With only hours to go before a congressional standoff triggers a government shutdown, the mainstream media is virtually unanimous in allocating the blame for this mess: it’s the Republicans’ fault. By choosing to demand that the price of a continuing resolution to fund the government is a delay of the implementation of ObamaCare, the GOP caucus in the House of Representatives has set in motion a series of events that, barring a last-minute compromise, will lead to a shutdown. Count me among those conservatives who believe this is a tactic with little chance of success. But that doesn’t mean the narrative that blames the GOP for all the bad things that will result from this dispute is true. Senator Ted Cruz and the rest of those who have led the rush to this precipice can be labeled as intransigent. They refuse to consider any option that will allow the president’s signature health-care legislation to be implemented. But they aren’t the only ones who are digging in their heels and refusing to negotiate. Indeed, not only are Democrats behaving just as unreasonably as their foes, they have been working just as hard as Cruz to get us to this point.
The fallacy at the heart of the conventional wisdom about today’s dilemma is that the Democrats are the adults in the room who are working to preserve the government while Cruz and the Republicans are having a tantrum that may well damage the economy as well as cause suffering to those who depend on governmental largesse. But as Senator Chuck Schumer admitted on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program today, the Democrats are simply refusing to negotiate with Republicans. That’s also been the consistent stand of President Obama, who signaled again over the weekend that he would veto any spending bill that defunded or even delayed ObamaCare. Republicans can be faulted for acting as if they can dictate policy while Democrats still control the Senate and the White House. But it is time for those who have been dumping on conservatives to admit that it is just as unrealistic for the president and his party to behave as if the Republicans don’t control the House, where all spending bills originate.
Far from seeking to avoid a confrontation, the president and his followers have been seeking this day for years because they believe a shutdown will work to their political advantage. There is no guarantee that if the president had actively sought a compromise, a reasonable accommodation could have been found. But we do know that the president has never tried that route. What’s more, he has done virtually everything in his power to goad Republicans into a confrontation that would shut down the government while denouncing them for doing so. His position in which there can be no compromise on the rollout of the fiscal disaster that is ObamaCare is no less fanatical and just as much rooted in ideology as that of Cruz.
Democrats can argue with some justice that the president’s reelection was based in part on his desire to preserve ObamaCare. But so long as he lacks a majority in both houses of Congress, the issue is not completely settled. Given that he has begun to postpone some elements of the program, it is not unreasonable that Republicans would seek more delay of a vast expansion of government power that may make health care less affordable despite the official title of the bill. Having passed it via a partisan vote after a ruthlessly cynical legislative process that did not correct its obvious flaws and unwieldy nature, Democrats are determined to carry ObamaCare through to implementation without ever listening to the other side. This may turn out to be good politics, but it is neither reasonable nor good policy.
There has been a good deal of criticism about Cruz’s tactics and the fact that he and other hardliners on the issue don’t appear to have a strategy to counter the Democrats’ intransigence. Whether or not it is fair, it is probably a fact that more Americans will blame the GOP than the Democrats for a shutdown. That’s why President Obama has been daring Republicans to do just that ever since the summer of 2011 when the first of a series of battles over the budget and the debt ceiling was fought.
But though Republicans might have been wise not to accept that dare, there should be no question about the fact that the president and his backers are just as responsible for the results of this brinksmanship as anyone in the GOP caucus. Had the president been willing to bend a bit on ObamaCare he would have enabled House Speaker John Boehner to come up with a deal that a majority of Republicans might have been able to live with. That he wouldn’t do so is the product not only of clever political strategy but his ideological inflexibility. Cruz’s belief that ObamaCare must be stopped at all costs has brought us to the brink today. But the same can be said of the president’s unwillingness to allow a delay in a job-killing program that is still opposed by the majority of the American public. He will stop at nothing to see it implemented. Democrats also won’t negotiate today because they fear it will set a precedent that will force them to compromise on other issues in the future. That may be clever politics but it should not be confused with good government.
We can hope that sanity will prevail in Washington today and that somehow a shutdown will be averted. But if it isn’t, Democrats will be every bit as responsible for that outcome as Republicans.
Intransigent Democrats and the Shutdown
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The West's principle geostrategic adversary.
The American public and their president are focused on the accelerating nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, and with good reason. Yet while the United States has turned its attention to one urgent strategic challenge, it has taken its eye off another: Russia.
