Commentary Magazine


Topic: Europe

It’s Paul Krugman on Line Two, Calling With More Free Advice

At the London Review of Books, of all places, Christian Lorentzen has a less-than-admiring portrait of Paul Krugman, who was in London in May plugging his latest book. Krugman went on the BBC’s “Hardtalk” to take questions from journalist Sarah Montague:

A strange theatre ensues whenever Krugman is engaged by a journalist rather than a peer with similar expertise or a politician with actual if undeserved authority. The journalist reminds him of the people who’ve dismissed his ideas and he just shakes his head and says these Very Serious People are wrong. When the journalist goes the other way and flatters him, his ego creeps out:

Montague: If you were advising the Greek government now, what would you say to them?

Krugman: Ah well, you know, I’ve actually had conversations, not with them, but you know, with European politicians.

Montague: With whom?

Krugman: Um, I can’t tell you that.

Montague: But has there been a European government that’s asked for your advice?

Krugman: No, no, I’ve just had conversations.

His face takes on a pained expression, he stammers, puts his finger to his cheek, and for a moment shuts his eyes. You get the sense he’s thinking, why am I not in charge? There’s something sad about the spectacle.

It is, as James Taranto might say, the sad spectacle of a former Enron adviser.

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At the London Review of Books, of all places, Christian Lorentzen has a less-than-admiring portrait of Paul Krugman, who was in London in May plugging his latest book. Krugman went on the BBC’s “Hardtalk” to take questions from journalist Sarah Montague:

A strange theatre ensues whenever Krugman is engaged by a journalist rather than a peer with similar expertise or a politician with actual if undeserved authority. The journalist reminds him of the people who’ve dismissed his ideas and he just shakes his head and says these Very Serious People are wrong. When the journalist goes the other way and flatters him, his ego creeps out:

Montague: If you were advising the Greek government now, what would you say to them?

Krugman: Ah well, you know, I’ve actually had conversations, not with them, but you know, with European politicians.

Montague: With whom?

Krugman: Um, I can’t tell you that.

Montague: But has there been a European government that’s asked for your advice?

Krugman: No, no, I’ve just had conversations.

His face takes on a pained expression, he stammers, puts his finger to his cheek, and for a moment shuts his eyes. You get the sense he’s thinking, why am I not in charge? There’s something sad about the spectacle.

It is, as James Taranto might say, the sad spectacle of a former Enron adviser.

Krugman went on another show to argue against Jon Moulton, chairman of Better Capital, and Andrea Leadsom, a Tory MP and former banker. Lorentzen recounts the following exchange:

“I find his view reckless, frankly,” Leadsom said, “I can’t believe that somebody as incredibly highly regarded as you could honestly think that the answer is to go and borrow more money.” Krugman told her she was confusing an economy with a household.

Late yesterday afternoon, Krugman posted a mini-classic of Krugmanesque analysis on his New York Times blog. It seems “totally obvious to me,” he wrote, that economists and Fed officials are making erroneous assumptions “without realizing it.” They’re making “exactly the same mistake” he demonstrated in 1998 with a chart. We should “pursue unconventional policies on a sufficient scale,” by which I think he means going out and borrowing a lot more money: totally obvious to him.

Back in Europe, a lot of countries are learning that the comparison of a country’s budget to that of a household is not quite as irrelevant as Krugman suggested. In fact, for some of them, the analogy may now be totally obvious.

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Entitlements Swallowing Up Federal Budget

The news today has been all health care, all the time. And understandably so. But amid the laser-like focus on the Supreme Court ruling  upholding President Obama’s new health care system, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Health care is merely the latest in a long line of social welfare expenditures, going all the way back to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which have swallowed up an ever-growing share of the federal budget—and the national economy.

As this useful Heritage Foundation chart shows, entitlement spending first exceeded defense spending in 1976. Ever since, the trend has been getting more lopsided with entitlements taking up ever more of the economy and defense ever less. That gap has become especially pronounced since President Obama took office in 2009. The percentage of GDP going to the federal government grew from 20.7 percent in 2008 to 25.1 percent in 2011 before dipping slightly to 23.2 percent this year. Meanwhile, the state governments are taking another 15 percent, which means that as a total share of the economy the government is now consuming roughly 40 percent, and of that, less than five percent is going to the military.

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The news today has been all health care, all the time. And understandably so. But amid the laser-like focus on the Supreme Court ruling  upholding President Obama’s new health care system, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Health care is merely the latest in a long line of social welfare expenditures, going all the way back to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which have swallowed up an ever-growing share of the federal budget—and the national economy.

As this useful Heritage Foundation chart shows, entitlement spending first exceeded defense spending in 1976. Ever since, the trend has been getting more lopsided with entitlements taking up ever more of the economy and defense ever less. That gap has become especially pronounced since President Obama took office in 2009. The percentage of GDP going to the federal government grew from 20.7 percent in 2008 to 25.1 percent in 2011 before dipping slightly to 23.2 percent this year. Meanwhile, the state governments are taking another 15 percent, which means that as a total share of the economy the government is now consuming roughly 40 percent, and of that, less than five percent is going to the military.

We are, in short, becoming more like Europe—and not just because it’s now possible to get tasty croissants and frothy cappuccinos on this side of the Atlantic. In Europe, governments now consume more than 50 percent of GDP. Hence, it is no surprise that few European states are spending even as much as two percent of GDP on defense—the baseline established by NATO for its member states. The Europeans simply can’t afford to spend more on defense without cutting back social welfare programs, which the political class cannot do because it sparks riots in the streets.

This is where we are currently heading—and if ObamaCare survives political as well as legal challenges, with its estimated cost of more than a trillion dollars, we will arrive at this destination all the more quickly. We will simply not be able to pay for our defense as we have been doing. And that will be a calamity. The Europeans could afford to stint on their defense because we protect them. But who will protect us?

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The Dismal May Employment Figures

Only 69,000 jobs were created in May, the worst number in a year, and far below what economists had been expecting (the consensus forecast was for about 150,000 new jobs). Meanwhile, the unemployment rate ticked up to 8.2 percent from 8.1. That’s the first actual increase in unemployment in 11 months. Stock market futures, already considerably down, plunged further with the news. Gold ticked up, and the ten-year bond fell to a record low of 1.46 percent (i.e., lend the federal government $1,000 and they will pay you a snappy $14.60 in interest per year).

The recovery, mediocre at best, has now appeared to stall, especially with jobs numbers for March and April revised downward (April’s were cut from 115,000 to 77,000, March’s from 154,000 to 143,000.) Europe’s numbers were even more dismal, with euro-zone unemployment now at 11 percent, the worst since the number was first calculated in 1995.

With Europe teetering on the edge of a financial meltdown, the head of the European Central Bank is telling political leaders to do something and do it now:

In a warning to political leaders, Mr. Draghi told members of the European Parliament on Thursday that the central bank is reaching the limits of its powers and now it is up to politicians to move quickly and decisively because the survival of the euro, the Continent’s common currency, is at stake. The structure of the currency union, he said, had become “unsustainable unless further steps are undertaken.”

These numbers are a disaster for the Obama re-election campaign. Indeed, unless they improve and improve soon, and unless European leaders take Lady Macbeth’s advice and screw their courage to the sticking place—not something for which European leaders have been noted of late—a year from now a Romney administration may be talking about the difficulty of dealing with the mess they inherited.

Only 69,000 jobs were created in May, the worst number in a year, and far below what economists had been expecting (the consensus forecast was for about 150,000 new jobs). Meanwhile, the unemployment rate ticked up to 8.2 percent from 8.1. That’s the first actual increase in unemployment in 11 months. Stock market futures, already considerably down, plunged further with the news. Gold ticked up, and the ten-year bond fell to a record low of 1.46 percent (i.e., lend the federal government $1,000 and they will pay you a snappy $14.60 in interest per year).

The recovery, mediocre at best, has now appeared to stall, especially with jobs numbers for March and April revised downward (April’s were cut from 115,000 to 77,000, March’s from 154,000 to 143,000.) Europe’s numbers were even more dismal, with euro-zone unemployment now at 11 percent, the worst since the number was first calculated in 1995.

With Europe teetering on the edge of a financial meltdown, the head of the European Central Bank is telling political leaders to do something and do it now:

In a warning to political leaders, Mr. Draghi told members of the European Parliament on Thursday that the central bank is reaching the limits of its powers and now it is up to politicians to move quickly and decisively because the survival of the euro, the Continent’s common currency, is at stake. The structure of the currency union, he said, had become “unsustainable unless further steps are undertaken.”

These numbers are a disaster for the Obama re-election campaign. Indeed, unless they improve and improve soon, and unless European leaders take Lady Macbeth’s advice and screw their courage to the sticking place—not something for which European leaders have been noted of late—a year from now a Romney administration may be talking about the difficulty of dealing with the mess they inherited.

