The New America Foundation (NAF) is one of the most prosperous and influential think tanks in Barack Obama’s Washington. It’s run by Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was director of policy planning in the Obama State Department from 2009 to 2011. Its executive board is chaired by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and is filled with luminaries of the world of finance like Steve Rattner (Obama’s “car czar”), media stars like Fareed Zakaria, public intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama and even a token centrist like Walter Russell Mead as well as the likes of George Soros’s son Jonathan. In other words, it’s about as connected to the pulse of the Obama-era capital as you can be outside of the West Wing. While the NAF’s positions are predictably liberal, it has tried to position itself as a new age, high-tech group that is in the business of selling the world post-partisan answers to the country’s problems that emphasize “big ideas, impartial analysis and pragmatic solutions.” That generally is translated into programs promoting liberal ideas about education, jobs, investment, and the future of Afghanistan, just to cherry-pick some of the topics explored at events sponsored by the group in November. But next month, the NAF will put something different on the agenda: anti-Zionism.
The occasion is a December 4 book event at the foundation headquarters featuring Max Blumenthal, author of a risible anti-Zionist rant titled Goliath that was brought to our attention by an excellent article by historian Ron Radosh at Pajamas Media. We need not waste much time rehashing the book’s complete lack of intellectual merit or integrity. Suffice it to say its purpose is to libel the State of Israel as not merely an apartheid state but as a successor to the Nazis. His goal is not to force its withdrawal from the West Bank or to reform it in any matter but to work for its abolishment and replacement with a new Arab state in which those of the six million Jews who care to say will be forced to assimilate into Arab society rather than maintain a separate national identity. As I wrote earlier this month, even a virulent left-wing critic of Israel as Eric Alterman dismissed it in the pages of the Nation as the “‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook” and speculated that it would make a worthy choice for publication by “the Hamas Book of the Month Club (if it existed),” though lamentably it was put in print by his own magazine’s publishing arm.
Fortunately, most serious reviewers of books, including those on the left, have ignored Blumenthal’s trash. That is as it should be, not because bad ideas should be suppressed but because hatred and bias such as that advocated by Blumenthal do not deserve to be treated as a serious intellectual proposition up for debate. Yet that is exactly what the NAF is doing by inviting Blumenthal with the sort of breathless prose that is in the announcement on their website, calling the book “an unflinching, unprecedented work of journalism.” That means the issue here isn’t whether Blumenthal is an Israel-hater but how it is that a well-heeled and highly influential organization like the NAF has decided that anti-Zionist screeds are what they want their members to discuss. The point is not that Blumenthal will, even with the NAF’s help, persuade Americans to support dismantling Israel, but what it says about liberal elites that they think this is the sort of thing that should be on their agenda.
Let’s specify that NAF has not explicitly endorsed Blumenthal’s ideas. As Radosh notes, it’s doubtful that their board was consulted about the decision to host his book tour. But all the disclaimers in the world won’t change the fact that by choosing to associate their institution with a book that smears Israelis as Nazis and calls for its destruction, the NAF has crossed a line that no decent individual or group should even approach. Moreover, by doing so they are also sending a dangerous signal in the world of D.C. ideas that talk about doing away with Israel is no longer confined, as it should be, to the fever swamps of the far left or the far right. Instead, thanks to the Nation and its friends at the New America Foundation, open hatred against Israel and the campaign to delegitimize Zionism have now been given an undeserved veneer of respectability in Barack Obama’s Washington.
In one sense, it is hardly surprising that Slaughter’s group would embrace Blumenthal’s book at the same time that the current head of the State Department is counseling Congress to “ignore” Israeli concerns about Iran and betraying its democratic ally with deals that legitimize Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But policy disagreements are one thing; putting anti-Zionism on the agenda as a worthy discussion point is quite another. Just as it would be a scandal if some conservative think tank of comparable stature hosted an author of an openly racist book or one advocating the virtues of slavery, there is something shocking and fundamentally indecent about NAF’s decision to host a writer who is the moral equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan’s David Duke. It may be too much to hope that board members speak up and seek to cancel this event. But if they don’t, the NAF will lend its prestige to a disreputable author and cause and find itself tainted as an aider and abettor of anti-Israel hate.
NAF Puts Anti-Zionism on the Table
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Posturing, not policy.
