Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 16, 2013

Public Perceptions About Bush Matter

My colleague Peter Wehner picked up the rhetorical gauntlet flung in the face of George W. Bush by Walter Russell Mead and did much to vindicate the tarnished honor of the administration in which he served so honorably. Like Pete, I think the 43rd president has gotten a raw deal in most respects from the court of public opinion and will ultimately be vindicated by history, if not the mainstream media.

Pete went to some length to answer the charge that Bush’s eight years in office was “a political disaster for the president’s party” and that it generated a “headwind of well-merited public distrust” for Republicans. There is a strong case to make against Mead’s assertion that the public distrust he speaks of was “well merited.” But the idea that there is much point arguing about whether it was a “political disaster” in terms of the GOP’s current dilemma strikes me as a waste of time, if not utterly futile. The accumulated weight of a profligate GOP Congress, the bad optics of Katrina, the casualties in Iraq and the financial crisis that struck the country in the fall of 2008 created an image of the Bush administration that might be unfair but is nonetheless indelible. It may be never too early to correct the historical record on all of these issues, as Pete and the other writers he referenced have done, but the relevance of this exercise to the politics of 2013 or even 2016 is limited. It may be the duty of the historian to try and chip away at the narrative that Bush failed, but to argue that the perception of this record is not a heavy burden for Republicans to carry or that it can be undone by refighting the political battles of 2001 to 2008 is a mistake. Mead’s critics may be right about the history, but they can only be said to be correct about the politics if their argument is that deeply engrained public perceptions shouldn’t count. Unfortunately, they do.

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My colleague Peter Wehner picked up the rhetorical gauntlet flung in the face of George W. Bush by Walter Russell Mead and did much to vindicate the tarnished honor of the administration in which he served so honorably. Like Pete, I think the 43rd president has gotten a raw deal in most respects from the court of public opinion and will ultimately be vindicated by history, if not the mainstream media.

Pete went to some length to answer the charge that Bush’s eight years in office was “a political disaster for the president’s party” and that it generated a “headwind of well-merited public distrust” for Republicans. There is a strong case to make against Mead’s assertion that the public distrust he speaks of was “well merited.” But the idea that there is much point arguing about whether it was a “political disaster” in terms of the GOP’s current dilemma strikes me as a waste of time, if not utterly futile. The accumulated weight of a profligate GOP Congress, the bad optics of Katrina, the casualties in Iraq and the financial crisis that struck the country in the fall of 2008 created an image of the Bush administration that might be unfair but is nonetheless indelible. It may be never too early to correct the historical record on all of these issues, as Pete and the other writers he referenced have done, but the relevance of this exercise to the politics of 2013 or even 2016 is limited. It may be the duty of the historian to try and chip away at the narrative that Bush failed, but to argue that the perception of this record is not a heavy burden for Republicans to carry or that it can be undone by refighting the political battles of 2001 to 2008 is a mistake. Mead’s critics may be right about the history, but they can only be said to be correct about the politics if their argument is that deeply engrained public perceptions shouldn’t count. Unfortunately, they do.

Even if we concede that Pete is right about every single point he makes and I agree with just about all of them (the creation of the Medicare prescription drug plan is one point on which I think then-representative and now-Senator Pat Toomey’s principled conservative dissent from the administration’s idea was correct), the negative perceptions of Bush’s presidency is a fact. If far more Americans blamed Bush for the weak economy of 2012 than the man who had been running the country for four years then that is not the sort of thing that can be corrected with scholarly debate. Like the fallacious notions that Herbert Hoover and his Republican predecessors created the Great Depression and that Franklin Roosevelt’s policies solved the problem, it may take decades for the smears of Bush to fade from public consciousness. Yet even now I fear more Americans probably believe the depiction of the Depression and the New Deal found in the musical play “Annie” than the brilliant debunking of these myths in the books of Amity Shlaes.

Bush’s problem and those of his Republican successors remains that a liberal mainstream media and a popular culture dominated by the left tend to have more to say about the prevailing narrative about political issues than conservative thinkers. Complaining about this can be a satisfying occupation, but if Republicans want to win the 2014 midterms and take back the White House in 2016 they’d be well advised to avoid that trap.

My disagreement with Mead (who, to be fair, concedes that Bush has not been treated fairly and deserves more credit than he has received) is not so much with his evaluation of Bush as with his belief that Republicans need to spend much time critiquing the last GOP administration or defending it. They’d be well advised to avoid either of these endeavors except to point out that they represent a new generation of Republican leaders that shouldn’t be confused with the GOP-run Congress that was voted out in 2006 and facing different challenges than George W. Bush.

To argue in this fashion isn’t to claim the perception of Bush is correct, but to say that it is a fool’s errand for Republicans to go to the polls identifying themselves with him or nominating someone who cannot escape the association, such as his younger brother Jeb. The verdict of public opinion on Bush may not be accurate, but at this point it is not capable of being altered by further debate. If what Mead is really saying is that Republicans must move on from Bush and not repeat his political mistakes then even those who of us wish the 43rd president were given his due cannot really disagree.

The debate about the Bush administration belongs to the historians now and we can only hope that they will eventually get it right. But if Republicans are going to win elections anytime soon they need to move on and concentrate on defending their principles and pointing out Obama’s failures, rather than seek to vindicate their former leader.

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Just How Weak Is the Democrats’ Bench?

In December, I wrote about the habits that keep the Democratic Party’s bench noticeably shallow. In contrast to the GOP, which is currently hooked on primary competition, the Democrats have relied on their own ruling class, going so far as to replace Barney Frank–who finally gave up his seat after two decades and helping to induce the disastrous housing crisis at the end of his controversial career–with a Kennedy. This was after Democrats had a few years earlier tried to replace Hillary Clinton with a Kennedy.

