Across the Western World, the parties have switched places
In late February, the nation’s attention snapped back and forth from protests in the Middle East to protests in the Middle West. Wisconsin’s new Republican governor, Scott Walker, announced budget-saving measures that immediately set off a national debate over labor unions and their relation to state and local governments. Walker sought to force state employees to pay more of their pension and health-care costs and to rescind most collective-bargaining privileges for most state workers. Public-sector workers and their allies in the Democratic Party and on the liberal left reacted with outrage. President Obama called Walker’s proposals an “assault on unions.” In short order, 60,000 protesters swooped down on Madison, the state’s capital. In office less than a month, Walker found himself compared to Hosni Mubarak and Adolf Hitler. To prevent a vote on Walker’s measure, for which there were sufficient votes in the state legislature to secure passage as long as there was a quorum, Democratic state senators fled Wisconsin and holed up in various venues in Illinois.
In 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to grant collective-bargaining rights to public employees, which sparked a rapid unionization of state workers. It was these same rights that Walker sought to roll back. He had several reasons for doing so. First, the state’s budget has to be brought into balance, and Wisconsin needs the money. Second is the matter of the unfairness to taxpayers, who must contribute substantially to their own benefits while those in the public sector—who work for the taxpayers, after all—barely do at all. Third, Walker sought to weaken the power of government unions, which use their wealth and power to lobby and control their paymasters in state government. More broadly, Walker has issued a fundamental challenge to the assumptions that underpin the liberal state, saying he wants to “right-size” state government so it will provide “only the essential services our citizens need and taxpayers can afford.”
Walker’s actions follow those of other Republican governors, such as Mitch Daniels in Indiana, who have put Democrats and their union allies on the defensive. Chris Christie, New Jersey’s hard-charging governor, improbably became a national celebrity by staring down his state’s teachers’ union. Elected in 2009, Christie quickly recognized the burden that health and pension benefits for state workers place on New Jersey’s long-term finances. He set out to impose a 2 percent property-tax cap to limit government spending, change pension rules, and require that teachers contribute small portions of their salaries to pay for their health insurance.
Other governors, mostly Republicans, have also taken up the fight, calling (like Walker) for a rollback of collective bargaining for government workers and seeking reforms of pension systems that are contributing mightily to structural deficits. These proposals have met with spirited resistance, almost all of it emanating from the core groups of American liberalism: public-sector unions, academics, and activists. As Walker put it, “Any time you challenge the status quo, any time you are bold, you are going to get a big reaction.”
The action in America’s state capitals reflects a broader trend with profound ramifications not only for present-day governance but also for the ideological alignment of the nation’s parties. This trend, put fully into gear by the Great Recession, is the reconfiguration of the political categories of the West, and in a manner that has surprised almost everyone.
Initially, most analysts believed that the profound crisis of capitalism suggested by the market meltdown of 2008 would redound to the benefit of the left. It seemed logical. The Times of London even dragged Karl Marx out of the dustbin of history to ask whether his “hour has come at last.” Instead, the cunning of history, operating through the selfsame financial crisis, brought center-right governments to power in many countries. Even many places in which leftist governments are hanging on have adopted policies often associated with their adversaries. The dismal fiscal situation and even more dismal prospects for the future forged a rough consensus internationally on the policy medicine needed to move forward. It involves slashing spending, avoiding tax increases, cutting red tape, and shrinking government.
For the first time in more than a century, the left, normally preoccupied with imagining a better future, appears bereft of a major policy project and is stuck defending its past achievements, even those of extraordinarily recent vintage, like the passage of the health-care bill. The Great Recession and the underlying fiscal disaster it helped reveal has caused a crisis in what Walter Russell Mead has called the “blue social model.” According to this model,
both blue collar and white collar workers hold stable jobs, a professional career civil service administers a growing state, with living standards for all social classes steadily rising while the gaps between the classes remain fairly stable, and with an increasing “social dividend” . . . longer vacations, more and cheaper state-supported education, earlier retirement, shorter work weeks and so on.
The “blue social model” suggested that incremental improvements engineered by government would proceed apace, but fundamental changes would be unnecessary. This was how a modern society should be run. It was logical, practical, and fair.
