Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 11, 2013

John Paul, Benedict and the Modern Papacy

The decision of Pope Benedict XVI to resign shocked the world today setting off a wave of speculation about the outcome of the upcoming conclave of the College of Cardinals that will choose his successor. The next pope will have a long agenda of issues to deal with as the Church grapples with calls for liberalization of doctrine from within its ranks as well as from non-Catholics. There is also the cardinals’ choice will reflect a desire to reach out to the Third World in a way that reflects the Church’s future. These are issues that are beyond the scope of this blog and are for the Church and its adherents to resolve without comment one way or the other from us. But the transition from Benedict to the next generation at the Vatican is an apt moment to acknowledge the unique achievements of this pope and his predecessor on a topic on which we have a lot to say: Catholic-Jewish relations.

It has long been acknowledged that Benedict’s papacy was a transitional era that in many ways marked the conclusion of the era begun by the previous pope, John Paul II. Though naysayers can point to individual incidents in which some of the Vatican’s decision rubbed Jews the wrong way, an honest assessment of these two papacies must note that these men helped change a long and contentious history of Catholic-Jewish conflict and ill feeling into one in which the two faiths can truly be said to be partners and friends. Whatever else John Paul and Benedict accomplished, they must be considered heroes for their work toward ridding the Church of a legacy of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism and recognizing the legitimacy of the State of Israel. The modern papacy is largely their work and they deserve the gratitude of all people of faith for that.

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The decision of Pope Benedict XVI to resign shocked the world today setting off a wave of speculation about the outcome of the upcoming conclave of the College of Cardinals that will choose his successor. The next pope will have a long agenda of issues to deal with as the Church grapples with calls for liberalization of doctrine from within its ranks as well as from non-Catholics. There is also the cardinals’ choice will reflect a desire to reach out to the Third World in a way that reflects the Church’s future. These are issues that are beyond the scope of this blog and are for the Church and its adherents to resolve without comment one way or the other from us. But the transition from Benedict to the next generation at the Vatican is an apt moment to acknowledge the unique achievements of this pope and his predecessor on a topic on which we have a lot to say: Catholic-Jewish relations.

It has long been acknowledged that Benedict’s papacy was a transitional era that in many ways marked the conclusion of the era begun by the previous pope, John Paul II. Though naysayers can point to individual incidents in which some of the Vatican’s decision rubbed Jews the wrong way, an honest assessment of these two papacies must note that these men helped change a long and contentious history of Catholic-Jewish conflict and ill feeling into one in which the two faiths can truly be said to be partners and friends. Whatever else John Paul and Benedict accomplished, they must be considered heroes for their work toward ridding the Church of a legacy of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism and recognizing the legitimacy of the State of Israel. The modern papacy is largely their work and they deserve the gratitude of all people of faith for that.

On this score, Benedict who labored under the stigma of his German birth and brief service in Hitler’s army did not get as much credit as he deserved. Though nothing he did matched the symbolism of the way the first Polish pope embraced the Jewish people in a heartfelt manner, his service to John Paul and his actions while leading the Vatican, Benedict carried on his predecessors work on this issue.

Benedict was criticized for his efforts toward reinstating the Latin mass, which in one part contained a prayer for the conversation of Jews that most Jews thought offensive. But Benedict was quite clear that this was not a license to reinstate the Church’s abandoned efforts to proselytize Jews. Those who wished to judge Benedict harshly for this should have remembered that Jewish tradition instructs us to judge people by their deeds and in that respect, Benedict’s efforts to continue John Paul’s work was largely exemplar. Catholic doctrine about what will happen at the end of days should be of as little concern to Jews as Jewish ideas about the Messianic era should be to Catholics.

It should also be stated that under both John Paul and Benedict, the Papacy has been a bulwark of support for the cause of freedom against tyranny. In the battle against the evil empire of the former Soviet Union, the Pope’s divisions, as Stalin would have put it, were formidable assets in the struggle to overthrow Communism. Whatever changes occur in the Church in the future under the next pope, we hope that it will remain true to the legacy of John Paul and Benedict in this respect.

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Obama’s State of the Union

The delivery of the annual State of the Union Address by the president is a high moment of state. But they have seldom been memorable, at least for the speech. Like most inaugural addresses, the next day they are used to wrap fish and forgotten. Indeed, in all my years of listening to them, I can only remember two lines.  In 1975, Gerald Ford’s first big line was, “The state of the Union is not good.” It was only the truth, but it was remarkably refreshing to hear it actually spoken. The second was 21 years later, when President Bill Clinton, having taken a shellacking in the mid-term elections that saw both houses of Congress in Republican hands for the first time since 1954, and a re-election to win, declared that “The era of big government is over.”

