Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 1, 2009

Voters Don’t Like CIA Witch Hunt

Rasmussen has some telling results on the Obama administration’s decision to reinvestigate CIA operatives who used enhanced interrogation techniques at overseas locations. Thirty-six percent approve, 49 percent do not. Sixty-five percent think it is likely or somewhat likely we got valuable information from waterboarding terrorists. On the issue of how the investigation affects America’s image abroad, 29 percent say it helps, and 54 percent think it imperils our national security.

There are national-security, legal, and moral reasons to oppose Eric Holder’s inquest. But if you want to talk pure politics, it is one of the stupider moves that an already ailing administration could have made. At some point, a White House that is obsessed with its image and political standing might want to take note that Holder’s “judgment” is a political liability.

Rasmussen has some telling results on the Obama administration’s decision to reinvestigate CIA operatives who used enhanced interrogation techniques at overseas locations. Thirty-six percent approve, 49 percent do not. Sixty-five percent think it is likely or somewhat likely we got valuable information from waterboarding terrorists. On the issue of how the investigation affects America’s image abroad, 29 percent say it helps, and 54 percent think it imperils our national security.

There are national-security, legal, and moral reasons to oppose Eric Holder’s inquest. But if you want to talk pure politics, it is one of the stupider moves that an already ailing administration could have made. At some point, a White House that is obsessed with its image and political standing might want to take note that Holder’s “judgment” is a political liability.

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Foot-Dragging to Victory

The picture painted by Emanuele and Jennifer, of Iranian stalling and IAEA quiescence, is the perfect scene setter for Tehran’s latest move in the nuclear turtle race. According to BBC News, Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, announced on Iranian state television that Iran has a new nuclear proposal and is prepared to resume talks with the P5+1 group (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany). Iran has steadily refused President Obama’s negotiation offers, including face-to-face talks without preconditions. Now the signal from Tehran specifies that the acceptable forum for resumed negotiations is the P5+1.

The announcement coincides with a P5+1 meeting hosted this week by Germany to discuss options for addressing Iran. Iran certainly appears anxious, showing willingness to negotiate with exactly the body that is currently meeting. The offer to resume negotiations is at least not a Pyongyang-like attempt to buy time with counterproposals about the list of participants. With sanctions against Iran expected to be the main topic of the P5+1 meeting, mainstream news analysts are sure to deduce that Iran is seeking to avoid sanctions, and to conclude by implication that the threat of sanctions is “working.”

The definition of “working” is, of course, the key. Getting Iran to the negotiating table is one thing. Making Iran’s nuclear program transparent, compliant, and non-militarized is another. Iran participated in lengthy negotiations with the EU-3 and the P5+1 between 2003 and 2008 and has been the target of UN sanctions since 2006. Yet none of these measures has impeded Iran’s progress toward a weaponizable nuclear program. Tehran has consistently ignored the call of the P5+1 to suspend uranium enrichment until an agreement is reached. Its leadership has refused to implement the Non-Proliferation Treaty Additional Protocol subscribed to by all other signatories with nuclear programs, and has failed repeatedly to answer questions from the IAEA about Western intelligence documentation of weapons-related research. The Iranian regime has also, for several years, refused IAEA access to the sites of suspect activity at the key facilities of Esfahan and Natanz—all while negotiations were starting and stopping and sanctions were in force.

The sanctions applied since 2006 are light by any measure, mainly involving foreign travel for Iranians. But the reason for that has been reluctance by the P5+1 nations (other than the U.S.) to impose harsher sanctions. And a major factor in that reluctance, particularly for the Europeans, was concern that the option of negotiations would be lost altogether if Iran were alienated. Losing the partnership of Russia and China if sanctions were too tough has been another significant consideration. Reasons are few to imagine that the dynamics this time would be different.

Iran has steadily advanced the condition of its nuclear program throughout negotiations and sanctions. Negotiations, in fact, function to stay our hand rather than to constrain Iran. Based on its pattern to date, Tehran’s leadership calculates now that resuming talks is to its advantage. Both Iran and its patron in Moscow would prefer to avert a deadline crisis—i.e., Obama’s deadline of September/October for a show of cooperation from Iran—by making overtures for negotiations now. Participating in talks, after all, has yet to stop Iran from making progress on its nuclear program.

The picture painted by Emanuele and Jennifer, of Iranian stalling and IAEA quiescence, is the perfect scene setter for Tehran’s latest move in the nuclear turtle race. According to BBC News, Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, announced on Iranian state television that Iran has a new nuclear proposal and is prepared to resume talks with the P5+1 group (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany). Iran has steadily refused President Obama’s negotiation offers, including face-to-face talks without preconditions. Now the signal from Tehran specifies that the acceptable forum for resumed negotiations is the P5+1.

The announcement coincides with a P5+1 meeting hosted this week by Germany to discuss options for addressing Iran. Iran certainly appears anxious, showing willingness to negotiate with exactly the body that is currently meeting. The offer to resume negotiations is at least not a Pyongyang-like attempt to buy time with counterproposals about the list of participants. With sanctions against Iran expected to be the main topic of the P5+1 meeting, mainstream news analysts are sure to deduce that Iran is seeking to avoid sanctions, and to conclude by implication that the threat of sanctions is “working.”

