Commentary Magazine


Topic: the New York Sun

RE: Why Pollard’s Release Is Unlikely Right Now

Alana, one of the reasons you suggest for the improbability of Jonathan Pollard’s release is the public nature of the campaign to free him, since such a prisoner release would typically be done with arguments behind closed doors.

But arguably, a public debate is the only way in which a Pollard release would become proper, because public discussion is necessary before such a step occurs. The whole world is watching, so to speak.

In an editorial today entitled “Netanyahu’s Plea for Pollard, the New York Sun provides a useful addition to the public debate, focusing on a “magnificent dissent” by Judge Stephen Williams in the 1992 case in which the Court of Appeals rejected Pollard’s plea for a new sentencing hearing:

It happens that we don’t think a life sentence is too long a punishment for conviction of secretly passing classified information to a foreign government, even, in serious cases, if conviction is for only one count, as it was in the case of Pollard. … But it also happens that the sentence meted out to Pollard was vastly disproportionate to sentences handed down against other spies, including some who spied not for a friend of America, which is what Pollard did, but for countries that could be expected to use the fruits of spying in actions against us, like the Soviet Union or communist China.

… [Judge Williams] was one of three judges who heard Pollard’s plea for a new sentencing hearing. The two other judges on the circuit panel, Laurence Silberman and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sided against Pollard in a highly technical opinion. Judge Williams’s dissent accused the government of having broken both the spirit and, in one respect, even the letter of the binding agreement under which it had obtained Pollard’s guilty plea.

The Sun covers the arguments made by both sides in that case, and concludes that there was a miscarriage in the sentencing proceeding whose correction is long overdue after Pollard has served nearly 25 years. For those still seeking to make up their minds, the Sun’s review is worth reading.

Alana, one of the reasons you suggest for the improbability of Jonathan Pollard’s release is the public nature of the campaign to free him, since such a prisoner release would typically be done with arguments behind closed doors.

But arguably, a public debate is the only way in which a Pollard release would become proper, because public discussion is necessary before such a step occurs. The whole world is watching, so to speak.

In an editorial today entitled “Netanyahu’s Plea for Pollard, the New York Sun provides a useful addition to the public debate, focusing on a “magnificent dissent” by Judge Stephen Williams in the 1992 case in which the Court of Appeals rejected Pollard’s plea for a new sentencing hearing:

It happens that we don’t think a life sentence is too long a punishment for conviction of secretly passing classified information to a foreign government, even, in serious cases, if conviction is for only one count, as it was in the case of Pollard. … But it also happens that the sentence meted out to Pollard was vastly disproportionate to sentences handed down against other spies, including some who spied not for a friend of America, which is what Pollard did, but for countries that could be expected to use the fruits of spying in actions against us, like the Soviet Union or communist China.

… [Judge Williams] was one of three judges who heard Pollard’s plea for a new sentencing hearing. The two other judges on the circuit panel, Laurence Silberman and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sided against Pollard in a highly technical opinion. Judge Williams’s dissent accused the government of having broken both the spirit and, in one respect, even the letter of the binding agreement under which it had obtained Pollard’s guilty plea.

The Sun covers the arguments made by both sides in that case, and concludes that there was a miscarriage in the sentencing proceeding whose correction is long overdue after Pollard has served nearly 25 years. For those still seeking to make up their minds, the Sun’s review is worth reading.

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Some Historical Perspective on Negative Campaigning

Every election, it seems, political commentators and reporters suggest that the most recent election we’re in is “the nastiest, most negative election season of all time.” You have to be largely clueless about American history to argue such things — as this short video by Reason.tv highlights. The truth is that angry, fractious elections and political bickering have characterized American politics since the country’s founding.

Consider, for example, the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. According to Professor Kerwin Swint, author of Mudslingers, “it reached a level of personal animosity that almost tore apart the young republic, and has rarely been equaled in two hundred years of presidential politics.” One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

The 1872 election between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley was a race the New York Sun said deteriorated into “a shower of mud.” One pamphlet circulated by Greeley’s supporters called the Grant Administration the “crowning point of governmental wickedness” and accused Grant of bringing forth a “burning lava of seething corruption, a foul despotism….”

Or consider the 1884 race between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine. Cleveland was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock, which led Blaine supporters to chant what became a national slogan: “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” (After Cleveland won the election, his supporters answered: “Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”). The Reverend Samuel Burchard, a Presbyterian minister, spoke at a gathering of pro-Blaine clergy in New York City just days before the election: “We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellions.” Accusations of Blaine’s corruption, as well as charges of his own sexual scandals, also dominated the debate. At campaign rallies, Democrats chanted, “Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!”

And despite the deep differences that exist between political figures today, we do not settle our differences the way Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr did, by duels at 10 paces with flintlock pistols. Heated exchanges are endemic to politics and what we are seeing today, while often not edifying, is not outside the norm of American history.

Like most people, I wish our debates were less trivial, more spirited, and more serious and contained fewer ad hominem attacks. We should have a clash of views about substantively important matters, such as what the proper role and purpose of the state should be in our lives. “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords,” is how Theodore Roosevelt put it. We should therefore hope for serious, honest, reasoned arguments.

Abraham Lincoln is a unique figure in American history, and there is a danger in measuring the quality of our arguments by the quality of his. But there is a lot to be said for holding him up as the ideal. And if you read the words of Lincoln, you will find him constantly making his case in a compelling and philosophically serious way. That is what is most notable about his debates with Stephen Douglas. The burden was on Lincoln to show why Douglas’s advocacy for “popular sovereignty” was incompatible with self-government and the moral meaning of the Declaration of Independence — which is precisely what Lincoln did. If you read the transcripts of the debates, there was plenty of “negative” campaigning going on. But it is long forgotten, because the quality of the debate was so good and the stakes so high. The lesson for us is to aim high, not low, when it comes to the caliber of arguments we make to the public.

Politics is about important matters, and we should bring to it seriousness of purpose. But we should also bring to it a sense of history.

Every election, it seems, political commentators and reporters suggest that the most recent election we’re in is “the nastiest, most negative election season of all time.” You have to be largely clueless about American history to argue such things — as this short video by Reason.tv highlights. The truth is that angry, fractious elections and political bickering have characterized American politics since the country’s founding.

Consider, for example, the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. According to Professor Kerwin Swint, author of Mudslingers, “it reached a level of personal animosity that almost tore apart the young republic, and has rarely been equaled in two hundred years of presidential politics.” One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

The 1872 election between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley was a race the New York Sun said deteriorated into “a shower of mud.” One pamphlet circulated by Greeley’s supporters called the Grant Administration the “crowning point of governmental wickedness” and accused Grant of bringing forth a “burning lava of seething corruption, a foul despotism….”

Or consider the 1884 race between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine. Cleveland was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock, which led Blaine supporters to chant what became a national slogan: “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” (After Cleveland won the election, his supporters answered: “Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”). The Reverend Samuel Burchard, a Presbyterian minister, spoke at a gathering of pro-Blaine clergy in New York City just days before the election: “We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellions.” Accusations of Blaine’s corruption, as well as charges of his own sexual scandals, also dominated the debate. At campaign rallies, Democrats chanted, “Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!”

And despite the deep differences that exist between political figures today, we do not settle our differences the way Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr did, by duels at 10 paces with flintlock pistols. Heated exchanges are endemic to politics and what we are seeing today, while often not edifying, is not outside the norm of American history.

Like most people, I wish our debates were less trivial, more spirited, and more serious and contained fewer ad hominem attacks. We should have a clash of views about substantively important matters, such as what the proper role and purpose of the state should be in our lives. “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords,” is how Theodore Roosevelt put it. We should therefore hope for serious, honest, reasoned arguments.

Abraham Lincoln is a unique figure in American history, and there is a danger in measuring the quality of our arguments by the quality of his. But there is a lot to be said for holding him up as the ideal. And if you read the words of Lincoln, you will find him constantly making his case in a compelling and philosophically serious way. That is what is most notable about his debates with Stephen Douglas. The burden was on Lincoln to show why Douglas’s advocacy for “popular sovereignty” was incompatible with self-government and the moral meaning of the Declaration of Independence — which is precisely what Lincoln did. If you read the transcripts of the debates, there was plenty of “negative” campaigning going on. But it is long forgotten, because the quality of the debate was so good and the stakes so high. The lesson for us is to aim high, not low, when it comes to the caliber of arguments we make to the public.

Politics is about important matters, and we should bring to it seriousness of purpose. But we should also bring to it a sense of history.

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Scammed Again (Even Without the Dolphin Show)

Jeffrey Goldberg, fresh from flacking for Fidel Castro, moves on to Castro’s sidekick Hugo Chavez:

One day after I posted Fidel Castro’s condemnation of anti-Semitism on this blog, the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, announced that he too, felt great “love and respect” for Jews, and he invited the leaders of his country’s put-upon Jewish community to meet with him. The meeting took place a short while later. Chavez’s statement, and the meeting that followed, were widely interpreted in Latin America as a signal from Chavez his mentor, Fidel, that he understood that Venezuela was developing a reputation as a hostile place for Jews.

And he relates an e-mail saying how thrilled Argentine Jews were to have the meeting.

There was such a meeting. The group presented Chavez with a dossier on anti-Jewish incidents, which Chavez “promised to read,” but it’s absurd to consider this anything more than a PR stunt. Does Goldberg really imagine his dolphin encounter has spurred Chavez to retreat from his state-sponsored anti-Semitism and voracious anti-Israel foreign policy? Read More

Jeffrey Goldberg, fresh from flacking for Fidel Castro, moves on to Castro’s sidekick Hugo Chavez:

One day after I posted Fidel Castro’s condemnation of anti-Semitism on this blog, the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, announced that he too, felt great “love and respect” for Jews, and he invited the leaders of his country’s put-upon Jewish community to meet with him. The meeting took place a short while later. Chavez’s statement, and the meeting that followed, were widely interpreted in Latin America as a signal from Chavez his mentor, Fidel, that he understood that Venezuela was developing a reputation as a hostile place for Jews.