Bill Clinton, of course, has never suffered from an excess of ideology. I think he would come out in favor of a constitutional amendment against mom and apple pie if he thought it was a political winner. The same cannot be said for the president who will deliver the State of the Union Address tomorrow night. At his second inaugural speech two weeks ago, Obama delivered a sharply partisan, hard-left speech that said, only a little bit more indirectly, what the White House communications director said the next day, “There’s a moment of opportunity now that’s important. What’s frustrating is that we don’t have a political system or an opposition party worthy of the opportunity.”

Having devoted most of the inauguration speech to such tried-and-true liberal causes as gay rights and climate change—and gotten a fair amount of blow back even from usually reliably liberal media for its partisanship—the conventional wisdom among the chattering classes is that he will now pivot to jobs and the economy. But as Byron York points out, that’s what he is always about to do, he just never does it.

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The delivery of the annual State of the Union Address by the president is a high moment of state. But they have seldom been memorable, at least for the speech. Like most inaugural addresses, the next day they are used to wrap fish and forgotten. Indeed, in all my years of listening to them, I can only remember two lines.  In 1975, Gerald Ford’s first big line was, “The state of the Union is not good.” It was only the truth, but it was remarkably refreshing to hear it actually spoken. The second was 21 years later, when President Bill Clinton, having taken a shellacking in the mid-term elections that saw both houses of Congress in Republican hands for the first time since 1954, and a re-election to win, declared that “The era of big government is over.”

Bill Clinton, of course, has never suffered from an excess of ideology. I think he would come out in favor of a constitutional amendment against mom and apple pie if he thought it was a political winner. The same cannot be said for the president who will deliver the State of the Union Address tomorrow night. At his second inaugural speech two weeks ago, Obama delivered a sharply partisan, hard-left speech that said, only a little bit more indirectly, what the White House communications director said the next day, “There’s a moment of opportunity now that’s important. What’s frustrating is that we don’t have a political system or an opposition party worthy of the opportunity.”

Having devoted most of the inauguration speech to such tried-and-true liberal causes as gay rights and climate change—and gotten a fair amount of blow back even from usually reliably liberal media for its partisanship—the conventional wisdom among the chattering classes is that he will now pivot to jobs and the economy. But as Byron York points out, that’s what he is always about to do, he just never does it.

George Bush devoted much of the first year of his second term to trying to reform Social Security. He got nowhere, of course, because the Democrats shamelessly demagogued the issue rather than engaged it. At least he tried to reach across the aisle in hopes of doing what needed to be done for the sake of the Union. After Obama’s inaugural address, it seems unlikely that he will even try to reach across the aisle. As Michael Barone explains:

Obama may be actually sincere in believing that every decent person with common sense would share his views. After all, just about everybody in the places he has chosen to live—Manhattan, Cambridge, the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago—does. Far from being an instinctive compromiser with respect for those with different views, he seems to be an angry non-compromiser with no idea how decent people could disagree with him.

Meanwhile, Ira Stroll has come up with an excellent suggested speech for Senator Marco Rubio, who will be giving the Republican rebuttal that is chockablock with attempts to reach across the aisle.

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Young Dem Voters Won’t Stay Bought

Since President Obama’s relatively narrow yet still clear re-election victory, both liberals and conservatives have engaged in a virtual non-stop orgy of analysis geared toward explaining the result. Some of this discussion has been useful as Republicans have been forced to come to grips with the fact that they have been pushing away Hispanics and relying on assumptions about the way social issues played with most voters that may no longer be true. But, as happens after almost every election, there is also an equal amount of nonsense being put forward about how 2012 marks a turning pointing in our political history that may lead to realignment. As recently as 2005, Republicans were playing this game and now it is the turn of liberals to jump to unsustainable conclusions.

The latest example of this sort of writing comes in today’s New York Times as Sheryl Gay Stolberg details her journey to Montana to claim President Obama’s success with young voters may lead to an irreversible shift in the country’s political alignment. Her thesis is that the Democrats’ advantage with this demographic isn’t merely limited to the way their acceptance of gay marriage and abortion have affected those under 30. Instead, she goes farther than that and claims that young voters are now as addicted to entitlement spending as some of their elders. This belief in the goodness of government largesse and the alleged corresponding decline in cynicism about big government will create a new political reality that will be baked into the system even as these voters get older.

There is no denying the appeal of free stuff from the government for citizens of any age or background. In 21st century America, everyone has their snout in the proverbial trough of federal spending and that impacts attempts to cut spending or to rally support for fiscal sanity. But the problem with the belief that the young Montanans who like the idea of preserving Medicare and Social Security as they are today will form a Democratic firewall to preserve an Obama majority indefinitely is that the assumption upon which this idea rests is built on sand. Sooner or later most young members of the workforce are going to catch on to the fact that they are the losers in the liberal entitlement Ponzi scheme, not the winners.

