Last week, I wrote about the potential impact that the growing influence of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul will have on the ability of Republicans to portray themselves as a solidly pro-Israel party. Senator Paul has written to respond to that piece. My response follows.
Jonathan S. Tobin’s Nov. 9 column, “Will Rand Paul Hijack the Pro-Israel GOP?” makes some wildly speculative assumptions about me, my positions concerning our ally, Israel, and the Republican Party’s future. Since Mr. Tobin took it upon himself to image some of my positions, I thought it best to set the record straight by stating what they actually are.
Israel is a strong and important ally of the United States, and we share many mutual security interests. I believe we should stand by our ally, but where I think sometimes American commentators get confused is that I do not think Israel should be dictated to by the United States. I think that has happened too often, and it has been to the detriment of Israel. Too often we have coerced Israel into trading land for peace, or other false bargains. When President Obama stood before the world in 2011 to demand that Israel act against her own strategic interest, I denounced this as unnecessary meddling. As I wrote in May of that year: “For President Obama to stand up today and insist that Israel should once again give up land, security and sovereignty for the possibility of peace shows an arrogance that is unmatched even in our rich history of foreign policy.”
Israel will always know what’s best for Israel. The United States should always stand with its friends. But we should also know, unlike President Obama, when to stay out of the way.
Foreign aid is another example of how our meddling often hurts more than its helps. In my proposals to end or cut back on foreign aid, some have made accusations that my proposals would hurt Israel. Actually, not following my proposals hurt Israel. We currently give about $4 billion annually to Israel in foreign aid. But we give about $6 billion to the nations that surround Israel, many of them antagonistic toward the Jewish state.
Giving twice as much foreign aid to Israel’s enemies simply does not make sense. Our aid to Israel has always been to a country that has been an unequivocal ally. Our aid to its neighbors has purchased their temporary loyalty at best.
These countries are not our true allies and no amount of money will make them so. They are not allies of Israel and I fear one day our money and military arms that we have paid for will be used against Israel.
Mr. Tobin speculates that calls by me and others within the Republican Party for Pentagon cuts somehow would hurt our national defense. It is always sad to see conservatives making liberal arguments. Cutting waste in our military would no more hurt our defense than getting rid of No Child Left Behind would hurt education. Every government agency can withstand a little belt-tightening, especially if we scale back on our overseas presence and focus more on true defense and security.
I voted against the original sequester agreement last year. It amused me to watch many of my colleagues who vote for it now wringing their hands over what they’ve wrought. The problem is, if we don’t keep these cuts, where will they come from? My colleagues have shown no greater stomach for domestic cuts than military ones. And with a now $16 trillion national debt and annual deficits between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion, the supposed grown-ups in Washington need to man-up and figure out where to cut. An automatic cut that would disproportionately target military spending was no one’s first choice—but was also the direct result of not enough people getting specific or serious about cuts to begin with.
I am not one of those people. I proposed a fully balanced five-year budget that restored the sequester funds. That path is still open to all Senators so concerned about our defense spending.
But absent the equivalent cuts from elsewhere, I cannot support simply scrapping the sequester.
That’s because the cuts really aren’t that big of a problem, if we also include reform.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and I are now both calling for legislation to audit the Pentagon, believing that a federal department with zero oversight is a good place to start when targeting government waste. We are not the only Republicans to make this observation and I suspect that number will continue to grow. The age of austerity will require as much common sense as possible.
Mr. Tobin is right to note that these are questions that a Republican Party serious about limited government and fiscal responsibility will continue to ask moving forward. But it is absurd to suggest that conservatives who ask these questions are somehow for a weaker defense, or worse, somehow stand on the wrong side of our friend Israel.
Portraying me as being against Israel in any fashion, as Mr. Tobin’s title implies, is as nonfactual as it is offensive. There are many differing opinions about both foreign and domestic policy within Israel. Any healthy, self-governing people necessarily must have robust debate. This is as true in Israel as it is in the United States. The notion that there is an unassailable consensus concerning Israel’s best interests, within the Republican Party, the United States, and even Israel itself, is simple not true and never has been. It assumes too much and asks too little, to the detriment of both countries.
Israel has long been, and will continue to be, one of our greatest allies. I will always fight to maintain the health and strength of this relationship, just as I will always fight for the health, security and best interests of the United States.
Senator Rand Paul, Washington, D.C.
