Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 2013

If Obama’s Syria Promises Mean Nothing, How Can We Trust Him on Iran?

Yesterday’s admission by the White House and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that Syria appears to have used chemical weapons against its own people took the debate about American policy toward the embattled Assad dictatorship to a new level. There are still no good choices available to the United States since the rebels fighting the regime are, at best, a mixed bag, and if successful may bring Islamists to power in Damascus. But, as I noted previously, President Obama’s preference for “leading from behind” and simply sitting back and hoping for the best won’t work. Allowing an Iranian ally to use Sarin gas to commit mass murder without lifting a finger to stop it is both morally wrong as well as bad geostrategic policy. So too is a policy that would not give the U.S. the leverage to help those Syrian rebels who are not Islamists prevail over those who are extremists.

But there is another angle to the decision that the administration will have to make on Syria that has wider implications for the region. With even ardent Obama supporters like Jeffrey Goldberg reminding the president he has made it crystal clear that chemical weapons use would be a red line that would trigger a strong U.S. response, what follows will not only tell us whether that promise would be kept. It will also illustrate just how seriously to take other pledges the administration has made, specifically its vow never to allow Iran to go nuclear. With the White House desperately trying to buy time before making a decision on Syria, it’s fair to ask why anyone should regard American rhetoric on Iran as anything more than an elaborate bluff if Obama won’t keep his word about Assad’s behavior.

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Yesterday’s admission by the White House and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that Syria appears to have used chemical weapons against its own people took the debate about American policy toward the embattled Assad dictatorship to a new level. There are still no good choices available to the United States since the rebels fighting the regime are, at best, a mixed bag, and if successful may bring Islamists to power in Damascus. But, as I noted previously, President Obama’s preference for “leading from behind” and simply sitting back and hoping for the best won’t work. Allowing an Iranian ally to use Sarin gas to commit mass murder without lifting a finger to stop it is both morally wrong as well as bad geostrategic policy. So too is a policy that would not give the U.S. the leverage to help those Syrian rebels who are not Islamists prevail over those who are extremists.

But there is another angle to the decision that the administration will have to make on Syria that has wider implications for the region. With even ardent Obama supporters like Jeffrey Goldberg reminding the president he has made it crystal clear that chemical weapons use would be a red line that would trigger a strong U.S. response, what follows will not only tell us whether that promise would be kept. It will also illustrate just how seriously to take other pledges the administration has made, specifically its vow never to allow Iran to go nuclear. With the White House desperately trying to buy time before making a decision on Syria, it’s fair to ask why anyone should regard American rhetoric on Iran as anything more than an elaborate bluff if Obama won’t keep his word about Assad’s behavior.

Judging by the reaction in Washington to the news about the proof of the Assad regime using chemical weapons, many in the administration may now regret the president’s willingness to make promises about Syria. It is likely that he and his foreign policy team naively believed that Assad would fall long before they were called to account for their loose talk about being willing to act if the dictator went too far in trying to preserve his regime. Moreover, having largely been propelled into office by American war weariness, it will be difficult for a president who prefers to lead from behind to convince his supporters to back American involvement in Syria.

But if after his trademark slow decision-making process unfolds, the president decides that the U.S. will still not do anything to prevent the future use of chemical weapons or to limit Assad’s ability to use them, a crucial red line will have been crossed.

As I have written many times, its more than clear that the ayatollahs neither respect nor believe President Obama’s many warnings about their nuclear ambitions. The president’s record of dithering, feckless engagement policies, slowness to enact and then enforce economic sanctions and his commitment to a diplomatic process that has repeatedly failed have given Tehran good reason to doubt that he means business about the issue or that he regards force as an option that is truly still on the table.

Yet the president’s continued use of strong words about Iran leaves open the possibility that they are wrong. But if he cannot muster the will to do something about Syria even after the death of 70,000 people at Assad’s hands and the use of chemical weapons, then why should anyone think Obama will ever act against Iran?

That places the Syrian decision in a context in which the possible costs of inaction are far greater than the justified worries about those of intervention. There may be no good options in Syria, but the blowback from a realization that the U.S. won’t stop mass killings in this manner may be far more costly. The price may not be paid by Americans, at least not immediately, but the toll in blood and diplomatic and security complications will be great. If American “red lines” mean nothing, then Obama’s blind faith in diplomacy will be exposed as a disastrous sham.

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Ignoring Jew-Hatred in the Islamic World

Western opinion leaders too often ignore the Islamic world’s rampant Jew-hatred, argues a new book reviewed recently in The Jerusalem Report. It’s unfortunate that Tibor Krausz’s review is behind a paywall, since it’s a must-read for anyone who doesn’t plan to read the full book: In example after chilling example, it demonstrates the depth and extent of this Jew-hatred, while also showing that it has nothing to do with Israel’s “occupation of Palestine.” In a televised sermon in 2009, for instance, Egyptian cleric Muhammad Hussein Ya’qub said, “If the Jews left Palestine to us, would we start loving them? Of course not … The Jews are infidels not because I say so but because Allah does… They aren’t our enemies because they occupy Palestine; they would be our enemies even if they had not occupied anything.”

But what moved Neil Kressel, a professor of psychology at William Patterson University, to write The Sons of Pigs and Apes wasn’t merely the existence of this hatred; rather, Krausz noted, it was his dismay over “what he sees as a blind spot — ‘a conspiracy of silence’ — among Western academics, policymakers and journalists about the extent of Muslim anti-Semitism.” Policymakers may not actually belong in this list; I suspect many are genuinely ignorant about this hatred. But if they are, it’s because of this “conspiracy of silence”: The journalists and academics whose job it is to inform them consistently fail to do so.

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Western opinion leaders too often ignore the Islamic world’s rampant Jew-hatred, argues a new book reviewed recently in The Jerusalem Report. It’s unfortunate that Tibor Krausz’s review is behind a paywall, since it’s a must-read for anyone who doesn’t plan to read the full book: In example after chilling example, it demonstrates the depth and extent of this Jew-hatred, while also showing that it has nothing to do with Israel’s “occupation of Palestine.” In a televised sermon in 2009, for instance, Egyptian cleric Muhammad Hussein Ya’qub said, “If the Jews left Palestine to us, would we start loving them? Of course not … The Jews are infidels not because I say so but because Allah does… They aren’t our enemies because they occupy Palestine; they would be our enemies even if they had not occupied anything.”

But what moved Neil Kressel, a professor of psychology at William Patterson University, to write The Sons of Pigs and Apes wasn’t merely the existence of this hatred; rather, Krausz noted, it was his dismay over “what he sees as a blind spot — ‘a conspiracy of silence’ — among Western academics, policymakers and journalists about the extent of Muslim anti-Semitism.” Policymakers may not actually belong in this list; I suspect many are genuinely ignorant about this hatred. But if they are, it’s because of this “conspiracy of silence”: The journalists and academics whose job it is to inform them consistently fail to do so.

A salient example occurred in January, when MEMRI released a video of a 2010 television interview given by Mohamed Morsi, today the president of Egypt. In it, Morsi referred to “Zionists” (a term, as the continuation of the interview made clear, that he considers interchangeable with “Jews”) as “descendants of apes and pigs.” This bombshell was ignored by the mainstream media until one courageous Forbes journalist launched a crusade: He contacted numerous leading news outlets to ask why they didn’t consider it newsworthy that a recipient of billions in American aid was spouting anti-Semitic incitement, then published a story documenting their nonresponse. Only then did the New York Times finally run the story, after which other major media outlets followed suit (the Times claimed its story had nothing to do with Richard Behar’s crusade; I confess to skepticism).

But even once the story ran, it left readers ignorant of the scope of the problem. Granted, they now knew that one individual had made anti-Semitic slurs, but every country has such individuals. What they didn’t know is that Morsi is the Egyptian norm rather than the exception. They didn’t know, for instance, that just days after this story broke, a senior Morsi aide called the Holocaust a “myth” that America “invented” to justify World War II, and claimed the six million Jews Hitler slaughtered really just moved to the U.S. Or that two months earlier, the head of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement, Mohammed Badie, called for jihad against Israel, after having previously called Israel’s creation “the worst catastrophe ever to befall the peoples of the world.” Or about Ya’qub’s televised sermon. And so on.

Nor did they know that such incitement is routine throughout the Islamic world, even in “moderate” U.S. allies like Turkey or Jordan.

For people to know, it would have to be reported on a regular basis. But it isn’t. So policymakers remain blithely ignorant of a defining fact of Middle Eastern life. And then we wonder why they so often get the Middle East wrong.

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ObamaCare and the Congressional Circus

Last night, Politico published what seemed like quite the scoop: members of Congress from both parties were holding secret negotiations with the aim of passing legislation that would exempt their staffers from unwieldy ObamaCare rules. The backlash was immediate, and virtually guaranteed that whether or not the Politico story got it right (it didn’t), it would at least have the effect of snuffing out whatever legislation was being contemplated.

The countdown began, and ended this afternoon when Harry Reid announced that the problem they spent months in secret negotiations trying to fix doesn’t actually exist, in his expert opinion, and thus would not require legislation that reeked of hypocrisy. So what actually happened? As Ezra Klein explained at the Washington Post, during the ObamaCare negotiations Chuck Grassley had proposed, and Congress subsequently passed, an amendment that requires congressional offices to purchase their health insurance policies from the insurance exchanges set up by ObamaCare. Grassley’s amendment was designed to embarrass Democrats by forcing them to reject part of ObamaCare as good enough for the ragged masses but not for them. Democrats, instead, accepted the amendment.

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Last night, Politico published what seemed like quite the scoop: members of Congress from both parties were holding secret negotiations with the aim of passing legislation that would exempt their staffers from unwieldy ObamaCare rules. The backlash was immediate, and virtually guaranteed that whether or not the Politico story got it right (it didn’t), it would at least have the effect of snuffing out whatever legislation was being contemplated.

The countdown began, and ended this afternoon when Harry Reid announced that the problem they spent months in secret negotiations trying to fix doesn’t actually exist, in his expert opinion, and thus would not require legislation that reeked of hypocrisy. So what actually happened? As Ezra Klein explained at the Washington Post, during the ObamaCare negotiations Chuck Grassley had proposed, and Congress subsequently passed, an amendment that requires congressional offices to purchase their health insurance policies from the insurance exchanges set up by ObamaCare. Grassley’s amendment was designed to embarrass Democrats by forcing them to reject part of ObamaCare as good enough for the ragged masses but not for them. Democrats, instead, accepted the amendment.

Democrats thought they had won the battle by meeting Grassley’s dare head-on. But there was a problem: the law excludes from those exchanges, in most cases, large employers–a category that includes the federal government. Which meant Hill staffers might have to foot the entire bill for their health insurance–of course made even more expensive thanks to ObamaCare–because the Grassley amendment, which Democrats so proudly accepted, put them into a strange new category Klein refers to as a regulatory limbo. They’ve been arguing ever since over what this means, with the fear that their staffers will all quit on them when they see the price tag on their shiny new health insurance plans.

In other words, the United States Congress has no idea what the law says or how to comply with it. But at least they’re not hypocrites, so don’t you feel better?

