Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 6, 2013

Obama Drone Memo is a Careful, Responsible Document

Pete Wehner makes a fair point in dinging President Obama for hypocrisy because Obama once expressed outrage over the Bush administration’s use of torture (euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques”) while now defending the legality of his own policy of ordering the targeted killing of al-Qaeda members even if they’re U.S. citizens. There is no judicial review in either policy–and the latter results in death rather than discomfort.

But I’d much rather that the president be hypocritical than wrong on the issue of targeted killings. In this case I think he deserves applause for taking the right stance in spite of the criticism from some of his own supporters in the “human rights” lobby. (I use quote marks because groups like Amnesty International seldom if ever recognize that actions taken by Western states to defend themselves against terrorist attacks are a defense of the basic right to live without fear of assault.)

Read More

Pete Wehner makes a fair point in dinging President Obama for hypocrisy because Obama once expressed outrage over the Bush administration’s use of torture (euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques”) while now defending the legality of his own policy of ordering the targeted killing of al-Qaeda members even if they’re U.S. citizens. There is no judicial review in either policy–and the latter results in death rather than discomfort.

But I’d much rather that the president be hypocritical than wrong on the issue of targeted killings. In this case I think he deserves applause for taking the right stance in spite of the criticism from some of his own supporters in the “human rights” lobby. (I use quote marks because groups like Amnesty International seldom if ever recognize that actions taken by Western states to defend themselves against terrorist attacks are a defense of the basic right to live without fear of assault.)

Drone strikes are by no means risk free, the biggest risk being that by killing innocent civilians they will cause a backlash and thereby create more enemies for the U.S. than they eliminate. There is no doubt that some of these strikes have killed the wrong people–as the New York Times account highlights in one incident in Yemen. There is also little doubt, moreover, that drone strikes are no substitute for a comprehensive counterinsurgency and state-building policy designed to permanently safeguard vulnerable countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Mali from the incursions of radical jihadists. But drone strikes have been effective in disrupting al-Qaeda operations and they have been conducted with less collateral damage and more precision than in the past.

It is hard to assess what impact they have had on public opinion in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan, but there is at least as much evidence that these strikes are applauded by locals who are terrorized by al-Qaeda thugs as there is evidence that the strikes are reviled for killing fellow clansmen. As the Times notes: “Although most Yemenis are reluctant to admit it publicly, there does appear to be widespread support for the American drone strikes that hit substantial Qaeda figures like Mr. Shihri, a Saudi and the affiliate’s deputy leader, who died in January of wounds received in a drone strike late last year.”

Given the need to continue these drone strikes, it would be silly and self-destructive to grant certain al-Qaeda figures immunity just because they happen to have American citizenship. In past wars such as the U.S. Civil War and World War II the U.S. military never hesitated to kill or capture enemy combatants simply because they happened to hold American citizenship. Why should today be any different?

Obviously the U.S. government is not going to engage in targeted killings on our home soil, and there is no need to do so–al-Qaeda operatives in the U.S. can always be arrested. That’s not the case in Pakistan or Yemen, where the alternative is typically either to let them go or kill them in a drone strike. The Justice Department memo leaked to NBC News, which justifies such attacks, seems to me a model of careful legal reasoning which preserves the commander-in-chief’s authority to wage war on our enemies without trampling on civil liberties at home.

“This is a chilling document,” says an ACLU lawyer (predictably). No, it’s not. It’s an encouraging document. It shows that, however committed Obama may be to a policy of retrenchment abroad and to dangerous cuts in defense spending, he is still willing to doing what it takes to defend us from al-Qaeda and its ilk.

Read Less

The Problem with the GOP’s “Piecemeal” Immigration Reform

Last week I noted that President Obama has twice derailed comprehensive immigration reform–the first time (as a senator) with his support for “poison pill” amendments, and the second time with a temporary fix that did nothing to restructure the broken immigration system. It seems that now, however, it is the House GOP planting land mines under the reform process.

Politico reports that key House Republicans are considering dividing up immigration reform into a series of separate, minor fixes. This is unlikely to work, and may very well stop the momentum that had finally gathered in Congress and the sense of urgency felt by many in the party to get the immigration issue off the table once and for all. (Marco Rubio, for his part, will reportedly deliver the Republican response to the president’s State of the Union address in both English and Spanish, increasing his outreach efforts to the Hispanic community.)

That is not to say that each facet of the system isn’t in need of some improvements, or that the individual pieces of legislation that would come out of this effort wouldn’t be worth enacting. It also may be the case that some Republicans in the House are aware that their party is the one most likely to block comprehensive reform, and are therefore making a good-faith attempt to craft legislation they know can pass the House. That would at least salvage some of the work being done if the reform effort stalls. But there are a couple of problems with the GOP’s plan. Politico reports:

Read More

Last week I noted that President Obama has twice derailed comprehensive immigration reform–the first time (as a senator) with his support for “poison pill” amendments, and the second time with a temporary fix that did nothing to restructure the broken immigration system. It seems that now, however, it is the House GOP planting land mines under the reform process.

Politico reports that key House Republicans are considering dividing up immigration reform into a series of separate, minor fixes. This is unlikely to work, and may very well stop the momentum that had finally gathered in Congress and the sense of urgency felt by many in the party to get the immigration issue off the table once and for all. (Marco Rubio, for his part, will reportedly deliver the Republican response to the president’s State of the Union address in both English and Spanish, increasing his outreach efforts to the Hispanic community.)

That is not to say that each facet of the system isn’t in need of some improvements, or that the individual pieces of legislation that would come out of this effort wouldn’t be worth enacting. It also may be the case that some Republicans in the House are aware that their party is the one most likely to block comprehensive reform, and are therefore making a good-faith attempt to craft legislation they know can pass the House. That would at least salvage some of the work being done if the reform effort stalls. But there are a couple of problems with the GOP’s plan. Politico reports:

GOP members of the Judiciary Committee used the year’s first hearing on immigration to discuss border security, background checks and the possibility of giving illegal immigrants a permanent legal status without granting full citizenship.