And he relates an e-mail saying how thrilled Argentine Jews were to have the meeting.

There was such a meeting. The group presented Chavez with a dossier on anti-Jewish incidents, which Chavez “promised to read,” but it’s absurd to consider this anything more than a PR stunt. Does Goldberg really imagine his dolphin encounter has spurred Chavez to retreat from his state-sponsored anti-Semitism and voracious anti-Israel foreign policy?

This June report explains:

In the aftermath of the Gaza flotilla affair, President Chavez cursed Israel as a “terrorist state” and an enemy of the Venezuelan revolution and claimed Israel’s Mossad spy agency was trying to assassinate him.

“Extreme criticism and the de-legitimization of Israel continue to be used by the government of Venezuela as a political tool,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director.  “The atmosphere of extreme anti-Israel criticism and an unsettling focus on the Venezuelan Jewish community’s attitudes creates an environment for anti-Semitism to grow and flourish.  So far this hasn’t translated into attacks against individual Jews or Jewish institutions.  However, we cannot forget that the Jewish community in Venezuela has already witnessed violent anti-Semitic incidents in the past few years.”

In a new online report, the League documents recent anti-Semitic expressions in Venezuela in the aftermath of the Gaza flotilla incident, including those of government and political leaders, conspiracy theories and accusations in the government-run media, and statements on various anti-Israel websites.

In a June 12 interview with the government-owned national television network, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro . . suggested that should a terrorist attack be carried out on Venezuelan soil, a likely culprit would be the “intelligence assassin apparatus of the State of Israel,” the Mossad.

Vilification of Zionism is particularly present in the government-run media and the so-called “alternative” media run by government sympathizers who are intricately intertwined with the government apparatus, according to the ADL.  Media and political leaders seem to take their cues from Chavez, who has in the past few years made his feelings about Israel all-too clear.

Moreover, Chavez’s overeager Atlantic scribe overlooks an inconvenient truth: Chavez has made common cause with Ahmadinejad. As the Washington Post explained last year:

Mr. Chávez was in Tehran again this week and offered his full support for Mr. Ahmadinejad’s hard-line faction. As usual, the caudillo made clear that he shares Iran’s view of Israel, which he called “a genocidal state.” He endorsed Iran’s nuclear program and declared that Venezuela would seek Iran’s assistance to construct a nuclear complex of its own. He also announced that his government would begin supplying Iran with 20,000 barrels of gasoline a day — a deal that could directly undercut a possible U.S. effort to curtail Iran’s gasoline imports.

Such collaboration is far from new for Venezuela and Iran. In the past several years Iran has opened banks in Caracas and factories in the South American countryside. Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau . . . says he believes Iran is using the Venezuelan banking system to evade U.S. and U.N. sanctions. He also points out that Iranian factories have been located “in remote and undeveloped parts of Venezuela” that lack infrastructure but that could be “ideal . . . for the illicit production of weapons.”

Moreover, Benny Avni writes in the New York Sun that Chavez’s mentor — notwithstanding the lovely visit with Goldberg — is behaving as he always does:

On the eve of hearings that had been set to open in the United States Congress on whether to ease the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba, Havana’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, has been taking a hard, even strident line here at the United Nations, very much at odds with the way Fidel Castro is trying to portray Cuba in the American press these days.

It has prompted old hands here at the United Nations to quote another, albeit different kind of, Marxist —  Groucho, who famously asked: Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes? . . .

Mr. Parrilla, however, was, in his address at the annual General Assembly debate, as rigid as ever, blaming America’s aggression for all the isle’s troubles, saying Israel is behind all that’s wrong in the Middle East, and expressing solidarity with Venezuela’s caudillo, Hugo Chavez.

Avni chastises Goldberg for stunning naivete and relaying Cuba’s business-as-usual rhetoric:

And no, for Cuba the holocaust-denying Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not the aggressor. “As Comrade Fidel has pointed out, powerful and influential forces in the United States and Israel are paving the way to launch a military attack against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Mr. Parrilla warned, adding that the General Assembly must stop such a plot to commit a “crime against the Iranian people” and such “an assault against international law” in order to prevent a nuclear war.

Mr. Parrilla’s entire speech was an old-style Cuban assault on America and Israel, harking back to the glorious days of the Cold War when the Castros drew as much attention at international fora like the U.N. as is now reserved for Mr. Ahmadinejad or Mr. Chavez.

It’s bad enough that Goldberg was taken in by Soros Street (many liberals were), but he really should stay away from Latin American dictators.

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Let Me Clarify My Clarification of My Clear Remarks

Barack Obama’s clarification of his “let me be clear” statement on the Ground Zero mosque (and subsequent clarification of his clarification) is reminiscent of his 2008 “let me be clear” statement on Jerusalem — when he told 7,000 people at AIPAC that the city “must remain undivided” and then repeatedly clarified his “poor phrasing,” finally endorsing a divided Jerusalem while claiming he had not backtracked from his initial statement.

Students of foreign policy may be bemused and somewhat alarmed to see this happening again. In both cases, Obama’s statements were prepared remarks on an important issue with foreign-policy implications, followed by retreats in the face of criticism, followed by denials that they were retreats, amid widespread recognition that they were, in fact, retreats. It was not an attractive quality in a candidate, and it is a dangerous one in a president.

Sarah Palin noted on her Facebook page that we “all know they have the right to do it [build a mosque steps away from where radical Islamists killed 3,000 people], but should they?” She suggested the president endorse the New York governor’s offer of assistance for finding an alternative location. The New York Sun editorialized that she had made a practical proposal while speaking more forthrightly than the famously eloquent president, raising this question:

How did one of the most intellectual presidents in history, a constitutional law professor with a government-provided staff of legal experts and policy geniuses and an ability, rarely if ever matched, to speak in lofty tones, manage to get himself in a position where he will end up following the lead of an ex-governor who has been constantly set down by the left as but a one-time beauty queen without brains and who has been watching the whole fracas from a lake-side camp at Alaska?

Possibly one of them was overrated and the other underrated back in 2008, particularly in light of the respective offices for which they were running. It may have had something to do with a media organizing itself to push a misleading narrative. I want to go on record as supporting the constitutional right to build the Ground Zero mosque while clarifying that I do not necessarily mean it is a wise use of rights. Is there an award for courageous blogging?

Barack Obama’s clarification of his “let me be clear” statement on the Ground Zero mosque (and subsequent clarification of his clarification) is reminiscent of his 2008 “let me be clear” statement on Jerusalem — when he told 7,000 people at AIPAC that the city “must remain undivided” and then repeatedly clarified his “poor phrasing,” finally endorsing a divided Jerusalem while claiming he had not backtracked from his initial statement.

Students of foreign policy may be bemused and somewhat alarmed to see this happening again. In both cases, Obama’s statements were prepared remarks on an important issue with foreign-policy implications, followed by retreats in the face of criticism, followed by denials that they were retreats, amid widespread recognition that they were, in fact, retreats. It was not an attractive quality in a candidate, and it is a dangerous one in a president.

Sarah Palin noted on her Facebook page that we “all know they have the right to do it [build a mosque steps away from where radical Islamists killed 3,000 people], but should they?” She suggested the president endorse the New York governor’s offer of assistance for finding an alternative location. The New York Sun editorialized that she had made a practical proposal while speaking more forthrightly than the famously eloquent president, raising this question:

How did one of the most intellectual presidents in history, a constitutional law professor with a government-provided staff of legal experts and policy geniuses and an ability, rarely if ever matched, to speak in lofty tones, manage to get himself in a position where he will end up following the lead of an ex-governor who has been constantly set down by the left as but a one-time beauty queen without brains and who has been watching the whole fracas from a lake-side camp at Alaska?

Possibly one of them was overrated and the other underrated back in 2008, particularly in light of the respective offices for which they were running. It may have had something to do with a media organizing itself to push a misleading narrative. I want to go on record as supporting the constitutional right to build the Ground Zero mosque while clarifying that I do not necessarily mean it is a wise use of rights. Is there an award for courageous blogging?

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RE: Martin Indyk Tries Out His Israel Bashing

Jen, let me add a footnote to your discussion of Martin Indyk’s article, in which he concluded that, “[f]rom Obama’s perspective, a zoning decision in an obscure Jerusalem suburb had dealt the United States a strategic setback.” Indyk wrote that the reason Netanyahu’s public apology “doesn’t begin to address the real problem” is that deferring building announcements and other “provocative” actions became for Obama “the litmus test of Netanyahu’s commitment to the common cause of curbing Iran’s nuclear enthusiasm.”

Put aside the question of whether a zoning decision in an obscure Jerusalem suburb can be a “strategic setback” — and whether it was wise for Obama to treat it as one. Put aside the question of what kind of strategy would depend on stopping further housing in a longstanding Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem — a neighborhood that will be retained by Israel in any conceivable peace agreement. Put aside the question of whether pre-negotiation concessions should be demanded of one side but not the other — and demanded from the side that already made an unprecedented pre-negotiation concession unmatched by the other side.

