Commentary Magazine


The Media’s Irresponsible Ferguson Coverage

There are many things that can be said about the decision by the grand jury not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and the response to it, including John’s forceful and eloquent post. I would only add that much of the press coverage last night, and throughout this entire episode, was very discouraging.

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There are many things that can be said about the decision by the grand jury not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and the response to it, including John’s forceful and eloquent post. I would only add that much of the press coverage last night, and throughout this entire episode, was very discouraging.

This is one of those stories in which the liberal bias of supposedly “objective” reporters comes gushing out. This was particularly true of CNN. It was painful to watch reporters, with child-like melodrama, pretend they were part of a great civil-rights story. But 2014 isn’t 1965, and Ferguson, Missouri isn’t the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Reporters and commentators tried so hard to turn this story into something it never was: a racially-driven shooting of an innocent black teen by a white police officer.

The evidence presented to the grand jury was voluminous and comprehensive, and the jury concluded Officer Wilson should not be tried. But the left, including much of the media, was determined to superimpose a racial narrative on this story. The facts of the case were not only secondary; they were irrelevant. Liberals had a tale to tell, a stern moral sermon to deliver. What we saw–not among everyone to be sure, but among too many–was post-modern journalism on display. All that matters are the “narrative identities” we create for ourselves. We can all create our own reality. Truth needs to be shaped and re-shaped in order to fit a storyline. So a shooting that was never about race suddenly became a story focused almost solely on race. Think of Anderson Cooper as Jacques Derrida.

It’s of course the case that our experiences shape how we perceive reality. We all interpret events in a somewhat different way and none of us perceives truth perfectly. But that is a world apart from a license to interpret events in a way that’s false.

The effort by the left broadly, and journalists more specifically, to turn the events in Ferguson into a morality play was a shame; and in the end, it probably helped fuel the violence we saw. (“A riot is the language of the unheard,” tweeted MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.) That violence won’t directly hurt you and it won’t directly hurt me. But it has hurt the residents of Ferguson. And rather than help race relations in America, it will set them back.

What we got last night from the grand jury was justice. What we didn’t get was peace.

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Where’s America’s Anti-ISIS Media Strategy?

Before the 2003 Iraq War, almost everyone across the Bush administration recognized the need for a media strategy and media outlet to carry the message of the United States and free Iraqis into Iraq. And there began an inter-agency food fight with cooks spoiling the broth many times over, enabled by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s somewhat disorganized stewardship, that continued until after the war had begun. Meanwhile, the Iranian government formed their Al-Alam radio and television to shape hearts and minds weeks in the weeks before the U.S.-led invasion and before the United States had any mechanism with which to respond.

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Before the 2003 Iraq War, almost everyone across the Bush administration recognized the need for a media strategy and media outlet to carry the message of the United States and free Iraqis into Iraq. And there began an inter-agency food fight with cooks spoiling the broth many times over, enabled by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s somewhat disorganized stewardship, that continued until after the war had begun. Meanwhile, the Iranian government formed their Al-Alam radio and television to shape hearts and minds weeks in the weeks before the U.S.-led invasion and before the United States had any mechanism with which to respond.

Iraqi Shi’ites are not naturally anti-American. But with the Islamic Republic fanning the flames of incitement, and the United States incapable of any response, it was the Iranian government and not the United States which wrote the first draft of history with regard to Operation Iraqi Freedom, transforming liberation into occupation.

More than a decade later, it seems the United States remains just as ham-fisted when it comes to the importance of media outreach to conflict zones. While there has been a lot of attention toward ISIS’s use of the Internet and social media, the Open Source Center has some excellent new analysis examining ISIS’s television and media reach. Among its findings:

  • ISIS television and radio could reach nearly half of Syria’s population and 71 percent of Iraq’s population outside of the areas ISIS already controls in those countries. At this point in time, ISIS does not appear to be television broadcasting, but its radio studios are active in both Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria.
  • AM and FM radio from within ISIS-controlled territory can reach over 100 miles into Turkey, 60 miles into Iran, and over 50 miles into Jordan.

While ISIS has been checked recently in Kobane, Syria, and defeated in Beiji, Iraq, it continues to consolidate control over a huge swath of territory. In recent weeks, it has announced a new currency, and it has enthusiastically taken over the region’s schools. That it would include media among the trappings of the state it seeks is logical.

As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s resignation renews focus on the military strategy against ISIS, and as diplomats discuss Iraqi Kurdish and Turkish oil trading with ISIS, perhaps it is time for Congress to engage on the American media strategy geared specifically to those living under ISIS’s tyranny. Ceding the media field to ISIS will only help it recruit and expand; it’s time to instead take the fight over airwaves to those areas under ISIS control.

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Ham Sandwich Indictments and the Riot

The nation is still reeling this morning from last night’s televised riot in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the decision of a St. Louis County grand jury not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the death of black teenager Michael Brown. Without offering any opinion either criticizing the grand jury’s decision or supporting it, I do however wonder about one particular trope that was often heard last night on CNN and MSNBC. Namely, that the prosecutor that had presented the evidence on the case had erred by not doing so in a manner that would have dictated an indictment. The consensus on those networks of their panels of “legal experts” was that it was the duty of the prosecutor to play out the “ham sandwich” paradigm of grand jury panels. My question today is to ask why anyone would think such behavior would be a good thing under any circumstance.

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The nation is still reeling this morning from last night’s televised riot in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the decision of a St. Louis County grand jury not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the death of black teenager Michael Brown. Without offering any opinion either criticizing the grand jury’s decision or supporting it, I do however wonder about one particular trope that was often heard last night on CNN and MSNBC. Namely, that the prosecutor that had presented the evidence on the case had erred by not doing so in a manner that would have dictated an indictment. The consensus on those networks of their panels of “legal experts” was that it was the duty of the prosecutor to play out the “ham sandwich” paradigm of grand jury panels. My question today is to ask why anyone would think such behavior would be a good thing under any circumstance.

It was clear from the start that any vote other than one for a murder indictment would be treated as an act of racist indifference that many African-Americans would never accept. The tragedy that has unfolded in Ferguson is one to which there are no easy answers. Clearly, African Americans approach the issue of police shootings of young black males from the perspective that such incidents are the product of racism and it would be insensitive as well as pointless to claim that they are wrong to see it from this point of view even if the facts of this particular case clearly led the grand jury to treat the shooting as something that did not warrant a murder trial.

Yet I am intrigued by the attacks on St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch for his decision not to attempt to manipulate the grand jury in the style that is usual for district attorneys and which goes under the rubric of “ham sandwich” indictments. It is a cliché, but nonetheless true, that any good district attorney can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. The reason for this is that they control the evidence presented to the grand jury and the witnesses and potential defendants have no say in the forum as to what is heard other than their own testimony.

The presumption of McCulloch’s critics is that by choosing not to focus the grand jury only on those witnesses and evidence that would have inclined them to indict and instead showing them everything he had, including exculpatory material that led them to think Officer Wilson’s behavior did not amount to a crime, he had “failed.” In essence these legal talking heads accused him of tanking the case by “confusing” the grand jury with two sides of the argument rather than just guiding them toward an indictment.

To be fair, those who spoke of McCulloch’s behavior as being unusual are not entirely wrong. Prosecutors on every level of our judicial system generally behave in this manner. Those in the cross-hairs of district attorneys may eventually have their day in court when their case comes to trial, when their evidence is presented and which includes the obligation of juries to not convict anyone if reasonable doubt can be found about their guilt. But grand juries are not places where justice of that sort is always done. Ham sandwich indictments happen every day, and it can be argued that procuring one in this case would have spared Ferguson a riot from angry, violent people who wanted Wilson punished whether or not he is actually guilty of crime.

McCulloch may have acted in this manner because he is, as his local critics claim, predisposed to believe the police rather than the African-American community. Even if that is unfair it seems clear that he doubted that Wilson should be charged or at least felt, probably rightly, that there was little chance of gaining a conviction.

But whatever we may think of McCulloch or the specifics of this case, there is something wrong with a mindset that believes that a prosecutor isn’t doing his job if he is playing fair.

There is an old expression in sports that says, “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” That presupposes a belief that the job of all competitors is to seek every possible advantage, legal or not. And it is one that most district attorneys general take as seriously as any athlete who thinks winning at all costs is the only way to go.

Yet instead of doubling down on this assumption, perhaps it might not be a bad thing if more prosecutors acted as McCulloch did and presented all of the facts to grand juries rather than only those that will get them a desired indictment. Perhaps we need to create a more fair system that all citizens—including minorities that have historic grievances and concerns about getting short shrift from the system that can’t be ignored—might benefit from if there were fewer instead of more ham sandwich indictments. Surely our legal system is troubled more by out-of-control prosecutors who run roughshod over the rights of the accused — and sometimes use ham sandwich indictments to blackmail defendants who might not be able to afford trial costs to accept a plea bargain —than by those who are scrupulous about not tipping the scales of justice.

If the worst thing we can say about the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office is that they behaved in the latter fashion, then maybe McCulloch is not quite the villain he had been made out to be. Moreover, those who, whether intentionally or not, egged on the rioters by claiming that McCulloch had performed an act of professional malfeasance should think seriously about the implications of such an unreasonable position.

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Don’t Simply Complain About Qasem Soleimani in Iraq

Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Qods Force, has been taking his show on the road for years, making public appearances first in Syria and most recently in Iraq. Today, new photos circulated on Twitter of Soleimani sharing lunch in the eastern Iraqi governorate of Diyala.

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Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Qods Force, has been taking his show on the road for years, making public appearances first in Syria and most recently in Iraq. Today, new photos circulated on Twitter of Soleimani sharing lunch in the eastern Iraqi governorate of Diyala.

