Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 28, 2013

Russians Think Obama Will Bail on Syria

American cable news stations devoted a lot of airtime today to Senator John McCain’s surprising visit to Syria where he met with the leader of a moderate rebel faction. The trip was supposed to focus attention on the effort to influence the West to aid the rebels, or at least those rebel factions that are not tainted by association with Al Qaeda terrorists. But while McCain restarted the conversation about the need for the U.S. to stop pretending it can ignore the crisis in that war torn country, his venture was actually overshadowed by the Russian announcement that it would persist in its determination to sell air defense missiles to the embattled Assad government.

It is still possible that the West will act to prevent more bloodshed and to make good on President Obama’s prediction. But the Russian decision to stand by their Syrian ally effectively renders McCain’s quest moot. Though Israel has issued a warning to Russia that any such missiles — and by extension the personnel servicing them — could be targeted by airstrikes, Moscow’s willingness to stake its reputation on Assad’s survival is likely enough to deter even the possibility of action by President Obama with the added bonus that doing so humiliates Secretary of State John Kerry after he trooped to Moscow to plead with the Russians not to do it. Though the Russians may not want to tangle with the West or even the Israelis, they seem to be betting that a U.S. president that prefers to lead from behind can be counted on to stay out of any conflict where there is a risk of confrontation. They may be bluffing but it’s hard to argue with their reasoning.

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American cable news stations devoted a lot of airtime today to Senator John McCain’s surprising visit to Syria where he met with the leader of a moderate rebel faction. The trip was supposed to focus attention on the effort to influence the West to aid the rebels, or at least those rebel factions that are not tainted by association with Al Qaeda terrorists. But while McCain restarted the conversation about the need for the U.S. to stop pretending it can ignore the crisis in that war torn country, his venture was actually overshadowed by the Russian announcement that it would persist in its determination to sell air defense missiles to the embattled Assad government.

It is still possible that the West will act to prevent more bloodshed and to make good on President Obama’s prediction. But the Russian decision to stand by their Syrian ally effectively renders McCain’s quest moot. Though Israel has issued a warning to Russia that any such missiles — and by extension the personnel servicing them — could be targeted by airstrikes, Moscow’s willingness to stake its reputation on Assad’s survival is likely enough to deter even the possibility of action by President Obama with the added bonus that doing so humiliates Secretary of State John Kerry after he trooped to Moscow to plead with the Russians not to do it. Though the Russians may not want to tangle with the West or even the Israelis, they seem to be betting that a U.S. president that prefers to lead from behind can be counted on to stay out of any conflict where there is a risk of confrontation. They may be bluffing but it’s hard to argue with their reasoning.

 There is a case to be made that the time has past when U.S. intervention in Syria could shape events to our liking. Had President Obama acted at the outset of the protests against the Assad regime there was a reasonable chance a moderate government could have been put together to replace the dictator. But two years and 80,000 dead later, the conflict has become a bloody standoff with Al Qaeda types taking an increasingly large role in the rebellion and Assad’s forces being stiffened by Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah “volunteers.” Though I believe Assad’s victory — and by extension the boost that would give Iran and Hezbollah — would be worse for the United States and the region than the creation of Iraq-style chaos if the country disintegrates, it is difficult to argue that either outcome is to the benefit of either the West or America.

The shipment of advanced missiles to Syria may be intended to deter the West from using air power to help the Syrian rebels or even from instituting a no fly zone inside the country. But the wild card here is that Israel has its own priorities and they don’t concern which band of cutthroats is running things in Damascus. What they can’t tolerate is having advanced weaponry placed in the hands of Assad’s terrorist allies.

Of course, it may be as long as year before the missiles can be delivered and Syrian crews are trained to use them. A lot can happen between now and then. But the main point is that Russia is hoping that its intervention will nevertheless serve to keep its friend afloat while frustrating a timorous American administration that would prefer to pretend that its conflict with Islamist extremists is over. The net result is bound to not only keep a butcher in power in Damascus to embolden an Iranian government that is the prime threat to peace in the region.

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Palestinians Want U.S. Cash, Not Peace

Secretary of State John Kerry and some Israelis, notably President Shimon Peres, had high hopes for the latest initiative to improve the Palestinian economy. Kerry arrived at the World Economic Summit in Jordan with his usual unrealistic high hopes for the value of his diplomacy but he did not go there without offering serious incentives to the Palestinian Authority to quit its boycott of peace negotiations that has been going on since before Barack Obama became president of the United States. The United States offered a $4 billion plan that was supposed to both boost the Palestinian economy as well as give PA leader Mahmoud Abbas a tangible benefit for cooperating with Washington’s new plan to restart talks with Israel. But the Palestinian answer wasn’t long in coming. Anyone who has paid attention to Palestinian responses to the various ways that President Obama has tried to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction or the way they answered various Israeli peace offers in the last 20 years knows that it was the usual one word reply: no.

As the Times of Israel reports:

Slapping down the notion that the PA might be appeased by Kerry’s focus on economic improvements, President Mahmoud Abbas’s economic adviser, Mohammad Mustafa, said ”The Palestinian leadership will not offer political concessions in exchange for economic benefits.” He added, in a statement reported by the Palestinian Ma’an news agency: “We will not accept that the economy is the primary and sole component.”

