Commentary Magazine


Topic: White House

Guess Who’s Welcome in the White House?

In 2009, the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center named Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah as one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world. The cleric has also worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on what are said to be global health issues. So perhaps there is nothing wrong about him attending a meeting at the White House on June 13 to confer with Obama administration officials, including some of the members of the National Security Council. Or so the administration thought. As it turns out, Sheikh Bin Bayyah’s resume is a little longer than that short list of distinctions. As Steven Emerson and John Rossomando of The Investigative Project reported on Wednesday, as vice president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, he’s also a leading supporter of Hamas and endorsed Islamist terrorism against U.S. troops in Iraq. If that isn’t enough, he’s also a disciple of radical Egyptian cleric Yusuf Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is banned from the U.S. as a result of his repeated calls for the murder of both Jews and Americans.

So what exactly was the Obama administration thinking when it not only granted him a visa to come to the United States but actually invited him to the White house to confer with administration officials to discuss what we are told are issues relating to poverty, global health and to encourage him to continue speaking ill of al-Qaeda? While that last point may make the decision to embrace Bin Bayyah seem defensible, how is it possible that a known supporter of a group the U.S. has itself labeled as a terrorist organization, and whose record includes a long list of statements about the need to oppose U.S. policies, would be considered a proper advisor to people at the highest level of the American security establishment?

Unfortunately, the answer to these questions makes no more sense than administration replies to queries about why they have embraced the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt and why President Obama treats Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as if he’s his best friend.

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In 2009, the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center named Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah as one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world. The cleric has also worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on what are said to be global health issues. So perhaps there is nothing wrong about him attending a meeting at the White House on June 13 to confer with Obama administration officials, including some of the members of the National Security Council. Or so the administration thought. As it turns out, Sheikh Bin Bayyah’s resume is a little longer than that short list of distinctions. As Steven Emerson and John Rossomando of The Investigative Project reported on Wednesday, as vice president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, he’s also a leading supporter of Hamas and endorsed Islamist terrorism against U.S. troops in Iraq. If that isn’t enough, he’s also a disciple of radical Egyptian cleric Yusuf Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is banned from the U.S. as a result of his repeated calls for the murder of both Jews and Americans.

So what exactly was the Obama administration thinking when it not only granted him a visa to come to the United States but actually invited him to the White house to confer with administration officials to discuss what we are told are issues relating to poverty, global health and to encourage him to continue speaking ill of al-Qaeda? While that last point may make the decision to embrace Bin Bayyah seem defensible, how is it possible that a known supporter of a group the U.S. has itself labeled as a terrorist organization, and whose record includes a long list of statements about the need to oppose U.S. policies, would be considered a proper advisor to people at the highest level of the American security establishment?

Unfortunately, the answer to these questions makes no more sense than administration replies to queries about why they have embraced the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt and why President Obama treats Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as if he’s his best friend.

Lest there be any doubt about Bin Bayyah’s presence in the White House, a “senior Obama administration official confirmed to Fox News that the meeting took place. But the fact that Bin Bayyah had already posted a photo of the meeting on his Web site, there was no need for anybody to go digging through the log of visitors to the White House.

The Investigative Project details Bin Bayyah’s record at length, but suffice it to say that despite a recent willingness to oppose al-Qaeda, his record on terrorism and radical Islamism should have rendered him off limits for entry to the United States, let alone being allowed to waltz into the White House.

While the Obama administration has developed an altogether commendable record on killing terrorists in the field, its weakness for some radical clerics and Islamist political parties in the Middle East has compromised its ability to think clearly about Egypt and Turkey. If the likes of Bin Bayyah are welcome in the White House, it’s little wonder the president and his foreign policy team have been unable to put forward a coherent policy on dealing with the problems of the Middle East.

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Obama’s Silence on Egypt Speaks Volumes

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi may be backing down a bit on his attempt to seize dictatorial powers. The Muslim Brotherhood leader agreed to a limited compromise on his assertion of supremacy over the courts in which he would allow the judiciary to exercise review over his edits. This development testifies to the strength of the protests against Morsi’s attempt to acquire as much power as Hosni Mubarak had during his reign in Cairo. But even if Morsi’s putsch is contained for the moment, there is little doubt that he is determined to neutralize any possible competition for control over the country. This is, by any objective measure, a real defeat for an Obama administration that has publicly embraced Morsi and the Brotherhood and publicly disparaged his authoritarian predecessor. It is especially embarrassing since just last week President Obama was heaping praise on Morsi for his role in brokering a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, even though it was the Egyptian’s support for Hamas that helped foment the crisis.

But perhaps the most telling thing about the way Egypt is heading back down the road to dictatorship is the relative silence from Morsi’s new buddy in the White House and the State Department. At today’s White House press briefing, spokesman Jay Carney stayed clear of anything that could possibly be considered criticism of Morsi or the Brotherhood’s power grab, saying merely: “We have some concerns about the decisions and declarations that were announced on November 22.” Carney also denied that the president felt “betrayed” by the way Morsi used Washington’s fulsome praise for him as a platform from which he sought to expand his ability to rule by fiat. Given the way the administration dumped Mubarak and then publicly scolded and threatened the Egyptian military when it tried to act as a brake on the Brotherhood’s drive for hegemony, the White House’s unwillingness to say anything more than that speaks volumes about the way Morsi is viewed in Washington these days.

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Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi may be backing down a bit on his attempt to seize dictatorial powers. The Muslim Brotherhood leader agreed to a limited compromise on his assertion of supremacy over the courts in which he would allow the judiciary to exercise review over his edits. This development testifies to the strength of the protests against Morsi’s attempt to acquire as much power as Hosni Mubarak had during his reign in Cairo. But even if Morsi’s putsch is contained for the moment, there is little doubt that he is determined to neutralize any possible competition for control over the country. This is, by any objective measure, a real defeat for an Obama administration that has publicly embraced Morsi and the Brotherhood and publicly disparaged his authoritarian predecessor. It is especially embarrassing since just last week President Obama was heaping praise on Morsi for his role in brokering a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, even though it was the Egyptian’s support for Hamas that helped foment the crisis.

But perhaps the most telling thing about the way Egypt is heading back down the road to dictatorship is the relative silence from Morsi’s new buddy in the White House and the State Department. At today’s White House press briefing, spokesman Jay Carney stayed clear of anything that could possibly be considered criticism of Morsi or the Brotherhood’s power grab, saying merely: “We have some concerns about the decisions and declarations that were announced on November 22.” Carney also denied that the president felt “betrayed” by the way Morsi used Washington’s fulsome praise for him as a platform from which he sought to expand his ability to rule by fiat. Given the way the administration dumped Mubarak and then publicly scolded and threatened the Egyptian military when it tried to act as a brake on the Brotherhood’s drive for hegemony, the White House’s unwillingness to say anything more than that speaks volumes about the way Morsi is viewed in Washington these days.

One of the interesting nonevents of the past year has been the way the administration has been able to avoid any debate about its attitude toward Morsi and the Brotherhood. Part of that stems from the unfortunate decision by Michele Bachmann and some other conservative members of the House of Representatives to center any complaints on the personal loyalty of Huma Abedin, a longtime aide to Secretary of State Clinton and the wife of disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner. The pushback against Bachmann was bipartisan and the question was transformed from a reasonable debate that needed to be held about Washington’s embrace of the new Egyptian government to one of whether the House GOP was attempting to subject Abedin to a McCarthy-like inquisition based on anti-Arab prejudice.

Once Abedin was enshrined as a victim of bias, critiques of a policy shift in which Washington had made its peace with Morsi were effectively silenced. And with Morsi being portrayed as a peacemaker between Hamas and Israel, it seemed as if the new regime was being elevated to the same sort of friendly status with which the president views the Islamist government in Turkey.

Morsi’s relentless drive to rule without a parliament, and now without a judiciary able to restrain him, makes that embrace look strikingly similar to past American embraces of dictators. Only this time, the dictator isn’t a pro-U.S. authoritarian but a dedicated Islamist allied with terrorists and determined to limit American influence in the region.