The definition of “working” is, of course, the key. Getting Iran to the negotiating table is one thing. Making Iran’s nuclear program transparent, compliant, and non-militarized is another. Iran participated in lengthy negotiations with the EU-3 and the P5+1 between 2003 and 2008 and has been the target of UN sanctions since 2006. Yet none of these measures has impeded Iran’s progress toward a weaponizable nuclear program. Tehran has consistently ignored the call of the P5+1 to suspend uranium enrichment until an agreement is reached. Its leadership has refused to implement the Non-Proliferation Treaty Additional Protocol subscribed to by all other signatories with nuclear programs, and has failed repeatedly to answer questions from the IAEA about Western intelligence documentation of weapons-related research. The Iranian regime has also, for several years, refused IAEA access to the sites of suspect activity at the key facilities of Esfahan and Natanz—all while negotiations were starting and stopping and sanctions were in force.

The sanctions applied since 2006 are light by any measure, mainly involving foreign travel for Iranians. But the reason for that has been reluctance by the P5+1 nations (other than the U.S.) to impose harsher sanctions. And a major factor in that reluctance, particularly for the Europeans, was concern that the option of negotiations would be lost altogether if Iran were alienated. Losing the partnership of Russia and China if sanctions were too tough has been another significant consideration. Reasons are few to imagine that the dynamics this time would be different.

Iran has steadily advanced the condition of its nuclear program throughout negotiations and sanctions. Negotiations, in fact, function to stay our hand rather than to constrain Iran. Based on its pattern to date, Tehran’s leadership calculates now that resuming talks is to its advantage. Both Iran and its patron in Moscow would prefer to avert a deadline crisis—i.e., Obama’s deadline of September/October for a show of cooperation from Iran—by making overtures for negotiations now. Participating in talks, after all, has yet to stop Iran from making progress on its nuclear program.

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How Rude!

Tom Shales, who can’t get enough of Obama’s charm (“too good to be true“) has had it with Liz Cheney’s “rudeness.” Her etiquette felony? Did she disparage her host or go off topic or use off-color language? Oh no! She had the nerve on a Sunday talk show to speak in “paragraphs” instead of the socially appropriate sound bites. He doesn’t actually quote what she said or take issue with her arguments, because, well, that would be hard to do. Does she know it isn’t the “Oxford Debating Society”?

Well, this is rich—and revealing. It used to be that the high-brow media critics deplored the sound-bite culture and pined for intelligent debate where guests could finish their thoughts. Well, what is really going on is a recognition among members of the Left punditocracy that Liz Cheney is a force to be reckoned with, and that their side lacks anyone with a similar command of detail on national-security matters and the ability to explain that detail to ordinary viewers.

So, let’s just call her rude and hope she goes away, they reason. Not a chance.

Tom Shales, who can’t get enough of Obama’s charm (“too good to be true“) has had it with Liz Cheney’s “rudeness.” Her etiquette felony? Did she disparage her host or go off topic or use off-color language? Oh no! She had the nerve on a Sunday talk show to speak in “paragraphs” instead of the socially appropriate sound bites. He doesn’t actually quote what she said or take issue with her arguments, because, well, that would be hard to do. Does she know it isn’t the “Oxford Debating Society”?

Well, this is rich—and revealing. It used to be that the high-brow media critics deplored the sound-bite culture and pined for intelligent debate where guests could finish their thoughts. Well, what is really going on is a recognition among members of the Left punditocracy that Liz Cheney is a force to be reckoned with, and that their side lacks anyone with a similar command of detail on national-security matters and the ability to explain that detail to ordinary viewers.

So, let’s just call her rude and hope she goes away, they reason. Not a chance.

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Re: Will’s Loss of Nerve

Agreed on all points, Pete. I just want to add a note about the conspicuous omission in George Will’s piece. He writes:

Forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.

Strange that a column calling for a new direction in American policy avoids all discussion of what that direction would mean beyond an immediate reduction in American casualties. Will can’t justify his recommendation within the larger framework of what he used to be comfortable calling the Long War. So he avoids the topic altogether.

His column represents September 10 thinking, only worse. On September 10, we thought doing “only what can be done from offshore” was keeping us safe. Today we know how insufficient were our measures. On September 10, we thought a handful of special ops could mind a border that runs nearly half the lateral distance of the United States. Today we know that that terrain is endlessly accommodating to vast enemy armies. On September 10, we thought a monochromatic wasteland like Afghanistan didn’t “matter.” Today we know better.

Or we did, until the fighting got harder.

Bill Clinton decided that Somalia didn’t matter in 1993 after two U.S. helicopters were shot down and 18 American soldiers were killed there by militia fighters. In George Will’s sense of “mattering,” Clinton was right. As Will points out, “The Brookings Institution ranks Somalia as the only nation with a weaker state” than Afghanistan. But the Somali militia fighters were training with al-Qaeda, and when we decided to “do only what can be done from offshore,” al-Qaeda knew they had us. They saw no downside in drawing America into a long, messy war, as American leaders would always decide that inhospitable lands with determined fighters don’t matter.

It has only been the rejection of this failed calculus that’s enabled us to get the upper hand against terrorists. If we now knowingly decide that the costs of victory aren’t worth victory itself, then we will have done ourselves in through an unprecedented brand of national decadence.

