Commentary Magazine


Topic: Middle East

Reform Conservatism, Foreign Policy, and Epistemic Closure

The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

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The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

In making the case for the necessity of an expanded debate on foreign policy, Douthat references two prominent paleocons, a left-wing opinion writer, and the “Israel Lobby” conspiracist Andrew Sullivan, none of whom has a fresh or coherent take on GOP foreign policy. In his one exception, he briefly mentions his coauthor Reihan Salam, a self-described neoconservative, but quickly insists that Salam’s worldview is “highly idiosyncratic, and takes as a given that the Iraq invasion was a folly”–in other words, he’s far enough removed from what Douthat refers to as “Cheneyism.”

I have a few thoughts. The first is that, if I conducted a discussion on domestic-policy reform conservatism while excluding actual reform conservatives, how informative do you suppose that would be? The second is, Douthat worries about affiliation with identifiably neoconservative and hawkish organizations, which presumably is why he doesn’t even mention our own Pete Wehner, himself one of the prominent reformicons.

And that leads to the third point, which is closely related. I understand the realist right’s desire to see their own policy preferences reflected in the Republican Party’s agenda. And I welcome them to the debate many of us are already having, regardless of the mistakes I think they made. For example, the realist approach to Russia has been a complete and total failure–one with consequences. The realist fantasy of strongman-stability in the Middle East is currently in flames, with the death toll rising (and rising and rising). The realist take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as we see, is disastrous, etc. But I’m happy for the realists to finally be engaging this debate, and I’m not interested in putting them in cherem just because they’ve been wrong as often as they have.

If you can’t name any hawks you’ve been reading on the subject, perhaps you haven’t been reading enough hawks. So let me do some outreach. Here at COMMENTARY, we’ve been having this debate for years, and it continues. Here, for example, is John Agresto–who served in the Bush administration in Iraq–critiquing the policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia. The article is followed by Abe Greenwald’s response. It’s a thoughtful debate on the relationship between democracy and liberalism and the thorny issue of culture.

More recently, here is my essay on the war on terror in which I engage the criticism of it from all sides–left, right, and center, and offer my own critique of some of the right’s approach to the war on terror. Here is Joshua Muravchik on “Neoconservatives and the Arab Spring.” Those are broad topics, and perhaps reformicons would like discussions with specific relevance to current debates. Should we arm the Syrian rebels? Here is Michael Rubin arguing no; here is Max Boot arguing yes. Here is Pete Wehner on nonintervention and global instability. Here is Michael Auslin on Ukraine and North Korea; Jamie Kirchick on Russia; Jonathan Foreman on Afghanistan.

I could go on. And it’s certainly not just here at COMMENTARY either. I realize that none of the links I’ve offered are in themselves a complete blueprint for a foreign-policy agenda. But neither is vague nostalgia for the days of James Baker. (Reform conservatives looking to shake things up by revivifying the administration of George H.W. Bush because they’re unhappy with the administration of George W. Bush is no more groundbreaking or creative than those on the right who just repeat the word “Reagan” over and over again–which, by the way, includes the realists’ beloved Rand Paul.)

My point in here is that there has been an ongoing debate, assessment, and reassessment of conservative internationalism, neoconservative foreign policy, and interventionist strategy on the right. If conservative reformers truly want a debate, they’ll need to engage the arguments already taking place instead of talking amongst themselves about the conservative movement’s hawkish establishment.

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Is There an Antidote to Iran’s Regional Strategy?

Jordan is a sectarian state. Many here do not hesitate to cast aspersions toward Shi‘ites and, of course, it was Jordan’s King Abdullah II who coined the term “the Shi‘ite crescent,” implying that Shi‘ites across the Middle East from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Kuwait and Bahrain harbor dual loyalty and were actually Iranian fifth columnists. Some Shi‘ites may look toward Iran for guidance—the way that many Sunnis perhaps drink in Saudi or Qatari propaganda a bit too uncritically—but the broad majority dislike Iran. Sectarian solidarity is more a mirage than reality, especially when confronted with other bases for identity like ethnicity, nationality, or tribal identity, in the case of more rural Shi‘ite communities.

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Jordan is a sectarian state. Many here do not hesitate to cast aspersions toward Shi‘ites and, of course, it was Jordan’s King Abdullah II who coined the term “the Shi‘ite crescent,” implying that Shi‘ites across the Middle East from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Kuwait and Bahrain harbor dual loyalty and were actually Iranian fifth columnists. Some Shi‘ites may look toward Iran for guidance—the way that many Sunnis perhaps drink in Saudi or Qatari propaganda a bit too uncritically—but the broad majority dislike Iran. Sectarian solidarity is more a mirage than reality, especially when confronted with other bases for identity like ethnicity, nationality, or tribal identity, in the case of more rural Shi‘ite communities.

That said, the threat from Iran is real. The ideal of the export of revolution is written into both the Islamic Republic’s constitution and the founding statutes of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In 2008, Ayatollah Shahroudi, responding to the notion put forward by former President Muhammad Khatami that export of revolution was about soft power, made clear the supreme leader’s understanding that revolutionary export was military in nature. Those who say that Iran hasn’t invaded any other country in more than 200 years and suggest that the Islamic Republic is somehow pacific or simply acting defensively do not understand the notion that not all warfare is direct.

Indeed, a former member of the Iraqi intelligence service who spent years working on the Iran file put it best when he observed that the failure of Iran’s counterattack in the wake of Iraq’s 1980 invasion led it to recognize that it could not defeat regional states through traditional military tactics, and so it developed a concerted strategy to undermine states from within by co-opting politicians, sponsoring militias, and provoking internal conflicts. In Lebanon, Hezbollah creates political stalemate (thanks to its empowerment by the 2008 Doha Agreement) and then uses the paralyzed government to further its influence in society. In Syria, Hezbollah seeks not only to defend the Assad regime, but to actively target any person or group on either side of the conflict that presents a more moderate alternative to the extremists on both sides. For Iran, it is better to have chaos in Syria, see hundreds of thousands of Syrians die, and twenty times that number flee as refugees than it would be to have any stability not in a system not under Iran’s thumb.

Iraqi Shi‘ites often distrust Iran, but the voice of Iraqi Shi‘ites is ill-served by sectarian parties, some of which voluntarily subordinate themselves to Iranian aims, and others of which were forced into that situation by the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Iranian efforts to co-opt Shi‘ite sectarian parties and, for that matter, Kurdish parties as well serves to promote stalemate and prevent compromise. This undercuts any chance for stability, creating a situation which Iran or its proxy militias can further exploit.

The question for U.S. policymakers is whether, if Iran’s strategy is simply to paralyze and undercut the stability of regional states from within, U.S. policymakers have any strategy to counteract it. If Iran’s way of warfare is duplicitous and if it seeks to undermine states from within rather than confronting them head-on, then it behooves American policymakers not only to recognize it, but learn how to play the reverse game in order to buttress internal stability and maintain relations solid enough to provide balance and prevent the Qods Force from having free rein.

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Sacrificing the Kurds to Save a Narrative

Should the Kurds of Iraq forgo their aspirations for independence so the Obama administration can save face through the end of the president’s term? Though he didn’t word it quite that way, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kurdish leaders in Erbil yesterday to pitch that scenario.

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Should the Kurds of Iraq forgo their aspirations for independence so the Obama administration can save face through the end of the president’s term? Though he didn’t word it quite that way, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kurdish leaders in Erbil yesterday to pitch that scenario.

As Iraq continues to come apart, the Kurds are presented with an opportunity to realize genuine self-rule. That would mean Iraq would truly dissolve on Obama’s watch. The administration doesn’t want to deal with those optics, hence Kerry’s attempt to talk the Kurds into self-sacrifice:

In advance of Kerry’s arrival from Amman, Jordan, Barzani signaled yesterday that the “time is here” for the Kurds, a minority of 6.5 million, to decide on independence instead of what’s now a semi-autonomous state within Iraq. As fighting rages between extremists and Iraqi forces, the Kurds are in a position to be deal makers in political talks for a new government. …

A decision to go forward with independence would affect not only the future of about 17 percent of Iraq’s population of 33 million, but also whether the nation of Iraq dissolves into a loose federation or disappears. Either outcome would be a tectonic shift in regional politics with implications for neighbors Turkey, Iran and Syria, which also have Kurdish minorities.

The U.S. has said it wants Iraq to maintain its territorial integrity and seek a peaceful outcome through a new government that respects the interests of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. The Obama administration would strongly oppose Kurdish independence now as “another nail in the coffin of the Baghdad government,” said Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow in Washington at the Century Foundation and a former U.S. diplomat.

This is typical of the Obama administration. It pulls American influence back from an area of interest, which leaves a vacuum the administration then expects allies in the region–those left behind by Obama–to step into in order to mitigate the damage. Obama also takes allies for granted, acting as though they’ll never really be needed and then when they are, the president expects them to fall in line. And most of all, it trades away the freedom of others so Obama can uphold the illusion of stability.

