Let’s Put Matters Bluntly

The Charlie Hebdo murders were caused by Islamist terrorists.

They were not a false flag operation.

Anyone who says otherwise is a lunatic.

Any group of people who publish that particular anyone’s claims that the Charlie Hebdo murders were a false flag operation may be considered a group of lunatics.

Any former politician whose name is used by that particular group of lunatics to also name the institute of the lunatics in question may have some ‘splainin’ to do.

And finally, any son of the former politician in question who doesn’t say something along the lines of “the lunatics who appropriated my father’s name in order to promote silly conspiratorial ideas do not speak and never have spoken for me,” has no business even being considered for the position of president of the United States.

Pope Francis Blunders

I actually like the pope. But this is just awful commentary:

Pope Francis said there are limits to freedom of speech, especially when it insults or ridicules someone’s faith, in comments that the Vatican later said Friday did not mean justifying the attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Francis spoke about the Paris terror attacks while en route to the Philippines on Thursday, defending free speech as not only a fundamental human right but a duty to speak one’s mind for the sake of the common good.

But he said there were limits.

By way of example, he referred to Alberto Gasbarri, who organizes papal trips and was standing by his side aboard the papal plane.

“If my good friend Dr. Gasbarri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” Francis said half-jokingly, throwing a mock punch his way. “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

Er . . . yes you can. That is what free speech is all about. Sometimes, it is highly offensive, but thus far, no one has come up with a way to restrict highly offensive speech that does not somehow lead to the restriction of other kinds of speech. The price we pay for living in a free society is that sometimes, we are offended by the speech of others. But we are willing to pay that price in order to be able to freely express our own speech.

It is remarkable that this basic point has to be made in 2015.

Oh, and if someone says a curse word against your mother, and you punch that someone in response, you are risking indictment for assault and battery. You may even get sued in civil court. Someone inform the pope of this, before he gets into a bar fight and lands in the slammer as a consequence.

More on the Charlie Hebdo Murders

Let’s run through a list of news updates . . .

1. Al Jazeera is not a real news organization:

As journalists worldwide reacted with universal revulsion at the massacre of some of their own by Islamic jihadists in Paris, Al Jazeera English editor and executive producer Salah-Aldeen Khadr sent out a staff-wide e-mail.

“Please accept this note in the spirit it is intended — to make our coverage the best it can be,” the London-based Khadr wrote Thursday, in the first of a series of internal e-mails leaked to National Review Online. “We are Al Jazeera!”

Below was a list of “suggestions” for how anchors and correspondents at the Qatar-based news outlet should cover Wednesday’s slaughter at the Charlie Hebdo office (the full e-mails can be found below).

Khadr urged his employees to ask if this was “really an attack on ‘free speech,’” discuss whether “I Am Charlie” is an “alienating slogan,” caution viewers against “making this a free speech aka ‘European Values’ under attack binary [sic],” and portray the attack as “a clash of extremist fringes.”

“Defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile,” Khadr wrote. “Baiting extremists isn’t bravely defiant when your manner of doing so is more significant in offending millions of moderate people as well. And within a climate where violent response — however illegitimate — is a real risk, taking a goading stand on a principle virtually no one contests is worse than pointless: it’s pointlessly all about you.”

So much for covering the news fairly. Clearly, at al Jazeera, there is an editorial line, it must be respected, and woe to anyone who dares to think for him or herself and offer the facts to the viewing and listening audience, instead of offering up a cooked-up editorial spin on the news.

2. There was a march against extremism in Paris attended by a host of world leaders. The United States decided to only send its ambassador. No Barack Obama. No John Kerry. Eric Holder was in the area, but even he failed to show up. Appalling, really:

Don’t look for the president or vice president among the photos of 44 heads of state who locked arms and marched down Boulevard Voltaire in Paris. Nor did they join a companion march the French Embassy organized in Washington on Sunday afternoon.

