For generations, historians have lauded the friendship that existed between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as being a crucial element that made the wartime alliance between the United States and Great Britain a success. But apparently there are some people who aren’t as happy about the prospect of close relations between a would-be U.S. president and the head of the government of one of America’s closest allies. The New York Times devoted a portion of the cover of its Sunday edition and considerable space inside to a feature that detailed the ties between likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that go back to the 1970’s when both were young men working at the Boston Consulting Group. According to the Times, this has some people worried that too much “deference” on Romney’s part to Netanyahu would “influence decision making” and possibly “subcontract Middle East policy to Israel.”
This potential smear invokes two of the hoary canards of anti-Israel invective: the dual loyalty charge (usually lodged against American Jews) and the notion that a politician is pandering to the pro-Israel community for votes (in this case, evangelical Christians are the more likely candidates for influence than the more liberal Jews). But the idea that Romney is suspect because he has a longstanding friendship with the Israeli prime minister is absurd. Allies are supposed to be friends or at least ought to be able to understand each other and speak frankly about potential conflicts. Given that President Obama spent the first three years of his presidency picking fights with Netanyahu that did nothing to enhance America’s strategic position or the Middle East peace process, wouldn’t Romney’s ability to communicate without rancor with the Israeli be an advantage rather than a cause of suspicion?
Close allies and friends can disagree and often do as did Roosevelt and Churchill. We imagine the same would apply to Romney and Netanyahu. The idea that a Romney administration would “subcontract Middle East policy to Israel” is nonsense. The U.S. is always going to view events through the prism of its own specific interests, as does Israel. But problems arise not so much because of the existence of these different frames of reference but from a failure of leaders to be able to communicate their positions and to understand those of their ally’s. In this case, the ability of Romney and Netanyahu to understand each other’s thinking will enhance not only the security of Israel but of the United States.
With Obama, whose lack of affinity for Israel is obvious and distaste for Netanyahu is a matter of public record, the prime minister has good reason to doubt the word of the president when he asks Israel to forbear from taking certain actions or to defer to America’s wishes. It is possible that Romney would have far more latitude to press the Israelis because, as was the case between George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, there will be a strong sense of trust. Whether that would work out to Israel’s benefit is an open question, but at a time when both nations are facing a deadly nuclear threat from Iran, more trust and communication between Washington and Jerusalem is certainly to be welcomed.
It is true that some found Romney’s debate line in which disparaged Newt Gingrich’s quip about the Palestinians being an invented people disturbing. Romney said, “Before I made a statement of that nature, I’d get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say: ‘Would it help if I say this? What would you like me to do?’” But it makes perfect sense that any American president would wish to confer with the prime minister of Israel before launching any barb at the Palestinians, let alone a policy change. That is not the case with Obama, who has frequently sought to ambush the Israeli.
Lest anyone think Romney and Netanyahu are blood brothers, the Times feature ought to make it clear the two have not exactly been in constant contact since they first met in 1976. They knew and admired each other as successful young men working together but only renewed that friendship many years later after Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts. The fact that Romney worked for a time with Netanyahu’s second wife Fleur Cates, something that the Times throws in for ballast, is irrelevant to this discussion as he divorced her almost 30 years ago.
The only way a close knowledge and good relationship with Israel’s prime minister could be considered a drawback in an American president is if you thought there was something questionable about the alliance between the two countries in the first place. Those who promote the Walt-Mearsheimer Israel Lobby canard about U.S. supporters of Israel being disloyal to the United States will, no doubt, regard the Romney-Netanyahu friendship as a reason to vote against the Republican. They will, no doubt prefer a president like Obama who sees an Islamist such as Turkey’s Recey Tayyip Erdoğan as the sort of foreign leader he feels more comfortable with. But for the vast majority of Americans who think of Israel in much the same way as they once thought of Britain — as a wartime ally — it will be one more argument in Romney’s favor.
Mitt-Bibi Controversy? Aren’t Allies Supposed to Be Friends?
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The definition of sanity.
President Donald Trump’s address to the UN last week received considerable attention for what he actually said. No less interesting, however, is what he didn’t say. The speech contained zero mention of the Palestinians, zero mention of their conflict with Israel, and zero mention of the peace process Trump has been trying to revive.
