Monday, February 11, 2013

The Many Hats of Orthodox Judaism. By Simi Lichtman.

The Many Hats of Orthodox Judaism. By Simi Lichtman. The Huffington Post, February 10, 2013.

The Pharaoh Fell, but His Poisonous Legacy Lingers. By Fouad Ajami.

The Pharaoh Fell, but His Poisonous Legacy Lingers. By Fouad Ajami. Wall Street Journal, February 10, 2013.

More posts on Morsi and Egypt, here, here, here, and here.


Two years ago, on Feb. 11, 2011, the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak stepped aside, overwhelmed by 18 days of protests. Silent and remote, he had ruled for three decades. He had offered his countrymen—and powers beyond—the sole gift of stability. He was a gendarme on the banks of the Nile. Now his country was done with him, and the vaunted stability of his near 30-year reign was torn asunder.

Yet it is only against the backdrop of the sordid political landscape of today’s Egypt—the hooliganism of the young, the lawlessness, the fault line between a feeble secular camp and a cynical Muslim Brotherhood bent on monopolizing political power—that the true work of the Mubarak tyranny can be fully appreciated. The “deep state” he presided over—a Ministry of Interior with nearly two million functionaries, a police force that ran amok—is Mubarak’s true legacy.

The disorder today in Egypt’s streets is taken by some as proof that the despot knew what he was doing, and that Egyptians are innately given to tyranny. But that view misses the damage that this man and his greedy family and retainers inflicted on a nation of more than 80 million people that once had nobler ideas of its place in the world.

Grant the Egyptian people credit for their mercy and forbearance. The Pharaoh was deposed and his two sons, who sat astride the country's economy and politics, were hauled off to prison, but they were spared the gruesome end that was meted out next door to Moammar Gadhafi. A sickly Mubarak was humbled, wheeled into court on a gurney. But he was not sent to the gallows. True, some of the families of victims struck down during the upheaval howled for his blood. But the day of his reckoning was deferred as the judiciary let the matter run in the hope that the aged former ruler would succumb to a natural death.

It was odd, this tale of Hosni Mubarak. He had started out as a modest officer who had risen to power through the patronage and will of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. Mubarak had not been imaginative or brave—and that was what recommended him to the flamboyant Sadat. Where Sadat had been unabashedly open in his identification with American power, the new man would be more discreet. Where Sadat had been a trailblazer who had made that celebrated journey to Jerusalem, Mubarak would keep the peace with the Israelis, but keep them at arm’s length.

Throughout his reign, a toxic brew poisoned the life of Egypt—a mix of anti-modernism, anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism. That trinity ran rampant in the universities and the professional syndicates and the official media. As pillage had become the obsession of the ruling family and its retainers, the underclass was left to the rule of darkness and to a culture of conspiracy. The middle class was tentative and timid, unsure of itself. It knew the defects of the regime but could not contest its power.

More important, with the Muslim Brotherhood quietly toiling in the shadows, broad segments of the middle class succumbed to the theocratic temptation. Wealth accumulated in the Arab states and the Gulf had remade the Brotherhood. Its members were sly: They accepted the subtle accommodation offered them by the regime.

The historical role of the centralized state in Egypt as the principal agent of social change was abandoned. No wonder the Brotherhood sat out the early and decisive phase of the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square. Courage was not the hallmark of the Brotherhood. Its theorists were still maintaining that the ruler was due deference and obedience while a new generation of activists was battling the security forces.

Yet the Brotherhood had no scruples about “hijacking” a revolution that was not theirs. The annals of revolutions the world over bear testimony to the truth that the rule of the moderates in times of revolutions is always undone by the ascendancy of the extremists. (Think of the liberals who rode with Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979—so many of them were cut down by firing squads.)

It was no surprise that the Egyptian liberals and secularists quarreled among themselves and were feckless and divided. The dictatorship had not allowed them political space and experience. In hindsight, the tipping point in the ruin of Egypt came in 2005. The dictator rigged yet another presidential election, his fifth in a row, and he ordered a decent young rival, Ayman Nour, to prison on trumped up charges. The administration of George W. Bush grasped the importance of the moment, but Mubarak brushed their entreaties aside.