There also was talk of working out how to attract and keep higher-skilled workers with advanced degrees in the science and technology fields. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the former chairman of the committee and a longtime immigration hard-liner, said allowing these workers to stay would be “a much easier lift” for members than a more comprehensive bill, pointing to legislation he sponsored that previously passed the House, which would have granted such workers permanent U.S. residence.

From the outset, GOP congressmen seem not only to be considering a piecemeal approach, but they also seem to be getting distracted by aspects of reform that would be easier but which would not solve the real problems with the immigration system. There’s nothing wrong with making border security a priority–as part of more comprehensive reform. In fact, border security should be a no-brainer: it just seems silly for a nation like the U.S. not to have control over its borders.

But security threats often come not from those crossing the border illegally (though such security risks certainly exist), but from those who have come here legally and overstayed their visas, and similar, less detectable, lapses. “Border security” should go hand in hand with fixing the visa system as well.

Additionally, border security has improved, and deportations are way up under President Obama. And the current lull in immigration may or may not be temporary, but it certainly means the more pressing issue is what to do with those already here. And on that note, while the Reason magazine immigration chart I posted last week has made the rounds, it appears its authors haven’t quite found a way to get it in front of members of the House GOP. Of course it is easier to clear the path for high-skilled immigrants than for low-skilled immigrants. But it’s low-skilled immigrants who have virtually no path to citizenship and whose work is thus forced into a kind of black market for labor.

The American economy certainly benefits from high-skilled immigrants, many of whom are well positioned for exactly the kind of tech-sector entrepreneurship that the U.S., long past its glory days of AT&T and Bell Labs, would like to see more of. But lower wage manual labor is essential for other sectors of the economy, and can often do just as much to create jobs by cushioning a company’s bottom line, increasing productivity, and enabling expansion.

And it’s important for members of Congress to keep in mind that high-skilled immigration backlogs create a visa problem; low-skilled immigration conditions create an illegal immigration problem–which is what they are setting out to solve, and certainly what border security is intended to curb. The low immigration levels make this a convenient time for Congress to focus on more than just border security when it comes to immigration reform. Kicking the can down the road will only exacerbate an untenable situation.

Read Less

Mugged By Reality on School Choice

For anyone who followed Michelle Rhee’s career since her time in Washington D.C., this latest opinion piece called “My Break With the Democrats” is no surprise. Rhee, the former schools chancellor for Washington was a breath of fresh air for a school system that has consistently produced underperforming students. Rhee’s tactics, including her support for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, a voucher system promoting school choice in the capital, led to a rebellion from teachers and their unions in the city. The D.C. mayoral race in 2010 became a referendum on Democratic Mayor Adrian Fenty’s education policies, namely having Rhee at their helm, and teacher’s unions poured $1 million into the campaign to unseat Fenty in order to remove Rhee.

Unfortunately for D.C.’s students, Vincent Gray’s campaign for mayor was successful, in large part thanks to financial support from teacher’s unions. Immediately following Gray’s election Rhee resigned, knowing her mandate for reform had expired. The ramifications of the election have been disastrous both for the city and for education in the District. A recently released report indicates that only four in 10 D.C. 3rd graders are proficient readers and even fewer are in math. Three years after Rhee’s departure the teacher’s unions have gotten their way, and it’s easy to see who the winners and losers were in their battle for control for control of education policy in the city.

Read More

For anyone who followed Michelle Rhee’s career since her time in Washington D.C., this latest opinion piece called “My Break With the Democrats” is no surprise. Rhee, the former schools chancellor for Washington was a breath of fresh air for a school system that has consistently produced underperforming students. Rhee’s tactics, including her support for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, a voucher system promoting school choice in the capital, led to a rebellion from teachers and their unions in the city. The D.C. mayoral race in 2010 became a referendum on Democratic Mayor Adrian Fenty’s education policies, namely having Rhee at their helm, and teacher’s unions poured $1 million into the campaign to unseat Fenty in order to remove Rhee.

Unfortunately for D.C.’s students, Vincent Gray’s campaign for mayor was successful, in large part thanks to financial support from teacher’s unions. Immediately following Gray’s election Rhee resigned, knowing her mandate for reform had expired. The ramifications of the election have been disastrous both for the city and for education in the District. A recently released report indicates that only four in 10 D.C. 3rd graders are proficient readers and even fewer are in math. Three years after Rhee’s departure the teacher’s unions have gotten their way, and it’s easy to see who the winners and losers were in their battle for control for control of education policy in the city.

In her piece in the Daily Beast, Rhee explained why she found herself breaking with her Democratic counterparts on education, in particular on school choice issues. The article, adapted from her new book Radical, closed with this commonsense argument that school choice advocates should be utilizing more often:

Think about it this way. Say your elderly mother had to be hospitalized for life-threatening cancer. The best doctor in the region is at Sacred Heart, a Catholic, private hospital. Could you ever imagine saying this? “Well, I don’t think our taxpayer dollars should subsidize this private institution that has religious roots, so we’re going to take her to County General, where she’ll get inferior care. ’Cause that’s just the right thing to do!”

No. You’d want to make sure that your tax dollars got your mom the best care. Period. Our approach should be no different for our children. Their lives are at stake when we’re talking about the quality of education they are receiving. The quality of care standard should certainly be no lower.

