Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 23, 2013

Stopping Iran is America’s Responsibility

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is in Israel this week, and the man who was opposed by many friends of the Jewish state when he was nominated seems determined to make a good impression. Hagel came bearing “gifts” in that he brought the official permissions for $10 billion in arms sales to Israel including vital anti-radar missiles, aircraft for mid-air refueling as well as other planes that can rapidly transport troops and firepower. Just as important, he said all the right things in public including the reaffirmation of Israel’s right to decide how to defend itself, and he seemed on his best behavior as he met with his counterpart Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s minister of defense.

No one should doubt these arms sales greatly strengthen Israel’s defenses as well as its ability to project air power if it should prove necessary. President Obama has made good on his promise to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge and it is incumbent on those of us who have criticized him for his predilection for picking pointless fights with the Jewish state over the peace process throughout his first term to acknowledge that. Nor can one point to the other pieces of the arms package that included sales of missiles to Saudi Arabia and F-16 jets to the United Arab Emirates as proof of bad will since it is obvious those weapons are intended to strengthen the ability of those monarchies to defend themselves against Iran, not to attack Israel.

But, as an article in today’s New York Times made clear, there are still grounds for concern about the U.S.-Israel relationship. Although the administration is helping maintain Israel’s defense deterrent, they did not grant everything on Jerusalem’s wish list. The most prominent item missing from the weapons that are to be delivered is a Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a giant bunker-busting bomb that is exactly what is needed to take out Iran’s underground nuclear facility at Fordow. That and the “fundamental difference of views” between the two countries about the level of risk that Iran’s program poses are complicating the Hagel visit.

Read More

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is in Israel this week, and the man who was opposed by many friends of the Jewish state when he was nominated seems determined to make a good impression. Hagel came bearing “gifts” in that he brought the official permissions for $10 billion in arms sales to Israel including vital anti-radar missiles, aircraft for mid-air refueling as well as other planes that can rapidly transport troops and firepower. Just as important, he said all the right things in public including the reaffirmation of Israel’s right to decide how to defend itself, and he seemed on his best behavior as he met with his counterpart Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s minister of defense.

No one should doubt these arms sales greatly strengthen Israel’s defenses as well as its ability to project air power if it should prove necessary. President Obama has made good on his promise to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge and it is incumbent on those of us who have criticized him for his predilection for picking pointless fights with the Jewish state over the peace process throughout his first term to acknowledge that. Nor can one point to the other pieces of the arms package that included sales of missiles to Saudi Arabia and F-16 jets to the United Arab Emirates as proof of bad will since it is obvious those weapons are intended to strengthen the ability of those monarchies to defend themselves against Iran, not to attack Israel.

But, as an article in today’s New York Times made clear, there are still grounds for concern about the U.S.-Israel relationship. Although the administration is helping maintain Israel’s defense deterrent, they did not grant everything on Jerusalem’s wish list. The most prominent item missing from the weapons that are to be delivered is a Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a giant bunker-busting bomb that is exactly what is needed to take out Iran’s underground nuclear facility at Fordow. That and the “fundamental difference of views” between the two countries about the level of risk that Iran’s program poses are complicating the Hagel visit.

The nature of the weapons the U.S. is selling the Israelis might lead one to think that what Hagel is bringing to the Jewish state is some kind of conditional green light to take out Iran’s nuclear plants. But the absence of the big bunker buster makes it unlikely that what is happening is the U.S. granting permission to the Israelis to act on their own.

On the contrary, the arms sales seem to be an attempt to placate the Israelis while making any attack on Iran highly unlikely. While Israel could certainly gravely damage Iran’s nuclear program without the ability to penetrate the 200 feet of mountain rock at Fordow, the Islamist regime’s all-important stockpile of enriched uranium will be safe. If the centrifuges spinning away at Fordow are spared, an Iran strike can’t be said to have achieved success.

What the Americans seem to be telling Israel is that the reported diversion of some of Iran’s uranium to a research reactor rather than to the store of fuel that would create a bomb gives the West more time to achieve a diplomatic solution. But with former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin saying Iran will probably cross a “red line” in terms of its nuclear stockpile this summer, time is running short for a non-military solution. And with the Iranians continuing to use the P5+1 nuclear talks with the West to keep stalling, there seems little doubt that a decision will have to be made sometime in the next year about ending this threat.

While part of the U.S. message to Israel is just about giving the diplomats more time, the other aspect of the administration’s stance might be more troubling. If they are saying that action must wait until the Iranians weaponize, rather than when their nuclear stockpile reaches the level when a bomb becomes possible, they are asking the Israelis to live with a nuclear-capable Iran. That’s not quite the same as the containment policy Hagel endorsed before joining the administration and which Obama has disavowed, but it is close enough to scare both the Israelis and the rest of a region that rightly fears a radical Islamist bomb.

But by refusing to transfer the big bunker buster the U.S. is saying that it is reserving for itself the option to use force against Iran. That makes sense, since America’s capability to project the airpower against Iran needed for such a strike far exceeds that of Israel. After all, the bunker buster needed to take out Fordow is too big to be used by any of the planes in Israel’s possession.

Iran is a threat to more than Israel, and it is entirely right that the responsibility for stopping them belongs to the U.S. and not the Jewish state. But its still not clear if the U.S. is prepared to use force.

The Iranians again made a mockery of the diplomatic process last month in Kazakhstan. While the talks continue Tehran’s hoard of enriched uranium continues to grow and will almost certainly cross the red line Netanyahu drew at the United Nations last year before the end of 2013. But so long as the U.S. is still acting as if it is more concerned about stopping Israel from attacking Iran than in the nuclear threat itself, the ayatollahs are bound to take that as a sign they have nothing to worry about.

Read Less

The Iran-Al-Qaeda Connection

News that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have arrested two Muslim men on charges of plotting to blow up a train with “support from Al Qaeda elements located in Iran” has been met with widespread and ill-deserved incredulity. Typical is this BBC report, which claims: “It is difficult to believe that there is an operational alliance between Iran, a hard-line Shia Muslim state, and al-Qaeda, an extremist Sunni Muslim outfit.”