The outside world is only just beginning to get a full understanding of the scale of Moscow’s abuses in the European territory it carved off Ukraine’s southern coast in 2014. According to a report conducted by the United Nations, Russian police, paramilitaries, and the FSB are implicated in grave human-rights abuses and terrorizing the population of Crimea. “The abuses included the extrajudicial killing of at least one pro-Ukrainian activist, the panel found, and while dozens of people abducted from 2014 to 2016 have been released, at least 10 are still missing,” the New York Times reported.
The report detailed how the law in this closed peninsula is arbitrarily applied. It noted the extent to which Russian citizenship imposed on the Crimean people has been used as a weapon, forced on some who did not seek it or denied others, along with rights to state-provided services and enfranchisement. Finally, the report indicated how ethnic and religious discrimination on the peninsula has exploded since 2014.
As is their centuries-old wont, Russian officials are allegedly repressing the peninsula’s Tartar minority, including its political representatives. Russia is also de-registering Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations as officially sanctioned religious groups. A separate report from the human rights organization Agora has confirmed these disturbing revelations and further alleged that the FSB has transformed Crimea into a total surveillance state. Individuals in Russia’s grasp are tracked, and residents are forced to submit fingerprint, DNA, and voice-recording samples to the government.
Russia is transforming Crimea into a Black Sea version of Kaliningrad. In that Baltic enclave, a vast, state-supported criminal enterprise specializes in trafficking drugs, people, and weapons in and out of Europe, which is to say nothing of its status as a forward positioning post for Russian troops and heavy weaponry.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine’s east, a Russian-sponsored “frozen conflict” continues to rage. Since April 2014, more than 34,000 conflict-related casualties have been reported. More than 10,000 have died. Barack Obama vetoed a bill to provide non-defensive weaponry to Ukraine in 2015, but the Republican-led legislature has declined to similarly test Trump’s commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty. Nevertheless, America’s diplomatic and advisory-level military commitments to supporting Ukraine’s side of the contact line in the Donbas region ensure that the U.S. will be drawn further into the fighting in that region if it flares, as it does at Moscow’s fancy.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, a post-civil war Syria is beginning to take shape, but it is one dominated by great powers and not the hollowed out regime in Damascus. On Monday, the United States accused Russian forces of conducting airstrikes in Deir al-Zour province in eastern Syria. The accusation is a revealing one, seeing as Moscow effectively divided Syria into east and west zones of control marked by the Euphrates River following a June clash between U.S. and Syrian air assets. If the U.S. is prepared to accept Russia’s de facto bifurcation of Syria, Russia—and its Iranian allies—are not. “Iran, a strong backer of the Syrian government, needs Deir al-Zour to secure a land corridor from Tehran to its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah,” the Washington Post noted. There’s no room for the United States or the West in Syria in this post-conflict formulation.
The Russo-Iranian axis developed into a frustrating counterbalance to American power in the Middle East in the Obama era, and the Trump administration has failed in its early attempts to destabilize it. Today, Iran and Russia enjoy increased agility in Syria and the ability to deny America and its allies the freedom to act at their will. Alienated Sunni populations see the U.S. as complicit in the rise of Russia and Iran in their backyards. An ominous analysis conducted by Jennifer Cafarella and Fred and Kimberly Kagan warns that Russian and Iranian-linked Shiite political forces may be able to replace Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi with a more pro-Iranian figure in 2018, and the U.S. may lose all access to Iraq as a staging ground. The prospect of being forced out of both Iraq and Syria amid a growing Iranian, Russian, and potent Islamist terror threat looms large, and that could prove a decisive disadvantage if tensions between Iran and the United States take on a military dimension.
The fatal flaw in Obama’s strategic vision was the idea that the United States had the luxury of pivoting in one direction or the other. The hegemon is omnidirectional by necessity. While Northeast Asia has taken precedence, Eastern Europe and the Middle East are metastasizing. The United States has a Russia problem that it would rather ignore. Not only does this president have a bizarre soft spot for the autocrat in the Kremlin, he also shares his predecessor’s reluctance to engage in the strategic necessity of imposing costs on Russia as it pursues a newly extroverted foreign policy. That might prove a fatal conceit.
A disturbing claim.
