Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 6, 2013

Paul’s Real Beef Isn’t Domestic Drones

As of this writing, Senator Rand Paul is still on his feet filibustering the nomination of John Brennan to be director of the CIA. But as he eventually made clear, his goal is not so much to actually stop Brennan, as it is to make a meal of the comments made this morning by Attorney General Eric Holder when he was pressed about U.S. policies on drone strikes on terrorists during an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. When asked whether the government considered it had the right to use an armed drone on an American citizen within the borders of the United States, Holder didn’t give the senators a straight answer. They were entitled to such an answer, as well as to the documents they requested. But those who are now saying that the dustup over using drones in the United States is the sole point of Paul’s filibuster hasn’t been listening closely to him as he held the Senate floor.

Paul and other members of the Senate (including several Republicans and Democrat Ron Wyden) who assisted his filibuster by asking questions to give him brief breaks have a point when it comes to the possible use of drones on U.S. citizens in America. It is difficult to imagine the circumstances when using the same tactics being used on al-Qaeda operatives in the Middle East here at home would be justified. As I wrote earlier, invoking Adolf Hitler and George Orwell’s “Big Brother” in a discussion of current counter-terrorism strategies is inflammatory and misleading. But there is little doubt that operations in the homeland must be conducted differently, starting with the fact that the CIA is not empowered to act in the United States.

Yet even if we concede that, as we should, Paul’s real beef is something else. The attempt to shift the discussion about drones to the fanciful suggestion that the Justice Department might target Tea Party members is a red herring. Paul’s core objection to the drone program remains what he calls the “perpetual war” against Islamist terrorists.

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As of this writing, Senator Rand Paul is still on his feet filibustering the nomination of John Brennan to be director of the CIA. But as he eventually made clear, his goal is not so much to actually stop Brennan, as it is to make a meal of the comments made this morning by Attorney General Eric Holder when he was pressed about U.S. policies on drone strikes on terrorists during an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. When asked whether the government considered it had the right to use an armed drone on an American citizen within the borders of the United States, Holder didn’t give the senators a straight answer. They were entitled to such an answer, as well as to the documents they requested. But those who are now saying that the dustup over using drones in the United States is the sole point of Paul’s filibuster hasn’t been listening closely to him as he held the Senate floor.

Paul and other members of the Senate (including several Republicans and Democrat Ron Wyden) who assisted his filibuster by asking questions to give him brief breaks have a point when it comes to the possible use of drones on U.S. citizens in America. It is difficult to imagine the circumstances when using the same tactics being used on al-Qaeda operatives in the Middle East here at home would be justified. As I wrote earlier, invoking Adolf Hitler and George Orwell’s “Big Brother” in a discussion of current counter-terrorism strategies is inflammatory and misleading. But there is little doubt that operations in the homeland must be conducted differently, starting with the fact that the CIA is not empowered to act in the United States.

Yet even if we concede that, as we should, Paul’s real beef is something else. The attempt to shift the discussion about drones to the fanciful suggestion that the Justice Department might target Tea Party members is a red herring. Paul’s core objection to the drone program remains what he calls the “perpetual war” against Islamist terrorists.

Most Americans understand that limiting American attacks on terrorists to those actively in the field shooting at American soldiers in Afghanistan or those caught in the act of carrying out an attack on other targets anywhere else is not sensible. Al-Qaeda operatives must be hunted down and, if possible, killed wherever they are, be it in their hideouts, while driving a car or sitting in a public venue. Most also have no problem with such tactics being applied to U.S. citizens who have joined al-Qaeda and are actively taking part in a war on America.

But Paul does seem to oppose the drone strikes. Indeed, anyone who heard all or most of his several hours of talk on the subject heard a great deal that shows he thinks the “perpetual war” against the Islamists is the real problem.

The unfortunate fact is that Americans will have to continue fighting al-Qaeda. This is not because our leaders lust for war or are enraptured with drone technology, but because our enemies believe they are engaged in war that will go on for generations until we succumb. Winning that struggle will require patience and endurance as well as the will to seek out these enemies wherever they may be plotting. Targeted killings of these terrorists are necessary and effective. But Paul’s core critique of the administration is not about a theoretical drone attack in the United States but about this very tactic.

Those who worry about Barack Obama’s fast and loose approach to the Constitution do well to keep close tabs on what the government is up to. But the president’s drone use against al-Qaeda is both constitutional and necessary. Conflating this policy with a plan to kill American dissidents or non-combatants sleeping in their beds here is merely a tactic aimed at transforming the debate about drones in a way that will make the curtailment of foreign strikes possible.

We can all take pride in the willingness of members of the U.S. Senate to stand up for the Bill of Rights and against the unchecked expansion of government power. But today’s filibuster is rooted in Paul’s unhappiness with American counter-terrorism tactics abroad, not those that have never been used at home.

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Why Mattis Will Be Missed

The Obama administration may regret pushing General James Mattis, the brilliant and blunt-talking Marine who is head of Central Command, into retirement for a variety of reasons—not the least of them being that, with his impending retirement looming, he has felt free to voice undiplomatic truths.

In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, he was asked whether sanctions and diplomacy were preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear arms. His blunt answer: “No, sir” He followed up by explaining: “That should not be in any way construed as we should not try to negotiate. I still support the direction we’re taking. I’m just — I’m paid to take a rather dim view of the Iranians, frankly.” Needless to say his “dim view” is a lot closer to reality than the daydreams of political staffers in the White House who imagine that some kind of diplomatic breakthrough with the mullahs is likely.

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The Obama administration may regret pushing General James Mattis, the brilliant and blunt-talking Marine who is head of Central Command, into retirement for a variety of reasons—not the least of them being that, with his impending retirement looming, he has felt free to voice undiplomatic truths.

