Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 30, 2011

It’s Too Late for Qaddafi to Walk Away

Uganda announced today that it would be happy to take in Muammar Qaddafi, should the Libyan dictator decide to end his brutal reign of violence and flee the country.

It sounds unjust that Qaddafi could live out a long life in some African refuge, especially after he’s massacred so many. But the U.S. and allies haven’t ruled out giving the despot a clear exit route, according to Reuters. “The United States, Britain and Qatar, which joined others at a meeting on Libya in London on Tuesday, suggested Gaddafi and his family could be allowed to go into exile if they took up the offer quickly to end six weeks of bloodshed,” the news service reported.

As Qaddafi’s options grows bleaker by the day, and Americans become more anxious for President Obama to outline an exit strategy for the war in Libya, allowing him an escape hatch might begin to look increasingly attractive. But this isn’t an alternative we can afford right now. There are other dictators like Qaddafi currently struggling to suppress similar uprisings – and they are keeping a close eye on his fate. If Qaddafi is able to massacre thousands of his people, drive his country into civil war, force the U.S. and its allies to intervene militarily, and then slip out of the country with no repercussions, then others will believe they can do the same.

The chance for Qaddafi to take asylum elsewhere has already passed. He made his decision, and now he has to face the consequences – hopefully at the hands of those who suffered under his rule for so many decades.

Uganda announced today that it would be happy to take in Muammar Qaddafi, should the Libyan dictator decide to end his brutal reign of violence and flee the country.

It sounds unjust that Qaddafi could live out a long life in some African refuge, especially after he’s massacred so many. But the U.S. and allies haven’t ruled out giving the despot a clear exit route, according to Reuters. “The United States, Britain and Qatar, which joined others at a meeting on Libya in London on Tuesday, suggested Gaddafi and his family could be allowed to go into exile if they took up the offer quickly to end six weeks of bloodshed,” the news service reported.

As Qaddafi’s options grows bleaker by the day, and Americans become more anxious for President Obama to outline an exit strategy for the war in Libya, allowing him an escape hatch might begin to look increasingly attractive. But this isn’t an alternative we can afford right now. There are other dictators like Qaddafi currently struggling to suppress similar uprisings – and they are keeping a close eye on his fate. If Qaddafi is able to massacre thousands of his people, drive his country into civil war, force the U.S. and its allies to intervene militarily, and then slip out of the country with no repercussions, then others will believe they can do the same.

The chance for Qaddafi to take asylum elsewhere has already passed. He made his decision, and now he has to face the consequences – hopefully at the hands of those who suffered under his rule for so many decades.

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Syria and Smart Power

Viktor Kotsev, in Asia Times Online, has an excellent article on the economic factors in the Syrian unrest. Besides being hit hard by rising food prices, the Syrian people have been enduring water rationing far more rigorous than California’s. Residents of Damascus are often denied water service for more than half of each day. In the rural areas water service is limited to 3 days a week; tens of thousands have left their ancestral homes for cities like Daraa, where the Assad regime has now killed dozens of protesters.

Kotsev quotes a Syrian dissident framing his nation’s economic woes in these terms:

The coming Syrian revolution will be led by two million young Syrian women unable to find economically independent husbands and forced to embrace celibacy (Ansa’a) because of rampant unemployment and economic deprivation … Read More

Viktor Kotsev, in Asia Times Online, has an excellent article on the economic factors in the Syrian unrest. Besides being hit hard by rising food prices, the Syrian people have been enduring water rationing far more rigorous than California’s. Residents of Damascus are often denied water service for more than half of each day. In the rural areas water service is limited to 3 days a week; tens of thousands have left their ancestral homes for cities like Daraa, where the Assad regime has now killed dozens of protesters.

Kotsev quotes a Syrian dissident framing his nation’s economic woes in these terms:

The coming Syrian revolution will be led by two million young Syrian women unable to find economically independent husbands and forced to embrace celibacy (Ansa’a) because of rampant unemployment and economic deprivation …

Regional drought is a factor in Syria’s problems, but the Assad regime’s domestic and foreign policies are greater ones.

Much the same can be said of the other Arab nations in various states of turmoil, from Algeria and Tunisia to Yemen and Bahrain. Their problems, in fact, seem tailor-made for the application of “smart power,” as defined by Obama’s original coterie of foreign-policy advisers. At the very least, these problems must excite practical compassion. But beyond that, they are the result of regime sclerosis and corruption, and cannot be solved effectively or humanely through “kinetic military action.”

It’s not to deprecate the concept of smart power that I mention these things. It’s to ask why smart power is not being tried. In Syria’s case, it would involve all the “smartest” methods: economic incentives, political engagement, and multilateralism (e.g., with an engagement coalition comprising the U.S., EU, Turkey, and Russia, for starters). Assad is vulnerable; now would seem to be the time to force his hand as a reformer, if that’s what our administration truly thinks he is.

Peeling Syria away from Iran is the likely outcome of weakening Assad and actively fostering liberalization and consensual politics – and that would certainly be the best thing for the Syrian people. It would also be the best thing for the region and the interests of the United States. These are not even particularly “ideological” views; they’re mainstream and pragmatic.

