Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 15, 2013

Bret Stephens in COMMENTARY

Congratulations go today to our friend and colleague Bret Stephens for winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for his columns in the Wall Street Journal. The Pulitzer’s citation speaks of Bret’s “incisive columns on American foreign policy and domestic politics, often enlivened by a contrarian twist.” Bret’s work is essential reading for anyone cares about the issues of the day as well as composed in a style that highlights his erudition and the cogency of his worldview.

Though the Pulitzers have often blundered in the past and given their prize to undeserving writers, in this case, they could not have found a more worthy recipient. We’re proud to be associated with him and congratulate the Pulitzers for adding his name to the roster of their winners.

We at COMMENTARY take a special pride in Bret’s achievement because he began his career at COMMENTARY and continues to be one of our most valued contributors.

In tribute to his work, here is a selection of some of Bret’s writing in COMMENTARY over the last several years. These articles, like his award-winning columns in the Journal, speak to the breadth of his expertise and to the brilliance of his thinking.

January 2013: What is the Future of Conservatism? A Symposium.

October 2012: The Coming Global Disorder

June 2012: Born on the Fourth of June

November 2011 Optimistic or Pessimistic About America?

July 2010: Iran Cannot Be Contained

March 2009: The Syrian Temptation — and Why Obama Must Resist It

September 2008: How to Manage Savagery

November 2007 The Israel Lobby by Walt and Mearsheimer

September 2007: Jews and Power by Ruth Wisse

February 2007: Realists to the Rescue?

November 2006: Shopping for Bombs

Congratulations go today to our friend and colleague Bret Stephens for winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for his columns in the Wall Street Journal. The Pulitzer’s citation speaks of Bret’s “incisive columns on American foreign policy and domestic politics, often enlivened by a contrarian twist.” Bret’s work is essential reading for anyone cares about the issues of the day as well as composed in a style that highlights his erudition and the cogency of his worldview.

Though the Pulitzers have often blundered in the past and given their prize to undeserving writers, in this case, they could not have found a more worthy recipient. We’re proud to be associated with him and congratulate the Pulitzers for adding his name to the roster of their winners.

We at COMMENTARY take a special pride in Bret’s achievement because he began his career at COMMENTARY and continues to be one of our most valued contributors.

In tribute to his work, here is a selection of some of Bret’s writing in COMMENTARY over the last several years. These articles, like his award-winning columns in the Journal, speak to the breadth of his expertise and to the brilliance of his thinking.

January 2013: What is the Future of Conservatism? A Symposium.

October 2012: The Coming Global Disorder

June 2012: Born on the Fourth of June

November 2011 Optimistic or Pessimistic About America?

July 2010: Iran Cannot Be Contained

March 2009: The Syrian Temptation — and Why Obama Must Resist It

September 2008: How to Manage Savagery

November 2007 The Israel Lobby by Walt and Mearsheimer

September 2007: Jews and Power by Ruth Wisse

February 2007: Realists to the Rescue?

November 2006: Shopping for Bombs

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Terror in Boston

A short while ago, two explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon took the lives of at least two persons and injured dozens. We do not yet know who was responsible for the crime or how exactly it was perpetrated, but as of the moment of this writing, it is believed that homemade bombs were the cause.

It is to be hoped that all those who write on public affairs will refrain from jumping to conclusions about what happened until we have some definitive information. Until that happens, let’s take a moment to pray for the families of the dead and for the recovery of the wounded.

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A short while ago, two explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon took the lives of at least two persons and injured dozens. We do not yet know who was responsible for the crime or how exactly it was perpetrated, but as of the moment of this writing, it is believed that homemade bombs were the cause.

It is to be hoped that all those who write on public affairs will refrain from jumping to conclusions about what happened until we have some definitive information. Until that happens, let’s take a moment to pray for the families of the dead and for the recovery of the wounded.

It should also be a moment to remember that whomever it was that did this and whatever motivation they might have had, we live in an age of terrorism. There is a tendency, as the memory of each terror attack fades, to drop back into an attitude of complacence and to treat these incidents as outside the norm and to lower both our vigilance about terror and to stop prioritizing counter-terrorist efforts. That should not happen again.

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U.S. Folding on North Korea?

It was too good to last.

For the last few weeks, the Obama administration has been showing more fortitude in confronting a belligerent North Korea than either the Bush or Clinton administrations had done. But last week, as I previously noted, there was a worrisome leak in the New York Times which quoted administration officials as saying that any response to a North Korean attack would be strictly proportional—which can only encourage Kim Jong-un to act, safe in the knowledge that the U.S. and South Korea will not “over-react” and bring down his criminal regime in response. Now Secretary of State John Kerry, while visiting East Asia, has announced that the U.S. would be willing to reopen negotiations with the North—and cancel the deployment of U.S. ballistic-missile defenses to the region–as long as Kim Jong-un ratchets down the current crisis and takes some steps toward nuclear disarmament.

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It was too good to last.

For the last few weeks, the Obama administration has been showing more fortitude in confronting a belligerent North Korea than either the Bush or Clinton administrations had done. But last week, as I previously noted, there was a worrisome leak in the New York Times which quoted administration officials as saying that any response to a North Korean attack would be strictly proportional—which can only encourage Kim Jong-un to act, safe in the knowledge that the U.S. and South Korea will not “over-react” and bring down his criminal regime in response. Now Secretary of State John Kerry, while visiting East Asia, has announced that the U.S. would be willing to reopen negotiations with the North—and cancel the deployment of U.S. ballistic-missile defenses to the region–as long as Kim Jong-un ratchets down the current crisis and takes some steps toward nuclear disarmament.

