The nation was shaken again on Thursday following an atrocity committed by a disturbed, likely prejudiced young man with access to firearms. It’s become an all-too-common occurrence, and mass shootings should inspire introspection. That’s not what the President of the United States demanded when he took to the podium in the White House briefing room mere minutes after the horrible event had occurred, before the public even knew the victims’ identities. Instead, he called on the nation to shed their capacity for reason, to surrender to emotion, and to direct their grief and frustration at externalities in the hopes that it might advance his preferred political agenda.
“Somebody somewhere will comment and say, Obama politicized this issue,” the President said. “Well, this is something we should politicize.” How convenient for this president who at the time of this pronouncement, as Jonathan Tobin noted, was not aware of the shooter’s motives or pathologies or whether Oregon’s already restrictive gun laws could have been strengthened in a way that would have deterred this crime. No, the president’s goal was to mobilize the mob and to channel its outrage toward his political enemies. When the left seeks to “politicize” events, it is deemed gallantry borne out of righteous passion. The right is rarely afforded such kind deference when it seeks to spark a political debate in the wake of a galvanizing event.
Mass shootings should be politicized, you see, but elective late-term abortion is a medical issue that should be left to a woman and her doctor. When a mass shooter metes out horror and death, it is only just that the atrocity be used to thrust open the Overton window as forcefully as possible. Strike while emotions are raw and while the application of logic and principle to addressing the subject is deemed uncouth. When, however, an atrocity like that committed by Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell is exposed, it is dismissed as a “local crime story,” in the now famous parlance of former Washington Post (now Vox.com) health policy reporter Sarah Kliff. When Planned Parenthood is exposed as a federally funded abortion mill that uses the discarded limbs and organs of the fetuses it dismembers in the womb to pad the bottom line, the left urges caution and sobriety. At least, that is, just for long enough to establish a veneer of doubt in the veracity of the undercover videos that revealed these practices.
There has never been a point at which gun violence in this country has not been politicized, just as abortion has always been a contentious public policy issue. As the public has become increasingly suspicious of the practice, Democrats have, however, been cautious about demanding the politicization of the subject of late-term abortion. “This is sacred ground to me, when we talk about this,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi averred when probed by the press to elaborate on her aversion to restrictions on access to elective abortions in the wake of the Gosnell murders. Translation: “Shut up.”
Whereas mass shootings are called as much, rarely do Democrats dare call abortion “abortion.” Instead, in the vernacular of the War on Women, it goes by the nom de guerre “women’s health.” And that should never be politicized. “Don’t politicize women’s health,” the Boston Globe averred in a 2011 editorial in defense of Planned Parenthood. “Don’t shortchange jobs to politicize women’s health,” read a statement published by the Senate Democrats a year later in opposing abortion restrictions tacked onto a transportation funding bill. “For years there has been a relentless campaign to politicize women’s health issues, and it is endangering the health of women and their families,” California Representative Lois Capps exclaimed in that same year. “The administration deserves credit for standing its ground and following the science.” Politicization for me, but not thee.
Even the press has gotten in on the act. “Obama challenged the media to compare gun and terrorism deaths,” Vox’s Zack Beauchamp noted on Thursday evening. “So I did.” “Thanks, Zack,” the president replied. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump already had a post on that subject in the chamber and ready to go when the president issued his challenge. This is a category error of the first order, but it serves the purposes of the president and the press to lock arms in ideological solidarity. One wonders if a Republican president who challenged the press to compare deaths in the African-American community related to gun violence and those linked to elective abortion would find the political press as eager to oblige.
The politicization of abortion isn’t the only subject that supposedly nauseates and offends the left. The deaths of four Americans in a terrorist attack, including a United States ambassador, is an event that we are told should never be politicized. “I hope that this will be the last effort by some in the Congress to politicize the tragic events of Benghazi,” Hillary Clinton insisted in August. As though a wildly successful terrorist assault on diplomatic and CIA compounds abroad, for which the United States was ill-prepared, was an issue with no political dimensions to it. That’s not the only terrorist event that was deemed unscrupulously “politicized” by the GOP. “Shame on Republicans for politicizing Christmas terrorist attack,” read Julia Piscitelli’s op-ed in US News following the unsuccessful attack by “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. “[T]o criticize how seriously President Obama takes our national security is simply blind and idiotic.”
