Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 2013

The President Who Lost Iraq

The New York Times reports that the United States is quietly rushing dozens of Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to Iraq “to help government forces combat an explosion of violence by a Qaeda-backed insurgency that is gaining territory in both western Iraq and neighboring Syria.” 

This happens in the context of the deaths of more than 8,000 Iraqis in 2013, the highest level of violence since 2008. The Times’s Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt write, “Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has become a potent force in northern and western Iraq… The surge in violence stands in sharp contrast to earlier assurances from senior Obama administration officials that Iraq was on the right path, despite the failure of American and Iraqi officials in 2011 to negotiate an agreement for a limited number of United States forces to remain in Iraq.”

This was all so predictable, and all so unnecessary. Thanks to the Anbar Awakening and the surge ordered by President Bush, Iraq by 2008 was relatively stable and al-Qaeda was decimated. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that was being renegotiated in 2011 was meant to lock in those gains. It would have created a strategic alliance with Iraq that would have kept a residual American troop presence there. Yet the Obama administration botched the negotiations and Mr. Obama simply fled Iraq, leaving that fledgling Arab democracy to the tender mercies of Iran and Islamists in the region. (Read this 2011 column by Charles Krauthammer to see how thoroughly the president has made a hash of things.)

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The New York Times reports that the United States is quietly rushing dozens of Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to Iraq “to help government forces combat an explosion of violence by a Qaeda-backed insurgency that is gaining territory in both western Iraq and neighboring Syria.” 

This happens in the context of the deaths of more than 8,000 Iraqis in 2013, the highest level of violence since 2008. The Times’s Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt write, “Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has become a potent force in northern and western Iraq… The surge in violence stands in sharp contrast to earlier assurances from senior Obama administration officials that Iraq was on the right path, despite the failure of American and Iraqi officials in 2011 to negotiate an agreement for a limited number of United States forces to remain in Iraq.”

This was all so predictable, and all so unnecessary. Thanks to the Anbar Awakening and the surge ordered by President Bush, Iraq by 2008 was relatively stable and al-Qaeda was decimated. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that was being renegotiated in 2011 was meant to lock in those gains. It would have created a strategic alliance with Iraq that would have kept a residual American troop presence there. Yet the Obama administration botched the negotiations and Mr. Obama simply fled Iraq, leaving that fledgling Arab democracy to the tender mercies of Iran and Islamists in the region. (Read this 2011 column by Charles Krauthammer to see how thoroughly the president has made a hash of things.)

It’s unclear whether America’s “patchwork response,” in the words of the Times, will make any real differences when it comes to pacifying Iraq. And one gets the sense that the outcome doesn’t really matter to Mr. Obama. In his make-believe world, the president actually counts Iraq as a success on his watch. 

As we have seen in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, when the president loses interest in foreign events, he simply deems them to be successes. If they don’t interest him, they shouldn’t interest us. So civil wars, mass death, the collapse of central governments, the weakening of pro-American regimes, and the rise of militant Islamic forces are perfectly acceptable. As long as we avert our eyes from what’s happening, all will be right with the world. Or so Mr. Obama seems to believe.

He’s wrong about this, as he is wrong about so many other things. After hard-earned and heroic gains, Barack Obama is the president who lost Iraq.

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Why Do Christians Tolerate Palestinian Historical Revisionism?

Christmas this year brought the usual spate of Palestinian historical revisionism, including the by-now routine claim that Jesus was a Palestinian. This, as Jonathan Tobin noted, tells us a lot about the Palestinian mindset and prospects for peace. But to me, the most striking aspect of this story is that objections to such historical revision come almost exclusively from Jews, whereas many Christian churches and organizations seem to have no problem with it. After all, it’s not only Jewish history and the Jewish religion Palestinians thereby erase; they are also erasing Christian history and the Christian religion.

What, for instance, becomes of the famous scene of Jesus evicting money-changers from the Temple if, as Palestinian officials claim, the Temple never existed? (They refer to it strictly as “the alleged Temple”; for examples, see here and here.) Or what becomes of Mary’s husband Joseph, who was “of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4), if, as Palestinians claim, the Davidic kingdom never existed?

Even if you want to claim, in defiance of all the evidence, that Jesus himself wasn’t a Jew, his entire story as related in the Gospels takes place in a Jewish state with a largely autonomous Jewish political and religious leadership, albeit subject to some control from the Roman Empire. According to the Gospels, it is this Jewish leadership that arrests and tries Jesus, though the Romans ultimately crucify him. If no Jewish state with the power to arrest and try ever existed (as Palestinians, again, routinely claim; see here or here, for instance), how did this most foundational of all Christian stories ever occur?

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Christmas this year brought the usual spate of Palestinian historical revisionism, including the by-now routine claim that Jesus was a Palestinian. This, as Jonathan Tobin noted, tells us a lot about the Palestinian mindset and prospects for peace. But to me, the most striking aspect of this story is that objections to such historical revision come almost exclusively from Jews, whereas many Christian churches and organizations seem to have no problem with it. After all, it’s not only Jewish history and the Jewish religion Palestinians thereby erase; they are also erasing Christian history and the Christian religion.

What, for instance, becomes of the famous scene of Jesus evicting money-changers from the Temple if, as Palestinian officials claim, the Temple never existed? (They refer to it strictly as “the alleged Temple”; for examples, see here and here.) Or what becomes of Mary’s husband Joseph, who was “of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4), if, as Palestinians claim, the Davidic kingdom never existed?

Even if you want to claim, in defiance of all the evidence, that Jesus himself wasn’t a Jew, his entire story as related in the Gospels takes place in a Jewish state with a largely autonomous Jewish political and religious leadership, albeit subject to some control from the Roman Empire. According to the Gospels, it is this Jewish leadership that arrests and tries Jesus, though the Romans ultimately crucify him. If no Jewish state with the power to arrest and try ever existed (as Palestinians, again, routinely claim; see here or here, for instance), how did this most foundational of all Christian stories ever occur?

Granted, the Christians most sympathetic to this Palestinian revisionism generally represent liberal churches that aren’t wedded to a literal reading of the Bible. Nevertheless, belief in Jesus is ostensibly fundamental even for liberal Christians–and absent the historic Jewish kingdom of the Gospels, there quite literally is no Jesus.

This ties in with a related issue: Many of these same liberal Christian groups have also turned a blind eye to the ongoing slaughter of Christians in Syria and Iraq, the worsening persecution of Christians in Egypt and various other anti-Christian atrocities worldwide, preferring to focus all their energies on vilifying the one Middle Eastern country where, to quote Israeli Arab priest Father Gabriel Nadaf, “We feel secure” as Christians. As I’ve noted before, this contrast between the terrible plight of other Middle Eastern Christians and the safety they enjoy in Israel is increasingly leading Israel’s Arab Christians to rethink their former identification with the state’s opponents; one result is that the number of Arab Christians volunteering for service in the IDF shot up more than 60 percent this year (though given the minuscule starting point, the absolute numbers remain small). But no such rethinking has occurred among anti-Israel Christians in the West.

In short, the leadership of groups like the Church of Scotland or the Presbyterian Church seem prepared to sacrifice both historical Christianity and real live Christians on the altar of their single-minded obsession with undermining the Jewish state. The million-dollar question is how long their rank-and-file memberships will continue tolerating this travesty.

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Euro Bris-Banner’s Dishonest Argument

American Jews received an odd Christmas message from one of the country’s most prestigious newspapers yesterday. The Washington Post published an article by Swiss parliamentarian Liliane Maury Pasquier titled “Is circumcision a right?” The piece was a disingenuous defense of the resolution passed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development, which she chairs, to endorse children’s right to physical integrity. The purpose of the vote was to give a crucial boost to efforts to ban circumcision throughout Europe, a heretofore-marginal cause that has recently gained ground in Germany and Scandinavia.

Pasquier claims the uproar over the vote is based on misunderstandings. Calling herself a “pioneer” who only wants to promote debate, she says those who charge her group with promoting hate are dishonest or ignorant and mocks the notion that their action can be connected with hatred or violence against religious minorities. But she then goes on to state that her ill-founded beliefs about “integrity” fueled by misleading arguments about harm to children trump the rights of Jews and Muslims while failing to note the context of her efforts at a time of rising anti-Semitism and the dubious origins of the anti-circumcision cause rooted in hate.

But perhaps even more troubling than Pasquier’s weak defense of a spurious cause is the curious decision of the Washington Post to promote it on Christmas Day. The paper may claim that it, like Pasquier, is only trying to promote debate, but by giving a platform to an advocate for a cause that is supported only by marginal cranks and hate groups in this country, it has given the virus of European anti-Semitism a beachhead in America that it doesn’t deserve.

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American Jews received an odd Christmas message from one of the country’s most prestigious newspapers yesterday. The Washington Post published an article by Swiss parliamentarian Liliane Maury Pasquier titled “Is circumcision a right?” The piece was a disingenuous defense of the resolution passed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development, which she chairs, to endorse children’s right to physical integrity. The purpose of the vote was to give a crucial boost to efforts to ban circumcision throughout Europe, a heretofore-marginal cause that has recently gained ground in Germany and Scandinavia.

Pasquier claims the uproar over the vote is based on misunderstandings. Calling herself a “pioneer” who only wants to promote debate, she says those who charge her group with promoting hate are dishonest or ignorant and mocks the notion that their action can be connected with hatred or violence against religious minorities. But she then goes on to state that her ill-founded beliefs about “integrity” fueled by misleading arguments about harm to children trump the rights of Jews and Muslims while failing to note the context of her efforts at a time of rising anti-Semitism and the dubious origins of the anti-circumcision cause rooted in hate.

But perhaps even more troubling than Pasquier’s weak defense of a spurious cause is the curious decision of the Washington Post to promote it on Christmas Day. The paper may claim that it, like Pasquier, is only trying to promote debate, but by giving a platform to an advocate for a cause that is supported only by marginal cranks and hate groups in this country, it has given the virus of European anti-Semitism a beachhead in America that it doesn’t deserve.

Let us dispense with Pasquier’s claim that her committee is acting on the basis of science. There is no evidence that circumcision causes any harm to boys or men and while it is always possible to find outlier cases in which an accident occurred during the ceremony, that is true of any procedure, including those carried out in hospitals. Nor is the notion that infants have a right not to have non-life preserving procedures performed upon them a serious argument when balanced against the right of religious freedom.

Stripped away of the veneer of “children’s rights” or medical concerns, the attack on circumcision is a manifestation of an age-old European malady: religious hatred. While affecting Muslims as well as Jews, at its core the anti-circumcision campaign in Europe stems from a desire to stigmatize Jewish religious rites and to brand them as unwholesome. It takes no leap of imagination to understand the connection between those who promote theories that depict rabbis who perform circumcisions—the bris or rite of circumcision is an integral aspect of Judaism that reaffirms Abraham’s covenant—as harming infants and traditional blood libels. The purpose of such efforts is to slander Judaism and deprive Jews of their rights.

It is no accident that such arguments are coming to the fore now in the midst of what the U.S. State Department rightly termed a “rising tide of anti-Semitism” in Europe. Pasquier’s specious arguments about children’s rights provide a fig leaf of respectability for leftists who might otherwise be ashamed to associate themselves with open religious prejudice. Responsible political leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel have tried to spike such efforts, but they continue to gain ground in a Europe in which the post-Holocaust fear of anti-Semitism has given way to the return of such sinister sentiments. Along with attempts to ban kosher slaughter and the demonization of the State of Israel by both the left and the right in Europe, the anti-circumcision movement must be seen as an unfortunate symptom of the return of Jew-hatred to the European public square.

It is a measure of the importance of American exceptionalism to note that such efforts have virtually no support in the United States. Even in a leftist enclave like San Francisco, the anti-circumcision efforts to promote a ban flopped badly in 2011 after an association with open anti-Semitism discredited it.