Indeed, Obama’s public reactions to the attacks in Paris last week have been muted. His initial response Wednesday to the killing of 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper offices was delivered as he sat calmly in an armchair in the Oval Office speaking about the “cowardly” acts and defending freedom of the press. Two days later, as a gunman took hostages and went on to kill four people in a kosher grocery, Obama took a few seconds away from a community college proposal rollout in Tennessee because he said with events unfolding, “I wanted to make sure to comment on them” — but neither then nor afterward specifically condemned that attack.

Obama wasn’t far from the march in D.C. on Sunday that wended silently along six blocks from the Newseum to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. Instead, he spent the chilly afternoon a few blocks away at the White House, with no public schedule, no outings.

Joe Biden was back home in Wilmington, Delaware. Neither they nor any high-level administration official attended either event.

The White House has admitted that it made a mistake in not having a high-profile figure attend any of the marches. That’s how bad this blunder was; usually, this White House never admits it made a mistake of any kind, and tries to blame George W. Bush for anything that might go wrong.

3. Finally, it is worth noting that living in France has become a nightmare for Jewish people. Remember how some silly people liked to pretend that anti-Semitism “scarcely exists in the West”? The claim would be utterly comical if the issue were not so serious.

The Charlie Hebdo Murders

George Packer’s response is precisely right:

The murders today in Paris are not a result of France’s failure to assimilate two generations of Muslim immigrants from its former colonies. They’re not about French military action against the Islamic State in the Middle East, or the American invasion of Iraq before that. They’re not part of some general wave of nihilistic violence in the economically depressed, socially atomized, morally hollow West—the Paris version of Newtown or Oslo. Least of all should they be “understood” as reactions to disrespect for religion on the part of irresponsible cartoonists.

They are only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades. It’s the same ideology that sent Salman Rushdie into hiding for a decade under a death sentence for writing a novel, then killed his Japanese translator and tried to kill his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher. The ideology that murdered three thousand people in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. The one that butchered Theo van Gogh in the streets of Amsterdam, in 2004, for making a film. The one that has brought mass rape and slaughter to the cities and deserts of Syria and Iraq. That massacred a hundred and thirty-two children and thirteen adults in a school in Peshawar last month. That regularly kills so many Nigerians, especially young ones, that hardly anyone pays attention.

[. . .]

A religion is not just a set of texts but the living beliefs and practices of its adherents. Islam today includes a substantial minority of believers who countenance, if they don’t actually carry out, a degree of violence in the application of their convictions that is currently unique. Charlie Hebdo had been nondenominational in its satire, sticking its finger into the sensitivities of Jews and Christians, too—but only Muslims responded with threats and acts of terrorism. For some believers, the violence serves a will to absolute power in the name of God, which is a form of totalitarianism called Islamism—politics as religion, religion as politics. “Allahu Akbar!” the killers shouted in the street outside Charlie Hebdo. They, at any rate, know what they’re about.

And of course, what follows from this is the observation that if one fails to speak out against the murders, one is, quite frankly, part of the problem.

What Abba Eban Said of the Palestinians Could Also Be Said of the Cuban Regime

They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity:

The Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, who splits her time between the United States and Havana, traveled to Cuba in recent days seeking to pull off a bold experiment. She called on Cubans from all walks of life to meet at Havana’s iconic Revolution Square on Tuesday at 3 p.m., where they would take turns at a microphone to outline their vision for the new era in the country. Word of the event, which was billed as both a performance and a street protest, was shared on social media using the hashtag #YoTambiénExijo, which means “I also demand.”

Ms. Bruguera’s plan was the first test of whether the Obama administration’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba earlier this month would prod the Castro regime to be more tolerant of critical voices. Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, the government barred prominent critics, including Ms. Bruguera, from reaching the square. Some were detained and others were reportedly prevented from leaving their homes. In the end, the performance wasn’t held.

Authorities in Cuba appear to have wrestled with how to prevent Ms. Bruguera’s project from turning into a mass gathering of critics. They allowed her to travel to the island, though she had publicized her project well in advance. In recent days, officials from the state-run arts council summoned her for a meeting. In a statement, the council said it had made clear to her that her plan was “unacceptable,” because of the location and the “ample media coverage” in outlets that are critical of the government. Officials proposed that the event be held instead at a cultural site, according to the statement, and said that the government would “reserve the right” to bar people whose “sole interest is to be provocative.”