So it’s interesting to observe how little motivated this administration seems to be to inaugurate a smart-power campaign. Perhaps the explanation lies in the absence of a strongly perceived ideological conflict, such as the one that animated the Cold War, or the clash between Islamist extremism and Western liberalism as defined during the George W. Bush years. Smart power was, in fact, a staple of the Cold War years, and was consciously applied in a number of situations by Bush 41, Bill Clinton, and Bush 43.

Events are moving fast in the Middle East, but there has been time to map out a smart-power approach – if that approach had been the Obama administration’s guiding idea for a posture of initiative and assertiveness. The initiative and assertiveness seem to be what’s lacking. And the truth may be that they are even more necessary to successful smart power than they are to successful kinetic military action. Military operations are usually a reaction or a last resort. It’s smart power that doesn’t get launched at all without premeditated determination and positive objectives.

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The Obama Administration’s Ineptness

On Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – when asked about why we’re involving ourselves in Libya but not Syria – said this about Bashar Assad: “Many of the Members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” For understandable reasons – more about that in a moment– those comments didn’t fly very well. So it was time for a retake.

Yesterday, when asked about her statement at a press conference, Secretary Clinton said, “Well, first, Jay [Solomon], as you rightly pointed out, I referenced opinions of others. That was not speaking either for myself or for the administration.” Read More

On Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – when asked about why we’re involving ourselves in Libya but not Syria – said this about Bashar Assad: “Many of the Members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” For understandable reasons – more about that in a moment– those comments didn’t fly very well. So it was time for a retake.

Yesterday, when asked about her statement at a press conference, Secretary Clinton said, “Well, first, Jay [Solomon], as you rightly pointed out, I referenced opinions of others. That was not speaking either for myself or for the administration.”

As walk backs go, this one was unusually clumsy and obviously untrue. Mrs. Clinton could simply have said her previous comments were wrong and she was revising them. Instead we get a response that no one believes. Of course she was speaking for herself and for the administration; that’s what secretaries of state (as opposed to, say, MSNBC commentators) do.

But what is truly disquieting is what our secretary of state said in the first place. It raises the question: Was she even remotely familiar with Syria’s record under Assad? Just for starters, had she taken the time to read her own State Department’s most recent terrorism report? If she had, she would have found several references to Syria.

For example, in Chapter 1 we read, “Syria … provided political and material support to Hizballah in Lebanon and allowed Iran to resupply this organization with weapons, and provided safe-haven as well as political and other support to a number of designated Palestinian terrorist groups, including HAMAS, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).”

In Chapter 2 we learn, “Iran and Syria, both state sponsors of terrorism, continued to play destabilizing roles in the region… Hizballah continued its acquisition of smuggled arms, primarily via Iran and Syria, in violation of UN resolution 1701… HAMAS and Hizballah continued to finance their terrorist activities against Israel primarily through state sponsors of terrorism Iran and Syria.”

And in Chapter 3 we’re told, “Syria has maintained its ties with its strategic ally, and fellow state sponsor of terrorism, Iran.”

The foreign-policy ineptness we’re seeing from the Obama administration is quite striking. Its key players are sending out contradictory messages one after the other. One day Hosni Mubarak’s regime is stable; the next day he has to go. One day Bashar Assad is a reformer; the next day he’s a butcher. The president tells Members of Congress he expects we’ll be actively involved in military action against Libya for days, not weeks; the secretary of defense, when asked how much longer we might be in Libya, says, “I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that.” The president says, Colonel Qaddafi “must step down from power and leave” immediately; the caveat is that his exit can be achieved only through non-military means.

The president is slow to get us involved in Libya, after pressure from the French, the British, the UN, and the Arab League; now that he has, Mr. Obama and his aides cannot stress often enough how eager they are to become uninvolved in Libya. “We didn’t want to get sucked into an operation with uncertainty at the end,” one senior administration official told the New York Times. “In some ways, how it turns out is not on our shoulders.”

On arming the Libyan rebels, the president helpfully tells us, “I’m not ruling it out, but I’m also not ruling it in.” We’re told it’s in America’s interest to involve ourselves in humanitarian military action under certain conditions, but no coherent rationale is provided. Apparently it’s to be done ad hoc, on the fly, based on shifting sentiments. Nor can the administration articulate to the public what our end game in Libya is. According to the most recent Quinnipiac poll, which was concluded Monday evening as President Obama was addressing the nation about Libya, voters say by a margin of 58–29 percent that he has not clearly stated U.S. goals for Libya.

Let’s stipulate that the world is a complicated place, wars are unpredictable, and foreign policy can be difficult to manage. Still, one would hope that even a community organizer could do better than this.

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Does the Country Care About Obama?

Maybe not, according to Sen. Harry Reid’s logic. Citing to a new CNN poll out today showing that 47 percent of Americans have a negative opinion of the Tea Party, Reid announced that the movement has lost its influence. “The country doesn’t care much about the Tea Party,” he said on the Senate floor today. “There is a new CNN poll out today that says this very directly.”

“The people who care about the tea party are a very small number who care about them positively,” he added. “Those who care about them negatively is very high.”

So based on that criteria, Reid must be truly despondent to also learn that the country doesn’t care about President Obama. As Peter noted, a Quinnipiac poll out today showed that 48 percent of American voters disapprove of the president.

