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Jacob Heilbrunn

The Birther Mystery Solved: Is Barack Obama Really An Irishman?

"Those who believe they are in full possession of the truth can be dangerous," former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced at Georgetown University's commencement ceremony on Friday. It's a barb that appears to be aimed at the Bush administration, which comes a little late in the game—or is it aimed at President Obama? Or is it a moment of self-revelation on Albright's part, who doesn't usually display much doubt about what she thinks is right ([Saddam] Hussein has," she announced on November 10, 1999, "chosen to spend his money on building weapons of mass
destruction and palaces for his cronies")? It's one of those delphic statements that means everything and nothing at the same time.

It could apply to the Europeans, whom Obama is visiting this week. Turns out Obama has some distant Irish ancestry. He's the sixth American president to visit Ireland, a country that appears to be mired in even worse economic misery than America. Ireland became a low-tax haven that is despised by its European brethren, but got its comeuppance once the real estate bubble popped. Turned out that not every plumber is entitled to a second house near a Spanish beach. Could Obama's Irish ancestry also help account for his gift of blarney? Maybe he has more in common with Reagan than anyone had thought. Apparently, there's even a film being premiered at Cannes called Barack Obama's Irish Roots. It certainly beats being called a "black mascot" for Wall Street, as Princeton professor Cornel West is referring to the president.

Which leads me to wonder whether Obama may actually have been born secretly, not in Kenya, but closer to the epicenter of the British empire—in Ireland. Perhaps it might even be wondered if the hostility that Dinesh D'Souza discerned in Obama's alleged Kenyan roots actually has its origins in the Irish struggle for independence against the hated British. This could be a far more important link, one that has been unaccountably neglected by the media and historians in their quest to understand the true Obama. It could prove a fertile field in the future for Obama scholars, who wish to divine how his heritage may have weighed upon his foreign-policy decisions.

The most peculiar stance that Obama has taken in the past week centers on the 1967 Israel borders question. Why Obama plunged into this arena is also a bit of a mystery. Perhaps he thought he could help head off the Palestinian and European charge for recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations. But Obama has spent the past week walking back his initial announcement that the 1967 borders would serve as the starting point for negotiations. As I predicted he would, Obama is now claiming that what he said is nothing new under the sun.

Meanwhile, his Republican opponents are accusing him of throwing Israel "under the bus," as Mitt Romney put it. But Obama will also be visiting Warsaw this week, where he will pay tribute to the Jews murdered by the Nazis during World War II. It's both appropriate and allows him to signal that he is not abandoning Israel.

Obama will likely be greeted with hosannas in Europe. His nimbus has not completely worn off--partly because Europe's leaders are so wretched by comparison. But whether Obama's European trip will allow him to boost his popularity at home is another question. But as with many American presidents, he is likely to find that going abroad and exploring his "Irish roots" is a welcome reprieve from being assailed back home.

The Presidency
United States

Obama and Jerusalem

So President Obama called for a return to Israel's 1967 borders. I suppose he can say that he is just reiterating American policy. But it was apparently done over the objections of Dennis Ross. And Hillary Clinton? Is this a new instance of Powerism—Samantha Power is a longstanding critic of Israel and its conduct in the West Bank.

This Obama doctrine is unlikely to win Obama much. The Wall Street Journal has an item buried today that announces that Israel is going to add another 1,600 units in East Jerusalem. Yair Gabbai, member of the Interior Ministry, says it sends a clear message. Yes, it does.

The occupation of the West Bank has brought Israel little other than woe. It began under the pretense of defensive settlements. Today defending the defensive settlements has become a rationale for remaining in the West Bank.

Obama comes too late on the scene to accomplish much. The Palestinians will likely remain recalcitrant, figuring time, in the form of population fecundity, is on their side. Meanwhile, in Israel calls for outright annexation, moored recently in the New York Times, will increase.

Foreign Aid
United States

Lars Von Trier and Nazi Weirdness

Lars Von Trier is the not-so-great Dane. Great Scot! That is what most Europeans must be thinking about the filmmaker's recent remarks about what a swell fellow Hitler—you know, the guy who had a small obsession about wiping out the Jews—must have been. And how much he liked the architecture of Albert Speer, a convicted war criminal.