On Wednesday morning, at 8:55 a.m., President Trump tweeted: “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow…” Many in the Pentagon wondered if he was announcing military action against North Korea, which, according to new intelligence estimates, is set to field a nuclear-tipped ICBM as early as next year. Not until nine minutes later was the suspense lifted with another presidential tweet: “…Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”
Alarm in defense circles soon turned to befuddlement: Why was Trump making this announcement? And why now? There was no immediate indication that the president had consulted with Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is on vacation, or notified other senior military leaders. The Pentagon referred all inquiries to the White House. When pressed for details, the White House had none. “That’s something the Department of Defense and the White House will have to work out,” a spokesman told reporters.
So the president is tweeting first and then leaving it to someone else to work out the actual policy he just announced.
This is all the odder because Mattis had committed to a comprehensive, six-month study, not due to be finished until December, of whether the military should accept new transgender recruits. Several GOP congress members, meanwhile, had introduced legislation to prevent the military’s health insurance plan from paying for gender reassignment surgery (which costs ten times less than what the military spends annually on erectile dysfunction medications—$84 million). What Trump announced is far broader—a ban not only on new transgendered recruits or on future gender reassignment surgeries but also a ban on existing transgendered personnel.
The only comprehensive study on transgendered service personnel, conducted by Rand last year, found that roughly 2,450 are currently serving and that they have a “minimal impact on readiness and health care costs.” “The limited research on the effects of foreign military policies indicates little or no impact on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness, or readiness,” Rand reported. “Commanders noted that the policies had benefits for all service members by creating a more inclusive and diverse force.”
The leadership of the Defense Department is certainly not agitating to boot out transgendered personnel who serve honorably and bravely. In fact, they’d rather not deal with this issue at all. Sen. John McCain, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, spoke for many, especially younger military personnel, when he said, “Any American who meets current medical and readiness standards should be allowed to continue serving. There is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train, and deploy to leave the military—regardless of their gender identity.”
So why would President Trump, out of the blue, issue a momentous policy pronouncement for which there is no pressing need and no preparation? It is hard to explain this other than to suggest that it is Trump’s way of distracting attention from the multiple crises besetting his presidency—from his bizarre feud with Attorney General Jeff Sessions to his inability, so far, to pass health-care legislation through a Republican-controlled Congress. Trump’s attacks on Sessions, a favorite of his nationalist-conservative base, have been especially costly, leading even longtime allies such as Newt Gingrich to criticize him.
The transgender ban is a symbolic way to try to stay in the good graces of the religious right and to simply change the subject. Indeed, Zeke Miller of Time tweeted: “White House official tells me admin[istration] is thrilled media is focusing on transgender service member issue.”
This may be good politics, but it’s bad policy. If Trump really cares about enhancing military effectiveness, rather than simply grandstanding for his populist rooting section, he would focus on repealing the sequestration act that, as Sen. Tom Cotton noted, makes defense budgeting arbitrary and unpredictable. Trump also needs to work with Congress to simply increase the defense budget to make up for years of neglect. But that would require the kind of heavy legislative-lifting in which the president has shown no interest.
A double standard is, in fact, a standard. Just an immoral one.
Really it should come as no surprise that the scientist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins is the latest public figure to have fallen victim to a disinviting mania. After all, if a darling of the left feminist like Germaine Greer can face a campaign to silence her over her views on transgenderism or a woman of color like Ayaan Hirsi Ali can face similar attempts to have her free speech on campus canceled, why should Dawkins be spared?
The English geneticist was slated to give a talk in Berkeley, California in August on his new book Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist. Over the weekend, however, the organizers (the local community radio station KPFA) announced that they are canceling the event because, apparently, it had been discovered that Dawkins is, in fact, an Islamophobe. They explained that, while their station “emphatically supports serious free speech,” that nevertheless KPFA “does not endorse hurtful speech.”
Disappointingly, the statement from KPFA Radio doesn’t elaborate on what constitutes serious free speech. Nor does it define where the bounds of hurtful speech lie. Of course, it should go without saying that those who wish to do away with all speech that might ever be deemed hurtful to someone don’t actually take the value of free speech that seriously at all.
For what little good it will do him, Dawkins has hit back by insisting that his criticism of the “appalling misogyny and homophobia of Islam” has been made in defense of the rights of Muslims. As he put it in an open letter to the radio: “far from attacking Muslims, I understand–as perhaps you do not–that Muslims themselves are the prime victims of the oppressive cruelties of Islamism, especially Muslim women.”
Given Richard Dawkins’s pretty damning view on religious belief in general, you would have thought the event organizers might have anticipated that this arch-secularist wouldn’t have anything very complimentary to say about Islam either. Yet there is something rather troubling in KFPA’s statement on their discovery of Dawkins’s “hurtful speech.” As the radio station explained: “We had booked this event based entirely on his excellent new book on science, when we didn’t know he had offended and hurt–in his tweets and other comments on Islam, so many people.”