This omission isn’t unprecedented, but it is unusual; most U.S. presidents have included the Israeli-Palestinian issue in their annual UN addresses. And it seems especially surprising for a president who has repeatedly declared Israeli-Palestinian peace to be one of his major foreign policy goals.
Yet the omission is perfectly consistent with Trump’s approach to the peace process to date, which has differed markedly from that of all his predecessors in one crucial regard: He appears to be trying to apply serious pressure to the Palestinians rather than only to Israel.
Take, for instance, his administration’s consistent refusal to say that the goal of the peace process is a two-state solution. Since efforts to achieve a two-state solution have repeatedly failed for almost 25 years now, it makes obvious sense for anyone who’s serious about trying to solve the conflict to at least consider whether this is really the most workable option. But even if, as seems likely, the administration actually does believe in the two-state solution, refusing to publicly commit to it serves an important purpose.
That’s because insisting that the end goal be a Palestinian state is a major concession to the Palestinians—something that has unfortunately been forgotten over the last quarter century. After all, throughout Israel’s first 45 years of existence, there was almost wall-to-wall consensus among Israelis that a Palestinian state would endanger their country. Even the 1993 Oslo Accord included no mention of Palestinian statehood, and the man who signed it, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, asserted in his final address to the Knesset in 1995 that he envisioned a “Palestinian entity . . . which is less than a state.”
Yet to date, this significant concession to the Palestinians has never been accompanied by a corresponding Palestinian concession to Israel. Though the Palestinians insist on a Palestinian nation-state, they still refuse to accept a Jewish nation-state alongside it. Instead, they demand that millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees be allowed to relocate to Israel, turning it into a binational state.
Nor has this major concession to the Palestinians been accompanied by a corresponding international concession to Israel. The European Union, for instance, repeatedly makes very specific demands of Israel, insisting that it accept a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines and Jerusalem as the capital of two states. But the EU has never demanded that the Palestinians accept a Jewish state or give up their idea of relocating millions of Palestinians to Israel. Instead, it merely calls for an unspecified “just, fair, agreed and realistic solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem, which the Palestinians–who view flooding Israel with millions of Palestinians as the only “just” solution–can easily interpret as support for their position.
In short, until Trump came along, the Palestinians won this major concession for free. Now, by refusing to declare a two-state solution as his goal, he has essentially told the Palestinians, for the first time in the history of the peace process, that every concession they previously pocketed is reversible unless and until they actually sign a deal. In other words, for the first time in the history of the peace process, he has told the Palestinians they have something to lose by intransigence. And if they want to reinstate America’s commitment to a Palestinian state, they will have to give something in exchange.
The same goes for Trump’s refusal even to mention the Palestinians in his UN speech. When former Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly insisted that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the world’s most important foreign policy problem (a message routinely echoed by European diplomats), that gave the Palestinians tremendous leverage. Since they have always been the more intransigent side, the easiest path for any broker to follow is to simply support more and more Palestinian demands without requiring any substantive Palestinian concessions in return and then try to pressure Israel into agreeing. Thus, if world leaders are desperate to resolve the conflict, they will naturally tend to take that easy path in the hope of producing quick “achievements,” which is, in fact, what has happened over the last two decades. The result is that the Palestinians have concluded they can keep getting more simply by continuing to say no.
In his UN speech, Trump sent the opposite message: There are a lot of important foreign policy issues, like North Korea and Iran, and the Palestinian issue is so trivial by comparison that it doesn’t even merit a mention. In other words, though Trump would like to broker a peace deal, it isn’t necessary for America’s own interests. And therefore, it’s only worth investing time and effort in it if Palestinians and Israelis are both actually ready to deal, which means the Palestinians will have to be ready to finally make some concessions.
There are ample grounds for skepticism about whether Trump’s approach will work; based on the accumulated evidence of the last quarter century, I consider it far more likely that the Palestinians simply aren’t interested in signing a deal on any terms. Nevertheless, there is a plausible alternative theory. Perhaps Palestinians keep saying no simply because doing so has proven effective in securing more concessions. And if that’s the case, then reversing this perverse set of incentives by telling them they stand to lose from intransigence rather than gain by it could actually be effective.