In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, he was asked whether sanctions and diplomacy were preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear arms. His blunt answer: “No, sir” He followed up by explaining: “That should not be in any way construed as we should not try to negotiate. I still support the direction we’re taking. I’m just — I’m paid to take a rather dim view of the Iranians, frankly.” Needless to say his “dim view” is a lot closer to reality than the daydreams of political staffers in the White House who imagine that some kind of diplomatic breakthrough with the mullahs is likely.

When he was asked about how many troops the U.S. should leave behind in Afghanistan after 2014, Mattis replied with equal frankness that his recommendation has been to keep 13,600 U.S. troops on the assumption that NATO would provide half as many, for a total international force of 20,000. That is roughly half the figure that the White House has been floating as a possibility. But, again, Mattis’s assessment is a lot closer to the mark than the politically driven happy-talk from the White House.

No doubt Mattis caused some consternation in the White House by telling the truth about Iran and Afghanistan—the very definition of a “Washington gaffe”—but it is precisely because of his willingness to speak truth to power that Mattis will be so dearly missed. He is one of the few senior governmental appointees left, after the departure of Clinton, Gates, Panetta, and Petraeus, who can inject some reality into a foreign policy that increasingly seems to be dominated by a handful of like-minded presidential cronies.

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Hillary Clinton’s Vision for a More “Palatable” America

In my earlier post on the Obama White House turf wars that continually impede the administration’s ability to form coherent and thoughtful policy prescriptions, I mentioned Vali Nasr’s piece in Foreign Policy and his evident sympathies for the Hillary Clinton wing of the administration over the Obama wing. If Clinton does indeed run for president in 2016, as many expect her to, stories like these will serve as the building blocks of her campaign: she shared in the administration’s successes, the storyline will go, but the failures only occurred because nobody listened to her.

That storyline is bunk, and no one should read the administration’s foreign policy failures as stemming from an unwillingness to let Clinton run the show. Though Clinton undoubtedly showed better judgment on some issues–Syria comes to mind–her time as secretary of state was punctuated by two telling episodes. The most famous was the Benghazi tragedy, which arose in part because Clinton’s management and organizational abilities at Foggy Bottom were atrocious, and she left the State Department a mess. But the other incident was what many considered to be a success: the release by Chinese authorities of the dissident Chen Guangcheng after Clinton intervened. Yet as I wrote last June, we subsequently learned that Clinton’s negotiations had failed, and that what spurred Chen’s release was the public hearing congressional Republicans held on the case, which brought unwanted attention to Chinese human rights abuses. Clinton’s “smart diplomacy,” or “quiet diplomacy” as it’s sometimes called, was a dismal failure.

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In my earlier post on the Obama White House turf wars that continually impede the administration’s ability to form coherent and thoughtful policy prescriptions, I mentioned Vali Nasr’s piece in Foreign Policy and his evident sympathies for the Hillary Clinton wing of the administration over the Obama wing. If Clinton does indeed run for president in 2016, as many expect her to, stories like these will serve as the building blocks of her campaign: she shared in the administration’s successes, the storyline will go, but the failures only occurred because nobody listened to her.

That storyline is bunk, and no one should read the administration’s foreign policy failures as stemming from an unwillingness to let Clinton run the show. Though Clinton undoubtedly showed better judgment on some issues–Syria comes to mind–her time as secretary of state was punctuated by two telling episodes. The most famous was the Benghazi tragedy, which arose in part because Clinton’s management and organizational abilities at Foggy Bottom were atrocious, and she left the State Department a mess. But the other incident was what many considered to be a success: the release by Chinese authorities of the dissident Chen Guangcheng after Clinton intervened. Yet as I wrote last June, we subsequently learned that Clinton’s negotiations had failed, and that what spurred Chen’s release was the public hearing congressional Republicans held on the case, which brought unwanted attention to Chinese human rights abuses. Clinton’s “smart diplomacy,” or “quiet diplomacy” as it’s sometimes called, was a dismal failure.

The most interesting aspect of her failures, however, is that to her supporters–not only Nasr but also the press–they actually count as achievements. That’s because the end result isn’t what matters to them nearly as much as the process used: humble American innocents abroad trying not to ruffle feathers. This attitude is nicely critiqued by COMMENTARY contributor Sohrab Ahmari in the Wall Street Journal this afternoon in his review of a BBC correspondent’s new book on Clinton’s tenure at State. Ahmari points out that that to Clinton’s supporters, her brand of diplomacy is an end in itself, even when it’s ineffectual:

In practice, the administration’s “nuanced diplomacy” meant downgrading the promotion of freedom and human rights, viewed suspiciously as Mr. Bush’s policy rather than a long-standing bipartisan commitment. On her first trip to China as secretary of state in February 2009, Mrs. Clinton said that criticism of Beijing’s abhorrent rights record can’t be allowed to “interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises.” To Ms. Ghattas, the fact that the secretary’s statement drew widespread outrage at the time was merely proof that “the world was not ready for her new style of diplomacy.”

The author also approves of Mrs. Clinton’s many apologies for the actions of the previous American administration. One particularly distasteful episode the author recounts came during an October 2009 “town hall” with Pakistani journalists in Islamabad. Mrs. Clinton answered a question regarding U.S. support for Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf by saying: “Musharraf and Bush are gone. I’m very happy about Bush being gone. You’re apparently happy about Musharraf being gone.” Such statements, the author says, “went a long way to buy goodwill.”

