Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 30, 2013

Obama, Syria, and the Errors of an Amateur

Barack Obama is once again learning the hard way that governing is harder than campaigning. And America is once again learning that Mr. Obama is much better at campaigning than he is at governing.

The most recent example is Syria. We have a situation in which America has been a virtual non-actor in the conflict–“leading from behind,” in the memorable words of a top Obama adviser–and the results have been catastrophic: upwards of 70,000 Syrians dead, more than a million people displaced, the increasing destabilization of the region (including our close ally Jordan), and opposition to the Assad regime cozying up to Islamist forces after having been denied sufficient aid by America. 



I don’t pretend for a moment that the options we had, and have, in Syria are easy or self-evident. The range of options includes only difficult ones, with each course of action presenting possible downsides. Of course, that’s usually the case when it comes to presidential decision-making. As for Mr. Obama, he is continuing to learn that the world is an untidy place, largely immune to either his words or his wishes, and that there are costs to inaction as well as to action. What is astonishing is that these truisms never seemed to dawn on Obama when he ran for president in 2008. Back then, he convinced himself that the world would bend to his will. He was, after all, a man who declared he would heal our planet and slow the rise of the oceans and repair America’s image in the world.

It turns out it wasn’t quite that easy after all.

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Barack Obama is once again learning the hard way that governing is harder than campaigning. And America is once again learning that Mr. Obama is much better at campaigning than he is at governing.

The most recent example is Syria. We have a situation in which America has been a virtual non-actor in the conflict–“leading from behind,” in the memorable words of a top Obama adviser–and the results have been catastrophic: upwards of 70,000 Syrians dead, more than a million people displaced, the increasing destabilization of the region (including our close ally Jordan), and opposition to the Assad regime cozying up to Islamist forces after having been denied sufficient aid by America. 



I don’t pretend for a moment that the options we had, and have, in Syria are easy or self-evident. The range of options includes only difficult ones, with each course of action presenting possible downsides. Of course, that’s usually the case when it comes to presidential decision-making. As for Mr. Obama, he is continuing to learn that the world is an untidy place, largely immune to either his words or his wishes, and that there are costs to inaction as well as to action. What is astonishing is that these truisms never seemed to dawn on Obama when he ran for president in 2008. Back then, he convinced himself that the world would bend to his will. He was, after all, a man who declared he would heal our planet and slow the rise of the oceans and repair America’s image in the world.

It turns out it wasn’t quite that easy after all.

And where Mr. Obama has made a terrible, unforced error–the error of an amateur–was in his statement last August that if the Assad regime used chemical weapons it would be crossing a “red line” and it would constitute a “game changer.” To translate from the language of diplomacy to the language of the real world: If Assad used chemical weapons, the United States would retaliate with military force. That is what crossing a “red line” means. The president said what he said because, as an Obama official told the Washington Post last August, “there’s a deterrent effect in making clear how seriously we take the use of chemical weapons or giving them to some proxy force.”

Except that the deterrent effect doesn’t appear to have worked. The British, the French, and the Israelis now say chemical weapons have been used–and the president is backtracking as fast as he can. (Even Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has admitted that the U.S. government believes, “with varying degrees of confidence,” that chemical weapons have been used.)

It appears that the man who said “as president of the United States, I don’t bluff” was, in fact, bluffing. And the entire world–our allies and our adversaries–know it. And each of them, in their own way, will adjust accordingly. Our allies will (rightly) consider Mr. Obama weak and unreliable–and our adversaries will (rightly) consider Mr. Obama weak and irresolute. The former will distance themselves from us while the latter will challenge us down the road. The Iranian regime must be getting a good chuckle out of the president’s claim that he won’t allow them to acquire a nuclear weapon. (If the president does, in fact, respond in a commensurate way to Assad crossing Obama’s “red line,” I’ll be delighted to revise my judgment.)