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Since President Obama’s relatively narrow yet still clear re-election victory, both liberals and conservatives have engaged in a virtual non-stop orgy of analysis geared toward explaining the result. Some of this discussion has been useful as Republicans have been forced to come to grips with the fact that they have been pushing away Hispanics and relying on assumptions about the way social issues played with most voters that may no longer be true. But, as happens after almost every election, there is also an equal amount of nonsense being put forward about how 2012 marks a turning pointing in our political history that may lead to realignment. As recently as 2005, Republicans were playing this game and now it is the turn of liberals to jump to unsustainable conclusions.

The latest example of this sort of writing comes in today’s New York Times as Sheryl Gay Stolberg details her journey to Montana to claim President Obama’s success with young voters may lead to an irreversible shift in the country’s political alignment. Her thesis is that the Democrats’ advantage with this demographic isn’t merely limited to the way their acceptance of gay marriage and abortion have affected those under 30. Instead, she goes farther than that and claims that young voters are now as addicted to entitlement spending as some of their elders. This belief in the goodness of government largesse and the alleged corresponding decline in cynicism about big government will create a new political reality that will be baked into the system even as these voters get older.

There is no denying the appeal of free stuff from the government for citizens of any age or background. In 21st century America, everyone has their snout in the proverbial trough of federal spending and that impacts attempts to cut spending or to rally support for fiscal sanity. But the problem with the belief that the young Montanans who like the idea of preserving Medicare and Social Security as they are today will form a Democratic firewall to preserve an Obama majority indefinitely is that the assumption upon which this idea rests is built on sand. Sooner or later most young members of the workforce are going to catch on to the fact that they are the losers in the liberal entitlement Ponzi scheme, not the winners.

Stolberg has a point when she makes the case that social issues like gay marriage may be a losing battle for conservatives who underestimate the way popular culture has altered the views of many Americans in the last generation. However, the affection for government she discovers among some Montanans who would presumably be just the sort of Western individualists that would disdain Washington makes a less persuasive argument for future Democratic dominance.

It may be that many of those interviewed by Stolberg like the idea of free health care, more government subsidies for education and government “investment” in job creation that will provide some of them with paychecks for a while. But while many seniors may regard the national debt that has been piling up in order to pay for all these goodies is the next generation’s problem, these under-30 voters are going to live long enough to see the day of reckoning for the government’s spending problem. If they do get productive jobs in the private sector, they’re not going to like the way their tax rates are going to skyrocket in order to pay for the free stuff they like so much today. They are also going to realize that the administration’s pledge to keep entitlements in tact is not likely to survive President Obama’s time in office, if that long.

No one should assume that the ticking debt time bomb ensures Republican victories any more than the appeal of government benefits guarantees votes in perpetuity for the Democrats. The GOP has a lot of work to do to reinvigorate their brand but the notion that a pro-growth platform that tells the truth about entitlements to the people is a loser is a Democratic fairy tale. Democrats may buy some young voters with promises about entitlements that can’t be kept. But the idea that they will stay bought despite the looming debt crisis is not one that Obama’s successors should stake their careers on. 

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Will Obama’s Lurch Left Reunite the GOP?

The spin coming out of the White House over the last several days about tomorrow’s State of the Union speech led some people to suppose that there would be a change of tone from the stridently ideological tone that the president sounded in his second inaugural. We were told that the centerpiece of the speech would be about jobs, a topic that President Obama all but ignored on January 21. There was some expectation that he would accompany it with an olive branch to Republicans rather than the “I won the election, deal with it” tone of the inaugural. But sources close to the president are saying that any idea that we’ll be hearing a kindler and gentler Barack Obama addressing Congress is pure fantasy. As Politico reports:

Emboldened by electoral victory and convinced the GOP is unwilling to cut deals, Obama plans to use his big prime-time address Tuesday night to issue another broad challenge at a Republican Party he regards as vulnerable and divided, Democrats close to Obama say.

The president’s goal is to use his current advantageous position to force the Republicans to accept more tax hikes and minimal spending decreases in any deal to head off the disastrous mandatory cuts that will be implemented as part of the looming mandatory sequester cuts. In other words, rather than trying to work with Congress, the president will be doubling down on his provocative inaugural lurch to the left. This strategy is based on a realistic evaluation of his current relative strength vis-à-vis the Republicans. But if he thinks he can repeat his fiscal cliff victory over Congressional Republicans he’s dreaming. He may think this is the path to a successful second term during which he will no longer be at the mercy of his opponents. But by choosing to fight rather than to deal, Obama may be setting in motion a chain of events that could derail the economy and his presidency.