President Obama and his advisers had two years on their watch before the upheaval. But they lacked the interest and the determination—and the knowledge of matters Egyptian. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Mubarak as a friend of her family, and Vice President Joe Biden opined that the regime was stable even as millions of Egyptians had gone out to push it into its grave.

Today, a stalemate paralyzes Egypt: The Brotherhood won a plurality in parliamentary elections that began in 2011, but an activist judiciary declared the elections unconstitutional and ordered parliament dissolved in June 2012. The Brotherhood drafted and secured the passage of a new constitution by referendum in December, but those unreconciled to the reign of the Brotherhood wanted nothing to do with it.

Mohammed Morsi has the presidency, but he was defied some days ago when he ordered a curfew in the cities of Ismailia, Suez and Port Said. Thousands went into the streets to sing and dance and play soccer in the night. From afar, those with a superficial knowledge of Egypt think of it as a country willing to slip under the yoke of the Brotherhood. But Egypt is a skeptical, weary country; it wears its faith lightly, and its people have an innate suspicion of those who overdo their religious zeal.

The economy is wrecked and the government has run down its foreign reserves as it attempts to maintain a system of costly subsidies. A $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan was tentatively agreed on, but the government was unwilling to put through the austerity measures required by the loan. Only the remittances of Egyptians abroad, an impressive total of $19 billion in 2012, averted catastrophe. The ruling bargain that had the Egyptians give up their freedom for bread, and for the handouts of the state, still obtains. The old regime fell, but its ways endure.

Nowadays freedom is out of fashion in American official thinking, and the tumult in Arab lands serves as an alibi for abdication. But we should know that the bargain with the Arab dictatorships brought our way the jihadists. Two products of Mubarak’s Egypt must be figured into an audit of that regime: the Cairene al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the psychopath Mohammad Atta, who led the death pilots of 9/11. It was folly and naiveté to think that we really knew and could befriend the tyrants.

Our Revolting Elites. By Ross Douthat.

Our Revolting Elites. By Ross Douthat. New York Times, September 18, 2012.


Were Mitt Romney’s now-famous comments at a fundraising dinner in May — in which he appeared to write off 47 percent of Americans as self-pitying freeloaders with no self-respect — a window into the elusive “real Romney” and proof that his moderate-seeming façade has always been a sham?

Who could possibly know? Romney has built his career, in business and in politics, on telling people what they want to hear in order to persuade them to let him manage their affairs. This is a man who tried to get to the left of Ted Kennedy in their 1994 Senate race and to the right of Rick Perry in 2012. The idea that he would reveal his true political beliefs to a group of people he’s trying to flatter, cajole and spook into giving him more money may be appealing to his critics, but it isn’t necessarily convincing.

What these comments definitely tell us, though, is what Mitt Romney, master consultant, feels his “clients” in the Republican donor base want to be told about this election and what will inspire them to dig deep and give freely to his cause. Assuming those instincts are correct, his comments help illuminate the way many well-off Americans feel about their less-fortunate fellow countrymen – and it isn’t a pretty thing to see.

As many people have pointed out, Romney’s comments are a right-wing echo to what was previously the most famous leak from a fundraising event: Barack Obama’s remarks in San Francisco in April 2008, when he characterized working class voters who were resistant to his charms as “bitter” people who “cling to guns or religion” and scapegoat immigrants because the economy has let them down.

In both cases, a presidential candidate was speaking about poorer people to a room full of rich people; in both cases, he was pandering to those rich people’s fearful stereotypes about a way of life that they don’t understand or share.

For rich Republicans, the stereotype is all about the money: They have it, other Americans don’t, and those resentful, entitled others might just have enough votes to wage class warfare and redistribute the donors’ hard-earned millions to the indolent and irresponsible.

For rich Democrats, the stereotype is all about the culture wars: They think they’ve built an enlightened society, liberated from archaic beliefs and antique hang-ups, and yet these Jesus freaks in flyover country are mobilizing to restore the patriarchy.

Both groups of donors seem to be haunted by dystopian scenarios in which the masses rise up and tear down everything the upper class has built. For Republicans, the dystopia is (inevitably) “Atlas Shrugged.” For liberals, it’s one part “Turner Diaries,” one part “Handmaid’s Tale.”