Jonathan Tobin Responds:
In a world full of foes of the state of Israel, far be it from me to reject the wish of any prominent politician to be depicted as a friend of the Jewish state. It may be reasonable to suspect that this desire may have more to do with the senator’s possible presidential ambitions (indeed, the fact that he should take the trouble to defend his record on Israel in COMMENTARY can fairly be construed as a clear indication of his plans) but it is welcome nonetheless. However, his record is a little more complicated than he indicates. While the senator may not be as reflexively hostile to Israel as his father Ron or many of their extremist libertarian fans, it is difficult to reconcile his positions on assistance to Israel or his constricted ideas about the role of America in the world with one that is readily identified as supportive of a strong and secure Israel.
First, let’s give Senator Paul credit for saying that Israel ought not to be pressured into making concessions to its antagonists. Paul criticized President Obama for his ambush of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May 2011 over the 1967 lines. But it should also be pointed out that Paul was conspicuous by his absence from Netanyahu’s address to Congress that earned bipartisan ovations.
Let’s also specify that the senator is right when he notes that at this point in time, Israel would do well to wean itself from any from of foreign assistance. That is a goal that was first articulated by Prime Minister Netanyahu in 1996 during an address to Congress. But when Netanyahu made that speech, Israel was getting as much economic aid as it was military help. That is no longer the case.
When Paul called for an end to “welfare” to Israel, he said that the country’s relative wealth ought to render it ineligible for aid. But almost all the assistance Israel gets nowadays is necessary to redress the imbalance in strength between the Jewish state and the entire Arab and Muslim world that is arrayed against it. Though Paul would accompany an end to military aid to Israel with a ban on assistance to any country that is hostile to it, that wouldn’t undo the harm that a stoppage from the country’s only military ally would cause to a nation that is forced to spend exorbitant amounts on defense in order to cope with foes supported by Iran and even Russia. Nor would it offset the encouragement that such a measure would give Israel’s enemies.
Paul’s position ignores the fact that most of the military assistance is spent right here in the United States. But his willingness to characterize the issue as one in which American kids are being asked to go into debt to pay for “rich” Israel showed his willingness to play the same isolationist cards that won his father the applause of a radical fringe.
But just as troubling are Paul’s positions on U.S. defense and foreign policy, irrespective of the warm feelings he says he harbors for Israel.
An essential part of the U.S.-Israel alliance is the assumption that the United States will maintain its military strength as well as be willing to act to defend its interests abroad. Paul’s isolationist wing of the party acts as if America can afford to more or less withdraw its forces to its own borders and ignore the rest of the world. Paul pretends that the draconian cuts he advocates will not materially affect America’s defense capabilities, but that is mere rhetoric. Just as it would be impossible for the United States to assert its influence abroad in ways that are important to making Israel safer, so, too, will a diminished U.S. military undermine the strategic balance in the region in a way that will hurt it.
It is no small thing that the putative leader of a faction of the Republican Party that is virulently isolationist should wish to be seen as a friend of Israel. But he has a long way to go before his positions can be considered particularly supportive of Israel or the sort of American foreign policy stance that is consistent with maintaining the alliance. Barring an unexpected change of heart, Senator Paul’s higher profile must be considered bad news for Jewish Republicans.
Rand Paul and Israel: An Exchange
Must-Reads from Magazine
I have written before about S. Once a tenured professor of English at Virginia Tech, he resigned from that position on the strength of an offer from the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign to serve in the American Indian Studies program. But in the summer of 2014, UIUC rescinded the offer, mainly over of a series of reprehensible Salaita tweets.
Let the tone of one exemplify many others: Concerning three kidnapped Israeli teens—there was already reason to believe they had been killed—Salaita opined, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” As I noted at the time, reasonable people could disagree about whether the offer should have been rescinded.
Ultimately, UIC paid $875,000 to make the case go away. But it was troubling that some on the left chose not only to defend Salaita’s academic freedom—as one might defend the freedom of the Westboro Baptist Church to say vile things—but also that they made him into a kind of hero. To this day, he remains an elected member of the National Council of the American Studies Association and is still from time to time invited to give lectures at prestigious places about how he is not allowed to speak.
He has been occupying a chair in American Studies at the American University of Beirut. But that was not a tenured or tenure track position0 and, apparently, no one else will offer him a job. So he has decided to leave academia.