Klein is fairly sanguine about the whole thing, since it turned out to just be a terrible misunderstanding. But I actually think that’s the story. Congress started by trying to pass a massive bureaucratic overhaul of nearly one-fifth of the American economy, stared blankly at thousands of pages of regulations they wouldn’t even consider reading, and voted to make it the law of the land. Along the way, they treated the amendment process like a game of frat house beer pong, and their personal pride determined which amendments got through. Unsurprisingly, they passed amendments that made a hash of the law, because they didn’t read the law before enacting it.

When Nancy Pelosi suggested that it would just be tremendously exciting if no one looked at the bill and then we all found out together afterward to what extent Congress had just wrecked an entire industry, she was speaking for members of Congress as well as the public. So when Congress found out what Congress had wrought, they got to work trying to undo part of what they had done (the part, naturally, that affected them the most).

But that brought up another problem (just as we Jews famously answer questions with questions, so Congress “solves” problems with other problems): namely, that it would be quite a bummer if the public found out what they were up to. That’s because there are only two possible explanations for what they were doing, and neither sounded good. Either it would be exposed that they had no idea what was in the health care bill they passed, or it would seem like they did and now were trying to weasel out of part of it. And of course, by doing this in secret in a town where there are no secrets, they ensured the public would have both reactions.

Now that the public found out, Reid says there’s no need to take any action, that the law as written won’t do what they thought it might (he’s probably right). But Reid is a senator, not emperor, so he doesn’t get to make that decision–it’s up to the Office of Personnel Management. Reid’s statement, Klein notes, “doesn’t say much about what will happen if OPM doesn’t rule as Reid hopes.” It’s almost as if he’s not planning ahead. Klein continues:

If OPM doesn’t rule as Reid expects, I’ll be surprised to see this get fixed, at least quickly. Republicans view any chaos around Obamacare as a win for them. As of today, they’re telling me that that even extends to chaos caused by a Republican senator’s amendment that mainly effects (sic) their health insurance. I don’t think they’ll hold out long on that if it turns out they actually have to shoulder the full cost of their premiums. But it will be tough to preemptively back down too.

More games, more bluffing, more staring contests in response to the chaos they’ve created. Welcome to Congress.

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Hagel Did the Smearing, Not His Critics

The fight over the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense is long over. The former Nebraska senator’s inept confirmation hearing and the uncovering of damning statements he made concerning his views about Israel and its supporters wasn’t enough to convince the Senate to reject him or for enough of his critics to block the nomination with a filibuster. Since taking office, he has tried to put his problems behind him and is currently in Israel, where he has promised to stand by the Jewish state. Let’s hope he sticks to those pledges.

But for some of those who defended him, victory in that battle wasn’t enough. Yesterday the New Republic published an astonishing piece by Alec MacGillis in which he claimed Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens’s writing about Hagel should have disqualified him for the Pulitzer Prize in Commentary that he was awarded earlier this month. According to MacGillis, Stephens “smeared” Hagel by accusing him of anti-Semitism.

This is false. If there was anything that we learned during the debate about Hagel, it was that it was the nominee who had indulged in smear tactics against supporters of Israel over the years.

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The fight over the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense is long over. The former Nebraska senator’s inept confirmation hearing and the uncovering of damning statements he made concerning his views about Israel and its supporters wasn’t enough to convince the Senate to reject him or for enough of his critics to block the nomination with a filibuster. Since taking office, he has tried to put his problems behind him and is currently in Israel, where he has promised to stand by the Jewish state. Let’s hope he sticks to those pledges.

But for some of those who defended him, victory in that battle wasn’t enough. Yesterday the New Republic published an astonishing piece by Alec MacGillis in which he claimed Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens’s writing about Hagel should have disqualified him for the Pulitzer Prize in Commentary that he was awarded earlier this month. According to MacGillis, Stephens “smeared” Hagel by accusing him of anti-Semitism.

This is false. If there was anything that we learned during the debate about Hagel, it was that it was the nominee who had indulged in smear tactics against supporters of Israel over the years.

Far from being inaccurate or unfounded, Stephens was right on the money when he noted that Hagel’s comments about “the Jewish lobby” intimidating Congress were straight out of the traditional anti-Semitic playbook.

The only other example that MacGillis provides for his charge that Stephens “smeared” Hagel is his citation of a column about a speech Hagel gave at Rutgers University. MacGillis says Stephens was out of line for noting that the speech was sponsored by the school’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies that was chaired by an academic who had been charged with obstruction of justice in an investigation of a front group for the Iranian government. According to the TNR scribe that was nothing less than guilt by association.

But MacGillis either didn’t read the piece thoroughly or was at pains to conceal the real reason Hagel’s speech was significant. The appearance became the subject of comment when it was revealed that during the course of his appearance, Hagel made the astounding charge that the U.S. State Department was run by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, a smear so absurd that it reveals as much about the nominee’s stupidity as it does his malevolence. Yet nowhere in his diatribe about how wrong it was of Stephens to mention this incident does MacGillis mention Hagel’s comments.

MacGillis doesn’t attempt to dispute Stephens’s takedowns of Hagel (with which I repeatedly concurred both here on COMMENTARY’s blog and in my article about the controversy in the April issue of the magazine). He merely dismisses them. In his view, anyone who thinks there’s something wrong with a U.S. Senator engaging in these kinds of slurs against American Jews or the State of Israel in terms that are redolent with anti-Semitic insinuations is at fault.

No one need argue with MacGillis about Stephens’s qualifications for journalism’s highest honor. The only surprise here was that the Pulitzers, which honor the unworthy at least as often as they do those who deserve the plaudits, had the sense to recognize Stephens.

There is one more thing to be said about this tawdry attack on a great writer. There was a time not so long ago when the New Republic could always be counted on as one Israel’s great defenders as well as among the ranks of those most vocal in denouncing exactly the kind of anti-Semitic innuendo that Hagel was guilty of spreading around. But instead of joining the Journal and COMMENTARY in holding Hagel accountable, TNR has become one of those seeking to silence those who speak out against such vile slurs. Its new ownership and editors apparently have a different view of their responsibilities in this regard than their predecessors. They should be ashamed.

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Iraq, Syria, and American Foreign Policy

Recent developments in Syria and Iraq make clear that President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East–a policy of disengagement disguised as “leading from behind”–is in a shambles.

In Iraq, fighting intensifies between the Shiite-dominated armed forces and Sunni tribesmen. The trouble started on Tuesday when security forces attacked Sunni protesters near Kirkuk, killing at least 50 people and wounding more than 100. Sunnis retaliated with attacks on the security forces, who in turn escalated their own attacks on Sunnis, to include using helicopter gunships against Sunni fighters in Sulaiman Bek, a village north of Baghdad. Many Sunnis are now beginning to link their revolt to that of Syrian Sunnis, to suggest that both are fighting Shiite dictators. This may be an exaggeration, but that is the perception Prime Minister Maliki has fostered, unrestrained by American pressure, with his vindictive and foolish attempts to prosecute leading Sunnis.

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Recent developments in Syria and Iraq make clear that President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East–a policy of disengagement disguised as “leading from behind”–is in a shambles.

In Iraq, fighting intensifies between the Shiite-dominated armed forces and Sunni tribesmen. The trouble started on Tuesday when security forces attacked Sunni protesters near Kirkuk, killing at least 50 people and wounding more than 100. Sunnis retaliated with attacks on the security forces, who in turn escalated their own attacks on Sunnis, to include using helicopter gunships against Sunni fighters in Sulaiman Bek, a village north of Baghdad. Many Sunnis are now beginning to link their revolt to that of Syrian Sunnis, to suggest that both are fighting Shiite dictators. This may be an exaggeration, but that is the perception Prime Minister Maliki has fostered, unrestrained by American pressure, with his vindictive and foolish attempts to prosecute leading Sunnis.

President Obama tried to put a happy face on his failure to renegotiate a Status of Forces Agreement. When on October 21, 2011, he announced the end of talks with the Iraqis, he said, “This will be a strong and enduring partnership. With our diplomats and civilian advisors in the lead, we’ll help Iraqis strengthen institutions that are just, representative and accountable. We’ll build new ties of trade and of commerce, culture and education, that unleash the potential of the Iraqi people. We’ll partner with an Iraq that contributes to regional security and peace, just as we insist that other nations respect Iraq’s sovereignty.”

Predictably, it hasn’t worked out that way–instead Iraq is turning increasingly violent and American influence is at a nadir. Far from stabilizing the region, Iraq is contributing to instability–both because its government is supporting the Assad regime in its civil war and because Iraqi Sunni extremists are increasingly fighting against the Assad regime.

Obama has tried to do as little as possible about the Syria conflict even as the death toll climbed north of 70,000, as refugee flows destabilized neighboring states, and as al-Qaeda-linked extremists gained increasing ground. Now that the administration has finally conceded that U.S. intelligence agencies agree, “with varying degrees of confidence,” with Israeli, British and French counterparts that Assad has a crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons, America’s standoffish posture must change. If it doesn’t, Obama will have no credibility to lay out any red lines for Iran or North Korea.

But even action now, however warranted and overdue, will not be as effective as action could have been a year or two ago, before the conflict had become so deadly and debilitating. Many voices in and out of the administration urged Obama to act, but apparently paralyzed by the Iraq Syndrome, he has refused to do much of anything. Unfortunately, the longer the U.S. has waited to act, the harder it becomes to imagine a future Syrian government ever being able to pick up the pieces and to pacify the entire government. Both Syria and Iraq could continue to destabilize the entire region for a long time to come.

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Chemicals Mean Obama Must Act on Syria

The Assad regime has been sounding more confident lately, as it has become apparent that many of those fighting to oust the dictator are Islamists. As the New York Times noted in a front page feature today, Western concerns about turning Syria over to radical Muslims with strong connections to terrorism has emboldened Assad’s loyalists to begin pitching the idea that his murderous government is not only the lesser of two evils but a potential ally.

They’re dreaming if they think even Secretary of State John Kerry is foolish enough to buy into such thinking. The Obama administration has committed itself to opposing Assad and it’s not likely anything will deter them from working for his ouster. Nor should it, since for all of the justified worries about the rebels Assad remains an ally of Iran and Hezbollah. Nevertheless, the effort to separate the West from the opposition dovetails with the thinking of some Americans, like scholar Daniel Pipes, who think it probably is in America’s interests to keep the two sides in Syria fighting until exhaustion.

But the announcement today that the United States believes Damascus has used chemical warfare against the opposition ought to put an end to any idea that Assad could gain Western indifference, let alone support. The White House admission confirms the information that has been filtering out of Israel that pointed to the use of these extremely dangerous weapons by a Syrian government that has already slaughtered 70,000 people in the course of their war of survival. The question now is not whether the U.S. will be neutral about the regime’s survival but just how far it will go in order to secure his demise.

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The Assad regime has been sounding more confident lately, as it has become apparent that many of those fighting to oust the dictator are Islamists. As the New York Times noted in a front page feature today, Western concerns about turning Syria over to radical Muslims with strong connections to terrorism has emboldened Assad’s loyalists to begin pitching the idea that his murderous government is not only the lesser of two evils but a potential ally.

