Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 2011

What’s the Human Rights Campaign So Afraid of?

There’s a slight logical flaw in the Human Rights Campaign’s crusade against King & Spalding. If the HRC actually believes (as it’s said in the past) that the Defense of Marriage act is “clearly discriminatory and unconstitutional,” then why is the group so fearful about the act being defended in court?

If the DOMA issue was really as cut and dry as HRC claims, one would imagine that even the best attorney wouldn’t make much difference. And if HRC was as confident as it pretends to be, it would let DOMA have its day in court, and it would let it get struck down.

Instead, the group launched a national campaign to strong-arm King & Spalding into dropping it. It tried to scare off the firm’s clients, and planned protests of the law office. Basically, it seems terrified, which indicates that it has a complete lack of faith in the legal system or it’s worried about the strength of the anti-DOMA case (third option is that this is all a ploy for donors).

There’s a slight logical flaw in the Human Rights Campaign’s crusade against King & Spalding. If the HRC actually believes (as it’s said in the past) that the Defense of Marriage act is “clearly discriminatory and unconstitutional,” then why is the group so fearful about the act being defended in court?

If the DOMA issue was really as cut and dry as HRC claims, one would imagine that even the best attorney wouldn’t make much difference. And if HRC was as confident as it pretends to be, it would let DOMA have its day in court, and it would let it get struck down.

Instead, the group launched a national campaign to strong-arm King & Spalding into dropping it. It tried to scare off the firm’s clients, and planned protests of the law office. Basically, it seems terrified, which indicates that it has a complete lack of faith in the legal system or it’s worried about the strength of the anti-DOMA case (third option is that this is all a ploy for donors).

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Barbour Decision a Blow to Conservative Isolationists

Of the potential GOP 2012 candidates, Haley Barbour was the only serious contender who leaned toward isolationism on foreign policy. When he insinuated that the war in Afghanistan wasn’t worth the cost, the media immediately began speculating that a foreign policy “rift” was forming in the Republican Party.

“Barbour’s comments could ultimately result in a foreign policy debate between the presidential contenders that doesn’t position Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) as comic relief in the area,” predicted The Hill.

Joe Klein at Time’s Swampland was even more enthusiastic. “When Barbour decides that Afghanistan is a loser, you can bet that more than a few Republicans are heading that way,” he wrote. “[A]nd that means interesting times for the trigger-happy neoconservatives who have dominated Republican foreign policy thinking in recent years. It also means that the foreign policy debate in the Republican primaries may be a real eye-opener.”

Now that Barbour has decided not to run, it’s far less likely that Afghanistan will be a major point of disagreement during the Republican debates, since the current (serious) potential GOP candidates all fall within the mainstream of conservative foreign policy continuum.

Of the potential GOP 2012 candidates, Haley Barbour was the only serious contender who leaned toward isolationism on foreign policy. When he insinuated that the war in Afghanistan wasn’t worth the cost, the media immediately began speculating that a foreign policy “rift” was forming in the Republican Party.

“Barbour’s comments could ultimately result in a foreign policy debate between the presidential contenders that doesn’t position Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) as comic relief in the area,” predicted The Hill.

Joe Klein at Time’s Swampland was even more enthusiastic. “When Barbour decides that Afghanistan is a loser, you can bet that more than a few Republicans are heading that way,” he wrote. “[A]nd that means interesting times for the trigger-happy neoconservatives who have dominated Republican foreign policy thinking in recent years. It also means that the foreign policy debate in the Republican primaries may be a real eye-opener.”

Now that Barbour has decided not to run, it’s far less likely that Afghanistan will be a major point of disagreement during the Republican debates, since the current (serious) potential GOP candidates all fall within the mainstream of conservative foreign policy continuum.

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What If We Had Encouraged the UN Tribunal Against Assad?

The Obama administration has turned a blind eye as the United Nations slow-rolled the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was charged with investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Too many in the White House and State Department acquiesced to pushing the Tribunal aside because they wanted to court Assad for their notion of the Middle East peace process. Others wanted to revitalize Bashar al-Assad in order to thumb their nose at George W. Bush. (Here, a picture is worth a thousand words). Alas, as Assad mows down Syrians by the dozens and, according to some eyewitnesses, hundreds, perhaps it’s time to ask what might have happened if we had held Assad accountable when he killed one man, before he had the chance to kill several thousand.

The Obama administration has turned a blind eye as the United Nations slow-rolled the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was charged with investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Too many in the White House and State Department acquiesced to pushing the Tribunal aside because they wanted to court Assad for their notion of the Middle East peace process. Others wanted to revitalize Bashar al-Assad in order to thumb their nose at George W. Bush. (Here, a picture is worth a thousand words). Alas, as Assad mows down Syrians by the dozens and, according to some eyewitnesses, hundreds, perhaps it’s time to ask what might have happened if we had held Assad accountable when he killed one man, before he had the chance to kill several thousand.

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U.S. Priority Should Be Stopping Egyptian Radicals

I rarely find myself in disagreement on foreign policy with the Washington Post’s editorial page, which under the leadership of editor Fred Hiatt and deputy editor Jackson Diehl (a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year) has been a leading voice championing Arab democrats long before it was fashionable to do so—and championing a muscular American foreign policy long after it was fashionable to do so, at least in the progressive salons of Washington. But I would register a slight disagreement with the Post editorial today regarding aid to Egypt.

I agree completely with the main thrust of their argument, that the U.S. should do more to aid Egypt in a difficult transition period. Where I disagree, slightly, is in their contention that “the main U.S. effort should be centered on helping Egypt revive its fragile economy.” They suggest a debt forgiveness program conditioned on “Egypt’s implementation of sensible free-market economic policies.” That’s fine as far as it goes, and there is no doubt that in the long-term economic development is important to Egypt’s future. But in the short term there is a battle for Egypt’s soul going on between Islamists and secularists, and no infusion of economic aid will make much difference. Read More

I rarely find myself in disagreement on foreign policy with the Washington Post’s editorial page, which under the leadership of editor Fred Hiatt and deputy editor Jackson Diehl (a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year) has been a leading voice championing Arab democrats long before it was fashionable to do so—and championing a muscular American foreign policy long after it was fashionable to do so, at least in the progressive salons of Washington. But I would register a slight disagreement with the Post editorial today regarding aid to Egypt.

I agree completely with the main thrust of their argument, that the U.S. should do more to aid Egypt in a difficult transition period. Where I disagree, slightly, is in their contention that “the main U.S. effort should be centered on helping Egypt revive its fragile economy.” They suggest a debt forgiveness program conditioned on “Egypt’s implementation of sensible free-market economic policies.” That’s fine as far as it goes, and there is no doubt that in the long-term economic development is important to Egypt’s future. But in the short term there is a battle for Egypt’s soul going on between Islamists and secularists, and no infusion of economic aid will make much difference.