This may seem like a reasonable step—what’s wrong with talking?—but in fact it is a sign of weakness and will be read as such in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un is probably undertaking his recent series of provocations precisely to bring the U.S. back to the negotiating table where he can extract more concessions from the West in return for phony promises to dismantle his nuclear program—just as his father Kim Jong-il did. Kerry’s remarks will no doubt suggest to Kim that his strategy is working, and all it will take is a little more pressure from the North (another missile launch, anyone?) for Washington to cave in completely. In other words, the Obama administration is in serious danger of repeating the mistakes of its predecessors, who offered the North concessions which only convinced Pyongyang that it could use its nuclear arsenal to blackmail the West.

Now is not the time for offers to talk or to make concessions. Now is the time to confront Kim Jong-un with determination, to convince him that his strategy of brinksmanship will not pay off.

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Mourning and Freedom

Today, Israelis are mourning their dead in the wars their country has been forced to fight to secure and keep their freedom. Tomorrow they will celebrate that freedom on their nation’s 65th Independence Day since its modern rebirth in 1948. The juxtaposition of these two days on the calendar tells us a lot about the country’s history but also the meaning of the price of liberty that its people have continued to pay in the face of an ongoing siege that is still not lifted.

Americans do well to pay notice to these observances. For one, it is because they highlight how lucky we are in live in a country where Memorial Day is more about car sales and three-day weekends than grief over the fallen. But is also because our freedom, though always in need of vigilance, is not quite so precarious as that of the citizens of a small country whose neighbors are still largely bent on its destruction. These insights should make us more grateful to our veterans and those who currently serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, but they should also inform our discussion about foreign policy at a time when the voices of isolationism are getting louder.

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Today, Israelis are mourning their dead in the wars their country has been forced to fight to secure and keep their freedom. Tomorrow they will celebrate that freedom on their nation’s 65th Independence Day since its modern rebirth in 1948. The juxtaposition of these two days on the calendar tells us a lot about the country’s history but also the meaning of the price of liberty that its people have continued to pay in the face of an ongoing siege that is still not lifted.

Americans do well to pay notice to these observances. For one, it is because they highlight how lucky we are in live in a country where Memorial Day is more about car sales and three-day weekends than grief over the fallen. But is also because our freedom, though always in need of vigilance, is not quite so precarious as that of the citizens of a small country whose neighbors are still largely bent on its destruction. These insights should make us more grateful to our veterans and those who currently serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, but they should also inform our discussion about foreign policy at a time when the voices of isolationism are getting louder.

The most striking thing about Yom Hazikaron—the Day of Remembrance—that is being solemnly observed today in Israel is that it is not marked by parades or chest-thumping military observances. Rather, it is a day of intense national mourning for the fallen.

The experience of having to deal with the heavy toll of dead that Israel has incurred in the last six and a half decades—comprising more than 23,000 military dead and 75,000 wounded as well as more than 3,000 civilian casualties of terrorism–is something unknown here since World War II. Indeed, when you consider it as a percentage of population, it is probably more accurate to say that Americans have not had to deal with casualties on the scale that Israel has suffered since the Civil War.

In a small country where military service is compulsory for most sectors of the population, these dead aren’t merely statistics but deaths in the family. Thus, when the country stopped early today in solemn commemoration for the fallen, the grief is real and the emotions raw.

But at the end of day of solemn mourning, the national mood is reversed as Israelis plunge into a day of flag-waving Independence Day barbecues and frivolity. There is a touch of schizophrenia in this, but the country’s leaders knew what they were doing by placing these days next to each other rather than separating them, as well as by putting them only a week after the day set aside for remembering the Holocaust (a topic that Rabbi Daniel Gordis explains in the Jerusalem Post).

While Americans rightly think their freedom is an inalienable right bestowed upon them by their Creator, in recent generations we have come to think of it as just another entitlement for which most citizens should never be required to pay. Such complacence is understandable. The sacrifices of previous generations have made the United States not only free but the world’s only superpower. Its defense is a function of oceans and continents rather than a few hilltops and a narrow and vulnerable coastal plain, as is the case with Israel. Our neighbors are both friendly and militarily weak. Though some of that feeling of invulnerability was shaken by the terrorist assaults of 9/11, the feeling that nothing can touch us remains, even if it is a bit less confident than before.

But in Israel, the connection between the ultimate sacrifice and the life of the nation is not remote. It is immediate and quite real.

For all of the talk about Israel being the superpower of the Middle East, it remains a tiny sliver of land in a sea of hostility. It faces Palestinians in Gaza who have used their independence to create a terrorist state that is nothing more than a launching pad for missiles sent into Israel. In the West Bank, it must deal with Palestinians who still refuse to negotiate peace and have rejected offers of statehood because they find it impossible to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

In Egypt and Jordan, Israel faces neighbors that are formally at peace with it but whose populations and many of whose political leaders reject coexistence. The rest of the Middle East is equally unwilling to live in peace. While most of the nations may not have the capability to act on their hate, the clock continues to count down toward the day when Iran will have the nuclear weapons with which to make good their threats to destroy the Jewish state.

