We’re traditionalists on sex scandals: They ought to include sex.
In July, President Obama gave another in his long series of speeches that constitute “a pivot” to the economy. Most of his proposals — raising the minimum wage, adding to the plethora of federal job-training programs, spending on public works — could have been proposed in the 1930s (and were, and didn’t work then, either), while a few — subsidizing high-speed Internet connections, dumping more money on subsidies for politically connected energy firms — assume contemporary technology but are equally frivolous. The U.S. economy labors under the twin yoke of the regulatory state and the entitlement state, under a complex and wasteful tax system, a hostile public sector, and a mediocre primary-education system. The president has not proposed reforming these; he has proposed making them worse by entrenching the bureaucracy in the economy, by creating an enormous and unpredictable new regulatory-entitlement hybrid (Obamacare), and by standing in the schoolhouse door against reformers. Another speech won’t repair that damage.
A few conservative senators and organizations are urging Republicans to refuse to support any bill that keeps government operations funded unless it also defunds Obamacare. If all Republicans held firm in that position and Democrats refused to accept the demand, the government would shut down. Republicans will not, however, hold firm in that position, because it is plain to most of them that they would be picking a fight on ground advantageous to President Obama. The public dislikes his health-care law, but there is no reason to think it would like the idea of shutting down the government over it. Republican leaders are right to reject the shutdown strategy but need to come up with their own strategy on health care. That strategy has to include a plan to bring market forces, at long last, to bear on health care, and it has to terminate in winning some elections — so they can get about the business of shutting down Obamacare.
President Obama claimed that “phony scandals” were distracting Washington, D.C., from doing the people’s work, which is to say passing his agenda. His Treasury secretary, Jack Lew, put the IRS scandal in that category, in particular “the attempt to keep finding that evidence” linking the misconduct to Obama’s appointees. But we don’t know what those appointees did: Lew himself, whom Obama charged with investigating the entire matter, admitted that he has not asked what role William Wilkins, the chief counsel of the IRS, played. Lew also claimed that progressive groups were just as likely to be targeted for improper scrutiny as conservative ones — a claim that has long been debunked. There is nothing phony about this scandal, although the word seems to apply to Mr. Lew’s investigation.
Anthony Weiner’s latest sexting scandal is as horrible as a recurring dream. Fortunately it should be gone after the Democratic mayoral primary on September 10 disposes of him, one hopes permanently. His wife, Huma Abedin, will remain, however, since she is also the protégé of future presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and, until this sad affair, a likely fixture in a third Clinton administration. Will the Clintons, unwilling to have the world reminded of their own troubles, cast her aside? Or will she endure, as a model of political loyalty über alles? Huma Abedin is both long-suffering and the willing partner of a wretched, damaged man. She and he have a long road of repair to walk, if they choose to follow it — away from the public eye.
Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, has announced that she’s running for the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by Mike Enzi (R., Wyo.). There’s been complaining over her decision to jump into the race: Enzi is a conservative, and why waste the Republican party’s energy on what many see as a pointless primary fight? But Enzi has often seemed asleep at the wheel during his 16 years in office — despite representing a state red enough to support the imaginative and gutsy conservatism of a Mike Lee or Ted Cruz. At the moment Enzi’s big cause is Internet taxation. Wyoming Republicans should be open to an upgrade, and we look forward to seeing if Cheney can persuasively make the case to primary voters that she represents one.
Representative Steve King (R., Iowa), a leading opponent of the immigration bill, said that for every illegal-immigrant valedictorian there are 100 illegal-immigrant drug smugglers. Republicans from Speaker John Boehner down denounced the comment. We suspect that Representative King was reacting against the tendency of the bill’s supporters to romanticize illegal immigrants, all of whom, to hear the paeans, are held to be hard-working and God-fearing. Sweeping negative generalizations, though, are just as untrue and more offensive. It is right to resist the legalization of illegal immigrants so long as we have reason to fear that it will draw more illegal immigrants here. It is wrong to resist it on the ground that illegal immigrants are, as a class, bad people; and it is politically foolish, as well, to make it appear that it is that ground on which opponents of legalization stand.