Even former Clinton administration and Obama administration diplomats are openly criticizing the president for his manifest and multiple failures related to Syria. The words of Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served as Obama’s director of policy planning at the State Department from January 2009 until February 2011, are worth quoting extensively:

even against the reported recommendations of his advisers, Obama has shown little interest in intervention in Syria beyond nonlethal assistance to some opposition forces, diplomatic efforts with Russia and the United Nations, and political maneuvering to try to unify the opposition.

But the White House must recognize that the game has already changed. U.S. credibility is on the line. For all the temptation to hide behind the decision to invade Iraq based on faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, Obama must realize the tremendous damage he will do to the United States and to his legacy if he fails to act. He should understand the deep and lasting damage done when the gap between words and deeds becomes too great to ignore, when those who wield power are exposed as not saying what they mean or meaning what they say… Standing by while Assad gasses his people will guarantee that, whatever else Obama may achieve, he will be remembered as a president who proclaimed a new beginning with the Muslim world but presided over a deadly chapter in the same old story.

The world does not see the complex calculations inside the White House — the difficulty of achieving any positive outcomes in Syria even with intervention, the possible harm to Obama’s domestic agenda if he plunges into the morass of another conflict in the Middle East. The world would see Syrian civilians rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, dying by the thousands while the United States stands by.

Mr. President, how many uses of chemical weapons does it take to cross a red line against the use of chemical weapons? That is a question you must be in a position to answer.

Even the White House seems to be aware of the magnitude of the mistake the president has made. “I can tell you there is regret about that red line comment,” NBC’s Chuck Todd told David Gregory. Mr. Todd went on to say, “They didn’t want to go public last week that they had this early evidence [about the use of chemical weapons] yet. They weren’t ready. And yet they knew Congress was going to get this briefing and it was all going to get out, so they decided to go public with it last week because they felt they had no choice, that it was all going to start leaking out … But they’re not ready. There is no good answer.”



“They’re not ready.”



“There is no good answer.”

Welcome to the real world, Mr. Obama.

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U.S. Public Is Cautious, Not “Isolationist”

“Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak,” the New York Times reports, one sentence before thoroughly refuting its own claim. That’s the way the Times opens its story on its latest poll on American attitudes toward intervention in Syria and North Korea. But then the Times follows that claim with this one: “While the public does not support direct military action in those two countries right now, a broad 70 percent majority favor the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries.”

The national conversation on foreign affairs is a bit muddled, in part because the Republican Party is in the wilderness and searching for its post-Iraq identity, and in part because Barack Obama, the current Democratic president, ran on the supposed amorality of George W. Bush’s foreign policy and then relied on Bush’s strategy and tactics once he won election. So neither Democrats nor Republicans can say for certain where their party stands on some of the thorniest of foreign policy issues. And the Times is clearly confused by this; I doubt, for example, that countries subject to abundant drone strikes supported by 70 percent of Americans would suggest that U.S. voters are “isolationist.”

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“Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak,” the New York Times reports, one sentence before thoroughly refuting its own claim. That’s the way the Times opens its story on its latest poll on American attitudes toward intervention in Syria and North Korea. But then the Times follows that claim with this one: “While the public does not support direct military action in those two countries right now, a broad 70 percent majority favor the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries.”

The national conversation on foreign affairs is a bit muddled, in part because the Republican Party is in the wilderness and searching for its post-Iraq identity, and in part because Barack Obama, the current Democratic president, ran on the supposed amorality of George W. Bush’s foreign policy and then relied on Bush’s strategy and tactics once he won election. So neither Democrats nor Republicans can say for certain where their party stands on some of the thorniest of foreign policy issues. And the Times is clearly confused by this; I doubt, for example, that countries subject to abundant drone strikes supported by 70 percent of Americans would suggest that U.S. voters are “isolationist.”

Nonetheless, the American people do seem to be opposed to an American invasion of Syria and North Korea. There are, however, some important caveats. One is that respondents aren’t exactly tuned in to the Syrian conflict. The poll shows that only 10 percent say they are following the conflict “very closely,” and that number is actually on a steady decline from past polls. As Shmuel Rosner notes, yesterday’s Pew poll found Americans similarly disengaged from the conflict, and suggests correctly that this lack of interest should factor in whatever conclusions we draw from the polls.