They’re dreaming if they think even Secretary of State John Kerry is foolish enough to buy into such thinking. The Obama administration has committed itself to opposing Assad and it’s not likely anything will deter them from working for his ouster. Nor should it, since for all of the justified worries about the rebels Assad remains an ally of Iran and Hezbollah. Nevertheless, the effort to separate the West from the opposition dovetails with the thinking of some Americans, like scholar Daniel Pipes, who think it probably is in America’s interests to keep the two sides in Syria fighting until exhaustion.

But the announcement today that the United States believes Damascus has used chemical warfare against the opposition ought to put an end to any idea that Assad could gain Western indifference, let alone support. The White House admission confirms the information that has been filtering out of Israel that pointed to the use of these extremely dangerous weapons by a Syrian government that has already slaughtered 70,000 people in the course of their war of survival. The question now is not whether the U.S. will be neutral about the regime’s survival but just how far it will go in order to secure his demise.

The replacement of Assad by a government dominated or even run by Islamists is a scary proposition. It’s even scarier if you think of these people being able to put their hands on Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons. But rather than inducing the U.S. to stand aside and let the dictator finish the job of massacring the opposition, the admission by the administration that Assad has succumbed to the temptation of employing his chemical arsenal may make it imperative that Washington step up its support of non-Islamist rebels.

Though Syria hawks sometimes talk as if we can pick and choose our friends in Syria, it’s probably not as simple as that. While it might have been easy to empower genuine pro-democracy forces in Syria two years ago when the rebellion started as part of the Arab Spring protests, the administration’s waffling on the issue has complicated this process. Islamist radicals now are an integral part of the opposition to Assad and it may not be possible to create a new Syrian government without incorporating some of them. But unless the West takes action to ensure that the more presentable Syrians gain the upper hand now, it’s probably a given that we will be stuck having to choose between a murderous Iranian ally and al-Qaeda types.

More to the point, this is a moment when the United States must reassert its responsibility to stop humanitarian disasters. While many, if not most, Americans don’t care whether Assad or some other thug rules Syria, the notion of the West standing back and watching while mass murder is taking place is unacceptable. Having already said that the use of chemical weapons is a “red line” Assad cannot cross without triggering Western action, the president cannot continue to stay on the sidelines.

For too long, President Obama’s Syria policy has been one of “leading from behind” and hoping that the problem will be solved before we are forced to do anything. But Assad won’t be toppled without Western involvement. Nor will we be able to keep his chemical weapons out of the hands of extremists by praying that others will do the job for us.

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Presidential Pyramids and Democracy

The ceremony opening George W. Bush’s presidential library and museum today in Dallas is the kind of thing that seems to bring out the best in all of current and former leaders. The gracious speeches praising the 43rd president from former presidents Carter and Clinton as well as from President Obama were in the best tradition of patriotism and bipartisanship. The institution they are dedicating today is, by all accounts, a magnificent achievement and will make a genuine contribution to our understanding of his time in office and to American history.

Just as important, the library’s opening seems to herald the beginning of a sea change in public opinion about Bush. He was badly treated by the media and, along with Vice President Cheney, became a piñata for both the chattering classes and popular culture and it may be that this day is the start of a reassessment of his presidency.

Yet there is also something slightly off-putting about the creation of what can only be described as yet another presidential pyramid. If at the beginning of the history of our republic, it was understood our presidents would, like the Roman hero Cincinnatus go home to their plows and resume life as an ordinary citizen of the republic, we now treat former commanders-in-chief as if they were dowager monarchs, each entitled to their own private court. The creation of the presidential library system, which started as an appropriate and necessary method for storing the papers of each administration, has become an excuse for the building of great monuments to each chief executive.

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The ceremony opening George W. Bush’s presidential library and museum today in Dallas is the kind of thing that seems to bring out the best in all of current and former leaders. The gracious speeches praising the 43rd president from former presidents Carter and Clinton as well as from President Obama were in the best tradition of patriotism and bipartisanship. The institution they are dedicating today is, by all accounts, a magnificent achievement and will make a genuine contribution to our understanding of his time in office and to American history.

Just as important, the library’s opening seems to herald the beginning of a sea change in public opinion about Bush. He was badly treated by the media and, along with Vice President Cheney, became a piñata for both the chattering classes and popular culture and it may be that this day is the start of a reassessment of his presidency.

Yet there is also something slightly off-putting about the creation of what can only be described as yet another presidential pyramid. If at the beginning of the history of our republic, it was understood our presidents would, like the Roman hero Cincinnatus go home to their plows and resume life as an ordinary citizen of the republic, we now treat former commanders-in-chief as if they were dowager monarchs, each entitled to their own private court. The creation of the presidential library system, which started as an appropriate and necessary method for storing the papers of each administration, has become an excuse for the building of great monuments to each chief executive.

Like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, each successive president undertakes the building of their political mausoleums in order to ensure their memory is preserved. Even more importantly, it allows them to begin, as President Clinton noted today at the Bush ceremony, the task of “rewriting history” in order to burnish their reputations.

That there is no going back from this recently acquired tradition is certain. But it is worthwhile at such a moment to ponder just how recently this change went into effect. Prior to the mid-20th century, ex-presidents actually did go back to being ordinary citizens without Secret Service details or staffs paid for by the taxpayers. As Matthew Algeo noted in his 2011 book Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip, it was possible as last as 1953 for an ex-president and his wife to actually jump in their car and drive around the country on their own.

Theodore Roosevelt was the exception to the rule of citizen ex-presidents. His celebrity after leaving the White House—as well as his status as a central figure in our politics until his death ten years later—was, however, unique. But it would be decades before another ex-president would be as big a deal as him.

The creation of what a previous generation called the “imperial presidency” changed not only the way our leaders govern but also the way they were regarded after their terms ended. As the size and power of the federal government grew after the Great Depression and World War II, the presidency grew with it, gradually making it impossible for his predecessors to even think about emulating Truman’s road trip.

Parallel to this was the way their libraries grew from document repositories to vast museums. Where the first presidential libraries were modest affairs, they have now become mammoth institutions that go along with the large lifestyles that are part and parcel of being an ex-president. If, as Bush noted today, Alexander Hamilton feared ex-presidents would be ghosts that would haunt our politics, they are today exalted pensioners more akin to royalty than anything else.

Though they were almost all members of society’s elite in one way or another, this is something the Founders never intended to happen in the republic they created. The notion of a permanent political ruling class of this sort is not just antithetical to democracy in principle but inspires the sort of resentment of politicians that leads to the cynicism with which so many Americans view those involved in public service.

It is a given that these libraries will only get bigger and bigger with each passing president. If the Bush 43 library dwarfs some of the early presidential libraries, one can only imagine the humongous edifice that will be erected to gratify the ego and the hubris of his successor by his adoring followers.

The only possible antidote to this trend is the spirit of humility with which George W. Bush opened his library today. He rightly called it a tribute to the people of the United States more than to those that served them. If we can truly make these libraries temples of democracy rather than merely tributes to the presidents then perhaps we can hold onto some vestige of the founders’ ideas. If, as the saying goes, any American can grow up to be president, then perhaps we can also return to the concept that ex-presidents are just Americans and not retired kings or queens.  

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Bush’s “Decency” Was Always There, but Where Was the Media’s?

As the 2012 presidential election drew to a close, Mitt Romney made the rounds in the important state of Pennsylvania with a closing message: “The president has run a strong campaign, I believe he is a good man and wish him well, and his family well. He is a good father and has been a good example of a good father, but it is time for a new direction. It is a time for a better tomorrow.” Barack Obama is a good man and a good father–this was central to Romney’s campaign theme. As the liberal Mother Jones noted a month prior to Election Day: “Romney’s schtick has been an almost sorrowful acknowledgment that Obama is a good man, an honorable man, but in over his head.”

Romney delivered that message consistently. There may have been plenty of arrant nonsense about Obama’s eligibility from the fever swamps of the right and shameless self-promoters like Donald Trump, but the man who wanted to be president showed the man who is currently president the respect of the office. That is strikingly different from how the Democratic Party’s grandees treated George W. Bush, of course. John Kerry joked about assassinating Bush. Al Gore screamed wild-eyed that Bush “betrayed this country!” Obama himself traded in all sorts of conspiracy theories about Iraq, including the claim that the Iraq War was launched to distract the country from “a rise in the poverty rate.”

I don’t recount this to use the opening of the Bush library today to re-litigate the left’s Bush derangement syndrome–that’s all in the public record. But amid all the recollections and reconsiderations of the Bush presidency today, one in particular caught my attention. The mainstream press coverage of the Bush presidency was not a sober record of history as it developed but rather a daily expression of the Kerry-Gore-Obama attitude toward the president. Yet it’s possible to think that Kerry, Gore, and Obama were being cynical; perhaps they didn’t really believe all the things they said about Bush. But what if the reporters who covered the Bush presidency believed their own propaganda? In what serves as a stinging self-indictment, two Politico writers–both formerly of the Washington Post and one currently the editor in chief of Politico–today have filed a story titled “What we’ve learned about George W. Bush since he left town.”

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As the 2012 presidential election drew to a close, Mitt Romney made the rounds in the important state of Pennsylvania with a closing message: “The president has run a strong campaign, I believe he is a good man and wish him well, and his family well. He is a good father and has been a good example of a good father, but it is time for a new direction. It is a time for a better tomorrow.” Barack Obama is a good man and a good father–this was central to Romney’s campaign theme. As the liberal Mother Jones noted a month prior to Election Day: “Romney’s schtick has been an almost sorrowful acknowledgment that Obama is a good man, an honorable man, but in over his head.”

Romney delivered that message consistently. There may have been plenty of arrant nonsense about Obama’s eligibility from the fever swamps of the right and shameless self-promoters like Donald Trump, but the man who wanted to be president showed the man who is currently president the respect of the office. That is strikingly different from how the Democratic Party’s grandees treated George W. Bush, of course. John Kerry joked about assassinating Bush. Al Gore screamed wild-eyed that Bush “betrayed this country!” Obama himself traded in all sorts of conspiracy theories about Iraq, including the claim that the Iraq War was launched to distract the country from “a rise in the poverty rate.”

I don’t recount this to use the opening of the Bush library today to re-litigate the left’s Bush derangement syndrome–that’s all in the public record. But amid all the recollections and reconsiderations of the Bush presidency today, one in particular caught my attention. The mainstream press coverage of the Bush presidency was not a sober record of history as it developed but rather a daily expression of the Kerry-Gore-Obama attitude toward the president. Yet it’s possible to think that Kerry, Gore, and Obama were being cynical; perhaps they didn’t really believe all the things they said about Bush. But what if the reporters who covered the Bush presidency believed their own propaganda? In what serves as a stinging self-indictment, two Politico writers–both formerly of the Washington Post and one currently the editor in chief of Politico–today have filed a story titled “What we’ve learned about George W. Bush since he left town.”

Here is the fourth item on the list, and an explanation:

• Bush is a personally decent fellow

When he ran for president in 2000, the notion that Bush was on balance a likable guy — if not uniformly respected for his intelligence or preparation for the presidency — was widely assumed.

