Commentary Magazine


Topic: democracy

Southern Iraq Bypassing Kurdistan in Democracy

Earlier this week, I hosted a panel at the American Enterprise Institute to discuss Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abbadi’s visit to Washington. It was a politically diverse panel with Brian Katulus, a scholar at the Center for American Progress; the New America Foundation’s Douglas Ollivant; and National Defense University’s Denise Natali. Brian’s Arabic is stellar and he has broad experience across the Middle East. While we disagree sometimes with regard to policy prescriptions, his analysis of the facts is always tight, careful, and accurate. Doug, for his part, has spent perhaps more time in Iraq than anyone else outside government, and that doesn’t include his time serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army or subsequent service in the National Security Council. Unlike most analysts, he doesn’t drop in and out of Baghdad for meetings or at the invitation of the U.S. embassy, but rather travels across the country to see the real Iraq beyond the security bubble. And, as for Denise, her experience with Iraq and the Iraqi Kurds goes back decades; she is probably the top expert with regard to Iraqi Kurds in the United States today.

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Earlier this week, I hosted a panel at the American Enterprise Institute to discuss Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abbadi’s visit to Washington. It was a politically diverse panel with Brian Katulus, a scholar at the Center for American Progress; the New America Foundation’s Douglas Ollivant; and National Defense University’s Denise Natali. Brian’s Arabic is stellar and he has broad experience across the Middle East. While we disagree sometimes with regard to policy prescriptions, his analysis of the facts is always tight, careful, and accurate. Doug, for his part, has spent perhaps more time in Iraq than anyone else outside government, and that doesn’t include his time serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army or subsequent service in the National Security Council. Unlike most analysts, he doesn’t drop in and out of Baghdad for meetings or at the invitation of the U.S. embassy, but rather travels across the country to see the real Iraq beyond the security bubble. And, as for Denise, her experience with Iraq and the Iraqi Kurds goes back decades; she is probably the top expert with regard to Iraqi Kurds in the United States today.

The whole panel might be worth watching for a sense of the breadth of the issues beyond the Iraq-U.S. headlines, but there was one topic addressed which might be surprising, and that is the trajectory of democracy and democratization inside Iraq.

For much of the past two decades, Iraqi Kurdistan has laid claims to being not only the most stable, secure region of Iraq, but also the most democratic. This traces back to May 1992 when, in the vacuum created by the abrupt withdrawal of central government forces from Iraqi Kurdistan (Saddam hoped to starve the Kurds into submission), the Kurds held an election in which the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Masud Barzani, topped the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani, 45 percent to 44 percent, with smaller and proxy parties taking the remainder. The two parties agreed to divide power equitably and, when this led to a violent struggle, they simply divided territory between them.

While there have been elections in Iraqi Kurdistan since, their outcome has seldom impacted control of Kurdistan. Indeed, Barzani is now serving the 11th year of his eight-year presidency. Given a choice between the democratic visions of Nelson Mandela or Bashar al-Assad, Barzani chose the latter. He embraced the imagery of democracy (remember Assad as the Western-educated reformer?) while imposing dictatorship. The top ranks of Iraqi Kurdish political life are dominated by an older political class and, when young blood is infused into the system, it is limited to the immediate family, hence the prime minister is Masud’s nephew and the national security council chair is Masud’s son. Ditto the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a party which once prided itself on ideology but now essentially revolves around a few families. Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, the wife of former President Talabani, maneuvered to marginalize able party official Barham Salih because she felt he disrespected her family, but placed her young, articulate, but relatively inexperienced son as deputy prime minister.

The juxtaposition between Iraqi Kurdistan and southern Iraq is striking. Like Kurdistan, southern Iraq is booming. Najaf and Karbala are as dynamic as the cities of Kurdistan were a decade ago, and investment continues to pour in. While most of the parties in power in southern Iraq are Islamist in character, the experience of the past decade has shown many Iraqis that religious rhetoric does not substitute for competence. Incumbents have been ousted, and a new generation of politicians have now risen through the ranks of Da’wa, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and smaller parties. The point is this: Kurdish leaders continue to repress the new generation. Family trumps competence. In southern Iraq, however, competence trumps family.

Among Iraq’s most chronic problems are capacity and management. Iraqis still have far to go in both categories, but there is a growing cadre of technocrats and bureaucrats in southern Iraq who have proven themselves and have begun to rise through the ranks. They have raised the bar of competence on what it takes to be a politician or a civil servant. They know they must deliver, and that holding office is not simply about collecting a monthly salary and an inflated pension. The same is not true in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the competent must either acquiesce to an artificially low glass ceiling, or leave their country to pursue their careers outside Iraq. That is becoming a tragedy for which Kurds might soon pay a major price.

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Imagining a Jewish Conservatism

There is a remarkable expression of market economics in the Mishnah, the Jewish law book, in the discussion of fast days, and it’s worth revisiting when reading this month’s typically incisive Mosaic essay on Jewish conservatism. The Mishnah discusses the establishment of communal fast days when the rains don’t arrive by a certain point in the season in which they are needed. If the drought continues, the leaders declare three such fast days in two weeks, with the fasts taking place on consecutive Mondays and Thursdays. The mishnaic text reads:

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There is a remarkable expression of market economics in the Mishnah, the Jewish law book, in the discussion of fast days, and it’s worth revisiting when reading this month’s typically incisive Mosaic essay on Jewish conservatism. The Mishnah discusses the establishment of communal fast days when the rains don’t arrive by a certain point in the season in which they are needed. If the drought continues, the leaders declare three such fast days in two weeks, with the fasts taking place on consecutive Mondays and Thursdays. The mishnaic text reads:

Public fasts are not to be ordered to commence on a Thursday, in order not to raise the price of victuals in the markets; but the first fasts are to be on Monday, Thursday, and [the following] Monday; but the second three fasts may follow on Thursday, Monday, and [the following] Thursday. R. José says, “Even as the first fasts are not to be commenced on Thursday, so also are the second and last fasts not to commence on that day.”

Beginning an unscheduled fast on Thursday would raise prices just when people need to begin their grocery shopping for Shabbat. According to this logic the second fast can be a Thursday because it’s known in advance, giving shoppers time to prepare ahead of time and causing less havoc in the markets.

What we have here is a rather amazing case of Jewish law being set according to market economics and the principle of unintended consequences. You could call such ideas “conservative” or “classically liberal,” such as they are–but of course they preceded thinkers like Milton Friedman by almost two thousand years.

We’ll come back to Friedman in a moment, but first: this month’s fantastic Mosaic essay. In it, Eric Cohen argues for a Jewish conservatism as a political project in response to the threats–demographic, security, and otherwise–the Jews face today. A summary can’t really do the essay justice, so read the whole thing. Cohen talks about the role of the family in fostering continuity; the purpose of Jewish nationalism; the primacy of economics; and other conceptual areas of this political program. But he also says, as well he should, that: “What such an agenda would look like—its programmatic content—is a task for a separate essay and another occasion.”

Cohen’s purpose is to establish the principles, and he does so with great insight and erudition.

But we should still think about how to fill in the blanks, and also make one important distinction. Cohen’s essay is so valuable because it weaves together disparate elements into a “Jewish conservatism.” Yet part of any program of “Jewish conservatism” will also be conservatism as practiced by Jews. And for that, we really do have some idea how it would look.

Israel is the most obvious testing ground for Jewish conservatism. It is a country ever in the process of breaking free from its socialist shackles, but the seeds were planted earlier.

When we discuss the promotion of democracy abroad, we often hear objections like: “There are no Thomas Jeffersons and James Madisons in Iraq.” True. And what makes the United States and Israel such easy allies is the fact that Israel did have Thomas Jeffersons and James Madisons (though it needed more of them; it could have used a full constitution, for example). One such founder was Vladimir Jabotinsky.

Jabotinsky rejected socialism and had a fuller appreciation of individual liberty than virtually any other Israeli founding father. Here is Jabotinsky on representative democracy:

What is especially difficult to understand is the mentality of those who yearn for “leaders.” The situation was completely different and better in my youth. We believed that every movement was made of people of equal worth. Each one was a prince, each one was a king. When election time came, they chose, not people, but programs. Those who were chosen were nothing but the executors of the program. We, the masses, would follow them and listen to them, not because they were “leaders,” but specifically because they were our “servants”; when you, of your own free will, chose a group of people and order to them to work for you, you had to help them–or remove them. Because you were obeying not their will, but only your own will, which was expressed in the election. … This philosophy of my youth was perhaps a complete fiction (like all human philosophies), but I much prefer it; it had more genius and more noblesse, even though it bore the name, whose prestige has declined–democracy.

When your nationalist movement has such men at the forefront, democracy and freedom are in the DNA of the state that eventually comes into being. Jabotinsky’s vision might not have been described as “conservative” then, but it sure is now. This focus on nationalism and democratic accountability is falling out of favor in the West, but any aspiring political program would do well to swim against that tide.

But we can get more specific than that, with examples, once the state was actually founded–actually, when the right finally won an election nearly thirty years after the founding of the country. Shedding the country’s socialist skin was not easy. But Israeli rightists were willing to take on the challenge, at least incrementally. Menachem Begin was the Likud’s first prime minister after the 1977 elections. He called on–you guessed it–Milton Friedman for assistance.

Avi Shilon’s biography of Begin probably has the best rundown of the Begin government’s economic plans. A brief summary is as follows.

Begin wanted Friedman’s help with his New Economic Reversal. Friedman called Begin’s reform plans as “daring as the raid on Entebbe.” Subsidies were eliminated. This was politically brave, since lower-income earners were a crucial voting bloc in Begin’s electoral triumph. Also cancelled were foreign-currency controls to open up trade and investment. In order to try to alleviate the deficit, Begin also raised the value-added tax.

But Begin still did not go far enough, and inflation hit. Shilon writes:

The desire to create a free market in an economy that had not known many changes since the establishment of the state was expressed, among other things, in the fact that the linkage mechanism that compensated wage earners for price increases and that had been in existence since the days of Mapai was not eliminated, thus negating the effect of the built-in mechanism of inflation, by which rising prices were supposed to reduce demand and inflationary pressures.

He was also hesitant to push a fuller privatization program. Additionally, he wouldn’t cut government spending where it needed to be cut to help manage the debt. “I want social justice without socialism,” he had said. It was a start, anyway.

Israel took a big step forward with the Economic Stabilization Program beginning in 1985. Though Labor’s Shimon Peres was prime minister that year, he was heading a national unity government at a time when Likud had the upper hand, and the program was overseen by the Likud finance minister, Yitzhak Moda’i. It was instituted to boost the shekel, and rein in government spending through various mechanisms. It also had the assistance of the Reagan administration.

The stabilization was successful. More such programs finally took place in 2003 when Benjamin Netanyahu, at the time the finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s government, instituted more reforms by cutting taxes and increasing privatization while keeping government spending in check. And of course we can’t forget Israel’s reputation as a “start-up nation,” in which the opportunity to take risks and innovate is a mark of pride.

Back in the U.S., many American Jews are already positively disposed toward market economics, which has given them unprecedented freedom and prosperity. But other issues, such as school choice and religious liberty, will play an increasingly significant role in their lives. On those issues, the conservative positions may become more attractive to practicing Jews.

I’ve deliberately left off support for Israel. Although these days the American right is far friendlier to Israel than is the left, there is nothing specifically “conservative,” just as there is nothing specifically “liberal,” about support for an ally and a fellow democracy like Israel. It ought to be part of any conservative political program, but I hesitate to say it’s conceptually conservative.

There are other examples I’m sure I’m missing, but it will only help to put meat on the bones of a Jewish conservatism that we have so many real-world examples of Jews practicing political conservatism. With that combination, a real Jewish conservatism can take shape.

