yesterday at NRO, “Ever since the late ABC anchorman Peter Jennings diagnosed Republican gains in the 1994 midterm elections with the deathless phrase ‘The voters had a temper tantrum,’ every midterm setback for a Democratic president has inspired mainstream media pros to let loose their inner Sigmund Freuds.”

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Any Republican midterm success is going to be treated by some corners of the media, inevitably, as a version of the “angry white male” meme that is both thoroughly discredited and utterly unkillable. As Tim Cavanaugh wrote yesterday at NRO, “Ever since the late ABC anchorman Peter Jennings diagnosed Republican gains in the 1994 midterm elections with the deathless phrase ‘The voters had a temper tantrum,’ every midterm setback for a Democratic president has inspired mainstream media pros to let loose their inner Sigmund Freuds.”

Cavanaugh drew attention to one response at Yahoo News that painted the electorate as “self-loathing.” Cavanaugh’s post was headlined “Goodbye, Angry White Men; Hello, ‘Self-Loathing Electorate’.” If only. Just hours after Cavanaugh inaugurated this new era, Slate’s Amanda Marcotte predictably took readers back to bad old days of hackneyed hackery with her post, “Revenge of the White Male Voter.”

Now, the days in which such an “analysis” would be taken seriously are long gone. These days it would appear there is nothing to fear from a white male voter especially if he’s Republican, since Republican voters swept into Congress minorities, women, and minority women this year. Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina became the first black senator elected in the South since Reconstruction. But whether it’s vengeful white males or a self-loathing electorate, you can be sure the media’s leftists will find any sweeping Republican victories utterly incomprehensible.

There’s one kind of analysis, however, that goes beyond the usual trite nonsense. Another narrative started taking hold on the left that the 2014 midterms prove the system itself is broken. There were a rash of such columns and blog posts before the election, when the writing was on the wall. It has not stopped, since the election turned out worse for Democrats than it seemed. And I think it’s worth drawing attention to one such critique of the American polity, which is far more advanced a thought process than sputtering rage about white men electing black women to Congress. It comes via the New York Times’s Nick Kristof. He writes:

“Politics is the noblest of professions,” President Eisenhower said in 1954, and politics in the past often seemed a bright path toward improving our country. President Clinton represented a generation that regarded politics as a tool to craft a better world, and President Obama himself mobilized young voters with his gauzy message of hope. He presented himself as the politician who could break Washington’s gridlock and get things done — and we’ve seen how well that worked.

So far so good, if a bit clichéd. I agree, and have written as much, about the nobility of politics. That has less to do with politics as a profession and more to do with the fact that democratic politics is a far healthier way for citizens to resolve political disputes than any other on offer. But still, the point stands. Kristof, unfortunately, goes further:

I’m in the middle of a book tour now, visiting universities and hearing students speak about yearning to make a difference. But they are turning not to politics as their lever but to social enterprise, to nonprofits, to advocacy, to business. They see that Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America in her dorm room at Princeton University, has had more impact on the education system than any current senator, and many have given up on political paths to change.

I have to say that I find this incredibly encouraging. I don’t want the country to abandon professional politics completely, and I don’t think that’ll happen. Instead, the best thing that could happen to American politics is the reinvigoration of the “little platoons.”

There’s a serious disconnect, most prominently on the left today, between supporting the idea of charity and supporting the true practice of it. The left tends to think in terms of collective action when that collective action is taken through the state. Liberals believe that as long as someone has a good provided for them, it doesn’t matter if it’s through private charity or the state–that in fact it might even be better if it’s done through the state because that implicates everyone else in the act and it suggests the existence of a program through which more people could obtain such goods.

It could not be further from the truth, because when the state takes on a role as the sole provider society unlearns the habits necessary for a self-governing people. Additionally, for the government to be able to afford what it should provide, we need talented young people to go into business and strengthen the private sector. I don’t know exactly what Kristof means when he says “social enterprise,” but the fact that the people he meets want to bring about societal improvement themselves rather than by electing someone else who promises to do it for them it a sign of a healthy polity.

Government shouldn’t be toxic. But neither should private enterprise be equated with cynicism. We need both undertaking their proper responsibilities. And it sounds like Kristof is meeting bright young Americans who agree.

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John Oliver and the Sum of All Liberal Fears: Local Government

The saddest trend among left-liberal political “comedians” is not that they have become a source of actual news for leftists who find the real world a scary place–though the influence of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and others is certainly disturbing. Far worse, however, is that instead of making those in power uncomfortable or seeking to overturn society’s taboos, they are merely working in the service of political correctness and the powerful federal government that seeks to regulate speech and, increasingly, thought. They are the opposite of subversive; they are court jesters.

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The saddest trend among left-liberal political “comedians” is not that they have become a source of actual news for leftists who find the real world a scary place–though the influence of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and others is certainly disturbing. Far worse, however, is that instead of making those in power uncomfortable or seeking to overturn society’s taboos, they are merely working in the service of political correctness and the powerful federal government that seeks to regulate speech and, increasingly, thought. They are the opposite of subversive; they are court jesters.

I’ve written about this in the past, specifically with regard to the Giacomo of American politics, Stephen Colbert, who will be taking his palace service to David Letterman’s soon-to-be-former perch at CBS. It’s not that Colbert’s succession there will change anything material; the point is that it won’t. But Colbert’s talent and creativity is undeniable, to me at least, and I think that’s something of a saving grace among many conservatives who will still watch him entertain the king or queen. The same cannot be said for another Daily Show alumnus, John Oliver, who now has his own show making fun of the news (read: flattering the political leanings of his audience), mostly by yelling at the screen.

Despite that, Oliver has his fans on the left, who don’t seem to notice Oliver’s, shall we say, resplendent ignorance on some of the topics he covers. But in a recent episode, Oliver revealed just how frightening the idea of American participatory democracy is to the left.

The segment was on state legislatures, and how elections for those are crucial yet overshadowed by the congressional midterms. He opened the segment with about five minutes of clips of state and local legislators doing and saying absurd things, to lay the groundwork for the argument at the center of his show: the danger of self-rule of those who don’t think like Oliver. After showing the clips, Oliver said the following:

Look, state legislatures are hilarious. There’s only one problem: increasingly, they are the places where most legislation is actually taking place.

That is a pretty succinct sum of all liberal fears. The people are hilarious–as long as they have no power. Democrats tend to feel this way about Congress too, not just local governments. But Oliver and his ilk don’t fear Congress the same way. That’s because, he continued:

So far this session, Congress has passed just 185 laws. State legislatures have passed more than 24,000.

Just 185 laws? How many new laws should the United States Congress enact per session? In any event, Oliver goes on to castigate the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a favorite bogeyman for the conspiratorial fringe of the left, which connects issue-based NGOs and private-sector groups with legislators. The left has sought to demonize and blacklist such groups, the way they have with regard to much political speech and action.

Oliver’s conspiratorial authoritarianism is perfectly calibrated to the American left today, which helps explain his success. But liberals are also allowed to participate in local government, so what scares them so much about the building blocks of participatory democracy? Via Dave Weigel, we get the answer:

Remember the number: 69. That’s how many state legislative bodies Republicans are trying to win this year, out of 99, up from the 60 they control right now. (Nebraska has a unicameral legislature, composed entirely of senators, a bit like Rome but with fewer coups.) That would give them a “state legislature supermajority,” and allow them to push through the sort of policy reforms that will be quickly gummed up in a Washington that—let’s be honest—will spend six or seven months passing bills before everyone gets excited about 2016.

“We’re on offense this year,” says Jill Bader, a spokeswoman for the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee. “We’re confident in the path not just to a supermajority, but in a more diverse group of elected Republicans.”

The RLSC groups this year’s elections in a couple of tiers. The first tier is composed of New Hampshire‘s House of Representatives, where Republicans lead the generic ballot and have been closing the gap in statewide races; Colorado‘s Senate, which was reduced to a one-seat Democratic majority by pro-gun 2013 recall campaigns against Democrats; Iowa‘s Senate, which Republicans can win with one more seat; Nevada‘s Senate, where Democrats hold a one-seat majority in a year that turnout has been suffering; West Virginia‘s House, where an easy win for the GOP’s Senate candidate may elect the four Republicans needed for a swing; and New Mexico‘s house, where Republicans need three gains, and expect to benefit from a strong win for Gov. Susana Martinez.