We will now be endlessly subjected to the claim that Salaita cannot find a job merely because, as he puts it, he has “disdain for settler colonialism.” The problem is, he says, that academia is a “bourgeois industry that reward self-importance and conformity.”
That is nonsense.
First, Steven Salaita’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, roughly that Zionism is the problem and that turning Israel into a pariah state is a prudent and moral way of dealing with it, may be foolish and morally obtuse. But it is hardly out of bounds in academia and well over a thousand academics have expressed public support for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Many of them occupy tenured positions at prestigious colleges and universities and, at least as far as I can tell, pay no professional cost for holding the very same set of views Salaita wants us to think is too hot for academia to handle.
Second, in the field Salaita inhabits, a pro-BDS position is not a nonconformist position. It is famously the official line of the American Studies Association. The Association for Asian American Studies, which preceded the ASA in passing a boycott resolution, passed the resolution unanimously with nary an extension. Over four years ago, I observed that not one scholar in that field had publicly dissented. As far as I know, that remains the case today. Salaita himself, in spite of a thin scholarly record, was offered a job at UIUC, the flagship of the Illinois system, presumably on the strength of his activism. There is no doubt in my mind that were it not for his disgusting tweets, he would be happily tenured at U of I spouting the same line he was spouting before he got into trouble.
Of course, people who take radical positions, even if those positions are popular in their subfields, may find themselves under closer scrutiny than people who don’t, even at colleges and universities that are supposed to value unconventional thinking. That’s unfortunate, and should be decried. Indeed, the U of I’s defense of its decision to rescind Salaita’s offer in terms of civility was unconvincing and rightly earned the disdain of academic freedom organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the American Association of University Professors. People do sometimes lose their jobs over this kind of thing. But Salaita’s views are not what undid him. He was undone by his own callousness and recklessness, neither of which has he found any reason to regret.
Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Has Washington given up on Syria?
Last week, I wrote about one of the troublesome byproducts of the Trump-Putin summit in Hamburg: a ceasefire in southwestern Syria that Israel worries will entrench Iranian control of that area bordering the Israeli Golan Heights. The day after my article came out, the Washington Post reported on another troubling decision that President Trump has made vis a vis Syria: Ending a CIA program that had provided arms and training to anti-Assad forces.
Gen. Tony Thomas, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, insisted that this decision was not a sop to Russia. But whether intended that way or not, that is the effect of this decision. The Post quoted a current U.S. official as saying: “This is a momentous decision. Putin won in Syria.” That seems indisputable. By stopping support for the anti-Assad forces, the U.S. is conceding that Bashar Assad—Russia and Iran’s client—will stay in power indefinitely.
The U.S. continues, of course, to support the Syrian Democratic Forces, the misleading name of the largely Kurdish YPG rebels that are besieging the Islamic State city of Raqqa. But the YPG has no interest in overthrowing Assad and no interest in governing Arab areas. Their objective is to set up a Kurdish state, Rojava, in northern Syria, and they have friendly relations both with Damascus and Tehran. There is no way that the Kurds can rule the majority of Syrian territory, which is populated by Arabs.
That will leave multiple factions to battle it out for control of most of Syria: the Iran-Assad-Russia axis (spearheaded by Hezbollah and other Iranian-created militias, and backed by Russian air power), the al-Nusra Front (the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, which is rumored to get support from Gulf states), and the Islamic State, which may be down at the moment but hardly out. These factions have their differences, but they are united on certain core essentials. All are rabidly anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Israeli, and all are violent jihadists, whether of the Shiite or Sunni persuasion.
It is not in America’s interest for any of these groups to control a substantial amount of Syrian territory. Yet President Trump has now made the puzzling decision to stop support for the only faction that could keep substantial swathes of Syria out of jihadist hands.
Granted, the moderates loosely affiliated with the Free Syrian Army have been losing ground for years. That is largely the fault of President Barack Obama, who unwisely refused to heed the advice of the officials in his administration who advocated a vigorous train-and-assist program for non-jihadist rebels. Such a program would have had a much greater chance of working in earlier years. America’s failure to help the moderates has led many fighters to defect to more radical groups, and many of our allies have been killed or expelled.