Melissa Landa was, until recently, a clinical professor of education in the University of Maryland’s College of Education. She had been there for ten years, winning awards for her teaching and research, for the latter this very year.
But as of June 8, she was out on her ear. Landa believes that she was fired because she fights anti-Israel activism in academia. She is president of the Oberlin College chapter of Alumni for Campus Fairness and a member of both Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, for whom she has written against the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, and the Academic Engagement Network. I have discussed the important work of both organizations here.
We only have Landa’s word for it so far. But she tells the Algemeiner that the associate chair of her department, John O’Flahavan, began to sour on her when she became involved with the situation at Oberlin, including the anti-Semitic Facebook posts of Oberlin professor Joy Karega. According to Landa, O’Flahavan “discouraged my participation and defended Joy Karega’s freedom of speech, and was critical of my involvement in [the Oberlin chapter of the anti-BDS group Alums for Campus Fairness].” Department Chair Francine Hultgren also allegedly criticized Landa for being in Israel over Passover, a trip which required her to miss classes. The trip, Landa asserted, was approved by Hultgren “weeks in advance,” arrangements were made to cover the missed classes, and yet Hultgren accused Landa of “compromising [her] professional responsibilities by being away for such a long period of time.”
The Diamondback, the University of Maryland’s student newspaper, reported that Landa was sufficiently exercised over what she regards as the shabby treatment O’Flahavan and Hultgren subjected her to—she was removed from courses she had been teaching—that she filed a formal grievance against them. A faculty board found against Landa but also noted that “underlying interpersonal issues between [Landa] and [O’Flahavan] may have . . . factored into the staffing decision.” Moreover, the board wrote, “In the interest of the program [we hope] that a professional path for Dr. Landa can be found that harmonizes her teaching and scholarly interests with the needs of the Department.”
But three days after the board decision, in spite of a university policy against retaliation, Landa was told her contract would not be renewed. The University of Maryland’s Title IX office is now looking into whether the nonrenewal violated that policy or “was based on religious, political or national origin discrimination.”
The timing of Landa’s problems with her department, coinciding with her increasing visibility as an anti-BDS activist, is suspicious. So is the abrupt dismissal of an award-winning professor, who was scheduled to teach in the fall, just after that professor had filed a grievance against her department chair and associate chair. The main evidence that Landa was fired because of her stance on Israel in the academy so far remains Landa’s own testimony, and that isn’t enough. A thorough investigation is warranted. But thus far, Landa’s story has been covered by, apart from the student newspaper, only by Jewish or conservative outlets. It’s time people started paying attention.
The definition of sanity.
President Donald Trump’s address to the UN last week received considerable attention for what he actually said. No less interesting, however, is what he didn’t say. The speech contained zero mention of the Palestinians, zero mention of their conflict with Israel, and zero mention of the peace process Trump has been trying to revive.
This omission isn’t unprecedented, but it is unusual; most U.S. presidents have included the Israeli-Palestinian issue in their annual UN addresses. And it seems especially surprising for a president who has repeatedly declared Israeli-Palestinian peace to be one of his major foreign policy goals.
Yet the omission is perfectly consistent with Trump’s approach to the peace process to date, which has differed markedly from that of all his predecessors in one crucial regard: He appears to be trying to apply serious pressure to the Palestinians rather than only to Israel.
Take, for instance, his administration’s consistent refusal to say that the goal of the peace process is a two-state solution. Since efforts to achieve a two-state solution have repeatedly failed for almost 25 years now, it makes obvious sense for anyone who’s serious about trying to solve the conflict to at least consider whether this is really the most workable option. But even if, as seems likely, the administration actually does believe in the two-state solution, refusing to publicly commit to it serves an important purpose.
That’s because insisting that the end goal be a Palestinian state is a major concession to the Palestinians—something that has unfortunately been forgotten over the last quarter century. After all, throughout Israel’s first 45 years of existence, there was almost wall-to-wall consensus among Israelis that a Palestinian state would endanger their country. Even the 1993 Oslo Accord included no mention of Palestinian statehood, and the man who signed it, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, asserted in his final address to the Knesset in 1995 that he envisioned a “Palestinian entity . . . which is less than a state.”