The real point about the “strategic setback” is that you cannot have a setback if you don’t have a strategy. Does anyone think the reason for the failure of Obama’s year-long “engagement” with Iran was Netanyahu’s failure to agree to a one-sided pre-negotiation freeze beyond a 10-month moratorium in the West Bank? Or that it was the reason Obama has been unable, after four months of effort, to get Iranian sanctions even on the Security Council agenda, much less adopted? Or that sanctions would have been crippling if Israel had just made more concessions — or that the decisions of Russia and China are in any way affected by them? Or that Arab states will support strong action against Iran if building stops in Jerusalem, but not if it doesn’t? As Youssef Ibrahmim’s perceptive article today at the New York Sun indicates, many Arab commentators have themselves indicated that the Palestinian issue is a secondary concern.

Robert Gates sent a memorandum to the president in January reportedly warning that there was no Iran strategy in place. Whether or not it was a “wake-up call” then, or simply a normal planning memo, whoever leaked it now obviously thinks that four months later there is still no strategy in place. The coming setback will have nothing to do with a zoning decision in an obscure Jerusalem suburb.

Jen, let me add a footnote to your discussion of Martin Indyk’s article, in which he concluded that, “[f]rom Obama’s perspective, a zoning decision in an obscure Jerusalem suburb had dealt the United States a strategic setback.” Indyk wrote that the reason Netanyahu’s public apology “doesn’t begin to address the real problem” is that deferring building announcements and other “provocative” actions became for Obama “the litmus test of Netanyahu’s commitment to the common cause of curbing Iran’s nuclear enthusiasm.”

Put aside the question of whether a zoning decision in an obscure Jerusalem suburb can be a “strategic setback” — and whether it was wise for Obama to treat it as one. Put aside the question of what kind of strategy would depend on stopping further housing in a longstanding Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem — a neighborhood that will be retained by Israel in any conceivable peace agreement. Put aside the question of whether pre-negotiation concessions should be demanded of one side but not the other — and demanded from the side that already made an unprecedented pre-negotiation concession unmatched by the other side.

The real point about the “strategic setback” is that you cannot have a setback if you don’t have a strategy. Does anyone think the reason for the failure of Obama’s year-long “engagement” with Iran was Netanyahu’s failure to agree to a one-sided pre-negotiation freeze beyond a 10-month moratorium in the West Bank? Or that it was the reason Obama has been unable, after four months of effort, to get Iranian sanctions even on the Security Council agenda, much less adopted? Or that sanctions would have been crippling if Israel had just made more concessions — or that the decisions of Russia and China are in any way affected by them? Or that Arab states will support strong action against Iran if building stops in Jerusalem, but not if it doesn’t? As Youssef Ibrahmim’s perceptive article today at the New York Sun indicates, many Arab commentators have themselves indicated that the Palestinian issue is a secondary concern.

Robert Gates sent a memorandum to the president in January reportedly warning that there was no Iran strategy in place. Whether or not it was a “wake-up call” then, or simply a normal planning memo, whoever leaked it now obviously thinks that four months later there is still no strategy in place. The coming setback will have nothing to do with a zoning decision in an obscure Jerusalem suburb.

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Jewish Voters Deceived

Those disturbed by President Obama’s habit of saying one thing in the campaign and doing another while in office have another example, this one on foreign policy. And those disturbed by the talk of the president issuing his own Arab-Israeli peace plan have another, related question to ponder: what is Carter-administration official Zbigniew Brzezinski doing in the room? During the presidential campaign, candidate Obama addressed the issue of Brzezinski’s role directly at least twice when asked about it by concerned Jewish voters. Relations between Brzezinski and the Obama campaign were already an issue, with Alan Dershowitz having publicly called on Obama to repudiate Brzezinski when he met with about 100 members of the Cleveland Jewish Community on February 24, 2008. Here’s what he said:

I know Brzezinski. He’s not one of my key advisors. I’ve had lunch with him once, I’ve exchanged e-mails with him maybe 3 times. … I do not share his views with respect to Israel. I have said so clearly and unequivocally….

Then, on April 16, 2008, candidate Obama met with Jewish leaders from the Philadelphia area. This is how the New York Sun reported the April 16 meeting:

Rabbi Neil Cooper of Beth Hillel-Beth El Synagogue came away skeptical. He said he buttonholed the candidate as he was leaving the event and asked him about the connection between Mr. Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the Obama campaign. “From my perspective, the devil here is going to be in the details,” Rabbi Cooper said. “The questions I have have to do with his very pronouncements on Israel on the one hand, which are positive, and then he seems to attract all kinds of other people who have a different agenda on Israel, like Brzezinski. I said, ‘Why don’t you get rid of Brzezinski?’ He says he listens to Brzezinski on certain things but not when it comes to Israel. (Emphasis added.)

Now comes a report in the New York Times according to which, at a White House meeting, President Obama asked Mr. Brzezinski for his advice on whether to put forward an American plan for Arab-Israeli peace. Worse, present at this same meeting was Brent Scowcroft, whom, back during the campaign, Obama proxies were criticizing Senator McCain for listening to. President Obama says consumers need a new regulatory agency to protect them from being conned by greedy bankers. But as far as fraudulent sales jobs go, the one that the Democrat pulled on Jewish voters in 2008 is one for the ages.

Those disturbed by President Obama’s habit of saying one thing in the campaign and doing another while in office have another example, this one on foreign policy. And those disturbed by the talk of the president issuing his own Arab-Israeli peace plan have another, related question to ponder: what is Carter-administration official Zbigniew Brzezinski doing in the room? During the presidential campaign, candidate Obama addressed the issue of Brzezinski’s role directly at least twice when asked about it by concerned Jewish voters. Relations between Brzezinski and the Obama campaign were already an issue, with Alan Dershowitz having publicly called on Obama to repudiate Brzezinski when he met with about 100 members of the Cleveland Jewish Community on February 24, 2008. Here’s what he said:

I know Brzezinski. He’s not one of my key advisors. I’ve had lunch with him once, I’ve exchanged e-mails with him maybe 3 times. … I do not share his views with respect to Israel. I have said so clearly and unequivocally….

Then, on April 16, 2008, candidate Obama met with Jewish leaders from the Philadelphia area. This is how the New York Sun reported the April 16 meeting:

Rabbi Neil Cooper of Beth Hillel-Beth El Synagogue came away skeptical. He said he buttonholed the candidate as he was leaving the event and asked him about the connection between Mr. Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the Obama campaign. “From my perspective, the devil here is going to be in the details,” Rabbi Cooper said. “The questions I have have to do with his very pronouncements on Israel on the one hand, which are positive, and then he seems to attract all kinds of other people who have a different agenda on Israel, like Brzezinski. I said, ‘Why don’t you get rid of Brzezinski?’ He says he listens to Brzezinski on certain things but not when it comes to Israel. (Emphasis added.)

Now comes a report in the New York Times according to which, at a White House meeting, President Obama asked Mr. Brzezinski for his advice on whether to put forward an American plan for Arab-Israeli peace. Worse, present at this same meeting was Brent Scowcroft, whom, back during the campaign, Obama proxies were criticizing Senator McCain for listening to. President Obama says consumers need a new regulatory agency to protect them from being conned by greedy bankers. But as far as fraudulent sales jobs go, the one that the Democrat pulled on Jewish voters in 2008 is one for the ages.

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The Friends You Keep

Among the many negatives for Barack Obama from the debate is the increased focus on his connections to unsavory characters. The Bill Ayers connection has been reported before, but the debate last night certainly helped bring it to national attention. The New York Sun, for example, reports:

[Ayers] and Mr. Obama served together on the nine-member board of the Woods Fund, a Chicago nonprofit, for three years beginning in 1999, and they have also appeared jointly on two academic panels, one in 1997 and another in 2001. Mr. Ayers, who was never convicted in the Weather Underground bombings, is now a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Sun (and others) also have noted that Ayers, an unrepentant Weather Underground terrorist, made a small contribution to Obama’s campaign.

Perhaps just as troubling for Obama as his domestic friends are the international supporters he is collecting. Yesterday, Hamas gave him the thumbs up. Previously, Daniel Ortega said that he likes what he sees, labeling Obama a “revolutionary phenomenon.” FARC is banking on an Obama presidency to nix U.S. aid to Colombia and shut down the free trade deal. Fidel Castro also sent word that he likes the Dream Ticket.

Is Obama responsible for the grab-bag of terrorists and dictators backing him? Well, he hasn’t given them the impression he would make their jobs harder. By suggesting he will meet with dictators without preconditions, he holds out the possibility that they too can get some “dignity promotion.” And he still hasn’t given these groups and individuals any indication that their support is unwelcome. It’s odd in the extreme that he (or his campaign) hasn’t already repudiated these pledges of support. But if he won’t return Bill Ayers’s donation or renounce Reverend Wright, why would he distance himself from thugs abroad? He just doesn’t do repudiation.

Among the many negatives for Barack Obama from the debate is the increased focus on his connections to unsavory characters. The Bill Ayers connection has been reported before, but the debate last night certainly helped bring it to national attention. The New York Sun, for example, reports:

[Ayers] and Mr. Obama served together on the nine-member board of the Woods Fund, a Chicago nonprofit, for three years beginning in 1999, and they have also appeared jointly on two academic panels, one in 1997 and another in 2001. Mr. Ayers, who was never convicted in the Weather Underground bombings, is now a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Sun (and others) also have noted that Ayers, an unrepentant Weather Underground terrorist, made a small contribution to Obama’s campaign.

Perhaps just as troubling for Obama as his domestic friends are the international supporters he is collecting. Yesterday, Hamas gave him the thumbs up. Previously, Daniel Ortega said that he likes what he sees, labeling Obama a “revolutionary phenomenon.” FARC is banking on an Obama presidency to nix U.S. aid to Colombia and shut down the free trade deal. Fidel Castro also sent word that he likes the Dream Ticket.