We need to do something to avert the possible scenario that Gideon Rachman warns of in the Financial Times:

By some reckonings [Salafists] could get 5 per cent to 10 per cent of the vote in parliamentary elections planned for September.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the more established and less fundamentalist Islamist organisation, is generally reckoned to be good for at least a third of the vote. Add in a couple of fringe Islamist parties and you could be looking at an Islamist majority in Egypt’s first parliament.

Perhaps that’s overly alarmist; but maybe not. As Rachman notes, the Muslim Brotherhood is well-organized; the liberal, secular opposition isn’t. Where will the moderates find the support needed to organize and fast? Not from Iran. Not from Saudi Arabia. The only plausible sources are Western Europe and the United States.

The U.S. intelligence budget is currently around $80 billion. Imagine how much of a difference a few stray billions could make in Egypt and other countries across the Middle East where moderate forces are mobilizing to fight for control of their societies against the radical Islamists. Yes there is a risk of a backlash if moderate parties are seen as American stooges—a danger that the Post editors rightly note. But their opponents will make those accusations no matter what. At this point I believe the greater danger is that we will sit on the sidelines and let a once-in-lifetime chance to transform the Middle East for the better slip by.

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Why is South Korea’s Ambassador in Iran Supporting Terrorists?

The South Korean ambassador to Iran has donated $83,000 to the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee in Tehran. Perhaps his goal was a quid pro quo: The Imam Khomeini Relief Committee promised to facilitate hiring for Korean electronics companies working in Iran. Still, President Lee Myung-bak, until now a solid American ally, might want to ask his foreign ministry what the heck they were thinking. The Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, controlled by the Supreme Leader, has repeatedly served as a terrorism front. In 1997, its offices in Dushanbe became the headquarters for a plot against the American embassy. Just last summer, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee’s offices in Lebanon a terrorist entity. My colleagues, Ahmad Majidyar and Ali Alfoneh have done yeomen’s work examining this organization’s activities in Afghanistan. There can be no conscionable reason why the Republic of Korea is donating money to this organization. In any other administration, the State Department would be demanding an explanation.

The South Korean ambassador to Iran has donated $83,000 to the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee in Tehran. Perhaps his goal was a quid pro quo: The Imam Khomeini Relief Committee promised to facilitate hiring for Korean electronics companies working in Iran. Still, President Lee Myung-bak, until now a solid American ally, might want to ask his foreign ministry what the heck they were thinking. The Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, controlled by the Supreme Leader, has repeatedly served as a terrorism front. In 1997, its offices in Dushanbe became the headquarters for a plot against the American embassy. Just last summer, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee’s offices in Lebanon a terrorist entity. My colleagues, Ahmad Majidyar and Ali Alfoneh have done yeomen’s work examining this organization’s activities in Afghanistan. There can be no conscionable reason why the Republic of Korea is donating money to this organization. In any other administration, the State Department would be demanding an explanation.

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Balanced Budget Amendment Redux

There is increasing talk of Republicans tying their acquiescence to an increase in the debt ceiling (which could be reached as soon as May 16th) to a balanced budget amendment that has been introduced in the Senate, co-sponsored by all 47 Republican senators.

Balanced budget amendments have been introduced any number of times, beginning in 1936, when an amendment would have capped the per capita debt in peace time (it got nowhere). More comprehensive amendments to require a balanced budget were introduced in 1982, 1997, and 2005. They, too, got nowhere.

It would be difficult to have such an amendment make it to the Constitution, as doing so requires a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress and then ratification by three-quarters of the states. (Presidents have no veto power over proposed amendments.) It is by no means clear that the legislatures of 38 states, many of which are dependent on federal revenues to balance their own books, would be willing to ratify. The legislatures could be bypassed if Congress called for ratification by state conventions. That means has been utilized only once, however, for the 21st Amendment repealing prohibition, when Congress realized that many state legislatures were under the thumb of “the bootleggers and the preachers.” (by the way, it has been widely asserted that ratification, even if possible, would take years. That’s not necessarily true. The 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age to 18, was proposed by Congress on March 23, 1971, and declared ratified on June 30th, 1971, a mere three months later.

But would a balanced budget amendment do any good? The answer is no. Read More

There is increasing talk of Republicans tying their acquiescence to an increase in the debt ceiling (which could be reached as soon as May 16th) to a balanced budget amendment that has been introduced in the Senate, co-sponsored by all 47 Republican senators.

Balanced budget amendments have been introduced any number of times, beginning in 1936, when an amendment would have capped the per capita debt in peace time (it got nowhere). More comprehensive amendments to require a balanced budget were introduced in 1982, 1997, and 2005. They, too, got nowhere.

It would be difficult to have such an amendment make it to the Constitution, as doing so requires a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress and then ratification by three-quarters of the states. (Presidents have no veto power over proposed amendments.) It is by no means clear that the legislatures of 38 states, many of which are dependent on federal revenues to balance their own books, would be willing to ratify. The legislatures could be bypassed if Congress called for ratification by state conventions. That means has been utilized only once, however, for the 21st Amendment repealing prohibition, when Congress realized that many state legislatures were under the thumb of “the bootleggers and the preachers.” (by the way, it has been widely asserted that ratification, even if possible, would take years. That’s not necessarily true. The 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age to 18, was proposed by Congress on March 23, 1971, and declared ratified on June 30th, 1971, a mere three months later.

But would a balanced budget amendment do any good? The answer is no. Every state but Vermont has a constitutional requirement that the state expense budget be balanced. But many states are in total fiscal disarray anyway. How come? They cook the books. And they project rosy scenarios regarding revenues that then don’t materialize. New York City went to the very edge of bankruptcy in the 1970′s despite having “balanced” the city’s books every year.  The only state constitutional requirement that has provided real fiscal discipline has been to limit increases in state spending to increases in population and inflation. In other words, require that per-capita spending in real terms remain constant. These are hard, objective numbers, not bookkeeping entries or guesses about the future. California had such a requirement from the late 70′s to the early 90′s and thrived. Then it was gutted and the state began its two-decade lurch towards the fiscal cliff.

Do you think Congress and a free-spending president might play the same games under a federal balanced budget amendment? I sure do.

So a balanced budget amendment is unlikely to make it to ratification and wouldn’t work if it did. So why does it pop up every few years? Because it makes the sponsors look serious about federal fiscal discipline without actually doing anything to provide it. For politicians, tomorrow’s headline (“Senator Snoot Moves on Debt Crisis”) is often all they are really interested in.