In comparison to the outcomes for public school students in D.C where only 70 percent of students graduate, graduates who participated in the D.C. voucher program, which Rhee ultimately lost her job defending, graduate at a rate of 94 percent per year. While it may be difficult for Rhee to find employment as a chancellor in another city because of teacher’s unions’ animosity toward her policies, her outspoken conversion to school choice advocacy adds an important voice to the conversation.

Read Less

BDS: Hate Speech, Not Free Speech

Today, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg became the latest to weigh in on the issue of allowing college campuses to be used as venues for promotion of the BDS campaign against Israel. Bloomberg, who touts himself as one of the greatest supporters of Israel in New York, claimed that those who condemned the decision of the political science department at the city’s Brooklyn College were, in effect, enemies of free speech. According to the New York Observer, Bloomberg said the following:

“I couldn’t disagree more violently with BDS,” Mr. Bloomberg explained. “As you know, I’m a big supporter of Israel–as big of a one as I think you can find in the city. But I could also not agree more strongly with an academic department’s right to sponsor a forum on any topic that they choose. If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.”

But contrary to the mayor’s typically highhanded formulation, this is not a free speech issue. Using a public university to promote hate speech in which the one Jewish state in the world is hypocritically singled out for isolation and destruction is not a matter of tolerating a diversity of views. What is so frustrating about the debate about BDS is the willingness of even those who do not support it to treat as a merely one among many defensible views about the Middle East or, as the New York Times referred to it in an editorial on the subject yesterday, a question of academic freedom whose advocates do not deserve to be spoken of harshly. As I wrote last week about a related controversy at Harvard, the BDS movement is not motivated by disagreement with specific Israeli policies or the issue of West Bank settlements. It is an economic war waged to destroy the Jewish state and is morally indistinguishable from more traditional forms of anti-Semitism that do not disguise themselves in the fancy dress of academic discourse.

Read More

Today, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg became the latest to weigh in on the issue of allowing college campuses to be used as venues for promotion of the BDS campaign against Israel. Bloomberg, who touts himself as one of the greatest supporters of Israel in New York, claimed that those who condemned the decision of the political science department at the city’s Brooklyn College were, in effect, enemies of free speech. According to the New York Observer, Bloomberg said the following:

“I couldn’t disagree more violently with BDS,” Mr. Bloomberg explained. “As you know, I’m a big supporter of Israel–as big of a one as I think you can find in the city. But I could also not agree more strongly with an academic department’s right to sponsor a forum on any topic that they choose. If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.”

But contrary to the mayor’s typically highhanded formulation, this is not a free speech issue. Using a public university to promote hate speech in which the one Jewish state in the world is hypocritically singled out for isolation and destruction is not a matter of tolerating a diversity of views. What is so frustrating about the debate about BDS is the willingness of even those who do not support it to treat as a merely one among many defensible views about the Middle East or, as the New York Times referred to it in an editorial on the subject yesterday, a question of academic freedom whose advocates do not deserve to be spoken of harshly. As I wrote last week about a related controversy at Harvard, the BDS movement is not motivated by disagreement with specific Israeli policies or the issue of West Bank settlements. It is an economic war waged to destroy the Jewish state and is morally indistinguishable from more traditional forms of anti-Semitism that do not disguise themselves in the fancy dress of academic discourse.

As Yair Rosenberg noted today in Tablet, the BDS movement has as its declared goal Israel’s destruction via implementation of the Palestinian “right of return.” This is consistent with their overall rejection of Israel’s right to exist as a separate Jewish state and their opposition to any means of self-defense against Palestinian terrorism.

It needs to be understood that those who take such a position are, in effect, denying the Jewish people the same right of self-determination that they support for every other nation on the planet. That is a textbook definition of bias and such bias when used against Jews is called anti-Semitism. That is why the various members of the City Council and New York State legislature who have spoken out on this issue are right to try to exert pressure on Brooklyn College to cancel the event and the Times and Bloomberg are wrong to defend the decision to uphold it.

Were Brooklyn College or any other state institution to hold a conference whose purpose was to oppose integration or the rights of African-Americans with academics who support the agenda of the Ku Klux Klan, there would be no question that this would be considered beyond the pale rather than free speech that deserved defense. The same standard should apply to those who wish to destroy Israel by waging economic warfare on it and its citizens.

Mayor Bloomberg is also wrong that opponents of BDS do their cause a disservice when they attack those who wish to appropriate college campuses for this cause. Rather than treat the BDS movement as an unfortunate but tolerable eruption of anti-Israel agitation or mere dissent about the settlements, it must be labeled for what it is: a hateful movement based in prejudice whose agenda serves the cause of those who wage violent war against the Jewish people. BDS advocates crave the legitimacy that events such as the Brooklyn College event affords them since it allows them to emerge from the fever swamps of the far left where they normally reside.

One may debate Israel’s policies or those of any nation (though it is fair to note that BDS supporters are uninterested in human rights except as that phrase can be manipulated to bolster their war on Israel), but a movement based in denying Jewish rights is anti-Semitism no matter how high-minded its supporters and its useful idiot enablers pretend it to be. Those who cannot draw a line between BDS and legitimate debate are defending hate speech, not free speech.

Read Less

Obama Is Hypocritical but Right on Drones

I agree completely with Pete about the rank hypocrisy of President Obama when it comes to using his powers to fight terrorism. Liberals and Democrats accused President Bush, Vice President Cheney and those associated with conducting the war on terror of being immoral lawbreakers–but now hold their tongues when it is Obama and his colleagues who have asserted the power to hold prisoners in indefinite captivity or order the deaths of terror suspects. Everyone on the left, up to and including the president, owes Bush, Cheney and company an abject apology on this score, though I’m afraid it will never be forthcoming.