Actually it’s not that hard to believe at all. There is copious evidence of the links between Iran and al-Qaeda, as noted by Bill Roggio in the Long War Journal: “In recent years, the US government has added several Iran-based al Qaeda leaders and operatives to its list of specially designated global terrorists, and even noted a ‘secret deal’ between the Iranian government and al Qaeda.”

Read More

News that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have arrested two Muslim men on charges of plotting to blow up a train with “support from Al Qaeda elements located in Iran” has been met with widespread and ill-deserved incredulity. Typical is this BBC report, which claims: “It is difficult to believe that there is an operational alliance between Iran, a hard-line Shia Muslim state, and al-Qaeda, an extremist Sunni Muslim outfit.”

Actually it’s not that hard to believe at all. There is copious evidence of the links between Iran and al-Qaeda, as noted by Bill Roggio in the Long War Journal: “In recent years, the US government has added several Iran-based al Qaeda leaders and operatives to its list of specially designated global terrorists, and even noted a ‘secret deal’ between the Iranian government and al Qaeda.”

Full details are available in Roggio’s invaluable post, which goes on to note that Iran also supports another Sunni extremist group: the Taliban: “Treasury has also noted Iran’s support for the Taliban, as in August 2010 it added two top Iranian Qods Force commanders to its list of specially designated global terrorists for directly providing support for the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.”

Roggio’s post is well worth reading for anyone who can’t imagine terrorists cooperating across confessional lines–presumably the same people who could never have believed that Nazis and Communists could possibly make an alliance as they did in 1939 or, for that matter, that democratic America and the Soviet Union could later have cooperated against Nazi Germany notwithstanding their considerable differences.

Read Less

More Consequences of Leading from Behind in Libya

The evidence of the baleful effects of the Obama administration’s shameful neglect of post-Gaddafi Libya continues to pile up.

We already know that by failing to help the pro-Western government to establish control of its country, we not only created the conditions which led to the death of our ambassador and other Americans last September 11 but also destabilized neighboring countries. The outflow of arms and fighters from Libya tipped the balance of power in Mali and allowed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to seize control of the northern part of the country until a French intervention dislodged them (perhaps only temporarily).

Read More

The evidence of the baleful effects of the Obama administration’s shameful neglect of post-Gaddafi Libya continues to pile up.

We already know that by failing to help the pro-Western government to establish control of its country, we not only created the conditions which led to the death of our ambassador and other Americans last September 11 but also destabilized neighboring countries. The outflow of arms and fighters from Libya tipped the balance of power in Mali and allowed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to seize control of the northern part of the country until a French intervention dislodged them (perhaps only temporarily).

As soon as the Islamists established their authority in northern Mali, they set up training camps where militants from all over the region flocked. Now we are seeing the consequences in Nigeria. The Wall Street Journal reports that as many as several hundred Boko Haram members from Nigeria trained in Mali on the use of rocket-propelled grenades, which they are now employing for the first time in their homeland: “Militants used shoulder-fired grenades against soldiers in the mud-brick town of Baga on Friday night and Saturday, officials said, in fighting that was believed to mark the first major use of rocket-propelled grenades by the group, Boko Haram.”

There are two obvious lessons to be drawn: First, we need to do more to stabilize countries such as Libya after a transfer of power. Second, we can’t afford to ignore Islamist attempts to take over territory in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. If successful, they will surely export terrorism elsewhere.

This is a particularly important lesson to keep in mind as the administration debates how many troops to leave in Afghanistan post-2014. Those who argue for minimal or no commitment at all suggest we have nothing to fear from a Taliban takeover because it will have no impact beyond Afghanistan itself. The history of 9/11–and, more recently, the experience of Libya and Mali–suggests otherwise.

Read Less

Debating How to Save the GOP

Last week I had a discussion/debate with Ben Domenech at Furman University to discuss “How to Save the GOP,” a topic that was inspired, in part, by the essay in COMMENTARY that I co-authored with Michael Gerson. Our conversation covered the 2012 election, social issues, the case for limited and effective government, and the 2016 presidential contest. For those interested, a link to the event can be found here

Last week I had a discussion/debate with Ben Domenech at Furman University to discuss “How to Save the GOP,” a topic that was inspired, in part, by the essay in COMMENTARY that I co-authored with Michael Gerson. Our conversation covered the 2012 election, social issues, the case for limited and effective government, and the 2016 presidential contest. For those interested, a link to the event can be found here

Read Less

The Real Reason Gun Control Failed

Ever since the failure of the gun-control bill, President Obama’s supporters have been wondering how it is that the president could ask for something and not get it. Obama himself seemed fairly surprised by this, if his bizarre and uncomfortable statement after the vote was any indication. He lashed out at the senators who opposed the bill, but those senators were motivated by electoral concerns, which means they were nervous to cross the voters they are supposed to represent, which means the president was really lashing out at the public.

And of course the president fully understood the position of those lawmakers he was demonizing as accomplices to child endangerment. After all, the horrible tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut was not the first mass shooting of his presidency; there was one in his first term as well, but the president chose not to muster and release his righteous indignation when he still had to worry about his own re-election. And now he looked at dozens of lawmakers who acted exactly as he did and called them cowards. But today’s New York Times story on the failure of the gun bill has managed to find easily the most ludicrous explanation yet:

Read More

Ever since the failure of the gun-control bill, President Obama’s supporters have been wondering how it is that the president could ask for something and not get it. Obama himself seemed fairly surprised by this, if his bizarre and uncomfortable statement after the vote was any indication. He lashed out at the senators who opposed the bill, but those senators were motivated by electoral concerns, which means they were nervous to cross the voters they are supposed to represent, which means the president was really lashing out at the public.