Whether he succeeds or fails, Trump deserves credit for trying something new. Given the failure of his predecessors to achieve peace, only State Department bureaucrats could imagine that doing the same thing one more time would somehow produce different results.
Podcast: Trump starts a fight, but will he win it?
The first COMMENTARY podcast of the week finds us (me, Abe Greenwald, and Noah Rothman) discussing the weekend of knee-taking and Trump-tweeting about patriotism and the NFL and blah blah blah while North Korea threatens hydrogen bomb-testing and Puerto Rico reverts to a state of nature. And we enjoy the decline and fall of Valerie Plame. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
What is he winning exactly?
Conservative political analysts seem so wrapped up in the matter of whether or not Donald Trump can, no one has given much thought to whether he should.
The latest national scandal, which will surely be as fleeting as its myriad predecessors, was whipped up by the president on a whim while he fed off the adoration of his fans at an Alabama political rally over the weekend. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of the NFL owners when somebody disrespects the flag to say get that sonofabitch off the field?” the president boomed. The crowd roared, Trump absorbed the positive feedback, and the nation’s opinion makers on the right and the left responded to the president’s goading with Pavlovian predictability. Trump so enjoyed the quivering of the raw nerve he touched that he spent the following morning attacking a variety of African-American professional athletes and disinviting them to the White House on, ostensibly, patriotic grounds.
What urgent controversy was the president addressing? Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who became the subject of national scrutiny when he opted to protest police violence targeting African-Americans by kneeling for the national anthem, hasn’t played in the National Football League this year. He became a free agent when his contract elapsed in March, and another team did not sign him.
Isolated episodes of questionable police violence against African-Americans persist, like the tragic 2016 murder of Philando Castile—a case in which moral justice, as opposed to the purely procedural variety, has proven elusive. So, too, do contentions that some police departments are eager to cover that violence up, like the three Chicago officers indicated for conspiring to hide evidence related to the fatal 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald. But were there mass Black Lives Matter protests paralyzing American urban centers when the president made his remarks, as there had been in years past? No.
The president decided to ignite a controversy, and the nation’s culturally conservative commentators—even those sympathetic to claims that justice is routinely denied blacks in over-policed portions of the country—proceeded to deem Trump the winner of this manufactured kerfuffle. National Review’s Rich Lowry noted that Trump’s antipathy toward Kaepernick and those in professional sports who sympathize with his tactics called his agitation indicative of a “gut-level political savvy.” The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson agreed: “Donald Trump Did Not Start This. But He Will Finish It. And He Will Win.”
As a purely dispassionate political analysis, these assertions have undeniable merit. The majority of the country does not see the American flag or the national anthem of the United States as symbols of oppression, and a majority in 2016 did not sympathize with those who “take the knee.” They might think that African-Americans, in particular, have a legitimate claim to make against the state, but see the broad brush with which some protesters tar the country as unfair to a nation that has sacrificed much to secure freedom and egalitarianism for both its citizens and the whole of mankind. And perhaps white Americans who resent these protesters see Trump as a medium through which they can communicate this point of view to a cultural media establishment that rejects it in its entirety and with overwhelming, righteous passion.
But is Trump winning anything beyond a likely short-lived reprieve from a focus on the fact that he has yet to secure a legislative achievement that will outlast his presidency? No. He has, instead, expertly torn asunder existing fissures in the country, exploiting them for his own temporary political gain. Is Trump as the avatar of true patriotism, self-sacrifice, and national healing toward a racial consensus? Is he going to truly advance the goals of his so-called “silent majority?” Or is he going to increase tensions? Has he brought the nation together, or did he simply embitter white Americans and alienate their black counterparts? Is this leadership? Is it conservative? The right once knew the answers to these questions, but it took a Democrat to make them see it.
To call Trump’s crusade or the campaign of kneeling for the Star Spangled Banner a culture war annoys activists on both sides. For the kneelers, they are protesting state-sponsored bloodletting; their cause is existential. For those who stand, the very definition of their nation is at stake, and the security it provides them and their families with it. But no one so protested when it was Barack Obama serving on the front lines of what most agreed was a culture war.