By 2009, his divisive policies and defiant political style had been so polarizing for so long that much of Bush’s personality and values had become obscured by a toxic cloud.

Since leaving office, he has avoided partisan politics and taken up painting. Several pieces of his art have ended up online, including a self-portrait of him in the shower.

Yes, two veteran political reporters actually wrote this. They never thought much of the former president while he was in office, but then, a few years later, they saw a painting. And you have to love their explanation for why they didn’t think Bush was a “decent fellow” earlier: “much of Bush’s personality and values had become obscured by a toxic cloud.”

And what was that toxic cloud? That would be the political reporting. So we have our answer: the press believed their own miserable propaganda. “Just remember,” George Costanza tells Jerry Seinfeld, “it’s not a lie if you believe it.” It is of course a lie that Bush wasn’t a thoroughly decent person throughout his presidency, so it was crucial for liberals and the press to believe it.

It’s not as though Bush’s obvious decency wasn’t visible to reporters. Ron Fournier, now with National Journal, had covered the Bush presidency, and a couple of days ago wrote about the decency he saw in Bush. The whole thing is worth reading, but one key takeaway, as Fournier gives example after example, is how Bush’s sense of personal decency was clear as day to anyone who interacted with him.

So yes, there was plenty of absurdity coming from the right and leveled at President Obama, and history will not look kindly on the disrespect and indignity of making the president feel compelled to show his birth certificate. Plenty of the attacks on Bill Clinton were–or should have been–out of bounds too. But ask yourself this: can you picture John McCain screaming at the top of his lungs that Barack Obama is a traitor to the country he leads, or jokingly suggesting he should assassinate Obama? And can you imagine political reporters writing four years after Obama leaves office that they never knew he was a personally decent man?

I hope you cannot imagine those things, but that is the reality that George W. Bush endured and absorbed with grace, good humor, unrequited compassion, and above all, yes, personal decency.

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The Dangers of Citizen Detective Work

Today the unfortunate news broke that a missing Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi, was found dead in the Providence River in Rhode Island. He had been missing for over a month. What catapulted his name into the news, however, wasn’t the fact that he was a 22-year-old missing Ivy League student; it was his alleged connection to the Boston Marathon bombings.

Soon after the FBI released photographs of the alleged bombers who were eventually identified as Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the social media site Reddit went to work trying to identify the men photographed in baseball caps. The possibility that the one of the bombers was Tripathi was broached by a commenter on Reddit on Thursday night, leading to his name becoming so infamous that it appeared on the top worldwide trends list on Twitter. Perhaps due to this social media buzz his name was reported over the Boston Police Department’s scanners early Friday morning, lending fuel to the fire of suspicion.

Soon the Tripathi family, already under an incredible amount of stress and strain after the disappearance of their loved one, were left defending him to Facebook commenters, Twitter users and the media. The vultures descended, leading the family to close the Facebook page dedicated to the search and release a statement:

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Today the unfortunate news broke that a missing Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi, was found dead in the Providence River in Rhode Island. He had been missing for over a month. What catapulted his name into the news, however, wasn’t the fact that he was a 22-year-old missing Ivy League student; it was his alleged connection to the Boston Marathon bombings.

Soon after the FBI released photographs of the alleged bombers who were eventually identified as Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the social media site Reddit went to work trying to identify the men photographed in baseball caps. The possibility that the one of the bombers was Tripathi was broached by a commenter on Reddit on Thursday night, leading to his name becoming so infamous that it appeared on the top worldwide trends list on Twitter. Perhaps due to this social media buzz his name was reported over the Boston Police Department’s scanners early Friday morning, lending fuel to the fire of suspicion.

Soon the Tripathi family, already under an incredible amount of stress and strain after the disappearance of their loved one, were left defending him to Facebook commenters, Twitter users and the media. The vultures descended, leading the family to close the Facebook page dedicated to the search and release a statement:

A tremendous and painful amount of attention has been cast on our beloved Sunil Tripathi in the past twelve hours.

We have known unequivocally all along that neither individual suspected as responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings was Sunil.

We are grateful to all of you who have followed us on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit—supporting us over the recent hours.

Now more than ever our greatest strength comes from your enduring support. We thank all of you who have reached out to our family and ask that you continue to raise awareness and to help us find our gentle, loving, and thoughtful Sunil.

Unfortunately, we know that even seasoned professionals sometimes get it wrong in the heated pursuit for a suspect in an incident as infamous as the Boston marathon bombing. Just this week an Elvis impersonator, Paul Kevin Curtis, was released from prison after being accused of sending ricin-laced letters to President Obama and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The tragic story of Richard Jewell, a security guard who discovered the bomb and moved spectators to safety in the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Park, is well known to many. Jewell was under suspicion for the bombings for several months before being exonerated and went on to sue various media outlets for libel (each outlet that Jewell sued eventually settled out of court for undisclosed amounts). He died in 2007 at 44 and had reportedly said that even after being cleared, he could never escape his notoriety. In a rush to report news on the Newtown massacre the news media fingered the brother of the gunman, Ryan Lanza, as the assailant, a fact he learned while sitting at his desk in midtown Manhattan.

The coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing by news media was plagued almost from the outset with misinformation. The Huffington Post made a video compilation of the lowest news media moments and points out that soon after the bombings President Obama told the media and Americans, “In this age of instant reporting and tweets and blogs, there’s a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes to jump to conclusions. But when a tragedy like this happens … it’s important that we do this right.” In the hours after the bombing Jonathan also cautioned against jumping to any conclusions, warning:

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

In a statement released before Tripathi’s body was discovered ABC News reports:

Reddit general manager Erik Martin apologized for the “dangerous speculation” that “spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties.”

“The Reddit staff and the millions of people on Reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened,” Martin wrote in a blog post on Monday.

“We all need to look at what happened and make sure that in the future we do everything we can to help and not hinder crisis situations,” he said.

One would hope that after the Jewell, Ryan Lanza and most recently Curtis incidents the news media and amateur sleuths would have learned their lesson. It’s hard enough for trained and experienced law enforcement officials to conduct high-stress searches for perpetrators, and while those in the social media community may feel as though they’re helping the investigation, it’s clear that in this instance, they did nothing but impede it.

We’ve also seen yet again that it’s time for the media to slow down and focus on being right, not first. It’s not yet known how long Tripathi’s body has been in the river but even if the pale of suspicion from Reddit and later the media didn’t lead directly to his death, it’s clear how painful the situation was for a family already gripped with fear over their missing loved one. The world will soon forget Tripathi’s name, but his family will likely never recover from the treatment they received from their fellow Americans and our news media in their darkest hour.

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“Knock-Off Jihadis” and Other Pests

Yesterday at a memorial service for Boston bombing victims, Joe Biden described the Tsarnaev brothers as “twisted, perverted, cowardly, knock-off jihadis.”

You know what they say. If it worships like a duck, radicalizes like a duck, plans like a duck, arms like a duck, bombs like a duck, and kills like a duck—it’s a knock-off.

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Yesterday at a memorial service for Boston bombing victims, Joe Biden described the Tsarnaev brothers as “twisted, perverted, cowardly, knock-off jihadis.”

You know what they say. If it worships like a duck, radicalizes like a duck, plans like a duck, arms like a duck, bombs like a duck, and kills like a duck—it’s a knock-off.

It would be nice if the burden of proof for receiving Massachusetts benefits was so tough. Since the only deranged systemic network that authorities have linked the brothers to is the state welfare agency, they’re just pretend jihadists incapable of disturbing Pax Obamacana.

Of course when al-Qaeda-linked groups claim credit for killing Americans these days, that too is deemed the product of inconsequential riff-raff. Jihadist all-stars Ansar al-Sharia bragged of committing the massacre at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. So naturally the administration blamed angry YouTube viewers and arrested a provocative American “filmmaker.” The State Department’s version of coming around to the truth was Hillary Clinton’s angry declaration before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January: “With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d they go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”

And at this point? With another four dead Americans, these killed on Patriot’s Day in a great American city, one an 8-year-old, it makes a difference. When innocent Americans are slain in the name of an anti-American idea it demands a measure of bravery and honesty from the rest of us. Calling the suspected perpetrators “knock-off jihadists” is a pretty shabby way to dishonor the dead.

It’s also a poor way to protect civilization. No matter how many thousand bad guys you incinerate with drones, you can’t defeat what you’re too scared to speak of. Forget the words Islamism and jihad. It’s gotten to the point where the administration’s using the word terrorism is perceived as a dangerously aggressive counterterrorist initiative reminiscent of the Bush years.

Last Sunday the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg said that Boston plunged us into the “era of the suspicious package.” Not very resonant, as far as historical eras go. But it does cover the ideological depth of national security thinking in Obama’s America. We’ve moved on from the unacceptable war on terror to a war on luggage. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist is another’s knapsack.

An imitation of leadership can only handle an imitation of jihad. The specter of a committed enemy would bring into focus the commitment on our side, the side of “what difference does it make?” Better to fight knock-offs and luggage than get into all that.

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Listen to Your Mother, Jeb

If there’s anything that most of us had drilled into our heads growing up, it’s this phrase: “Listen to your mother.” Mothers aren’t always right, but it’s never a bad policy to listen to the person who gave birth to you and generally has your best interests in mind. So let’s hope former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was watching the “Today” show this morning, when his mother, sister-in-law and two nieces were being interviewed by Matt Lauer about the opening of the George W. Bush Library and Museum in Dallas.

When asked whether her younger son Jeb should run for president, Barbara Bush, already the wife and the mother of presidents, left no doubt about her views:

He’s by far the best qualified man, but no, I really don’t. I think it’s a great country, there are a lot of great families, and, it’s not just four families or whatever. There are other people that are very qualified, and we’ve had enough Bushes.

The immediate reaction from most of the press as well as the other three family members present seemed to be that this was “Barbara being Barbara,” as Bush 41’s wife once again proved she was the most candid and outspoken member of the family. But those promoting the Jeb Bush boomlet should listen to her.

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If there’s anything that most of us had drilled into our heads growing up, it’s this phrase: “Listen to your mother.” Mothers aren’t always right, but it’s never a bad policy to listen to the person who gave birth to you and generally has your best interests in mind. So let’s hope former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was watching the “Today” show this morning, when his mother, sister-in-law and two nieces were being interviewed by Matt Lauer about the opening of the George W. Bush Library and Museum in Dallas.

When asked whether her younger son Jeb should run for president, Barbara Bush, already the wife and the mother of presidents, left no doubt about her views:

He’s by far the best qualified man, but no, I really don’t. I think it’s a great country, there are a lot of great families, and, it’s not just four families or whatever. There are other people that are very qualified, and we’ve had enough Bushes.

The immediate reaction from most of the press as well as the other three family members present seemed to be that this was “Barbara being Barbara,” as Bush 41’s wife once again proved she was the most candid and outspoken member of the family. But those promoting the Jeb Bush boomlet should listen to her.

Mrs. Bush seemed to understand something that other members of the clan don’t. There is something slightly unseemly about the idea that there is only one family that can produce a president. The United States isn’t some Central American banana republic where a few great names dominate politics, or at least it shouldn’t be. The greatest strength of the Republican Party is its deep bench. They have several strong potential candidates who are not linked to the George W. Bush presidency. While none is perfect, the idea of pushing them aside in order to give another Bush a chance, even one as talented and experienced as Jeb, would be a terrible idea.