Rosner also says that if the public paid more attention “we might discover that by paying attention it becomes less keen on involvement, not more.” That may be true–the more the public learns about who would likely take over for Bashar al-Assad, the less people might want to facilitate that end. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that whatever opportunity the U.S. had to dramatically alter the shape of Syria’s future government should be spoken of in the past tense. The big wild card is whether the public believes that the use of chemical weapons at some point makes our increased involvement a moral obligation whether they like it or not.

But by tuning in they may also learn more about the horrific death toll and hear the popular comparisons to the Rwandan genocide and the Clinton administration’s inaction at the time. They also may become convinced that the evidence that Assad’s crew used sarin gas is compelling enough to have violated President Obama’s “red line.” But that brings us to the other wild card in all this: the president’s own rhetoric.

As I’ve written before, the president moves the needle on public opinion when it comes to foreign policy, especially matters of war, and Obama is no exception. The public’s red lines on Syria mirror the president’s, and Obama had the same luck with Afghanistan, boosting support for the war effort when he needed to rally the public to his plan to increase troop levels there during his first term. Past presidents have generally had the same experience. This is probably even more the case when the public isn’t paying close attention to an issue, and thus the president’s argument is among the few–and often the most forceful–they hear.

At the same time, however, if they tune in now to hear the president talk about red lines and the Syrian conflict, they will hear a president understandably wary of intervention. Obama may have painted himself into a corner by setting red lines, and one gets the sense momentum is building in the administration toward some sort of increased involvement. But there will be no clamoring for “boots on the ground,” and probably no appetite for it among the public. That’s unlikely to change, especially without support for such action in the White House, even if Americans finally start tuning in.

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Too Many Too-Big-to-Fail Banks

I was at a banking conference in Dallas over the weekend, and among the speakers was Harvey Rosenblum, the vice president and director of research at the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank. Dr. Rosenblum’s topic was too-big-to-fail banks and the Dodd-Frank legislation that is supposed to cure the problem.

There are currently 5,582 banks in the United States. That is a very great many by the standards of the rest of the world, but it’s way down from the peak number of banks, which was over 30,000 in 1920. But the total number doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Of the total, 5,500 banks are so-called community banks, with banking assets of under $10 billion. Then there are 70 mid-size banks, with assets of between $10 billion and $250 billion. Finally, there are 12 megabanks with assets between $250 billion and $2.3 trillion.

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I was at a banking conference in Dallas over the weekend, and among the speakers was Harvey Rosenblum, the vice president and director of research at the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank. Dr. Rosenblum’s topic was too-big-to-fail banks and the Dodd-Frank legislation that is supposed to cure the problem.

There are currently 5,582 banks in the United States. That is a very great many by the standards of the rest of the world, but it’s way down from the peak number of banks, which was over 30,000 in 1920. But the total number doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Of the total, 5,500 banks are so-called community banks, with banking assets of under $10 billion. Then there are 70 mid-size banks, with assets of between $10 billion and $250 billion. Finally, there are 12 megabanks with assets between $250 billion and $2.3 trillion.

What’s scary is that the community banks, 98.5 percent of all American banks, have only 12 percent of the banking assets. But the megabanks, only .21 percent of all banks, have 69 percent of all banking assets.

These are the too-big-to-fail banks. Their failure would ripple throughout the economy and could well cause a financial contagion that would be hard to stop. And Dodd-Frank doesn’t do a thing to solve that problem. Dodd-Frank is 893 pages of legislation and, so far, 9,000 pages of regulation (with 2/3 of regulations yet to come). Regulations, of course, don’t stop bank failure. They don’t stop the moral hazard created by a bank being too big to fail. They don’t stop the competitive advantage that being too big to fail gives the megabanks, with other institutions willing to lend to them at lower rates, knowing that the government will have no choice but to rescue them from failure.

What massive new regulation does do is give the megabanks yet another advantage because they can absorb the costs of new regulation much better than the small community banks. That, of course, is why the megabanks didn’t lobby against Dodd-Frank. So this is classic crony capitalism, Washington and the big guys ganging up on the small guys in the name of protecting the people.