Mustafa, who also heads the Palestine Investment Fund, said the PA’s priorities are not economic but rather a political framework for the creation of Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital, that also ensures the rights of refugees and a political compromise, the Palestinian news agency added.

Investors are nonetheless more than welcome to “come to Palestine,” the statement added.

In other words, the Palestinians say thanks for the cash but no talks except those that guarantee they get everything they’re asking for while giving nothing in return and even then there’s no guarantee they won’t continue the conflict as their insistence on the “right of return” — which is tantamount to calling for Israel’s destruction — indicates.

While this is another humiliating setback for Kerry, it’s actually far more significant than that. It exposes the fallacy at the heart of most efforts to create peace between Jews and Arabs for the last century.

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Secretary of State John Kerry and some Israelis, notably President Shimon Peres, had high hopes for the latest initiative to improve the Palestinian economy. Kerry arrived at the World Economic Summit in Jordan with his usual unrealistic high hopes for the value of his diplomacy but he did not go there without offering serious incentives to the Palestinian Authority to quit its boycott of peace negotiations that has been going on since before Barack Obama became president of the United States. The United States offered a $4 billion plan that was supposed to both boost the Palestinian economy as well as give PA leader Mahmoud Abbas a tangible benefit for cooperating with Washington’s new plan to restart talks with Israel. But the Palestinian answer wasn’t long in coming. Anyone who has paid attention to Palestinian responses to the various ways that President Obama has tried to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction or the way they answered various Israeli peace offers in the last 20 years knows that it was the usual one word reply: no.

As the Times of Israel reports:

Slapping down the notion that the PA might be appeased by Kerry’s focus on economic improvements, President Mahmoud Abbas’s economic adviser, Mohammad Mustafa, said ”The Palestinian leadership will not offer political concessions in exchange for economic benefits.” He added, in a statement reported by the Palestinian Ma’an news agency: “We will not accept that the economy is the primary and sole component.”

Mustafa, who also heads the Palestine Investment Fund, said the PA’s priorities are not economic but rather a political framework for the creation of Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital, that also ensures the rights of refugees and a political compromise, the Palestinian news agency added.

Investors are nonetheless more than welcome to “come to Palestine,” the statement added.

In other words, the Palestinians say thanks for the cash but no talks except those that guarantee they get everything they’re asking for while giving nothing in return and even then there’s no guarantee they won’t continue the conflict as their insistence on the “right of return” — which is tantamount to calling for Israel’s destruction — indicates.

While this is another humiliating setback for Kerry, it’s actually far more significant than that. It exposes the fallacy at the heart of most efforts to create peace between Jews and Arabs for the last century.

Almost from the beginning of the Jewish return to their ancient homeland, many Zionists as well as their foreign friends thought the Arabs inside the country as well as those in neighboring lands would be won over to the new reality once they realized that the Jews brought development and prosperity with them. The influx into the country created tremendous growth even as the conflict escalated over the course of the first half of the 20th century. Throughout this era, Labor Zionists who combined a desire to rebuild the Jewish presence with socialist ideology believed Arab rejectionism was a function of the exploitation of the masses by an elite that profited from conflict. They thought once it was understood that all would benefit from peace and reconciliation, Palestinian Arab workers and peasants would welcome the Jews. Even hardheaded pragmatists like David Ben Gurion thought this way for a long time. They were wrong.

The Palestinian rejection of the Jews might have been exacerbated by the displacement of some Arab peasants whose landlords sold to Jews but the underlying animosity was always based in a refusal to accept the legitimacy of the idea that Jews would now be equal partners, let alone have sovereignty over part of the land. Only a few Jewish leaders, like Ben Gurion’s nationalist rival, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky understood that the Arabs could not be bought with prosperity. For them the conflict was about honor and religion, not money. He predicted that only when they gave up their last hope that the Jews could be pushed out or reduced to Dhimmi status would they ever make peace.

But the naïve misconception that the Arabs would realize that coexistence would be good for all persisted long after Israel was born in 1948 amid wars that would continue for decades. Shimon Peres launched the effort that led to the Oslo Peace Accords in large measure on the belief that an agreement would lead to a “New Middle East” where Israel and its Arab neighbors would come to resemble a Mediterranean version of the wealthy Benelux countries. But as Israelis who greeted Oslo with euphoria learned to their sorrow, the Palestinians didn’t care about becoming part of a new Benelux. They embraced terror because they valued the campaign to destroy Israel over their own economic well-being and even the lives of their children.

The last and perhaps most pathetic proof that the conflict isn’t about money came in 2005 when American philanthropists purchased the green houses of Israeli settlers in Gaza at the time of Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from the strip in order to hand them over to the Palestinians. But rather than become the new owners of a prosperous agricultural infrastructure, the Palestinians destroyed the green houses in a fit of anger that encapsulated their hatred for the Jews.

The same spirit is very much alive today in the West Bank where Palestinian reformer Salam Fayyad remains a man without a party or a constituency because his people value the violence of Fatah and Hamas over his program of good governance and development. Logically the Palestinians should have embraced Kerry’s offer since it promises to boost Palestinian employment by two-thirds and raise wages by 40 percent. But it remains a loser in a political culture in which any plan that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn remains anathema.