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Freedom in Post-Democratic Europe

If America must shoulder the burden of global security because others will not or cannot, America also shoulders the burden of a global idealism always present, if dormant, that is now–20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union–again rearing its head on a massive scale throughout the Arab world (and in Iran and to some extent, Russia). Today, Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt wonders aloud why President Obama has remained so dismissive toward the outward expression of freedom for its own sake. Hiatt guesses that it’s a kind of post-nationalism:

But his stance also reflects his own brand of idealism, which values international law and alliances more than the promotion of freedom. The democrats’ uprising in Iran threatened his hopes of negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran’s rulers. Aid to Syria’s democrats requires approval from the UN Security Council, which is unattainable without Russian and Chinese acquiescence.

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If America must shoulder the burden of global security because others will not or cannot, America also shoulders the burden of a global idealism always present, if dormant, that is now–20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union–again rearing its head on a massive scale throughout the Arab world (and in Iran and to some extent, Russia). Today, Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt wonders aloud why President Obama has remained so dismissive toward the outward expression of freedom for its own sake. Hiatt guesses that it’s a kind of post-nationalism:

But his stance also reflects his own brand of idealism, which values international law and alliances more than the promotion of freedom. The democrats’ uprising in Iran threatened his hopes of negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran’s rulers. Aid to Syria’s democrats requires approval from the UN Security Council, which is unattainable without Russian and Chinese acquiescence.

Hiatt thinks Obama sorely and mistakenly undervalues the practical uses of the so-called freedom agenda, to the detriment of his own stated policy goals. But there is another relevant facet to this debate. The trend in the rest of the West, notably Europe, is away from democracy. Who, then, will proclaim the virtues of freedom and self-rule if we don’t? The answer is: no one.

Daniel Hannan, writing in the magazine Standpoint, noted that the European Union is, on its face, manifestly undemocratic, as more and more of the continent’s policy is made by unelected committees, whose members are appointed by other unelected committees, in Brussels. The euro is the symbol of this union, and the union’s most powerful and influential state (though we have now begun using the term “state” loosely), within and probably without, is Germany. So what happens when you ask the most obvious question to the most relevant official? When you ask German Chancellor Angela Merkel why the euro should not be dissolved, what does she say? Hannan quotes her response:

Nobody should take for granted another 50 years of peace and prosperity in Europe, and that’s why I say, if the euro fails, Europe fails. We have a historical obligation: to protect by all means Europe’s unification process begun by our forefathers after centuries of hatred and bloodshed.

Hannan adds: “Put in those terms, of course, the issue is literally beyond argument. If you oppose the euro, Mrs Merkel suggests, you’re in favour of war.” Eurocrats are shown the door when they even glance at the hoi polloi. Hannan notes what happened when Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou proposed a referendum on the bailout package offered his country by Europe. Less than a week later, Papandreou had been forced out of office. Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier and no euroskeptic himself, expressed his ambivalence toward his country staying in the euro. At an EU summit, an official boasted they were about to be rid of Berlusconi. That was a promise, not a threat; five days later the deed was done.

Hannan then upends the conventional wisdom of the European Union:

People sometimes talk of the EU’s democratic deficit as if it were accidental. In fact, it is essential to the whole design. Having lived through the 1920s and 1930s, the founders had little faith in democracy — especially the plebiscitary democracy which they saw as a prelude to demagoguery and fascism. They were therefore unapologetic about vesting supreme power in the hands of appointed commissioners who were to be invulnerable to public opinion. They were disarmingly honest, too, about the fact that their dream of common European statehood would never be realised if successive transfers of power to Brussels had to be approved by the national electorates.

The euro was the culmination of their scheme.

The democracy deficit–in this case forcing the single-currency suicide pact on disapproving commoners–has led to increasing actual deficits. Those financial debts, in turn, have a corrosive effect on freedom abroad. For example, as Justin Vaïsse wrote in February, European governments promised “money, markets access, mobility” to emerging Arab states, especially Tunisia and Libya, during the Arab Spring. But the debt crisis at home resulted in modest, and disappointing, results–just as those countries needed it the most.

But more than cash, and certainly more than immigration opportunities, the awakening human spirit needs an atlas of ideas. Those North African countries may look across the Mediterranean and wonder what all the fuss is about. Where will the inspiration come from? Not Europe, which sticks its fingers in its ears when it hears the noise of the people. And certainly not the leader of the pack–Germany–slow to act against Iranian bank interests and offering diplomatic support to Vladimir Putin, a fraud and a thug who requests, and receives, Germany’s acquiescence in preventing the further enlargement of NATO, whose raison d’être is explicitly tied to promoting and protecting democracy.

No doubt Hiatt’s column will be derided by those on the left who delight in sounding the alarm of a creeping conservatism on the Post’s editorial page (if only!), and by those enlightened observers who scoff at the caveman barbarism of nationalism and identity. But if Europe’s leaders are indeed ready to put their experiment in democracy behind them, there will be one nation, and one office, left to carry the banner. As president of the United States, this is Barack Obama’s mission, whether or not he chooses to accept it.

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Afghanistan Exposes Old vs. New Europe

When, against the context of the Iraq war, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke of the differences between Old Europe (our traditional Cold War allies) and New Europe (states freed from the yoke of communist dictatorship), diplomats and the foreign policy elite castigated him. Diplomacy, after all, downplays the importance of reality, and seeks instead to paper over differences.

I just returned from Iasi, Romania, where I had the privilege to teach a few classes for the Romanian Land Forces’ 15th Mechanized Brigade, as they prepare to depart for Afghanistan. The Romanians are not partners in name only: They have actively taken part in the fighting, have contributed Special Forces, and have taken a number of casualties across multiple rotations. In addition, the Romanians jumped on the opportunity to cooperate in missile defense, and the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base near the Black Sea town of Constanta plays an increasingly important logistics role for the United States Air Force.

Because of flight schedules, I had to stay in London for a night on my way home, and cooling my heels at the airport hotel, I got an overdose of British media. While I was there and on European time, I also had an opportunity to do an interview on the Afghanistan situation for a French station.

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When, against the context of the Iraq war, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke of the differences between Old Europe (our traditional Cold War allies) and New Europe (states freed from the yoke of communist dictatorship), diplomats and the foreign policy elite castigated him. Diplomacy, after all, downplays the importance of reality, and seeks instead to paper over differences.

I just returned from Iasi, Romania, where I had the privilege to teach a few classes for the Romanian Land Forces’ 15th Mechanized Brigade, as they prepare to depart for Afghanistan. The Romanians are not partners in name only: They have actively taken part in the fighting, have contributed Special Forces, and have taken a number of casualties across multiple rotations. In addition, the Romanians jumped on the opportunity to cooperate in missile defense, and the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base near the Black Sea town of Constanta plays an increasingly important logistics role for the United States Air Force.

Because of flight schedules, I had to stay in London for a night on my way home, and cooling my heels at the airport hotel, I got an overdose of British media. While I was there and on European time, I also had an opportunity to do an interview on the Afghanistan situation for a French station.

The juxtaposition between Old Europe and New Europe was palpable. British and French journalists seemed infused with defeatism and cynicism with regard to Afghanistan, and did not bother to disguise willingness to condemn others to totalitarian subjugation. The Romanians, however, understood that ideologies can kill and that passivity in the face of evil can condemn generations to slavery.

Alas, it seems that many in the White House are almost embarrassed by the enthusiasm with which countries that either suffered under dictatorship or face a looming threat embrace liberty. The Obama administration has, at various times, thrown Poland, the Czech Republic, and Georgia under the bus. Beyond the frontiers of Europe, add Taiwan, South Korea, Honduras, Colombia and Israel to the list.

Realists seek to base partnerships on short-term calculations of national interest. The truest friends, however, are those who embrace liberty as their guiding principle. How tragic it is that these natural allies increasingly doubt the commitment of the United States to them, even as they bend over backwards to become the flag-bearers of that for which the United States has traditionally stood.

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Moynihan on Democracy

Yesterday I quoted Ronald Reagan on the central role freedom and human rights should play in American foreign policy. Today I want to follow up with a quote from the man Michael Barone called “the nation’s best thinker among politicians since Lincoln and its best politician among thinkers since Jefferson.”

Writing in the May 1974 issue of COMMENTARY (subscription required), Daniel Patrick Moynihan said this:

There will be no struggle for personal liberty (or national independence or national survival) anywhere in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America which will not affect American politics. In that circumstance, I would argue that there is only one course likely to make the internal strains of consequent conflict endurable, and that is for the United States deliberately and consistently to bring its influence to bear on behalf of those regimes which promise the largest degree of personal and national liberty. …. We stand for liberty, for the expansion of liberty. Anything else risks the contraction of liberty: our own included.

Moynihan went on to warn about those “who know too much to believe anything in particular and opt instead for accommodations of reasonableness and urbanity that drain our world position of moral purpose.”

I certainly didn’t agree with Moynihan on everything — but whenever I read him, even when I disagree with him, I’m reminded just how much we miss him.

Yesterday I quoted Ronald Reagan on the central role freedom and human rights should play in American foreign policy. Today I want to follow up with a quote from the man Michael Barone called “the nation’s best thinker among politicians since Lincoln and its best politician among thinkers since Jefferson.”