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Peter Beinart’s Israeli Democracy Problem

Last week after Israeli voters once again rejected the candidates and the policies that he believes would be best for them, writer Peter Beinart had a temper tantrum. Instead of accepting the verdict of the democratic process as did the leaders of Israel’s loyal opposition, Beinart wrote in Haaretz that American Jews must begin a campaign aimed at invalidating the votes of Israelis and to begin a “pressure process” that would force them to bow to his demands that they make unilateral concessions to the Palestinians that the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the Jewish state believe are, at best, misguided. I wrote here that this rant showed Beinart’s contempt for the democratic process, and that the premises of his argument–that Israel had not taken “risks for peace,” that “the election was not fought in the shadow of terror,” and that the Obama administration had not exerted pressure on Israel–were not so much mistaken as blatantly false. In response he wrote yesterday in Haaretz to assert that I was mistaken about the obligation to respect democratic elections as well as to claim that I was a hypocrite because I had not supported efforts to prop up Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government. But his response not only fails to address the substance of my criticism; it is as disingenuous as his original argument.

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Last week after Israeli voters once again rejected the candidates and the policies that he believes would be best for them, writer Peter Beinart had a temper tantrum. Instead of accepting the verdict of the democratic process as did the leaders of Israel’s loyal opposition, Beinart wrote in Haaretz that American Jews must begin a campaign aimed at invalidating the votes of Israelis and to begin a “pressure process” that would force them to bow to his demands that they make unilateral concessions to the Palestinians that the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the Jewish state believe are, at best, misguided. I wrote here that this rant showed Beinart’s contempt for the democratic process, and that the premises of his argument–that Israel had not taken “risks for peace,” that “the election was not fought in the shadow of terror,” and that the Obama administration had not exerted pressure on Israel–were not so much mistaken as blatantly false. In response he wrote yesterday in Haaretz to assert that I was mistaken about the obligation to respect democratic elections as well as to claim that I was a hypocrite because I had not supported efforts to prop up Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government. But his response not only fails to address the substance of my criticism; it is as disingenuous as his original argument.

Beinart does not trouble himself to account for his staggeringly mendacious claims about Israel’s past attempts to negotiate peace or his comments about the threat from terrorism. Beinart shoves three Israeli offers of statehood to the Palestinians by non-Likud governments from 2000 to 2008 that they rejected, as well as their stonewalling during the talks last year, down the memory hole. With his no “shadow of terror” remark, he does the same for last year’s war with Hamas in which thousands of Hamas rockets rained down on Israeli cities and the fact that any Israeli schoolchild knows that the only thing preventing another campaign of suicide bombing is the West Bank security barrier, not forbearance by Hamas or Fatah killers. As for the last six years of President Obama’s sniping at Israel’s government, that is also too insignificant a detail for Beinart to notice.

These points are important because they illustrate that Beinart’s arguments are based on a willful disregard for the facts that have influenced Israeli voters to hand the last three elections to Prime Minister Netanyahu and his party despite the fact that neither he nor the Likud is all that popular.

Beinart is right when he says the fact that Israelis have elected a Knesset with a clear majority opposed to his policies does not obligate him to agree with their judgment. In fact, I stated as much myself. One can vocally oppose the policies of any government without exposing oneself to the charge of contempt for democracy. But Beinart isn’t content anymore to merely voice criticism, however uninformed or contemptuous of the facts he may have been. The point is, he explicitly wrote that what must now happen is for Americans to rise up and back measures by the U.S. government that will overturn the judgment of Israel’s voters. Instead of continuing to try and persuade them of the wisdom of his suggestions, he now says what he wants is for Israelis to be isolated, economically and politically, and to be treated as a pariah state. If that is not contempt for the democratic process as played out in Israel, I don’t know what else it can be called.

It is true that, in theory, the voters of one democracy are not obliged to respect the decisions of voters in other countries. But this is no mere policy dispute. He alleges that Israel is a “brutal, undemocratic and unjust power” because it has rightly decided that allowing the creation of another terrorist state on its borders—like the one it allowed to rise up in Gaza—is unwise. What he is doing is not disagreement but delegitimization.

He also argues that because the Arab residents of the West Bank are not allowed to vote in Israel’s elections, it cannot be said to be a democracy there. This again is a willfully misleading argument. If the people of the West Bank can’t vote in an election, it is due entirely to the fact that the leaders of the Palestinian Authority have consistently rejected offers of statehood and independence for their people because doing so would also require them to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders would be drawn, next door. As he well knows, the majority of Israelis would have been happy to embrace a two-state solution. But the Palestinians have never been able to do so because it means ending the conflict with Zionism and their national identity has been inextricably tied to that war since its inception. If Israelis have, at least for the moment, given up on two states, it is not because they don’t think it’s a good idea, but because they recognize the Palestinians aren’t interested in it, something that Beinart refuses to accept despite ample proof.

The status quo is both anomalous and unsatisfactory, but its continuation is not due to Netanyahu’s decisions or statements. It is the work of the Palestinians. They have constructed this status quo just as they did the security barrier, which they forced a reluctant Israeli government to build to keep out terrorists. Asking Israelis to ignore these facts and to place their population centers next to another Hamasistan is neither consistent with affection for their existence nor reasonable. Nor is it something that was likely to happen even if Netanyahu had been defeated and replaced with Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog. Comparing Netanyahu to racist segregationists or any other evil figures in history tells us more about Beinart than the prime minister. When the political culture of the Palestinians changes to allow them to accept a state alongside Israel, they will get it. Until that happens, blaming Israel for Palestinian irredentism and hate merely denies agency to the Arab side of the conflict.

As for his claim that I’m being hypocritical because of my lack of support for Egypt’s short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government, that is mere sophistry.

It is true that the Brotherhood won an election after the fall of the Mubarak regime. But any comparison between the victory of a party advocating a totalitarian theocracy, whose ability to turn out its supporters or coerce others to do so bears little resemblance to the normal democratic process, and true democrats is absurd. The Brotherhood’s goal was to transform Egypt into another Gaza or Iran and to enact the usual Third World practice of “one man, one vote, one time” to ensure that its hold on power could never be endangered. A year after it came to power, tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand its ouster and the military complied. That’s a sorry tale and one that shows how hard it is to create a democracy in a country with no democratic traditions or consensus about governance. Applauding the demise of an anti-democratic Islamist movement is not only consistent with belief in democracy; it was a precondition for any hope (albeit a very slim one) that Egypt will ever become a democracy.

Perhaps in Beinart’s fevered imagination, he thinks the Likud is analogous to the Brotherhood. This is a transparent libel of a party that has, since its inception, always abided by democratic norms in a way that Hamas’s Islamist ally has never done. What Beinart would like is for Israel’s people to rise up against the Likud as Egyptians did against the Brotherhood. If they did, Netanyahu’s government would fall. But not only have they failed to do so, they just gave him a third consecutive victory because, unlike Beinart, they have paid attention to what the Palestinians have done and said about peace.

That has to be frustrating for Beinart, but the answer for those who care about democracy to failure in an election is not an attempt to overturn the vote by foreign pressure but to work harder to give your ideas a fair hearing and to persuade Israelis to change their minds. Beinart has clearly tired of trying to do that and now places himself in the ranks of those seeking to treat its democratically elected government as pariahs. That is why, along with others, I have written that he has contempt for democracy. The charge stands.

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AP Editor Flunks Middle East 101

Those of us who write about Middle East politics sometimes joke that the mainstream press is desperately in need of an introductory course on the subject. And now, thanks to the latest effort by the Associated Press, we’re forced to ask: What happens when reporters take Middle East 101–and fail? The AP’s Middle East editor this week tackled the burning question: “Is Israel democratic?” If you know anything at all about the country, you know that this question requires a one-word answer: Yes. The AP, however, thought it was an essay test. And what a disaster it was.

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Those of us who write about Middle East politics sometimes joke that the mainstream press is desperately in need of an introductory course on the subject. And now, thanks to the latest effort by the Associated Press, we’re forced to ask: What happens when reporters take Middle East 101–and fail? The AP’s Middle East editor this week tackled the burning question: “Is Israel democratic?” If you know anything at all about the country, you know that this question requires a one-word answer: Yes. The AP, however, thought it was an essay test. And what a disaster it was.

The full headline to AP editor Dan Perry’s piece is “AP Analysis: Is Israel democratic? Not so clear.” Such baldly false smears are part and parcel of the debate, of course. For some reason it’s considered acceptable practice to merely make up stuff about Israel and pass lies off as truth. It comes with the territory of being the world’s one Jewish state. But the timing here is interesting. All that’s really changed regarding Israel is President Obama’s public attitude toward it, in which his hostility toward the country and its people are being broadcast instead of denied.

The Associated Press seems to be taking its cue from the president, “reassessing” its public posture toward Israel, and facilitating team Obama in their efforts to change the narrative. But it also does consumers of news on the Middle East a favor: anyone who doesn’t know Israel is clearly a democracy is obviously not a reliable source on the subject.

The AP also shows how much hedging and spinning needs to be done to even try to paint Israel as less than a democracy. Perry begins by calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “hardliner”–a common term employed by anti-Israel activists but one which has no basis in reality. Painting Netanyahu as a “hardliner” is especially useful if you’re trying to undercut his democratic credentials, however.

As Perry builds his argument, he is first forced to acknowledge that he has no case:

The displeasure felt in some quarters over his win has placed front and center the world community’s unwritten obligation to accept the results of a truly democratic vote. It is a basic tenet of the modern order which has survived the occasional awkward election result — as well as recent decades’ emergence of some less-than-pristine democracies around the globe.

For Israel, the argument is especially piquant, because its claim to be the only true democracy in the Middle East has been key to its branding and its vitally important claim on U.S. military, diplomatic and financial support. Israel’s elections, from campaign rules to vote counts, are indeed not suspect.

He then follows, of course, with “But.” It’s the “occupation,” as would be expected, but even here the AP can only build its case by making flatly false statements–and again we come back to Perry failing Middle East 101. He includes all of the West Bank and Gaza in his “analysis,” and stacks the deck thus:

Of the Arabs, only a third have voting rights. These are the “Israeli Arabs” who live in the areas that became Israel in the 1948-49 war, which established the country’s borders.

Does Perry believe Israel exists? It’s hard to tell, thanks to the scare quotes around “Israeli Arabs.” In fact, they are Israeli Arabs by definition–they are Arab citizens of Israel. Additionally, the Israeli war of independence did not establish “the country’s borders.” As the agreements and communiqués and subsequent negotiations made clear, no one considered the 1949 armistice lines to be permanent borders. This was not, by the way, an invention of Israelis who wanted to expand their territory at will; it was the position of the Arab states who wanted to regroup and then try again to eradicate the entire Jewish state.

And that’s the key fact that people who choose to fabricate Israel’s supposed nondemocratic nature must get around. Perry does so by calling the lines “borders,” which they manifestly are not and aren’t considered to be. But it’s important that they’re not borders, because once you acknowledge that fact you are describing not occupied territory but disputed territory, at least as far as international law is concerned. And it becomes even more difficult to tell Jews they can’t live there simply because they are Jews.

Such inconvenient facts appear throughout the piece. Perry paints Israel as the obstacle to peace; “The supposedly temporary arrangement shows no sign of a change — at least not one initiated by Israel,” we’re told. And yet a few paragraphs later we read:

Israel annexed East Jerusalem, and its approximately 200,000 Arabs can have voting rights if they choose. Most have rejected it–whether out of solidarity with the idea of Palestine or for fear of future retribution.

Retribution from whom? Not the Jewish state that offered those Arabs full voting rights. Retribution, instead, from the Palestinian government that continues to be opposed to peace and coexistence with the Jews. Perry then criticizes the security arrangement that currently prevails in the Palestinian territories, but also tells us that “The arrangement is a relic of the 1990s interim accords, which were meant to be succeeded by a final agreement by 1999.” In other words, they were agreed to by the Palestinians, and are being upheld by Israel.

No such article would be complete without some misleading scaremongering about settlements, such as: “Another four years of a Netanyahu government can be expected to add many thousands more settlers, complicating the prospects of a future pullout even more.”