Kirsten Dunst remonstrated at Cannes that what he said was "really intense." Really stupid, too. What is it with Europe? Somehow the continent is still floundering when it comes to dealing with Jews and Israel. My own guess is that animus towards the Jewish state is what lies behind his odious comments. He delicately referred to Israel as a "pain in the ass"—an observation that might apply more accurately to himself.

Von Trier has now been declared persona non grata at Cannes. Perhaps he will realize that his boorish behavior is no joking matter.

Globalization
Denmark

Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Anti-Americanism

You have to hand it to the French. It didn't take them long to blame America for Dominique Strauss-Kahn's problems. The French satyr, as Maureen Dowd calls him, is in a peck of trouble, sitting in Riker's Island with the hoi polloi. Bad food. Nasty inmates. Confinement. None of it can be very much fun, not to speak of comparing it to his digs at the Sofitel, where he's accused of having attempted to attack a chambermaid, an immigrant from (French?) Africa.

So the French chattering classes have much to chatter about. Now they can talk about how stinky America is when contrasted with France. An indispensable account of bien pensant opinion in France is furnished by the Los Angeles Times today. Just to read it is to feel a warm glow of the good old days when the French would take out their frustrations on those callow Yankees. It's nice to see that even if France is no longer a great power, it can still lash out at its quondam American rescuer. In fact, its resentments are, of course, amplified by the fact that America and the English language have supplanted France and the French tongue. Kim Willsher reports:

 

While some viewed Strauss-Kahn and France as victims of the scandal, few spared a thought for the woman he is accused of attacking Saturday.

In truth, it takes very little for France to revert to its default position on the United States. Sniping about the invasion of McDonald's or Starbucks on the Grands Boulevards of Paris, niggling about Americans buying up real estate in the chic parts of town and country (the British are just as bad, but everyone thinks they're American), criticizing the wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq, and trashing the cultural omnipresence of Walt Disney Co.

Today, thanks to Strauss-Kahn, the French who choose to criticize the U.S. have a fresh reason to shake their heads and point fingers at the country they love to hate.

 

So far, Strauss-Kahn himself has been keeping mum, probably on the advice of his high-priced lawyers. He was almost able to pull a Polanski by rushing to an Air France jet. Now he must be hoping be to reach some kind of settlement in the hope of preventing prosecutors from being able to bring the case to trial. Another hope might be to argue that any jury pool is going to be hopelessly tainted, at least in New York, due to the massive publicity surrounding his arrest. Strauss-Kahn must be more than a little envious of Arnold who managed to terminate any publicity about his fathering a love-child for almost a decade by keeping it all in the family. It's been a bad week for gropers. Now Strauss-Kahn is himself groping to deal with a new reality as he sits in a jail cell wearing an orange jumpsuit.

Banking
France

A Strong 2012 GOP Presidential Field?

It seems that potential candidates for the Republican nomination keep announcing that they're not running. Mick Huckabee turned it down. So did Donald Trump. And Mitch Daniels?

He looks to be the great hope of the GOP in 2012. If he runs. Which depends upon his wife. Wives are becoming increasingly important. Maria Shriver just dumped Arnold, peeved at his fathering a child with a member of the household staff about a decade ago. Does Sarah Palin's decision about whether to run or not depend upon what Todd thinks? He's no Dennis Thatcher, hiding from the spotlight. Instead, he appears to play an integral role in her career.The odds are that, like Huckabee, she won't run.

But could it be that the GOP field is actually benefitting from the absence of Huckabee and others? Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Jonah Goldberg is jubilant. OK, maybe jubilation is an exaggeration. But Goldberg is fairly sanguine. He appears to believe that the prevailing belief that the GOP is stuck in the far right breakdown lane is nonsense. Instead, a vigorous and healthy debate may take place over what constitutes conservative policies. As Goldberg puts it, the ferment that is taking place, with Newt Gingrich first denouncing the House GOP Medicare plan, then retreating,

 

does hint that this year's primary season won't be a replay of the dreadful 2008 debates in which the candidates auditioned to play the part of Ronald Reagan in the school play.

It also suggests that the front-runners — a group that includes former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty — might be ahead of the rank and file of the GOP.Come November, it is very unlikely that conservative voters will stay home. So, barring a truly fringe GOP nominee, they will vote against Obama no matter what. Already, the conversation on the right is moving toward the all-important question of "electability" — i.e., which candidate can peel off the handful of moderates and independents needed to win in an election that will be a referendum on Obama and his record.

