The announcement that the so-called “proximity” talks started up today is, as Noah wrote earlier today, a “victory” of some sort for President Obama because the existence of such talks allows the president to pretend that he is advancing the cause of peace.
However, American friends of Israel might well note the difference between the current negotiations and the last round of (unsuccessful) talks held between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority in 2008. Like the current talks, those negotiations were also strongly backed by the United States, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seemed to sincerely believe that the process started in Annapolis in the fall of 2007 had a reasonable chance of success. The Palestinians proved her wrong. At that time, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered the PA a state in Gaza, the West Bank, and part of Jerusalem and even agreed, to the dismay of most Israelis, to take back some Palestinian refugees into Israel as well as to share sovereignty over the Old City of Jerusalem. But the answer from the moderate Mahmoud Abbas and his likeable Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was no different from that given to Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton by Yasser Arafat when they offered a similar package in 2000 and 2001: no!
But then, at least, the parties were speaking directly to each other. Not passing messages to each other via intermediaries as bored middle-school students do. And as much as the United States made it very clear to the Israelis that America wanted them to make even more concessions to the Arabs than ever before (a wish that was readily granted by Olmert), the United States did not offer the Palestinians a veto over the existence of the talks. Neither did it take a stand on a critical final-status issue that prejudiced Israel’s negotiating position in such a way as to render any discussions on the matter largely moot.
But that’s exactly what the United States has done by allowing the Palestinians to avoid talks until a building freeze was put into place on Jewish housing in existing Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. By treating these neighborhoods, most of which are nearly 40 years old, as indistinguishable from “settlements” in outlying areas of the West Bank, the Obama administration has signaled that it views the more than 200,000 Jews who live in those neighborhoods with the same contempt as it views the settlers in the West Bank. By making an issue out of building in these areas, Obama has made it impossible for the Palestinians to concede them to Israel even in a theoretical final-status agreement. Thus any house, even privately built in one of those neighborhoods, now becomes a U.S.-endorsed rationale for the Palestinians to pull out of talks that they had no interest in to begin with.
The ultimate fate of these negotiations is no mystery. Just as was the case in 2008, even if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conceded everything that his American and domestic critics demand, there is virtually no chance that Abbas will sign any paper that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state. In that sense, the 2010 talks are no different from the 2008 version. But the administration’s undermining of Israel’s position will make it easier for the Palestinians to blame their refusal to make peace on the Israelis. And for that, they have Barack Obama to thank.
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Middle East Peace Talks: What Changed in the Last Two Years?
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The controversy surrounding ugly and profane remarks Donald Trump allegedly made in a meeting with a bipartisan group of senators has had a longer half-life than the average Trump-linked contretemps, perhaps because so many appear willing to throw themselves under its treads.
When the scandal broke, the usual suspects immediately volunteered as tribute in defense of Trump’s honor. Many claimed that the president’s alleged assertion—that certain equatorial regions of the world were blighted cesspits—was an empirical fact. The president, they averred, was guilty only of describing these fetid nations with his trademark “authenticity.” Then, when Trump emerged about 14 hours after the scandal broke to insist he had never made the comments attributed to him, his defenders pivoted on a dime and echoed the president’s assertion.
This scandal might not have damaged the credibility of so many of Trump’s allies if the White House had not responded to it with such lethargy. At first, the White House press office didn’t even bother denying claims made by the meeting’s attendees. According to reporting in outlets like the New York Times and by conservative columnists like Erick Erickson, Trump initially did not see much of a scandal at all. “His base loved what he said,” the Times dispatch read, “a refrain he repeated in phone calls over the holiday weekend.” Finally, after nearly a week, the administration’s clean-up crew got around to defending their principal in a reasonably convincing way. Their line of defense will, however, have lasting and damaging consequences for the conservative movement.
“Look, no one here is going to pretend like the president is always politically correct. He isn’t,” said Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “He tells things like they are sometimes, and sometimes he does use tough language.”
Do Republicans recognize what an irresponsible mishandling of their agenda these comments represent?