A constitutional amendment that 1) established an independent, politically-insulated accounting board that would decide how the government’s books must be kept and how bills should be scored, 2) gave the president a line-item veto, which would make the president a powerful player in the budget battles, which he is not now, and 3) limited real spending increases per capita absent a congressional super-majority to waive the limit would provide that real fiscal discipline.

Don’t look for many congressional sponsors for that amendment anytime soon.

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Obama Campaign Pushes Underdog Narrative

President Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina released a video for supporters yesterday, outlining the president’s reelection strategy. He touched on some key themes that Democrats are likely to hammer on in the lead-up to 2012.

For one, Messina informed the liberal base that Obama’s victory is far from guaranteed, especially with Republicans “fired-up” to oust the president. Because of that, Obama supporters need to be out in full force, said Messina. He also attempted to paint the president as an underdog and an outsider, another narrative that’s intended to motivate the left.

“We ought not to act like an incumbent,” said Messina. “We oughta’ act like an insurgent campaign.”

If Obama runs the same campaign he did in 2008, “we stand a good chance of losing,” Messina added. “[W]e need to build something new – better, faster and sleeker.”

The attempt to portray Obama as an underdog might sound ridiculous, but Democrats will try to pull it off by attacking Republicans for allegedly being in the pocket of corporations, oil companies, and Wall Street. In the video, Messina suggested that the Citizens United ruling gave the GOP a financial advantage in the 2012 election, and the Democrats would have to work even harder than in 2008 to pull in donors and voters.

It’s also noteworthy that Messina spoke about Citizens United directly. The Democrats attempted to stir up anger on this issue during the 2010 midterms, but their demagoguery failed miserably. So it’s a bit surprising that they would make this the centerpiece of their strategy for 2012.

President Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina released a video for supporters yesterday, outlining the president’s reelection strategy. He touched on some key themes that Democrats are likely to hammer on in the lead-up to 2012.

For one, Messina informed the liberal base that Obama’s victory is far from guaranteed, especially with Republicans “fired-up” to oust the president. Because of that, Obama supporters need to be out in full force, said Messina. He also attempted to paint the president as an underdog and an outsider, another narrative that’s intended to motivate the left.

“We ought not to act like an incumbent,” said Messina. “We oughta’ act like an insurgent campaign.”

If Obama runs the same campaign he did in 2008, “we stand a good chance of losing,” Messina added. “[W]e need to build something new – better, faster and sleeker.”

The attempt to portray Obama as an underdog might sound ridiculous, but Democrats will try to pull it off by attacking Republicans for allegedly being in the pocket of corporations, oil companies, and Wall Street. In the video, Messina suggested that the Citizens United ruling gave the GOP a financial advantage in the 2012 election, and the Democrats would have to work even harder than in 2008 to pull in donors and voters.

It’s also noteworthy that Messina spoke about Citizens United directly. The Democrats attempted to stir up anger on this issue during the 2010 midterms, but their demagoguery failed miserably. So it’s a bit surprising that they would make this the centerpiece of their strategy for 2012.

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Brzezinski, Over Obama

Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article is every bit as devastating as John says. Among the more damning quotes is this one:

[Zbigniew] Brzezinski, too, has become disillusioned with the President. “I greatly admire his insights and understanding. I don’t think he really has a policy that’s implementing those insights and understandings. The rhetoric is always terribly imperative and categorical: ‘You must do this,’ ‘He must do that,’ ‘This is unacceptable.’ ” Brzezinski added, “He doesn’t strategize. He sermonizes.”

The same people who helped give us the four awful years of the Carter presidency now feel confident enough to stand in judgment of Mr. Obama (and for sermonizing instead of strategizing, no less!).

Things are quickly heading south for the president.

Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article is every bit as devastating as John says. Among the more damning quotes is this one:

[Zbigniew] Brzezinski, too, has become disillusioned with the President. “I greatly admire his insights and understanding. I don’t think he really has a policy that’s implementing those insights and understandings. The rhetoric is always terribly imperative and categorical: ‘You must do this,’ ‘He must do that,’ ‘This is unacceptable.’ ” Brzezinski added, “He doesn’t strategize. He sermonizes.”

The same people who helped give us the four awful years of the Carter presidency now feel confident enough to stand in judgment of Mr. Obama (and for sermonizing instead of strategizing, no less!).

Things are quickly heading south for the president.

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Obama Deflects Gas Price Outrage With Anti-Corporate Scapegoating

Anti-corporate demagoguery. Is there anything it can’t solve?

President Obama says he is ready to go after gasoline price gougers announcing today a new task force to “root out any cases of fraud of manipulation” of oil markets… “Folks are out there dealing with gas at $4 a gallon,” he told the Nevada crowd, “it’s tough.” He said he had already asked the Attorney General “to look into any cases of price gouging.” The Attorney General’s new energy fraud team will… “root out any cases of fraud or manipulation in the oil markets that might affect gas prices, and that includes the role of traders and speculators. We’re going to make sure that nobody’s taking advantage of American consumers for their own short-term gains.”

Coming from a trailblazer of union-friendly crony capitalism, you’d expect more circumspection about taking advantage of American consumers for short-term gain. Maybe the oil industry isn’t heavily unionized, or perhaps the issue is too pressing to be picky about who gets thrown under the bus. In any case, oil companies are this week’s designated target for grassroots outrage and — if reports of $5 gallons don’t go away soon — that’ll be true for some time to come. Read More

Anti-corporate demagoguery. Is there anything it can’t solve?

President Obama says he is ready to go after gasoline price gougers announcing today a new task force to “root out any cases of fraud of manipulation” of oil markets… “Folks are out there dealing with gas at $4 a gallon,” he told the Nevada crowd, “it’s tough.” He said he had already asked the Attorney General “to look into any cases of price gouging.” The Attorney General’s new energy fraud team will… “root out any cases of fraud or manipulation in the oil markets that might affect gas prices, and that includes the role of traders and speculators. We’re going to make sure that nobody’s taking advantage of American consumers for their own short-term gains.”

Coming from a trailblazer of union-friendly crony capitalism, you’d expect more circumspection about taking advantage of American consumers for short-term gain. Maybe the oil industry isn’t heavily unionized, or perhaps the issue is too pressing to be picky about who gets thrown under the bus. In any case, oil companies are this week’s designated target for grassroots outrage and — if reports of $5 gallons don’t go away soon — that’ll be true for some time to come.