It’s also characteristic of Obama in one more way: having almost no grasp of history–especially of the Middle East–he can’t learn from it, and instead gets policies flat wrong. He would do well to read Matti Friedman’s incisive piece in Mosaic this week. Friedman kicked off the discussion earlier in the month with an essay on Israel’s Mizrachim, a category broadly comprising Jews from Arab lands. Mosaic then, as per its custom, published a couple of learned responses. Friedman has followed up with a response of his own.

He begins by discussing how the advance of ISIS and similar fanatical groups throughout the Middle East is having a brutal effect on ethnic and religious minorities. They are virtually unprotected, and as such have no real influence on the events around them. “One of the biggest stories in the region in the past century—the disappearance of the old cosmopolitan mosaic that always found a way to exist under Islam but no longer can—has now picked up speed to an extent that would have been hard to imagine even two or three years ago,” Friedman writes. “Soon these communities will all be gone, and one of the great cultural losses of our times will be complete.”

He then explains that the story of the Jews–and specifically Middle Eastern Jews–holds a lesson for the region’s other minorities:

When one looks at the recently exiled Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, Christians, and others, the Jews displaced by Muslims from their ancestral homes beginning in the mid-20th century begin to look more and more like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. This is a role that Jews have often played in different parts of the world.

Are you an ethnic or religious minority that wishes to survive in the Middle East? You had better have a piece of land in which you are the majority, and the power to defend it. This is the lesson of the Kurds, as has been vividly brought home this past month, and it is the lesson of Israel.

And of course if you want that piece of land to call your own and the power to defend it, you’ll need some powerful allies. When the British Mandate expired and Israel declared its independence, the realist fans of stability around Harry Truman wanted idealism, fairness, and moral courage sidelined to avoid disrupting the status quo. Truman would have none of it, and recognized Israel immediately. Now the Kurds face a similar–though certainly not identical–situation.

It’s also possible the Kurdish elite aren’t as enthusiastic about independence as they appear–that such talk is intended to boost the concessions they can wring from the U.S. for staying in Iraq. But they have probably learned the historical lesson Friedman writes about and the fact that they might never have a better chance to strike out on their own. If that’s the case, Kerry is asking quite a lot of them in seeking to save a narrative at the expense of Kurdish national aspirations.

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Fouad Ajami, American Patriot

Fouad Ajami, an American patriot, died Sunday at age 68. Professor Ajami was a magnificent Middle East scholar, a writer of rare beauty and elegance, and a man of considerable wit, charm, and dignity.

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Fouad Ajami, an American patriot, died Sunday at age 68. Professor Ajami was a magnificent Middle East scholar, a writer of rare beauty and elegance, and a man of considerable wit, charm, and dignity.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in southern Lebanon, Ajami helped generations of Americans better understand the complex and tortured history of the Middle East. He was a prolific writer, having authored a half-dozen books and more than 400 essays on Arab and Islamic politics. From what I can tell, he never wrote a single sentence that was anything less than superb.

One of my jobs in the White House was to organize meetings between President Bush and scholars and public intellectuals. Fouad Ajami was a guest more than once. Being in this man’s company was among the highlights of my professional life; and developing a friendship with Fouad was a great personal privilege.

Prescient, generous, humane, lyrical and learned, Fouad Ajami was a man who seemed to belong to another, more civilized era. He was taken from us too early. The world will miss him; and so will I.

Requiescat in pace.

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The Pandering Hypocrisy of the Supposed Truth-Tellers

Glenn Greenwald certainly knows his audience. The writer at the center of the reporting on NSA defector Edward Snowden’s pilfered American security files gave an interview this week to Al-Akhbar, a Beirut-based paper whose pro-Bashar Assad extremism was too much even for Max Blumenthal. But Greenwald has a story to tell and a book to sell–it just happens to be a slightly different story depending on his audience.

If he’s talking to PBS, for example, the story is about the American security establishment’s need to return to the policies that “kept us safe with the Cold War. They could certainly keep us safe now,” as well as the necessity of keeping the Internet free to allow its users to flourish and to express themselves without fear or suffocating suspicion. But a pro-Assad publication would necessarily be a bit less concerned about American security, and it certainly wouldn’t much care for the free flow of information and personal expression. So Greenwald calibrates his pitch accordingly:

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Glenn Greenwald certainly knows his audience. The writer at the center of the reporting on NSA defector Edward Snowden’s pilfered American security files gave an interview this week to Al-Akhbar, a Beirut-based paper whose pro-Bashar Assad extremism was too much even for Max Blumenthal. But Greenwald has a story to tell and a book to sell–it just happens to be a slightly different story depending on his audience.

If he’s talking to PBS, for example, the story is about the American security establishment’s need to return to the policies that “kept us safe with the Cold War. They could certainly keep us safe now,” as well as the necessity of keeping the Internet free to allow its users to flourish and to express themselves without fear or suffocating suspicion. But a pro-Assad publication would necessarily be a bit less concerned about American security, and it certainly wouldn’t much care for the free flow of information and personal expression. So Greenwald calibrates his pitch accordingly:

AA – Is there actual movement on the ground now as a result of the publication of these documents, or is it just lip-service?

GG – There is a lot of movement, just in terms of public attitude. I think the most significant polling data I’ve seen is that every year since 9/11, Pew has asked Americans ‘do you find more threatening: the idea of foreign terrorism, or the government’s threats to your civil liberties?’, and every single year since 9/11 an overwhelming number of Americans have said ‘I fear terrorism more than I do the threat of the government infringing on my rights’, until 2013 when that completely reversed, obviously due to the Snowden disclosures. And you see politicians running in the Senate from both parties against the NSA, you see efforts to introduce bills to limit the NSA’s spying abilities, but the reality is that most of the changes are not going to come from the US government itself.

There will be symbolic gestures designed to pretend they’re doing it, but I think the limitations on the US ability to spy is going to come from a combination of other countries around the world standing together to introduce international regimes or build an infrastructure so the US doesn’t control the physical regime of the internet.

Introducing “international regimes” to control infrastructure in place of the United States or building a system with the U.S. on the outside looking into the control room are two options that would end up rolling back Internet freedom. Perhaps Greenwald thinks this is a fair tradeoff–that it’s worth sacrificing relatively unfettered Internet freedom for the sake of weakening America’s national-security apparatus. But Greenwald knows far too much about this issue to be unaware that that’s precisely what he’s suggesting.

And a publication with a history of supporting the tyrant shedding the most innocent blood in attempting to turn back the tide of the Arab Spring–and who continues to gas his opponents–is a perfect receptacle for this trash. Greenwald isn’t a truth-teller; he’s a panderer who assesses the level of hostility to American national defense in each interlocutor of his and provides them with the ammo to make their case.

Not that this is an earth-shattering revelation. The Greenwald-Snowden collaboration has been a boon to ruthless autocrats and tinpot dictators and the violence and propaganda they promote. But the piece in Al-Akhbar demonstrates the plain fact that those suffering under authoritarian regimes who would use the Internet to attempt to organize dissent have no friend in the Greenwald-Snowden tandem. They are undermined by them.

Greenwald also knew the paper would be a good place to offer some of his obtuse paranoia about another democracy that really gets under his skin:

Glenn Greenwald – We did a pretty big story that unsurprisingly didn’t get as much attention as it deserved in the American media back in September [2013] in the Guardian on how the NSA turns over massive amounts of communications to the Israelis without bothering to minimize it, and there was a Memorandum of Understanding between the Israeli surveillance agency and the NSA that we published, detailing how close the relationship was, and also part of that story there were also documents saying that although the US gives huge amounts of aid to the Israelis the Israelis are actually one of the most aggressive eavesdroppers on the US government and America generally, and that they try to make the relationship completely one-sided on behalf of Israel, so there is that that we published.

AA – Why wasn’t it made a big deal in the US?

GG – Because anything that reflects poorly on Israel is systematically ignored by most of America’s media…

The United States apparently is both an all-powerful global hegemon and bullied repeatedly by a nation the size of New Jersey. Greenwald doesn’t know which theory to believe, so he believes them both.

In any event, the purpose of this interview seems to be Greenwald’s declarations that more documents are coming on American cooperation with governments in the Middle East. Anyone who thought the project of leaking the NSA’s data collection was really going to be about curbing domestic surveillance in the name of constitutional oversight is no doubt feeling pretty silly these days.

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Obama’s Wishful Thinking

Last week, Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution and I had an op-ed in the New York Times which suggested that President Obama is looking not just to sign a nuclear deal with Iran but to convert that state from a destabilizing force into part of a concert of the Middle East that would keep the peace along with the U.S., EU, and Russia. Our argument, that Obama is seeking a “Nixon to China” moment, was based not on the president’s explicit remarks, which are characteristically cautious, but rather on reading between the lines of his rhetoric and actions.