 

Both Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty look like the strongest potential candidates because they have the ability, or at least the potential, to perform that kind of depilatory act. So far, Obama has been busily collecting his $1 billion for the 2012 race, while the GOP has been floundering. But if Goldberg is right, then he could be in for a tougher race than he may expect.

The Presidency
United States

The Plot to Get Dominique Strauss-Kahn

 The knives are being sharpened for Dominique Strauss-Kahn—DSK, as he is known in France. Poor fellow! He forgot that he has numerous enemies out to traduce his reputation, destroy his career, leave everything he has worked for—the $3,000 luxury suite, the Porsches—in shambles.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, has good reasons to try and bring Strauss-Kahn and the socialists into disrepute. But another leading suspect in the plot to get DSK has to be Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. Everything about the man must repel her. She leads a personally austere lifestyle. More important, she and her fellow Germans have every reason to want Strauss-Kahn out of the IMF. It's Strauss-Kahn who has been pushing for more generous loans to Athens and other cash-strapped European countries. In essence, a Frenchman is playing Russian roulette with German funds.

So this episode at the Sofitel Hotel in New York may simply be the latest chapter in the long saga of Franco-German hostilities. Does it rank up there with 1870, 1914, and 1940? Hardly. But it may testify to the willingness of Germany to do anything necessary to prevent a reckless Frenchman from risking inflationary policies.

Meanwhile, there's a good deal of gloating over Strauss-Kahn's humiliation. The Wall Street Journal, for example, observes

 

the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of sexually assaulting a hotel cleaning woman in New York City is a personal humiliation for the French politician, but it is also a black mark on the International Monetary Fund that chose to overlook his previous sexual behavior. It will be fascinating to see how the grandees of French and international financial politics handle this one.

 

For others the Strauss-Kahn imbroglio is the melancholy case of a socialist who lost his way—and who empitomizes the general collapse of European socialism. Strauss-Kahn, so the thinking goes, became corrupted, a part of the financial elites that, as a socialist, he should have shunned. Instead, he became swept up in the heady lifestyle of the rich and famous. His alleged attack on a chambermaid simply represents the quintessence of privilege run amok. He had come to view himself as an aristocrat, endowed with unique rights. Droit de seigneur indeed.

At the same time, Strauss-Kahn faces the threat of a lawsuit in France itself. A 31-year-old woman, the goddaughter of his second wife, is accusing him of sexual assault about a decade ago. How DSK extricates, or attempts to extricate, himself from this pickle will be fascinating to observe. Perhaps he should call Bill Clinton for some advice.

IMF
France

Good Morning America: Ron Paul Runs for the Presidency

 On Good Morning America, Ron Paul just announced his candidacy for the presidency. It's further proof that every good little boy or girl can dream about being presidential timber. But it's hard not to admire Paul's tenacity and sheer grit. My old colleague at the Los Angeles Times, Andrew Malcolm, a veteran newsman if there ever was one, who also worked for George W. Bush in Texas and is buddies with Karl Rove, has a perceptive post about Paul.

He points out that Paul not only exemplifies what he preaches—thrift, austerity—but also has had a big impact on the GOP. As well as on the Obama administration. Paul's bete noire—the burgeoning deficit—has become Exhibit A for what's wrong with the federal government. Scorn Paul at your peril, in other words. As Malcolm puts it,

 

Like a fiscal conservative who walks the walk, Paul ended 2008's bid with not one penny of campaign debt. In fact, flying commercial and staying in Super 8's, Paul had a $5-million surplus, which he put toward sowing the seeds of something called the tea party.

Perhaps you've heard of it. Ron's son Rand got elected senator that way. As did the new 2011 Republican majority in the House.

The libertarian-like movement speaks to a broad-based unhappiness with and suspicion of too-big government, too much spending, too much debt, too much war. Bureaucracies and businesses saturated with cronies who take care of each other at the expense of those folks paying the bills.

Paul wants out of those wars. Forget the American empire. Use the money back home. Cut the federal government. Follow the Constitution. Get out of people's lives. Paul's plans don't have a snowball's chance in a Galveston August of becoming reality. But despite all the tea party media mocking of two years ago, it was this movement that drove last fall's midterm election debate—and victories. And the ongoing budget, deficit and debt limit arguments.