But it is important to note that those on the right who are inclined to give Obama a taste of his own medicine on the issue of drone strikes against al-Qaeda figures should take a deep breath and think more about what is good for the country as opposed to what the president deserves. It may be, as Pete noted, that the used of “enhanced interrogation” was nothing when compared to the brutality and casualties incurred as a result of Obama’s drone strikes, but that is no excuse for any Congressional action aimed at restricting the executive branch’s ability to wage war against America’s foes. Even in the cases of American citizens who have been marked for death via drones without benefit of a judicial process, conservatives and civil libertarians alike should understand that these are reasonable measures taken to defend against those seeking to murder American citizens.

Read More

I agree completely with Pete about the rank hypocrisy of President Obama when it comes to using his powers to fight terrorism. Liberals and Democrats accused President Bush, Vice President Cheney and those associated with conducting the war on terror of being immoral lawbreakers–but now hold their tongues when it is Obama and his colleagues who have asserted the power to hold prisoners in indefinite captivity or order the deaths of terror suspects. Everyone on the left, up to and including the president, owes Bush, Cheney and company an abject apology on this score, though I’m afraid it will never be forthcoming.

But it is important to note that those on the right who are inclined to give Obama a taste of his own medicine on the issue of drone strikes against al-Qaeda figures should take a deep breath and think more about what is good for the country as opposed to what the president deserves. It may be, as Pete noted, that the used of “enhanced interrogation” was nothing when compared to the brutality and casualties incurred as a result of Obama’s drone strikes, but that is no excuse for any Congressional action aimed at restricting the executive branch’s ability to wage war against America’s foes. Even in the cases of American citizens who have been marked for death via drones without benefit of a judicial process, conservatives and civil libertarians alike should understand that these are reasonable measures taken to defend against those seeking to murder American citizens.

Let’s understand that the discussion about drone strikes is not a matter of the government seeking to stifle dissent. Those who have joined al-Qaeda and become part of its leadership are not trying to change America; they are waging war on it. Thus, even in the absence of what the Justice Department memo on such strikes referred to as an “imminent threat” of a specific terror attack, there is no question that any al-Qaeda leader is in the business of killing Americans in any way and at any time or place possible.

The power to designate a person an enemy combatant is fearful and should be used with caution. But when such persons do exist, it is the duty of the U.S. government to either capture or kill them in an expeditious manner. To ask the commander-in-chief and those charged with our defense to treat this conflict as a police matter is absurd. Subjecting each such decision to court review in advance of action would hamper the ability of our forces to effectively fight terrorism. Though our current conflicts are legally murkier than declared wars, killing al-Qaeda leaders is morally equivalent to attacks launched by U.S. forces on enemies during World War II. The U.S. Navy didn’t need a court order to assassinate Admiral Yamamoto as they did in 1943. The president and his team shouldn’t need one to kill any al-Qaeda functionary no matter his country of origin or who is with him at the time of the strike. The administration is correct when it argues that the laws of war give them the right to act in this manner.

The administration’s conversion to this point of view from the president’s previous stands against Bush’s policies may be hypocritical. But it is nonetheless correct. I expect John Brennan, the president’s nominee to head the CIA, to be asked about these issues at his confirmation hearing tomorrow. But let’s hope that Republicans who defended the Bush policies will not become as hypocritical as their Democratic colleagues on this point. There are many points on which the Obama administration may be faulted, but their willingness to kill al-Qaeda leaders is not one of them.

Read Less

Army Memo: Sequestration Means “Rapid Atrophy of Unit Combat Skills”

The Marine Corps has already spelled out the likely consequences of sequestration. So has the Navy, which has already cancelled an aircraft carrier deployment to the Persian Gulf. Now comes the Army. It has just released a memo laying out the impact of $18 billion in cuts it is expected to endure if sequestration occurs next month.

The Army will do everything it needs to do to make sure that units rotating to Afghanistan and South Korea are fully prepared for combat. But to do that it will have to stint on training and readiness for the rest of the force. The memo says that the effect of this “shortfall” will be “devastating to training and readiness in FY13 and affects FY14 and beyond.”  

Read More

The Marine Corps has already spelled out the likely consequences of sequestration. So has the Navy, which has already cancelled an aircraft carrier deployment to the Persian Gulf. Now comes the Army. It has just released a memo laying out the impact of $18 billion in cuts it is expected to endure if sequestration occurs next month.

The Army will do everything it needs to do to make sure that units rotating to Afghanistan and South Korea are fully prepared for combat. But to do that it will have to stint on training and readiness for the rest of the force. The memo says that the effect of this “shortfall” will be “devastating to training and readiness in FY13 and affects FY14 and beyond.”  

The memo continues: “These cumulative reductions will distress and shock Army installations and their surrounding communities with terminations of temporary and term employees, wide-scale reduction of support contracts with more than 3,000 industry partners, and furlough all 251K Army civilians for up to 22 days.”

The cost for long-term readiness is even more distressing: “Shortfalls in Professional Military Education/Training means Soldiers will join units without requisite training and preparation.  These lost capabilities require years to reinstate and some cannot be reversed.  The strategic impact is a rapid atrophy of unit combat skills with a failure to meet demands of the National Military Strategy by the end of this year.”

Soldiers joining units “without requisite training and preparation”? Those words should set off alarm bells in Washington–before we repeat the “hollow army” experiences of the 1970s which culminated in the humiliation of Desert One.

Read Less

Lack of Money Delays Carrier Deployment

Sequestration is already hitting. It’s no longer about trimming the fat, but rather about undercutting U.S. national security. I was supposed to head off on the USS Harry S. Truman tomorrow as it began its deployment toward the Persian Gulf. I just received the call now not to bother. From the press down at Hampton Roads, Virginia:

U.S. officials say that budget strains will force the Pentagon to cut its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf area from two carriers to one. As a result, the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman won’t deploy from Norfolk on Friday as planned.