Now comes further evidence that we were right, in the form of New Yorker editor David Remnick’s revealing interview with the president.

Remnick writes as follows:

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Last week, Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution and I had an op-ed in the New York Times which suggested that President Obama is looking not just to sign a nuclear deal with Iran but to convert that state from a destabilizing force into part of a concert of the Middle East that would keep the peace along with the U.S., EU, and Russia. Our argument, that Obama is seeking a “Nixon to China” moment, was based not on the president’s explicit remarks, which are characteristically cautious, but rather on reading between the lines of his rhetoric and actions.

Now comes further evidence that we were right, in the form of New Yorker editor David Remnick’s revealing interview with the president.

Remnick writes as follows:

Ultimately, he envisages a new geopolitical equilibrium, one less turbulent than the current landscape of civil war, terror, and sectarian battle. “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” he told me. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.

This is wishful thinking, not a realistic assessment of U.S.-Iran relations at a time when the mullahs are more active than ever in backing violent proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain, among other states. The problem is that the costs of Obama’s Iran gambit are considerable. As Doran and I noted, the less that the U.S. does to oppose Iranian designs, the more that Sunni states will do—and in the process they will wind up empowering extremists of the kind who currently roam freely through western Iran and northern and eastern Syria. But the president seems blind to the costs of his outreach to Iran, which is worsening a regional civil war, because he is so mesmerized by the prospect of an agreement that will secure his place in foreign-policy history.

At one point Remnick, who seems to be channeling the inner Obama (he claims, echoing the president, that the GOP is “fuelled less by ideas than by resentments”), writes:  “A final pact, if one could be arrived at, would end the prospect of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and the hell that could follow: terror attacks, proxy battles, regional war—take your pick. An agreement could even help normalize relations between the United States and Iran for the first time since the Islamic Revolution, in 1979. Obama put the odds of a final accord at less than even, but, still, how was this not good news?”

The problem is that this is undoubtedly how Obama views the issue too—with the biggest threat coming not from an Iran in possession of nuclear weapons but from the “prospect of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.” Because the mullahs know where he stands, and realize how little they have to fear from Obama now that they have succeeded in getting him to back off crushing sanctions, he is unlikely to achieve his ambition of stopping the Iranian nuclear program, much less his grand design of integrating Iran into a peaceful new equilibrium in the Middle East.

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Israel’s “Natural Allies”?

Israelis often ask themselves whether they have any “natural allies” in the Middle East. When they do, they usually settle either on nearby minorities or states on the far edges of the Middle East. Israel is located in the heart of a region that is overwhelmingly Muslim and Arab, so there have been times when it has fostered ties with those who aren’t Muslim or Arab. This approach is often attributed to David Ben-Gurion, who pursued it in the early years of the state, but it began even earlier. It reached a culmination in the early 1970s, when Israel was busy cultivating the Maronites of Lebanon, the Kurds of northern Iraq, and secessionists in southern Sudan. Israel also tried to outflank the Arab world by bonding with the Shah’s Iran. It all made perfect sense.

Except that it didn’t work. The policy was meant to create difficulties on the Arab flank, but none of these efforts relieved Arab pressure on Israel’s borders, which erupted in war after war. The policy came to an end between 1978 and 1982, following three developments: Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution turned Iran into an implacable foe of Israel; the peace treaty with Egypt broke the key link in the chain of Arab Muslim hostility; and the war in Lebanon exposed Israel’s decades-long ties to the Maronites as a liability. Since then, Israel has pursued a policy of cutting deals with its nearer Arab Muslim neighbors: Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians. For all the limitations of these accommodations, they have effectively precluded state-to-state wars. Israel hasn’t had to fight one since 1973.

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Israelis often ask themselves whether they have any “natural allies” in the Middle East. When they do, they usually settle either on nearby minorities or states on the far edges of the Middle East. Israel is located in the heart of a region that is overwhelmingly Muslim and Arab, so there have been times when it has fostered ties with those who aren’t Muslim or Arab. This approach is often attributed to David Ben-Gurion, who pursued it in the early years of the state, but it began even earlier. It reached a culmination in the early 1970s, when Israel was busy cultivating the Maronites of Lebanon, the Kurds of northern Iraq, and secessionists in southern Sudan. Israel also tried to outflank the Arab world by bonding with the Shah’s Iran. It all made perfect sense.

Except that it didn’t work. The policy was meant to create difficulties on the Arab flank, but none of these efforts relieved Arab pressure on Israel’s borders, which erupted in war after war. The policy came to an end between 1978 and 1982, following three developments: Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution turned Iran into an implacable foe of Israel; the peace treaty with Egypt broke the key link in the chain of Arab Muslim hostility; and the war in Lebanon exposed Israel’s decades-long ties to the Maronites as a liability. Since then, Israel has pursued a policy of cutting deals with its nearer Arab Muslim neighbors: Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians. For all the limitations of these accommodations, they have effectively precluded state-to-state wars. Israel hasn’t had to fight one since 1973.

The so-called “Arab spring” has created turmoil around Israel, casting doubt on the stability of Israel’s Arab partners. In turn, some analysts have argued that Israel should return to its earlier policy of cultivating minorities and states on the periphery, from Kurdistan to Greece. Ofir Haivry of the new Herzl Institute has made just that case at Mosaic Magazine. I’ve offered a response, arguing against alliances with the weak and suggesting other alternatives. Israel isn’t alone in worrying about American retrenchment, and that may open opportunities. (See also responses by Michael Doran and Efraim Inbar, my own “natural allies” of long standing.) After reading, be sure to check back later at Mosaic Magazine, where Haivry will have the last word.

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The Missing Pivot

So much for the vaunted “Pacific pivot.” When Barack Obama came into office, he vowed to reverse the Bush administration’s focus on the Middle East by “rebalancing” toward East Asia and the looming menace of China. The argument of the incoming administration was that the previous administration had lost sight of the bigger strategic realities as a result of the post-9/11 aftermath.

It turns out it’s not so easy to disengage from the Middle East–or to double down on the Far East. Look at what happened this weekend, or rather what didn’t happen.

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So much for the vaunted “Pacific pivot.” When Barack Obama came into office, he vowed to reverse the Bush administration’s focus on the Middle East by “rebalancing” toward East Asia and the looming menace of China. The argument of the incoming administration was that the previous administration had lost sight of the bigger strategic realities as a result of the post-9/11 aftermath.

It turns out it’s not so easy to disengage from the Middle East–or to double down on the Far East. Look at what happened this weekend, or rather what didn’t happen.

On the one hand, Obama ordered commando raids in Libya and Somalia. This comes after weeks, even months, of near-total focus in Washington on Syria and Iran–not on China or North Korea. On the other hand, Obama decided to not to go on a planned swing through East Asia. This included skipping an Asia Pacific Economic Summit meeting in Indonesia. Secretary of State John Kerry went instead, but he simply doesn’t carry the same diplomatic megawattage as the president. Obama’s absence left China’s leader, Xi Jinping, as the top dog.

Obama’s absence had more than symbolic import. It probably slowed the process of completing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade zone that includes most of the major countries of East Asia but excludes China. More broadly, Obama’s absence no doubt causes wavering nations such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and many others, which fear China but live in its shadow, to doubt how much they can rely on a putative alliance with the United States.

The president’s absence suggests that dysfunction and deficits at home are preventing American engagement in the broader world. That impression is not necessarily true; if Delta Force and SEAL Team Six could travel abroad this weekend, even as the government is partially shuttered, so too President Obama could have traveled. He just didn’t want to, because he figured it would be bad politics to leave the country during a major budget crisis. It would certainly hamper, in a cynical interpretation, his efforts to lay all the blame on the Republican side, or, to adopt a more charitable explanation, to negotiate a way to end the crisis.

That’s an understandable political calculation, and one that most presidents no doubt would have made. But it comes at a strategic cost in the very region of the world that Obama claimed he would pay more attention to.

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American Military Retrenchment and Nuclear Proliferation

The New York Times had a fascinating article on the latest Korean crisis the other day which noted that two-thirds of South Koreans now support developing their own nuclear deterrent–a radical idea for a nation that has been such a close American ally for decades but one that is gaining strength among some foreign policy elites. Significantly, it is not just the increasingly shrill line from Pyongyang which is causing alarm in the South. There are also doubts about the reliability of the U.S. as a protector. The Times notes

Beyond the immediate fear of a military provocation, analysts say deeper anxieties are also at work in the South. One of the biggest is the creeping resurgence of old fears about the reliability of this nation’s longtime protector, the United States. Experts say the talk of South Korea’s acquiring nuclear weapons is an oblique way to voice the concerns of a small but growing number of South Koreans that the United States, either because of budget cuts or a lack of will, may one day no longer act as the South’s ultimate insurance policy.