And of course the president fully understood the position of those lawmakers he was demonizing as accomplices to child endangerment. After all, the horrible tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut was not the first mass shooting of his presidency; there was one in his first term as well, but the president chose not to muster and release his righteous indignation when he still had to worry about his own re-election. And now he looked at dozens of lawmakers who acted exactly as he did and called them cowards. But today’s New York Times story on the failure of the gun bill has managed to find easily the most ludicrous explanation yet:

Robert Dallek, a historian and biographer of President Lyndon B. Johnson, said Mr. Obama seems “inclined to believe that sweet reason is what you need to use with people in high office.” That contrasts with Johnson’s belief that “what you need to do is to back people up against a wall,” Mr. Dallek said.

“Obama has this more reasoned temperament,” he said. “It may well be that it’s not the prescription for making gains. It raises questions about his powers of persuasion.”

I doubt President Obama was much comforted upon reading that, because he is surely aware that “sweet reason” was the one tool he forgot to employ in his constant demagoguery on gun control. His campaign did not include arguments that the proposals would have prevented the Newtown tragedy, because they would not have. He mostly spent weeks calling people names, interspersed with especially low moments such as when he said this: “What’s more important to you: our children, or an A-grade from the gun lobby?”

Those are the only two choices in the world Obama inhabits. And it is a world devoid of “sweet reason.” Yet it should not be a surprise that Obama’s reaction to the failure of the gun bill was to show contempt for the people; as Kevin Williamson wrote in January, the administration’s obsession with theater over substance is about more than his political agenda:

You may agree 100 percent with the president’s position on gun control, but his stagey histrionics, his endless reliance upon human props, his cheap sloganeering, his emotionally driven hectoring: all of that bespeaks a very deep contempt for his audience, which is the American people. If he really believes that surrounding himself with adorable little tots is a substitute for substantive arguments for well-thought-out policy proposals, he thinks that the people — you people — are a bunch of rubes. Unhappily, 51 percent of the American people are happy to endorse his low view of them. There is something peculiar to political enthusiasts, a phenomenon I observed at both conventions this year: People in political audiences know that they are being manipulated, cynically and professionally — and they enjoy it. Obama’s admirers look up to him because he looks down on them, not in spite of the fact. There is something more at play than the mere admiration of stagecraft.

There sure is. The Times article follows a common theme in Obama’s press coverage: that he really deserves better than the people of this republic. And Obama’s admirers who, as Williamson writes, “look up to him because he looks down on them,” do so because they couldn’t agree more. Liberals look at the federal republic whose checks and balances keep standing in the way of our noble hero-president and wonder why Obama even puts up with us.

The anger at the senators who voted against the gun bill contains the perfect example: Heidi Heitkamp, the Democratic senator from North Dakota. After she provided a crucial vote against the gun bill, Obama’s own former chief of staff, Bill Daley, took to the pages of the Washington Post to make a remarkable demand. In October, he donated to Heitkamp’s Senate campaign, and then she won–and voted against the gun bill. Daley’s op-ed actually opened with the following sentence: “I want my money back.”

Truly amazing. Heitkamp turned out to have far more integrity than Daley imagined when he mailed his check. But that’s the real story of the collapse of the gun bill. After the votes were counted, Politico published a reaction story which contained the following nugget:

“Bribery isn’t what it once was,” said an official with one of the major gun-control groups. “The government has no money. Once upon a time you would throw somebody a post office or a research facility in times like this. Frankly, there’s not a lot of leverage.”

This has much in common, in fact, with how the administration successfully got ObamaCare through Congress. But that was three years ago. It was the president’s first term. Times change. Bribery isn’t what it once was.

Read Less

Has Assad Crossed Obama’s Red Line?

President Obama has repeatedly said the U.S. will not get directly involved in Syria, refusing even to provide arms to the rebels, unless Bashar Assad crosses the “red line” of using chemical weapons. It was never explicitly said what the U.S. would do in that contingency, giving rise to the suspicion that the answer is “not much.”

Well, now Israel has called Obama’s bluff. A senior Israeli intelligence officer, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, has said publicly what has previously only been rumored: “The regime has increasingly used chemical weapons.” Specifically, Israeli intelligence believes, as the New York Times notes, that a March 19 attack “involved the use of sarin gas, the same agent used in a 1995 attack in the Tokyo subway that killed 13,” and that the “attacks killed ‘a couple of dozens’…in what Israel judged as ‘a test’ by President Bashar al-Assad of the international community’s response.”

Read More

President Obama has repeatedly said the U.S. will not get directly involved in Syria, refusing even to provide arms to the rebels, unless Bashar Assad crosses the “red line” of using chemical weapons. It was never explicitly said what the U.S. would do in that contingency, giving rise to the suspicion that the answer is “not much.”

Well, now Israel has called Obama’s bluff. A senior Israeli intelligence officer, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, has said publicly what has previously only been rumored: “The regime has increasingly used chemical weapons.” Specifically, Israeli intelligence believes, as the New York Times notes, that a March 19 attack “involved the use of sarin gas, the same agent used in a 1995 attack in the Tokyo subway that killed 13,” and that the “attacks killed ‘a couple of dozens’…in what Israel judged as ‘a test’ by President Bashar al-Assad of the international community’s response.”

If this was a test by Assad, then the international community–read: the United States–has flunked it. The Obama administration has taken refuge in the claim that the evidence isn’t definitive, which it seldom is in the field of intelligence, especially if you are bent on convincing yourself that something isn’t true. Because if Assad did use chemical weapons, Obama would have to do what he most wants to avoid–step up U.S. involvement in Syria.

It’s clear what is needed: Western airpower to shut down Assad’s air force and Western arms to balance the advantage that Iranian and Russian arms have given the Assad regime.

In an interview with the Financial Times, General Selim Idriss, head of the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, said “he needed $35m-$40m a month to pay $100 monthly salaries to fighters who have signed up to the supreme command – funds that he lacks.” Without those funds, extremists such as the Nusra Front will continue to gain ground. With them, Idriss believes the more moderate forces that he represents could make real progress: “Fighters go to where there is money and weapons and if I had the means … within one or two months everyone would join.”