Writing in the May 1974 issue of COMMENTARY (subscription required), Daniel Patrick Moynihan said this:

There will be no struggle for personal liberty (or national independence or national survival) anywhere in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America which will not affect American politics. In that circumstance, I would argue that there is only one course likely to make the internal strains of consequent conflict endurable, and that is for the United States deliberately and consistently to bring its influence to bear on behalf of those regimes which promise the largest degree of personal and national liberty. …. We stand for liberty, for the expansion of liberty. Anything else risks the contraction of liberty: our own included.

Moynihan went on to warn about those “who know too much to believe anything in particular and opt instead for accommodations of reasonableness and urbanity that drain our world position of moral purpose.”

I certainly didn’t agree with Moynihan on everything — but whenever I read him, even when I disagree with him, I’m reminded just how much we miss him.

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In Egypt, We Cannot Afford to Repeat Past Mistakes

I fully understand the dangers of what is happening in Egypt. I am as apprehensive as anyone about the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood exploiting current events to gain power. I am fully aware of how Hosni Mubarak has been a useful ally in many ways. Yet, when I watch pro-government thugs attacking peaceful protesters, I am rooting wholeheartedly for the protesters and against the thugs. I imagine most Americans are, indeed most people around the world — a few Realpolitikers excepted.

The attacks in downtown Cairo, which have left many bleeding and some no doubt dead, are the dying gasp of a discredited regime. This is no Tiananmen Square — this is not the army being unleashed to use decisive force to crush the demonstrations. Instead, it is a motley collection of thugs and mercenaries: many no doubt secret policemen or other government functionaries, others rented for the day for a few bucks. The army’s role seems to be limited to that of a bystander, which is alarming in and of itself. Previously, the army had appeared to be on the side of the people. Now, following Mubarak’s announcement that he would not seek re-election in September — an announcement that did not preclude a Mubarak crony like Omar Suleiman or even the dictator’s son Gamal from running in a rigged vote — the army appears to be up for grabs. Earlier today an army spokesman called on the demonstrators to disperse, but troops are not enforcing that edict. No doubt the army generals are sniffing the wind to figure out which way to go now. Just as clearly, the people of Egypt are demanding an end to the Mubarak regime — now, not in the fall.

The United States, a nation born in a liberal revolution, has no choice but to stand with the people. In many ways, this is a continuation of the same battle fought in the streets of Europe in 1848 and 1989: the quest of a people yearning for freedom against the representatives of a corrupt and entrenched ruling oligarchy. America’s role, as the champion of liberty, should be to usher Mubarak out of power as quickly and painlessly as possible in order to avert further bloodshed and to make it harder for malign elements to take advantage of the disorder for their own nefarious purposes. We did not do enough to aid democrats in Russia in 1917 or in Iran in 1979; in both cases, we stuck with a discredited ancien regime until it was too late and reacted too slowly to revolutionary upheavals. Let us not repeat that mistake in Egypt.

I fully understand the dangers of what is happening in Egypt. I am as apprehensive as anyone about the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood exploiting current events to gain power. I am fully aware of how Hosni Mubarak has been a useful ally in many ways. Yet, when I watch pro-government thugs attacking peaceful protesters, I am rooting wholeheartedly for the protesters and against the thugs. I imagine most Americans are, indeed most people around the world — a few Realpolitikers excepted.

The attacks in downtown Cairo, which have left many bleeding and some no doubt dead, are the dying gasp of a discredited regime. This is no Tiananmen Square — this is not the army being unleashed to use decisive force to crush the demonstrations. Instead, it is a motley collection of thugs and mercenaries: many no doubt secret policemen or other government functionaries, others rented for the day for a few bucks. The army’s role seems to be limited to that of a bystander, which is alarming in and of itself. Previously, the army had appeared to be on the side of the people. Now, following Mubarak’s announcement that he would not seek re-election in September — an announcement that did not preclude a Mubarak crony like Omar Suleiman or even the dictator’s son Gamal from running in a rigged vote — the army appears to be up for grabs. Earlier today an army spokesman called on the demonstrators to disperse, but troops are not enforcing that edict. No doubt the army generals are sniffing the wind to figure out which way to go now. Just as clearly, the people of Egypt are demanding an end to the Mubarak regime — now, not in the fall.

The United States, a nation born in a liberal revolution, has no choice but to stand with the people. In many ways, this is a continuation of the same battle fought in the streets of Europe in 1848 and 1989: the quest of a people yearning for freedom against the representatives of a corrupt and entrenched ruling oligarchy. America’s role, as the champion of liberty, should be to usher Mubarak out of power as quickly and painlessly as possible in order to avert further bloodshed and to make it harder for malign elements to take advantage of the disorder for their own nefarious purposes. We did not do enough to aid democrats in Russia in 1917 or in Iran in 1979; in both cases, we stuck with a discredited ancien regime until it was too late and reacted too slowly to revolutionary upheavals. Let us not repeat that mistake in Egypt.

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The Good Old Days? No Thanks.

Two weeks ago, I posted about a chart that plotted fertility against life expectancy over the past 50 years. It showed how the former dropped sharply in most countries as the latter increased, one reason why the “population explosion” that was supposed to turn the world into Bangladesh isn’t going to happen.

Here’s another animated chart. This one plots life expectancy against per capita income over the past 200 years for 200 countries around the world. In 1810, the whole world was poor and died young. Life, in Thomas Hobbes’s famous phrase, was “nasty, brutish, and short.” Even Britain, the richest country in the world at the time, was, by modern standards, very poor.

But over the past 200 years, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, which greatly accelerated the rate of economic growth, the world has gotten much richer, and that wealth has spread across the socioeconomic spectrum. Thanks to vastly improved public health and medical technology — funded by the new wealth — life expectancy has greatly increased. At first, these trends were confined to the West. But especially in the past 50 years, they have spread to more and more countries, and the percentage of people still living Hobbesian lives has greatly declined.

The phrase “the good old days” was coined in the 1840s, just as the Industrial Revolution was kicking into high gear, and the remembered past, at least for the elderly, began to differ markedly from the present for the first time in human history. The great New York diarist Philip Hone, then in his 60s, wrote in 1844 that “this world is going too fast. Improvements, politics, reform, religion — all fly. Railroads, steamers, packets, race against time and beat it hollow. Flying is dangerous. By and by we shall have balloons and pass over to Europe between sun and sun. Oh, for the good old days of heavy post-coaches and speed at the rate of six miles an hour!”

As the chart shows, the change that Hone felt threatened by has been overwhelmingly for the good for nearly everyone. The good old days he nostalgically looked back on were not so good.

Two weeks ago, I posted about a chart that plotted fertility against life expectancy over the past 50 years. It showed how the former dropped sharply in most countries as the latter increased, one reason why the “population explosion” that was supposed to turn the world into Bangladesh isn’t going to happen.

Here’s another animated chart. This one plots life expectancy against per capita income over the past 200 years for 200 countries around the world. In 1810, the whole world was poor and died young. Life, in Thomas Hobbes’s famous phrase, was “nasty, brutish, and short.” Even Britain, the richest country in the world at the time, was, by modern standards, very poor.

But over the past 200 years, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, which greatly accelerated the rate of economic growth, the world has gotten much richer, and that wealth has spread across the socioeconomic spectrum. Thanks to vastly improved public health and medical technology — funded by the new wealth — life expectancy has greatly increased. At first, these trends were confined to the West. But especially in the past 50 years, they have spread to more and more countries, and the percentage of people still living Hobbesian lives has greatly declined.

The phrase “the good old days” was coined in the 1840s, just as the Industrial Revolution was kicking into high gear, and the remembered past, at least for the elderly, began to differ markedly from the present for the first time in human history. The great New York diarist Philip Hone, then in his 60s, wrote in 1844 that “this world is going too fast. Improvements, politics, reform, religion — all fly. Railroads, steamers, packets, race against time and beat it hollow. Flying is dangerous. By and by we shall have balloons and pass over to Europe between sun and sun. Oh, for the good old days of heavy post-coaches and speed at the rate of six miles an hour!”

As the chart shows, the change that Hone felt threatened by has been overwhelmingly for the good for nearly everyone. The good old days he nostalgically looked back on were not so good.

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A Policy That Pleases No One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Soros-Funded Jewish Group Calls for Fox to Sanction Glenn Beck

In the Wall Street Journal this morning, an organization called Jewish Funds for Justice sent an open letter to Rupert Murdoch asking him to sanction Fox News host Glenn Beck for using “Holocaust and Nazi images” on his show:

We respectfully request that Glenn Beck be sanctioned by Fox News for his completely unacceptable attacks on a survivor of the Holocaust and Roger Ailes apologize for his dismissive remarks about rabbis’ sensitivity to how the Holocaust is used on the air.

Jewish Funds for Justice was referring to an episode of Beck’s show that looked into left-wing philanthropist George Soros’s actions as a child during the Holocaust. As Jonathan wrote at the time, Beck’s portrayal of Soros as a teenage Nazi collaborator was inappropriate and unnecessary.

But as wrong as Beck’s Holocaust references were, the intentions of this open letter are questionable, to say the least. First, Jewish Funds for Justice is actually funded by Soros, which makes the group’s campaign appear to be more of a personal vendetta than anything else.

It’s also interesting that Soros and his organizations have suddenly become so sensitive to anti-Semitism. That’s certainly a new development.