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The New York Times had a fascinating article on the latest Korean crisis the other day which noted that two-thirds of South Koreans now support developing their own nuclear deterrent–a radical idea for a nation that has been such a close American ally for decades but one that is gaining strength among some foreign policy elites. Significantly, it is not just the increasingly shrill line from Pyongyang which is causing alarm in the South. There are also doubts about the reliability of the U.S. as a protector. The Times notes

Beyond the immediate fear of a military provocation, analysts say deeper anxieties are also at work in the South. One of the biggest is the creeping resurgence of old fears about the reliability of this nation’s longtime protector, the United States. Experts say the talk of South Korea’s acquiring nuclear weapons is an oblique way to voice the concerns of a small but growing number of South Koreans that the United States, either because of budget cuts or a lack of will, may one day no longer act as the South’s ultimate insurance policy.

That is a powerful testament to the growing doubts around the world about American power in the Age of Obama–even if the South Koreans and others would not put it that way. Surveys show widespread global admiration for Obama, but there is growing discomfort with the “lead from behind” doctrine that has come to be associated with his administration. Those doubts are only amplified by the sequester, which Obama dreamed up and has allowed to go into effect, thereby jeopardizing our military strength, because of his unwillingness to reach agreement with Republicans over any deficit deal that does not raise taxes.

It is not just South Koreans and other Asian allies who wonder if the U.S. will be there for them as they are threatened by North Korea–or by a China that is growing increasingly assertive in trying to expand it sovereignty over various islands claimed by Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and other nations with little pushback from Washington. So, too, Middle Eastern allies worry as they see Washington failing to stop the Iranian nuclear program or to do more to stop Iran’s allies in Syria from trying to defeat a popular uprising using horrific violence.

So far those doubts are muted, but if present trends continue they will get louder over time–and we will see the world becoming a more dangerous place. Not just because American power serves to restrain our enemies but also because it restrains our allies–especially countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, who could easily go nuclear if they choose. They have decided, thus far, to refrain from fielding their own nuclear arsenals because they have been sheltered under the American nuclear umbrella. But if that umbrella frays–because of nuclear cuts that Obama is trying to implement or because of a general weakening of our defense or simply a decline in our credibility–then they will do what they have to do to protect themselves and the world will become a much more dangerous place as nuclear arms races break out in the Middle East and East Asia.

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Does the Mideast Want an Isolationist U.S.?

Anglo-Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, the darling of the moment among the anti-Western intellectual set, has a New York Times op-ed today which seems to translate his wishful thinking–he desires America to leave the Middle East to its own devices–into a prediction that we will in fact do what he desires. I very much doubt that we will do so, no matter who is elected president in November–and if we do the entire region will pay a devastating price. His history is as shaky as his prognosticating.

It is hardly reassuring that Mishra compares the U.S. departure from the Middle East to our defeat in Vietnam in 1975. He seems to imagine we were evicted from South Vietnam by a spontaneous nationalist demonstration. In reality, of course, South Vietnam was conquered by a North Vietnamese armored blitzkrieg. There was never a popular uprising in South Vietnam to express preference for rule from Hanoi; indeed southerners remain resentful to this day of the northern-dominated government (as I discovered on a recent trip to Vietnam).

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Anglo-Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, the darling of the moment among the anti-Western intellectual set, has a New York Times op-ed today which seems to translate his wishful thinking–he desires America to leave the Middle East to its own devices–into a prediction that we will in fact do what he desires. I very much doubt that we will do so, no matter who is elected president in November–and if we do the entire region will pay a devastating price. His history is as shaky as his prognosticating.

It is hardly reassuring that Mishra compares the U.S. departure from the Middle East to our defeat in Vietnam in 1975. He seems to imagine we were evicted from South Vietnam by a spontaneous nationalist demonstration. In reality, of course, South Vietnam was conquered by a North Vietnamese armored blitzkrieg. There was never a popular uprising in South Vietnam to express preference for rule from Hanoi; indeed southerners remain resentful to this day of the northern-dominated government (as I discovered on a recent trip to Vietnam).

Mishra falls for the old Communist propaganda line that Ho Chi Minh was happy to work with the United States but that, in a fit of anti-Communist paranoia, we foolishly rebuffed his overtures: “As early as 1919,” he writes, “Ho Chi Minh, dressed in a morning suit and armed with quotations from the Declaration of Independence, had tried to petition President Woodrow Wilson for an end to French rule over Indochina.” Mishra seems blissfully unaware that just a year later, in 1920, Ho Chi Minh (or, as he was then known, Nguyen Ai Quoc) was a delegate at the Congress which founded the French Communist Party and just a few years after that he went to work as agent of the Russian-run Comintern (Communist International).

If he had bothered to read William Duiker’s definitive biography, “Ho Chi Minh,” he would have found out that, while Ho was a dedicated nationalist, he was an equally dedicated communist–and one who did not hesitate to kill and lock up large numbers of domestic enemies. In other words, hardly an ideal American ally. Ho was willing to work with the U.S. in a common cause (fighting Japan) and he surely hoped for U.S. aid after the war–but then Stalin was willing to receive American aid too. That did not mean that he was a good bet as a long-term American ally. Neither was Ho. Ironically, Mishra goes on to write of the Middle East: “Given its long history of complicity with dictators in the region, from the shah of Iran to Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak, the United States faces a huge deficit of trust.” Apparently he does not consider what views of the U.S. would have been in Southeast Asia if we had spent decades cooperating with a Communist dictator like Ho or his even more brutal successor, Le Duan.

He seems to imagine that the Middle East will do as well as Vietnam did after the American defeat in 1975–conveniently ignoring the boat people of Vietnam, the reeducation camps, and the killing fields of Cambodia, all the direct result of American withdrawal. “Although it’s politically unpalatable to mention it during an election campaign,” he writes, “the case for a strategic American retreat from the Middle East and Afghanistan has rarely been more compelling. It’s especially strong as growing energy independence reduces America’s burden for policing the region, and its supposed ally, Israel, shows alarming signs of turning into a loose cannon.”

There are multiple levels on which one can object to this astonishing statement (what, exactly, has Israel, a true and not “supposed” ally, done to be termed a “loose cannon”–expressing alarm about the Iranian nuclear program?). But what is most striking to me is the way in which a self-styled spokesman on behalf of the Third World ignores what people in the Middle East are saying. What, exactly, is his evidence that the people of the Middle East want us to leave?

He writes: “It is not just extremist Salafis who think Americans always have malevolent intentions: the Egyptian anti-Islamist demonstrators who pelted Hillary Rodham Clinton’s motorcade in Alexandria with rotten eggs in July were convinced that America was making shady deals with the Muslim Brotherhood.” But do the anti-Islamist activists in Egypt want the U.S. to sever our relations with their country? Hardly. They want a more active American role. So, too, Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, does not want America to leave–he wants our aid, especially our financial aid.

The same case could be extended across the region–from the United Arab Emirates in the east to Morocco in the west, the Middle East is mainly made up of governments that desire close relations with the U.S. and are petrified of the consequences of American withdrawal, which they know will give a free hand to the Iranian mullahs, al-Qaeda, and other malevolent forces. Mishra might dismiss the desires of these governments because many of them are unelected, but even in Libya, the region’s newest democracy, the dominant desire is clearly to ally with the United States, which is why we saw anti-extremist demonstrations in Benghazi recently to protest the killing of the U.S. ambassador.

Mishra should not make the mistake of confusing his own desire (for a post-American world) with the actual views of the people he arrogantly claims to speak for.

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We Still Need to Protect Oil Interests

The Wall Street Journal has the umpteenth article today trumpeting the technological advances–primarily fracking–that are allowing oil companies to uncover and exploit vast, untapped fields in North America. This is leading a dramatic decline in our need for imported oil, especially oil imported from the Middle East. As the Journal notes:

By 2020, nearly half of the crude oil America consumes will be produced at home, while 82 percent will come from this side of the Atlantic, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By 2035, oil shipments from the Middle East to North America “could almost be nonexistent,” the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries recently predicted, partly because more efficient car engines and a growing supply of renewable fuel will help curb demand.

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The Wall Street Journal has the umpteenth article today trumpeting the technological advances–primarily fracking–that are allowing oil companies to uncover and exploit vast, untapped fields in North America. This is leading a dramatic decline in our need for imported oil, especially oil imported from the Middle East. As the Journal notes:

By 2020, nearly half of the crude oil America consumes will be produced at home, while 82 percent will come from this side of the Atlantic, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By 2035, oil shipments from the Middle East to North America “could almost be nonexistent,” the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries recently predicted, partly because more efficient car engines and a growing supply of renewable fuel will help curb demand.