While those who advocate for this hateful cause have the right to say what they like, we have to wonder why the WaPo would give Pasquier its bully pulpit on Christmas to promote it. Outside of the fever swamps of the far left and far right, there is no debate in the U.S. about circumcision or the right of the state to ban Jewish religious practices. Dishonest claims of “irreversible harm” to children or of the need to overrule religious freedom in the name of a spurious “right” of children do not deserve the credibility of the Post’s pages any more than those who would promote racism against African-Americans. It is sad to see an important American publication falling prey to the efforts of European intellectuals and activists to grant respectability to a campaign that deserves none.

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What’s Wrong with U.S. Public Diplomacy?

I had written a couple months ago about the seemingly uncoordinated and scattershot approach in which U.S. embassies engage in the name of public diplomacy. An interlocutor pointed me to a speech delivered by retired Foreign Service officer Donald Bishop to the Council of American Ambassadors earlier this fall. While so many practitioners of public diplomacy circle the wagons to protect budgets and the system they know and in which they thrive, Bishop speaks directly:

Public diplomacy makes less difference in spite of the many studies and reports that proclaim its importance, despite the many new programs in the graduate schools, despite words of praise on all the appropriate public occasions, despite Congressional support for exchanges, despite Secretary Clinton’s decree that “every officer is a Public Diplomacy officer,” and despite the fact that Public Diplomacy officers are working harder than ever.

Bishop continues to suggest three separate problems, or rather clusters of problems. The first is organizational. Public diplomacy has been shunted aside to a bureaucratic corner. “The appointment of well-spoken Under Secretaries from related fields has not worked as intended. They have had scant bureaucratic power and no real sway over the allocation of Public Diplomacy people and money,” he writes, adding, “Public diplomacy training has become too brief. Many experienced Public Diplomacy officers no longer aim to lead large country programs, hoping rather to be DCMs [Deputy Charge of Missions], DAS’s [Deputy Assistant Secretaries], and Ambassadors, and this shifts their professional focus away from communication.”

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I had written a couple months ago about the seemingly uncoordinated and scattershot approach in which U.S. embassies engage in the name of public diplomacy. An interlocutor pointed me to a speech delivered by retired Foreign Service officer Donald Bishop to the Council of American Ambassadors earlier this fall. While so many practitioners of public diplomacy circle the wagons to protect budgets and the system they know and in which they thrive, Bishop speaks directly:

Public diplomacy makes less difference in spite of the many studies and reports that proclaim its importance, despite the many new programs in the graduate schools, despite words of praise on all the appropriate public occasions, despite Congressional support for exchanges, despite Secretary Clinton’s decree that “every officer is a Public Diplomacy officer,” and despite the fact that Public Diplomacy officers are working harder than ever.

Bishop continues to suggest three separate problems, or rather clusters of problems. The first is organizational. Public diplomacy has been shunted aside to a bureaucratic corner. “The appointment of well-spoken Under Secretaries from related fields has not worked as intended. They have had scant bureaucratic power and no real sway over the allocation of Public Diplomacy people and money,” he writes, adding, “Public diplomacy training has become too brief. Many experienced Public Diplomacy officers no longer aim to lead large country programs, hoping rather to be DCMs [Deputy Charge of Missions], DAS’s [Deputy Assistant Secretaries], and Ambassadors, and this shifts their professional focus away from communication.”

The second problem, he observes, is the fact that there is “division among the American people over our nation’s purposes in the world.” Bishop is correct, even as so many ignore this basic fact. As national security becomes a political football, partisan and philosophical divisions undercut the ability to advance a coherent strategy. Another point Bishop makes but is so often overlooked is the impact of rancorous American political debate on our adversaries’ propaganda:

If I know anything from three decades of reading foreign editorials and columns, it’s that indigenous foreign criticisms of the United States are quite rare. Rather our critics rewrite, repackage, and amplify what they hear in our own domestic debates. Division and rancor in our domestic politics ricochets back to us from abroad, and we live in rancorous times.

This doesn’t mean that Congress should temper its debate, but in a globalized age it behooves our elected officials to recognize that hyperbole might end up fueling those who seek not to craft a batter strategy, but rather defeat America entirely. Simply looking back at some of the rhetoric aired regarding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and how congressional statements were picked up and recast on insurgent media should give pause to the bipartisan array of officials who were quick to declare new Vietnams or allege ill motives on the part of national-security leaders.

A subset of division about disputes regarding America’s role in the world is religion. Again, Bishop addresses the issue head on:

In the war on terrorism, however, we confront an ideology based on extreme religion. Americans have always been ginger about discussing religion, and too often I have seen officers turn away from opportunities to discuss faith by simply saying “in America, we have separation of church and state.”  This is a non-starter for dialog with religiously motivated people. My point is that because religion and its role in society are domestically contentious, we have been unable to agree among ourselves how to discuss religion with foreign audiences. This hurts us in the current struggle.

American officials so often misinterpret separation of church and state. While the U.S. government should certainly support no official religion, diplomats must understand that the word secular, when translated into Arabic, has a negative connotation suggesting the notion of being against religion. To avoid the subject of religion and religious ideology when operating in religiously conservative societies is to surrender credibility and forfeit the battle of ideas. Discussing religion need not be synonymous with proselytizing.

For Bishop, the third set of problems revolves around strategy. He quotes an Inspector General report on the Bureau of International Information Programs which posed basic questions:

What is the proper balance between engaging young people and marginalized groups versus elites and opinion leaders? Which programs and delivery mechanisms work best with which audiences? What proportion of PD [public diplomacy] resources should support policy goals, and what proportion should go to providing the context of American society and values? How much should PD products be tailored for regions and individual countries, and how much should be directed to a global audience?

To this, Bishop adds a few questions of his own:

  • What’s the value of venue-based Public Diplomacy — American Centers or American spaces — in an age of distributed information? 
  • When the internet and DVDs make high and low American culture available throughout the world, what’s the value of traveling jazz trios? 
  • How does the nation that stands for religious liberty communicate with international actors whose fundamental premises are religious? 
  • In war zones, how can Public Diplomacy work with the influence disciplines in the armed forces — information operations and the discipline formerly known as psychological operations? 

It seems that secretaries of state in recent administrations have sought to compete with their predecessors in mileage traveled, as if logging miles somehow became a metric of wisdom or diplomatic success. Leadership is not simply about free travel and five-star hotels, nor should an appointment to lead the State Department be the ultimate perk. Rather, being secretary of state should be about management and implementing a coherent strategy. Until a president appoints a secretary of state who takes seriously his or her responsibilities to answer fundamental questions and make diplomacy part of a coherent strategy, the State Department and American diplomacy are destined to flounder as an expensive failure.

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Algeria’s Aid Scam Threatens U.S. Security

Humanitarian assistance always sounds like a great idea. Against the backdrop of a tsunami or an earthquake, it can be the difference between life and death. When abused, however, it can often do more harm than good. Wherever one stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, grassroots Palestinians would be the first to acknowledge that a lack of accountability has enabled leading Palestinian officials to siphon off vast quantities of international assistance. In Afghanistan, too, humanitarian and development assistance have turned into tremendous scams transforming many enterprising Afghans into millionaires. Living in both Yemen many years ago and pre-war Iraq, I would often come across bags and boxes of American assistance, funded by the American taxpayer, for sale in local markets. Graft is unfortunate, and more competent officials would move to end it just for the sake of fiscal responsibility. When such corruption impacts U.S. national security, however, the urgency becomes greater.

In several recent posts, I have touched upon the Polisario Front, a Cold War remnant that claims to be fighting for independence in the Western Sahara, a Moroccan territory once colonized by the Spanish and French on Africa’s northwestern coast. In reality, what remains of the Polisario Front is no longer relevant, little more than a puppet of the Algerian military.

The problem is that the Polisario runs several refugee camps in the Tindouf province of western Algeria. It claims upwards of 120,000 Sahrawi refugees languish in the camps, unable to return to the Western Sahara so long as Morocco remains the predominant power in the territory. The reality is quite different: Morocco welcomes back Sahrawi refugees stuck in Algeria since the end of the two countries hot war in 1991. When Sahwari refugees do escape from the Polisario camps, they get housing, stipends, and with so much Moroccan investment in the Sahara, often far more lucrative jobs then they would have access to in Tangiers, Casablanca, Rabat, or other northern Moroccan cities.

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Humanitarian assistance always sounds like a great idea. Against the backdrop of a tsunami or an earthquake, it can be the difference between life and death. When abused, however, it can often do more harm than good. Wherever one stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, grassroots Palestinians would be the first to acknowledge that a lack of accountability has enabled leading Palestinian officials to siphon off vast quantities of international assistance. In Afghanistan, too, humanitarian and development assistance have turned into tremendous scams transforming many enterprising Afghans into millionaires. Living in both Yemen many years ago and pre-war Iraq, I would often come across bags and boxes of American assistance, funded by the American taxpayer, for sale in local markets. Graft is unfortunate, and more competent officials would move to end it just for the sake of fiscal responsibility. When such corruption impacts U.S. national security, however, the urgency becomes greater.

In several recent posts, I have touched upon the Polisario Front, a Cold War remnant that claims to be fighting for independence in the Western Sahara, a Moroccan territory once colonized by the Spanish and French on Africa’s northwestern coast. In reality, what remains of the Polisario Front is no longer relevant, little more than a puppet of the Algerian military.

The problem is that the Polisario runs several refugee camps in the Tindouf province of western Algeria. It claims upwards of 120,000 Sahrawi refugees languish in the camps, unable to return to the Western Sahara so long as Morocco remains the predominant power in the territory. The reality is quite different: Morocco welcomes back Sahrawi refugees stuck in Algeria since the end of the two countries hot war in 1991. When Sahwari refugees do escape from the Polisario camps, they get housing, stipends, and with so much Moroccan investment in the Sahara, often far more lucrative jobs then they would have access to in Tangiers, Casablanca, Rabat, or other northern Moroccan cities.

The reason why the Polisario doesn’t let the refugees in whose name it claims to speak go home is that holding them hostage is quite lucrative. The United Nations provides humanitarian aid for those refugees, which the Polisario effectively administers, as they control the camps when the UN officials retreat to their headquarters. Herein lays the scam: While the Polisario claims its camps hold 120,000 refugees, most diplomats and independent observers place the figure at closer to 40,000. And many of these residents are not even refugees, as they originate in Algeria and Mauritania. Back-of-the-napkin calculation based on informal surveying of escapees from the Polisario camps: maybe only 20,000 technically qualify as refugees. Both Algeria and the Polisario know this, and so they refuse to allow the United Nations to conduct any census. Rather than stand up for accountability or suspend relief operations until the Algerians enable such a census, the United Nations simply accepts the fiction of the Polisario claims, and supplies relief for perhaps five times the number of refugees who actually live in the Polisario’s camps.

This is where corruption crosses the line into a threat to security: Across North Africa and the Sahel, Polisario smugglers are taking relief supplies given by the international community and indirectly subsidized by U.S. donations to the United Nations and selling them for profit. Many security analysts have already pointed out the growing interplay between the Polisario Front and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which uses the Polisario camps for recruitment and may increasingly cooperate with the Islamist terrorist groups wreaking havoc across the Sahel. Like so many other regional countries, smuggling of international relief in response to the Polisario Front’s tenuous claims, therefore, has now crossed the line into a security problem as AQIM co-opts the smuggling routes enabled by fraudulent relief to expand its coffers and fund its operations. Algeria now seems to acquiesce to the bargain: turn a blind eye toward jihadists so long as they conduct their operations outside Algerian borders, no matter what the cost to Mali, Libya, Tunisia, or Morocco.

The solution is blindly obvious: If the Obama administration and Congress are truly committed to preventing an al-Qaeda resurgence in the post-bin Laden-era; if they also care about making sure taxpayer funds and foreign assistance are not wasted in an age of budget cutbacks and austerity; and if President Obama and Ambassador Samantha Power truly want to ensure the United Nations has credibility, then it behooves everyone to ensure that no money goes to the Polisario camps until there is basic accountability. Ignoring corruption is no longer a question of preventing waste; increasingly, it is a matter of national security.