To state this is not to discount Israel’s amazing achievements and strengths. The accomplishments of the last 65 years are so great that it is little wonder that many think them miraculous rather than merely the product of hard work, ingenuity and sacrifice. Israel is economically and militarily strong and it is, as President Obama said last month, not going anywhere in spite of the flood of hatred and anti-Semitism that is directed at it.

Israel’s many enemies foolishly think that a day will come when they will grow weary of the struggle and give up. They are wrong. For all of its problems, and they are not inconsiderable, the overwhelming majority of Israelis understand the connection between mourning and freedom. Unlike most Americans, they know their existence has not been bought cheaply. Nor will it continue to be secured at no cost.

This is something that Americans, who share the values of democracy with Israelis as well as an understanding of the connection of the Jewish people with their ancient biblical homeland, need to keep in mind. While Israelis first mourn and then celebrate today, their American allies should watch with admiration and a renewed commitment to doing their part to ensure that Islamist terrorists and tyrants will never be allowed to extinguish this beacon of freedom in the Middle East.

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Fayyad and the Failure of U.S. Foreign Aid

The departure of Salam Fayyad from the Palestinian government presents an easy trap for outside observers to fall into: because nothing much will change once he’s gone, it will be assumed that nothing much would have changed had he stayed. That may be true, but American officials would be gravely mistaken to believe it was inevitable.

In truth, the great tragedy of “Fayyadism”–technocratic reform and the building of functional state institutions–is not that it failed but that it never existed. As Nathan Brown wrote for his report on Fayyadism for the Carnegie Endowment, state building under Fayyad was a mirage. Brown’s report has been widely cited ever since, but it’s worth pointing out the part of Brown’s diagnosis that was so widely ignored in favor of blaming only Israel or PA factional politics. Brown wrote:

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The departure of Salam Fayyad from the Palestinian government presents an easy trap for outside observers to fall into: because nothing much will change once he’s gone, it will be assumed that nothing much would have changed had he stayed. That may be true, but American officials would be gravely mistaken to believe it was inevitable.

In truth, the great tragedy of “Fayyadism”–technocratic reform and the building of functional state institutions–is not that it failed but that it never existed. As Nathan Brown wrote for his report on Fayyadism for the Carnegie Endowment, state building under Fayyad was a mirage. Brown’s report has been widely cited ever since, but it’s worth pointing out the part of Brown’s diagnosis that was so widely ignored in favor of blaming only Israel or PA factional politics. Brown wrote:

The focus on Fayyad’s personal virtues has obscured a series of unhealthy political developments and mistakes honest administration for sound politics. The entire program is based not simply on de-emphasizing or postponing democracy and human rights but on actively denying them for the present. The effect of this approach—taken perhaps more out of necessity than conviction—is not merely troubling but also deeply debilitating and self-defeating.

A functional Palestinian state that will accept a two-state solution, as Jonathan wrote yesterday, cannot be created through the will and declaration of a despot. The Palestinians must create a state before they can have a state. But as Brown’s report makes clear, the lack of any democratic character will impede the process of state building so effectively as to make it futile. Brown conceded that Fayyad has been able to manage the institutions currently in place since the reign of Arafat, but “he has done so in an authoritarian context that robs the results of domestic legitimacy.” Fayyad, therefore, isn’t blameless in his unpopularity.

But someone like Fayyad, who is less corrupt and much more supportive of peaceful measures than the clowns to the left of him and the jokers to his right, is still far preferable to any alternatives. Which raises the question: what is the American role in all this? The U.S. gives hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the Palestinian government, yet the institutions don’t get built, and the Palestinian government gets no more democratic from year to year. (If anything, the opposite happens, since every year that passes puts Mahmoud Abbas one year further from when his term legally ended.)

The answer is not to de-fund the Palestinian Authority, since that would only empower Hamas in the West Bank. It turns out there are some very good strings attached to U.S. aid to the PA–but not nearly enough. According to the Congressional Research Service:

USAID’s West Bank and Gaza program is subject to a specialized vetting process (for non-U.S. organizations) and to yearly audits intended to ensure that funds are not diverted to Hamas or other organizations classified as terrorist groups by the U.S. government. This vetting process has become more rigorous in recent years in response to allegations that U.S. economic assistance was indirectly supporting Palestinian terrorist groups, and following an internal audit in which USAID concluded it could not “reasonably ensure” that its money would not wind up in terrorist hands.

This is important, and hopefully it has been successful. Vetting the money for security purposes, however, is necessary to the aid process–but not sufficient. Back to that Congressional Research Service report:

In assessing whether U.S. aid to the Palestinians since the June 2007 West Bank/Fatah-Gaza Strip/Hamas split has advanced U.S. interests, Congress could evaluate how successful aid has been in

• reducing the threat of terrorism;

• inclining Palestinians towards peace with Israel;

• preparing Palestinians for self-reliance in security, political, and economic matters;

• promoting regional stability; and

• meeting humanitarian needs.

The CRS lists five categories for judging the success of aid to the PA; the first passes the test–terrorism from the West Bank is down, though how much of that is because of American aid is certainly debatable, to say the least. But even if we grant that, the other four are clear failures. By the CRS’s metrics, only anti-terrorism funds have been useful; everything else has been a waste.