One day after the City of Detroit filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, Michigan circuit judge Rosemarie Aquilina attempted to put a halt to the restructuring. Among her justifications? “It’s . . . not honoring the president, who took [the auto companies] out of bankruptcy.” She also scrawled at the end of her declaratory motion, “A copy of this order shall be transmitted to President Obama.” Her legal reasoning was actually more sound: There is a case to be made that the Michigan state constitution prohibits the breaking of existing pension and compensation contracts, which the Motor City must do to have any hope of revival. Regardless, federal bankruptcy code, which is intended to honor creditors rather than the president, will win out. Chapter 9 of the law provides for municipal bankruptcies, but much new ground will be broken in Detroit’s reorganization — which, if there are dividends in Detroit’s sad tale, will make it clearer how similarly burdened cities might have to resolve their situations, whether or not President Obama is watching.
Attorney General Eric Holder was one of those who decried the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act. His latest actions in response to that decision, though, show just how overdone the liberal lamentations over the alleged demise of the act have been. The act required several jurisdictions — most of them southern states — to obtain “preclearance” from the Justice Department before making any change, however picayune, to voting procedures. The Supreme Court said that jurisdictions could not be singled out for this extraordinary treatment based solely on voting statistics from 40 years ago. Holder is now using another section of the Voting Rights Act against Texas (which shows that the act is not dead after all). This time, however, he will have to prove that Texas has intentionally deprived people of their voting rights based on race by, for example, requiring voters to show IDs. Texas will no longer be guilty until proven innocent. That is the right standard, and we suspect Holder’s suit will not be able to clear it.
Democrats are terribly upset with Republicans in North Carolina: Having won the state house, the state senate, and the governorship, along with nine of thirteen U.S. House seats in the last election, Republicans in Raleigh are acting like they run the place. That has meant a legislative agenda including a new voter-identification law requiring the presentation of a state-issued photo ID (such as a driver’s license); a five-year delay before the automatic reinstatement of felons’ voting rights; an expanded education-voucher program; and an end to the often-abused innovation of same-day registration, a favorite tool of professional vote-wranglers who bribe the homeless and other vulnerable people on Election Day. The state also has adopted new regulations on abortion, such as requiring clinics to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. In 2009, President Obama explained the reasoning behind his overstuffed stimulus plan to Republican critics: “I won.” Raleigh and the U.S. Congress are full of Republicans who can say the same thing.
Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, which operates a chain of abortion mills, announced in July that it was paying $1.4 million to the state of Texas to settle claims that it fraudulently billed the state, under Medicaid for procedures that an investigation found were not covered or were entirely fictitious. Planned Parenthood’s executives were defiant, calling the allegations in the complaint “baseless” and the settlement “a practical matter” to head off expensive litigation. Texas attorney general Greg Abbott’s office sees things differently, saying that Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast intentionally falsified medical records in order to bilk the state out of Medicaid payments. The allegations are not an aberration. The Alliance Defending Freedom, which compiles data on state and federal audits of Planned Parenthood affiliates, reports that eleven other state audits have found nearly $8 million in improper Medicaid payments made to the organizations. “Planned Parenthood’s primary motivation appears not to be to provide quality healthcare to patients who seek family planning services, but rather to enhance its profits,” the ADF report concludes. The federal government, which finances Planned Parenthood to the tune of $542 million a year, seems only too happy to assist.
Mitch Daniels, whom some Republicans would like to see president of something more than Purdue University, is under fire from academic critics over e-mails recently published by the Associated Press in which Daniels, then governor of Indiana, objected strongly to the use of Howard Zinn’s left-wing fantasy, A People’s History of the United States, in Indiana public-school curricula. The plainspoken governor called the book “anti-American” and “crap,” in what was supposed to be a private e-mail. Language niceties aside, Governor Daniels is entirely right about Zinn’s work, the defects of which are apparent not only to conservative critics but to liberals as well: Arthur Schlesinger called Zinn “a polemicist, not a historian,” while Harvard’s Oscar Handlin described the book as a “deranged fairy tale.” It takes fictional episodes for fact, misrepresents everything from slavery in the early colonies to the Tet Offensive, omits such historical events as the Gettysburg address, the D-Day invasion, and the Wright Brothers’ first flight, and presents what can only be called “a biased account.” Who said that? Howard Zinn. Governor Daniels was right to take him at his word and act accordingly.