It also almost guarantees another banking crisis in the future.

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How Today’s Events Explain the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Today’s violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories contains some uncomfortable truths for Israel’s detractors, but also serves as a helpful microcosm of the larger conflict. A 30-year-old Israeli man, Eviatar Borovsky, was stabbed to death at a bus stop at Tapuach Junction by a Palestinian man, who was captured by border guards and taken into custody. A few hours later in Gaza, Haitham al-Mishal, a Palestinian involved in the production of rockets, was killed in a targeted strike by the IDF.

But the details that fill in the rest of the picture are a useful guide to the behavior of both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

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Today’s violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories contains some uncomfortable truths for Israel’s detractors, but also serves as a helpful microcosm of the larger conflict. A 30-year-old Israeli man, Eviatar Borovsky, was stabbed to death at a bus stop at Tapuach Junction by a Palestinian man, who was captured by border guards and taken into custody. A few hours later in Gaza, Haitham al-Mishal, a Palestinian involved in the production of rockets, was killed in a targeted strike by the IDF.

But the details that fill in the rest of the picture are a useful guide to the behavior of both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Who was killed? The Israeli victim was a father of five waiting at a bus stop. The Palestinian victim was reportedly a manufacturer of rockets for use against Israeli civilians and employed by Hamas, according to the terrorist group itself. He was, according to the press here and in Israel, involved in the recent rocket attacks against the Israeli city of Eilat.

Who carried out the violence? The Palestinian perpetrator at Tapuach Junction is reportedly a repeat offender of acts of violence against civilians, having been released from prison in Israel about six months ago. On the Israeli side, the military was employed to take out a military target in Gaza.

Why did they do it? The IDF was responding to rocket attacks from enemy territory against its own civilian population. The Palestinian attacker at Tapuach Junction has a history of violence against Israeli civilians, and his brother is apparently in a Palestinian prison, having been accused of cooperating with Israeli authorities.

How did they do it? The IDF carried out a targeted strike designed to kill an active terrorist and avoid collateral damage and civilian casualties. The Palestinian assailant at Tapuach Junction carried a knife unchecked to the bus stop after the Israeli government removed a checkpoint near the area to allow Palestinians in the West Bank more freedom of movement. This was not the first such attack on an Israeli civilian at that location since the checkpoint was removed; an Israeli teenager was stabbed by a Palestinian at the junction in January.

What happened next? The Palestinian assailant at Tapuach Junction tried to kill Israeli border police, but was apprehended. Hamas promised more violence from Gaza. Israeli settlers gathered at Tapuach Junction and threw stones at a Palestinian bus, and reportedly set a field on fire. Israeli police arrested the settlers and put out the fire.

What does all this tell us about the official policy of the respective governments? The Israeli government’s policy is very clearly demonstrated here: it will not initiate hostilities, but it will respond to them and protect Israeli civilians from terror campaigns. It will also protect Palestinian civilians by not only shielding them from Israeli strikes but also by arresting Israelis who attempt to harm them or their property. The Israeli government will remove checkpoints over the objection of settlers to enable Palestinian freedom of movement despite the fact that Palestinians respond by exploiting the openings to commit acts of terrorism, which is why the checkpoints were established to begin with.

The Palestinians here are represented by two governments: Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. Hamas’s policy, as demonstrated here, is to target Israeli civilians indiscriminately and deliberately put their own citizens in harm’s way. Fatah’s policy is to arrest and target Palestinians they suspect of working together with Israelis, and to enable the violence perpetrated at Tapuach Junction which was claimed, according to one report, by Fatah.

What will the media learn from this? Almost certainly nothing they don’t already know and ignore in order to further the false narrative of Israeli culpability for the diplomatic impasse.

What will Secretary of State John Kerry learn from this? See previous answer.

Where do we go from here? Most likely, around and around in a circle of Israeli concessions, Palestinian violence, and pressure from the “international community” on Israel to give in to the extortion.

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