Yet to date, this significant concession to the Palestinians has never been accompanied by a corresponding Palestinian concession to Israel. Though the Palestinians insist on a Palestinian nation-state, they still refuse to accept a Jewish nation-state alongside it. Instead, they demand that millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees be allowed to relocate to Israel, turning it into a binational state.
Nor has this major concession to the Palestinians been accompanied by a corresponding international concession to Israel. The European Union, for instance, repeatedly makes very specific demands of Israel, insisting that it accept a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines and Jerusalem as the capital of two states. But the EU has never demanded that the Palestinians accept a Jewish state or give up their idea of relocating millions of Palestinians to Israel. Instead, it merely calls for an unspecified “just, fair, agreed and realistic solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem, which the Palestinians–who view flooding Israel with millions of Palestinians as the only “just” solution–can easily interpret as support for their position.
In short, until Trump came along, the Palestinians won this major concession for free. Now, by refusing to declare a two-state solution as his goal, he has essentially told the Palestinians, for the first time in the history of the peace process, that every concession they previously pocketed is reversible unless and until they actually sign a deal. In other words, for the first time in the history of the peace process, he has told the Palestinians they have something to lose by intransigence. And if they want to reinstate America’s commitment to a Palestinian state, they will have to give something in exchange.
The same goes for Trump’s refusal even to mention the Palestinians in his UN speech. When former Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly insisted that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the world’s most important foreign policy problem (a message routinely echoed by European diplomats), that gave the Palestinians tremendous leverage. Since they have always been the more intransigent side, the easiest path for any broker to follow is to simply support more and more Palestinian demands without requiring any substantive Palestinian concessions in return and then try to pressure Israel into agreeing. Thus, if world leaders are desperate to resolve the conflict, they will naturally tend to take that easy path in the hope of producing quick “achievements,” which is, in fact, what has happened over the last two decades. The result is that the Palestinians have concluded they can keep getting more simply by continuing to say no.
In his UN speech, Trump sent the opposite message: There are a lot of important foreign policy issues, like North Korea and Iran, and the Palestinian issue is so trivial by comparison that it doesn’t even merit a mention. In other words, though Trump would like to broker a peace deal, it isn’t necessary for America’s own interests. And therefore, it’s only worth investing time and effort in it if Palestinians and Israelis are both actually ready to deal, which means the Palestinians will have to be ready to finally make some concessions.
There are ample grounds for skepticism about whether Trump’s approach will work; based on the accumulated evidence of the last quarter century, I consider it far more likely that the Palestinians simply aren’t interested in signing a deal on any terms. Nevertheless, there is a plausible alternative theory. Perhaps Palestinians keep saying no simply because doing so has proven effective in securing more concessions. And if that’s the case, then reversing this perverse set of incentives by telling them they stand to lose from intransigence rather than gain by it could actually be effective.
Whether he succeeds or fails, Trump deserves credit for trying something new. Given the failure of his predecessors to achieve peace, only State Department bureaucrats could imagine that doing the same thing one more time would somehow produce different results.
Podcast: Trump starts a fight, but will he win it?
The first COMMENTARY podcast of the week finds us (me, Abe Greenwald, and Noah Rothman) discussing the weekend of knee-taking and Trump-tweeting about patriotism and the NFL and blah blah blah while North Korea threatens hydrogen bomb-testing and Puerto Rico reverts to a state of nature. And we enjoy the decline and fall of Valerie Plame. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
What is he winning exactly?
Conservative political analysts seem so wrapped up in the matter of whether or not Donald Trump can, no one has given much thought to whether he should.
The latest national scandal, which will surely be as fleeting as its myriad predecessors, was whipped up by the president on a whim while he fed off the adoration of his fans at an Alabama political rally over the weekend. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of the NFL owners when somebody disrespects the flag to say get that sonofabitch off the field?” the president boomed. The crowd roared, Trump absorbed the positive feedback, and the nation’s opinion makers on the right and the left responded to the president’s goading with Pavlovian predictability. Trump so enjoyed the quivering of the raw nerve he touched that he spent the following morning attacking a variety of African-American professional athletes and disinviting them to the White House on, ostensibly, patriotic grounds.
What urgent controversy was the president addressing? Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who became the subject of national scrutiny when he opted to protest police violence targeting African-Americans by kneeling for the national anthem, hasn’t played in the National Football League this year. He became a free agent when his contract elapsed in March, and another team did not sign him.