The president is credibly accused of contending that skilled immigrants primarily originate from European nations like Norway and, perhaps, East Asia. They do not come from places like Haiti or Sub-Saharan Africa. This is factually inaccurate; these countries produce more assimilative and better-educated immigrants than Europe does, and the nations the president derided as “s***holes” are usually more enthusiastic American values than are their European counterparts. It’s no coincidence that Trump enjoys some of the strongest approval ratings abroad in places like Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ghana.
There is a word that describes the assumption that skilled and assimilative immigrants can only come from certain countries, and it’s not “un-PC.” Compared to the outright racial hostility underlying the sentiments expressed by Donald Trump in what amounts to only his latest racially-tainted controversy, the stuff we used to consider “politically correct” is downright quaint.
As Robert Novak demonstrated in his 1995 essay on political correctness in American newsrooms, offenses against PC dictates were once limited to phrases like “Indian summer,” “Welshed on a bet,” and going “Dutch” on a check. More recently, descriptive phrases like “radical Islamic terrorism” and even gender-specific pronouns are under attack. When conservatives objected to PC culture, they did so in defense of clarity and concision. Too often, politically correct language obscured and obfuscated under the pretense of being both precise and civil.
This is why what Donald Trump and his Praetorians are doing by appropriating anti-PC crusaderism in defense of his unenlightened racial effrontery is so reckless. In pursuit of a quick and painless way to get the president out of the latest mess he’s created for himself, Trump’s defenders are blurring the lines between opposition to censorious liberal culture warriors and bigotry. Trump is not winning any converts to his crusade; this White House preaches to the converted. In the end, the president’s conduct may instead ratify political correctness as a necessary check on those inclined toward racial antagonism. If Trump’s fans think “telling it like it is” amounts to presuming people cannot contribute meaningfully to the American bottom line due only to their places of birth, they’ll soon find that Americans have no appetite for that kind of candor.
No amount of evidence will convince pro-Trump partisans of their totem’s flaws. The president’s historically low approval ratings despite a strong economy at home and peace abroad haven’t done it. The slaughter of Republicans in the off-year elections didn’t do it. The drubbing Republicans are about to take in the midterm elections won’t do it. For them, Trump’s political success is self-justifying. He threw out all the rules, ran what should have been a radioactive campaign, abandoned the GOP’s post-2012 prescriptions, and won. Nothing will convince them of the error of Trump’s present course until it is far too late to mitigate the damage.
If one of Trump’s legacies is to taint anti-PC culture with the stain of racism, it will do American discourse a great disservice. Trump will have demonstrated to a critical mass of persuadable Americans that the PC crowd was right all along; they were all that kept the hateful bigotry of a bygone age from reemerging from the shadows. But the costs of the Trump era will only become clear in hindsight, when they are intractable features of the political landscape. Today, there are tax cuts to celebrate.
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Deliver us from communism.
Vatican diplomacy moves slowly and cautiously. The Pope is the spiritual leader of some 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, but he commands no armies and his statecraft runs mostly on moral authority. He and his representatives understandably prefer quiet, behind-the-scenes advocacy to public grandstanding. But from time to time, it becomes necessary for the Holy See and the Pope himself to throw down the gauntlet to worldly authorities that threaten the Church and her flock.
Such a time is at hand in Venezuela.
On Monday, Venezuela’s socialist thug-in-chief, Nicolas Maduro, called on prosecutors and the Supreme Court to investigate two Roman Catholic bishops for supposed hate crimes. Maduro didn’t name any specific prelates, but local media outlets have identified Bishops Victor Hugo Basabe of San Felipe and Antonio Lopez Castillo of Barquisimeto as potential targets. These bishops’ only “crime” is speaking out against the graft and socialist mismanagement that have transformed the country from one of the breadbaskets of Latin America into a basket case.