The moral of the story is that it doesn’t matter how high a priority either the United States or Israel places on peace or how much an agreement would be to the Palestinians material advantage. They continue to regard economic incentives as merely yet another Western attempt to “buy” their birthright that they reject. They might like the cash — which will hopefully not be wasted or go into the pockets of the Fatah-run kleptocracy in the West Bank that has gobbled so many billions donated to their people in the last 20 years. But it won’t lead to peace. It’s a simple lesson but one which idealistic and foolish Westerners and Jews have refused to learn.

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GOP Already Tried the Bob Dole Paradigm

Democrats are chortling about the latest round of grousing about the current Republican Party from those associated with its past. Bob Dole’s interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News this past weekend lent weight to one of the White House’s most important talking points about the GOP being in the hands of extremists. He said the Republican National Committee ought to put up a “closed for repairs” sign and blasted the current generation of the GOP as one that wouldn’t have accepted him or even conservative icon Ronald Reagan. But as much Dole deserves our respect for his sacrifice during World War Two and his lifelong service to his country, the idea that he is the sort of Republican politician that current members of Congress should emulate is ridiculous. There is a reason why you don’t see too many Dole-style types in the GOP these days: he was obsolete twenty years ago.

To say that Dole passed his best-used date is not to mock him for his age or infirmity. The fact that he is wheelchair-bound and losing his sight should grieve us all. He is the exemplar of the “greatest generation” veteran who nearly died as a result of his wounds and then spent nearly four decades in public life in the postwar era. He deserves every possible honor that his country can give him. But let’s get real. Dole was also an apt symbol of the failures of the self-proclaimed Eisenhower Republicans in Congress. His get-along-to-go-along style in which compromise always seemed to be the keynote was never going to fix the out-of-control growth of the federal government, it just managed it. As much as the abrasiveness of Ted Cruz makes many of us long for the more easygoing style of partisanship Dole practiced, there was a reason the GOP abandoned it: it didn’t work.

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Democrats are chortling about the latest round of grousing about the current Republican Party from those associated with its past. Bob Dole’s interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News this past weekend lent weight to one of the White House’s most important talking points about the GOP being in the hands of extremists. He said the Republican National Committee ought to put up a “closed for repairs” sign and blasted the current generation of the GOP as one that wouldn’t have accepted him or even conservative icon Ronald Reagan. But as much Dole deserves our respect for his sacrifice during World War Two and his lifelong service to his country, the idea that he is the sort of Republican politician that current members of Congress should emulate is ridiculous. There is a reason why you don’t see too many Dole-style types in the GOP these days: he was obsolete twenty years ago.

To say that Dole passed his best-used date is not to mock him for his age or infirmity. The fact that he is wheelchair-bound and losing his sight should grieve us all. He is the exemplar of the “greatest generation” veteran who nearly died as a result of his wounds and then spent nearly four decades in public life in the postwar era. He deserves every possible honor that his country can give him. But let’s get real. Dole was also an apt symbol of the failures of the self-proclaimed Eisenhower Republicans in Congress. His get-along-to-go-along style in which compromise always seemed to be the keynote was never going to fix the out-of-control growth of the federal government, it just managed it. As much as the abrasiveness of Ted Cruz makes many of us long for the more easygoing style of partisanship Dole practiced, there was a reason the GOP abandoned it: it didn’t work.

Republicans do need to spend time rethinking their strategies this year and as our Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson pointed out in their seminal COMMENTARY article on the subject earlier this year, there is plenty of room for change in the GOP. But whatever path the party ultimately chooses, the last thing they need to do is to channel the spirit Dole. That is, unless they want to repeat his legislative futility or his defeat in the 1996 presidential election.

Dole may still resent Newt Gingrich’s calling him the “tax collector for the welfare state” but the reason why that phrase stuck is that his generation of Republican leaders accepted the premise that their purpose was to work within the existing political structure rather than trying to tear it down and rebuild it. Dole was not the RINO some on the right thought and was, in his own way, as tart a partisan wag as any of his successors in the GOP caucus. But he also represented a spirit of accommodation that went beyond the schmoozing needed to pass legislation when both parties could agree. If the Republican Party moved in a different direction in the early 90’s with Gingrich’s Republican revolution and then later with the Tea Party that rejected the free-spending GOP of the George W. Bush era, it was because there are times when parties need people who will offer a genuine alternative rather than a willingness to compromise principles.

It is also foolish for Dole, or anyone else, to claim that Ronald Reagan would have been rejected by the current brand of Republicans. Reagan was the product of another era and was animated by different key issues such as the need to resist Communism. The paradigm of Cold war conservatism may be able to help today’s Republicans find their way in defending America against contemporary threats but, like it or not, foreign policy no longer defines most politicians. However, it needs to be understood that Reagan took his party as far to the right on domestic issues as he could in his day.

If today’s Republicans are able to articulate a more far-reaching critique of the government leviathan that Reagan despised, it is because they are standing on his shoulders. In Reagan’s days, the party was also divided between more ideological conservatives and the moderates, among whose number Dole was quite prominent. Dole was on the wrong side of that argument. If today’s Republicans reject his style of politics it is not a rejection of Reagan but a continuation of the spirit of conservatism that the 40th president embodied. To claim that he wouldn’t fit in among today’s Republicans makes as much sense as claiming John F. Kennedy or any other figure from the past wouldn’t fit in among today’s Democrats. It’s not so much wrong as it is a non sequitur.