Smoking Out Leviathan
Throughout most of his life, William F. Buckley Jr. was a strong supporter of the freedom to smoke. In a 2002 article, he wrote, “Perhaps tomorrow’s rules will say: Okay to smoke if you are located in a park, or desert, and the weathervane shows no wind at all, and no population centers to leeward. Then light up. And sing Land of the Free!” Late in life, however, after his wife, Pat, died, “technically from an infection, but manifestly, at least in part, from a body weakened by 60 years of nonstop smoking,” he admitted that, given the chance, he would forbid smoking in America, even against his “secular commitment to the free marketplace.”
As with so many other things, Americans have gradually caught up with Buckley’s view. Cigarette smoking has grown increasingly unpopular. Fully 22 percent of Americans support an outright ban on smoking, according to a recent Gallup poll.
While policymakers have stopped short of that in the U.S., they have found numerous other ways to attack smoking. The most common method, of course, is taxation, which has increased sharply over the past few decades. Supply-side Republicans have at times been willing to increase taxes on smoking in the belief that this will reduce that destructive behavior, and because the revenue allows reduction of other marginal tax rates. Democrats, who often seem to believe that marginal tax rates can be increased with impunity, have also been willing to punish smokers. Accordingly, there has been bipartisan anti-smoking sentiment to generate constant upward pressure on cigarette taxes.
The nearby chart compares cigarette-tax rates in the U.S. since 1980 with the consumption of cigarettes. The chart suggests that supply-side economics does a great job of describing recent patterns in smoking behavior: As taxes have made smoking more expensive, smoking has declined sharply.
This correlation is not, of course, proof. More convincing empirical evidence was recently presented in a study by economists Philip DeCicca, Donald Kenkel, Alan Mathios, Yoon Jeong-Shin, and Jae-Young Lim. The authors traced the impact of cigarette taxes on decisions to start or quit smoking. Since these taxes vary widely from state to state, and from year to year, the authors had an enormous amount of data to analyze in search of precise estimates of the impact of cigarette taxes on cigarette consumption.
Prior to the study, the conventional wisdom was that high taxes reduce cigarette smoking by discouraging young people, who rarely have much money, from acquiring the habit. The authors turned that conventional wisdom on its head: They found that cigarette taxes had virtually no effect on the likelihood that a young person would begin to smoke, but a very large and significant effect on the likelihood that a smoker would quit smoking. Intuitively, this makes sense, given that most youths probably start smoking with a borrowed cigarette, while the cumulative costs of high cigarette taxes would be a burden on a regular consumer. Love of a good smoke and the craving of nicotine may be ineradicable, but unwillingness to feed Leviathan’s ravenous appetite appears to loosen their grip.
Sometimes fact really is more astonishing than fiction. Less than a week after a jury found him not guilty of second-degree murder, George Zimmerman emerged from hiding to rescue a family of four trapped inside their SUV, which had rolled over on the highway just a mile from Zimmerman’s neighborhood. According to police, Zimmerman was one of two men who came to the family’s aid before police arrived, and the pair managed to get the family out of the vehicle without any injuries. The following week the family canceled their planned news conference, citing fears of “blowback.” Strangely, neither the rescue nor the canceled news conference merited a mention on Al Sharpton’s MSNBC show.
The administration leaked that it was considering Lawrence Summers to run the Federal Reserve and promptly met a hail of objections. He is too much a partisan Democrat, said Republicans. Some Democrats said he was too abrasive and arrogant to run a collegial institution. They prefer Janet Yellen, who is already on the Fed’s board of governors. Our own preference among the inhabitants of Obamaworld would be the president’s former economic adviser Christina Romer. She has advocated a simple rule to guide the Fed: It should keep nominal spending growing at a constant rate. A rule-bound and thus predictable Fed would be a vast improvement over what we have now and would have the added benefit of making personnel decisions matter less in the future.