Agreed on all points, Pete. I just want to add a note about the conspicuous omission in George Will’s piece. He writes:

Forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.

Strange that a column calling for a new direction in American policy avoids all discussion of what that direction would mean beyond an immediate reduction in American casualties. Will can’t justify his recommendation within the larger framework of what he used to be comfortable calling the Long War. So he avoids the topic altogether.

His column represents September 10 thinking, only worse. On September 10, we thought doing “only what can be done from offshore” was keeping us safe. Today we know how insufficient were our measures. On September 10, we thought a handful of special ops could mind a border that runs nearly half the lateral distance of the United States. Today we know that that terrain is endlessly accommodating to vast enemy armies. On September 10, we thought a monochromatic wasteland like Afghanistan didn’t “matter.” Today we know better.

Or we did, until the fighting got harder.

Bill Clinton decided that Somalia didn’t matter in 1993 after two U.S. helicopters were shot down and 18 American soldiers were killed there by militia fighters. In George Will’s sense of “mattering,” Clinton was right. As Will points out, “The Brookings Institution ranks Somalia as the only nation with a weaker state” than Afghanistan. But the Somali militia fighters were training with al-Qaeda, and when we decided to “do only what can be done from offshore,” al-Qaeda knew they had us. They saw no downside in drawing America into a long, messy war, as American leaders would always decide that inhospitable lands with determined fighters don’t matter.

It has only been the rejection of this failed calculus that’s enabled us to get the upper hand against terrorists. If we now knowingly decide that the costs of victory aren’t worth victory itself, then we will have done ourselves in through an unprecedented brand of national decadence.

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Lockerbie—Another Profile in Conflict Avoidance

The outrage continues over the return of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi on “humanitarian grounds.” (Marty Peretz cracks: ” This, I suppose, is a new human right, perhaps soon to be certified by Mary Robinson, who now wears the honor of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”)

The Wall Street Journal notes the growing storm in Britain:

The more we learn about the British government’s negotiations over the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset Megrahi, the more it appears we aren’t getting the whole story from Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his cabinet. This weekend came revelations that as far back as 2007 British Justice Secretary Jack Straw was in detailed communication with his Scottish counterpart Kenny MacAskill about Libya’s demands that Megrahi be released.

And then there is the matter of the U.S. government’s reaction. While his advisers followed with stronger denunciations, Obama’s own reaction was the all-too-familiar understated and unimpressive expression of disappointment: “We thought it was a mistake.” Well, that’s telling ‘em. (The White House hastened to add that it “deeply regrets” the decision.)

The Obama administration’s blasé attitude has raised speculation that we were in on the “deal” or that we share suspicions long held by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and others that maybe the wrong terrorist was convicted. But I think the explanation is simplier. Obama never gets very outraged about outrageous things, because that would require he do something.  And, yes, there is a double standard about who gets the tongue-lashings. (Peretz again: “It is not as if Obama is usually shy with emotional oratory, although he is rather shy in admonishing Muslims, a difficulty he seems not to have with the Israelis.”)

If we were full-throated in our condemnation of Iranian show trials, or the continued Syrian facilitation of terrorists who kill our troops in Iraq, or human rights in China (or anywhere), Obama might be expected to address the source of the outrage and confront the miscreants. This he does not do. So he looks down, shuffles his feet, offers only the most tepid words, and moves on. But others, primarily our adversaries, are watching. They see an irresolute and unconcerned American president. And they will act accordingly.

The outrage continues over the return of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi on “humanitarian grounds.” (Marty Peretz cracks: ” This, I suppose, is a new human right, perhaps soon to be certified by Mary Robinson, who now wears the honor of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”)

The Wall Street Journal notes the growing storm in Britain:

The more we learn about the British government’s negotiations over the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset Megrahi, the more it appears we aren’t getting the whole story from Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his cabinet. This weekend came revelations that as far back as 2007 British Justice Secretary Jack Straw was in detailed communication with his Scottish counterpart Kenny MacAskill about Libya’s demands that Megrahi be released.

And then there is the matter of the U.S. government’s reaction. While his advisers followed with stronger denunciations, Obama’s own reaction was the all-too-familiar understated and unimpressive expression of disappointment: “We thought it was a mistake.” Well, that’s telling ‘em. (The White House hastened to add that it “deeply regrets” the decision.)

The Obama administration’s blasé attitude has raised speculation that we were in on the “deal” or that we share suspicions long held by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and others that maybe the wrong terrorist was convicted. But I think the explanation is simplier. Obama never gets very outraged about outrageous things, because that would require he do something.  And, yes, there is a double standard about who gets the tongue-lashings. (Peretz again: “It is not as if Obama is usually shy with emotional oratory, although he is rather shy in admonishing Muslims, a difficulty he seems not to have with the Israelis.”)

If we were full-throated in our condemnation of Iranian show trials, or the continued Syrian facilitation of terrorists who kill our troops in Iraq, or human rights in China (or anywhere), Obama might be expected to address the source of the outrage and confront the miscreants. This he does not do. So he looks down, shuffles his feet, offers only the most tepid words, and moves on. But others, primarily our adversaries, are watching. They see an irresolute and unconcerned American president. And they will act accordingly.