For all of their faults, today’s Republicans, including the Tea Party and its firebrands like Cruz, are willing to articulate conservative principles in a way that can energize the party. If the GOP is ever to win back the White House it’s going to be under the leadership of someone who can tap into that enthusiasm, not a latter-day Eisenhower Republican. The party has already tried that course and failed several times. As much as we should venerate Dole as an elder statesman and war hero, the GOP needs to use his career as an example of what not to do more than anything else.

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Team Obama’s Damascus Road Experiences

We’re seeing some remarkable conversions occur before our very eyes. Take David Axelrod, who was President Obama’s top political adviser in the White House.

For years Axelrod, along with Anita Dunn and others, led a Nixonian campaign to discredit and delegitimize Fox News. Yet now Axelrod is angst-ridden and aggrieved at the Justice Department’s surveillance of a Fox News reporter, James Rosen, telling MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he finds all of this “disturbing.”

“I do think there are real issues regarding the relationship with the media on this leak matter,” according to Axelrod. “The notion of naming a journalist as a co-conspirator for receiving information is something that I find very disturbing.”

Mr. Axelrod’s professed solidarity with Fox News is touching. But a few of us thought the effort back in 2009 to target Fox was disturbing, too – and we went on to predict that it would lead to something that looks very much like what has occurred: the abuse of government power to intimidate people Team Obama viewed as a threat.

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We’re seeing some remarkable conversions occur before our very eyes. Take David Axelrod, who was President Obama’s top political adviser in the White House.

For years Axelrod, along with Anita Dunn and others, led a Nixonian campaign to discredit and delegitimize Fox News. Yet now Axelrod is angst-ridden and aggrieved at the Justice Department’s surveillance of a Fox News reporter, James Rosen, telling MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he finds all of this “disturbing.”

“I do think there are real issues regarding the relationship with the media on this leak matter,” according to Axelrod. “The notion of naming a journalist as a co-conspirator for receiving information is something that I find very disturbing.”

Mr. Axelrod’s professed solidarity with Fox News is touching. But a few of us thought the effort back in 2009 to target Fox was disturbing, too – and we went on to predict that it would lead to something that looks very much like what has occurred: the abuse of government power to intimidate people Team Obama viewed as a threat.

Speaking of the scales falling from their eyes, we’re now asked to believe that Attorney General Eric Holder, is “beginning to feel a creeping sense of personal remorse” for his role in authorizing a search warrant that named James Rosen as an “aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator” in a crime. A very well developed sense of right and wrong, combined with the fear that he might have committed perjury in his Congressional testimony, will do that to a fellow.

We’re seeing a variation of this with the IRS scandal. The president and Democrats are falling all over themselves condemning the abuse of power by the IRS. But what they conveniently forget is their role in creating a climate that allowed the abuse to flourish. After all, when the DNC runs ads accusing pro-Republican groups of “stealing our democracy,” when the president of the United States suggests they are breaking the law, and when senior Democratic Senators write letters (see here) to the IRS requesting that it survey major nonprofits involved in political campaign activity for their possible “violation of tax laws,” what you are bound to get is what we now have.

The president and his top aides gave clear guidance as to which properties needed to be targeted and provided the accelerants to get a fire burning. And now they profess being shocked that arson was going on.

How stupid do they think we are?

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The FARC is Weak; The Taliban is Strong

I recently returned from Colombia, where the armed forces continue to wage war on FARC but are now starting to look beyond this conflict to imagine what peace—or some semblance thereof—might look like. Such confidence might seem unwarranted, considering that FARC has been battling the government since the mid-1960s, making it one of the longest-running guerrilla groups in the world. Yet over the past decade FARC has suffered sharp setbacks, including the loss of senior commanders in targeted strikes, and it has agreed to come to the negotiating table.

Some see this as a cynical ploy on FARC’s part, trying to gain some breathing room to come back stronger than ever. But that’s not how senior officials in the Colombian armed forces view the situation: They think that FARC is serious about making a deal.

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I recently returned from Colombia, where the armed forces continue to wage war on FARC but are now starting to look beyond this conflict to imagine what peace—or some semblance thereof—might look like. Such confidence might seem unwarranted, considering that FARC has been battling the government since the mid-1960s, making it one of the longest-running guerrilla groups in the world. Yet over the past decade FARC has suffered sharp setbacks, including the loss of senior commanders in targeted strikes, and it has agreed to come to the negotiating table.

Some see this as a cynical ploy on FARC’s part, trying to gain some breathing room to come back stronger than ever. But that’s not how senior officials in the Colombian armed forces view the situation: They think that FARC is serious about making a deal.

The latest news from Havana, where the negotiations are being conducted, suggests they may be right: FARC and the Colombian government have just reached agreement on the first, and most contentious, issue in their talks–land reform designed to benefit poor farmers. This does not guarantee the success of the talks but it is an important breakthrough. As the Wall Street Journal notes:

There are four items left on the agenda that Mr. Santos and the FARC agreed to last year as a road map for the peace talks. The next topic under discussion will be the FARC’s participation in electoral politics. Other items include getting the FARC out of the cocaine trade; reintegrating fighters into civil society; and support for victims and the need to uncover the truth about atrocities allegedly committed by the FARC.