This ought to have been a moment when President Obama would speak up on behalf of a cause that he had been vocal about in the last two years: democracy in the Arab world and in particular in Egypt, where a popular uprising discarded a pro-American, though unsustainable, leader. Instead, all we get from the White House is silence that effectively negates the president’s past embrace of the cause of freedom in the Muslim world. Mubarak and the Egyptian military must be wondering now why it is that their misdeeds were unacceptable in the eyes of Obama but Morsi’s cynical actions are OK. Americans who care about the billions of their taxpayer dollars that are being sent to Egypt should be asking the same thing.

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WH Asks YouTube to Pull Anti-Islam Video

The White House will obviously argue that it’s not asking YouTube to censor the anti-Islam video per say, but simply asking it to review its policies and see if the video can be construed as a terms of use violation. But that’s a distinction without a difference. “Hey, can you remove this video?” is pretty much undistinguishable from “Hey, can you remove this video as a violation of your terms of services?” — after all, it’s not like the White House can force YouTube to pull the film, and whatever the website does is its own prerogative:

The White House has asked YouTube to review an anti-Muslim film posted to the site that has been blamed for igniting the violent protests this week in the Middle East.

Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said the White House has “reached out to YouTube to call the video to their attention and ask them to review whether it violates their terms of use.”

WaPo reports that YouTube already said the video didn’t violate its terms of services on Wednesday, but it has restricted access to the film in Libya and Egypt.

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The White House will obviously argue that it’s not asking YouTube to censor the anti-Islam video per say, but simply asking it to review its policies and see if the video can be construed as a terms of use violation. But that’s a distinction without a difference. “Hey, can you remove this video?” is pretty much undistinguishable from “Hey, can you remove this video as a violation of your terms of services?” — after all, it’s not like the White House can force YouTube to pull the film, and whatever the website does is its own prerogative:

The White House has asked YouTube to review an anti-Muslim film posted to the site that has been blamed for igniting the violent protests this week in the Middle East.

Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said the White House has “reached out to YouTube to call the video to their attention and ask them to review whether it violates their terms of use.”

WaPo reports that YouTube already said the video didn’t violate its terms of services on Wednesday, but it has restricted access to the film in Libya and Egypt.

The spokesperson added, however, that the site restricted access in Libya and Egypt because of the unrest. “We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions. This can be a challenge because what’s OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere,” the spokesperson said.

Earlier today, White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated that the administration found the video “offensive and reprehensible and disgusting,” but added, “we cannot and will not squelch freedom of expression in this country.” When a reporter asked whether the White House ever asked YouTube to remove the video, he said that he wasn’t sure and punted on the question.

If the White House believes the video is “freedom of expression” that it “cannot and will not squelch,” then why is it asking YouTube to see if it can remove the film from its website?

This is a result of the dangerous precedent the Obama administration has set. Last year, administration officials personally petitioned a fringe pastor in Florida not to carry out a Koran burning they said would endanger our troops. There was a small public outcry, but not much — probably because many Americans are instinctively uncomfortable with book-burnings, even if they are protected expression.

But now the administration’s efforts to suppress free speech have spread to a YouTube video. A video that is admittedly moronic and offensive, but certainly no more so than thousands of other clips on the website.

Where does this lead? The list of things that offend radical Islamists is long. What happens next time fanatics riot and murder innocents over a film or a picture or a book? Is the White House going to make it a policy to condemn any mockery of Islam that radical clerics exploit to gin up outrage across the Muslim world?

By trying to get the video pulled, the White House isn’t just acknowledging that the film is offensive. It’s taking the posture that the film is illegitimate expression because it offends — and that violent rioting is a logical response to simply viewing the film. That U.S. policy has the potential to become a dangerous tool in the hands of Islamists.

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Private Email and White House Business

Considering that Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina is attacking Mitt Romney about  “transparency” issues, he probably should have been more careful about following disclosure rules while serving as White House deputy chief of staff. Politico reports that Messina appears to have used a private email address for government-related conversations with health care lobbyists:

A House Energy and Commerce Committee report out Tuesday is stocked with emails sent from private addresses and meetings scheduled away from the building to avoid official record. Among these are several sent to a pharmaceutical industry lobbyist by Messina, President Barack Obama’s then-deputy White House chief of staff, making promises about language for the health care reforms despite the resistance of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the measure.

“I will roll [P]elosi to get the 4 billion,” Messina wrote Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) lobbyist Jeffrey Forbes from his personal account just days before the Affordable Care Act cleared Congress in March 2010. “As you may have heard I am literally rolling over the House. But there just isn’t 8-10 billion.”

The note related to the official business regarding an agreement reached by the Senate Finance Committee and PhRMA on the president’s health care law. Pelosi’s office referred to previous statements in which she declined to address the deal between the administration and PhRMA.

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Considering that Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina is attacking Mitt Romney about  “transparency” issues, he probably should have been more careful about following disclosure rules while serving as White House deputy chief of staff. Politico reports that Messina appears to have used a private email address for government-related conversations with health care lobbyists:

A House Energy and Commerce Committee report out Tuesday is stocked with emails sent from private addresses and meetings scheduled away from the building to avoid official record. Among these are several sent to a pharmaceutical industry lobbyist by Messina, President Barack Obama’s then-deputy White House chief of staff, making promises about language for the health care reforms despite the resistance of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the measure.

“I will roll [P]elosi to get the 4 billion,” Messina wrote Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) lobbyist Jeffrey Forbes from his personal account just days before the Affordable Care Act cleared Congress in March 2010. “As you may have heard I am literally rolling over the House. But there just isn’t 8-10 billion.”

The note related to the official business regarding an agreement reached by the Senate Finance Committee and PhRMA on the president’s health care law. Pelosi’s office referred to previous statements in which she declined to address the deal between the administration and PhRMA.

White House officials are required to use government emails when conducting government business, in order to preserve the electronic records. Private email addresses are far less transparent because messages can be deleted. As Politico notes, Messina’s use of private email could be a violation of the Presidential Records Act of 1978. The Bush White House came under fire for a similar violation in 2007.

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee (which released the Messina emails) are well within their right to raise alarms about this. It’s hard to see how the Obama campaign can continue to attack Romney on “transparency” if it turns out their campaign manager skirted electronic transparency laws while serving in the White House.

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Jay Carney Caught Flat-Footed

There was a bizarre scene during today’s White House briefing, when White House Press Secretary Jay Carney flat-out refused to say whether the capital of Israel was Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, despite repeated questioning from multiple reporters. The Washington Examiner’s Joel Gehrke reports:

Carney was caught flat-footed when asked which city is Israel’s capital. “I haven’t had that question in awhile,” he said after some hesitation. “Our position has not changed. You know our position.” The reporter said she didn’t know, but Carney moved on to another question.

That answer touched off a somewhat unruly scene, as WND’s Lester Kinsolving interjected that “she doesn’t know, that’s why she asked.” Carney moved on.

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There was a bizarre scene during today’s White House briefing, when White House Press Secretary Jay Carney flat-out refused to say whether the capital of Israel was Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, despite repeated questioning from multiple reporters. The Washington Examiner’s Joel Gehrke reports:

Carney was caught flat-footed when asked which city is Israel’s capital. “I haven’t had that question in awhile,” he said after some hesitation. “Our position has not changed. You know our position.” The reporter said she didn’t know, but Carney moved on to another question.

That answer touched off a somewhat unruly scene, as WND’s Lester Kinsolving interjected that “she doesn’t know, that’s why she asked.” Carney moved on.

The Weekly Standard’s Dan Halper has video of the exchange:

At one point, a visibly uncomfortable Carney says the White House’s “position has not changed.” In March, there was a similar exchange between State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland and reporters. The Obama administration has refused to acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in contrast to Obama’s own statements to the AIPAC conference during his 2008 campaign.