Perhaps Idriss is being overoptimistic in terms of what he could do with more support. But what is to be lost–beyond a little bit of money–in testing the veracity of his claims? Certainly sending more money to pay fighters and arms to equip them would seem to be the least we can do given the undeniable atrocities Assad continues to perpetrate–and given the danger that if we don’t help the moderates, extremists will seize power after he is gone.

Read Less

How Internet Sales Tax Would Destroy Small Online Businesses

It’s said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Like many proposals put forth in the last several years, the Internet sales tax bill (titled the Marketplace Fairness Act) currently working its way through the Senate is loaded with good intentions based on the idea of “fairness.” In reality and practice, the bill would end up like many liberal projects: a disaster for small business owners.

Think about those who run a business out of their home, a small shop providing products to a niche market of consumers. When an order comes in, the owner is the sole point of contact: they play the role of cashier, customer service, production and shipping. Despite the truly small nature of their small businesses these individuals would be forced to hire accountants or learn, track and charge the appropriate sales tax for each state in which a customer resides. They are faced with a choice: either spend a significant portion of their profit on an accounting professional, or spend a significant amount of time managing their own finances. A potential third option, only selling products to a select number of states, would be equally destructive for niche businesses that only survive by selling nationwide. 

Read More

It’s said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Like many proposals put forth in the last several years, the Internet sales tax bill (titled the Marketplace Fairness Act) currently working its way through the Senate is loaded with good intentions based on the idea of “fairness.” In reality and practice, the bill would end up like many liberal projects: a disaster for small business owners.

Think about those who run a business out of their home, a small shop providing products to a niche market of consumers. When an order comes in, the owner is the sole point of contact: they play the role of cashier, customer service, production and shipping. Despite the truly small nature of their small businesses these individuals would be forced to hire accountants or learn, track and charge the appropriate sales tax for each state in which a customer resides. They are faced with a choice: either spend a significant portion of their profit on an accounting professional, or spend a significant amount of time managing their own finances. A potential third option, only selling products to a select number of states, would be equally destructive for niche businesses that only survive by selling nationwide. 

A number of Republican senators, including Mitch McConnell and Marco Rubio, have come out against this bill and are joined by Democratic senators from no-tax states like New Hampshire, Montana and Oregon, despite President Obama’s support. Influential groups like the Heritage Foundation and its lobby arm Heritage Action for America are against the bill. Today on the Senate floor McConnell affirmed that the viewpoints on the bill aren’t falling along traditionally partisan lines while explaining his opposition:

For me, the issue boils down to that fact that the legislation we’re considering would create an enormous compliance burden for a lot of small businesses out there, making them tax collectors for thousands of far-away jurisdictions. Just as importantly, this legislation would increase the tax burden on Kentuckians. And as I’ve said before, I don’t think the people of Kentucky sent me here to help them pay higher taxes. Brick-and-mortar companies complain about the inequity that exists in current law, where their customers have to pay taxes that online shoppers do not. And I am sympathetic to that concern. But by imposing this new Internet Tax, states would suddenly be empowered to force online retailers to simultaneously comply with all the different tax codes of all the states in which their customers reside. That’s no small feat. From what I’m told, there are nearly 10,000 state, local, and municipal tax codes nationwide. And while complying with so many codes might not be a big deal for large online retailers, it’s a huge burden on the little guys. So small businesses owners are worried, and justifiably so.

While many online-only retailers do enjoy an advantage over “brick-and-mortar” stores who charge sales taxes, the cost of compliance with the tax code is far less cumbersome for stores that only need to comply with the sales tax of the locality in which they operate. If small online business owners are forced to comply with every single state, local and municipal tax code in America, they would be put at a distinct disadvantage, not on a level playing field. 

Read Less

The Bush Reappraisal

A front-page Washington Post story by one of the nation’s top political reporters, Dan Balz, points out that a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found 47 percent saying they approve of the Bush presidency–an approval rating today that is equal to President Obama’s. This complicates just a bit the misguided arguments made by Walter Russell Mead the other week and which I rebutted here.

This poll comes out during the week in which the Bush presidential library opens and is an opportunity to put his presidency into a broader perspective. 

Read More

A front-page Washington Post story by one of the nation’s top political reporters, Dan Balz, points out that a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found 47 percent saying they approve of the Bush presidency–an approval rating today that is equal to President Obama’s. This complicates just a bit the misguided arguments made by Walter Russell Mead the other week and which I rebutted here.

This poll comes out during the week in which the Bush presidential library opens and is an opportunity to put his presidency into a broader perspective. 

“Obviously, it’s a big moment for him,” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Balz. “It’s a chance for him to explain that his political philosophy encompasses much more than the decisions he had to take after 9/11. We forget this sometimes. . . . This is a much more rounded person with many more dimensions to him than the caricature often portrays.”

Indeed. And apropos a point I made in my exchange with Mr. Mead, former Bush Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten noted that spending during most years of Bush’s presidency was below 20 percent of gross domestic product, the target now established by House Republicans in their budget blueprint. No president since Richard M. Nixon, other than Bill Clinton, can make such a claim, he said.

In fact, over the last 40 years and eight presidencies, only two presidents have kept spending below 20 percent of GDP in even a single year: George W. Bush did it in six of his eight fiscal years; Bill Clinton in four. Barack Obama has averaged 24 percent of GDP spending so far; and even his optimistic budget projections don’t have the U.S. getting close to 20 percent again. Ever. As another reference point: during fiscal years 1981-88, the Reagan years, federal spending averaged over 22 percent of GDP. Just in case anyone is interested in it.

But I wanted to focus on one other comment that former Prime Minister Blair made, which is that Bush continues to believe that the world is safer without Saddam Hussein in power and added: “When you see what is happening in Syria today, the sense of that argument is evident. . . . What it does is just make clear that these decisions are very difficult. If you intervene, it can be very tough. If you don’t intervene, it can also be very tough.”

There is in Blair’s comments both wisdom and nuance, which is often lacking in those who comment on presidents and public officials and who themselves have never been in positions of influence in government. Having been on both sides of things, let me just say it’s easier to tweet about policy than it is to implement policy; and it’s more effortless to comment on unfolding events from the comfort of a television studio or from behind a microphone than to make decisions in the Oval Office.