Well that explains it. Republicans are having a good year, and are–unlike the Democratic Party–not pretending that the president is an elected king and thus the only office that truly matters. Of course, Democrats are pursuing congressional seats as well. But that’s to block Republicans’ ability to check President Obama’s power. When Democrats held the majority in both houses of Congress in Obama’s first term, they used it to simply increase Obama’s power. Congress, for Democrats, is really about the presidency.

What about the local level? That’s where Americans can influence the way their communities are governed. Thus, the whole idea of local governance is terrifying. John Oliver has exposed a massive conspiracy at the heart of the American project: here, the people rule. And he can’t believe no one’s doing anything about it.

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Democracy in Tunisia

This was a busy weekend for elections–a presidential race in Brazil (which saw the reelection of Dilma Rousseff) and parliamentary elections in Ukraine (which saw a victory for pro-European candidates) and in Tunisia (a victory for secularists over Islamists). From the American perspective it is tempting to see this as generally good news–Rousseff may be a leftist who has presided over a slide in the Brazilian economy but she is no threat to the U.S. The victory of pro-European parliamentarians is a welcome rebuke to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to fragment Ukraine.

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This was a busy weekend for elections–a presidential race in Brazil (which saw the reelection of Dilma Rousseff) and parliamentary elections in Ukraine (which saw a victory for pro-European candidates) and in Tunisia (a victory for secularists over Islamists). From the American perspective it is tempting to see this as generally good news–Rousseff may be a leftist who has presided over a slide in the Brazilian economy but she is no threat to the U.S. The victory of pro-European parliamentarians is a welcome rebuke to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to fragment Ukraine.

And what of Tunisia? That’s where I spent the last few days serving as an election observer for the International Republican Institute, a foundation supported by the U.S. government (along with the National Democratic Institute and others) to promote democracy. I was heartened to see how free and fair Tunisia’s election was–the second held by that country since longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in 2011.

It was actually his overthrow which triggered what became the Arab Spring and which elsewhere has turned into the winter of our discontent. Tunisia, along among the states in the region, has continued to make democratic progress even though it faces big problems from a stagnant economy and a worrisome security situation–a Salafist terrorist group known as Ansar al-Sharia has been held responsible for storming the U.S. Embassy in Tunis in 2012 and assassinating a couple of leftist politicians in 2013.

From what I could tell, as I visited polling places in the northwest of the country, Tunisia’s voting was transparent and honest. The problem is that voting is only one stage toward the blooming of liberal democracy. You also need a free press, freedom of assembly, free speech, an independent judiciary, an active opposition, and a general climate of peaceful resolution of differences. Tunisia has made some progress toward the independent press, free speech, and freedom of assembly–it is now possible to vent one’s public views without fear of a visit from the secret police. But much of the old corrupt bureaucracy which once served Ben Ali remains on the job, serving as a bar to further progress and stifling economic development with its heavy-handed, French-style socialism and cronyism.

Interestingly enough, the Islamist party, known as Ennahda, is more committed to free-market reforms than the big secular bloc known as Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia), which bested it in Sunday’s voting. Ennahda shares this characteristic with the Turkish AKP party which, while Islamist, has also been more free-market oriented than most of its secular predecessors. And indeed Ennahda is trying to position itself as the “moderate” face of Islam, claiming it is committed both to Islam and to pluralistic democracy.

It tried to prove its bona fides by avoiding the kind of power grab that characterized Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. After winning power in the first post-Ben Ali election in 2011, Ennahda governed in cooperation with secular parties and gave up power altogether when it was criticized for not doing more to crack down on Salafist terrorists. But most secularists are not convinced–they think Ennahda is pursuing a policy of dissimulation and that, if granted power, it would try to create an Islamist dictatorship.

Now Ennahda won’t take power except possible as part of a ruling coalition and it will be up to Nidaa Tounes to reform a moribund bureaucracy and get the economy moving again. There is little reason to expect that Nidaa Tounes will be up to the task; its leaders appear to be united by little more than their opposition to Ennahda. Many of them have backgrounds in the Ben Ali administration, which they tout as evidence of their managerial experience–but keep in mind that it was the very stagnation of the country in those years that led to the revolution that toppled Ben Ali.

I came away from Tunisia cheered that democracy is functioning and happy that it is not leading automatically in an Islamist direction, but I also came away skeptical about the ability of Tunisia’s political class to address its deep-seated malaise. It tells you something that hope for change rests with the frontrunner for president in next month’s elections, the leader of Nidaa Tounes, Beji Caid Essebsi, who happens to be 87 years old. Can an octogenarian really shake a country out of its lethargy? We are about to find out.

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The Root of Middle East’s Economic Woes

I admit, I’m a bit late getting to this in my read pile, but Dalibor Rohac’s CATO Institute essay, “The Dead Hand of Socialism: State Ownership in the Arab World,” is a must-read for anyone who truly cares about stability in the Middle East or who goes beyond the usual “autocracy vs. theocracy” arguments in the Middle East to look at why both extremes tend to do so poorly in practice.

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I admit, I’m a bit late getting to this in my read pile, but Dalibor Rohac’s CATO Institute essay, “The Dead Hand of Socialism: State Ownership in the Arab World,” is a must-read for anyone who truly cares about stability in the Middle East or who goes beyond the usual “autocracy vs. theocracy” arguments in the Middle East to look at why both extremes tend to do so poorly in practice.

Indeed, whereas a couple decades ago, the Middle East was on par with most Asian economies and well above sub-Saharan Africa, now Arab economies trail well beyond their East Asian counterparts, and may soon find themselves in the basement as stable economic development takes root in sub-Saharan Africa, fears of Ebola in West Africa notwithstanding.

Rohac argues clearly and with much evidence that “extensive government ownership in the economy is a source of inefficiency and a barrier to economic development.” Indeed, it’s not uncommon in some Arab countries for the government to control half the GDP.

Not all Arab countries are the same, of course. As Rohac demonstrates, some countries (Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt) have undertaken large-scale and serious privatization over the last two decades while Lebanon has never had large government ownership of the economy. Government enterprise continues to dominate Algeria, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt, despite the latter’s Mubarak-era reforms. The issue isn’t simply the gas and oil industries, but also utilities, banks, and, in some cases, broader manufacturing.

Rohac goes further, however, and discusses various case studies and methods of privatization, recognizing that one size does not fit all and the devil is often in the details. Certainly, after all, part of the problem with Egypt’s privatization was that while it spurred growth, it also retrenched its kleptocracy as political and military connections trumped competence and further convinced the broader Egyptian public that government was accountable and responsible to only the few.

That said, I’d go even further than Rohac in one aspect which is crucial to opportunity and building a stable middle class beyond simply the issue of state-owned enterprises: In too many Arab countries, whether monarchies or republics and regardless of whether oil-rich or oil-poor, there are franchise and sector monopolies that discourage competition. For example, Mercedes or McDonalds or any other big-name Western company may grant contracts to partners and work exclusively with one business. While in the United States, there are dozens of franchisees for big chain restaurants and hundreds for automobile dealerships, this is a rarity in the Middle East. One person will gain the contract for “McBurger King Hut,” for example, and will never have to face competition in the country for which the license was granted. This, in turn, means that international companies most often will deal exclusively with a country’s top and most politically-connected businessmen. In Kurdistan, for example, forget working with anyone who’s not connected to the Barzani family or former President Jalal Talabani’s wife Hero Khan. And, in Bahrain, any businessman worth even a thousandth of his income will partner with an al-Khalifa. (I’ve already written about the problem of the Middle East’s first sons, here.)

For the soft drink companies, fast food joints, car manufacturers, or any large company, it’s often easier to deal with a single businessman. But so long as various country’s legislatures in the Arab world allow such concessionaire monopolies, they will be undermining the growth of their middle class and constraining opportunity which ultimately would contribute to greater stability.

Democracy needn’t be a lost cause in the Middle East. But, demanding radical political change without catalyzing growth and opening economic opportunity to grow the middle class is to repeat the mistakes of the last three years. It’s time to get serious about Arab economic reform.