Certainly, Iran wants to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). It’s not simply propaganda to suggest that ISIS also threatens Iran. The Islamic Republic might officially be a Shi’ite state, but about ten percent of Iranians are Sunni. They are often bitter, discriminated against both on ethnic and sectarian grounds. In June, Iranian security announced the arrest of several dozen ISIS members operating inside Iran.

But just because Iran and the United States both have an interest in what happens to ISIS does not make Tehran and Washington natural allies. After all, arsonists and firefighters are both interested in what happens to fires, but they are clearly not on the same side.

The U.S. Treasury Department in 2007 designated the Qods Force as a terrorist group “for providing material support to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations.” While a bill formally labeling the Qods Force as a terrorist entity died in congressional committee (perhaps President Obama can consider executive action), the government of Canada was not so easily distracted, and two years ago labeled Qasem Soleimani’s unit to be terrorists.

Normally, the head of a shadowy organization like the Qods Force would avoid the limelight, but by taking such a public presence in Iraq, Soleimani is convincing Iraqis that it is Iran which has its back while simultaneously depicting the United States as at best hapless, and at worst complicit with ISIS. After all, Soleimani is among the Pentagon’s most wanted, and yet he runs around Iraq thumbing his nose at the United States. And, of course, he and the Iranian regime he serves are, alongside Russia, behind the rumors that the United States created and supported ISIS, never mind that it was the Assad regime supported by Soleimani that refused for years to use the Syrian air force to bomb the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, Syria; Soleimani and Assad preferred instead to target Syrian civilians. When it comes to killing ISIS, the United States does far more than Iran.

The idea that anyone in the United States would simply complain about Soleimani’s antics, however, is absurd. It’s about as effective as a kid complaining to an elementary school teacher that a bully is making faces at him.

If the United States is serious about the Qods Force and wishes to hold Qasem Soleimani to account for the deaths of Americans, it has two options: First, it can try to grab him in Iraq. There is precedent. The United States has previously snatched Iranian operatives in Iraq, but ultimately released them. There are rumors that the real goal of the raid was to catch Soleimani himself. Earlier efforts to grab Soleimani may have been betrayed when senior officials within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leaked word to him of impending action.

Then again, if Obama doesn’t have the stomach to grab Soleimani, it might simply try to kill him. Airstrikes might target all terrorists and extremists, not simply those from one sect. Soleimani is probably right to suspect that he has a free pass from Obama, so long as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continues to dangle a legacy-revising agreement in front of American negotiators.

Under such circumstances, then, Soleimani probably has another two years to flaunt himself in front of the cameras in Iraq without fear of consequence. Let us hope, however, that come January 20, 2017, any new president will understand no terrorists deserve a free pass and that it is never wise or sophisticated to allow them to humiliate the United States on the world stage. Credibility matters.

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Britain Faces ISIS on the Home Front

The British were reminded of just what a serious and determined aggressor Islamist terror in their country has once again become when reports surfaced earlier this month of a terror plot targeting the nation’s Remembrance Day ceremony. That plot came with the possible intent to assassinate royal family members during the commemorations. Back in August the terror threat level had been raised from “substantial” to “severe” and now Britain’s Home Secretary has said that the terror threat there may be higher than it has ever been. A range of new anti-terror proposals are being put forward to help the situation. Yet ultimately, with much of the current threat stemming from the prospect of  jihadists returning from Iraq and Syria, this is a lesson in how ignoring conflicts overseas can have dangerous consequences for Western states at home.

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The British were reminded of just what a serious and determined aggressor Islamist terror in their country has once again become when reports surfaced earlier this month of a terror plot targeting the nation’s Remembrance Day ceremony. That plot came with the possible intent to assassinate royal family members during the commemorations. Back in August the terror threat level had been raised from “substantial” to “severe” and now Britain’s Home Secretary has said that the terror threat there may be higher than it has ever been. A range of new anti-terror proposals are being put forward to help the situation. Yet ultimately, with much of the current threat stemming from the prospect of  jihadists returning from Iraq and Syria, this is a lesson in how ignoring conflicts overseas can have dangerous consequences for Western states at home.

The ongoing terror threat in Britain is certainly not something to be easily brushed aside. Since the 7/7 bombings on London’s subway system in 2005, Britain’s security and intelligence services have foiled some forty major terror plots. With the threat continuing to rise in light of the proliferation of ISIS and the significant number of Islamic extremists in Britain who identify with the cause of the Islamic State, it is understandable that the British are now seeking tougher legislation to combat the domestic terror threat.

Among the newly proposed measures are such provisions as an obligation on schools and universities to prevent radicalization by turning away extremist speakers. There would be new powers to confiscate the passports of those suspected of attempting to leave the country to join jihadist groups as well as the means to temporarily prevent the return of British citizens who have been fighting with terror groups. Furthermore, this legislation would make it illegal for insurance companies to cover the ransoms of those kidnapped by terrorists. There are also plans to increase online surveillance so as to better assist with the tracking of those accessing extremist material on the Internet.

Of course, some of these proposals will meet with considerable opposition from civil liberties groups and some in the Islamic community who have expressed concern that these measures are in some way singling out Muslims specifically. Liberal voices are already arguing for the adoption of a Danish model for deradicalization efforts. Such initiatives may eventually prove to have some long-term benefit, but clearly Britain today faces an immediate threat that has to be addressed.

Battening down the hatches like this should go some way in defending against Islamist attacks. But such measures and the kind of enhanced monitoring proposed can only go so far. As mentioned, the British authorities were able to act in time to arrest those planning attacks like the possible Remembrance Day plot, yet this strategy is by no means certain to succeed every time. Intelligence gathering was not enough in May of last year when two radicals known to the authorities beheaded a British soldier in broad daylight on a London street.

When the authorities raised the terror threat level in August it was with the threat from ISIS in mind–there are estimated to be between 500 and 2,000 British Islamists fighting with ISIS, many likely to attempt to return eventually, some having already done so. Similarly, when Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May announced this new anti-terror legislation she justified these laws as necessary by claiming that ISIS is now one of the greatest threats to the security of the United Kingdom. That may well be true, but if so why isn’t Britain doing more to combat ISIS in its entirety?

After all, even if Western countries like Britain can find a way to prevent ISIS-trained fighters from returning, it is clear that Islamic extremists who remain in the West are still being encouraged and inspired by the growth of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The stronger ISIS becomes, the more territory it captures, the longer its war goes on for, and the more intense the fighting becomes, the more of a draw this group will have over those being radicalized in the West.

Defeating ISIS definitively is then logically a very necessary part of ensuring security at home. Yet Britain’s parliament decisively struck down proposals for military intervention in Syria, and while the UK continues to give some support to the limited U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, reservations about mission creep are likely to prevent any serious action. And so in doing little to seriously combat the proliferation of ISIS in the Middle East, Britain and other Western countries will continue to experience blowback at home and will be forced to implement increased firefighting legislation on the counter terror front.

Large parts of the British public were staunchly opposed to intervention in Iraq and that war is regularly referenced to advocate for a policy of disengagement and isolationism. But given how ISIS has grown out of the horrors of the Syrian civil war, something that the West couldn’t bring itself to intervene in even at the early stages when there was still the chance of a better outcome, it turns out that non-intervention has consequences too. The reality is that when it comes to security, tinkering with domestic terror legislation will only get you so far.

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How Iran Talks Hamper Fight Against ISIS

So what’s wrong with talking to Iran? That is the refrain heard a day after the administration decided to grant another seven-month extension of the nuclear negotiations, which have already been going on without success for a year. As is true with the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” the administration seems convinced that success is always just around the corner, that failure is always a step forward. While it’s true that prolonging talks is better than accepting a bad deal, even prolonged talks carry a hefty price–some of it visible, some not.

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So what’s wrong with talking to Iran? That is the refrain heard a day after the administration decided to grant another seven-month extension of the nuclear negotiations, which have already been going on without success for a year. As is true with the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” the administration seems convinced that success is always just around the corner, that failure is always a step forward. While it’s true that prolonging talks is better than accepting a bad deal, even prolonged talks carry a hefty price–some of it visible, some not.

The most visible cost is the $700 million a month in sanctions relief that Iran receives while the negotiations continue. That is a lifeline to the regime of an extra $4.9 billion over seven months on top of the $7 billion it has already received: money that can be used to prop up a dictatorship and extend its influence to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and other nearby states. And those are conservative estimates from the administration; the actual benefits to Iran are probably greater.

But there is also a hidden cost to the ongoing talks that may be even more significant. Because as long as the U.S. is trying to reach a deal with Tehran, there is scant chance that President Obama will do anything to topple Iran’s ally in Damascus, Bashar Assad. Obama won’t even interfere with Assad’s reign of terror that has already claimed some 200,000 lives.

Although U.S. warplanes episodically bomb ISIS, they leave Assad and his forces alone. As a result Assad is free to continue the terror bombing of areas held by the Free Syrian Army even though Obama is counting on that force to fight ISIS. In reality there is scant chance of Sunnis in significant numbers taking up arms against ISIS as long as the alternative appears to be domination by Iranian proxies whether in Iraq or Syria.

Obama seems to be blind to this crippling problem at the heart of his ISIS strategy. Instead of trying to contest Iranian power, he is seeking an accommodation with Iran. He reportedly even sent Ayatollah Ali Khamenei a letter proposing cooperation between the U.S. and Iran to fight ISIS. Ironically this not only scares Sunnis–it also scares the ayatollahs because they cannot afford to be seen as compromising with the Grand Satan for fear of losing their revolutionary credibility.

This is a regime, after all, where the chant “Death to America” serves much the same purpose as “Heil Hitler” once did for Nazi Germany. Khamenei obviously has little interest in reaching a modus vivendi with us; indeed, after the latest failure of the nuclear talks, he crowed that “America and the colonial European countries to together and did their best to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees but they could not do so–and they will not be able to do so.”