Various Colombian officials told me, however, that land reform was the hardest issue on the table. With that out of the way, the odds of success on the other agenda items greatly increase.

Of course, even if FARC accepts a deal, that will not be binding on every guerrilla commander. Some will no doubt continue to battle on, just as IRA factions have done since the 1998 Good Friday Accord. And, considering the close links between FARC and narco-traffickers, other fighters may simply become full-time drug runners. But it would be a very big deal if the majority of FARC were to lay down its arms. It would be good news not only for Colombia but also for its most important foreign ally–the United States–which has spent considerable resources via Plan Colombia over the past decade to bring about this very outcome.

The Obama administration would love to see a similar breakthrough in talks with the Taliban but it won’t happen anytime soon, because there is a major difference between Colombia and Afghanistan: FARC has suffered far greater blows on the battlefield than the Taliban have. It is impossible to reach accord with a determined insurgency until you can convince its leaders that they will not win at gunpoint. The Taliban, however, evidently remain convinced that they can still prevail with the use of force. And with the U.S. pledging to pull all its combat troops out by the end of 2014, they may very well be right.

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Dem Majority in Greater Peril Than the NRA

There’s no doubt liberals will read the cover story of the latest issue of The New Republic with delight. The piece, titled “This is How the NRA Ends” by Alec MacGillis, claims the failure of Congress to pass any gun control measures this year despite the way advocates were able to successfully exploit the Newtown massacre was misleading. The article is filled with breathless accounts of how families of gun violence victims and other activists have joined forces to create what the magazine terms a viable grass roots rival to the National Rifle Association.

TNR predicts the pressure these groups are exerting as well as the financial clout of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Super Pac — which is already spending big on ads criticizing those senators that opposed the Manchin-Toomey amendment on background checks for gun purchases — has permanently altered the equation on the issue. Not only does the piece predict that another background checks bill will eventually succeed in this session of Congress but seems to predict that this alleged sea change will expose NRA’s vaunted influence as being based on an illusion.

But the problem with this thesis is easily exposed in Michael Scherer’s TIME magazine column on Bloomberg’s targeting of the four Democrats who opposed Manchin-Toomey. Democrats like Mark Prior of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska are in the mayor’s well funded cross-hairs right now but the impact of this campaign won’t win any new votes for background checks or the more far-reaching proposals to ban various types of weapons that the gun control movement will try to implement if that more moderate measure is ever passed. As Scherer rightly points out, attempts to replace those senators with Democrats who will promise to vote for restrictions will only result in victories for the Republicans in November 2014 that could tip the balance in the Senate back to the GOP. If anything, the long-term impact of Bloomberg’s efforts will make gun legislation even less likely to pass in the future.

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There’s no doubt liberals will read the cover story of the latest issue of The New Republic with delight. The piece, titled “This is How the NRA Ends” by Alec MacGillis, claims the failure of Congress to pass any gun control measures this year despite the way advocates were able to successfully exploit the Newtown massacre was misleading. The article is filled with breathless accounts of how families of gun violence victims and other activists have joined forces to create what the magazine terms a viable grass roots rival to the National Rifle Association.

TNR predicts the pressure these groups are exerting as well as the financial clout of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Super Pac — which is already spending big on ads criticizing those senators that opposed the Manchin-Toomey amendment on background checks for gun purchases — has permanently altered the equation on the issue. Not only does the piece predict that another background checks bill will eventually succeed in this session of Congress but seems to predict that this alleged sea change will expose NRA’s vaunted influence as being based on an illusion.

But the problem with this thesis is easily exposed in Michael Scherer’s TIME magazine column on Bloomberg’s targeting of the four Democrats who opposed Manchin-Toomey. Democrats like Mark Prior of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska are in the mayor’s well funded cross-hairs right now but the impact of this campaign won’t win any new votes for background checks or the more far-reaching proposals to ban various types of weapons that the gun control movement will try to implement if that more moderate measure is ever passed. As Scherer rightly points out, attempts to replace those senators with Democrats who will promise to vote for restrictions will only result in victories for the Republicans in November 2014 that could tip the balance in the Senate back to the GOP. If anything, the long-term impact of Bloomberg’s efforts will make gun legislation even less likely to pass in the future.

Unlike President Obama and other Democrats who have hoped to use the revived interest in gun control after Newtown to help their party, Bloomberg’s targeting of Prior and Begich is in line with his non-partisan approach. But by attacking pro-gun Democrats in red states while also taking potshots at Republicans in blue states like New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, Bloomberg is setting the president’s party up for a fall.

MacGillis is right to point out that the gun control boomlet isn’t to be dismissed altogether. The joint effort by pro-gun senators like Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Pat Toomey did get closer to victory than any other gun measure has in more than a decade. Moreover, their efforts, along with the group organized by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, which is also geared toward a moderate pro-gun ownership audience, does give the gun control movement a much broader appeal than the liberal base that has always backed these ideas.