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Historical Truth and the Future of Asia

Decades after the last major outpouring of support for an end to Communist oppression was crushed in the Tiananmen Square massacre, tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are attempting to keep the faltering cause of democracy alive in China. But lost amid the commentary about the world’s largest tyranny and the impotent empathy for the protesters on the part of the West is the context by which China’s democratic neighbor helps discredit the cause of liberty as well as giving the Communists ammunition to fuel nationalist sentiments that help enable them to cling to power.

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Decades after the last major outpouring of support for an end to Communist oppression was crushed in the Tiananmen Square massacre, tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are attempting to keep the faltering cause of democracy alive in China. But lost amid the commentary about the world’s largest tyranny and the impotent empathy for the protesters on the part of the West is the context by which China’s democratic neighbor helps discredit the cause of liberty as well as giving the Communists ammunition to fuel nationalist sentiments that help enable them to cling to power.

I refer to the way Japan’s current government led by Shinzo Abe has sought to revive nationalist fever by, among other things, continuing to own up to the country’s World War Two atrocities in China and throughout Asia. In recent years, this deplorable revisionism has complicated relations between Japan and Korea, which suffered under Tokyo’s brutal rule throughout the first half of the 20th century. But it has also enflamed relations between Japan and China, a regional superpower and a rising military force in the Pacific. While the barbarism practiced by the Japanese military in China curing the 1930s and 40s may seem like ancient history to Americans, it is still very much part of China’s national consciousness. And though we think of Japan as a peaceful economic partner of the United States which left its savage past behind after Hiroshima, the contrast between Germany’s honest if sometimes problematic dedication to tell the truth about the Nazis to its own people and Japan’s continuing denials still has the potential to play havoc with the politics of contemporary Asia.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Herbert P. Bix writes in today’s New York Times, the publication of an official biography of Emperor Hirohito shows that Japan is still refusing to tell the unvarnished truth about its past. The book, reportedly the work of an army of Japanese civil servants and historians who have been compiling it since Hirohito’s death in 1989, appears to stick to the old story that the emperor was a mere puppet in the hands of the country’s military. Moreover, Bix was told by a Japanese newspaper that asked him to write about an embargoed excerpt from the book that he could not comment about the emperor’s “role and responsibility” in the war.

Ironically, as Bix notes, the U.S. was complicit in this cover up for its own reasons. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, it served the cause of the American occupation to connive in the myth that the emperor was innocent of any part in his country’s aggression and the atrocities it committed in the name of its imperial ambition. The agreement to let the emperor remain in place helped smooth the transformation of Japan from a militarized authoritarian state to a pacifist democracy.

But though the myth of the helpless emperor was useful, it was always a lie. As Bix and other historians have demonstrated, far from the puppet depicted in most postwar analyses of Japan’s actions, Hirohito was a dynamic and powerful leader. Indeed, the transformation of the country’s government from one in which the emperor truly was a figurehead into a system in which he exercised direct power was the engine that drove Japan’s 19th century modernization. What historians call the Meiji Restoration—after Hirohito’s grandfather who took back power from the shoguns that had ruled Japan for centuries—was also directly linked to an expansionist spirit that led to war with first China, then Tsarist Russia, and ultimately to the Nazi-like aggression that led it to occupy most of China and to embark on a disastrous and bloody war with the United States.

The decision by General Douglas MacArthur and the Truman administration to give Hirohito a pass was also rooted in a lack of information about how Japan’s imperial system worked. Even during the war when anti-Japanese sentiment was its height, Americans focused their animus on General Hideki Tojo, the country’s prime minister from 1941 to 1944 rather than the emperor who had authorized the aggression carried out in his name. Tojo and other Japanese leaders were rightly held accountable in the Pacific version of the Nuremberg tribunals but they went to their deserved deaths knowing that doing so helped save the emperor from having to account for his own role in their crimes. But it also facilitated the creation of a mindset by which the Japanese seemed to think their part in World War Two was confined to having the first atomic bombs dropped on their cities and having to put up with an American occupation.

Why does this matter? As Bix points out, Japan’s determination to avoid telling the truth makes its neighbors suspicious of any effort to revise the postwar “peace constitution” imposed on the country by the United States. Bix wrongly denounces America’s justified concerns about China’s troubling drive to become a global military power and the need for Japan to assume some responsibility for protecting itself. But he’s right that the rest of Asia, including U.S. allies like Korea and the Philippines will never trust Japan until it owns up to its past.

If Japan wants to return to the world stage it will have to stop lying about Hirohito and the atrocities committed in his name in the last century. Just as important, Tokyo’s obsession with ignoring or covering up its history helps China’s contemporary tyrants whip up nationalism that can be used to suppress any hope of democracy.

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Hong Kong and the Dream of Chinese Democracy

Call me naïve, but I’m a sucker for pro-democracy demonstrations against dictators. Admittedly, whether in Tiananmen Square or Tahrir Square, they don’t always work out well. But there is something thrilling about tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to demand the basic rights that most of us in the West have come to take for granted–knowing, all the while, that there is a real possibility of bloodshed on the part of a brutal regime bent on protecting itself at any cost.

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Call me naïve, but I’m a sucker for pro-democracy demonstrations against dictators. Admittedly, whether in Tiananmen Square or Tahrir Square, they don’t always work out well. But there is something thrilling about tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to demand the basic rights that most of us in the West have come to take for granted–knowing, all the while, that there is a real possibility of bloodshed on the part of a brutal regime bent on protecting itself at any cost.

These thoughts are prompted, of course, by images of all the people who have been occupying the streets of central Hong Kong for three days now to demand direct election of their chief executive without limiting candidates to a list vetted and approved by the Communist Party leadership in Beijing. Police fired tear gas at the demonstrators on Sunday, but that did not disperse them. Now the security forces have backed off to ponder their next move.

From Beijing’s perspective this is a no-win situation. If they send the troops out to clear the streets by force, they will risk international opprobrium–and, perhaps more significant, delay for another generation any hope that Taiwan will agree to voluntarily become part of the People’s Republic of China. After all Beijing’s key selling point to Taipei is that it could enjoy the “one country, two systems” model implemented in Hong Kong after the British left in 1997. If Chinese forces carry out a slaughter in the streets of Hong Kong that message will be exposed as hollow. If, on the other hand, the government caves in to the demonstrators’ demands it could expose Beijing to more demands for democracy from dissatisfied people on the mainland.

There is not much the U.S. can do to affect the situation one way or the other beyond showing clearly where our sympathies lie. There is no doubt a debate going on in the administration as I write this between the usual, predictable parties–the realists who say we have to accommodate ourselves to Beijing at any cost and the human-rights advocates who believe we have to stand up forcibly for the rights of people in Hong Kong and elsewhere around the world.

The Realpolitikers have a better case when they argue for overlooking human-rights violations among our allies–countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia whose strategic support we need and where the alternative to an illiberal but pro-American monarchy could well be an Islamist dictatorship that is anti-American. But such considerations should not restrain us from pushing for democracy in countries such as Iran and China and Russia that are most decidedly not our allies–that are, in fact, either rivals or outright enemies.

China is in the midst of a massive defense buildup designed to dominate East Asia while pushing U.S. power out of the region. It is undertaking aggressive maneuvers with its navy against U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines. It is mounting nonstop cyber attacks on U.S. computer networks. It supports rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran. And it works hand in glove with Russia to block international action in such countries as Syria. True, China also trades with the U.S. and holds a lot of our debt, but it is hardly our friend: At best it is a rival with whom we can do business but only warily.

In short, we should not be constrained by fears of alienating China from speaking out forcefully about its human-rights violations. The U.S. should champion the cause of Chinese democracy by every means available, much as we once worked by peaceful means to undermine the Soviet bloc. The Hong Kong demonstrations are a sign that Chinese people also want freedom–that even in the most prosperous city in China the people are not willing to trade away their “inalienable rights” for big cars and fancy apartments and the latest in high-tech electronics.

The people of Hong Kong are risking their lives for freedom. We should do what we can–and admittedly it’s not much–to stand with them.

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China’s New Era of Disobedience?

A quarter-century ago, thousands of Chinese students occupied the heart of Beijing, in Tiananmen Square, hoping to push the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) toward democracy. They were crushed, literally, by a government unwilling to surrender any of its political control. The twenty-five years since that 1989 massacre have seen China become perhaps the world’s second-most powerful nation, yet one that is just as politically and socially repressive, if not more so.