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The spin coming out of the White House over the last several days about tomorrow’s State of the Union speech led some people to suppose that there would be a change of tone from the stridently ideological tone that the president sounded in his second inaugural. We were told that the centerpiece of the speech would be about jobs, a topic that President Obama all but ignored on January 21. There was some expectation that he would accompany it with an olive branch to Republicans rather than the “I won the election, deal with it” tone of the inaugural. But sources close to the president are saying that any idea that we’ll be hearing a kindler and gentler Barack Obama addressing Congress is pure fantasy. As Politico reports:

Emboldened by electoral victory and convinced the GOP is unwilling to cut deals, Obama plans to use his big prime-time address Tuesday night to issue another broad challenge at a Republican Party he regards as vulnerable and divided, Democrats close to Obama say.

The president’s goal is to use his current advantageous position to force the Republicans to accept more tax hikes and minimal spending decreases in any deal to head off the disastrous mandatory cuts that will be implemented as part of the looming mandatory sequester cuts. In other words, rather than trying to work with Congress, the president will be doubling down on his provocative inaugural lurch to the left. This strategy is based on a realistic evaluation of his current relative strength vis-à-vis the Republicans. But if he thinks he can repeat his fiscal cliff victory over Congressional Republicans he’s dreaming. He may think this is the path to a successful second term during which he will no longer be at the mercy of his opponents. But by choosing to fight rather than to deal, Obama may be setting in motion a chain of events that could derail the economy and his presidency.

The president’s confrontational strategy is based on two factors that were very much in evidence six weeks as the fiscal cliff was barely averted by a deal most Republicans hated. One is that the majority of the House GOP caucus fears being blamed for any standoff with the president that will harm the economy. The other is that the Republicans are so divided between mainstream members of Congress led by House Speaker John Boehner and Tea Party insurgents that there is no way for them to work together to thwart the president’s initiatives.

But what Obama fails to realize is that a presidential attempt to shove a liberal agenda down the throat of Congress is the one thing that can reunite the GOP. Moreover, having already given in on tax increases to avoid the fiscal cliff, the pressure he thinks he can exert on Congress to raise taxes again is not as great as he thinks it is. With some Republicans already foolishly welcoming the sequester, Obama may have created a set of circumstances in which Boehner will have no choice but to do something that he’d rather avoid and call the president’s bluff.

Barack Obama would not be the first president to misinterpret a relatively narrow if clear re-election victory as a mandate to transform American politics. But its doubtful that any of his predecessors have demonstrated more overconfidence than he is showing by assuming that a 51 percent vote means that a body of Congress led by his opposition must knuckle under to his dictates without a fight.

Republicans have decided that any effort to force the president to deal with the looming budget crisis by forcing his hand via the debt ceiling is a mistake. But the notion that they will abandon the entitlement reform that is the only path to fiscal sanity while also buying into his call for more “investments” that will sink the country further into debt is pure science fiction.

Throughout his presidency, Obama has always appeared to seek confrontation rather than agreement on the premise that doing so will only enhance his popularity. So far it has worked, but the tilt to the left may be based on an overestimation of the strength of his position. Contrary to what his aides seem to think, at this stage, he has every bit as much to lose from a standoff that will harm the economy. No matter how much he demagogues the GOP about taxing the rich and disingenuous arguments about helping the middle class, the voters will not reward him with victory in the 2014 midterm elections if the economy tanks in the next year.

In his inaugural address, the president demonstrated that he had learned nothing from his first four years in office about working with Republicans to help the country. Instead of further exploiting his opponent’s weakness, he may be on the verge of bringing together a badly divided Republican Party. By doubling down on this partisan tack in his SOTU speech, he may do himself far more damage than the GOP could ever think of doing to him.

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Should Democrats Always Lead During War? Part Two

As I wrote in part one of this post, liberal hypocrisy about the anti-terror policies of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations has made clear that partisan affiliation seems to play a large role in the way Americans think about the wars the country has become embroiled in over the last half century. Just as anti-war sentiment about Vietnam mushroomed after Richard Nixon replaced Lyndon Johnson in the White house, it evaporated about the war on terror when Obama replaced Bush. After 2009, the outrage about Guantanamo and abuse of terrorists was no longer a potent political weapon for Democrats to pound a Republican target and simply faded from view. Four years after Obama first took office, it is now clear that his administration has not only kept most of Bush’s terror war infrastructure in place but has arrogated to itself power that its predecessor never thought to assert for itself. Yet few outside of the far left seem to think it is a problem.