As Evelyn Gordon explained two weeks ago, construction in the settlements has seen a steep drop. Additionally, she wrote, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics “settlement construction throughout Benjamin Netanyahu’s six years as prime minister has been significantly lower than it was under his predecessors.” More importantly, the construction has tended to be “up, not out”–it’s in towns Israel would keep as part of any final-status agreement and not expanding the borders of those towns, and therefore would not “complicat[e] the prospects of a future pullout even more.”

In sum, Israel’s democracy is so strong that even attempts to challenge that status can’t avoid confirming it. The only thing we ended up learning was that Middle East 101 is far too advanced for the AP.

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How Islamists Infiltrate British Democracy

The Muslim population of Europe today stands at around 44 million, so that’s about the population of a medium sized European country (Spain has a population of roughly 47 million). And since European countries function as democracies that means that inevitably this demographic has its share of influence over government and policy makers too. Indeed, overtime the “Islamic vote” is likely to become an increasingly prominent part of the political landscape in Europe. Now, that need not necessarily be any cause for great alarm, most Muslims vote for mainstream parties and decide how they vote with reference to all the usual economic issues that most other Europeans do. Yet increasingly, there have been efforts by Islamist extremists to mobilize the Muslim vote behind their own agenda. And it appears that in the upcoming British election, these radicals are poised to make a particularly well-organized and insidious attempt to wield their influence over Muslim voters.

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The Muslim population of Europe today stands at around 44 million, so that’s about the population of a medium sized European country (Spain has a population of roughly 47 million). And since European countries function as democracies that means that inevitably this demographic has its share of influence over government and policy makers too. Indeed, overtime the “Islamic vote” is likely to become an increasingly prominent part of the political landscape in Europe. Now, that need not necessarily be any cause for great alarm, most Muslims vote for mainstream parties and decide how they vote with reference to all the usual economic issues that most other Europeans do. Yet increasingly, there have been efforts by Islamist extremists to mobilize the Muslim vote behind their own agenda. And it appears that in the upcoming British election, these radicals are poised to make a particularly well-organized and insidious attempt to wield their influence over Muslim voters.

As has now been exposed, two seemingly moderate Muslim initiatives surrounding the UK election are in fact cleverly veiled attempts by extremists to win greater influence for their views. So cleverly veiled in fact, that in the case of one of these front groups, the British Electoral Commission officially signed it up as a partner for helping to get Muslims registered to vote. Similarly, a number of members of parliament attended the launch of the organization’s “Muslim manifesto” for the UK, which was also launched in parliament. The group in question is called Mend (Muslim Engagement and Development) and a similarly problematic group, YouElect, accompanies it on the campaign.

In the case of Mend, which predictably receives EU funding, a number of extremist preachers have joined its campaign trail, despite the fact that these same individuals have explicitly expressed their hatred for democracy. So for instance, Mend released a video featuring the London-based cleric Haitham al-Haddad. In the video Haddad urges Muslims to vote in the approaching election, yet on previous occasions this same man has described democracy as “filthy” and stated that it would only be permissible for Muslims to vote in 50 years’ time when there might be the chance of returning a Muslim majority government; but perhaps he imagines we are there already.

Also speaking at a series of Mend events encouraging Muslim electoral participation is Abu Eesa Niamatullah. And yet Niamatullah has been recorded railing against democracy, which he lambastes for allowing the people to govern. The problem with the people explains Niamatullah, is that they are “animals … there is very little difference between our behaviour and the behaviour of dogs or animals and that’s why Sharia is so noble.”

The other group, YouElect is little better. As well as also having links to Haddad and Muslim Brotherhood associated groups, one of its leaders, Jamal Rashid, has been an outspoken defender and supporter of Cage. Up until a few weeks ago the British media were still referring to Cage as a human rights group, despite the fact that the group’s primary focus was to advocate for imprisoned terrorists and to oppose just about every counter-terror measure ever introduced. Then when the identity of ISIS’s chief executioner “Jihadi John” was revealed to be the British Muslim Mohammed Emwazi, Cage came out defending him as “a beautiful young man” who had been pushed into terrorism by the wickedness of the British security services. At that point the British public were exposed to the Alice-through-the-looking-glass world of Cage, where everyone who fights terrorism is held responsible for causing it, and everyone who actually is a terrorist is a victim forced into it by the people trying to prevent it. After that, even Britain’s liberal NGO scene couldn’t save Cage.

The fact that one of the heads of YouElect had spoken at a Cage event just days before the Emwazi debacle erupted gives a pretty clear indication of what this group is really about. Like Mend, it is an attempt by the enemies of democracy to manipulate the democratic process for the purpose of advancing an extremist agenda for now, and ultimately to end the existence of that process altogether.

One final curious twist in this whole story is that Baroness Sayeeda Warsi is billed to speak at one of the Mend events, and alongside Niamatullah at that. Warsi, referred to cuttingly in some circles as “Baroness Token,” failed to ever win office by the ballot box but was instead discovered by David Cameron while in opposition at a time when the party was desperate to bring in more young people, more women and more ethnic minorities. Ticking all of those boxes Warsi was parachuted into the House of Lords (becoming the youngest Life Peer at just 36) so that she could join the shadow cabinet. Her appointment as Communities Minister led critics to claim the government had actually created the country’s first ever Minister for Muslim affairs, and last summer Warsi resigned, allegedly in protest about the Gaza conflict. More recently the Baroness has been caught sending taunting tweets to Jewish community leaders following the Har Nof massacre in Israel.

The coming together of Mend and Warsi says a great deal about both. It speaks of the depths to which she seems to be prepared to sink, but it also gives an indication of the just how far-reaching the ambitions of this campaign may well be.

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Lee Kuan Yew’s Genius and Democracy

There are many reasons to judge Lee Kuan Yew a genius. Not the least of them is the fact that he attended Cambridge University—the alma mater of Stanley Baldwin (the do-nothing British prime minister of the 1920s-1930s), the Cambridge 5 spy ring (Kim Philby et al.), and Jawaharlal Nehru, among others—and managed to emerge not only a sensible person but also one of distinctly free-market views. He had the advantage, of course, of having been raised in the Crown Colony of Singapore, which, like Hong Kong, continued to practice unfettered capitalism long after it had become unfashionable in the Home Islands. Thus Lee fashioned in Singapore, the city state he ruled from 1959 to 1990, one of the most dynamic free-market societies on earth—one that has remarkably enough gone from per capita GDP of $512 a head in the 1965 to over $56,000 a head today, making it richer than Japan or Germany.

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There are many reasons to judge Lee Kuan Yew a genius. Not the least of them is the fact that he attended Cambridge University—the alma mater of Stanley Baldwin (the do-nothing British prime minister of the 1920s-1930s), the Cambridge 5 spy ring (Kim Philby et al.), and Jawaharlal Nehru, among others—and managed to emerge not only a sensible person but also one of distinctly free-market views. He had the advantage, of course, of having been raised in the Crown Colony of Singapore, which, like Hong Kong, continued to practice unfettered capitalism long after it had become unfashionable in the Home Islands. Thus Lee fashioned in Singapore, the city state he ruled from 1959 to 1990, one of the most dynamic free-market societies on earth—one that has remarkably enough gone from per capita GDP of $512 a head in the 1965 to over $56,000 a head today, making it richer than Japan or Germany.

He was seemingly immune to the Fabian Socialist nostrums taught at Cambridge and other British universities in the first half of the twentieth century—misguided ideas which did so much to mess up developing countries in Africa and Asia where they were dutifully imported by credulous Oxbridge and London School of Economics graduates. Lee harked back to earlier British ideas—the ideas associated with free market apostles of the 19th century such as Richard Cobden and John Bright of Anti-Corn Law League fame—and his tiny state greatly benefitted from his iconoclasm.

Lee was more resistant to another British tradition—one of political liberty. He often said that Singapore could not afford the messiness of true democracy because it was only big enough to field one A Team—it couldn’t keep rotating politicians. There may or may not have been something to this. It is undoubtedly true that Lee made Singapore into one of the best-run societies on the planet, which remained for the most part free of the nepotism and corruption that are such a big problem in other Confucian societies where family ties mean so much. But Lee went further and often argued that democracy simply would not work in Asia—that Asia had to find its own way based on “Asian values.”

This is demonstrably false. Countries such as Taiwan and South Korea have evolved into vibrant multiparty democracies. Even Singapore appears to be headed in that direction, with Lee’s People’s Action Party, now led by his son the current prime minister, having lost 40% of the seats in parliament to opposition candidates in the last general election in 2011. If this trend continues—and let’s hope it does—it is not inconceivable to imagine a different party taking power in Singapore, one that might even be inclined to lift the stifling restrictions on the press that Lee imposed in order to defend social order.

Admittedly Singapore flourished without the normal checks and balances of liberal democracy but it is a unique case, not only because it is a tiny city state, but also because it was run by Lee Kuan Yew, the greatest dictator of the 20th century. Not only was he foresighted in his economic policies but also he was remarkably restrained in taking advantage of the absolute power that he wielded. He did not became a megalomaniacal tyrant like Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, Mobutu Sese Seko, Robert Mugabe, Kim Il Sung, Mao Zedong, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Fidel Castro, or countless others. Only a few other dictators—Park Chun Hee, the founder of modern South Korea, comes to mind—deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with him.

If there were more Lee Kuan Yews, the case for democracy would be a lot weaker. But there was only one Lee, and it is impossible to imagine any political system, even one as advanced as Singapore’s, replicating his greatness for generation after generation, absent considerable advances in genetic cloning, without running the risks that come from handing absolute power to someone who is not fit to exercise it.

Many countries in Asia have sought to emulate what they saw as Singapore’s example—free market economics combined with autocratic politics. Few have managed it. Indeed the People’s Republic of China is now seeing how difficult of a juggling act that is to pull off: China has been experiencing breakneck economic growth but also extreme corruption, pollution, and other ills associated with an undemocratic system in which insiders rig the game to their benefit without having to experience any outside scrutiny from a free press, opposition parties, or an independent judiciary.

Neither a democracy nor a dictatorship is likely to produce a leader of Lee Kuan Yew’s caliber very often. But the saving grace in democracy is that there are limits on what the chief executive can do. Indeed the genius of America’s Constitution is that it has allowed the United States to survive presidents such as James Buchanan, Millard Fillmore, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter. Singapore and its many imitators would be well advised to stop trying to replicate Lee Kuan Yew and instead institutionalize systems that are robust enough to flourish under leaders of lesser caliber.

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Tunisia’s Fragile Success Under Attack

Tunisia was struck by a terrible act of terrorism today: gunmen, presumably of Islamist persuasion, stormed the Bardo museum in the capital, Tunis, killing tourists indiscriminately. Early news accounts suggest that at least 19 people were killed before security forces stormed the building and killed the terrorists. This is a sobering reminder of the risks that Tunisia faces, all the more jolting for someone like me who was in Tunisia relatively recently (I spent a week there in October as part of an International Republican Institute team observing the parliamentary election).

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Tunisia was struck by a terrible act of terrorism today: gunmen, presumably of Islamist persuasion, stormed the Bardo museum in the capital, Tunis, killing tourists indiscriminately. Early news accounts suggest that at least 19 people were killed before security forces stormed the building and killed the terrorists. This is a sobering reminder of the risks that Tunisia faces, all the more jolting for someone like me who was in Tunisia relatively recently (I spent a week there in October as part of an International Republican Institute team observing the parliamentary election).

This may cause some to wonder if Tunisia is truly an Arab Spring success story. They shouldn’t. Terrorist attacks also happen in countries such as France and Britain and the United States without calling into question the fundamental legitimacy of the state. Granted, Tunisia’s democracy is much newer and more fragile, but it has been making impressive strides since popular protests, sparked by the self-immolation of a fruit seller, ousted longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. Since then, Tunisia has seen two parliamentary elections, in 2011 and 2014, as well as one presidential election, in late 2014.