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A quarter-century ago, thousands of Chinese students occupied the heart of Beijing, in Tiananmen Square, hoping to push the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) toward democracy. They were crushed, literally, by a government unwilling to surrender any of its political control. The twenty-five years since that 1989 massacre have seen China become perhaps the world’s second-most powerful nation, yet one that is just as politically and socially repressive, if not more so.

While those young students in Tiananmen Square were attempting to create new freedoms for themselves, today’s protests in Hong Kong, by equally young students, are aimed at ensuring that the island does not lose any more of its freedoms. In that sense, they may well be more passionate and potentially explosive.

The immediate cause of the demonstrations being called the “umbrella revolution” was Beijing’s decision not to allow free elections in 2017 for Hong Kong’s chief executive, per the 1984 joint declaration agreement with Great Britain that set the guidelines for post-colonial Hong Kong. Instead, Beijing will allow only a handful of pre-approved candidates on the ballots. Hong Kongers rightly assume this is just the beginning of a broader move to restrict their freedoms, including an independent judiciary and press.

Yet Hong Kong should not be seen in isolation from China’s broader crackdown on any potential liberalization or separatism in areas it controls or hopes to control. As I wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal, Beijing is comfortable risking greater blowback to try and stamp out even moderate voices, such as Uighur academic Ilham Tohti, who was given a life sentence for criticizing the government. China’s military and police presence has been strengthened in both Xinjiang and Tibet in recent years, and there has been no reduction in the military threat to Taiwan. Even smaller issues, such as occupied Indian territory or territorial disputes in the South China Sea, have seen Beijing’s position harden and its military activities increase.

These are worrisome signs that President Xi Jinping, who is just 18 months into a decade-long rule, is comfortable flexing Chinese muscle, intimidating his neighbors, and cracking down on domestic unrest. Whether out of confidence or fear, Beijing is adopting a far more antagonistic attitude that makes it ever harder for it to back down.

That is why what happens now in Hong Kong is so important. If a tiny island of 7 million people can successfully oppose Beijing’s will, then the gates will be opened to the dissatisfied in Xinjiang and Tibet, on Taiwan, and possibly even on the mainland. This is something that Beijing cannot allow. Yet should the People’s Liberation Army move out of their Hong Kong barracks to support the territory’s police, or other pressure be put on the island’s government to suppress the demonstrators, then the fiction of Hong Kong independence and of China’s essentially benign nature will be exploded.

Sadly, such brutality did not prevent China from scaling even greater heights 25 years ago after Tiananmen, but today such an outcome it will mean either a China of far greater strength and influence, or an Asia of greater instability and possibly conflict, or possibly both.

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Palestinian Elections Postponed, Obviously

As a rule, Palestinians don’t tend to do democracy. The last time there was a proper parliamentary election was in 2006. That one had been essentially foisted upon them by the United States, but Hamas topped the polls and most people have regretted it ever since. There should have been another in 2009, but it was simply never held and few seemed greatly troubled by this fact.

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As a rule, Palestinians don’t tend to do democracy. The last time there was a proper parliamentary election was in 2006. That one had been essentially foisted upon them by the United States, but Hamas topped the polls and most people have regretted it ever since. There should have been another in 2009, but it was simply never held and few seemed greatly troubled by this fact.

Similarly, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has managed to spin his four-year term into almost a decade as the head of the Palestinian Authority. When Abbas sabotaged the peace negotiations with Israel in May and instead signed a unity deal with the terrorists of Hamas, it was announced that Palestinian elections would be held within six months. European governments applauded. They welcomed the Palestinian return to democracy. But now, quite predictably, we hear that elections have been “postponed” once again.

This time the reason given is the aftermath of Hamas’s war with Israel. The PA prime minister Rami Hamdallah has claimed that rebuilding in Gaza is more of a priority than elections right now and that the war has made voting unpractical. This of course is nonsense. If elections could be held in the most war-torn parts of Iraq and Afghanistan then there is no material reason why they couldn’t be held in Gaza and in the West Bank.

A far more practical reason for why free and fair elections can’t be held in Gaza right now has nothing to do with the fact that parts of it are in ruins, and far more to do with the fact that it is run by Hamas. Of course the terror group’s left-wing apologists never tire of telling anyone who will listen that Hamas are the democratically elected government of Gaza. The fact that once Hamas took power they then promptly executed large numbers of their political opponents never seems to register with these people. And just like Abbas in the West Bank, Hamas has failed to ever hold any elections since.

Indeed, Abbas’s own record is little better than that of Hamas’s. At one point reports of how Hamas supporters in the West Bank were being imprisoned and tortured were common. Gradually, however, Fatah’s power in much of the West Bank has weakened. More recently in cities such as Nablus, Hebron, and Jenin PA security forces have seemingly abandoned their efforts to suppress Islamist groups such as Hamas and others.

This is the real reason that it was always impossible to imagine the Palestinian Authority giving the green light for another election. Back in 2006 Abbas’s Fatah had been assured that they would win. They are not about to make the same mistake again. Indeed, in the wake of Hamas’s recent war with Israel, the Islamists are boasting the kind of approval rating that Abbas could only dream of. Recent polling has shown that even In the West Bank, some 66 percent of Palestinians would vote for Hamas if elections were held today.

And so elections won’t be held today, or any time soon for that matter. Supposedly they are being put off until sometime next year. Of course, by then there will be a new reason not to hold elections. But the important thing for Abbas is that he is maintaining the veneer of democracy. It’s an act that only fools those who wish to be fooled by it. But for those in the Obama administration and the European Union who insist that Abbas is legitimate and that Israel and the world must treat him as such, these pretentions toward democracy are very convenient. In reality, however, Abbas is a despot.

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Can Turkey Hijack the Internet?

Turkey continues its march toward authoritarianism unabated. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made clear that not only does he want to become president, but should he assume that office—and there is every reason to suspect he will given both the blind support Turkish Islamists give him and the power over the bureaucracy which he can wield to change the results of close elections—he will not act aloof from politics as the constitution demands, but rather will wield his power to privilege his supporters and punish those who oppose him.

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Turkey continues its march toward authoritarianism unabated. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made clear that not only does he want to become president, but should he assume that office—and there is every reason to suspect he will given both the blind support Turkish Islamists give him and the power over the bureaucracy which he can wield to change the results of close elections—he will not act aloof from politics as the constitution demands, but rather will wield his power to privilege his supporters and punish those who oppose him.

Indeed, Erdoğan is not shy about using whatever power he can accumulate, whether it is constitutional or not. Visiting Istanbul and Ankara late last month, businessmen to a man (or woman) said that should they become involved in politics either directly or by funding a party or cause which contravenes Erdoğan’s vision, they can expect ruinous tax audits and judgments designed to dissuade and ruin. At the height of his purge of the military, one-in-five Turkish generals was in prison, never mind that the supposed evidence against them was blatantly fraudulent. Erdoğan and his then-allies in the Gülen movement controlled security forces and heavily influenced the judiciary—and so simply were not going to allow rule of law to get in the way of his agenda.

The prime minister has reserved special animus toward the free press. Turkey now ranks below Russia in terms of free press and is on a trajectory to fall below even the Islamic Republic of Iran. So much for the model of democracy to which President Obama, and former secretaries of state Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell once referred. Erdoğan is smart: while he has come down like a ton of bricks on journalists and editors who have dared criticize him or give voice to his opponents, journalists who tow Erdoğan’s line find themselves recipients of millions of dollars in largesse. Some have been so bold as to buy fancy villas alongside the Bosporus when just a few years ago, they were unknown and their journalism job would not suffice to pay the real estate bill. One veteran journalist estimated that only five percent of Turkish journalists working today can be considered professional or ethical in their work.

Erdoğan has previously lashed out at social media and Twitter. As is so often the case with Turkey, real repression follows months after the headline-grabbing bloviating when the international media moves on. Erdoğan, however, doesn’t forget. According to Turkish Internet and privacy experts, it seems that the Turkish government is taking Internet surveillance and censorship to a new level:

Due to legal obstacles to prohibiting social-media sharing by political dissidents in Turkey, the government has a new strategy: to act as Internet pirates… Turkey will now try to hack into ISPs’ systems and surveil users’ browsing/sharing habits. With this aim, recently the Internet watchdog sent a “secret orders” memo to ISPs, to prepare the software infrastructure necessary for detecting users that share unwanted content on social-media platforms. The daily Taraf’s article by Tunca Öğreten reveals the government’s plans to intervene in Internet users’ privacy and basic freedoms yet again.The method for intervening between the user agreement which secures the user’s privacy regarding the service s/he signs up for is to hack into the HTTPS protocol and surveil user habits. The government’s request from ISSs to establish a bug that will work as spyware is planned to enable browsing all users’ behavior and data without their consent. This includes not only the content of social media updates a person shares but also the e-trade flow and all related data; and the system is planned to be open for immediate interventions.