That’s just not good enough. And it’s representative of a broader failure in the region. The Washington Free Beacon reports on a prominent Egyptian opposition blogger who briefed the press before meeting with State Department officials in Washington. American aid to the Islamist regime of Mohamed Morsi is enabling torture, repression, and state violence. The blogger offered a piece of advice for American financial support to Egypt: “Make it conditional on political reform. At least do something good with it.”

That should be a new working motto for the organizations tasked with distributing American foreign aid. Fayyad has been in office for nearly six years, and those six years–along with billions of dollars–have been mostly wasted. Fayyad’s resignation should be a wake-up call to the U.S., as should Morsi’s violent consolidation of power. The failure of the current American foreign aid strategy in the Middle East cannot be plausibly denied, nor harmlessly ignored.

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Immigration Isn’t Rubio’s Problem

Marco Rubio may have made Sunday morning television history yesterday when he managed to appear on seven shows to speak in support of the bipartisan compromise immigration bill on which he and seven other Senate colleagues have been working. Rubio was both eloquent and convincing in his advocacy for immigration reform. Indeed, the only moments in which he appeared to falter in any of his appearances came not when he was asked to defend the proposed bill but to discuss his own political future.

Wherever he went, Rubio was asked about the impact of his embrace of immigration reform on his presidential hopes. Given that his position on this issue is one that may offend many members of own party while also making him potentially more attractive to independents and some Democrats, this is a fair question, albeit one he probably is better off not answering. But rather than merely punt on the question of whether he is thinking of running for president with a bland and probably honest reply indicating that he hasn’t made up his mind, Rubio went further than that, saying he hadn’t even thought about the implications of his stands on his possible candidacy and that he hadn’t even thought about whether he would run in 2016.

Such patently disingenuous answers are commonplace in politics, a business where blatant dishonesty can often be the coin of the realm. Tradition holds that presidential candidates are not supposed to sound too eager about running since we generally like our would-be commanders-in-chief to sound diffident rather than eager about their desire for power. And three years from now, no one will care what Rubio or any other candidate said about running in 2013. But it must also be acknowledged that his willingness to fib about what he is thinking about contrasts unfavorably with potential rival Rand Paul’s open candor about his ambitions.

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Marco Rubio may have made Sunday morning television history yesterday when he managed to appear on seven shows to speak in support of the bipartisan compromise immigration bill on which he and seven other Senate colleagues have been working. Rubio was both eloquent and convincing in his advocacy for immigration reform. Indeed, the only moments in which he appeared to falter in any of his appearances came not when he was asked to defend the proposed bill but to discuss his own political future.

Wherever he went, Rubio was asked about the impact of his embrace of immigration reform on his presidential hopes. Given that his position on this issue is one that may offend many members of own party while also making him potentially more attractive to independents and some Democrats, this is a fair question, albeit one he probably is better off not answering. But rather than merely punt on the question of whether he is thinking of running for president with a bland and probably honest reply indicating that he hasn’t made up his mind, Rubio went further than that, saying he hadn’t even thought about the implications of his stands on his possible candidacy and that he hadn’t even thought about whether he would run in 2016.

Such patently disingenuous answers are commonplace in politics, a business where blatant dishonesty can often be the coin of the realm. Tradition holds that presidential candidates are not supposed to sound too eager about running since we generally like our would-be commanders-in-chief to sound diffident rather than eager about their desire for power. And three years from now, no one will care what Rubio or any other candidate said about running in 2013. But it must also be acknowledged that his willingness to fib about what he is thinking about contrasts unfavorably with potential rival Rand Paul’s open candor about his ambitions.

The comparison with Paul is interesting since the Kentucky senator has been branching out in recent months looking to gain support in sectors where he has had little previous success, such as Jews (via his trip to Israel) and African-Americas (as his speech at Howard University proved). But while neither of those gambits has proved completely successful, Paul’s honesty about his purpose was disarming, if not persuasive.

Rubio’s approach to the question of expanding his 2016 prospects is a bit different since by embracing immigration reform he is softening his image with centrist voters while also hoping to gain support from fellow Hispanics, who have largely fled the GOP. Rubio’s seven-prong assault on the American public yesterday worked because his command of the issues surrounding immigration is so thorough. His argument that the current system gives the approximately 11 million illegal aliens in the United States functional amnesty because of non-enforcement shoots the concerns voiced by opponents out of the water. By taking up a reform bill that will provide a pathway to citizenship for the illegals while also securing the border, he is giving his party its own pathway out of a dead end on a difficult issue while also showing leadership.

Those who argue that his views on immigration will sink him with conservatives are underestimating the Florida senator. If anyone can navigate the shoals of right-wing opposition to citizenship for illegals, it is a hard-core conservative/Tea Partier like Rubio. It should be remembered that Mitt Romney went overboard as an immigration hawk precisely because it was the one issue on which he didn’t have a record of flip-flopping that lingered from his days as a moderate GOP governor of Massachusetts. Rubio demonstrated yesterday that there is a conservative case to be made on behalf of recognizing the realities of the situation rather than pretending that millions of people can be thrown out of the country or that they will “self-deport” themselves.