Actually they didn’t. As a June 2012 Pew poll revealed, in much of the Muslim world, where the administration’s humble posture was supposed to have had its greatest effect, U.S. popularity generally declined during Mr. Obama’s first term. (Only 12% of Pakistanis, for example, held a favorable view of the U.S., down from 19% at the end of Mr. Bush’s presidency.) Meanwhile, the administration’s obsession with multilateralism and the hectoring of traditional allies like Israel have yielded few concrete gains. But Ms. Ghattas plays down or elides the Obama team’s most serious foreign-policy setbacks. The now-forgotten Russian “reset” and the administration’s ludicrous faith in Bashar al-Assad’s reformist potential get far less attention here than Mrs. Clinton’s willingness to acknowledge “American excesses of power abroad,” which, the author claims, has made the U.S. a “palatable” presence around the world.

What those on the left celebrate as a “palatable” American presence simply means a weak American presence, or an apologetic one. But as Ahmari writes, and as James Kirchick pointed out in COMMENTARY in October, it didn’t work. The world didn’t suddenly respect an American elite power that didn’t respect itself.

This myth of Clinton as a successful diplomat because she flew to Asia a bunch of times is utter and complete nonsense, and her record speaks for itself. But that her record doesn’t matter to those who simply want a more “palatable” United States tells us much about those who hope Clinton returns to the White House in a few years.

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Obama’s Iran Approach Already Failed

In January, Max Boot wrote about the unfortunate decision of the administration to push out one of the country’s top soldiers: Marine General James Mattis, the head of the nation’s crucial Central Command. As Max said, it appeared that “the White House does not appreciate his blunt advice and thinks he is too hawkish on Iran.” Yesterday, we got a good example of the blunt advice Mattis has been offering up when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee “sanctions and diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities are not working”:

General James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran has a history of denial and deceit and is enriching uranium beyond any plausible peaceful purpose. While it may still be possible to use sanctions and other pressure to bring Tehran to its senses, he added, Iran is using the negotiations to buy time.

Mattis is obviously right about what has happened in the last decade as the United States wasted time on foolish attempts at engagement, weak diplomacy and loosely enforced sanctions as the Iranians ran out the clock, getting closer every day to realizing their nuclear ambition. But the question that should be on the minds of Americans is whether the people who showed the general the door understand this commonsense evaluation.

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In January, Max Boot wrote about the unfortunate decision of the administration to push out one of the country’s top soldiers: Marine General James Mattis, the head of the nation’s crucial Central Command. As Max said, it appeared that “the White House does not appreciate his blunt advice and thinks he is too hawkish on Iran.” Yesterday, we got a good example of the blunt advice Mattis has been offering up when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee “sanctions and diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities are not working”:

General James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran has a history of denial and deceit and is enriching uranium beyond any plausible peaceful purpose. While it may still be possible to use sanctions and other pressure to bring Tehran to its senses, he added, Iran is using the negotiations to buy time.

Mattis is obviously right about what has happened in the last decade as the United States wasted time on foolish attempts at engagement, weak diplomacy and loosely enforced sanctions as the Iranians ran out the clock, getting closer every day to realizing their nuclear ambition. But the question that should be on the minds of Americans is whether the people who showed the general the door understand this commonsense evaluation.

Earlier this week, Vice President Biden articulated what might have been the most bellicose expression of administration sentiment toward Iran. He told the annual AIPAC conference that President Obama’s reliance on diplomacy and sanctions was justified, because it would allow the United States to say it had done everything to avoid war if the moment came when force must be used to prevent Tehran from going nuclear. But that stand was undermined by what transpired last week in Almaty, Kazakhstan when the P5+1 group met for the latest round of talks with the Iranians.

At those talks, the Western powers made concessions to the Iranians, saying they would allow them to keep their nuclear plant at Fordow open and that they could continue to refine uranium. Just as bad, they made it clear that if Iran would agree to suspend some of its nuclear activities, some of the sanctions that had been put into place so slowly and with such difficulty would be lifted.

Though the Iranians were clearly pleased by this retreat, they didn’t agree to the terms since they quite understandably believe they can do even better by continuing to stonewall the West. It must be understood that such a stand is an invitation for the Iranians to get a nuclear weapon since the terms of such an accord would give them plenty of latitude to evade the restrictions–much as the North Koreans have done.

The point is not just that, as General Mattis has rightly noted, diplomacy and sanctions have failed up until this point, but that by signing on to the strategy being employed by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton—the leader of the P5+1 group—the administration is doubling down on that failure and locking itself into a process that may ensure that it will be impossible to stop the Iranians.

It is to be hoped that Biden’s bluster represents the genuine sentiments of the president and that it shows he is thinking clearly about the necessity to act before it is too late. But the continued support for more diplomacy and the insistence that sanctions will eventually do the trick may betray a very different mindset.

President Obama is clearly a person who has little patience for opposing views, so it is no surprise that General Mattis will soon leave office. In his absence, it isn’t clear who will continue to tell the president truths that he doesn’t want to hear or whether the tough talk about Iran will continue to be given the lie by more diplomatic surrenders.

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Syria Is a Regional Disaster

Just when you think that the situation in Syria couldn’t get any worse… it does.  The conflict is spilling over Syria’s borders and badly affecting its neighbors.

The United Nations Refugee Agency is reporting that the number of Syrians who have registered as refugees (which allows them access to aid and services) has now passed the 1 million mark. The actual number of refugees, many of them unregistered, is higher and millions more are internally displaced within Syria. The refugee flow is growing all the time with at least 7,000 people leaving the country every day. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees warns that “Syria is spiraling towards full-scale disaster”–and it’s not just Syria that is affected. As the New York Times notes:

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Just when you think that the situation in Syria couldn’t get any worse… it does.  The conflict is spilling over Syria’s borders and badly affecting its neighbors.