This leaves a question. If Dawkins’s incriminating tweets on Islam eventually came to the organizer’s attention, what about all of his other pronouncements on religion? As in, the many writings and speeches that deal with insulting all the other religions. Are KPFA Radio still yet to stumble upon Dawkins’s international best-selling The God Delusion? Imagine their sense of horror when they learn of all those hurt Jewish and Christian feelings. After all, Dawkins has had some pretty fiery things to say on the “God of the Old Testament”.
Unless, of course, the organizers already knew all about Dawkins’s past comments on the other religions, but it only became a problem for them when they found out that Dawkins had been saying similar things about Islam. Had Dawkins been silent on Islam and only derided Christianity and Judaism, would he then have still been welcome at the Berkeley event? It rather sounds like it.
Presumably, few would claim that because of his views on the Hebrew Bible, Richard Dawkins is an anti-Semite? Yet these days it seems that it is rather easier for militant secularists to fall foul of the Islamophobia charge. Dawkins has himself spoken out against the Islamic practice of serving apostates with the death penalty. Would calling such things barbaric cross the line into Islamophobia?
And what of atheists more generally, who presumably believe that without exception, all the prophets of the world’s great religions were either wildly self-deluded, or otherwise shamelessly and knowingly fabricated their various holy texts? Would making such a claim about the founder of Islam be classed as insulting the prophet? Judging by previous cases, making such a claim would steer one dangerously close to the borders of Islamophobia, or worse.
Canceling an event with an internationally renowned atheist on the grounds that he has offended the feelings of religious people is, of course, absurd.
That KPFA Radio in Berkeley feel they would like to impose something akin to blasphemy laws now is no less bizarre. Acting in defense of the hurt feelings of one religion is a far more concerning development.
Hopefully, whoever’s job it is at Berkeley to safeguard equal opportunities for religious and ethnic groups will be taking this matter in hand.
Democrats will regret treating this as a partisan issue.
Whenever a former Obama administration official’s name comes up in the process of investigating the Trump campaign’s alleged links to Russian sources, Democrats take the position that the right’s penchant for “whataboutism” neutralizes the implication of wrongdoing. The Democratic objective is to shame those who are committed to crafting a full and unbiased portrait of the events of 2016 into ignoring inconvenient facts, but the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee remains unintimidated.
This month, the committee has met with a variety of senior Obama officials behind closed doors amid its probe of the Russia affair, including former Chief-of-Staff Denis McDonough, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The committee will meet with former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power on Friday.
These interviews are apparently being conducted in the effort to get to the bottom of why incoming Trump administration officials who were inadvertently captured in intelligence intercepts of foreign targets were conspicuously “unmasked” with their names and the details of their conversations leaked to the press. Trump administration opponents call the issue a distraction, but it’s a matter of grave national importance.
Those who are disinclined to look too deeply into the issue of “unmasking” have latched onto a comment from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr like flotsam in a shipwreck. “The unmasking thing was all created by Devin Nunes,” Burr said of the House Intelligence Committee chairman whose reckless conduct compelled him to recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s conduct. “I’ll wait to go through our full evaluation to see if there was anything improper that happened,” he added. Fewer have, however, paid much attention to Burr’s full quote. “Clearly,” he added, “there were individuals unmasked. Some of that became public which it’s not supposed to, and our business is to understand that, and explain it.”
Indeed, there is a lot to explain. Only weeks into the new Trump administration, unnamed former Obama administration officials began telling reporters to expect to see details involving the surveillance of administration officials and Trump associates’ communications with their Russian counterparts. The New York Times, for example, revealed how these Obama officials left a “trail” of evidence of these contacts for investigators to uncover.
A month earlier, the Washington Post disclosed that former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn had privately discussed U.S. sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, in phone calls prior to the inauguration. The transcript of those intercepted communications was related to reporters, despite its highly classified nature. This revelation contradicted the transition team’s repeated denials that any such conversations between Flynn and Kislyak took place and it served as just cause for Flynn’s termination.
Flynn was a liability and should never have been placed in such a sensitive role. His dismissal was a relief, but the methods by which he was discredited established a dangerous precedent. If a private citizen swept up in routine intercepts of communications with foreign agents can be “unmasked” to achieve a political purpose, even if that purpose is defensible, it won’t be long before that precedent is applied toward more ambiguous ends.