George W. Bush, over the course of eight eventful years, made literally thousands of decisions. Under enormous pressure and facing tremendous challenges–during his years as president, Bush faced the worst attack on the American homeland in our history, two wars, the worst natural disaster in our history, and a financial collapse unlike any since the Great Depression–he got the vast majority of them right. And every day he was president–even when he got decisions wrong–he dignified the office. As the Bush Presidential Center is dedicated later this week, those things are worth keeping in mind.

Read Less

Atrocities Prevention Board, One Year Later

President Obama announced the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board a year ago today. Less than four months later, my colleague Michael Rubin pointed out the futility of the board, noting that it would “never be able to enact policies against the will of the White House, the State Department, or Congress.” Over the past year, the board has been conspicuously invisible, and not just on Syria. Robert Skloot and Samuel Totten lament the on-going atrocities committed by the Islamist regime in Sudan, and note that:

The Atrocities Prevention Board seems to have accomplished little to nothing over the past year. It has issued no pronouncements in regard to any of the ongoing humanitarian crises in the world — not about the appalling situation in Sudan, in Congo, in Syria and so on. Members of the board have also refused to respond to correspondence from dozens of scholars of genocide studies and human rights activists (ourselves included) calling on the board to urge Obama to insist that the United Nations support actions that would protect vulnerable and suffering populations. Our letters have gone unanswered and unacknowledged.

Read More

President Obama announced the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board a year ago today. Less than four months later, my colleague Michael Rubin pointed out the futility of the board, noting that it would “never be able to enact policies against the will of the White House, the State Department, or Congress.” Over the past year, the board has been conspicuously invisible, and not just on Syria. Robert Skloot and Samuel Totten lament the on-going atrocities committed by the Islamist regime in Sudan, and note that:

The Atrocities Prevention Board seems to have accomplished little to nothing over the past year. It has issued no pronouncements in regard to any of the ongoing humanitarian crises in the world — not about the appalling situation in Sudan, in Congo, in Syria and so on. Members of the board have also refused to respond to correspondence from dozens of scholars of genocide studies and human rights activists (ourselves included) calling on the board to urge Obama to insist that the United Nations support actions that would protect vulnerable and suffering populations. Our letters have gone unanswered and unacknowledged.

As Michael noted, one of the weaknesses of the left’s approach to human rights, illustrated both by Samantha Power, the head of the board, and Professors Skloot and Totten, is their reliance on the United Nations. And there is something piquant about a board that must, if it is true to its mission, call for more U.S. interventions, being brought into existence by a president who has made it perfectly clear that he wants to intervene less. Max Boot recalls that Power has criticized U.S. officials for tending to oppose both genocide in the abstract and American involvement in particular cases. I’d add that, before Iraq and Obama came along, Power made a living on her explicit claim that the problem was lack of political will to intervene, and that ways should be found to raise the political cost to leaders who refuse to do so. When the board was announced, critics feared it would be a bully pulpit for intervention. There seems no risk of that today. Far from raising Obama’s costs, the board is in practice enabling his leadership from behind.

A look at the White House “Fact Sheet” of a year ago shows just how easy it is to put out bold-sounding statements that are undermined by events. According to this “comprehensive strategy,” the U.S. is supposed to deny visas to human rights abusers: it took Congressional leadership to pass the Magnitsky Act, and the administration’s implementation of its visa restrictions has been half-hearted at best. The strategy was supposed to “increase the ability of the United States Government to ‘surge’ specialized expertise”: as Elliott Abrams notes in his recent review of David Rohde’s Beyond War, the Afghan surge was flawed from the start by Obama’s insistence that it last only 18 months, which led to the predictable waste of U.S. foreign aid. And, of course, there was its predictable emphasis on strengthening the U.N.’s capacity, which, after the U.N.’s catastrophic, cholera-inducing intervention in Haiti, is a bad joke.

It’s about as likely that the U.S. will develop the ability to predict atrocities before they happen as it is that we’ll develop the ability to predict events like the Arab Spring before they happen. It’s all too easy to make a list of places where bad things are more likely to happen: any place where government is either really strong or really weak is a contender to head the list. Nor is there any secret about where the world’s atrocities are happening today: Syria, North Korea, Iran, the DRC, and Sudan, among others. The usual suspects.

The problem is not that we lack the administrative tools to recognize this. It’s not even that this administration has in practice been more interested in cozying up to Russia, downplaying radical Islamism, and kicking the can down the road in Syria and Iran, though all of that will feature heavily in the work of a future Samantha Power. It’s that these are, in Power’s own words, problems from hell, and you don’t address problems from hell with a nice, well-mannered, invisible inter-agency board.

Read Less

The GOP’s Real Hispanic Peril

The debate about immigration reform was already heating up on the right even before the revelation that the Boston Marathon bombing gave an excuse to some in Congress to put off consideration of the topic. As Seth noted, Senator Rand Paul’s decision to pull back on the issue makes it possible the topic could be used by the libertarian leader or some other conservative as an issue against gang-of-eight member Senator Marco Rubio. And with the influential Heritage Foundation’s new leader, former Senator Jim Demint, going all out to stop the bipartisan compromise that Rubio is fronting, getting the bill through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will not be easy.

Reform advocates did get a boost yesterday when Representative Paul Ryan indicated his support of the underlying principles of the bill even if he did not formally endorse it. Ryan has a great deal of influence with House Republicans as well as Speaker John Boehner, but his chances of rallying the GOP against DeMint’s push won’t be helped by a Politico feature that argues that the passage of the bill effectively ensures that the Democrats won’t be losing any national elections in the foreseeable future. The piece argues that if the 11 million illegal immigrants take advantage of the path to citizenship offered by the Senate bill, the reform will produce an “electoral bonanza for Democrats and cripple Republican prospects in many states they now win easily.”