Anti-Semitism and Holocaust imagery didn’t seem to bother Soros back in 2004, when his organization MoveOn.org aired a video comparing George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler, which the ADL rightly denounced as “vile and outrageous.”

And it was Soros who apologized back in 2003 for anti-Semite Mahathir Mohamad, who said he understood why people believe that “Jews rule the world by proxy.”

Soros has also blamed anti-Semitism on U.S. and Israeli policy. “There is a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. The policies of the Bush administration and the Sharon administration contribute to that,” he said, adding that if “we change that direction, then anti-Semitism also will diminish.” Soros has also funded anti-Israel groups, including J Street.

And of all the people in recent months who have used Holocaust or anti-Semitic rhetoric — including Helen Thomas, Oliver Stone, and Rep. Steve Cohen — it’s telling that Jewish Funds for Justice has come out only against Glenn Beck, especially since Beck’s statements were far less offensive than those of the others.

The only conclusion that can be drawn is that Jewish Funds for Justice has no real interest in combating anti-Semitism — unless, of course, it helps the group’s political goal of demonizing conservatives.

And if that’s the case, then this letter is far more offensive than anything Beck has ever said on his show. Anti-Semitism is a serious charge, and throwing it around based on a political motive isn’t just counterproductive; it’s dangerous.

In the Wall Street Journal this morning, an organization called Jewish Funds for Justice sent an open letter to Rupert Murdoch asking him to sanction Fox News host Glenn Beck for using “Holocaust and Nazi images” on his show:

We respectfully request that Glenn Beck be sanctioned by Fox News for his completely unacceptable attacks on a survivor of the Holocaust and Roger Ailes apologize for his dismissive remarks about rabbis’ sensitivity to how the Holocaust is used on the air.

Jewish Funds for Justice was referring to an episode of Beck’s show that looked into left-wing philanthropist George Soros’s actions as a child during the Holocaust. As Jonathan wrote at the time, Beck’s portrayal of Soros as a teenage Nazi collaborator was inappropriate and unnecessary.

But as wrong as Beck’s Holocaust references were, the intentions of this open letter are questionable, to say the least. First, Jewish Funds for Justice is actually funded by Soros, which makes the group’s campaign appear to be more of a personal vendetta than anything else.

It’s also interesting that Soros and his organizations have suddenly become so sensitive to anti-Semitism. That’s certainly a new development.

Anti-Semitism and Holocaust imagery didn’t seem to bother Soros back in 2004, when his organization MoveOn.org aired a video comparing George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler, which the ADL rightly denounced as “vile and outrageous.”

And it was Soros who apologized back in 2003 for anti-Semite Mahathir Mohamad, who said he understood why people believe that “Jews rule the world by proxy.”

Soros has also blamed anti-Semitism on U.S. and Israeli policy. “There is a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. The policies of the Bush administration and the Sharon administration contribute to that,” he said, adding that if “we change that direction, then anti-Semitism also will diminish.” Soros has also funded anti-Israel groups, including J Street.

And of all the people in recent months who have used Holocaust or anti-Semitic rhetoric — including Helen Thomas, Oliver Stone, and Rep. Steve Cohen — it’s telling that Jewish Funds for Justice has come out only against Glenn Beck, especially since Beck’s statements were far less offensive than those of the others.

The only conclusion that can be drawn is that Jewish Funds for Justice has no real interest in combating anti-Semitism — unless, of course, it helps the group’s political goal of demonizing conservatives.

And if that’s the case, then this letter is far more offensive than anything Beck has ever said on his show. Anti-Semitism is a serious charge, and throwing it around based on a political motive isn’t just counterproductive; it’s dangerous.

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Is It 1848 in the Arab World?

The riots that toppled Tunisia’s strong man on January 14 spread on Tuesday to Egypt, which is in its third day of rioting. Today riots have broken out in Yemen. Where next? Could the rioting spread to non-Arab parts of the Middle East, such as Iran and/or Pakistan?

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that “all successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door.” The regimes that appear strong, with massive security forces, are suddenly revealed to be hollow. This is what happened in Tunisia. Ben Ali, in power since 1987, fled to Saudi Arabia after riots started when a fruit vendor immolated himself after his wares were seized by a government agent because he lacked a license to peddle fruit. It has been, on the scale of things, a relatively bloodless revolution, at least so far.

Egypt, of course, is a much larger country, with a population of 83 million, while Tunisia has only a little over 10 million. And Egypt is among the most densely populated countries on earth when you take into account the fact that more than 90 percent of it is essentially uninhabited desert. A popular revolt there could get very messy indeed.

It is all reminiscent of Europe in 1848, when a revolution in France that toppled the regime of King Louis-Philippe spread like a wildfire to Germany, Denmark, Italy, Prussia, and the Hapsburg Empire. Even Switzerland had a brief civil war. King William II of the Netherlands, afraid for his own throne, ordered changes in the constitution that resulted in a constitutional monarchy. The Chartist movement in Britain had a meeting on Kensington Common that numbered perhaps 150,000 people. They presented a mammoth petition to Parliament, but the meeting remained peaceful.

While many regimes survived and were able to reassert autocratic power before long (France’s Second Republic lasted only four years before its president, Louis Napoleon, converted it into the Second Empire, with himself as Napoleon III), the pace of political change in Europe accelerated markedly after 1848, as the Industrial Revolution continued. (The phrase Industrial Revolution was, in fact, coined in 1848.)

Will 2011 prove to be the 1848 of the Middle East? If the doors are rotten enough, it will.

The riots that toppled Tunisia’s strong man on January 14 spread on Tuesday to Egypt, which is in its third day of rioting. Today riots have broken out in Yemen. Where next? Could the rioting spread to non-Arab parts of the Middle East, such as Iran and/or Pakistan?

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that “all successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door.” The regimes that appear strong, with massive security forces, are suddenly revealed to be hollow. This is what happened in Tunisia. Ben Ali, in power since 1987, fled to Saudi Arabia after riots started when a fruit vendor immolated himself after his wares were seized by a government agent because he lacked a license to peddle fruit. It has been, on the scale of things, a relatively bloodless revolution, at least so far.

Egypt, of course, is a much larger country, with a population of 83 million, while Tunisia has only a little over 10 million. And Egypt is among the most densely populated countries on earth when you take into account the fact that more than 90 percent of it is essentially uninhabited desert. A popular revolt there could get very messy indeed.

It is all reminiscent of Europe in 1848, when a revolution in France that toppled the regime of King Louis-Philippe spread like a wildfire to Germany, Denmark, Italy, Prussia, and the Hapsburg Empire. Even Switzerland had a brief civil war. King William II of the Netherlands, afraid for his own throne, ordered changes in the constitution that resulted in a constitutional monarchy. The Chartist movement in Britain had a meeting on Kensington Common that numbered perhaps 150,000 people. They presented a mammoth petition to Parliament, but the meeting remained peaceful.

While many regimes survived and were able to reassert autocratic power before long (France’s Second Republic lasted only four years before its president, Louis Napoleon, converted it into the Second Empire, with himself as Napoleon III), the pace of political change in Europe accelerated markedly after 1848, as the Industrial Revolution continued. (The phrase Industrial Revolution was, in fact, coined in 1848.)

Will 2011 prove to be the 1848 of the Middle East? If the doors are rotten enough, it will.

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Six Million Dead but Eleven, or Is It Twelve, Million Universalizing Lies

While Israel and most Jews commemorate the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah (which this year falls on May 1), which precedes the Jewish state’s Independence Day by a week, the international community has chosen to use the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. So throughout Europe and at UN facilities, there will be ceremonies to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day today. While all efforts to recall the murder of six million Jews are to be welcomed, the fact is many of those doing so in such places will attempt to maroon the Holocaust in history and separate it from the rising tide of anti-Semitism that is largely focused on a hatred of Israel that is currently sweeping Europe and the Middle East. Suffice it to say that those who will today bewail the Holocaust, while not also directly condemning those who seek to isolate and destroy Israel and the efforts of Holocaust-denying Iran to gain nuclear weapons. are hypocrites.

But Holocaust Remembrance Day is also an appropriate moment to think seriously about those Jews whose own efforts to “universalize” the Holocaust have done much to distort its meaning. In the new winter issue of the Jewish Review of Books, Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt dissects the impact of Simon Wiesenthal and his not-altogether-salubrious contribution to the way the world thinks about the Shoah.

Wiesenthal’s deceptions about his own experiences during the Holocaust are well known and have been debunked many times. Also well-known is the fact that his boasts about helping to track down 1,000 Nazi war criminals are largely bogus. In particular, his claim that he was responsible for the capture of Adolf Eichmann was a lie. But, as Lipstadt notes, otherwise hardened journalists like the left-wing Israeli author Tom Segev have given Wiesenthal a pass on all this because they approve of the way the Austrian survivor sought to universalize the Shoah. It was Wiesenthal who popularized the notion that there were eleven million victims of the Holocaust (six million Jews and five million non-Jews), a figure that has been largely accepted by most Jews as well as non-Jews — even though it is not true. As Lipstadt writes:

On the one hand, the total number of non-Jewish civilians killed by the Germans in the course of World War II is far higher than five million. On the other hand, the number of non-Jewish civilians killed for racial or ideological reasons does not come close to five million. … When Israeli historians Yehuda Bauer and Yisrael Gutman challenged Wiesenthal on this point, he admitted that he had invented the figure of eleven million victims in order to stimulate interest in the Holocaust among non-Jews. He chose five million because it was almost, but not quite, as large as six million. … In recent months, Wiesenthal’s concoction has been further improved upon by a group of rabbis and imams who visited Auschwitz under the aegis of the US State Department. The statement they issued after their visit referred to the “twelve million victims, six million Jews and six million non-Jews.” Now we have parity. One wonders what’s next.

