The Death of Warren Weinstein

President Obama addresses the media after two hostages were killed in Yemen during a failed rescue attempt. (Polaris/Newscom)

President Obama addresses the media after two hostages were killed in Yemen during a failed rescue attempt.

Is the fog of war to blame for the death of Warren Weinstein? President Barack Obama suggested as much on April 23 when he told the country about the U.S. drone strike in January on an al-Qaida camp in Pakistan that mistakenly killed Weinstein, a kidnapped USAID worker, and Giovanni Lo Porto of Italy, who was also being held hostage by the terrorist group.

Weinstein, a 72-year-old Jewish Rockville resident, was kidnapped from his hotel room in Lahore, Pakistan in 2011. At the time, Weinstein was days away from returning to the United States. His family spent the intervening years trying to secure his release and pressuring the U.S. government to act on his behalf.

That his death came because of U.S. actions makes it all the more tragic and leaves us with questions.

First, even after “hundreds of hours of monitoring,” CIA intelligence only detected four people in the al-Qaida compound (there were actually six) and did not know their identities. Is such incomplete intelligence the result of America’s increasing reliance on long-distance observation and attacks to the detriment of on-the-ground intelligence, as has been suggested? Is this failure of intelligence the price that must be paid for a war by remote control rather than in person?

Second is the related question, does the U.S. drone policy actually works? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Drones have become the weapon of choice to extend American reach without risking American lives on the ground. Those are worthy goals. But sadly, even that wasn’t accomplished in the January attack.

As with most issues of national security, we probably won’t get complete answers to these questions for many years. But these are serious questions that impact U.S. policy, America’s image abroad and the effectiveness of our military deterrence. As such, these issues need to be vetted and resolved by our leaders.

In the meantime, our condolences go out to the Weinstein family, who surely never expected Warren’s kidnapping and captivity to end this way. And our thanks to members of the Maryland congressional delegation — Rep. John Delaney and Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski — who tried to work the levers of government bureaucracy to dedicate more resources to freeing Weinstein.

If blame is to be laid, it should be on al-Qaida, for whom no Western life has meaning, other than as a bargaining chip. For us and for his family, may Warren Weinstein’s life and memory be for a blessing.

A Unique Tragedy

Each of the recent well-publicized and widely condemned deaths of young black men at the hands of police, beginning last August with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., has its unique circumstances. The unexplained injuries that led to the death of Freddie Gray on April 19 after his arrest by Baltimore Police is distinguished, however, by the fact that the city’s leadership, from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on down to Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, has forcefully denounced the apparent heavy-handed tactics that ultimately claimed Gray’s life.

And yet, we have been saddened to witness Baltimore becoming another Ferguson — with its initial days of peaceful protests irretrievably marred by the violence and destruction all too familiar to viewers of the evening news. Beginning last Saturday night and continuing through the early part of this week, marchers and protesters in downtown Baltimore have engaged in opportunistic urban terror, which escalated from the smashing of windshields of police vehicles to the looting of business establishments and to direct, serious attacks on several police officers, at least one of whom was reported unresponsive on Monday.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has declared a state of emergency and a curfew is now in effect every night from 10 o’clock to 5 a.m.

“When the protests are not peaceful it becomes a distraction from the fact that Gray is dead and his family’s in pain,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat. He couldn’t be more right.

What each of these racially charged cases seems to reinforce is that black men have limited opportunities when confronted by police.

If “you’re black in America, your life is always under threat,” Pastor Jamal Bryant said at a service Sunday at Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple. There is so much mistrust of police, said a friend of Gray’s, that many people think they are safer running from a confrontation with the law. “Why stop when you already know what they’ll do to you? Rough you up, throw you on the ground.”

This is, admittedly, a very different description of law enforcement than many of us have experienced. But the description is real. And even at a time when crime has dropped to a level not seen since the early 1960s, the incarceration rate is at a record high, and particularly so with black males.

The problem of black men subjected to excessive force by police needs to be addressed. But outright lawlessness is not the answer. The fact is that the level of violence we are seeing unfold puts us all at risk and only distracts from the need to change how the American justice system treats all of its citizens.

King James Meets ‘Rocky Top’

There’s no doubt that the Bible is a popular book. Jews and Christians love it (although the contents of their Bibles differ). For Muslims, too, the Bible is divine revelation. In Tennessee, some want to make it an officially recognized state symbol, along with the tomato (state fruit), milk (state beverage) and rescued dog or cat (state pet).