The elections have been free and fair (as I saw for myself), and the results have been relatively heartening. The Islamist Ennahda party was the top vote getter in 2011 but after taking power it voluntarily gave up the prime minister’s office to a technocrat in order to reassure voters worried about an Egyptian-style Muslim Brotherhood takeover. In the more recent parliamentary election, Ennahda finished in second place, with 28 percent of the vote, with the top vote getter being a secular bloc known as Nidaa Tounes (“Call of Tunisia”), which won 37.5 percent.

In the December presidential election, the winner, with 55.6 percent of the vote, was Beji Caid Essebsi, an 88-year-old warhorse who served in numerous cabinet posts under Ben Ali and helped to found Nidaa Tounes. The new prime minister Habib Essid is another veteran of the Ben Ali cabinet and member of Nidaa Tounes, but in order to form a government he had to share power with Ennahda and two smaller parties.

Thus Tunisia has a truly representative government led by secularists but with significant representation from Islamists who, by previously giving up power, have shown they are less authoritarian than their counterparts in Egypt or Turkey–or simply less able to seize power in such a secular state.

To be sure Tunisia has significant challenges ahead, particularly in reviving a moribund economy that has been weighed down by high levels of corruption and state spending and in maintaining security in the face of terrorist groups that remain all too active.  If the current government can’t deliver on the promise of a better life for ordinary Tunisians, the consequences will not be good for the future of Tunisian democracy, And there is no doubt that greater freedom has also provided greater opportunity for some terrorist groups to stage attacks such as the one today. The attack today is a significant blow because it jeopardizes the tourist trade which is a vital part of Tunisia’s economy and its best bet for economic growth.

But on the whole, and despite setbacks like the one today, Tunisia remains an impressive, if fragile, success story–the only one to emerge from the Arab Spring. It deserves more American support and more American notice. It shouldn’t take a terrorist attack for Americans to pay attention to Tunisia.

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The Election that Didn’t Happen Matters Far More than the One that Did

In the West, where regular elections are taken for granted, what interested people about yesterday’s Israeli ballot was the outcome. But in the Middle East, many were envious of the very fact that it took place. Nowhere was this truer than among Palestinians, who haven’t had an election in 10 years – not because Israel is preventing them from doing so, but because their own leadership is. And anyone who actually cares about the peace process ought to be far more worried by the Palestinian election that didn’t happen than by the outcome of the Israeli one that did.

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In the West, where regular elections are taken for granted, what interested people about yesterday’s Israeli ballot was the outcome. But in the Middle East, many were envious of the very fact that it took place. Nowhere was this truer than among Palestinians, who haven’t had an election in 10 years – not because Israel is preventing them from doing so, but because their own leadership is. And anyone who actually cares about the peace process ought to be far more worried by the Palestinian election that didn’t happen than by the outcome of the Israeli one that did.

A veteran Palestinian journalist from Ramallah summed up the prevailing sentiment succinctly. “We say all these bad things about Israel, but at least the people there have the right to vote and enjoy democracy,” he told Jerusalem Post reporter Khaled Abu Toameh before the election. “We really envy the Israelis. Our leaders don’t want elections. They want to remain in office forever.”

Ghanem Nuseibeh, an East Jerusalem Palestinian now living in Britain, put out an illuminating series of tweets throughout Election Day, including, “Over a million Arabs take part in Middle East’s most democratic elections today”; “The Arabs in Israel are the only Middle East Arab group that practices true democracy”; and “Israel is secure not because it will elect Bibi or Buji, but because of what it is doing today.” He was rooting for Isaac Herzog (“Buji”) and deplored Benjamin Netanyahu, but after acknowledging that his candidate had lost, he nevertheless tweeted, “Israel is the world’s most vibrant democracy” …. “If an Arab country had the same wide spectrum of political parties as Israel does, it would be fighting a civil war unseen in human history.”

Astoundingly, even Hamas in Gaza issued numerous tweets urging Israeli Arabs to vote for the Arab parties’ Joint List. One can only imagine what Gaza residents must have felt at seeing Hamas urge Palestinian Israelis to exercise a right Palestinians in Gaza are denied by their own Hamas-run government.

The absence of Palestinian elections can’t be blamed on “the occupation,” since said “occupation” didn’t prevent elections for the Palestinian Authority from being held in both 1994 and 2005/2006. Rather, it’s entirely the choice of the Palestinians’ own rival governments – Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Both have steadfastly refused to call new elections for fear of losing power.

Nor is the vote the only right Palestinians’ own governments deny them. They are also deprived of other basic civil rights like freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Both Hamas in Gaza and the PA in the West Bank routinely arrest and intimidate journalists; consequently, a recent study found, fully 80% of Palestinian journalists say they self-censor. Palestinians also face arrest even for Facebook posts criticizing their respective governments.

But aside from the fact that this denial of basic civil rights is bad in general, it has real implications for the peace process. Here, another of Nuseibeh’s Election Day tweets is instructive: “Neither the PA nor Bibi want peace. Difference is Israel can remove its own obstacle for peace, through free elections.”

Even if one disputes his assessment of Netanyahu, Abbas or both, his basic point is unarguable: If Israelis see a chance for peace and consider their own prime minister an obstacle to it, they can unseat him – an option they’ve in fact exercised in the past. Palestinians have no such option.

But the problem goes deeper than that – because Abbas, now in the 11th year of his four-year term, also lacks the democratic legitimacy needed to make the kind of concessions any peace agreement would entail. Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid summed up the issue bluntly in a lecture to the Limmud UK conference in December: Abbas, he told his shocked audience, will never be able to make peace with Israel, because he currently represents nobody except himself, his wife and his two sons.

And this does much to explain what most Western leaders consider the deplorable outcome of yesterday’s Israeli vote. As a poll taken last week showed, fully 64% of Israeli Jews agree that “no matter which party forms the next government the peace process with the Palestinians will not advance because there is no solution to the dispute,” and an identical 64% believe “the Palestinian leadership will not show greater flexibility and readiness for concessions” if Herzog replaces Netanyahu. In other words, Israelis saw no reason to vote for a premier more enthusiastic about pursuing peace talks because they saw no answering enthusiasm from the Palestinian side. Had they faced a new Palestinian government that did show interest in making peace, I suspect Israelis would choose Herzog over Netanyahu by a large majority.

Thus if Western leaders are serious about wanting Israeli-Palestinian peace, working to rectify the lack of Palestinian democracy would be far more productive than wringing their hands over the choices made by Israel’s democracy. For precisely because Israelis can always change their minds again in a few years, the Palestinian democracy deficit is far more detrimental to the prospects for peace than the outcome of any Israeli election ever could be.

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The Half-Full Cup of Jewish-Arab Relations

If you believe the media, “human-rights” organizations, the Israeli left, and many American Jews, Jewish-Arab relations in Israel have never been so bad. And given the past year’s events, this conclusion certainly has legs to stand on: Jewish thugs have repeatedly beaten up Arabs and even horrifically murdered an East Jerusalem teenager; Arab residents of Jerusalem have committed several deadly terror attacks, including a horrific murder of worshippers at a synagogue; last summer’s war in Gaza sparked vicious social media outbursts in which Arabs and Jews openly called for killing members of the other group. Yet three new polls published over the last three weeks show that, like many popular narratives about Israel, this one seriously distorts the true picture.

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If you believe the media, “human-rights” organizations, the Israeli left, and many American Jews, Jewish-Arab relations in Israel have never been so bad. And given the past year’s events, this conclusion certainly has legs to stand on: Jewish thugs have repeatedly beaten up Arabs and even horrifically murdered an East Jerusalem teenager; Arab residents of Jerusalem have committed several deadly terror attacks, including a horrific murder of worshippers at a synagogue; last summer’s war in Gaza sparked vicious social media outbursts in which Arabs and Jews openly called for killing members of the other group. Yet three new polls published over the last three weeks show that, like many popular narratives about Israel, this one seriously distorts the true picture.

The first poll, published last month, unsurprisingly shows that 77 percent of Israeli Jews and 68 percent of Israeli Arabs also believe last summer’s events worsened Jewish-Arab relations, and that negative stereotypes still abound. What it also shows, however, is that neither side considers this situation irreversible, and both are seriously interested in changing it.

For instance, a whopping 87 percent of Arab respondents said they still believe Jewish-Arab coexistence is possible. Even more astonishingly, the proportion of Arabs who said they identify with the Israeli flag shot up to 55 percent, from 37 percent last year, while the proportion that identifies with the Palestinian flag plunged from 34 percent to 8 percent.

Among Jews, the proportion who said they’d like to know the Arab population better shot up to 52 percent, from 38 percent last year. And this isn’t just talk: As Haaretz reported last month, both Jewish and Arab Jerusalemites are studying the other’s language in record numbers. New classes are filling “almost as fast as the courses can open”; waiting lists are long; and both sides say they could easily fill many more classes were it not for the shortage of qualified teachers.

The other two polls–conducted independently by Tel Aviv University and the Abraham Fund Initiatives, and released this week–show that Arab turnout in next week’s election is expected to hit a 16-year high. This is noteworthy, because the last time Jewish-Arab relations nosedived, following the Arab riots of October 2000, Arabs responded with a symbolic bill of divorce: boycotting the 2001 election. This time, they’re responding by turning out to vote in record numbers. As Thabet Abu Ras, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, told the Times of Israel, “Arabs are now taking their citizenship more seriously than any time in the past.”

Moreover, many of them now want to use this citizenship not to push a separatist Palestinian identity, but to improve Arab integration. According to the TAU poll, 44 percent of Arab respondents think their Knesset members’ top priority “should be dealing with the ailments of Arab society: unemployment, violence, women’s status, education and health.” Another 28 percent said the most important issue was “government treatment of the Arab population,” while only 19 percent prioritized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A Haaretz poll last month similarly found that 70 percent of Israeli Arabs want their MKs to focus on their own community’s socioeconomic problems rather than the Palestinian problem.

In part, as I explained in detail in my article for COMMENTARY this month, this change in Arab attitudes stems from the fact that successive Israeli governments have invested heavily in trying to reduce anti-Arab discrimination and increase Arab integration, and though the job is far from done, the progress has been noteworthy. But another significant factor, as Abu Ras correctly noted, has been the events of the Arab Spring, which gave Israeli Arabs a new appreciation of Israeli democracy.

“Despite the discrimination that exists in Israel, which should be combated, people now tend to see the cup as half full,” he told the Times of Israel. “Arab political discourse used to emphasize the cup as half empty, but no longer.”

This clearly bodes well for Israel’s future. Yet if even Israeli Arabs now see the cup as half full rather than half empty, isn’t it time for the rest of the world to do the same?

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Gerrymandering: an American Perversion of Democracy

Everyone is waiting for Wednesday’s Supreme Court argument regarding King v. Burwell and whether the phrase in the Affordable Care Act, “established by the states,” means what it plainly says. It’s the most important case on the Court’s docket this term because if the Court rules against the administration, ObamaCare will probably become financially untenable and so crash and burn, quite possibly taking the Obama presidency with it
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Everyone is waiting for Wednesday’s Supreme Court argument regarding King v. Burwell and whether the phrase in the Affordable Care Act, “established by the states,” means what it plainly says. It’s the most important case on the Court’s docket this term because if the Court rules against the administration, ObamaCare will probably become financially untenable and so crash and burn, quite possibly taking the Obama presidency with it
But there is an important case being argued tomorrow morning, Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, that could adversely impact the movement to eliminate gerrymandering from American politics. It should be paid attention to.

Gerrymandering is named after Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who came up with the idea (although his name is pronounced with a hard G and the eponymous—and nefarious—practice he invented is pronounced with a soft one). It involves the setting of legislative district lines—whether state or federal—so as to give one party or the other partisan advantage. As someone described it, democracy is where the voters choose their representatives. Gerrymandering is where the representatives choose their voters. It is a wholly American perversion of democracy, unknown elsewhere in the English-speaking world.