Is Obama responsible for the grab-bag of terrorists and dictators backing him? Well, he hasn’t given them the impression he would make their jobs harder. By suggesting he will meet with dictators without preconditions, he holds out the possibility that they too can get some “dignity promotion.” And he still hasn’t given these groups and individuals any indication that their support is unwelcome. It’s odd in the extreme that he (or his campaign) hasn’t already repudiated these pledges of support. But if he won’t return Bill Ayers’s donation or renounce Reverend Wright, why would he distance himself from thugs abroad? He just doesn’t do repudiation.

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Nothing to See Here

Not long after Rudy Giuliani announced his foreign policy advisory team last year, liberal bloggers and journalists cried that the group represented “AIPAC’s Dream Team” (Harper’s Ken Silverstein), was ginning to implement “bloody, bloody, bloody foreign policy” (Matthew Yglesias) and that “RUDY GIULIANI WILL KILL US ALL” (The American Prospect). One could simultaneously disagree with such unhinged assessments of what a Giuliani foreign policy might look like and still believe that the essence of liberal criticism was not unfair: to a large degree, we can divine what a candidate thinks based upon the sort of people from whom he seeks counsel.

This non-partisan analytical instrument is useless, apparently, when it comes to the people advising Barack Obama. Over the past few months, several of Barack Obama’s advisers (foreign policy advisers in particular) have entered the spotlight for things they have said or written which are supposedly at odds with the beliefs of the candidate for whom they work. First, there was the incident in which Obama’s top economics advisor, Austan Goolsbee, reassured Canadian consular officials in Chicago that Obama’s anti-NAFTA position wasn’t sincere. Then, there was the now-departed Samantha Power, who told the BBC that Barack Obama’s real position on Iraq withdrawal was not, in actual fact, what he’d been saying on the campaign trail. Like Goolsbee, we were told at the time that Ms. Power was “just” an adviser — a past one, at this point — and that what she said about the Iraq War is ultimately irrelevant.

On a similar note, last week we discovered — thanks to the tireless reporting of the New York Sun’s Eli Lake — that Colin Kahl, head of Obama’s Iraq working group, wrote a paper calling for 80,000 American troops to stay in Iraq until at least 2010. Susan Rice, another Obama foreign policy adviser, told Lake that, “Barack Obama cannot be held accountable for what we all write.” Finally, a 2003 interview with top Obama adviser Tony McPeak recently surfaced in which the former Chief of Staff of the Air Force said of Iraq, “We’ll be there a century, hopefully. If it works right.” This is the exact same sentiment that John McCain expressed in his much-distorted “100 years” remark.

Of course, given the pattern I’ve elucidated, I presume that we cannot hastily jump to the conclusion that McPeak — like Power, Kahl and Goolsbee before him, and who knows how many advisers into the future — necessarily represents the views of Barack Obama. A great journalistic assignment for an enterprising young reporter would be to find out what Obama does believe.

Not long after Rudy Giuliani announced his foreign policy advisory team last year, liberal bloggers and journalists cried that the group represented “AIPAC’s Dream Team” (Harper’s Ken Silverstein), was ginning to implement “bloody, bloody, bloody foreign policy” (Matthew Yglesias) and that “RUDY GIULIANI WILL KILL US ALL” (The American Prospect). One could simultaneously disagree with such unhinged assessments of what a Giuliani foreign policy might look like and still believe that the essence of liberal criticism was not unfair: to a large degree, we can divine what a candidate thinks based upon the sort of people from whom he seeks counsel.

This non-partisan analytical instrument is useless, apparently, when it comes to the people advising Barack Obama. Over the past few months, several of Barack Obama’s advisers (foreign policy advisers in particular) have entered the spotlight for things they have said or written which are supposedly at odds with the beliefs of the candidate for whom they work. First, there was the incident in which Obama’s top economics advisor, Austan Goolsbee, reassured Canadian consular officials in Chicago that Obama’s anti-NAFTA position wasn’t sincere. Then, there was the now-departed Samantha Power, who told the BBC that Barack Obama’s real position on Iraq withdrawal was not, in actual fact, what he’d been saying on the campaign trail. Like Goolsbee, we were told at the time that Ms. Power was “just” an adviser — a past one, at this point — and that what she said about the Iraq War is ultimately irrelevant.

On a similar note, last week we discovered — thanks to the tireless reporting of the New York Sun’s Eli Lake — that Colin Kahl, head of Obama’s Iraq working group, wrote a paper calling for 80,000 American troops to stay in Iraq until at least 2010. Susan Rice, another Obama foreign policy adviser, told Lake that, “Barack Obama cannot be held accountable for what we all write.” Finally, a 2003 interview with top Obama adviser Tony McPeak recently surfaced in which the former Chief of Staff of the Air Force said of Iraq, “We’ll be there a century, hopefully. If it works right.” This is the exact same sentiment that John McCain expressed in his much-distorted “100 years” remark.

Of course, given the pattern I’ve elucidated, I presume that we cannot hastily jump to the conclusion that McPeak — like Power, Kahl and Goolsbee before him, and who knows how many advisers into the future — necessarily represents the views of Barack Obama. A great journalistic assignment for an enterprising young reporter would be to find out what Obama does believe.

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Why WWII Matters

Matthew Yglesias asks “Do we really need a Richard Cohen column about how World War II was, in fact, a good war? Surely there’s some more pressing topic that the precious Washington Post op-ed page real estate could be devoted to.”

It would indeed be nice if, over half a century later, we did not require Washington Post columnists to remind us that “World War II was, in fact, a good war.” But recently a major American novelist undertook a history of World War II aimed at convincing us, in the words of the New York Sun’s Adam Kirsch,

that the Holocaust was, at least in part, Hitler’s response to British aggression, and that the only people who demonstrated true wisdom in the run-up to the war were American and British pacifists, who refused to take up arms no matter how pressing the need.

Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke (which Yglesias does not bother to mention in attacking the decision to publish Cohen’s piece) was not published by the sort of press that puts out tracts by Lyndon LaRouche or Lew Rockwell, but by Simon and Schuster. The book has received favorable notices in both the Los Angeles Times and New York magazine. It enjoyed, in other words, the blessing of American literary culture. Yglesias has an award for political non-conformism named after him. You’d think he’d be more skeptical of thinkers like Baker and the political sophism they practice, whatever sympathies he may share with them.

David Pryce-Jones’s review of Human Smoke, published in COMMENTARY last month, shows why Baker, with his outrageous moral equivalency, is what George Orwell would call “objectively pro-fascist.”Pryce-Jones writes:

For Baker, Churchill and Roosevelt were just as bad then as Bush is now: foolish, small-minded cowards who ordered the bombing of innocent civilians from the air and so participated in a process of reciprocal killing, both blind and, worse, needless.

Leon Wieseltier’s review of Baker’s 2004 novel Checkpoint (about assassinating President Bush), memorably began “This scummy little book . . .” Judgments about Baker’s latest effort should be no more charitable, and should find their way into even Yglesias’s discussions of the Second World War.

Matthew Yglesias asks “Do we really need a Richard Cohen column about how World War II was, in fact, a good war? Surely there’s some more pressing topic that the precious Washington Post op-ed page real estate could be devoted to.”

It would indeed be nice if, over half a century later, we did not require Washington Post columnists to remind us that “World War II was, in fact, a good war.” But recently a major American novelist undertook a history of World War II aimed at convincing us, in the words of the New York Sun’s Adam Kirsch,

that the Holocaust was, at least in part, Hitler’s response to British aggression, and that the only people who demonstrated true wisdom in the run-up to the war were American and British pacifists, who refused to take up arms no matter how pressing the need.

Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke (which Yglesias does not bother to mention in attacking the decision to publish Cohen’s piece) was not published by the sort of press that puts out tracts by Lyndon LaRouche or Lew Rockwell, but by Simon and Schuster. The book has received favorable notices in both the Los Angeles Times and New York magazine. It enjoyed, in other words, the blessing of American literary culture. Yglesias has an award for political non-conformism named after him. You’d think he’d be more skeptical of thinkers like Baker and the political sophism they practice, whatever sympathies he may share with them.

David Pryce-Jones’s review of Human Smoke, published in COMMENTARY last month, shows why Baker, with his outrageous moral equivalency, is what George Orwell would call “objectively pro-fascist.”Pryce-Jones writes:

For Baker, Churchill and Roosevelt were just as bad then as Bush is now: foolish, small-minded cowards who ordered the bombing of innocent civilians from the air and so participated in a process of reciprocal killing, both blind and, worse, needless.

Leon Wieseltier’s review of Baker’s 2004 novel Checkpoint (about assassinating President Bush), memorably began “This scummy little book . . .” Judgments about Baker’s latest effort should be no more charitable, and should find their way into even Yglesias’s discussions of the Second World War.

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Secret Agent Hillary

So does a first lady play a critical foreign policy role or not?

These days, Hillary Clinton certainly wants us to think so. She claims she “helped to bring peace” to Northern Ireland, stood up to the Chinese, negotiated with Macedonians, and braved a hail of bullets in war-torn Bosnia.

So then why, when questioned in 1997 about having held an important foreign policy meeting in 1996, did her spokesman deflect inquiries to the National Security Council (whose spokesman said that foreign policy is set by the President and not by the First Lady)? Perhaps because this rare instance of Hillary’s actual foreign policy experience was problematic then and disastrous now.

Recent reports indicate that in 1996 Hillary had an agreeable conference with Muthanna Hanooti, the alleged Iraqi intelligence operative who was just indicted for bringing U.S. lawmakers to Iraq on Saddam’s dime. During this meeting they discussed easing American sanctions on Iraq.

