Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 2, 2013

Congress Should Leave the NFL Alone

You may have thought the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has its hands full right now investigating the Internal Revenue Service scandal as well as a host of other pressing issues. But never underestimate the craving of politicians on both sides of the aisle to grandstand on television. Republicans and Democrats may disagree about what to think about the IRS or how closely to press the administration about questions of official misconduct. Yet they are united when it comes to their desire to divert scarce time and energy from their actual responsibilities in order to hold hearings at which they can drag officials of the National Football League and perhaps even some famous players in front of the cameras where members of Congress can lecture them about their need to set a good example for America’s youth.

That’s right. The same Congress that can’t pass a budget, deal with the debt, cope with an impending entitlements crisis or even be counted on to investigate government scandals impartially is preparing to focus like a laser beam on the question of whether professional football players are being tested for every possible performance enhancing drug. As Politico reports, Oversight Committee chair Republican Darrell Issa and ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings—last seen sparring over how to frame the issue of the IRS scandal—are working together to use the threat of a hearing on Human Growth Hormone testing to force the NFL to alter its policies. Whatever one may think of the use of HGH, the league’s testing policies or even of football, this bipartisan decision to involve Congress in what is a non-government business negotiation between the NFL and the NFL player’s union is an unconscionable interference in private commerce. For Issa and Cummings to waste a moment of the federal government’s time on this issue is yet another example of how a naked lust for publicity drives congressional action more than principle, let alone the urgent needs of citizens.

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You may have thought the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has its hands full right now investigating the Internal Revenue Service scandal as well as a host of other pressing issues. But never underestimate the craving of politicians on both sides of the aisle to grandstand on television. Republicans and Democrats may disagree about what to think about the IRS or how closely to press the administration about questions of official misconduct. Yet they are united when it comes to their desire to divert scarce time and energy from their actual responsibilities in order to hold hearings at which they can drag officials of the National Football League and perhaps even some famous players in front of the cameras where members of Congress can lecture them about their need to set a good example for America’s youth.

That’s right. The same Congress that can’t pass a budget, deal with the debt, cope with an impending entitlements crisis or even be counted on to investigate government scandals impartially is preparing to focus like a laser beam on the question of whether professional football players are being tested for every possible performance enhancing drug. As Politico reports, Oversight Committee chair Republican Darrell Issa and ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings—last seen sparring over how to frame the issue of the IRS scandal—are working together to use the threat of a hearing on Human Growth Hormone testing to force the NFL to alter its policies. Whatever one may think of the use of HGH, the league’s testing policies or even of football, this bipartisan decision to involve Congress in what is a non-government business negotiation between the NFL and the NFL player’s union is an unconscionable interference in private commerce. For Issa and Cummings to waste a moment of the federal government’s time on this issue is yet another example of how a naked lust for publicity drives congressional action more than principle, let alone the urgent needs of citizens.

Let’s concede that the use of PEDs is not a good thing and that all sports are better off when the participants aren’t cheating or potentially endangering their health to gain an edge on their opponents.

But the question that neither Issa nor Cummings can honestly answer is how any of this is remotely the business of Congress. Like its previous excursion into the issue of the use of steroids by baseball players, any congressional pressure or hearings are strictly a matter of House members seeking some extra moments in the limelight. While they will spout off about fair play and their wish to prevent kids from emulating the dirty practices of their heroes, what will really be going on is an effort to cash in on the celebrity of players and league officials while posing as the guardians of what is now the country’s most popular—at least in terms of television ratings—sport, even though none of this is any of the government’s business.

Defenders of the committee will say that without their grandstanding on baseball, the sport might not have instituted tough new rules to prevent steroid use. That may be so. But just because something is desirable or the public is interested in it doesn’t make it a congressional responsibility. Lots of private matters might be cleaned up if they were subjected to the bright lights of congressional scrutiny. But the only reason Congress involved itself in baseball or seeks to do so in football has to do with camera time for the members, not an intrinsic government interest.

As for the other excuse for this travesty—the need to protect kids from steroids or HGH—it is a thin reed to support such an endeavor. On the list of dangers to American teenagers, the threat from steroid use on the part of young athletes is so remote that it barely registers in statistics. There are scores of other, more pressing problems for kids that might be worth the Congress’ time. But few other issues bring the alluring prospect of allowing Issa, Cummings and the rest of their publicity-hungry colleagues to talk down to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or any players the committee might be able to drag into a hearing room.

There are serious issues around the question of HGH use, especially since it is legal to use it in many instances. This particular drug highlights an issue that is largely overlooked amid all the preaching about steroids. HGH shows just how thin the line is between legal and proper medical care that can enable athletes to recover more quickly or completely from injury and substances that are considered beyond the pale.

But its doubtful that such nuanced arguments would be discussed in such a hearing since the whole point of it will be to force the league to enact more stringent testing in order to avoid being shamed by Congress on national television.

