Daniel Larison

The Nativity of the Theotokos

By Your Nativity, O Most Pure Virgin,
Joachim and Anna are freed from barrenness;
Adam and Eve, from the corruption of death.
And we, your people, freed from the guilt of sin, celebrate and sing to you:
The barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos, the nourisher of our life!
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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

In defense of Christians. Kathryn Jean Lopez interviews Andrew Doran, executive director of In Defense of Christians.

The Arab Christian dilemma. Luma Simms describes the predicament of Arab Christians caught between Islamists and Israel.

Beyond ISIS and Ukraine. Moises Naim rounds up five overlooked developments that could have major consequences.

Nationalism in a multicultural age. Noah Millman reflects on different kinds of nationalism in connection with the Scottish referendum.

Musings of a reluctant nationalist. Fintan O’Toole considers the Scottish referendum as part of a broader reaction to the “current political settlement of strong oligarchies and weak democracies.”

Scotland’s tricky choice. Christian Caryl considers the implications of Scottish independence and what kind of politics an independent state would have.

Debating independence in the Western Isles. Peter Geoghegan reports from the Isle of Lewis on the referendum debate.

If Scotland votes ‘yes’, what happens in Northern Ireland? Michael Brendan Dougherty comments on the possible implications of the independence referendum for Ulster politics.

The independence debate in pictures. Alan Taylor presents his photos of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ supporters from around Scotland.

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Hawks and Doves, 2016

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YouGov surveyed American voters to see how Rand Paul and Hillary Clinton are perceived on foreign policy (“hawk” or “dove”), and how their foreign policy views affect support for the two possible candidates in a hypothetical match-up. Here was one interesting result:

Doves clearly prefer Clinton despite the fact that a few more respondents (correctly) perceive her to be a hawk. However, Clinton also seems to benefit from the fact that 30% of respondents inexplicably perceive her as a dove, and only 27% perceive Paul that way. For all of the attention paid to Paul’s foreign policy views in political media over the last few years, his position is not very well-known or clear to the public at large, since 24% identify him as a hawk and 49% aren’t sure what to call him. Oddly enough, that might be just what Paul wants, since it gives him room to move back and forth between hawkish and dovish stances.

It is also probably the case that partisan respondents are projecting their own preferences onto the two candidates, so that dovish respondents may wrongly assume that Clinton is closer to them because they have the same party affiliation. Or it may be that both hawkish and dovish respondents are conflating partisan identification with foreign policy views, so that they back the would-be candidate of their party regardless of how they are perceived on foreign policy. Whatever the case, this survey suggests that Clinton may be able to get away with being much more hawkish than her party, and it also may mean that Paul won’t be able to poach as many dovish voters from Clinton in the event that they end up running against each other. Perhaps that would change during a campaign as the candidates’ views become more familiar to voters, but right now Clinton doesn’t seem to be paying much of a price politically within her own party for being reliably hawkish.

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Saakashvili’s Desperate Quest for Rehabilitation

Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili is now living in Brooklyn and hoping for political rehabilitation:

But Mr. Saakashvili, considerably plumper than when he was in power, argues that the [Ukraine] conflict should also mark a reappraisal of his own reputation as a reckless leader whose peaceful Rose Revolution and commitment to reform were eclipsed by years of riding roughshod over opponents, bending the rule of law and provoking Mr. Putin into a war that resulted in the death, displacement and impoverishment of thousands of Georgians. “It should be revisited,” he said.

While there are a few similarities between the 2008 war and the current conflict in Ukraine, the crucial difference between them is that Saakashvili was primarily responsible for escalating the conflict back then. Russia bore part of the responsibility by baiting Saakashvili, but he was the one that stupidly took the bait. He did so in the mistaken belief that the U.S. and its allies would come to the rescue if he got into trouble. He was encouraged in that by careless American rhetoric, by misguided support for Georgian aspirations to join NATO, and and by foolish Western enthusiasm for his “revolution.” Nonetheless, in the end the decision to attack Tskhinvali and trigger the larger war was his, and he bears a significant amount of responsibility for the damage to his country that followed. He also presided over the brutal crackdown of opposition protesters in 2007, which resulted in hundreds of injuries. The current charges of abuse of power that have been brought against him back in Georgia are only too believable, since it was in part because of abuses by his government that his party was voted out in 2012. Revisiting the facts of Saakashvili’s tenure just confirms his reputation for recklessness and abuse of power. Subsequent events in other countries don’t change any of this, and no matter what one thinks of the conflict in Ukraine it doesn’t vindicate Saakashvili’s actions in the slightest.