Great news! We can all agree on that. But does this mean that in the future we will be able to ignore developments in the Middle East? That we will no longer have to spend some $50 billion a year (as estimated by Brookings’ Mike O’Hanlon) to protect the flow of oil? Were that it were so. In reality, as the article notes, oil is a global commodity, so supply disruptions in the Middle East–which our European and Asian trading partners remain reliant upon–would still drive up the cost of gasoline in the United States.

Another point worth keeping in mind, which goes unmentioned in this article: Much of the reason we remain concerned about the Middle East is because its oil supplies produce revenue streams that can be used for all sorts of nefarious purposes. Just think of the Saudis funding the promulgation of Wahhabi fundamentalist doctrines around the world–or of the Iranians building nuclear weapons. As long as oil is valuable–and there is scant prospect of that changing anytime in the foreseeable future–we will have to remain concerned about who controls it. And that means we will need to have a substantial military presence in the Middle East.

It’s not simply a defensive deployment either: Don’t forget that China is heavily dependent on the Middle East for its own oil. As long as our Navy can close its supply routes, we will hold a valuable cudgel that could be employed in the event of a crisis.

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Obama Ceding Middle East and South Asia to China

In his influential NightWatch security newsletter, analyst John McCreary notes the impetus behind the new Chinese/UAE strategic partnership announced yesterday:

China has maintained a strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia since before the first Gulf War. The closer relationship with the UAE signifies that China intends to be consequential in both Sunni Arab states as well as Shiite Iran. A recent analysis concluded that Arab states friendly to the U.S. now perceive that the will to use U.S. influence in the Middle East is waning and thus have begun looking for other partners to help ensure their long term security. China is the obvious candidate and is showing that it is prepared to fill any power vacuum the U.S. chooses to leave.

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In his influential NightWatch security newsletter, analyst John McCreary notes the impetus behind the new Chinese/UAE strategic partnership announced yesterday:

China has maintained a strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia since before the first Gulf War. The closer relationship with the UAE signifies that China intends to be consequential in both Sunni Arab states as well as Shiite Iran. A recent analysis concluded that Arab states friendly to the U.S. now perceive that the will to use U.S. influence in the Middle East is waning and thus have begun looking for other partners to help ensure their long term security. China is the obvious candidate and is showing that it is prepared to fill any power vacuum the U.S. chooses to leave.

The shifting calculus in the Middle East is a repeat of what’s already happened in the South China Sea. Jitters over American intentions had led allies to dismiss the U.S.’s commitment to checking Chinese expansionism. Their worries were confirmed when the Obama administration began responding to provocative PLAN deployments with weird combinations of timidness and snideness.

The Navy knows China is going to make a play for shipping lanes, and Beijing will launch cyberattacks against American assets in the Pacific (on a smaller scale, Chinese hackers recently cracked U.S. military access cards and raided Army, Navy, and Air Force infrastructure). But instead of pursuing a military buildup that could check Chinese ascendency – something Max Boot called for last summer – the president has vowed to veto any attempt by Congress to circumvent the militarily-devastating sequestration tied to the Super Committee’s failure.

The administration has been insisting defense cuts will be reversible if the U.S. goes to war, but that’s politically-driven incoherence. Even assuming that periphery industries won’t shut down as demand shrivels – which has already happened in America’s solid fuel rocket industry, and which will inevitably result from the 1.5 million jobs sequestration will destroy – it just takes too much time to build new ships and planes. As of last month the Pentagon was still literally in denial.

Meanwhile, the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program – critical to fighting China’s still-predominantly green water navy – remains woeful. Next-generation jets, which are minimally necessary given the very real possibility that Chinese technology has deeply eroded the U.S.’s stealth advantage, will be delayed by cuts. Two hundred existing planes will be taken offline.

U.S. allies are already responding to what they perceive as voluntary American withdrawal, and they’re adjusting their relationships with China accordingly. That can still be reversed with enough diplomatic and political will, which is why regional actors are still hedging their bets (Mitt Romney, for instance, has made a point of focusing on the need for American naval power). But let Obama’s military cuts go too deep for too long, and American decline will become inevitable and undeniable. The rest of the world will make its calculations accordingly.

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What Jerry Brown Does Not Propose to Cut, Realign, or Reform

It was easy to miss California Governor Jerry Brown’s State of the State address on Monday this week. Besides competing with events in the Middle East, his speech had the disadvantage of being little more than a pitch to California voters for the budget plan his office published in January. The plan is touted as inflicting pain on everyone, but it doesn’t. It postpones, for separate deliberation, a remedy for California’s looming $700 billion public-pension deficit. And it leaves the state’s regulatory posture untouched.

The Brown budget plan does propose significant cuts in health, higher-education, and welfare spending. It proposes a “fundamental realignment” of government that would shift more of the responsibility to pay for police and fire services, criminal courts, prisons, and parole programs to the counties and major cities. Brown plans to ease this transition with a five-year extension of the current, elevated tax rates, from which the revenues would be distributed to local governments. His budget includes consolidation of administrative functions in the state government, along with cuts of 8-10 percent in state-worker compensation.

But ultimately, the Brown approach is narrow and exclusively fiscal. The governor is trying to balance the books without addressing the government-imposed conditions that tend, inevitably, to unbalance them. The problem of unsustainable pensions is one of those conditions — and while Brown does propose to address it, he hasn’t attached any real incentives to the debate. By contrast, however, he is prepared to hold state funds for police and fire services hostage to the people’s willingness to vote for a tax extension. It’s a tribute to his laid-back brand of pugnacity (and the quiescence of the California media) that this veiled threat has gone virtually unrecognized for what it is. A New York politician would not be so lucky.

As alarming as the pension problem is, a more fundamental dysfunction is California’s vigorous, energetic, enthusiastically experimental regulatory environment. Regulation, as much as the tax code, drives businesses and jobs out of the state. Besides creating the artificial drought in the San Joaquin Valley, regulation has shut down entirely such potential sources of revenue as offshore drilling and modernized refineries, while ensuring that the state’s power and water infrastructures will not be adequately updated, and imposing some of the nation’s highest compliance costs on businesses and customers.

But Jerry Brown doesn’t propose to change policy on these matters, nor does he propose any changes in the administration of the regulatory environment. State regulatory agencies and their charters will be affected, in his budget, only by the government-wide consolidation of functions.

At some point, it may occur to California voters that they’re being asked to do all the adjusting so that the state government need suffer no interruption in imposing an ideological vision on them. I don’t see any other state government proposing to make these same choices in 2011; as usual, California is out on its own limb. It will be instructive, and no doubt cautionary, to observe what happens.

It was easy to miss California Governor Jerry Brown’s State of the State address on Monday this week. Besides competing with events in the Middle East, his speech had the disadvantage of being little more than a pitch to California voters for the budget plan his office published in January. The plan is touted as inflicting pain on everyone, but it doesn’t. It postpones, for separate deliberation, a remedy for California’s looming $700 billion public-pension deficit. And it leaves the state’s regulatory posture untouched.

The Brown budget plan does propose significant cuts in health, higher-education, and welfare spending. It proposes a “fundamental realignment” of government that would shift more of the responsibility to pay for police and fire services, criminal courts, prisons, and parole programs to the counties and major cities. Brown plans to ease this transition with a five-year extension of the current, elevated tax rates, from which the revenues would be distributed to local governments. His budget includes consolidation of administrative functions in the state government, along with cuts of 8-10 percent in state-worker compensation.

But ultimately, the Brown approach is narrow and exclusively fiscal. The governor is trying to balance the books without addressing the government-imposed conditions that tend, inevitably, to unbalance them. The problem of unsustainable pensions is one of those conditions — and while Brown does propose to address it, he hasn’t attached any real incentives to the debate. By contrast, however, he is prepared to hold state funds for police and fire services hostage to the people’s willingness to vote for a tax extension. It’s a tribute to his laid-back brand of pugnacity (and the quiescence of the California media) that this veiled threat has gone virtually unrecognized for what it is. A New York politician would not be so lucky.

As alarming as the pension problem is, a more fundamental dysfunction is California’s vigorous, energetic, enthusiastically experimental regulatory environment. Regulation, as much as the tax code, drives businesses and jobs out of the state. Besides creating the artificial drought in the San Joaquin Valley, regulation has shut down entirely such potential sources of revenue as offshore drilling and modernized refineries, while ensuring that the state’s power and water infrastructures will not be adequately updated, and imposing some of the nation’s highest compliance costs on businesses and customers.

But Jerry Brown doesn’t propose to change policy on these matters, nor does he propose any changes in the administration of the regulatory environment. State regulatory agencies and their charters will be affected, in his budget, only by the government-wide consolidation of functions.

At some point, it may occur to California voters that they’re being asked to do all the adjusting so that the state government need suffer no interruption in imposing an ideological vision on them. I don’t see any other state government proposing to make these same choices in 2011; as usual, California is out on its own limb. It will be instructive, and no doubt cautionary, to observe what happens.