But it would not be impossible to reverse these trends, and trying would be worthwhile. There are, after all, scores of military-age Syrian men who have fled the country as refugees. If the U.S. had the will to act, they could be trained, armed, and organized into an effective military force on Jordanian or Turkish soil and then sent with U.S. advisers and U.S. air support to secure Syrian territory. We currently provide that kind of aid to the Kurds, but we have cut off the Arab fighters, who are willing to risk their lives to fight against one of the biggest war criminals in the world—Bashar Assad, who is responsible for upwards of 400,000 deaths.
This decision makes little sense on strategic or moral grounds. Instead of abandoning the moderates, we should be doing more to buttress them. Even if it’s too late to overthrow Assad, who is more secure than ever since Russia entered the conflict in 2015, it might at least be possible to limit him to a few major cities and the Alawite heartland and prevent jihadists from taking control of most of the Syrian countryside. If we stop trying, we are conceding much of Syria to the Iran-Russia camp indefinitely. That is not in our interest, nor in that of our regional allies. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, will be very happy.
It's a duck.
Democrats are finally digging out of the wreckage the Obama years wrought, and are beginning to acknowledge the woes they visited upon themselves with their box-checking identity liberalism. So, yes, the opposition is moving forward in the Trump area, but toward what? Schizophrenia, apparently.
The party’s rebranding effort began in earnest last week when Democrats revealed a new slogan meant to evoke an old one: “A Better Deal.” Writing for the New York Times opinion page on Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer insisted the Democratic Party’s new agenda “is not about expanding the government, or moving our party in one direction or another along the political spectrum.” Any sentient political observer could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
“First, we’re going to increase people’s pay,” Schumer wrote. “Second, we’re going to reduce their everyday expenses. And third, we’re going to provide workers with the tools they need for the 21st-century economy.” He endorsed Bernie Sanders’ $1 trillion infrastructure spending proposal, a national paid family and sick leave program, and a hike of the minimum wage to $15 per hour. To reduce the cost of consumer goods, Democrats will pursue changes in the law to allow Congress to break up big firms with oppressive capriciousness.
When pressed on Sunday about what the “Better Deal” agenda may mean for health care, Schumer confessed it meant the most radical expansion of entitlement benefits in American history. “Medicare for people above 55 is on the table. A buy-in to Medicare is on the table. Buy-in to Medicaid is on the table,” the senator said. All options are available—including, apparently, a single-payer system in the form of voluntary Medicare-for-all—once Democrats “stabilize” ObamaCare’s insurance market.
Schumer admitted that the source of Democratic troubles in 2016 and since isn’t Moscow or former FBI Director James Comey; it’s that the electorate doesn’t know what values or beliefs his party represents. Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy agreed. “Our failing historically has been to focus on very targeted demographic messages, cultural issues, rather than broad-based economic themes,” he insisted. So the Democratic Party’s message in 2018 will apparently be not just big government but behemoth government. And yet, the faintest warble of Schumer’s conscience compelled him to assure voters that big government isn’t the Democratic objective. Why?
Because the way for Democrats to win involves party members farther to the Right—that faction of Democrats known as the Blue Dogs. “The [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] recognizes that the path to the majority is through the Blue Dogs,” asserted Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. She told Politico that she is in talks with at least 20 potential candidates vying to revive this endangered species. “We are able to convince folks who normally wouldn’t vote for a Democrat to vote for this Democrat.”
Before voters purged moderate House Democrats by voting for Republicans instead in 2010, their eventual disappearance was heralded as a great victory for the Progressive Monolith. “Democrats aren’t ideological enough,” wrote Ari Berman in an October 2010 New York Times op-ed. He argued that ideological homogeneity would make Democrats “more united and more productive.” In fact, the 2010 midterm elections marked the end of the legislative phase of Barack Obama’s presidency. Good call there.
The House’s Blue Dog Coalition is “dedicated to pursuing fiscally-responsible policies, ensuring a strong national defense, and transcending party lines,” according to its mission statement. How those objectives comport with Schumer’s platform—cutting a 13-figure check for infrastructure, rampant economic interventionism, and a semi-single-payer system—is anyone’s guess. Democrats may plan on localizing individual races so as to shield their candidates from the party’s negatives, but that’s easier said than done. Just ask Jon Ossoff, who lost in a Georgia special election despite having done precisely this.
The party’s leaders seem aware that the kind of hyper-liberalism articulated in the “Better Deal” agenda is incompatible with the kind of “economic populism” that proposes individual frugality and prudence as well as solvent safety nets for those who need assistance. For all his faults, Trump was able to marry these two concepts in a way that appealed both to Republicans and enough swing Democrats to win the White House. Democrats appear to be appealing to centrists only at the point of a progressive bayonet. If Democratic candidates start winning again, it won’t be a result of their party’s coherent platform.