The Court has always declined to flatly outlaw gerrymandering, although many people (myself included) think that it violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. After all, if you’re a Democrat living in a district carefully designed to return a Republican legislator, you are effectively disenfranchised. Your vote is worthless. That’s why Baker v. Carr (1962) rewrote the Court’s doctrine on “political questions” in order to require “one man, one vote.”

In 2002, Arizona voters in a public referendum took away the hopelessly self-interested state legislature’s power to draw district lines and established an independent commission to do it instead. The Arizona legislature sued, claiming that because the Constitution (Article I, Section 4) says that “The Times, Places, and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; . . .” only the state legislature has the right to set district lines. A special three-judge district court ruled (2-1) in the commission’s favor and the legislature appealed to the Supreme Court.

There is a standing issue, but if the state legislature survives that and the Court gets to the merits, George Will thinks the Court should give the state of Arizona a lesson in remedial reading. He accepts as self-evident the legislature’s argument that the “Manner of holding elections” includes setting district lines. To me, it means nothing more than deciding how the vote should be taken: paper ballots, machines, online voting, early voting, a raising of hands, etc.

Other states, including California, have been moving in this direction, especially as computers have made it possible to draw district lines with exquisite precision, even house by house, and so make more and more districts uncompetitive.

This also makes American politics more extreme. One of the reasons the center of American politics has largely emptied out in recent decades (although not the only one) is that as general elections have become less and less determinative, primaries have become more so. In primaries, the left in Democratic races and the right in Republican ones exert much more influence, pulling candidates one way or another. Indeed the word primary has recently become a verb, as in “If Congressman Snoot doesn’t vote this way on the widget bill, he’ll probably be primaried.”

Gerrymandering does not belong in the world’s oldest democracy.

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Tunisia Busts Through Arab Glass Ceiling

There isn’t much good news coming out of the Arab world nowadays—civil war in Syria and Libya, state failure in Yemen, sectarian repression in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and the struggle against the Islamic State and radical Shi’ite militias in Iraq—but Tunisia is increasingly becoming a consistent exception to the rule.

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There isn’t much good news coming out of the Arab world nowadays—civil war in Syria and Libya, state failure in Yemen, sectarian repression in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and the struggle against the Islamic State and radical Shi’ite militias in Iraq—but Tunisia is increasingly becoming a consistent exception to the rule.

Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring. After overthrowing dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians had a rough couple of years: Ben Ali stole billions, and it has been a constant struggle to recover even a fraction of those lost resources. The root of the Arab Spring was a desire for economic and political accountability, but the achievement of that is easier said than done. Throw into the mix the collapse of state control in Libya and the flood of Libyan weapons and refugees throughout the region, and Tunisia seemed to be buffeted by, if not in the midst, of a perfect storm. As the Egyptian-American sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim characterized it, in the decades before the Arab Spring, political organization devolved into a competition between the autocrats and theocrats; any more liberal group that sought to occupy the space in between ended up attacked by both sides.

Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t have surprised that Ennahda, a staunch Islamist grouping, won an initial victory in post-Arab Spring Tunisia, taking 89 of 217 seats in the October 2011 assembly elections; the next highest vote-getter won only 29 seats. This raised concern both inside Tunisia and abroad that Tunisia would be but the latest example of the “one man, one vote, one time” dynamic so common in the Middle East. But Tunisians kept up the pressure. In this brilliant stunt, a Tunisian NGO reminded people what the cost of apathy might be.

However, unlike Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president who became Egypt’s first democratically elected ruler as the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties dominated Egypt’s initial elections, Ennahda to its credit learned that Tunisians had no desire to experience tyranny of the majority and have religious precepts shoved down their throats. Accordingly, it agreed to power sharing and eventually new elections. COMMENTARY’s own Max Boot was an election observer last autumn in Tunisia, as Tunisians flocked to the polls to elect a new parliament; he wrote up his experience here. In the months since, Tunisians have flocked to the polls to elect a president, and then a run-off to confirm the victor.

Now it appears that the Tunisians are getting further recognition for their gains. Freedom House recently released its new freedom in the world ranking, and Tunisia has made history as the first Arab country to be granted a “free” ranking. (In the past, the freest Muslim majority state was actually Mali, but the coup and civil war there ended that streak.) That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement; there most certainly is, as Freedom House itself notes. That said, it’s important to give credit where credit is due—and much is due to the Tunisian people.

Many observers and diplomats dismiss the idea of Arab democracy as impossible; they embrace cultural relativism and suggest that Arab culture simply doesn’t allow and won’t tolerate freedom. At best, they warn, it will descend into extremism and violence as in Gaza, Syria, and Libya. Diplomats often point to such examples as an excuse to never push for reform in the first place.

But Tunisia is an exception to the rule and can no longer be so easily dismissed. Rather than embrace the mediocre, it is a reminder that Arab states should be held to the same standards as non-Arab states; they should be pressured to reform and supported when they do. Who knows? Tunisia may be first, but there is no reason why it should be last.

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The Problem of Electing Judges

Tomorrow the U.S. Supreme Court will hold a hearing on whether the bans on candidates for judicial office in 30 states directly soliciting contributions violate the First Amendment. The New York Times this morning put the story on the front page and ran an editorial on the subject.

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Tomorrow the U.S. Supreme Court will hold a hearing on whether the bans on candidates for judicial office in 30 states directly soliciting contributions violate the First Amendment. The New York Times this morning put the story on the front page and ran an editorial on the subject.

Judges are elected, in one way or another, in 39 of the 50 states. In some states all judges are elected, in others only some are elected and others appointed. Some are elected in partisan elections, some are appointed but then face a retention election. You can see the particulars here.

The reasoning behind the bans is that if a judge or a candidate for a judgeship personally asks for a contribution, especially from lawyers or companies that might have a case before him, that sets up a quid that might at some future date produce a quo.

This is not just theoretical. As the Times reports:

In the 1970s, two justices of the Florida Supreme Court resigned after evidence emerged that they had tried to fix cases for contributors. A third stepped down when a gambling junket paid for by a litigant came to light. A fourth left the court in connection with a scandal including draft opinions ghostwritten by lobbyists.

But banning direct solicitations simply puts the problem at one remove. Instead of the judge asking for a contribution, his campaign manager (or his wife)  asks for it. The quid and the potential quo are still there.

The problem is in electing judges, a practice unknown outside the United States. It dates to the 1830s with the flowering of “Jacksonian democracy.” Andrew Jackson was a fierce anti-aristocrat and thought that one of the ways to dilute the power of the elite was for all public officials to be elected, including judges. The thoroughly Jacksonian New York State constitution of 1846 required the election of almost all public officials, from town clerks and receivers of taxes to the head of the prison system.

But town clerks and receivers of taxes are, well, clerks. They have important and responsible jobs but they don’t make policy; they execute it and should be responsible to the executive, not the electorate. The same is true of judges. They can’t promise to do this or that or the other thing if elected, they can only promise to be fair and impartial and to follow the law.

Federal judges are nominated by the president, confirmed by the Senate, and have life tenure. They can only be removed by impeachment. But in the whole history of the federal judiciary only eight judges have been impeached, convicted, and removed from office while another three resigned in the face of impeachment. That’s not a perfect record, to be sure, but it’s an impressive one, and far better than that of judges elected to office.

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65 Percent of Israeli Arabs Say They’re Proud to Be Israeli

It feels almost tasteless to be writing about good news while France is mourning a horrific terror attack. Yet there’s been so much good news from Israel over the last week that my biggest dilemma has been which item to pick. Having discussed immigration yesterday, it’s time to move onto Israel’s Arab minority–specifically, the stunning new Israel Democracy Institute survey in which 65 percent of Arab citizens said they were either “quite” or “very” proud to be Israeli in 2014, up from 50 percent the previous year.

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It feels almost tasteless to be writing about good news while France is mourning a horrific terror attack. Yet there’s been so much good news from Israel over the last week that my biggest dilemma has been which item to pick. Having discussed immigration yesterday, it’s time to move onto Israel’s Arab minority–specifically, the stunning new Israel Democracy Institute survey in which 65 percent of Arab citizens said they were either “quite” or “very” proud to be Israeli in 2014, up from 50 percent the previous year.

To be fair, the poll was conducted between April 28 and May 29–meaning after the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down, but before the summer’s war in Gaza, the shocking murder of an East Jerusalem teen by Jews, and other difficult events of the past several months. Thus had it been taken today, the number might well be lower.

Nevertheless, given the torrent of accusations of “racism” and “apartheid” that have been hurled at Israel for years now from both inside and outside the country, it’s quite remarkable to discover that as of eight months ago, 65 percent of Israeli Arabs were “proud” to be citizens of that “racist,” “apartheid” Jewish state, and 64 percent said they usually felt their “dignity as a human being is respected” in Israel. This raises the obvious question of whether perhaps Israeli Arabs know something about Israel that its detractors don’t.

In this regard, it’s worth considering some of the survey’s other surprising findings. For instance, 57 percent of Israeli Arabs said they have faith in the Israel Police–second only to the Supreme Court (60 percent), and significantly higher than the proportion of Jews who said the same (45 percent). This reflects the fruit of a decade-long effort by the police to rebuild trust with Arab communities after the nadir reached in October 2000, when policemen killed 13 Arabs in course of suppressing massive, violent Arab riots. Since then, police have tried hard to recruit more Arabs to the force, open more stations in Arab towns, and maintain a regular dialogue with Arab community leaders. And as the survey shows, this effort is working.

Even more astounding is that 51 percent of Arabs expressed confidence in the Israel Defense Forces–aka the “occupation army” that, according to Israel’s detractors, ruthlessly oppresses their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank. This exceeds the level of confidence Israeli Arabs expressed in the Knesset, the media, or their religious leadership and suggests they don’t buy the canard of IDF brutality enthusiastically swallowed overseas. I also suspect the IDF–and Israel as a whole–benefited from comparisons with the real atrocities being perpetrated in Syria and the heavy-handed tactics used by Egypt’s military: The contrast with the meltdown in much of the Arab world can’t help but make Israel look more attractive.

Yet Israeli Arabs’ pride in Israel also reflects the concerted efforts to improve integration and narrow Jewish-Arab gaps that successive governments have made over the past two decades.

For instance, an affirmative action program launched in 2007 quadrupled the proportion of Arabs in the civil service over the space of just four years. It’s still significantly lower than their proportion in the workforce, but nevertheless constitutes dramatic improvement.

Similarly, a government program to subsidize employment of Arab high-tech workers helped quadruple the number of such workers between 2010 and 2013. And in Israel’s premier technological university, the Technion, Arabs now constitute 21 percent of the student body–slightly higher than their share of the population–thanks to a special program to recruit Arab students and give them extra support while they are there.

The gap between Jewish and Arab matriculation rates hasn’t disappeared, but it did shrink by more than a third from 1996-2012. Arabs remain underrepresented among master’s and Ph.D. students, but the percentage of master’s degrees awarded to Arabs more than doubled from 2005-2013 and the percentage of Ph.D.s rose by 40 percent. Concerted efforts to build more Arab schools have brought average class sizes down to the same level as in secular Jewish schools. And so on and so forth.

In short, while gaps and discrimination still exist, Israel has been working hard to reduce them, with considerable success. And Israeli Arabs have responded with growing pride in being citizens of the democratic Jewish state.

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Erdoğan’s Willing Enablers

Over the past decade, I’ve written a great deal about Turkey and chronicled its turn from an aspiring if imperfect democracy back into an authoritarian, repressive regime. When I began writing on the issue back in 2004, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was still the toast of Washington policymakers who saw in the Turkish leader the perfect example of a man who combined religious conservatism with democracy, the type of Islamist who could serve as a model for the broader region if not entire Islamic world. He was embraced by a multitude of former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey and Clinton-era State Department policy planning staff members, and shepherded through Washington by former Reagan administration officials who, frankly, should have known better. Meanwhile, Erdoğan quietly moved to rework the bureaucracy, replace technocrats, build slush funds, and insert his own protégés in positions of immense power, even if still cloaked in shadows.