But before we kick off this latest round of scapegoating — scapegoating being the necessary relief valve for populist leaders who mix impossible promises of utopian “unity” with impractical prescriptions for radical “change” — some context from the beginning of the year might not be out of the question:

Domestic oil production faces a long-term decline in the wake of curtailed offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, stemming from the BP oil spill last year. In four to five years, a loss of several hundred thousand barrels a day from the Gulf is likely, enough to significantly boost U.S. reliance on imported oil. It’s no surprise, really. New deepwater drilling has largely come to a standstill in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the October end of the White House moratorium on deepwater drilling, not a single new permit has been issued for drilling in waters more than 500 feet deep. And even permits for shallow-water drilling are currently taking twice as long to complete — roughly 60 days — as before.

The expired moratorium had been justified in the first place by misrepresenting the administration’s expert panel.

After the formal moratorium became merely de facto, Abe sarcasically noted that “what America needs right now is a loss of jobs and a constriction of the economy in response to a one-off accident.” And while that was a fair point, one could hardly have expected the Obama administration to take the logic seriously. Why bother, when there are corporations that can be blamed for counterproductive policies? That’s so much easier than coping with the cognitive dissonance of balancing unsound ideology and economic reality.

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Law Firm Drops DOMA Case After Attacks From Gay Rights Groups

King & Spalding, the law firm hired by the U.S. House of Representatives to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, announced today that it has withdrawn from the assignment, after gay rights groups launched a national attack campaign targeting the firm.

The Human Rights Campaign, which planned to protest outside of the law firm and was working to discourage recruits and clients from using its services, praised the decision on its website. “King & Spalding has rightly chosen to put principle above politics in dropping its involvement in the defense of this discriminatory and patently unconstitutional law,” said the HRC. Read More

King & Spalding, the law firm hired by the U.S. House of Representatives to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, announced today that it has withdrawn from the assignment, after gay rights groups launched a national attack campaign targeting the firm.

The Human Rights Campaign, which planned to protest outside of the law firm and was working to discourage recruits and clients from using its services, praised the decision on its website. “King & Spalding has rightly chosen to put principle above politics in dropping its involvement in the defense of this discriminatory and patently unconstitutional law,” said the HRC.

This is obviously a major setback for House Republicans, and supporters of DOMA. It will be tough for them to convince a major, credible law firm to sign on to the case after this. Some might argue the smear campaign against King & Spalding was an unfortunate blow to civil liberties in our country, but so far left-wing bloggers appear to be relishing the victory.

“Good riddance,” wrote Joe Sudbay at AmericaBlog. “[King & Spalding attorney Paul Clement] trotted out the tired old lawyer defense for everything bad that some lawyers do in life: Our evil acts are really a virtue, because even bad people (or laws) deserve to be defended.  And perhaps they do. But not by you.”

It’s true that King & Spalding had every right to take up the assignment, and HRC had every right to attack them for it. But it’s worth looking back at the hysterical reaction when Keep America Safe simply asked for the identity of the attorneys representing Guantanamo Bay detainees. At the time, Attorney General Eric Holder called Keep America Safe’s campaign “reprehensible.” An op-ed in the Chicago Tribune wondered “Have you no shame, Ms. Cheney?”

The ACLU also issued a statement slamming Keep America Safe for its allegedly “dangerous” “attack” on the lawyers:

Attorneys who stand up for the rule of law by representing unpopular individuals, including those accused of terrible crimes, act in a long and venerated American tradition. They should be praised for defending our Constitution, not slandered. It is wrong and destructive to our democracy to attribute nefarious motives to attorneys because of the accusations against their clients.

I contacted the ACLU, which sent back the following response from the director of the LGBT Project, James Essek:”No matter who represents the House Republican leadership, we’re confident that the courts will recognize that the so-called ‘Defense of Marriage Act’ is discriminatory and unconstitutional.  Congress should not be wasting scarce resources on high-priced lawyers to defend this law, but instead should stand on the right side of history by passing the Respect for Marriage Act and repealing DOMA once and for all.”

No mention of the HRC’s attacks on King & Spalding, or the right to defend an unpopular client. It sounds like the ACLU is opposed to any attorneys defending DOMA, a policy that it finds unconstitutional.

Reuters is reporting that Paul Clement, the lawyer who had taken up the DOMA assignment at King & Spalding, has resigned his partnership in the law firm and will continue to represent Congress.

The American Bar Association, another harsh critic of the Keep America Safe campaign, hasn’t responded to my request for comment yet. Maybe the HRC will face the same backlash for its campaign that Keep America Safe once did. That is, unless it’s become more “abhorrent” to defend a politically incorrect government policy than to defend accused terrorists.

UPDATE: At National Review online, David French points out that King & Spalding have actually represented six Guantanamo Bay detainees. From a 2009 Atlanta Business Chronicle report:

Sometime after he’s sworn in as president, Barack Obama is expected to follow through on a campaign promise to close the controversial U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

It can’t come a moment too soon for King & Spalding LLP partners John Chandler and Beth Tanis, a husband-and-wife tandem who have represented six of the Guantanamo detainees since 2004. The two lawyers, who recently joined Atlanta’s second-largest law firm (as measured by Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 2008-2009 Book of Lists) have spent countless pro bono hours on a cause they believe fundamentally erodes Americans’ basic rights.

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“Let Israel Come”

The AP and other news organizations are reporting that Syria’s Assad government has taken out the mailed fist and has slammed into Daraa with tanks, snipers, and thousands of troops. This, of course, is all too reminiscent of the Hama massacre in 1982, when Hafez al-Assad’s ordered his brother, Rifaat al-Assad  to lay that city waste to suppress a rebellion centered there. Somewhere between ten and forty thousand Syrians died and the city looked like Berlin in 1945 .

The AP report has a remarkable quote:

“Let Obama come and take Syria. Let Israel come and take  Syria. Let the Jews come,” shouted one Daraa resident over the phone.  “Anything is better than Bashar Assad,” he said, playing on Syria’s hatred for  Israel to highlight how much town residents despise their  leader.

If that’s what people in the streets of Syria are saying, I suspect the days of the Assad regime are numbered, however many tanks and soldiers they deploy.

The AP and other news organizations are reporting that Syria’s Assad government has taken out the mailed fist and has slammed into Daraa with tanks, snipers, and thousands of troops. This, of course, is all too reminiscent of the Hama massacre in 1982, when Hafez al-Assad’s ordered his brother, Rifaat al-Assad  to lay that city waste to suppress a rebellion centered there. Somewhere between ten and forty thousand Syrians died and the city looked like Berlin in 1945 .

The AP report has a remarkable quote:

“Let Obama come and take Syria. Let Israel come and take  Syria. Let the Jews come,” shouted one Daraa resident over the phone.  “Anything is better than Bashar Assad,” he said, playing on Syria’s hatred for  Israel to highlight how much town residents despise their  leader.