A bipartisan effort is under way in Congress to prevent a sharp increase in the interest rate charged on student loans. The good news is that the compromise legislation would link interest rates to Treasury rates, meaning that they would be tied to something other than political expedience. The bad news is that this keeps Congress in the business of setting interest rates and the academic-political complex in the business of loan-sharking. Student loans are a lot like public-sector pensions: They are a way for educators and administrators to increase their compensation without forcing any immediate pain on taxpayers, who might complain, or on tuition payers, who might look elsewhere under a more pay-as-you-go model. Students in this equation are merely a passthrough for federal dollars bound for the pockets of the swollen administrative ranks of the American campus. Student loans are a main enabler of soaring tuitions, and have left former college students with more loan debt than credit-card debt: in excess of $1 trillion, with default rates climbing. That is another financial crisis waiting to happen — with an explicit federal guarantee.
“Ho Chi Minh was actually inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution and the words of Thomas Jefferson,” President Obama told reporters after meeting with Vietnamese president Truong Tan Sang in the White House last month. Ho, the Communist leader of North Vietnam until his death in 1969, was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians and more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers who fought in the 1960s and ’70s to defend South Vietnam against the tyranny of his regime. Dissenting “landlords,” intellectuals, and villagers who resisted exorbitant taxation were executed for “errors of thought,” a crime for which Jefferson might have meted out a more lenient punishment. Before the U.S. succeeded the French in the effort to defeat Ho, he hoped America would support him. According to some accounts, in his early enthusiasm he did memorize some of the Declaration, committing to heart the words, though obviously not the spirit. During his lifetime, he proved to be a magnet to useful idiots, who helped him fight his American enemy in the press if not on the ground. Posthumously, he has inspired the U.S. president to join their ranks. In trying too hard to be gracious to the president of present-day Vietnam, President Obama disrespected U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War.
Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Reyes came under fire from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation recently for posting a column titled “No Atheists in Foxholes: Chaplains Gave All in World War II” in the “Chaplain’s Corner” of the website of an Air Force base. Serving at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, Reyes was ordered to take down his column because it allegedly offended atheist servicemen. The MRFF sent a letter to the base commander on behalf of 42 airmen complaining about the chaplain’s failure to uphold military regulations with his “anti-secular diatribe” and “faith-based hate.” Reyes’s essay, whose title was drawn from a famous utterance made by a priest during a siege in World War II and mentioned in a 1954 speech by President Eisenhower, was removed from the website after the MRFF contacted his superiors. The Foundation, apparently not content with infringing upon his First Amendment rights, is now seeking to have the Christian chaplain punished for using religious language in his religious column. The Foundation seems to have its own first commandment: “Thou shalt have no gods, period.”
The president has really expanded that Enemies List. It apparently includes six members of the Missouri College Republicans, who were not permitted to attend President Obama’s speech on the economy at the University of Central Missouri — because the room was at capacity, according to Secret Service. Doubtful, say the students, who watched as attendees without tickets entered the gymnasium from which they, who had tickets, had been barred. Earlier in the day the students had been protesting in a designated “public-speech zone” on campus, but they had left the protest signs behind to watch the speech. They were identifiably partisan — one wore a College Republicans shirt, and two others were in shirts emblazoned with “Don’t Tread On Me,” the Revolutionary-era phrase popular among tea partiers. So were they prohibited for their party affiliation? Perhaps they can ask when the IRS agents come for the audit.
All this year, Secretary of State John Kerry has been cajoling and arm-twisting to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Jaw-jaw is better than war-war, according to the good old ground rule of Winston Churchill, but this is a high-risk gamble for all the players. Failure will underline that Washington’s Middle East policy is naïve to the point of irrelevance. For the Palestinians, however, failure is the preferred option. Even a slender agreement with Israel would leave Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO leader, in danger of being murdered by Hamas, his Islamist arch-rival. Driven by Kerry to prove his good will, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu has had to pay for a place at the negotiating table by agreeing to release 104 Palestinians serving life sentences for the murders of Israeli men, women, and children. The cabinet voted in favor but could easily fall apart. Israelis are incensed that their killers get away, and the Palestinians pocket the concession without giving an inch in return. Nobody, perhaps not even Kerry, understands why the United States is determined to bring to justice those who commit acts of terror against it, but exerts pressure to set at liberty those who have been brought to justice for acts of terror against an ally.