Far from trying to bring Iran to its knees, Obama is trying to reorient U.S. policy in a pro-Iranian direction. The attempt will fail, but as long as it continues it will also doom to failure the anti-ISIS campaign.

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How Big of a Problem Is Susan Rice?

Chuck Hagel’s unceremonious dismissal as secretary of defense has refocused attention, once again, on the insularity of President Obama’s inner circle, its suspicion of outside voices, and its distaste for dissent. But it has changed in one way: this time, the concerns about secrecy, enforced groupthink, and high school clique behavior don’t center on Valerie Jarrett. Instead, the name that keeps surfacing is that of National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

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Chuck Hagel’s unceremonious dismissal as secretary of defense has refocused attention, once again, on the insularity of President Obama’s inner circle, its suspicion of outside voices, and its distaste for dissent. But it has changed in one way: this time, the concerns about secrecy, enforced groupthink, and high school clique behavior don’t center on Valerie Jarrett. Instead, the name that keeps surfacing is that of National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

It’s true that this isn’t the first time we’re hearing of the toxic atmosphere and mismanagement at Rice’s National Security Council. But it’s striking how clearly the battle lines appear to be drawn in the steady stream of bitter leaks aimed at Hagel, designed to kick him while he’s down. The cruelty with which the Obama insiders are behaving right now is unsettling, to be sure. But more relevant to the formation of national-security policy is the question of whether Susan Rice’s incompetence and pride are playing a role in the constant stream of Obama foreign-policy failures.

About two weeks ago, Foreign Policy magazine CEO David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, previewed his new book on American foreign policy in the age of Obama by sitting for an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Rothkopf has written a book on the history of the NSC, so Goldberg asked him about the NSC under Susan Rice. His opinion was pretty brutal.

Goldberg and Rothkopf discussed the mixed record of national security advisors over the last few decades, and Rothkopf summed it up this way: “If there are lessons to be drawn from this track record, they include the fact that it’s harder to be the first national security advisor of a president with little foreign-policy experience and, in the end, more broadly, the national security advisor is really only ever as good as his or her president enables him or her to be.”

That sounded like he was letting Rice off the hook a bit, but he returned to the topic to dispel any such impression. In fact, Obama and Rice seemed to reinforce each other’s weaknesses:

If Obama had any material management or foreign-policy experience prior to coming in to office or if he had the character of our stronger leaders on these issues—notably a more strategic than tactical orientation, more trust in his team, less risk aversion, etc.—she would be better off, as would we all. But his flaws are compounded by a system that lets him pick and empower those around him. So, if he chooses to surround himself with a small team of “true believers” who won’t challenge him as all leaders need to be challenged, if he picks campaign staffers that maintain campaign mode, if he over-empowers political advisors at the expense of those with national-security experience, that takes his weaknesses and multiplies them by those of the team around him.

And whatever Susan Rice’s many strengths are, she is ill-suited for the job she has. She is not seen as an honest broker. She has big gaps in her international experience and understanding—Asia. She is needlessly combative and has alienated key members of her staff, the cabinet, and overseas leaders. She is also not strategic and is reactive like her boss. So whereas the system does have the capability of offsetting the weaknesses of a president, if he is surrounded by strong advisors to whom he listens and who he empowers to do their jobs, it can also reinforce and exacerbate those weaknesses—as it is doing now.

And indeed, while Hagel was no superstar, Rice crops up in each account of his ouster. Politico reports that “Hagel’s main gripe, according to people close to him, was what he viewed as a disorganized National Security Council run by Ricea criticism shared by [White House chief of staff Denis] McDonough, according to a senior administration official.” Politico also points out that in this respect, Hagel was no outlier; his predecessors, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, shared this concern.

And according to the New York Times: “White House officials also expressed annoyance over a sharply critical two-page memo that Mr. Hagel sent to Ms. Rice last month, in which he warned that the administration’s Syria policy was in danger of unraveling because of its failure to clarify its intentions toward President Bashar al-Assad. Senior officials complained that Mr. Hagel had never made such a case in internal debates, suggesting that he was trying to position himself for history on a crucial issue as he was talking to Mr. Obama about leaving his job.”

It’s debatable what the worst part of that is. That the White House was bothered enough by one critical memo for it to appear in a story on the secretary of defense’s dismissal? That the secretary of defense and the national security advisor are communicating this through memos? That White House officials thought Hagel put his thoughts in writing out of borderline-disloyalty and the hope of abandoning a sinking ship?

I was among those singing Rice’s praises as a whipsmart advisor and a tough-as-nails negotiator, at least in the context of her candidacy to be secretary of state. Yet it’s become clear she feeds on conflict. It’s possible that instinct would be more beneficial were she at State and dealing with those shoving John Kerry around on the world stage. But Chuck Hagel is not Sergei Lavrov, and Rice’s conflation of all adversaries, personal and political, is tearing the White House’s national-security team apart.

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Hero’s Welcome for Hater of Israel at MESA

Let’s start with a fact: Steven Salaita is a hater of Israel. Just ask him (via his Twitter feed).
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Let’s start with a fact: Steven Salaita is a hater of Israel. Just ask him (via his Twitter feed).

• “‘Hate‘ is such a strong word. That’s why it’s my preferred verb when discussing racism, colonization, neoliberalism, sexism, and Israel.”

• “Zionist credo: ‘Palestinians hate their children!’ Don’t get it confused. I hate *you*. And you’re no child of mine.”

• “Lost in the responses to Eric Alterman’s ‘The Israel Hater’s Handbook’ is the fundamental question: what exactly is wrong with hating Israel?”

So Steven Salaita isn’t a critic of Israel. Tom Friedman is a critic of Israel. Steven Salaita is a hater of Israel, it’s a title he’s proud to claim, and that hatred runs like a thread through all he writes and says.

Now if you aren’t a hater of Israel, you still might think that Steven Salaita deserves your support—not because of his hatred of Israel, but despite it. Academic life, once famous for its guarantees of job security, isn’t what it used to be, and the way Salaita was “de-hired” by the University of Illinois is the sum of every academic’s fears. If that’s you, and Steven Salaita enters the hall, you might offer up some polite (“civil”) applause, as a gesture of labor solidarity. But if Steven Salaita enters the room, and you rise to your feet in an enthusiastic standing ovation reserved for a true hero, that’s not a gesture of support. It’s an outpouring of adulation, because Salaita has been brash enough to say what you think: what exactly is wrong with hating Israel?

So at this year’s Middle East Studies Association (MESA) conference, on the very first day, I found myself in a standing-room-only audience of Israel-haters wearing MESA badges, who received Steven Salaita with a standing ovation. When I last attended MESA, in 1996, Edward Said got just such an ovation. Said was larger than life. Salaita is smaller than life—an indifferent speaker whose every other sentence ends in “right?”—but he is the anti-Israel, and in the yawning void left by the passing of Said, even a Salaita will do.

Flanking Salaita were the representatives of associations that have supported him as a victim deprived of his academic freedom: the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the Modern Language Association (MLA), and MESA’s own Committee on Academic Freedom. To spice it up, there was someone who’s cannon is almost as loose as Salaita’s: Lisa Hajjar, University of California at Santa Barbara, an agitprof right out of a campus novel. The panel was pro-Salaita to a man (or woman), but lopsided panels are the norm at MESA, and it’s been decades (maybe since the Bernard Lewis-Edward Said match of 1986) since the association put on a true debate over anything.

Salaita has been on tour, and there’s a specific reason why panels featuring him never include a critic. That critic might begin quoting Salaita’s writings and tweets, and the impression of Salaita as generally affable would evaporate. I won’t quote the more infamous tweets here; a useful exercise would have been to read some of them to the assembled MESAns, and ask them to indicate their assent by applause. (“I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing”—applaud if you agree.) If Salaita now claims that he’s persecuted because of his “criticism” of Israel, why not debate the exact substance and style of that “criticism”? Answer: Salaita and his supporters need to change the subject, if he’s to be enshrined as symbol of trampled academic freedom.

Salaita’s message at MESA was straightforward: he’s the victim of “organized suppression” by those, such as pro-Israel university donors, who “act punitively toward Israel’s critics.” As Israel becomes impossible to defend, this “suppression” becomes ever more “heavy-handed,” devolving into the brute exercise of “pressure” on university administrators and legislators.

Surrounded as I was by heads bobbing in uniform agreement, and seated at the foot of a panel structured to discourage any dissent, I wondered whether it ever occurred to these MESAns that they might be guilty of “organized suppression,” of “acting punitively”—in this case, toward Israel’s supporters. Cary Nelson, former AAUP president, has made just that charge: “I know many secret Zionists who avoid expressing public support for Israel. They worry that to do so might torpedo their jobs. They worry it might limit their chance at presenting a conference paper or being appointed to a committee.” If I were a budding Middle East specialist and crypto-Zionist, I’d certainly be furtive and fearful, especially if I saw my department chair leap to his feet and clasp his hands upon glimpsing Steven Salaita.

Both Salaita and Hajjar denounced such intimidation when practiced by Israel’s supporters. Insults! Bullying! Blacklisting! Defamation! You would think they were calling for greater civility. To the contrary. Hajjar announced that the best defense against Israel’s supporters was offense, and she got approving chuckles when she boasted that she tries be “offensive.” (She would prove that the next day in a boycott discussion, when she personally insulted a scholar who made the anti-boycott case, and did so in a manner so “offensive” that even she felt compelled to apologize.) “Civility is the language of genocide,” Salaita has said. “It’s inherently a deeply violent word. It’s a word whose connotations can be seen as nothing if not as racist.” If you think “civility” is out and being “offensive” is in, if you tweet and traffic in insult and injury, who are you to sob when your opponents repay you in kind? And if you think, as Hajjar said she does, that it would be a good idea to instill fear in your critics by suing them for libel, who are you to complain when an alumnus calls a provost? If you’ve decided to turn the American campus into a war front,‪ well, à la guerre comme à la guerre‬. Expect to take casualties.