If that’s what people in the streets of Syria are saying, I suspect the days of the Assad regime are numbered, however many tanks and soldiers they deploy.

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Abbas: Full Settlement Freeze Was Obama’s Invention

The background on Obama’s 2009 and 2010 diplomatic offensives against Israel are now well-known enough that the narrative is inching toward conventional wisdom. The president entered the White House intent on putting daylight between the United States and the Jewish state. He choose settlements as a wedge issue designed to split Netanyahu from the Israeli public and topple the government, in the process changing the widely understood interpretation of “settlement freeze” from “no expansion outside existing blocs” to “no Jewish construction over the Green Line even in Jerusalem.” Either Netanyahu would halt all construction and lose the Israeli right, the thinking went, or he would put himself on the wrong side of the United States president and lose the Israeli center. Satisfyingly clever.

Of course the administration’s reading of Israeli polling data was flat wrong, and even Israeli opposition chairwoman Tzipi Livni insisted that Jerusalem was a consensus issue. Read More

The background on Obama’s 2009 and 2010 diplomatic offensives against Israel are now well-known enough that the narrative is inching toward conventional wisdom. The president entered the White House intent on putting daylight between the United States and the Jewish state. He choose settlements as a wedge issue designed to split Netanyahu from the Israeli public and topple the government, in the process changing the widely understood interpretation of “settlement freeze” from “no expansion outside existing blocs” to “no Jewish construction over the Green Line even in Jerusalem.” Either Netanyahu would halt all construction and lose the Israeli right, the thinking went, or he would put himself on the wrong side of the United States president and lose the Israeli center. Satisfyingly clever.

Of course the administration’s reading of Israeli polling data was flat wrong, and even Israeli opposition chairwoman Tzipi Livni insisted that Jerusalem was a consensus issue. The Israeli public rallied behind Netanyahu, while distrust in Obama and his reliability as an ally — a precondition to Israel taking risks for peace — skyrocketed. But having categorically stated that it was simply impossible for the Palestinians to negotiate while Jews built schools and supermarkets in East Jerusalem, the White House couldn’t then admit that a “full freeze” was just a gambit meant to weaken Netanyahu. So that continued to be the official U.S. position through the end of 2010, until the White House had to nuance the counterproductive request. Of course by that time Palestinian negotiators, unable to be less anti-Israel than the U.S. president, had incorporated it as a precondition for talks. They didn’t have the option of abandoning it when the White House did, and the peace process remained moribund.

Again, this is all more or less conventional wisdom. Still, it’s nice to have confirmation:

[Abbas] told me bluntly that Obama had led him on, and then let him down by failing to keep pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank last year. “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze,” Abbas explained. “I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it.”

The question, as always, isn’t just about the decision but about the decision-making process. Which obviously clumsy advisers convinced the president that the strategy was sound, and are they still prognosticating on Israeli calculations and Palestinian intentions? What obviously inaccurate assumptions were they using, and are those beliefs still guiding our Middle East policymaking? Because generally when someone charts a course that’s flawed in precisely predictable ways, when they dismiss those precise objections with specific justifications, and when they turn out to be precisely wrong — they generally get replaced. But there’s not much evidence that ever happened.

Of course it’s difficult to know from the outside where exactly things went awry, and who was making up which anti-Israel pretexts. The administration’s foreign policy is a hodgepodge of institutionalized ideology and wishful thinking, with various factions all vying for the president’s ear and trying to be unwittingly wrong in their own special way.

There are old peace-process hands who interpret obsolete data through outmoded preconceptions, and who suggest tactics that are too clever by half and misguided in full. There are anti-Israel Jewish activists who whine about exclusion while insisting that they represent American Jewry, and who leverage their access to the president to peddle fantasies about American Jewish sentiments. There are multilateralists who resent having to defend our only stable Middle Eastern ally from global hostility, and gesture vaguely at ad-hoc international solutions and national credibility. There are diplomats and scholars whose institutional importance rises and falls as a function of the centrality of the Arab world, and who overstate the moderation of Arab governments while understating the pathology of the Arab Street.

And that’s before we get to the quotidian antipathy that many in the administration harbor toward the Israelis, an antipathy that apparently makes any anti-Israel reasoning — no matter how thin — seem like the height of sophistication.

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The Virtues and Vices of Ideology

In the current issue of First Things, James Nuechterlein has written a short essay, “Ideology and Transcendence,” which addresses — with typical intelligence, balance, and honesty — an issue that I have thought about almost since I first became interested in politics and the philosophies informing it.

Nuechterlein asserts that everyone thinks ideologically, though not everyone wants to admit it. “We each create a framework of understanding that shapes our reaction to new events and information,” Nuechterlein writes, and it’s hard to imagine our functioning without them. “In their absence, after all, we would all face the absurd and impossible prospect of each day recreating from the chaos of information that washes over us a coherent structure of meaning,” he says. At the same time, we have to be open to second thoughts and re-interpreting events. “The trick is to not let our cognitive instincts take over our thinking entirely,” Nuechterlein writes. “The cultivation of self-doubt is an intellectual and moral virtue, even if, pushed too far, it can leave us incapable of decisive action.”

The things that shape the ideologies we embrace are complicated. Read More

In the current issue of First Things, James Nuechterlein has written a short essay, “Ideology and Transcendence,” which addresses — with typical intelligence, balance, and honesty — an issue that I have thought about almost since I first became interested in politics and the philosophies informing it.

Nuechterlein asserts that everyone thinks ideologically, though not everyone wants to admit it. “We each create a framework of understanding that shapes our reaction to new events and information,” Nuechterlein writes, and it’s hard to imagine our functioning without them. “In their absence, after all, we would all face the absurd and impossible prospect of each day recreating from the chaos of information that washes over us a coherent structure of meaning,” he says. At the same time, we have to be open to second thoughts and re-interpreting events. “The trick is to not let our cognitive instincts take over our thinking entirely,” Nuechterlein writes. “The cultivation of self-doubt is an intellectual and moral virtue, even if, pushed too far, it can leave us incapable of decisive action.”

The things that shape the ideologies we embrace are complicated. We like to think that it’s based on the logical judgments of a rational mind, by sound conclusions “held firm and bound fast by a chain of argument as strong as iron,” in the words of Socrates. It may be in part that, but there are other factors at play, including, as Nuechterlein points out, family history, economic and social interests, ethnic characteristics, religious convictions, the influence of peers and respected authority figures, and genetic predispositions.

I would add only a few thoughts to what Nuechterlein has said. The first is that not all ideologies are the same; some conform to reality and deep human truths much more than others. There is a difference between the ideology of Madison and the ideology of Marx.