Myriad factors—from mass migration to technological innovation to global competition—has rendered the “blue state model” obsolete. Now the nations of the West face two intractable problems. One is the exploding cost of health-care entitlements and old-age pensions, which are straining budgets. Another is that government work is expensive but not very efficient: every year, taxpayers spend more for less. Addressing these problems will require complex and innovative solutions. Those solutions are already meeting resistance from those most immediately affected—and they just happen to be the backbone of the left. As the principal architect of the social safety net, the left is resistant to changing its composition. Paul Starr, editor of the American Prospect, has noted that liberalism has become largely “defensive” and “oppositional.” It must not only defend policies put in place a half-century ago, like Wisconsin’s collective bargaining rules, but also the signature piece of legislation of the Democratic political and electoral wave that rolled over the Republicans in 2006 and 2008 before it was engulfed in turn by an anti-Democratic wave in 2010.
The American social safety net is generally considered smaller and less generous than those of its European counterparts. Partly to address that imbalance, Democrats flush with power after taking control of the presidency and the Capitol forged ahead with their health-care revolution, intended as the final piece in the grand construction of a cradle-to-grave welfare state based on the European model.
The midterm elections of 2010 indicated that the American people were unhappy with that concept. This national referendum called on Republicans, who found themselves not only with their largest majority in the House of Representatives in more than 60 years but also with the highest number of state legislators since the 1920s, to fix things. The nation has tasked these politicians with reforming the welfare state before it submerges us in red ink.
In this new situation, the Democratic Party must now play the “conservative” role and seek to block, dilute, or restrain Republican initiatives. As James W. Ceaser recently wrote in the Claremont Review of Books, Democrats are certain to “emphasize their offices’ constitutional authority” and the virtues of divided government. This is most evident when it comes to health care. Upon taking their seats in 2011, House Republicans quickly voted to repeal the new bill (literally, the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act). President Obama promptly threatened to use his constitutionally mandated veto should any such repeal reach his desk. Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership in the Senate also brought up a repeal bill for a vote just to show that it would be defeated; a tribute to the power of divided government to halt legislation in its tracks.
With the passage of ObamaCare, the Democrats achieved their most striking policy success since the Great Society in the 1960s. But as President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address revealed, he and they have little else in the pipeline. The near-trillion-dollar cost of the stimulus package passed in 2009 took the even more expensive and intrusive climate-change proposal off the table. This left Obama with little to advocate beyond high-speed rail and solar shingles. American liberalism may still agree with Lyndon Johnson’s statement that “we’re in favor of a lot of things and we’re against mighty few,” but it has run out of the energy and public support needed to turn that “lot of things” into actual policies.
Being the party of reform has resulted in distinct advantages for the right. It has helped conservatives enormously in the electoral arena, sending a jolt of energy through conservative ranks and providing them with something specific to argue for rather than lamenting the general decline of civilization. Second, it has forced the right to think seriously about how to reconfigure the welfare state for the 21st century. Today conservatives are putting forward ways to trim government, make it more effective, and bring it into line with fiscal reality. Republicans are now setting the public-policy agenda as the party of ideas. Their proposals may or may not be wise, but they are the ones being debated.
Across the Atlantic, the same new left-right dynamic is abundantly apparent. French President Nicholas Sarkozy has been applying his energies to modernizing Gaullism, the principal center-right current in French politics that in the hands of Jacques Chirac had become ideologically incoherent. Sarkozy has defended the virtue of work in a nation that is focused more on leisure and has encouraged those who want to work more than France’s strict 35-hour workweek dictates. Sarkozy believes that a stronger work ethic can contribute to the economic and social renewal France needs to remain a player on the world stage.
To actualize this vision, Sarkozy has sought to reform France’s generous pension system, which has removed many able-bodied people from the workforce and created unsustainable structural deficits. In response to proposals to increase the retirement age from 60 to 62, students and public-sector workers, backed by the Socialist Party, launched major protests that paralyzed the country for a week. As Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry put it, “The legal [retirement] age of 60 years old is . . . a question of justice.” If she is elected president in 2012, Aubry promises to roll back the law and return France to the glory days of the 1980s under François Mitterrand. Her program is not a call for progress but a return en arrière.
In Great Britain, the 2010 elections ushered in a coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Just prior to the balloting, Conservative leader David Cameron told Parliament, “The only new ideas in British politics are coming from [the right] side of the House.” Once in office, the new government proceeded to propose major budget cuts, among other reforms. The austerity program—$130 billion in cuts, the equivalent of 10 percent of GDP—was touted as the way to unleash market forces to address Britain’s economic troubles, a means of encouraging self-reliance to overcome a morally “broken society” and ultimately to retain its national independence.
The reaction of the unions, student groups, and the Labour Party was one of outrage. In response to the decision to allow tuition to rise at public universities, students angrily hit the streets, attacking Prince Charles’s motorcade, smashing windows of the Treasury and the Supreme Court, and chanting “education is not for sale.” Few realistic policy alternatives were proffered, but opposition to the changes proposed by Cameron’s government was duly recorded.