Isolated episodes of questionable police violence against African-Americans persist, like the tragic 2016 murder of Philando Castile—a case in which moral justice, as opposed to the purely procedural variety, has proven elusive. So, too, do contentions that some police departments are eager to cover that violence up, like the three Chicago officers indicated for conspiring to hide evidence related to the fatal 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald. But were there mass Black Lives Matter protests paralyzing American urban centers when the president made his remarks, as there had been in years past? No.
The president decided to ignite a controversy, and the nation’s culturally conservative commentators—even those sympathetic to claims that justice is routinely denied blacks in over-policed portions of the country—proceeded to deem Trump the winner of this manufactured kerfuffle. National Review’s Rich Lowry noted that Trump’s antipathy toward Kaepernick and those in professional sports who sympathize with his tactics called his agitation indicative of a “gut-level political savvy.” The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson agreed: “Donald Trump Did Not Start This. But He Will Finish It. And He Will Win.”
As a purely dispassionate political analysis, these assertions have undeniable merit. The majority of the country does not see the American flag or the national anthem of the United States as symbols of oppression, and a majority in 2016 did not sympathize with those who “take the knee.” They might think that African-Americans, in particular, have a legitimate claim to make against the state, but see the broad brush with which some protesters tar the country as unfair to a nation that has sacrificed much to secure freedom and egalitarianism for both its citizens and the whole of mankind. And perhaps white Americans who resent these protesters see Trump as a medium through which they can communicate this point of view to a cultural media establishment that rejects it in its entirety and with overwhelming, righteous passion.
But is Trump winning anything beyond a likely short-lived reprieve from a focus on the fact that he has yet to secure a legislative achievement that will outlast his presidency? No. He has, instead, expertly torn asunder existing fissures in the country, exploiting them for his own temporary political gain. Is Trump as the avatar of true patriotism, self-sacrifice, and national healing toward a racial consensus? Is he going to truly advance the goals of his so-called “silent majority?” Or is he going to increase tensions? Has he brought the nation together, or did he simply embitter white Americans and alienate their black counterparts? Is this leadership? Is it conservative? The right once knew the answers to these questions, but it took a Democrat to make them see it.
To call Trump’s crusade or the campaign of kneeling for the Star Spangled Banner a culture war annoys activists on both sides. For the kneelers, they are protesting state-sponsored bloodletting; their cause is existential. For those who stand, the very definition of their nation is at stake, and the security it provides them and their families with it. But no one so protested when it was Barack Obama serving on the front lines of what most agreed was a culture war.
In 2014, along with making a point of only calling on women during a press conference and executing a variety of legally dubious (and doomed) executive actions on immigration, Obama indulged his liberal critics by finally speaking out more boldly on the issue of race in popular media venues like Black Entertainment Television. Following the 2014 killing of Eric Garner by New York City police in a chokehold after he tried to sell loosie cigarettes, the president went out of his way to endorse the actions of professional athletes who were disgusted by the injustice.
“You know, I think LeBron [James] did the right thing,” Barack Obama told People Magazine regarding the NBA star’s decision to wear a t-shirt bearing Garner’s last reported words: “I can’t breathe.” Obama compared James to the icons of led the fight for civil rights. “We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness,” he insisted. “I’d like to see more athletes do that—not just around this issue, but around a range of issues.”
Anti-Trump activists who are deservedly incensed by Trump’s behavior will claim that there is no comparison between these two assertions, but that’s how precedents work. Those who inherit them build upon them in ways that are not always optimal or prudent. That’s why presidents should be cautious about setting them. Barack Obama spoke more eloquently and with greater delicacy on the issue of race than Trump is capable of or interested in mimicking, but the 44th President did not heal divisions with these comments. There was no legislative remedy available to Obama to address the issue of excessive local policing targeting minorities. Because such behavior violates existing laws, it is a matter only of enforcement. That’s why Obama’s supporters demanded only that the president speak his mind on race and discrimination, and were largely satisfied when he did.
Culture wars beget a response because they almost never end—not totally. It’s too much to expect those who cheered on Obama’s decision to wade into contentious cultural matters to engage in any introspection, but conservatives should be expected to recall the admonitions they once issued not all that long ago. The president’s words matter a great deal, and he should be supremely careful about deploying them. They can and often do yield more harm than good.