Still, those who embrace a philosophy that is in sync with human nature and reality can fall into bad habits. For example, we often settle on a particular position almost instantaneously and, having done so, prepare a lawyer’s brief in defense of that position. This can mean never conceding a point to an opposing argument, despite the fact that most public policy positions contain a mixture of pros and cons. “There are few things wholly evil or wholly good,” Lincoln said. “Almost everything, especially of government policy, is an inseparable compound of the two, so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.” But our public discourse tends to ignore this. It is predicated on the belief that conceding that one’s position isn’t without drawbacks is somehow discrediting.  

We’re all aware of the irritating patterns we see in others — bending facts in order to fit pre-existing views, searching out data that confirms one’s position while ignoring data that undermines it, answering the weakest rather than the strongest opposing arguments, setting a field of strawmen ablaze, impugning the motivations of those who hold different views, and so forth. What’s much more difficult is detecting those patterns in us, to see the little games we play on ourselves and on others, to recognize when our intellectual integrity is compromised by a commitment to a predetermined set of beliefs.

Striking the right balance between holding to a principled set of beliefs on the one hand and a willingness to examine and re-examine one’s views in light of new evidence on the other is much more of a struggle than most of us like to admit. Perhaps the best way to avoid being trapped by what Nuechterlein calls “ideology’s lures” is to periodically step back from the daily clash of political debates and remind ourselves that politics and political philosophy are instruments meant to increase wisdom rather than simply power; to enhance the (imperfect) quest for truth; and to activate our interest in a good society. Even those who embrace a worldview that is closely aligned to human nature and life in this world need to be open to modification and adjustment, to unfolding events and to new facts. This requires qualities that are both rare and estimable, including a measure of self-knowledge, self-criticism, and self-doubt. That is in part what I think Jim Nuechterlein is saying in his splendid essay.

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Our Immoral Position in Libya

Can Muammar Qaddafi be toppled without the U.S. committing to more than a couple of drones and some care packages? No one is quite sure. If not, is there any conceivable justification for the U.S. to stay involved at all? On that point, opinion is clear: No – unless of course you’re in the Obama administration and you’ve got to disambiguate on Sunday-morning TV.  But amid all the analysis of the operation’s efficacy, few have mentioned that there is more at stake here than the unpromising mechanics of a led-from-behind kinetic military action not to remove a madman we demanded removed.  As Elliott Abrams notes at the Weekly Standard, “It is an immoral position for our country to take.” How so? He paints this unimprovably bleak portrait to make the point:

We will be providing the Libyan rebels with “vehicles, fuel trucks and fuel bladders, ambulances, medical equipment, protective vests, binoculars, and non-secure radios.” Secretary Clinton said we’ll be providing some halal meals, too. This will take them to the front lines, allow them to have lunch and see the enemy, and enable them efficiently to report back on the number of dead and wounded brothers in arms—or perhaps more accurately, brothers without arms—who those ambulances are removing.

“It is a formula,” Abrams concludes, “unworthy of our country.” On that point, opinion is nearing unanimity.

Can Muammar Qaddafi be toppled without the U.S. committing to more than a couple of drones and some care packages? No one is quite sure. If not, is there any conceivable justification for the U.S. to stay involved at all? On that point, opinion is clear: No – unless of course you’re in the Obama administration and you’ve got to disambiguate on Sunday-morning TV.  But amid all the analysis of the operation’s efficacy, few have mentioned that there is more at stake here than the unpromising mechanics of a led-from-behind kinetic military action not to remove a madman we demanded removed.  As Elliott Abrams notes at the Weekly Standard, “It is an immoral position for our country to take.” How so? He paints this unimprovably bleak portrait to make the point:

We will be providing the Libyan rebels with “vehicles, fuel trucks and fuel bladders, ambulances, medical equipment, protective vests, binoculars, and non-secure radios.” Secretary Clinton said we’ll be providing some halal meals, too. This will take them to the front lines, allow them to have lunch and see the enemy, and enable them efficiently to report back on the number of dead and wounded brothers in arms—or perhaps more accurately, brothers without arms—who those ambulances are removing.

“It is a formula,” Abrams concludes, “unworthy of our country.” On that point, opinion is nearing unanimity.

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RE: RE: Obama, “Leading from Behind”

John makes some astute comments regarding Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article on President Obama’s foreign policy doctrine. It’s just too easy to poke fun at the concept of “Leading from Behind,” so excuse me as my tongue goes fully into cheek.  Just as Barack Obama’s election led to the renaming of a handful of elementary schools, perhaps in the spirit of “Leading from Behind,” it’s time to embrace the Obama enthusiasm and recast other concepts.  Edward Smith was the captain of the Titanic. While it may appear at first glance that he erred when the Titanic struck an iceberg, perhaps a more charitable reading was that he was “sailing from below.”  France has traditionally become the butt of jokes because of its penchant for surrender (e.g., “Why did the French plant trees along the Champs d’Elysee? German soldiers prefer to march in the shade.”)  But they should not be ridiculed: Rather than surrender quickly, the French simply preferred to “resist from behind.” Don’t call Deepwater Horizon an oil spill: It was simply “greasing from below.”  We miss a debt payment? That’s “Financing from Behind.” Back in 1992, I got a D in an organic chemistry test. At the time, I was concerned. Now, I realize I should not have been. I was simply learning “behind the curve.” I’d certainly love to play poker with President Obama one day, because while other players might seek a full house or, at least three-of-a-kind, our president might “gamble from behind” and instead settle for a pair of threes.

More seriously, while President Obama may believe that the U.S. is reviled in much of the world, a lesson I learned from years crisscrossing the Middle East and, more broadly, Africa and Asia, is that when it comes to American policy, other nations will criticize us no matter what we do. We are “damned if we do, damned if we don’t.” In such circumstances, the best thing to do is to worry less about what people might think, and simply do what we think is right. There is a State Department corollary to this which became apparent during the Cold War, in the run-up to the Operation Iraqi Freedom, and many times since. Perhaps instead of seeking to change American policies to win plaudits in their countries of residence, American diplomats would be better served arguing and defending American policies, leaving no criticism unanswered.