Of course, the comparison isn’t perfect, since the CNN poll surveyed all Americans, while the Quinnipiac one surveyed only likely voters. But the Quinnipiac poll should still have Democrats worried. Not only did it show Obama’s lowest approval rating ever for that polling service, but it also found that voters say 50-41 that he shouldn’t be reelected – which is also his lowest reelection score ever.

In addition, the poll found that voters oppose the war in Libya 47-41 percent. Since Americans tend to be more supportive of military interventions at the beginning, this isn’t a good sign.

Maybe not, according to Sen. Harry Reid’s logic. Citing to a new CNN poll out today showing that 47 percent of Americans have a negative opinion of the Tea Party, Reid announced that the movement has lost its influence. “The country doesn’t care much about the Tea Party,” he said on the Senate floor today. “There is a new CNN poll out today that says this very directly.”

“The people who care about the tea party are a very small number who care about them positively,” he added. “Those who care about them negatively is very high.”

So based on that criteria, Reid must be truly despondent to also learn that the country doesn’t care about President Obama. As Peter noted, a Quinnipiac poll out today showed that 48 percent of American voters disapprove of the president.

Of course, the comparison isn’t perfect, since the CNN poll surveyed all Americans, while the Quinnipiac one surveyed only likely voters. But the Quinnipiac poll should still have Democrats worried. Not only did it show Obama’s lowest approval rating ever for that polling service, but it also found that voters say 50-41 that he shouldn’t be reelected – which is also his lowest reelection score ever.

In addition, the poll found that voters oppose the war in Libya 47-41 percent. Since Americans tend to be more supportive of military interventions at the beginning, this isn’t a good sign.

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RE: Why Obama’s Leadership Poll Numbers Are So Terrible

As John noted earlier, the latest Gallup survey, shows the country is split down the middle on President Obama’s handling of the situation in Libya, with 44 percent approving, 44 percent disapproving, and 12 percent undecided. These are very low numbers for a president near the outset of a military campaign. These numbers should be seen in the context of a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll that showed that only 17 percent of Americans see President Obama as a strong and decisive military leader. And those number, in turn, should be seen in the context of today’s release of a Quinnipiac University poll showing that fully one-half of the registered voters it surveyed believe that the president does not deserve a second term in office, while only 41 percent say he does. Both are all-time lows.

These numbers are related to one another. Perceived weakness in a president can be acidic. I would be surprised if the president’s speech on Monday helped reassure the public. What will matter, though, isn’t the effect of Obama’s speech (which will soon be forgotten) but the results of his policies. That is what he will be judged on. For now, if I were a member of the president’s political team, these numbers would concern me. A lot.

As John noted earlier, the latest Gallup survey, shows the country is split down the middle on President Obama’s handling of the situation in Libya, with 44 percent approving, 44 percent disapproving, and 12 percent undecided. These are very low numbers for a president near the outset of a military campaign. These numbers should be seen in the context of a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll that showed that only 17 percent of Americans see President Obama as a strong and decisive military leader. And those number, in turn, should be seen in the context of today’s release of a Quinnipiac University poll showing that fully one-half of the registered voters it surveyed believe that the president does not deserve a second term in office, while only 41 percent say he does. Both are all-time lows.

These numbers are related to one another. Perceived weakness in a president can be acidic. I would be surprised if the president’s speech on Monday helped reassure the public. What will matter, though, isn’t the effect of Obama’s speech (which will soon be forgotten) but the results of his policies. That is what he will be judged on. For now, if I were a member of the president’s political team, these numbers would concern me. A lot.

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Last In, First Out

Commentators here and elsewhere have dissected the belated strengths and considerable weaknesses of the president’s speech on Libya. But no one has noted that the speech is yet another piece of evidence that this administration regards foreign policy as a problem to be overcome as rapidly as possible, not as an enduring challenge with serious consequences.  Barack Obama remains eager to get to the serious business of domestic policy.

Before he was elected, Obama displayed no serious interest in foreign policy.  Nor – except for his childhood travels – did he have any substantive experience abroad.  The only post-World War II presidents who could compete with him in this regard are Carter (hardly an encouraging comparison) and Clinton (who had the good fortune to be elected in the supposedly placid 1990s). The foreign policy lesson he learned from his predecessor was very simple: if you want to keep your presidency alive politically, avoid Iraq. The frequency which with he harps on that lesson testifies to its power. Read More

Commentators here and elsewhere have dissected the belated strengths and considerable weaknesses of the president’s speech on Libya. But no one has noted that the speech is yet another piece of evidence that this administration regards foreign policy as a problem to be overcome as rapidly as possible, not as an enduring challenge with serious consequences.  Barack Obama remains eager to get to the serious business of domestic policy.

Before he was elected, Obama displayed no serious interest in foreign policy.  Nor – except for his childhood travels – did he have any substantive experience abroad.  The only post-World War II presidents who could compete with him in this regard are Carter (hardly an encouraging comparison) and Clinton (who had the good fortune to be elected in the supposedly placid 1990s). The foreign policy lesson he learned from his predecessor was very simple: if you want to keep your presidency alive politically, avoid Iraq. The frequency which with he harps on that lesson testifies to its power.