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Nobody Should Fear a Merry Christmas

The notion of a liberal war on Christmas has become something of a seasonal evergreen discussion topic for pundits. As such, at this point at times it’s not clear whether conservatives like Fox’s Bill O’Reilly talk about it more than politically correct secularists wage it. In this overwhelmingly Christian country, there is little doubt that Christmas is a national holiday and is often practiced in such a manner as to make it more of a secular celebration of consumerism than a Christian religious observance.

Nevertheless, it must be admitted that the holiday plays a not unimportant role in the ongoing battle over the height of the so-called wall of separation between church and state. The fight about whether crèches, the lyrics in carols, or Christmas trees constitute an unconstitutional establishment of Christianity has done little to undermine the hold of the holiday or to make religious minorities more comfortable in America. To the contrary, such disputes do much to undermine good community relations between members of different faiths. Dennis Prager is correct when he writes today that those who claim to be “emotionally troubled” by the sight of a Christmas display on public property are indeed emotionally troubled.

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The notion of a liberal war on Christmas has become something of a seasonal evergreen discussion topic for pundits. As such, at this point at times it’s not clear whether conservatives like Fox’s Bill O’Reilly talk about it more than politically correct secularists wage it. In this overwhelmingly Christian country, there is little doubt that Christmas is a national holiday and is often practiced in such a manner as to make it more of a secular celebration of consumerism than a Christian religious observance.

Nevertheless, it must be admitted that the holiday plays a not unimportant role in the ongoing battle over the height of the so-called wall of separation between church and state. The fight about whether crèches, the lyrics in carols, or Christmas trees constitute an unconstitutional establishment of Christianity has done little to undermine the hold of the holiday or to make religious minorities more comfortable in America. To the contrary, such disputes do much to undermine good community relations between members of different faiths. Dennis Prager is correct when he writes today that those who claim to be “emotionally troubled” by the sight of a Christmas display on public property are indeed emotionally troubled.

In particular some liberal Jews have made a habit out of manufacturing outrage about Christmas festivities retaining even a smidge of religious content. As Prager rightly notes, many of those who pick fights over such issues are not religious but instead seem to practice a version of Judaism this time of year whose sole point is to insist that communal celebrations are stripped of Christianity.

There may be some who believe the First Amendment rule against establishing any religion ought to mean Christmas should not be treated as a legal holiday. But, just as the presence of the phrase “In God We Trust” on coins does not infringe anyone’s liberty, neither does the fact that the government shuts down on December 25. One needn’t observe Christmas in any way to understand that it is part of the secular culture of this country. Religious minorities who do without trees, tinsel, and Santa Claus are not in any way damaged by the presence of a crèche or a tree on public property or that children in a public school might sing some Christmas songs.

Why not? Because in the absence of compulsion or of any penalties exacted against those who do not participate, such rites are merely harmless celebrations. Attempts to suppress Christmas are not a defense of religious freedom. Instead, as O’Reilly and others have pointed out, they smack more of a desire to infringe on the religious liberty of believers. Those who imagine that Christmas is a threat to the right to dissent from the majority culture are living in a fevered dream world that is divorced from the reality of American tolerance.

In that spirit, we at COMMENTARY have no compunction about wishing our readers and friends a very merry Christmas. May all who celebrate the day as a matter of faith as well as those who don’t enjoy the holiday. It is as good a time as any to take a moment to thank Divine Providence for the ongoing miracle that is American democracy and for the religious freedom it has provided all of us.

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ObamaCare Deadline Desperation

An axiom of humor is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to satirize something that is already ridiculous. Thus, it is hard to think of a humorous way to send up the fact that today the administration extended the deadline for enrollment in ObamaCare for the second consecutive day. As the New York Times reports:

The original deadline was Dec. 15 for people to sign up for coverage that takes effect in January; it was later extended by eight days. On Monday, the White House added a 24-hour grace period, to 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday.

Then on Tuesday, in another bid to expand coverage, the administration provided details of a “special enrollment period” for people who would miss the deadline.

“If you weren’t able to enroll in an insurance plan by Dec. 23 because of problems you had using HealthCare.gov, you still may be able to get coverage that starts Jan. 1,” the administration told visitors to the website. “Even though we have passed the Dec. 23 enrollment deadline for coverage starting Jan. 1, we don’t want you to miss out if you’ve been trying to enroll.

Though the administration claimed the new deadlines were the result of heavy traffic on the infamous HealthCare.gov website, the real reasons for the changes are very different from the upbeat spin being fed to the media. With the figures for enrollment in ObamaCare only a fraction of not only what they originally predicted but also falling far short of the volume needed for the scheme to be economically viable, the administration is desperate to pump them up by any means necessary.

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An axiom of humor is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to satirize something that is already ridiculous. Thus, it is hard to think of a humorous way to send up the fact that today the administration extended the deadline for enrollment in ObamaCare for the second consecutive day. As the New York Times reports:

The original deadline was Dec. 15 for people to sign up for coverage that takes effect in January; it was later extended by eight days. On Monday, the White House added a 24-hour grace period, to 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday.

Then on Tuesday, in another bid to expand coverage, the administration provided details of a “special enrollment period” for people who would miss the deadline.

“If you weren’t able to enroll in an insurance plan by Dec. 23 because of problems you had using HealthCare.gov, you still may be able to get coverage that starts Jan. 1,” the administration told visitors to the website. “Even though we have passed the Dec. 23 enrollment deadline for coverage starting Jan. 1, we don’t want you to miss out if you’ve been trying to enroll.

Though the administration claimed the new deadlines were the result of heavy traffic on the infamous HealthCare.gov website, the real reasons for the changes are very different from the upbeat spin being fed to the media. With the figures for enrollment in ObamaCare only a fraction of not only what they originally predicted but also falling far short of the volume needed for the scheme to be economically viable, the administration is desperate to pump them up by any means necessary.

Saving face is obviously at the core of the decision-making process with regard to the deadlines. Even if the website is more functional today than it was after the disastrous rollout of the new law, the problems at the national level as well as with some of the state exchanges are undermining the faith of Democrats that somehow the president’s signature legislation will prove popular. In order to maintain that faith, they need to try to somehow inflate the total number of those enrolled in the plans.

One by one the administration has set back the implementation of various aspects of ObamaCare. As we noted here on Friday, the pileup of postponements has given the impression that this big-government scheme is unraveling. Indeed, every such announcement adds to the notion that what is happening is not just a delay but a de facto repeal of the law, piece by ungainly piece.

The problem with ObamaCare isn’t the website or even the looming deadlines that cannot be extended indefinitely. Even when people log on to the website what they find are not the high-quality and affordable insurance they were promised by the president and his cheerleaders but plans with high deductibles that often force consumers to purchase coverage they don’t need or want. With millions of Americans being forced off their plans by the various ObamaCare mandates and with those who are compelled to purchase the new plans encountering sticker shock, optimistic liberals who are hoping for an end to the negative stories and bad feedback are in for a shock.

The deadline shifts were a sign of desperation on the part of an administration that knows it has committed itself to an ongoing fiasco. What will follow in 2014 as more Americans realize what the president has saddled them with will be far worse.

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North Korea Amnesia and Iran Engagement

Who says the ayatollahs don’t have any holiday spirit? In what some might interpret as a courtesy to their Western diplomatic partners, Iran suspended the negotiations being conducted to nail down the details of the implementation of the Geneva agreement they reached with the U.S. and the P5+1 group last month until after the Christmas holidays. Though some might consider this gesture just one more delaying tactic, the Iranians are confident that the Obama administration will be just as pliable after the celebrations as before them. With the president threatening a veto of a proposed bill to toughen sanctions on Iran, the commitment of this administration to what appears to be a push for détente with Tehran is not in question. Nor is it worried much about having to defend the Geneva deal since much of the foreign-policy establishment loves the idea of more engagement and a war-weary public is disinclined to support further confrontation with the Islamist regime in spite of worries about the nuclear threat from Iran.

But in spite of the clear public-relations advantage the administration has in the debate over their approach to Iran, the news cycle has a way of exposing even the most confident narrative involving negotiations with rogue states. As often as President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and other administration figures speak up about the need to try diplomacy and to avoid “breaking faith” with Iran, the example of the last tyranny that the U.S. tried to bribe to drop a nuclear program keeps popping up. As the New York Times reports today:

Satellite imagery suggests that North Korea may have begun producing fuel rods for its recently restarted nuclear reactor, a United States-based research institute said in a report published Tuesday.

The signs of new activity at North Korea’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, follow the country’s repeated assertions that it is strengthening its capabilities to produce nuclear arms. North Korea, which has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006, the most recent in February, has used spent fuel rods from the reactor as a source for plutonium, a key component for nuclear weapons.

The five-megawatt reactor was restarted earlier this year after a six-year hiatus. Its ability to produce plutonium again depends in part on how quickly North Korea can supply it with new fuel rods. North Korea is believed to have only 2,000 fuel rods in its inventory, a quarter of the 8,000 needed for a full load of fuel.

It bears repeating that Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the lead negotiator with Iran at Geneva, played the same role for the Clinton administration with North Korea. Sherman claims that there is no comparison between the two situations, but the plain fact remains that Sherman believed Pyongyang could be bribed rather than pressured into giving up its nukes and thinks the same thing now about Iran. That is why even those who are unenthusiastic about confronting Tehran think there’s little doubt that the U.S. is well down the road toward embracing containment of a nuclear Iran rather than stopping it.

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Who says the ayatollahs don’t have any holiday spirit? In what some might interpret as a courtesy to their Western diplomatic partners, Iran suspended the negotiations being conducted to nail down the details of the implementation of the Geneva agreement they reached with the U.S. and the P5+1 group last month until after the Christmas holidays. Though some might consider this gesture just one more delaying tactic, the Iranians are confident that the Obama administration will be just as pliable after the celebrations as before them. With the president threatening a veto of a proposed bill to toughen sanctions on Iran, the commitment of this administration to what appears to be a push for détente with Tehran is not in question. Nor is it worried much about having to defend the Geneva deal since much of the foreign-policy establishment loves the idea of more engagement and a war-weary public is disinclined to support further confrontation with the Islamist regime in spite of worries about the nuclear threat from Iran.

But in spite of the clear public-relations advantage the administration has in the debate over their approach to Iran, the news cycle has a way of exposing even the most confident narrative involving negotiations with rogue states. As often as President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and other administration figures speak up about the need to try diplomacy and to avoid “breaking faith” with Iran, the example of the last tyranny that the U.S. tried to bribe to drop a nuclear program keeps popping up. As the New York Times reports today:

Satellite imagery suggests that North Korea may have begun producing fuel rods for its recently restarted nuclear reactor, a United States-based research institute said in a report published Tuesday.

The signs of new activity at North Korea’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, follow the country’s repeated assertions that it is strengthening its capabilities to produce nuclear arms. North Korea, which has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006, the most recent in February, has used spent fuel rods from the reactor as a source for plutonium, a key component for nuclear weapons.

The five-megawatt reactor was restarted earlier this year after a six-year hiatus. Its ability to produce plutonium again depends in part on how quickly North Korea can supply it with new fuel rods. North Korea is believed to have only 2,000 fuel rods in its inventory, a quarter of the 8,000 needed for a full load of fuel.

It bears repeating that Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the lead negotiator with Iran at Geneva, played the same role for the Clinton administration with North Korea. Sherman claims that there is no comparison between the two situations, but the plain fact remains that Sherman believed Pyongyang could be bribed rather than pressured into giving up its nukes and thinks the same thing now about Iran. That is why even those who are unenthusiastic about confronting Tehran think there’s little doubt that the U.S. is well down the road toward embracing containment of a nuclear Iran rather than stopping it.

The problem with negotiating with such regimes is that the West plays by the rules but nuclear tyrannies don’t. The North Koreans never put forward an alleged moderate as the face of their government the clever way the Iranians have done with Hassan Rouhani. But they often made the same kind of promises to American negotiators like Sherman about giving up their nukes for relaxation of sanctions, the way the Iranians have now done. Despite pledges of transparency and allowing inspections, such governments can revoke their promises at the whim of leaders like Kim Jong-un or Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the absence of the rule of law, any deception is possible.