In 2014, along with making a point of only calling on women during a press conference and executing a variety of legally dubious (and doomed) executive actions on immigration, Obama indulged his liberal critics by finally speaking out more boldly on the issue of race in popular media venues like Black Entertainment Television. Following the 2014 killing of Eric Garner by New York City police in a chokehold after he tried to sell loosie cigarettes, the president went out of his way to endorse the actions of professional athletes who were disgusted by the injustice.
“You know, I think LeBron [James] did the right thing,” Barack Obama told People Magazine regarding the NBA star’s decision to wear a t-shirt bearing Garner’s last reported words: “I can’t breathe.” Obama compared James to the icons of led the fight for civil rights. “We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness,” he insisted. “I’d like to see more athletes do that—not just around this issue, but around a range of issues.”
Anti-Trump activists who are deservedly incensed by Trump’s behavior will claim that there is no comparison between these two assertions, but that’s how precedents work. Those who inherit them build upon them in ways that are not always optimal or prudent. That’s why presidents should be cautious about setting them. Barack Obama spoke more eloquently and with greater delicacy on the issue of race than Trump is capable of or interested in mimicking, but the 44th President did not heal divisions with these comments. There was no legislative remedy available to Obama to address the issue of excessive local policing targeting minorities. Because such behavior violates existing laws, it is a matter only of enforcement. That’s why Obama’s supporters demanded only that the president speak his mind on race and discrimination, and were largely satisfied when he did.
Culture wars beget a response because they almost never end—not totally. It’s too much to expect those who cheered on Obama’s decision to wade into contentious cultural matters to engage in any introspection, but conservatives should be expected to recall the admonitions they once issued not all that long ago. The president’s words matter a great deal, and he should be supremely careful about deploying them. They can and often do yield more harm than good.
Competition is a scary thing.
Soon after last summer’s U.K. vote to leave the European Union, London Mayor Sadiq Khan launched a publicity campaign to reassure investors that his city would remain a dynamic, global hub after Brexit. “London Is Open” was the slogan, and it was supposed to “show the world that London remains entrepreneurial, international and full of creativity and possibility.”
So much for that. Friday’s decision by the city’s transport regulator not to renew Uber’s license suggests that Khan’s London is closed to competition and in thrall to local special interests.
The regulator, Transport for London, said the decision was based on Uber’s alleged lack of corporate responsibility in a variety of areas, particularly public safety. Yet there is no Uber-driven safety crisis in London. If Uber has made missteps, as any company might, putting 40,000 drivers out of work and inconveniencing 3.5 million London riders is a terrible way to respond.
Public safety is a pretext. The Uber ban comes after years of lobbying–and strikes and bullying–by the city’s black-taxi cartel. Before Uber came along, the industry’s high barriers to entry shielded black taxis from competition. It takes tens of thousands of pounds to buy a black cab and years to acquire “the knowledge”–drivers’ vaunted ability to memorize and instantly recall the best way to any destination.
The advent of GPS and ride-sharing meant that having the knowledge wasn’t all that special. Rather than try to outcompete Uber by offering better prices and service, the black taxis continued to charge outrageously overpriced fares. And they sought to defeat ride-sharing politically. Now they have succeeded. The losers are riders who used ride-sharing for fast, reliable, and accountable service.
The first black taxi I ever took, in 2014, took me from Heathrow Airport to Euston, in central London. It cost nearly £100 (or $170 at the time). That taught me early on to rely on my Uber app, and since then I have taken hundreds of rides. Defenders of the ban point to pre-booked minicab services and the like that often cost less or about the same as Uber. Yet none of those services offer the speed, ease, and pickup accuracy that Uber does. Black taxis don’t routinely serve many low-income neighborhoods, moreover, whereas Uber works wherever people have smartphones.
If you leave a personal item in a black cab and pay cash, there is no way to recover it. With Uber and similar apps, you can immediately track down your driver, and he will usually return the item to you within hours. As for safety and sexual assault: Rachel Cunliffe pointed out in the Spectator that Uber is the far safer option for female riders, who don’t have to trawl the streets looking for taxis. Every ride and every driver is tracked.
The Uber ban is the triumph of protectionism over innovation and clientelism over consumer choice. London is not open.
A boon to America, the region, and the world.
The Kurds have been a people without a state for centuries. Monday’s independence referendum in northern Iraq’s Kurdish zone is an important step toward rectifying this historic injustice, and I believe the U.S. is making a grave mistake by opposing the vote.