The whole article is worth reading as the Turkish government increases its machinery of repression. And the response from Washington? Crickets.

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Turkey’s Last Chance?

Turks will go to the polls on August 10 to elect a new president, the first time that office will be filled by direct election. This weekend, incumbent Abdullah Gül, a Justice and Development Party (AKP) acolyte, has announced he will step down and the AKP will determine its nominee on July 1. The party’s nominee will likely be Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist, corrupt, and increasingly authoritarian prime minister.

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Turks will go to the polls on August 10 to elect a new president, the first time that office will be filled by direct election. This weekend, incumbent Abdullah Gül, a Justice and Development Party (AKP) acolyte, has announced he will step down and the AKP will determine its nominee on July 1. The party’s nominee will likely be Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist, corrupt, and increasingly authoritarian prime minister.

Rather than roll over and accept Turkey’s slide into autocracy or kleptocracy without a fight, the center-left Republican Peoples Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) have nominated a joint candidate, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Turkish history reflects the significance of such a choice: For decades, the CHP and MHP were at each other’s’ throats. Gangs affiliated with each targeted supporters of the other. The heightened political polarization in Washington today is nothing compared to what the CHP and MHP wrought. What happened in Turkey is as if Valerie Jarrett and Karl Rove suddenly decided to mount a joint candidate against a greater threat.

I spent the last week in Turkey, talking to several CHP and MHP officials as well as contacts who aren’t involved in politics about the İhsanoğlu choice and Turkey’s way forward. Admittedly, many CHP and MHP members are uneasy: İhsanoğlu’s credentials are primarily because of his Islamic scholarship. While members bend over backwards to say he is not an Islamist, he is far different from the typical CHP and MHP candidate, and their respective bases suggest as much. Some outside the parties suggest that the choice of İhsanoğlu effectively acknowledges the end of secularism in Turkey, although party leaders hotly deny this.

What there does appear to be consensus about, though, is that an Erdoğan presidency will permanently end the Republic of Turkey as anyone knows it. Erdoğan is increasingly blunt in his desire to remake Turkey and Turkish society, hence his declaration that “We will raise a religious generation.” Some politicians even suggest Erdoğan sees himself more as a caliph responsive to the Islamic umma (community) rather than simply a leader for Turks. The autocracy under which Turkey now suffers was reflected in the debate about which “Medvedev” might succeed Erdoğan as prime minister.

If Erdoğan wins the presidency—either in the first round on August 10 or, if he receives less than 50 percent, in the second round on August 24—then Turks believe he will increasingly rule as a dictator, remaking the once more ceremonial presidency even as his old party withers under his thumb or falls apart. Indeed, given accusations that the AKP has fiddled with ballot boxes, some Turkish politicians suggested that Erdoğan would automatically gain a fraud bonus of perhaps five percent, which the opposition will have to overcome.

Under Erdoğan, Turkey has shifted its diplomatic posture away from Europe and toward the Middle East. Rather than even align with the more secular dictators of the Middle East, Erdoğan has aligned instead with religious radicals, whether in Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood, or Hamas. Elections matter. But after 12 years of electoral wins, the August polls might mean the end of meaningful elections in Turkey, for an Erdoğan victory would likely mean years more of using the institutions of state to attack anyone in politics, business, or society who dares to stand in his way.

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Hillary’s Flawed Hindsight on Mubarak

Hillary Clinton is dealing with the challenge of running for president while the failed foreign policy of the administration she served–as its chief diplomat, no less–is ongoing. But at least that gives her the opportunity to respond to events as they happen. Her memoir, by contrast, required her to record her pronouncements on events and hope they aren’t made irrelevant (or can be updated for the paperback edition).

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Hillary Clinton is dealing with the challenge of running for president while the failed foreign policy of the administration she served–as its chief diplomat, no less–is ongoing. But at least that gives her the opportunity to respond to events as they happen. Her memoir, by contrast, required her to record her pronouncements on events and hope they aren’t made irrelevant (or can be updated for the paperback edition).

This has made her book, according to pretty much every reviewer in the world, painfully, almost abusively boring. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting tidbits. One that has not received much attention is her discussion in the book of her disagreement with President Obama over how to handle Tahrir Square. When the crowds became impossible to ignore, the president called for Hosni Mubarak to step down. It put Obama on the side of the people in the streets instead of the ruthless dictator oppressing them–a lesson Obama may have learned from his experience turning his back on the Iranian people in 2009.

But it put him at odds with some in his own administration, Clinton among them. The former secretary of state portrays her side of the equation as realist, Obama’s as idealist, and claims Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Bob Gates, and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon shared her concerns. She was, she said, “concerned that we not be seen as pushing a longtime partner out the door, leaving Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the region to an uncertain, dangerous future.”

Clinton then writes what may look in hindsight like prescience, but that view is flawed:

Historically, transitions from dictatorship to democracy are fraught with challenges and can easily go terribly wrong. In Iran in 1979, for example, extremists hijacked the broad-based popular revolution against the Shah and established a brutal theocracy. If something similar happened in Egypt, it would be a catastrophe, for the people of Egypt as well as for Israeli and U.S. interests.

Despite the size of the protests in Tahrir Square, they were largely leaderless, driven by social media and word of mouth rather than a coherent opposition movement. After years of one-party rule, Egypt’s protesters were ill prepared to contest open elections or build credible democratic institutions. By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood, an eighty-year-old Islamist organization, was well positioned to fill a vacuum if the regime fell. Mubarak had driven the Brotherhood underground, but it had followers all over the country and a tightly organized power structure. The group had renounced violence and made some efforts to appear more moderate. But it was impossible to know how it would behave and what would happen if it gained control.

In fact we really did know how the Brotherhood would behave in power, but that should only strengthen Hillary’s perceived caution here. She recommended the president send an envoy to Mubarak with a few concessions: “an end to the country’s repressive emergency law that had been in effect since 1981, a pledge not to run in the elections already planned for September, and an agreement not to put forward his son Gamal as his successor.” None of this would have placated the opposition, but it didn’t matter: the envoy presented the proposal, and Mubarak wasn’t even listening. “Like so many autocrats before him,” Clinton writes of Mubarak, “he had come to view himself as inseparable from the state.”

And that is why Clinton’s proposal to keep Mubarak in place and buy time would have been doomed as well. Her assessment of the political organization of the Muslim Brotherhood is correct, but she’s wrong to think a minor delay in Mubarak’s ouster would have made a difference.

Political liberalism needs its own institutions to flourish. Egypt didn’t have the civil society infrastructure for democracy, and it would have taken years to build even a rudimentary foundation. That’s why Clinton’s own administration dropped the ball on Egypt and the Arab world in part by cutting funding for democracy promotion and civil society groups there. And it’s a mistake the Obama administration is intent on repeating. As Jamie Dettmer reports, Obama is not only seeking further cuts in democracy programs, but wants to remove important safeguards for civil society programs that it will fund. “This is turning the clock back to when the State Department would avoid funding civil society groups blacklisted by their governments,” the director of one D.C.-based nonprofit told Dettmer.

As Elliott Abrams wrote in this magazine in 2012, “I well remember a leading Egyptian liberal saying to me in 2003 that she did not favor free elections right then in Egypt; she favored them in a decade’s time if she and others had those 10 years to organize freely.” A free election right away meant a victory for either the Brotherhood or the regime. Which is what Hillary feared, and what happened.

But the real solution would have been to use America’s leverage over the army–the Egyptian army, remember, abandoned Mubarak when the time came–to open up the political system, gradually if necessary, to the liberals. It was already de facto open to Islamist organizing, which took place in the mosques.

Even if Mubarak announced some reforms to Tahrir Square, would they have believed him? He had liberalized, albeit only slightly, in the past only to tighten his grip again when the Americans’ backs were turned. The Mubarak regime was a recipe for perpetual oppression and was responsible, like it or not, for the simultaneous strengthening of the Brotherhood.