Bishop Basabe had recently prayed for Venezuela to be delivered from the “corrupt plague” that has forced thousands to dig “through the trash looking for garbage to satisfy their hunger.” Bishop Castillo elicited cheers from his diocesans when he expressed similar sentiments at a Mass. This wasn’t the first time that Venezuelan prelates had challenged the regime. The Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference in July tweeted a prayer asking the Blessed Virgin Mary to “free our homeland from the claws of communism and socialism.” Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, the archbishop of Caracas, hasn’t minced words, either. In September, he told the newspaper El Tiempo that “all Venezuelans, especially those who have a larger responsibility in society, have the obligation to defend their rights and everybody else’s. That’s what we do as the Catholic Church, and that’s the reason the government doesn’t want us.”
Yet Pope Francis’ response has been disappointing. So far, he has mainly offered bland, conciliatory words that seem to suggest a moral equivalence between the socialist regime and the opposition. This, even as Venezuela’s economic crisis has worsened and thousands have braved police-state brutality to protest Maduro’s dictatorship. The Holy See played mediator in a “dialogue” that went nowhere last year. At one point, the pontiff seemed to blame the opposition for the breakdown. “Part of the opposition does not want this” dialogue, he told reporters last spring. “Interesting, the opposition itself is divided and, on the other hand, it seems that the conflicts are increasingly escalating.”
Since those puzzling comments, the Vatican has issued at least one statement denouncing Maduro’s efforts to destroy the last vestiges of Venezuelan democracy. But the rhetoric from Rome remains tepid, and one gets the sense that the Pope’s heart isn’t in the struggle. Perhaps, as my former Wall Street Journal colleague William McGurn has written, the Pope still looks on world events through a Latin-American leftist lens, in which the bad guys are always capitalists, American corporations, and their local compradors. The Venezuelan situation doesn’t quite fit into that worldview. Rather, it reaffirms the truth that socialism and collectivism are the surest recipes for poverty and starvation.
Whatever its origins, the Pope’s hesitant posture is no longer tenable in light of Maduro’s latest attempt to intimidate the Church. Venezuela is an overwhelmingly Catholic country in an overwhelmingly Catholic region, and its regime has lost all legitimacy. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must not behave in a despotic manner, but must act for the common good as a moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility. Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse.
The Catholic Church cannot remain silent, nor can it equivocate, in the face of such abuse.
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Confrontation or competence?
Republicans are fortunate. Whenever they find themselves in positions of advantage amid a crisis or controversy that reflects poorly on Democrats, the press becomes consumed with concern for the GOP’s well-being. In these moments of Democratic misfortune, political analysts in media can often be heard fretting over the prospect of Republican “overreach.” They warn that those in the GOP should not “overplay their hand,” and observe that the scandals engulfing their opposition are subordinate to the fact that Republicans have an unattractive tendency to “pounce” on the news. Democrats don’t have the luxury of such faithful and consistent mentorship, which is unfortunate for them. They’re going to need it. With Republicans stumbling into one self-set trap after another, and their opponents enjoying the spoils, the Trump era’s newly empowered Democrats already seem tempted to mistake their good fortune for a mandate.
Patient zero in this particular strain of narcissism took the oath of office in New Jersey on Tuesday. Governor Phil Murphy succeeded Chris Christie, the most unpopular governor in the nation, to take the reins of what is once again a dark blue state. The new governor would be well served by acting as an antidote to the traits that once endeared his predecessor to the Garden State’s voters but which fast became grating. Murphy might govern with modesty, observing that his party is only just beginning to recover from the decimation of the Obama years. He might be cautious and prudent and look more toward his state’s political and fiscal health than the vigor of his political career. He might defer to the will of the voters even if that diverges from his particular preferences or the consensus of his party’s activist base. Apparently, none of that is going to happen.
Murphy took the oath of office on John F. Kennedy’s Bible, which he got on loan from the department of ham-fisted political analogies. This was not the first sign that the new governor intends to make himself into a national figure. He has advertised that the early days of his administration will be dedicated to pursuing every liberal flight of fancy that has captured the hearts of the blogosphere over the last few years.