Now Democrats seem ready to anoint Clinton their nominee for 2016, just 15 years after her husband left the presidency. (To be fair, George W. Bush was elected less than eight years after his father left, but Hillary Clinton shared the White House with Bill Clinton during his presidency and even took part in policy development. So you could say Hillary will aim for the presidential nomination 15 years after she left the White House.)

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In December, I wrote about the habits that keep the Democratic Party’s bench noticeably shallow. In contrast to the GOP, which is currently hooked on primary competition, the Democrats have relied on their own ruling class, going so far as to replace Barney Frank–who finally gave up his seat after two decades and helping to induce the disastrous housing crisis at the end of his controversial career–with a Kennedy. This was after Democrats had a few years earlier tried to replace Hillary Clinton with a Kennedy.

Now Democrats seem ready to anoint Clinton their nominee for 2016, just 15 years after her husband left the presidency. (To be fair, George W. Bush was elected less than eight years after his father left, but Hillary Clinton shared the White House with Bill Clinton during his presidency and even took part in policy development. So you could say Hillary will aim for the presidential nomination 15 years after she left the White House.)

Recently, David Frum wrote about this theme, and responded to his critics here. The essential question here is whether nominating Hillary Clinton would hold back the development of the Democrats’ young talent in favor of a retread. And although I think the rush to coronate, instead of nominate, Clinton is absolutely part of this trend, in Clinton’s case specifically I will admit to the argument being slightly weaker because, well, there isn’t much young talent she’d be suppressing.

Nominating Clinton would certainly end Joe Biden’s presidential ambitions, but he is not young–he is older than Clinton, and currently the sitting vice president. (A fact many voters no doubt would like to forget, but must be remembered in this context at least.) That is not to say there aren’t young politicians waiting in the wings, but they do not contrast favorably with Hillary Clinton.

The other Democrat who has been most obvious about his desire to run for president in 2016 is Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. But his inability to govern is, as we’ve noted before, legendary. And he is running to the left of just about anyone else. As Politico notes:

O’Malley will end up signing a significant hike in the state’s gasoline tax to pay for transportation, though he argues the extra tax burden for an average motorist in 2016 ($1.40 a week) is dwarfed by the price of a cup of coffee. Should O’Malley embark upon a widely-expected 2016 presidential campaign, it’s unclear how other new additions to his record – getting rid of capital punishment and restricting the sale of firearms, for example – would be received by a national audience.

What this means is that O’Malley is charging more for a product of lower and lower quality each year. How much are Maryland residents willing to pay to follow California off the cliffs of fiscal insanity? O’Malley is trying to find out so he can pose the same question to the rest of the country.

Another big name on the Democratic side for 2016 is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. But not only is Cuomo also running to what would likely be Clinton’s left, he has just shown New York residents why he is temperamentally unsuited to be a political executive. After the Newtown massacre in Connecticut, Cuomo tried to exploit the tragedy to rush through a gun ban no one had time to read. The gun ban was almost certainly unconstitutional (though that wouldn’t matter to Cuomo), but it was also unworkable–as Cuomo admitted after signing the bill and, presumably, doing some googling on guns.

The crass exploitation of others’ grief combined with the uninformed policymaking and rash legislating represents all the wrong qualities in a potential president.

There are some intriguing Democratic candidates in the Senate, such as Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand. But Gillibrand now holds the Senate seat Clinton vacated and is unlikely to challenge Clinton. Would Warren? It’s difficult to say for sure, but she is a freshman senator without prior political experience. She is also the quintessential class warrior, and the country may be sick of such nonsense by 2016.

Other names would surely emerge, especially if Clinton chooses not to run. And the argument can certainly be made that opening up the process would give younger candidates a chance to get some campaign experience and hone their message with voters. But if Andrew Cuomo and Martin O’Malley are the best of the rest, it’s pretty clear why Democrats seem so set on Clinton.

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Canada Shows the Way on Jerusalem

The Palestinian Authority is up in arms over a cup of coffee consumed by Canada’s foreign affairs minister, John Baird. He was in the Middle East last week and made the requisite pilgrimage to Ramallah to give PA President Mahmoud Abbas a photo opportunity as well as a chance to beg yet another Western leader for more cash to keep his sinking ship afloat. But whatever success Abbas and company may have had in hitting up the Canadians for more money to squander is being overshadowed by their rage for Baird’s decision to meet with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Since it was located over the green line in the part of the city that was illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 prior to Jerusalem’s unification, the Palestinians consider this a violation of international law. In consequence of this protest, Baird received a stern letter from the PA and a Canadian diplomat was summoned for another meeting in Ramallah where, after the scolding is finished, the Palestinians would, no doubt, have another chance to talk about more cash to spread around in no-show and no-work patronage jobs that enable the Fatah Party to maintain its hold on the area.

Left-wing Canadian politicians are also using the incident to lambast Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, but no one in Ottawa should be trembling at the thought of offending Abbas. Though the Canadians say the meeting shouldn’t be construed as a change in policy, the get-together exposes the lie at the heart of so much of international comment about Israel’s capital. For decades the world has adhered to the fiction that Jerusalem is not Israel’s capital and kept embassies in Tel Aviv so as to avoid giving the impression that it recognizes the reality that the ancient city is part of the Jewish state. But the world did not end when Baird sipped coffee with Livni. Nor did it further complicate the already moribund peace negotiations. All that happened is that the beggar of international politics got mad at one of their benefactors.