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Over the past decade, I’ve written a great deal about Turkey and chronicled its turn from an aspiring if imperfect democracy back into an authoritarian, repressive regime. When I began writing on the issue back in 2004, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was still the toast of Washington policymakers who saw in the Turkish leader the perfect example of a man who combined religious conservatism with democracy, the type of Islamist who could serve as a model for the broader region if not entire Islamic world. He was embraced by a multitude of former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey and Clinton-era State Department policy planning staff members, and shepherded through Washington by former Reagan administration officials who, frankly, should have known better. Meanwhile, Erdoğan quietly moved to rework the bureaucracy, replace technocrats, build slush funds, and insert his own protégés in positions of immense power, even if still cloaked in shadows.

Erdoğan and his supporters, both within his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and among the followers of Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, crafted a false choice: To support Erdoğan and his agenda was to support democracy; to question Erdoğan was to support military fascism. Among diplomats, intellectuals, and academics, anti-military bias was a major factor: Certainly, no aspiring democracy should have such a prominent domestic political role for the military as pre-Erdoğan Turkey did. But to turn a blind eye toward persecution of officers simply because they served their country and abided by their mandate to protect the constitution was wrong. So too was the rush by Erdoğan’s external supporters to cheer his dis-empowerment of the military without first creating an alternate system of checks and balances to the constitutional order. Erdoğan had ambition, and took advantage of the naivete of Western diplomats, Turkish liberals, and businessmen who just wanted quiet while Turkey’s economy boomed.

Criticism of Erdoğan brought with it a flood of bile, if not ad hominem demonization. This itself should have been an indicator, for the ad hominem attack is often the strategy of choice for those unable to counter arguments on fact. At times, however, libel seemed to be a deliberate strategy. Mustafa Akyol, a columnist for the Hürriyet Daily News, often wrote favorably toward Erdoğan’s early agenda and criticized those raising questions about it. Here, for example, he suggested that I had labeled Erdoğan’s government as an “example of so-called Islamo-fascism.” I had done nothing of the sort and when I challenged Akyol or the Hürriyet Daily News to show any instance where I used that term, I got neither response nor correction. Akyol apparently wanted to dismiss criticism as rooted in anti-Muslim bigotry rather than have to address criticism head-on. He has since come around, but his writing is influential and the damage he did by holding water for the AKP helped blind Washington-area policymakers toward Erdoğan’s true agenda until it was too late.

Another prime example of Turkish journalists publishing outright propaganda in order to win access and privilege was this beauty, by Cengiz Çandar, a Turkish journalist who has a reputation for trading praise for access across Turkish administrations. Here, for example, is Çandar taking umbrage in The Guardian about criticism of Turkey’s crackdown on his fellow journalists. In the years since Çandar’s ad hominem response, press freedom organizations have declared Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” Had Çandar used his pen to stand up for freedom and liberty rather than sweep abuses under the rug, Turkish civil society might not be in such a lamentable state today. Alas, no amount of indignation in papers like The Guardian can change reality. Even those on the far left care about imprisoned journalists and don’t buy into the notion that Erdoğan only punishes criminals.

Those spreading hate to ingratiate themselves to Erdoğan also paved the way for the West to turn a blind eye. Former Ambassador Mark Parris—while working at two Washington-area think tanks—started a whispering campaign accusing me and a number of Jewish Americans critical of Erdoğan of plotting a coup against him, a plot which his interlocutor, columnist Fehmi Koru (who also writes under the pseudonym Taha Kıvanç), unfurled in a series of Yeni Şafak columns reminiscent of Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Parris subsequently became a non-executive director in one of Turkey’s top oil companies. Parris’s colleague at Brookings was Omer Taspinar who would write with a moderate tone in English, but would lose all semblance of balance or scholarly detachment in Turkish. Here, for example, was Taspinar ranting in the Turkish press (Google translation here) about supposed “neocon” plots and unfair criticism of the Turkish leader. Qatar was not the only country to try to corrupt Brookings; such articles apparently came against the backdrop of fundraising inside Turkey for Brookings’ Turkey program.

There are others, of course, who helped Erdoğan complete his mission. Against the backdrop of a court case accusing Erdoğan of violating the law and breaching the constitution—a case that might have ended in the dissolution of his party—rumors swirled that a businessman seeking favor with Erdoğan and relief from constant AKP-led tax investigations against him allegedly bribed a judge who switched his vote which at the last minute, enabling Erdoğan and the AKP to survive.

Fethullah Gülen may now find himself the target of Erdoğan’s irrational anger, but Gülen and his allies also have much to answer for. After all, while allied with Erdoğan, they used their perch in the security services to spy on and sometimes frame their secularist adversaries. Years before the cases of imprisoned generals, professors, and civil society leaders were dismissed, Harvard scholar Dani Rodrik showed conclusively how the evidence upon which they were convicted was based on forgery. Why European or American diplomats treated Turkish proceedings as anything more than a farce is inexcusable and, if not intentional due to ideological hatred of Turkey’s generals, demonstrates complete incompetence on the part of journalists and diplomats both. To the credit of the Gülenists, they now acknowledge the error of their ways. The question is whether they ever would have come to terms with what they had done to their adversaries if they had not found themselves on the wrong side of Erdoğan’s animus.

Clearly, with so many critics of Turkey ending up in prison or facing charges (full disclosure: Erdoğan advisor Cuneyt Zapsu and disgraced European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış also filed papers against me in a Turkish court, a process which Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States apparently aided; I ignored the Turkish case), many Turks and analysts also shifted course to maintain their access. Some Washington-based scholars who were once clear-eyed and critical of Erdoğan now consciously mute their criticism, either for fear of the safety of their family back in Turkey or to maintain access to the country. Either way, the knowledge that people will subvert a quest for truth to such career calculations have enabled Erdoğan’s rise from the very start.

Almost 20 years ago, author Daniel Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a book which took to task the German public which argued that they were unaware of just what Hitler was doing as he did it. Erdoğan is no Hitler, but he is at a minimum a dictator who combines the ambition and egoism of Vladimir Putin with uncompromising Islamism.

While few now debate what Erdoğan represents and where he means to take Turkey, he need not have succeeded in his quest. Perhaps as Turkey enters a new year, it is time for Turkish liberals, ambitious businessmen, corrupt journalists, and frightened diplomats to look back and consider the consequences of the compromises they made. As Turks—not only Islamists but liberals as well—suffer under Erdoğan’s dictatorship, let us hope that they acknowledge that their new dictator is a product and reflection of Turkey’s own political culture, and not some conspiracy imposed by the outside.

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Pelosi’s Bad Memory and ObamaCare Lies

Reacting today to the furor caused by the revelations about the administration’s ObamaCare lies, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did her best to dismiss the controversy. As far as the woman who rammed the Affordable Care Act through Congress on a party-line vote was concerned, Jonathan Gruber is a nobody who had no role in its passage. But unfortunately for her, a C-Span archival tape from 2009 was quickly uncovered that shows the former speaker citing Gruber as an authority on the bill. Ouch. But after we’re done chuckling at Pelosi’s chutzpah and calculating the impact of this latest Democratic fib on the course of the debate, this might be another moment for us to ponder just how much damage the cynical push for ObamaCare did to the fabric of American democracy.

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Reacting today to the furor caused by the revelations about the administration’s ObamaCare lies, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did her best to dismiss the controversy. As far as the woman who rammed the Affordable Care Act through Congress on a party-line vote was concerned, Jonathan Gruber is a nobody who had no role in its passage. But unfortunately for her, a C-Span archival tape from 2009 was quickly uncovered that shows the former speaker citing Gruber as an authority on the bill. Ouch. But after we’re done chuckling at Pelosi’s chutzpah and calculating the impact of this latest Democratic fib on the course of the debate, this might be another moment for us to ponder just how much damage the cynical push for ObamaCare did to the fabric of American democracy.

Just to put this in perspective, here’s what Pelosi said today about Gruber while refusing to answer a question about his admissions:

I don’t know who he is and he didn’t help write our bill.

Here’s what she said in November 2009:

We’re not finished getting all of our reports back from CBO, but we’ll have a side by side to compare. But our bill brings down rates. I don’t know if you have seen Jonathan Gruber of MIT’s analysis of what the comparison is to the status quo versus what will happen in our bill for those who seek insurance within the exchange. And our bill takes down those costs, even some now, and much less preventing the upward spiral.

Judging by Pelosi’s convenient memory loss today, the conviction among those who foisted ObamaCare on the nation that they can always count on “the stupidity of the American voter” wasn’t just something invented by Gruber.

But as with Gruber’s comments, there will be plenty of people on the left who will dismiss this as nothing but a minor kerfuffle, a footnote to the achievement of the great liberal dream of a national health-care act. But words and deeds have consequences.

The problem with ObamaCare was, as Gruber has acknowledged, that if the voters or even the Congress that voted on it had understood what was in the bill, it could not have succeeded in gaining a majority, even one without a single Republican vote. Throughout the debate over the bill and its implementation, the one consistent theme has been dishonesty. From Pelosi’s own statement that the law had to be passed for members to know what was in it, to the president’s lies about consumers keeping their coverage and doctors, to the delay in enforcing the individual mandate and other provisions, to the current debacle over Gruber, advocates of the misnamed Affordable Care Act have never stopped lying or talking down to the American people.

In the last 60 years, we have seen confidence in government and politics decline bit by bit to the current situation where politicians of both parties are about as well respected as street walkers. This was the result of a series of unfortunate decisions and scandals that started with Vietnam, continued with Watergate (and every other subsequent scandal that generally is referred to by adding the word “gate” to something), was compounded by the distorted debate about Iraq, and now seems to be reaching a crescendo with ObamaCare.

One doesn’t have to hold a particular position on any of these issues to understand that when the American people perceive they have been deceived, it hurts more than the party caught lying. It hurts confidence in democracy and the rule of law. President Obama came into office and even reelected in 2012 buoyed by a wave of optimism about the nation that his historic election as our first African-American president created. But instead of building on the confidence placed in him, he resorted to the lowest and most cynical tactics to get his way on health care. Like Gruber and Pelosi, he undoubtedly felt the ends justified the means and that if it took a few lies to get his bill passed, it would be worth it. In the course of that campaign, he and his supporters called their Tea Party opponents who had raised up in protest against this massive expansion of federal power every vile name in the book and branded them as racists. Now today, unashamed, they look back on the lies they told and tell us to just move on since the debate is supposedly over.

But whether or not it is over—and, as I argued earlier, it is far from over—the damage they’ve done to the country and the government will live on. Leader Pelosi doesn’t have amnesia but she and everyone else who took part in this disgraceful episode should be deeply ashamed.

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Why Obama Should Have Skipped Burma

President Obama arrived in Burma on his trip through Asia to meet with Burmese leaders and gauge the country’s Democratic progress. He shouldn’t have. His presence papers over a the massive human-rights abuses of Burma’s minority Rohingya Muslims that flirt all too seriously with becoming a full-blown genocide. Obama should have canceled his visit.

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President Obama arrived in Burma on his trip through Asia to meet with Burmese leaders and gauge the country’s Democratic progress. He shouldn’t have. His presence papers over a the massive human-rights abuses of Burma’s minority Rohingya Muslims that flirt all too seriously with becoming a full-blown genocide. Obama should have canceled his visit.

Although the predominantly Buddhist Burmese establishment’s treatment of the Rohingya has long been objectionable, it is now taking place against the backdrop of presidential visits and increased diplomatic and economic ties with the U.S. Additionally, the oppression of the Rohingya appears to have gotten markedly worse over the past year–as the Burmese government has taken advantage of the sanctions relief given by the West.

To be sure, the Burmese governing military junta did take steps toward democratic rule, and the political system has enjoyed more openness as a result. The most high-profile change has been the freeing from house arrest of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who now has a seat in parliament. But the Obama administration, which badly flubbed its early diplomatic outreach to Burma before Hillary Clinton had more luck on a second try, seemed desperate for a foreign-policy win. Suu Kyi understood this, as did others who advised the Obama administration to proceed with caution, and to make sure the Burmese government was really earning its sanctions relief and legitimization among the international community.