I’m always interested in the bubbling up of dissent, and it happened twice, in a somewhat timid manner. A woman asked the panel whether it might be possible to engage colleagues who were only “irrational” and “blocked” when it came to Israel, but were otherwise “rational” and “nice”—that is, broadly supportive of progressive causes. No way, answered Salaita: these people can’t be let off the hook. If you support Israel’s “colonial” policies, you don’t get to call yourself a “progressive,” no matter what position you’ve take on any other issue. This is a dart directed precisely at Jewish liberals and leftists: the faintest wisp of support for Israel will render you “regressive” (Salaita’s word). It’s the flip side of the claim that any wisp of criticism of Israel renders you anti-Semitic. (Of course, there was no one on the panel to ask Salaita what he’s done to deserve being called “progressive.” “My mother and grandmother’s blood connects me to the same place that binds us all—ancestor and descendant—together…. I am a devoted advocate of Palestinian nationalism.” Apparently it’s “progressive” when a Palestinian professes blood-and-soil nationalism, and “regressive” when an Israeli Jew does it.)

The other hint of dissent came from a faculty member at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, now subject to a boycott by Salaita’s supporters—one Salaita backs. She complained that the university’s faculty, many of whom stand with Salaita against their administration, were being unjustly penalized, and graduate students were terrified that the boycott would affect their own future prospects. Salaita expressed his sympathy for his supporters at the university, especially the students, and he urged that every effort be made to invite them to scholarly meetings elsewhere. But as far as I could tell, the boycott still stands, and it’s a perfect example of how the Salaita camp is prepared to enforce precisely the kind of “collective punishment” they claim to revile when it’s practiced by Israel.

They didn’t pass the plate at the session, but they did online, so Salaita will collect $1,500 for his trouble. His supporters at MESA really should have done better, because Salaita did them a major service, softening up the membership for the next act: a resolution in favor of the academic boycott of Israel. On that, in my next post.

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Don’t Pay Iran for Stonewalling

So, the unalterable deadline to conclude a nuclear agreement with Iran has come and gone, and Secretary of State John Kerry has voided yet another administration red line, hemorrhaging U.S. credibility in the process. The worse aspect of the extension, however, is the Obama administration’s agreement to pay Iran $700 million per month from frozen accounts holding oil revenue.

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So, the unalterable deadline to conclude a nuclear agreement with Iran has come and gone, and Secretary of State John Kerry has voided yet another administration red line, hemorrhaging U.S. credibility in the process. The worse aspect of the extension, however, is the Obama administration’s agreement to pay Iran $700 million per month from frozen accounts holding oil revenue.

It’s hard to believe, but when it comes to negotiations with rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea, the State Department has never conducted a “lessons learned” exercise to consider after the fact why its negotiations failed with terror sponsors and aspiring nuclear powers. My book, Dancing With the Devil, examines the history of U.S. talks not only with Iran and North Korea, but also Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, the Taliban, Pakistan and, of course, Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization.

When looking at all these cases, one lesson becomes clear: offering money or goods as an incentive never works. Palestinian terror has grown proportional to Palestinian aid. In the years before 9/11, the State Department actually suggested providing aid to the Taliban to keep them at the table and to test their good will. The United States and its KEDO partners provided over a billion dollars in aid to North Korea in the wake of the 1994 Agreed Framework. North Korea diverted food and heavy fuel aid, and doubled down on its nuclear program.

The disputes with Iran are not simply some misunderstanding. Nor are they a matter of Iranian rights. After all, Iran enjoyed its rights fully until the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2005, after several sanctions-free years of trying to resolve problems relating to Iran’s behavior, finally found Iran in non-compliance with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement. Iran made an agreement, it broke it, and ever since, it has been paying the consequences of its own decisions. The disputes with Iran are rooted in Iranian decision-making.

Now, rather than coming clean, they are playing Obama and the West. Iran’s internal situation suggests that the money Obama and his partners offer is more likely to undercut any agreement rather than enable it. In the year before negotiations began, the Iranian economy shrank 5.3 percent. It was desperate for cash, and the $7 billion in sanctions relief, not a desire for conflict resolution, was President Rouhani’s chief goal in talks. Despite this influx, the drop in the price of oil below the $90/barrel at which the Iranian government set its budget keeps the Iranian economy on thin ice.

Dragging out the talks with constant subsidy not only nets Iran the $700 million per month, but an exponentially higher amount that comes with the erosion of sanctions and the scramble of German and other European companies for a foothold in the Iranian market. Simply put, Obama is eating out of Khamenei’s palm.

So if offering money and incentives don’t work, what’s the alternative? There have been times when Iran has been forced to reverse course: Ayatollah Khomeini released the 52 American diplomats he seized not because of the persistence of diplomacy, but rather because Iraq’s invasion made Iran’s isolation too great to bear. Likewise, in 1982, Khomeini promised to engage in the Iran-Iraq War until Jerusalem (not Baghdad) was liberated. There followed six more years a stalemate that came at the cost of several hundred thousand Iranian lives. Finally, Khomeini got on the radio and said he would accept a ceasefire, although he likened it to drinking from a chalice of poison. Drinking from that chalice, however, was worth it if it meant the survival of his regime.

The question for Obama is this, if he is serious about denying Iran a nuclear-weapons capability: What in his strategy raised Iran’s isolation to the level it was in 1980, and what in his strategy forces Khamenei to drink from that proverbial chalice? Whatever that might be, giving Tehran a $700 million monthly subsidy with the only caveat that its diplomats must come and enjoy a few days each month of fruitless talks at a five-star hotel surely isn’t it.

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Ferguson Tonight

It is obviously deeply disheartening to see arson and looting in Ferguson, Mo. in response to the news that the grand jury sifting through masses of evidence in the shooting of Michael Brown did not indict Officer Darren Wilson. But it’s likely there would have been something very much like this even if Wilson had been indicted. The general excuse for those who are setting the fires and looting the stores is that they are in a state of rage. But if that is so, why would the outrage have been any less if the indictment had been handed down? Such an indictment would have essentially confirmed the presumption that Wilson had shot Brown in cold blood, and that Wilson had felt he could do so because he was a cop. That is the problem with coming up for such excuses for monstrous and uncivilized behavior; they are designed to explain away nihilistic criminality.

It is obviously deeply disheartening to see arson and looting in Ferguson, Mo. in response to the news that the grand jury sifting through masses of evidence in the shooting of Michael Brown did not indict Officer Darren Wilson. But it’s likely there would have been something very much like this even if Wilson had been indicted. The general excuse for those who are setting the fires and looting the stores is that they are in a state of rage. But if that is so, why would the outrage have been any less if the indictment had been handed down? Such an indictment would have essentially confirmed the presumption that Wilson had shot Brown in cold blood, and that Wilson had felt he could do so because he was a cop. That is the problem with coming up for such excuses for monstrous and uncivilized behavior; they are designed to explain away nihilistic criminality.

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Defending the Right to a Jewish State

The debate currently roiling Israel’s Cabinet over proposals to pass a law ensuring that it is a “Jewish state” is being roundly denounced by many of the country’s friends as well as its critics. The U.S. government responded in a high-handed manner to the discussion by demanding that Israel protect the rights of non-Jewish Israelis. The Anti-Defamation League says it is well meaning but unnecessary and some of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition allies are threatening to break up the government and send the country to new elections because of their disagreement with it. But as much as one can argue that Israel won’t be any more or less a Jewish state whether or not any such bill passes the Knesset, critics of the measure should understand that the demand for this measure is not frivolous. Those criticizing it are largely missing the point.

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The debate currently roiling Israel’s Cabinet over proposals to pass a law ensuring that it is a “Jewish state” is being roundly denounced by many of the country’s friends as well as its critics. The U.S. government responded in a high-handed manner to the discussion by demanding that Israel protect the rights of non-Jewish Israelis. The Anti-Defamation League says it is well meaning but unnecessary and some of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition allies are threatening to break up the government and send the country to new elections because of their disagreement with it. But as much as one can argue that Israel won’t be any more or less a Jewish state whether or not any such bill passes the Knesset, critics of the measure should understand that the demand for this measure is not frivolous. Those criticizing it are largely missing the point.

As Haviv Rettig Gur explained in an excellent Times of Israel article, the claims by both sides in the argument are largely unfounded. Israel is already a Jewish state, albeit one in which the rights of every citizen to equal treatment under the law are guaranteed. Nor is it true, as Netanyahu’s unhappy coalition partners Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid charged, that the proposed drafts approved by the Cabinet would elevate the Jewish state concept over that of the democratic nature of that state.

What it would do is to incorporate into the country’s basic laws, which serve as an informal and entirely insufficient constitution, a basic truth about its founding that could actually serve as an important counter-balance to the proposed Palestinian state that peace negotiators seek to create alongside Israel. Though that state will be primarily racial and exclusive—Jews will not be welcomed or allowed to live there, let alone have equality under the law—but where Israel’s flag flies, democracy will prevail even as the rights of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland will be protected. Indeed, as Gur notes in his piece, the origins of the bills under discussion can be traced to efforts to make peace palatable to Israelis, not the fevered imaginations of right-wingers bent on excluding or expelling Arabs.

As Gur writes in reference to the charge that the Cabinet approved an extreme bill that undermined democracy:

But the cabinet decision on which the ministers voted did not “pass” the right-wing bills, as much of the Israeli media reported. It actually voted to subsume them, and thus de facto to replace them, with a larger government bill based on the prime minister’s 14 principles. And in principle 2-D of the decision, one reads, “The State of Israel is a democratic state, established on the foundations of liberty, justice and peace envisioned by the prophets of Israel, and which fulfills the personal rights of all its citizens, under law.”

There is no hedging, no distinction between what Israel simply “is” and what its “form of government” might be.