The result is that Obama’s foreign policy has been marked by three trends: avoid leadership, seek stability, and – above all — keep foreign policy off the front pages.  On Iran, on Sudan, and on Russia, Obama has sought to work with the tyrant in charge. In the nuclear realm – the one area where his interests appear to be definitely engaged – he did his best (successfully) with New START to pretend that nothing very exciting was going on.  Even in matters like the Argentine claim to the Falklands, or the constitutional revolution in Honduras, or pressuring Israel on settlements for the sake of satisfying the Palestinians, his approach has been to try to make the problem go away as fast as possible.

This policy inevitably involves a certain amount of disdain for our allies: they are the ones who must be sacrificed for the sake of the world’s dissatisfied powers — who are by and large hostile to us.  Regularly, Obama has made the wrong choice, and regularly, his administration has been forced by political and strategic realities to recognize that this approach won’t work. In Afghanistan, the 2011 deadline has quietly become 2014. Guantanamo is still open. The president’s powers – contrary to Candidate Obama’s claims – do allow him to commit U.S. forces to action in Libya.

But the instinct remains unchanged.  Having been pushed into a war – pardon me, a kinetic military action – in Libya, the president cannot be seen to hand it over fast enough, even if in reality the U.S. will still be doing most of the heavy lifting. He justifies this by arguing that it is time for the international community – that polite fiction – to carry the weight. But in spite of base-pleasing gestures like rejoining the UN Human Rights Council, this administration has shown very little serious interest in international institutions, except when (as with those concerned with climate change) they can assist in achieving some domestic objective. Nothing that is likely to happen in Libya can be similarly helpful. Thus, in North Africa, the president was last in and first out. All his rhetoric and balancing of Monday night cannot disguise the fact that he wants to run away.  He believes that an active and visible foreign policy is a vote loser.

And the thing is that, most of the time, the president may be right about this: if Libya disappears from the front pages, he won’t lose in 2012 because of it. But every once in a while the world drops a problem into the lap of a president that he can’t wish away. North Africa may still be that problem. Or it might be Syria. But it is a sure bet that, unless Obama has Clinton’s luck, his policy of dodging, denying, and delaying is one day going to run foul of Harold Macmillan’s nightmare: the fact that events keep on happening.

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Academic Politics, not Academic Freedom, at Issue in Michigan FOIA Requests

Another request has gone out about whether professors on a state payroll used their offices to play partisan politics; and the political left is again screaming about the end of academic freedom. In the wake of the controversy over inquiries into whether a University of Wisconsin professor who has been a vocal participant in the union/GOP squabbles in that state used his taxpayer funded perch to do so, a Michigan think tank is asking the same question about academics at a number of state-supported institutions in that state.

The Freedom of Information Act requests made by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy about professors at the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and Wayne State Universities is drawing predictable screams of horror from those who think these probes are intended to silence critics of Republicans who have advocated for changes in collective bargaining by public employee unions. The New York Times quotes Greg Scholtz, the director of academic freedom for the American Association of University Professors as saying that this “will have a chilling effect on academic freedom. We’ve never seen FOIA requests used like this before.” Read More

Another request has gone out about whether professors on a state payroll used their offices to play partisan politics; and the political left is again screaming about the end of academic freedom. In the wake of the controversy over inquiries into whether a University of Wisconsin professor who has been a vocal participant in the union/GOP squabbles in that state used his taxpayer funded perch to do so, a Michigan think tank is asking the same question about academics at a number of state-supported institutions in that state.

The Freedom of Information Act requests made by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy about professors at the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and Wayne State Universities is drawing predictable screams of horror from those who think these probes are intended to silence critics of Republicans who have advocated for changes in collective bargaining by public employee unions. The New York Times quotes Greg Scholtz, the director of academic freedom for the American Association of University Professors as saying that this “will have a chilling effect on academic freedom. We’ve never seen FOIA requests used like this before.”

That sentiment was echoed by William Cronon, the Wisconsin academic who has been put under the same sort of scrutiny. He says that the desire of some to find out what he and his Michigan colleagues are doing is making him angry. He maintains he’s innocent of any wrongdoing and also thinks that the requests are in some way a violation of his academic freedom. In an editorial on the subject, the Times even claimed that such inquires will hamper the ability of academics to conduct research.

Cronon and the others may not be enjoying this scrutiny but it should be understood that what is at stake here is a question of academic politics, not academic freedom.

While the left is more accustomed to using FOIA requests to embarrass state and federal officials and bureaucrats whose actions they dislike, there is nothing sinister in the tactic being turned on liberals who happen to collect their state checks at a college campus. If, as their critics suspect, these professors have been using their state-funded positions to take an active part in the partisan political squabble between Republicans and their Democratic foes then they have violated the law.

The level of discomfort at this scrutiny is due in no small measure to the fact that most university professors tend to feel free to impose their own ideological and political biases on their course work, as well as on discussions in the classroom. The left dominates most campuses not merely in the sense of outnumbering conservatives on the faculty but in the way it often limits, penalizes or even censors discourse that dissents from pervasive orthodox liberalism. So it is little wonder that when outside think tanks or political groups start to ask questions about whether academics are playing politics on the job the campus left swoons with shock.

But the right to examine lines of academic inquiry or to educate is not under attack. Curtailing the ability of state employees to engage in partisan political activity while on the job will have no impact on the ability of these professors to conduct research or teach.