The United Nations Refugee Agency is reporting that the number of Syrians who have registered as refugees (which allows them access to aid and services) has now passed the 1 million mark. The actual number of refugees, many of them unregistered, is higher and millions more are internally displaced within Syria. The refugee flow is growing all the time with at least 7,000 people leaving the country every day. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees warns that “Syria is spiraling towards full-scale disaster”–and it’s not just Syria that is affected. As the New York Times notes:

Around 330,000 Syrians have sought shelter in Lebanon and close to 320,000 in Jordan, the refugee agency reported, with more than 185,000 in Turkey, 105,000 in Iraq, 43,500 in Egypt and around 8,000 across North Africa. Others have fled to Europe, it said.

To illustrate the strain this influx has imposed on Syria’s neighbors, the refugee agency said the population of Lebanon has swelled by 10 percent, Jordan’s energy and water capacity as well as its health and education services are stretched to the limit and Turkey had spent $600 million building 17 camps to house arrivals and more are under construction.

Meanwhile, two violent incidents in recent days show further spillover. On Monday, 40 Syrian soldiers who had sought shelter in Iraq and were being returned to Syria via Anbar Province were slain by unknown gunmen. This shows how the Syrian insurgency, led by Sunnis, is melding with the existing Sunni insurgency in Iraq, which is being enflamed by Prime Minister Maliki’s sectarian Shiite tendencies. And as if that weren’t bad enough, now comes news that Syrian rebels have abducted 20 UN peacekeepers from the Golan Heights.

Amid this intensifying horror, what is the Obama administration doing? Well Secretary of State John Kerry has announced that we will send non-lethal aid to the rebels, and he has expressed support for allies—but not, for mysterious reasons, the U.S. itself—sending arms to the rebels as well. The CIA is also reportedly providing some training to some rebels in Jordan.

To say that this is inadequate is merely to state the obvious. The Syrian mess is turning into the biggest foreign policy debacle of the Obama administration. Its hands-off policy is proving just as destructive as the hands-off policy that the George H.W. Bush and the Clinton administrations took in the early years of the bloodletting in the former Yugoslavia. Unfortunately it is unlikely that international peacekeepers will ever be dispatched to restore calm in Syria as eventually happened in Bosnia and Kosovo because Western nations are so wary of intervening in another Muslim country.

But as the Balkans interventions proved, it is still not too late—even after more than two years of war—for Washington to lead a relatively low-risk multilateral intervention that would attempt to bring the fighting to an end. In the case of Syria the only realistic option is to hasten Assad’s downfall through the provision of weapons and training to the rebels and the use of Western airpower to create a no-fly zone and to assist the rebels with close air support in their operations. Those options may not seem very palatable (especially at a time when sequestration is badly hurting military readiness) but unless the administration changes course, the spillover and slaughter will continue to worsen.

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Prudence and Republican Vindication

It looks as if the sequestration drama is taking a toll on the president. In two recent polls (see here and here) his approval ratings have dipped into the 40s. In addition, a CBS News poll shows that on the matter of sequestration 38 percent of Americans place more blame on the Republicans in Congress, while 33 percent blame President Obama and the Democrats in Congress more for the difficulty in reaching agreement on spending cuts. (Among independents, 33 percent blame Republicans, 31 percent blame Obama.) This is hardly the tidal wave of opposition to the GOP that Democrats were counting on.

In addition, a story in Politico highlights Democratic concerns with how Obama has dealt with sequestration. “I think they probably went over the top in terms of saying that the consequences were going to be horrible, especially because it’s happened and the lines in the airports aren’t long, the world hasn’t changed overnight,” former Democratic Governor Ed Rendell said. He added, “it probably wasn’t the best strategic path for the White House to follow.”

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It looks as if the sequestration drama is taking a toll on the president. In two recent polls (see here and here) his approval ratings have dipped into the 40s. In addition, a CBS News poll shows that on the matter of sequestration 38 percent of Americans place more blame on the Republicans in Congress, while 33 percent blame President Obama and the Democrats in Congress more for the difficulty in reaching agreement on spending cuts. (Among independents, 33 percent blame Republicans, 31 percent blame Obama.) This is hardly the tidal wave of opposition to the GOP that Democrats were counting on.

In addition, a story in Politico highlights Democratic concerns with how Obama has dealt with sequestration. “I think they probably went over the top in terms of saying that the consequences were going to be horrible, especially because it’s happened and the lines in the airports aren’t long, the world hasn’t changed overnight,” former Democratic Governor Ed Rendell said. He added, “it probably wasn’t the best strategic path for the White House to follow.”

Indeed. The various acts of the sequestration drama include the president misleading Americans about whose idea sequestration was (Act I),; predicting consequences from sequestration that rivaled the most vivid verses in the Book of Revelations (Act II); backing away from his apocalyptic warnings once the cuts were set to go into effect (Act III) even as he tries to inflict maximize pain on the American people in hopes that they will turn on his opposition (Act IV).

The public doesn’t seem to be particularly enchanted with the Obama modus vivendi.

All of this seems to vindicate, I think, those of us who urged Republicans to veer away from a showdown with Obama over the debt ceiling in order to confront him on sequestration.

As I told Townhall’s Guy Benson during an interview in mid-January, as Republicans were engaged in the debt ceiling debate:

I just think that unfortunately the sequencing is very bad. We’ve got the debt ceiling debate before the continuing resolution and sequestration. Those things are going to come; that’s much stronger ground for Republicans to make the argument… If you’re going to make that fight, you’ve got to — the term of art is you have to be willing to shoot the hostage. Republicans won’t do it on the debt ceiling issue. I don’t think that they should. But if you got to, say, sequestration, I do think that Republicans have a much stronger hand because the Obama administration and the president himself don’t want sequestration. And the Republicans do.