Democrats ought to be ashamed of this but few seem to be blushing about their hypocrisy. Some may rationalize their behavior by saying that only their side can be trusted to lead wars that America should be fighting and that men like Obama can be relied upon to behave responsibly while Bush and Cheney could not. Yet there is nothing in the record of the past two administrations that backs up a conclusion that would draw any broad moral distinction between their records in fighting against Al Qaeda or the Taliban. The slaughter from that the drones have caused is something that conservatives think is justified by the need to fight an ongoing war against Islamists terrorists. But it makes the measures undertaken by Bush and Cheney — that were widely blasted by Democrats as a threat to American liberty — appear restrained. The question is, how will this undeniable pattern impact the chances that the U.S. will use force to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

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As I wrote in part one of this post, liberal hypocrisy about the anti-terror policies of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations has made clear that partisan affiliation seems to play a large role in the way Americans think about the wars the country has become embroiled in over the last half century. Just as anti-war sentiment about Vietnam mushroomed after Richard Nixon replaced Lyndon Johnson in the White house, it evaporated about the war on terror when Obama replaced Bush. After 2009, the outrage about Guantanamo and abuse of terrorists was no longer a potent political weapon for Democrats to pound a Republican target and simply faded from view. Four years after Obama first took office, it is now clear that his administration has not only kept most of Bush’s terror war infrastructure in place but has arrogated to itself power that its predecessor never thought to assert for itself. Yet few outside of the far left seem to think it is a problem.

Democrats ought to be ashamed of this but few seem to be blushing about their hypocrisy. Some may rationalize their behavior by saying that only their side can be trusted to lead wars that America should be fighting and that men like Obama can be relied upon to behave responsibly while Bush and Cheney could not. Yet there is nothing in the record of the past two administrations that backs up a conclusion that would draw any broad moral distinction between their records in fighting against Al Qaeda or the Taliban. The slaughter from that the drones have caused is something that conservatives think is justified by the need to fight an ongoing war against Islamists terrorists. But it makes the measures undertaken by Bush and Cheney — that were widely blasted by Democrats as a threat to American liberty — appear restrained. The question is, how will this undeniable pattern impact the chances that the U.S. will use force to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

It should be remembered that George W. Bush punted on Iran during his second term. Bush outsourced Iran diplomacy to America’s European allies but those efforts were a complete failure. But Bush reacted to that fiasco with patience that he had not showed on Iraq. Bush not only was uninterested in U.S. action but also flatly vetoed any Israeli unilateral strikes on nuclear facilities. He appeared to conclude that adding a third conflict to the unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was impossible.

Obama doubled down on his predecessor’s outreach to Iran even though he spoke of it as if Bush had never tried diplomacy. But after four years of failed engagement, he now finds himself facing the reality that at some point in the next four years he will have to choose between accepting a nuclear Iran and fulfilling his pledges never to allow Tehran to get a nuke. The Iranians may be forgiven for thinking Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to the Pentagon is a signal that he will never use force against them. But given the dire implications of an Iranian nuke for U.S. security, the stability of the entire Middle East as well as the existential nature of this threat to the state of Israel, it may well be that the president will have no choice but to think about attacking Iran.

Republicans may be skeptical that Obama will ever summon the will to do what needs to be done on Iran but if he does, one part of the equation that will make up that decision is the certainty that he can do so without fear that the much of the mainstream media and his liberal base will oppose him. Unlike any Republican president put in the same predicament, Obama can assess the need to launch strikes on Iran’s nuclear targets without having to worry about his left-wing constituency seeking to paralyze the country with anti-war protests or to defund the war.

If there is any consolation for Republicans in losing the last presidential election it should be this. No matter how obvious the case for force against Iran might be a President Romney would have had a difficult time uniting the country behind an effort to act to forestall the Iranian nuclear threat. The sickening hypocrisy of both the administration and the left makes it clear that if Obama were to strike Iran, he will likely have the support of both parties in a way that neither Romney, George W. Bush or any Republican could ever have hoped for.

That this is so doesn’t speak well for Democrats or liberals. Their partisan prejudices render them incapable of long supporting any war or anti-terror effort when the Republicans are in charge in Washington. Any Republican who starts a war labors under the handicap that the left will view their motives as impure and treat efforts to carry the war against the enemy by all means necessary as somehow illegitimate. Barack Obama has learned that for all of the criticism he has endured from his opponents, outside of libertarian outliers, Republicans will always salute the flag and back just about any war even when they hate the president.

Though this is something that is to be lamented, let us hope that it helps give Barack Obama the confidence to do what needs to be done on Iran once he accepts, as eventually he must, the truth about his feckless diplomatic efforts. 