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Rand Paul Repeats Calls to End Aid to Israel

Sen. Rand Paul has doubled down on his call to cut foreign aid to Israel, despite the complete lack of political support for the proposal on the Hill:

I’m not singling out Israel. I support Israel. I want to be known as a friend of Israel, but not with money you don’t have,” he said. “We can’t just borrow from our kids’ future and give it to countries, even if they are our friends.”

And, he said, giving money to the country is especially unwise considering Israel’s relative wealth. “I think they’re an important ally, but I also think that their per capita income is greater than probably three-fourths of the rest of the world,” he said. “Should we be giving free money or welfare to a wealthy nation? I don’t think so.”

Pro-Israel conservative leaders disagree — and some are already disputing Paul’s claim that the Tea Party supports cutting aid to Israel.

“I do not believe that the Senator’s comments are representative of the Tea Party or the wider American public. [Christians United for Israel's] members and leaders have met on several occasions with Tea Party leaders and elected officials; throughout our meetings, Tea Party leaders consistently expressed their commitment to supporting Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East,” said Christians United for Israel’s Rev. John Hagee in a press statement.

CUFI said its supporters have sent more than 22,500 e-mails criticizing the proposal to Paul’s office.

Like his father, Rand Paul seems to relish being a lone dissenter. But while the elder Paul is easy to ignore, the younger Paul is shaping up to be more of a force to be reckoned with. For one, the Kentucky senator is a much more convincing speaker than his father. He also doesn’t have to deal with past charges of racism and anti-Semitism.

So while there’s almost no chance that Paul’s position on Israeli aid will win political support at the moment, his proposal should still be a concern for Israel supporters.

Sen. Rand Paul has doubled down on his call to cut foreign aid to Israel, despite the complete lack of political support for the proposal on the Hill:

I’m not singling out Israel. I support Israel. I want to be known as a friend of Israel, but not with money you don’t have,” he said. “We can’t just borrow from our kids’ future and give it to countries, even if they are our friends.”

And, he said, giving money to the country is especially unwise considering Israel’s relative wealth. “I think they’re an important ally, but I also think that their per capita income is greater than probably three-fourths of the rest of the world,” he said. “Should we be giving free money or welfare to a wealthy nation? I don’t think so.”

Pro-Israel conservative leaders disagree — and some are already disputing Paul’s claim that the Tea Party supports cutting aid to Israel.

“I do not believe that the Senator’s comments are representative of the Tea Party or the wider American public. [Christians United for Israel's] members and leaders have met on several occasions with Tea Party leaders and elected officials; throughout our meetings, Tea Party leaders consistently expressed their commitment to supporting Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East,” said Christians United for Israel’s Rev. John Hagee in a press statement.

CUFI said its supporters have sent more than 22,500 e-mails criticizing the proposal to Paul’s office.

Like his father, Rand Paul seems to relish being a lone dissenter. But while the elder Paul is easy to ignore, the younger Paul is shaping up to be more of a force to be reckoned with. For one, the Kentucky senator is a much more convincing speaker than his father. He also doesn’t have to deal with past charges of racism and anti-Semitism.

So while there’s almost no chance that Paul’s position on Israeli aid will win political support at the moment, his proposal should still be a concern for Israel supporters.

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More on the Freedom Agenda

I want to add several thought to John’s illuminating post on neoconservatism and democracy.

1. The most radical Islamic governments in the world — Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iraq under Saddam, Sudan, Syria, the PLO under Yasir Arafat, and others — did not come to power through elections. The Middle East, without democracy, is hardly a region characterized by tranquility and peace. And we have plenty of successful precedents of authoritarian/totalitarian regimes making a successful transition to democracy (in Central and Eastern Europe, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, Iraq, and post–WWII Japan and Germany among them).

2. The fact that not every election goes as we might hope does not invalidate support for elections or the effort to promote liberty in other lands. Adolf Hitler came to power through elections in Germany in 1933. Should that election have undermined democracy as an idea?

3. Freedom has a remarkable historical track record, including in regions of the world once thought to be inimical to it. But it takes patience and commitment to see it through to success. The democratic evolution of Iraq, while certainly imperfect and fragile, is a source of encouragement. And among the best testimonies to how lethal liberty is to the aims of militant Islam is the energy and ruthlessness with which al-Qaeda and Iran tried to strangle freedom in Iraq.

4. If a healthy political culture is the sine qua non for self-government, then we are essentially telling every, or at least many, non-democratic societies that freedom is beyond their reach. It’s not. Still, strong liberal institutions will certainly assist freedom to take root. That’s why American policy should encourage democratic institution-building. Our influence in this area is often limited; but limited is not the same as nonexistent.

5. It’s not clear what the alternative is for the critics of democracy. The Egyptian revolution began in response to the oppression of the Mubarak regime, without American support. Given where we are, do critics of the freedom agenda believe we should support more repression in order to exert even greater control within Arab societies — repression that helped give rise to the resentments, violence, and toxic anti-Americanism that has characterized much of the Middle East?

In the Middle East, Western nations tolerated oppression for the sake of “stability.” But this merely bought time as ideologies of violence took hold. As the events in Egypt demonstrate, the sand has just about run out of the hourglass.

This doesn’t mean that our policy should be indiscriminate. The goal isn’t for America to act as a scythe that decapitates every autocratic regime in the world. And it doesn’t mean that democratic-led revolutions can’t be hijacked.

Still, there’s no way other than democracy to fundamentally reform the Arab Middle East. Self-government and the accompanying rise in free institutions is the only route to a better world — and because the work is difficult, doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

I want to add several thought to John’s illuminating post on neoconservatism and democracy.

1. The most radical Islamic governments in the world — Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iraq under Saddam, Sudan, Syria, the PLO under Yasir Arafat, and others — did not come to power through elections. The Middle East, without democracy, is hardly a region characterized by tranquility and peace. And we have plenty of successful precedents of authoritarian/totalitarian regimes making a successful transition to democracy (in Central and Eastern Europe, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, Iraq, and post–WWII Japan and Germany among them).

2. The fact that not every election goes as we might hope does not invalidate support for elections or the effort to promote liberty in other lands. Adolf Hitler came to power through elections in Germany in 1933. Should that election have undermined democracy as an idea?

3. Freedom has a remarkable historical track record, including in regions of the world once thought to be inimical to it. But it takes patience and commitment to see it through to success. The democratic evolution of Iraq, while certainly imperfect and fragile, is a source of encouragement. And among the best testimonies to how lethal liberty is to the aims of militant Islam is the energy and ruthlessness with which al-Qaeda and Iran tried to strangle freedom in Iraq.

4. If a healthy political culture is the sine qua non for self-government, then we are essentially telling every, or at least many, non-democratic societies that freedom is beyond their reach. It’s not. Still, strong liberal institutions will certainly assist freedom to take root. That’s why American policy should encourage democratic institution-building. Our influence in this area is often limited; but limited is not the same as nonexistent.

5. It’s not clear what the alternative is for the critics of democracy. The Egyptian revolution began in response to the oppression of the Mubarak regime, without American support. Given where we are, do critics of the freedom agenda believe we should support more repression in order to exert even greater control within Arab societies — repression that helped give rise to the resentments, violence, and toxic anti-Americanism that has characterized much of the Middle East?

In the Middle East, Western nations tolerated oppression for the sake of “stability.” But this merely bought time as ideologies of violence took hold. As the events in Egypt demonstrate, the sand has just about run out of the hourglass.

This doesn’t mean that our policy should be indiscriminate. The goal isn’t for America to act as a scythe that decapitates every autocratic regime in the world. And it doesn’t mean that democratic-led revolutions can’t be hijacked.

Still, there’s no way other than democracy to fundamentally reform the Arab Middle East. Self-government and the accompanying rise in free institutions is the only route to a better world — and because the work is difficult, doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

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Sharansky: Reagan Right, Critics Wrong

Ronald Reagan, who would have been 100 this Sunday, had an instinctive affinity for Jews and Israel. As an actor who spent decades in the heavily Jewish environment of Hollywood and who counted scores of Jews among his friends and colleagues, he moved easily in pro-Israel circles. Both as a private citizen and as governor of California, he was a familiar sight and a favored speaker at various functions for Israel.

“I’ve believed many things in my life,” Reagan states in his memoirs, “but no conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.”

Reagan inaugurated what Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman termed the “Solid Gold Era” in U.S.-Israel relations. Even so — and this underscores the inevitability of disagreement between Israel and even the friendliest of U.S. presidents — he found himself engaged in a series of tiffs with the Israeli government.

The earliest friction concerned Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in June 1981. The U.S. voted with the rest of the UN Security Council to condemn the action and briefly held up delivery of some F-16 aircraft to Israel, but there were no permanent ramifications.