But the problem goes deeper than just a matter of a few foolish negotiators or the technical problems of keeping track of nuclear scofflaws. Integral to the story of what happened with North Korea and what may well be unfolding now with Iran is a refusal to learn from history and the inclination of Westerners to project their own beliefs onto totalitarians—be they Communists or Islamists—that view such foolishness as their diplomatic ace in the hole. Twenty years ago, the notion of a nuclear North Korea was considered science fiction by many in the foreign policy establishment. Today, it is a fact. Ten years from now we may look back on our current debate about Iran with the same incredulity that Sherman’s talks with North Korea now provoke. So long as there will be gullible diplomats whose zeal for the deal exceeds their common sense, Western governments will believe the promises of countries like North Korea and Iran.

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Israel Boycotts and the Lure of Notoriety

Here on the blog, Jonathan Marks has been covering the ongoing saga of the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel, leaving off last week with a note about the possible next target for academics’ anti-Israel zealotry. He wrote that the upcoming conference of the Modern Language Association, which has a larger membership than the ASA, will host a roundtable on the topic stacked with pro-boycott voices. The “playbook,” he comments, would normally have this year’s conference used as the backdrop for a boycott resolution at next year’s conference.

The trend does indeed usually go in one direction. But perhaps there is reason to hope this trend will slow dramatically at this point. The pushback against the boycott from American academia has been swift. On Sunday night, William Jacobson posted at Legal Insurrection the latest tally of schools that had rejected the boycott and/or terminated their membership in the ASA. There were over thirty schools and counting to reject the boycott, and Yair Rosenberg has been noting the additional schools to come out against the boycott over the last couple of days, including Smith College and the University of Cincinnati.

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Here on the blog, Jonathan Marks has been covering the ongoing saga of the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel, leaving off last week with a note about the possible next target for academics’ anti-Israel zealotry. He wrote that the upcoming conference of the Modern Language Association, which has a larger membership than the ASA, will host a roundtable on the topic stacked with pro-boycott voices. The “playbook,” he comments, would normally have this year’s conference used as the backdrop for a boycott resolution at next year’s conference.

The trend does indeed usually go in one direction. But perhaps there is reason to hope this trend will slow dramatically at this point. The pushback against the boycott from American academia has been swift. On Sunday night, William Jacobson posted at Legal Insurrection the latest tally of schools that had rejected the boycott and/or terminated their membership in the ASA. There were over thirty schools and counting to reject the boycott, and Yair Rosenberg has been noting the additional schools to come out against the boycott over the last couple of days, including Smith College and the University of Cincinnati.

At first glance, it might seem obvious to reject such a boycott: it flies in the face of the principles of academic engagement. The pro-boycott voices have taken a stand against the free flow of ideas and in favor of ethnic discrimination, a strange position for a university to take up–or, at least, it should be. But anti-Israel activists have been known not for their intellectual pursuit but for their extremism. Even Mahmoud Abbas opposes the boycott, making these activists and academics more extremely anti-Israel than Yasser Arafat’s successor.

And so the condemnation of these fanatic purveyors of hate came not only from the right but even from the left, which has become increasingly uncomfortable with Israel but which has not gone so far as to surpass the Palestinian Authority in its opposition to the current Israeli government, unlike the ASA. Today the Washington Post reported on the universities’ attempts to distance themselves from the ASA’s extremism:

Schools including Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Princeton and Boston universities and the Universities of Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Texas at Austin  and others have slammed the boycott, issuing statements similar to one by Harvard President Drew Faust that said that academic boycotts “subvert the academic freedoms and values necessary to the free flow of ideas, which is the lifeblood of the worldwide community of scholars.”

Penn State University at Harrisburg and Brandeis University have said they are withdrawing their memberships from the American Studies Association, and other schools are considering doing the same thing. In addition, two major associations of institutions of higher education, the Association of American Universities and the Association of American University Professors, have issued statements rejecting the boycott.

The Post includes some of the university presidents’ statements supporting dialogue over exclusion, such as from the University of Connecticut’s Susan Herbst:

Academic leaders at UConn will continue to visit Israel and Arab nations, invite Israeli and Arab scholars to our campuses, encourage our students and faculty to study in these nations, and pursue research collaboration with the many outstanding Israeli universities. We do this with pride and a productive focus on social justice, to forge the very critical dialogues that will someday lead to the peace we all seek.

That is the true essence of a university — to foster dialogue and develop solutions to problems without regard to political, racial, and cultural differences.

You can sense a kind of exasperation in some of these statements, as though the presidents of major American universities can’t quite believe they have to explain the basic principles of academic engagement and the rank senselessness of boycotting the Jewish state–and only the Jewish state, as opposed to non-democracies, unfree societies, etc.

Will it matter? How will this response factor into the decisions of groups like the MLA, who will be considering whether to codify their commitment to ethnic discrimination? There are two possibilities.

The first is that they will read the statements from presidents of dozens of universities expressing the embarrassment these boycotts bring to the good name of American academia and take the ASA’s experiment as a cautionary tale in letting their organizations be hijacked by anti-Israel extremists. Rather than choose sides, they will choose academic open-mindedness.

The second option is to embrace the opprobrium as confirmation of their wacky ideas about Zionist conspiracies. That would be the Walt-Mearsheimer path. When the two academics first proposed their silly ideas about the Israel lobby as a magazine piece, it was obviously wrongheaded but taken as an interesting conversation starter. When they expanded it into book form, it was dismaying to the pro-Israel community at first, because the authors had realized how lucrative it is in this day and age to peddle conspiracy theories about Jews.

When the book came out, however, there was much relief: the book could be easily criticized without consideration of the authors’ motives because it was of such shoddy scholarship as to be self-discrediting. The authors had their facts wrong, and clearly didn’t understand even the basics of Middle Eastern politics. From an academic perspective, the book was a complete failure, an embarrassment to the very idea of serious scholarship.

But that didn’t matter: anti-Zionism sells. Of course the facts weren’t on the authors’ side, but it soon became clear that was never a consideration. You can go from being an academic to a sought-after household name by dedicating your career to catering to the conspiracy-theorist fringe. Thus academic groups similar to the ASA may come to their senses and remember their mission is to educate. Or they may anticipate the notoriety that comes with abandoning that mission and embrace it for the sake of fame and intellectual martyrdom. The blowback against the ASA may be the end of this nonsense, in other words, or it may only be the beginning.

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A Complex Issue and a Simplistic Snowden

The Washington Post’s interview with Edward Snowden is bound to evoke complicated, on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other responses–a complexity that contrasts sharply with Snowden’s own simplistic, shallow conception of the issues at play. And it is this contrast that leaves those skeptical of massive government programs ultimately still in search of an advocate worthy of the cause of transparency, for Edward Snowden is not that advocate.

On the one hand, those seeking to defend the NSA’s domestic digital intelligence collection point out that, as Michael Mukasey notes today, the members of the president’s intel review board “have not uncovered any official efforts to suppress dissent or any intent to intrude into people’s private lives without legal justification.” On the other hand, critics of big government are on plenty firm ground when they say they should not be required to await abuse to argue, on principle, against secretive programs ripe for such abuse. The prevention of abuse of power, not simply the correction of abuse of power, is a legitimate goal for a self-governing people.

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The Washington Post’s interview with Edward Snowden is bound to evoke complicated, on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other responses–a complexity that contrasts sharply with Snowden’s own simplistic, shallow conception of the issues at play. And it is this contrast that leaves those skeptical of massive government programs ultimately still in search of an advocate worthy of the cause of transparency, for Edward Snowden is not that advocate.

On the one hand, those seeking to defend the NSA’s domestic digital intelligence collection point out that, as Michael Mukasey notes today, the members of the president’s intel review board “have not uncovered any official efforts to suppress dissent or any intent to intrude into people’s private lives without legal justification.” On the other hand, critics of big government are on plenty firm ground when they say they should not be required to await abuse to argue, on principle, against secretive programs ripe for such abuse. The prevention of abuse of power, not simply the correction of abuse of power, is a legitimate goal for a self-governing people.

But is that Edward Snowden’s goal? The overwhelming evidence would suggest it is manifestly not. In fact, Snowden’s interview, for those who could sit through the messianic self-aggrandizing delusions, was most revealing in Snowden’s clear distaste for the very concept of democracy. An argument can be made that the system of checks and balances surrounding the NSA program is insufficiently skeptical toward the means because of governmental deference to the ends. But it remains the case that the American people have elected representatives, to whom Snowden did not first go with this information, despite there being obviously sympathetic members of Congress (Ron Wyden, Rand Paul, etc.).

Additionally, the intel collection has legal oversight and its constitutionality has been challenged and upheld. Again, this doesn’t mean the process is flawless–conservatives consider some laws to be unconstitutional despite the high court’s acquiescence. But compare that with Snowden’s response when his interviewer, Barton Gellman–one of the journalists through whom Snowden has been leaking his information–asks him about his sense of authority and entitlement:

“That whole question — who elected you? — inverts the model,” he said. “They elected me. The overseers.”

He named the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees.

“Dianne Feinstein elected me when she asked softball questions” in committee hearings, he said. “Mike Rogers elected me when he kept these programs hidden. . . . The FISA court elected me when they decided to legislate from the bench on things that were far beyond the mandate of what that court was ever intended to do. The system failed comprehensively, and each level of oversight, each level of responsibility that should have addressed this, abdicated their responsibility.”

“It wasn’t that they put it on me as an individual — that I’m uniquely qualified, an angel descending from the heavens — as that they put it on someone, somewhere,” he said. “You have the capability, and you realize every other [person] sitting around the table has the same capability but they don’t do it. So somebody has to be the first.”

There are two possible conclusions to be drawn from Snowden’s answer. Either he is a deeply unintelligent man with a tenuous grasp on reality, or he is a deeply dishonest man brimming with hostility toward Western democracy. That he accomplished what he did and now lives under the watchful gaze of the Russian security services suggests that the latter is far more likely. That’s not to say there isn’t also evidence for the former theory–witness his choice of historical analogy:

Snowden likened the NSA’s powers to those used by British authorities in Colonial America, when “general warrants” allowed for anyone to be searched. The FISA court, Snowden said, “is authorizing general warrants for the entire country’s metadata.”

“The last time that happened, we fought a war over it,” he said.

The comparison is historically illiterate and the conclusion asinine. Nonetheless, it fits with his pattern of dishonesty and self-promotion. He’s also a hypocrite: he claims to be for transparency, but has given his interview to a friendly and cooperative source, and even then he declines to answer certain questions about his own activity and the materials he possesses. He claims to be for the rule of law, but eschewed legal channels for his activity in favor of breaking the law and then evaded the legal consequences with the help of authoritarian, criminal regimes. He claims to want a discussion about domestic spying, but revealed damaging information about American spying abroad.

There is plenty, in other words, Edward Snowden is not telling us, and what he is telling us undermines his hollow attempts to claim the dignified posture of a whistleblower. There are troubling aspects to the NSA’s data collection, and an honest argument about transparency and security might keep that trouble at bay. But Snowden is not an honest messenger and he is not conducting an honest discussion. The American people, and the cause of transparency and limited government, deserve better than Edward Snowden.

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Schumer’s Iran Sanctions Test

Is there hope for passage of new sanctions on Iran? If there is, it will be thanks to New York Senator Charles Schumer, who is defying President Obama and other members of the Senate Democratic leadership by supporting the bill proposed by fellow Democrat Bob Menendez and Republican Mark Kirk. Schumer spoke up for the bill on Meet the Press on Sunday with some blunt talk about Iran:

Well, look, there are many of us, Democrats and Republicans, in this Senate who believe the best way to avoid war and get around to give up nuclear weapons is by ratcheting up sanctions, not by reducing them. The Iranians didn’t come to the table out of the goodness of their heart. This administration still labels them a terrorist organization–the supreme leader Khomeini is still pulling the strings. And only tough sanctions will get them to give up. Now, look, I give the president credit for talking. I don’t agree with some on the hard line who say no talking until they give up everything. But the bottom line is very simple. It’s pretty logical that it’s sanctions, tough sanctions that brought them to the table. If they think they can ease up on the sanctions without getting rid of their nuclear capabilities, they’re– they’re going to do that. So we have to be tough. And the legislation we put in says to the Iranians, if you don’t come to an agreement after six months and the president can extend it to a year, the sanctions are going to toughen up. … I think that will make them negotiate better and give up more.