“If Murphy has his way,” the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel previewed, “New Jersey will become a proving ground for every liberal policy idea coming into fashion, from legalized marijuana to a $15 minimum wage, from a ‘millionaire’s tax’ to a virtual bill of rights for undocumented immigrants.” What’s more, the governor plans to add “automatic voter registration” and longer early-voting periods to his list of priorities, reducing such modest obstacles to participating in the civic process as knowing how to register to vote and on what day the Constitution dictates elections should be held.
Republicans tend to be as fatalistic about automatic voter registration as Democrats are about gerrymandering. Nothing guarantees either of the two major parties election victories in perpetuity; one big wave can overcome most efforts to game the system. But Republicans are right to worry about the effect of one-party rule. If higher taxes and increased costs of doing business have the effect of accelerating the flight of the tax base from New Jersey, as they reliably do, surely Democrats in Trenton will appeal to their surest source of relief: increasing sales, gasoline, and property taxes. Thus, the cycle self-perpetuates, but that which is unsustainable will not go on forever. Murphy intends to use the cover of a roaring economy to abandon not just austere measures like pension reform but basic fiscal prudence. One day, however, the bill will come due.
Ultimately, what Democrats should be most cautious about is the temptation to govern as anti-Trumps. Implementing protections for illegal immigrants—including state-issued identification, in-state college tuition, and driver’s licenses—could put the state’s federal funding in jeopardy and negatively impact the state’s legal residents. Setting marijuana policy that conflicts with the Department of Justice might be popular with New Jersey’s voters, but it conscripts average citizens into a proxy war between blue Trenton and red Washington D.C. Picking fights with the administration for its own stake would satisfy the party’s base voters and raise the governor’s profile, but the human costs will be real.
Democrats in the Trump era would be best served by demonstrating that they can govern as competent, dispassionate stewards of the public good. Unfortunately for residents of the Garden State, they are about to be the subjects of a great experiment. According to Weigel, Murphy intends to make the state into a “progressive beacon,” rather than just a sustainable place to live and work. If he were a Republican, Murphy would have been told by now that he runs the risk of overreaching. Unfortunately for Murphy, the press and the pundit class just isn’t invested enough in Democrats’ political fortunes to offer that kind of well-meaning advice.
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Podcast: The politics of profanity.
Donald Trump can’t decide which person he is on immigration—the one with love or the one who prefers Nordics to Nigerians. Meanwhile, Hawaii tells its people a ballistic missile is on its way but surprise! It isn’t. And everybody blames Trump anyway. It’s our first podcast of the week. Give a listen.
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Clemancy for Manning and Arpaio backfires.
Americans are about to have another “entertaining” election cycle at a time when the country desperately needs a return to boredom and predictability. In Arizona, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s decision to challenge conspiracy-theory enthusiast and former state Senator Kelli Ward ensures that the race to replace retiring Senator Jeff Flake will become a competition to see who can do their best Roy Moore impression. Democrats should hold the schadenfreude. They have their own embarrassment to contain in Maryland, where Chelsea Manning—the former U.S. Army soldier court-martialed in 2013 for violating the Espionage Act—will challenge Senator Ben Cardin. Both candidacies represent a humiliating stain on their respective parties, not just because they are reflective of their increasingly legitimized fringes, but because they are the result of the worst ideological excesses of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Joe Arpaio should have never received a presidential pardon. The former sheriff was found to have flagrantly racially profiled Latinos and was convicted of ignoring a court order to cease that practice. Arpaio had not even been formally sentenced before Trump’s Justice Department ordered the conviction to be wiped from the books. Some have argued that Arpaio’s behavior violates the spirit of the pardon because he never repented for his conduct. Indeed, he remains defiant to this day. During a recent appearance on cable news, for example, Arpaio insisted that he remained innocent of the charges on which he was convicted until he was informed that accepting a pardon is a de facto admission of guilt.
The pardoning of Joe Arpaio for engaging in racial discrimination and displaying contempt for the law tainted the Republican Party even before the sheriff decided to resume his political career. The oppressive police practices he oversaw, the “concentration camp” (as he called it) he ran, his cruel treatment of the victims of sex crimes, journalists, and even household pets are well documented. Donald Trump’s decision to forgive this serial abuser of Americans’ constitutional rights confirmed in a single stroke the pervasive liberal claim that Republicans aren’t just blind to but supportive of institutional racism.