The basic purpose of government is to protect our freedom and to provide for the common defense as well as the common good. It is not to ensure that either the National Football League, Major League Baseball or any other sport conform to specific ideas of fairness or what drugs may be used and which must be banned. No matter what happens as a result of these threats to the NFL and the hearings that may ensue, the entire endeavor is an illegitimate use of congressional power.

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The Challenge of Making Commonsense Cuts to the Pentagon

Those of us who are opposed to major cuts in the defense budget–which, on the current trajectory, will amount to a trillion dollars over the next decade–often hear this objection: But isn’t there a lot of waste in the massive Pentagon budget? Surely it’s possible to eliminate needless spending while preserving essential weapons and capabilities. Possible, yes, but not likely. Because cutting the Pentagon budget is not an arid academic exercise. It is an intensely political process where fat often gets shielded while muscle gets cut.

To see what I mean, read this fascinating Washington Post article which details how a Pentagon consultant identified $1 billion in unnecessary spending: That’s the amount the Pentagon spends to run giant commissaries on domestic military bases that replicate the functions of nearby supermarkets while underselling them by roughly 30 percent. (You could achieve even greater cuts by closing unnecessary commissaries in advanced countries such as South Korea, Japan, and Germany where there is no shortage of supermarkets.)

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Those of us who are opposed to major cuts in the defense budget–which, on the current trajectory, will amount to a trillion dollars over the next decade–often hear this objection: But isn’t there a lot of waste in the massive Pentagon budget? Surely it’s possible to eliminate needless spending while preserving essential weapons and capabilities. Possible, yes, but not likely. Because cutting the Pentagon budget is not an arid academic exercise. It is an intensely political process where fat often gets shielded while muscle gets cut.

To see what I mean, read this fascinating Washington Post article which details how a Pentagon consultant identified $1 billion in unnecessary spending: That’s the amount the Pentagon spends to run giant commissaries on domestic military bases that replicate the functions of nearby supermarkets while underselling them by roughly 30 percent. (You could achieve even greater cuts by closing unnecessary commissaries in advanced countries such as South Korea, Japan, and Germany where there is no shortage of supermarkets.)

This consultant talked to Wal-Mart and the giant retailer agreed to give military families, both active duty and retirees, the same discount at their stores as they currently receive at the commissaries. Since Wal-Mart has stores within 10 miles of most military bases (and since other retailers would no doubt emulate its example), this would seem like a no-brainer: the government would save $1 billion and military families would still have access to low-cost groceries.

But as soon as news of the proposed plan leaked out, veterans’ organizations and the commissary organization got busy lobbying against it. Members of Congress intervened to protect the commissaries. Then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates decided to shelve the plan for fear of losing a bruising battle.

That’s what happens to well-intentioned plans to cut unnecessary spending in the real world of Washington. Meanwhile, military end-strength and training–which apparently doesn’t have as much of a constituency–is being cut, thereby jeopardizing the military’s ability to respond to a crisis.

Faced with this unpalatable reality, we are faced with essentially two choices: either keeping the military budget as is and accepting some needless spending or cutting the military budget and getting rid of vital capabilities while preserving a lot of needless spending. I would opt for the former option, especially since military spending today, at less than 4 percent of GDP, is hardly unsustainable. But Washington, in its wisdom, is opting by default for the latter option.

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Free Speech and Islamic Sensibilities

One of the most discouraging trends in international affairs is the way some Western nations have kowtowed to the calls of Muslim nations to treat “blasphemy” against Islam as a human rights offense. As the controversy over the publication of Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as the YouTube video that the White House falsely claimed incited the murder of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya have shown, many in the West are generally more concerned with appeasing terrorists than they are with standing up for freedom of expression.

But however abject the Western stand has been abroad, most Americans probably thought no such concerns were needed about defending our rights at home. Yet a story in Politico brings to our attention the fact that such complacence may be unfounded. Apparently a United States attorney in Tennessee is seeking to use civil rights statutes to criminalize criticism of Islam or inflammatory statements that offend Muslims. According to the Tullahoma News, Bill Killian, the U.S. attorney for Eastern Tennessee, believes “Internet postings that violate civil rights are subject to federal jurisdiction.” Though the newspaper makes clear that Killian’s intent is to promote better community relations and to prevent discrimination against Muslims that is based on the false notion that all are terrorists, his willingness to dump the First Amendment rights of some in order to protect the sensibility of others ought to scare all Americans.

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One of the most discouraging trends in international affairs is the way some Western nations have kowtowed to the calls of Muslim nations to treat “blasphemy” against Islam as a human rights offense. As the controversy over the publication of Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as the YouTube video that the White House falsely claimed incited the murder of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya have shown, many in the West are generally more concerned with appeasing terrorists than they are with standing up for freedom of expression.