Lies about the Holocaust, even well-intentioned lies, as Lipstadt notes, give ammunition to Holocaust deniers. But even if there were no Holocaust deniers, they would still be wrong, because any commemoration that is not rooted in the truth will ultimately do more harm than good. Distorting the history of the Holocaust in order to diminish Jewish suffering — and to avoid the conclusion that the best monument to the Shoah is a strong Jewish state that can ensure that the Jews will never again be victimized in this manner — is an insult to the memory of the six million.

While Israel and most Jews commemorate the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah (which this year falls on May 1), which precedes the Jewish state’s Independence Day by a week, the international community has chosen to use the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. So throughout Europe and at UN facilities, there will be ceremonies to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day today. While all efforts to recall the murder of six million Jews are to be welcomed, the fact is many of those doing so in such places will attempt to maroon the Holocaust in history and separate it from the rising tide of anti-Semitism that is largely focused on a hatred of Israel that is currently sweeping Europe and the Middle East. Suffice it to say that those who will today bewail the Holocaust, while not also directly condemning those who seek to isolate and destroy Israel and the efforts of Holocaust-denying Iran to gain nuclear weapons. are hypocrites.

But Holocaust Remembrance Day is also an appropriate moment to think seriously about those Jews whose own efforts to “universalize” the Holocaust have done much to distort its meaning. In the new winter issue of the Jewish Review of Books, Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt dissects the impact of Simon Wiesenthal and his not-altogether-salubrious contribution to the way the world thinks about the Shoah.

Wiesenthal’s deceptions about his own experiences during the Holocaust are well known and have been debunked many times. Also well-known is the fact that his boasts about helping to track down 1,000 Nazi war criminals are largely bogus. In particular, his claim that he was responsible for the capture of Adolf Eichmann was a lie. But, as Lipstadt notes, otherwise hardened journalists like the left-wing Israeli author Tom Segev have given Wiesenthal a pass on all this because they approve of the way the Austrian survivor sought to universalize the Shoah. It was Wiesenthal who popularized the notion that there were eleven million victims of the Holocaust (six million Jews and five million non-Jews), a figure that has been largely accepted by most Jews as well as non-Jews — even though it is not true. As Lipstadt writes:

On the one hand, the total number of non-Jewish civilians killed by the Germans in the course of World War II is far higher than five million. On the other hand, the number of non-Jewish civilians killed for racial or ideological reasons does not come close to five million. … When Israeli historians Yehuda Bauer and Yisrael Gutman challenged Wiesenthal on this point, he admitted that he had invented the figure of eleven million victims in order to stimulate interest in the Holocaust among non-Jews. He chose five million because it was almost, but not quite, as large as six million. … In recent months, Wiesenthal’s concoction has been further improved upon by a group of rabbis and imams who visited Auschwitz under the aegis of the US State Department. The statement they issued after their visit referred to the “twelve million victims, six million Jews and six million non-Jews.” Now we have parity. One wonders what’s next.

Lies about the Holocaust, even well-intentioned lies, as Lipstadt notes, give ammunition to Holocaust deniers. But even if there were no Holocaust deniers, they would still be wrong, because any commemoration that is not rooted in the truth will ultimately do more harm than good. Distorting the history of the Holocaust in order to diminish Jewish suffering — and to avoid the conclusion that the best monument to the Shoah is a strong Jewish state that can ensure that the Jews will never again be victimized in this manner — is an insult to the memory of the six million.

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The President’s Speech: An Irresponsible Performance

State of the Union speeches are typically unimpressive and unmemorable. Last night’s address by President Obama was in that tradition. While his delivery was fine, the speech itself was mediocre — flat, undisciplined and unfocused, at times pedestrian and banal, with goals seemingly pulled out of thin air (e.g., by 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean-energy sources).

The speech was also oddly uncreative, with Obama dusting off slogans and ideas from past State of the Union speeches. For example, on the campaign trail in 2008 and during the first two years of his presidency, Barack Obama portrayed himself as the great enemy of earmarks. Perhaps the reason he has to keep reminding us of his antipathy for earmarks is because he has repeatedly signed into law legislation that contained thousands of them.

Still, this doesn’t mean the speech was unimportant. It was, in fact, quite significant in terms of highlighting the president’s cast of mind and how he understands, or fails to understand, the moment we’re in.

The State of the Union address reaffirmed that Barack Obama remains a man of the left. He spent most of the speech championing an array of new programs, explaining why he believes we need to expand the size, reach, scope, and cost of the federal government.

It was as if the president were awakening Leviathan from a two-year slumber rather than two years of hyperactivity.

Beyond that, though, Obama spoke as if he were living in an alternate universe — one where a $14 trillion debt and trillion dollar a year deficit don’t exist; where our entitlement programs are basically solvent and sound, in need of, at most, tweaking around the margins; and where the 2010 midterm election wasn’t a repudiation of the president’s progressive agenda.

The president dealt with our fiscal crisis as if it were a triviality, its importance on par with the need for more solar panels and high-speed rails.

Mr. Obama, I think, is misreading the public mood. Many Americans are unnerved by our fiscal imbalance, which helps explain the rise of the Tea Party movement. But whether or not Obama is out of touch with the public is, in one respect, irrelevant. Facts are stubborn things — and the fact is that we’re facing a crushing entitlement crisis that is getting worse literally by the hour. If we don’t come to grips with it soon, we are likely to experience something similar to the social unrest that is sweeping Europe.

More than mediocre, then, I found the president’s speech to be irresponsible. As the elected leader of the nation — and as one of the architects of our fiscal crisis — Obama has an obligation to address it in a serious, systematic, and intellectually honest manner. Instead, he is eschewing his governing duties. He is living in a world of his own imagination. That might be fine for writers of fiction and fairy tales. But for the president of the United States, it is quite a bad thing indeed.

State of the Union speeches are typically unimpressive and unmemorable. Last night’s address by President Obama was in that tradition. While his delivery was fine, the speech itself was mediocre — flat, undisciplined and unfocused, at times pedestrian and banal, with goals seemingly pulled out of thin air (e.g., by 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean-energy sources).

The speech was also oddly uncreative, with Obama dusting off slogans and ideas from past State of the Union speeches. For example, on the campaign trail in 2008 and during the first two years of his presidency, Barack Obama portrayed himself as the great enemy of earmarks. Perhaps the reason he has to keep reminding us of his antipathy for earmarks is because he has repeatedly signed into law legislation that contained thousands of them.

Still, this doesn’t mean the speech was unimportant. It was, in fact, quite significant in terms of highlighting the president’s cast of mind and how he understands, or fails to understand, the moment we’re in.

The State of the Union address reaffirmed that Barack Obama remains a man of the left. He spent most of the speech championing an array of new programs, explaining why he believes we need to expand the size, reach, scope, and cost of the federal government.

It was as if the president were awakening Leviathan from a two-year slumber rather than two years of hyperactivity.

Beyond that, though, Obama spoke as if he were living in an alternate universe — one where a $14 trillion debt and trillion dollar a year deficit don’t exist; where our entitlement programs are basically solvent and sound, in need of, at most, tweaking around the margins; and where the 2010 midterm election wasn’t a repudiation of the president’s progressive agenda.

The president dealt with our fiscal crisis as if it were a triviality, its importance on par with the need for more solar panels and high-speed rails.

Mr. Obama, I think, is misreading the public mood. Many Americans are unnerved by our fiscal imbalance, which helps explain the rise of the Tea Party movement. But whether or not Obama is out of touch with the public is, in one respect, irrelevant. Facts are stubborn things — and the fact is that we’re facing a crushing entitlement crisis that is getting worse literally by the hour. If we don’t come to grips with it soon, we are likely to experience something similar to the social unrest that is sweeping Europe.

More than mediocre, then, I found the president’s speech to be irresponsible. As the elected leader of the nation — and as one of the architects of our fiscal crisis — Obama has an obligation to address it in a serious, systematic, and intellectually honest manner. Instead, he is eschewing his governing duties. He is living in a world of his own imagination. That might be fine for writers of fiction and fairy tales. But for the president of the United States, it is quite a bad thing indeed.

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A Moment for Political Courage

According to media accounts, in his State of the Union address, President Obama is going to avoid dealing with our entitlement crisis. The question is: will Republicans?

That is setting up to be the key debate of the next several months.