The designation would “memorialize the role the Bible has played in Tennessee’s history,” said Republican state Rep. Jerry Sexton, who sponsored the legislation putting the Bible on a par with “Rocky Top” (state song). Sexton’s bill passed the state House but was killed in the Tennessee Senate.

Lined up against Sexton and his backers were fellow Republicans and Bible-believing Christians, including Tennessee’s governor, attorney general and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, who, perhaps flippantly, said there was something not quite wholesome behind the legislation. “All I know is that I hear Satan snickering. He loves this kind of mischief. You just dumb the Good Book down far enough to make it whatever it takes to make it a state symbol, and you’re on your way to where he wants you,” Norris said.

A similar bill, introduced in Mississippi this year, was killed by Republicans and Democrats. A Louisiana bill was withdrawn last year by its sponsor. In Tennessee, some opponents argued that the bill was a clear state endorsement of religion that violated the state and federal constitutions. One lawmaker said that as a fiscal conservative he didn’t want the state to have to pay the millions in court costs when the law is challenged. Others pointed out that the Bible isn’t even a “book.”

Not only that, but there isn’t even a single version — at least not in English. Which would be the official version of the official book? The King James Version? The New International Version? The Living Bible? Or would the state opt for the original Hebrew of the Tanach and Greek of the New Testament?

The whole thing makes a mockery of the Word that so many revere. It also cheapens religion, by proposing to put the Bible on the same level as the Eastern Box Turtle (official state reptile). The proponents of these bills probably think they are doing a good thing with the Good Book and may not realize how potentially divisive and inappropriate their efforts are. Thank heavens, this particular use of religion as a wedge has been cast down to legislative purgatory. JT

Reasonable People Can Agree

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider  Al-Abadi meets with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (JAMES LAWLER DUGGAN/REUTERS/Newscom)

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi meets with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Last week, in a spirit of political compromise that has been in short supply for the past several years, the Obama administration and senators from both parties agreed to an oversight role for Congress in connection with any final deal with Iran on its nuclear program. In a unanimous vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed an amended version of the Iran Oversight Bill. While the original legislation — known as the Corker-Menendez bill after its chief sponsors, Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) — had bipartisan support, it wasn’t clear whether that bill had sufficient support to override the veto President Obama promised to invoke. But the amended bill was something the president said he could live with.

The compromise is significant because it will allow Congress to have a say on the terms of any proposed agreement without delaying the process. Thus, Congress will have 30 days to review the proposed deal. If it votes to reject the agreement, the president will have 12 days to veto the decision. Thereafter, Congress will have 12 more days to try to override the veto. After that, Congress can pass no new legislation about the Iran agreement.

With Obama so heavily invested in the outcome of negotiations with Iran, Senate Democrats were reluctant to support anything that might scuttle an agreement. But with the president withdrawing his veto threat, Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee were free to sign on.

We applaud the agreement. It demonstrates how representative government and oppositional politics should work. Instead of seeing gridlock, we witnessed the collaborative advancement of interests. This was accomplished in large part because the compromise shifted the focus from an outright rejection of the Iran deal to subjecting any adjustment of congressionally imposed sanctions on Iran to legislative oversight. And it removed the unachievable requirement that the president certify that Iran does not support terrorism against the United States. These changes brought Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) aboard.

Several people deserve credit for this compromise. One is Corker, who, as the committee’s chair, worked hard to make the bill more palatable to Democrats. Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat who stepped into the ranking member’s role after Menendez resigned from the post, deserves significant praise as well. His calm demeanor, pragmatic and nonconfrontational style helped deliver his party. Finally, credit goes to the president himself, who when it became clear that a bipartisan consensus was forming, chose not to insist on his previously articulated maximalist position.

Now, with everyone on board, the focus shifts to the Herculean task of ensuring that the world emerges safer from beneath the specter of a nuclear Iran. That is a goal on which everyone should be able to agree.

Choosing to Remember and Act

It must have been a shock to walk by Shaare Torah Congregation in Gaithersburg last Tuesday morning and see the outer walls covered by spray-painted swastikas and other offensive graffiti.

But as violated as the building appeared, there were no broken windows and the inside was untouched. By the end of the day the walls had been largely cleaned. There was other good news. According to reports, it was the police who noticed the vandalism as a patrol car made a routine swing through the Lakelands neighborhood. They took the act seriously and began an investigation.

The media took the vandalism seriously too and broadcast word of the act from inside the synagogue building. When leaders of other faiths heard about the crime, they responded with sympathy and in solidarity.

“Targeting a house of worship with symbols of hatred and violence is a despicable act,” Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director of the Muslim group CAIR, said in a statement.