The former first lady also seemed to have a stronger grasp of the political math of 2016 than a lot of supposedly smart people who have been speaking of Jeb as a potential juggernaut. She said he would inherit all of her husband and son’s enemies while only getting “half of our friends.” That isn’t a formula for success.

Although hers is a family that seems particularly dedicated to public service (her father-in-law was a U.S. senator), perhaps she has seen the beating her husband and eldest son have taken and doesn’t want Jeb to have to go through the same process. Mrs. Bush also seems to understand that its time for her party to turn the page.

There’s nothing wrong with great families, but while the idea of a Bush-Clinton clan rematch in 2016 might amuse journalists, it doesn’t speak well for our democracy that we can’t get beyond these famous names. It’s time to move on. Let’s hope Jeb Bush listens to his mother and doesn’t put the Republicans or the nation through another round of dispiriting dynastic politics.

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Is Bush Fatigue Real or Imagined?

This is a big week for the Bush family as the opening of George W. Bush’s presidential library and museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University has brought the 43rd president’s legacy into focus. The debate over his record has been fierce but, as Peter Wehner noted yesterday a Washington Post-ABC News poll gave Bush supporters some long-needed comfort as it showed his approval rating was roughly equivalent to that of his successor. Some are interpreting this result as an indicator that the day Republicans had waited for had finally arrived as the public finally realizes Bush’s worth while catching on to Barack Obama’s shortcomings.

The GOP celebration may, however, be a bit premature. One poll does not constitute a trend and one would think that the last presidential campaign would have cured Republicans of their habit of placing their faith in polls that produced results that pleased them. The timing of the survey, which was taken last week in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, may also have influenced the numbers as it highlighted the one issue—homeland security and terrorism—on which President Bush always scored relatively well even when his popularity was its nadir.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that what we’re seeing in the WaPo poll is at least the beginning of a shift in public opinion about Bush 43. As I’ve written before, the opprobrium with which his presidency has been treated since he left office is largely undeserved. He made his share of mistakes but, as Bush supporters are pointing out this week, his defense of the homeland after 9/11 was his greatest achievement and the keynote of his presidency. If the worm is turning on Bush, this might mean the path is clearing for a third member of the family to try for the White House. That’s the conceit of much of the recent coverage of Jeb Bush, whose obvious interest in a 2016 run is also being highlighted by the big party in Dallas. But any assumptions that the uptick in his brother’s poll numbers mean that there is no Bush fatigue in the country are probably unfounded.

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This is a big week for the Bush family as the opening of George W. Bush’s presidential library and museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University has brought the 43rd president’s legacy into focus. The debate over his record has been fierce but, as Peter Wehner noted yesterday a Washington Post-ABC News poll gave Bush supporters some long-needed comfort as it showed his approval rating was roughly equivalent to that of his successor. Some are interpreting this result as an indicator that the day Republicans had waited for had finally arrived as the public finally realizes Bush’s worth while catching on to Barack Obama’s shortcomings.

The GOP celebration may, however, be a bit premature. One poll does not constitute a trend and one would think that the last presidential campaign would have cured Republicans of their habit of placing their faith in polls that produced results that pleased them. The timing of the survey, which was taken last week in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, may also have influenced the numbers as it highlighted the one issue—homeland security and terrorism—on which President Bush always scored relatively well even when his popularity was its nadir.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that what we’re seeing in the WaPo poll is at least the beginning of a shift in public opinion about Bush 43. As I’ve written before, the opprobrium with which his presidency has been treated since he left office is largely undeserved. He made his share of mistakes but, as Bush supporters are pointing out this week, his defense of the homeland after 9/11 was his greatest achievement and the keynote of his presidency. If the worm is turning on Bush, this might mean the path is clearing for a third member of the family to try for the White House. That’s the conceit of much of the recent coverage of Jeb Bush, whose obvious interest in a 2016 run is also being highlighted by the big party in Dallas. But any assumptions that the uptick in his brother’s poll numbers mean that there is no Bush fatigue in the country are probably unfounded.

As former Republican Party chair Haley Barbour told Politico today, the calculations about Jeb’s presidential hopes are inextricably tied up with the whole notion of Bush fatigue. Barbour is probably right when he says, “If Jeb’s last name was Brown instead of Bush, he’d probably be the front-runner for the Republican nomination.”

As a successful former governor of crucial state with a strong conservative record and a history of appealing to Hispanics, he fits the profile of exactly what the GOP is looking for in 2016. Even more than that, as one of the party’s most thoughtful voices on issues like education and immigration, he’s well prepared to make a strong case for himself as someone linked to the party’s future rather than its past.

But as Barbour says, Jeb’s name is Bush, not Brown. And his belief that there is no such thing as Bush fatigue is profoundly mistaken.

No matter how qualified Jeb Bush may be, Republicans understand that, like it or not, his presidential candidacy would inevitably become a referendum on his family’s place in American history. His own statements, both this year and last, defending his brother make it abundantly clear that the issue will follow him around wherever he goes even if he wants to talk about everything else.

Bush fatigue may be declining as the years pass and Bush 43’s accomplishments are recognized and Katrina, the Iraq War and the financial meltdown are no longer in the news. But a Jeb Bush candidacy will serve as an excuse for the left and the media to double down on their past attacks rather than allowing them to fade from our collective memory. Anyone who thinks the same elements that largely control the mainstream media and popular culture that buried the second President Bush under an avalanche of vituperation are not prepared to renew their attacks is underestimating the hatred that he engendered on the left.

During a week when George W. Bush is finally getting a little credit after years of being wrongly slammed as the man who lied us into war and crashed the economy, it may be possible for his family to dream of an unprecedented presidential trifecta. But Republicans should be wary of their ambitions. No matter how strong their arguments about Bush 43’s virtues, one poll doesn’t change the fact that his presidency is still associated with a hurricane, missing weapons of mass destruction, a bloody and inconclusive war and the bailout of Wall Street as the economy tottered. Sadly, Bush fatigue is not a figment of a hostile media’s imagination. GOP hopes in 2016 depend on convincing the American people their party is the hope of the American future after eight dismal years of Obama. Another Bush candidacy is a recipe for GOP disaster.

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Triumph of the Slippery Slope Argument on Gun Control?

One of the often-quoted pieces of advice about modern politics is: first you win the argument, then you win the vote. On gun control, President Obama thought he did the former, and assumed he’d then achieve the latter. In reality, he did neither.

Yesterday, I criticized the way Obama conducted the argument over gun control, as well as the excuses some of his supporters made for why his favored gun control bill failed: he’s too nice to threaten, too proud to beg, his government too poor to bribe (a great, if unrelated, argument in favor of austerity, perhaps). And I did so on the grounds that Obama has been overstating, or overestimating, the public support for gun control. Today, the Washington Post reports on its new poll on gun control. Was the country as furious at the failure of the gun bill as the president was? According to the Post:

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One of the often-quoted pieces of advice about modern politics is: first you win the argument, then you win the vote. On gun control, President Obama thought he did the former, and assumed he’d then achieve the latter. In reality, he did neither.

Yesterday, I criticized the way Obama conducted the argument over gun control, as well as the excuses some of his supporters made for why his favored gun control bill failed: he’s too nice to threaten, too proud to beg, his government too poor to bribe (a great, if unrelated, argument in favor of austerity, perhaps). And I did so on the grounds that Obama has been overstating, or overestimating, the public support for gun control. Today, the Washington Post reports on its new poll on gun control. Was the country as furious at the failure of the gun bill as the president was? According to the Post:

Not so much, according to a new Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll. Yes, a plurality (47 percent) describe themselves as either “angry” or “disappointed” about the failure of the gun legislation, but 39 percent call themselves “relieved” or “happy” about what happened. That’s a far cry from the 90-ish percent support that expanding background checks — the centerpiece of the proposed legislation — enjoyed.

And, among those who said they were “very closely” keeping tabs on the vote, the split was even closer; 48 percent said they were angry/disappointed while 47 percent were relieved or happy. (That piece of data is indicative of the passion gap on the issue between those supporting gun rights and those pushing for more restrictions.)

A key argument of the president’s supporters after the bill failed was that this was a case of democracy denied. The president says the country agrees with him, therefore the Congress should vote accordingly. But it turns out to be more complicated than that. Obama was right that background checks had broad support among the general population, but he seems to have lost the argument that those background checks would not be part of either a slippery slope or an extended effort to limit gun rights. As the Post explains:

Viewed broadly, the new Post-Pew poll numbers suggest that, in the end, the Senate vote last week wound up functioning in the minds of most Americans as a sort of stand-in for how they feel about gun rights more generally as opposed to the specifics (background checks in particular) of the legislation.

So, not surprisingly, those who were most angry about the failure of the gun bill were reliably Democratic groups such as those with postgraduate degrees and those living in the Northeast.

Democracy worked, in other words. This should have been obvious, because members of Congress are generally attuned to the opinions and habits of their constituents. That doesn’t mean they never cross those voters, or that they always vote for what the majority of their constituents want in any given case. But if, as Obama had said repeatedly, 90 percent of voters backed the gun legislation, something else would have to have been at play in the minds the senators who voted against it.

Could mere partisanship explain it? Doubtful, since the vote failed to rally key Democrats as well, so there was bipartisan opposition to the bill (just as there was bipartisan support for it). Obama likes to believe that NRA fearmongering was to blame. But if the public was overwhelmingly on one side of the issue, what power would a lobbyist hold over an individual lawmaker by putting the lobby on the wrong side of public opinion?

The answer is, the argument Obama lost was not over limited background checks but on the role of the federal government when it comes to regulating guns. There’s a good reason for this: Obama originally and publicly pushed for a so-called assault weapons ban, but the votes for it weren’t there–not even close. The White House’s response to the failure of the gun ban was not to accept public opinion on it but rather to promise (threaten?) they would be back later for the gun ban, and would not back down. Thus Obama communicated quite clearly to the public that the background checks were, if the president got his way, only the beginning of the administration’s renewed efforts to chip away at gun ownership.

The Post report concludes:

To their credit, the president and his White House tried like hell to emphasize that the proposals in the bill were ones that drew support across party lines. But, their failure to make that case effectively speaks to the entrenched views much of the country holds on guns. The conclusion? Most people simply weren’t really listening to the argument President Obama was trying to make.

That’s only partly true. They were listening to the argument Obama was trying to make in the context of the wider argument he has been making all along. The public and their representatives didn’t ignore the president. On the contrary, they listened carefully, and voted accordingly.

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When Terrorists “Act Alone”

Law enforcement officials are touting news that the Boston Marathon bombers acted alone. The source for their conclusion? Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has averred from his hospital bed that he and his brother had no links to any terrorist organization. This may or may not be true; it’s possible that even if Dzhokhar is sincere he may not have known about links cultivated by his brother during Tamerlan’s sojourn to Dagestan last year. But even if it’s true that their bombing was not directed by foreign terrorist organizations, it was certainly inspired by them.