There is one line of argument, articulated by Ramesh Ponnuru, that insists that for House Republicans to take on entitlement reform would be noble but politically suicidal. The reasoning is that (a) for the next two years, reform is impossible unless and until President Obama takes the lead on it; (b) Republicans have no mandate for reform even if they wanted to; and (c) every time they have tried to reform entitlements in the past (George W. Bush on Social Security and Newt Gingrich on Medicare), they have paid a high political price.

The more responsible approach would be to champion cuts in discretionary spending and continue to insist on the repeal of ObamaCare. That would be entirely enough, this argument goes; to do more will require a Republican president willing to educate the nation on the entitlement crisis and to do something about it.

The counterargument is that we are in a new and different moment when it comes to entitlement reform. Due to the financial crisis of 2008 and the spending habits of President Obama and the 111th Congress, what was a serious problem has become an acute one. In the past, the deficit and debt were manageable; now, every serious person who has studied this matter concedes, the situation is unsustainable. The public understands this in one way or another; and if they’re not yet ready to take on entitlement reforms, they are certainly educable in a way that has never been the case before. Read More

According to media accounts, in his State of the Union address, President Obama is going to avoid dealing with our entitlement crisis. The question is: will Republicans?

That is setting up to be the key debate of the next several months.

There is one line of argument, articulated by Ramesh Ponnuru, that insists that for House Republicans to take on entitlement reform would be noble but politically suicidal. The reasoning is that (a) for the next two years, reform is impossible unless and until President Obama takes the lead on it; (b) Republicans have no mandate for reform even if they wanted to; and (c) every time they have tried to reform entitlements in the past (George W. Bush on Social Security and Newt Gingrich on Medicare), they have paid a high political price.

The more responsible approach would be to champion cuts in discretionary spending and continue to insist on the repeal of ObamaCare. That would be entirely enough, this argument goes; to do more will require a Republican president willing to educate the nation on the entitlement crisis and to do something about it.

The counterargument is that we are in a new and different moment when it comes to entitlement reform. Due to the financial crisis of 2008 and the spending habits of President Obama and the 111th Congress, what was a serious problem has become an acute one. In the past, the deficit and debt were manageable; now, every serious person who has studied this matter concedes, the situation is unsustainable. The public understands this in one way or another; and if they’re not yet ready to take on entitlement reforms, they are certainly educable in a way that has never been the case before.

The way to frame this argument, according to those who want to take on entitlement programs, is to simply state the reality of the situation: we can act now, in a relatively incremental and responsible way, in order to avoid the painful austerity measures that are occurring in Europe and elsewhere. Or we can delay action and, at some point not far into the future, be unable to avoid cuts that will cause a great deal of social unrest.

So we’re clear, the entitlement that really matters is Medicare. “The fact is,” my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin told Michael Gerson, “Medicare is going to crush the government, and if Republicans leave it unreformed then the debt picture is very, very ugly. They might never — literally never — show the budget reaching balance. Not in the 10-year window and not if they take their graphs out a hundred years. Obama could probably show balance just past the budget window in the middle of the next decade because of the massive Medicare cuts he proposes, even if in practice they will never actually happen.”

To get a sense of what we’re talking about, Veronique de Rugy has put together a very useful chart that can be found here.

It makes the point that cutting discretionary spending only makes a small difference in the overall budget picture. She lays out the difference between the Republican Study Committee plan, which cuts $2 trillion over 10 years and is therefore a good deal more aggressive than the House Republican leadership proposal, and where spending would be without those cuts over the next 10 years. As you will see, it’s a small difference. Spending keeps growing rapidly either way. Without entitlement reform, then, this is about as much as we could reasonably do — and it just isn’t that much.

In other words, if Republicans don’t take on Medicare, their credibility as a party of fiscal responsibility and limited government will be shattered. The math guarantees it. The GOP, having made the 2010 election largely (though not exclusively) a referendum on the deficit and the debt, will be viewed as fraudulent.

Compounding the problem is the fact that, as Gerson explains, if Republicans don’t touch Medicare, their budget approach — on paper, at least — will have less long-term debt reduction than Obama’s, both because Obama supports tax increases and he uses a slew of budget gimmicks to make his health-care plan appear to be far more affordable than it really is.

It’s a pretty good bet that the president will advance the same kind of gimmicks in his 2012 budget. If so, then unless Republicans are willing to champion Medicare reform (meaning changing it from a defined benefit program to a defined contribution program), Obama will be able to position himself as a budget hawk, at least compared to the GOP. This could have devastating political effects, including dispiriting the Republican base and the Tea Party movement. Having just elected Republicans in large measure to stop the financial hemorrhage and to restore fiscal balance, voters will not react well when they are told, in so many words, “Never Mind.”

So count me as one who believes Republicans need to embrace entitlement reform in general, and Medicare reforms in particular, because not doing so is irresponsible. It means willfully avoiding what everyone knows needs to be done in the hope that at some future, as-yet-to-be-determined date, a better and easier moment will arrive.

Sometime a political party needs to comfort itself with the axiom that good policy makes good politics. That isn’t always the case, certainly, but often it is. In any event, if the GOP avoids reforming Medicare, there is no way any Republican lawmaker, when pressed by reporters on fiscal matters, can make a plausible argument that their actions are remotely consistent with their stated philosophy.

They will hem and haw and duck and dodge and try to change the subject — and they will emerge as counterfeit, deceptive, and unserious. Here it’s worth recalling the words of the columnist Walter Lippmann, who wrote:

With exceptions so rare that they are regarded as miracles and freaks of nature, successful democratic politicians are insecure and intimidated men. They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate the demanding and threatening elements in their constituencies. The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether it is popular — not whether it will work well and prove itself but whether the active talking constituents like it immediately.

Perhaps I’m asking GOP lawmakers to prove themselves to be miracles and freaks of nature. But if I am right in my analysis, that is what is called for. It would mean Republicans have an enormous public-education campaign ahead of them. They will have to explain why their policies are the most responsible and humane. They will need to articulate the case not simply for entitlement reform but also for limited government. And they will need to explain, in a compelling and accessible way, why limited government is crucial to civic character.

None of this is easy — but lawmakers weren’t elected to make easy decisions. They were elected to make the right ones. And reforming Medicare is, in our time, the right decision.

Let’s get on with it.

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Civility Watch: Cohen Won’t Back Down on Comparing GOP to Nazis

In the wake of the Arizona shootings, the idea that this tragedy was to some extent the result of the lack of civility and verbal violence that has characterized political debates in the past two years has been a staple of liberal commentary. Indeed, even many of those who have acknowledged that the actions of an insane shooter with no discernible political ideology can’t be linked to the health-care debate have insisted that the atmosphere of discord somehow set the stage for this crime. Even more than that, they have argued that there is no doubt that conservatives in general, and Tea Party activists in particular, as well as garden-variety Republicans, are principally if not solely to blame for all the verbal mayhem. This sort of assertion is treated as self-evident, even though liberal TV talkers such as Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz and a host of other leftists who have consistently smeared their opponents need no lessons in talking smack about the right.

But last night, this claim was once again contradicted when we were treated to yet another instance of liberal verbal violence. But this time the slur wasn’t voiced by a talking head on MSNBC but, rather, on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives by a member of Congress.

As Peter Wehner wrote, during the debate on the repeal of ObamaCare, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) told the chamber that the majority’s argument that the health-care bill passed last year would dangerously increase the power of the government was “a big lie, just like Goebbels,” referring to Nazi Germany’s chief propagandist. He then likened the GOP campaign against the bill to the process by which Europe’s Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust: “The Germans said enough about the Jews and people believed it — believed it and you have the Holocaust.”

A day later Cohen wouldn’t back down and told CNN that he wasn’t calling the Republicans Nazis, just liars. But, of course, if his goal was to merely say that they weren’t telling the truth, he needn’t have compared them to Goebbels or analogized their campaign to mass murder.

Cohen’s explicit comparison of Republican tactics to the Nazis is incredibly offensive as well as false. Surely Americans can disagree about health care without either side invoking Hitler, something that ought to be considered out of bounds for anybody who is not actually talking about real Nazis. But this was no slip of the tongue. Cohen’s sleight-of-hand invocation of the process by which Jews were delegitimized was specifically intended to create the idea that there is no difference between the Tea Party and the Nazi Party. His goal is not to expose the deficiencies of the arguments of his opponents; it is their delegitimization.

In other words, Rep. Cohen is doing exactly what liberals have claimed that conservatives have done: poisoned the political atmosphere with outrageous and false assertions. Cohen may have some counterparts on the right, but he, and the many others on the left who have employed the same kind of tactics against the Bush administration and Obama’s Republican critics, are living proof that the left is equally responsible for the decline of civility.

In the wake of the Arizona shootings, the idea that this tragedy was to some extent the result of the lack of civility and verbal violence that has characterized political debates in the past two years has been a staple of liberal commentary. Indeed, even many of those who have acknowledged that the actions of an insane shooter with no discernible political ideology can’t be linked to the health-care debate have insisted that the atmosphere of discord somehow set the stage for this crime. Even more than that, they have argued that there is no doubt that conservatives in general, and Tea Party activists in particular, as well as garden-variety Republicans, are principally if not solely to blame for all the verbal mayhem. This sort of assertion is treated as self-evident, even though liberal TV talkers such as Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz and a host of other leftists who have consistently smeared their opponents need no lessons in talking smack about the right.