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The Palestinian Authority is up in arms over a cup of coffee consumed by Canada’s foreign affairs minister, John Baird. He was in the Middle East last week and made the requisite pilgrimage to Ramallah to give PA President Mahmoud Abbas a photo opportunity as well as a chance to beg yet another Western leader for more cash to keep his sinking ship afloat. But whatever success Abbas and company may have had in hitting up the Canadians for more money to squander is being overshadowed by their rage for Baird’s decision to meet with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Since it was located over the green line in the part of the city that was illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 prior to Jerusalem’s unification, the Palestinians consider this a violation of international law. In consequence of this protest, Baird received a stern letter from the PA and a Canadian diplomat was summoned for another meeting in Ramallah where, after the scolding is finished, the Palestinians would, no doubt, have another chance to talk about more cash to spread around in no-show and no-work patronage jobs that enable the Fatah Party to maintain its hold on the area.

Left-wing Canadian politicians are also using the incident to lambast Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, but no one in Ottawa should be trembling at the thought of offending Abbas. Though the Canadians say the meeting shouldn’t be construed as a change in policy, the get-together exposes the lie at the heart of so much of international comment about Israel’s capital. For decades the world has adhered to the fiction that Jerusalem is not Israel’s capital and kept embassies in Tel Aviv so as to avoid giving the impression that it recognizes the reality that the ancient city is part of the Jewish state. But the world did not end when Baird sipped coffee with Livni. Nor did it further complicate the already moribund peace negotiations. All that happened is that the beggar of international politics got mad at one of their benefactors.

Even before this incident, Harper’s government has repeatedly demonstrated its friendship for Israel with warmth that often exceeds that of the relationship between Israel and the United States. While the importance of its alliance with the world’s sole superpower cannot be compared to the one with its far less populous neighbor, the Canadians’ decision to buck conventional wisdom on Jerusalem and other issues is more than refreshing. It shows that the impact on peace or regional stability of doing things that do not adhere to the Palestinian line is negligible.

Meeting with Israelis in Jerusalem or even moving an embassy there wouldn’t prevent peace, were it possible. But it does deliver a body blow to the Palestinian delusion that if they just keep denying reality long enough, the rest of the world will force the Israelis to abandon their capital.

That’s a point the U.S. should consider when it panders to the Palestinians on Jerusalem. Even though everyone in Washington from President Obama on down knows that Israel will never return to the 1967 lines in the city, they have gone along with the myth that Israel’s government does not reside in the capital.

That this dispute should come up in the very week that Abbas and his cronies have finally rid themselves of the one Palestinian that the West trusts with their donations to the PA is telling. The resignation of PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad pleases both Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas since his focus on development and honest governance was a problem for the corrupt agenda of the former and the terrorist aims of the latter. Both seem to think that his exit will not mean an end to the gravy train of Western donations. Nor do they think their dependence on the West should cause them to moderate their stands or even negotiate peace with an Israel that is willing to talk without preconditions.

Canada’s chutzpah shows that fears about the blowback for breaking down the myth about Israel and Jerusalem are overblown. It also demonstrates that what is needed is some reality-based diplomacy that will bring home to the PA that their effort to isolate Israel and to avoid peace negotiations will have consequences. Far from hurting the peace process, actions such as those undertaken by Canada only serve to prod the Palestinians to stop relying on the world to do their dirty work for them. As President Obama said last month, those who expect Israel to eventually disappear are mistaken. The same can be said for those who think it will be booted out of Jerusalem. Canada deserves cheers for reminding the Palestinians of this fact.

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The Constitution Project’s Dangerous Complacency on Terror

It is ironic that the Boston Marathon bombing occurred the same day that a Washington think tank called the Constitution Project unveiled a report, signed by a bipartisan group of retired worthies, excoriating many of the tactics used to fight terrorism. The headline finding, which earned front-page coverage in the New York Times, is that “U.S. forces, in many instances, used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture.”

I cannot help but agree with this conclusion: Bush administration whitewash about “enhanced interrogation techniques” notwithstanding, many of the measures employed by interrogators on a small number of terrorism suspects, such as the use of waterboarding, did amount to torture as commonly understood. Where I part company with the self-righteous commission is in its excoriation of administration officials for ordering steps that they believed necessary to defend the United States and which arguably were necessary if one believes the testimony of former officials that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were responsible for uncovering Osama bin Laden. Instead of showing any understanding for or sympathy toward the mindset of those charged with protecting us after 9/11, however, the commission writes:

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It is ironic that the Boston Marathon bombing occurred the same day that a Washington think tank called the Constitution Project unveiled a report, signed by a bipartisan group of retired worthies, excoriating many of the tactics used to fight terrorism. The headline finding, which earned front-page coverage in the New York Times, is that “U.S. forces, in many instances, used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture.”

I cannot help but agree with this conclusion: Bush administration whitewash about “enhanced interrogation techniques” notwithstanding, many of the measures employed by interrogators on a small number of terrorism suspects, such as the use of waterboarding, did amount to torture as commonly understood. Where I part company with the self-righteous commission is in its excoriation of administration officials for ordering steps that they believed necessary to defend the United States and which arguably were necessary if one believes the testimony of former officials that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were responsible for uncovering Osama bin Laden. Instead of showing any understanding for or sympathy toward the mindset of those charged with protecting us after 9/11, however, the commission writes:

The nation’s most senior officials, through some of their actions and failures to act in the months and years immediately following the September 11 attacks, bear ultimate responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of illegal and improper interrogation techniques used by some U.S. personnel on detainees in several theaters.

Nowhere does the report offer any credit to those same officials for preventing more attacks on the American homeland. Nor does the report seriously entertain the possibility–which I think a probability–that the use of torture was related to the success in defending our homeland from follow-up attacks.