It should also be stipulated that the NRA hasn’t exactly covered itself with glory these past six months. Though its membership numbers have soared and it succeeded in stopping every gun control measure that came up for a vote, it came across as insensitive after Newtown. By failing to embrace an inoffensive measure like that of Manchin-Toomey, it lost an opportunity to defuse the pro-gun fervor with something that would have done nothing to endanger Second Amendment rights.

All that and the willingness of some of the Newtown victim families to be used by the gun control movement in a shamelessly emotional manner will not allow the issue to be pigeonholed. It is possible that they will yet triumph either later this year or sometime next year when another such background checks proposal will make it to the floor for another vote. But Bloomberg’s calling Democrats like Pryor out actually makes this less likely since a reversal would allow opponents to brand him as a senator that takes orders from New York’s City Hall, something that would doom him in 2014.

But the point about this struggle is not whether an anodyne measure like Manchin-Toomey is ever signed into law. Rather it is the next round of gun control — whether aimed at so-called assault weapons or other types of guns — that will be the controlling factor in the debate.

The NRA succeeded in stopping Manchin-Toomey in large measure because even its supporters couldn’t claim that it would have prevented the tragedy in Newtown. Many pro-gun voters and their representatives in Washington also understand that the bland assurances about protecting the Second Amendment they have received from the president are simply not credible. They know liberals want more far reaching measures and will never be satisfied with merely increasing background checks. That will ensure their own not inconsiderable fundraising and activism will continue to be intense. Contrary to MacGillis’ analysis that means members of Congress will continue to view its power as real.

Moreover, the electoral math of 2014 makes it hard to see how anyone would look at the upcoming matches in the Senate and the House and foresee the imminent demise of the NRA’s influence. At the very least, a re-energized Republican base angered by the Obama administration’s scandals will enable the GOP to hold its own next year. But without few if any vulnerable Republicans up for re-election (including Ayotte who will face the voters in 2016) and a plethora of incumbent Democrats on the ballot, a GOP majority isn’t out of the question. Indeed, Prior and Begich (who was elected in 2008 in a fluke caused by the now discredited federal prosecution of the late Ted Stevens) are vulnerable to a liberal challenge in a Democratic primary but they might be strengthened in a general election by Bloomberg’s labeling them as cats’ paws of the NRA.

For all of its mistakes and the increased strengths of its foes, the NRA isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, the more its liberal opponents seek to expand their reach into pro-gun states, the more likely it is that it will continue to ensure that the pro-gun rights faction in Congress has enough votes to block the liberal agenda on guns.

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Our Ambivalent Commander-in-Chief

It has been fascinating to read reaction to President Obama’s counter-terrorism speech last week. Some commentators–including me—perceived no real change in a tough-on-terror policy inherited from the Bush administration. Others thought it was a sign of retreat and even defeat. In truth there is plenty of cause to support both viewpoints.

Those stressing continuity could point, as I did, to Obama’s robust defense of drone strikes, even on U.S. citizens, and the vagueness of his calls for limits on those strikes or for revising the authorization for the use of military force against Al Qaeda and associated elements. The president did talk about ending the war on terror, but he offered no timeline for doing so, and news reports suggest that for the foreseeable future even one of the most controversial aspects of that war—drone strikes on “signature” targets in Pakistan who are not identified by name but are attacked because they look like militants—will continue.

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It has been fascinating to read reaction to President Obama’s counter-terrorism speech last week. Some commentators–including me—perceived no real change in a tough-on-terror policy inherited from the Bush administration. Others thought it was a sign of retreat and even defeat. In truth there is plenty of cause to support both viewpoints.

Those stressing continuity could point, as I did, to Obama’s robust defense of drone strikes, even on U.S. citizens, and the vagueness of his calls for limits on those strikes or for revising the authorization for the use of military force against Al Qaeda and associated elements. The president did talk about ending the war on terror, but he offered no timeline for doing so, and news reports suggest that for the foreseeable future even one of the most controversial aspects of that war—drone strikes on “signature” targets in Pakistan who are not identified by name but are attacked because they look like militants—will continue.

Those who saw a message of defeat and retreat took Obama at his word that he really does want to wrap up the war on terrorism and declare victory—something that is wildly premature at a time when we have just seen horrifying terrorist attacks in Boston, Paris, and London, among other places. Perhaps the most worrisome thing that Obama said was his wistful embrace of a pre-9/11 world when we supposedly treated terrorism in its proper proportion:

In the 1980s, we lost Americans to terrorism at our Embassy in Beirut; at our Marine Barracks in Lebanon; on a cruise ship at sea; at a disco in Berlin; and on a Pan Am flight — Flight 103  — over Lockerbie.  In the 1990s, we lost Americans to terrorism at the World Trade Center; at our military facilities in Saudi Arabia; and at our Embassy in Kenya.  These attacks were all brutal; they were all deadly; and we learned that left unchecked, these threats can grow.  But if dealt with smartly and proportionally, these threats need not rise to the level that we saw on the eve of 9/11.

Actually, our lack of response to those earlier terrorist attacks in the 1980s and 1990s emboldened Al Qaeda to ramp up its violence by staging the worst terrorist attack of all time. That is not a precedent to be emulated, as Obama suggested—it is a mistake to be avoided.