Obviously, this is appalling, and it shows that the Cuban regime is as vile as it ever was. It also shows that the regime is completely incapable of reciprocating the goodwill shown to it by the Obama administration in the administration’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba.

I imagine that there are readers who wonder whether I am rethinking my decision to endorse the administration’s move to change the nature of Cuban-American relations. Not in the least. I never expected that the decision to normalize relations would bring about an overnight change in the regime’s behavior, and my favorable link to Dan Drezner’s piece on the normalization of relations–which warned us that change would not occur overnight in Cuba–indicates as much. At best, normalization–and the lifting of the embargo against Cuba–will help Cuba move in fits and starts towards a more liberalized political environment. But again, we have tried diplomatic isolation and the embargo for over fifty years, and that strategy has failed to bring about any results. It is time for a new approach, and as Drezner notes, the Obama administration’s new approach can ultimately bring about a very good outcome:

First, the odds of orderly liberalization and democratization in Cuba have increased. Not by a lot — maybe from 2 percent to 10 percent. But that’s still an improvement. Even if full-blown regime transition doesn’t happen, economic liberalization does make a society somewhat more free. Today’s Post editorial points to Vietnam as the worst-case outcome for the Cuba policy. But Vietnam now has a considerably more liberal climate than before the US opening, so I don’t think that’s the best example.

Second, as my Washington Post colleagues Erik Voeten and Ishaan Tharoor have already observed, U.S. policy on Cuba has been, literally, isolationist — as in, it isolates the United States. Unlike other cases (see below), there is zero multilateral support for sanctioning Cuba — quite the opposite, in fact. Improving ties with Havana ameliorates a long-standing source of friction between the United States and Latin America. That’s called “good diplomacy.”

Third, when you consider the mammoth size of the United States and Cuba’s proximity, the only parallel economic relationship that comes to mind is China-Taiwan — if Taiwan were a lot poorer. If trade, tourism and investment takes off between the two countries, Cuba will quickly become the more asymmetrically dependent actor, no matter how hard the Cuban government tries to resist. This won’t make it much easier for the United States to affect regime change — but it will nudge Cuba towards a less confrontational foreign policy.

We gave the old policy half a century to work, and it didn’t. We should give the new one some time. And of course, it is worth noting that in the past, the Cuban regime tried to claim that American efforts to diplomatically and economically isolate Cuba were the catalyst for any repressive measures undertaken by the regime. They can’t do that anymore. And the world knows it.

Quote of the Day

All of us in the world should recognize that we have the same inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that we recognize in our own society. We should promote those ideals. And that means a big change in thinking about how development happens. Greater political freedom in Asia – in Taiwan and South Korea – has been associated with rapid economic growth. The level of freedom determines the level of prosperity. There’s a lot of misunderstanding on both the left and the right about markets. The right has the conception that markets just mean firms can do unlimited things, often with support from the government in power. The left fears that result as a bad thing. I’m talking about the creative destruction that allows new firms to emerge. What markets do is penalize firms that don’t satisfy consumers. In the long run, for most societies, the evidence shows that democracy and prosperity go together.

William Easterly.

A Modest Improvement in Internet Freedom in Iran

Instead of banning websites completely, the Iranian regime is now just censoring their content. Sure, Iranians will only see redacted versions of websites, but at least they’ll see them. I guess this is supposed to mean that everything is both hunky and dory in Iran now.

How very wonderful all of this is. Utopia has finally been achieved in Iran. Must be the effects of all of that political liberalization.

Nota bene: Some people might think that this blog post is featuring sarcasm rather heavily. I can’t possibly imagine where they would get such an idea.