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Losing Brooks

Not even David Brooks, as much as he adores the president (and his pants), can avert his eyes or sugar-coat the advice any longer. Risking the descent of hordes of White House spinners, he lambasts the president and his enablers who refuse to see the fundamental and spectacular collapse of the effort to sell ObamaCare. Brooks details the president’s polling slide and the collapse of support for the president’s health-care plan. He disparages the idea of reconciliation to jam the now unpopular bill through the Senate and swipes at the critics of Peter Orszag.

Brooks observes of the administration:

From the stimulus to health care, it has joined itself at the hip to the liberal leadership in Congress. The White House has failed to veto measures, like the pork-laden omnibus spending bill, that would have demonstrated independence and fiscal restraint. By force of circumstances and by design, the president has promoted one policy after another that increases spending and centralizes power in Washington.

[. . .]

This is a country that has always been suspicious of centralized government. This is a country that has just lived through an economic trauma caused by excessive spending and debt. Most Americans still admire Obama and want him to succeed. But if he doesn’t proceed in a manner consistent with the spirit of the nation and the times, voters will find a way to stop him.

The president’s challenge now is to halt the slide. That doesn’t mean giving up his goals. It means he has to align his proposals to the values of the political center: fiscal responsibility, individual choice and decentralized authority.

The only hitch is that Brooks, after all that, doesn’t quite recognize what we are dealing with. He declares that retreating on health care “won’t mean giving up [Obama's] goals.” But isn’t it apparent from all Brooks has told us that Obama’s goal is the growth and centralization of government power? Really, as Brooks aptly documents, each of  Obama’s efforts, “by force of circumstances and design,” has been a big-government power grab.

So it may be harder than it seems to align Obama’s proposals to the “values of the political center.” It simply isn’t clear — and we have zero evidence to support the theory — that in his heart he’s interested in “fiscal responsibility, individual choice and decentralized authority.” From everything Obama has done, it appears he opposes these principles.

Gosh, it might just be that Obama isn’t a “Burkean” after all.

Not even David Brooks, as much as he adores the president (and his pants), can avert his eyes or sugar-coat the advice any longer. Risking the descent of hordes of White House spinners, he lambasts the president and his enablers who refuse to see the fundamental and spectacular collapse of the effort to sell ObamaCare. Brooks details the president’s polling slide and the collapse of support for the president’s health-care plan. He disparages the idea of reconciliation to jam the now unpopular bill through the Senate and swipes at the critics of Peter Orszag.

Brooks observes of the administration:

From the stimulus to health care, it has joined itself at the hip to the liberal leadership in Congress. The White House has failed to veto measures, like the pork-laden omnibus spending bill, that would have demonstrated independence and fiscal restraint. By force of circumstances and by design, the president has promoted one policy after another that increases spending and centralizes power in Washington.

[. . .]

This is a country that has always been suspicious of centralized government. This is a country that has just lived through an economic trauma caused by excessive spending and debt. Most Americans still admire Obama and want him to succeed. But if he doesn’t proceed in a manner consistent with the spirit of the nation and the times, voters will find a way to stop him.

The president’s challenge now is to halt the slide. That doesn’t mean giving up his goals. It means he has to align his proposals to the values of the political center: fiscal responsibility, individual choice and decentralized authority.

The only hitch is that Brooks, after all that, doesn’t quite recognize what we are dealing with. He declares that retreating on health care “won’t mean giving up [Obama's] goals.” But isn’t it apparent from all Brooks has told us that Obama’s goal is the growth and centralization of government power? Really, as Brooks aptly documents, each of  Obama’s efforts, “by force of circumstances and design,” has been a big-government power grab.

So it may be harder than it seems to align Obama’s proposals to the “values of the political center.” It simply isn’t clear — and we have zero evidence to support the theory — that in his heart he’s interested in “fiscal responsibility, individual choice and decentralized authority.” From everything Obama has done, it appears he opposes these principles.

Gosh, it might just be that Obama isn’t a “Burkean” after all.

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ObamaCare Under the Bus?

ObamaCare, the sweeping plan for government-run health care, is unraveling before our eyes. AP reports:

Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley said Monday he remains hopeful a limited health care reform measure can be negotiated, but that a small bipartisan group of senators working on the issue agrees a government-run public option won’t be part of the package.

[. . .]

Grassley in the past has roundly criticized the public option, but went a step further Monday in saying the core group of senators agreed such a provision would not be in a bill.

“It’s pretty clear that’s something not on the table,” Grassley said. “It’s fair to say that not every one of the six is opposed to it, but they realize the reality of it.”

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus doesn’t sound that gun-ho either:

Baucus meanwhile promised constituents that health care reform would not increase the deficit, would pay for itself over time and is necessary to rein in costs. Baucus also said he understands criticism is weighing heavily on the minds of Republicans. “They are in their home states and they are hearing a lot of what I am hearing: concerns,” Baucus said. “In some ways it is easy in the short term to vote against it.”

This will not sit well with the House Democratic leadership or the “Obama-done-us-wrong” crowd on the Left. But this is the new reality. They lost the debate with the public and now face a perilous juncture for the president’s own standing with the American people and their own re-election prospects.

The White House and liberals in Congress will soon be faced with a simple choice: go down in flames and try to blame the other guys – or come up with some downsized set of reforms that could lure the Blue Dogs and the Chuck Grassleys of the Senate. The Republicans have been urging the latter (scrap it and start again), which ironically may be a lifeline for the Obama presidency.