To their credit, Speaker Boehner and Representative Paul Ryan convinced House Republicans to avoid a fight on the debt ceiling in favor of one on sequestration. This was the exercise of a supreme political virtue, prudence. It showed the capacity to pick battles with care and discretion. It’s true that some on the right were urging Republicans to go to the mat on the debt ceiling issue, which would have been a disaster, but fortunately cooler and wiser heads prevailed.

Republicans are still in a weakened state. But the situation would be far worse if they had not avoided the fiscal version of Pickett’s Charge. 

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Venezuela Should Come Clean on Iran

When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died in June 1989, there was a brutal heat wave in Tehran. Iranian forces sprayed the crowds who took to the streets with water to prevent heat stroke. The quip on the streets of Tehran at the time was “the old man was so senile, he forgot to close the door on the way down.” With the passing of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, Khomeini surely has company.

The relationship between Chavez and the Islamic Republic of Iran was too often dismissed in policy circles. Some in the State Department approached it almost as an amusing curiosity, while on the right it became exhibit A in the strange confluence of radical Islamism and unrestrained leftism.

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When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died in June 1989, there was a brutal heat wave in Tehran. Iranian forces sprayed the crowds who took to the streets with water to prevent heat stroke. The quip on the streets of Tehran at the time was “the old man was so senile, he forgot to close the door on the way down.” With the passing of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, Khomeini surely has company.

The relationship between Chavez and the Islamic Republic of Iran was too often dismissed in policy circles. Some in the State Department approached it almost as an amusing curiosity, while on the right it became exhibit A in the strange confluence of radical Islamism and unrestrained leftism.

There was much more to the relationship than rhetorical solidarity. Give credit where credit is due: Roger Noriega, a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, has established a record of accuracy when utilizing insider sources to report on Chavez’s health. He was given accurate diagnoses when the State Department was accepting their own interlocutors, who were supplying far more optimistic accounts of Chavez’s health, going back years.

Roger has also been at the forefront of reporting on the Iranian-Venezuelan military and nuclear cooperation. Just over a year ago, Roger described “Iran’s Gambit in Latin America” in COMMENTARY. He also described the curious interaction of Venezuela and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, in The American:

According to reliable sources in the Venezuelan government, Iranian Major General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the Revolutionary Guard Corps aerospace commander who previously headed Iran’s missile program, visited the facilities in Maracay and Moran in July 2009 and November 2011. An independent source who infiltrated Hezbollah on behalf of a South American security agency attended several lectures from 2006 to 2008 at the Iranian-run petrochemical training facility by radical cleric Mohsen Rabbani, who is wanted by Interpol for his role in the 1992 and 1994 terrorist bombings against the Israeli Embassy and Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.

Now that Chavez is gone, it should be a priority for the Obama administration and Secretary of State John Kerry to push to see just what Iran and Chavez were up to. Russia, China, and Turkey always water down or undercut sanctions by arguing there is no proof that Iran has nefarious intentions. That proof may very well lay in Venezuela. Then again, perhaps Obama and Kerry would be just as happy as Putin and Erdoğan to see no proof emerge. In that case, their best strategy might simply be not to look. If it’s a choice between being proven wrong on their strategy of outreach and protecting U.S. national security, let’s hope that Obama and Kerry put country before pride.

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Military Needs Flexibility in Spending Cuts

Numerous conservatives, including Jonathan, are understandably voicing suspicions that the armed forces are pursuing a “Washington Monument” strategy toward sequestration—in other words deliberately making the most painful cuts possible (such as cancelling a carrier deployment to the Persian Gulf and grounding air wings) so as to increase public support for a repeal of sequestration. As evidence, they can point to numerous examples of wasteful Pentagon spending that, in a more perfect world, should be cancelled before operational readiness is hurt. But the problem with sequestration is that the Pentagon doesn’t have flexibility in applying $46 billion in cuts that have to be implemented by the end of September—it is an automatic process that cuts necessary and not-so-necessary spending alike.

The problem is compounded because Congress has not yet passed a defense budget for 2013; the Department of Defense is forced to operate under a continuing resolution that only provides funding at the 2012 level even though some costs (such as transporting supplies across Pakistan) have spiked. One of the few accounts that are protected is the one for military payroll and benefits—those are safe. But that means that even more must come out of unprotected accounts including the most important one of all—“Operations and Maintenance,” which pays for ongoing military operations.

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Numerous conservatives, including Jonathan, are understandably voicing suspicions that the armed forces are pursuing a “Washington Monument” strategy toward sequestration—in other words deliberately making the most painful cuts possible (such as cancelling a carrier deployment to the Persian Gulf and grounding air wings) so as to increase public support for a repeal of sequestration. As evidence, they can point to numerous examples of wasteful Pentagon spending that, in a more perfect world, should be cancelled before operational readiness is hurt. But the problem with sequestration is that the Pentagon doesn’t have flexibility in applying $46 billion in cuts that have to be implemented by the end of September—it is an automatic process that cuts necessary and not-so-necessary spending alike.

The problem is compounded because Congress has not yet passed a defense budget for 2013; the Department of Defense is forced to operate under a continuing resolution that only provides funding at the 2012 level even though some costs (such as transporting supplies across Pakistan) have spiked. One of the few accounts that are protected is the one for military payroll and benefits—those are safe. But that means that even more must come out of unprotected accounts including the most important one of all—“Operations and Maintenance,” which pays for ongoing military operations.