That said the critics have a point when they say this feeds into the anti-Zionist narrative being increasingly heard in the international media that seeks to falsely brand Israel as an “apartheid” or racist state. If even Israeli Cabinet members are capable of the sort of hyperbole that would brand it as a threat to democracy, you don’t have to have much imagination to realize what anti-Semitic foes of the country will make of it. Seen in that light, the push for the bill can be seen as, at best unnecessary, and a worst a needless provocation that could do harm.

But even if we factor into our thinking the danger posed by these libels, it does Israel no harm to remind the world that it has no intention of giving up its basic identity. Israel has not only a right but a duty to make it clear that as much as it is a democracy, it is also the “nation state of the Jewish people” whose rights must be protected as vigorously as those of any other people or country.

For far too long, those who have spoken up for Israel in international or media forums have downplayed the question of the rights of the Jews in the conflict and instead spoke only of the nation’s security needs. But when placed against Palestinian claims of their rights to the same country—when Hamas talks about resistance to the “occupation” they are referring to Israel within its pre-1967 borders—such talk inevitably seems inadequate. Friends of Israel are right to seek to promote the idea of a nation state for the Jews not so much because Israel’s laws need to be altered but because Zionism is itself under attack and must be vigorously defended.

Lastly, those who consider this some kind of colossal blunder on the part of Netanyahu don’t understand what is going on here. If Livni and Lapid blow up the government and force new elections, it is likely that both of them will lose ground while Netanyahu—who has no viable rival for the role of prime minister—is likely to emerge even stronger in a Knesset where the right-wing parties may be even more dominant and so-called moderates are marginalized.

Livni and Lapid would do well to lower the rhetoric and back down if they want to avoid going into an election having repudiated a measure that is, in the context of a country that is already a Jewish state, an anodyne proposal.

Israel won’t be any more Jewish or less democratic no matter whether or not this bill eventually becomes one of the country’s basic laws. But those casually weighing in on this debate from afar need to understand that at a time when the legitimacy of a Jewish state is increasingly under attack, Israelis are within their rights to make it clear they won’t give up this right.

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Pollard Parole Denial Is Unjust

Throughout the decades during which the fate of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard has been debated, those advocating for his freedom have been told that they need to follow the legal process rather than relying on political pressure, whether from sympathetic Israelis or Americans, to grant him clemency. In particular, once the time drew near for his first parole hearing, those who considered his life sentence disproportionate were warned to focus on that avenue rather than others that merely provoked the usual round of apoplectic responses from the U.S. security establishment. But now that the news has belatedly come out that Pollard was summarily denied parole in August after his first request for parole since his 1985 imprisonment on grounds that are inarguably false, the arguments for some sort of presidential intervention in the issue appear much stronger.

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Throughout the decades during which the fate of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard has been debated, those advocating for his freedom have been told that they need to follow the legal process rather than relying on political pressure, whether from sympathetic Israelis or Americans, to grant him clemency. In particular, once the time drew near for his first parole hearing, those who considered his life sentence disproportionate were warned to focus on that avenue rather than others that merely provoked the usual round of apoplectic responses from the U.S. security establishment. But now that the news has belatedly come out that Pollard was summarily denied parole in August after his first request for parole since his 1985 imprisonment on grounds that are inarguably false, the arguments for some sort of presidential intervention in the issue appear much stronger.

Let’s specify, as I wrote in a COMMENTARY magazine essay in 2011 after he had already spent 25 years in prison, that Jonathan Pollard is not the hero or the martyr some of his less reasonable supporters claim him to be. The former U.S. Navy analyst did great damage to the United States when he spied for Israel from 1984 to 1985. He also did great harm to the alliance between the two countries, the blame for which also belongs to his cynical Israeli handlers as well as the trio of leaders of the Jewish state at the time, of which only one, Shimon Peres, is still alive after the deaths of Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir. The spy also deserves opprobrium for lending credence to those anti-Semites and foes of Israel who have tried to cast a shadow on the service of the many loyal American Jews that work in the defense establishment.

But once we admit that, the argument for his continued incarceration is insubstantial. Pollard’s sentence was far greater than that given to anyone who has ever spied for a nation that is a close ally of the United States. Moreover, the claims made at the time of his arrest that he was somehow responsible for the penetration of U.S. intelligence by the Soviet Union was exploded in the years following his arrest when it was revealed that naval officer John Walker, national security analyst Ronald Pelton, and especially Aldrich Ames, a top CIA counterintelligence officer, were actually working for the Russians. Those facts now make the over-the-top claims that Pollard’s espionage was the worst in American history by then Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger look more like hyperbole than analysis. Even Weinberger subsequently backtracked from that assertion and admitted that the Pollard case was a relatively “minor matter.”

But if reports of the Parole Board’s deliberations are correct, Weinberger’s outdated claims were precisely what led to Pollard being denied parole.

That’s why a group of eight former top U.S. defense officials have signed a letter denouncing the decision and calling for clemency for Pollard.

It should be understood that although what Pollard did was wrong and deserved harsh punishment, there is simply no rationale for keeping him in prison. Considering that other spies for friendly foreign powers have been routinely deported, exchanged, or given far less harsh sentences, the treatment meted out to Pollard is disproportionate and therefore unjust. Nor, despite the hysteria in the defense establishment about keeping him in prison, is there any reason to keep him there for security purposes. There is literally nothing secret that he might still remember from his days at the Navy Department that is of the least utility to anyone 30 years later.

One doesn’t have to think well of Pollard or even of some of his vocal supporters to understand that there is something egregious about the desire of some in the government to see him die in prison after so much time served. As I documented in my magazine article, Pollard has suffered from bad legal representation and just as inept efforts by some who have worked on his behalf in the public sphere. But for the Parole Commission to buy into the old Weinberger myths about the fantastic nature of his crime presented by the government at the hearing was wrong.

The Obama administration, which is the least friendly to Israel since that of Dwight Eisenhower, would seem an unlikely candidate to free Pollard and it is doubtful that anyone in the White House is seriously considering his fate. But if the president is interested in a cost-free way to lower tensions with Jerusalem caused by the egregious “chickensh*t” controversy as well as the debate about nuclear negotiations with Iran, they might consider putting an end to the travesty of his continued imprisonment. Pollard constitutes a permanent irritant to the alliance. That is especially true because of the predilection on the part of some in both the Clinton and Obama administrations for spreading loose talk about using his freedom as a bargaining chip in Middle East negotiations even though it is doubtful than any Israeli government would give up on its security interests for the sake of the spy.

Keeping Pollard in prison on the basis of old and inaccurate accusations is just wrong. What he did was bad enough and for that all associated with the incident should hang their heads in shame. But it is time for someone in the U.S. government to put an end to this mockery of justice and let him go.

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Rudy Giuliani vs. the Ignorant Agitators

There was some controversy over on Meet the Press this weekend when Rudy Giuliani got into a bit of a heated exchange on race, Ferguson, and public safety with Michael Eric Dyson, MSNBC’s Vice President of Accusing Everything That Moves of Being Racist. Dyson claimed, in a comment that should discredit him to anyone still taking him seriously, that Giuliani’s comments about black-on-black crime stemmed from “the defensive mechanism of white supremacy.” This morning on Fox, Giuliani defended his comments: “I probably saved more black lives as mayor of New York City than any mayor in the history of the city, with the possible exception of Mike Bloomberg, who was there for 12 years.” Yet while the argument centered on police action, to understand Giuliani’s contribution to this issue–which is even greater than he says himself–it’s important to take a step back from the policing issue.

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There was some controversy over on Meet the Press this weekend when Rudy Giuliani got into a bit of a heated exchange on race, Ferguson, and public safety with Michael Eric Dyson, MSNBC’s Vice President of Accusing Everything That Moves of Being Racist. Dyson claimed, in a comment that should discredit him to anyone still taking him seriously, that Giuliani’s comments about black-on-black crime stemmed from “the defensive mechanism of white supremacy.” This morning on Fox, Giuliani defended his comments: “I probably saved more black lives as mayor of New York City than any mayor in the history of the city, with the possible exception of Mike Bloomberg, who was there for 12 years.” Yet while the argument centered on police action, to understand Giuliani’s contribution to this issue–which is even greater than he says himself–it’s important to take a step back from the policing issue.

While Giuliani was not anyone’s idea of a traditional social conservative, there were aspects of his public policy of which the ends and the means were more conservative than he’s often given credit for. That’s why it’s worth putting the policing issue aside for the moment and concentrating on something else: his approach to inner city poverty and the role of fatherhood.

In a 2007 piece in City Journal appropriately titled “Yes, Rudy Giuliani Is a Conservative” (a premise many conservatives take issue with but one that is followed by a perfectly coherent case in the article), Steven Malanga goes over Giuliani’s highly successful welfare reform. And after discussing welfare, Malanga offers the following paragraph, which is rarely discussed but seems crucial to understanding Giuliani as a politician:

As part of Giuliani’s quintessentially conservative belief that dysfunctional behavior, not our economic system, lay at the heart of intergenerational poverty, he also spoke out against illegitimacy and the rise of fatherless families. A child born out of wedlock, he observed in one speech, was three times more likely to wind up on welfare than a child from a two-parent family. “Seventy percent of long-term prisoners and 75 percent of adolescents charged with murder grew up without fathers,” Giuliani told the city. He insisted that the city and the nation had to reestablish the “responsibility that accompanies bringing a child into the world,” and to that end he required deadbeat fathers either to find a private-sector job or to work in the city’s workfare program as a way of contributing to their child’s upbringing. But he added that changing society’s attitude toward marriage was more important than anything government could do: “[I]f you wanted a social program that would really save these kids, . . . I guess the social program would be called fatherhood.”

That is, in fact, something cultural conservatives–really anybody, but cultural conservatives in particular–should celebrate. And if offers a clear window into Giuliani’s approach to public policy. Public safety per se wasn’t the foundational principle of Giuliani’s mayoralty; it was a beneficial, and in some cases practically revolutionary, outgrowth of its real foundation: dignity.