More on the Return of Anti-Semitism

Its return is quite noticeable in Britain:

In Britain, prominent Jewish figures are expressing concern about the rising tide of anti-Semitism in that country. Most recently the director of the BBC Danny Cohen has stated that he has never felt so uncomfortable being Jewish in Britain. He even went so far as to cast doubt on the long-term future of Anglo-Jewry. Similarly, Labor Party leader Ed Miliband—also Jewish—has called for a “zero tolerance” approach to anti-Semitism. The great irony here, however, is that both men are Jews heading organizations which, through their portrayal and policy on Israel, are laying the groundwork for yet more Jew-hatred.

The correlation between the demonization of Israel and attacks on Jews worldwide is hardly in doubt. The dramatic spike in anti-Semitic attacks throughout the diaspora that coincided with this summer’s Gaza war speaks for itself. That is not to suggest that Israeli policy is the underlying cause of anti-Semitism, but rather just as Church doctrine or Social Darwinism were ideologies used as a conduit for anti-Semitism, today anti-Zionism, with its depiction of events in Israel, takes the position as the primary outlet for anti-Semitism. And while both Danny Cohen and Ed Miliband are quite right to be concerned by the rising tide of Jew-hatred in Britain today, there is no escaping the fact that both the BBC and the Labor Party have played a role in stoking the kind of contempt for the Jewish state that leads directly to the increasingly common verbal and physical attacks on British Jews.

As Tom Wilson argues, if one doesn’t like the return of anti-Semitism, then one shouldn’t be part of groups and entities that help facilitate the return of anti-Semitism. Organizations like . . . say . . . the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement and the various naïve and malevolent people who associate themselves with it:

Professors should be judged by their research and their teaching. University librarians should be held to another standard entirely. A university librarian’s purpose is to accumulate books, journals, and archival materials ranging the gambit of the field irrespective of their own personal politics, or the popular political directives of the day. Once they acquire those resources, a librarian should organize and ease access to it.

And yet, with this statement released by Middle Eastern Studies scholars and librarians endorsing the BDS call and seeking the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, librarians at some major universities are effectively embracing the notion that they will filter acquisitions according to their own political predilections. What librarians such as Mastan Ebtehaj at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University; Blair Kuntz at the University of Toronto; Mahmoud Omidsalar at California State University, Los Angeles; and Anais Salamon at McGill University are effectively saying is that they will not consider acquiring, cataloguing, or making available titles published by such Israeli scholarly presses such as Tel Aviv University Press, or the Truman Institute’s press. That may not literally be burning books, but how shameful it is for university librarians to do the figurative equivalent, filtering knowledge by whether or not they agree with the author or, as BDS demands, whether or not they like his or her nationality or that of the scholar’s publishing company. How ironic it is that librarians—those who should dedicate their professional life to protecting access to knowledge—have read so few of the history books they supposedly guard, for if they did, they might not be comfortable with past parallels to their present actions.

Incidentally, this serves as yet more proof that a certain person–whose intellectual abilities have never been anything worth writing him about in the first place–was especially stupid to endorse the Ch0mskyan observation that “anti-Semitism scarcely exists in the West.”

A Modest Endorsement of the Venezuelan Regime

Behold. Of course, in a better world, we could spend less time parodying failed regimes and instead, spend our time implementing political and economic policies that actually do serve to alleviate immiseration and provide others with political freedoms. But the Venezuelan regime–and all those who enable its existence–is utterly uninterested in helping the people it supposedly represents. Its interests lie in enriching and empowering those at the top of the political heap, at the expense of the Venezuelan people themselves.

As such, it is necessary to oppose the regime–and others like it–however one can. Parody helps.

More on the Normalization of Relations with Cuba

Daniel Drezner has a very good primer on the issue. One of the strengths of his post is that it does not promise the sun, moon and stars for the United States in exchange for normalization. This, of course, is a good thing; no one should want to harbor unrealistic expectations for Cuban-American relations in the aftermath of normalization. But as Drezner’s piece makes clear, normalization is the best route for the United States to take:

. . . while the benefits of catalytic carrots are not all that great, the status quo policy was worse. Way worse.