It may well be that these requests turn out to be nothing more than unsuccessful fishing expeditions and that the professors have not crossed any lines. But whether they have or not, the fact that they have been put on notice that they are not above the law or immune from scrutiny is a healthy development and violates neither their rights nor the spirit of academic freedom.

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Assad Not Moving an Inch on Emergency Law

Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad was expected to announce the lifting of the country’s 50-year old emergency law late last night, but he didn’t even give up that one token concession during his speech:

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad defied expectations and dashed widespread hopes Wednesday when he made no mention of lifting a state of emergency in a national address.He acknowledged that Syrians want reform and that the government has not met their needs in a rambling 45-minute speech to the National Assembly, but he made few concrete promises after weeks of anti-government demonstrations that have left 73 people dead, according to Human Rights Watch.

The fact that Assad is digging in his heels on this issue will probably only further enflame the mass demonstrations across the country. The lifting of the law wouldn’t have been more than a symbolic victory for the protesters, but Assad’s rigidity suggests that he may be readying for a fight with the opposition.

The Obama administration needs to condemn Assad strongly on this. Over the weekend, Hillary Clinton spoke of the Syrian leader’s reputation as a “reformer” – those sort of statements need to end immediately. Lifting the emergency law would have been a simple (and not especially impactful) step for Assad to take. That he didn’t even do this shows that he’s completely unwilling to make even the smallest concession of his power, and it’s a troubling sign that a more violent government crackdown may be looming.

Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad was expected to announce the lifting of the country’s 50-year old emergency law late last night, but he didn’t even give up that one token concession during his speech:

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad defied expectations and dashed widespread hopes Wednesday when he made no mention of lifting a state of emergency in a national address.He acknowledged that Syrians want reform and that the government has not met their needs in a rambling 45-minute speech to the National Assembly, but he made few concrete promises after weeks of anti-government demonstrations that have left 73 people dead, according to Human Rights Watch.

The fact that Assad is digging in his heels on this issue will probably only further enflame the mass demonstrations across the country. The lifting of the law wouldn’t have been more than a symbolic victory for the protesters, but Assad’s rigidity suggests that he may be readying for a fight with the opposition.

The Obama administration needs to condemn Assad strongly on this. Over the weekend, Hillary Clinton spoke of the Syrian leader’s reputation as a “reformer” – those sort of statements need to end immediately. Lifting the emergency law would have been a simple (and not especially impactful) step for Assad to take. That he didn’t even do this shows that he’s completely unwilling to make even the smallest concession of his power, and it’s a troubling sign that a more violent government crackdown may be looming.

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Jon Stewart on Libya

Last night Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart turned his comic genius on Barack Obama’s Libya speech. The critique works because the points he makes are both funny and true. Take a look. You’ll enjoy it.

Last night Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart turned his comic genius on Barack Obama’s Libya speech. The critique works because the points he makes are both funny and true. Take a look. You’ll enjoy it.

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New Washington Group to Push for Iranian Human Rights

With the recent events across the Muslim world, a serious task force on the Iranian threat couldn’t be more needed. The Iran Strategy Task Force, a new collaboration between Freedom House and the Progressive Policy Institute, says it will push the Obama administration to “rethink its Middle East strategy” and look “beyond sanctions.”

When some Iranian lobbying groups –NIAC, for example – say that the administration needs to look “beyond sanctions,” they are really arguing for the U.S. to drop them entirely. In comparison, the ISTF is supportive of sanctions, and maintains that more may even be necessary. But the group will also look for other ways to pressure the Iranian regime for reform.

The ISTF’s first step will be to meet with experts in academia, government, intelligence and the Iran democracy movement, in order to come up with a report of policy recommendations that it can present to lawmakers. “The point is, we’re going to help people make sense of this puzzle,” said Freedom House’s Andrew Apostolou, who is co-chairing the ISTF along with PPI’s Josh Block.

Other members of the task force include Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution, Steve Beckerman of AIPAC, Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Michael Adler of the Woodrow Wilson Center.

With NIAC’s focus shifting to human rights issues recently, it’s important to have a group in Washington that will push for reforms while also supporting crucial sanctions.

With the recent events across the Muslim world, a serious task force on the Iranian threat couldn’t be more needed. The Iran Strategy Task Force, a new collaboration between Freedom House and the Progressive Policy Institute, says it will push the Obama administration to “rethink its Middle East strategy” and look “beyond sanctions.”

When some Iranian lobbying groups –NIAC, for example – say that the administration needs to look “beyond sanctions,” they are really arguing for the U.S. to drop them entirely. In comparison, the ISTF is supportive of sanctions, and maintains that more may even be necessary. But the group will also look for other ways to pressure the Iranian regime for reform.

The ISTF’s first step will be to meet with experts in academia, government, intelligence and the Iran democracy movement, in order to come up with a report of policy recommendations that it can present to lawmakers. “The point is, we’re going to help people make sense of this puzzle,” said Freedom House’s Andrew Apostolou, who is co-chairing the ISTF along with PPI’s Josh Block.

Other members of the task force include Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution, Steve Beckerman of AIPAC, Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Michael Adler of the Woodrow Wilson Center.