Hanooti told the New York Sun’s Ira Stoll that Hillary was “very receptive” to weakening sanctions and she “passed a message to the State Department” urging the implementation of the oil-for-food deal. Oil-for-food was nominally intended to help Saddam feed Iraqis through oil sales. In reality it allowed Saddam and a global crime syndicate to profit under cover of UN legitimacy, while Iraqis continued to suffer.

Now, to be fair, the current indictment against Hanooti charges that his formal involvement with Saddam’s intelligence began “in or about 1999.” But clearly his sentiments were in line with Iraq’s dictator at the time he met with Hillary Clinton. Saddam’s goal was to end sanctions altogether and re-establish a formidable WMD program. At the time, the sanctions kept him too financially strapped to see his WMD dreams to completion, but allowed for him to proceed building countrywide palaces. Needy Iraqis never entered the equation.

But Hillary did. There she was, meeting with man who would later be identified as an Iraqi intelligence operative, and allegedly “receptive” to his ploy. Judging from Hillary’s Bosnia claim, her next move is obvious: She wasn’t really receptive to this pro-Saddam stance. She was onto Hanooti before anyone else; she was functioning as a top-level spy, in fact. There was a mini-camera in her brooch and a lie-detector in her purse. Just another day, I guess, in the life of Super First Lady.

So does a first lady play a critical foreign policy role or not?

These days, Hillary Clinton certainly wants us to think so. She claims she “helped to bring peace” to Northern Ireland, stood up to the Chinese, negotiated with Macedonians, and braved a hail of bullets in war-torn Bosnia.

So then why, when questioned in 1997 about having held an important foreign policy meeting in 1996, did her spokesman deflect inquiries to the National Security Council (whose spokesman said that foreign policy is set by the President and not by the First Lady)? Perhaps because this rare instance of Hillary’s actual foreign policy experience was problematic then and disastrous now.

Recent reports indicate that in 1996 Hillary had an agreeable conference with Muthanna Hanooti, the alleged Iraqi intelligence operative who was just indicted for bringing U.S. lawmakers to Iraq on Saddam’s dime. During this meeting they discussed easing American sanctions on Iraq.

Hanooti told the New York Sun’s Ira Stoll that Hillary was “very receptive” to weakening sanctions and she “passed a message to the State Department” urging the implementation of the oil-for-food deal. Oil-for-food was nominally intended to help Saddam feed Iraqis through oil sales. In reality it allowed Saddam and a global crime syndicate to profit under cover of UN legitimacy, while Iraqis continued to suffer.

Now, to be fair, the current indictment against Hanooti charges that his formal involvement with Saddam’s intelligence began “in or about 1999.” But clearly his sentiments were in line with Iraq’s dictator at the time he met with Hillary Clinton. Saddam’s goal was to end sanctions altogether and re-establish a formidable WMD program. At the time, the sanctions kept him too financially strapped to see his WMD dreams to completion, but allowed for him to proceed building countrywide palaces. Needy Iraqis never entered the equation.

But Hillary did. There she was, meeting with man who would later be identified as an Iraqi intelligence operative, and allegedly “receptive” to his ploy. Judging from Hillary’s Bosnia claim, her next move is obvious: She wasn’t really receptive to this pro-Saddam stance. She was onto Hanooti before anyone else; she was functioning as a top-level spy, in fact. There was a mini-camera in her brooch and a lie-detector in her purse. Just another day, I guess, in the life of Super First Lady.

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Identity’s Double-Edged Sword

A primary reason to vote for Barack Obama, we are told, is that he will change the face of America. Literally. Having a man with a culturally and racially diverse background will–on day one–reconnect us to a world allegedly alienated by the policies of George w. Bush. And the fact that Obama’s father was a (non-practicing) Muslim and that Barack lived for years as a child in Indonesia will help us improve, we’re informed, our extremely troubled relations with the Muslim world. But Seth Gitell of The New York Sun attended a panel discussion at Brandeis University on Monday entitled “The Obama Phenomenon,” where he discovered that the subject of Obama’s identity is more problematic than his supporters would like to believe.

Obama’s having a father raised as a Muslim doesn’t mean he is a panacea for America’s troubles with the Islamic world. Far from it. While George W. Bush may be an infidel, he is not the son of an apostate. The latter is worse: an apostate actively turns his back on the faith, as opposed to never having chosen it. Such simple observations that Obama has never identified as a Muslim nor was ever raised as one will not save him, either. As Brandeis professor Ibrahim Sundiata says, “I think that people paint a too rosy picture of Obama being the world, that in the Muslim world, being the son of an ex-Muslim is apostasy and it is a very serious crime.”

A primary reason to vote for Barack Obama, we are told, is that he will change the face of America. Literally. Having a man with a culturally and racially diverse background will–on day one–reconnect us to a world allegedly alienated by the policies of George w. Bush. And the fact that Obama’s father was a (non-practicing) Muslim and that Barack lived for years as a child in Indonesia will help us improve, we’re informed, our extremely troubled relations with the Muslim world. But Seth Gitell of The New York Sun attended a panel discussion at Brandeis University on Monday entitled “The Obama Phenomenon,” where he discovered that the subject of Obama’s identity is more problematic than his supporters would like to believe.

Obama’s having a father raised as a Muslim doesn’t mean he is a panacea for America’s troubles with the Islamic world. Far from it. While George W. Bush may be an infidel, he is not the son of an apostate. The latter is worse: an apostate actively turns his back on the faith, as opposed to never having chosen it. Such simple observations that Obama has never identified as a Muslim nor was ever raised as one will not save him, either. As Brandeis professor Ibrahim Sundiata says, “I think that people paint a too rosy picture of Obama being the world, that in the Muslim world, being the son of an ex-Muslim is apostasy and it is a very serious crime.”

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Shooting Themselves In the Foot

John McCain should extend a hearty thanks to Hillary Clinton for launching the “3 A.M.” advertisement last week. The spot — which, as Seth Gitell of The New York Sun shows, is a rip-off of a 1992 commerical that George H.W. Bush used against Hillary’s husband — rightly questions Barack Obama’s preparedness to deal with a national emergency. The press turned the tables on Clinton, and asked if she had ever experienced a “red phone moment” before. She obviously hasn’t, and so Clinton’s fear-mongering has had the unintended effect of showcasing her own, absurd pretensions to power. The Democrats are clearly aware of their vulnerability on the most important issues facing the country — especially in light of the pending McCain challenge — as, yesterday on This Week, both Obama and Clinton’s chief spokesmen were given to listing off endorsements made by former generals and other brass as de facto evidence of their candidates’ suitability.

Come the general election, John McCain won’t have to make a big show of his opponent’s lack of experience in crisis management, whoever that opponent may be. Hillary Clinton has already done it for him.

John McCain should extend a hearty thanks to Hillary Clinton for launching the “3 A.M.” advertisement last week. The spot — which, as Seth Gitell of The New York Sun shows, is a rip-off of a 1992 commerical that George H.W. Bush used against Hillary’s husband — rightly questions Barack Obama’s preparedness to deal with a national emergency. The press turned the tables on Clinton, and asked if she had ever experienced a “red phone moment” before. She obviously hasn’t, and so Clinton’s fear-mongering has had the unintended effect of showcasing her own, absurd pretensions to power. The Democrats are clearly aware of their vulnerability on the most important issues facing the country — especially in light of the pending McCain challenge — as, yesterday on This Week, both Obama and Clinton’s chief spokesmen were given to listing off endorsements made by former generals and other brass as de facto evidence of their candidates’ suitability.

Come the general election, John McCain won’t have to make a big show of his opponent’s lack of experience in crisis management, whoever that opponent may be. Hillary Clinton has already done it for him.

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Obama’s Teflon Passivity

Over the past few weeks, there has been a series of low-level flare-ups surrounding Barack Obama which he has, quite remarkably, been able to dismiss with a wave of the hand. Take, for instance, questions raised about his Farrakhan-loving preacher Jeremiah Wright. Those who made mere mention of Obama’s association with Wright were categorically condemned as smear artists little different from those who peddled stories earlier in the campaign that Obama was some sort of Manchurian Muslim candidate. The Obama campaign’s lame response to the Wright contretemps — that Obama doesn’t always agree with the preacher whose ministry he joined many years ago, whom he has praised as a mentor, whom he chose to deliver the invocation at the rally announcing his candidacy but whose invitation he withdrew at the last minute, who coined the vacuous term “Audacity of Hope” — did not nearly go far enough in explaining the Obama-Wright relationship.

Then there were the photographs that hit the blogs this week showing Obama’s Houston campaign headquarters festooned with flags of Che Guevara. As Jeff Jacoby wrote in his Sunday Boston Globe column, this was a strange thing to hang in the office of a candidate so often likened to the man who launched the Bay of Pigs invasion. Days after the story made headlines, the Obama campaign issued a press release stating that the display of Guevara’s visage “does not reflect Senator Obama’s views.” Good to know.

The latest incident was a story last week in the New York Sun, which revealed that Zbigniew Brzezinski, a top foreign policy adviser to Obama, traveled to Damascus to meet with, according to his spokesperson, “high level people in the region.” Even though Obama himself has said he would meet unconditionally with America’s enemies, the campaign assured the Sun that, “Brzezinski is not a day-to-day adviser for the campaign, he is someone whose guidance Senator Obama seeks on Iraq.”

It is understandable that Obama has not taken these challenges to his campaign seriously, seeing that Democratic primary voters probably care little — if at all — about a candidate’s associations with anti-Semitic preachers, campaign workers who revere Che Guevara or a foreign policy adviser who sips tea with a regime that kills Lebanese politicians. But these things will matter once the general election campaign begins, and I hope that Barack Obama drops his passivity accordingly.