As Defense News notes: “The Pentagon is expecting a $35 billion shortfall in operations and maintenance (O&M) funding in 2013 should billions of dollars in defense spending reductions and other budget restrictions remain in place for the rest of the fiscal year.” The article goes on to note that “the Army is in the worst shape of all the services, short about 80 percent in O&M accounts,” which is why the army is canceling training for all units not deploying to Afghanistan or South Korea.

Congressional Republicans have tried to provide some relief to the Pentagon by proposing legislation that would give the department more discretion in allocating the cuts. But that has been stymied by President Obama and Senate Democrats, who are apparently pursuing a strategy of maximizing the pain in order to force a repeal of sequestration. House Republicans are now trying anew with a fresh funding plan that increases operations and maintenance funding.

It is fair enough, then, to criticize the president for exacerbating the current crisis—but the fault doesn’t lie with our military leaders who are trying to make the best of a very bad situation.

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Rand Paul, Brennan and the Rule of Law

Senator Rand Paul is at this moment on his feet in the U.S. Senate rekindling memories of Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra. The Kentucky senator is doing a filibuster the old fashioned way: non-stop talking and refusing to yield the floor in order to delay a vote on the confirmation of John Brennan as director of the C.I.A. Like the fictional Jefferson Smith in Frank Capra’s classic film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Paul will keep going until he literally drops. The C-Span feed from the Senate does not show the apple and the thermos of coffee that Mr. Smith relied upon to keep going but I imagine if, as Stewart did in the movie, the Kentuckian starts reading the Constitution of the United States very slowly, Majority Leader Harry Reid will forget about getting the Senate back to business anytime soon.

Whether you consider this is an edifying spectacle or merely a political sideshow may depend up on your point of view about the reason why Paul has decided to prevent a vote on Brennan. There are good reasons for senators to oppose his bid to run the intelligence agency. But Paul’s belief that the president’s determination to carry the fight against Al Qaeda via drone strikes is a threat to American civil liberties is misplaced. Attempting to hamstring the ability of the government to carry on a foreign war is not defending the rule of law.

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Senator Rand Paul is at this moment on his feet in the U.S. Senate rekindling memories of Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra. The Kentucky senator is doing a filibuster the old fashioned way: non-stop talking and refusing to yield the floor in order to delay a vote on the confirmation of John Brennan as director of the C.I.A. Like the fictional Jefferson Smith in Frank Capra’s classic film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Paul will keep going until he literally drops. The C-Span feed from the Senate does not show the apple and the thermos of coffee that Mr. Smith relied upon to keep going but I imagine if, as Stewart did in the movie, the Kentuckian starts reading the Constitution of the United States very slowly, Majority Leader Harry Reid will forget about getting the Senate back to business anytime soon.

Whether you consider this is an edifying spectacle or merely a political sideshow may depend up on your point of view about the reason why Paul has decided to prevent a vote on Brennan. There are good reasons for senators to oppose his bid to run the intelligence agency. But Paul’s belief that the president’s determination to carry the fight against Al Qaeda via drone strikes is a threat to American civil liberties is misplaced. Attempting to hamstring the ability of the government to carry on a foreign war is not defending the rule of law.

Paul’s argument is that granting the president the ability to launch drone strikes on enemy combatants without first going through a legal process threatens our freedoms. Though he has been at pains to say that he doesn’t question the motives of the president, he worries that this power could be used wrongly in the future. The principle he is defending is a good one but he is confused about what is happening in the war against Islamist terrorism. It is not a police action or a civil investigation but a war that must be conducted and judged by very different standards that we would apply to criminal activity at home.

To buttress his view during his nonstop stream of rhetoric, Paul cited the experience of Weimar Germany as an example of an evil leader being democratically elected. Though he was careful not to call anyone in this debate a Hitler, he still claimed that the principle at stake is one in which our freedoms could be lost in a similar manner.

The mere mention of Hitler or of George Orwell’s “Big Brother” (as he did later in his speech) even with disclaimers is both foolish and inflammatory. The executive branch of the government has the responsibility to defend the people of the United States against their enemies. It would be nice if those tasked with fighting Al Qaeda could do so as if they were detectives on the beat, but such an expectation betrays a lack of understanding of this conflict.

The liberty that Rand Paul wants to defend is sacred. He does well to worry about the growth of government and the accretion of power in the hands of the executive without checks and balances provided by the law. But preserving that liberty requires an active defense. Stopping our armed forces and the president from killing the enemy wherever they can be found cannot preserve the rule of law.

There is good reason to fear that President Obama doesn’t have sufficient respect for the limits that the Constitution places on his power to act. But whatever we might think about his domestic power grabs, his willingness to order strikes on those plotting to kill Americans is not a threat to freedom. To use the example the senator repeatedly invoked, the president can’t wait until a plane is about to hit an American target. Waiting until the threat is imminent in that manner would be a dereliction of duty on the president’s part, not a defense of liberty.

 The only real analogy to Hitler and totalitarianism in this debate is to the ideology of those Islamists that the administration has targeted. Paul has every right to keep talking and Brennan is not a good choice to run the CIA but using this nomination to stop drone strikes abroad is ill advised.

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The White House’s Self-Destructive Cynics

The Obama administration’s promise to make the country’s work force suffer as much as possible for their representatives’ inability to stop the sequester—which was Obama’s idea—seems to mean more work for at least one sector of the American economy: fact-checkers. They are overworked trying to keep up with the task of debunking the White House’s embarrassing parade of false talking points and misrepresentations about the effects of the budget cuts included in the sequester.