In countries with left-of-center governments in power during the crisis—such as Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain—fiscal pressures have forced the adoption of policy programs they would never have chosen on their own. These programs opened wide chasms between those in office and their electoral base, especially since they were imposed from the outside—by Germany, the International Monetary Fund, and other European creditors. In Ireland, reforms have led to the government’s collapse. Spain’s Socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, has reluctantly brokered a “social pact” with labor unions and employers that will raise the retirement age to 67. But this change will not take effect until 2027. Zapatero is now taking more politically difficult steps to reduce Spain’s tightly regulated labor market.
The left might benefit in some ways from the inversion of the West’s political categories. First, it can recast itself as the prudent party, the one that favors slow, incremental change over radical reform. Second, it can try to convince voters that conservatives are really radicals, hell-bent on shredding the social safety net and setting off a race to the bottom. And finally, being in opposition is a congenial place to be when one lacks an agenda for change.
Meanwhile, serving as the agent of reform poses pitfalls for the right, especially in the United States. In other nations, such as Great Britain or France, conservative parties have been in a sense the default governing parties for much of the past century. To govern, these conservatives have had to be pragmatic and flexible. Because they have so often had to exercise government authority, they are reluctant to criticize it. American conservatives, on the other hand, have found it easier to take principled limited-government positions without having to fight for them, since they were largely excluded from power from the 1930s until the dawn of the 1980s. Less governing experience combined with the need to manage strong anti-government forces within their ranks (today represented by the Tea Party) makes the American conservative grip on power much less secure.
Such tensions within American conservatism boiled over in the first round of the 2011 budget battle. Republican leaders in the House proposed $32 billion in spending cuts. But Tea Party members balked, arguing that only $100 billion in cuts would fulfill their campaign pledge. “As important as these spending cuts are,” Rep. Michelle Bachmann said, “we need a lot more than we’re getting served up today.” The revolt highlighted a split in the GOP’s ranks. The leadership is concerned that if it cannot pass a budget that the Senate and the White House can endorse, the government will shut down as it did in 1994—an outcome they fear will threaten Republican electoral prospects in 2012. But the Tea Partiers came to office as true believers, and they are not only fearful but also contemptuous of compromise.
As Henry Olsen has pointed out in National Affairs, these intra-party divisions complicate the GOP’s standing with voters. Swing voters (a large portion of whom are working-class whites) are “leery of modern conservatives—because while these voters oppose rapid expansions of the welfare state and federal power, they do not favor rapid retrenchments of them, either.” According to Olsen, conservatives need to persuade skeptical centrist voters that they aim to maintain—not dismantle—the social safety net. Irving Kristol once offered similar counsel: “The welfare state is with us, for better or worse, and conservatives should try to make it better rather than worse.” Only streamlining and rationalizing the welfare state can preserve it.
But that presents the right with an enormous challenge. Efforts to move the welfare state in a conservative direction—to make it “consistent with the basic moral principles of our civilization and the basic political principles of our nation,” as Kristol put it—have in the past gone awry. As the administration of George W. Bush discovered, an agenda that seeks to introduce tougher standards in schools, market mechanisms in environmental policy and health-care delivery, and faith-based initiatives to fight poverty can actually end up requiring more government spending and a litany of unintended consequences. The tension between reforming the welfare state and enlarging it by different means is evident today in David Cameron’s “Big Society” program. Cameron says that “in the fight against poverty, inequality, social breakdown and injustice I do want to move from state action to social action. But I see a powerful role for government in helping to engineer that shift. Let me put it more plainly: we must use the state to remake society.” So much for limited government.
The alternative—simply taking an ax to government spending and cutting it to the bone—does not go over well with the American public. Austerity budgeting often leads to poor public-policy choices because the biggest programs are the most popular and nearly untouchable. With the notable exception of Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican, few members of the GOP have been willing to address entitlement spending, which is the heart and soul of the budget crisis. And so what does get cut from discretionary spending often has little to do with rationality or efficiency—and that includes defense. Neither policy course is especially appealing for conservative politicians, even though they are extremely attractive to those in the intelligentsia and the populist movements that don’t actually have to face voters every two years. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat calls this the “Conservative Dilemma.”
A dilemma it may be, but today it is conservatives, whether Scott Walker in Wisconsin or David Cameron in Great Britain, who are taking action and broaching difficult problems. They may stumble or make poor choices, but they are not allowing themselves to be paralyzed by staring into the coming budget abyss; they are, instead, taking bold steps to ensure that their polities can avoid tumbling into the bottomless chasm.