Suu Kyi was right to be skeptical about the Obama administration’s ability to navigate the nuances of Burmese politics and appreciate the need for incremental progress over photo ops. She is not keeping silent about her concerns, as the Wall Street Journal reports, and the impression that the Obama administration embraced her democratic idealism only to advance their desire for upgraded bilateral ties and then abandon them when they began to be seen as impediments:

The country’s democratic evolution over the past four years has stumbled amid recent setbacks, creating a division between Mr. Obama and Ms. Suu Kyi, the former political prisoner who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle to end decades of military rule that impoverished her country.

Their disagreement over progress since the military started a transition to civilian rule in 2010 is striking, given the Obama administration for years based its policies toward Myanmar around Ms. Suu Kyi’s ideas and political experience.

In a news conference last week, Ms. Suu Kyi said the U.S. was optimistic about progress. She said she would “challenge those who talk so much about the reform process” to show her what significant steps have been taken toward democratization over the past two years.

It’s worth going into some detail on that democratic “stumbling.” It’s far worse than it sounds. First, there’s the anti-Rohingya violence: “Religious violence since 2012 has killed hundreds of Rohingya Muslims and displaced more than 140,000 in Rakhine State. Survivors live as virtual prisoners in camps or in segregated villages, subject to restrictions on travel, and, in some areas, marriage and the number of babies they can have.”

More recently, there’s been a campaign of ethnic cleansing that warrants more than a tsk-tsk from Obama. The Burmese government has decided to classify the more than 1 million Rohingya as ethnic Bengalis. That is, they want to make official their denial of the existence of Burmese Rohingya. They have used the census as the means to do so:

Almost all Rohingya were excluded from a U.N.-funded nationwide census earlier this year, the first in three decades, because they did not want to register as Bengalis. And Thein Sein is considering a “Rakhine Action Plan” that would make people who identify themselves as Rohingya not only ineligible for citizenship but candidates for detainment and possible deportation. …

Many villages were placed under lockdown, with police checkpoints set up to make sure only those who have cooperated could leave, more than a dozen residents confirmed in telephone interviews with The Associated Press.

In other villages, the names of influential residents were posted on community boards with verbal warnings that they face up to two years in jail if they fail to convince others to take part in the registration process, Lewa said. Other Rohingya say officials forced them to sign the papers at gunpoint, or threatened that they would end up in camps like those outside Sittwe if they didn’t comply, she said. In some cases residents say authorities have shown up after midnight and broken down doors to catch residents by surprise and pressure them to hand over family lists.

Meanwhile, the sanctions relief is mainly helping those in power, as the AP reports today: “The military controls the parliament and is blocking popular opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s path to the presidency. Business conglomerates linked to the old guard remain the engines of the economy and the main beneficiaries of more than $10 billion in post-junta foreign investment and aid.”

It looks as though the Obama administration got played. There’s no question conditions have improved somewhat. But the Burmese leaders, especially President Thein Sein, made a bet the international community has made before, and will again: the Obama administration and its European partners will have a far easier time reducing sanctions than reapplying them should backsliding occur. And they also know the president’s preference for photo ops and desperate diplomacy in place of the hard slog of serious progress. Obama’s visit to Burma today was a mistake; but it’s doubtful he ever seriously considered taking a stand and admitting the great Burmese opening is mostly a façade covering up monstrous crimes while the world turns its gaze.

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ObamaCare Lies and Democracy

In a video that has gone viral over the last few days, one of the principal architects of ObamaCare confessed at an academic conference that the law was drafted in such a manner as to deliberately deceive both the Congressional Budget Office and the American people. MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber tried to walk back his October 2013 remarks in a softball interview with Ronan Farrow on MSNBC this afternoon yet there’s no denying that his embarrassing moment of candor in which he said the bill passed because of a “lack of transparency” and the “stupidity of the American voter” will influence the ongoing debate about the law. But while the mainstream media has spent the years since the misnamed Affordable Care Act passed mocking its conservative opponents, this ought to be a moment when Americans take stock of the corrosive impact on our democracy of the cynicism to which the president and his congressional allies sank during the campaign for his signature health-care legislation.

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In a video that has gone viral over the last few days, one of the principal architects of ObamaCare confessed at an academic conference that the law was drafted in such a manner as to deliberately deceive both the Congressional Budget Office and the American people. MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber tried to walk back his October 2013 remarks in a softball interview with Ronan Farrow on MSNBC this afternoon yet there’s no denying that his embarrassing moment of candor in which he said the bill passed because of a “lack of transparency” and the “stupidity of the American voter” will influence the ongoing debate about the law. But while the mainstream media has spent the years since the misnamed Affordable Care Act passed mocking its conservative opponents, this ought to be a moment when Americans take stock of the corrosive impact on our democracy of the cynicism to which the president and his congressional allies sank during the campaign for his signature health-care legislation.

In a sense, Gruber’s statement doesn’t exactly break new ground. After all, if then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could say that ObamaCare had to be passed before its contents could be understood, it’s not much of a revelation if one of its designers fesses up about the deceptions involved in the project and the breathtaking cynicism of its Democratic backers. Like the president’s repeated lies about consumers being able to keep their existing health insurance and doctors if they liked them, Gruber’s confession makes it clear that deception was at the heart of the debate on a law that overturned a key sector of the American economy.

For those who haven’t yet read or seen it, here’s what Gruber said at a University of Pennsylvania conference last year:

This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure that the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) did not score the mandate as taxes. If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. Okay. So it was written to do that. In terms of risk-rated subsidies, if you had a law that said healthy people are going to pay in — if you made it explicit that healthy people pay in, sick people get money, it would not have passed. Okay.

Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically call it the stupidity of the American voter, or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical in getting the thing to pass, and, you know, it’s the second best argument. And I wish Mark was right, we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not. So there are things I’d wish I could change, but I’d rather have this law than not.

These remarks should weigh heavily on the consciences of the Obama administration and its allies who rammed it through Congress on a narrow party-line vote without knowing what was in it. Nor should it escape the notice of the Supreme Court as it weighs the arguments in King v. Burwell this session as it struggles with the question of whether the text of the law should be ignored in order to justify the administration’s efforts to roll out the health-care scheme. Liberals argue that the true intentions of the law’s authors should trump the fact that it was drafted so sloppily that it can easily be interpreted in such a way as to render the implementation of the legislation illegal. But since those who did the drafting are now being revealed as having deliberately lied about its contents, it seems quite appropriate that the Court stick to the text and the public arguments made at the time, not the secret agenda behind the law.

But leaving aside the debate about ObamaCare, Gruber’s quote and even his recent mea culpa in which he says he “spoke inappropriately” indicates that for Obama’s acolytes, winning means never having to say you’re sorry. Since they believed that this massive expansion of federal power that may wind up hurting as many people as it helps was the key goal of the administration, like Gruber, its apologists aren’t apologizing for having lied. What they regret is Gruber’s moment of weakness in which he foolishly told the truth about it.

Seen in that light, this is not so much about a gaffe as it is about the theory of politics that animates the Obama administration.

Though he came into office pledging the most transparent administration in history, what he has presided over is the one that is the most opaque, both in terms of its attitude toward the press as well as its belief that it can lie to the American people with impunity. Nations often believe that ends justify the means. Indeed, it would be impossible for wars to be fought otherwise. But however questionable such practices may be, it is one thing to rationalize wartime decisions, quite another to turn a blind eye to a philosophy that treats the American people as the enemy to be deceived.

They were not the first administration to lie to the American people about a policy question. But in passing ObamaCare, the president and his minions reached an all-time low in mendacity in order to get the desired result. Yet while some have benefited from ObamaCare, others have not. The administration and its supporters may believe all the lies are justified because of the expansion of health care to some. Yet in the coming year, as the individual mandate is implemented, more will suffer as the law wreak havoc on employment and the costs of premiums may skyrocket.

But the true legacy of ObamaCare may not just be the mess it has made of the health-care industry or the benefits some may have derived from it. It may instead mark another watershed moment in the history of American politics in which citizens came to understand that those who claim to have their best interests at heart would not scruple about lying to them about their intentions. The ends here not only did not justify the means but they also degraded American democracy in a way that we may never entirely recover from.

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How Lobbyists Reflect Countries They Support

In certain corridors of Washington, in smug discussions in university faculty lounges, and in the fevered conspiracies of the Middle East and Turkey, much is made of the “Israel lobby.” While broadly speaking, figures such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, or former diplomat Chas Freeman use the term broadly in order to suggest dual loyalty on the part of those with whom they disagree in the policy debate, more narrowly, the idea of an Israel lobby usually surrounds the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which operates under the slogan, “America’s pro-Israel lobby.”

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In certain corridors of Washington, in smug discussions in university faculty lounges, and in the fevered conspiracies of the Middle East and Turkey, much is made of the “Israel lobby.” While broadly speaking, figures such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, or former diplomat Chas Freeman use the term broadly in order to suggest dual loyalty on the part of those with whom they disagree in the policy debate, more narrowly, the idea of an Israel lobby usually surrounds the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which operates under the slogan, “America’s pro-Israel lobby.”

But AIPAC is hardly the only lobby in Washington. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), the de facto lobby of the Islamic Republic of Iran, works tirelessly to reduce sanctions and alleviate pressure on the Iranian regime. Saudi Arabia and Qatar spread money around and successfully tempt many former ambassadors with lucrative golden parachutes. Turkey supports a multitude of organizations such as the American Turkish Council or the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TUSIAD).

It is easy to demonize lobbying in Washington, but it is not simply about money: many lobbyists truly believe in the cause they espouse and argue, and they advocate for those causes just the same as a paid member of Greenpeace, the Audubon Society, or the Human Rights Campaign might. If someone believes that a strong U.S.-Israel relationship benefits American national security and reflects American values more than, say, a strong U.S.-Iranian relationship or any U.S. relationship with Hamas or Hezbollah, than it makes sense to support AIPAC. If one would rather see normalized ties between Washington and Tehran, regardless of the Islamic Republic’s ideology and sponsorship of insurgencies and militias, then it makes sense to support a group like NIAC.

What is truly interesting about these foreign-policy lobbies, however, is just how much they have come to reflect the countries with which they seek greater U.S. strategic alignment.

Take AIPAC: At present, its president is Bob Cohen, elected in 2013. Before him, it has had well over a dozen presidents and executive directors, most serving just two or three years before the membership elected a new leader. As such, AIPAC has very much reflected the democratic nature of both the United States and Israel. As in Israel and the United States, its audience actively debates issues—there is seldom an easy consensus in AIPAC circles and contrary to the caricatures put out by some in more fringe circles, AIPAC remains a big tent, with its rank-and-file actually leaning toward the liberal and progressive within the American political context.

NIAC is a different animal entirely. Since its inception more than a decade ago, it has been led by a single leader, Trita Parsi, a dual Swedish-Iranian citizen permanently residing in the United States. NIAC has no regularly scheduled elections and so Parsi seems intent to remain his organization’s leader for life. Indeed, it’s a parallel not lost on Iranian-Americans, who often mock Parsi as the “rahbar,” or supreme leader. NIAC reflects Iranian political culture in other ways as well. While AIPAC tends to ignore criticism or simply argue back, NIAC has responded to criticism with ad hominem attack or by seeking to silence those it dislikes. Hence, it sued an Iranian-American journalist for defamation, a suit it ended up losing after also being sanctioned for seeking to surreptitiously alter its record and for failing to uphold discovery orders.