The way Obama and Romney employed these stereotypes are not actually equivalent. Both behind-closed-door comments were profoundly condescending, but only Romney explicitly wrote off the people he’s describing. As Slate’s William Saletan notes, Obama embedded his bitter-clingers characterization in a longer riff about why it’s important for Democrats to keep fighting for blue-collar votes. Romney’s remarks were more dismissive and therefore should prove more politically damaging: “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” he said, of millions of his fellow countrymen, and left it at that.

But set aside the short-term politics for a moment. What does it say about our culture that the people funding presidential campaigns on both sides of the aisle seem to regard their downscale fellow countrymen as a kind of alien race, to be feared and condescended to in equal measure?

What does it say that rich Republicans are unable to entertain the possibility that Americans who depend on government programs during the worst recession in generations might have legitimate economic grievances?

What does it say that rich Democrats can’t fathom why working class Americans might look askance at an elite that’s presided over a long slow social breakdown and often regards their fundamental religious convictions as obstacles to progress?

What does it say that our politicians, in settings where they’re at least pretending to open up and reveal their true perspective, feel comfortable embracing the most self-serving elite stereotypes about ordinary citizens who vote for the other party?

Nothing good, I think. The current American story is one of polarization, with the two major parties sealed into their respective ideological bunkers, and stratification, with an elite that’s more isolated from the common life of the country it rules than at any time in recent history.

Both the right and left have provocative intellectual takes on how this new world came to be: Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart” and Chris Hayes’s “Twilight of the Elites,” respectively, are this year’s prime examples. But both takes are longer on description than prescription, and neither has much purchase on our politics.

However one tells the story, it’s an increasingly unhappy one. Yet on the evidence of what our leaders and would-be leaders say when we’re not supposed to be listening, there’s nobody in either party who cares enough to do anything to change it.

The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden . . . Is Screwed. By Phil Bronstein.

The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden . . . Is Screwed. By Phil Bronstein. Esquire, February 11, 2013 (March 2013 issue). Also find it here.

For the first time, the Navy SEAL who killed Osama bin Laden tells his story — speaking not just about the raid and the three shots that changed history, but about the personal aftermath for himself and his family. And the startling failure of the United States government to help its most experienced and skilled warriors carry on with their lives.

Navy SEAL Who Says He Killed Bin Laden Speaks Out For First Time, Says Military Abandoned Him. By Meenal Vamburkar. Mediaite, February 11, 2013.

The Man Who Shot Bin Laden Breaks His Silence. By Dashiell Bennett. The Atlantic, February 11, 2013.

Hannity Interview: Phil Bronstein Reveals Details of Navy SEAL Who Killed Usama Bin Laden. Video. Hannity. Fox News Insider, February 11, 2013.

Despite Esquire Story’s Claims, the SEAL Who Shot Osama Has Access to Health Care (UPDATE). By Cord Jefferson. Gawker, February 11, 2013.

Esquire article wrongly claims SEAL who killed bin Laden is denied healthcare. By Megan McCloskey. Stars and Stripes, February 11, 2013.

The Shooter Needs Health Insurance: A Response to Stars and Stripes. By the Editors. Esquire, February 12, 2013.

The Crucial Sentences That Went Missing From Esquire’s Profile of Osama’s Shooter. By Josh Voorhees and Abby Ohlheiser. Slate, February 12, 2013.

Hero’s Dilemma Exaggerated Yet Real. By Max Boot. Commentary, February 13, 2013.

The Osama bin Laden Shooter: Behind the Story. By Phil Bronstein. Video, February 11, 2013. YouTube.

Phil Bronstein: SEAL says Navy abandoned him after he shot bin Laden. Video. Today. NBC, February 11, 2013.

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Arm the Syrian Rebels. Now. By Michael Doran and Salman Shaikh.

Arm the Syrian Rebels. Now. By Michael Doran and Salman Shaikh. Foreign Policy, February 8, 2013.