But Rubio must guard against moments like those on Sunday when he came across as patently disingenuous about his future. Like his decision to rush to the Senate floor during Rand Paul’s February filibuster on drone attacks—an issue on which he actually disagreed with the libertarian but feared to be left out of the story and therefore jumped in to register his moral support—there was something about his denials that showed him a little too eager to pander to public opinion or at least to his perceptions about what is expected of him at this stage of the long slog to 2016.

We may put this down to inexperience. After all, Rubio has only been on the national stage for barely three years. But Rubio is now under a spotlight that will afford him no breathing space or water breaks in the next three years. For all of his forthright approach on the issues, Rubio needs to stop playing so coy about his future. He needn’t declare, but he must stop pretending that he doesn’t think about such things. Doing so only undermines his credibility as a leader.

As a fresh political face that succeeded on the basis of his willingness to take on his party’s establishment (as his 2010 challenge of Charlie Crist proved), he needs to understand that coming across as an insincere politician has the potential to hurt him more than any supposed apostasy on immigration or any other issue.

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Iraqi Kurdistan’s Choice: Emirate or Democracy

Every so often, an article or report will come out that repeats a common theme: Iraq itself may be a disaster, but Iraqi Kurdistan is secure, developing, and democratic. Here’s one from CBS News, another from the Washington Post, a third from National Review Online and, most recently, a piece from the Weekly Standard, in which the author ironically does not realize that he relies on a man accused by the U.S. army of corruption.

The Kurdistan Regional Government is slick and does not hesitate to pay visitors’ ways, shower them with hospitality, or hold out the possibility of a slice of the Kurdish oil pie. As with the Mujhaedin al-Khalq, which essentially was able to bribe former officials to get it de-listed as a terrorist group, too many former officials—both Republicans and Democrats—are willing to let greed trump principle when it comes to the Kurds. Yes, Kurds have made tremendous success (as has southern Iraq) since their removal from the yoke of Saddam’s dictatorship, but democratic they are not.

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Every so often, an article or report will come out that repeats a common theme: Iraq itself may be a disaster, but Iraqi Kurdistan is secure, developing, and democratic. Here’s one from CBS News, another from the Washington Post, a third from National Review Online and, most recently, a piece from the Weekly Standard, in which the author ironically does not realize that he relies on a man accused by the U.S. army of corruption.

The Kurdistan Regional Government is slick and does not hesitate to pay visitors’ ways, shower them with hospitality, or hold out the possibility of a slice of the Kurdish oil pie. As with the Mujhaedin al-Khalq, which essentially was able to bribe former officials to get it de-listed as a terrorist group, too many former officials—both Republicans and Democrats—are willing to let greed trump principle when it comes to the Kurds. Yes, Kurds have made tremendous success (as has southern Iraq) since their removal from the yoke of Saddam’s dictatorship, but democratic they are not.

The West should learn from its past love affair with Saddam. Handshakes and feasts do not a democrat make. Journalists who question the region’s corruption or why its leading families operate above the law often wind up hurt or dead (another prominent journalist disappeared in Iraqi Kurdistan yesterday). And while much of Iraq prepares for 2013 provincial elections this month, Iraqi Kurdistan has yet to hold the 2009 round. Prime Minister Maliki and the administration in Baghdad may have serious flaws, but the true autocrat has always been in Erbil. Maliki’s picture doesn’t grace walls, shops, and schools. Barzani can’t say the same.

Too often, journalists distracted with the glitter of Kurdish hospitality and politicians hoping for a golden parachute have been willing to turn a blind eye, but regional leader Masud Barzani’s latest stunt may be a bridge too far. By law, Barzani is limited to two terms as president. His second term is soon to end. He had his proxies ask opposition parties to acquiesce to a third term, and appears shocked that opposition leaders refused. The law is clear, they said, and Barzani should stand down.

Barzani, who came to Kurdistan penniless after the 1991 liberation of Kuwait and subsequent Kurdish uprising, has transformed himself into one of the world’s richest men. A few years ago, his son used a shell company to purchase a veritable chateau in one of Washington D.C.’s ritziest suburbs. Masud appears unwilling to let democracy intrude on transforming Iraqi Kurdistan into his personal fief and gravy train, and Kurds speak openly of how his vision for Iraqi Kurdistan is less as a democracy and more as an emirate or sheikhdom like Abu Dhabi, Dubai, or Qatar.

Kurds deserve better, and so do Americans. Masud Barzani does not personify Kurds; he personifies only Masud Barzani. The opposition—Noshirwan Mustafa in the Gorran, Kosrat Rasul for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Mohammad Faraj in the Kurdistan Islamic Union are all honorable men, as are a host of retired figures who might seek a shot at the top spot. U.S. interests are not at issue and, indeed, by supporting the system over the man, the United States could even increase its influence. Washington has no obligation to bestow legitimacy on a power grab nor should it be the White House’s place to bless dictatorship. All of those who sang Kurdistan’s praises as a democracy emerging from war should also speak up if they are true to their principle. Masud has the choice between becoming a Mandela and becoming an Assad. Unfortunately, he appears to be choosing the latter.