But first, if he’s going to take the Republicans up on their offer, the president has to accept that ObamaCare is never to be. And we’re not there yet. Maybe in another month, or when Obama’s approval hits 40 percent (which will come first?), but not yet.

ObamaCare, the sweeping plan for government-run health care, is unraveling before our eyes. AP reports:

Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley said Monday he remains hopeful a limited health care reform measure can be negotiated, but that a small bipartisan group of senators working on the issue agrees a government-run public option won’t be part of the package.

[. . .]

Grassley in the past has roundly criticized the public option, but went a step further Monday in saying the core group of senators agreed such a provision would not be in a bill.

“It’s pretty clear that’s something not on the table,” Grassley said. “It’s fair to say that not every one of the six is opposed to it, but they realize the reality of it.”

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus doesn’t sound that gun-ho either:

Baucus meanwhile promised constituents that health care reform would not increase the deficit, would pay for itself over time and is necessary to rein in costs. Baucus also said he understands criticism is weighing heavily on the minds of Republicans. “They are in their home states and they are hearing a lot of what I am hearing: concerns,” Baucus said. “In some ways it is easy in the short term to vote against it.”

This will not sit well with the House Democratic leadership or the “Obama-done-us-wrong” crowd on the Left. But this is the new reality. They lost the debate with the public and now face a perilous juncture for the president’s own standing with the American people and their own re-election prospects.

The White House and liberals in Congress will soon be faced with a simple choice: go down in flames and try to blame the other guys – or come up with some downsized set of reforms that could lure the Blue Dogs and the Chuck Grassleys of the Senate. The Republicans have been urging the latter (scrap it and start again), which ironically may be a lifeline for the Obama presidency.

But first, if he’s going to take the Republicans up on their offer, the president has to accept that ObamaCare is never to be. And we’re not there yet. Maybe in another month, or when Obama’s approval hits 40 percent (which will come first?), but not yet.

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Will’s Loss of Nerve

So George Will, who strongly supported the Iraq war before he strongly opposed it, is now strongly opposing the Afghanistan war after he once strongly supported it. In Will’s words, “forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.”

It is a column that could have been written in Japanese aboard the USS Missouri.

I plan to take up at a later time a substantive analysis of why Mr. Will’s column — an astonishingly weak column, it must be said, particularly given his high standards over the years — is deeply flawed. Before doing that, however, it’s worth examining his track record on both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Will’s shifting stands on these wars is vertigo-inducing. To understand just how much this is so, consider Iraq. Once upon a time, supporting the Iraq war was fashionable; large majorities of the public were behind it. So was most of the political class. And so was George Will. Yet that understates things quite a lot. Will was not just in favor of the war; he was as passionate and articulate champion of it as you could possibly find. In an October 8, 2002, interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose, for example, Will said:

I think the answer is that we believe, with reason, that democracy’s infectious. We’ve seen it. We saw it happen in Eastern Europe. It’s just — people reached a critical mass of mendacity under those regimes of the East block, and it exploded. And I do believe that you will see [in the Middle East] a ripple effect, a happy domino effect, if you will, of democracy knocking over these medieval tyrannies . . . Condoleezza Rice is quite right. She says there is an enormous condescension in saying that somehow the Arab world is just not up to democracy. And there’s an enormous ahistorical error when people say, “Well, we can’t go into war with Iraq until we know what postwar Iraq’s going to look like.” In 1942, a year after Pearl Harbor, did we have a clear idea what we were going to do with postwar Germany? With postwar Japan? Of course not. We made it up as we went along, and we did a very good job. . . .

Mr. Will applauded bringing “instability” to the Middle East and countries like Egypt. “What is so wonderful about the stability of Egypt?” he asked. And when asked, “Do you think [Iraq] will be a quick and easy conflict, if it comes to that,” Mr. Will answered, “Fairly quick, yes.” Read More

So George Will, who strongly supported the Iraq war before he strongly opposed it, is now strongly opposing the Afghanistan war after he once strongly supported it. In Will’s words, “forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.”

It is a column that could have been written in Japanese aboard the USS Missouri.

I plan to take up at a later time a substantive analysis of why Mr. Will’s column — an astonishingly weak column, it must be said, particularly given his high standards over the years — is deeply flawed. Before doing that, however, it’s worth examining his track record on both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Will’s shifting stands on these wars is vertigo-inducing. To understand just how much this is so, consider Iraq. Once upon a time, supporting the Iraq war was fashionable; large majorities of the public were behind it. So was most of the political class. And so was George Will. Yet that understates things quite a lot. Will was not just in favor of the war; he was as passionate and articulate champion of it as you could possibly find. In an October 8, 2002, interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose, for example, Will said:

I think the answer is that we believe, with reason, that democracy’s infectious. We’ve seen it. We saw it happen in Eastern Europe. It’s just — people reached a critical mass of mendacity under those regimes of the East block, and it exploded. And I do believe that you will see [in the Middle East] a ripple effect, a happy domino effect, if you will, of democracy knocking over these medieval tyrannies . . . Condoleezza Rice is quite right. She says there is an enormous condescension in saying that somehow the Arab world is just not up to democracy. And there’s an enormous ahistorical error when people say, “Well, we can’t go into war with Iraq until we know what postwar Iraq’s going to look like.” In 1942, a year after Pearl Harbor, did we have a clear idea what we were going to do with postwar Germany? With postwar Japan? Of course not. We made it up as we went along, and we did a very good job. . . .