In seeking to explain their heinous actions, Dzhokhar cited an alleged war against Islam waged by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming that U.S. troops have been responsible for most civilian deaths in those countries. This is blatantly not true (the Taliban, al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Islamist groups have killed far more civilians and they have done so deliberately, not accidentally as in the case of most “collateral damage” caused by U.S. forces). But it is a standard al-Qaeda propaganda line that the brothers swallowed–along with the more general al-Qaeda justifications for making war on “infidels.” More than that, it appears that the brothers may have gotten bomb-making instructions from Inspire, the English-language magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

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Law enforcement officials are touting news that the Boston Marathon bombers acted alone. The source for their conclusion? Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has averred from his hospital bed that he and his brother had no links to any terrorist organization. This may or may not be true; it’s possible that even if Dzhokhar is sincere he may not have known about links cultivated by his brother during Tamerlan’s sojourn to Dagestan last year. But even if it’s true that their bombing was not directed by foreign terrorist organizations, it was certainly inspired by them.

In seeking to explain their heinous actions, Dzhokhar cited an alleged war against Islam waged by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming that U.S. troops have been responsible for most civilian deaths in those countries. This is blatantly not true (the Taliban, al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Islamist groups have killed far more civilians and they have done so deliberately, not accidentally as in the case of most “collateral damage” caused by U.S. forces). But it is a standard al-Qaeda propaganda line that the brothers swallowed–along with the more general al-Qaeda justifications for making war on “infidels.” More than that, it appears that the brothers may have gotten bomb-making instructions from Inspire, the English-language magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Even if no further links with al-Qaeda or related groups (such as the Caucasus Emirate) are discovered, it is still not correct to claim, as so many media outlets now do, that the brothers were “self-radicalized.” They were radicalized and trained by al-Qaeda–whether in cyberspace or outside of it. It is also likely, moreover, that older brother Tamerlan, the ring leader, came into contact with influential individuals in either Boston and/or Dagestan who guided his intellectual development toward becoming a jihadist. Whether those individuals formally belonged to a terrorist organization or not, they were doing its bidding as long as they were urging violence against the West.

In short, while we need to be worried about “lone wolf” terrorists, we must not lose sight of the fact that they are not entirely autonomous individuals. There is still a terrorist support structure that exists in Dagestan–and other places in the Muslim world such as Yemen and Pakistan–which is closely connected with acts of terror in the West and that needs to be dismantled.

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Obama’s Planned Parenthood Payoff

Even in an administration as skilled in manipulating the media as that of Barack Obama, there are still some things that are more greatly valued than a finely crafted piece of political spin. One of those is the need to pay back supporters for their efforts in the president’s re-election campaign. That’s why President Obama will be addressing Planned Parenthood in Washington on Friday. Given the prominent role that PP President Cecile Richards played last year as surrogate speaker for the president, and the organization’s central part in promoting the idea that Republicans were waging a “war on women,” Obama’s decision to speak at the event seems only natural. But the timing of his appearance at a Planned Parenthood conference couldn’t be worse.

The problem stems from the admission on the part of an official of the group’s Southeastern Pennsylvania affiliate reported last week by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Speaking with Gloria Steinem at the group’s annual Spring Gathering at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center, Dayle Steinberg said Planned Parenthood was aware of problems at the infamous abortion clinic operated by Kermit Gosnell:

Steinberg said that when Gosnell was in practice, women would sometimes come to Planned Parenthood for services after first visiting Gosnell’s West Philadelphia clinic, and would complain to staff about the conditions there.

“We would always encourage them to report it to the Department of Health,” Steinberg said as she sat with Steinem before Tuesday’s events.

While this doesn’t make the group responsible for the atrocities that were allegedly committed by Gosnell, it does raise questions as to why an organization avowedly dedicated to protecting the health of women chose not to take any action on its own or to investigate what was going on. As Wesley J. Smith noted at National Review yesterday, it does remind one of the old saying, “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Coming as it does, in the aftermath of a damaging comment by a Florida Planned Parenthood official who thought whether clinic personnel should render medical assistance to a baby born as a result of a botched abortion was an open question, the comments about the ongoing Gosnell trial might have made the group politically toxic. But President Obama owes Planned Parenthood too much to pass on a chance to embrace them.

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Even in an administration as skilled in manipulating the media as that of Barack Obama, there are still some things that are more greatly valued than a finely crafted piece of political spin. One of those is the need to pay back supporters for their efforts in the president’s re-election campaign. That’s why President Obama will be addressing Planned Parenthood in Washington on Friday. Given the prominent role that PP President Cecile Richards played last year as surrogate speaker for the president, and the organization’s central part in promoting the idea that Republicans were waging a “war on women,” Obama’s decision to speak at the event seems only natural. But the timing of his appearance at a Planned Parenthood conference couldn’t be worse.

The problem stems from the admission on the part of an official of the group’s Southeastern Pennsylvania affiliate reported last week by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Speaking with Gloria Steinem at the group’s annual Spring Gathering at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center, Dayle Steinberg said Planned Parenthood was aware of problems at the infamous abortion clinic operated by Kermit Gosnell:

Steinberg said that when Gosnell was in practice, women would sometimes come to Planned Parenthood for services after first visiting Gosnell’s West Philadelphia clinic, and would complain to staff about the conditions there.

“We would always encourage them to report it to the Department of Health,” Steinberg said as she sat with Steinem before Tuesday’s events.

While this doesn’t make the group responsible for the atrocities that were allegedly committed by Gosnell, it does raise questions as to why an organization avowedly dedicated to protecting the health of women chose not to take any action on its own or to investigate what was going on. As Wesley J. Smith noted at National Review yesterday, it does remind one of the old saying, “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Coming as it does, in the aftermath of a damaging comment by a Florida Planned Parenthood official who thought whether clinic personnel should render medical assistance to a baby born as a result of a botched abortion was an open question, the comments about the ongoing Gosnell trial might have made the group politically toxic. But President Obama owes Planned Parenthood too much to pass on a chance to embrace them.

The increased coverage given the Gosnell trial as a result of criticism of the major media blackout of the story should have put Planned Parenthood in the cross hairs of the controversy after Steinberg’s statement. But the same outlets that were doing their best to ignore Gosnell are not saying much, if anything, about Steinberg’s admission. The reason for this is obvious, even for those who support abortion rights. While groups like Planned Parenthood assert that Gosnell’s crimes make the need for quality health care, such as the services they provide, even more important, the trial’s revelations about the cavalier way late-term abortions are carried out seems to make many people in the “pro-choice” community—a term that includes much of the media—uncomfortable.

Planned Parenthood retracted their Florida representative’s statement about babies born after attempted abortions and now they need to answer some questions about Gosnell. But none of this is likely to affect an Obama White House that sees the group as integral to their struggle to depict their opponents as hostile to women’s health care.

Whatever one may think about the charge that Republicans were waging a war on women (a canard that was boosted by the stupid comments of former Representative Todd Akin about abortion and rape), Steinberg’s statements give the impression that Planned Parenthood was indifferent to the war Kermit Gosnell was waging on women and babies at his West Philadelphia clinic. That might have caused a president less beholden to them to stay away from them. But the debt the president owes the group is far greater than any questions that might be asked about his presence at their event.

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Venezuela Answers Fraud Charges with Threats

One of the Hugo Chavez-era ministers retained in the new cabinet of Nicolas Maduro is Iris Varela, who holds the portfolio for Venezuela’s rotting prison system. This morning, she repaid Maduro’s vote of confidence in her by threatening to incarcerate Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who has been doggedly insisting that the votes cast in the April 14 presidential election, which Maduro won by a razor-thin margin of 1.8 percent, should be recounted.

In the days immediately following the vote, Venezuela was convulsed by protests alleging electoral fraud. Seven people were reported to have died and more than 60 injured in clashes the chavista regime immediately blamed on the opposition. Maduro himself accused opposition supporters of attacking health clinics run by the government, as well as the home of Tibisay Lucena, the president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), who called the election for Maduro in record time and then declared the results to be “irreversible.”

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One of the Hugo Chavez-era ministers retained in the new cabinet of Nicolas Maduro is Iris Varela, who holds the portfolio for Venezuela’s rotting prison system. This morning, she repaid Maduro’s vote of confidence in her by threatening to incarcerate Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who has been doggedly insisting that the votes cast in the April 14 presidential election, which Maduro won by a razor-thin margin of 1.8 percent, should be recounted.

In the days immediately following the vote, Venezuela was convulsed by protests alleging electoral fraud. Seven people were reported to have died and more than 60 injured in clashes the chavista regime immediately blamed on the opposition. Maduro himself accused opposition supporters of attacking health clinics run by the government, as well as the home of Tibisay Lucena, the president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), who called the election for Maduro in record time and then declared the results to be “irreversible.”

Capriles repeatedly pointed out on his Twitter feed that no evidence was produced to support these or similar claims. He also called off a rally outside the CNE’s headquarters in Caracas, citing his concern that government supporters would “infiltrate” the crowd and stir up violence that the opposition would then be held responsible for. In the end, Capriles settled for a partial recount of the vote that the CNE has already said will not change the election’s outcome.

Capriles’s decision to opt for prudence won him no favors with the regime. As Iris Varela made clear today, Capriles is being held personally responsible for the post-election violence. “We are preparing a cell for you (Capriles) where you will pay for your crimes,” Varela growled ominously during a press conference.

Whether Varela’s threat against Capriles will be implemented remains unclear. Its underlying purpose, though, is to intimidate the opposition into silence; and what better way to do so than by dangling the prospect of a prison sentence? As Julie Turkewitz reported in the Atlantic in February, Venezuelan prisons are known to be the worst in Latin America, plagued by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, and frequently run by brutal gang leaders. No opposition supporter entering one of these penitentiaries could reasonably hope to come out alive, let alone unharmed.

Another worrying signal for the opposition is the appointment of Miguel Rodriguez Torres as interior minister. Rodriguez Torres was most recently the head of SEBIN, the much-feared, Cuban-trained political police. Like Maduro, Rodriguez Torres is an orthodox chavista who brooks no dissent. His goal now will be to crack down not just on the current round of protests, but on the protests that Maduro’s government is likely to face in the coming months as the economy continues to crumble.

Herein lies Capriles’ main achievement: he has made a compelling case that any elections held under the auspices of the chavistas will be inherently unfair, and he has prepared the ground for a reinvigorated opposition that was thrown into despair last December, when the chavistas triumped in state elections. 

At the same time, Capriles is wary of giving Maduro any opportunity to portray the opposition as American stooges, which may well explain why he hasn’t called for international support. Since the election, Maduro has consistently accused the U.S. of “financing” the “violent acts” of the opposition. His foreign minister, Elias Jaua, has also warned that any sanctions that might be imposed by Washington on Caracas would be met in kind–but given that Venezuela desperately needs the revenue it receives from its export of 900,000 barrels of oil per day to the U.S., it’s hard to take Jaua’s comments seriously on this point.