This is exactly the kind of talk designed to scare the GOP grass roots into insensibility, since many of them already believe that a biased liberal media, voter fraud and the generous federal patronage plums and benefits have created an uphill slog for any Republican in a national election. But while the logic of this assumption of a windfall of potential Democratic voters can’t be ignored, Republicans would be foolish to assume that it makes sense for them to stonewall immigration reform. If they truly wish to continue as a national political force and as a natural party of government they must reject the idea that keeping more Hispanics out of the United States is their only hope of survival.

Read More

The debate about immigration reform was already heating up on the right even before the revelation that the Boston Marathon bombing gave an excuse to some in Congress to put off consideration of the topic. As Seth noted, Senator Rand Paul’s decision to pull back on the issue makes it possible the topic could be used by the libertarian leader or some other conservative as an issue against gang-of-eight member Senator Marco Rubio. And with the influential Heritage Foundation’s new leader, former Senator Jim Demint, going all out to stop the bipartisan compromise that Rubio is fronting, getting the bill through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will not be easy.

Reform advocates did get a boost yesterday when Representative Paul Ryan indicated his support of the underlying principles of the bill even if he did not formally endorse it. Ryan has a great deal of influence with House Republicans as well as Speaker John Boehner, but his chances of rallying the GOP against DeMint’s push won’t be helped by a Politico feature that argues that the passage of the bill effectively ensures that the Democrats won’t be losing any national elections in the foreseeable future. The piece argues that if the 11 million illegal immigrants take advantage of the path to citizenship offered by the Senate bill, the reform will produce an “electoral bonanza for Democrats and cripple Republican prospects in many states they now win easily.”

This is exactly the kind of talk designed to scare the GOP grass roots into insensibility, since many of them already believe that a biased liberal media, voter fraud and the generous federal patronage plums and benefits have created an uphill slog for any Republican in a national election. But while the logic of this assumption of a windfall of potential Democratic voters can’t be ignored, Republicans would be foolish to assume that it makes sense for them to stonewall immigration reform. If they truly wish to continue as a national political force and as a natural party of government they must reject the idea that keeping more Hispanics out of the United States is their only hope of survival.

Given voter trends in recent elections, the addition of all the currently illegal immigrants in this country to the ranks of those legally entitled to vote gives Democrats a clear advantage. The already considerable Democratic edge among Hispanics has widened in recent years as Republicans increasingly focused on the danger posed to the United States by the presence of so many illegals. Mitt Romney’s decision to use immigration as the one issue on which he could out-flank his primary opponents on the right helped him win the GOP presidential nomination this year but hurt him in the general election. This meant that a demographic sector that a pro-immigrant Republican like George W. Bush had been able to put into play less than a decade ago became almost as Democratic in 2012 as African-Americans or Jews. If one assumes that this partisan divide will hold up, that means immigration reform will simply worsen the GOP’s chances in future elections and probably ensure that some competitive states like Florida or Colorado become deep blue.

But as much as these figures set off visions of doom among Republicans and inspire joy among Democrats, it isn’t as simple as that.

It should be pointed out that assumptions about future voting patterns on the part of those offered the citizenship track are pure speculation. As Politico acknowledged, voter turnout rates among Hispanic immigrants are already low. Those numbers will probably go even lower if some of the illegals become citizens.

Yet if George W. Bush could win 44 percent of Hispanics in 2004, it is not unreasonable to think a pro-immigrant Republican could do nearly as well in the future, even if he isn’t himself a Hispanic like Rubio.

Though immigrant communities have historically tended to back parties whose appeal is based on distribution of government benefits, any objective analysis of the last two presidential elections shows that it was the GOP’s predilection for rhetoric bashing the illegals that helped turn a natural Democratic edge among Hispanics to an overwhelming advantage. That means it stands to reason that if Republicans back immigration reform, that will help win them back some Hispanic votes. Even more importantly, it would mean that the issue would be taken off the table in 2016 and every subsequent election, effectively taking away the Democrats key talking point in rallying Hispanic support.

Democrats are right to think that Hispanics won’t forget the issue in the future even after their concerns have been allayed. But it will allow Republicans, especially those who fought for a more rational and fair immigration policy, to make their case to Hispanics with some hope of success.

It is true that Republicans can’t count on the innate social conservatism of many Hispanics to win them over. Nor can they afford to simply sit back and wait as Hispanic immigrants become assimilated into American society and evolve into a group that will see a party whose credo is defense of liberty and limited government as one that will suit their improved economic circumstances the way every white ethnic immigrant community, with the exception of European Jews, has done.

But any idea that stonewalling immigration reform and continuing to talk about deporting 11 million illegals is a coherent general election strategy for the future is the real GOP delusion. Whether or not those illegals—whom some conservative wags have dubbed “undocumented Democrats”—ever get the vote, legal Hispanics are going to make up an increasingly larger percentage of the national electorate. Though there are no guarantees that a pro-immigration stand will win their hearts or minds, there is one thing that is certain. A Republican Party that echoes the rhetoric of some on the right about immigration reform representing the “end of America” because of the influx of non-whites into the country will ensure that subsequent generations of Hispanics will never consider voting for the GOP.

If Republicans want to get Hispanic votes, they must start by realizing that talk about “amnesty” rather than opportunity is their party’s death knell. That’s something Rubio and Ryan seem to understand. But if the GOP simply regards immigration reform the way they do statehood for the District of Columbia (which would add two more Democrats to the Senate and another to the House), they will be denying themselves a chance to win elections in the future.

Read Less

Rand Paul, Immigration Bellwether

Since passing a Senate immigration bill with broad Republican support would vastly increase the chances of the bill passing the House, opponents of the proposed comprehensive immigration reform have been looking for an ally in the Senate GOP caucus to stall the bill. They have settled, it seems, on Ted Cruz. The freshman Texas senator is popular with the base and has consistently sought out ways to make his presence known in the upper chamber. He is also Hispanic, which–fairly or unfairly–makes it easier for him to oppose immigration reform.