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Nicolas Maduro’s “Hand of God” Victory in Venezuela

One of the celebrities given star billing at a Nicolas Maduro election rally last week in Caracas was Diego Maradona, the former Argentine soccer star. Maradona scored perhaps the most notorious goal in the history of the game during the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico, when, during a match against England, he tipped the ball into the net with the outside of his fist (an unlawful play). The referee looked the other way and the goal stood. Maradona later ascribed his good fortune to divine intervention: it was the “hand of God,” he said, that was responsible for his goal.

Much the same metaphor can be applied to Maduro’s paper-thin victory in yesterday’s presidential election. When Venezuelans went to the polls last October, the now-deceased Hugo Chavez won by 11 points, a margin comfortable enough to prevent his opponent, Henrique Capriles, from challenging the result. But last night, it was a very different story; according to the official returns, Maduro won 50.66 percent of the vote against 49.1 percent for Capriles. In a normal democracy, a result as close as this one would automatically trigger a recount. Venezuela, however, is not a normal democracy, and its chavista-controlled National Electoral Council, or CNE, has already declared the outcome to be “irreversible,” despite angry demands from the opposition MUD coalition for a proper audit of the votes.

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One of the celebrities given star billing at a Nicolas Maduro election rally last week in Caracas was Diego Maradona, the former Argentine soccer star. Maradona scored perhaps the most notorious goal in the history of the game during the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico, when, during a match against England, he tipped the ball into the net with the outside of his fist (an unlawful play). The referee looked the other way and the goal stood. Maradona later ascribed his good fortune to divine intervention: it was the “hand of God,” he said, that was responsible for his goal.

Much the same metaphor can be applied to Maduro’s paper-thin victory in yesterday’s presidential election. When Venezuelans went to the polls last October, the now-deceased Hugo Chavez won by 11 points, a margin comfortable enough to prevent his opponent, Henrique Capriles, from challenging the result. But last night, it was a very different story; according to the official returns, Maduro won 50.66 percent of the vote against 49.1 percent for Capriles. In a normal democracy, a result as close as this one would automatically trigger a recount. Venezuela, however, is not a normal democracy, and its chavista-controlled National Electoral Council, or CNE, has already declared the outcome to be “irreversible,” despite angry demands from the opposition MUD coalition for a proper audit of the votes.

Like his predecessor, Maduro was able to commandeer the vast resources of the state to assist his campaign. Even before the polls opened, the opposition was alleging irregularities. The most egregious example involved Maduro’s decision to carry on campaigning on state television the night before the election by broadcasting his visit, with Diego Maradona at his side, to the tomb of Chavez. Thirty-six hours later, the Capriles camp claims that it has documented more than 3,000 irregularities, from violent intimidation of voters to keeping polling stations open past their official closing time. On these matters and more, the CNE has had nothing to say.

For seasoned observers of Venezuelan politics, the inherent bias of the CNE is nothing new. Former Colombian President Andres Pastrana last week refused an invitation to observe the election, telling Tibisay Lucena, a former Chavez aide who is now president of the CNE, that voters would go to the polls “in a situation where the system of checks and balances that should guarantee fairness for all has long been skewed in favor of those who hold power today in Venezuela. The composition of the CNE is itself a reflection of this reality.” Separately, more than 200 regional dignitaries, including former Mexican President Vicente Fox and former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, issued a statement that anticipated today’s crisis by demanding “electoral transparency” and “equal access to the media and institutional resources.” The only observers on the ground yesterday–including representatives of the Carter Center, much loved by the Venezuelan regime thanks to former President Jimmy Carter’s infamous statement that the country’s electoral system is the “best in the world”–weren’t really observers. Their official designation as acompañantes (accompaniers) determined that their role was merely to rubber-stamp a Maduro victory.

It’s still early days, but a notably absent voice in this controversy has been that of the United States. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Roger Noriega pointed out, the clearest statement thus far from the administration came in the form of congressional testimony from national intelligence chief James Clapper, who predicted a comfortable win for Maduro. “With that sort of superficial analysis, it is no surprise that Washington has no influence over whether a hostile narcostate and best friend of Iran and Hezbollah holds on to power in Venezuela,” Noriega wrote.

In considering how to respond to what may well be a stolen election–according to the official tally, Maduro won by just 235,000 votes–the U.S. should be mindful of the fact that the most vulnerable individual in this scenario is Maduro himself. In the abstract, Maduro had everything going for him. He was the anointed successor of Chavez. He had the pledge of the defense minister, Diego Molero, that the armed forces, in violation of the constitution, would support the continued reign of chavismo. He spent much of the last few weeks insinuating that state employees, among them the 115,000 workers of the state-owned oil company PDVSA, would lose their jobs if they didn’t vote for him. And he has cracked down on the last remnants of the independent media in Venezuela, most obviously the Globovision television station, which had been among the most tenacious critics of the Chavez regime.

Yet Maduro failed to persuade almost one million previously faithful chavista voters that he was a worthy inheritor of Chavez, whose personality cult in death is larger and more pervasive than when he was alive. He also presides over a bitterly divided nation that is on the edge of economic collapse–Venezuela may be a petrostate, but it is also a narcostate, as evidenced by the participation of senior military and political officials (including Molero) in the drug trade, and on the road to becoming a failed state. Indeed, some may legitimately question whether Venezuela is in fact a state in the meaningful sense of the word, given the enormous influence of the Cuban regime over Maduro, who served as foreign minister under Chavez, and the continued provision of billions of dollars of subsidized oil to Havana.