Mr. Will applauded bringing “instability” to the Middle East and countries like Egypt. “What is so wonderful about the stability of Egypt?” he asked. And when asked, “Do you think [Iraq] will be a quick and easy conflict, if it comes to that,” Mr. Will answered, “Fairly quick, yes.”

Will then said this about Afghanistan and nation-building:

[Afghanistan is], to put it mildly, a work in progress. The president, I think, admits this. This was part of his education as president, to say that his hostility to nation-building was radically revised when he saw what a failed nation, Afghanistan, a vacuum, gets filled with. Political nature abhors a vacuum, and when it fills up with the Taliban and the leakage of violence to these private groups, essentially, like al Qaeda, then you have to say, “Well, I’ve revised that. We’re going to have to get into the nation-building business.”

Will also distinguished between Afghanistan and Iraq when it comes to nation-building:

It’s different in Iraq because Iraq is a big, rich country with a middle class, with universities. . . .

He added:

But you know, regime change didn’t just arise as a subject recently. We did it in Grenada, Panama, Serbia. Would the world be better off if Milosevic were back in Serbia? Noriega in Panama? I don’t think so.

A year after the war began, Will’s enthusiasm for it dampened — but he understood how catastrophic defeat would be:

What is to be done in Iraq? As Robert Frost said, the best way out is always through. We are there. We dare not leave having replaced a savage state with a failed state—a vacuum into which evil forces will flow. Our aim should be the rule of law, a quickened pulse of civil society, some system of political representation. Then, let us vow not to take on such reconstructions often.

Things began to turn slightly surreal when Will started arguing against the very case he himself made in October 2002, to the point that he was ridiculing phrases he once used. To wit: in his May 4, 2004, column, Will wrote:

This administration cannot be trusted to govern if it cannot be counted on to think and, having thought, to have second thoughts. Thinking is not the reiteration of bromides about how “all people yearn to live in freedom” ([Scott] McClellan). And about how it is “cultural condescension” to doubt that some cultures have the requisite aptitudes for democracy (Bush). And about how it is a “myth” that “our attachment to freedom is a product of our culture” because “ours are not Western values; they are the universal values of the human spirit” (Tony Blair).

Will eventually came to believe the Iraq war was a grave error — “perhaps the worst foreign policy debacle in the nation’s history,” he wrote.

In January 2007, President Bush announced a new counterinsurgency strategy for Iraq. By September almost every conceivable metric was showing that the so-called surge was succeeding, faster and better than virtually anyone had anticipated. Yet that encouraging fact was lost on Will, who wrote:

The surge has failed, as measured by the president’s and Petraeus’s standards of success. . . . Many of those who insist that the surge is a harbinger of U.S. victory in Iraq are making the same mistake they made in 1991 when they urged an advance on Baghdad, and in 2003 when they underestimated the challenge of building democracy there. The mistake is exaggerating the relevance of U.S. military power to achieve political progress in a society riven by ethnic and sectarian hatreds. America’s military leaders, who are professional realists, do not make this mistake.

At the point when the surge’s success was so obvious as to be incontestable, Mr. Will more or less ceased writing about Iraq. (In his 2008 book, One Man’s America, the most recent of Will’s volume of collected columns, he alerted the reader: “Consider this volume an almost entirely Iraq-free zone.” This was a wise decision, I think, given his track record.)

On Afghanistan, Mr. Will’s record follows a similar pattern. He, like almost every American, supported Operation Enduring Freedom. Will was overflowing with praise for the Bush administration — except when he was counseling it that “U.S. Strategy should maximize fatalities among the enemy rather than expedite the quickest possible cessation of hostilities.”

But today Will writes that the “war already is nearly 50 percent longer than the combined U.S. involvements in two world wars” — neglecting to mention, of course, that the number of American casualties is, thankfully, blessedly, a tiny fraction of what they were in those two world wars.

By late 2004, Will was celebrating elections in Afghanistan:

Tuesday’s winner will not start from scratch but from where we are now, standing with the women of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Back in Washington recently, Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said those women were warned that Taliban remnants would attack polling places during the Oct. 9 elections. So the women performed the ritual bathing and said the prayers of those facing death. Then, rising at 3 a.m., they trekked an hour to wait in line for the polls to open at 7 a.m. In the province of Kunar an explosion 100 meters from a long line of waiting voters did not cause anyone to leave the line. Which candidate can be trusted to keep faith with these people? Surely not the man whose party is increasingly influenced by its Michael Moore faction.

Yet today Will, sounding more like Michael Moore than Henry Kissinger, wrote this:

Even though violence exploded across Iraq after, and partly because of, three elections, Afghanistan’s recent elections were called “crucial.” To what? They came, they went, they altered no fundamentals, all of which militate against American “success,” whatever that might mean.

During the last presidential election, Senator John McCain, who was being criticized by Democrats for his support of the surge, was asked if he would accept that the surge policy represented the McCain doctrine. “No,” McCain answered, “but I am willing to accept it as a McCain principle. That is when I sign up, when I raise my hand and vote to go to war, that I want to see the completion of the mission.”