But Cruz is not the most important voice in the Senate GOP on immigration–that distinction goes to Marco Rubio, who is crafting and selling the bill. Nor is Cruz the most important Republican outside the “gang of eight” who led efforts to put the bill together. Cruz is an important voice, for the reasons mentioned above. So is Paul Ryan–who plays a key role in House legislation and often serves as a bridge between the base and the House leadership–since the bill would have to pass the House after gaining the Senate’s approval. But those who want to get a sense of the fate awaiting the immigration bill should be watching Rand Paul.

Read More

Since passing a Senate immigration bill with broad Republican support would vastly increase the chances of the bill passing the House, opponents of the proposed comprehensive immigration reform have been looking for an ally in the Senate GOP caucus to stall the bill. They have settled, it seems, on Ted Cruz. The freshman Texas senator is popular with the base and has consistently sought out ways to make his presence known in the upper chamber. He is also Hispanic, which–fairly or unfairly–makes it easier for him to oppose immigration reform.

But Cruz is not the most important voice in the Senate GOP on immigration–that distinction goes to Marco Rubio, who is crafting and selling the bill. Nor is Cruz the most important Republican outside the “gang of eight” who led efforts to put the bill together. Cruz is an important voice, for the reasons mentioned above. So is Paul Ryan–who plays a key role in House legislation and often serves as a bridge between the base and the House leadership–since the bill would have to pass the House after gaining the Senate’s approval. But those who want to get a sense of the fate awaiting the immigration bill should be watching Rand Paul.

The Kentucky senator has given every signal that he is planning a run for president in 2016. That fact alone colors every piece of legislation he supports or opposes, every floor statement he makes, every speech he delivers. While his base of support is the libertarian right, on several major issues on which the libertarian right and the GOP presidential primary base diverge–from abortion to marijuana legalization to immigration–Paul has sided with the base. And if he runs for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, his position on immigration reform will be key to the party’s platform whether Paul wins the nomination or not.

Although the Republican Party’s attitudes toward immigration reform have shifted since the 2012 election returns showed the party facing an uphill demographic climb with Hispanics and other immigrant groups, it’s unclear if the party has shifted enough to nominate a pro-immigration candidate. (And the stories detailing how Democrats are over the moon for this current immigration proposal surely don’t help.) Rick Perry’s least-popular policy position in the 2012 primary debates was his support for giving in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants. Mitt Romney, desperate to shed his RINO label, saw an opening to Perry’s right on immigration and took it. Thus, despite the fact that Perry didn’t come close to getting the nomination, he shaped the eventual nominee’s perspective on immigration, which helped doom him in the general election.

Paul holds similar influence for 2016. If he chooses to support comprehensive immigration reform, it will essentially take the issue off the table if Paul and Rubio meet in the presidential primaries. If Paul decides instead to oppose it, he could use the issue to gain support from the base for his own nomination. Even if he doesn’t win the nomination, then, the fissure on immigration will open up space to Rubio’s right on the issue, which may nudge the eventual nominee to that space.

Paul seems to simultaneously want something to pass to take the issue off the table (a position shared by many on the right) without rushing through a bill that would be only marginally better than the status quo and create new problems in place of old problems. Which is why Paul’s most likely avenue is to offer amendments that would pull the bill to the right. But yesterday, as I noted, he threw some cold water on the reform process by making some very un-libertarian comments about immigration–specifically, that the accused Boston Marathon bombers’ Chechen backgrounds should have made it more difficult to allow them to immigrate to the U.S. There is some logic in Paul’s concern that war-torn regions or generally violent places warrant close attention, but he should also understand why such areas are more likely to create refugees and freedom-seeking immigrants in the first place.

Paul’s position on the immigration bill is also important because he is seen as the vehicle through which libertarian-leaning voters can flex their influence within the Republican Party. As I’ve written in the past, Paul’s success as a Republican serves as a refutation of the method employed by former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who chose to see his national unpopularity as a rejection of libertarian policies (it wasn’t) instead of as a judgment on his failure to broaden his appeal as a candidate for higher office (it was).

As the Wall Street Journal notes in a lengthy profile of Paul’s young political career, Paul is attempting to turn, as the headline phrases it, “a moment into a movement.” It’s an allusion to Paul’s father, Ron Paul, who really did lead a libertarian movement within the GOP–but one that put a political ceiling over his head and attracted a following whose loudest members were also often conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites (I saw them combine the two when they shouted “show us the shekels!” at former Vice President Dick Cheney a couple of years ago at CPAC).

The younger Paul is not the lunatic-magnet his father was in Congress, but he has also espoused less purely libertarian policy views. His presence among the GOP’s mainstream voices, however, means his eventual position on the immigration bill won’t be taken in isolation.

Read Less

Turks Show Kerry Who’s the Boss

President Obama’s brokering of what we were told was a rapprochement between his friend Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was considered a great diplomatic achievement. But even though the United States continues to act as if that phone call actually did change something, virtually everything Turkey has done in the weeks since that conversation has served to expose this claim as a fraud. The latest instance of the Turks throwing cold water on these expectations came yesterday when the Erdoğan government rebuked Secretary of State John Kerry for having the nerve to ask that the Turkish leader forebear from undertaking a state visit to Gaza.

The Turkish insistence on going ahead with a gesture designed to prop up the Islamist dictators of Gaza shows that the entire premise of Kerry’s plan for a new bout of Middle East peace negotiations is based on false hopes and misperceptions. While Kerry already seemed to be setting himself up for failure with the Palestinians, the umbrage expressed by Ankara seems to indicate that more is wrong here than the new secretary’s faith in shuttle diplomacy. It’s not only that the administration seems blind to the realities of the Middle East. The former senator, who thinks of himself as a skilled and sophisticated envoy to the world, is handicapped by his blind faith in diplomacy and determination to ignore the power of Islamist ideology. And as this latest spat with Turkey illustrates, that failure may lead to Kerry making a bad situation even worse.