The “stability” mirage, for which Hillary argued, fooled a lot people–maybe even most. But it has now been exposed as the mirage it was. The administration’s policy needn’t have propped up an aging dictator for a few more months, it only needed to stop abandoning Egypt’s true democrats.

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Race, Reparations, and the Idea of America

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover essay making the case for reparations has something for everyone to like and to dislike, because a wise and serious depiction of the subject–which Coates provides–scrambles ideological predispositions. Conservatives will be hesitant toward this essay because they are generally accused of racial animus at the drop of a hat. But conservatives should give the essay a chance, not only because of the parts they will agree with but because of the parts of the essay that challenge them.

Conservatives who decry the corrosive power of welfare-state institutions to insinuate poisonous effects into the fibers of family and community are often right, but they tend to forget how much more poisonous, yet less visible, are the generational effects of slavery and Jim Crow. A good explanation of this comes from the political scientists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in their bestseller Why Nations Fail. In a chapter on the “vicious circle” of extractive institutions, they write that the South’s economic doldrums caused by its reliance on slavery should have been shaken off after abolition. Instead:

A continuation of extractive institutions, this time of the Jim Crow kind rather than of slavery, emerged in the South. … These persisted for almost another century, until yet another major upheaval, the civil rights movement. In the meantime, blacks continued to be excluded from power and repressed. Plantation-type agriculture based on low-wage, poorly educated labor persisted, and southern incomes fell further relative to the U.S. average. The vicious circle of extractive institutions was stronger than many had expected at the time.

Political and economic institutions must be reformed and rerouted, not just declared over, if they are to be undone. Slavery was obviously a system that needed to be undone, and it was–but the broader economic framework of exploitation and aristocratic elitism in the South was not. Conservatives are right to want a political system that doesn’t play favorites at all. But they’re wrong to think that such a system is all that’s needed to erase the stain of Jim Crow.

However, in the course of arguing for reparations (and its attendant “national reckoning”) Coates makes an extremely important point about black poverty:

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Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover essay making the case for reparations has something for everyone to like and to dislike, because a wise and serious depiction of the subject–which Coates provides–scrambles ideological predispositions. Conservatives will be hesitant toward this essay because they are generally accused of racial animus at the drop of a hat. But conservatives should give the essay a chance, not only because of the parts they will agree with but because of the parts of the essay that challenge them.

Conservatives who decry the corrosive power of welfare-state institutions to insinuate poisonous effects into the fibers of family and community are often right, but they tend to forget how much more poisonous, yet less visible, are the generational effects of slavery and Jim Crow. A good explanation of this comes from the political scientists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in their bestseller Why Nations Fail. In a chapter on the “vicious circle” of extractive institutions, they write that the South’s economic doldrums caused by its reliance on slavery should have been shaken off after abolition. Instead:

A continuation of extractive institutions, this time of the Jim Crow kind rather than of slavery, emerged in the South. … These persisted for almost another century, until yet another major upheaval, the civil rights movement. In the meantime, blacks continued to be excluded from power and repressed. Plantation-type agriculture based on low-wage, poorly educated labor persisted, and southern incomes fell further relative to the U.S. average. The vicious circle of extractive institutions was stronger than many had expected at the time.

Political and economic institutions must be reformed and rerouted, not just declared over, if they are to be undone. Slavery was obviously a system that needed to be undone, and it was–but the broader economic framework of exploitation and aristocratic elitism in the South was not. Conservatives are right to want a political system that doesn’t play favorites at all. But they’re wrong to think that such a system is all that’s needed to erase the stain of Jim Crow.

However, in the course of arguing for reparations (and its attendant “national reckoning”) Coates makes an extremely important point about black poverty:

Liberals today mostly view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality. They ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success—and the elevation of that punishment, in the mid-20th century, to federal policy. President Lyndon Johnson may have noted in his historic civil-rights speech at Howard University in 1965 that “Negro poverty is not white poverty.” But his advisers and their successors were, and still are, loath to craft any policy that recognizes the difference.

It may not be intended as such, but this is, in reality, a stern rebuke to the leftist tendency to hijack the black struggle and tether African Americans to their preferred policy aims. The left does this with regard to women and other minorities as well–the old joke about the New York Times reporting the apocalypse: World Ends, Women and Minorities Hardest Hit. But the struggle of African Americans was and is different; the left’s insistence that the issue of the day–climate change, inequality, environmental regulations–can or should be reduced to a “black issue” is precisely the act of ignoring African Americans’ history in the service of white liberals’ power.

Coates’s essay also highlights the tendency of well-intentioned liberal initiatives that end up exacerbating black economic dislocation and discrimination instead of alleviating it. For example, Coates discusses residential segregation, redlining, block busting, federally blessed “restrictive covenants,” and other methods of housing discrimination whose effects are still felt especially in or near major cities. This made them particularly vulnerable to predatory lending and the housing bubble. Here’s Coates:

Plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient. The banks of America understood this. In 2005, Wells Fargo promoted a series of Wealth Building Strategies seminars. Dubbing itself “the nation’s leading originator of home loans to ethnic minority customers,” the bank enrolled black public figures in an ostensible effort to educate blacks on building “generational wealth.” But the “wealth building” seminars were a front for wealth theft. In 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness. This was not magic or coincidence or misfortune. It was racism reifying itself.

The government’s involvement in efforts to sell mortgages to uncreditworthy black potential homeowners in such areas was supposed to be the antidote to redlining, a major historical correction. But in many cases lenders were pressured by the government to ignore the creditworthiness of minority applicants, and the result is something like: Housing Bubble Ends, Minorities Hardest Hit.

Aside from a cautionary tale about government intervention in the marketplace, this geographic isolation would also seem to argue for ways not only to help improve minority neighborhoods but also to get kids from those neighborhoods into better schools. The current government monopoly on such education, supported by the unions and Democrats at the highest levels including President Obama, guarantees the promulgation of an effective segregation and the breathing of life into a particularly insidious legacy of the Jim Crow era that the Great Migration could have, but did not, undo.

And that brings us back to the issue of reparations (to close the “wealth gap,” as Coates says) and the reason Coates wants to have this “national reckoning.” He writes:

A nation outlives its generations…. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.

Should the slaveholding of the Founders be as relevant as their political ideas in understanding the founding philosophical underpinnings of our nation’s identity? Coates seems to think so; later he writes that “white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it,” adding: “And so we must imagine a new country.”

Which opinions of the Founders must we carry as an addendum to the Constitution? Slavery was a violation of our founding principles. But the case for abolition was not just a moral one; it was also an economic one. This is what Acemoglu and Robinson show, and it’s what the historian David Brion Davis notes in his latest book, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation. He writes of Connecticut abolitionist Leonard Bacon’s argument that slavery was a long-term strain on the American economy:

Even apart from the desire for racial homogeneity, most American commentators shared this republican conviction that slavery subverted the nation’s prospects for balanced economic growth and prosperity, at least in the longer term.

Bacon wasn’t claiming that the institution of slavery didn’t provide economic benefits to those who practiced it, of course. But he, like many of his age, understood slavery as a betrayal of the American system, not just a moral failing. It was a bug, not a feature.

So yes, a tremendous amount of wealth was built up in America from the subjugation and plunder of black slaves. But to argue that the American identity and the country’s conception of self is not separate at all from its history, to argue that the idea of America is inseparable from the idea of racism and oppression, requires its own selective reading of America’s past and produces a false rendering of the American project.

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The EU as America Inverted

Malcolm Lowe has written a highly engaging opinion piece for the Gatestone Institute explaining how the project of the European Union has attempted to replicate American-style federalism, and has ultimately been failing in these efforts. Of course no small part of this has to do with the fact that, as diverse as the fifty states of the American union may well be, the nations of Europe are radically more diverse. Out of that diversity a reactionary nationalism is being sustained, one that refuses to be quelled by the post-nationalist European project. Still, Lowe explains how many of the EU’s failings in its attempt to duplicate the U.S. stem from structural and organizational problems. The EU’s democracy deficit is just one very striking way in which European federalists have failed to live up to the standard set by their American counterparts.