This is a sign, in my view, of the dangerous triumphalism and complacency which has taken control of the public discourse because there were no more 9/11s and because the architects of those attacks have been either captured or killed. Perhaps the Boston Marathon bombing will instill some renewed urgency into the public debate about countering terrorism, but I doubt it–bad as the Boston bombing was, it was not deadly enough to change our mindset in the way that 9/11 did.

We are feeling secure now, and in our security we are seeing a tendency, exemplified by the Constitution Project, to turn on those who were responsible for fighting al-Qaeda at a time when it appeared to be a far more potent threat than it is today.

The project’s report seeks to undo many of the steps taken to fight al-Qaeda, with a majority of its members urging that the U.S. declare formal hostilities with al-Qaeda to be over at the end of 2014 when U.S. combat troops withdraw from Afghanistan–a step that would necessitate closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and releasing or transferring its detainees. If only we could elicit a binding commitment from al-Qaeda to stop fighting us after 2014!

This measure was opposed by a minority of the panel (presumably the Republicans), but the entire group signed on to say “that the United States has violated its international legal obligations in its practice of the enforced disappearances”–otherwise known as the “rendition” of terrorist suspects begun under the Clinton administration. By calling the capture of these suspected terrorists “enforced disappearances” the panel seems to be suggesting that U.S. actions are similar to those of the Argentinean junta during its “Dirty War” which left tens of thousands of Argentineans dead.

This is only a small sampling of the problems with the Constitution Project report, which seems to be written as if the terrorist threat is over and we are now in a postwar period. The Boston bombing shows otherwise. I only hope we do not experience even more convincing refutations of our complacency anytime soon.

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If Gun Bill Fails, Blame Liberals as Well as the NRA

It may be a little early to write it off completely, but today’s Politico feature on the gun legislation being considered by the Senate leaves readers with the distinct impression that the effort is doomed. With so many Republicans, including a majority of those who voted for cloture that allowed the bill to be considered, lining up to oppose the bipartisan compromise on background checks proposed by Senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, its chances of passage are not good. Moreover, even if it somehow squeaks by in the Senate, it now appears that there is no sign that the GOP majority in the House of Representatives is inclined to approve anything, even a bill as moderate as Manchin-Toomey, that falls under the rubric of gun control.

If so, it won’t be long before the postmortems on the push for gun legislation begin in full force and, as the Politico piece indicated, it will be the National Rifle Association and its allies that will be considered the main culprits. The NRA will be happy to take full credit from the mainstream media for Manchin-Toomey’s failure since it reinforces their image as an all-powerful lobby that can intimidate both conservative Republicans and moderate red-state Democrats to back off even the most reasonable proposals. But the reason for their success in rallying opposition to the bill since the Newtown massacre gave a new impetus to this cause may not stem entirely from the group’s ability to convince legislators that opposing their dictates is a ticket to political oblivion. Liberals may believe they can make political hay from what they will brand as Republican obstructionism in next year’s midterm elections. But they should realize that it is their decision to overreach in their calls for weapon bans that has given the NRA all the ammunition it needed to convince many conservatives that the goal of this campaign truly is to undermine the Second Amendment rights that the president claims to have designs on.

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It may be a little early to write it off completely, but today’s Politico feature on the gun legislation being considered by the Senate leaves readers with the distinct impression that the effort is doomed. With so many Republicans, including a majority of those who voted for cloture that allowed the bill to be considered, lining up to oppose the bipartisan compromise on background checks proposed by Senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, its chances of passage are not good. Moreover, even if it somehow squeaks by in the Senate, it now appears that there is no sign that the GOP majority in the House of Representatives is inclined to approve anything, even a bill as moderate as Manchin-Toomey, that falls under the rubric of gun control.

If so, it won’t be long before the postmortems on the push for gun legislation begin in full force and, as the Politico piece indicated, it will be the National Rifle Association and its allies that will be considered the main culprits. The NRA will be happy to take full credit from the mainstream media for Manchin-Toomey’s failure since it reinforces their image as an all-powerful lobby that can intimidate both conservative Republicans and moderate red-state Democrats to back off even the most reasonable proposals. But the reason for their success in rallying opposition to the bill since the Newtown massacre gave a new impetus to this cause may not stem entirely from the group’s ability to convince legislators that opposing their dictates is a ticket to political oblivion. Liberals may believe they can make political hay from what they will brand as Republican obstructionism in next year’s midterm elections. But they should realize that it is their decision to overreach in their calls for weapon bans that has given the NRA all the ammunition it needed to convince many conservatives that the goal of this campaign truly is to undermine the Second Amendment rights that the president claims to have designs on.

As I’ve noted before, the NRA’s dogged opposition to all gun legislation no matter how reasonable, including bills like Manchin-Toomey that in no way restrict gun rights, stems from a belief that any gun bill could serve as the thin edge of the wedge in a liberal campaign to ban guns and ultimately gut the Second Amendment. In this respect they operate in the same manner as NARAL and other pro-abortion groups that will similarly oppose even the most reasonable restrictions on that procedure, even those that smack of infanticide. But the only reason that either the NRA and NARAL are able to get away with this behavior is because they have a better grip on their opponents’ intentions than many in the media give them credit for.

Though President Obama and Vice President Biden swear up and down that they have no intent to interfere with the Second Amendment, the hostility of liberals to America’s gun culture is palpable. Indeed, the focus on “assault weapons”—which gun enthusiasts rightly understand to be a term that has more to do with a weapon’s look than its capabilities—and the lack of any real connection between such proposals with Newtown is a sign that the intent goes farther than stopping criminals or the mentally ill from buying weapons.