Because this legion of fact-checkers are really just opinion bloggers, the White House doesn’t have too much to lose from subjective statements that are open to interpretation—which the fact-checkers inexplicably often “fact check” despite the absurdity of it. But the administration has stumbled in offering verifiably false statistics, which removes the protective layer of interpretation revealing an obvious attempt to mislead the public. Today Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post seems almost agitated at the Obama administration’s antics:

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The Obama administration’s promise to make the country’s work force suffer as much as possible for their representatives’ inability to stop the sequester—which was Obama’s idea—seems to mean more work for at least one sector of the American economy: fact-checkers. They are overworked trying to keep up with the task of debunking the White House’s embarrassing parade of false talking points and misrepresentations about the effects of the budget cuts included in the sequester.

Because this legion of fact-checkers are really just opinion bloggers, the White House doesn’t have too much to lose from subjective statements that are open to interpretation—which the fact-checkers inexplicably often “fact check” despite the absurdity of it. But the administration has stumbled in offering verifiably false statistics, which removes the protective layer of interpretation revealing an obvious attempt to mislead the public. Today Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post seems almost agitated at the Obama administration’s antics:

At a news conference last Friday, President Obama claimed that, “starting tomorrow,” the “folks cleaning the floors at the Capitol” had “just got a pay cut” because of the automatic federal spending cuts known as the sequester.

The president very quickly earned Four Pinocchios for that statement, especially after senior officials at the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), the federal agency that employ janitors on the House side, and the office of the Sergeant at Arms (SAA), which employs janitors on the Senate side, issued statements saying the president’s comments were not true.

Still, the White House has kept up its spin offensive, claiming that a cut in “overtime” was a de facto pay cut and thus the president was right — or at least not wrong.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that this new claim also received four pinnochios. Why is the White House making stuff up? Democrats are starting to complain to the media that it’s because the petty yes-men the president famously surrounds himself with are essentially political pranksters who are a bit removed from reality. As Politico reports:

The stakes in the sequester debate aren’t quite as high as they were during the debt ceiling battle of 2011, but Democratic veterans of the Obama-Republican wars of 2009 and 2010 are getting a creepy sense of déjà vu from a White House messaging shop they believe fumbled the rollouts of the stimulus and health care initiatives….

One top Democratic Congressional aide offered this bit of advice to Obama: “Don’t accentuate a fight you don’t intend to wage [and] can’t win. … They spent two weeks building up sequester as a horror show and then got fact-checked a dozen times and were forced to back off their own claims of it being a disaster once they were forced to acquiesce to the cuts happening.”

Though Democrats in 2008 valiantly attempted to establish Obama as a thoughtful intellectual, what quickly became clear was that the president was inexperienced and inflexible and obsessively focused on the daily political skirmishes in the press instead of long-term policy wisdom. It is the Twitter presidency for the Twitter age.

This comes through forcefully in Vali Nasr’s much-talked about piece for Foreign Policy in which he recounts his time as an advisor to the administration as having a front-row seat to disaster. It should be noted that Nasr was brought on by the late Richard Holbrooke who was frozen out by Obama, and thus Nasr’s perspective is sympathetic to Holbrooke (and to Hillary Clinton).

But Nasr is also sympathetic to Obama’s stated policy goals, and joined the administration hopeful. He soon became disillusioned by the discovery that long-term policy objectives were utterly meaningless to Obama and his staff, who spent much of their time settling scores. Nasr acknowledges that such behavior is a fact of life in Washington, and he is credulous of Holbrooke’s general perspective. But he knocks Obama for advertising himself as a different kind of candidate who would be a different kind of president:

Not only did that not happen, but the president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics. Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans. The Obama administration’s reputation for competence on foreign policy has less to do with its accomplishments in Afghanistan or the Middle East than with how U.S. actions in that region have been reshaped to accommodate partisan political concerns.

The Politico story shows that while Nasr may have had his own loyalties in the Obama administration turf wars, his view of how policy is shaped in the Obama White House is widely shared. One of the reasons the president makes such a terrible negotiator is that he doesn’t seem to seriously think through the issues on which he is negotiating. It is more important to him that that he not give his opponents any semblance of a policy victory than it is to solve the problem. This is the way the president and his supporters accuse Republicans of approaching every negotiation, and no wonder—they assume their own bitterness and cynicism is widely shared. We should be thankful they’re wrong about that.

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Dictators and Free Lunches

For those Americans who loathed their own country’s role as a beacon of freedom, the appeal of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez was irresistible. Following in the footsteps of other Western pilgrims who had trooped to the Cuban prison of Fidel Castro or to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet empire to praise these gulags as the face of the future, people like Oliver Stone and Sean Penn dutifully embraced Chavez. They liked his childish rants about George W. Bush and helped burnish the myth that he was a true man of the people even as this caudillo suppressed freedom and built a cult of personality. Chavez’s death hasn’t changed this, and in the last day we have heard more blather about populism and his concern for those in poverty. Predictably, the leftists at The Nation are eulogizing him as a humanitarian. Joseph Kennedy showed why he wasn’t up to carrying on the legacy of the previous generation of his family by also mourning the Venezuelan strongman as a caring individual.

There is nothing to be done about those who will applaud anyone who hates America. Such sentiments are nothing more than adolescent rebellion masquerading as political opinion. But the claim that Chavez deserves credit for helping the poor is worth taking down, if only because this issue carries within it a lesson that applies to democracies as well as to authoritarian states like the one he created in Venezuela. The tradition of tyrants trying to buy the love of the masses with government money is as old the Roman Empire. It often pays immediate dividends to the person handing out the goodies, but people who think they are getting something for nothing always suffer in the end.