That will be how Democrats leverage the cacophony of migraine-inducing soundbites that are sure to bubble up into the national news cycle during the primary race in Arizona. Arpaio, they will say, is not an aberration but the apotheosis of conservatism, indicative of the racial anxiety that was always a feature of the movement. That’s not entirely unfair, but political movements are a reflection of their leadership. Donald Trump’s paranoia and racial hostility have provided his supporters with a template. This White House is well aware of the base sentiments their principal channels and, as such, they don’t dare tamp those sentiments down when they are summoned by aspiring Trump imitators. To do so would invite accusations of hypocrisy.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Republican Party’s kooks were considered anti-establishment insurgents. They had to fight against the party’s gatekeepers to get a hearing from voters. Donald Trump’s comportment helped legitimize people like Joe Arpaio. This candidacy and the damage it may yet do to the Republican Party’s brand (already a wounded animal) is a creation of this president.
Similarly, the baggage Chelsea Manning brings to the table in Maryland was packed by Barack Obama. Her candidacy is only likely to confirm voters’ worst suspicions about the Democratic Party’s activist base, but it was Obama who demonstrated that those fears are not unsupported.
Obama’s decision to offer Manning clemency was one of the final acts of his presidency, a period usually typified by actions the outgoing executive doesn’t want to have to defend publicly. Manning betrayed the United States while serving in uniform by providing the Russian-linked information clearinghouse WikiLeaks with a variety of sensitive documents about the American mission in Iraq and Afghanistan. Manning was stripped of his rank and imprisoned—rightly so—for putting the lives of U.S. servicemen and women and those who worked with them at risk. And then, Manning transitioned from a man into a woman, thus imposing a paralyzing moral conundrum on the Democratic Party. In the age of identity, Manning’s transgenderism transformed this convicted criminal into a victim overnight.
Obama’s defenders justified the commutation of Manning’s sentence by noting that she struggled with frequent attacks on her identity as a transgender woman in a male prison and twice tried to commit suicide. The demands she made regarding the treatment of gender dysphoria, including sexual-reassignment surgery, complicated her incarceration. What’s more, having served seven years of a 35-year sentence—the longest punishment imposed on someone convicted of leaking sensitive documents—it’s not a stretch to suggest that Manning served the debt owed to society.
As a private citizen, Manning has been treated to glowing profiles in outlets ranging from Yahoo Beauty to Vogue and has been embraced by the American Civil Liberties Union. As James Kirchick demonstrated, these labored displays of sycophancy aren’t about Manning, per se. She’s merely a totem in service to the idea that the stigmas associated with transgenderism must be abjured. In the process of abjuring them, though, the American left has rehabilitated a person who calls the United States a “police state,” who thinks Law Enforcement Appreciation Day is a good opportunity to write “f*** the police” on her Twitter account, and who is barred from entering Canada for committing a crime outside the country that “would equate to an indictable offence, namely treason.”
People and institutions welcoming Manning’s Senate candidacy with a notorious hostility toward American force projection abroad and its law enforcement techniques at home. Perhaps worst of all, Manning is seemingly incapable of communicating like an adult—appealing to the most insipid displays of mediocrity overburdened with puerile sentimentality and emojis. And anyone who dares make mention of any of this is bludgeoned into silence by liberal activists who cynically equate criticisms of Manning’s behavior with displays of bigotry toward the transgender community.
Neither Joe Arpaio nor Chelsea Manning deserved their reprieves. The legitimacy these two blights on the American political ethos enjoy today is a product of the most reckless, self-indulgent impulses of the presidents who gave them clemancy. They are funhouse mirror reflections of their respective party’s base voters. These candidacies are not aberrations; they are the wages of a partisan political culture that values provoking adversaries over substantive engagement. It’s up to responsible voices within both parties’ political establishments to ensure that these candidacies aren’t harbingers of things to come.