Doran and Shaikh:

It is important to remember that arming the FSA is a political act. The most important decision of all is simply to provide lethal assistance. The goal of the operation is to build a force on the ground that is more likely to respect American interests and that is committed to building a nonsectarian, stable Syria. Even the provision of light weaponry would be a good start to this project.

This policy does entail the risk of unintended consequences. Some arms may flow to al Qaeda. Some groups may take American aid and then turn against the United States. But inaction also carries risks. The current hands-off policy has hardly succeeded in preventing extremists from acquiring arms. It has simply given them time and incentive to develop their own independent sources of external support.

By establishing itself as the most important international player shaping the conflict inside Syria, the United States will lay the groundwork for helping the Syrian people forge a genuine national dialogue on the nature of their transition. This should include the creation of a national platform that brings together Syria's diverse ethnic and religious communities – including Sunnis, Shiites, Alawis, Christians, and Kurds, as well as tribal and religious figures – to discuss the future of the country. In particular, it should include Alawis who enjoy wide legitimacy within their community, but who are also willing to talk about a post-Assad Syrian regime.

What the Bloody Hell Is Wrong with You Americans? By Alex Massie.

What the Bloody Hell Is Wrong with You Americans? By Alex Massie. Foreign Policy, December 4, 2012.


There is no novelty in observing that much of American culture thirsts for dynasties and aristocracy to an extent and with a prominence that is sometimes hard to find in the United Kingdom. To cite Mark Twain again: “We have to be despised by somebody whom we regard as above us or we are not happy; we have to have somebody to worship and envy or we cannot be content. In America we manifest this in all the ancient and customary ways. In public we scoff at titles and hereditary privilege but privately we hanker after them, and when we get a chance we buy them for cash and a daughter.”

Can anyone who has spent any time in Washington doubt the abundant good sense of this? To say nothing of the celebrity of royalty, the drawbacks of an elected head of state have long since become apparent. The imperial presidency has been a sorry fact of the American existence for decades now. How can it be otherwise when the mere mortal elected to the presidency is treated – at least in terms of the expectations with which the office is lumbered – as some kind of priest-king?

Not that it ends there in Washington. Congress has become a family business in which promotion is based on genes more than ability. The British House of Lords may be an anachronism, but at least it recognizes inherited power as, well, an anachronism. From the Kennedys to the Pauls via the Udalls, the Murkowskis, the Jacksons, and many others, political privilege in modern America often seems to have become a matter of inheritance.

More broadly, the elites are, in some respect, more completely isolated from the American mainstream than at any point in the nation’s history. Witness, for example, the widespread sense on Wall Street that President Barack Obama was implacably hostile to America's super-rich. Witness too how much more ink is spilled debating affirmative action than contemplating legacy admissions to America’s greatest universities. Anything that inconveniences the elite is, apparently, “class warfare” (albeit of a kind real class warriors might struggle to recognize).

The divide between the privileged and the rest has become disturbingly wide. Whatever its other strengths, the rise of the “meritocracy” also fosters the writing of rules and norms that sustain and protect those already happily advantaged. It is a form of regulatory capture that, amid much else, downplays the impact of dumb or otherwise unearned luck. As writers such as Ross Douthat and David Brooks have argued, if elites convince themselves their advantages are the product of nothing more than hard work, one might not expect them to be animated by an excess of old-fashioned, aristocratic noblesse oblige.

One need not be a hardcore leftist to sometimes wonder if the fascination for foreign royalty (and other, lesser, homegrown celebrities such as the Kardashians) is a means by which the common people may be distracted from recognizing the reality of their own, depressingly humdrum lives. Never mind any of that, look, there's a new and shiny royal baby on the way!

The Muslim Brotherhood Is Worse Than Mubarak. By Hani Shukrallah.

Revolution, Interrupted. By Hani Shukrallah. Foreign Policy, February 8, 2013.

There’s a reason Egyptians keep taking to the streets: The Muslim Brotherhood has proved to be little more than the old Mubarak clique with beards.

More on Morsi and Egypt, here, here, and here.

Judge Jeanine Pirro: Banning Weapons to Prevent Crime Doesn’t Work.

Judge Jeanine: Banning weapons to prevent crime doesn’t work. Video. Justice with Judge Jeanine. Fox News, February 3, 2013. Also find it here.