With NIAC’s focus shifting to human rights issues recently, it’s important to have a group in Washington that will push for reforms while also supporting crucial sanctions.

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What If . . . ?

Thirty years ago today I was doing research in the Local History and Genealogy Room of the New York Public Library when Tim Beard, the director, came up to me. I looked up, hoping he had found something I’d been looking for. Instead he said, “Reagan’s been shot.” For a moment we just stared at each other, processing the enormity of the news.

“Is he alive?” I asked.

“At least at the moment. He’s been taken to the hospital.”

I packed up my stuff and raced home, where I, like much of the nation, was glued to the television for the rest of the day and much of the night.

He survived, of course, the first president to have been shot and do so. (Theodore Roosevelt was shot and survived while campaigning in 1912, but that was after his presidency.) Reagan’s survival, however, was a very, very near-run thing, and only some very fancy doctoring within minutes of the event saw him through. It was months before he was fully recovered.

Only millimeters and minutes separated what became the most significant presidency of the last half of the 20th century from being instead a footnote in American history, a presidency that lasted only twice as long as William Henry Harrison’s in 1841.

History, of course, is full of such contingencies, which support a whole genre of historical writing called counterfactual history. What if Catherine of Aragon had borne Henry VIII a healthy son? What if the Royal Navy hadn’t let Washington’s army escape across the East River from Brooklyn? What if Britain and France had resisted the military reoccupation of the Rhineland?

Equally, how George H. W. Bush would have handled the opportunities and perils that Reagan lived to face we will never know.

Thirty years ago today I was doing research in the Local History and Genealogy Room of the New York Public Library when Tim Beard, the director, came up to me. I looked up, hoping he had found something I’d been looking for. Instead he said, “Reagan’s been shot.” For a moment we just stared at each other, processing the enormity of the news.

“Is he alive?” I asked.

“At least at the moment. He’s been taken to the hospital.”

I packed up my stuff and raced home, where I, like much of the nation, was glued to the television for the rest of the day and much of the night.

He survived, of course, the first president to have been shot and do so. (Theodore Roosevelt was shot and survived while campaigning in 1912, but that was after his presidency.) Reagan’s survival, however, was a very, very near-run thing, and only some very fancy doctoring within minutes of the event saw him through. It was months before he was fully recovered.

Only millimeters and minutes separated what became the most significant presidency of the last half of the 20th century from being instead a footnote in American history, a presidency that lasted only twice as long as William Henry Harrison’s in 1841.

History, of course, is full of such contingencies, which support a whole genre of historical writing called counterfactual history. What if Catherine of Aragon had borne Henry VIII a healthy son? What if the Royal Navy hadn’t let Washington’s army escape across the East River from Brooklyn? What if Britain and France had resisted the military reoccupation of the Rhineland?

Equally, how George H. W. Bush would have handled the opportunities and perils that Reagan lived to face we will never know.

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Does School Choice Work? Hypocritical White House Won’t Look at Evidence

As the House of Representatives prepares to vote today on Speaker Boehner’s bill to revive the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that gives disadvantaged children a chance to escape failing public schools and to get a quality private education, the administration continued to advocate its defeat.

Among the arguments put forward by the White House yesterday was the claim that scholarship recipients don’t do any better than other students. But, as the Washington Post pointed out in a trenchant editorial, the evidence points in a different direction. There is, in fact, a wealth of evidence that students who take advantage of voucher programs do better in reading and have better graduation rates than other low-income inner city students. Read More

As the House of Representatives prepares to vote today on Speaker Boehner’s bill to revive the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that gives disadvantaged children a chance to escape failing public schools and to get a quality private education, the administration continued to advocate its defeat.

Among the arguments put forward by the White House yesterday was the claim that scholarship recipients don’t do any better than other students. But, as the Washington Post pointed out in a trenchant editorial, the evidence points in a different direction. There is, in fact, a wealth of evidence that students who take advantage of voucher programs do better in reading and have better graduation rates than other low-income inner city students.

Those who claim that using public funds for private and especially parochial schools is a violation of the principle of separating church and state are dead wrong. The funds in question go to the parents who may use them to choose the school that they think best serves their child’s interests. They are no different than the government aid that goes to veterans who may attend any college under the G.I. bill or the massive amount of money that is directed in grants that go to a host of universities, including those with a religious affiliation. And far from harming public schools, by creating the competition that the capital’s failing public system needs, vouchers can help make them better.

The reason why the president and other liberals oppose school choice is not based on the evidence of their utility or the Constitution but rather ideology and politics. Giving parents of poor children the ability to choose their child’s school is good for education but undermines the government education monopoly and the teachers unions.

During the last Congress, Democrats ignored the best interests of these children and killed the D.C. vouchers program. Doing so required not merely an ideological rigidity that enabled them to ignore the pleas of parents and students. It also took a degree of hypocrisy that is unusual even in politicians. President Obama, who sends his own two children to an elite private academy in the District, signed the bill killing scholarships that enabled poor children to attend the same school. As the current Congress seeks to undo the damage he did, the president still stands against this program. In addition to pointing out the evidence of the benefits of school choice, as the Washington Post did today, we must again ask the president whether he truly believes that all children, be they rich or poor, deserve a fair chance at a good education.