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Obama “Offended” by WH Leak Allegations

President Obama is crying foul against allegations that White House officials leaked classified information to the media for political gain, insisting that the White House would never “purposely” pass on classified secrets. The Hill reports:

“The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive,” Obama said. “It’s wrong, and people I think need to have a better sense of how I approach this office, and the people around me approach this office.” …

Obama said the White House has “mechanisms in place” to “root out” people who leak national security information.

“When this information or reports, whether true of false, surface on the front page of newspaper — that makes the jobs of folks on the front lines tougher, and it makes my job tougher, which is why my attitude has been zero tolerance for these type of leaks and speculation,” Obama said.

As Politico’s Josh Gerstein suggests, the “purposely” qualifier sounds like an escape hatch. Obama didn’t deny that the White House released the information, just that it was not done intentionally or with a purpose in mind.

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President Obama is crying foul against allegations that White House officials leaked classified information to the media for political gain, insisting that the White House would never “purposely” pass on classified secrets. The Hill reports:

“The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive,” Obama said. “It’s wrong, and people I think need to have a better sense of how I approach this office, and the people around me approach this office.” …

Obama said the White House has “mechanisms in place” to “root out” people who leak national security information.

“When this information or reports, whether true of false, surface on the front page of newspaper — that makes the jobs of folks on the front lines tougher, and it makes my job tougher, which is why my attitude has been zero tolerance for these type of leaks and speculation,” Obama said.

As Politico’s Josh Gerstein suggests, the “purposely” qualifier sounds like an escape hatch. Obama didn’t deny that the White House released the information, just that it was not done intentionally or with a purpose in mind.

Meanwhile, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers is hinting he has information the administration had relaxed rules on classified information for some in the media:

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) stopped short of asserting that the leaks were politically motivated, but he said the administration had decided to share some classified information with the media.

“The committee has materials suggesting that agencies were instructed to expand the scope of classified information they gave to the press. We know in some cases someone from a segment of the media was present in a classified setting,” Rogers said.

Republicans are continuing to call for an independent investigation, and the normally tough-on-leakers Obama administration is still stonewalling the idea.

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My Return to the White House

I returned to the White House today for the presentation of the portraits of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. The event included remarks by the current and former presidents, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Mrs. Bush. The spirit of the event was quite nice; the president was congenial, while Mrs. Obama was warm and charitable. But this moment belonged to America’s 43rd president and his wife. President Bush’s words were moving (particularly when speaking about his father), humorous, and gracious.

Having served in the White House for almost the entire two terms of the Bush presidency, returning to the White House activated memories that had begun to fade just a bit – from the events of 9/11, to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, to Bush’s re-election, to the worst days of the Iraq war. Some of these events felt like they happened a time long ago and far away; and yet sitting in the East Room also felt familiar, almost as if the White House years had never ended. On a personal level, it was a joy to renew friendships with former colleagues, among whom can be counted some of the finest public servants imaginable.

As for President Bush, I am the first to admit I am not an entirely objective observer of the man. But I did have the benefit of having seen him up close during challenging and consequential times, and in ways that not many other Americans could ever really know. Virtually every person who worked for him or got to know him can testify to his enormous personal decency and integrity. He was one of the gutsiest politicians of our lifetime. (Consider among other things his commitment to the surge in Iraq when almost everyone else had given up on the war.) And he showed great mercy in helping the people of Africa and a ferocious commitment to pursuing his main duty, protecting our country.

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I returned to the White House today for the presentation of the portraits of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. The event included remarks by the current and former presidents, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Mrs. Bush. The spirit of the event was quite nice; the president was congenial, while Mrs. Obama was warm and charitable. But this moment belonged to America’s 43rd president and his wife. President Bush’s words were moving (particularly when speaking about his father), humorous, and gracious.

Having served in the White House for almost the entire two terms of the Bush presidency, returning to the White House activated memories that had begun to fade just a bit – from the events of 9/11, to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, to Bush’s re-election, to the worst days of the Iraq war. Some of these events felt like they happened a time long ago and far away; and yet sitting in the East Room also felt familiar, almost as if the White House years had never ended. On a personal level, it was a joy to renew friendships with former colleagues, among whom can be counted some of the finest public servants imaginable.

As for President Bush, I am the first to admit I am not an entirely objective observer of the man. But I did have the benefit of having seen him up close during challenging and consequential times, and in ways that not many other Americans could ever really know. Virtually every person who worked for him or got to know him can testify to his enormous personal decency and integrity. He was one of the gutsiest politicians of our lifetime. (Consider among other things his commitment to the surge in Iraq when almost everyone else had given up on the war.) And he showed great mercy in helping the people of Africa and a ferocious commitment to pursuing his main duty, protecting our country.

George W. Bush was hardly flawless, and certainly neither were those of us who worked under him. Yet having faced crises of considerable dimensions, President Bush served his nation exceedingly well and with honor.

“We cannot live our dreams,” Oliver Wendell Holmes said in summing up his years on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. “We are lucky enough if we can give a sample of our best, and if in our hearts we can feel that it has been nobly done.”

President Bush gave his best; and in his heart, he can take some comfort that it was nobly done.

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Challenging Sacred Assumptions

Shortly after first arriving in Washington, D.C., I had conversations with friends in which I made this observation: Assume that they and I hold completely different views on an issue. Assume, too, that we engaged in a debate on the issue and that they pulverized me based on their superior knowledge and logic. And let’s stipulate a third assumption: I knew, deep in my bones, that I was bested. Still, the odds are that I wouldn’t revisit my opinion; instead, I would probably get angry that my case had been demolished. What this would indicate is that my positions were ones I held not primarily based on reason and empirical evidence but because of certain predilections, biases, and intuitions.

My arguments might be exposed as weak, but my faith in my position would likely remain strong.

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Shortly after first arriving in Washington, D.C., I had conversations with friends in which I made this observation: Assume that they and I hold completely different views on an issue. Assume, too, that we engaged in a debate on the issue and that they pulverized me based on their superior knowledge and logic. And let’s stipulate a third assumption: I knew, deep in my bones, that I was bested. Still, the odds are that I wouldn’t revisit my opinion; instead, I would probably get angry that my case had been demolished. What this would indicate is that my positions were ones I held not primarily based on reason and empirical evidence but because of certain predilections, biases, and intuitions.

My arguments might be exposed as weak, but my faith in my position would likely remain strong.

I thought of these conversations after watching this interview with Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Professor Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, argues that reasoning is “post-hoc and justificatory.” Reasoning is not good at finding the truth, according to Haidt. He argued that “conscious verbal reasoning is really good at confirming.” We’re like good lawyers or press secretaries; we seek out information to reinforce our existing opinions and try to justify everything. Once we sacralize something, we become blind to counter-evidence.

I know precisely what Haidt is talking about. It’s extremely easy to spot the weak arguments, hypocrisy, and double standards of those with whom I disagree; it’s much harder to see them in myself. And many of us, having arrived at comfortable, settled positions, go out in search of evidence to support our arguments. That is quite a different thing than assessing evidence in order to arrive at an opinion. What most of us do, to one degree or another, is self-segregate. We search for studies and data that confirm our pre-existing beliefs. And we tend to ignore the strongest arguments against our position.

This is a complicated matter. Our underlying views are not necessarily sub-rational; they are often grounded in moral intuitions and attitudes that are entirely legitimate. What we do in political debates is to extend what we take to be true – and in the process, we reach for evidence that conforms to what Edmund Burke referred to, in an uncritical way, as our prejudices.

We channel facts in a way that reinforces views that are based on something different than – something deeper than – mere empirical evidence. None of us, then, are completely open-minded; and we’re all understandably reluctant to alter deeply-held views. The question, really, is given all this, how open are we to persuasion, to new evidence, and to holding up our views to refinement and revision? How do we react when our arguments seem to be falling apart? And what steps can we take to ensure that we don’t insulate ourselves to the point that we are indifferent to facts that challenge our worldview?