Now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears to have been the target of a politically motivated intelligence reveal. As reported by, again, the Washington Post, the attorney general apparently misled U.S. officials and members of Congress with regard to the nature of his contacts with Russian officials. According to communications intercepted by “U.S. spy agencies,” Kislyak related the details of two conversations he apparently had with then-campaign advisor Sessions to his superiors in Moscow. Sessions was not personally swept up in those intercepts, but Kislyak mentioned his name and the substance of those intercepts was related to Post reporters.
The outlet stressed that it could not confirm the authenticity of the intercepts as they could in Flynn’s case, but President Trump went ahead and did that for them. “A new INTELLIGENCE LEAK from the Amazon Washington Post, this time against A.G. Jeff Sessions,” the president declared on Twitter. “These illegal leaks, like [former FBI Director James] Comey’s, must stop!”
This particular leak was widely viewed within the context of the ongoing public feud between the president and his attorney general, but it should not be so quickly dismissed. In cryptic testimony before Congress, Comey revealed that Sessions’s recusal from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia had nothing to do with Justice Department rules. He said he knew that recusal would be forthcoming, but he could not say why in an unclassified setting. Comey’s disclosure and this leak may not be unrelated.
Trump administration opponents who celebrate these unprecedented disclosures because they damage the administration are being extraordinarily parochial. This is an assault on the American social compact. The precedent being established now erodes the prohibitions on using intelligence gathering as a tool to discredit your political enemies. Democrats can bet that this practice will be deployed against them in the foreseeable future. In the process, political actors will render intelligence products suspect, weakening their utility for policymakers and, thus, making America less safe.
It is a tragedy that Democrats have not followed the lead of Senator Burr and other Republicans who are treating the issue of “unmasking” as seriously as they are the unprecedented efforts by Moscow to shape the course of American political affairs in 2016. Like the hacks of Democratic targets, this is not a partisan issue. The “unmaskers” will one day come for Democrats, and they will regret their silence in this pivotal hour.
Has Mattis gone rogue?
At the core of the Qatar dispute is the question of Qatar’s support for extremism. While many Gulf states have histories of donating to or promoting radical Islamism, many have made real reforms. Saudi Arabia, for example, became much more serious about the need to curtail support for radical groups after the Kingdom started suffering blowback with terrorists targeting foreigners living in Saudi Arabia and senior Saudi officials. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, meanwhile, has cracked down not only on the Muslim Brotherhood but has also moved to sever the life-line Egypt often provided Hamas leaders in Gaza. Qatar, however, continues to set itself above the rest in its support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and other moderate Arab states are rightly confused, if not frustrated, by the muddled U.S. response so far. After all, diplomats and official from these states say, both Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States have both long beseeched them to take a no-nonsense approach to extremism and to operate in a coordinated fashion against regional threats.
When they finally do, the White House flip-flops and the State Department urges compromise and negotiation. Evenhandedness is not a virtue when one side is right and the other wrong. To negotiate with regard to the acceptance of terrorist groups is, however, a very dangerous precedent. If the United States re-engaged in Afghanistan to eliminate al-Qaeda’s bases there or began operations in Syria to counter the Islamic State, Washington would greatly resent outside powers demanding that the United States compromise with either.
In the wake of the Qatar crisis, now in its second month, Turkey set up a military base in Qatar, much to the outrage of the states seeking to pressure Qatar into compliance. That base’s closure remains a key demand among moderate Arab countries.
Now word comes that the U.S. military is planning to conduct military exercises in Qatar with the Qatari and Turkish militaries. Daily Sabah, a once independent paper which was seized by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and transferred to his son-in-law, quoted Qatari Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah as saying, “Qatar, Turkey and the U.S. regularly conduct military drills in Qatar. In the near future, a joint drill will begin by the three countries.”
Like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has sought to temper President Trump’s impetuousness on a number of foreign policy issues. While this can often be a good thing when done behind-the-scenes and in the course of a normal policy process through the National Security Council, the Pentagon conducting its own private foreign policy creates confusion and risks antagonizing allies.
Mattis already displayed a tin ear for timing when, just days after Trump sided with the moderate Arab states and called Qatar out on its funding of extremists, the Pentagon announced a multi-billion dollar arms sale to Qatar. To conduct military exercises in Qatar with Turkey suggests Mattis is choosing sides and endorsing the positions of Qatar and Turkey. Perhaps he is motivated by the desire to maintain access to the al-Udeid Air Base. If this is the case, though, he confuses the Pentagon’s preference for the status quo with broader U.S. interests. To prioritize preservation of the al-Udeid Air Base over broader interests effectively tells Doha that it need not reform its behavior and that it can use the U.S. presence as a “get out of jail free card.”