To preserve free societies, ultimately we need both forces of change and defenders of the status quo. The dialectic between them helps keep politics in balance and away from the extremes—stagnation on the one hand and revolutionary excess on the other. That dialectic is not static, however. The attack on the new party of reform is designed to make any of the changes to current practice that it proposes seem like revolutionary excess. But by denying the need for change when a failure to change will inexorably result in disaster, the party of reaction is arguably at greater risk of seeming irrelevant, irresponsible, and irrational to an American public concerned about the dangers posed by liberal governance to the nation’s present and future well-being.
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The Reformist Right and the Reactionary Left
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Smeared for doing the job.
When then-presidential candidate Donald Trump famously declared his intention to be a “neutral” arbiter of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories and put the onus for resolving the conflict on Jerusalem, few observers could have predicted that Trump would run one of the most pro-Israel administrations in American history.
This year, the Trump administration began relocating the U.S. embassy in Israel to the nation’s capital city, fulfilling a promise that began in 1995 with the passage of a law mandating this precise course of action. The administration also declined to blame Israel for defending its Gaza border against a Hamas-led attack. Last week, the administration shuttered the PLO’s offices in Washington.
The Trump administration’s commitment to shedding the contradictions and moral equivalencies that have plagued past administrations has exposed anti-Zionism for what its critics so often alleged it to be.
This week, Department of Education Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus announced his intention to vacate an Obama-era decision that dismissed an alleged act of anti-Semitism at Rutgers University. Marcus’s decision to reopen that particularly deserving case has led the New York Times to publish an article by Erica L. Green full of misconceptions, myths, and dissimulations about the nature of the anti-Israel groups in question and the essential characteristics of anti-Semitism itself.
In reporting on Marcus’s move, Green declared the education activist and opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement a “longtime opponent of Palestinian rights causes,” a designation the paper’s editor felt fine printing without any substantiating evidence. You could be forgiven for thinking that BDS itself constituted a cause of “Palestinian rights” and not an international effort to stigmatize and harm both Israel and its supporters. If you kept reading beyond that second paragraph, your suspicions were confirmed.
Green contended that Marcus’s decision has paved the way for the Education Department to adopt a “hotly contested definition of anti-Semitism” that includes: denying Jews “the right to self-determination,” claiming that the state of Israel is a “racist endeavor,” and applying a double standard to Israel not “expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” As Jerusalem Post reporter and COMMENTARY contributor Lahav Harkov observed, this allegedly “hotly contested definition” is precisely the same definition used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. In 2010, the IHRA’s working definition was adopted almost in total by Barack Obama’s State Department.
Green went so far as to say that this not-so-new definition for anti-Semitism has, according to Arab-American activists, declared “the Palestinian cause anti-Semitic.” So that is the Palestinian cause? Denying Jews the right to self-determination, calling the state of Israel itself a racist enterprise, and holding it to nakedly biased double standards? So much for the two-state solution.
Perhaps the biggest tell in the Times piece was its reporters’ inability to distinguish between pro-Palestinian activism and anti-Israeli agitation. The complaint the Education Department is preparing to reinvestigate involves a 2011 incident in which an event hosted by the group Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action (BAKA) allegedly imposed an admissions fee on Jewish and pro-Israel activists after unexpected numbers arrived to protest the event. An internal email confirmed that the group only charged this fee because “150 Zionists” “just showed up,” but the Obama administration dismissed the claim, saying that the organization’s excuse—that it expected heftier university fees following greater-than-expected attendance—was innocuous enough.
Green did not dwell on the group, which allegedly discriminated against Jews and pro-Israeli activists. If she had, she’d have reported that, just a few weeks before this incident, BAKA staged another event on Rutgers’s campus—a fundraiser for the organization USTOGAZA, which provided aid to the campaign of “flotillas” challenging an Israeli blockade of Gaza. USTOGAZA’s links to the Turkey-based organization Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), which has long been associated with support for Hamas-led terrorist activities, rendered the money raised in this event legally suspect. Eventually, as Brooke Goldstein wrote for COMMENTARY, even BAKA conceded the point:
After community members demanded that Rutgers, a state-funded university, hold an investigation before handing over any money to USTOGAZA, the school responded by offering to keep the money raised in an escrow account until a suitable recipient could be found. In June 2011, BAKA sent out an e-mail admitting the University had, after “much deliberation” and despite their initial approval, “decided that they are not willing to release the funds to the US to Gaza effort” due to concerns of being found liable for violating the material-support statutes.