According to Haidt, individual reasoning is not reliable because of “the confirmation bias” – and the only cure for the confirmation bias is other people. “If you bring people together who disagree,” he argues, “and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason.” We’re not very good at challenging our own beliefs – but we’re quite good at challenging the beliefs of others. Our task is (to borrow from William Saletan’s review of Haidt’s book) “to organize society so that reason and intuition interact in healthy ways.”

That makes great sense to me. There’s a natural tendency to seek out a community of like-minded individuals who can offer support and encouragement along the way. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes that a friendship is born when two people discover they not only share common interests but see the same truth, who stand not face-to-face (as lovers do) but shoulder-to-shoulder. There’s an important place for intellectual fellowship, just as there is for religious fellowship.

Still, it’s important to resist the temptation to surround ourselves exclusively with like-minded people, those who reinforce our preexisting views and biases. It becomes much too easy to caricature those with whom we disagree. (In those rare, self-aware moments, and sometimes with a gentle assist from others, it becomes obvious when I’m guilty of this.)

In the White House in particular, where you have access to more information than is available to most people and are surrounded by some of the leading experts in the country, it’s tempting to think that you and your colleagues are all-wise and your critics are all-foolish. And before long you can find yourself in an intellectual cul-de-sac. That’s a dangerous place to be. We need at least a few people in our orbit who have standing in our lives and who are willing to challenge what we claim and how we claim it. That is, I think, an important, even essential, element when striving for intellectual honesty.

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Large Wage Discrepancy in the White House

Talk about a perfect follow-up to the story about women losing seven times as many jobs as men since President Obama’s taken office. The Washington Free Beacon’s Andrew Stiles reports on the gender pay gap in the White House:

Female employees in the Obama White House make considerably less than their male colleagues, records show.

According to the 2011 annual report on White House staff, female employees earned a median annual salary of $60,000, which was about 18 percent less than the median salary for male employees ($71,000).

The Obama campaign on Wednesday lashed out at presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney for his failure to  immediately endorse the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, a controversial law enacted in 2009 that made it easier to file discrimination lawsuits.

President Obama has frequently criticized the gender pay gap, such as the one that exists in White House.

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Talk about a perfect follow-up to the story about women losing seven times as many jobs as men since President Obama’s taken office. The Washington Free Beacon’s Andrew Stiles reports on the gender pay gap in the White House:

Female employees in the Obama White House make considerably less than their male colleagues, records show.

According to the 2011 annual report on White House staff, female employees earned a median annual salary of $60,000, which was about 18 percent less than the median salary for male employees ($71,000).

The Obama campaign on Wednesday lashed out at presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney for his failure to  immediately endorse the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, a controversial law enacted in 2009 that made it easier to file discrimination lawsuits.

President Obama has frequently criticized the gender pay gap, such as the one that exists in White House.

Why the large wage discrepancy in a White House that has regularly railed against the gender pay gap in the workforce? HotAir’s Allahpundit raises a few theories:

In some industries there may be a nondiscriminatory reason for a gender gap in pay, e.g., men may be overrepresented in jobs that require lots of strength or dangerous duties, which in turn may pay better because of the risk. But that’s surely not the case in the cubicle utopia of the West Wing. The most obvious explanation in an office setting is that men tend to earn more because there are more of them in senior positions. Is that true, champ? If so, how come?

If the White House’s defense is that women aren’t equally represented in senior positions, let’s see David Axelrod take that case to the public.

It really is baffling that President Obama would make the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act into a campaign issue when his own house is literally not living up to the standards he’s demanding from others. Perhaps the Democratic Party thought the issue would instantly push the GOP into defense mode and the White House’s own failings would never become an issue. Clearly, they miscalculated. While Democrats are trying to win over women voters by claiming Republicans are waging a war on female reproductive rights, the women’s vote tends to be influenced far more by economic issues. Judging from that, the stories today about how women workers are faring under Obama will be very effective messaging points for Republicans.

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Tapper’s Professionalism Shines Through

Every week one can find examples of why ABC’s Jake Tapper is one of the best and most fair-minded political reporters in America. (Hugh Hewitt says, “Jake Tapper is emerging as the next serious journalist in whom partisans of both sides will repose confidence.”) The latest example can be found here, in his exchange with Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest over gas prices. Here’s how part of the conversation went:

ABC’s Jake Tapper: “He [Barack Obama] ran a lot of commercials in 2008 about gas prices. It was a big part of his reelection campaign so I don’t understand – there seems to be a tone of indignance from the White House about the fact that people are talking about gas prices – this is one of the reasons why you guys have your jobs.”

Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest: “If I I – I’m showing a sign of indignance maybe it’s because I’m a little nervous in my first time. I’m not trying to demonstrate that there’s some indignance up here – ”

Tapper: “I actually meant the President.”

Earnest: “I appreciate that. It’s very generous of you.”

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Every week one can find examples of why ABC’s Jake Tapper is one of the best and most fair-minded political reporters in America. (Hugh Hewitt says, “Jake Tapper is emerging as the next serious journalist in whom partisans of both sides will repose confidence.”) The latest example can be found here, in his exchange with Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest over gas prices. Here’s how part of the conversation went:

ABC’s Jake Tapper: “He [Barack Obama] ran a lot of commercials in 2008 about gas prices. It was a big part of his reelection campaign so I don’t understand – there seems to be a tone of indignance from the White House about the fact that people are talking about gas prices – this is one of the reasons why you guys have your jobs.”

Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest: “If I I – I’m showing a sign of indignance maybe it’s because I’m a little nervous in my first time. I’m not trying to demonstrate that there’s some indignance up here – ”

Tapper: “I actually meant the President.”

Earnest: “I appreciate that. It’s very generous of you.”

Mr. Tapper’s point is that even if a president have very little control over gas prices, it’s only fair that the same standard that Barack Obama used against President Bush in 2008 be applied to him in 2012. That’s entirely reasonable. But that kind of scrutiny is often missing in the press coverage of the president, which is why Tapper’s willingness to challenge the Obama White House (just as he challenged the administration preceding Mr. Obama’s) stands out.

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Obama Hedge Fund Attack Dog Now Flacking for Hedge Funds?

In mafia parlance, I believe they call this the “protection racket”:

After attacking hedge funds and their managers during her tenure in the Obama administration, Anita Dunn is now working as a public relations consultant to improve the industry’s image, according to a secret proposal obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

Dunn, formerly the interim White House communications director for the Obama administration and currently a managing director at the Democratic consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker (SKDK), is being promoted by the public relations firm McLean/Clark LLC as a director of “paid media” for a pro-hedge-fund campaign. The project is described by promotional material as a “comprehensive public affairs operation” to “raise awareness about the positive role hedge funds play in the American economy” and to “eliminate the need for politicians to take aim at hedge funds.”

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In mafia parlance, I believe they call this the “protection racket”:

After attacking hedge funds and their managers during her tenure in the Obama administration, Anita Dunn is now working as a public relations consultant to improve the industry’s image, according to a secret proposal obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

Dunn, formerly the interim White House communications director for the Obama administration and currently a managing director at the Democratic consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker (SKDK), is being promoted by the public relations firm McLean/Clark LLC as a director of “paid media” for a pro-hedge-fund campaign. The project is described by promotional material as a “comprehensive public affairs operation” to “raise awareness about the positive role hedge funds play in the American economy” and to “eliminate the need for politicians to take aim at hedge funds.”

As the Washington Free Beacon notes in its bombshell report, Dunn continues to attend frequent meetings at the White House. Incidentally, Wall Street has been pumping money into anti-Obama and anti-Democratic campaigns, Politico reported yesterday. Which means Obama certainly has an interest in making nice with the investment industry:

The beleaguered sector is pumping tens of millions of dollars into campaigns and newly dominant super PACS as one of Wall Street’s own seeks the White House and the industry looks to roll back key parts of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms. The goal is to oust a president and some members of Congress whom many bankers view as openly hostile toward them.