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Independence Delayed?

the_justified_sinner / cc

Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth acknowledge that yesterday’s vote in Scotland hasn’t finally settled anything:

This referendum was meant to settle the question of Scottish independence for good. But few believe it has done that. ‘We have heard the settled will of the Scottish people,’ said the Prime Minister. Alistair Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign, said, ‘The people of Scotland have spoken — we have chosen unity over division.’ Both will have known this to be untrue. There is no such thing as the settled will of the Scottish people, and almost half of them chose division. As one Labour insider admits, ‘There’s no way this is over.’

As we have already seen, instead of settling anything the referendum has produced new promises of devolution for Scotland and increased demands in England for significant changes to the current system. The former probably can’t or won’t be honored, since they were made on the fly without the consent of the rest of the U.K., and that will eventually mean another referendum. In that case, unionists won’t be able to make credible offers of greater devolution, and that would make it more difficult to avert independence later on. Since the unionist side relied heavily on older voters, the next time that the question is asked the electorate will probably be much more inclined to back independence than they were yesterday. The union was “saved” by pledging to give it a drastic overhaul, and unless the government makes good on that promise it has simply delayed the inevitable.

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Initial Thoughts on the Independence Referendum

As I write this around 9:00 Central time, few results have been announced and it is still too early to know for certain what the exact outcome of the Scottish referendum is. However, the ‘No’ side has had the early lead and appears favored to win at this point. Early results showed disappointingly lower turnout for the ‘Yes’ side in some key areas, including Dundee and Glasgow, but even here the turnout was extraordinary high compared to other elections (75% or higher). In some places, turnout shot up to 90+% and was projected to be around 85% for the entire country. No matter what the outcome may be, it seems certain that the referendum has been an enormous triumph of popular political engagement and participation. Last-minute polling suggested that the ‘No’ campaign will prevail by about eight points. That seems to indicate that the British establishment’s belated, panicky, and rather desperate offers of enhanced autonomy towards the end of the campaign halted the the momentum for independence.

Of course, the success of the ‘No’ campaign was expected from the start, and if that weren’t the case a yes-or-no referendum probably wouldn’t have been allowed. The unionist victory is somewhat anti-climactic and obscures just how remarkably competitive the election became. The pro-independence activists had to climb a very steep and tall hill to overcome the many built-in advantages of the unionist side, and they came away with a better result than most people thought possible. If someone had said that the pro-independence forces would receive 45% of the vote a few months ago, he would have been mocked as a fantasist. Because there appeared to be the outside chance of an outright win for independence in the final weeks, the otherwise strong ‘Yes’ result will now seem lacking. As all observers of this election know by now, the ‘No’ side ran a thuddingly incompetent, uninspired campaign that by all rights deserved to lose, but it turned out to be just good enough to ward off the nationalist challenge for the time being. In the process, the unionists were prepared to bribe Scottish voters with almost anything short of independence, and that will end up having long-term repercussions for the country’s constitutional arrangements and the politics of both England and Scotland. Whatever happens, Cameron and the other party leaders are going to pay a heavy political price for their poor handling of the issue, and they have to know that this result is almost certainly just a delay for Scottish independence for a decade or so rather than a final settlement of the question.

I admit to a certain disappointment with a ‘No’ result, because it was the predictable outcome and because it vindicates an utterly unworthy political establishment that deserved to be humiliated at the polls. The good news is that some members of that establishment will probably get their comeuppance, but I am skeptical that the promise of much broader devolution of powers will end up being honored. It is just as likely that unionists have told Scots whatever they thought the latter wanted to hear and will later renege on the offer when the threat of independence has receded. It may turn out that the unionists “saved” the union by making promises that they couldn’t possibly fulfill, which will just lead to even more discontent with U.K. government.

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Scotland and Separatism in Europe

Jonathan Foreman rattles off a number of implausible and far-fetched scenarios for what will happen after a ‘yes’ vote. Along with some other utterly ridiculous things, he imagines that separatist dominoes would start falling all over Europe:

A “Yes” vote for secession would also set in motion a whole series of political crises across the continent and further afield.