There is much that Missouri police have done since the tragic death of Michael Brown that robs members of the Ferguson community of their dignity. So the point is not tough policing uber alles, nor would that have been Giuliani’s choice. Indeed, as I wrote at the time, the hasty militarization of the county police force was a mistake. When you work for the government in some powerful capacity, and you approach a citizen, how you approach that citizen tells him how the government sees him. If you show up on a tank-like vehicle dressed like you’re about to enter a war zone, the message you send to the citizens you are policing is that the government sees them as a warlike population. St. Louis County did not declare war on the Ferguson community, but could you blame them for wondering if they had?

Giuliani took the opposite tack, refusing to behave like an invading general, despite what his dimmest critics might claim. And what was the result? To briefly revisit Malanga:

Giuliani’s policing success was a boon to minority neighborhoods. For instance, in the city’s 34th Precinct, covering the largely Hispanic Washington Heights section of Manhattan, murders dropped from 76 in 1993, Dinkins’s last year, to only seven by Giuliani’s last year, a decline of more than 90 percent. Far from being the racist that activists claimed, Giuliani had delivered to the city’s minority neighborhoods a true form of equal protection under the law.

Those of us who have lived in Washington Heights know this is no joke. Those who like to play expert on MSNBC are usually speaking out of ignorance.

And the key point here is to understand that the belief in the dignity of men, women, and children, of families, infused every decision Giuliani made with regard to improving public safety in minority neighborhoods and the city at large. Accusations of “white supremacist” thinking aren’t merely obscenely stupid, though they are certainly that. They also tend to come from those who have never shown the black community a fraction of the respect or service Giuliani has.

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Pass an Immigration Bill? What’s the Point?

Republicans are still fulminating about last week’s presidential power grab, and with good reason. President Obama’s executive orders granting legal status to 5 million illegal immigrants were contrary to proper constitutional order as well as the will of an American people that had just issued a rebuke to his policies and his party in the midterm elections. But the onus right now seems to be on the GOP to come up with a coherent response to the president on immigration, whether a strategy to push back on his orders or on the issue itself. In particular, the president has challenged Republicans to “pass a bill” if they don’t like what he’s done. But while that sounds logical, the president’s actions are nothing more than a partisan trap. By effectively neutering the rule of law via mass “selective prosecution,” what Obama has done is to vindicate the positions of the most extreme opponents of immigration reform.

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Republicans are still fulminating about last week’s presidential power grab, and with good reason. President Obama’s executive orders granting legal status to 5 million illegal immigrants were contrary to proper constitutional order as well as the will of an American people that had just issued a rebuke to his policies and his party in the midterm elections. But the onus right now seems to be on the GOP to come up with a coherent response to the president on immigration, whether a strategy to push back on his orders or on the issue itself. In particular, the president has challenged Republicans to “pass a bill” if they don’t like what he’s done. But while that sounds logical, the president’s actions are nothing more than a partisan trap. By effectively neutering the rule of law via mass “selective prosecution,” what Obama has done is to vindicate the positions of the most extreme opponents of immigration reform.

The genius of Obama’s amnesty for illegals via executive orders is not that he has somehow championed the underdog or ensured the Hispanic vote for the Democrats for generations to come, as many Democrats are saying. The orders, which can be reversed if the GOP wins back the White House in 2016, won’t permanently change anything for the illegals. And Hispanics weren’t flipping to the Republicans even if the House had passed the Senate immigration reform bill last year. What the orders have done though is dashed the House and Senate GOP leadership’s hopes for setting a governing agenda by making bipartisan cooperation a toxic phrase in the majority caucuses next year. While there may be deals to be made on trade, taxes, or the use of force in the Middle East, Obama has ensured that much of the Republican Party’s energies will be wasted on futile attempts to stop his unilateral immigration policies. Even more to the point, immigration reform is dead on arrival for the next two years.

It should be remembered that Republicans were divided on immigration in the Congress that is just reaching the end of its term. A significant faction in the Senate backed the comprehensive bipartisan reform bill passed by the upper body. There were significant numbers in the House GOP caucus that favored tackling border enforcement even if the majority wanted no part of the Senate bill.

Opponents of even going that far had two standard replies to those favoring such measures. The first argued that any deal promising a free pass to illegals already here would generate another surge of illegals coming in. The second said that it was impossible to trust President Obama to actually carry out border enforcement measures if his real agenda here rests with granting legal status to illegals.

In response, reform advocates made points about the current problem being de facto amnesty and pointed to the advantages of strengthening the border and then dealing with the issue of those already here.

Those opposing immigration reform are wrong in terms of the big picture since this is an issue that requires attention and legislation to deal with a problem that won’t go away by itself. But they were right about both the impact of amnesty and the president’s reliability on enforcement. Last summer’s surge of illegals at the Texas border put to rest the notion that there is no connection between talk of granting amnesty and the rate of illegal entries. That is true even if Obama’s measures wouldn’t actually apply to those coming over the border. And now that Obama has single-handedly eviscerated the notion that the rule of law applies to immigration matters, he has handed reform advocates an irrefutable argument that any legislation on the matter is impossible since the president has no credibility on enforcement matters.

Even more to the point, Obama has placed Republican leaders in the position where they must respond to his end run around the Constitution even though there is little likelihood that anything, whether a lawsuit or even selective funding cutoffs that will impact the government’s ability to carry out the amnesty plan (though this is the most promising idea), will stop him from doing whatever he likes until January 2017. That will allow the White House and its media cheering section to label the new Congress as a pack of obstructionists even if the president is the one who has needlessly provoked the argument by going back on his past promises to refrain from acting like an emperor rather than a president.

Thus, the president’s challenges to “pass a bill” aren’t merely unpersuasive. Rather than an effort to prompt needed legislation, they are taunts that are actually intended to foment more obstruction and partisan warfare.

Those who know the country needs a legislative remedy to a broken immigration system knew that the odds were against success even before the president’s moves. But by acting in this manner he has made it certain that no such efforts can possibly succeed in the next Congress and also silenced those who tried to answer the arguments of those opposed to reform. The appropriate response to “Pass a bill” is that the president should try enforcing the law first. Obama has not only damaged the cause of immigration reform, he has done something that seemed impossible a couple of years ago: made anti-immigration advocates look smart.

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Who Will Reintegrate Iraq’s Shi’ite Volunteers?

Within Iraq, the presence of paramilitaries and militias has long had a corrosive impact on security. My major criticism of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for example, was not that he sought to arrest Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi for running death squads—Hashemi was most certainly guilty—but rather that the prosecution was selective: Maliki should have gone after some of the same Shi‘ite groups with the same zeal, his willingness to have once done so in Basra notwithstanding.

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Within Iraq, the presence of paramilitaries and militias has long had a corrosive impact on security. My major criticism of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for example, was not that he sought to arrest Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi for running death squads—Hashemi was most certainly guilty—but rather that the prosecution was selective: Maliki should have gone after some of the same Shi‘ite groups with the same zeal, his willingness to have once done so in Basra notwithstanding.

With the explosion of the Islamic State (ISIS) onto the scene—and the seeming disintegration of large parts of the Iraqi army—Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a call for volunteers to defend Iraq and the holy Shi’ite shrines. While the reason for the weakness of the Iraqi military deserves serious consideration by Iraqi politicians and American trainers alike, these volunteers buttressed the Iraqi army at a time of great need. Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar, and the shrine city of Karbala are only 70 miles apart. With ISIS assurgent, Karbalais had real fear that the group too radical even for al-Qaeda might seek to attack their city and loot and destroy its holy shrines, as Saddam, the Ottomans, and the Saudis did at various times through history.

Staying in Karbala this past week, I stayed in the same compound as some volunteers training to fight ISIS also resided. I saw several, fresh off the bus, ranging from teens to grey beards. One morning, awaiting my ride to the Shrine of Imam Hussein, I saw several groups of more seasoned volunteers march in formation as they went to eat in the same communal dining hall from which I had just emerged. They did not seem like zealots, but rather as those who felt they needed to answer the call to defend their families and communities. I certainly wish them the best of luck in their fight against ISIS.

What I worry about, however, and what many locals inside Karbala also seem concerned about is what will happen when the fight ends and the volunteers return. Already, Shi’ite militias pose a real challenge to Iraq. Groups like the Shi’ite Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which recently reiterated its fealty to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and not Iraq’s elected government, represent as much a threat to Iraq’s recovery as does the underground Baath Party, if not the ISIS itself.

It is one thing if volunteers quietly return from the towns and villages from where they came, and resume whatever job—if any—they were doing before they answer the call. The likelihood of this, however, is low. Many will expect reward for their sacrifice, and seek to transform their efforts into power.

There are many examples of this through recent history. In Iran, those who joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps refused to return to their barracks upon the end of the Iran-Iraq War. They moved into the civilian economy and increasingly flexed their muscles to pressure the Iranian government and remain autonomous.

Likewise, in Iraqi Kurdistan, the peshmerga who fought against Saddam Hussein expected to be rewarded with jobs and patronage when the Iraqi government withdrew from Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991. The characteristics that made a good mountain warrior and those that made a good manager are two very different things. Much of the government dysfunction and corruption that has blighted Iraqi Kurdistan in the more than two decades since the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government has roots in this problem. Indeed, younger, capable officials like Barham Salih have long faced obstacles to their career simply because they did not fight in the mountains.

Back to Karbala and, by extension, southern Iraq: By all accounts, Haider al-Abadi is off to a good start in Baghdad, though the problems he and Iraq face are daunting. The fight against ISIS might be the most immediate challenge Iraqis face, but it is not too late to start planning for the next one: not only the reconstruction of those areas scarred by battle and the reintegration of Sunnis into the Iraqi government, but also the status of the Shi’ite volunteers once the fight is over.