 

Now many Republicans will argue that Paul is a spoiler. But with a rather weak field, the GOP's chances of toppling Obama are looking pretty iffy, at least right now. This election could be like 1964, when the Republicans lost big, but found their way back to conservatism. It could be one of those elections that's more about ideology than about actually winning. If so, the field will be wide open for Paul. The blunt fact is that his brand of libertarianism will appeal to many Republicans who are tired of foreign wars and a soaring debt. When it comes to social conservatives, Paul will, however, not be an appealing voice--he favors legalizing drugs, among other things. But Paul is the ultimate Tea Party candidate. As Malcolm and others have noted, he is, in fact, the godfather of the Tea Party.

But the potions that Paul is preparing are a lot stronger than mere tea. He's whipping up a cocktail of positions that could leave heads reeling in the GOP. Is a Pauline conversion about to take place? 2012 may be the battleground for the soul of the GOP.

The Presidency
United States

The Wall Street Journal Attacks Mitt Romney

 Mitt Romney wants to become America's next president. He's been very successful, according to a number of reports, at raising millions on Wall Street. But the paper named after it, the Wall Street Journal, isn't satisfied with Romney. In a lengthy and extraordinary editorial, it calls him the worst epithet a conservative could probably think of—"Obama's Running Mate."

When a political party is out of power, or at least doesn't hold the presidency, numerous dissenting voices are usually heard. It can be a fructifying time. But it can also be a time when ideological agendas are ruthlessly enforced. The Journal clearly believes that it is flushing out a Trojan Horse—a false prophet, in the form of Romney, who laid down the lineaments of the Obama health care plan during his own tenure as Governor of Massachusetts—and is now attempting to palliate, not disown, his record. Romney's "fatal flaw" is that he doesn't understand the free enterprise system, says the Journal:

 

 

Mr. Romney's fundamental error was assuming that such differences could be parsed by his own group of experts, as if government can be run by management consultants. He still seems to believe he somehow squared the views of Jonathan Gruber, the MIT evangelist for ObamaCare, with those of the Heritage Foundation. In reality, his ostensible liberal allies like the late Ted Kennedy saw an opening to advance their own priorities, and in Mr. Romney they took advantage of a politician who still doesn't seem to understand how government works. It's no accident that RomneyCare's most vociferous
defenders now are in the White House and left-wing media and think tanks. They know what happened, even if he doesn't.

 

The Journal's message could not be clearer: he is not one uf us. He has a credibility gap. He isn't a true conservative. He's a phony, a pretender who will sell out conservative principles the second he enters office. He is, in other words, George H.W. Bush reincarnated.

Now it's clearly the case that Romney, in a weak Republican field, has the most practical experience as a businessman and Governor. It would also seem that his Republican bona fides are in order—after all, his own father, George, was Governor of Michigan. If he became president, it also clear that he would be subjected to a barrage of criticism, much as George H.W. Bush was, for not acting like a real conservative. The war against Romney has begun. His greatest hurdle may not be battling the Democratic party but the conservative base in the GOP itself.

The Presidency
United States

British Intellectuals Are Defending Osama bin Laden

 British historian Andrew Roberts, one of the most conservative of his generation, has a column in the Wall Street Journal blasting his brethren for their timidity in facing up to al-Qaeda. Roberts chronicles his countrymen's reaction to the killing of Osama bin Laden, which is to say their anger at America for polishing off the would-be Mr. Big of international terrorism. In an inversion of reality, they seem to view bin Laden as a victim of American imperialism. Obama has become the new swaggering George W. Bush, carrying out rough frontier justice rather than abiding by the niceties of international law.

Britons are, of course, not unique. Castigating America? It's a European phenomenon. It endows the castigator with moral superiority over those primitive, bumptious Yanks. But the quotes that Roberts provides from a recent BBC show are certainly eyebrow-raising:

 

Another panelist, the writer Yasmin Alibhai Brown, was applauded when she said she was "depressed" by the killing, as it "demeans a democracy and a president who has shown himself to be the Ugly American. He's degraded American democracy, which had already degraded itself through torture and rendition." The former Liberal Party leader Paddy Ashdown was then cheered when he said: "I cannot rejoice on the killing of any man. I belong to a country that is founded on the principle of exercise of due process of law," as though the United States was founded on some other idea.