China is worried about its public-sector debt, particularly that owed by local governments and by state-owned firms. One of the things Beijing is worried about is that the ingenious financiers of the Communist party do not know how much debt there really is, and so a national audit has been ordered. Growth is slowing, prices are rising for such sensitive goods as food and homes, corruption is rampant, the banks are rickety, and the government is worried about its deficit, having just instituted a cap at 3 percent of GDP. While it is tempting to sit back and enjoy whatever is Chinese for “schadenfreude” as the puffed-up PRC potentates take one in their little red shorts, the fact is that China and the United States are very closely tied economically — their problems will be our problems. For all of its vaunted and important reform in past decades, China still is suffering from the problems associated with a state-directed economy — problems that are present to a lesser degree in the United States, too. The lesson for Washington from Beijing is that the time to prepare for a crisis is not on the precipice of the crisis.
In July, millions of eyes turned toward London, England, where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge awaited the birth of their first child. George Alexander Louis, otherwise known as the “royal baby,” was born on July 22. He is now third in line to the throne, after his grandfather, Prince Charles, and his father, Prince William. “George,” which had been the most predicted name for the newborn, was the name of Queen Elizabeth’s father. The independent Centre for Retail Research has predicted that the baby will be worth £243 million to the British economy by the end of August. With that sort of return on investment, perhaps it’s already time for William and Kate to consider giving George a sibling?
Three million people thronged Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach in late July for the closing event of Pope Francis’s World Youth Day. It was an awe-inspiring sight. Four months into his pontificate, Francis is showing some of the rock-star charisma of the late John Paul II, but what the millions came to Rio to celebrate was not a cult of personality but a deeply counter-cultural message. The thought has long been expressed by us and our fellow defenders of religion that religion will outlive its cultured despisers; it is gratifying to see so many young people offer such vibrant evidence of the continuing vitality of faith in an age of doubt.
A top official at the September 11 Memorial Museum in New York, according to a new book, objected to the display of an iconic photo that depicts three ash-covered firemen raising the Stars and Stripes over the rubble of Ground Zero. The museum’s “creative director,” Michael Shulan, worried that the museum would cater too much to the “rah-rah America” instinct. He explained his objection to the image by saying, “My concern is . . . that we not reduce [9/11] down to something that was too simple, and in its simplicity would actually distort the complexity of the event, the meaning of the event.” Eventually the image, along with two other similar ones, was hung in the museum after all. In the famous preface to his History, Livy wrote of how Rome had reached “a time when we can endure neither our national vices nor the necessary remedies,” yet he still dedicated his work to recording, “on a clear, distinct monument, every example” of early Rome for his countrymen to admire and learn from. But you know those rah-rah Romans.
For years, the deputy fire chief of Princeton, N.J., has been trying to construct a memorial to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks in his town, which saw ten of its residents killed that day. The firefighter, Roy James, finally secured a ten-foot, two-ton piece of steel from the World Trade Center’s wreckage, which he hoped to erect as part of a memorial in the town center. But there’s one problem: At some point, someone carved a hole in the shape of a cross into the steel beam, and town officials now object to the piece on the grounds of separation of church and state. James, who is Jewish, said he believes the significance is not so much religious as historical, “a symbol of hope and a symbol of remembrance,” echoing the argument made by those who finally were able to install a famous cross-shaped piece of wreckage at the Ground Zero museum. Princeton officials, who profess to be worried about suits, have suggested that the beam could be arranged so that the cross is concealed by the limestone pillars with which it will be installed. Firefighters, one can safely assume, are usually a little less skittish about such issues; here’s hoping the real heroes win out.