John makes some astute comments regarding Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article on President Obama’s foreign policy doctrine. It’s just too easy to poke fun at the concept of “Leading from Behind,” so excuse me as my tongue goes fully into cheek.  Just as Barack Obama’s election led to the renaming of a handful of elementary schools, perhaps in the spirit of “Leading from Behind,” it’s time to embrace the Obama enthusiasm and recast other concepts.  Edward Smith was the captain of the Titanic. While it may appear at first glance that he erred when the Titanic struck an iceberg, perhaps a more charitable reading was that he was “sailing from below.”  France has traditionally become the butt of jokes because of its penchant for surrender (e.g., “Why did the French plant trees along the Champs d’Elysee? German soldiers prefer to march in the shade.”)  But they should not be ridiculed: Rather than surrender quickly, the French simply preferred to “resist from behind.” Don’t call Deepwater Horizon an oil spill: It was simply “greasing from below.”  We miss a debt payment? That’s “Financing from Behind.” Back in 1992, I got a D in an organic chemistry test. At the time, I was concerned. Now, I realize I should not have been. I was simply learning “behind the curve.” I’d certainly love to play poker with President Obama one day, because while other players might seek a full house or, at least three-of-a-kind, our president might “gamble from behind” and instead settle for a pair of threes.

More seriously, while President Obama may believe that the U.S. is reviled in much of the world, a lesson I learned from years crisscrossing the Middle East and, more broadly, Africa and Asia, is that when it comes to American policy, other nations will criticize us no matter what we do. We are “damned if we do, damned if we don’t.” In such circumstances, the best thing to do is to worry less about what people might think, and simply do what we think is right. There is a State Department corollary to this which became apparent during the Cold War, in the run-up to the Operation Iraqi Freedom, and many times since. Perhaps instead of seeking to change American policies to win plaudits in their countries of residence, American diplomats would be better served arguing and defending American policies, leaving no criticism unanswered.

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A New Stuxnet?

Iran claims that it’s discovered a new Stuxnet-like cyber attack against its systems, which it’s dubbed the “Stars” virus. Based on the reports from Iran, the virus hasn’t done much damage yet, and is currently under investigation.

“Fortunately, our young experts have been able to discover this virus and the Stars virus is now in the laboratory for more investigations,” Gholamreza Jalali, Iran’s commander of civil defense, told the Mehr news agency. “In the initial stage, the damage is low and it is likely to be mistaken for some of the executable files of the governmental institutions.”

Officials haven’t explained which specific system the virus was targeting, or what impact it was supposed to have. But Jalali did claim that the attack could have endangered the lives of Iranians if it hadn’t been caught early enough. He said that Iran will take legal measures to counter cyber attacks in the future. The regime already said earlier this month that it plans to sue the German-based Siemens corporation for allegedly providing intelligence used to create the Stuxnet virus.

“Many countries such as Russia consider any cyber attack as an act of war against themselves,” said Jalali, insinuating that the regime may be considering other measures against these alleged attacks.

Iran claims that it’s discovered a new Stuxnet-like cyber attack against its systems, which it’s dubbed the “Stars” virus. Based on the reports from Iran, the virus hasn’t done much damage yet, and is currently under investigation.

“Fortunately, our young experts have been able to discover this virus and the Stars virus is now in the laboratory for more investigations,” Gholamreza Jalali, Iran’s commander of civil defense, told the Mehr news agency. “In the initial stage, the damage is low and it is likely to be mistaken for some of the executable files of the governmental institutions.”

Officials haven’t explained which specific system the virus was targeting, or what impact it was supposed to have. But Jalali did claim that the attack could have endangered the lives of Iranians if it hadn’t been caught early enough. He said that Iran will take legal measures to counter cyber attacks in the future. The regime already said earlier this month that it plans to sue the German-based Siemens corporation for allegedly providing intelligence used to create the Stuxnet virus.

“Many countries such as Russia consider any cyber attack as an act of war against themselves,” said Jalali, insinuating that the regime may be considering other measures against these alleged attacks.

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RE: Obama, “Leading from Behind”

When a presidential adviser is quoted in the New Yorker as using an allusion to a comic figure of fun in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta to describe Obama’s foreign policy approach, the White House must know it’s in trouble.

The first person to be described as “leading from behind,” at least as far as I know, was the Duke of Plaza-Toro in The Gondoliers, Gilbert and Sullivan’s last great success. The Duke explains that when he was in the army he occasionally led his regiment into action and “invariably led them out of it.”

In enterprise of martial kind,
When there was any fighting,
He led his regiment from behind–
He found it less exciting.
But when away his regiment ran,
His place was in the fore, O–
That celebrated,
Cultivated,
Underrated
Nobleman,
The Duke of Plaza-Toro!

I agree with John that whoever gave Ryan Lizza that quote would be well advised to stay away from upper-story windows.

When a presidential adviser is quoted in the New Yorker as using an allusion to a comic figure of fun in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta to describe Obama’s foreign policy approach, the White House must know it’s in trouble.

The first person to be described as “leading from behind,” at least as far as I know, was the Duke of Plaza-Toro in The Gondoliers, Gilbert and Sullivan’s last great success. The Duke explains that when he was in the army he occasionally led his regiment into action and “invariably led them out of it.”

In enterprise of martial kind,
When there was any fighting,
He led his regiment from behind–
He found it less exciting.
But when away his regiment ran,
His place was in the fore, O–
That celebrated,
Cultivated,
Underrated
Nobleman,
The Duke of Plaza-Toro!

I agree with John that whoever gave Ryan Lizza that quote would be well advised to stay away from upper-story windows.

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The Hazards of Questioning Obama’s Faith

Franklin Graham gave an interview to ABC’s Christiane Amanpour. In it he praised Donald Trump, about whom the Reverend Graham said, “When I first saw that he was getting in, I thought ‘well this has got to be a joke,’ but the more you listen to him, the more you say to yourself, ‘you know maybe the guy’s right.’” Graham also spoke about the spirit of the anti-Christ, the end times, and President Obama. He is, Graham says, a “very nice man,” though Graham seems to reserve judgment about Obama’s American citizenship. And then Graham ventures into speculation about whether or not Obama is a Christian. The Reverend Graham acknowledges that Obama claims he’s a Christian – but then focuses on semantics. “For him,” Graham says of Obama, “going to church means he’s a Christian.” For Graham, on the other hand, the Christian faith is a matter of allegiance to Jesus.

The problem is that President Obama has never claimed that the definition of Christianity is church attendance. Read More

Franklin Graham gave an interview to ABC’s Christiane Amanpour. In it he praised Donald Trump, about whom the Reverend Graham said, “When I first saw that he was getting in, I thought ‘well this has got to be a joke,’ but the more you listen to him, the more you say to yourself, ‘you know maybe the guy’s right.’” Graham also spoke about the spirit of the anti-Christ, the end times, and President Obama. He is, Graham says, a “very nice man,” though Graham seems to reserve judgment about Obama’s American citizenship. And then Graham ventures into speculation about whether or not Obama is a Christian. The Reverend Graham acknowledges that Obama claims he’s a Christian – but then focuses on semantics. “For him,” Graham says of Obama, “going to church means he’s a Christian.” For Graham, on the other hand, the Christian faith is a matter of allegiance to Jesus.