 

Roberts says he's profoundly ashamed of his fellow Britons. But however emotionally satisfying this caterwauling about American iniquities may be, does it amount to anything significant? Is it a sign that the British are afraid of terrorists? The problem with this line of argument is that Prime Minister David Cameron plunged John Bull into war in Libya. There is no real sign that Britian is turning pacifist. In Germany, by contrast, foreign intervention is deeply unpopular. Chancellor Angela Merkel was upbraided—even has seen a criminal lawsuit filed against her by a Hamburg judge for allegedly promoting "homicide" by expressing her gratitude for the elimination of bin Laden—by members of her own political party.

Nothing of the kind is occurring in Britain. The era of rule Britannia may have gone by the boards, but the swan's nest in an English lake, as Shakespeare put it, remains a stalwart ally of America. Whether it made the right decision to intervene in Libya is another matter. But there is no cogent reason to believe that the nattering of a few left-wing intellectuals is anything new. Once upon a time a goodly number of British intellectuals as well as the Dean of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson, praised Stalin, a bizarre phenomenon that the scholar Paul Hollander chronicled in his book Political Pilgrims. Why should it be surprising that they are now engaging in special pleading on behalf of bin Laden?

Defense
United Kingdom

Is Tony Kushner Bad for Israel?

 What constitutes acceptable criticism of Israel? This question has assumed an increasing importance over the past decade. The default mode of Israel's defenders on the right has been to allege that when X says something critical of Israel, he or she is anti-Israel or even an anti-Semite. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, for example, were roundly condemned as anti-Semitic for their book the Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. The late Tony Judt came under withering attacks for his proposal for a return to the idea of a Jewish bi-national state and was even disinvited from giving a lecture at the Polish consulate in New York, at least partly due to pressure from his detractors.

Now the famous playwright Tony Kushner has come under fire at the City University of New York. The trustees voted to bar him from receiving an honorary degree. The result has been a fresh uproar. Kushner says he was calumniated by one trustee in particular named Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld. Wiesenfeld said that Kushner was unworthy of receiving a degree because he supports a boycott of Israel and was a member of an organization called Jewish Voice for Peace that, among other things, doesn't support a security fence for Israel. Kushner says the charge that he is anti-Israel is bogus—he has always supported Israel's right to exist. But he doesn't believe that Israel should be exempt from criticism, paticularly when it comes to its conduct in 1948.

Wiesenfeld appears to have a history of trying to intervene in academic affairs on behalf of what he interprets as Israel's best interests. The Guardian reports:

 

Wiesenfeld has a record of acting to forward what he considers the interests of the state of Israel. A former political fixer for the then governor of New York state, George Pataki, he was instrumental earlier this year in having a temporary CUNY lecturer fired because of his views on Israel. The teacher was later reinstated.

In the wake of his intervention against Kushner, he told the New York Times that he believed the Palestinians had "developed a culture which is unprecedented in human history". He said: "People who worship death for their children are not human."

 

It is true that people who worship death for their children are not human. But can all Palestinians be viewed as holding such views in their totality as an ethnic group? Are the Palestinians uniquely depraved in the entire history of mankind, as Wisenfeld appears to imply? Or is Wiesenfeld not simply painting with a broad brush, but flirting with racism? At a minimum, this is very loose language indeed. It seems fair to conclude that Wiesenfeld is a guttersnipe.

The trustees have since reversed their decision, but Kushner remains aggrieved:

The playwright said he was bothered that Wiesenfeld's remarks went unchallenged by the other 11 trustees during the May 2 meeting.

"So, at a public hearing, to allow one of their members to, you know, trade in the kind of garbage that this guy Wiesenfeld was trading in, and to say nothing, is really kind of disturbing," Kushner said. "Rather than having the discussion they should have had, they simply tabled my nomination."

 

The episode is a revealing one. What it reveals is the code of omerta that some American Jews are trying to enforce when it comes to Israel. Kushner is undoubtedly not an admirer of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But since when is it impermissible in principle to object to the specific policies that the Israeli government is pursuing? And what relevance did Kushner's views on Israel have to his receipt of an honorary degree?

The Kushner flap is one more tedious chapter in an ongoing saga over America's relations with Israel. It is not an inspiriting one. If Israel's putative defenders had more confidence in the Jewish state, they wouldn't be resorting to such hamhanded tactics. The only thing they are exposing is themselves.

Image from TimothyHorrigan

Ideology
Israel

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April 19, 2014