The stand has earned Schumer fulsome praise from supporters of Israel as well as those in the media who are reading from the foreign-policy establishment’s appeasement hymnal on the subject. The New York Daily News rewarded Schumer with an editorial titled “Hang Tough Chuck” in which they rightly lauded such “stout-hearted Democrats” for “defying” President Obama. I agree with both Schumer and the News but those pinning their hopes for the sanctions bill on Schumer’s intrepid stand may wind up disappointed. If Schumer is serious about really standing up to the president the bill may have a chance to pass and set up a dramatic confrontation with the president that could influence the outcome of the negotiations with Iran. But it’s also entirely possible that he is counting on the president’s veto threat and the opposition to the proposal from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Banking Committee chair Tim Johnson and other leading Democrats to save him from any real danger of a serious battle with Obama.

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Is there hope for passage of new sanctions on Iran? If there is, it will be thanks to New York Senator Charles Schumer, who is defying President Obama and other members of the Senate Democratic leadership by supporting the bill proposed by fellow Democrat Bob Menendez and Republican Mark Kirk. Schumer spoke up for the bill on Meet the Press on Sunday with some blunt talk about Iran:

Well, look, there are many of us, Democrats and Republicans, in this Senate who believe the best way to avoid war and get around to give up nuclear weapons is by ratcheting up sanctions, not by reducing them. The Iranians didn’t come to the table out of the goodness of their heart. This administration still labels them a terrorist organization–the supreme leader Khomeini is still pulling the strings. And only tough sanctions will get them to give up. Now, look, I give the president credit for talking. I don’t agree with some on the hard line who say no talking until they give up everything. But the bottom line is very simple. It’s pretty logical that it’s sanctions, tough sanctions that brought them to the table. If they think they can ease up on the sanctions without getting rid of their nuclear capabilities, they’re– they’re going to do that. So we have to be tough. And the legislation we put in says to the Iranians, if you don’t come to an agreement after six months and the president can extend it to a year, the sanctions are going to toughen up. … I think that will make them negotiate better and give up more.

The stand has earned Schumer fulsome praise from supporters of Israel as well as those in the media who are reading from the foreign-policy establishment’s appeasement hymnal on the subject. The New York Daily News rewarded Schumer with an editorial titled “Hang Tough Chuck” in which they rightly lauded such “stout-hearted Democrats” for “defying” President Obama. I agree with both Schumer and the News but those pinning their hopes for the sanctions bill on Schumer’s intrepid stand may wind up disappointed. If Schumer is serious about really standing up to the president the bill may have a chance to pass and set up a dramatic confrontation with the president that could influence the outcome of the negotiations with Iran. But it’s also entirely possible that he is counting on the president’s veto threat and the opposition to the proposal from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Banking Committee chair Tim Johnson and other leading Democrats to save him from any real danger of a serious battle with Obama.

Let’s first state that Schumer’s willingness to at least speak up on the need for more Iran sanctions is a valuable contribution to the debate on the issue. He’s entirely right that a new bill with tougher measures would actually strengthen the president’s hand in negotiations with Iran. If the administration really wants to hold Tehran’s feet to the fire, the bill would, along with the existing sanctions and the considerable military and economic leverage the West holds over the Islamist regime, be more than enough to force them to give up their nuclear ambitions. The fact that the president is so angry about the prospect of putting more pressure on Iran during talks that Tehran’s envoys are already stalling is highly suspicious. The anxiety in the White House and the State Department about even raising the question of Iran’s missile programs, support for terror, and its demonizing of Israel raises the question that Washington’s intent may be to promote détente with Iran rather than to bring it line.

But our applause for Schumer’s stand needs to be tempered by the knowledge that his statements may be more for show than substance. So long as Reid and Johnson are backing Obama’s play on Iran, the odds are against getting a vote on the Menendez-Kirk bill. And if Obama is really determined to veto it, it is highly unlikely that there are 67 votes available for an override in the Senate (though there may well be a two-thirds majority for more sanctions in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives). Safe in the knowledge that the measure has no chance, all Schumer may be doing is a little grandstanding in order to shore up his reputation as a friend of Israel that was damaged by his support for Chuck Hagel last winter.

However, if Schumer were as determined as he would like us to believe on this issue, he could cause a great deal of trouble for the president. As the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Schumer could call in some markers from his colleagues and maybe even persuade Reid, who has strong ties to the pro-Israel community, to allow a vote that would force Obama to make good on his veto threat. Perhaps the president isn’t bluffing about the veto, but he would also be loath to defend the Iranians in this manner.

If Schumer does help put the president in the corner on Iran, he will have earned the praise he’s currently getting. But if not, his talk about on Iran will turn out to be just that. “Hanging tough” means more than saying something on Meet the Press.

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This Day in Health-Care History

Lest we forget: exactly four years ago today, Senate Democrats rammed through what would later be called ObamaCare, on a purely partisan vote, ignoring warnings it would be a BFD (big future disaster). On Thursday, December 24, 2009, the New York Times reported on the week:

The vote on Monday, in the dead of night, was 60 to 40. The vote on Tuesday, just after daybreak, was 60 to 39. And the vote on Wednesday afternoon, at a civil hour but after less-than-civil debate, was 60 to 39 again — an immutable tally that showed Democrats unwavering in the march to adopt a far-reaching overhaul of the health care system …

The health care legislation was approved Thursday morning, with the Senate divided on party lines — something that has not happened in modern times on so important a shift in domestic policy, or on major legislation of any kind, lawmakers and Congressional historians said. The Democrats flaunted their unity on Wednesday at a news conference with nearly their entire caucus in attendance.

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Lest we forget: exactly four years ago today, Senate Democrats rammed through what would later be called ObamaCare, on a purely partisan vote, ignoring warnings it would be a BFD (big future disaster). On Thursday, December 24, 2009, the New York Times reported on the week:

The vote on Monday, in the dead of night, was 60 to 40. The vote on Tuesday, just after daybreak, was 60 to 39. And the vote on Wednesday afternoon, at a civil hour but after less-than-civil debate, was 60 to 39 again — an immutable tally that showed Democrats unwavering in the march to adopt a far-reaching overhaul of the health care system …

The health care legislation was approved Thursday morning, with the Senate divided on party lines — something that has not happened in modern times on so important a shift in domestic policy, or on major legislation of any kind, lawmakers and Congressional historians said. The Democrats flaunted their unity on Wednesday at a news conference with nearly their entire caucus in attendance.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), 92 years old, had been pushed onto the Senate floor in a wheelchair, placing “no small burden on the frail nonagenarian” (unable even to deliver his customary Christmas address on the Senate floor); there was not a vote, nor a moment, to spare. The Times illustrated the action in the Senate “to reinvent the nation’s health care system” with three quotes from Democratic senators:

Hostility to the health insurance industry was a theme running through the Senate debate. Senator Sherrod Brown [D-Ohio], said insurance companies were often “just one step ahead of the sheriff.’’ Senator Dianne Feinstein [D-CA], said the industry “lacks a moral compass.’’ … Senator Sheldon Whitehouse [D-RI], said the business model of the health insurance industry deserved to die. “It deserves a stake through its cold and greedy heart,’’ Mr. Whitehouse said.

Shortly after 9 a.m., a pleased president praised the Senate and immediately left for his vacation in Hawaii. The bill had given him, he said, 95 percent of what he wanted. It had been only three and a half months since September 9, when the president had appeared before a joint session of Congress and a national TV audience to deliver an address that emphasized two things:

First, if you are among the hundreds of millions of Americans who already have health insurance through your job, or Medicare, or Medicaid, or the VA, nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have.  (Applause.)  Let me repeat this: Nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have.

Second, the president extolled Congress on his new insurance exchange, where he said people would be able to shop “at competitive prices,” with tax credits for those who couldn’t afford them. And best of all:

This exchange will take effect in four years, which will give us time to do it right.

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Kerry Misreads Palestinian Unrest

In recent weeks, Secretary of State John Kerry has taken to warning Israel that if it doesn’t give away more of its positions in the peace talks with the Palestinians, it will face a third intifada. Though it is unlikely that any Israeli concessions would be enough to convince Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas that he should risk everything by ending the conflict, Kerry’s threat is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though this may not be his intention, by speaking in this manner Kerry is sending a clear message to the Palestinians that any violence will be considered justified by Washington. The question is, do a string of recent events indicate that the Palestinians are listening to him?

Yesterday, Israelis celebrated the quick wits of a bus driver whose alert reaction saved the lives of his passengers after a bomb was discovered on the vehicle. The terrorist attack failed, but the prospect of a return to bus bombings—this was the first such attempt in over a year—was a reminder that Palestinian terror groups are poised to return to violence. But rather than this constituting an incentive for Israel to bend to Abbas’s demands, the ferment in the territories shows just how unlikely it is that the PA is strong enough to make the decision to make peace or to defend it against opponents.

While the mainstream international press continues to parrot Kerry’s line about the PA being a peace partner, the rumblings in the Palestinian street indicate, as journalist Khaled Abu Toameh reports, that Abbas’s Fatah Party wants no part of the talks:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may soon have to come up with a new plan to help Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas solve internal problems in ruling his Fatah faction.

The only plan that Kerry has thus far proposed is one that talks about future security arrangements between a Palestinian state and Israel. What Kerry and the State Department are probably unaware of is that Fatah, Israel’s “peace partner,” is in urgent need of a plan to rid it of its internal disputes. What the U.S. seems not to understand is that a weak, divided and discredited Fatah will never be able to sign any agreement with Israel. A series of events over the past few weeks have left many Palestinians wondering if Fatah will ever be able to recover and rehabilitate itself in the aftermath of its defeat by Hamas in the January 2006 parliamentary election. These events have also raised questions as to Abbas’ ability to rein in and control his own loyalists in Fatah. Abbas, it seems, has lost control not only over the Gaza Strip, but also his Fatah faction.

As Abu Toameh notes, the expulsion of a leading activist and member of the Palestinian parliament from Fatah illustrates the false premise at the heart of Kerry’s quest. If Abbas is not able to command the loyalty of his own faction, its difficult to imagine how he could ever sell peace to a Palestinian public that continues to view radical factions like Hamas and Islamic Jihad with favor.

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In recent weeks, Secretary of State John Kerry has taken to warning Israel that if it doesn’t give away more of its positions in the peace talks with the Palestinians, it will face a third intifada. Though it is unlikely that any Israeli concessions would be enough to convince Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas that he should risk everything by ending the conflict, Kerry’s threat is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though this may not be his intention, by speaking in this manner Kerry is sending a clear message to the Palestinians that any violence will be considered justified by Washington. The question is, do a string of recent events indicate that the Palestinians are listening to him?

Yesterday, Israelis celebrated the quick wits of a bus driver whose alert reaction saved the lives of his passengers after a bomb was discovered on the vehicle. The terrorist attack failed, but the prospect of a return to bus bombings—this was the first such attempt in over a year—was a reminder that Palestinian terror groups are poised to return to violence. But rather than this constituting an incentive for Israel to bend to Abbas’s demands, the ferment in the territories shows just how unlikely it is that the PA is strong enough to make the decision to make peace or to defend it against opponents.

While the mainstream international press continues to parrot Kerry’s line about the PA being a peace partner, the rumblings in the Palestinian street indicate, as journalist Khaled Abu Toameh reports, that Abbas’s Fatah Party wants no part of the talks:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may soon have to come up with a new plan to help Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas solve internal problems in ruling his Fatah faction.