But last night, this claim was once again contradicted when we were treated to yet another instance of liberal verbal violence. But this time the slur wasn’t voiced by a talking head on MSNBC but, rather, on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives by a member of Congress.

As Peter Wehner wrote, during the debate on the repeal of ObamaCare, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) told the chamber that the majority’s argument that the health-care bill passed last year would dangerously increase the power of the government was “a big lie, just like Goebbels,” referring to Nazi Germany’s chief propagandist. He then likened the GOP campaign against the bill to the process by which Europe’s Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust: “The Germans said enough about the Jews and people believed it — believed it and you have the Holocaust.”

A day later Cohen wouldn’t back down and told CNN that he wasn’t calling the Republicans Nazis, just liars. But, of course, if his goal was to merely say that they weren’t telling the truth, he needn’t have compared them to Goebbels or analogized their campaign to mass murder.

Cohen’s explicit comparison of Republican tactics to the Nazis is incredibly offensive as well as false. Surely Americans can disagree about health care without either side invoking Hitler, something that ought to be considered out of bounds for anybody who is not actually talking about real Nazis. But this was no slip of the tongue. Cohen’s sleight-of-hand invocation of the process by which Jews were delegitimized was specifically intended to create the idea that there is no difference between the Tea Party and the Nazi Party. His goal is not to expose the deficiencies of the arguments of his opponents; it is their delegitimization.

In other words, Rep. Cohen is doing exactly what liberals have claimed that conservatives have done: poisoned the political atmosphere with outrageous and false assertions. Cohen may have some counterparts on the right, but he, and the many others on the left who have employed the same kind of tactics against the Bush administration and Obama’s Republican critics, are living proof that the left is equally responsible for the decline of civility.

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The Berlin-Rome-Tehran Axis

One of those dirty secrets that broad swaths of European media and politicians avoid like the plague is the ways in which European countries are propping up Tehran’s regime and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah via their pro-Iranian trade policies. Last year, Italy and Germany turned out to be Europe’s major economic respirators for Iran’s stagnating economic system, with an overall joint business volume of 10 billion euros.

Last summer, the EU signed off on watered-down economic sanctions targeting Iran. Nevertheless, the EU did awaken from its slumber and banned the delivery of crucial energy technology to the Islamic Republic. Whereas the more robust U.S. sanctions prohibit the acquisition of Iranian gas and crude oil, European countries are permitted to consume vast amounts of the stuff. Iran’s lifeline is the sale of its crude oil, and Italy has an Iranian oil addiction, with imports mushrooming by 90 percent in 2010.

Traditionally, Germany has  been Europe’s No. 1 trade partner with Iran. During the second Bush administration, U.S. diplomats urged German engineering firms and banks to end their flourishing deals with Iran. Bush had some striking successes, such as major German financial institutions like Deutsche Bank shutting down their Iranian operations. Bush twisted arms in Germany.

President Obama is limping on both legs in trying to convince Chancellor Angela Merkel to shut down Iranian banks in Germany. Last summer, he called Merkel to persuade her to pull the plug on the Hamburg-based European-Iranian trade bank, an entity that was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department because of its involvement in Iran’s illicit nuclear-proliferation and ballistic-missile program. Merkel simply snubbed Obama.

Despite Merkel’s promises to the Israeli Knesset in 2008 and to the U.S. Congress in 2009 that Israel’s security is “non-negotiable“ and that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program must be stopped, business as usual takes priority over the so-called German-Israeli special relationship and defending Western and global security.

It seems that the time is ripe for President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to flex their diplomatic muscles and publicly urge Rome and Berlin to implement unilateral sanctions against Iran, as Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are a making a mockery of President Obama’s multilateral effort to isolate the Islamic Republic.

One of those dirty secrets that broad swaths of European media and politicians avoid like the plague is the ways in which European countries are propping up Tehran’s regime and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah via their pro-Iranian trade policies. Last year, Italy and Germany turned out to be Europe’s major economic respirators for Iran’s stagnating economic system, with an overall joint business volume of 10 billion euros.

Last summer, the EU signed off on watered-down economic sanctions targeting Iran. Nevertheless, the EU did awaken from its slumber and banned the delivery of crucial energy technology to the Islamic Republic. Whereas the more robust U.S. sanctions prohibit the acquisition of Iranian gas and crude oil, European countries are permitted to consume vast amounts of the stuff. Iran’s lifeline is the sale of its crude oil, and Italy has an Iranian oil addiction, with imports mushrooming by 90 percent in 2010.

Traditionally, Germany has  been Europe’s No. 1 trade partner with Iran. During the second Bush administration, U.S. diplomats urged German engineering firms and banks to end their flourishing deals with Iran. Bush had some striking successes, such as major German financial institutions like Deutsche Bank shutting down their Iranian operations. Bush twisted arms in Germany.

President Obama is limping on both legs in trying to convince Chancellor Angela Merkel to shut down Iranian banks in Germany. Last summer, he called Merkel to persuade her to pull the plug on the Hamburg-based European-Iranian trade bank, an entity that was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department because of its involvement in Iran’s illicit nuclear-proliferation and ballistic-missile program. Merkel simply snubbed Obama.

Despite Merkel’s promises to the Israeli Knesset in 2008 and to the U.S. Congress in 2009 that Israel’s security is “non-negotiable“ and that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program must be stopped, business as usual takes priority over the so-called German-Israeli special relationship and defending Western and global security.

It seems that the time is ripe for President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to flex their diplomatic muscles and publicly urge Rome and Berlin to implement unilateral sanctions against Iran, as Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are a making a mockery of President Obama’s multilateral effort to isolate the Islamic Republic.

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Morning Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stay Engaged with Tunisia

As Max Boot implies, riot-torn Tunisia is not predestined for any particular future. The U.S. response will matter to the outcome. The sclerotic Ben Ali regime has been under rhetorical fire from dissidents for years due to its corrupt, repressive character, but there is no evidence of an organized opposition bent on armed revolution. No ideological red flags are waving over Tunisia; there may be groups encouraging the outbreak of unrest, but there has been no accelerating drumbeat from a well-defined radical organization like the plotters of the Iranian revolution in 1979. The riots in Tunisia mirror the fears in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, and Jordan over a common set of economic woes: rising food and gas prices and high unemployment.

But while Tunisia may not be experiencing a centrally directed ideological revolt, the political conditions are not quiescent there. If pluralism and consensual government are to take hold, the U.S. will have to interest itself in the process. The usual suspects — the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda — have stakes in Tunisia already. The principal opposition group, al-Nadha (“Renaissance”), is an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi (not to be confused with the prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, who took power on Friday), is an exile in Britain, a biographical detail that echoes the history of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But Ghannouchi’s profile as a Sunni Islamist leader is more similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi; Ghannouchi endorses terrorist groups like Hamas but spends most of his time writing, lecturing, and attending conferences.

Rachid Ghannouchi has been largely silent during the past week’s unrest, giving no indication that he has specific political intentions. But he would be a natural focus of interest for regional governments — Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Italy, France — that are on the alert to influence developments in Tunisia. Attempts at influence by Tehran are a given as well: Ghannouchi was an early supporter of the 1979 revolution and has maintained his ties to Iranian clerics. Tunisia severed relations with Iran in the 1980s over the Islamic Republic’s penchant for fomenting unrest, but diplomatic and economic ties have been restored over the past decade. These ties include an Iranian cultural center in Tunis (referenced here and here), an entity that in other regional nations has been a means of introducing paramilitary operatives and Islamist recruiters. Read More

As Max Boot implies, riot-torn Tunisia is not predestined for any particular future. The U.S. response will matter to the outcome. The sclerotic Ben Ali regime has been under rhetorical fire from dissidents for years due to its corrupt, repressive character, but there is no evidence of an organized opposition bent on armed revolution. No ideological red flags are waving over Tunisia; there may be groups encouraging the outbreak of unrest, but there has been no accelerating drumbeat from a well-defined radical organization like the plotters of the Iranian revolution in 1979. The riots in Tunisia mirror the fears in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, and Jordan over a common set of economic woes: rising food and gas prices and high unemployment.

But while Tunisia may not be experiencing a centrally directed ideological revolt, the political conditions are not quiescent there. If pluralism and consensual government are to take hold, the U.S. will have to interest itself in the process. The usual suspects — the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda — have stakes in Tunisia already. The principal opposition group, al-Nadha (“Renaissance”), is an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi (not to be confused with the prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, who took power on Friday), is an exile in Britain, a biographical detail that echoes the history of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But Ghannouchi’s profile as a Sunni Islamist leader is more similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi; Ghannouchi endorses terrorist groups like Hamas but spends most of his time writing, lecturing, and attending conferences.