Rutgers prudently limited BAKA’s ability to participate in on-campus events after these incidents, but the organization that took their place—Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)—is no better. The Times quoted officials with the Center for Law and Justice who praised Marcus’s move and cited SJP as a source of particular consternation, but the reporters did not delve into the group’s activities. If they had, they’d find that the organization’s activities—among them declaring that “Zionists are racists,” supporting anti-Zionist individuals despite credible accusations of child abuse, and endorsing Hamas’s governing platform, which labels the entire state of Israel “occupied territory”—fits any cogent definition of anti-Semitism. This is to say nothing of the abuse and harassment that American Jews experience on college campuses that play host to SJP’s regular “Israel apartheid weeks.”
Some might attribute the Times’ neutral portrayal of groups that tacitly support violence and people like Omar Barghouti—an activist who “will never accept a Jewish state in Palestine” and has explicitly endorsed “armed resistance” against Jews, who he insists are “not a people”—to ignorance, as though that would neutralize the harm this dispatch might cause. But the Times piece has emboldened those who see Israel’s Jewish character as a threat both to its political culture and our own. That worrying sentiment was succinctly expressed by New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz: “You don’t have to be a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause to question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”
The benefit of the doubt only extends so far. Even the charitably inclined should have discovered its limits by now.
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A conservative rethinks race and policing.
A week since an off-duty Dallas police officer shot and killed her neighbor in his own home, numerous unanswered questions bedevil investigators. Among them: How and why did the officer, Amber Guyger, end up in a different flat than her own that night? Did she mistake his apartment for hers, as she has claimed, or did she force her way inside, as some eyewitness reports seem to suggest?
More questions: Did the two neighbors know each other? Was there bad blood between them from the past? Or were they like two strange vessels floating in dark waters, the one accidentally ramming the other and sinking it? What really transpired between shooter and victim in that bleak, brief, and irrevocable instant that extinguished the life of Botham Shem Jean—a professional, a stalwart of his church, a black man, a human being?
America’s adversarial system of justice will, I expect, answer most of these questions in due course. But one fact is already inescapable: Even within the four walls of his castle, his home, Jean was not safe from undue police violence. As a CNN observer argued recently, even “living while black” can, well, end black men’s lives. And this should impel those of us on the right to drop the tendency to reflexively rally behind law enforcers in such cases and our corresponding tendency to dismiss claims about racial injustice in our system.
The arguments in favor of these reflexes are well-known to me. I know that day-in, day-out, legions of American law enforcers risk their lives to protect and to serve. That the vast majority of these men and women aren’t power-tripping bigots or trigger-happy lunatics. That, on the contrary, these are well-trained but fallible human beings, whose job requires them to make snap judgments in which life and death are at stake.
I know, too, that street thuggery and “black-on-black crime” are, statistically speaking, the far greater menace to African-American lives than potentially fatal encounters with the police. That often the police officers doing the shootings, whether justly or unjustly, are themselves black or Hispanic. That family members of those unjustly shot by police have many legal means for making themselves whole.
I know that in some of the most notorious cases, the suspects increased the danger to their lives by acting foolishly, defying verbal commands, and so forth. And I know that if officers feel too hamstrung by litigation or public scrutiny, it may actually cause them to become less vigilant in enforcing the law, thereby putting yet more black lives at risk.
All of this is true. I know these arguments through and through, and I have often made them, in these pages and elsewhere. And yet, and yet, there is the inescapable fact that, one night, Botham Shem Jean came to his own apartment, probably seeking a few hours’ shuteye after a long day at work, only to be shot and killed by an off-duty officer with questionable, if not outright malicious, judgment. One minute, Botham Shem Jean was a beloved son, coworker, and church member. The next minute, he was dead. And for what? Who can say?
The typical arguments marshaled in favor of the policing status quo can’t, and shouldn’t, be used to justify or pooh-pooh the raw, awful reality of this violation. Neither procedural safeguards nor statistics about black criminality should deafen us to the cries for substantive justice that ring out from the African-American community when a black man is shot within the four walls of his own home by an intruder with a badge.
Nor should conservatives harden their hearts when African-Americans point to the persistence of a certain racial pattern in these violent encounters. Assuming Guyger’s account is true, for example, did she instantly assume she was facing a “burglar” owing to the color of Jean’s skin? If so, is that evidence that implicit bias exists? We can’t yet be sure. Officer fatigue, bad lighting, a misunderstanding, the coarseness and alienation of American urban life—all of these may have been a factor. All could mitigate or extenuate Guyger’s culpability.