The only plan that Kerry has thus far proposed is one that talks about future security arrangements between a Palestinian state and Israel. What Kerry and the State Department are probably unaware of is that Fatah, Israel’s “peace partner,” is in urgent need of a plan to rid it of its internal disputes. What the U.S. seems not to understand is that a weak, divided and discredited Fatah will never be able to sign any agreement with Israel. A series of events over the past few weeks have left many Palestinians wondering if Fatah will ever be able to recover and rehabilitate itself in the aftermath of its defeat by Hamas in the January 2006 parliamentary election. These events have also raised questions as to Abbas’ ability to rein in and control his own loyalists in Fatah. Abbas, it seems, has lost control not only over the Gaza Strip, but also his Fatah faction.

As Abu Toameh notes, the expulsion of a leading activist and member of the Palestinian parliament from Fatah illustrates the false premise at the heart of Kerry’s quest. If Abbas is not able to command the loyalty of his own faction, its difficult to imagine how he could ever sell peace to a Palestinian public that continues to view radical factions like Hamas and Islamic Jihad with favor.

The Fatah activist in question is Jamal Abu al Rub, who goes by the charming nickname of “Hitler” among fellow Palestinians. Abu al Rub apparently beat up Arafat ally Jibril Rajoub and paid for it with his Fatah membership card. But apparently many in Fatah, especially in the Jenin area, back “Hitler” and the blowback from the confrontation may not be over.

This development may be unrelated to the recent upsurge in violence in the West Bank against Israelis, rocket firings from Gaza, or the bus attack yesterday that was publicly applauded by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But added together they point to the fact that there is little appetite among Palestinians for any concessions on Abbas’s part that would make peace possible.

Despite Kerry’s focus on what Israel should be giving up in the talks, their success still hinges on Abbas’ giving up Palestinian demands for a “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees and the PA being willing to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Since Abbas has not indicated any willingness to do either of those things and has repeatedly refused to do the latter in principle, its hard to imagine the talks Kerry has sponsored succeeding.

The prospect of another intifada should rightly worry the United States as well as Israel, but if Kerry is really concerned about nipping it in the bud he is going about it in the wrong way. The only way to ensure that Palestinian violence won’t bubble over into another terrorist offensive in which Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad will compete is to make it clear to Abbas that such a turn of events would be more dangerous for his tenure than the peace he seems to fear so much.

Abbas is giving every indication that he is too weak to make peace, but he is not so weak that he can’t defend his rule against dissidents if it came to it. But instead of pushing him to take decisions that are bound to strengthen Hamas, this is the moment when Kerry should be sending a message to the Palestinians that if they resort to violence, all bets are off. Absent that, and with the U.S. acting as if they will blame Israel rather than Abbas for the all-but-certain failure of the peace initiative, Washington may be setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to an explosion that neither Kerry nor Abbas will be able to control.

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Globalization and Democracy Can Coexist

Jackson Diehl writes today of a nagging problem for the twin efforts of globalization and democratization: they seem to often work against each other. Specifically, the economic growth that stems from a globalized economy creates winners and losers–and neither seems particularly keen on establishing true democracy. It’s a problem Joshua Kurlantzick writes about in his most recent book Democracy in Retreat. The subtitle of the book mentions the “revolt of the middle class,” the subject of Diehl’s piece today.

Both Kurlantzick and Diehl put the focus of their frustration on the “winners” of global commerce: these emerging middle classes. In reality, though, the categorizations aren’t so clear-cut. Who, for example, qualify as the “losers” of global economic expansion? They certainly exist, but analysts often disagree on who merits inclusion in this category much as umpires differ over the precise contours of the strike zone. In Diehl’s column, the “losers” seem to be those left behind–people who didn’t necessarily lose anything at all, but merely didn’t win.

That’s one of the obstacles to making sweeping generalizations, but nonetheless there is enough consistency to declare a trend. Diehl makes a slightly different argument than Kurlantzick, since Diehl has the advantage of writing one more cycle of “uprisings” later than Kurlantzick. But the basic premise is twofold: an unspoken implication that the poor have more reason to rise up, as well as a defensive middle class unnerved by populism on behalf of the poor. Here’s how Kurlantzick describes it:

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Jackson Diehl writes today of a nagging problem for the twin efforts of globalization and democratization: they seem to often work against each other. Specifically, the economic growth that stems from a globalized economy creates winners and losers–and neither seems particularly keen on establishing true democracy. It’s a problem Joshua Kurlantzick writes about in his most recent book Democracy in Retreat. The subtitle of the book mentions the “revolt of the middle class,” the subject of Diehl’s piece today.

Both Kurlantzick and Diehl put the focus of their frustration on the “winners” of global commerce: these emerging middle classes. In reality, though, the categorizations aren’t so clear-cut. Who, for example, qualify as the “losers” of global economic expansion? They certainly exist, but analysts often disagree on who merits inclusion in this category much as umpires differ over the precise contours of the strike zone. In Diehl’s column, the “losers” seem to be those left behind–people who didn’t necessarily lose anything at all, but merely didn’t win.

That’s one of the obstacles to making sweeping generalizations, but nonetheless there is enough consistency to declare a trend. Diehl makes a slightly different argument than Kurlantzick, since Diehl has the advantage of writing one more cycle of “uprisings” later than Kurlantzick. But the basic premise is twofold: an unspoken implication that the poor have more reason to rise up, as well as a defensive middle class unnerved by populism on behalf of the poor. Here’s how Kurlantzick describes it:

Despite the fact that militaries could hardly be called agents of reform, middle classes in many developing nations, both in the Middle East and in other parts of the world, often continued to support the armed forces as potential antidotes to popular democracy–democracy that might empower the poor, the religious, and the less educated. In this way, Egyptian liberals’ concerns about the fruits of democracy were not unique. Overall, in fact, an analysis of military coups in developing nations over the past twenty years, conducted by my research associate Daniel Silverman and myself, found that in nearly 50 percent of the cases, drawn from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East, middle-class men and women either agitated in advance for the coup or, in polls or prominent media coverage after the coup, expressed their support for the army takeover.

Kurlantzick’s expression “the fruits of democracy” captures well the fear of being, not to put too fine a point on it, looted. Diehl, who uses the term “elite revolt” to characterize the latest round of uprisings, puts it similarly:

So why are they rebelling? Because globalization is not merely an economic story. It is accompanied by the spread of freer and more inclusive elections to dozens of countries where they were previously banned or rigged. That has enabled the rise of populists who cater to globalization’s losers and who promise to crush the old establishment and even out the rewards. In country after country, they’ve succeeded in monopolizing the political system. Hence, the elite revolt.

Diehl offers up Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as a cautionary tale. And while the original framing of the issue puts more onus on the well-to-do (with great power comes great responsibility, and all that), this seems to even things out a bit. It’s understandable that a new middle class would be opposed to empowering the next Hugo Chavez.

So all this seems to suggest that maybe states like China have it all figured out: maybe the combination of democratization and globalization is too powerful for the two events to take place simultaneously. But this argument is missing an ingredient, and it’s one Kurlantzick glances at but doesn’t dwell on: stability. That’s clearest when looking at Russia’s Putin-era backsliding on democracy. Nobody’s wealth is safe without political stability.

But this, to me, is ultimately an argument in favor of globalization and democratization–as long as the term “democratization” means more than just elections, and globalization means more than just money. In April 2012, I quoted the Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer discussing the report that perhaps a majority of Chinese millionaires prefer to live in the United States to their home country, and it’s worth re-quoting here:

And yeah, it’s about quality of life. Yeah, it’s about the environment. Yeah, it’s about opportunities for their kids. It’s also about no rule of law in China and worrying about corruption and the sanctity of their assets over the long term. Your assets are okay tomorrow. The United States, we’re over-litigious. China doesn’t have that problem. You don’t have to worry about lawyers in China. You have to worry about someone ripping off your stuff or being forced out of the country or not being heard from again.

In some very real ways, it doesn’t matter how rich China gets if those with all the money will only park it in New York City. The same goes for Russia, though proximity to Europe seems to predispose that money toward London’s banks. But both New York and London are in the West, and both are in democracies (at least until the European Union gets its way). Because even the messiness of democracy–true democracy, with free institutions and the rule of law–provides more long-term stability than the arbitrary governance of autocracy.

Bremmer predicated his quote by saying we have to watch what people do with their money, not rely on what they say. And his point was that the elites in authoritarian countries are trying to protect their assets from their own country’s government–the very government that has enriched them and which speaks in their name. The “elite” can revolt all they want to protect themselves, but even when they successfully grab the reins of power, without the rule of law they still end up looking for a way out.

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More Christmas Lies from Palestinians

It’s a Christmas tradition in Ramallah. Following the same pattern first established by his predecessor Yasir Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas uses his annual Christmas holiday message to claim that Jesus was a Palestinian and his group is following in his footsteps. But rather than a piece of harmless pandering to the West or a bizarre excess of holiday spirit, this ridiculous assertion tells us more about the Palestinians’ mindset and the prospects for peace than the optimism Secretary of State John Kerry has been slinging recently.

As the Times of Israel reports:

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas released a Christmas greeting Monday, calling Jesus a “Palestinian messenger” and implying that Israel persecutes Christians.

“As we Palestinians strive for our freedom two millennia later,” he wrote in a statement, “we do our best to follow his example. We work with hope, seeking justice, in order to achieve a lasting peace.”

This is a political version of replacement theology in which the Jews were viewed as having been superseded by Christians in their covenant with the Almighty. But this is not merely a matter of faith but an attempt to write the Jews out of their own history. Doing so isn’t just a swipe at the Netanyahu government but an attempt to depict the Palestinians as the true heirs to the Jewish nation that produced Jesus of Nazareth, and thus depict the six million Jews of Israel as colonial usurpers stealing the heritage of others. The use of this lie isn’t merely offensive, it also illustrates how deeply engrained the rejection of Israel’s legitimacy is in Palestinian culture.

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It’s a Christmas tradition in Ramallah. Following the same pattern first established by his predecessor Yasir Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas uses his annual Christmas holiday message to claim that Jesus was a Palestinian and his group is following in his footsteps. But rather than a piece of harmless pandering to the West or a bizarre excess of holiday spirit, this ridiculous assertion tells us more about the Palestinians’ mindset and the prospects for peace than the optimism Secretary of State John Kerry has been slinging recently.

As the Times of Israel reports:

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas released a Christmas greeting Monday, calling Jesus a “Palestinian messenger” and implying that Israel persecutes Christians.

“As we Palestinians strive for our freedom two millennia later,” he wrote in a statement, “we do our best to follow his example. We work with hope, seeking justice, in order to achieve a lasting peace.”

This is a political version of replacement theology in which the Jews were viewed as having been superseded by Christians in their covenant with the Almighty. But this is not merely a matter of faith but an attempt to write the Jews out of their own history. Doing so isn’t just a swipe at the Netanyahu government but an attempt to depict the Palestinians as the true heirs to the Jewish nation that produced Jesus of Nazareth, and thus depict the six million Jews of Israel as colonial usurpers stealing the heritage of others. The use of this lie isn’t merely offensive, it also illustrates how deeply engrained the rejection of Israel’s legitimacy is in Palestinian culture.

However one approaches the narrative about Christianity’s origins, there is no doubt that the historical Jesus was a Jew, not an Arab. The only point of transforming him into a Palestinian Arab is to hijack the history of biblical-era Judaism in order to burnish the myth that current-day Jews have no place in the land of Israel. That this is a transparent and gross falsehood has not prevented this assertion from being a staple of Palestinian propaganda.

Just as false is the other part of Abbas’s message:

Abbas took the occasion to decry Israel’s security policies, saying, “this Christmas Eve, our hearts and prayers will be with the millions who are being denied their right to worship in their homeland.”

“We are thinking of our people in Gaza, trapped under siege, and of those who are prevented from worshiping in Bethlehem,” he said. “Our hearts and prayers are with the people of Al Dbayeh Refugee Camp in Beirut, along with all of our Palestinian refugees — Christians and Muslims uprooted from their hometowns in 1948 and who, since that time, have suffered the vicissitudes of a forced exile.”