On further reflection, however, the lack of democracy witnessed in the EU is not merely consequential. Rather, the favoring of bureaucracy over democracy stems from a core ideological difference. Whereas America was a nation founded around a positive ideal of the liberty of the individual, the EU has arisen as a response to a perceived problem, and in that sense has a negative starting point. For European federalists the problem is believed to be that of nations and the wars they engage in; hence the EU’s genesis in the 1950s as the European Coal and Steel Community—the point being that the very materials necessary for warfare would be confiscated and held collectively.

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Malcolm Lowe has written a highly engaging opinion piece for the Gatestone Institute explaining how the project of the European Union has attempted to replicate American-style federalism, and has ultimately been failing in these efforts. Of course no small part of this has to do with the fact that, as diverse as the fifty states of the American union may well be, the nations of Europe are radically more diverse. Out of that diversity a reactionary nationalism is being sustained, one that refuses to be quelled by the post-nationalist European project. Still, Lowe explains how many of the EU’s failings in its attempt to duplicate the U.S. stem from structural and organizational problems. The EU’s democracy deficit is just one very striking way in which European federalists have failed to live up to the standard set by their American counterparts.

On further reflection, however, the lack of democracy witnessed in the EU is not merely consequential. Rather, the favoring of bureaucracy over democracy stems from a core ideological difference. Whereas America was a nation founded around a positive ideal of the liberty of the individual, the EU has arisen as a response to a perceived problem, and in that sense has a negative starting point. For European federalists the problem is believed to be that of nations and the wars they engage in; hence the EU’s genesis in the 1950s as the European Coal and Steel Community—the point being that the very materials necessary for warfare would be confiscated and held collectively.

Initially, the emphasis on free trade alienated much of the left from the European project. Yet, as the anti-nationalist elements of this project gradually became more pronounced, the left would become the primary advocate for a federal Europe. Indeed, several key figures from the radical student movement of the ’60s and ’70s—such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit—would later assume important positions in driving the European project forward. And so the vast bureaucracy of the EU would soon enough become a tool by which progressives could advance their agenda. The proposed EU constitution of 2004 sought to regulate just about every conceivable area of life for Europeans. In this way the project had become utopian on two accounts; first in its promise to end war and the resentments of national rivalry so as to usher in a kind of universal brotherhood of man, and secondly by regulating daily life in accordance with more “enlightened” principles.

Whereas the structure of government in the U.S. seeks to protect against tyranny by investing legislative powers at the state level, the EU seeks to drain away the power of the elected parliaments of the various European states, accumulating it in the hands of a centralized bureaucracy that believes it knows how to use this power for a higher good. This is just one of many observable differences. While America has consistently sought to bolster its national identity around a set of values and the American way of life, the EU shuns the notion of national identity, and its president Herman Van Rompuy has spoken gushingly of the prospect of world government. Nor does the EU share the American emphasis on freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Censorship of that which is deemed politically incorrect is now the norm in Europe and the EU could be said to be at best ambivalent about religion.  

The anti-Americanism that is prevalent among parts of European society not only rejects much of American culture—dismissing it as crass materialism—but it clarifies around a rejection of American foreign policy. This is not simply driven by the usual leftist hostility to militarism or Western interventionism, but more fundamentally it stems from ideas about the end of history and how the world should be run. Rejecting the notion of great power politics, or the idea that there might be a good side and a bad side in a conflict, the European federalists are not merely post-nationalists, but rather they are such because they are also post-history. For the EU federalists, history is not still being made, the end point is clear, it now only has to be universally formalized.

Malcolm Lowe’s piece makes some very interesting points. But it would be mistaken to think that European federalists tried to recreate America and have simply gotten stuck halfway. What they have been trying to create is an alternative to the United States; an anti-America. 

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Israeli Apartheid? To Arabs, It’s a Model Democracy

Yesterday, I wrote about a crucial legal fallacy behind the “Israeli apartheid” canard. But you don’t actually need to know anything about the Geneva Convention or international law to know how ridiculous this slur is; it’s enough to ask yourself one simple question: How many black Africans in other countries spoke admiringly about South African apartheid as a model they’d like their own countries to follow? The answer, of course, is not many–and if Israel really practiced apartheid against Arabs, Middle Eastern Arabs would respond similarly to an equivalent question about Israel. Yet in fact, Arabs throughout the Middle East persistently cite Israeli democracy as the model they’d like their own countries to adopt.

Back in 2011, when the Arab Spring revolutions were at their height, Haaretz correspondent Anshel Pfeffer reported being stunned to hear from demonstrators in both Tunis and Cairo–neither of whom knew he represented an Israeli newspaper–that they wanted “a democracy like in Israel.” Just two weeks ago, the Middle East Media Research Institute published excerpts from articles in the Arab press over the last year that held up Israel as a model Arab states should learn from–in some cases, because of its economic, scientific, and democratic achievements, but in others, because of its democracy and even its morality.

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Yesterday, I wrote about a crucial legal fallacy behind the “Israeli apartheid” canard. But you don’t actually need to know anything about the Geneva Convention or international law to know how ridiculous this slur is; it’s enough to ask yourself one simple question: How many black Africans in other countries spoke admiringly about South African apartheid as a model they’d like their own countries to follow? The answer, of course, is not many–and if Israel really practiced apartheid against Arabs, Middle Eastern Arabs would respond similarly to an equivalent question about Israel. Yet in fact, Arabs throughout the Middle East persistently cite Israeli democracy as the model they’d like their own countries to adopt.

Back in 2011, when the Arab Spring revolutions were at their height, Haaretz correspondent Anshel Pfeffer reported being stunned to hear from demonstrators in both Tunis and Cairo–neither of whom knew he represented an Israeli newspaper–that they wanted “a democracy like in Israel.” Just two weeks ago, the Middle East Media Research Institute published excerpts from articles in the Arab press over the last year that held up Israel as a model Arab states should learn from–in some cases, because of its economic, scientific, and democratic achievements, but in others, because of its democracy and even its morality.

Even the Palestinians themselves consistently voice admiration for Israeli democracy. From 1996-2002 (the last year the question was asked), Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki conducted annual polls of what governments Palestinians admired. “Every year Israel has been the top performer, at times receiving more than 80 percent approval,” the New York Times reported in 2003. “The American system has been the next best, followed by the French and then, distantly trailing, the Jordanian and Egyptian.” And that’s not because those years, in contrast to today, were a time of progress and optimism in the peace process: They were the years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s first government (1996-99), the collapse of the Camp David talks (2000) and the height of the second intifada (2000-03).

What’s truly astonishing about this admiration is that the Arab media is virulently anti-Israel, and routinely reports the wildest anti-Israel fabrications as fact. Hence most Arabs believe Israeli treatment of both Palestinians and Israeli Arabs to be much worse than the reality–and even so, they admire Israeli democracy.

As Pfeffer perceptively noted back in 2011, this is an ironic side effect of the Arab media’s obsession with Israel. Because Israel receives so much more coverage than other Western countries, Arabs end up seeing more of Israeli democracy in action than they do of other Western democracies: a president convicted of rape and a prime minister of corruption; hundreds of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets (in the social justice protests of summer 2011) without suffering any violence from the police or military; a robustly free press in both Hebrew and Arabic; even the fact that Israeli hospitals offer first-class medical treatment to all, Jews and Arabs alike. And the Arabs like what they see.

So next time someone tells you Israel is an “apartheid state,” try asking them why Arabs throughout the region–unlike blacks in the days of South African apartheid–view the “apartheid state” as a model democracy to be emulated. You won’t convince the diehard anti-Israel crowd. But you might provide food for thought to the merely uninformed.

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The Greatest Name Associated with the Cause of Popular Government

I first learned about Lord Charnwood’s 1916 masterpiece Abraham Lincoln while recently reading a book by the constitutional scholar Walter Berns. (Berns called it “the best of the Lincoln biographies.”) Then, early this year, the essayist Joseph Epstein wrote a review of it for the Wall Street Journal, calling it the best book about Lincoln ever written. And in a wonderful essay in National Affairs, Professor Diana Schaub refers to Lord Charnwood as Lincoln’s greatest biographer. 

Those are three enthusiastic endorsements by three estimable sources. Having now read the book, I can report to you that it is as good as advertised: beautifully written, filled with piercing insights into Lincoln’s character and his political philosophy, and concisely capturing the situation and various actors in America before and during the Civil War.  