But the point is this: After Botham Shem Jean, conservatives should be a little less quick to insist that we don’t have systemic problems. I know I will.
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The Elon Musk problem.
No one has ever mistaken me for a business writer. Show me a balance sheet or quarterly report, and my eyes will glaze over. Bring up “chasing alpha” at the bar, and I’ll ask for the check and give you the old Irish goodbye. Business chatter—the kind you can’t help but overhear from young stockjobbers at the gym and bloaty middle managers on the Acela—bores me to tears. I’m especially allergic to the idea of “The Market” as an autonomous, anthropomorphic entity with a unitary will and mind of its own.
But even I can tell you that Elon Musk is imploding.
The latest omen came Friday when footage of the South African-born magnate smoking a fat marijuana blunt dropped online. The video is worth watching; the Guardian has the key bits from the 150-minute interview (do people really watch interviews this long?).
Rogan, whose fame has been a mystery to many yet is an inescapable fact of our online lives, offers the joint to Musk but is quick to add: “You probably can’t [smoke it] because of stockholders, right?” (On second thought, I think I know why Rogan is famous—because he knows how to push his subjects’ buttons.)
“I mean it’s legal, right?” Musk replies.
And so Elon Musk—the founder of an electric-car company worth $50 billion and a rocket company worth $20 billion—presses the blunt between his lips and takes a drag. He washes it down with a sip of whiskey on the rocks.
“I’m not a regular smoker of weed,” Musk says a few minutes later. “I almost never [smoke it]. I mean, it’s it’s—I don’t actually notice any effect.” His speech by now is noticeably more halting than it has been earlier in the interview. “I know a lot of people like weed, and that’s fine. But I don’t find that it is very good for productivity.”
The Market was not amused. News of two senior Tesla executives quitting their jobs broke soon after the interview appeared. Tesla shares slid 8 percent. On Twitter, where he competes with President Trump for the World Megalomaniac Award, Musk tweeted out his Rogan interview, adding: “I am a business magnet.” Perhaps he was still coming down.
These disasters follow the summer’s going-private fiasco. In early August, Musk claimed he had secured the vast funding needed to take his company private and then did a switcheroo. Tesla short-sellers, whom Musk constantly tries to show up, were vindicated. The Market got angry; shares slid.
“Moving forward, we will continue to focus on what matters most,” Musk wrote in a statement to investors two weeks later, “building products that people love and that make a difference to the shared future of life on Earth. We’ve shown that we can make great sustainable energy products, and we now need to show that we can be sustainably profitable.”
That apparently entails shooting the THC-laden breeze with Joe Rogan for two and a half hours.
The question now is: How did Musk ever get so big in the first place? There were many Tesla-skeptics, of course, chief among them those very short-sellers. They were onto something, perhaps because they sensed that a sound inventor-investor-executive would be more concerned with producing a reliable, profitable, non-subsidized automobile than with . . . showing up short-sellers. Even so, Tesla shares climbed and climbed. Even now, after Friday’s Harold and Kumar routine, the stock is trading north of $260.
Two explanations come to mind. The first is that, after Steve Jobs’s death, Wall Street and Silicon Valley types were seeking the next Eccentric Visionary to whom they could hitch their dreams. And Musk was straight out of central casting for Eccentric Visionary. Ending climate change. Colonizing Mars. Super-trains linking cities across vast distances. Everything seemed possible with him. Who knows, maybe the hopes were well-placed at one point, and the adulation went to the man’s head?
The second explanation, which needn’t be mutually exclusive with the first, is ideology. So much of Musk’s business reputation rested on his claims of solving climate change and other planetary crises that loom large in the minds of the Davos crowd. Musk embodied the ideological proposition that no modern problem eludes solution by noble-minded technocratic elites. The Market, it turns out, was as prone to magical thinking as any of the rest of us.
Clarification: News of the Tesla executives’ departure broke following Musk’s pot-smoking interview, but at least one of the departures had been finalized earlier this week.
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The course the West followed has been a disaster.
The West has squandered the last, best opportunity to rid the world of the criminal regime in Syria.
Damascus was designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, and it has lived up to that title every year since. Syria’s descent into civil war presented several opportunities to dispense with the despot in Damascus and avert a crisis in the process, but they were all ignored. As I wrote for National Review, Syria is a case study in the perils of ideological non-interventionism. The results of the West’s over-reliance on covert action, outsourcing, and diplomacy in Syria is arguably the worst-case scenario.