Read More

Sequestration is already hitting. It’s no longer about trimming the fat, but rather about undercutting U.S. national security. I was supposed to head off on the USS Harry S. Truman tomorrow as it began its deployment toward the Persian Gulf. I just received the call now not to bother. From the press down at Hampton Roads, Virginia:

U.S. officials say that budget strains will force the Pentagon to cut its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf area from two carriers to one. As a result, the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman won’t deploy from Norfolk on Friday as planned.

Officials say Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has formally approved a plan to keep just one carrier in the region. There have been two aircraft carrier groups there for most of the last two years.

The expected announcement is the biggest indication yet that looming defense cuts have affected the way the U.S. military operates – an effect that will only grow as the cuts materialize. It was a highly symbolic move with lots of practical consequences for Hampton Roads.

It affects more than 5,000 sailors assigned to the carrier, its air wing and the ships that were to accompany it to the Gulf. Sailors routinely put their cars in storage, give up their apartments and sometimes move their families closer to loved ones while they’re gone. Carrier deployments now last around 8 months, meaning the crew likely planned to be gone until October.

It’s time to put aside the political posturing and have a serious conversation about national security. The implications of the past months’ games are no longer theoretical: They will undercut our strategic position in the region at a time we can least afford to be absent.

Read Less

Christie’s Weight Is Actually an Asset

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seemed to have revived the discussion about his weight this week with his humorous appearance on the David Letterman show by pulling a donut out of his pocket. Yesterday, Christie appeared to take a more serious approach to the question of his health, admitting that his doctor has told him his luck may be running out but insisted that any possible problems won’t interfere with his ability to do his job.

Christie is cruising to re-election in New Jersey this year and is on the short list of likely Republican candidates for president in 2016. But there are people who believe his ambitions will be derailed because, as his doctor reminds him, obesity is the sort of problem that will eventually catch up to anyone who suffers from it. Some think there is no way a man in Christie’s condition can possibly withstand the rigors of a presidential run. Others may think that even if he survives that ordeal, someone that heavy can’t possibly be elected since ours is a culture that extols fitness and denigrates fat people.

Read More

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seemed to have revived the discussion about his weight this week with his humorous appearance on the David Letterman show by pulling a donut out of his pocket. Yesterday, Christie appeared to take a more serious approach to the question of his health, admitting that his doctor has told him his luck may be running out but insisted that any possible problems won’t interfere with his ability to do his job.

Christie is cruising to re-election in New Jersey this year and is on the short list of likely Republican candidates for president in 2016. But there are people who believe his ambitions will be derailed because, as his doctor reminds him, obesity is the sort of problem that will eventually catch up to anyone who suffers from it. Some think there is no way a man in Christie’s condition can possibly withstand the rigors of a presidential run. Others may think that even if he survives that ordeal, someone that heavy can’t possibly be elected since ours is a culture that extols fitness and denigrates fat people.

Questions about his health should be left to the doctors, but I think anyone who believes this issue will stop him is making a mistake. Even if Christie appears to be the opposite of what marketing people would consider ideal in terms of personal image, his weight is an important asset.

In response to questions about how anyone who looked like he did could be elected president, Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said that if all the ugly people voted for him, he’d win easily. In 21st-century America, that is probably also true of overweight citizens. Obesity is spoken of as not so much a problem anymore as it is an epidemic, with First Lady Michelle Obama treating it as one of her pet causes. That may lead some to think that only someone as skinny as her husband or as fit as Mitt Romney is a plausible presidential candidate. But though he may not be anyone’s romantic ideal, Christie’s weight not only humanizes a politician who might otherwise come across as a bully, it also gives him an everyman sort of appeal that is political gold.

It should be remembered that one of the turning points in his first campaign for governor came when incumbent Jon Corzine mocked him with ads talking about Christie “throwing his weight around.” Corzine’s handlers may have thought this was a clever way to make his opponent look unsuitable for high office, but it also made a tough guy prosecutor appear more like the average Joe. Given his propensity for cutting remarks at the expense of anyone who gets in his way, the discussion of his weight gives credence to Christie’s attempts to put himself forward as someone who understands the problems of ordinary voters. It also allows him to display his sense of humor with self-deprecating jokes directed at his own weight. Without it, he could easily come across as a grim, humorless type only interested in dismissing if not running over his critics.

It may be natural to assume that only candidates as attractive or fit as Obama and Romney have a chance in 2016. Predictions that we will never elect another president as heavy as the immense William Howard Taft may also be correct. But a candidate who was that heavy but who nevertheless showed himself able to keep up the pace and was also able to joke about it ought not to be dismissed. It could be counter-intuitive to think that any overweight or unattractive person could be elected president in our image-obsessed media culture. But likeability is always going to be more important than a candidate’s waistline. Talking about struggles with weight is something that many, if not most, Americans identify with more easily than the obsession with physical fitness that is part of the discussion about others, particularly Paul Ryan. Oddly enough, it may be his weight that makes Christie’s relentless and often graceless pugnacity tolerable.

If Christie is smart, he’ll take his doctor’s advice and do whatever it takes to reduce his weight and raise his chances for a longer life span. But for all the problems the extra pounds bring him, they also are an important part of his charm and ability to connect with voters.

Read Less

Hezbollah’s Culpability in Bulgaria and Europe’s Moral Standing

During the early years of the post-9/11 war on terror, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage made one of the most famous statements about Hezbollah in the terrorist group’s bloody history when he said: “Hezbollah may be the A-team of terrorists and maybe Al Qaeda is actually the B-team.” Al-Qaeda’s operatives learned much from Hezbollah; as Thomas Joscelyn pointed out in Iran’s Proxy War Against America:

It was during bin Laden’s time in Sudan that he first met Imad Mugniyah, Iran’s and Hezbollah’s master terrorist. Since the early 1980s, Mugniyah has been implicated in most, if not all, of Iran’s major anti-American terrorist operations. His “accomplishments” include the infamous 1983 U.S. embassy bombing in Beirut and a series of devastating follow-on attacks, which drove the U.S. out of Lebanon. During the early 1990s, bin Laden sought and received Mugniyah’s assistance in transforming al-Qaeda’s capabilities. With Mugniyah’s help, al-Qaeda acquired Hezbollah’s most lethal tactics, including the use of suicide bombers.