That is an admirable principle, one George Will should reflect on far more carefully than he has. It appears to be Will’s principle that when he signs up and speaks out, when he marshals his eloquent and influential words on behalf of war, he will strongly support that war, but only for a season; only so long as it goes quickly, smoothly, and without complications. If, however, the conflict gets hard — if progress is slow and setbacks are incurred, if lives are lost and the war doesn’t end on his time line — Will is ready to declare, as he does in his column today, that “Genius . . . sometimes consists of knowing when to stop.” Translation: he’s ready to up and quit.

Here is a disturbing fact to ponder: If George Will were commander in chief, we would, under his leadership, have begun and lost two wars of enormous consequence. The damage to America — militarily, geopolitically, and morally — would be staggering. The boon to militant Islam — militarily, geopolitically, and in terms of morale — would be incalculable. Yet nowhere in his most recent column does Will even begin to grapple with what surrender in Afghanistan would mean — to that country, to Pakistan, to jihadists around the world, to confidence in America’s word and will, and to our national-security interests. And while Afghanistan, like Iraq, is a very difficult undertaking, declaring defeat at this stage is unwarranted and terribly unwise. If General David Petraeus thinks the task is hopeless, then I will take a hard second look at the war. But if George Will declares it hopeless, I will simply take a hard second look at his record.

Mr. Will has earned the reputation as one of the finest columnists alive, and one of the better ones our country has ever produced. I have admired him in the past, and I learn from him still. But on Iraq and Afghanistan, he has been wrong, unreliable, and unsteady.

In 1983 the French journalist and intellectual Jean-Francois Revel wrote How Democracies Perish. It was a withering critique of the West’s loss of nerve and will in the face of the totalitarian threat it faced. In his book, Revel wrote, “Democracy tends to ignore, even deny, threats to its existence because it loathes doing what is needed to counter them.” In a column praising Revel’s book, George Will wrote, “Defense of democracy depends on pessimists who are not defeatists. It depends on spirited realists such as Jean-Francois Revel.”

Now, like then, America needs spirited realists, not defeatists. We need individuals who believe a nation must be willing to fight for what is right even when it is hard. We need people who are going to resist the temptation to eagerly support war at the outset and then prematurely give up on it.

What we need, in other words, is what George Frederick Will once was.

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Where the Argument Stands

Richard Cohen is honest enough to concede:

No one can possibly believe that America is now safer because of the new restrictions on enhanced interrogation and the subsequent appointment of a special prosecutor. The captured terrorist of my fertile imagination, assuming he had access to an Internet cafe, knows about the special prosecutor. He knows his interrogator is under scrutiny. What person under those circumstances is going to spill his beans?

Ah yes, the interrogator must build rapport with the captured terrorist. That might work, but it would take time. It could take a lot of time. Building rapport is clearly the preferred method, but the terrorist is going to know all about it. He will bide his time. How much time do we have?

Cohen feigns a bit of uncertainty as to whether waterboarding worked, although he admits the CIA inspector general report, the Holy Grail of the “Bush tortured!” crowds, finds that “Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the so-called Sept. 11 mastermind, suggests he only turned cooperative when he was repeatedly waterboarded and that the information he provided saved lives.” (So-called?) Well, Cohen also makes clear he’s all against torture — without explaining what he thinks torture is — and really doesn’t like Dick Cheney. But as Cohen puts it, “Dick Cheney is not the issue. The issue is the issue.”

This is roughly the state of the argument now: the Left can’t claim with much (if any) credibility that we will get anything of value with the Obama interrogation rules or that the pre-Obama interrogation methods were for naught.

So what’s the argument on interrogation techniques now? They are reduced, it seems, to arguing that waterboarding (and even more trivial treatment) is so horrific that it must be avoided even at the cost of another “hole in the ground where the World Trade Center stood,” as Cohen put it. And to be clear, that’s the Obama administration view, not just some lefty bloggers. You can’t say we didn’t get “change” when we elected Obama. At some point the American people may wonder why it is that the president doesn’t take the protection of their lives more seriously.

Richard Cohen is honest enough to concede:

No one can possibly believe that America is now safer because of the new restrictions on enhanced interrogation and the subsequent appointment of a special prosecutor. The captured terrorist of my fertile imagination, assuming he had access to an Internet cafe, knows about the special prosecutor. He knows his interrogator is under scrutiny. What person under those circumstances is going to spill his beans?

Ah yes, the interrogator must build rapport with the captured terrorist. That might work, but it would take time. It could take a lot of time. Building rapport is clearly the preferred method, but the terrorist is going to know all about it. He will bide his time. How much time do we have?

Cohen feigns a bit of uncertainty as to whether waterboarding worked, although he admits the CIA inspector general report, the Holy Grail of the “Bush tortured!” crowds, finds that “Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the so-called Sept. 11 mastermind, suggests he only turned cooperative when he was repeatedly waterboarded and that the information he provided saved lives.” (So-called?) Well, Cohen also makes clear he’s all against torture — without explaining what he thinks torture is — and really doesn’t like Dick Cheney. But as Cohen puts it, “Dick Cheney is not the issue. The issue is the issue.”

This is roughly the state of the argument now: the Left can’t claim with much (if any) credibility that we will get anything of value with the Obama interrogation rules or that the pre-Obama interrogation methods were for naught.