The persecution of Christians in the Arab and Muslim world is widespread and has become the subject of increasing concern on the part of Western Christians, such as Britain’s prince of Wales. But the Palestinians have attempted, with the complicity of local Christian authorities desperate to curry favor with the Muslim majority, to deflect responsibility for the way Islamists have marginalized or forced Christians to emigrate from the territories to Israel. Though Christians remain a small minority in Israel, they have full rights even if the Jewish majority is still uncomfortable with the display of Christian symbols, as the Knesset’s reluctance to display a Christmas tree illustrated.

But here again Abbas is playing the rejectionist card by alluding to the descendants of the 1948 refugees that he claims are being prevented from worshipping in “their homeland.” The point of bringing those refugees to Israel isn’t to worship but to attempt to reverse the verdict of history on the events of 1948, another sign that Abbas is too weak to sign a peace deal that would end the conflict, even if he continues to insist that he wants a state along the 1967 lines. Moreover, no one should be fooled into thinking that the Christian Arab minority among Palestinians are equal partners with the Sunni Muslim majority. To them they are nothing more than dhimmi–a protected but unequal minority. For all of the tension between Jews and Arabs, it is only in democratic Israel that Christians have complete religious freedom in the region. The video released by the PLO (that Abbas heads) in which a Christian figure, whether the pope or Jesus, travels the land witnessing supposed Israeli atrocities before smashing through Israel’s security fence is more fodder along these lines.

We can hope that one day Abbas or one of his successors will mean what they say about peace on earth during the Christmas season. We’ll know that they are serious when they stop pretending that Jesus was a Palestinian. Until then, it’s clear that for the Palestinians, Christmas is just another day on the calendar whose purpose is to delegitimize Israel and to deny Jewish history and rights.

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Rolling Our Eyes at Obama

President Obama is now in Hawaii–but before he departed Washington he gifted us a 62-minute press conference.

In the past, I might have been inclined to show point-by-point why many of Mr. Obama’s statements qualified as ludicrous, unfair, misleading or outright false–including the president claiming Syria and Afghanistan as foreign-policy successes; impugning the motives of those who want stronger sanctions against Iran; insisting that the basic structure of his health-care law is working; referring to the sequester cuts his administration originally proposed as being “damaging” and which “created headwinds for our economy”; and declaring that 2014 can be a “breakthrough year for America.”

But in the wake of what Mr. Obama said on Friday, my reaction was more to tune him out, to dismiss him as an increasingly small and marginalized figure, as a man who is playing a game the rest of us are opting out of.

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President Obama is now in Hawaii–but before he departed Washington he gifted us a 62-minute press conference.

In the past, I might have been inclined to show point-by-point why many of Mr. Obama’s statements qualified as ludicrous, unfair, misleading or outright false–including the president claiming Syria and Afghanistan as foreign-policy successes; impugning the motives of those who want stronger sanctions against Iran; insisting that the basic structure of his health-care law is working; referring to the sequester cuts his administration originally proposed as being “damaging” and which “created headwinds for our economy”; and declaring that 2014 can be a “breakthrough year for America.”

But in the wake of what Mr. Obama said on Friday, my reaction was more to tune him out, to dismiss him as an increasingly small and marginalized figure, as a man who is playing a game the rest of us are opting out of.

Think back to the guy in high school–let’s call him Barry–who, when he first meets people, sells himself as something special. He’s gifted with words and makes fairly exorbitant claims about what we can expect of him. And many of his classmates believe him. But over time they observe that he falls consistently short in every arena. He’s academically mediocre, not outstanding; he finishes in the bottom half of the track meets we’re told he’ll excel in; and while he’s in the school play, it’s as a secondary figure. 

Here’s the thing, though: He never stops talking. He’s filled with excuses. He’s constantly reweaving events to make himself look good. He keeps making promises, lovely and extravagant promises, but they’re devalued and emptied of meaning. Barry is just being Barry. Don’t take him seriously. He’s just a talker.

It strikes me that more and more Americans are now viewing the president in a similar fashion. They’ve seen the Obama act for five long years, and it’s become tiresome. We’re on to the verbal tricks, the stale formulations, the endless straw men and unmatched sense of moral superiority. We’ve figured out that the reality has never come close to meeting the expectations and promises. And so words that had a magical effect before now elicit a roll of the eyes. Barry is just being Barry. Don’t take him seriously. He’s just a talker.

For many Americans, that’s where Barack Obama finds himself at the end of his fifth year in office. Can he recover?

The guy in high school never did.

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Haaretz’s Holocaust Revisionism

A new level of vileness has been reached in the pages of Haaretz. It has already published work extremely critical of the State of Israel–even running columnists that support boycotting the state. But regardless of one’s opinions on the Palestinian issue, the paper has now shown that it exists in a world entirely divorced from any Jewish consensus, and cannot claim the title of loyal opposition. It has crossed all prior bounds of decency and published a criticism of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, calling it a “myth,” and accusing its heroes of being responsible for the ultimate liquidation of the Ghetto. Despite disagreements on diplomatic, territorial, and religious issues, the memory of the Holocaust–its heroes and victims–had been the great unifying porch in post-War Jewish consciousness. Now the Holocaust is fair game too.

The article’s argument is that maybe if the fighters had not been so uppity, if they had not made a fuss–then the Nazis, who had already murdered 500,000 Jews of Warsaw, might have let the remaining 50,000 live. Maybe! It is not a new argument. Rather, the author amazingly resurrects and endorses the arguments of the Judernat, the Jewish collaboration government of the Ghetto. With every new deportation, they urged restrain with increasing urgency–maybe they will let the rest of us live, and if you fight, all the past deportations would be a sacrifice in vain.

There can be no more terrible case of “blaming the victim” than laying any responsibility for the liquidation of the Ghetto at the feet of the fighters.

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A new level of vileness has been reached in the pages of Haaretz. It has already published work extremely critical of the State of Israel–even running columnists that support boycotting the state. But regardless of one’s opinions on the Palestinian issue, the paper has now shown that it exists in a world entirely divorced from any Jewish consensus, and cannot claim the title of loyal opposition. It has crossed all prior bounds of decency and published a criticism of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, calling it a “myth,” and accusing its heroes of being responsible for the ultimate liquidation of the Ghetto. Despite disagreements on diplomatic, territorial, and religious issues, the memory of the Holocaust–its heroes and victims–had been the great unifying porch in post-War Jewish consciousness. Now the Holocaust is fair game too.

The article’s argument is that maybe if the fighters had not been so uppity, if they had not made a fuss–then the Nazis, who had already murdered 500,000 Jews of Warsaw, might have let the remaining 50,000 live. Maybe! It is not a new argument. Rather, the author amazingly resurrects and endorses the arguments of the Judernat, the Jewish collaboration government of the Ghetto. With every new deportation, they urged restrain with increasing urgency–maybe they will let the rest of us live, and if you fight, all the past deportations would be a sacrifice in vain.

There can be no more terrible case of “blaming the victim” than laying any responsibility for the liquidation of the Ghetto at the feet of the fighters.

It is true, the Jewish “communal leadership”–and the rabbis–opposed the uprising. That is what made it brave. The Judenrat had no right to decide if residents of the Ghetto died in gas chambers or fighting for their freedom.

Of course, Haaretz wants to be “edgy,” “iconoclastic,” and debunk cherished myths. But despite the article’s headline–“The Warsaw Ghetto Myth”– it reveals no myths at all, only a lack of precision where we always knew it existed. It claims that it turns out that not many people participated in the uprising–a well-known fact. Then it attempts to introduce confusion by saying the precise figures are “murky,” and endorses the low-ball estimates based on the recollections of one person. Playing such counting games is vile. No one knows the number of participants, just as no one knows the number of Holocaust victims. And “revising” such vague numbers downward is now the standard canard of Holocaust deniers.

Again, the small numbers do not “debunk” any myths–they reinforce them. This was a small group of young people who bravely risked capture and death by slow torture, in contradiction with the collaborationist leadership that had thus far been wrong about everything.

Ultimately, the article’s target is not really the Holocaust. The author objects to the glorification of the glorified by the Zionist movement in the early years of the state. Perhaps the fighters should have awaited deportation and seen themselves as “sacrifices for peace,” to use the buzzword of the Second Intifada.

No doubt this is why Haaretz has, somewhat oddly for a newspaper, chosen to revisit the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The newspaper has long tried to persuade Jews in Israel that they need no longer fight–they can trust someone to save them. John Kerry is coming to Jerusalem next month with just such a pitch. In order to advance their political agenda, the newspaper does not stop at besmirching one of the proudest pages of our history, nor at aligning themselves with the most shameful, the Judenrat.

The sanctified memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is not based on its military significance, its size–or its conformity to the Zionist ethos. Rather, it is the considered, consensus judgment of Jewish history that the fighters were right.

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What Khodorkovsky Knows About Freedom

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, until last week Russia’s most famous political prisoner, gave an interview to a group of Russian-speaking journalists in Berlin over the weekend that showed both why he was such a threat to Vladimir Putin and why he is no longer such a threat. The New York Times has a translation of the interview, and it’s notable for both his clear-eyed understanding of the politics of freedom as well as his personal modesty inflected with a sense of defeat.

The most obvious reason Khodorkovsky was a threat, of course, was money. He was an oligarch in the most important industry–oil–and therefore was in position to test Putin’s autocratic tendencies. Khodorkovsky was emblematic of virtually every aspect of the new Russia: the concentration of wealth thanks to what economist Marshall Goldman has called the “piratization of Russia” after the fall of Communism, the bare-knuckle business world of the Yeltsin years, and the strongman politics of Putin’s reassertion of state power and control.

When Khodorkovsky challenged Putin in the political sphere–virtually unavoidable for an oilman in the era of pipeline politics–Putin made him pay the only way an unreformed KGB thug knows how: he stole everything of Khodorkovsky’s and locked him up on trumped-up convictions after a show trial. Now that Khodorkovsky has been freed as part of Putin’s pre-Olympics public-relations campaign, will Khodorkovsky–once considered the best hope for the opposition, and a far more appealing candidate than the nationalist Aleksei Navalny–rejoin the political sphere? Probably not:

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Mikhail Khodorkovsky, until last week Russia’s most famous political prisoner, gave an interview to a group of Russian-speaking journalists in Berlin over the weekend that showed both why he was such a threat to Vladimir Putin and why he is no longer such a threat. The New York Times has a translation of the interview, and it’s notable for both his clear-eyed understanding of the politics of freedom as well as his personal modesty inflected with a sense of defeat.

The most obvious reason Khodorkovsky was a threat, of course, was money. He was an oligarch in the most important industry–oil–and therefore was in position to test Putin’s autocratic tendencies. Khodorkovsky was emblematic of virtually every aspect of the new Russia: the concentration of wealth thanks to what economist Marshall Goldman has called the “piratization of Russia” after the fall of Communism, the bare-knuckle business world of the Yeltsin years, and the strongman politics of Putin’s reassertion of state power and control.

When Khodorkovsky challenged Putin in the political sphere–virtually unavoidable for an oilman in the era of pipeline politics–Putin made him pay the only way an unreformed KGB thug knows how: he stole everything of Khodorkovsky’s and locked him up on trumped-up convictions after a show trial. Now that Khodorkovsky has been freed as part of Putin’s pre-Olympics public-relations campaign, will Khodorkovsky–once considered the best hope for the opposition, and a far more appealing candidate than the nationalist Aleksei Navalny–rejoin the political sphere? Probably not:

Q: Are you going to be involved in politics?

A: I am not going to be involved in politics as a fight for power. But if we are talking about the fight for liberation of political prisoners, not just the Yukos ones … how can I behave otherwise? I don’t think that even our power would expect me not to do it. Not to do or say anything.