The sniping at Toomey-Manchin strikes me as a strategic mistake on the part of gun rights supporters since it would do nothing to impede possession of weapons, nor would it create the national database registry that some fear would be used to take away legal firearms from citizens. Its passage would also take all the air out of the issue for Democrats and effectively prevent them from spending the next year and half claiming the GOP stymied action on the matter.

But try telling most NRA members that senators like Connecticut’s Chris Murphy or Cailfornia’s Dianne Feinstein, or the cheerleaders in the liberal mainstream media, would stop at background checks and they’ll tell you to try and sell them a bridge in Brooklyn.

It may be that had the president not tried to go big with a gun bill, the NRA would have opposed him anyway and might have prevailed. But had the president concentrated his efforts on passing the one element of his package that really has universal support, the ability of the gun lobby to energize its supporters and scare moderate Democrats would have been considerably lessened. It can be argued that a loss on guns is actually preferable to Obama since it will allow him to go on waving the bloody shirt of Newtown until 2015 and beyond. But if his goal was actually to get things done, he and his supporters have undermined their own cause.

The NRA will treat the failure of Manchin-Toomey as yet another triumph in their long history of legislative success. But if they are honest, they should share the credit with the president and the liberals that have done so much to demonize them.

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Assad’s Staying Power

President Obama’s crippling passivity in dealing with the Syrian civil war seems to be explained, at least in part, by a widespread expectation in and out of the administration that Bashar Assad is finished no matter what the U.S. does or doesn’t do–that it’s “only a matter of time” before he is toppled.

I still think that is the most likely outcome, but it is worrisome to see that Assad’s forces have succeeded in breaking the rebel siege of two of his northern military bases in a part of the country that has been largely seized by the insurgents. The New York Times quotes a resident of the northern town of Idlib: “To be honest, after seeing the army’s operation today, there is a widespread fear among people that regime forces will soon regain control of other areas in the province.”

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President Obama’s crippling passivity in dealing with the Syrian civil war seems to be explained, at least in part, by a widespread expectation in and out of the administration that Bashar Assad is finished no matter what the U.S. does or doesn’t do–that it’s “only a matter of time” before he is toppled.

I still think that is the most likely outcome, but it is worrisome to see that Assad’s forces have succeeded in breaking the rebel siege of two of his northern military bases in a part of the country that has been largely seized by the insurgents. The New York Times quotes a resident of the northern town of Idlib: “To be honest, after seeing the army’s operation today, there is a widespread fear among people that regime forces will soon regain control of other areas in the province.”

Such sentiment may be premature–or it may not be. Assad has shown worrisome staying power, thanks in large part to the aid he has received from Iran. The rebels have gotten some assistance from the Gulf states, but not enough to balance out the Iranian role. The U.S. has preferred to sit largely on the sidelines, forcing, in effect, many of our allies who favor taking a more active stance to do the same.

It would be a tragedy if, in addition to prolonging the war and increasing the suffering, America’s passivity were to allow Assad to remain in power. This would be a victory for Iran and Hezbollah and a blow to the U.S. and our interests and allies in the region. It is not too late to prevent such a dire outcome, but Obama must be willing to do more than he has done hitherto–namely, providing arms to the rebels and imposing a no-fly zone to ground Assad’s murderous air force.

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Should Grief Impel Policy? Only Sometimes.

The public reaction to the Boston Marathon bombings appears, at least so far, to be exemplary. The shock over the crime and the sadness about the victims has been great, but it has not prevented the country from going about its business a day later. While we can expect heightened security measures wherever people gather in the coming days the country is, as it should be, carrying on and refusing to succumb to panic. There is great and understandable frustration about the lack of knowledge about the perpetrators and their motives, but at least for the moment that is not entirely a bad thing. The lack of information about the identity of the bombers or their motives is acting as a check on the impulse to jump to conclusions about the event. In the absence of a villain or a root cause, the Boston bombing is just a tragedy and not a political tool.

Yet as much as this gives us some space to think about Boston without the need to employ it in the service of some predictable meme, it should not obscure the difference between drawing reasonable conclusions from events and exploiting them. The contrast between Boston and the most recent national trauma in Newtown is not only in terms of the scale of the crime but in the way much of mainstream opinion makers are asking us to think about it.

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The public reaction to the Boston Marathon bombings appears, at least so far, to be exemplary. The shock over the crime and the sadness about the victims has been great, but it has not prevented the country from going about its business a day later. While we can expect heightened security measures wherever people gather in the coming days the country is, as it should be, carrying on and refusing to succumb to panic. There is great and understandable frustration about the lack of knowledge about the perpetrators and their motives, but at least for the moment that is not entirely a bad thing. The lack of information about the identity of the bombers or their motives is acting as a check on the impulse to jump to conclusions about the event. In the absence of a villain or a root cause, the Boston bombing is just a tragedy and not a political tool.

Yet as much as this gives us some space to think about Boston without the need to employ it in the service of some predictable meme, it should not obscure the difference between drawing reasonable conclusions from events and exploiting them. The contrast between Boston and the most recent national trauma in Newtown is not only in terms of the scale of the crime but in the way much of mainstream opinion makers are asking us to think about it.

It is true that that our current ignorance about the bombers prevents observers from using it to discuss a particular threat, be it radical right-wingers or Islamists. But once we do know the answers to our questions, there should be no reticence about conducting a public discussion about how best to deal with the source of the terror. That’s why those who are speaking about the need to avoid using Boston to rally concern about terrorism the way 9/11 focused the nation’s attention on the threat from al-Qaeda are wrong.