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Squirmish Works

Funny, last time I checked, Sarah Palin was in trouble for being too comfortable with the language of combat. Today, it’s a disgrace that she’s not more fluent in it.

As far as slips of the tongue go, I’ll take a commentator’s “squirmish” over a commander in chief’s “corpsemen,” any day. In fact, there is something unwittingly brilliant about the latest Palinism. Try to find a term better than squirmish for a military effort the great superpower was shamed into by the French and the Arab League, one whose leadership the American president has repeatedly refused, one whose description has brought about the most pusillanimous linguistic contortions imaginable, and one we may very well wriggle out of before accomplishing our goal. A war against Qaddafi’s regime was a noble prospect. But I fear Sarah Palin is right. What we have on our hands is a squirmish.

Funny, last time I checked, Sarah Palin was in trouble for being too comfortable with the language of combat. Today, it’s a disgrace that she’s not more fluent in it.

As far as slips of the tongue go, I’ll take a commentator’s “squirmish” over a commander in chief’s “corpsemen,” any day. In fact, there is something unwittingly brilliant about the latest Palinism. Try to find a term better than squirmish for a military effort the great superpower was shamed into by the French and the Arab League, one whose leadership the American president has repeatedly refused, one whose description has brought about the most pusillanimous linguistic contortions imaginable, and one we may very well wriggle out of before accomplishing our goal. A war against Qaddafi’s regime was a noble prospect. But I fear Sarah Palin is right. What we have on our hands is a squirmish.

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Why Obama’s Leadership Poll Numbers Are So Terrible

The eye-opening poll of the week comes from Gallup, which shows Barack Obama with the worst numbers of his presidency when it comes to “leadership.” Only 52 percent of Americans describe him as a “strong and decisive leader,” compared to 47 percent who say he’s not. That may not sound bad, but this is how Gallup puts it: “Americans have grown increasingly less likely to view President Obama as a strong and decisive leader since he took office. Roughly half now believe this aptly describes him compared with 60% a year ago and 73% in April 2009.”

This is especially striking because it comes at a moment when one would have expected a “rally round the flag” feeling in the body politic due to the fact that the United States has undertaken a new military effort. Even when Americans are unhappy about American involvement abroad—as they were, for example, when Ronald Reagan sought the overthrow of the Communist regime in Nicaragua—they usually recognize that a president’s decision to commit forces and spend political capital on something controversial marks him as a leader to be reckoned with.

But that has not happened here, and the reason is simple: Obama undertook the Libya mission with the bizarre promise to the American people and the world that he and we would not be leading it, even though we were. The day he decided to act, he said we were doing so at the behest of the United Nations. Hillary Clinton said it was France and Britain who talked us into it. And he went ten days without offering a comprehensive explanation of what we were doing in Libya. The Gallup poll was done before the president’s speech, but it’s unlikely to change anyone’s mind in this regard since it seemed in part designed to reassure people that NATO was taking charge and that our task in Libya was largely completed.

Who would think such a leader was a strong leader when he is practically shouting from the rafters that he doesn’t want to be a strong leader?

The eye-opening poll of the week comes from Gallup, which shows Barack Obama with the worst numbers of his presidency when it comes to “leadership.” Only 52 percent of Americans describe him as a “strong and decisive leader,” compared to 47 percent who say he’s not. That may not sound bad, but this is how Gallup puts it: “Americans have grown increasingly less likely to view President Obama as a strong and decisive leader since he took office. Roughly half now believe this aptly describes him compared with 60% a year ago and 73% in April 2009.”

This is especially striking because it comes at a moment when one would have expected a “rally round the flag” feeling in the body politic due to the fact that the United States has undertaken a new military effort. Even when Americans are unhappy about American involvement abroad—as they were, for example, when Ronald Reagan sought the overthrow of the Communist regime in Nicaragua—they usually recognize that a president’s decision to commit forces and spend political capital on something controversial marks him as a leader to be reckoned with.

But that has not happened here, and the reason is simple: Obama undertook the Libya mission with the bizarre promise to the American people and the world that he and we would not be leading it, even though we were. The day he decided to act, he said we were doing so at the behest of the United Nations. Hillary Clinton said it was France and Britain who talked us into it. And he went ten days without offering a comprehensive explanation of what we were doing in Libya. The Gallup poll was done before the president’s speech, but it’s unlikely to change anyone’s mind in this regard since it seemed in part designed to reassure people that NATO was taking charge and that our task in Libya was largely completed.

Who would think such a leader was a strong leader when he is practically shouting from the rafters that he doesn’t want to be a strong leader?

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More Reports of Jihadists Among Rebels as Washington Debates Sending Arms

The potential presence of al Qaeda and Hezbollah isn’t the only concern about the makeup of the Libyan rebel forces. Former jihadist Noman Benotman, who used to lead Libya’s al Qaeda affiliate, told the Washington Times today that the unaffiliated “freelance jihadists” have joined the fight to oust Qaddafi:

“We have freelance jihadists,” he said. “But everything is still under control of the interim national council. There is no other organization that says, ‘We are leaders of the revolution with this emir,’ like al Qaeda would. Everyone is afraid to do this; they would be labeled as undermining the people.”