It’s not like 50 years of economic sanctions altered Cuba’s regime. Sure, Cuba’s chief economic patron Venezuela is ailing right now, but Cuba endured far worse when the USSR disintegrated and the Special Period started. So anyone who tells you that the sanctions just needed more a little time to work is flat-out delusional. After more than a half-century, they were never going to work.

Read the whole thing for more. Meanwhile, Will Wilkinson–who in a just world would take over Andrew Sullivan’s blog while Sullivan slinks off to an inglorious retirement–takes on those who fret that Cuba will be somehow polluted by American consumerism:

Look, I totally understand the sentiment. There is something singular and vivid about a vibrant, tropical ruin frozen in the 1950s. Cuba is a showcase of dilapidated anti-commercial mid-century nostalgia, and I too sort of wish I had gone to see it, just as I wouldn’t mind having seen Soviet Leningrad. Come to think of it, it would be pretty interesting to see the slave ships coming into harbor in prebellum Savannah. What a scene those auctions must have been! But the human part of me, the moral part, as opposed to the aesthetic and amorally curious tourist part, can only regret that slaving Savannah and communist Russia lasted as long as they did, and today I can be nothing but hopeful that something like freedom is finally coming to the Cubans. If it does, and I make it to Havana, and see a McDonald’s, I will walk into that McDonalds, buy a large Diet Coke, and pour a little on the ground in half-sincere mourning for the pretty, impoverished theme park of tyranny I never had the chance to see.

Walter Russell Mean–whose opinion always merits serious consideration and respect–is also pleased with the deal:

This is one of those cases, increasingly rare, where President Obama can please his base while serving the national interest. The standoff with Cuba serves no real American interest and hands our enemies a useful propaganda tool. Furthermore, a policy that denies Americans the right to travel to countries of their choice is an infringement of personal liberty that could only be justified by a serious security concern. (A travel ban to Syria, for example, might have some merit.) The argument that Cuba, however bad its intentions, poses such a concern has been a joke since the fall of the Soviet Union, and there is no sound justification for limiting the rights of Americans to visit the island.

Mead also goes on to point out that if we really want to undermine and endanger the Castro regime, we will end the embargo–which will take congressional action:

. . . The Castro government isn’t dying to have hundreds of thousands of well-heeled Cuban-Americans descending on Havana and buying the island back as foreign investors. Fidel and Raul have never wanted a total end to the embargo; they have understood for decades that the embargo acts to protect their socialist experiment. If the U.S. repealed the embargo, the Cuban government would have to choose between two unattractive courses. It could move toward normal and open economic relations with the United States, swamping its underdeveloped and scrawny local economy with gringo dollars and influence (with Miami Cubans leading the charge), or it would have to enact a tight set of regulations aimed at keeping American and Cuban American money and investors from overwhelming the island. That would make it crystal clear to every Cuban citizen that the Cuban government needs to keep the island isolated and poor in order to protect its grip on power.

Cuba’s strategic objective has always been to keep the embargo up and to make the embargo look like America’s fault. This has always made for odd relations between Cuban authorities and do-gooding American liberals anxious to heal the breach and help a poor, third-world country. U.S. liberal agendas and Cuban agendas mesh much less than liberals often think, and the Cubans have at times deliberately sabotaged efforts by American liberals to improve relations.

Speaking of Congress and its members, kudos to Jeff Flake for doing what he could on the Republican side to normalize relations. Here’s hoping that he and others can work to end the embargo as well–an action which will serve American interests for all of the reasons Mead outlines.

An Appalling Act of Cowardice

Unbelievable:

With theater chains defecting en masse, Sony Pictures Entertainment has pulled the planned Christmas Day release of “The Interview.”

U.S. officials have reportedly linked a massive cyber attack against Sony to North Korea, which is at the center of the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy.

“We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public,” Sony said in a statement. “We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”

[. . .]

Tuesday’s message accompanied another data dump. It threatened violence on theaters that showed “The Interview” and people who attend screenings.

“The world will be full of fear,” the message reads. “Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)”

In response, exhibition industry lobbying arm the National Association of Theatre Owners said its members must decide individually whether to release the picture and Sony said it would respect theater owners’ decision not to exhibit “The Interview.” That set off a cascade of cancellations.