“Salmon P. Chase must have really been a good man before he fell in love with his own goodness,” we read. Horace Greeley was “too opinionated to be quite honest.” And about John C. Calhoun, Lord Charnwood writes this: “His intellect must have been powerful enough, but it was that of a man who delights in arguing, and delights in elaborate deductions from principles which he is too proud to revise; a man, too, who is fearless in accepting conclusions which startle or repel the vulgar mind; who is undisturbed in his logical processes by good sense, healthy sentiment, or any vigorous appetite for truth. Such men have disciples who reap the disgrace which their masters are apt to somehow avoid; they give the prestige of wisdom and high thought to causes which could not otherwise earn them.” 

For our purposes, though, I want to focus on some particular aspects of Lincoln that were brought to life by Lord Charnwood and which we moderns can learn plenty from.   

Lord Charnwood, who was born during the Civil War, says this about Lincoln:

For perhaps not many conquerors, and certainly few successful statesmen, have escaped the tendency of power to harden or at least to narrow their human sympathies; but in this man a natural wealth of tender compassion became richer and more tender while in the stress of deadly conflict he developed an astounding strength. 

In his review Mr. Epstein built on this theme. “He prosecuted a war in which 1/32nd of the nation’s population was killed without ever showing hatred for the other side,” he wrote. “It was not men but slavery he hated… Malice wasn’t available to Lincoln; mercy came naturally to him. His magnanimity in forgiveness was another sign of his superiority.”

There are many reasons Lincoln holds a special place in our public life and historical memory, but this quality of both mercy and strength ranks high among them. Lincoln combined a ferocious will to win the war with restraint in victory. He fully understood the moral stakes involved in the Civil War even as he resisted the temptation to treat Southerners as lacking in any human dignity or human worth.

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I first learned about Lord Charnwood’s 1916 masterpiece Abraham Lincoln while recently reading a book by the constitutional scholar Walter Berns. (Berns called it “the best of the Lincoln biographies.”) Then, early this year, the essayist Joseph Epstein wrote a review of it for the Wall Street Journal, calling it the best book about Lincoln ever written. And in a wonderful essay in National Affairs, Professor Diana Schaub refers to Lord Charnwood as Lincoln’s greatest biographer. 

Those are three enthusiastic endorsements by three estimable sources. Having now read the book, I can report to you that it is as good as advertised: beautifully written, filled with piercing insights into Lincoln’s character and his political philosophy, and concisely capturing the situation and various actors in America before and during the Civil War.  

“Salmon P. Chase must have really been a good man before he fell in love with his own goodness,” we read. Horace Greeley was “too opinionated to be quite honest.” And about John C. Calhoun, Lord Charnwood writes this: “His intellect must have been powerful enough, but it was that of a man who delights in arguing, and delights in elaborate deductions from principles which he is too proud to revise; a man, too, who is fearless in accepting conclusions which startle or repel the vulgar mind; who is undisturbed in his logical processes by good sense, healthy sentiment, or any vigorous appetite for truth. Such men have disciples who reap the disgrace which their masters are apt to somehow avoid; they give the prestige of wisdom and high thought to causes which could not otherwise earn them.” 

For our purposes, though, I want to focus on some particular aspects of Lincoln that were brought to life by Lord Charnwood and which we moderns can learn plenty from.   

Lord Charnwood, who was born during the Civil War, says this about Lincoln:

For perhaps not many conquerors, and certainly few successful statesmen, have escaped the tendency of power to harden or at least to narrow their human sympathies; but in this man a natural wealth of tender compassion became richer and more tender while in the stress of deadly conflict he developed an astounding strength. 

In his review Mr. Epstein built on this theme. “He prosecuted a war in which 1/32nd of the nation’s population was killed without ever showing hatred for the other side,” he wrote. “It was not men but slavery he hated… Malice wasn’t available to Lincoln; mercy came naturally to him. His magnanimity in forgiveness was another sign of his superiority.”

There are many reasons Lincoln holds a special place in our public life and historical memory, but this quality of both mercy and strength ranks high among them. Lincoln combined a ferocious will to win the war with restraint in victory. He fully understood the moral stakes involved in the Civil War even as he resisted the temptation to treat Southerners as lacking in any human dignity or human worth.

There is something hopeful in seeing a great leader, having prevailed in a great struggle, show humanity and eschew casual cruelty; who was willing to concede that his side was not perfect and the other side was not unmitigated evil. Who else but Lincoln could say at the beginning of the war, “We are not enemies, but friends”–and by the end could say, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the wounds…”? And how much we could use those sensibilities in our time, when such grace and largeness of spirit are in such short supply, including among those who claim Lincoln as their role model. 

One other thing. Lord Charnwood writes, “His own intense experience of the weakness of democracy did not sour him, nor would any similar experience of later times have been likely to do so.”

Abraham Lincoln lived in a much more riven and difficult time than ours, yet he refused to give up on his belief that politics could right certain wrongs. He didn’t withdraw from public life. He didn’t become consumed by hatred or cynicism. Neither should we.

“Beyond his own country,” Lord Charnwood wrote, “some of us recall his name as the greatest among those associated with the cause of popular government.”

It was true then; it remains true today.

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Turkey to Take Press Crackdown to New Level?

When diplomats once called Turkey a model, they meant as a majority Muslim state that embraced democracy. Here is Hillary Clinton, for example, finding the same sort of hope in Turkey’s Islamist regime she once saw in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Bush administration, for its part, wasn’t any better, with the likes of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and even the president himself diminishing democracy by placing the adjective Islamic in front of it. That has nothing to do with the term Islamic; putting any modifier in front of democracy—Christian, Jewish, socialist, revolutionary, or any other adjective—necessarily constrains the democracy itself.

Alas, all the blind rhetoric of Turkey’s democracy on the part of American politicians—and here a special spotlight should be on the members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus—simply gave Turkey cover to continue its crackdown.

Turkey has, accordingly, plummeted in press freedom. But simply confiscating opponents’ newspapers is no longer enough for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Putin. As protestors rallied against him, he condemned and even banned Twitter. YouTube remains censored despite a court order. Earlier this weekend, Lütfi Elvan, Turkey’s minister of communications, proposed removing Turkey from the world wide web, and replacing the “www” with a “ttt,” in effect, a Turkish intranet. Even though his statement was made before numerous journalists, the Turkish government is now walking back the proposal. Still, Elvan’s sin appears to be in the timing of his comments rather than in their content. Make no mistake: Even considering such a ludicrous plan puts Turkey firmly in a club dominated by the likes of Iran, China, and North Korea.

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When diplomats once called Turkey a model, they meant as a majority Muslim state that embraced democracy. Here is Hillary Clinton, for example, finding the same sort of hope in Turkey’s Islamist regime she once saw in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Bush administration, for its part, wasn’t any better, with the likes of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and even the president himself diminishing democracy by placing the adjective Islamic in front of it. That has nothing to do with the term Islamic; putting any modifier in front of democracy—Christian, Jewish, socialist, revolutionary, or any other adjective—necessarily constrains the democracy itself.

Alas, all the blind rhetoric of Turkey’s democracy on the part of American politicians—and here a special spotlight should be on the members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus—simply gave Turkey cover to continue its crackdown.

Turkey has, accordingly, plummeted in press freedom. But simply confiscating opponents’ newspapers is no longer enough for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Putin. As protestors rallied against him, he condemned and even banned Twitter. YouTube remains censored despite a court order. Earlier this weekend, Lütfi Elvan, Turkey’s minister of communications, proposed removing Turkey from the world wide web, and replacing the “www” with a “ttt,” in effect, a Turkish intranet. Even though his statement was made before numerous journalists, the Turkish government is now walking back the proposal. Still, Elvan’s sin appears to be in the timing of his comments rather than in their content. Make no mistake: Even considering such a ludicrous plan puts Turkey firmly in a club dominated by the likes of Iran, China, and North Korea.

Erdoğan’s record reinforces the fact that Turkey belongs nowhere near Europe. Liberal Turks will never again be in the majority in their country, and Erdoğan believes that so long as his Anatolian constituency blindly supports him, he can be the sultan in reality that he always was in spirit. Turks and Kurds deserve better, but until and unless they stand up more forcefully for their rights or until Turkey fractures–which, with current demographic trends and the Kurdish national resurgence Turkey eventually will–liberal Turks will never again know freedom in their own country.

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