As much as some seem to desire to put us back in a 9/10/01 mentality about terrorism, the sense of urgency that followed 9/11/01 was not the product of George W. Bush’s fear mongering but a reasonable response to an atrocious attack on the United States. While not everything that followed in terms of U.S. policy turned out to be a brilliant success, there was nothing artificial or the product of deception about the need for America to start fighting back against the Islamist war on the West.

While the Boston attack is, thank God, not on the same scale as the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11, the people who did this must also be tracked down and rooted out of their holes, be they somewhere in this country or, as in the case of al-Qaeda, on the other side of the earth. It is neither alarmist nor exploitive to say that if some group is behind this atrocity all its members and sympathizers must be considered dangerous enemies against whom the full force of American power must be used. There is, after all, a difference between a rational response to a specific threat and the desire to exploit a crime to promote a political response to an event that is not directly related to the crime in question.

This is instructive since so many of the people who are so insistent that Boston should not lead to a disproportionate government response to terrorism are often the same ones who have been asking to use Newtown as an excuse to enact far-reaching gun legislation.

Ever since the terrible events of December 14 when a madman murdered 20 children and six teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, there has been a constant refrain in the national press for Americans not to let go of their grief. There is widespread disgust about the notion that Americans have started to think dispassionately about the crime rather than be impelled by their horror into agreeing with whatever gun restrictions the president has urged the nation to adopt, even if they would not prevent another such crime. After Newtown, the very idea of the country keeping calm about guns in the way they are now being asked to lower their temperature about terrorists–no matter who they might be–is anathema. In that case, grief and fear are considered appropriate drivers of policy by liberals while terrorism may not be.

Those seeking explanations for why the president’s gun agenda has run into a ditch only months after Newtown should contemplate how fragile a political tool fear and emotion can be. If the post-9/11 concerns about terror persisted for years after that event it was because, in spite of mistakes the government may have made, the fears that event whipped up were not out of proportion to the event that generated them. If other events are not capable of sustaining political agendas, it may be because the connection between these crimes and the suggested policy response is not as strong as some might wish it to be.

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How Much Does the Text of the Immigration Bill Matter?

The details of the long-awaited bipartisan immigration reform bill are out, and there is much to digest, though the bill contains few if any surprises. But one concern that hangs over the process is whether the bill’s proponents and sponsors can convince the public that the text of the law will also be the reality of the law. Several recent stories have called this into question.

In his column in yesterday’s Washington Examiner, Byron York lays out the details of the three enforcement measures–E-Verify, border security, and visa monitoring–as well as the “triggers” to allow illegal immigrants to apply for green cards and citizenship and the process by which they can do so. But there are indications that the skeptics will not be mollified. York writes:

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The details of the long-awaited bipartisan immigration reform bill are out, and there is much to digest, though the bill contains few if any surprises. But one concern that hangs over the process is whether the bill’s proponents and sponsors can convince the public that the text of the law will also be the reality of the law. Several recent stories have called this into question.

In his column in yesterday’s Washington Examiner, Byron York lays out the details of the three enforcement measures–E-Verify, border security, and visa monitoring–as well as the “triggers” to allow illegal immigrants to apply for green cards and citizenship and the process by which they can do so. But there are indications that the skeptics will not be mollified. York writes:

Even if lawmakers agreed with the proposals, or amended them to their liking, there will remain the fundamental, unavoidable question of whether the Obama administration, or the next presidential administration, will enforce the law.  Gang members will try to convince skeptics that the provisions are iron-clad.  The skeptics will likely remain skeptical.  And that’s before considering the onslaught of lawsuits that pro-immigration activist groups will file to try to undo key provisions of the law.

There is a certain amount of irony here, and it’s something I’ve written about previously. Just as one liberal group was found to be calling voters and misinforming them about Rubio’s stand on a pathway to citizenship–a stunt that can only hurt, not help, the cause of immigration reform–the pattern of behavior on the left has given the public every reason to suspect that the law won’t actually be the law.

York notes the legal tactics they may use to weaken the law after passage, and Benjy Sarlin at Talking Points Memo explains the political tactics some Democrats are using to sow division among the lawmakers seeking to agree on a compromise bill:

Enter American Bridge, a prominent Democratic super PAC devoted to tracking Republican candidates and gathering opposition research.

The group is out with a dossier Monday entitled “Barriers to Reform: The anti-immigrant and extremist money blocking progress in the Senate.” The report singles out a handful of Republican senators for what it describes as “disturbing” anti-immigration rhetoric and notes donations they’ve received from individuals and foundations who have also funded border hawk groups like FAIR and NumbersUSA, among others.

So who’s on the list of these supposed “barriers to reform” with “troubling histories on the issue?” Every Republican who wrote the immigration bill.

There are three takeaways here. First, this is more confirmation that liberal groups now constitute the biggest danger to the current push to enact much-needed immigration reform. The bipartisan “gang of eight” appears to have come to an agreement, and liberals’ decision to focus their attacks on the Republicans who helped craft the bill and garner broader public support for the effort will only serve to undermine trust among the group.

Second, if the left successfully derails this immigration reform effort, it will have derailed reform for some time to come, since lawmakers won’t want to take the political risk for nothing yet again. (Much the way the last two major pushes for national health care reform were 15 years apart, and even then required huge congressional majorities and some luck.) That may actually be what the left wants, since one scenario York describes entails the president using executive action to render existing immigration laws inoperable and unenforced.

Third, it will remind Republicans that those on the left who badger them about the need for compromise and cooperation are interested in neither, but rather advancing an agenda they will pursue with or without the GOP. Many–perhaps those in the Obama White House among them–see as the best-case scenario here not a compromise bill but a legislative effort that fails altogether that they can pin on the GOP and use to justify executive action. Those who actually want real immigration reform, like Rubio and presumably at least the others in the “gang of eight,” still have quite the task ahead of them.