Had Barack Obama not abandoned his infamous “red line” in 2013, the U.S. might have preserved the 100-year prohibition on the battlefield use of chemical weapons. The collapse of that taboo has been rapid and terrifying. In the years that followed, chemical arms have been regularly deployed in Syria, and rogue powers have been using complex nerve agents on foreign (even allied) soil in reckless state-sponsored assassination campaigns.
Ideological adherence to non-interventionism well after it had proven an untenable course of action allowed the flourishing of terrorist organizations. Some parties in the West with a political interest in isolationism deliberately confused these terrorist groups with secularist movements led by Assad regime defectors. In the years that followed, those moderate rebel factions were crushed or corrupted while Islamist terror networks, which provided a politically valuable contrast to the “civilized” regime in Damascus, were patronized and nurtured by Assad.
The incubation of terrorist organizations eventually necessitated the kind of American military intervention Obama had so desperately sought to avoid, but at a time and place not of America’s choosing and with a footprint too small to achieve any permanent solution to the crisis. All the while, a great human tide poured out from Syria in all directions, but especially into Europe. There, an influx of unassimilated migrants eroded the continent’s post-War political consensus and catalyzed the rise of illiberal populist factions.
Even as late as the summer of 2015, there was still time for the West to summon the courage to do what was necessary. In a stunning speech that summer, Assad himself admitted that Syrian forces suffered from “a lack of human resources” amid Western estimates that nearly half the 300,000-strong Syrian army had been killed, captured, or deserted. “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria,” an intelligence source told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. But Obama dithered still. Just a few short weeks later, Vladimir Putin, upon whom Obama relied to help him weasel out of his pledge to punish Assad for his crimes, intervened in Syria on Damascus’s behalf. That was when the greatest crimes began.
Russian intervention in Syria began not with attacks on “terrorists,” as Moscow claimed, but with attacks on covert CIA installations and arms depots; a dangerous campaign that continued well into the Trump era. The Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian allies then embarked on a scorched-earth campaign. They bombed civilian neighborhoods and hospitals and maternity wards. They surrounded the liberated cities of Homs and Aleppo, barraging and starving their people into submission. They even targeted and destroyed a United Nations aid convey before it could relieve the famine imposed by Damascus. All the while, Moscow’s propagandists mocked reports of these atrocities, and the children who stumbled bloodied and ashen from the ruins of their homes were deemed crisis actors by Russian officials and their Western mouthpieces.
America’s strategic obligations in Syria did not diminish with Russian intervention. They increased, but so too did the danger. Early on, Russian forces concentrated not just on attacking Assad’s Western-backed enemies but on harassing NATO-aligned forces that were already operating in the Syrian theater. Russian warplanes harassed U.S. drones, painted allied assets with radar, conducted near-miss fly-bys of U.S. warships and airplanes in the region, and repeatedly violated Turkish airspace. This conduct was so reckless that, in November of 2015, NATO-allied Turkish anti-aircraft fire downed a Russian jet. On the ground, Moscow and Washington engaged in the kind of proxy fighting unseen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as U.S.-manufactured armaments were routinely featured in rebel-made films of successful attacks on Russian tanks and APCs.
In the years that followed this intensely dangerous period, the Syrian state did not recover. Instead, Syrian forces withdrew to a narrow area along the coast and around the capital and left behind a vacuum that has been filled by competing great powers. Iran, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and the United States, to say nothing of their proxy forces, are all competing to control and pacify portions of the country. Even if the terrorist threat is one day permanently neutralized in Syria—a prospect that today seems far off, considering these nations’ conflicting definition of what constitutes a terrorist—the state of competition among these powers ensures that the occupation of Syrian territory will continue for the foreseeable future.
And now, the final battle is upon the rebels. On Friday, hundreds of Syrians waving the “independence flag” poured into the streets of Idlib, the last of the country’s free cities, begging the international community to spare them from the onslaught that has already begun. The United Nations has warned that up to 800,000 people could be displaced in Damascus’s efforts to retake the rebel-held enclave, and the worst of the seven-year war’s humanitarian disasters may be yet to come.
Over the last two weeks, the United States has issued some ominous warnings. Senior American officials have begun telling reporters that the evidence is increasing of Damascus’s moving chemical munitions near the frontlines with the intent of using them on civilians. Trump administration officials announced in no uncertain terms that they would respond to another chemical attack with disproportionate force.
In response to these threats, Moscow deployed the biggest Russian naval taskforce on the Syrian coast since 2015. Simultaneously, Russia has warned of its intent to strike “militant” positions in the country’s Southwest, where U.S. soldiers routinely patrol. American forces are holding firm, for now, and the Pentagon insists that uniformed personnel are at liberty to defend themselves if they come under assault. If there is a conflict, it wouldn’t be the first time Americans and Russians have engaged in combat in Syria.