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Should Democrats Always Lead During War? Part One

Tina Brown stated the obvious when she observed on Bill Maher’s show that had George W. Bush used drone attacks in the same manner as Barack Obama has done he would have been impeached a long time ago. As Pete Wehner wrote last week in a post that both Max Boot and I agreed with, a thick stench of hypocrisy hangs over the Obama administration. The president who came into office decrying Bush’s actions against terrorists as a disgrace not only later carried out many of the same policies but also doubled down on them in many respects. The large number of drone attacks in which the United States has carried out targeted assassinations of terrorists, including at least one American citizen, as well as many of their family members and bystanders, makes the enhanced interrogations and the prison at Guantanamo that so outraged liberals look like child’s play. Yet most Democrats are not rushing to the barricades the way they did when Bush and Vice President Cheney were widely said to have subverted our constitutional liberties. To the extent that any have articulated a rationale for this turnaround, the best they seem capable of doing is to assert that while Obama can be trusted to use this power, Republicans like Bush and Cheney could not.

This has conservatives fuming and rightly so. But that has not caused most of them to play the same game. Though some of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party led by Rand Paul have attacked Obama for exceeding his power, most in the GOP are backing up the president on his right to carry out the drone attacks even while grousing about his hypocrisy. But after we acknowledge the unfairness of this situation, this is hardly the first time this double standard has raised its head. It is a pattern that has held true for the past half century. Though it is a bitter pill for conservatives to swallow, perhaps its time for them to acknowledge that during prolonged wars the country is always better off if a Democrat is in the White House.

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Tina Brown stated the obvious when she observed on Bill Maher’s show that had George W. Bush used drone attacks in the same manner as Barack Obama has done he would have been impeached a long time ago. As Pete Wehner wrote last week in a post that both Max Boot and I agreed with, a thick stench of hypocrisy hangs over the Obama administration. The president who came into office decrying Bush’s actions against terrorists as a disgrace not only later carried out many of the same policies but also doubled down on them in many respects. The large number of drone attacks in which the United States has carried out targeted assassinations of terrorists, including at least one American citizen, as well as many of their family members and bystanders, makes the enhanced interrogations and the prison at Guantanamo that so outraged liberals look like child’s play. Yet most Democrats are not rushing to the barricades the way they did when Bush and Vice President Cheney were widely said to have subverted our constitutional liberties. To the extent that any have articulated a rationale for this turnaround, the best they seem capable of doing is to assert that while Obama can be trusted to use this power, Republicans like Bush and Cheney could not.

This has conservatives fuming and rightly so. But that has not caused most of them to play the same game. Though some of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party led by Rand Paul have attacked Obama for exceeding his power, most in the GOP are backing up the president on his right to carry out the drone attacks even while grousing about his hypocrisy. But after we acknowledge the unfairness of this situation, this is hardly the first time this double standard has raised its head. It is a pattern that has held true for the past half century. Though it is a bitter pill for conservatives to swallow, perhaps its time for them to acknowledge that during prolonged wars the country is always better off if a Democrat is in the White House.

The idea that partisan affiliation determines an individual’s position on war and peace issues seems to go against the grain in an era in which we have been led to believe that partisan affiliation is declining. Yet there is no way to avoid the conclusion that party labels have more to do with whether there is widespread dissension about American wars than many of us would like to think. Democrats and liberals can only be counted on to support wars that are launched by a member of their party. Yet while Republicans are no slouches when it comes to trashing Democratic presidents, they can generally be counted on to follow the flag and back any war effort no matter who is sitting in the White House.

The roots of the current phenomenon can be traced backed to the Vietnam War. Though the anti-war movement began during the Lyndon Johnson administration and led to his decision not to seek re-election, one of the myths about that conflict is the idea that partisanship had nothing to do with the protests. Throughout Johnson’s presidency and even during the fateful year of 1968 when the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and then Robert Kennedy exploited anti-war sentiments, polls showed that Johnson’s policies and the war were still supported by comfortable majorities of the American public. Campus protests against the war shocked the nation but the idea that most Americans shared their sentiments at that time was untrue even if there was little enthusiasm for the struggle in Southeast Asia. Republicans backed the war as did a sizeable portion if not a majority of Democrats who still saw the world through the Cold War prism of the need to “bear any burden” in the struggle against Communism that John F. Kennedy had articulated.

It was only after November 1968 that most Democrats, who despised the newly elected Richard Nixon, felt free to join in the anti-war movement. After that point, anti-war demonstrations were no longer limited to college campuses but went mainstream in a way that would have been unimaginable a year earlier. What followed was the conversion of the Democrats from a party that was primarily composed of Cold Warriors to one that would cut off funds to South Vietnam even after Nixon had withdrawn U.S. combat troops.