“Shame on Republicans for bringing base-politics into a bill to help veterans,” former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid scolded from the floor of the upper chamber of Congress last year. That scorn was directed at Republicans for daring to demand a vote on a bipartisan bill pertaining to sanctions on Iran, another topic that compels the left to collapse in dramatic histrionics when it is “politicized” by Republicans. “Between the Netanyahu invite and the Cotton letter, the GOP are blazing new trails in politicization of foreign policy — and debasement of their institutions,” wrote Foreign Policy Group CEO David Rothkopf.
Even the legal status of illegal immigrants, an issue that is almost exclusively political, has prompted the White House to bemoan its politicization. After Obama caved to Democratic demands that he not issue more executive orders pertaining to immigration enforcement ahead of the 2014 midterm elections, the White House blamed “the Republicans’ extreme politicization of this issue” for the president’s inaction. The notion that it was Republicans who politicized the issue of immigration and not a president who had determined not to enforce existing immigration law is one that only the most blinkered of liberal ideologues could find compelling.
Politicization, it seems, is only of value to Democrats when they are reasonably assured that their preferred policy prescription might be advanced. In their estimation, it is neither ghoulish nor hard-hearted to fail to observe even a moment’s respect for the families of those killed in yesterday’s attack before igniting a partisan political battle over it. Indeed, the left seems to think it callous to decline to politicize a mass shooting. Yet, when the political right seeks to move the goalposts in the direction of its preferred policy prescriptions on the heels of a narrative-shaping event, they are judged nakedly ambitious and cruel. This might be a justified sentiment, even a noble one, if it were applied uniformly across the political spectrum. Unfortunately for the cause of civil discourse, it never is.
Politicize This, Mr. President
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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.
Competition is a scary thing.
Soon after last summer’s U.K. vote to leave the European Union, London Mayor Sadiq Khan launched a publicity campaign to reassure investors that his city would remain a dynamic, global hub after Brexit. “London Is Open” was the slogan, and it was supposed to “show the world that London remains entrepreneurial, international and full of creativity and possibility.”
So much for that. Friday’s decision by the city’s transport regulator not to renew Uber’s license suggests that Khan’s London is closed to competition and in thrall to local special interests.
The regulator, Transport for London, said the decision was based on Uber’s alleged lack of corporate responsibility in a variety of areas, particularly public safety. Yet there is no Uber-driven safety crisis in London. If Uber has made missteps, as any company might, putting 40,000 drivers out of work and inconveniencing 3.5 million London riders is a terrible way to respond.
Public safety is a pretext. The Uber ban comes after years of lobbying–and strikes and bullying–by the city’s black-taxi cartel. Before Uber came along, the industry’s high barriers to entry shielded black taxis from competition. It takes tens of thousands of pounds to buy a black cab and years to acquire “the knowledge”–drivers’ vaunted ability to memorize and instantly recall the best way to any destination.
The advent of GPS and ride-sharing meant that having the knowledge wasn’t all that special. Rather than try to outcompete Uber by offering better prices and service, the black taxis continued to charge outrageously overpriced fares. And they sought to defeat ride-sharing politically. Now they have succeeded. The losers are riders who used ride-sharing for fast, reliable, and accountable service.
The first black taxi I ever took, in 2014, took me from Heathrow Airport to Euston, in central London. It cost nearly £100 (or $170 at the time). That taught me early on to rely on my Uber app, and since then I have taken hundreds of rides. Defenders of the ban point to pre-booked minicab services and the like that often cost less or about the same as Uber. Yet none of those services offer the speed, ease, and pickup accuracy that Uber does. Black taxis don’t routinely serve many low-income neighborhoods, moreover, whereas Uber works wherever people have smartphones.
If you leave a personal item in a black cab and pay cash, there is no way to recover it. With Uber and similar apps, you can immediately track down your driver, and he will usually return the item to you within hours. As for safety and sexual assault: Rachel Cunliffe pointed out in the Spectator that Uber is the far safer option for female riders, who don’t have to trawl the streets looking for taxis. Every ride and every driver is tracked.
The Uber ban is the triumph of protectionism over innovation and clientelism over consumer choice. London is not open.
A boon to America, the region, and the world.