So what’s the argument on interrogation techniques now? They are reduced, it seems, to arguing that waterboarding (and even more trivial treatment) is so horrific that it must be avoided even at the cost of another “hole in the ground where the World Trade Center stood,” as Cohen put it. And to be clear, that’s the Obama administration view, not just some lefty bloggers. You can’t say we didn’t get “change” when we elected Obama. At some point the American people may wonder why it is that the president doesn’t take the protection of their lives more seriously.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Obama’s Labor Department isn’t enforcing union financial-disclosure rules. Not exactly a surprise.

The editors of the state capital’s newspaper, the Richmond-Times Dispatch, who have seen “some very well-run campaigns in the commonwealth over the years, and some very poorly run campaigns,” say it’s been a long time since they have “seen a prominent campaign as odd as that of gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds.” Ouch.

Ben Smith reminds us: Bob McDonnell’s 20-year-old thesis (featured in a Washington Post hit piece over the summer weekend) should be as impactful as Jim Webb’s novel on Virginia voters. (A colleague marvels to me, “How dumb does the media think voters are?” Well, very.)

The White House appears serious about the war in Afghanistan (save its allergic reaction to the word victory). George Will wants to bug out. Better than the reverse. (Will also wanted to leave Iraq before the surge there.)

Still, the Pentagon is worried: “We are not getting a Bush-like commitment to this war.”

It’s a trend: on Afghanistan, Robert Kaplan wants Obama to be more like George Bush. Listen, Obama is no George Bush.

Fred Kagan points out that Will has his facts wrong and thinks it is “reprehensible” to denigrate the Brits’ contribution.

Allan Meltzer argues that now that it is apparent that all the talk about another “Great Depression” was wrong, we should adjust accordingly: “A sensible administration would revise its policy. It should start by scrapping what remains of the stimulus. As the world economy recovers, the United States should choose to expand its exports so that it can service its large and growing foreign debts. That means reducing corporate tax rates to increase investment. Instead of implementing policies that increase regulation and raise business costs, we need to increase productivity.” The hitch — this is advice for a “sensible administration.”

The Justice Department’s dismissal of the Black Panther case finally makes the New York Times — without the slightest curiosity expressed by the reporter as to why a default judgment in an egregious voter-intimidation case should be withdrawn. He simply transcribes Justice’s explanation that the “law and facts” necessitated the dismissal. What law? What facts?

Obama’s disapproval rating reaches a new high in the RealClearPolitics poll average. At Pollster.com, the approval and disapproval lines are about to cross.

No surprise: Sens. Boxer and Kerry confess that the moribund cap-and-trade bill won’t see the light of day until late September. Like I said, a lot of business groups are wasting money fighting this one. It’s already kaput. (Remember, it will need 60 votes to get out of the Senate.)

Big Labor tries to “woo younger workers.” One idea: Don’t take the secret ballot away from them.

Obama’s Labor Department isn’t enforcing union financial-disclosure rules. Not exactly a surprise.

The editors of the state capital’s newspaper, the Richmond-Times Dispatch, who have seen “some very well-run campaigns in the commonwealth over the years, and some very poorly run campaigns,” say it’s been a long time since they have “seen a prominent campaign as odd as that of gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds.” Ouch.

Ben Smith reminds us: Bob McDonnell’s 20-year-old thesis (featured in a Washington Post hit piece over the summer weekend) should be as impactful as Jim Webb’s novel on Virginia voters. (A colleague marvels to me, “How dumb does the media think voters are?” Well, very.)

The White House appears serious about the war in Afghanistan (save its allergic reaction to the word victory). George Will wants to bug out. Better than the reverse. (Will also wanted to leave Iraq before the surge there.)

Still, the Pentagon is worried: “We are not getting a Bush-like commitment to this war.”

It’s a trend: on Afghanistan, Robert Kaplan wants Obama to be more like George Bush. Listen, Obama is no George Bush.

Fred Kagan points out that Will has his facts wrong and thinks it is “reprehensible” to denigrate the Brits’ contribution.

Allan Meltzer argues that now that it is apparent that all the talk about another “Great Depression” was wrong, we should adjust accordingly: “A sensible administration would revise its policy. It should start by scrapping what remains of the stimulus. As the world economy recovers, the United States should choose to expand its exports so that it can service its large and growing foreign debts. That means reducing corporate tax rates to increase investment. Instead of implementing policies that increase regulation and raise business costs, we need to increase productivity.” The hitch — this is advice for a “sensible administration.”

The Justice Department’s dismissal of the Black Panther case finally makes the New York Times — without the slightest curiosity expressed by the reporter as to why a default judgment in an egregious voter-intimidation case should be withdrawn. He simply transcribes Justice’s explanation that the “law and facts” necessitated the dismissal. What law? What facts?

Obama’s disapproval rating reaches a new high in the RealClearPolitics poll average. At Pollster.com, the approval and disapproval lines are about to cross.

No surprise: Sens. Boxer and Kerry confess that the moribund cap-and-trade bill won’t see the light of day until late September. Like I said, a lot of business groups are wasting money fighting this one. It’s already kaput. (Remember, it will need 60 votes to get out of the Senate.)

Big Labor tries to “woo younger workers.” One idea: Don’t take the secret ballot away from them.

Read Less




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