The bulk of the country’s 10 largest theater chains — a group that includes AMC, Regal, Cinemark, Carmike and Southern Theatres — announced they would delay showing the picture or would drop it altogether. In statements, many of the theater chains suggested that Sony’s lack of confidence in the film prompted their decision.

Let’s be clear about this: An anonymous hacker group has successfully intimidated Sony and hundreds of American movie theaters into refusing to show the film. I struggle in vain to think of any comparable act of mass cowardice–especially one that occurred in the United States. Charles C.W. Cooke is quite right:

As far as anybody can tell, [the hackers’ threat] all seems to be so much guff. “At this time,” the Department of Homeland Security has confirmed, “there is no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters within the United States.” Nor, for that matter, have the police departments of New York City and Los Angeles heard anything concrete. And yet, despite the lack of any tangible hazards whatsoever, the powers-that-be have elected to play it safe. First, Sony Pictures, which produced the film, canceled tomorrow’s inaugural showing. (“Security concerns,” natch.) Then the Carmike Cinemas chain, which owns 278 theaters in 41 states, announced that it would not be showing it at all. In the last few hours, the Hollywood Reporter has suggested, the other four giants of American cinema — Regal Entertainment, AMC Entertainment, Cinemark, and Cineplex Entertainment — elected to join in the boycott. And, finally, the studio pulled the December 25 release entirely. Perhaps Sony hopes to be “denounced” after all?

Arguendo, let us suppose that the e-mail does, in fact, contain a genuine threat. Would a resolute and free people not ask, “So what?” So the buggers denounce our films? So they issue threats against our theaters? So they are sufficiently delusional to try to instill “fear” into the United States? We are talking here, as Michael Moynihan noted this morning, about “a country that subsists on bugs and grass” — a ridiculous, farcical, anemic shell-nation that, as unconscionably ghastly as it can be to its own people, is unlikely to achieve much in the United States besides the prompting of unalloyed hilarity. Not only does North Korea sit 6,000 miles away from California and 9,000 miles away from New York City, but its contributions to the world of technology and transportation are known primarily for their backwardness. Hackers are hackers, and while they are using their talents to wreak havoc on the Internet, they are to be taken seriously wherever they reside. But there is little reason to believe they are capable of wreaking havoc outside the digital world. Do we imagine, perhaps, that moviegoers in Chicago are likely to be faced with the Blitz?

No. How grotesque it is, then, to see businesses in the United States reacting so cravenly to what appears to be little more than a glorified letter of complaint. Is this now to be how America works? If so — if the friends of a campy two-bit dictatorship can force us to put our tails between our legs and ask not to be thrown into the briar patch — then one can only wonder how we might expect to stand up to our more competent foes. Will we perhaps start pulling books critical of the Iranian leaders, the better to protect Barnes and Noble from incoming Molotov cocktails? Will we remove websites that satirize the Chinese Communist party in order to forestall denial-of-service attacks on their hosts? Will we shut down newspapers that print broadsides against the Putin regime, lest his online buddies send a few death threats our way? I would certainly hope not. Rather, I would hope that we recognize that freedom of expression is the most vital of all our civic virtues, and that no good whatsoever can come of according a heckler’s veto to hackers, to family crime syndicates, and to their nasty little enablers on the international stage. If the right of a free people to associate and to speak as they wish is not deemed by civil society as worthy of fighting for, what exactly is?

Eugene Volokh is quite right as well:

I sympathize with the theaters’ situation — they’re in the business of showing patrons a good time, and they’re rightly not interested in becoming free speech martyrs, even if there’s only a small chance that they’ll be attacked. Moreover, the very threats may well keep moviegoers away from theater complexes that are showing the movie, thus reducing revenue from all the screens at the complex.

But behavior that is rewarded is repeated. Thugs who oppose movies that are hostile to North Korea, China, Russia, Iran, the Islamic State, extremist Islam generally or any other country or religion will learn the lesson. The same will go as to thugs who are willing to use threats of violence to squelch expression they oppose for reasons related to abortion, environmentalism, animal rights and so on.