Democrats may argue that the first Gulf War fought by President George H.W. Bush and the initial popularity of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars under his son disproves this thesis. Though many Democrats voted against the authorization of force against Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the country was united in support of the troops that won the swift victory in Kuwait. The carping from the left after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was minimal. There were massive anti-war demonstrations against the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 though when Saddam fell quickly and the coalition forces were initially greeted as liberators, there was silence from the anti-war crowd.

But, as was the case in Vietnam, Democratic willingness to go along with a war that could not be easily concluded in days and weeks was limited. The first President Bush avoided this problem when he shut down the conflict and allowed Saddam Hussein to massacre Iraqi Shiites and dissidents while American forces stood by in liberated Kuwait. But George W. Bush’s decision not to cut and run in either Afghanistan or Iraq led most Democrats to oppose those wars.

It’s important to remember that Bill Clinton authorized missile strikes on terror targets and made terrible mistakes about intelligence such as the milk factory in Sudan that was leveled by an American attack because it was thought to be a terror target without so much as a peep of protest from liberals. Clinton even launched an air war in the Balkans to support the cause of independence for Kosovo without fear of much criticism.

It should be specified that there was much to criticize about the administration’s conduct of the Iraq War but the idea that America was swindled into backing the conflict was always more about partisanship than Bush’s alleged deceptions. Most Democrats had believed in the threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Many also understood that removing Saddam was in America’s interests for other strategic reasons. But it was only when the war proved costly and messy that they bailed on it as neo-liberals who supported the war on terror soon became its critics. Not even the U.S. victory won by the Iraq surge that liberals opposed, was enough to change the minds of most Democrats about Bush’s war. Though many, including Barack Obama, said at the time that Afghanistan was the “good war” America should be fighting rather than Iraq, the enthusiasm on the left for that war disappeared when it was no longer a useful cudgel to be employed against Bush and Cheney. But the main conclusion to be drawn from the transition from a Republican-led war to one led by a Democrat was that the latter had the latitude to carry out his policies without fear of much criticism from the mainstream media or the left that had taken to the streets to defame his predecessor.

In part two of this post, I will further explore the implications of this partisan divide about war and discuss whether it will impact America’s efforts to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

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A Drone Court is a Terrible Idea

With controversy growing over the Obama administration’s use of drones to kill suspected terrorists—even, on a few occasions American citizens—interest appears to be growing in some kind of “drone court” modeled on the court authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to authorize national-security wiretaps. Even Bob Gates, the former secretary of defense who is as centrist as they come, appeared to indicate on CNN yesterday that he was in favor of more oversight of the drone strikes, possibly from such a court.

There is no doubt that putting judicial imprimatur on such strikes would help to dissipate growing opposition to the use of drones and could help to rein in capricious decision-making by this administration or a future administration. This proposal is sure to gain traction on both the antiwar left and the anti-government right—as well as among many in the general public who have a certain unease about the idea of presidentially ordered “assassinations” a la fictional characters like Jason Bourne.

Nevertheless creating such a court would be a very bad idea because it would constitute a dangerous infringement on the president’s authority as commander-in-chief.

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With controversy growing over the Obama administration’s use of drones to kill suspected terrorists—even, on a few occasions American citizens—interest appears to be growing in some kind of “drone court” modeled on the court authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to authorize national-security wiretaps. Even Bob Gates, the former secretary of defense who is as centrist as they come, appeared to indicate on CNN yesterday that he was in favor of more oversight of the drone strikes, possibly from such a court.

There is no doubt that putting judicial imprimatur on such strikes would help to dissipate growing opposition to the use of drones and could help to rein in capricious decision-making by this administration or a future administration. This proposal is sure to gain traction on both the antiwar left and the anti-government right—as well as among many in the general public who have a certain unease about the idea of presidentially ordered “assassinations” a la fictional characters like Jason Bourne.

Nevertheless creating such a court would be a very bad idea because it would constitute a dangerous infringement on the president’s authority as commander-in-chief.

To be sure, there are few cases of drone strikes involving American citizens such as Anwar al-Awlaki and it would probably not be any great burden in the war on terror to have those instances reviewed by a court. The danger is that this would be the establishment of a dangerous precedent, with judges soon being called upon to approve all drone strikes, whether the targets are American citizens or not. There is already a fair amount of bureaucracy to vet such strikes and minimize collateral damage, which sometimes results in the suspects making an escape before approval to fire a Hellfire missile can be obtained. Introducing judges into the mix would make such operations intolerably slow and unwieldy.