Benotman told the Washington Times that he estimates there are “around a thousand” unaffiliated jihadists in Libya, though he didn’t say how many were involved in the fight. He also made it clear that the leaders of the opposition are seeking democracy.

Meanwhile, the New York Times is reporting that Washington is in a heated debate over whether to supply arms – and the necessary training – to the rebels, who badly need it. According to the paper, the French government is “mounting pressure on the United States to provide greater assistance to the rebels.”

While American officials who have met with the opposition forces say that they’re largely democratic, nobody has been able to give a clear picture of the composition yet. If the U.S. decides against giving arms to the rebels, it may still be able to provide important assistance in the form of humanitarian and financial aid.

The potential presence of al Qaeda and Hezbollah isn’t the only concern about the makeup of the Libyan rebel forces. Former jihadist Noman Benotman, who used to lead Libya’s al Qaeda affiliate, told the Washington Times today that the unaffiliated “freelance jihadists” have joined the fight to oust Qaddafi:

“We have freelance jihadists,” he said. “But everything is still under control of the interim national council. There is no other organization that says, ‘We are leaders of the revolution with this emir,’ like al Qaeda would. Everyone is afraid to do this; they would be labeled as undermining the people.”

Benotman told the Washington Times that he estimates there are “around a thousand” unaffiliated jihadists in Libya, though he didn’t say how many were involved in the fight. He also made it clear that the leaders of the opposition are seeking democracy.

Meanwhile, the New York Times is reporting that Washington is in a heated debate over whether to supply arms – and the necessary training – to the rebels, who badly need it. According to the paper, the French government is “mounting pressure on the United States to provide greater assistance to the rebels.”

While American officials who have met with the opposition forces say that they’re largely democratic, nobody has been able to give a clear picture of the composition yet. If the U.S. decides against giving arms to the rebels, it may still be able to provide important assistance in the form of humanitarian and financial aid.

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Public Policy and Political Philosophy

Yuval Levin, the indispensible editor of an indispensible magazine, National Affairs, has written a newly published essay, “Beyond the Welfare State.”

Yuval writes that the vision of social democracy that has dominated our political life for many decades is now failing us. Moreover, he says, the economic crisis of 2008 might well be seen as having marked the beginning of the end of the social democratic welfare state by “making suddenly urgent what was otherwise a gradually oncoming problem” (our crushing deficit and debt).

Democratic capitalism, Levin argues, is the ideal that must guide the work for American domestic policy in the coming years. If the Republican Party is to be a truly conservative party, my Ethics and Public Policy center colleague writes, “it will need to think its way to an agenda of conservative reform.” He lays out his thoughts on the tax system, discretionary and entitlement spending, our health care system, and the administrative state. But there’s one part of the essay I want to tease out a bit. Among the major failings of the modern welfare state is what Yuval calls “a kind of spiritual failing.” Read More

Yuval Levin, the indispensible editor of an indispensible magazine, National Affairs, has written a newly published essay, “Beyond the Welfare State.”

Yuval writes that the vision of social democracy that has dominated our political life for many decades is now failing us. Moreover, he says, the economic crisis of 2008 might well be seen as having marked the beginning of the end of the social democratic welfare state by “making suddenly urgent what was otherwise a gradually oncoming problem” (our crushing deficit and debt).

Democratic capitalism, Levin argues, is the ideal that must guide the work for American domestic policy in the coming years. If the Republican Party is to be a truly conservative party, my Ethics and Public Policy center colleague writes, “it will need to think its way to an agenda of conservative reform.” He lays out his thoughts on the tax system, discretionary and entitlement spending, our health care system, and the administrative state. But there’s one part of the essay I want to tease out a bit. Among the major failings of the modern welfare state is what Yuval calls “a kind of spiritual failing.” In his words:

Under the rules of the modern welfare state, we give up a portion of the capacity to provide for ourselves and in return are freed from a portion of the obligation to discipline ourselves. Increasing economic collectivism enables increasing moral individualism, both of which leave us with less responsibility, and therefore with less grounded and meaningful lives. Moreover, because all citizens — not only the poor — become recipients of benefits, people in the middle class come to approach their government as claimants, not as self-governing citizens, and to approach the social safety net not as a great majority of givers eager to make sure that a small minority of recipients are spared from devastating poverty but as a mass of dependents demanding what they are owed. It is hard to imagine an ethic better suited to undermining the moral basis of a free society.

At the core of the problem of the social democracy vision is that its proponents’ “understanding of the human person was far too shallow and emaciated. They assumed that moral problems were functions of material problems, so that addressing the latter would resolve the former, when the opposite is more often the case.”

Walter Lippmann wrote that at the core of every social, political, and economic system is a picture of human nature. The premises we assume shape almost everything we do. The reason that the Founder’s conception of the American political system and Adam Smith’s vision of capitalism succeeded is that their understanding of the human person was essentially right; the systems they argued for conformed to basic human truths (men are not angels but are capable of virtue, people are driven by self-interest more than altruism, et cetera).

As we undertake the difficult task of self-government, lawmakers and citizens should from time to time step back and reflect on some of these deeper questions about human nature. This exercise isn’t a luxury, a diversion, or a distraction; it is absolutely central to the type of society we are and aspire to be. Public policy cannot be separated from political philosophy. That is, I think, in part what Yuval is saying in his significant essay.

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