The question is whether in fact Obama will take us back to the pre-9/11 policies. He may well do so in the future, but he did not so with his National Defense University speech which, significantly, contained no timeline for making such a change.

The most concrete and concerning action Obama has made in conjunction with the speech has been to limit drone strikes to targets that directly threaten US “persons” rather than “interests.” If this means the U.S. will stop targeting militants who seek to overthrow the governments of, say, Pakistan or Yemen, then this is a troubling development, given the grievous blow the U.S. and our allies would suffer if Al Qaeda-style extremists were to gain control of any country, much less a nuclear-armed state like Pakistan. But, while drone strikes have declined in recent months, they still seem to be going on at a higher level than during the Bush administration. How Obama’s decree will be implemented in practice remains to be seen. At this point, I think there is legitimate cause for concern but not for panic.

What Obama’s speech reveals more than anything else is the fundamental ambivalence that characterizes the cerebral law professor-turned-president over issues of war and peace. This is, after all, the president who surged troops to Afghanistan after a lengthy period of soul-searching but imposed a timeline on their deployment; the president who expressed willingness to keep troops in Iraq but who did little to negotiate away obstacles to a Status of Forces Agreement; the president who helped topple Moammar Qaddafi but did little to rebuild afterwards; and the president who has called for Bashar Assad’s overthrow but has refused to provide lethal aid or American airpower to Syrian rebels.

In keeping with this meme, as Peter Baker of the New York Times notes, “’Americans are deeply ambivalent about war,’ the president said in his speech, and he seemed to be talking about himself as well.”

Baker’s article reveals the long and tortuous gestation of the counter-terrorism speech, which was a compromise between Obama’s dovish instincts and the hawkish necessities of national securities urged on him by the CIA and other agencies. How those contradictions are resolved in the future is anyone’s guess, but, as Obama’s critics have rightly noted, there is something disquieting about such an ambivalent commander-in-chief.

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Can Obama Pack the Courts With Liberals?

Every president’s most lasting legacy tends to be the judges they appoint to the federal courts. That’s why liberals are hoping that President Obama’s re-election will result in a wave of judicial nominations that will alter the character not just of the Supreme Court, but also of crucial appellate benches, such as that serving the District of Columbia. As the New York Times reports this morning, the confirmation of one of Obama’s nominees to be the eighth member of the United States Court of Appeals for DC has only whetted the appetites of his liberal base. With three vacancies still available to be filled, that gives the president the chance to not only significantly change a court that has in recent years acted as a check on the administration’s agenda. But that ambition is running head on into the determination of the Senate’s Republican minority to use the filibuster rules to prevent a radical shift to the left in the judiciary.

Considering that it was the Democrats who began this game of filibustering nominees to DC bench in 2001 when they frustrated George W. Bush’s nomination of Miguel Estrada, the cries of GOP obstructionism from the left are more than a little hypocritical. But according to the Times, the White House plans to try to shove the three down the Senate’s throat simultaneously so as to create a backlash against the Republicans. They are betting that GOP Leader Mitch McConnell can be influenced into backing down on this confirmation fight by making him believe the defeat of three liberals will lead not just to public anger but a push to change the rules of the Senate that would effectively neuter the rights of the minority. But while Democrats like Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer are speaking as if they have McConnell over a barrel, the GOP leader must know this is a transparent bluff.

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Every president’s most lasting legacy tends to be the judges they appoint to the federal courts. That’s why liberals are hoping that President Obama’s re-election will result in a wave of judicial nominations that will alter the character not just of the Supreme Court, but also of crucial appellate benches, such as that serving the District of Columbia. As the New York Times reports this morning, the confirmation of one of Obama’s nominees to be the eighth member of the United States Court of Appeals for DC has only whetted the appetites of his liberal base. With three vacancies still available to be filled, that gives the president the chance to not only significantly change a court that has in recent years acted as a check on the administration’s agenda. But that ambition is running head on into the determination of the Senate’s Republican minority to use the filibuster rules to prevent a radical shift to the left in the judiciary.

Considering that it was the Democrats who began this game of filibustering nominees to DC bench in 2001 when they frustrated George W. Bush’s nomination of Miguel Estrada, the cries of GOP obstructionism from the left are more than a little hypocritical. But according to the Times, the White House plans to try to shove the three down the Senate’s throat simultaneously so as to create a backlash against the Republicans. They are betting that GOP Leader Mitch McConnell can be influenced into backing down on this confirmation fight by making him believe the defeat of three liberals will lead not just to public anger but a push to change the rules of the Senate that would effectively neuter the rights of the minority. But while Democrats like Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer are speaking as if they have McConnell over a barrel, the GOP leader must know this is a transparent bluff.

The Democrats have been pushing the theme that Republicans are obstructing the president’s agenda ever since the 2010 elections with mixed success. While many assume that what the people want is for Congress to “get things done,” Americans have shown they are actually quite comfortable with divided government since when one party controls both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the result is not very popular, as the recent polls that show a majority continues to oppose ObamaCare — passed in 2010 during a period of total Democratic dominance — testifies.