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Obama Scapegoating Hagel

In describing why President Obama fired Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, one senior official told NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski, “He wasn’t up to the job.”

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In describing why President Obama fired Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, one senior official told NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski, “He wasn’t up to the job.”

I’m no fan of Mr. Hagel, but this comment is a bit much, don’t you think? After all, it wasn’t Mr. Hagel who referred to ISIS as the “jayvee team,” or erased the “red line” related to Syrian use of chemical weapons, or has been overmatched time and time again by Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It wasn’t Mr. Hagel who failed to get a Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq, who failed to aid the Syrian Free Army when people like David Petraeus were urging that it be done, who sat on the sideline during the Iranian “Green Revolution” in Iran, who has so badly mishandled our relations with Egypt and Israel, and on whose watch Libya has collapsed. I could go on, but you get the point.

The problem with Mr. Obama’s national-security record is Mr. Obama, not Chuck Hagel. He is a chief executive of unrivaled incompetence; and for all of Chuck Hagel’s failings, he is virtually a Churchillian figure compared to the president he served.

Chuck Hagel is just the most recent in a long string of excuses and scapegoats offered up by Barack Obama and his courtiers. It’s always somebody else’s fault, never the president’s. Obama & Co. may believe Hagel wasn’t up to the job. But more and more of the nation recognizes that the real ineptitude is found in the former community-organizer-turned-commander-in-chief. Firing Chuck Hagel won’t change any of that.

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Karbala, the New Iraq

Iraqi Kurdistan is booming. It adopted a motto “the new Iraq” to differentiate itself from the rest of country, which many people—not without reason—associate with instability and violence. This past week I spent in Karbala and, if it’s any indication, Karbala is now giving Kurdistan a run for its money.

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Iraqi Kurdistan is booming. It adopted a motto “the new Iraq” to differentiate itself from the rest of country, which many people—not without reason—associate with instability and violence. This past week I spent in Karbala and, if it’s any indication, Karbala is now giving Kurdistan a run for its money.

I visit Iraq three or four times per year, going to different areas each time. Earlier this year, for example, I have visited Kirkuk, Erbil, and Sulaymani in Iraqi Kurdistan; Tikrit, Beiji, and Mosul in Iraq’s Sunni Arab belt; and, of course, Baghdad. This was my first time flying into Najaf, and the longest I’ve spent in nearby Karbala and Hindiya in a decade.

Karbala is booming. Certainly, there are signs of the ongoing fighting in Iraq: Billboards dot roads and traffic circles urging Iraqis to fight ISIS together. Displaced persons from areas of fighting also abound. Here, however, the Western news media has failed by omission: there are numerous press reports about Iraqi Kurdistan’s admirable work to house and feed those displaced by ISIS, efforts for which the Kurdistan Regional Government seeks money. But Karbala is now home to more than 11,000 displaced families—between 40,000 and 50,000 people. For all Americans picture Iraq as polarized among ethnic and sectarian factions, it is telling that so many Sunnis from Fallujah and Ramadi find safety in Karbala and Najaf. The many Hosseiniyehs [Shi’ite congregation halls] and mosques along the road between Najaf and Karbala now house refugees, with the religious authorities of both cities each taking responsibility for the food and shelter for half. The story of southern Iraq’s outreach toward those displaced by ISIS is seldom heard in the West simply because Western journalists seldom visit; that is unfortunate, and undercuts broader understandings with the sin of omission.

At any rate, I stayed across from Karbala University in Imam Hussein City, a multipurpose complex with apartments, a communal dining hall, mosque, medical clinic, and event hall, which is now both a transit point for hundreds of Sunni refugees and a dormitory and training complex for Shi‘ite volunteers undertaking a month-long regimen before heading off to fight ISIS. Every morning, I would see school kids—both boys and girls—from Ramadi, Fallujah, and even Tel Afar head off to school.

Meanwhile, Karbala is largely safe, about as secure as Iraqi Kurdistan. Back in 2007, it was the site of the kidnapping and murder of five U.S. servicemen with the connivance of Iran and the militias it supports. But the situation had changed a good deal in eight years. Certainly there remains an air of uncertainty regarding future stability, but the same is true in Iraqi Kurdistan, which recently suffered a tragic car bombing. I made my first trip to Iraqi Kurdistan about 15 years ago, when few Americans visited there. As Americans laud the promise of Kurdistan today, they forget that back in 2000, it was unsafe to venture outside Duhok, Erbil, or Sulaymani at night because of fear of terrorist attacks in the villages or along the roads connecting the cities. Thankfully, no one in Washington wrote off Kurdistan the way so many seem prepared to write off southern Iraq.

Some may believe that Karbala is unsafe because of Iranian influence. Certainly Iran is the predominant influence. The Najaf airport is predominantly served by flights from Iran (though also from Qatar, Turkey, Dubai, Bahrain, and Syria) but this makes sense since Karbala is, alongside nearby Najaf, the major center for religious pilgrimage. There is nothing wrong with capitalizing on this industry; indeed, it is contributes well to Karbala’s development since it supports a burgeoning service industry and keeps Karbala not solely dependent on the central government or oil. So too does competition. I came away from Karbala believing that being governor of Karbala would be the toughest job in Iraq. The reason is because the Atabat–the governance of the holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala–is independent of government, organized, productive, and efficient in its sponsorship of economic development and civil projects.

Most provincial governments blame Baghdad for their own failings or simply take a slow path to development knowing that the are the only show in town. In Karbala, however, the government must constantly try to keep up; the Atabat can achieve things the the government cannot. Simply put, the government does not fare well in such comparisons. For what it’s worth, when I first started visiting Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdish intellectuals and even some politicians acknowledged that the silver lining to the internecine struggle between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is that both struggled to outdo the other and so provided more for their people. Competition is good, but too often lacks inside Iraq.

Regardless, justifying American neglect in supposed Iranian influence not only cedes ground to Iran, but it misunderstands both Iraqi Shi‘ites and Iraqi Kurds. As my colleague Ahmad Majidyar and I outlined in our recent monograph about Shi‘ite communities outside Iran, the Iraqi Shi‘ite community remains quite distinct from Iran, and seeks to be engaged on its own merits rather than as a subject of Iran. And, as for Iraqi Kurdistan, the atmosphere may be less religious than in Iraq’s Shi‘ite south, but the Iranian presence and political influence remains just as strong in Sulaymani and Erbil as in Baghdad and Karbala.

Iraq has serious problems, economic, political, and military. But as tragic as recent events have been, there are also significant pockets of success—not only in Iraqi Kurdistan, where much of the American press and NGOs operating in Iraq now sit—but also in southern Iraq: Basra, Najaf, and Karbala. After so much sacrifice, let us hope that the United States will not snatch defeat from the jaws of opportunity.

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Why Won’t Iran Take a Favorable Deal?

The mullahs are saving us from ourselves. Or more specifically Ayatollah Khamenei is saving us from President Obama’s desperation to achieve a nuclear deal.

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The mullahs are saving us from ourselves. Or more specifically Ayatollah Khamenei is saving us from President Obama’s desperation to achieve a nuclear deal.

Obama’s desperation is evident to all–he needs some foreign-policy achievement–to balance against the whole litany of failures (Iraq, Syria, ISIS, Ukraine, Yemen, Libya, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, etc.) that are dragging his foreign policy into Carteresque realms–or possibly even beyond that into hitherto unknown realms of foreign-policy failure. That is why he has been willing to grant Iran a nuclear deal on such generous terms and why, even though Iran won’t take those generous terms, he is willing to keep extending the deadline for talks time after time.

As Michael Gordon of the New York Times helpfully explicated: “The United States long ago dropped the goal of eliminating Iran’s enrichment ability, a demand that Israel has long insisted was the surest way to guarantee Iran did not maintain an option to pursue the development of nuclear arms.” The more modest goal American negotiations sought to achieve was an agreement that would “slow the Iranian nuclear program enough that it would take Iran at least a year to make enough material for a nuclear bomb if it decided to ignore the accord.”

It would surely be in Iran’s interests to sign such a deal in which the mullahs would pledge to stop operating some of their 19,000 centrifuges (10,000 of them are currently operational) and in return they would receive billions of dollars in sanctions relief that would save the Iranian economy from ruin–and save Iran’s theocratic dictators from being overthrown by their increasingly disgruntled people. And then, having signed the accord, Iran could proceed quietly and secretly to cheat, perhaps by building a plutonium-based bomb enabled by their new heavy water facility at Arak.

That is pretty much what North Korea did after signing the 1994 Agreed Framework. The Bush administration, which wasn’t as wedded to the Agreed Framework as Bill Clinton, confronted North Korea with evidence of its cheating in 2002. North Korea then pulled out all the stops and tested a nuclear weapon in 2006. By then it was too late for the U.S. to do anything about it.

Iran has had a full year to conclude such a favorable deal and yet it refuses to close the deal. Why not? And what will change in the next seven months?

My theory–and I admit it’s only a theory–is that Ayatollah Khamenei simply can’t swallow doing any deal with the Great Satan, no matter how favorable, because to do so would undercut the revolutionary legitimacy of his regime. Ever since the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979, Iran’s theocratic regime has defined itself in opposition to the United States. Thanks in no small measure to Obama’s lack of response, Tehran is closer than ever to realizing its ambitions to dominate the entire region stretching to the Mediterranean–including Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Oh, and Iran is also advancing in Yemen. Perhaps Khamenei simply can’t stomach the thought of reaching any kind of accommodation with the United States because it would hobble Iran’s offensive abroad and undermine his own claim to rule at home.

In short, Khamenei may be even more dedicated to his destructive ideology than Obama is to his. And that may be the only thing saving us from a catastrophically bad Iran deal–although not from having the negotiations dragged out endlessly.