“Technically,” Reagan notes in his memoirs, “Israel had violated an agreement with us not to use U.S.-made weapons for offensive purposes, and some cabinet members wanted me to lean hard on Israel because it had broken this pledge. … I sympathized with [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s motivations and privately believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.” Read More

Ronald Reagan, who would have been 100 this Sunday, had an instinctive affinity for Jews and Israel. As an actor who spent decades in the heavily Jewish environment of Hollywood and who counted scores of Jews among his friends and colleagues, he moved easily in pro-Israel circles. Both as a private citizen and as governor of California, he was a familiar sight and a favored speaker at various functions for Israel.

“I’ve believed many things in my life,” Reagan states in his memoirs, “but no conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.”

Reagan inaugurated what Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman termed the “Solid Gold Era” in U.S.-Israel relations. Even so — and this underscores the inevitability of disagreement between Israel and even the friendliest of U.S. presidents — he found himself engaged in a series of tiffs with the Israeli government.

The earliest friction concerned Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in June 1981. The U.S. voted with the rest of the UN Security Council to condemn the action and briefly held up delivery of some F-16 aircraft to Israel, but there were no permanent ramifications.

“Technically,” Reagan notes in his memoirs, “Israel had violated an agreement with us not to use U.S.-made weapons for offensive purposes, and some cabinet members wanted me to lean hard on Israel because it had broken this pledge. … I sympathized with [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s motivations and privately believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Later in 1981, a bitter fight was played out in Congress between the White House and supporters of Israel over Reagan’s determination to follow through on the Carter administration’s decision to sell Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft (AWACS) to Saudi Arabia. The sale was finally approved by a narrow margin, but the confrontation left bruised feelings and egos on both sides.

Ironically, Israeli military leaders were never in the forefront of the AWACS opposition; according to Raviv and Melman, “the commanders of the Israeli air force — the officers most directly concerned — were willing to live with AWACS flying over Saudi Arabia. They did not see them as a serious threat to Israel’s security.”

The U.S.-Israel relationship was strong enough by then to survive a series of mini-crises during the Reagan era, including Washington’s dismay at the scope of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon; the failure of the so-called Reagan Plan, which called for a freeze on Israeli settlements and the eventual creation of a quasi-independent Palestinian entity; the visit by Reagan to a German cemetery that contained the remains of SS soldiers; the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Israel played a major role; the arrest and conviction of an American citizen, Jonathan Pollard, on charges of spying for Israel; and the administration’s 1988 decision to talk to the PLO after Yasir Arafat made the requisite noises about recognizing Israel.

Through it all, Reagan provided more military and financial aid to Israel than any of his predecessors. Washington also worked closer with Israel on the economic front, and in 1985 the administration signed a landmark Free Trade Area agreement, long sought by Israel, which resulted in a hefty boost in Israeli exports to the U.S.

Beyond the Middle East, the plight of Soviet Jews was bound to strike a sympathetic chord with someone as unbendingly anti-Communist as Reagan.

“The Soviet leaders,” recalled former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir,  “told me that every time they met with [Secretary of State George] Shultz, he raised the issue of Soviet Jewry.”

The Reagan administration was instrumental in gaining the release in 1986 of prominent Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky, imprisoned for nine years on trumped-up treason charges. Sharansky has written of his reaction when, in 1983, confined to a tiny cell in a prison near the Siberian border, he saw on the front page of Pravda that Reagan — much to the ridicule and outrage of American and European liberals — had labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

As Sharansky describes it:

Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan’s “provocation” quickly spread throughout the prison. We dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth — a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us. I never imagined that three years later I would be in the White House telling this story to the president. … Reagan was right and his critics were wrong.

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Hamas and History

In “Hamas, the Brotherhood and Egypt,” the Wall Street Journal makes a point similar to one I tried to make in my prior post: that the 2006 Palestinian election, won by Hamas, is a cautionary tale for those anxious to dismantle the Egyptian regime and hold elections with the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood — and to do it prior to the establishment of the institutions necessary for a democratic process.

The Journal writes that Hamas should never have been given permission to participate in the Palestinian election:

[Condoleezza] Rice demanded that Israel accede to Hamas’s participation in the vote, on the theory that “we have to give the Palestinians some room for the evolution of their political process.” Her State Department also argued that disarming Hamas was a long-term goal, not a precondition to their political participation.

But that is not quite the theory under which Secretary Rice was operating, nor the time frame she anticipated for achievement of her goal.

Mahmoud Abbas was elected president in 2005, two months after the death of Yasir Arafat, having run essentially unopposed, and the U.S. was pressing him to meet the Phase I obligation under the Roadmap — dismantlement of Hamas and its infrastructure. An uncontested election gave Abbas no real mandate, however, and the Bush administration hoped a victory over Hamas in a free and fair election would give Abbas the legitimacy to do what Rice implied he had privately assured her: that if Hamas refused to acknowledge “one authority and one gun,” he would forcibly dismantle it.

In the election, the Palestinians chose Hamas, and in hindsight it was a historic U.S. mistake — compounded by the fact that the cognoscenti blamed George Bush for giving the Palestinians a choice, instead of blaming the Palestinians for the choice they made.

But at least Bush and Rice had the excuse that it seemed, at least to some, like a good idea at the time — and they did not have the lesson of history to warn them against it. Those who are in a rush to do it again a mere five years later — this time not in the Gaza Strip but in the most important Arab country in the Middle East, not with Hamas but with its even more dangerous parent organization, simultaneously ignoring history while congratulating themselves for getting on the right side of it, almost unanimous in their certitudes — have no such excuse.

They should pause and read Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the Knesset, “Whither Egypt.”

In “Hamas, the Brotherhood and Egypt,” the Wall Street Journal makes a point similar to one I tried to make in my prior post: that the 2006 Palestinian election, won by Hamas, is a cautionary tale for those anxious to dismantle the Egyptian regime and hold elections with the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood — and to do it prior to the establishment of the institutions necessary for a democratic process.

The Journal writes that Hamas should never have been given permission to participate in the Palestinian election:

[Condoleezza] Rice demanded that Israel accede to Hamas’s participation in the vote, on the theory that “we have to give the Palestinians some room for the evolution of their political process.” Her State Department also argued that disarming Hamas was a long-term goal, not a precondition to their political participation.

But that is not quite the theory under which Secretary Rice was operating, nor the time frame she anticipated for achievement of her goal.

Mahmoud Abbas was elected president in 2005, two months after the death of Yasir Arafat, having run essentially unopposed, and the U.S. was pressing him to meet the Phase I obligation under the Roadmap — dismantlement of Hamas and its infrastructure. An uncontested election gave Abbas no real mandate, however, and the Bush administration hoped a victory over Hamas in a free and fair election would give Abbas the legitimacy to do what Rice implied he had privately assured her: that if Hamas refused to acknowledge “one authority and one gun,” he would forcibly dismantle it.

In the election, the Palestinians chose Hamas, and in hindsight it was a historic U.S. mistake — compounded by the fact that the cognoscenti blamed George Bush for giving the Palestinians a choice, instead of blaming the Palestinians for the choice they made.

But at least Bush and Rice had the excuse that it seemed, at least to some, like a good idea at the time — and they did not have the lesson of history to warn them against it. Those who are in a rush to do it again a mere five years later — this time not in the Gaza Strip but in the most important Arab country in the Middle East, not with Hamas but with its even more dangerous parent organization, simultaneously ignoring history while congratulating themselves for getting on the right side of it, almost unanimous in their certitudes — have no such excuse.

They should pause and read Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the Knesset, “Whither Egypt.”

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RE: Egypt Needs Liberalism

There’s not much more to say in a general sense about Michael Totten’s badly needed reality check differentiating liberal democracies — roughly, those that have robust democratic institutions that insulate themselves — from mere democratic spectacles. But it’s worth noting, as a way of beginning to evaluate how the Cairo riots will affect Near East diplomacy, just how much this fundamental point has been neglected in the specific context of Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

For Israel, the cold peace with Egypt and the intermittent peace with the Palestinian Authority have always been conducted against the backdrop of a see-no-evil approach to incitement. As long as Cairo and Ramallah cooperated with Jerusalem on security issues, Israeli and Western diplomats looked the other way as those regimes violated their Camp David and Oslo pledges to undertake normalization.

Put more bluntly: as long as Egypt and the Palestinian Authority helped stymie the terrorists of today, Israel and the West were content to let them go on creating the terrorists of tomorrow. Because at least those regimes were stable!

Those terrorists of tomorrow were made possible through geography textbooks that erased Israel, and through television programs that vilified Jews, and through official government propaganda that scapegoated the Jewish state for every imaginable social ill. As of this morning, the Mubarak regime is parading “protesters” in front of state-TV cameras to explain how they were trained by the Mossad to bring down the regime.