But in the larger sense I have a position which I don’t think was the reason for my arrest, but nevertheless I declared it back in 2002-3. I think the Russian problem is not just the president as a person, the problem is that our citizens in the large majority don’t understand that their fate, they have to be responsible for it themselves. They are so happy to delegate it to, say, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and then they will entrust it to somebody else, and I think that for such a big country as Russia this is the path to a dead end. Which, in a particular fashion, is where we are now.

You have to explain, “Hey, guys, if you want to live in a democratic country, you have to change the system.” I always took the stand that Russia has to be not only really democratic, but a parliamentary system, or — for the start — a parliamentary-presidential situation.

And the problem is not just that the present government doesn’t like this, the current society doesn’t like it. And you have to persuade it.

Putin can breathe a sigh of relief, one supposes, that he will not be opposed by Khodorkovsky, though it’s not as though Khodorkovsky has many options. For now, he probably can’t return to Russia at all, let alone regain the financial clout necessary to have a singular voice in Putin’s Russia. It’s no surprise that Putin won this battle; the deck was, and remains, stacked against his opponents. Khodorkovsky has been left without much of a venue or platform for political activism, even if he’s become an icon of those hoping for a freer Russia.

At the same time, the Russian opposition would do well to take Khodorkovsky’s advice. He understands that Putin is the main obstacle to democracy, but not the only obstacle. He elaborates more on this point later in the interview, and offers a glimpse of just how potent an opposition figure he could be:

Q: Does the opposition in Russia have any future, and who is the main person there?

A: I don’t agree with the very paradigm of the juxtaposition of Putin versus an opposition leader. And the most important person in the opposition, I don’t agree with this paradigm. If you have a most important person in the opposition, as a result you will get another Putin. Maybe not us but our children. Vladimir Vladimirovich is a healthy man. So it could go on for a long time.

I think the opposition will be real when the society will acquire a need for self-governance, to take its fate in its own hands. And there will not be the very main person to whom we entrust our future. But there will be different structures, parties, deputies and so on — those people whom we as citizens and voters will appoint. Or control. They will represent our interests, and when they will stop representing our interests, we will remove them. But not one person.

At present, the perspective of opposition is not very strong, particularly because this request in the society is articulated pretty weakly, although much more strongly than it was 10 years ago.

There is a difference between freedom and self-government. They are intertwined, but they are not the same thing. Freedom is a noble goal, and in 2013 it is long overdue to those who want it. True freedom must be political, however, and not just personal. Without political freedom, there is no way to safeguard any other kind of freedom.

That’s been the lesson of Putin’s Russia. Putin’s grand bargain with the Russian people was that they could have their American movies, their Italian operas, their French wine, their German cars–they just had to stay away from Russian politics. But of course businessmen–like Khodorkovsky–as well as artists, teachers, musicians, and the like ended up in prison. Journalists too, though too often they were simply eliminated.

Khodorkovsky’s advice for Russians who truly want to be free is to replace the system, not just replace Putin. It’s easier said than done, of course. But he is also probably correct that those who invest their hopes in one person are bound for disappointment. And perhaps some jail time.

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Why Do Human Rights Groups Punish Access?

Human-rights groups are an important component of civil society, even if the best-known groups—Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, Human Rights First, and various United Nations offshoots—corrupt their mission by conflating human rights with politics.

As corrosive a trend among human-rights organizations is their punishment of access. Simply put, the more open a society is to its critics, and the more access it grants outside observers, however tendentious they might be, the more human-rights organizations condemn them relative to societies which engage in large-scale abuse but slam the door to outside observers.

Much has been written about the disproportionate opprobrium reserved for Israel. Back in 2011, Alana Goodman observed:

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Human-rights groups are an important component of civil society, even if the best-known groups—Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, Human Rights First, and various United Nations offshoots—corrupt their mission by conflating human rights with politics.

As corrosive a trend among human-rights organizations is their punishment of access. Simply put, the more open a society is to its critics, and the more access it grants outside observers, however tendentious they might be, the more human-rights organizations condemn them relative to societies which engage in large-scale abuse but slam the door to outside observers.

Much has been written about the disproportionate opprobrium reserved for Israel. Back in 2011, Alana Goodman observed:

In 2010, HRW published 51 documents on “Israel and the Occupied Territories,” more than on any other country in the Middle East. Compare that to the organization’s research on some of the most notorious human rights abusers — it published only 44 documents on Iran, 34 on Egypt, and 33 on Saudi Arabia.

Not much has changed. So far in 2013, HRW has issued 14 press releases condemning Israel for various policies or abuses, and six press releases condemning the Palestinian Authority or Hamas leadership in Gaza. All five commentaries HRW published bashed Israel, or called on other countries to take a harsher line toward the Jewish state.

Compare that with Jordan (nine press releases, and four commentaries, three of which called for more acceptance of Syrian refugees); Lebanon (nine press releases and two commentaries, both of which focused on Syrian refugees); or Qatar (two press releases and five commentaries). True, there was more focus on Egypt and Syria this past year, but comparing countries with coups and civil wars to the region’s only democracy underscores the point. So too does the fact that criticism of Saudi Arabia has increased as that kingdom has granted human-rights groups more access.

Israel is not the only country penalized by the access it grants outsiders. King Muhammad VI has steadily liberalized Morocco since taking the throne in 1999 after the death of his father, King Hassan II. Since that time, HRW has issued four reports critical of Algerian human-rights abuses (and a fifth critical of Algerian cooperation with the United States), while it has issued three times that number criticizing Morocco. Make no mistake: Algeria has a far worse human-rights record, with a downward trajectory while Morocco has acknowledged past abuses and worked—quite successfully in most cases—to overcome them.

Nor is it just the Middle East where this pattern exists. In the past five years, HRW has issued four reports about Colombia where human rights have steadily improved, but only two about Venezuela, where Venezuela’s socialist leaders have pushed human rights into the gutter. Likewise, over the past five years, HRW has issued one report about Belarus but five about Georgia.

The U.S. State Department is guilty of the same pattern when it writes its annual human-rights reports. Here, there is no better example than the discrepancy in how the State Department treats Morocco, a loyal and increasingly progressive U.S. ally, and the Polisario Front, an autocratic Cold War throwback which imprisons not only Sahrawi tribal members in refugee camps in the Western province of Tindouf, but also Mauritanians and Algerians it has captured in order to swell refugee numbers. The Algerian government and Polisario both have a policy of refusing to allow residents to return home to Morocco, which has welcomed anyone who wants to come (there are very limited family visits, but usually Polisario holds family members hostage to ensure that men and women return to their spouses and children rather than remain in Morocco). While historically, the U.S. Embassy in Rabat handled the Polisario camps, in recent years the U.S. Embassy in Algiers has taken over the responsibility. Herein lays the problem: The U.S. Embassy in Algiers is either unable to visit the camps, or unwilling to antagonize the Algerian government with which it must work for fear of making an issue of the camps. The end result is that the State Department annual human-rights report is hypercritical of Morocco, effectively punishing it for its openness, while giving the Polisario Front effectively a clean pass by omission.

That the lesson governments might take from the practices of both human-rights organizations and the State Department is that the way to a clean bill of health is to restrict access is unfortunate. Human-rights officials might enjoy hanging out more in Casablanca, Rabat, Tel Aviv, Tbilisi, and Bogota rather than spending their time being harassed by police and security services in Minsk, Gaza, Caracas, Algiers or Tindouf, but they are doing themselves and their organizations a disservice by taking the easy way out. Fortunately, countries like Israel, Morocco, Colombia, and Georgia seem committed to doing the right thing regardless of how their critics treat them. Still, that the pattern of punishing access exists is undeniable and should provide pause for the human-rights organizations, for the existence of such a pattern corrupts the end result and gives countries reason to dismiss all reporting as arbitrary and not based on set standards.

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When Democrats Fight About ObamaCare

Today was supposed to be a red-letter day for ObamaCare supporters. December 23 was the deadline for Americans to enroll in the Affordable Care Act so as to be covered by the start of 2014. While the White House has attempted to spin the uptick in enrollment in December as a victory, the disastrous rollout of the scheme as well as the need to postpone enforcement of a number of the mandates the law created an enormous shortfall in the number of Americans signing up for the plan. That’s a big problem for the administration, but one it hopes it can overcome eventually by better marketing (cue the “pajama boy”) to young and healthy consumers who will be exploited in order to fund the program’s benefits to the sick and the poor. But a real warning sign of the political trouble ObamaCare has created for Democrats is being illustrated in deep-blue Maryland.

As Politico reports, problems at the state health exchange created there have been an embarrassment for officials in Annapolis as well as an indication of the general dysfunction of the new health-care rules nationally. But instead of it just being a club for Republicans to beat the president’s party with, it has become an issue for Democrats too. Attorney General Doug Gansler is using the chaos at the Maryland exchange as a campaign issue against Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown in their primary matchup for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Brown is the chair of the state panel on ObamaCare implementation whose efforts Gansler has likened to a Saturday Night Live skit.

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Today was supposed to be a red-letter day for ObamaCare supporters. December 23 was the deadline for Americans to enroll in the Affordable Care Act so as to be covered by the start of 2014. While the White House has attempted to spin the uptick in enrollment in December as a victory, the disastrous rollout of the scheme as well as the need to postpone enforcement of a number of the mandates the law created an enormous shortfall in the number of Americans signing up for the plan. That’s a big problem for the administration, but one it hopes it can overcome eventually by better marketing (cue the “pajama boy”) to young and healthy consumers who will be exploited in order to fund the program’s benefits to the sick and the poor. But a real warning sign of the political trouble ObamaCare has created for Democrats is being illustrated in deep-blue Maryland.

As Politico reports, problems at the state health exchange created there have been an embarrassment for officials in Annapolis as well as an indication of the general dysfunction of the new health-care rules nationally. But instead of it just being a club for Republicans to beat the president’s party with, it has become an issue for Democrats too. Attorney General Doug Gansler is using the chaos at the Maryland exchange as a campaign issue against Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown in their primary matchup for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Brown is the chair of the state panel on ObamaCare implementation whose efforts Gansler has likened to a Saturday Night Live skit.

Observers could dismiss Gansler’s attack as the desperate ploy of a faltering candidate hoping to cripple the frontrunner. But the fact that ObamaCare failures have become a source of friction between Democrats is significant. So long as the president and his cheerleaders in the media could dismiss the focus on the problems and broken promises connected to the legislation, they could hope to ride out the storm and eventually reap the political benefits of the program’s delivery of benefits to the poor. But if the ObamaCare fiasco becomes a talking point for Democratic primary candidates, even if they support the bill in principle, a critical point has been reached.

Gansler was once thought to be the favorite to succeed Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley next year. But the state attorney general was humiliated by the release of a photo showing that he was present at a high school beach party where drinking may have occurred as well as by allegations of misuse of his state trooper detail. With Gansler dropping, Brown has received endorsements from most of his party’s power brokers and is now the likely successor to O’Malley. But the ACA mess is a liability for him:

After vowing to make deep-blue Maryland an ACA success story, Brown – and O’Malley – watched with dismay as the website for the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange floundered, allowing fewer than 4,000 Marylanders to enroll in insurance plans by the end of November. The executive director of the state exchange resigned at the start of December.

It’s not clear that the ObamaCare mess will hurt Brown enough to affect the primary scheduled in June. But the Brown campaign’s response to Gansler’s attacks seems to be straight out of the unsuccessful playbook employed by the White House in recent months against Republicans. Merely hoping that everything will be cleared up in time to save his political bacon is hardly a stirring example of Brown’s leadership or of the prospects that ObamaCare will eventually succeed there, or in any other state.

But the main point to be gleaned from this race is that if ObamaCare has become a point of contention between Democrats, then it’s all but inevitable that it will be a potent issue for Republicans next fall. The health-care bill has never had the support of most Americans and polls show the number of those disapproving of it continues to grow.

The ranks of those citizens who stand to lose coverage or have their health-care costs increase as a result of it are also growing. That creates a large constituency of critics that include many Democrats. That means Gansler won’t be the only Democrat seeking to make political hay out of these problems–and that, in turn, means big trouble in 2014 for the president and his party.

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