Should Qatar’s announcement of military drills be true and should Mattis go ahead with the exercises, he also risks undercutting efforts to repair the damage which the Obama administration caused with America’s traditional allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. Those governments remain furious with how they believe President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry threw them under the bus.
Mattis may be more refined than Tillerson in his efforts to blunt Trump’s excesses. To conduct his own foreign policy, however, is bad in any instance. To do so in such a counterproductive way and to again betray moderate states, which have only done what successive U.S. administrations have asked them to do, may risk damaging alliances beyond the point of no return.
Anger over health care clouds the left's judgment.
Nate Silver spoke for most of the liberal blogosphere when he objected to the mainstream media’s coverage of Senator John McCain’s speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday.
McCain appeared in the Capitol just days after he had a blood clot removed from above his left eye. Amid that process, doctors discovered that a particularly malignant form of brain cancer was responsible for the clot. Despite his condition and his recovery, McCain made his way back to Washington to vote on a motion to proceed with a debate over the process of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. Following his critical vote, which allowed the motion to carry only after the vice president broke a tie, McCain gave a stirring address extolling the virtues of the republic and the Senate, while also castigating his congressional colleagues over their approach to the health-care reform process.
“Among younger and less traditional reporters on Twitter,” Silver began, “a lot of people are pointing out McCain’s inconsistency in scolding McConnell’s process but nevertheless voting for the motion to proceed.” Silver added, however, that more traditional reporting outlets in print and on television were far more awed by the remarks. They didn’t seem to recognize the inconsistency that so irritated the Twitter-verse.
“Longtime readers of FiveThirtyEight know that I have a lot of beefs with the establishment media,” Silver wrote. “Moments like these, where they elevate style over substance, are a big part of why.”
The self-selected, cloistered, like-thinking population of professional cynics on political Twitter is a bad target for professional statistical analysts to critique. Moreover, this criticism is a value judgment founded not in rationality but pique.
McCain’s speech on the floor of the Senate was worthy of all the praise it received if only because not every political observer has yet abandoned basic human decency (a frailty that political Twitter discourages). McCain is by any definition an American hero who spent his life serving his country. On what may be his last speech to the nation from the upper chamber of Congress, the man deserves a hearing. Silver and his colleagues did not give him that.
McCain’s speech was mostly dedicated to the dysfunction of the body in which he serves. “When I hear the Senate referred to as the world’s greatest deliberative body, I’m not so sure we can claim that distinction with a straight face today,” he said. “Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately.”
McCain implored his colleagues to ignore the professional rabble-rousers who have made a career of sowing internecine discord. “To hell with them,” he said. “They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.” If this speech started to sound like an appeal to bipartisanship, that became explicit in the following sentence.
The senator said that the virtue of the American system is found in those features that stifle one-party governance. “Top-down” “parliamentary maneuvers” that abandon the process of regular order to govern without bipartisan consent have poisoned and radicalized the country. And to repeat Democratic mistakes by shutting the other party out of the process of reforming one-sixth of the American economy would be a mistake.
“I voted for the motion to proceed to allow debate to continue and amendments to be offered,” McCain said. “I will not vote for this bill as it is today.”
Only ignorance of what a motion to proceed is or rage-induced blindness over the concept of repealing the Affordable Care Act could lead Silver or those for whom he speaks to make their claim. McCain’s vote to proceed with a debate is entirely consistent with regular order, to say nothing of his stated reverence for the process of deliberation in the Senate. His insistence that he would not support the health care bill as it exists, without major reforms (including a bipartisan buy-in and, likely, a return to the committee process), is also intellectually consistent.
I would add that it is clear that the activist left with whom Silver has lumped himself simply didn’t, or wouldn’t, hear the substance of McCain’s address. The senior senator from Arizona delivered a moving and eloquent statement of affection for the extraordinary history of the American republic. He painted a portrait of the United States as a fundamentally moral nation. He shared his love for the institutions that have made the American Constitution the world’s longest surviving governmental charter. And while he criticized American politics and the politicians who practice it, his reverence for the American system of government—to say nothing of the prosperity and security it has afforded the American people for nearly a quarter thousand years—was infectious.
The left dislikes that kind of sentimentality. They find it mawkish, at best; chauvinistic, at worst. But an American who has dedicated his life to his countrymen, often at great cost, is owed a little maudlin schmaltz, even if the popular Twitter clique does not share those sentiments. Not only was McCain’s vote consistent with his opinions, his speech was a moving tribute to the country he loves. It’s a shame, but a telling one, that the left didn’t hear any of it.