The attacks raised the profile and name recognition of Hezbollah once again because of the increased focus on international terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the group was overshadowed by the 9/11 culprits, most of all bin Laden. Since terrorist groups hate to be ignored (they rely on notoriety and information wars), Hezbollah reasserts itself from time to time. It appeared that that was exactly what happened when on July 18 a bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgaria exploded, killing six plus the bomber. Now, after the investigation, we appear to have confirmation:

Read More

During the early years of the post-9/11 war on terror, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage made one of the most famous statements about Hezbollah in the terrorist group’s bloody history when he said: “Hezbollah may be the A-team of terrorists and maybe Al Qaeda is actually the B-team.” Al-Qaeda’s operatives learned much from Hezbollah; as Thomas Joscelyn pointed out in Iran’s Proxy War Against America:

It was during bin Laden’s time in Sudan that he first met Imad Mugniyah, Iran’s and Hezbollah’s master terrorist. Since the early 1980s, Mugniyah has been implicated in most, if not all, of Iran’s major anti-American terrorist operations. His “accomplishments” include the infamous 1983 U.S. embassy bombing in Beirut and a series of devastating follow-on attacks, which drove the U.S. out of Lebanon. During the early 1990s, bin Laden sought and received Mugniyah’s assistance in transforming al-Qaeda’s capabilities. With Mugniyah’s help, al-Qaeda acquired Hezbollah’s most lethal tactics, including the use of suicide bombers.

The attacks raised the profile and name recognition of Hezbollah once again because of the increased focus on international terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the group was overshadowed by the 9/11 culprits, most of all bin Laden. Since terrorist groups hate to be ignored (they rely on notoriety and information wars), Hezbollah reasserts itself from time to time. It appeared that that was exactly what happened when on July 18 a bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgaria exploded, killing six plus the bomber. Now, after the investigation, we appear to have confirmation:

Though investigators did not release names, they identified two of the plotters as a man with an Australian passport, believed to be the bombmaker, and a man with a Canadian passport, both of whom lived in Lebanon.

“We have followed their entire activities in Australia and Canada, so we have information about financing and their membership in Hezbollah,” Mr. Tsvetanov said at a news conference.

Condemnation from the U.S. and Bulgarian authorities was swift and forceful. The reaction of European leaders was less so. The U.S. has been trying to get the European Union to officially designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization–because they plainly are a terrorist organization, and because the EU is out of excuses not to take that step. The obsession with dialogue with one and all, and the EU’s substantially more nuanced view of good and evil than that of the U.S. or Israel, reached comical proportions with its refusal to take appropriate action toward Hezbollah.

Blacklisting the group and increasing attempts to freeze it out financially would make it more difficult for Hezbollah to operate so easily on European territory. Security analysts hope this will be a turning point in the EU’s approach to the group. “It’s time for Europeans to recognize that they can’t look the other way when a terrorist organization is using their territory with impunity for fund-raising and logistics,” Daniel Benjamin, a counterterrorism official in the Obama administration until recently, told the New York Times.

It’s also time for secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel to recognize that as well. Though Hagel has clumsily recanted his past controversial statements so as to appear genuinely confused about what he actually believes at his confirmation hearings, Hezbollah was one area of disagreement between Hagel’s critics and the former senator, whose position on the terrorist group was closer to that of the EU. Hagel refused to sign a letter encouraging the EU to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, pushed engagement with terrorist groups more broadly, and expressed noxious moral equivalence between Israel and Hezbollah during the war the two fought in the summer of 2006.

Attacks like the one in Bulgaria underline the folly of such an attitude. As an earlier analysis in the Times noted, much of Europe follows the lead of France and Germany, which have not designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization. And the concerns they have in doing so are nothing less than chilling:

“There’s the overall fear if we’re too noisy about this, Hezbollah might strike again, and it might not be Israeli tourists this time,” said Sylke Tempel, editor in chief of the German foreign affairs magazine Internationale Politik.

As Eugene Kontorovich points out at the Volokh Conspiracy, this amounts to a fear that if Europe is mean to the terrorists, those terrorists might kill non-Jews, which would be apparently where they draw the line.

Terrorism and anti-Semitism are both global problems that put in danger Jews and non-Jews alike, and undermine the stability and security of the free world. It’s as simple as that. For Europeans to draw the line between killing Jews and killing non-Jews is quite obviously repellant. Europe now must make a decision that will tell us much about the future of the European project. That we even got to this point in the first place doesn’t inspire much confidence in the EU’s fading moral compass.

Read Less

Drone Strikes, Waterboarding, and Moral Preening

On May 29, 2009, President Obama gave a speech  at the National Archives in which he said the following:

Now let me be clear: We are indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates. We do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat. But we must do so with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability. For reasons that I will explain, the decisions that were made over the last eight years established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable — a framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions, and that failed to use our values as a compass. 

The president went on to trumpet the fact that he banned the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, saying, “I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more.” Mr. Obama argued that (among other things) they undermine the rule of law. And during the 2008 campaign and shortly thereafter, Obama insisted that his policies would “regain America’s moral stature in the world.” This was a common Obama theme: He would act in ways that respect international law and human rights and remove the stain from America’s reputation.