The border of incitement.
The idea that speech can itself constitute an act of violence grows ever more popular among the left’s leading polemicists. They argue that employing a politically incorrect word can be triggering; that the wrong gender pronoun can provoke; that words and sentences and parts of speech are all acts of aggression in disguise. The left seeks to stop this violence, or less euphemistically: to silence this speech.
Given their particular sensitivity to the triumphant mightiness of the pen, it’s profoundly disturbing to note where lines are drawn and exceptions made.
Linda Sarsour, the left’s darling of the day, posted a widely-shared picture of Palestinians praying in the streets of Jerusalem, an act protesting the placement of metal detectors outside the Al Aqsa Mosque. “This is resilience. This is perseverance. This is faith. This is commitment. This is inspiration. This is Palestine,” Sarsour wrote. “Denied access to pray at Al Aqsa Mosque in their own homeland, Palestinians pray on the streets in an act of non-violent resistance. They are met with tear gas and rubber bullets.”
Absent from her platitudinous prevarication was any mention of the inarguably violent act that led Israel to construct the metal detectors in the first place, the recent killing of two Israeli police officers at the Temple Mount. Also absent: any reference to the three Israelis who were brutally murdered in the settlement of Halamish on Friday night. It was a far cry from nonviolent resistance when 19-year-old Omar al-Abed entered a home, saw a family finishing a Shabbat dinner, and began indiscriminately stabbing his victims.
Sarsour’s rhetoric is dangerous precisely because she understands her audience and how to appeal to their emotions. She peppers her statements with a few felicitous bromides like “non-violent resistance” and hopes no one notices the inconsistency of her arguments. Others on the left are slightly more honest about their intentions.
Writing in Al Jazeera, Stanley Cohen called on Israel to “accept that as an occupied people, Palestinians have a right to resist—in every way possible.” He begins by telling his readers: “long ago, it was settled that resistance and even armed struggle against a colonial occupation force is not just recognized under international law but specifically endorsed.” His entire article is predicated on a false premise in that it demands the characterization of Israel as a “colonial occupation force”— a characterization that is categorically incoherent.
Cohen cites a 1982 UN Resolution which “reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle.” He does not mention which countries voted for and against this resolution.
Among the countries that voted for it: Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Rwanda, Qatar, Niger, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq.
Among the countries who voted against it: Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States.
On college campuses, the call for armed struggle has become the Cri de Coeur of leftist students who are otherwise hypersensitive to the impact that intangible words can have on corporeal beings. On Columbia’s campus, students who form the backbone of the BDS movement have successfully blurred the line between incitement and impassioned—albeit severely misguided—opinion. In 2016, the Columbia/ Barnard Socialists concluded one social media post by declaring: “long live the intifada.” As recently as Sunday—after the Halamish attack— the Students for Justice in Palestine shared the Al Jazeera article calling for armed resistance. Where are the outraged professors, administrators, and students concerned for the safety of the student body? Where are the charges of bigotry and racism, the calls to silence this speech, to stop this violence?
Nowhere does the idea that speech can constitute violence find more support than on elite liberal arts colleges. But regardless of whether they have intellectual or moral merit on their own, calls for safe spaces, trigger warnings, and micro-aggression-free environments that come from groups or individuals who not only condone, but use their words to quite literally call for violence, must be ignored, and the hypocrisy highlighted.
From the safe confines of an ivy-covered campus–or from the relative safety of this country, for that matter–it’s easy to preach justice and retribution, to portray armed struggle as the necessary means that will find justification through a righteous end. But especially those who are sensitive to the power of language should understand: euphemistic terminology does nothing to mitigate the violent nature inherent in this rhetoric. There must be no confusion. The left’s glorification of armed struggle is nothing short of approval for those Palestinians who target and kill innocent men, women, and children. Those who proclaim to speak for social justice have been damningly silent.
Podcast: How bad is it?
On the first of this week’s COMMENTARY podcasts, Noah Rothman and Abe Greenwald join me to sort through—and we do it systematically, which is a first for us—what is going on with the Russia investigation and how it divides into three categories. There’s the question of the probe itself, there’s the question of collusion, and there’s the question of obstruction of justice. It’s really good. I mean it. Give a listen.
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