The Kurds have been a people without a state for centuries. Monday’s independence referendum in northern Iraq’s Kurdish zone is an important step toward rectifying this historic injustice, and I believe the U.S. is making a grave mistake by opposing the vote.
The Trump administration announced its displeasure in a September 15 statement, noting that the referendum “is distracting from the effort to defeat ISIS and stabilize the liberated areas.” It added: “Holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilizing.” The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the White House said, should work out its differences with Baghdad through dialogue.
Not now, go away, in other words. The statement reflected the sort of rigid adherence to Washington dogma that too often prevents America from seizing the opportunities presented by the tectonic shifts in the Middle East. The Trump administration failed even to nod at Kurdish aspirations, or offer an alternative timeline if the current moment is too inconvenient. This was an unnecessary slap when there are compelling moral and strategic reasons for creating a Kurdish state in northern Iraq sooner than later.
The Kurds got by far the worst treatment during the decades of Baathist rule in Iraq. Saddam Hussein ethnically cleansed tens of thousands of them in the 1970s. Then, in the closing days of the Iran-Iraq War, he set out to destroy the Kurdish community. The regime fired chemical weapons at Kurdish civilians, summarily executed men and boys, and sent entire villages to concentration camps.
President George H.W. Bush’s decision to impose a no-fly zone in 1991 granted Iraqi Kurds protection against Saddam’s depredations and a measure of autonomy. The Kurds used the opening, and the one provided by the 2003 invasion, to develop institutions of self-government. Iraqi Kurds constitute a coherent nation. They stand out in a region full of non-nation-states in various stages of disintegration. Kurds speak a common language, albeit with regional variations. Most are Sunni Muslims, though there are Christians and even a very few Jews among them, as well. They have deep historical ties to their territory. Their culture sets them apart, visibly, from their neighbors. They have distinct national institutions. And they already enjoy quasi-state recognition in the corridors of power in Europe, the Middle East, and beyond.
Iraqi Kurds, moreover, share what Douglas Feith has described as the key subjective factor in nationhood: a “type of fellow feeling” that is “an extension of the affection people tend to have for their family members.” Whatever their tribal differences—and these are real—Kurds living in Erbil or Dohuk today look upon other Kurds, not Iraqis, as their true compatriots. The bonds of Kurdish sympathy are much stronger and more enduring than those of Iraqi nationalism, if the latter means much at all.
Taken together, these factors mean that Iraqi Kurds are ripe for statehood. The Arabs have 22 states, and the Turks, Iranians, and Jews each have one—so why shouldn’t the Kurds enjoy statehood? There is no good answer to this question.
Then, too, Iraqi Kurdistan is vibrant and free. In Erbil today, within an hour’s drive from what used to be the second capital of the ISIS “caliphate,” you can enjoy a beer, surf a largely unrestricted Internet, and criticize the government without having to fear death squads. You won’t hear chants of “Death to America” or “Death to Israel” on the streets. There is corruption in the Kurdistan Regional Government, to be sure, and a degree of political nepotism that would make Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump blush. But by regional standards, KRG governance is more than acceptable.
An independent Kurdistan, moreover, will bear strategic fruit for the U.S. It could serve as a counterweight, however small, to Iranian hegemony. KRG leaders have taken a moderate, pragmatic line with all of their neighbors. That is wise policy, given the region’s size and strength relative to the likes of Iran and Turkey. Even so, the introduction of a new, fully sovereign Kurdish actor would interrupt Tehran’s so-called Shiite crescent stretching from Sanaa to Beirut. Today Iraq is trapped in the crescent. An independent Kurdistan wouldn’t be. It would irk the mullahs still more if this new state turned out to be a democratic success story. Conversely, by blocking Kurdish aspirations, the U.S. is putting itself in the same camp as Iran.
Most important, friendship should mean something. Iraqi Kurdish forces fought valiantly alongside the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. When the jihadist army seemed invincible, it was Kurdish fighters who stopped its march across Iraq (and Syria). As Kurdish intelligence chief Masrour Barzani told me in 2015, “In this entire area the Kurds are probably the most pro-American people that you can find. Forever we will be thankful for the U.S. support since the day of toppling Saddam’s regime.”
If Washington keeps neglecting and mistreating friends, America’s credit rating in the region will suffer irreparable harm. Responsible, pro-American populations, like the Iraqi Kurds, deserve American support.