The Trump administration announced its displeasure in a September 15 statement, noting that the referendum “is distracting from the effort to defeat ISIS and stabilize the liberated areas.” It added: “Holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilizing.” The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the White House said, should work out its differences with Baghdad through dialogue.
Not now, go away, in other words. The statement reflected the sort of rigid adherence to Washington dogma that too often prevents America from seizing the opportunities presented by the tectonic shifts in the Middle East. The Trump administration failed even to nod at Kurdish aspirations, or offer an alternative timeline if the current moment is too inconvenient. This was an unnecessary slap when there are compelling moral and strategic reasons for creating a Kurdish state in northern Iraq sooner than later.
The Kurds got by far the worst treatment during the decades of Baathist rule in Iraq. Saddam Hussein ethnically cleansed tens of thousands of them in the 1970s. Then, in the closing days of the Iran-Iraq War, he set out to destroy the Kurdish community. The regime fired chemical weapons at Kurdish civilians, summarily executed men and boys, and sent entire villages to concentration camps.
President George H.W. Bush’s decision to impose a no-fly zone in 1991 granted Iraqi Kurds protection against Saddam’s depredations and a measure of autonomy. The Kurds used the opening, and the one provided by the 2003 invasion, to develop institutions of self-government. Iraqi Kurds constitute a coherent nation. They stand out in a region full of non-nation-states in various stages of disintegration. Kurds speak a common language, albeit with regional variations. Most are Sunni Muslims, though there are Christians and even a very few Jews among them, as well. They have deep historical ties to their territory. Their culture sets them apart, visibly, from their neighbors. They have distinct national institutions. And they already enjoy quasi-state recognition in the corridors of power in Europe, the Middle East, and beyond.
Iraqi Kurds, moreover, share what Douglas Feith has described as the key subjective factor in nationhood: a “type of fellow feeling” that is “an extension of the affection people tend to have for their family members.” Whatever their tribal differences—and these are real—Kurds living in Erbil or Dohuk today look upon other Kurds, not Iraqis, as their true compatriots. The bonds of Kurdish sympathy are much stronger and more enduring than those of Iraqi nationalism, if the latter means much at all.
Taken together, these factors mean that Iraqi Kurds are ripe for statehood. The Arabs have 22 states, and the Turks, Iranians, and Jews each have one—so why shouldn’t the Kurds enjoy statehood? There is no good answer to this question.
Then, too, Iraqi Kurdistan is vibrant and free. In Erbil today, within an hour’s drive from what used to be the second capital of the ISIS “caliphate,” you can enjoy a beer, surf a largely unrestricted Internet, and criticize the government without having to fear death squads. You won’t hear chants of “Death to America” or “Death to Israel” on the streets. There is corruption in the Kurdistan Regional Government, to be sure, and a degree of political nepotism that would make Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump blush. But by regional standards, KRG governance is more than acceptable.
An independent Kurdistan, moreover, will bear strategic fruit for the U.S. It could serve as a counterweight, however small, to Iranian hegemony. KRG leaders have taken a moderate, pragmatic line with all of their neighbors. That is wise policy, given the region’s size and strength relative to the likes of Iran and Turkey. Even so, the introduction of a new, fully sovereign Kurdish actor would interrupt Tehran’s so-called Shiite crescent stretching from Sanaa to Beirut. Today Iraq is trapped in the crescent. An independent Kurdistan wouldn’t be. It would irk the mullahs still more if this new state turned out to be a democratic success story. Conversely, by blocking Kurdish aspirations, the U.S. is putting itself in the same camp as Iran.
Most important, friendship should mean something. Iraqi Kurdish forces fought valiantly alongside the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. When the jihadist army seemed invincible, it was Kurdish fighters who stopped its march across Iraq (and Syria). As Kurdish intelligence chief Masrour Barzani told me in 2015, “In this entire area the Kurds are probably the most pro-American people that you can find. Forever we will be thankful for the U.S. support since the day of toppling Saddam’s regime.”
If Washington keeps neglecting and mistreating friends, America’s credit rating in the region will suffer irreparable harm. Responsible, pro-American populations, like the Iraqi Kurds, deserve American support.