As I’ve said before, it’s not obvious that this is necessarily such a terrible thing if it happened, but how likely is it? There are a few reasons to doubt this scenario. If Scotland votes to break away, it will have done so in no small part because the political leadership in London was oblivious to the possibility that the referendum might turn out that way. Future bids for independence will not be underestimated in the same way by other central governments, and independence movements probably won’t be permitted to hold binding votes in the first place. Viewed this way, a ‘yes’ vote might inspire separatist parties, but it would also alarm central governments and encourage them not to agree to a vote on independence. The ‘Yes’ campaign has done as well as it has in part because it was able to take a complacent, clueless government in London by surprise, and that isn’t going to happen again no matter how the vote turns out. Another reason to doubt that there will be a “whole series of political crises” breaking out in the wake of a ‘yes’ vote is that each country’s conditions and political traditions are different.

Not all separatist parties are going to be able to make a persuasive argument that their regions would succeed as new states, and not all governments are going to be quite so ineffective in making appeals for continued national unity. More to the point, some states specifically outlaw the possibility of regional independence, so there are major barriers in other countries that didn’t exist in this case. Political elites in other countries may also learn from London’s mistakes, and they could offer greater autonomy to their discontented regions as Cameron now realizes he should have done all along. On top of all this, Scotland might find itself running into stiff opposition from some current EU members when it applies to join, which will presumably also have the effect of discouraging voters in other countries from following their example. Of course, that is the point of threatening to block or delay Scotland’s membership, as Spain has so bluntly done over the last few months.

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Scotland and the “Forces of Chaos”

Steve Forbes panics over the possibility that the U.K. will break up:

The referendum on whether to break up the United Kingdom has ramifications that go far beyond the specific futures of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is no exaggeration to say that it will fundamentally affect the course of Europe, the US and, indeed, Western civilisation [bold mine-DL].

It won’t do any such thing. Forbes’ warning may be the most comically alarmist one on this subject that I have seen all year. If Scotland votes ‘yes’, it will be very important for itself and the rest of the U.K., and there may be some consequences in other parts of western Europe involving other separatist movements, but it isn’t going to have much of an effect outside of that. The peaceful dissolution of the U.K. isn’t going to “encourage all the forces of chaos, terrorism and aggression.” That doesn’t even begin to make sense. Which terrorists exactly would be encouraged by the outcome of a popular referendum? What aggression will it inspire? Forbes doesn’t offer many specific examples of what would happen. At one point, he repeats the nonsense claim that the rest of the U.K. will lose Britain’s permanent seat on the Security Council, but there is no chance that will happen. Stewart Patrick explained this earlier in the week:

The near-certain outcome, if the Scots unwisely choose to go it alone, is that the authorities in Edinburgh will immediately recognize the UK government’s UNSC claim. A newly independent but closely integrated Scotland has everything to lose and nothing to gain by disputing the UK’s permanent seat….Perhaps more surprisingly, the attitude of the remaining permanent four UNSC members will be identical: they will quickly recognize the rump United Kingdom as the state entitled to permanent membership.

Forbes also worries that Moscow will exploit the result to justify what it has done in Ukraine, but this concern is misplaced. Russia may pretend that its sham referendum in Crimea is comparable to this one, but that just underscores how obviously phony their pretensions to promoting self-determination are. If Moscow intends to continue stirring up Russians in neighboring states, it is going to do that regardless of the outcome of today’s vote. No doubt there will be some attempt to use the example of Scotland in “whataboutist” arguments about other issues, but we shouldn’t mistake this kind of trolling for being the cause of actions by Russia or anyone else. Other separatist movements will probably be given a psychological boost, but that isn’t likely to change as much as Forbes fears. For all the concern over precedent, what has happened in the U.K. this year seems to be extremely unusual and would be difficult for other separatist movements to replicate with the same success. In any case, it’s not obvious that the success of other peaceful separatist movements in Europe would have to be such a bad thing for European politics.