And the beauty of all this, from the perspective of those who want to suppress movies they dislike, is that they don’t even actually have to bomb anything (something that’s very risky). All they need to do is put out some well-anonymized threats, and they have a good chance of prevailing. To be sure, it helps if they can back up the threats with something (such as a successful hacking attack), but the threats might succeed even without that. If terrorist threats worked with “The Interview,” even despite DHS’s statements that there’s no credible intelligence supporting a risk of actual violence, they might well work elsewhere as well. That, I think, is the lesson that many will take away.

The entire United States has been made subject to a hecklers’ veto. And the hecklers won. To say that this isn’t a proud day in the nation’s history is to understand matters severely.

The Very Definition of “Scandal”

Wow:

The Obama administration overturned a ban preventing a wealthy, politically connected Ecuadorean woman from entering the United States after her family gave tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic campaigns, according to finance records and government officials.

The woman, Estefanía Isaías, had been barred from coming to the United States after being caught fraudulently obtaining visas for her maids. But the ban was lifted at the request of the State Department under former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton so that Ms. Isaías could work for an Obama fund-raiser with close ties to the administration.

It was one of several favorable decisions the Obama administration made in recent years involving the Isaías family, which the government of Ecuador accuses of buying protection from Washington and living comfortably in Miami off the profits of a looted bank in Ecuador.

The family, which has been investigated by federal law enforcement agencies on suspicion of money laundering and immigration fraud, has made hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to American political campaigns in recent years. During that time, it has repeatedly received favorable treatment from the highest levels of the American government, including from New Jersey’s senior senator and the State Department.

At best, this is highly unethical, and at worst, it is illegal. Oh, and way to completely undermine any serious move towards immigration reform, Obama administration. You just handed every opponent of reform who thinks that you lot are interested in handing out “amnesty” a club with which to beat you politically.

Of course, there should be congressional investigations concerning this news revelation. And given the involvement of our would-be next president of the United States, someone should ask Hillary Clinton why members of a family of alleged criminals should receive “favorable treatment from the highest levels of the American government” under her tenure at the State Department.

A Welcome Change in Cuba Policy

Let’s get the following out of the way: The Castro regime in Cuba is despicable, bloodthirsty, murderous, tyrannical, totalitarian, and entirely opposed to granting basic human rights to its people and to foreign innocents.

Let’s also get this out of the way: The United States embargo that has been in place against Cuba has done absolutely nothing whatsoever to change things for the better in Cuba.

So I am glad that Alan Gross is finally getting released by the Cuban government–which never should have been holding him hostage in the first place–and I am glad that the United States and Cuba are finally talking about normalizing relations. There is no reason whatsoever why a failed policy should be kept in place any longer, and quite frankly, it was held in place for far too long. No less a Cold Warrior than the late Richard Nixon thought as much, and as usual, his foreign policy judgment was on point. We will achieve more change in Cuba by constructive engagement with the country than we will by shunning and isolating it economically, and once the embargo comes to an end, any and all failures concerning the Cuban economy–and there will be failures concerning the Cuban economy–will more easily be considered entirely the responsibility of the Cuban government, which heretofore has been blaming the bad economy on the American embargo.

Yes, I know that there are people who believe that if we just “hang tough” against Cuba for a few years longer, things will change for the better. How much longer we are supposed to “hang tough,” we are not told, of course. Why haven’t things changed for the better by now, or years ago? Absolutely, positively no one can say. Why should we follow so incoherent a policy any longer? And yes, I know that there are plenty of people who are delighted that the embargo is coming to an end, who hated the embargo from the very beginning . . . and who think that we should initiate sanctions against countries like Israel, while ignoring human rights violations in countries like Cuba (and Iran, and China, etc.). These people can’t really be taken seriously, and I will be the first to state as much, but that doesn’t change the fact that our Cuba policy was a disaster and had to change. We opened up to countries like China and Vietnam, and the world hasn’t come to an end. Indeed, our engagement has brought about significant positive changes. Why can’t the same hold true in Cuba?