NIAC also reflects the Islamic Republic’s tendency toward conspiracy theories. The group has been fundraising off a non-existent threat of war with Iran for more than a decade, often aligning with fringe groups like Code Pink, Daily Kos, the Institute for Policy Studies, and WarIsACrime.org in joint letters or actions. While Parsi tones down his public rhetoric, his private writing embraces conspiracies. Hence, his comment “It is not unusual that Israelis run their business under the safety of an American flag.” At a time when it is now agreed that Iran was working on nuclear-weapons components, Parsi sought to defend the regime, answering one person raising concerns regarding Iranian activities, “There is no proof what so ever for Iran’s nuclear ambition. the IAEA just cleared Iran’s nuclear programme for the third time this decade last week. You have been reading too much AIPAC propaganda!” And while both members and leaders of AIPAC take pride in their assimilation into the United States, Parsi denigrates those who leave the Islamic Republic’s interests behind:

Our brothers and sisters did not die for us so we could marry an American and call our child Betty-Sue or Joey, they did not die so we could speak English to our children. WE OWE IRAN OUR LIVES…. There is no substitute for Iran!

The Saudi lobby, of course, like the monarchy itself, likes to operate in the shadows. Whereas AIPAC and NIAC seek to influence ordinary constituents, hence their frequent forums in cities across the country, Saudi lobbyists concentrate on those in the White House and Congress or by seeking to buy the support of prominent universities. Saudi lobbyists would no more hold a public forum in Indianapolis than would Saudi royals hold a public forum in Dhahran: The public is something to be tolerated and imposed upon, but not engaged. Those whose influence Saudi Arabia seeks can expect beneficence beyond their wildest imagination; those who Saudi Arabia deems independent or not useful are ignored.

Turkey may once have been an aspiring democracy, but in recent years, it has become hostile to political pluralism. The Turkish embassy in the United States has moved from representing all of Turkish society to instead substituting as an office for President Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and, according to former Turkish diplomats stationed there, actively maintains a blacklist of those critical of the AKP. Such blacklisting—which has become the norm inside Turkey—extends to the Turkish lobby. Groups like the American Turkish Council understand their access depends on the AKP, and so will seek to limit their interactions to those who embrace the AKP. When they cross the line, they know Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian leaders will have no forgiveness. Hence, former Ambassador James Holmes, after long seeking to cozy up to the AKP and downplay changes inside Turkey, found himself ousted merely for the sin of including articles in a regular news roundup from a newspaper associated with groups disliked by Erdoğan. Such behavior has led to greater fracturing: just as Turkish society has divided along political and religious lines, so too have Turkey’s various lobby and business groups to the point where Turkey has dozens of lobbies, each ineffective, with only the president back in Ankara able to speak on Turkey’s behalf.

In recent years, paranoia about various foreign-policy lobbies has grown. And while pay-to-play is always wrong and should certainly be disclosed, many of the actual lobby groups for various countries do less to whitewash the nature of countries with which they wish the United States to partner, and far more to reflect those countries, whether open or closed, tolerant or intolerant, realistic or conspiratorial.

Lobbying will never go away, but let’s hope that one day all lobbies will be open, transparent, and governed democratically. That would be a sure sign that, finally, principle has triumphed over cash, and democracy really has taken root in the dark corners of the world.

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Don’t Fear Civil Society

Any Republican midterm success is going to be treated by some corners of the media, inevitably, as a version of the “angry white male” meme that is both thoroughly discredited and utterly unkillable. As Tim Cavanaugh wrote yesterday at NRO, “Ever since the late ABC anchorman Peter Jennings diagnosed Republican gains in the 1994 midterm elections with the deathless phrase ‘The voters had a temper tantrum,’ every midterm setback for a Democratic president has inspired mainstream media pros to let loose their inner Sigmund Freuds.”

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Any Republican midterm success is going to be treated by some corners of the media, inevitably, as a version of the “angry white male” meme that is both thoroughly discredited and utterly unkillable. As Tim Cavanaugh wrote yesterday at NRO, “Ever since the late ABC anchorman Peter Jennings diagnosed Republican gains in the 1994 midterm elections with the deathless phrase ‘The voters had a temper tantrum,’ every midterm setback for a Democratic president has inspired mainstream media pros to let loose their inner Sigmund Freuds.”

Cavanaugh drew attention to one response at Yahoo News that painted the electorate as “self-loathing.” Cavanaugh’s post was headlined “Goodbye, Angry White Men; Hello, ‘Self-Loathing Electorate’.” If only. Just hours after Cavanaugh inaugurated this new era, Slate’s Amanda Marcotte predictably took readers back to bad old days of hackneyed hackery with her post, “Revenge of the White Male Voter.”

Now, the days in which such an “analysis” would be taken seriously are long gone. These days it would appear there is nothing to fear from a white male voter especially if he’s Republican, since Republican voters swept into Congress minorities, women, and minority women this year. Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina became the first black senator elected in the South since Reconstruction. But whether it’s vengeful white males or a self-loathing electorate, you can be sure the media’s leftists will find any sweeping Republican victories utterly incomprehensible.

There’s one kind of analysis, however, that goes beyond the usual trite nonsense. Another narrative started taking hold on the left that the 2014 midterms prove the system itself is broken. There were a rash of such columns and blog posts before the election, when the writing was on the wall. It has not stopped, since the election turned out worse for Democrats than it seemed. And I think it’s worth drawing attention to one such critique of the American polity, which is far more advanced a thought process than sputtering rage about white men electing black women to Congress. It comes via the New York Times’s Nick Kristof. He writes:

“Politics is the noblest of professions,” President Eisenhower said in 1954, and politics in the past often seemed a bright path toward improving our country. President Clinton represented a generation that regarded politics as a tool to craft a better world, and President Obama himself mobilized young voters with his gauzy message of hope. He presented himself as the politician who could break Washington’s gridlock and get things done — and we’ve seen how well that worked.

So far so good, if a bit clichéd. I agree, and have written as much, about the nobility of politics. That has less to do with politics as a profession and more to do with the fact that democratic politics is a far healthier way for citizens to resolve political disputes than any other on offer. But still, the point stands. Kristof, unfortunately, goes further:

I’m in the middle of a book tour now, visiting universities and hearing students speak about yearning to make a difference. But they are turning not to politics as their lever but to social enterprise, to nonprofits, to advocacy, to business. They see that Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America in her dorm room at Princeton University, has had more impact on the education system than any current senator, and many have given up on political paths to change.

I have to say that I find this incredibly encouraging. I don’t want the country to abandon professional politics completely, and I don’t think that’ll happen. Instead, the best thing that could happen to American politics is the reinvigoration of the “little platoons.”

There’s a serious disconnect, most prominently on the left today, between supporting the idea of charity and supporting the true practice of it. The left tends to think in terms of collective action when that collective action is taken through the state. Liberals believe that as long as someone has a good provided for them, it doesn’t matter if it’s through private charity or the state–that in fact it might even be better if it’s done through the state because that implicates everyone else in the act and it suggests the existence of a program through which more people could obtain such goods.

It could not be further from the truth, because when the state takes on a role as the sole provider society unlearns the habits necessary for a self-governing people. Additionally, for the government to be able to afford what it should provide, we need talented young people to go into business and strengthen the private sector. I don’t know exactly what Kristof means when he says “social enterprise,” but the fact that the people he meets want to bring about societal improvement themselves rather than by electing someone else who promises to do it for them it a sign of a healthy polity.

Government shouldn’t be toxic. But neither should private enterprise be equated with cynicism. We need both undertaking their proper responsibilities. And it sounds like Kristof is meeting bright young Americans who agree.

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John Oliver and the Sum of All Liberal Fears: Local Government

The saddest trend among left-liberal political “comedians” is not that they have become a source of actual news for leftists who find the real world a scary place–though the influence of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and others is certainly disturbing. Far worse, however, is that instead of making those in power uncomfortable or seeking to overturn society’s taboos, they are merely working in the service of political correctness and the powerful federal government that seeks to regulate speech and, increasingly, thought. They are the opposite of subversive; they are court jesters.

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The saddest trend among left-liberal political “comedians” is not that they have become a source of actual news for leftists who find the real world a scary place–though the influence of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and others is certainly disturbing. Far worse, however, is that instead of making those in power uncomfortable or seeking to overturn society’s taboos, they are merely working in the service of political correctness and the powerful federal government that seeks to regulate speech and, increasingly, thought. They are the opposite of subversive; they are court jesters.

I’ve written about this in the past, specifically with regard to the Giacomo of American politics, Stephen Colbert, who will be taking his palace service to David Letterman’s soon-to-be-former perch at CBS. It’s not that Colbert’s succession there will change anything material; the point is that it won’t. But Colbert’s talent and creativity is undeniable, to me at least, and I think that’s something of a saving grace among many conservatives who will still watch him entertain the king or queen. The same cannot be said for another Daily Show alumnus, John Oliver, who now has his own show making fun of the news (read: flattering the political leanings of his audience), mostly by yelling at the screen.

Despite that, Oliver has his fans on the left, who don’t seem to notice Oliver’s, shall we say, resplendent ignorance on some of the topics he covers. But in a recent episode, Oliver revealed just how frightening the idea of American participatory democracy is to the left.

The segment was on state legislatures, and how elections for those are crucial yet overshadowed by the congressional midterms. He opened the segment with about five minutes of clips of state and local legislators doing and saying absurd things, to lay the groundwork for the argument at the center of his show: the danger of self-rule of those who don’t think like Oliver. After showing the clips, Oliver said the following:

Look, state legislatures are hilarious. There’s only one problem: increasingly, they are the places where most legislation is actually taking place.

That is a pretty succinct sum of all liberal fears. The people are hilarious–as long as they have no power. Democrats tend to feel this way about Congress too, not just local governments. But Oliver and his ilk don’t fear Congress the same way. That’s because, he continued:

So far this session, Congress has passed just 185 laws. State legislatures have passed more than 24,000.

Just 185 laws? How many new laws should the United States Congress enact per session? In any event, Oliver goes on to castigate the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a favorite bogeyman for the conspiratorial fringe of the left, which connects issue-based NGOs and private-sector groups with legislators. The left has sought to demonize and blacklist such groups, the way they have with regard to much political speech and action.

Oliver’s conspiratorial authoritarianism is perfectly calibrated to the American left today, which helps explain his success. But liberals are also allowed to participate in local government, so what scares them so much about the building blocks of participatory democracy? Via Dave Weigel, we get the answer:

Remember the number: 69. That’s how many state legislative bodies Republicans are trying to win this year, out of 99, up from the 60 they control right now. (Nebraska has a unicameral legislature, composed entirely of senators, a bit like Rome but with fewer coups.) That would give them a “state legislature supermajority,” and allow them to push through the sort of policy reforms that will be quickly gummed up in a Washington that—let’s be honest—will spend six or seven months passing bills before everyone gets excited about 2016.

“We’re on offense this year,” says Jill Bader, a spokeswoman for the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee. “We’re confident in the path not just to a supermajority, but in a more diverse group of elected Republicans.”

The RLSC groups this year’s elections in a couple of tiers. The first tier is composed of New Hampshire‘s House of Representatives, where Republicans lead the generic ballot and have been closing the gap in statewide races; Colorado‘s Senate, which was reduced to a one-seat Democratic majority by pro-gun 2013 recall campaigns against Democrats; Iowa‘s Senate, which Republicans can win with one more seat; Nevada‘s Senate, where Democrats hold a one-seat majority in a year that turnout has been suffering; West Virginia‘s House, where an easy win for the GOP’s Senate candidate may elect the four Republicans needed for a swing; and New Mexico‘s house, where Republicans need three gains, and expect to benefit from a strong win for Gov. Susana Martinez.

Well that explains it. Republicans are having a good year, and are–unlike the Democratic Party–not pretending that the president is an elected king and thus the only office that truly matters. Of course, Democrats are pursuing congressional seats as well. But that’s to block Republicans’ ability to check President Obama’s power. When Democrats held the majority in both houses of Congress in Obama’s first term, they used it to simply increase Obama’s power. Congress, for Democrats, is really about the presidency.

What about the local level? That’s where Americans can influence the way their communities are governed. Thus, the whole idea of local governance is terrifying. John Oliver has exposed a massive conspiracy at the heart of the American project: here, the people rule. And he can’t believe no one’s doing anything about it.

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