Employees of securities and investment firms have already given $52.8 million to candidates and party committees in the 2012 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That makes it the No. 1 industry, up from fourth place in 2010 and third in the 2008 campaign.

The timing here is pretty perfect. While Obama ramps up attacks on Wall Street and investors, Dunn is now reaching out to offer some of them paid protection – and, implicitly, a friendly channel to the White House. If there’s a better example of the corrupt ties between Big Government and Big Business, it’s difficult to think of one.

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Sharansky: Reagan Right, Critics Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Sharansky describes it:

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

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Neoconservatives and Democracy: A 30-Year Story

So it comes as a shock to many people, evidently, that “neoconservative” American intellectuals are consistent in holding the opinion that the national interest is best served by offering moral, logistical, and rhetorical support to those who seek “regime change” in dictatorial societies.

The plain fact of the matter is that this has been the “neoconservative” view for nearly three decades now — since the decision was made during the effort to save El Salvador from Soviet- and Cuban-aligned guerrilla forces to simultaneously push for elections there. That was a controversial choice then; people on the liberal left considered the El Salvador democratization policy mere window dressing for alignment with right-wing thugs, and realist conservatives considered it a display of ludicrous sentimentality.

The 1982 election in El Salvador was a turning point, however, a moment when the people of that country made it clear that they wanted a way out of the binary choice of a junta or a Castro-ite state. It had been Jeane Kirkpatrick’s argument in her great 1979 COMMENTARY article that, when there is a binary choice between authoritarians and totalitarians, it is not only prudent but moral to choose the former, in part because authoritarian societies can change and evolve.

But what if there are choices that go beyond the binary? That was, in effect, what the democratization strategy was all about. It complemented Kirkpatrick’s argument in one sense because it was predicated on the notion that authoritarian regimes could be pushed toward change. But it also superseded it, since it suggested that the citizens of these nations could and would play a vital role not only in creating the change but also in implementing it.

This was not a developed philosophy at the time; indeed, the El Salvador policy was conceived in response to events on the ground and the need to build domestic support for anti-Communist efforts in Latin America. But over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, with lessons learned along the way, the democratization strategy became something more coherent. Read More

So it comes as a shock to many people, evidently, that “neoconservative” American intellectuals are consistent in holding the opinion that the national interest is best served by offering moral, logistical, and rhetorical support to those who seek “regime change” in dictatorial societies.

The plain fact of the matter is that this has been the “neoconservative” view for nearly three decades now — since the decision was made during the effort to save El Salvador from Soviet- and Cuban-aligned guerrilla forces to simultaneously push for elections there. That was a controversial choice then; people on the liberal left considered the El Salvador democratization policy mere window dressing for alignment with right-wing thugs, and realist conservatives considered it a display of ludicrous sentimentality.

The 1982 election in El Salvador was a turning point, however, a moment when the people of that country made it clear that they wanted a way out of the binary choice of a junta or a Castro-ite state. It had been Jeane Kirkpatrick’s argument in her great 1979 COMMENTARY article that, when there is a binary choice between authoritarians and totalitarians, it is not only prudent but moral to choose the former, in part because authoritarian societies can change and evolve.

But what if there are choices that go beyond the binary? That was, in effect, what the democratization strategy was all about. It complemented Kirkpatrick’s argument in one sense because it was predicated on the notion that authoritarian regimes could be pushed toward change. But it also superseded it, since it suggested that the citizens of these nations could and would play a vital role not only in creating the change but also in implementing it.

This was not a developed philosophy at the time; indeed, the El Salvador policy was conceived in response to events on the ground and the need to build domestic support for anti-Communist efforts in Latin America. But over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, with lessons learned along the way, the democratization strategy became something more coherent.

For example, in the case of the anti-Communist efforts in Nicaragua, the CIA preferred working with the Contras, for whom its agents had essentially bought and paid, no matter their political coloration; officials at the State Department, however, thought that it was a mistake to align the United States with elements of the previous thug regime and that the U.S. should be promoting liberal forces within the Contra movement.

But probably the key year for the maturation of these ideas was 1986. It was a general axiom on the right, including among neoconservatives, that efforts to impose an economic embargo on South Africa were dangerous and naive because, though the apartheid regime might be unjust, it could be pushed to reform, and the sanctions might lead to a Soviet-aligned takeover of a strategically important country. When Congress voted for such sanctions, Ronald Reagan vetoed them. His veto was overridden.

And those of us who thought the sanctions would be disastrous were proved utterly mistaken. They turned out to be an effective strategy for crippling the regime without toppling it and forcing its end in a manner more pacific than anyone expected. (Not that South Africa post-apartheid is a wonderful model, but it was a gravely wounded civil society, and its healing will take a long time.) Part of the reason that sanctions have been a part of the American diplomatic toolbox ever since, and always with neoconservative support, is that they proved successful in South Africa.

The other thing that happened was an election in the Philippines, whose authoritarian junta regime was closely allied with the United States. The clear theft of the election by Ferdinand Marcos’s forces created a massive groundswell in the streets. At first, the White House did what Barack Obama did with the revolt in Egypt — it tried to stay out of it. Then-Secretary of State George Shultz, together with the later-notorious Paul Wolfowitz, who ran the State Department’s East Asia bureau, convinced Ronald Reagan to change policy, support those who said the election had been stolen, and eventually, with great efficiency, convince Marcos it was time for him to go.

And on it went, with South Korea and Taiwan and Chile and many other nations whose authoritarian regimes peacefully gave way to more liberal ones in part because of the encouragement of the United States.

It’s not a perfect strategy, by any means. No strategy is, and no strategy is applicable in every circumstance. The danger that Egypt might not follow in the path of the Philippines but rather in the path of revolutionary Iran is very real. But as the year of Carter-administration fecklessness on Iran that preceded Khomeini’s takeover in 1979 proved, a policy of passivity is not a way out for a president who does not know what to do.

America can’t not choose sides in such a struggle. Not choosing sides is, in effect, to choose sides. So it’s better to have a policy that offers a direction congruent with our values, and with a proven track record, than one that offers nothing but confusion.

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Curious Quote of the Day

From a Bloomberg News article on turmoil in the Middle East:

In Egypt, where Mubarak, 82, has been a dependable U.S. ally for 30 years, the White House will need “a delicate touch” to “ensure that a successor government is neither virulently anti-American nor openly hostile to Israel,” said Stephen M. Walt, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Egypt is the fourth-largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel, according to the State Department’s 2011 budget, receiving more than $1.5 billion a year.

“We should be quietly advising other leaders in the region to take steps to alleviate discontent” and “avoid the same fate that Mubarak is now experiencing,” Walt said.

There’s no further description of Professor Walt in the Bloomberg article, but those familiar with his record on matters relating to Jews or Israel may find the spectacle of his cautioning against an Egyptian government “openly hostile to Israel” to be somewhat stunning, akin to Karl Marx being quoted hoping that the new Egyptian government won’t be openly hostile to capitalism. Though I suppose it leaves open the possibility that Professor Walt is hoping for an Egyptian government that’s privately hostile to Israel while publicly professing to wish it no harm.

From a Bloomberg News article on turmoil in the Middle East:

In Egypt, where Mubarak, 82, has been a dependable U.S. ally for 30 years, the White House will need “a delicate touch” to “ensure that a successor government is neither virulently anti-American nor openly hostile to Israel,” said Stephen M. Walt, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Egypt is the fourth-largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel, according to the State Department’s 2011 budget, receiving more than $1.5 billion a year.

“We should be quietly advising other leaders in the region to take steps to alleviate discontent” and “avoid the same fate that Mubarak is now experiencing,” Walt said.