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Why Chuck Hagel Became Expendable

Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s time at the Pentagon is, counterintuitively, a poor guide to why he’s been thrown under the bus by a flailing, blinkered president growing even more suspicious of outsiders as his second term disintegrates. To understand why Hagel is being shoved out the door, you have to go back to why he was hired in the first place. Additionally, the question of why exactly he’s being let go now can only be fully answered once his successor is chosen.

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Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s time at the Pentagon is, counterintuitively, a poor guide to why he’s been thrown under the bus by a flailing, blinkered president growing even more suspicious of outsiders as his second term disintegrates. To understand why Hagel is being shoved out the door, you have to go back to why he was hired in the first place. Additionally, the question of why exactly he’s being let go now can only be fully answered once his successor is chosen.

Hagel was brought on because the media was still falling for the “team of rivals” narrative on the Obama administration. To recap: Obama brought into his administration Cabinet officials who had a high enough profile that they could have made trouble for his agenda outside the administration. He wanted to coopt their credibility and silence their dissent. Hillary Clinton, a senator who could have impacted Obama’s ability to get legislation through Congress, and Samantha Power, a loose cannon who likes to publicly accuse others of being terrible people, were prime examples of this.

Obama wanted Republicans too, so he kept Bob Gates on at Defense and eventually brought in Hagel there as well. The media bizarrely saw in this transparent ploy what they wanted to see: Obama the postpartisan hero, the modern Lincoln. It was not the press’s finest moment.

Hagel was a particularly interesting gamble for Obama. On the one hand, he is a decorated war veteran and Republican who had the credibility to carry out Obama’s sullen retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other, his ineptitude and intellectual limitations matched those of the White House he was joining, so it was clear from day one that nothing about the administration’s crumbling foreign policy would improve.

Obama wanted a yes-man in Hagel, and thought he was getting one. He and his increasingly insular inner circle, which at some point soon will be just the president and Valerie Jarrett, make policy, as Max noted earlier. He didn’t want different opinions, and he didn’t want a range of options. He wanted a droid. And unfortunately for him, as the New York Times points out, this was not the droid he was looking for:

He raised the ire of the White House in August as the administration was ramping up its strategy to fight the Islamic State, directly contradicting the president, who months before had likened the Sunni militant group to a junior varsity basketball squad. Mr. Hagel, facing reporters in his now-familiar role next to General Dempsey, called the Islamic State an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” adding, “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen.” White House officials later said they viewed those comments as unhelpful, although the administration still appears to be struggling to define just how large is the threat posed by the Islamic State.

That last sentence is key. Not only was Hagel–yes, Chuck Hagel–too hawkish for Obama on ISIS, but it was the administration still “struggling to define” the threat. You can say Hagel was a slow learner all you want; he was a faster learner than the president he served.

And some of the picture will be filled in when Hagel’s successor is determined. Here’s the Times on the rumors of Hagel’s replacement:

Even before the announcement of Mr. Hagel’s removal, Obama officials were speculating on his possible replacement. At the top of the list are Michèle Flournoy, the former under secretary of defense; Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a former officer with the Army’s 82nd Airborne; and Ashton B. Carter, a former deputy secretary of defense.

Reed is reportedly out. But Flournoy’s inclusion on this list is notable. When the president was last seeking a defense secretary, Flournoy’s name was floated repeatedly. She would be a “historic” choice, satisfying the administration’s obsession with identity politics. And she was highly respected all around. Plus, she was already working in the administration. So why wasn’t she chosen?

That question seemed to have been answered with the publication of the memoirs of Leon Panetta, Hagel’s predecessor at Defense. Panetta’s memoirs made a splash when part of the book was adapted for an early October TIME magazine piece criticizing Obama’s handling of the transition in Iraq. Some, including Panetta, told the president he should leave a residual force behind. Panetta writes:

Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy did her best to press that position, which reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs. But the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated. Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.

If Flournoy was willing to be named publicly as someone who not only disagreed with Obama’s handling of Iraq but also essentially accused the president of acting against American interests, it’s easier to understand why she was not given the nod at Defense. If she’s named secretary of defense now, it casts some doubt on the Times’s speculation that Hagel’s disagreement with Obama on ISIS played as much a role in his ouster as is being reported.

The “team of rivals” narrative was debunked long ago. Hagel was there so his credibility on a particular policy could be coopted. After that, he was always expendable. The question now is whose credibility does the president need to coopt next?

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Congress Must Rescue Administration Held Hostage by Iran

This morning’s announcement that the West has formally agreed to extend its nuclear talks with Iran for another seven months confirms something that we already knew about Obama administration attitudes on the issue: it is far more afraid of disrupting any chance for détente with the Islamist regime than in sticking to its principles or its promises about halting the threat posed by Tehran’s program. But while sending the talks into a second overtime period allows Iran to keep moving ahead with its nuclear program and lets Secretary of State John Kerry and his negotiators to relax a bit, this decision should wake up Congress. The failure of the administration to escape the trap that it has set for itself by letting the next stage of the talks drag on endlessly should re-energize the existing bipartisan coalition in favor of toughening sanctions on Iran to get back to work and pass a new bill.

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This morning’s announcement that the West has formally agreed to extend its nuclear talks with Iran for another seven months confirms something that we already knew about Obama administration attitudes on the issue: it is far more afraid of disrupting any chance for détente with the Islamist regime than in sticking to its principles or its promises about halting the threat posed by Tehran’s program. But while sending the talks into a second overtime period allows Iran to keep moving ahead with its nuclear program and lets Secretary of State John Kerry and his negotiators to relax a bit, this decision should wake up Congress. The failure of the administration to escape the trap that it has set for itself by letting the next stage of the talks drag on endlessly should re-energize the existing bipartisan coalition in favor of toughening sanctions on Iran to get back to work and pass a new bill.

It should be remembered that a year ago in the aftermath of the signing of a weak interim deal with Iran, the administration successfully fended off efforts to increase sanctions on the Islamist regime by claiming that doing so would disrupt the negotiations. President Obama and Kerry both promised that the next round of talks would have a limited time frame that would prevent Iran from continuing the same game that it has played with the West for the last decade.

Tehran has been trying to run out the clock on the nuclear issue since George W. Bush’s first term in the White House. It has easily exploited two administrations’ efforts at engagement and diplomacy during this time frame and has gotten far closer to its goal of a bomb as a result. Even more importantly, with each round of negotiations it has forced Obama and America’s allies to retreat on its demands. Last year its tough stance forced Kerry to give up and ultimately agree to tacit Western acceptance of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium.

In the last year, it has also successfully gotten the U.S. to retreat on issues such as the number of centrifuges it is allowed to operate and the future of its stockpile of nuclear fuel, and kept other issues such as the need to divulge the extent of its nuclear military research, the future of its plutonium plant at Arak, its ballistic missile program, and support for international terrorism off the agenda. Proposed Western concessions have grown to the point of the absurd, such as the suggestion about disconnecting the pipes between the centrifuges. At the same time Iran has also stonewalled the International Atomic Energy Agency on demands for more inspections and transparency.

After last year’s interim deal was signed, the administration easily fended off congressional efforts to toughen sanctions by saying they weren’t needed to strengthen the hands of Western negotiators and openly talked of the danger of demonstrating ill will toward Tehran that would scuttle the talks. The president and his foreign-policy team also labeled skeptics about this deal and advocates of more sanctions as warmongers.

But a year later it’s clear that the skeptics were right and everything the administration promised about the next round of talks was either mistaken or an outright lie. Though Kerry claimed that the interim deal had achieved its goal of halting Iran’s progress, the truth is that nothing it accomplished can be easily reversed. In exchange for dubious progress, the U.S. sacrificed its considerable economic leverage in the form of loosening sanctions. Iran now believes with good reason that it can end the sanctions without giving up its nuclear ambition.

By turning the promised six months of talks to pressure Iran into a year plus seven months, the president and Kerry have broken their word to Congress and played right into the hands of the ayatollahs. It’s possible that seven more months of ineffectual pressure on Iran will yield another weak deal that will ensure it will soon become a threshold nuclear power while at the same time allowing Obama to announce a much-needed foreign-policy success and the fulfillment of his campaign pledges on the issue. But given the promises that were made about the previous two deadlines, what confidence can anyone have in America’s willingness to draw conclusions about the talks if Iran doesn’t yield?

Even if we are operating under the dubious assumption that any deal reached under these circumstances could be enforced or achieve its goal, the failure of the president to enforce the current deadline telegraphs to Iran that it needn’t worry about any other threats from the West. If the U.S. wouldn’t feel empowered to push Iran hard now with oil prices in decline and the current sanctions (which Obama opposed in the first place) having some impact on the regime’s economy, why would anyone in Tehran take seriously the idea that there will be consequences if they don’t make concessions or sign even another weak deal? Though Kerry talked about building trust with Iran, the only thing that can be trusted about this process is that the Islamists have played him and his boss for fools.

That is why Congress must step in now and immediately revive the bipartisan bill proposed by Democratic Senator Robert Menendez and Republican Senator Mark Kirk that would tighten the noose around Iran’s still-lucrative oil trade. Just as the current sanctions that Obama and Kerry brag about were forced upon them, the only way this administration will negotiate a viable deal with Iran is to tie its hands by passing a new sanctions bill.

It should also be pointed out that the alternative to Kerry’s appeasement of Iran is not the use of force. Tougher sanctions that will return the situation to the point where it was last year before Kerry caved on the interim deal provide the only chance to stop Iran by means short of war.

It may be that outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will block a sanctions bill in the lame duck session just as he did last year despite the support of an overwhelming majority of members from both parties. But if he does thwart action, the new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican majorities in both houses should act quickly to pass a bill that will impose real penalties on Iran.

The commitment of Obama and Kerry to détente with Iran has made them, in effect, hostages of the Islamist regime in these talks. The only way they can be rescued from their own folly is action by Congress.

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