I thought of all of this in light of this report by NBC’s Michael Isikoff. Thanks to Isikoff, we’ve learned that “a confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be ‘senior operational leaders’ of al-Qaida or ‘an associated force’ even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.”

Read More

On May 29, 2009, President Obama gave a speech  at the National Archives in which he said the following:

Now let me be clear: We are indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates. We do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat. But we must do so with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability. For reasons that I will explain, the decisions that were made over the last eight years established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable — a framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions, and that failed to use our values as a compass. 

The president went on to trumpet the fact that he banned the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, saying, “I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more.” Mr. Obama argued that (among other things) they undermine the rule of law. And during the 2008 campaign and shortly thereafter, Obama insisted that his policies would “regain America’s moral stature in the world.” This was a common Obama theme: He would act in ways that respect international law and human rights and remove the stain from America’s reputation.

I thought of all of this in light of this report by NBC’s Michael Isikoff. Thanks to Isikoff, we’ve learned that “a confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be ‘senior operational leaders’ of al-Qaida or ‘an associated force’ even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.”

According to the memo, “The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

In addition, it states an “informed, high-level” official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been “recently” involved in “activities” posing a threat of a violent attack and “there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.” But as Isikoff point out, the memo does not define “recently” or “activities.” 

You can be excused if you’ve (a) missed Mr. Obama’s much-heralded due process element in all of this and (b) have a hard time reconciling Mr. Obama’s presidents-should-not-have-blanket-authority-to-do-whatever-they-wish-lectures (see the National Archives speech for more) with his Justice Department’s expansive executive powers memo.

So what do you think Senator Barack Obama would have said if President George W. Bush had pursued these policies? And how do you think the press and the political class would have reacted?

Let me suggest as well that a man who feels wholly at ease with drone strikes that have killed American citizens suspected of engaging in terrorist activities without the benefit of a trial and which have, in the process, killed hundreds of innocent people should be a tad bit more careful when it comes to lecturing about the immorality of enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs). Joe Scarborough, for example, argued that what Bush did with EITs is “child’s play” compared to what Obama has done.

To put things in a slightly different way: During the 2008 campaign and much of the early part of his presidency, Barack Obama obsessively argued that waterboarding all of three individuals–September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and senior al-Qaeda leaders Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri–was a violation of human rights and a grave moral offense. Here’s the thing, though: unlike Mr. Obama’s drone strikes, no American citizens, no terrorists and no innocent children have died due to waterboarding. Yet the president’s press spokesman is defending Mr. Obama’s policies as “legal,” “ethical,” and “wise.”

Which leads me to two conclusions. The first is that it’s not always easy to navigate the murky waters of law, morality, and war and terrorism, at least when you’re in the White House and have an obligation to protect the country from massive harm. (After they were revealed, I had several long conversations with White House colleagues trying to sort through the morality of waterboarding and indefinite detention.) 

The second is that it is true that there is a serious argument to be made that during wartime targeting terrorists, including Americans, with drones is justified. But that justification probably best not come from someone who has spent much of the last half-dozen years or so sermonizing against waterboarding, accusing those who approved such policies of trashing American ideals and shredding our civil liberties, and portraying himself as pure as the new-driven snow. Because any person who did so would be vulnerable to the charge of moral preening and moral hypocrisy.

Read Less

Obama’s Israel Visit Not That Big a Deal

There is some debate as to what the announcement that President Obama will be visiting Israel in a few weeks portends. Those on the left, both here and in Israel, ardently hope it is intended to signal a new U.S. push to revive the Middle East peace process during which the president will personally twist the arms of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. However, the lack of any real preparation for such talks, or signs that there is a ghost of a chance that they might succeed, make such expectations seem highly unrealistic.

There is little doubt that the peace process will be on the agenda when Obama goes to Israel. But the notion that the president will be seeking to implement a set plan to force concessions on the Jewish state or that it, as one hysterical left-wing columnist put it in Haaretz, means the “centrality” of the conflict with the Palestinians will be reaffirmed is pure fantasy. It is far more likely that the main point of it will be reaffirming the U.S.-Israel alliance at a time when conflict with Iran, instability in Egypt and civil war in Syria makes coordination between the two governments more essential than ever. That explanation doesn’t speak to the hopes of leftists who want Obama to hammer Israel or the fears of friends of the Jewish state who believe he plans to use his second term to bring it to its knees. But given the timing of the trip, this more humdrum explanation makes a lot more sense.

Read More

There is some debate as to what the announcement that President Obama will be visiting Israel in a few weeks portends. Those on the left, both here and in Israel, ardently hope it is intended to signal a new U.S. push to revive the Middle East peace process during which the president will personally twist the arms of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. However, the lack of any real preparation for such talks, or signs that there is a ghost of a chance that they might succeed, make such expectations seem highly unrealistic.

There is little doubt that the peace process will be on the agenda when Obama goes to Israel. But the notion that the president will be seeking to implement a set plan to force concessions on the Jewish state or that it, as one hysterical left-wing columnist put it in Haaretz, means the “centrality” of the conflict with the Palestinians will be reaffirmed is pure fantasy. It is far more likely that the main point of it will be reaffirming the U.S.-Israel alliance at a time when conflict with Iran, instability in Egypt and civil war in Syria makes coordination between the two governments more essential than ever. That explanation doesn’t speak to the hopes of leftists who want Obama to hammer Israel or the fears of friends of the Jewish state who believe he plans to use his second term to bring it to its knees. But given the timing of the trip, this more humdrum explanation makes a lot more sense.

Those who either hope or fear Obama intends to get tough with Israel have good reason to think the way they do. The president’s open hostility toward the Netanyahu government has been a keynote of American foreign policy since he took office in 2009. It is no secret that many in the White House and the State Department would like to take another futile crack at reviving talks with the Palestinians. Even more to the point, the president must be itching to end the Jewish charm offensive he had been forced to adopt during his re-election campaign and get back to his previous pattern of ambush and attack when it comes to Israel.