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The Horror of Being a Normal Country

Douglas Murray is horrified by the prospect of less interventionism after a ‘yes’ vote:

Debating some of this yesterday with a Nat on Sky it was put to me that one benefit of independence might be that Scotland could become a kind of Switzerland. Perhaps that is what the Nats are after. But that idea is what upsets and angers me most [bold mine-DL]. There is always a question of what we want to be in the world. And I know what the Scots Nats appeal to. It is the same thing petty nationalists the world over appeal to – the parochial, the inward-looking, the idea that we can avoid the world and believe that the problems of the world are not our problems. In fact everything they appeal to is precisely the opposite of what has made the Scottish people and the Union great. It seems to me that it would be an unspeakable tragedy if at the end of centuries of leading the world – and even, on occasion, let’s not forget, saving the world – the end-point of Britain was to be a hybrid of the Balkans and Switzerland.

I don’t know whether an independent Scotland would definitely become a “kind of Switzerland,” but it is revealing that this possibility so thoroughly appalls and angers some unionists and their hawkish sympathizers outside the U.K. If Scotland were able to become a “kind of Switzerland”–prosperous, well-governed, free, neutral, at peace with its neighbors–it would put the lie to every alarmist argument from the unionist side, and it would undoubtedly be a good thing for people living in Scotland. It would mean that Scotland was a normal country that tended to its own affairs. That doesn’t necessarily mean “avoiding the world,” but it does mean not going out of one’s way to start wars or unnecessarily join ongoing conflicts on other continents. It takes a very strange mind to imagine this and conclude that it is a tragedy.

Bret Stephens holds a similar view:

More often, small countries are merely insignificant countries; petty in their politics and limited in their horizons. Think of Slovenia, Slovakia and soon, perhaps, Scotland.

In other words, small countries can often be normal, reasonably successful countries. They don’t aspire to reorder other nations’ political structures or dictate terms to foreign governments, and so their horizons are said to be “limited.” However, all that this means is that they aren’t indulging in ideological crusades or yielding to a constant temptation to interfere in other people’s business. They are minding their own business, and for some people nothing could be more horrifying.

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Cruz’s Bogus “No Greater Ally” Claim

I was reading Mollie Hemingway’s latest comments on last week’s Cruz/In Defense of Christians incident, and I was struck by these lines:

And then there are plenty of legitimate reasons that Christians might not find Israel to have been the best ally [bold mine-DL]. For one thing, it’s not really the job of Israel to be an ally to Christians in the region, except insofar as the alliance [bold mine-DL] works for all parties.

There were many things wrong with Cruz’s performance last week and his subsequent attempts to spin that deplorable performance as an act of courage, and many of them have been ably described by Rod Dreher, Michael Dougherty, and others. I agree with almost everything these critics have had to say, and I’ve made some of the same points earlier, but I want to say a little more about the misuse of the term ally in this discussion.

Cruz provoked some people at the summit last week by asserting that Christians in the region “have no greater ally than Israel.” That isn’t true by any reasonable definition of the word ally, but by itself one could dismiss it as a pandering throwaway line that a conservative Christian would use to reconcile his “pro-Israel” hawkishness and his faith. If Cruz wants to pretend that this is true for his own reasons, he can do so, but it’s important to understand that there is no such alliance. An alliance implies more than just having common interests or common enemies. It also requires active and mutual support, and there is simply isn’t any of that. Nor would we expect there to be any. Cruz’s error was in believing that such an alliance exists and in assuming that Christians in the region were somehow at fault for not acknowledging something that doesn’t exist. Israel and Christians in the region may have some of the same enemies, but that doesn’t mean that an alliance exists between them, so it is ludicrous to suggest that Israel is their ally, much less their best one. The bigger problem with what Cruz said was that he asserted something demonstrably false as if it were undeniably true and then went on to denounce anyone that disagreed with the falsehood as being filled with hate.

Americans frequently throw the term ally around without much care or thought as to the obligations that real alliances entail. It is used indiscriminately to refer to everyone from the pettiest client state to traditional treaty allies, and it is often applied to governments and groups that don’t deserve it because it creates the impression that the U.S. has more support in various parts of the world than we really do and it allows Washington to pretend that we have more at stake in various conflicts than we actually have. Sometimes it is used, as Cruz used it, to raise a government for a degree of solidarity and support that is imaginary. Indeed, American politicians often overpraise the least useful clients for their contributions to make these relationships seem more valuable and important than they are. So when one of these politicians says that a government that doesn’t do anything significant to help you and your people must be acknowledged as your greatest ally, it is entirely appropriate to object to the lie and to call out the person saying it for trying to mislead you.

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