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For those Americans who loathed their own country’s role as a beacon of freedom, the appeal of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez was irresistible. Following in the footsteps of other Western pilgrims who had trooped to the Cuban prison of Fidel Castro or to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet empire to praise these gulags as the face of the future, people like Oliver Stone and Sean Penn dutifully embraced Chavez. They liked his childish rants about George W. Bush and helped burnish the myth that he was a true man of the people even as this caudillo suppressed freedom and built a cult of personality. Chavez’s death hasn’t changed this, and in the last day we have heard more blather about populism and his concern for those in poverty. Predictably, the leftists at The Nation are eulogizing him as a humanitarian. Joseph Kennedy showed why he wasn’t up to carrying on the legacy of the previous generation of his family by also mourning the Venezuelan strongman as a caring individual.

There is nothing to be done about those who will applaud anyone who hates America. Such sentiments are nothing more than adolescent rebellion masquerading as political opinion. But the claim that Chavez deserves credit for helping the poor is worth taking down, if only because this issue carries within it a lesson that applies to democracies as well as to authoritarian states like the one he created in Venezuela. The tradition of tyrants trying to buy the love of the masses with government money is as old the Roman Empire. It often pays immediate dividends to the person handing out the goodies, but people who think they are getting something for nothing always suffer in the end.

Chavez is still celebrated in some sectors for confiscating the property of oil companies and using much of that wealth to fund projects and services for the poor. Playing Robin Hood never goes out of style. Chavez enjoyed the role immensely and built himself a cult bought and paid for with state money. Traditional urban political machines in the United States worked on the same principle. Taking money from one set of people and giving it another larger group is good politics. But the Tammany Halls of the world always come to grief because the culture of “where’s mine” cannot be sustained indefinitely. Sooner or later, thug governments run out of people to fleece to pay off their followers. That’s true even for a government funded by seemingly limitless oil wealth like Venezuela.

The Chavez regime prospered on the notion that there is such a thing as a free lunch, and those who ate at his table continue to believe that there was no price for his largesse. Those who have justified and supported every dictator or totalitarian system through history have made the same wrongheaded calculation. What they fail to understand is that the giveaway of government goodies at the price of condoning theft of property and denial of rights ultimately penalizes even those who believe they are the beneficiaries of the scheme. Venezuelans now have a country without a true free press, independent judiciary or elections that can be considered genuine expressions of democracy. And they have an economic system that will ultimately fail because it is not based on the rule of law.

Concern for the welfare of the least fortunate is an obligation of all societies. But there is a vast difference between genuine social justice and a strongman doling out favors to his followers. Ultimately, socialism is organized theft, and even when executed with the panache of charismatic thugs like Chavez it is a system that is predicated on the denial of freedom by those who pose as its defenders. Those who play that game, whether mafia dons, tin pot dictators or legendary thieves, are good topics for fiction. But no decent or thinking person should ever mistake them for humanitarians.

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The CPAC Clown Act

Just to get this straight, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) has not invited Bob McDonnell or Chris Christie–two popular and accomplished governors–to their annual gathering. It seems they are viewed as insufficiently pure when it comes to holding high the torch of conservatism. But CPAC did announce that Donald Trump—real estate mogul, television reality show producer, and America’s most prominent birther—has received a slot to speak.

“Donald Trump is an American patriot and success story with a massive following among small government conservatives,” American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas said in a press release. (The ACU is the host of CPAC). “I look forward to welcoming him back to the CPAC stage next week. Mr. Trump’s previous CPAC appearance was hugely popular among our attendees and we expect it will be even more popular this year.”

I don’t doubt that Mr. Trump will be popular with the crowd, since clown acts often are. Just for the record, though: Trump has advocated a single-payer health care system (which even ObamaCare doesn’t give us), called for massive tax increases, favored abortion rights, and revealed himself to be hyper-protectionist. Trump has also donated more money to Democrats than Republicans in recent years and was a registered Democrat from 2001 to 2008, when the Democratic Party was dominated by liberals. On top of that, Mr. Trump is vulgar, shallow, narcissistic, buffoonish, and has a fondness for conspiracy theories.

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Just to get this straight, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) has not invited Bob McDonnell or Chris Christie–two popular and accomplished governors–to their annual gathering. It seems they are viewed as insufficiently pure when it comes to holding high the torch of conservatism. But CPAC did announce that Donald Trump—real estate mogul, television reality show producer, and America’s most prominent birther—has received a slot to speak.

“Donald Trump is an American patriot and success story with a massive following among small government conservatives,” American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas said in a press release. (The ACU is the host of CPAC). “I look forward to welcoming him back to the CPAC stage next week. Mr. Trump’s previous CPAC appearance was hugely popular among our attendees and we expect it will be even more popular this year.”

I don’t doubt that Mr. Trump will be popular with the crowd, since clown acts often are. Just for the record, though: Trump has advocated a single-payer health care system (which even ObamaCare doesn’t give us), called for massive tax increases, favored abortion rights, and revealed himself to be hyper-protectionist. Trump has also donated more money to Democrats than Republicans in recent years and was a registered Democrat from 2001 to 2008, when the Democratic Party was dominated by liberals. On top of that, Mr. Trump is vulgar, shallow, narcissistic, buffoonish, and has a fondness for conspiracy theories.

Apparently this combination of traits is enough to warrant an invitation to the Conservative Political Action Conference.

This is obviously a stunt, meant to generate attention to the CPAC event. We all get that. The problem is that in the process, conservatism itself will be harmed, since is will confirm pre-existing caricatures and stereotypes about conservatives. 

For those who actually care about conservatism and who take seriously its intellectual and moral tradition, what CPAC is doing is unfortunate and destructive, and I hope someone at the conference says so. (A Sister Souljah moment, anyone?)

Mr. Trump will garner much attention, the left and the press will have a field day, and the public will watch all of this unfold and simply shake their head at the childishness and unseriousness of it all.

Well done, CPAC. Well done.

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