Given that President Obama has twice already blocked immigration reform–once as senator and once as president–and that he and the left have successfully used executive action and the courts to circumvent the democratic process on other issues, getting the Senate to agree on legislative language on immigration will likely be just the beginning of the effort to fix America’s immigration system.

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Walter Russell Mead’s Shallow and Misleading Attack on the Bush Legacy

Walter Russell Mead has written a post arguing that the Bush administration was a “first class political disaster” for the Republican Party. The Bush presidency was “not a success,” according to Mead, and Republicans need to deal with the failures, “real and perceived,” and do so “openly and honestly.” 

“Fluency in discussing the disasters of the Bush years is going to be a job requirement for Republican candidates and mandarins for some time to come,” Mead informs us. But having declared the vital role fluency should play in public debate, Mr. Mead proceeds to demonstrate his own ignorance on a range of matters.

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Walter Russell Mead has written a post arguing that the Bush administration was a “first class political disaster” for the Republican Party. The Bush presidency was “not a success,” according to Mead, and Republicans need to deal with the failures, “real and perceived,” and do so “openly and honestly.” 

“Fluency in discussing the disasters of the Bush years is going to be a job requirement for Republican candidates and mandarins for some time to come,” Mead informs us. But having declared the vital role fluency should play in public debate, Mr. Mead proceeds to demonstrate his own ignorance on a range of matters.

The University of Texas’s Will Inboden does a fine job responding to Mead on foreign policy, so I’ll focus on what Mead calls the “multiple policy failures of the Bush years,” which include “two long unfinished wars, a botched hurricane, no significant domestic reform, frozen immobility on immigration, deficits out of control, the middle class in deepening trouble, the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

There’s much to unravel in this litany, starting with Mead’s claim that the Bush deficits were “out of control.” Wrong. The budget deficit during President Bush’s tenure averaged 2 percent, which is well below the 50-year average of 3 percent.

But Bush inherited a surplus, critics will respond. To which the answer is: Yes, but by January 2001, when Bush was inaugurated, the budget surpluses were evaporating as the economy skidded toward recession (it officially began in March 2001). Combined with the devastating economic effects of 9/11, when we lost around 1 million jobs in a little over 90 days, the surplus went into deficit.

And here’s what else Mead fails to mention: In the aftermath of the March 2001 recession, America experienced six years of uninterrupted economic growth and a record 52 straight months of job creation that produced more than 8 million new jobs. During the Bush presidency, the unemployment rate averaged 5.3 percent. We saw labor-productivity gains that exceeded the averages of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Real after-tax income per capita increased by more than 11 percent. And from 2000 to 2007, real GDP grew by more than 17 percent, a gain of nearly $2.1 trillion.

Keith Hennessey, in a data-heavy analysis that contrasts well with Mead’s, concludes:

George W. Bush, a wartime President, had a smaller federal government and lower taxes relative to the economy than each of his three predecessors, historically small deficits, no tax increases, and 5.3% average unemployment. He vetoed a farm bill and two health bills for spending too much. He proposed structural and incremental reforms to Social Security and Medicare that set up the current entitlement reform debate.

Mr. Mead mentions none of this, perhaps because they pose inconvenient facts to his thesis. In any event, it’s hardly a record of failure.

Ah, you might say, but what about the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, which happened during Bush’s watch?

The reasons for the 2008 financial crisis were quite complicated, but surely much of the blame–and probably a majority of the blame–rests with those (Democrats) who blocked reforms that would have mitigated the effects of the housing crisis, which led to the broader financial crisis. As Stuart Taylor, hardly a loyal Bush supporter, put it in 2008:

The pretense of many Democrats that this crisis is altogether a Republican creation is simplistic and dangerous. It is simplistic because Democrats have been a big part of the problem, in part by supporting governmental distortions of the marketplace through mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose reckless lending practices necessitated a $200 billion government rescue [in September 2008]. … Fannie and Freddie appear to have played a major role in causing the current crisis, in part because their quasi-governmental status violated basic principles of a healthy free enterprise system by allowing them to privatize profit while socializing risk.

For the record, the Bush administration warned as early as April 2001 that Fannie and Freddie were too large and overleveraged and that their failure “could cause strong repercussions in financial markets, affecting federally insured entities and economic activity” well beyond housing. Bush’s plan would have subjected Fannie and Freddie to the kinds of federal regulation that banks, credit unions, and savings and loans have to comply with. In addition, Republican Richard Shelby, then chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, pushed for comprehensive GSE (government-sponsored enterprises) reform in 2005. These efforts at reforming Fannie and Freddie were blocked by Democrats such as Christopher Dodd and Representative Barney Frank, along with the then-junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, who backed Dodd’s threat of a filibuster. It’s also important to point out that the steps Bush took to stabilize the financial system–which were made under enormous pressure and increasing turmoil–basically worked, sparing us from even worse consequences.

Now let’s turn to Mead’s claim that Bush achieved no significant domestic reform. Nonsense. The No Child Left Behind Act was among the most important reforms to education in decades. Six years after NCLB became law, 4th-grade students achieved their highest reading and math scores on record, and 8th-grade students achieved their highest math scores on record. African-American and Hispanic students posted all-time highs in reading and math, and the achievement gap has narrowed.