Rachid Ghannouchi has been largely silent during the past week’s unrest, giving no indication that he has specific political intentions. But he would be a natural focus of interest for regional governments — Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Italy, France — that are on the alert to influence developments in Tunisia. Attempts at influence by Tehran are a given as well: Ghannouchi was an early supporter of the 1979 revolution and has maintained his ties to Iranian clerics. Tunisia severed relations with Iran in the 1980s over the Islamic Republic’s penchant for fomenting unrest, but diplomatic and economic ties have been restored over the past decade. These ties include an Iranian cultural center in Tunis (referenced here and here), an entity that in other regional nations has been a means of introducing paramilitary operatives and Islamist recruiters.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) has seized on the Tunisian unrest as a pretext for issuing audio appeals and a recruiting video. There is no evidence AQIM is organized for operations on a large scale, nor is the seizure of political power an al-Qaeda method. But any period of internal disorder in Tunisia will be an invitation to AQIM to ramp up its efforts there.

Tunisia sits on a crucial geographic chokepoint — the Strait of Sicily — in the central Mediterranean Sea. The U.S. and Europe can get away with shrinking navies while the Mediterranean coast is held by well-disposed governments. But Tunisia is one of a handful of nations in the world that could single-handedly turn a maritime choke point into an oversize international security problem. A radicalized Tunisia would have even greater security implications than a radicalized Libya or Algeria; the geography of a strait is a stern taskmaster. And Iran’s history of interest in the choke points on which the West relies for commerce and naval power (see here and here) suggests that the leadership in Tehran is fully aware of those implications and will do what it can to exploit them.

The good news is that a newly liberal, consensual government in Tunisia would be the best outcome for U.S. interests as well as for Tunisians. But we will have to actively encourage that outcome if we want to see it. The forces working against it are sure to multiply.

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Some Thoughts on Israel’s Problematic New NGO Law

When a group like NGO Monitor — which has spent years fighting for more transparency and less bias from human rights groups — comes out against a law that will supposedly make NGOs more transparent, you know there’s a problem.

I spoke with NGO Monitor’s director, Gerald Steinberg, this morning, who elaborated more on his Jerusalem Post column from last week. The column — worth reading in full here — outlined his concerns about the Knesset’s recent creation of a committee that will investigate the funding of NGOs involved in the anti-Israel delegitimization movement.

One of Steinberg’s main issues with the law is that it politicized the very important matter of foreign NGO funding.

“What happened in the Knesset was that one party [Israel Beiteinu] chose to make this part of their partisan political agenda,” said Steinberg. “And instead of building the coalition for dealing with this issue, they basically alienated potential partners by attacking them.”

Steinberg is also concerned that the proponents of the bill used inaccurate information in an effort to push the law through. One of the bill’s supporters at the Knesset “talked about Arab government and terrorist-funded organizations. And [Avigdor] Lieberman talked about the claim that these organizations were active in supporting terror, and that claim has not been substantiated,” said Steinberg.

While it’s certainly possible that some of these groups are funded by Arab governments or terror groups, NGO Monitor hasn’t yet found evidence of this. But the group has found substantial evidence of European governments funding anti-Israel NGOs.

“If this ends up letting the European governments off the hook, then it will have been counterproductive,” said Steinberg. “What I’m concerned about is, through the focus on the investigation and the claims of McCarthyism, that these organizations that don’t want to have the transparency extended to their European funding will succeed in diverting the focus.”

And besides that, there is some reason to believe that the committee won’t even have the subpoena powers necessary to carry on any practical type of investigation. “I don’t think that a Knesset committee or investigation is the best vehicle to deal with this issue either,” said Steinberg, who believes the issue might be best left to government offices that can produce reports on NGO funding.

Steinberg is also concerned that the NGO law will make it more difficult to get more practical legislation through the Knesset. “There are a couple of other legislative processes going on in the Knesset. And the law that would require full transparency, like the FARA law — that’s a bipartisan bill that has been working its way through the Knesset,” he said. “And in many ways, this new initiative by [Danny] Ayalon potentially undermines the very narrow FARA-type legislation that does have much broader support.”

The NGO law has been extremely controversial since it passed, with critics alleging that it targets groups based on political ideology. But based on NGO Monitor’s assessment, there are even more serious reasons to oppose the plan. It would create a powerless investigative body that serves only to undermine support for useful legislation, make martyrs out of anti-Israel NGOs, and obscure the troubling reality of Europe’s financial contributions to the Israel delegitimization movement. For anyone who cares about NGO accountability, this is a lose-lose situation.

When a group like NGO Monitor — which has spent years fighting for more transparency and less bias from human rights groups — comes out against a law that will supposedly make NGOs more transparent, you know there’s a problem.

I spoke with NGO Monitor’s director, Gerald Steinberg, this morning, who elaborated more on his Jerusalem Post column from last week. The column — worth reading in full here — outlined his concerns about the Knesset’s recent creation of a committee that will investigate the funding of NGOs involved in the anti-Israel delegitimization movement.

One of Steinberg’s main issues with the law is that it politicized the very important matter of foreign NGO funding.

“What happened in the Knesset was that one party [Israel Beiteinu] chose to make this part of their partisan political agenda,” said Steinberg. “And instead of building the coalition for dealing with this issue, they basically alienated potential partners by attacking them.”

Steinberg is also concerned that the proponents of the bill used inaccurate information in an effort to push the law through. One of the bill’s supporters at the Knesset “talked about Arab government and terrorist-funded organizations. And [Avigdor] Lieberman talked about the claim that these organizations were active in supporting terror, and that claim has not been substantiated,” said Steinberg.

While it’s certainly possible that some of these groups are funded by Arab governments or terror groups, NGO Monitor hasn’t yet found evidence of this. But the group has found substantial evidence of European governments funding anti-Israel NGOs.

“If this ends up letting the European governments off the hook, then it will have been counterproductive,” said Steinberg. “What I’m concerned about is, through the focus on the investigation and the claims of McCarthyism, that these organizations that don’t want to have the transparency extended to their European funding will succeed in diverting the focus.”

And besides that, there is some reason to believe that the committee won’t even have the subpoena powers necessary to carry on any practical type of investigation. “I don’t think that a Knesset committee or investigation is the best vehicle to deal with this issue either,” said Steinberg, who believes the issue might be best left to government offices that can produce reports on NGO funding.

Steinberg is also concerned that the NGO law will make it more difficult to get more practical legislation through the Knesset. “There are a couple of other legislative processes going on in the Knesset. And the law that would require full transparency, like the FARA law — that’s a bipartisan bill that has been working its way through the Knesset,” he said. “And in many ways, this new initiative by [Danny] Ayalon potentially undermines the very narrow FARA-type legislation that does have much broader support.”

The NGO law has been extremely controversial since it passed, with critics alleging that it targets groups based on political ideology. But based on NGO Monitor’s assessment, there are even more serious reasons to oppose the plan. It would create a powerless investigative body that serves only to undermine support for useful legislation, make martyrs out of anti-Israel NGOs, and obscure the troubling reality of Europe’s financial contributions to the Israel delegitimization movement. For anyone who cares about NGO accountability, this is a lose-lose situation.

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RE RE: Palin and the Blood Libel

Jonathan, you make excellent points about the common use of the term “blood libel” to describe wider acts of anti-Semitic thinking and behavior other than its original meaning — and why the day-long  attack on Sarah Palin for using the phrase has an absurd tinge to it. Today, asked about the “blood libel,” for example, the political consultant and speechwriter Robert Shrum described it as “centuries of killing Jews in Europe,” which describes the result of the “blood libel” but not the term’s meaning. Shrum’s ignorance was mirrored by, for example, Nate Silver of the New York Times, who said on Twitter that he didn’t know the history of the “blood libel” either.

But neither Silver nor Shrum is equivalent to Palin. While Palin should not be faulted for saying things she didn’t say or committing errors she didn’t commit, the fact is she has achieved a kind of national stature that exists in tension with her general tendency toward speaking as a lone outsider battling larger forces. She is larger than many of those forces now, and large figures must move gracefully if they are not to topple over.

Complaining about “a blood libel” was a mistake in tone, as the fact that we are still discussing it indicates. Her talk was intended to still the waters, not roil them against her further. But her use of the phrase made that impossible. Whoever advises her should have known that, and if no one who advises her did know that, she needs to get a few more advisers with better judgment.

Jonathan, you make excellent points about the common use of the term “blood libel” to describe wider acts of anti-Semitic thinking and behavior other than its original meaning — and why the day-long  attack on Sarah Palin for using the phrase has an absurd tinge to it. Today, asked about the “blood libel,” for example, the political consultant and speechwriter Robert Shrum described it as “centuries of killing Jews in Europe,” which describes the result of the “blood libel” but not the term’s meaning. Shrum’s ignorance was mirrored by, for example, Nate Silver of the New York Times, who said on Twitter that he didn’t know the history of the “blood libel” either.

But neither Silver nor Shrum is equivalent to Palin. While Palin should not be faulted for saying things she didn’t say or committing errors she didn’t commit, the fact is she has achieved a kind of national stature that exists in tension with her general tendency toward speaking as a lone outsider battling larger forces. She is larger than many of those forces now, and large figures must move gracefully if they are not to topple over.

Complaining about “a blood libel” was a mistake in tone, as the fact that we are still discussing it indicates. Her talk was intended to still the waters, not roil them against her further. But her use of the phrase made that impossible. Whoever advises her should have known that, and if no one who advises her did know that, she needs to get a few more advisers with better judgment.

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