Over the past few weeks, there has been a series of low-level flare-ups surrounding Barack Obama which he has, quite remarkably, been able to dismiss with a wave of the hand. Take, for instance, questions raised about his Farrakhan-loving preacher Jeremiah Wright. Those who made mere mention of Obama’s association with Wright were categorically condemned as smear artists little different from those who peddled stories earlier in the campaign that Obama was some sort of Manchurian Muslim candidate. The Obama campaign’s lame response to the Wright contretemps — that Obama doesn’t always agree with the preacher whose ministry he joined many years ago, whom he has praised as a mentor, whom he chose to deliver the invocation at the rally announcing his candidacy but whose invitation he withdrew at the last minute, who coined the vacuous term “Audacity of Hope” — did not nearly go far enough in explaining the Obama-Wright relationship.

Then there were the photographs that hit the blogs this week showing Obama’s Houston campaign headquarters festooned with flags of Che Guevara. As Jeff Jacoby wrote in his Sunday Boston Globe column, this was a strange thing to hang in the office of a candidate so often likened to the man who launched the Bay of Pigs invasion. Days after the story made headlines, the Obama campaign issued a press release stating that the display of Guevara’s visage “does not reflect Senator Obama’s views.” Good to know.

The latest incident was a story last week in the New York Sun, which revealed that Zbigniew Brzezinski, a top foreign policy adviser to Obama, traveled to Damascus to meet with, according to his spokesperson, “high level people in the region.” Even though Obama himself has said he would meet unconditionally with America’s enemies, the campaign assured the Sun that, “Brzezinski is not a day-to-day adviser for the campaign, he is someone whose guidance Senator Obama seeks on Iraq.”

It is understandable that Obama has not taken these challenges to his campaign seriously, seeing that Democratic primary voters probably care little — if at all — about a candidate’s associations with anti-Semitic preachers, campaign workers who revere Che Guevara or a foreign policy adviser who sips tea with a regime that kills Lebanese politicians. But these things will matter once the general election campaign begins, and I hope that Barack Obama drops his passivity accordingly.

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The “Hands off Syria” Crowd

Steve Clemons, stalwart of the liberal foreign-policy establishment, picked the wrong day to defend the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad — as it was the same day that Hezbollah fighters buried Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in Damascus. Clemons applauded Syria for cracking down on terrorism and attacked the Bush administration for introducing a new round of financial sanctions against Syrian government figures. Syria, he says, should instead be thanked for its sheltering 1.2 million Iraqi refugees (many of whom are returning to Iraq, by the way), and rewarded for being such a good international citizen.

Let’s parse this short excerpt:

Syria must be a party to any arrangement with the broader Arab world — and thus far, Syria has been on the whole reasonably behaved with regard to Israel. When Israel attacked some warehouses that Seymour Hersh argues were not nuclear weapons related, Syria restrained itself from attacking back and did not unleash agents into Israel to create domestic strife.

“Reasonably behaved with regard to Israel?” You’ve got to love how Clemons uses the construction “Seymour Hersh argues” as if it were de facto proof of the charge’s veracity. He then goes onto applaud Syria for its “restrained” response to Israel’s attack last year on suspected nuclear facilities, as the Baathists in Damascus held back from causing “domestic strife” in Israel, a terrific euphemism for terrorism  I’ll remember the next time my younger brother and I get into a fight about playing X-Box or something. When Hezbollah inevitably retaliates for the murder of Mughniyeh at an El-Al airport counter or Jewish Community Center, perhaps Clemons will wag his finger at Syria for its “bad behavior.”

In the comments to Clemons’s piece, Eli Lake of the New York Sun takes issue with Clemons’s use of the word “strangle” to describe U.S. sanctions, since, as he says,  Syrian “top regime apparats…themselves ‘strangle,’ I don’t know, Kurdish opposition figures, liberal newspaper editors, and anyone suspected of disloyalty in their police state.”

Steve Clemons, stalwart of the liberal foreign-policy establishment, picked the wrong day to defend the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad — as it was the same day that Hezbollah fighters buried Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in Damascus. Clemons applauded Syria for cracking down on terrorism and attacked the Bush administration for introducing a new round of financial sanctions against Syrian government figures. Syria, he says, should instead be thanked for its sheltering 1.2 million Iraqi refugees (many of whom are returning to Iraq, by the way), and rewarded for being such a good international citizen.

Let’s parse this short excerpt:

Syria must be a party to any arrangement with the broader Arab world — and thus far, Syria has been on the whole reasonably behaved with regard to Israel. When Israel attacked some warehouses that Seymour Hersh argues were not nuclear weapons related, Syria restrained itself from attacking back and did not unleash agents into Israel to create domestic strife.

“Reasonably behaved with regard to Israel?” You’ve got to love how Clemons uses the construction “Seymour Hersh argues” as if it were de facto proof of the charge’s veracity. He then goes onto applaud Syria for its “restrained” response to Israel’s attack last year on suspected nuclear facilities, as the Baathists in Damascus held back from causing “domestic strife” in Israel, a terrific euphemism for terrorism  I’ll remember the next time my younger brother and I get into a fight about playing X-Box or something. When Hezbollah inevitably retaliates for the murder of Mughniyeh at an El-Al airport counter or Jewish Community Center, perhaps Clemons will wag his finger at Syria for its “bad behavior.”

In the comments to Clemons’s piece, Eli Lake of the New York Sun takes issue with Clemons’s use of the word “strangle” to describe U.S. sanctions, since, as he says,  Syrian “top regime apparats…themselves ‘strangle,’ I don’t know, Kurdish opposition figures, liberal newspaper editors, and anyone suspected of disloyalty in their police state.”

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Did Israel Do It?

By a simple process of elimination, it seems implausible that anyone other than Israel was behind the operation that killed Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus last night.

For starters, the Syrian regime can be eliminated. If the bombing had happened anywhere other than Damascus, there might be a slight chance that Syria, as so many people are speculating, knocked off one of its own heroes as part of a secret deal with America. But the bombing happened in the heart of Damascus–“the car bomb exploded . . . in Tantheem Kafer Souseh, an upscale neighborhood of Damascus, close to an Iranian school and a police station,” reports the NYT — and the embarrassment today to the Assad regime and its allies, Hizballah and Iran, could not be greater. Damascus is an extraordinarily well-surveilled city, and the Assad regime is fanatical about internal security. Even if somehow the Syrians did decide that they needed to kill Mughniyeh, doing so in Damascus, or even elsewhere in Syria, would be an unimaginably stupid way to carry it out.

So did a group of Lebanese Christians do it in retaliation for years of Syrian assassinations of March 14 leaders? There is motive — but there isn’t much in the way of means. As Tony Badran told the New York Sun, “To say that any faction in Lebanon is behind this is to greatly misstate reality. They don’t have the operational capacity. They don’t have the intelligence capacity. It is extremely unlikely that anyone in Lebanon has anything to do with this.” Moreover, had Lebanese Christians been able to do it, they would have bombed Damascus three years ago, when Syria started killing people in Beirut.

What about America? This is probably the likeliest scenario other than the Israelis, as Mugniyah’s fingerprints are on a litany of terror operations spanning well over two decades that have killed hundreds of Americans. But it’s also true that America appears to have largely given up the hunt for Mugniyah, and has also downgraded its confrontation with Syria and Iran. It is also not clear that the CIA today is enamored of the spirit of daring necessary to carry off such an operation, or that it even maintains the kind of resources in Syria that would enable it to assassinate someone if the interest arose.

And that leaves Israel, which has many obvious reasons for conducting such an operation combined with the intelligence capabilities necessary for carrying it out. We know from the 2006 war with Hizballah that Israel has reliable networks of operatives within southern Lebanon and Syria which enabled Israel to monitor the medium- and long-range missiles that were supplied to Hizballah, almost all of which Israel was able to destroy in the opening hours of the war.

Ultimately, it almost doesn’t matter who did it, because Israel will remain the presumed culprit. And that is a very good thing.

By a simple process of elimination, it seems implausible that anyone other than Israel was behind the operation that killed Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus last night.

For starters, the Syrian regime can be eliminated. If the bombing had happened anywhere other than Damascus, there might be a slight chance that Syria, as so many people are speculating, knocked off one of its own heroes as part of a secret deal with America. But the bombing happened in the heart of Damascus–“the car bomb exploded . . . in Tantheem Kafer Souseh, an upscale neighborhood of Damascus, close to an Iranian school and a police station,” reports the NYT — and the embarrassment today to the Assad regime and its allies, Hizballah and Iran, could not be greater. Damascus is an extraordinarily well-surveilled city, and the Assad regime is fanatical about internal security. Even if somehow the Syrians did decide that they needed to kill Mughniyeh, doing so in Damascus, or even elsewhere in Syria, would be an unimaginably stupid way to carry it out.

So did a group of Lebanese Christians do it in retaliation for years of Syrian assassinations of March 14 leaders? There is motive — but there isn’t much in the way of means. As Tony Badran told the New York Sun, “To say that any faction in Lebanon is behind this is to greatly misstate reality. They don’t have the operational capacity. They don’t have the intelligence capacity. It is extremely unlikely that anyone in Lebanon has anything to do with this.” Moreover, had Lebanese Christians been able to do it, they would have bombed Damascus three years ago, when Syria started killing people in Beirut.