As for the future of U.S. policy toward Venezuela, that remains an open question. President Obama’s decision to call for a “constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government” following the death of Chavez disappointed many in the country’s opposition circles, particularly as Maduro’s assumption of the post of acting president was of questionable constitutional legitimacy. Yet in the aftermath of the election, the U.S. has been the only foreign government of any note to have withheld recognition of Maduro’s government because of the more than 3,000 instances of electoral fraud documented by the opposition–among them the 564 polling stations where chavista activists were witnessed entering polling booths to “assist” voters, thus impacting around 1.5 million votes out of a total of 15 million­­­.

Washington will be mindful that it is already isolated on Venezuela. Maduro’s inauguration last Friday was attended by a slew of foreign leaders, among them Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, Argentine President Christina Kirchner, and Chavez’s close friend (and notorious electoral fraudster) President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. In backing Maduro, all these leaders have signed up to the party line that any regime change in Venezuela will be the result of CIA interference. In the meantime, chavismo will step up its conquest of the institutions of a country that was, for much of the post-Second World War period, among the more democratic in Latin America.

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Marathons and Media Bias in the West Bank

When the news broke last week that Israel had prevented Gazan runners from participating in the West Bank’s first marathon, my initial reaction was to wonder why Israel had done something so stupid. Granted, Gaza is an enemy quasi-state that routinely launches rockets at Israel, and most countries don’t let enemy nationals enter or transit their territory; hence Israel’s refusal to allow Gazans to do so (aside from humanitarian cases like the many Gazans treated in Israeli hospitals) is usually perfectly justified. But exceptions are routinely made for international sporting events; that’s why Israel rightly objects when its own athletes are barred from international tournaments in Arab countries. Hence this ban, which was reported worldwide, could only hurt Israel’s image.

But it turns out Israel was perfectly justified in barring the Gaza athletes–because the marathon’s Palestinian organizers had barred Israeli participants. Clearly, no country should be expected to facilitate an “international” event that bars its own athletes from participating. That this justification was absent from last week’s news reports thus speaks volumes about both the incompetence of Israel’s public relations and the biases of international reporting on Israel.

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When the news broke last week that Israel had prevented Gazan runners from participating in the West Bank’s first marathon, my initial reaction was to wonder why Israel had done something so stupid. Granted, Gaza is an enemy quasi-state that routinely launches rockets at Israel, and most countries don’t let enemy nationals enter or transit their territory; hence Israel’s refusal to allow Gazans to do so (aside from humanitarian cases like the many Gazans treated in Israeli hospitals) is usually perfectly justified. But exceptions are routinely made for international sporting events; that’s why Israel rightly objects when its own athletes are barred from international tournaments in Arab countries. Hence this ban, which was reported worldwide, could only hurt Israel’s image.

But it turns out Israel was perfectly justified in barring the Gaza athletes–because the marathon’s Palestinian organizers had barred Israeli participants. Clearly, no country should be expected to facilitate an “international” event that bars its own athletes from participating. That this justification was absent from last week’s news reports thus speaks volumes about both the incompetence of Israel’s public relations and the biases of international reporting on Israel.

The Palestinians’ hypocrisy on the issue was hardly subtle. Samia al-Wazir, spokeswoman for the Palestinian Olympic Committee, protested the ban on Gaza athletes by declaring, “The Israelis should look at this purely as a sporting event. It has nothing to do with politics.” Yet Palestinian Olympic Committee member Itidal Abdul-Ghani subsequently told an Israeli paper that “Israelis weren’t welcome to join the marathon while their military occupies Palestinian lands.” Needless to say, it can’t be “purely a sporting event” where Gazan athletes are concerned but a political protest where Israeli athletes are concerned; it’s one or the other. And once the Palestinians chose to make it political by barring Israeli athletes, Israel was completely justified in returning the favor by barring Gazan athletes.

Yet instead of making this point, which any fair-minded person could understand, Israeli spokesmen simply repeated the usual platitudes: that Gaza is ruled by a terrorist organization, and Gazans are therefore permitted to enter or transit Israel “only in exceptional humanitarian cases.” As noted, that’s a perfectly valid argument in most cases–but not in the case of an international sporting event, and not when a much more compelling argument was available.

Israel’s incompetence, however, doesn’t excuse the international media’s decision to report only the ban on Gazans, and not the ban on Israelis. By any objective standard, the latter was actually more newsworthy. After all, Hamas-run Gaza is openly at war with Israel, but the Palestinian Authority is supposedly Israel’s “peace partner.” Shunning one’s “peace partner” is surely more noteworthy than shunning an enemy. Yet only the Israeli media deemed it worth mentioning.

Perhaps the problem was that reporting the ban on Israelis would have spoiled the neat “Israel as villain” plotline. After all, the race’s main sponsor was a Danish nonprofit. And it’s hard to paint Israel as the Grinch who stole the marathon from would-be runners when enlightened Europeans were complicit in the same crime–with far less justification.

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Why Rand’s Drone Flip-Flop Matters

Last month Rand Paul energized conservatives with a filibuster on the Senate floor that allowed a broad national audience to see him as a principled politician who was willing to fight for beliefs rather than go along with Washington’s business-as-usual culture. Some of us thought the rationale for his moment of glory—concerns about possible use of drones on U.S. soil as well as his general opposition to what he called a “perpetual war” against Islamist terrorists—were not justified. But even critics like myself thought his exhibition demonstrated that there is room for the sort of high-minded approach to public policy that was once considered normative in the U.S. Senate but which is now quite rare. But it didn’t take long for all of Paul’s speechifying about drones to be revealed as somewhat hypocritical.

Though the Kentucky senator spent 13 hours on his legs explaining to the Senate why there could be no conceivable justification for the use of government drones against American citizens on March 6, yesterday he took a position on Neil Cavuto’s show on Fox News that those of us who disagreed with him in the first place were advocating:

PAUL: Here’s the distinction, Neil. I’ve never argued against any technology being used when you have an imminent threat, an active crime going on. If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and 50 dollars in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him. But it’s different if they want to fly over your hot tub or your yard just because they want to do surveillance on everyone and they want to watch your activities.

CAVUTO: What if, in pursuit of a crime, they discover something else that looks bad?

PAUL: We shouldn’t be willy-nilly looking into everyone’s back yard into what they’re doing. But if there is a killer on the loose in a neighborhood, I’m not against drones being used to search them out, heat-seeking devices being used, I’m all for law enforcement, I’m just not for surveillance when there’s not probable cause that a crime’s been committed. So, most of the time, you get a warrant, but if someone’s actively running around with a gun, you don’t need a warrant. That’s the way the system works.

That sounds reasonable. But it’s not what he was saying seven weeks ago, when he held up the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan because Attorney General Eric Holder would not foreswear the possibility that there was any circumstance under which the government would use a drone against an American in the United States.

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Last month Rand Paul energized conservatives with a filibuster on the Senate floor that allowed a broad national audience to see him as a principled politician who was willing to fight for beliefs rather than go along with Washington’s business-as-usual culture. Some of us thought the rationale for his moment of glory—concerns about possible use of drones on U.S. soil as well as his general opposition to what he called a “perpetual war” against Islamist terrorists—were not justified. But even critics like myself thought his exhibition demonstrated that there is room for the sort of high-minded approach to public policy that was once considered normative in the U.S. Senate but which is now quite rare. But it didn’t take long for all of Paul’s speechifying about drones to be revealed as somewhat hypocritical.

Though the Kentucky senator spent 13 hours on his legs explaining to the Senate why there could be no conceivable justification for the use of government drones against American citizens on March 6, yesterday he took a position on Neil Cavuto’s show on Fox News that those of us who disagreed with him in the first place were advocating:

PAUL: Here’s the distinction, Neil. I’ve never argued against any technology being used when you have an imminent threat, an active crime going on. If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and 50 dollars in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him. But it’s different if they want to fly over your hot tub or your yard just because they want to do surveillance on everyone and they want to watch your activities.

CAVUTO: What if, in pursuit of a crime, they discover something else that looks bad?

PAUL: We shouldn’t be willy-nilly looking into everyone’s back yard into what they’re doing. But if there is a killer on the loose in a neighborhood, I’m not against drones being used to search them out, heat-seeking devices being used, I’m all for law enforcement, I’m just not for surveillance when there’s not probable cause that a crime’s been committed. So, most of the time, you get a warrant, but if someone’s actively running around with a gun, you don’t need a warrant. That’s the way the system works.

That sounds reasonable. But it’s not what he was saying seven weeks ago, when he held up the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan because Attorney General Eric Holder would not foreswear the possibility that there was any circumstance under which the government would use a drone against an American in the United States.

Subsequent to his appearance on Cavuto, Paul’s office issued a statement that claimed that there had been no flip-flop. As Politico reports:

In his statement Tuesday, Paul clarified his remarks, saying that drones should only be “considered in extraordinary, lethal situations.”

“Armed drones should not be used in normal crime situations. They only may only be considered in extraordinary, lethal situations where there is an ongoing, imminent threat. I described that scenario previously during my Senate filibuster. Additionally, surveillance drones should only be used with warrants and specific targets,” Paul said in the statement.

Paul may claim, and his legion of followers who think he can do or say no wrong will agree, that this does not contradict his filibuster stand. But it does.

The whole point of the filibuster, which he repeated many times on the floor of the Senate during the course of his memorable performance, was that though he didn’t believe the Obama administration would use its power to suppress dissent or kill innocent Americans, some future government might do so. That’s why he took the position that the use of drone attacks here was simply off the table as unconstitutional–no matter what the circumstances.

Though I am no fan of Eric Holder, it was precisely the possibility of an “ongoing, lethal situation” that caused him to be reluctant to say that drones could never be used against a U.S. citizen at home. Paul tried to distort that position into one that posed the possibility that a future U.S. government might use a drone to knock off its political opponents or a Jane Fonda-style dissident, but that was an absurd interpretation of an entirely reasonable unwillingness to rule out the use of lethal force against a dangerous terrorist or criminal.

Paul may pretend there is no parallel between what he endorsed on Cavuto and the use of government force that he declared in the Senate to be a threat to our liberties, but it is a distinction without a difference. Lulled by a desire to show how tough he was on terrorists and criminals to say something about Boston, Paul committed a gaffe that illustrated the inconsistency of his position.

This kerfuffle won’t necessarily impact his run for the presidency in 2016, but it does illustrate that his drone obsession had more to do with his foreign policy views than a defense of the rule of law. The idea of using a theoretical drone attack on Americans in the U.S. as the point of the filibuster was a brilliant tactical decision since it allowed him to take the moral high ground that even attracted the support of some liberals. But Paul’s willingness to admit that there are scenarios where government can or even must use this power demonstrates that his oratory was all for show.

Rand Paul’s real problem with drones isn’t about their use in legitimate law enforcement activities at home but about their employment overseas against al-Qaeda terrorists. In his neo-isolationist view, the “perpetual war” against Islamists isn’t a good idea, and he wants it shut down even if the other side isn’t necessarily willing to call a cease-fire. There is good reason to believe that such views are becoming more popular in our war-weary nation, even with some Republicans. But his drone flip-flop yesterday makes it clear that his attempt to link that critique with possible abuses of civil liberties at home is more the product of science fiction or conspiracy theories than practical politics.