Then there’s the Medicare prescription drug plan, which allows private drug plans to compete against each other to provide coverage for beneficiaries. Because competition was injected into the system, the average premiums in 2008 were 40 percent lower than the original estimates. Overall, the projected spend­ing for the program between 2004 and 2013 is 37 percent lower than orig­inally expected–a reduction of about $240 billion. During the Bush years free-market principles were also extended to the Medicare Advantage program and Health Savings Accounts. This approach to health care issues, it’s worth noting, is the animating feature behind the bold Medicare reform plan put forward by Representative Paul Ryan.

On “a botched hurricane:” Mead makes no mention of the staggering incompetence of then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco, neither of whom ordered a mandatory evacuation in time while the latter (Blanco) actually blocked federal efforts to aid New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. Despite this, others have pointed out that we witnessed one of the largest rescue operations in history in which roughly a quarter of a million residents were moved out of a flooded city within a week, which is actually a fairly impressive achievement. But none of this is supposed to matter.

I’m not sure what “frozen immobility” on immigration reform is supposed to mean. President Bush was a strong, vocal champion of immigration reform, which encountered congressional opposition and never became law. But the reform was wise and necessary, and the power of it endures. For example, the core of Bush’s immigration reform (with some amendments) is being resurrected by, among others, Senator Marco Rubio. I suspect that what we’ll find is that Bush was ahead of his time on the matter of immigration.

I’ll now take up the issue of Iraq, which is supposedly an indelible mark against America’s 43rd president. It’s quite true that serious mistakes were made leading up to the war and in the aftermath of major combat operations, and I’ve written about them. So, in fact, has President Bush. But a more sophisticated summary than Mead’s, about the effects of the surge and the state of things in Iraq after the Bush presidency, can be found in this column by Charles Krauthammer:

when [Obama] became president in January 2009, he was handed a war that was won. The surge had succeeded. Al-Qaeda in Iraq had been routed, driven to humiliating defeat by an Anbar Awakening of Sunnis fighting side-by-side with the infidel Americans. Even more remarkably, the Shiite militias had been taken down, with U.S. backing, by the forces of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They crushed the Sadr militias from Basra to Sadr City.

Al-Qaeda decimated. A Shiite prime minister taking a decisively nationalist line. Iraqi Sunnis ready to integrate into a new national government. U.S. casualties at their lowest ebb in the entire war. Elections approaching. Obama was left with but a single task: Negotiate a new status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) to reinforce these gains and create a strategic partnership with the Arab world’s only democracy.

He blew it.

I wonder if Walter Russell Mead understands the irony of his analysis. He’s encouraging Republicans to seriously grapple with the Bush era, which is entirely reasonable. But he does so in a way that is itself deeply unserious. Recapitulating Chris Matthews’s talking point about the Bush presidency doesn’t add to our understanding of anything; it merely gives wings to silly caricatures.

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Call it Terror? Of Course.

As a tragic Patriot’s Day finally comes to a close, we are still left with few answers to too many questions about the bomb attacks at the Boston Marathon. All we know is that the death toll has grown to three including one child and the number of wounded is now set at 144. We don’t know who committed this heinous act or why they did it, and those television pundits playing the guessing game as to whether it is the work of foreign terrorists or the domestic killers, Islamists or right-wing extremists, are embarrassing themselves and their networks. But there should be no doubt about the fact that what happened in Boston was an act of terrorism.

There is some debate about the fact that President Obama chose not to use the word terror or terrorism in describing what happened. So long as there is so much that is unknown about these events caution is called for, so we won’t quibble about his use of the word on Monday. But with the bombs being described as loaded with anti-personnel shrapnel so as to maximize casualties there is no doubt that what has occurred is an act of terrorism.

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As a tragic Patriot’s Day finally comes to a close, we are still left with few answers to too many questions about the bomb attacks at the Boston Marathon. All we know is that the death toll has grown to three including one child and the number of wounded is now set at 144. We don’t know who committed this heinous act or why they did it, and those television pundits playing the guessing game as to whether it is the work of foreign terrorists or the domestic killers, Islamists or right-wing extremists, are embarrassing themselves and their networks. But there should be no doubt about the fact that what happened in Boston was an act of terrorism.

There is some debate about the fact that President Obama chose not to use the word terror or terrorism in describing what happened. So long as there is so much that is unknown about these events caution is called for, so we won’t quibble about his use of the word on Monday. But with the bombs being described as loaded with anti-personnel shrapnel so as to maximize casualties there is no doubt that what has occurred is an act of terrorism.

For the moment, we must sit back and wait as the authorities seek to find the answers needed to our questions and the murderers responsible for this atrocity. Those like the New York Times’s Ross Douthat and the Atlantic’s Bruce Schneier, who have written about the need for the country to “keep calm and carry on,” are exactly right. The life of the nation must continue even as we grieve for the dead and the many who were wounded and maimed.

But as much as we must not succumb to panic, it is vital in the days that will follow that we not lose sight of the need to treat terrorism, whether foreign or domestic, as more than just a matter for the police.

In the past few months, there has been a great deal of debate about whether the government has misused its powers in the course of conducting counter-terrorist operations. While there are legitimate questions to be posed about the use of drone attacks and other tactics, too much of what we heard in recent months spoke of the threat of terrorism as if it were merely a pretext for the administration to exceed its authority. Some even raised the possibility of absurd scenarios in which the government would attack innocent American citizens as part of some paranoid conspiracy theories.

No matter who set off the bombs in Boston or why they did it, this event should remind us that the United States remains locked in a struggle against terrorists that need no drone attacks to convince them to kill Americans. As much as we should hold our government accountable, the first responsibility of the president and our security services is to combat terrorists, no matter their origin or motive. Let’s hope this tragedy reminds more of us that treating this question as an excuse to vent foolish speculation about nonexistent government attacks on innocent Americans advances neither our civil liberties nor our security.  

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