At a recent New York seminar on Venezuela for financial analysts, one panelist concluded that while chavismo had been “massively weakened,” it would be “three years” before the space for an opposition victory opened up. What yesterday’s election proves is that the death knell for chavismo has already been sounded. The question now is whether the regime will agree to negotiate with the opposition or whether it will become a fully-fledged dictatorship, thus risking a repeat of the violence that accompanied the attempted 2002 coup against Chavez. This time around, it is Venezuelan democrats who will be searching for the hand of God.

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Putin’s Pathetic Response to Magnitsky List

You’ve got to hand it to Vladimir Putin and his pals. They really know how to stick it to Uncle Sam. Not.

On Friday the Obama administration reluctantly complied with the Sergei Magnitsky Act, a law passed by Congress and named in honor of a Russian lawyer who did not receive adequate medical care and died in prison after trying to expose widespread governmental corruption. The act compels the administration to bar from entry into the U.S. and from the use of our banking system any Russian officials responsible for Magnitsky’s mistreatment. The administration duly complied by barring some two dozen individuals, some of them in secret, including, it has been reported, the Russian henchman who now serves as president of Chechnya.

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You’ve got to hand it to Vladimir Putin and his pals. They really know how to stick it to Uncle Sam. Not.

On Friday the Obama administration reluctantly complied with the Sergei Magnitsky Act, a law passed by Congress and named in honor of a Russian lawyer who did not receive adequate medical care and died in prison after trying to expose widespread governmental corruption. The act compels the administration to bar from entry into the U.S. and from the use of our banking system any Russian officials responsible for Magnitsky’s mistreatment. The administration duly complied by barring some two dozen individuals, some of them in secret, including, it has been reported, the Russian henchman who now serves as president of Chechnya.

In reply Moscow announced it was barring 18 Americans who were supposedly responsible for human-rights abuses of their own from traveling to Russia. And the headline-makers among those targeted are… David Addington and John Yoo, of Global War on Terror fame. Perhaps Putin doesn’t quite get the American political process, which has something called political parties. He doesn’t seem to understand that Addington and Yoo are prominent Republicans. He could demand that they be sent to Siberia and few tears would be shed among their political adversaries who now occupy the White House.

Putin strikes marginally closer to home by barring Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who is at least an Obama appointee. His sin? He prosecuted Victor Bout, the notorious international arms dealer from Russia. Only in Putin’s never-never land is the prosecution of a merchant of death a human-rights issue.

In any case I doubt that Addington, Yoo, Bharara or anyone else on the list is particularly perturbed to be barred from visiting Russia which, last time I checked, was not exactly a popular vacation destination. Preventing prominent Russians from visiting the U.S. and using our banking system–which could ripple out to bar them from Europe as well–is, by contrast, a real penalty given the proclivity of the Russian elites to stash their ill-gotten assets in the West.

No doubt targeting the Russian human-rights abusers required overcoming lots of objections from the State Department, whose officials are typically worried that such steps will hurt their “relationships” with Russian officials and prevent the U.S. from winning Russian concessions on supposedly more important issues such as North Korea and Iran.

In reality, Putin is not going to make any concessions to the U.S. anyway unless he thinks they are in his interest. (This, for example, is why he is allowing limited use of Russian territory to help supply NATO forces in Afghanistan–he doesn’t want a Taliban takeover any more than we do.)

And there is no more important issue in our relationship with Russia than Putin’s treatment of his own populace. As long as Russia has a despotic government–as, alas, it has today, notwithstanding Putin’s pretense of holding elections–it will never be on good terms with the U.S. Just as in the days of the Cold War, it is vitally important that the U.S. show that it stands with the Russian people and against their increasingly unpopular overlords.

Only by championing freedom and human rights in Russia will we have any chance of working truly harmoniously with its government–not the current quasi-criminal regime, needless to say, but, one hopes, a future government that is truly elected by, and accountable to, its own people.

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“Mutually Assured Stupidity”

The Atlantic Council is known for narrowly-crafted study groups in which conclusions follow consistent themes: greater U.S. concessions and trust in rogues and adversaries. In 1998, for example, the Atlantic Council sought a partial lifting of the U.S. trade embargo on Iran as “a key gesture of good faith.” Subsequent intelligence shows that as the Atlantic Council’s hand-picked study group counseled increased trade with Iran, the Iranian leadership was on an international buying spree in support of its nuclear and ballistic weapons programs.

In a 2001 study group, Lee Hamilton, James Schlesinger, and Brent Scowcroft—the latter now interim head of the Council following Chuck Hagel’s move to the Pentagon—lamented the congressional tendency to wield sticks rather than carrots against rogues, and criticized legislation requiring the State Department to produce its annual Patterns of Global Terrorism report, since such reporting placed Iranian terror sponsorship front and center in the public debate and became an impediment to public willingness to make a deal with Tehran.

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The Atlantic Council is known for narrowly-crafted study groups in which conclusions follow consistent themes: greater U.S. concessions and trust in rogues and adversaries. In 1998, for example, the Atlantic Council sought a partial lifting of the U.S. trade embargo on Iran as “a key gesture of good faith.” Subsequent intelligence shows that as the Atlantic Council’s hand-picked study group counseled increased trade with Iran, the Iranian leadership was on an international buying spree in support of its nuclear and ballistic weapons programs.