If Paul wants to talk about drones in the future, he should limit his comments to his views about the conflict with Islamist terrorists, which unfortunately opened up a new front in Boston last week. But after his appearance on Cavuto, Americans should have no patience with any further attempts on his part to claim their use at home is a matter of any real dispute.

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The Consequences of Ignoring Human Rights Violations

After 9/11, there was an explicit question at the heart of much of the security apparatus put into place at the federal level, as well as the efforts to streamline intelligence analysis, foster cooperation between agencies, and put an administrative umbrella over the process in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Why, we wondered, didn’t the government “connect the dots,” and how could we connect them in time in the future?

These were appropriate questions to ask, and they were asked again after the 9/11 anniversary attacks in Benghazi and now are being asked after the Boston Marathon bombings. Of particular concern is a trip to the Russian Caucasus taken by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the deceased older brother of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, both of whom are accused of carrying out the bombing and planning others. Tamerlan apparently spent much of 2012 in Chechnya and Dagestan, hotspots of Islamic extremism and home to Doku Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate, a breakaway Islamist authority and terrorist group. Early reports claimed Tamerlan caught the attention of the Russian security services, which alerted the FBI. Today, the Boston Globe reports that the Russians seemed particularly concerned about Tamerlan:

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After 9/11, there was an explicit question at the heart of much of the security apparatus put into place at the federal level, as well as the efforts to streamline intelligence analysis, foster cooperation between agencies, and put an administrative umbrella over the process in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Why, we wondered, didn’t the government “connect the dots,” and how could we connect them in time in the future?

These were appropriate questions to ask, and they were asked again after the 9/11 anniversary attacks in Benghazi and now are being asked after the Boston Marathon bombings. Of particular concern is a trip to the Russian Caucasus taken by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the deceased older brother of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, both of whom are accused of carrying out the bombing and planning others. Tamerlan apparently spent much of 2012 in Chechnya and Dagestan, hotspots of Islamic extremism and home to Doku Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate, a breakaway Islamist authority and terrorist group. Early reports claimed Tamerlan caught the attention of the Russian security services, which alerted the FBI. Today, the Boston Globe reports that the Russians seemed particularly concerned about Tamerlan:

Russian authorities contacted the US government with concerns about Tamerlan Tsarnaev not once but “multiple’’ times, including an alert it sent after he was first investigated by FBI agents in Boston, raising new questions about whether the FBI should have paid more attention to the suspected Boston Marathon bomber, US senators briefed on the inves­tigation said Tuesday.

The FBI has previously said it interviewed Tsarnaev in early 2011 after it was initially contacted by the ­Russians. In their review, completed in summer 2011, the bureau found no ­evidence that Tsarnaev was a threat. “The FBI requested but did not receive more specific or additional information from” Russia, the agency said last week.

Following a closed briefing of the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday, Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said he believed that Russia alerted the United States about Tsarnaev in “multiple contacts,” including at least once since October 2011.

It seems quite possible the FBI too easily dismissed clues, but there’s really more to this story, in defense of the FBI. Eli Lake touches on it at the Daily Beast, in which he discusses the fact that the corruption of the Russian security services, the FSB, is so thorough, and Vladimir Putin’s tactics used to pacify the Caucasus so brutal and heavy-handed, it’s difficult to know when to trust the FSB and when to assume the FSB is trying to get others to do its dirty work.

The truth is, however, it’s about more than just the Chechen conflict. And a perfect example of this is taking place today, as Russian opposition blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny’s trial begins. Navalny has brilliantly exposed official corruption in Russia, and less brilliantly allied himself with anyone opposed to Putin, including xenophobic nationalists. But he is a credible leader of the protest class and represents a threat to Putin in the political sphere. (He is charged with embezzlement, but a local investigation had already cleared him.)

Navalny’s case raises a question: his trial is infinitely more significant to Russia’s near-term political future (and to Putin’s) than the trial of the female punk group jailed for hooliganism for stomping around a Moscow cathedral. The girls earned benefit concerts as far away from Russia as New York City, and became a cause célèbre among their fellow musicians (though calling them “musicians” or “artists” is being a touch too kind to a group of masked vandals). Why doesn’t Navalny, who actually matters, get nearly the same attention?

Getting even less attention than Navalny will be the “Bolotnoye affair,” in which a large group of anti-Putin demonstrators will go to court in what opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov calls analogous to Stalinist show trials. Though it doesn’t speak well of the West to express its love of liberty only when it doesn’t really matter, there is more at stake to all this, and the Boston Marathon bombing should call our attention to it. Put simply: we should care about Russian political repression and human rights violations because they erode our own ability to protect ourselves. Human rights policy has national security implications. The Putin regime may tell us that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is a dangerous potential criminal–but they’ll say the same about Navalny the blogger or a punk rock protest group.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed Robert Amsterdam, who was for a time one of the attorneys representing Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch who challenged Putin politically and who now sits in a jail cell because of it with his assets claimed by the government. The Khodorkovsky case, and the Putin government that behaves like a criminal syndicate, represents a “tremendous danger for those people who want to deal with Russia, and it’s a tremendous danger for the United States, which has set up a policy of opportunism with Russia, that they call the reset,” Amsterdam had told me.

Though when we spoke he was no longer representing Khodorkovsky, Amsterdam clearly isn’t impartial in the matter. But it’s difficult to say he was wrong on the merits. Putin’s corruption, criminality, and dishonesty are not simply an internal matter. They have consequences, and we ignore them at our peril.

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The Misleading Fayyad Blame Game

The political demise of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad continues to drive much of the discussion about the dead-in-the-water Middle East peace process in the media. Thus, it’s no surprise that Fayyad’s No. 1 fan at the New York Times would weigh in today on the paper’s op-ed page to perform his own postmortem on the death of “Fayyadism.” Thomas Friedman, who modestly takes credit for coining the term, writes today that there is plenty of blame to go around for his favorite’s failure. He rightly notes that both PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party and their Hamas rivals always wanted to get rid of Fayyad–the factor that I wrote last week was the main reason Fayyadism was doomed from the start. But Friedman also puts forward a theory about the American and Israeli responsibility for Fayyad’s failure.

According to this line of argument, which is rapidly being incorporated into the catechism of Israel-bashers, the cutoff of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority by Congress as well as the withholding of various revenues by the Israelis precipitated Fayyad’s end. In this telling, without the cash to keep the Palestinian economy afloat, Fayyad’s reform agenda and administration rapidly collapsed, allowing his enemies to force him out. This narrative holds that it was these cuts, which were implemented to punish the PA for its decision to go to the United Nations to pursue independence rather than to negotiate for it in peace talks, were counterproductive and ultimately responsible for the exit of the only Palestinian leader who could be said to care about his people or peace.

But while this way of looking at things is convenient for those who always prefer to blame the Israelis and the pro-Israel community in the United States for everything that happens in the Middle East, it is completely illogical.

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The political demise of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad continues to drive much of the discussion about the dead-in-the-water Middle East peace process in the media. Thus, it’s no surprise that Fayyad’s No. 1 fan at the New York Times would weigh in today on the paper’s op-ed page to perform his own postmortem on the death of “Fayyadism.” Thomas Friedman, who modestly takes credit for coining the term, writes today that there is plenty of blame to go around for his favorite’s failure. He rightly notes that both PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party and their Hamas rivals always wanted to get rid of Fayyad–the factor that I wrote last week was the main reason Fayyadism was doomed from the start. But Friedman also puts forward a theory about the American and Israeli responsibility for Fayyad’s failure.

According to this line of argument, which is rapidly being incorporated into the catechism of Israel-bashers, the cutoff of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority by Congress as well as the withholding of various revenues by the Israelis precipitated Fayyad’s end. In this telling, without the cash to keep the Palestinian economy afloat, Fayyad’s reform agenda and administration rapidly collapsed, allowing his enemies to force him out. This narrative holds that it was these cuts, which were implemented to punish the PA for its decision to go to the United Nations to pursue independence rather than to negotiate for it in peace talks, were counterproductive and ultimately responsible for the exit of the only Palestinian leader who could be said to care about his people or peace.

But while this way of looking at things is convenient for those who always prefer to blame the Israelis and the pro-Israel community in the United States for everything that happens in the Middle East, it is completely illogical.

As even Friedman admits, Fayyad was adamantly opposed to the PA’s UN gambit that was nothing more than a way to evade peace talks since Abbas was unable and/or unwilling to ever make a deal with the Israelis. By placing the full force of U.S. policy on the same side as Fayyad, the Obama administration, Congress and Israel were backing up the PA prime minister, not undermining him. The PA remains completely dependent on foreign aid from the West, and using this leverage was the only way for President Obama and the Israelis to convey to Abbas that he should listen to Fayyad rather than make a grand gesture at the UN that would do nothing for the Palestinian people.

Fayyad was, of course, completely right. Abbas’s end run around the U.S.-sponsored peace process did nothing for the Palestinians. Though, after more than a year of effort, they got the UN General Assembly to pass a symbolic measure that upgraded the PA’s observer status at the world body, that did not bring them the independence that could only be won by ending the conflict with Israel.

But instead of admitting that Fayyad was correct, the Fatah Party blamed him for the collapse of the kleptocracy that was funded by foreign money. Palestinian woes were not the fault of Fayyad’s austerity policies but the fruit of a system in which no-work and no-show jobs for a vast army of Fatah backers was the backbone of the West Bank’s economy. For all of Fayyad’s much-praised efforts to improve the PA’s government and to create economic growth, he remained unable to change that fundamental fact of Palestinian life. The so-called “diplomatic tsunami” that was supposed to overwhelm Israel as a result of this debate also fizzled.

Friedman acknowledges that there is no hope for the Palestinians so long as “there is no place” for a man like Fayyad in their government. But he fails to draw the proper conclusions from this point. The Fatah party that had no use for a person who was an obstacle to their corrupt practices sabotaged Fayyad. But the reason why they could get away with this is that Fayyad had no political constituency of his own. That was not just because he was more of a technocrat than a politician. The lack of any appreciable support for Fayyad demonstrates that the Palestinian political culture remains hostile to his message of development and coexistence. Though left-wing critics of Israel continue to pretend that Palestinians want peace, terror-oriented groups like Fatah and Hamas can count on a virtual monopoly of public support in both the West Bank and Gaza.

While Friedman admits that Arab dissatisfaction with autocrats like Hosni Mubarak or Mahmoud Abbas won’t inevitably lead to liberalism, he still holds to the idea that if Fayyad had been given enough foreign support, he might have prevailed. In fact, he did have the support of the U.S. and Israel, but there isn’t enough money in the United States or Israel to buy Fayyad a loyal base of Palestinian supporters. Blaming the pro-Israel community in the United States—Friedman’s favorite whipping boy that he alleges has “bought” Congress—for seeking to hold the PA accountable for its actions is absurd.

If the two-state solution to the Middle East conflict is dead, it is not because some Israelis and Americans have not tried hard enough to help a friendly Palestinian. It is because that favored Palestinian hadn’t the support at home to keep him going. Until there is a sea change in Palestinian culture to allow a Fayyad to succeed, no amount of U.S. aid or Israeli diplomatic concessions will create a viable partner with whom the Jewish state can make peace. 

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