If judges were given power to review military or CIA strikes taking place outside the country, where would this trend end? With troops having to read detainees on a foreign battlefield their Miranda rights? With judges having to approve in advance all military plans—including armored offensives and artillery barrages—to make sure they don’t infringe on someone’s civil rights?

Such scenarios are not as crazy as they sound. Civil liberties lawyers have already been trying to get the U.S. courts to assume oversight of detainees held in Afghanistan—one federal judge even ruled that these detainees had a right to a hearing before being overruled by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Constitutional guarantees of rights are the bedrock of our democracy—but they don’t apply to foreign combatants. Not even if they happen to be citizens—as the entire Confederate Army was during the Civil War. The FISA court is well and good but it only operates on our soil. It doesn’t limit the National Security Agency from carrying out wiretaps abroad. So, too, no “drone court” should be established to judicially regulate the use of lethal force abroad by the military or covert forces of the United States government.

This is not to say that such operations should be above any outside review. Congress has the right to step in and, if it so desires, cut off funding for the drone program. Or it can rescind or narrow the Authorization for the Use of Force that was passed on September 14, 2001, and is the legal basis for the drone strikes against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. What Congress cannot do—because I suspect the appeals courts and the Supreme Court would not allow it—is to try to delegate to the judiciary the job of making decisions on the use of military force abroad.

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The Benghazi Scandal and Media Bias

I served in the Bush White House during the intense press coverage about who leaked the name of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA agent, to Robert Novak. It was a story that obsessed the media and led to a three-year criminal investigation by a special counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald.

In the end, it turned out Richard Armitage was the person responsible for leaking Ms. Plame’s name, no laws were violated related to the leak, and the favorite target of the press, Karl Rove, was innocent of any wrong-doing. Though one individual in the administration was convicted of lying under oath, no underlying crime was committed. Ms. Plame and her husband Joseph Wilson, who we know made misleading statements during the whole episode, became celebrities of a sort. It was, in retrospect, much ado about very little, even if the press made life hell for innocent individuals.

Call it collateral damage from a scandal-crazed media.

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I served in the Bush White House during the intense press coverage about who leaked the name of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA agent, to Robert Novak. It was a story that obsessed the media and led to a three-year criminal investigation by a special counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald.

In the end, it turned out Richard Armitage was the person responsible for leaking Ms. Plame’s name, no laws were violated related to the leak, and the favorite target of the press, Karl Rove, was innocent of any wrong-doing. Though one individual in the administration was convicted of lying under oath, no underlying crime was committed. Ms. Plame and her husband Joseph Wilson, who we know made misleading statements during the whole episode, became celebrities of a sort. It was, in retrospect, much ado about very little, even if the press made life hell for innocent individuals.

Call it collateral damage from a scandal-crazed media.

I thought about all this in light of the testimony last Thursday of outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey. As Bill Kristol and I point out in our op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today, we learned from their testimony that President Obama, upon being told about the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, never once followed up with Panetta, Dempsey, or anyone else to see how things were developing. We learned that Messrs. Panetta and Dempsey both knew the assault on the compound were terrorist attacks on the night of the assault, even as the administration – in the persons of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama – continued to peddle a false version of events for weeks afterward. And despite having been told about Ambassador Christopher Stevens’ repeated warnings that the embassy could not sustain an attack and he was concerned of the chaos and rise of Islamist elements in Benghazi, no forces were put in place or made ready nearby to respond to a possible attack. And during the actual attack, which we knew about in real time, not a single major military asset was deployed to help rescue Americans under assault.

As a result, the first American ambassador in more than 30 years was murdered, and so were three other Americans.

Here’s a thought experiment. Assume during the Bush or Reagan years three things happened: (1) four Americans were killed in a terrorist-led attack on an American compound; (2) the president and his top aides showed stunning indifference and passivity before and during the lethal attacks; and (3) the nation was misled for weeks after the attacks, even though the highest ranking members of the administration knew the true story.

Do you think the elite media would have covered this story with intensity comparable to, or greater than, the Plame story? Absolutely. Presidents Bush or Reagan would have been bombarded with questions. There would have been a feeding frenzy. They would not have been subject to obsequious “60 Minutes” interviews.  The press narrative would have made this scandal a central part, not a footnote, of both presidencies. 

Yet with a few honorable exceptions, journalists have devoted only a fraction of the attention to the Benghazi story as it did to the Plame story. The press, in fact, has shown a remarkable incuriosity to the period before, during, and after the terrorist attack that cost the lives of Ambassador Stevens, security personnel Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, and information officer Sean Smith. There has been none of the burning passion and obsession with the lethal Benghazi attack and the administration’s misleading accounts of it that we witnessed during the Plame story.

I’ll leave it to discerning readers to figure out why. 

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