Of all the narratives in all the world, the damn economists had to step into this one. In July, Freakonomics’s Stephen Dubner raised Michelle Obama’s blood pressure by praising the much-maligned McDonald’s — specifically, its $1 double cheeseburger. Responding to a reader who argued that the item was the “cheapest, most nutritious and bountiful food that has ever existed in human history,” Dubner took it upon himself to investigate. Then he discussed the question with critics on his weekly podcast. What he found surprised him: On a calories-per-dollar basis, the item beats out almost all of the competition. As the New York Post’s Kyle Smith observed, a 2007 University of Washington survey revealed that “junk food costs as little as $1.76 per 1,000 calories, whereas fresh veggies and the like cost more than ten times as much.” Sure, it is all very well for the well-to-do to frequent the Farmers’ Market. But if one is poor and hungry? Well, it turns out that McDonald’s isn’t so bad after all.
Phil Mickelson, once practically allergic to major victories, has won another: the British Open, at Muirfield on the Firth of Forth. He did so in stunning fashion, beginning the final day five strokes off the lead, shooting 66, and winning the tournament by three. Alas, victorious Mickelson seems to owe a little more than a nod to the gods: The compensation he received from his victory in Scotland has been taxed by the Scottish and U.S. authorities at a combined rate of 61 percent. (Mickelson made news last year by suggesting he may move from California to avoid its high taxes, but sports winnings are actually taxed by where they are earned, not the place of residence of the athlete, so he’s limited in what he can do.) California and Britain seem unlikely to adopt reasonable, competitive levels of taxation anytime soon, but might we suggest, at the very least, a golfer’s tax rate ought not to approach the score of his final round?
No good deed goes unpunished, especially in the regulatory state. That was nearly true for Robert Kennedy Jr. and his brother Max, who came under federal scrutiny for rescuing a 500-pound leatherback turtle over the Fourth of July weekend. The brothers, sons of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, paused their sailing trip in Nantucket Sound when they came across the turtle tangled in a buoy line; they spent a half-hour working the creature free, while a family member captured the rescue on video. It turns out, though, that their kindness was in violation of the Endangered Species Act, which allows only certified handlers to conduct such rescue operations. But the brothers’ good turn earned another: A spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association says the pair will not face punishment.
Peak Oil has long been a mirage, always impending but never arriving. Still, at the turn of the millennium there was truth to in warnings about American energy dependence: Crude-oil and natural-gas production was declining fast, raising the possibility that the United States would become more — not less — reliant upon the Middle East. That is, until George Mitchell, who died in July at the age of 94, changed the equation forever. During the 1990s, Mitchell, the CEO of the Mitchell Energy & Development Company, spent almost $6 million developing a way to extract the abundant natural gas that he knew lay beneath his home in Houston. Ten years later, he had invented hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking,” as it has come to be known. Fracking now pulls more than a third of America’s natural gas out of the ground and in two decades it will likely account for half of all natural-gas production. The American energy renaissance has many fathers, but chief among them is George Mitchell. R.I.P.
Virginia Johnson and her longtime collaborator, William Masters, made a great splash in the Sixties and Seventies, but no one remembers them as individuals: It was as a team of sexual researchers, and a brand name for the new frankness, Masters and Johnson, that they won notoriety. Alfred Kinsey had described what people actually did together (or what they said they did); Masters and Johnson observed them, and professed to describe what worked and what didn’t. Their prose was unreadable, and their methods minutely numerical. It was sex as engineering: building the Hoover Dam in the bedroom. Masters had the M.D.; Johnson was a thrice-married secretary and former country singer he hired because she could put women subjects at ease. During their years of working together the two became lovers, then mates, then exes. Masters died in 2001; Johnson, age 88, has now rejoined him. R.I.P.
Helen Thomas covered every president from JFK to Obama, for UPI, then Hearst. For most of that career she typified the category of journalist as jerk (cf. Sam Donaldson, Dan Rather), the on-camera scold-in-the-box. It is unpleasant work, but someone has to do it, especially in Republican administrations. At the end of her life she outed herself as an anti-Semite, telling a rabbi at a Jewish Heritage Day celebration at the Obama White House that Israelis should “get the hell out of Palestine,” and “go home [to] Poland, Germany.” Later that year she brought her war home, declaring in a speech that Congress, the White House, Hollywood, and Wall Street “are owned by the Zionists.” She goes to her grave laden with every award a self-regarding, left-of-center profession confers on its left-wing lifers. Dead at 92. R.I.P.