There’s no further description of Professor Walt in the Bloomberg article, but those familiar with his record on matters relating to Jews or Israel may find the spectacle of his cautioning against an Egyptian government “openly hostile to Israel” to be somewhat stunning, akin to Karl Marx being quoted hoping that the new Egyptian government won’t be openly hostile to capitalism. Though I suppose it leaves open the possibility that Professor Walt is hoping for an Egyptian government that’s privately hostile to Israel while publicly professing to wish it no harm.

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Judgment Calls and the Muslim Brotherhood

On Monday, White House press spokesman Robert Gibbs said that any new government in Egypt “has to include a whole host of important non-secular actors that give Egypt a strong chance to continue to be [a] stable and reliable partner.” In Egypt, that would mean the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the New York Times today, we’re told, “Significantly, during the meeting [on Monday], White House staff members ‘made clear that they did not rule out engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood as part of an orderly process,’ according to one attendee.”

This report comes after a June 2, 2009, report in the New Republic by Michael Crowley that “in an unexpected bit of diplomatic choreography, several members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been invited to attend Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo tomorrow.”

Now what is it about the Obama administration that would lead it to be mostly silent during the uprising against the Islamic theocracy in Iran, fearful to offend the regime in power, and yet go out of its way to try to secure a seat at the table for the Muslim Brotherhood in a post-Mubarak Egypt?

I understand that the Muslim Brotherhood is not al-Qaeda. But I also understand that the Muslim Brotherhood will never be confused with Madisonian reformers. The motto of the Brotherhood — “Allah is our objective, the Prophet is our leader, the Koran is our law, Jihad is our way, and dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope. Allahu akbar!” — hardly rivals “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

I appreciate the fact that when you’re serving in the White House during an unfolding foreign-policy crisis, there are hard, close calls to make. But whether to strengthen and legitimize the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t one of them.

(h/t: Charles Krauthammer)

On Monday, White House press spokesman Robert Gibbs said that any new government in Egypt “has to include a whole host of important non-secular actors that give Egypt a strong chance to continue to be [a] stable and reliable partner.” In Egypt, that would mean the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the New York Times today, we’re told, “Significantly, during the meeting [on Monday], White House staff members ‘made clear that they did not rule out engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood as part of an orderly process,’ according to one attendee.”

This report comes after a June 2, 2009, report in the New Republic by Michael Crowley that “in an unexpected bit of diplomatic choreography, several members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been invited to attend Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo tomorrow.”

Now what is it about the Obama administration that would lead it to be mostly silent during the uprising against the Islamic theocracy in Iran, fearful to offend the regime in power, and yet go out of its way to try to secure a seat at the table for the Muslim Brotherhood in a post-Mubarak Egypt?

I understand that the Muslim Brotherhood is not al-Qaeda. But I also understand that the Muslim Brotherhood will never be confused with Madisonian reformers. The motto of the Brotherhood — “Allah is our objective, the Prophet is our leader, the Koran is our law, Jihad is our way, and dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope. Allahu akbar!” — hardly rivals “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

I appreciate the fact that when you’re serving in the White House during an unfolding foreign-policy crisis, there are hard, close calls to make. But whether to strengthen and legitimize the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t one of them.

(h/t: Charles Krauthammer)

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Look Who’s Back at the White House

Who could have imagined, back in 2008, that President Obama would ask some of the most prominent neoconservatives from the Bush administration for foreign-policy advice just a few years later?

Laura Rozen is reporting that Obama has invited Brookings Institute scholar Robert Kagan and former Bush deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams to the White House to discuss the situation in Egypt today:

Just got late word that Dunne, Kagan and others from their group including former Bush NSC Middle East hand Elliott Abrams, as well as George Washington University Middle East expert Marc Lynch, and the National Security Network’s Joel Rubin, formerly a U.S. Egypt desk officer, have been invited to the White House Monday.

Kagan and Abrams are meeting with Obama because of their involvement in the Egypt Working Group, an organization that was prophetic in predicting the current crisis in Egypt. Last November, the group was already anticipating the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime and called on the Obama administration to push the Egyptian leader for human-rights reforms.

The group is now advising the Obama administration to cut foreign aid to Egypt. At Robert Gibbs’s press conference last Friday, he said that Obama was open to going in that direction, and this is a good indication that the administration is seriously considering the idea.

Who could have imagined, back in 2008, that President Obama would ask some of the most prominent neoconservatives from the Bush administration for foreign-policy advice just a few years later?

Laura Rozen is reporting that Obama has invited Brookings Institute scholar Robert Kagan and former Bush deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams to the White House to discuss the situation in Egypt today:

Just got late word that Dunne, Kagan and others from their group including former Bush NSC Middle East hand Elliott Abrams, as well as George Washington University Middle East expert Marc Lynch, and the National Security Network’s Joel Rubin, formerly a U.S. Egypt desk officer, have been invited to the White House Monday.

Kagan and Abrams are meeting with Obama because of their involvement in the Egypt Working Group, an organization that was prophetic in predicting the current crisis in Egypt. Last November, the group was already anticipating the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime and called on the Obama administration to push the Egyptian leader for human-rights reforms.

The group is now advising the Obama administration to cut foreign aid to Egypt. At Robert Gibbs’s press conference last Friday, he said that Obama was open to going in that direction, and this is a good indication that the administration is seriously considering the idea.

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The Slap Heard Round the World

It is amazing that the political revolution now sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa was started by a 26-year-old unemployed Tunisian man who self-immolated.

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate whose fruits-and-vegetables market stand was confiscated by police because it had no permit, tried to yank back his apples. He was slapped in the face by a female municipal inspector and eventually beaten by her colleagues. His later appeals were ignored. Humiliated, he drenched himself in paint thinner and set himself on fire. He died on January 4.

That incident was the spark that set ablaze the revolution that overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for more than two decades — and that, in turn, spread to Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign of power is about to end. Anti-government protests are also happening in Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, and elsewhere. It’s hard to tell where all this will end; but how it began may rank among the more extraordinary hinge moments in history. It may come to be known as the Slap Heard Round the World.

How hopeful or fearful one feels about the unfolding events in Egypt depends in large measure on which revolutionary model one believes applies to this situation. Is it the French, Russian, or Iranian revolution, which ended with the guillotine, gulags, and an Islamic theocracy; or the American Revolution and what happened in the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Chile, and Argentina, authoritarian regimes that made a relatively smooth transition to self-government? Or is it something entirely different? Here it’s worth bearing in mind the counsel of Henry Kissinger, who wrote, “History is not … a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims. It can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations, yet each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.”

Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that the driving force of events in Egypt are tied to the universal human desire for liberty and free elections, for an end to political corruption and oppression. What the 2002 Arab Human Development Report called a “freedom deficit” in the Middle East is at the core of the unrest. Events seem to be vindicating those who said that siding with the forces of “stability” [read: dictatorships] rather than reform was unwise and ultimately unsustainable. At some point the lid would blow. Now it has. Read More

It is amazing that the political revolution now sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa was started by a 26-year-old unemployed Tunisian man who self-immolated.

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate whose fruits-and-vegetables market stand was confiscated by police because it had no permit, tried to yank back his apples. He was slapped in the face by a female municipal inspector and eventually beaten by her colleagues. His later appeals were ignored. Humiliated, he drenched himself in paint thinner and set himself on fire. He died on January 4.

That incident was the spark that set ablaze the revolution that overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for more than two decades — and that, in turn, spread to Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign of power is about to end. Anti-government protests are also happening in Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, and elsewhere. It’s hard to tell where all this will end; but how it began may rank among the more extraordinary hinge moments in history. It may come to be known as the Slap Heard Round the World.

How hopeful or fearful one feels about the unfolding events in Egypt depends in large measure on which revolutionary model one believes applies to this situation. Is it the French, Russian, or Iranian revolution, which ended with the guillotine, gulags, and an Islamic theocracy; or the American Revolution and what happened in the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Chile, and Argentina, authoritarian regimes that made a relatively smooth transition to self-government? Or is it something entirely different? Here it’s worth bearing in mind the counsel of Henry Kissinger, who wrote, “History is not … a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims. It can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations, yet each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.”

Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that the driving force of events in Egypt are tied to the universal human desire for liberty and free elections, for an end to political corruption and oppression. What the 2002 Arab Human Development Report called a “freedom deficit” in the Middle East is at the core of the unrest. Events seem to be vindicating those who said that siding with the forces of “stability” [read: dictatorships] rather than reform was unwise and ultimately unsustainable. At some point the lid would blow. Now it has.

The danger is that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which is hostile to Israel and close to Hamas, hijacks the revolution. The goal of U.S policy must therefore be to influence this revolution, to the degree we can, in a way that advances U.S. interests and American ideals. This means taking an active role, both publicly and behind the scenes, in support of those who stand for liberal democracy (for more, see here).

The hour has grown quite late. As Max Boot points out, the equivocation of the Obama administration needs to end. Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading Egyptian dissident who appears to be rapidly gaining power, is right when he said the United States is “losing credibility by the day” by its support for the Egyptian dictator. Mr. Mubarak is, politically speaking, a Dead Man Walking. There is still time, but not much time, for the president to get on the right side of this revolution and the right side of history. Secretary of State Clinton’s comments yesterday, in which she called for an “orderly transition” to a representative government, were certainly an improvement from where the administration was last week, when she was assuring the world of the staying power of Mr. Mubarak and Vice President Biden was declaring, against three decades of evidence, that the Egyptian president was not a dictator.

Having worked in three administrations and in the White House during a series of crises, I have some sympathy for how difficult it is to navigate through roiling waters, when one has to act on incomplete information in the midst of chaotic and constantly changing events, the outcome of which is impossible to know. In that respect, the Obama administration deserves some empathy. It’s never as easy to guide events when you’re in government as it is to critique events when you’re outside of government.

Still, as my former colleague William Inboden has written, it seems to me that the Obama administration can be held responsible for two important errors: (a) its failure to anticipate what is happening in Egypt and prepare contingency plans. and (b) its neglect of human rights, democracy, and economic reform in Egypt for the previous two years. “These failures should be front and center in any post-mortem policy review,” Professor Inboden writes. “The Mubarak regime’s brittleness and Egypt’s stagnation have long been apparent to many observers.” But not, apparently, to the Obama administration, which seems to have been caught completely off guard. If the spark that set the region afire was impossible to anticipate, the dry tinder of the region was not.

One Arab nation that so far hasn’t been convulsed by the political revolution now sweeping the Middle East is Iraq — the one Arab nation whose government is legitimate, the produce of free elections and political compromise, and that has the consent of the people. When it came to Iraqi democracy, most of the foreign-policy establishment assured us that self-government there could never take root, that Iraq would simply be a pawn of Iran, that the ethnic divisions in Iraq were too deep to overcome, and that (as Joe Biden argued at the time) the only solution was partition. At this stage, it’s reasonable to conclude that these judgments were quite wrong. And while one can certainly debate whether the Iraq war was worth the blood, treasure, and opportunities it cost, it appears as if the Egyptian people, and not only the Egyptian people, are longing for what the people of Iraq have embraced: self-government. It isn’t perfect by any means — but for the Arab Middle East, it is a model for other nations to aspire.

(h/t: Victor Davis Hanson)

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The White House Sort of Speaks

Robert Gibbs, the outgoing White House press spokesman, is not covering his departing head with glory as he speaks about the Egypt crisis. It’s certainly not Gibbs’s fault that the administration finds itself unable to speak with a moment’s clarity about the crisis, and keeps repeating the weasel word “restraint.” Gibbs says contingencies are being discussed, but also says Obama hasn’t spoken to foreign leaders. The U.S. is reviewing its aid posture — maybe. And everybody should refrain from violence. Certainly the White House doesn’t want to handcuff itself. But that is not the impression one gets from this press briefing. What one gets from this press briefing is that an administration in office for a little more than two years is entirely at sea when it comes to dealing with this crisis, which has been a possibility on the horizon for weeks. There’s something extraordinarily amateurish about this conduct.

Robert Gibbs, the outgoing White House press spokesman, is not covering his departing head with glory as he speaks about the Egypt crisis. It’s certainly not Gibbs’s fault that the administration finds itself unable to speak with a moment’s clarity about the crisis, and keeps repeating the weasel word “restraint.” Gibbs says contingencies are being discussed, but also says Obama hasn’t spoken to foreign leaders. The U.S. is reviewing its aid posture — maybe. And everybody should refrain from violence. Certainly the White House doesn’t want to handcuff itself. But that is not the impression one gets from this press briefing. What one gets from this press briefing is that an administration in office for a little more than two years is entirely at sea when it comes to dealing with this crisis, which has been a possibility on the horizon for weeks. There’s something extraordinarily amateurish about this conduct.

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Oh, Man, Not Another Sputnik Moment …

I keep a list of historical analogies — derived from years of grading papers — that tell me that the individual using them is (to be polite) more interested in rhetorical impact than historical accuracy. Before last night, the list began with “we need a Marshall Plan for X,” where X usually equals Africa or the Middle East, and ended with “the United States is a young country.” Both are fallacies: the Marshall Plan was a pump-priming program, not an effort to rebuild the infrastructure and remake the culture of half a continent; and while European settlement of North America is fairly recent, the U.S.’s political institutions have a longer continuous existence than those of any other country except, arguably, the United Kingdom.

Now, thanks to President Obama, I’ve got a third analogy to add to the list: “Sputnik moment.” To be fair, I should have added it years ago. The phrase, according to Google, has popped in and out of the news regularly over the past decade, with the president himself beginning to use it last June, in a speech in North Carolina. The analogy has the advantage of being an example of government spending — we now call it “investment,” I am told — that has not been utterly discredited by succeeding events. But that doesn’t make it correct.

First, as my colleague Jim Carafano pointed out back in September, Ike’s response to Sputnik’s launch wasn’t to pull out the checkbook. That was what the Gaither Report called for, but Eisenhower balked: as I noted recently, Ike was no softie on Communism, but he was also concerned by the threat to American liberties “posed not so much by big government as such, but by top-down direction of all kinds. Much of this originated in the federal government, but not at all it: there was also a risk of becoming ‘the captive of a scientific-technological elite.’ ” A striking phrase, especially in light of President Obama’s desire to expand government for the benefit of that elite.

Second, the launch of Sputnik marked a significant new national-security threat posed by a state with a hostile ideology, which we were already confronting around the world. If the USSR could orbit a satellite, it could launch a nuclear missile and vaporize an American city. If Sputnik had been orbited by, say, Britain, it would not have occasioned nearly as much angst. In other words, you can’t have a Sputnik moment absent a hostile superpower to provide the impetus for concern. I would not categorize the U.S.’s relationship with China or, certainly, India, as particularly similar to the one we had with the USSR — and the president went out of his way last night not to criticize foreign regimes (even ones like Iran, which are hostile and have, in fact, orbited a satellite). So where is the drive that will be necessary to sustain this “moment” going to come from? Certainly not from the White House. Read More

I keep a list of historical analogies — derived from years of grading papers — that tell me that the individual using them is (to be polite) more interested in rhetorical impact than historical accuracy. Before last night, the list began with “we need a Marshall Plan for X,” where X usually equals Africa or the Middle East, and ended with “the United States is a young country.” Both are fallacies: the Marshall Plan was a pump-priming program, not an effort to rebuild the infrastructure and remake the culture of half a continent; and while European settlement of North America is fairly recent, the U.S.’s political institutions have a longer continuous existence than those of any other country except, arguably, the United Kingdom.

Now, thanks to President Obama, I’ve got a third analogy to add to the list: “Sputnik moment.” To be fair, I should have added it years ago. The phrase, according to Google, has popped in and out of the news regularly over the past decade, with the president himself beginning to use it last June, in a speech in North Carolina. The analogy has the advantage of being an example of government spending — we now call it “investment,” I am told — that has not been utterly discredited by succeeding events. But that doesn’t make it correct.