Read More

President Obama’s brokering of what we were told was a rapprochement between his friend Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was considered a great diplomatic achievement. But even though the United States continues to act as if that phone call actually did change something, virtually everything Turkey has done in the weeks since that conversation has served to expose this claim as a fraud. The latest instance of the Turks throwing cold water on these expectations came yesterday when the Erdoğan government rebuked Secretary of State John Kerry for having the nerve to ask that the Turkish leader forebear from undertaking a state visit to Gaza.

The Turkish insistence on going ahead with a gesture designed to prop up the Islamist dictators of Gaza shows that the entire premise of Kerry’s plan for a new bout of Middle East peace negotiations is based on false hopes and misperceptions. While Kerry already seemed to be setting himself up for failure with the Palestinians, the umbrage expressed by Ankara seems to indicate that more is wrong here than the new secretary’s faith in shuttle diplomacy. It’s not only that the administration seems blind to the realities of the Middle East. The former senator, who thinks of himself as a skilled and sophisticated envoy to the world, is handicapped by his blind faith in diplomacy and determination to ignore the power of Islamist ideology. And as this latest spat with Turkey illustrates, that failure may lead to Kerry making a bad situation even worse.

The question of Erdoğan’s proposed visit to Gaza is no minor point. Erdoğan’s pose as the savior of the Palestinians is rooted in Turkish ambitions to expand their influence and once again become the fulcrum of the Muslim political world. But that effort will require keeping the fires of conflict burning bright between Israel and the Palestinians. Kerry’s hopes of restarting peace negotiations was probably doomed anyway, but the Turkish effort to strengthen Hamas vis-à-vis the corrupt and faltering Fatah leadership of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank will make it impossible for the latter to even think about taking steps to make peace possible. So long as Hamas can count on Turkish backing, there will be no hope of productive negotiations, let alone peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Kerry did the right thing by publicly trying to restrain the Turks from involving themselves in Palestinian politics. But he did so while laboring under the false assumption that the friendship between the American president and the Turkish prime minister was so strong that Erdoğan’s freelancing in the region was an aberration rather than a fundamental principle of Ankara’s policy. The blunder here was not in what he said. But by journeying to Turkey to make the request without any real idea that it would be respected he demonstrated to everyone in the region that he was not a force to be reckoned with. Having told Kerry that Erdoğan’s travel plans are none of his business, any hope of persuading the Turks to avoid inflaming the situation has been effectively spiked.

The point here isn’t that Kerry created a dangerous problem. That was Erdoğan’s fault. But by blundering about the region and allowing himself to be first stiffed and then publicly spanked in this manner, the secretary has diminished his influence as well as that of the United States.

This is an administration that once turned a minor housing start announcement in Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Biden into a major diplomatic contretemps in which it claimed Netanyahu had insulted it. But it is now finding out what it really means to be insulted by a nation that calls itself an American ally, and the result is far from pretty.

Read Less

The War Goes On

Despite the most fervent hopes of some writers over at Salon.com, the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing are not “white Americans”–a classification Salon used to exclude Islamists–preferably with a subscription to National Review and COMMENTARY. In fact, the accumulating evidence (see here) points to two young men who were radicalized and became jihadists. Which ought to remind us that even if many people in this nation have grown weary in the struggle with militant Islam, our enemies remain engaged, ruthless and malevolent.

The events in Boston are of course not nearly as traumatic or historic as what happened on September 11, 2001. Since that fateful day, our government has massively degraded the ability of organized groups to attack us, and that counts for a lot.

Still, in Boston last week scores of innocent people were either killed or maimed, a great city was locked down for a day, and the psychological effects of the attacks may last for some time. (The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg refers to this as “the era of the suspicious package.”) If terrorists decide to strike at “soft” targets–sporting events, shopping malls, coffee shops, elementary schools, and so forth–then life in America will change in important ways.

Read More

Despite the most fervent hopes of some writers over at Salon.com, the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing are not “white Americans”–a classification Salon used to exclude Islamists–preferably with a subscription to National Review and COMMENTARY. In fact, the accumulating evidence (see here) points to two young men who were radicalized and became jihadists. Which ought to remind us that even if many people in this nation have grown weary in the struggle with militant Islam, our enemies remain engaged, ruthless and malevolent.

The events in Boston are of course not nearly as traumatic or historic as what happened on September 11, 2001. Since that fateful day, our government has massively degraded the ability of organized groups to attack us, and that counts for a lot.

Still, in Boston last week scores of innocent people were either killed or maimed, a great city was locked down for a day, and the psychological effects of the attacks may last for some time. (The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg refers to this as “the era of the suspicious package.”) If terrorists decide to strike at “soft” targets–sporting events, shopping malls, coffee shops, elementary schools, and so forth–then life in America will change in important ways.

I have long felt it’s a tribute to America that we have gone out of our way not to target Muslims en masse in the aftermath of 9/11, and that President Bush’s role in keeping passions in check was admirable and crucial. At the same time, it would be foolish, and borderline suicidal, to pretend we don’t know what the “root cause” of this age of terrorism is: political Islam, abroad and increasingly at home. This lethal ideological infection doesn’t seem to be receding. And it’s not clear what, if anything, we can do to stop it (drone strikes are a tactic, not a strategy).

As someone who has supported championing liberty in the Arab world, I have to take into account what is happening in Egypt. I’m not sure what the alternative is–America cannot be on the side of increased repression–but the radicalization of Egypt in the aftermath of its elections is not what I hoped would emerge. Now it’s still early, and things could improve. (Wise people I know predicted things could get worse before they get better, since the transition from oppression and a smashed civil society to freedom isn’t quick or easy. The analogy is that we’re at the stage prior to a fever breaking.) On the other hand, things could also get worse. In any event, our duty is to see the world as it is.

Michael Gerson wisely points out we don’t want to be at war with Islam. But unfortunately a not-insignificant number of Muslims believe they are at war with us. And I’m quite open to suggestions of what exactly we are supposed to do–what we are even able to do–about that, other than defend ourselves and defeat them on various battlefields, including this one.

The war against us goes on, whether we like it or not.

(Updated to clarify Salon.com’s language.)

Read Less