A Battle Joined
It’s not quite Taft vs. Eisenhower, but the intra-conservative division over civil liberties and foreign policy has come to the fore in a way it has not in decades. In the House, nearly half the Republicans voted for an amendment to end the National Security Agency’s program of tracking which phone numbers Americans are calling: a program begun under the Bush administration and supported by many of its national-security appointees. New Jersey governor Chris Christie, asked about a rising strain of libertarianism among his fellow Republicans, said that it was “dangerous” and suggested that some politicians — he was asked about Senator Rand Paul specifically — had forgotten about the victims of September 11. Senator Paul returned fire several times — for example, accusing Christie of shortchanging national defense by asking for federal money after Hurricane Sandy.
We share some of the misgivings that critics of the NSA have expressed. In particular, we think it was a mistake to envelop the program in so much secrecy. But the government ought to have the capacity to find patterns of phone activity associated with terrorism and then, with a court order, to take further action. If we need more procedural safeguards to protect innocent Americans’ privacy than are currently in place, then Congress should legislate them. Abolishing the program altogether would be rash and irresponsible.
Governor Christie has gone too far in the other direction. Libertarian tendencies on national security should be tempered, not rejected. And the case for staying in Afghanistan, or for any other foreign intervention, has to be made in terms of the specific benefits and costs for Americans. The defect of foreign-policy libertarianism is that it collapses the particularities of the world into overly simple principles. An opposing generality based on compassion for the victims of terrorism is no answer at all.
Senator Paul praises Edward Snowden, who leaked the NSA program and threatens to leak more, as a “civil disobedient” akin to Martin Luther King Jr. and Henry David Thoreau. Like his father, Paul seems to embrace the illusion that the most powerful country in the world can retreat from the responsibility of shaping the global order. The crucial question, which neither Paul nor Christie has engaged, is how to use our power to promote our interests and principles — while also remembering the limits of that power.
Republicans have said that the Christie-Paul exchange is a sign of the healthy debate within their party. This self-congratulation is premature until the debate reaches a level of seriousness it has not yet found.
THE MIDDLE EAST
Egypt and the World
Egypt is the now another country where brutal killing is commonplace. As usual, it is impossible to be sure who opened fire or whether the figure of about 100 dead in Cairo on July 27 should be higher or lower. It so happens that in Tunisia an opposition politician by the name of Mohamed Brahmi has just been shot dead by gunmen, the second such assassination in recent months. And there are also reports of 150 Syrian soldiers apparently massacred by rebels. Press photographs show that the town of Homs has been reduced to rubble at world-war level. In these and other similar horrors, Islamism is the common factor.
Islamism is an ideology based on the supremacy of right-thinking Muslims over wrong-thinking or heretical Muslims, and in any case over non-Muslims. For almost a century, the Muslim Brotherhood has been putting this ideology into practice in Egypt and wherever else it could reach. The Brotherhood has an elite, but it also commands a mass movement. The wave of discontent known as the Arab Spring was a perfect opportunity for exploiting its undoubted power. The Muslim Brotherhood used a skillful mixture of propaganda and demonstrations to force the previous president, Hosni Mubarak, out of office and to replace him with their man, Mohamed Morsi. That they managed to win elections lent democratic legitimacy to what in effect was an Islamist takeover.
In Egypt there is another elite and another mass movement, however, also comprising Muslims, but with political and social ambitions that have nothing to do with Islam and faith but rather with assuring the country its place in the modern world. These forces have made the army their vehicle. Morsi replaced the old guard by appointing General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi minister of defense. It was assumed that Morsi controlled Sisi and that henceforth the army would assist the Muslim Brotherhood in setting up an Islamist state. Comes the hour, comes the man: General Sisi was not prepared to do any such thing, but instead has taken Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood elite into detention. Morsi vs. Sisi may be fought out on the streets, and the costs would then be great. What happens in Egypt afterward becomes an example for the rest of the Arab and Muslim world. The success or failure of Islamism depends in the last resort on the character of General Sisi and the decisions he takes. Never before, in all probability, has an Egyptian general had such responsibility.