So, it is good that the embargo is finally coming to an end, and with its end, we can more realistically hope that things will change for the better in Cuba. And kudos to the Obama administration, which deserves a great deal of credit for bringing about a change in policy than previous presidents–both Republican and Democrat–very likely wanted to bring about on their own.

No Virginia, China Is NOT the Biggest Economy In the World

Behold:

Call it another false alarm in the China-overtaking-the-U.S. saga. Notwithstanding the latest estimates from the International Monetary Fund, the U.S., the world’s largest economy is still, well, numero uno.

China’s gross domestic product will climb to $17.6 trillion this year, while the U.S. grows to $17.4 trillion, IMF projections showed yesterday. One major caveat: the comparison is based on purchasing power parity, which uses exchange rates that adjust for price differences of the same goods between nations.

“The U.S. remains the biggest by the more common, more widely accepted and in our view, more useful measure,” said David Hensley, JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s director of global economic coordination in New York. As for PPP, “it’s not quite the real thing.”

And of course, even if we pretend for a moment that the Chinese economy is in fact bigger than the American economy, that would still not be the end of the story. The per capita income in the United States is ten times bigger than that of China. If the Chinese economy slows even a bit from its gangbusters rate–a gangbusters rate that exists because in so many ways, the Chinese economy has nowhere to go but up–it is in big trouble and so are the Chinese people as a whole. And then there are the demographic problems that are the consequence of China’s infamous one-child policy. China is aging remarkably fast as a country, and demographic disasters do not economic powerhouses make.

So, the status quo has not changed. The United States remains the largest economic power in the world. And even if/when the Chinese economy overtakes the American economy in terms of size, it will still likely not overtake the American economy in terms of the ability to deliver prosperity.

We Have a Defense Secretary. But Will He Be Allowed to Lead?

I applaud the nomination of Ashton Carter to be secretary of defense. He is hyper-smart, passionate about defense and national security policy, knows the Pentagon like the back of his hand, is tough and assertive, and he will be a forceful participant in debates about foreign, defense and national security policy. He is, in short, everything that Chuck Hagel was not and is not. (Incidentally, recall that a whole host of people thought that the Hagel nomination would be a wonderful thing because it would stick it to Benjamin Netanyahu for supposedly supporting Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. Not that I ever expect such people to have the class and decency to admit that it was a bad idea to support a presidential nomination merely because it would spite the Israelis, but maybe from now on, it would be better to have more substantive and intellectually defensible reasons to support or oppose a particular presidential nomination, no?)

So I hope that Carter will be an effective defense secretary and if he is, then I also hope that the next president of the United States–whoever he or she may be, and from whatever party he or she may be–will keep Carter around and empower him to make serious and consequential changes in defense and national security policy that will be to the advantage of the United States.

But as I have written before, we have reasons to be concerned that the next defense secretary is being set up to fail–just like the last defense secretary (who unlike Carter, had no serious intellectual abilities to bring to bear at his job)–was being set up to fail. There are still no indications whatsoever that the Obama administration will allow its next defense secretary to actually exercise line responsibility over his cabinet department. There are still no indications whatsoever that foreign, defense and national security policy will no longer be run out of the White House–a policy that has led to confusion, the disempowerment of cabinet officials, and general disaster. In short, there are still no indications that Ashton Carter will be allowed by the Obama administration to live up to his potential.

I hope that I am wrong about this. Carter should have been nominated as defense secretary in order to succeed Leon Panetta, and perhaps with this nomination, President Obama is implicitly admitting that he needs to change the way in which defense and national security policy is being managed by devolving power back to cabinet secretaries. Perhaps as well, Carter’s combination of brilliance, savvy and knowledge of the Pentagon will help him maneuver around the White House, much as Robert Gates and Leon Panetta were able to do. But while Carter’s nomination is certainly praiseworthy, it is also tragic. He is a superbly qualified, intellectually talented, public-spirited public servant who is possibly being asked to work in conditions that will not be conducive for his success.

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