First, as my colleague Jim Carafano pointed out back in September, Ike’s response to Sputnik’s launch wasn’t to pull out the checkbook. That was what the Gaither Report called for, but Eisenhower balked: as I noted recently, Ike was no softie on Communism, but he was also concerned by the threat to American liberties “posed not so much by big government as such, but by top-down direction of all kinds. Much of this originated in the federal government, but not at all it: there was also a risk of becoming ‘the captive of a scientific-technological elite.’ ” A striking phrase, especially in light of President Obama’s desire to expand government for the benefit of that elite.

Second, the launch of Sputnik marked a significant new national-security threat posed by a state with a hostile ideology, which we were already confronting around the world. If the USSR could orbit a satellite, it could launch a nuclear missile and vaporize an American city. If Sputnik had been orbited by, say, Britain, it would not have occasioned nearly as much angst. In other words, you can’t have a Sputnik moment absent a hostile superpower to provide the impetus for concern. I would not categorize the U.S.’s relationship with China or, certainly, India, as particularly similar to the one we had with the USSR — and the president went out of his way last night not to criticize foreign regimes (even ones like Iran, which are hostile and have, in fact, orbited a satellite). So where is the drive that will be necessary to sustain this “moment” going to come from? Certainly not from the White House.

Third, and most basically, I sometimes get the sense that the left doesn’t realize that 1890-2010 has already happened. A rule of life is that you can only do things for the first time once. We’ve tried the Progressive, administrative state, and have been trying it for years: its deficiencies are not going to be fixed by pretending in an “Ah ha!” moment that what we need is more administration. We’ve been trying Keynesianism almost continuously since the 1940s and even before the recession were at levels of government spending that Keynes experienced only during World War II: the idea that Keynes offers some sort of untried miracle cure is, to be nice about it, a fantasy. Since 1970, as Andrew Coulson points out, federal spending adjusted for inflation has increased by 190 percent, with no gains in reading, math, or science scores to show for it. None of these ideas are new. On the contrary: they are very, very old.

Leaving all this aside, I have to ask — does the proclamation of a new “Sputnik moment” work even as rhetoric? It certainly leaves me cold. The reason for that is, partly, because it’s not great history. But, more fundamentally, it’s because it’s so obviously instrumental. The president wants to look like he’s cutting the budget but also wants to spend more money. So he grabs at the NASA argument, the Sputnik analogy, the Internet analogy, and anything else that comes to hand. Rhetoric that’s shaped by this kind of desperation comes across as insincere. It might be more effective for the president to simply state his belief that we need to spend more money on education. He’d be wrong on the merits, but at least he wouldn’t be compounding the error with dubious grab-bag analogies.

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Politico Swallows New White House Spin on Israel

It’s a new year and a somewhat new crew running things at the White House, what with Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod gone, so it’s to be expected that we’re now getting a new spin about the Middle East from their successors. That’s the only way to interpret Ben Smith’s somewhat puzzling article in Politico today.

In the wake of the collapse of the administration’s last incompetent effort to get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, there’s little question about the piece’s conclusion that the peace process is dead in the water. No one should be surprised that the president’s spin masters are attempting to absolve the president and his foreign-policy team of all blame for the Middle East failures that have marked their two years in office. But it is astonishing that Smith, who has been covering them during this period, has swallowed whole their absurd rewriting of the history of this period.

The main point of the piece seems to be that the White House is fed up with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to Smith, after two years of trying to “give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt as a prospective peace partner,” they’ve had it with him. Netanyahu’s “intransigence,” Smith writes, is chiefly responsible for the collapse of American diplomacy, though he — and his highly placed sources — concedes that the feckless Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is no better. The conclusion is that Obama is giving up on the whole thing, since the chances “of a personal alliance growing between the Israeli leader and President Barack Obama to be just about zero.”

This makes for a neat narrative designed to make Obama look good, but only rings true if you haven’t been paying the slightest attention to U.S.-Israel relations since January 2009.

Contrary to Smith, if there has been one consistent point about the administration’s attitude toward Israel during this period, it has been its hostility to Netanyahu. From the start, Obama, who prior to his election claimed to be all right with Israel but not with Netanyahu’s Likud Party, showed his dissatisfaction with the outcome of the Israeli vote in February 2009. Rather than seek a common strategy to revive a peace process that had crashed in 2008, when Abbas refused Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert’s offer of a Palestinian state, Obama was determined to create some distance between the United States and Israel. Though the Palestinians had already conceded that most Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem would stay under Israeli control even as they rejected Israel’s offer of peace, Obama drew a new line in the sand. The president demanded that Israel freeze all building, even in areas — like Jerusalem — where everyone knew that Israel would not retreat even in the event of peace. Finding themselves outflanked, the Palestinians had to similarly dig in their heels, and the last two years of failed attempts to get them back to the negotiating table were the inevitable result. Read More

It’s a new year and a somewhat new crew running things at the White House, what with Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod gone, so it’s to be expected that we’re now getting a new spin about the Middle East from their successors. That’s the only way to interpret Ben Smith’s somewhat puzzling article in Politico today.

In the wake of the collapse of the administration’s last incompetent effort to get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, there’s little question about the piece’s conclusion that the peace process is dead in the water. No one should be surprised that the president’s spin masters are attempting to absolve the president and his foreign-policy team of all blame for the Middle East failures that have marked their two years in office. But it is astonishing that Smith, who has been covering them during this period, has swallowed whole their absurd rewriting of the history of this period.

The main point of the piece seems to be that the White House is fed up with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to Smith, after two years of trying to “give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt as a prospective peace partner,” they’ve had it with him. Netanyahu’s “intransigence,” Smith writes, is chiefly responsible for the collapse of American diplomacy, though he — and his highly placed sources — concedes that the feckless Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is no better. The conclusion is that Obama is giving up on the whole thing, since the chances “of a personal alliance growing between the Israeli leader and President Barack Obama to be just about zero.”

This makes for a neat narrative designed to make Obama look good, but only rings true if you haven’t been paying the slightest attention to U.S.-Israel relations since January 2009.

Contrary to Smith, if there has been one consistent point about the administration’s attitude toward Israel during this period, it has been its hostility to Netanyahu. From the start, Obama, who prior to his election claimed to be all right with Israel but not with Netanyahu’s Likud Party, showed his dissatisfaction with the outcome of the Israeli vote in February 2009. Rather than seek a common strategy to revive a peace process that had crashed in 2008, when Abbas refused Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert’s offer of a Palestinian state, Obama was determined to create some distance between the United States and Israel. Though the Palestinians had already conceded that most Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem would stay under Israeli control even as they rejected Israel’s offer of peace, Obama drew a new line in the sand. The president demanded that Israel freeze all building, even in areas — like Jerusalem — where everyone knew that Israel would not retreat even in the event of peace. Finding themselves outflanked, the Palestinians had to similarly dig in their heels, and the last two years of failed attempts to get them back to the negotiating table were the inevitable result.

Obama’s first attempts to outmaneuver Netanyahu seemed to be based on a foolish hope that the prime minister would be forced into a coalition with the American favorite Tzipi Livni or out of office altogether. Rather than being weakened by this, Netanyahu gained strength. In the spring of 2010, Obama tried again when he deliberately picked a fight with Israel over the construction of new homes in existing Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. The White House and the State Department subjected Netanyahu to an unprecedented campaign of abuse, but the result was no different than their previous efforts. Soon Obama was forced to back down and resort to a charm offensive aimed at damping down criticism from American Jews.

Rather than take responsibility for their own mistakes and the president’s relentless hostility to Netanyahu — whose grip on his parliamentary majority is stronger than ever — all we’re getting from the White House is more negative spin about Israel. But in order to believe a word of it, you’ve got to be afflicted with the sort of short-term memory loss that is the premise of Ben Smith’s article.

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