Sitting in his office the afternoon of the attack, Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal was keeping the incident in proportion. A swastika attack during Passover is the stuff of sermons. But the only larger meaning he permitted himself was to mention that he and the synagogue’s president had been at the Gaithersburg City Council the night before as Mayor Jud Ashman proclaimed Days of Remembrance for the Holocaust to surround Yom Hashoah on April 16.

“This is an isolated person or group,” Blumenthal said of the vandals with spray paint. “The fabric of diversity in the county and the city is strong.”

Ultimately, the takeaway is not that vandals had targeted a synagogue, but that the greater community had chosen to remember the past and act in the present. That’s the way it should be done.

A Real Palestinian Tragedy

Under constant siege, the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp is still home to 18,000 residents. (YOUSSEF BADAWI/EPA/Newscom)

Under constant siege, the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp is still home to 18,000 residents.

The news of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp — like almost all news out of Syria — is grim. The camp, on the southern edge of Damascus, is under siege by both the Islamic State, which began decapitating Palestinians as soon as it took over this month, and the Syrian government, which is attacking the camp with barrel bombs.

Once home to 160,000 Palestinians, Yarmouk’s remaining 18,000 residents face starvation brought on by relentless bloodshed caused by two genocidal players. Yet, the world seems unwilling or unable to stop it. The head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency traveled to Damascus to try to open access for humanitarian aid, and Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon declared, “We simply cannot stand and watch a massacre unfold.” But it does not appear that any concrete action has been taken. Instead, Palestinians in Syria can only expect more of the same — which is to say nothing much in the way of lasting relief.

The fact of the matter is that the world community seems to take notice of the Palestinian plight only when it deems Israel as the culprit. Last June, for example, in the wake of the kidnapping of three Israeli teens, Israeli forces conducted house-to-house searches and arrested some 350 Palestinians. Those actions brought condemnation and accusations of collective punishment from the Palestinian Authority and Amnesty International.

But the true definition of collective punishment is what we’re seeing today in Yarmouk, which is plainly far more dangerous and brutal than an Israeli security sweep. The world either doesn’t get the difference or doesn’t care.

The real Palestinian tragedy has always been their use as pawns by the Arab and Western worlds. As such, when Palestinian suffering didn’t fit neatly into the “it’s Israel’s fault” narrative, no one seemed to care. We hope that is finally changing. But it is truly unfortunate that it has taken the monumental human tragedy of the Syrian civil war to make that point. With thousands of people staring death in the face, only sustained, substantive action on the part of the international community will save the innocents in Syria.

Now for the Hard Part

The broad outlines of a deal on Iran’s nuclear program, reached by international negotiators last week, offers both hope and concern about whether Tehran’s ambitions can be constrained in exchange for ending crippling sanctions and instituting a robust inspection regime by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

But if ever the devil was in the details, this is it. With the parameters agreed upon, negotiators from Iran, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany must still build the machinery of the agreement, a task they have given themselves until June 30 to do. Only then will we know if this is a good deal or a bad deal.

Still to be spelled out: How and under what conditions will Iran get sanctions relief? How will Iranian compliance be verified? And what will be the response if Iran fails to meet its commitments?

The answers to these and other questions deserve close scrutiny and debate. We welcome President Barack Obama’s expressed interest in engaging Congress as the negotiations continue. That will undoubtedly be an important component, as review by the legislature will potentially give a “good deal” some necessary momentum or lead to a rethinking of components of a “bad deal.” Either way, congressional discussion of the terms of the deal is a good idea.

There are views on all sides of the issue. We have been barraged with almost nonstop critiques and analyses since the president’s announcement (and Teheran’s counter-announcement) last Thursday afternoon. What is needed now is a civil, reasoned debate toward what all agree on: alleviating the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. If that result is assured and verifiable, then let’s make a deal. If not, we need the courage and conviction to say “no.”

A Friend in Trouble

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in 2013. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in 2013.
(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In his support for Israel and criticism of nuclear negotiations with Iran, Robert Menendez, the Democratic senator from New Jersey, has been fearless and vocal. In his 2012 re-election campaign, he was the top recipient of donations from pro-Israel individuals and groups who gave him a total of $346,470, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

So for many Jews, Menendez’s indictment last week by the Justice Department on federal corruption charges raises the question of how to respond to a friend in trouble.

The best way would be to let the legal process unfold. The government’s bribery charges against Menendez, filed after a two-year investigation, paint the picture of a politician ready to do multimillion-dollar favors for friend and political supporter Salomon E. Melgen. But with the senator’s attorney, Washington lawyer Abbe Lowell, suggesting that Justice Department prosecutors “often get it wrong,” it appears that Menendez is preparing for a long legal battle.