In February, Russian mercenaries and Syrian soldiers reinforcing columns of T-72 tanks and APCs armed with 125-millimeter guns engaged a position just east of the Euphrates River held by American Green Berets and Marines. The four-hour battle that ensued resulted in hundreds of Russian fatalities, but it may only have been a terrible sign of things to come.
Of course, a Western-led intervention in the Syrian conflict would have been accompanied by its own set of setbacks. What’s more, the political backlash and dysfunction that would have accompanied another difficult occupation in the Middle East perhaps presented policymakers with insurmountable obstacles. But the course the West followed instead has been a disaster.
The lessons of the Syrian civil war are clear: The U.S. cannot stay out of destabilizing conflicts in strategically valuable parts of the world, no matter how hard it tries. The humanitarian and political disasters that resulted from Western indifference to the Syrian plight is a grotesque crime that posterity will look upon with contempt. Finally, the failure to enforce prohibitions against chemical-weapons use on the battlefield has emboldened those who would use them recklessly. American soldiers will suffer the most in a world in which chemical warfare is the status quo of the battlefield of the future.
American interventionists are often asked by their opponents to reckon with the bloodshed and geopolitical instability their policies encourage. If only non-interventionists would do the same.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
And the demands of realpolitik.
Earlier this week, my housekeeper, Mary, arrived to work decked out in a bright red T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to Israel last Sunday for a three-day official visit.
Mary was at the Knesset on Monday, one of several hundred Filipino workers among approximately 28,000 in Israel, enthusiastically cheering her strongman president.
I asked her what she thought of Duterte–a leader who makes President Trump seem eloquent and measured, by comparison–and I was taken aback by her effusive, unhesitating endorsement: “Oh,” she enthused, “he is a very good president! The best!”
“But,” I suggested, carefully, “he says and does some pretty extreme, crazy things. Does that concern you at all?”
“Oh, no!” she collapsed in laughter. “He doesn’t mean that. It’s just his style.”
Indeed, Duterte has “style.” Bragging of his intent to kill millions of Filipino drug addicts, and invoking Hitler and his genocidal rampage, approvingly, in this context; referring to President Obama as a “son of a whore”; boasting of his parsimony in keeping multiple mistresses available in low-end hotels; approving of sexually assaulting women, particularly attractive ones. And then there was the outburst during the Pope’s visit to the very Catholic Philippines in 2015 when Duterte called him a “son of a bitch” for causing a traffic jam while in Manila.
Mary is not a simple woman. She is university educated, hard-working, pleasant, and respectful. And whatever makes her overlook Duterte’s thuggish tendencies should interest us all, because there are many Marys the world over supporting populist leaders and governments. Mary admires Duterte’s strength of conviction in dealing with drug dealers, addicts, corruption and Islamic extremists.
Human rights activists and journalists, of course, see only a brute who visited Israel to shop for weapons and defense capabilities, which would be put to questionable use. Then again, Duterte is hardly the first and far from the only unsavory ruler to come shopping in Israel, America, or elsewhere, for arms.
Israel deftly managed the visit and optics. Whereas many were disgusted that the PM and President Rivlin gave Duterte an audience, according him a legitimacy and respect that is undeserved, their meetings were brief and remarks carefully calibrated.
In addition to acknowledging his personal gratitude to the Filipino caregiver who was a companion to his father in his final years, Bibi reminded us all of the enduring friendship the Philippines has shown Israel, and Jews, for decades. Prior to WWII, then president Manuel Quezon made available 10,000 visas as part of an “open door” policy to accommodate European Jewish refugees. Only 1,300 were used, ultimately, due to the Japanese invasion which closed off escape routes.
In 1947, the Philippines was the only Asian country to vote in support of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, providing critical support for the momentum building towards the creation and international acceptance of the Jewish state one year later. These are important, historical events about which Bibi, quite rightly, chose to remind us all.
I am no cheerleader of dictators and thugs, but I do wonder why the morality of many objectors to the Duterte visit is so selective. Israel (and all western nations) has relations and ties with many countries led by dictators and rulers far more brutal than the democratically elected Duterte.
Much ado has been made in recent months of Bibi’s meetings with a number of right-wing populists and, worse. Some link it to what they see as disturbing, anti-democratic tendencies in his own leadership of late. Others, myself included, would read it as a careful effort to maintain and cultivate as many international relationships as possible that may enhance Israel’s strategic and economic interests, particularly in this period of extreme global political, economic and institutional instability.