What about America? This is probably the likeliest scenario other than the Israelis, as Mugniyah’s fingerprints are on a litany of terror operations spanning well over two decades that have killed hundreds of Americans. But it’s also true that America appears to have largely given up the hunt for Mugniyah, and has also downgraded its confrontation with Syria and Iran. It is also not clear that the CIA today is enamored of the spirit of daring necessary to carry off such an operation, or that it even maintains the kind of resources in Syria that would enable it to assassinate someone if the interest arose.

And that leaves Israel, which has many obvious reasons for conducting such an operation combined with the intelligence capabilities necessary for carrying it out. We know from the 2006 war with Hizballah that Israel has reliable networks of operatives within southern Lebanon and Syria which enabled Israel to monitor the medium- and long-range missiles that were supplied to Hizballah, almost all of which Israel was able to destroy in the opening hours of the war.

Ultimately, it almost doesn’t matter who did it, because Israel will remain the presumed culprit. And that is a very good thing.

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Brzezinski to Damascus

Eli Lake has a scoop today in the New York Sun entitled “Obama Adviser Leads Delegation to Damascus.”

Zbigniew Brzezinski will travel to Damascus for meetings as part of a trip Syria’s official Cham News agency described as an “important sign that the end of official dialogue between Washington and Damascus has not prevented dialogue with important American intellectuals and politicians.”

An important sign indeed, and one that should tell us a lot about what Brzezinski would advise a President Obama to do (Brzezinski is also one of the leaders of the engage-Hamas movement). There is, of course, a lot to talk about with the Syrians, first and foremost being the appalling amount of bloodshed and destruction Assad’s regime enjoys inflicting on Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel through its array of terrorist proxies.

But it is almost inconceivable that Brzezinski would use his visit to confront Assad and lodge a protest on behalf of the civilized world. For the Obama campaign, there is a lesson here: When you bring people like Brzezinski onto your campaign, there is a good chance you’ll have to suffer embarrassing episodes like this. It’s what lawyers call “assuming the risk.”

Eli Lake has a scoop today in the New York Sun entitled “Obama Adviser Leads Delegation to Damascus.”

Zbigniew Brzezinski will travel to Damascus for meetings as part of a trip Syria’s official Cham News agency described as an “important sign that the end of official dialogue between Washington and Damascus has not prevented dialogue with important American intellectuals and politicians.”

An important sign indeed, and one that should tell us a lot about what Brzezinski would advise a President Obama to do (Brzezinski is also one of the leaders of the engage-Hamas movement). There is, of course, a lot to talk about with the Syrians, first and foremost being the appalling amount of bloodshed and destruction Assad’s regime enjoys inflicting on Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel through its array of terrorist proxies.

But it is almost inconceivable that Brzezinski would use his visit to confront Assad and lodge a protest on behalf of the civilized world. For the Obama campaign, there is a lesson here: When you bring people like Brzezinski onto your campaign, there is a good chance you’ll have to suffer embarrassing episodes like this. It’s what lawyers call “assuming the risk.”

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Goldberg Vituperations

An editorial that appeared today in the New York Sun goes a long way toward straightening out the record on what it calls “a kerfuffle [that] has been sputtering on the World Wide Web over a question [Norman] Podhoretz asked in respect of the Kurds.”

Mr. Podhoretz asked the question five years ago at a banquet in New York honoring Robert L. Bartley of the Wall Street Journal, Bernard Lewis of Princeton, and Jeffrey Goldberg, then of the New Yorker. Mr. Goldberg, a marvelous reporter, was being saluted for a dispatch from Kurdistan that had helped light the way for American entry into the Battle of Iraq. Mr. Goldberg had just come in from Northern Iraq and spoke about Kurdistan. In a tour d’horizon of the Middle East in the January/February number of the Atlantic, Mr. Goldberg relates that after the event, Mr. Podhoretz asked him, “What’s a Kurd, anyway?” Mr. Podhoretz, in Mr. Goldberg’s account, “seemed authentically bewildered.”

Goldberg is surely capable of giving an accurate description of an event in which he himself was a participant. Yet what he does here is to make it sound as though I had never even heard of the Kurds. And this indeed is precisely how the story has been widely interpreted.

That his portrayal is false is confirmed by the author of the Sun editorial, who was also present at the banquet:

As it happens, we were either in the same or a similar conversation with Mr. Podhoretz at the same banquet, and we took him not as being ignorant of the Kurdish question; after all, Commentary during his years as editor in chief contained plenty of references to Kurdistan. We took him to be curious as to how Mr. Goldberg would answer a question of ethnography that has never been resolved.

The Sun editorial is right: I was, in fact, asking Goldberg about the ethnic and/or racial character of the Kurds. And that, as it happens, was and is a very good question — since, as I have since discovered, no one seems to know the answer. According to Wikipedia, “There are many different and diverging views on the origin of the Kurds,” and according to no less an authority than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, their ethnic origins remain uncertain. The only points on which there seems to be general agreement are (1) that they are not Arabs; (2) that they are mainly Sunni Muslims; and (3) that they speak “an Indo-European language of the Iranian branch.”

To tell the truth, after five years I don’t remember what Goldberg said in answer to my question, and neither, I would bet, does he. Why then does he go out of his way to bring it up after such a long time?

The answer is that, in his Atlantic article, Goldberg was trying to show that “neoconservative ideologues” are not “interested in the Kurdish cause, or even particularly knowledgeable about its history,” and having no solid evidence to back up this smear, he settled for a malicious representation of an old conversation with me (“the vicariously martial neoconservative who is now a Middle East adviser to Rudolph Giuliani”).

Thus did an animus against neoconservatism lead Goldberg to violate the most elementary standards of journalistic fairness. And there is an additional factor, which is that Goldberg, whose views are often dangerously close to those held by us “neoconservative ideologues,” is (like others I could name) so fearful of being stigmatized by that dread label that he can never resist an opportunity to demonstrate through smears and sneers that he is nothing of the kind. But that is another story, for another day.

An editorial that appeared today in the New York Sun goes a long way toward straightening out the record on what it calls “a kerfuffle [that] has been sputtering on the World Wide Web over a question [Norman] Podhoretz asked in respect of the Kurds.”

Mr. Podhoretz asked the question five years ago at a banquet in New York honoring Robert L. Bartley of the Wall Street Journal, Bernard Lewis of Princeton, and Jeffrey Goldberg, then of the New Yorker. Mr. Goldberg, a marvelous reporter, was being saluted for a dispatch from Kurdistan that had helped light the way for American entry into the Battle of Iraq. Mr. Goldberg had just come in from Northern Iraq and spoke about Kurdistan. In a tour d’horizon of the Middle East in the January/February number of the Atlantic, Mr. Goldberg relates that after the event, Mr. Podhoretz asked him, “What’s a Kurd, anyway?” Mr. Podhoretz, in Mr. Goldberg’s account, “seemed authentically bewildered.”

Goldberg is surely capable of giving an accurate description of an event in which he himself was a participant. Yet what he does here is to make it sound as though I had never even heard of the Kurds. And this indeed is precisely how the story has been widely interpreted.

That his portrayal is false is confirmed by the author of the Sun editorial, who was also present at the banquet:

As it happens, we were either in the same or a similar conversation with Mr. Podhoretz at the same banquet, and we took him not as being ignorant of the Kurdish question; after all, Commentary during his years as editor in chief contained plenty of references to Kurdistan. We took him to be curious as to how Mr. Goldberg would answer a question of ethnography that has never been resolved.

The Sun editorial is right: I was, in fact, asking Goldberg about the ethnic and/or racial character of the Kurds. And that, as it happens, was and is a very good question — since, as I have since discovered, no one seems to know the answer. According to Wikipedia, “There are many different and diverging views on the origin of the Kurds,” and according to no less an authority than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, their ethnic origins remain uncertain. The only points on which there seems to be general agreement are (1) that they are not Arabs; (2) that they are mainly Sunni Muslims; and (3) that they speak “an Indo-European language of the Iranian branch.”

To tell the truth, after five years I don’t remember what Goldberg said in answer to my question, and neither, I would bet, does he. Why then does he go out of his way to bring it up after such a long time?

The answer is that, in his Atlantic article, Goldberg was trying to show that “neoconservative ideologues” are not “interested in the Kurdish cause, or even particularly knowledgeable about its history,” and having no solid evidence to back up this smear, he settled for a malicious representation of an old conversation with me (“the vicariously martial neoconservative who is now a Middle East adviser to Rudolph Giuliani”).

Thus did an animus against neoconservatism lead Goldberg to violate the most elementary standards of journalistic fairness. And there is an additional factor, which is that Goldberg, whose views are often dangerously close to those held by us “neoconservative ideologues,” is (like others I could name) so fearful of being stigmatized by that dread label that he can never resist an opportunity to demonstrate through smears and sneers that he is nothing of the kind. But that is another story, for another day.

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Walzer and Cohen

Michael Walzer and Mitchell Cohen, co-editors of Dissent, have thrown down the gauntlet on the future of the American Left, battling to defend liberalism from the illiberal forces (Marxism, anti-Westernism, etc.) that threaten to hijack its political agenda. Two examples of this challenge: Walzer’s new collection of essays, Thinking Politically (just reviewed by Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun) and Cohen’s major essay “Anti-Semitism and the Left that Doesn’t Learn.” In the latter, Cohen goes to town on the anti-Semitism that lurks behind much of the far-Left criticism of Israel. He concludes:

It is time for the Left that learns, that grows, that reflects, that has historical not rhetorical perspective, and that wants a future based on its own best values to say loudly to the Left that never learns: You hijacked “Left” in the last century, but you won’t get away with it again whatever guise you don.

Kirsch is right to praise them for their “intellectual courage.” The resurgence of illiberalism on the far Left is one of the most troubling developments in political discourse in our time.