In a 2001 study group, Lee Hamilton, James Schlesinger, and Brent Scowcroft—the latter now interim head of the Council following Chuck Hagel’s move to the Pentagon—lamented the congressional tendency to wield sticks rather than carrots against rogues, and criticized legislation requiring the State Department to produce its annual Patterns of Global Terrorism report, since such reporting placed Iranian terror sponsorship front and center in the public debate and became an impediment to public willingness to make a deal with Tehran.

Two years later, the Atlantic Council issued a study group on Libya suggesting political reform should not be the focus of diplomatic engagement, because it would naturally follow when Libya’s isolation ended. Gaddafi’s “arbitrary, authoritarian style is increasingly out of step with the rest of the world,” retired diplomat Chester Crocker and Atlantic Council international security director C. Richard Nelson observed. Gaddafi, of course, felt differently up to his dying day.

With Scowcroft in the chairman’s seat, the Council is doubling down on the trend. Ellen Tauscher, a former congresswoman, arms control negotiator, Atlantic Council “Scowcroft Center” vice chair and advisor to a presumptive Hillary Clinton 2016 run, has unveiled a new initiative which she has named “Mutually Assured Stability.” The project, explained Tauscher and her Russian partner, former Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, in a press release last week seeks to “help reframe US-Russia relations and get past the Cold War-era nuclear legacy in our relationship, particularly the dominant paradigm of ‘mutual assured destruction.’ The goal is to reconfigure the bilateral relationship towards ‘mutual assured stability’ and refocus arms control and disarmament toward the development of reassuring measures, and thus help promote closer cooperation between Russia and the West.” Their founding statement makes clear their goal is to achieve a missile defense pact before the upcoming Obama-Putin summit.

What neither Tauscher nor the Atlantic Council appear to blink at is the fact that their institutional partner—the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)—was created by the Kremlin to act as its representative in the NGO world. Perhaps with Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon, Scowcroft’s goal is to transform the Council into something akin to RIAC’s political equivalent. At the very least, the Kremlin is using Tauscher as its useful idiot to suggest wider policy support for Obama’s earlier hot-mic blunder.

Tauscher may believe her turn of phrase is catchy or creative. But, even if it was, no policy should be crafted around a slogan. The basic premise behind “Mutually Assured Stability” is deeply flawed. The idea that “Mutually Assured Destruction” still guides U.S.-Russian interaction or represents the problem in bilateral relations is shallow, and confuses symptoms for the disease. Russia is a declining power, facing a demographic cliff. Even the Kremlin realizes that the real threat to Russia comes not from the United States and its strategic missiles, but rather the threat posed by a booming and populous China abutting a demographically-drained and resource-rich Russian far east, a region long ignored by the Kremlin.

Nor is the distrust between Moscow and Washington rooted in disarmament or lack thereof. It should be no surprise that the Kremlin encourages Tauscher’s one-issue crusade, because to make an augmented arms control agreement the sole agenda item in bilateral talks would remove from the table Russia’s dismal human rights record, the Kremlin’s assistance to the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad, Russian support for the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program, Moscow’s opposition to NATO expansion, its willingness to blackmail Europe with oil, and Russia’s continued occupation of Georgian territory. Perhaps if certain Russian politicians did not pine for the supposed glory of the Stalin-era Soviet Union, then the Russian brand name might be somewhat better.

Tauscher has always been a bit of a self-promoter. When she joined the State Department, she hired a press team to blast out speeches and remarks irrespective of whether the policy community wanted her emails or not—unsubscribing was not an option. She may miss being in the spotlight and may believe that she can still negotiate a deal, and that the Logan Act need not apply. Perhaps she feels that her personal friendship with Ivanov and other Russian leaders will suffice. Like President George W. Bush, perhaps she feels that she can stare in Putin’s eyes and see his soul. On this fact alone, however, Tauscher and the good folks at the Atlantic Council should reconsider their headlong embrace into Kremlin useful idiocy.

Many Russia hands increasing question Putin’s staying power. His stage-managed photo opportunities increasingly look silly not only to the Western audience but to the Russian one as well. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin—a Kremlin hardliner—increasingly looks willing to make a push to leadership. The consistently left-of-center Open Democracy describes Rogozin as a man “who has built his career on nationalism and the exploitation of voters’ quasi Soviet imperial sentiments” based upon “anti-Western, anti-American” sentiments. And the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth described Rogozin as “disdainful of liberal democracy” and promoting a “belief in a foreign threat and a robust and combat-ready military to counter this danger.”

Four years on, it is safe to say the United States and Europe received little benefit from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “reset policy” with Russia. Many Obama administration officials privately acknowledge the frustration that their policy did not achieve the desired results. Most honest analysts regardless of where they stood in 2009 recognize that the problem with bilateral U.S.-Russian relations lays in a retrograde, zero-sum mindset that afflicts Putin and his inner-circle. Tauscher seems not to be among them. If “Mutually Assured Stability” is Tauscher’s idea to keep in the limelight, perhaps it will be laughed off as such. Let us hope that the White House can see through the fact that the initiative is based neither on scholarship nor in realist political analysis, but rather on the desire essentially to launder talking points from a Kremlin think tank. If the United States seeks stability, its path will not be through the Kremlin.

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