However, the Republicans proposal on the future of the DC panel is probably just as doomed as the nominations of any of the liberals Obama might nominate. They want to eliminate the three vacancies on the DC panel — which already has eight members split between the two parties as well as six senior judges that are available to hear cases — and transfer them to other circuits. That makes sense since the judiciary does seem to be heavily weighted toward the capital but the problem there is that anyone who wants to change the rules about court nominations is inevitably going to face the charge of court packing.

But that applies just as easily to Democrats who are threatening the GOP with the “nuclear option” of altering the rules that permit filibusters.

It is true that the practice has escalated from isolated cases to a situation where almost everything that requires Senate passage requires a 60-vote supermajority in order to prevent a filibuster. That is regrettable but in a Senate where neither side trusts the other to give each other’s proposals a fair hearing, it’s inevitable. And as much as the need for cloture on all legislation is a burden on the government, there is an understanding in both parties that lifetime judicial nominations are the sort of thing where broad consensus is to be preferred over narrow partisan majorities.

Nor is there much reason to take the Democrats threats on this matter too seriously. The recent confirmation of Sri Sririvasan to the appellate court shows the Republicans are prepared to play ball and let enough Democratic nominees through to keep the system working. Indeed, they can argue that Obama’s judges are being confirmed more quickly than were George W. Bush’s picks when the Democrats controlled the Senate.

It’s also true that Democrats understand that the filibuster is a tool that both sides can employ. If 2014 turns out to be a big GOP year and with so many seats to protect, it is entirely possible that it will be Reid who will be doing the filibustering in 2014 rather than McConnell, making it unlikely that the Dems will ever change the rules.

In the meantime, Senate Republicans have every reason to use their power to slow down Obama’s attempt to tilt the courts to the left. Rather than seeking a confrontation that he and his party are bound to lose, President Obama would do well to consider candidates for the courts that can attract moderate and conservative support rather than ideological liberals. Nobody is fooled by the Democrats’ bluffing.

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Statesmen Stuck in Middle East Time Warp

While visiting Israel this weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry said that everywhere he goes – Europe, the Gulf States, China, Japan, even New Zealand and Brazil – the first thing he is asked about is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps his hosts are simply demonstrating tact by starting off with the only issue Kerry shows any real interest in. But if this is truly their number-one concern, we should all be afraid: It means the leaders and diplomats entrusted with managing global crises don’t have the faintest understanding of what is and isn’t important.

Even if we disregard some pretty major problems elsewhere on the planet – for instance, the adventurism of nuclear North Korea, or the serious instability in another nuclear power, Pakistan, where Islamic extremists slaughter thousands of their own countrymen every year – there’s a Middle Eastern problem right next door that’s infinitely more important than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am talking, of course, about Syria.

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While visiting Israel this weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry said that everywhere he goes – Europe, the Gulf States, China, Japan, even New Zealand and Brazil – the first thing he is asked about is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps his hosts are simply demonstrating tact by starting off with the only issue Kerry shows any real interest in. But if this is truly their number-one concern, we should all be afraid: It means the leaders and diplomats entrusted with managing global crises don’t have the faintest understanding of what is and isn’t important.

Even if we disregard some pretty major problems elsewhere on the planet – for instance, the adventurism of nuclear North Korea, or the serious instability in another nuclear power, Pakistan, where Islamic extremists slaughter thousands of their own countrymen every year – there’s a Middle Eastern problem right next door that’s infinitely more important than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am talking, of course, about Syria.

It’s not just that the Syrian conflict has already killed five to 10 times as many people in a mere two years – anywhere from 80,000 to 120,000, depending on whose estimate you believe – as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has in the entire 65 years of Israel’s existence (about 15,000). It’s that unlike the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian conflict is rapidly destabilizing all its neighbors.

Over the last 25 years, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has manifested itself in two intifadas and two Hamas-Israel wars. Not one of them resulted in refugees fleeing to other countries, fighters pouring in from other countries, or violence inside other countries. The Syrian conflict, however, has produced large quantities of all three.

Some 1.5 million Syrian refugees have fled to other countries, mainly Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, and the UN says the number is rising by about 250,000 per month. This is putting a serious strain on the host countries.

Moreover, citizens of most of Syria’s neighbors – especially Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan – are now fighting in Syria, acquiring skills that their countries of origin fear will be turned against their own countrymen when they return. And the problem isn’t confined to Arab countries: Hundreds of European Muslims are also fighting in Syria, where they are being further radicalized and learning military skills that will make them serious terror risks when they return. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has attracted no similar influx.

Finally, the Syrian conflict is exporting violence to all its neighbors. To cite just two of the most serious incidents, a double bombing killed 52 people in Reyhanli, a Turkish town near the Syrian border, two weeks ago, while Sunni-Alawite clashes in the Lebanese city of Tripoli have killed 29 people in the last week.

The Syrian conflict is thus a clear and present danger to every country in the region, and even to some farther afield, like the European states whose citizens are fighting there. The same hasn’t been true of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in decades: The last time this conflict drew in another country was the 1982 Lebanon War (the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006 had nothing to do with the Palestinians). Today, the conflict affects nobody but Israelis and Palestinians themselves.

Yet the statesmen whom we count on to manage global affairs appear to be stuck in a time warp, unable to see that the map of the world’s problems has changed. And that may pose an even greater danger than the bloodbath in Syria.

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