Michael Walzer and Mitchell Cohen, co-editors of Dissent, have thrown down the gauntlet on the future of the American Left, battling to defend liberalism from the illiberal forces (Marxism, anti-Westernism, etc.) that threaten to hijack its political agenda. Two examples of this challenge: Walzer’s new collection of essays, Thinking Politically (just reviewed by Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun) and Cohen’s major essay “Anti-Semitism and the Left that Doesn’t Learn.” In the latter, Cohen goes to town on the anti-Semitism that lurks behind much of the far-Left criticism of Israel. He concludes:

It is time for the Left that learns, that grows, that reflects, that has historical not rhetorical perspective, and that wants a future based on its own best values to say loudly to the Left that never learns: You hijacked “Left” in the last century, but you won’t get away with it again whatever guise you don.

Kirsch is right to praise them for their “intellectual courage.” The resurgence of illiberalism on the far Left is one of the most troubling developments in political discourse in our time.

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The Best Interests of the Game?

It’s official: With yesterday’s steroid report making front page news, George Mitchell has become a brand name, the investigatory equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal. A story in today’s New York Times encapsulates the credulous, even ceremonial treatment the press has, for the most part, afforded Mitchell’s findings. Which would be fine, if only Mitchell wasn’t up to his ears in conflicts of interest, and hadn’t produced a document that reported almost nothing new, save for empty rhetoric (“hundreds of thousands of our children are using [steroids]”) and the often uncorroborated claims of two sources ensnared in the legal system and looking to cut a deal, spiced up with a good dose of hearsay.

Conducting some 700 interviews and going over hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, Mitchell turns up considerably less than can be found in the book that exposes Barry Bonds’s steroid use, Game of Shadows, or in Howard Bryant’s excellent Juicing The Game. We could have found out more, and at least as credibly, simply by compiling a list of the players whose statistics improved by an order of magnitude after the age of 32, something nearly unheard of prior to the steroid era.

Clearly aware of how little he’d turned up, Mitchell released his 409-page document just an hour before holding a press conference, ensuring that reporters had no time to read, let alone absorb, the document before asking him questions. When tough questions did come up, he stonewalled with endless variations of “it’s in the report.” It was a smart way to control the story, given that few new names were unearthed—much of the report reads like a detailed summary of the better news reporting of the last decade—and the big ones that were, most notably Roger Clemens and Miguel Tejada, were, to anyone who’d been paying attention, among the most obvious abusers.

Read More

It’s official: With yesterday’s steroid report making front page news, George Mitchell has become a brand name, the investigatory equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal. A story in today’s New York Times encapsulates the credulous, even ceremonial treatment the press has, for the most part, afforded Mitchell’s findings. Which would be fine, if only Mitchell wasn’t up to his ears in conflicts of interest, and hadn’t produced a document that reported almost nothing new, save for empty rhetoric (“hundreds of thousands of our children are using [steroids]”) and the often uncorroborated claims of two sources ensnared in the legal system and looking to cut a deal, spiced up with a good dose of hearsay.

Conducting some 700 interviews and going over hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, Mitchell turns up considerably less than can be found in the book that exposes Barry Bonds’s steroid use, Game of Shadows, or in Howard Bryant’s excellent Juicing The Game. We could have found out more, and at least as credibly, simply by compiling a list of the players whose statistics improved by an order of magnitude after the age of 32, something nearly unheard of prior to the steroid era.

Clearly aware of how little he’d turned up, Mitchell released his 409-page document just an hour before holding a press conference, ensuring that reporters had no time to read, let alone absorb, the document before asking him questions. When tough questions did come up, he stonewalled with endless variations of “it’s in the report.” It was a smart way to control the story, given that few new names were unearthed—much of the report reads like a detailed summary of the better news reporting of the last decade—and the big ones that were, most notably Roger Clemens and Miguel Tejada, were, to anyone who’d been paying attention, among the most obvious abusers.

In place of significant new revelations, Mitchell continuously blamed the players for their lack of cooperation with his investigation. Why the players should have cooperated with what was effectively an attack on labor by management remains unclear. After all, it was no secret on whose behalf Mitchell was working.

New York writers have concentrated on Mitchell’s ties to the Red Sox. Conspiracy theories about this focus on the New York-centric quality of the report; the outing of Indians pitcher Paul Byrd, in the middle of a postseason series between the Sox and the Indians, as a human growth hormone user; and the decision not to tender a contract to reliever Brendan Donnelly, just a few hours before the report, with Donnelly’s name in it, was released. However, the bigger, more open, conspiracy is that of the former Senator’s relationship to management.

Tim Marchman of the New York Sun, evidently one of the few writers who bothered to read the report before reporting on it, lists these conflicts in what should be considered the definitive dispatch thus far on the report. Suffice it to say that Mitchell, who presently serves as a minority owner of the Boston Red Sox, is, in Marchman’s words, “a member of baseball management as surely as anyone now living.”

This is the only light in which to understand a report that breaks just enough ground to fool lazy reporters, while allowing Commissioner Bud Selig to declare an end to the steroid era, by pushing through the new rules and regulations Mitchell proposes, and using these changes to keep Congress at bay. As Marchman puts it, Selig’s appointing Mitchell is akin to “President Bush’s charging Karl Rove with a blue ribbon inquiry into the war in Iraq, and Rove’s brushing away the appearance of impropriety by assuring the world that the White House political operation would get no special favor.”

All of this befits a league that expects us to believe that a commissioner who’s a former owner, and who serves at the mercy of ownership, is acting “in the best interests of the game.”

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Words, Words, Words

Here at the horizon, Dara Mandle wonders about the death of reading. Over at The New Republic, James Wolcott offers a lengthy and vastly entertaining piece on the decline of book reviewing (the piece itself is a review of Gail Pool’s Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America), a topic also explored recently by Steve Wasserman in the Columbia Journalism Review. All seem to agree that reading (and serious thinking on it) is in a state of flux, and probably on the wane. Mandle’s post, for example, ends with the question, “Do electronics like the Kindle have what it takes to save reading?” The underlying assumption is that reading needs saving, and that recent cultural and technological shifts are part of what’s killing it.

It’s an easy assumption to make, of course, but as Wolcott’s essay points out, it’s hardly a novel idea. Academics, intellectuals, and ordinary book lovers have been fretting over the decline of serious writing and serious thinking about writing for decades. As always, reactions vary. Many, like Adam Kirsch in The New York Sun, have simply given up, pronouncing the internet-dominated literary scene a total loss. Others, including critics like Terry Teachout and journalists like Megan McArdle (now of the Atlantic), are more enthusiastic.

I lean towards enthusiasm, but I think some of the worries and criticisms are valid, if somewhat misplaced. The danger to reading, it seems to me, is less of the lack of respect for books and book criticism, or the uninformed opinions of amateurs replacing the thoughtful screeds of professionals, or the diminishing number of book reviews in newspapers, but instead, the glut of written material fighting for our collective attention. Even the most robust literary scene would have difficulty keeping up with the truckloads of books published each year. And although newspapers may be publishing fewer book reviews, the internet, by giving free and easy access to all those with internet access, has actually expanded access to top-tier reviews for nearly everyone.

Book review pages in medium sized newspapers have fallen off in large part because they are unnecessary in a world where nearly everyone can easily browse the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the L.A. Times. Meanwhile, smaller publications, including blogs, but also established print journals, are flourishing on the web, creating a wealth of easy-to-access material for every niche. The difficulty with reading these days is not that there is too little being written, or that no one is doing it, or even that no one is doing it well. It’s that there’s too much to read, too much to process. We are not short for words. We are drowning in them.

Here at the horizon, Dara Mandle wonders about the death of reading. Over at The New Republic, James Wolcott offers a lengthy and vastly entertaining piece on the decline of book reviewing (the piece itself is a review of Gail Pool’s Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America), a topic also explored recently by Steve Wasserman in the Columbia Journalism Review. All seem to agree that reading (and serious thinking on it) is in a state of flux, and probably on the wane. Mandle’s post, for example, ends with the question, “Do electronics like the Kindle have what it takes to save reading?” The underlying assumption is that reading needs saving, and that recent cultural and technological shifts are part of what’s killing it.

It’s an easy assumption to make, of course, but as Wolcott’s essay points out, it’s hardly a novel idea. Academics, intellectuals, and ordinary book lovers have been fretting over the decline of serious writing and serious thinking about writing for decades. As always, reactions vary. Many, like Adam Kirsch in The New York Sun, have simply given up, pronouncing the internet-dominated literary scene a total loss. Others, including critics like Terry Teachout and journalists like Megan McArdle (now of the Atlantic), are more enthusiastic.

I lean towards enthusiasm, but I think some of the worries and criticisms are valid, if somewhat misplaced. The danger to reading, it seems to me, is less of the lack of respect for books and book criticism, or the uninformed opinions of amateurs replacing the thoughtful screeds of professionals, or the diminishing number of book reviews in newspapers, but instead, the glut of written material fighting for our collective attention. Even the most robust literary scene would have difficulty keeping up with the truckloads of books published each year. And although newspapers may be publishing fewer book reviews, the internet, by giving free and easy access to all those with internet access, has actually expanded access to top-tier reviews for nearly everyone.

Book review pages in medium sized newspapers have fallen off in large part because they are unnecessary in a world where nearly everyone can easily browse the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the L.A. Times. Meanwhile, smaller publications, including blogs, but also established print journals, are flourishing on the web, creating a wealth of easy-to-access material for every niche. The difficulty with reading these days is not that there is too little being written, or that no one is doing it, or even that no one is doing it well. It’s that there’s too much to read, too much to process. We are not short for words. We are drowning in them.

Read Less




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