Menendez has stepped down from his ranking position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was from that seat that he wrote several bills to toughen economic sanctions against Iran. He was replaced by Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin. Some commentators have noted that the timing of the indictment is suspicious. Menendez in January said the administration’s defense of its Iran stance “sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran.” The most vocal Democratic critic of the Obama administration’s handling of the Iran talks was then taken out of the game on the very day an agreement with Iran was reached.

Whether by intent or coincidence, the sidelining of Menendez is unlikely to weaken those who are most outspoken against an Iran agreement and who insist upon a congressional vetting of any deal. Thus, while it appears that the Iran issue will remain a hot button many politicians want to push, it no longer appears that the most strident criticism will continue to come from the Democratic side of the aisle.

Mixed Messages on Iran

In Yemen last week, Saudi Arabia launched air strikes against Houthi rebels. U.S. intelligence aided the Saudis. The Shiite Houthis are backed by Iran. In Iraq, meanwhile, the United States has joined Iran to beat back the nascent Sunni-run caliphate known as the Islamic State. And in Switzerland, international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear development program, led by the United States and five partners, were supposed to produce an agreement on Tuesday.

American policy toward Iran is confusing and has been a headache for U.S. allies, including Israel. These are the same allies that have voiced concern that the outcome of a tilt toward Iran in nuclear negotiations will be a “bad deal” that leaves Iran a year away from building a bomb. Saudi Arabia hints that such a “bad deal” could set off a regional nuclear arms race. Israel says Iran should be stopped at any cost.

At the same time, American caution in the region — such as its reluctance to become involved in the multiparty civil war in Syria and its refusal to respond proportionately to increases in Iranian meddling — has also been cause for criticism. “U.S. promises and reassurances that it would train and arm moderate Syrian opposition have yet to materialize,” the Saudi-backed Arab News complained last month. “The U.S. is saying all the right things, but its actions do not live up to that rhetoric.”

It is difficult to understand how America can be both Iran’s negotiating partner and its opponent in ongoing warfare. This dichotomy is well noted among our allies. They see Tehran’s regional proxies — Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, Shiite militias in Iraq, Hamas in Gaza and the Houthi rebels in Yemen — as regional threats that must be defeated. And they want U.S. help to do so.

So what will come from America’s mixed messages on Iran? It can’t bode well for our country’s standing in the Middle East and could limit the ability of Washington to solve future world conflicts such as in Eastern Europe and Africa. But perhaps the regional discomfort created by the uncertainty will force the moderate Arab world to unite in a way that enables them to determine their own destiny. In the face of American inaction and/or confusion, it falls to our friends in the Middle East to stand up for themselves and to bring order to their region.

A Troubling ‘Reassessment’ with Israel

President Obama addresses his differences with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a news conference at the White House on March 24. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

President Obama addresses his differences with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a news conference at the White House on March 24.
(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Once again, American Jews are being forced to pick sides in an unnecessary fight between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Last month, it was over the breach of protocol surrounding Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and taking on a U.S. president over the Iran nuclear talks.

Now, following Netanyahu’s re-election, the prime minister’s stated opposition to a Palestinian state and his warning about “droves” of Arab citizens of Israel who were going to the polls — statements he later clarified, apologized for and recanted — the concern focuses on the president’s plan to “reassess” U.S.-Israel relations.

One gets the uncomfortable feeling that Netanyahu is being used as an excuse for a much larger and troubling agenda being played out by the White House. But because the dispute isn’t at all well explained and doesn’t appear to be strategic, we are left asking ourselves: What is this all about?

When it comes to the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process, everyone agrees that the environment is not right for a two-state solution. So for now, at least, there is room for movement on smaller issues, such as curbing the building of Israel settlements and sending tax receipts to the Palestinian Authority, both announced by the Israelis at the end of last week.

While such incremental moves are important, we find it hard to believe that Obama would threaten to change more than six decades of American foreign policy just to achieve those results. So, what is the end game?

Obama’s perceived weakness in dealings with Russia, China, Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere — coupled with growing concern that the president is more committed to getting an Iran nuclear deal done than in addressing the long-term consequences — make Obama’s hard talk about Israel appear to be designed to show that he can be tough. We hope not.

Two weeks ago, we counseled a cooling down of rhetoric. Last week, we urged Netanyahu to push the reset button in his dealings with Obama, Washington and American Jews. We now call upon our president to do both.