The result is that Egyptian and Palestinian civil society is a feverish cesspool of anti-Semitic conspiracism — recall the minor hysteria a few weeks ago over Zionist attack sharks — while Egyptians and Palestinians continue to very publicly indulge in fantasies of eradicating Israel itself. Read More

There’s not much more to say in a general sense about Michael Totten’s badly needed reality check differentiating liberal democracies — roughly, those that have robust democratic institutions that insulate themselves — from mere democratic spectacles. But it’s worth noting, as a way of beginning to evaluate how the Cairo riots will affect Near East diplomacy, just how much this fundamental point has been neglected in the specific context of Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

For Israel, the cold peace with Egypt and the intermittent peace with the Palestinian Authority have always been conducted against the backdrop of a see-no-evil approach to incitement. As long as Cairo and Ramallah cooperated with Jerusalem on security issues, Israeli and Western diplomats looked the other way as those regimes violated their Camp David and Oslo pledges to undertake normalization.

Put more bluntly: as long as Egypt and the Palestinian Authority helped stymie the terrorists of today, Israel and the West were content to let them go on creating the terrorists of tomorrow. Because at least those regimes were stable!

Those terrorists of tomorrow were made possible through geography textbooks that erased Israel, and through television programs that vilified Jews, and through official government propaganda that scapegoated the Jewish state for every imaginable social ill. As of this morning, the Mubarak regime is parading “protesters” in front of state-TV cameras to explain how they were trained by the Mossad to bring down the regime.

The result is that Egyptian and Palestinian civil society is a feverish cesspool of anti-Semitic conspiracism — recall the minor hysteria a few weeks ago over Zionist attack sharks — while Egyptians and Palestinians continue to very publicly indulge in fantasies of eradicating Israel itself.

These are the wages of making peace with governments while allowing normalization between societies to atrophy. Israel let its partners in peace purchase domestic tranquility by demonizing the Jewish state in terms that often crossed the line into outright bigotry, and so now that its partners in peace are collapsing — Cairo, Palileaks, etc. — we’re in a situation where serious people are talking about a return to cyclical nation-state war-fighting.

If a defensible land-for-peace framework returns — and that’s a real question — normalization will have to become more than a pro forma addendum to treaties. Above and beyond normalization being good in itself, an end to incitement will force regimes to undertake badly needed liberal reforms. If they don’t have the Jewish state to demonize for their problems, they might need to address those problems, and something approaching liberal democracy might begin to take shape.

But instead, our best foreign-policy minds are engaged in white-washing the Muslim Brotherhood into an organization with which we can do business. That’s not true and it’s never been true, but let’s pretend it is.

In that case, it would still be a disastrous decision, since it repeats the same stability-oriented mistakes of the old see-no-evil approach. Under autocracies, anti-Israel incitement suffocated liberal institutions indirectly, by channeling dissent into hatred of Israelis and Jews. A Muslim Brotherhood government would suffocate liberal institutions more directly, insofar as the party would make good on its promises to exclude gender and religious minorities from the highest echelons of Egyptian life.

If the instability in Egypt shows us that there’s a difference between democratic niceties and actual liberal democracy — and it does — then the question becomes one of how to create the conditions for liberal democracy. Viewed through that lens, there’s no real difference between engaging Mubarak and engaging the Muslim Brotherhood. Both are out to undermine the institutions and practices that are preconditions for genuine peace in the Middle East.

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Amnesty International Campaigns for Convicted Hezbollah Spy

Amnesty International has come under heavy criticism for supporting Ameer Makhoul, a former anti-Israel activist convicted by Israel of spying for Hezbollah. Makhoul received a nine-year prison sentence for transferring messages to and otherwise aiding Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War.

But Amnesty’s Philip Luther alleges that Makhoul was imprisoned for “his human rights activism on behalf of Palestinians in Israel,” as opposed to his involvement in a terrorist organization. Luther further argues that Makhoul’s admission of the crime was invalid, allegedly obtained by Israel through torture.

According to NGO Monitor, Amnesty is intentionally ignoring the overwhelming evidence against Makhoul, in order to further its demonization campaign against Israel.

“Amnesty has completely lost its moral compass regarding human rights in the Middle East, as well as on other issues,” NGO Monitor’s Gerald Steinberg told the Jewish Chronicle. “Even after Makhoul’s admission of spying for Hezbollah, and the evidence presented in court, [it] refuses to denounce Makhoul’s connections to terror, his poisonous Nazi rhetoric, his calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions, and his demonisation of Israel.”

Amnesty’s work has become so skewed against Israel that it’s impossible to take it seriously anymore. Recently, the organization disputed the Turkel Commission report’s claim that the activists aboard the Gaza flotilla had used firearms against Israeli soldiers, despite photographic evidence. When you can’t even admit what your own eyes are telling you, then it’s time to hang up the claim that you’re an objective observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Amnesty International has come under heavy criticism for supporting Ameer Makhoul, a former anti-Israel activist convicted by Israel of spying for Hezbollah. Makhoul received a nine-year prison sentence for transferring messages to and otherwise aiding Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War.

But Amnesty’s Philip Luther alleges that Makhoul was imprisoned for “his human rights activism on behalf of Palestinians in Israel,” as opposed to his involvement in a terrorist organization. Luther further argues that Makhoul’s admission of the crime was invalid, allegedly obtained by Israel through torture.

According to NGO Monitor, Amnesty is intentionally ignoring the overwhelming evidence against Makhoul, in order to further its demonization campaign against Israel.

“Amnesty has completely lost its moral compass regarding human rights in the Middle East, as well as on other issues,” NGO Monitor’s Gerald Steinberg told the Jewish Chronicle. “Even after Makhoul’s admission of spying for Hezbollah, and the evidence presented in court, [it] refuses to denounce Makhoul’s connections to terror, his poisonous Nazi rhetoric, his calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions, and his demonisation of Israel.”

Amnesty’s work has become so skewed against Israel that it’s impossible to take it seriously anymore. Recently, the organization disputed the Turkel Commission report’s claim that the activists aboard the Gaza flotilla had used firearms against Israeli soldiers, despite photographic evidence. When you can’t even admit what your own eyes are telling you, then it’s time to hang up the claim that you’re an objective observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Soros Cites Israel as Main Obstacle to Democracy in Egypt

In a Washington Post column today, George Soros seems quite optimistic about democracy taking root in Egypt — that is, as long as the Egyptians are able to overcome the Israel obstacle:

The main stumbling block is Israel. In reality, Israel has as much to gain from the spread of democracy in the Middle East as the United States has. But Israel is unlikely to recognize its own best interests because the change is too sudden and carries too many risks.

Really? Of all the problems facing Egypt in terms of building a democracy — Islamist groups, cultural intolerance, the violent pro-Mubarak rioters, etc. — Soros sees Israel as the main stumbling block?

The left-wing financier also doesn’t miss a chance to take a shot at Israel supporters in the U.S. (including AIPAC) and ends up sounding like a J Street press release, circa 2008, in the process:

And some U.S. supporters of Israel are more rigid and ideological than Israelis themselves. Fortunately, Obama is not beholden to the religious right, which has carried on a veritable vendetta against him. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is no longer monolithic or the sole representative of the Jewish community. The main danger is that the Obama administration will not adjust its policies quickly enough to the suddenly changed reality.

The talk about AIPAC no longer being “monolithic” was no doubt meant to be a shout-out to J Street. Of course, Soros can’t even bring himself to say the organization’s name straight out. After J Street’s humiliating public implosion over the past year (in which Soros played a major role), he probably realized how ridiculous it would sound.

In a Washington Post column today, George Soros seems quite optimistic about democracy taking root in Egypt — that is, as long as the Egyptians are able to overcome the Israel obstacle:

The main stumbling block is Israel. In reality, Israel has as much to gain from the spread of democracy in the Middle East as the United States has. But Israel is unlikely to recognize its own best interests because the change is too sudden and carries too many risks.

Really? Of all the problems facing Egypt in terms of building a democracy — Islamist groups, cultural intolerance, the violent pro-Mubarak rioters, etc. — Soros sees Israel as the main stumbling block?

The left-wing financier also doesn’t miss a chance to take a shot at Israel supporters in the U.S. (including AIPAC) and ends up sounding like a J Street press release, circa 2008, in the process:

And some U.S. supporters of Israel are more rigid and ideological than Israelis themselves. Fortunately, Obama is not beholden to the religious right, which has carried on a veritable vendetta against him. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is no longer monolithic or the sole representative of the Jewish community. The main danger is that the Obama administration will not adjust its policies quickly enough to the suddenly changed reality.

The talk about AIPAC no longer being “monolithic” was no doubt meant to be a shout-out to J Street. Of course, Soros can’t even bring himself to say the organization’s name straight out. After J Street’s humiliating public implosion over the past year (in which Soros played a major role), he probably realized how ridiculous it would sound.

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