But the idea that the president would parachute into the Middle East and attempt to jump-start a peace process that has been stalled for years by himself without any indication that genuine progress is even a remote possibility gives Obama less credit than he deserves. The president may intensely dislike Netanyahu, but he has no desire to preside over a fiasco or to be seen as a failure so early in his second term.

Lip service will no doubt be paid to the peace process and grand words will be uttered about the need to end the conflict during the course of the visit. There will even be some who will give the president credit for pushing Netanyahu to call for a new round of talks even though the prime minister has been regularly issuing that appeal for years to no effect. But after more than four years in office, even the Obama administration has caught on to the fact that Abbas is more afraid of a return to the negotiating table than he is of his Hamas rivals. The chances that the Palestinian Authority will sign any document that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, or end the conflict for all time, are virtually nonexistent.

President Obama may hope to push Netanyahu to make more gestures to the Palestinians, but there are other and, frankly, more important things for them to discuss than the sensibilities of the corrupt gang that presides over the PA in Ramallah.

Both the U.S. and the Israeli governments are closely monitoring the chaos in Syria as well as the situation in Egypt where the installation of a Muslim Brotherhood government has complicated the strategic equation in the region. And looming over everything is the desire of the United States that Israel not act on its own to forestall the nuclear threat from Iran. No matter how much of the atmospherics of the trip center on the peace process, it is those topics that are really at the top of the agenda.

To assert that the topic of talks with the Palestinians is not the most important subject of discussion between the two countries is not to argue that Obama and Netanyahu will agree on most things. They don’t like each other and don’t share the same frame of reference about the imperative to convey the message to the Arab and Muslim world that there is no daylight between their governments’ positions on major issues.

But there is no reason to believe this visit will mark a turning point in the alliance or that it will be primarily employed by the U.S. to exert pressure on Israel. As the recent Israeli strikes on Syrian targets show, the U.S. still needs the Jewish state to do its dirty work in the region. The close security cooperation between the two nations transcends Obama’s biases and that means the danger from Iran and its terrorist auxiliaries are bound to take precedence over the Palestinian issue. Not even the enthusiasm of new Secretary of State John Kerry for new negotiations can change that reality.

President Obama could have done himself some political good had he taken this trip last year, but he may not have wanted to do what he considered a favor to Netanyahu when the latter was poised to face his own electorate. Now that Netanyahu has been re-elected, albeit not by the large margin he had hoped for, there is no reason to put off a routine visit anymore. More to the point, the start of new terms in office for both men is a good a time for a “reset” of relations at a moment when further conflict between the two could complicate U.S. strategy for dealing with problems in the region.

Obama’s critics made more of his stubborn refusal to visit Israel during his first term than it probably merited. Now that he’s finally given in, they shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that it means more than it does. That conclusion won’t please some of the president’s liberal supporters with an axe to grind against Israel. Nor will it calm the anxieties of the pro-Israel community. But it is probably the most sensible explanation of the president’s decision.

Read Less

Assassination Rocks Tunisia

That the Arab Spring has turned distinctly chilly throughout the Middle East is no surprise. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown itself as committed to anti-Semitism and antagonistic to democracy as its detractors feared. In Libya, militant Islamist factions continue to hamper Libya’s development, and make Benghazi and much of Libya unsafe. Syria remains embroiled in a civil war, which will see no winner emerge who will do anything but undermine regional security. Through all this bad news, however, diplomats could cling to Tunisia. The small, relatively wealthy North African country was the place where the Arab Spring first erupted. Even though Islamists had won Tunisia’s first elections, they appeared to hew a more moderate line, albeit with hiccups along the way.

Earlier today, Tunisia time, that changed:

Read More

That the Arab Spring has turned distinctly chilly throughout the Middle East is no surprise. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown itself as committed to anti-Semitism and antagonistic to democracy as its detractors feared. In Libya, militant Islamist factions continue to hamper Libya’s development, and make Benghazi and much of Libya unsafe. Syria remains embroiled in a civil war, which will see no winner emerge who will do anything but undermine regional security. Through all this bad news, however, diplomats could cling to Tunisia. The small, relatively wealthy North African country was the place where the Arab Spring first erupted. Even though Islamists had won Tunisia’s first elections, they appeared to hew a more moderate line, albeit with hiccups along the way.

Earlier today, Tunisia time, that changed:

A prominent Tunisian opposition politician was shot dead outside his home on Wednesday, in a killing the prime minister condemned as a political assassination and a strike against the “Arab Spring” revolution. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said the identity of the killer of Shokri Belaid, a staunch secular opponent of the moderate Islamist-led government, was unknown.

Belaid, who died in the hospital after being shot in the capital Tunis, was a leading member of the opposition Popular Front party. The government has faced many protests over economic hardship. Hampered by declining trade with the crisis-hit euro zone, it has struggled to deliver the better living standards that many Tunisians had hoped for.

And it says Al Qaeda-linked militants have been accumulating weapons with the aim of creating an Islamic state. Police, who demonstrated outside the prime minister’s office last month, say they do not have the appropriate resources to deal with the threat from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and domestic Islamist militants who have easy access to weapons from neighboring Libya.

Let us hope that the Obama administration’s response to the cutting down of a prominent secular politician will not be to supply Tunisia’s Islamist rulers with F-16s or other advanced weaponry. And let us hope that the Obama administration and the State Department have a plan to prevent the Al Qaeda threat from taking root in Tunisia, and that the plan is not simply to sit on the sidelines and let the worst scenarios develop, something which has contributed to Al Qaeda’s rise in northern Mali and utter chaos in Syria.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.