The problem is that President Obama has never claimed that the definition of Christianity is church attendance. In fact, at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, Mr. Obama spoke in very personal terms about his own journey of faith, going so far as to say, “it was through that experience working with pastors and laypeople trying to heal the wounds of hurting neighborhoods that I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my Lord and Savior.” Obama added, “When I wake in the morning, I wait on the Lord, and I ask Him to give me the strength to do right by our country and its people.  And when I go to bed at night I wait on the Lord, and I ask Him to forgive me my sins, and look after my family and the American people, and make me an instrument of His will.”

What Franklin Graham said, then, is simply not accurate; Obama has been as explicit about his Christian faith as a public figure can be. And yet for Graham it isn’t enough; like Obama’s citizenship, this matter needs to be cloaked in mystery, even where none exists.

On the same program Amanpour interviewed Timothy J. Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. It was a short, thoughtful discussion in which Keller spoke on a number of topics, including politics and the dangers of demonization of opponents. The role of churches should be to produce individuals “who know how to talk civilly,” says Keller (full disclosure: Tim is a friend who wrote the foreword to a book I co-authored on religion and politics). Humility and graciousness should be hallmarks of their discourse. Institutionally, Keller says, a lot of churches have “lost a lot of credibility.” He warns against speaking ex cathedra on a range of political issues. The church, as the church, should be less political.

The interview with Franklin Graham is a perfect illustration as to why.

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Roughly 200 Released Gitmo Detainees Were “High Risk”

One piece of information that stands out from the latest trove of leaked documents on Guantanamo Bay out is the high number of “high risk” detainees who have been released or transferred into the custody of foreign countries:

The secret documents, made available to The New York Times and several other news organizations, reveal that most of the 172 remaining prisoners have been rated as a “high risk” of posing a threat to the United States and its allies if released without adequate rehabilitation and supervision. But they also show that an even larger number of the prisoners who have left Cuba – about a third of the 600 already transferred to other countries – were also designated “high risk” before they were freed or passed to the custody of other governments.

This may explain the recidivism rate we’ve seen over the past few years. The Bush administration released or transferred 532 prisoners and the Obama administration has released or transferred 68 detainees. A total of 82 former detainees have returned to terrorism, according the latest Pentagon calculations.

The documents also confirm what critics of closing Guantanamo Bay have been saying all along. Since most of the remaining 172 prisoners are considered high-risk, the administration is caught in a situation where it’s unable to prosecute the majority of prisoners in civilian court, and would also face a major risk by releasing them. This leaves Obama with no other option but to keep the detention center open.

One piece of information that stands out from the latest trove of leaked documents on Guantanamo Bay out is the high number of “high risk” detainees who have been released or transferred into the custody of foreign countries:

The secret documents, made available to The New York Times and several other news organizations, reveal that most of the 172 remaining prisoners have been rated as a “high risk” of posing a threat to the United States and its allies if released without adequate rehabilitation and supervision. But they also show that an even larger number of the prisoners who have left Cuba – about a third of the 600 already transferred to other countries – were also designated “high risk” before they were freed or passed to the custody of other governments.

This may explain the recidivism rate we’ve seen over the past few years. The Bush administration released or transferred 532 prisoners and the Obama administration has released or transferred 68 detainees. A total of 82 former detainees have returned to terrorism, according the latest Pentagon calculations.

The documents also confirm what critics of closing Guantanamo Bay have been saying all along. Since most of the remaining 172 prisoners are considered high-risk, the administration is caught in a situation where it’s unable to prosecute the majority of prisoners in civilian court, and would also face a major risk by releasing them. This leaves Obama with no other option but to keep the detention center open.

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An Afghanistan Setback – and a Lesson

It is horrifying to read that 476 prisoners managed to tunnel out of Sariposa prison in Kandahar. These include a large number of Taliban commanders and facilitators—the very people that U.S. troops have put their lives on the line to catch. Now they are back out and free to plot fresh terrorist incidents that undoubtedly will kill lots of Afghans and NATO troops. I can only imagine the demoralizing effect this has on the men and women on the front lines.

While a terrible setback, it should not be unexpected, given that in 2008, 1,200 prisoners escaped from the same facility. Meanwhile at Pul-e-charki, the maximum security prison outside Kabul, there have been credible reports of the Taliban running terrorist operations out of their cells. When prisoners are not being given the run of the prison, they reportedly come in for mistreatment. Read More

It is horrifying to read that 476 prisoners managed to tunnel out of Sariposa prison in Kandahar. These include a large number of Taliban commanders and facilitators—the very people that U.S. troops have put their lives on the line to catch. Now they are back out and free to plot fresh terrorist incidents that undoubtedly will kill lots of Afghans and NATO troops. I can only imagine the demoralizing effect this has on the men and women on the front lines.

While a terrible setback, it should not be unexpected, given that in 2008, 1,200 prisoners escaped from the same facility. Meanwhile at Pul-e-charki, the maximum security prison outside Kabul, there have been credible reports of the Taliban running terrorist operations out of their cells. When prisoners are not being given the run of the prison, they reportedly come in for mistreatment.

U.S. advisers have been working to rectify these abuses to ensure that Afghan authorities can hold prisoners safely, securely and humanely. But the reality is that, given how weak the Afghan state is, it is asking too much to expect Afghan authorities to lock up so many dangerous terrorists.

That is why the U.S. has steadily expanded its own prison facility, the Detention Facility in Parwan (DFIP), which operates on a corner of the Bagram air base north of Kabul. I have twice visited the DFIP since December and both times was impressed by how well run it is. U.S. soldiers are in charge but Afghan corrections officers are also present, learning the ropes.  One of their chief beefs, so to speak, is that the inmates get better rations than the Afghan guards are provided by their own government. That is why the average detainee experiences a weight gain while behind bars. Detainees also receive some of the best medical and dental care in the country. Currently some 1,900 detainees are held at Parwan, a figure that can grow to 2,600.

But the U.S. is also intent on handing off as many detainees as possible to the Afghans and on turning over control of the Parwan facility to the Afghans at the earliest possible date. The Sariposa prison break shows the danger of such policies. Until the Afghan state can make considerable progress, it is better for the U.S. to incarcerate suspected insurgents on its own—and on an even grander scale than is currently the case. In Iraq at the height of the surge, we were holding over 25,000 detainees. No one suggests that we need to incarcerate that many Afghans but we’d better lock up more suspects than we are currently doing, otherwise it will be hard to lower violence and gain the confidence of the population.

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