But however abject the Western stand has been abroad, most Americans probably thought no such concerns were needed about defending our rights at home. Yet a story in Politico brings to our attention the fact that such complacence may be unfounded. Apparently a United States attorney in Tennessee is seeking to use civil rights statutes to criminalize criticism of Islam or inflammatory statements that offend Muslims. According to the Tullahoma News, Bill Killian, the U.S. attorney for Eastern Tennessee, believes “Internet postings that violate civil rights are subject to federal jurisdiction.” Though the newspaper makes clear that Killian’s intent is to promote better community relations and to prevent discrimination against Muslims that is based on the false notion that all are terrorists, his willingness to dump the First Amendment rights of some in order to protect the sensibility of others ought to scare all Americans.

Killian is, of course, right to point out that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists. The vast majority are law abiding citizens whose rights should be protected the same as those of anyone else. It is also true that those who fear that Muslims will impose sharia law on Tennessee or any other American state are largely unfounded, though that issue is not a fringe concern in Africa and Asia where the rights of non-Muslims are threatened by just that threat. If all Killian wants to do is to make sure American Muslims are not targeted for discrimination or violence (though there is, in fact, no evidence that a post-9/11 backlash of bias or attacks has actually taken place) that is also all well and good.

But there is a vast difference between defending the civil rights of a minority and seeking to silence those who hold views that are offensive to that minority.

If hate speech leads directly to violence or is used to create an atmosphere of intimidation or attacks against a minority group, the government does well to look into the manner. But for a person with the vast resources and power of the federal government at his disposal, such as a U.S. attorney, to threaten prosecution of those who say offensive things about Muslims on the Internet is to place free speech in jeopardy. Indeed, rather than silencing those who complain about sharia law, statements such as those of Killian are likely to fuel such fears–and rightly so–since he appears to be setting Muslims up as a protected class who cannot be offended without fear of recourse to the law.

What’s especially frightening about this is that the discussion of what offends Muslims has very little to do with actionable hate speech. As was the case with the YouTube video about Muhammad that the administration initially claimed to have been the cause of the Benghazi attacks, the video was something that was perfectly legal even if it was ill considered and nasty as well as inept. But just as the maker of that video was jailed on a parole violation (a turn of events that would have been inconceivable had he not been subjected to international opprobrium including condemnation by the president and the secretary of state), there now appears to be a double standard by which the government seems to view offenses to Islam. Attacks on Islam or even rude remarks about its prophet may be uncivil, but they are no more illegal than abuse directed at Jews or any other form of hate that the government rightly forebears from prosecuting.

Even more to the point, while the efforts of Killian to protect American Muslims are correct, if they are not also accompanied by calls for this community to do some soul searching about the way it has enabled and even coddled extremists who are fomenting or carrying out terrorism they do the nation a disservice.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke directly to this issue in a courageous piece published in the Daily Mail in which he rightly pointed out that the radicalism that led to the murder of a British soldier last week—as well as to other outrages such as the Boston Marathon bombing and a host of other terrorist attacks in the United States carried out by persons primarily motivated by an interpretation of Islam—requires both Muslims and non-Muslims to face facts:

There is a problem within Islam – from the adherents of an ideology that is a strain within Islam. We have to put it on the table and be honest about it. Of course there are Christian extremists and Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu ones. But I am afraid this strain is not the province of a few extremists. It has at its heart a view about religion and about the interaction between religion and politics that is not compatible with pluralistic, liberal, open-minded societies.

But instead of honesty about this threat, what Muslims are hearing from people like Killian is that the government may punish offenses against their faith. That not only trashes freedom of speech, statements such as Killian’s and others that stick to the “Islam is a religion of peace” line while ignoring the very real problem of Islamist extremism that is fomenting terror add to our problems.

Killian must retract his statement or at least clarify it to show that he has no intention of prosecuting those who merely offend Islam, no matter how objectionable their utterances. If not, he should be fired. But even more than that, his foolish attempt to mollify Muslims show just how clueless many government officials—including those, like Killian, who are connected to the security establishment—are about the nature of the threat from Islamist terror.

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Targeting Kiriakou Unacceptable

John Kiriakou, the former CIA agent and convicted leaker, has made mistakes. Last October, he pleaded guilty to violating the Intelligence Identities Protection act of 1982 after he confirmed a CIA officer’s identity to a reporter. What John did was wrong and a crime for which he is now doing the time, even if prosecutors allegedly withheld evidence that the reporter to whom John leaked had received more information of a more sensitive nature from a currently-serving CIA officer but that the CIA had declined to prosecute in that case, reinforcing the notion that John’s prosecution was rooted more in politics than justice. I do roll my eyes at John’s rhetoric about “illegal torture,” as John, I suspect, is simply catering to the mythologies of his leftist supporters, as the right has pretty much abandoned him.

Full disclosure: John and I have been casual friends for almost two decades, dating back to a time when he worked and I interned at the U.S. embassy in Bahrain. We may disagree politically, but neither of us bases friendships on politics. We kept in touch both before and after his arrest. Through mutual friends, I have followed his day-to-day travails in prison and so was aware of some of what was in his letter, but this part shocked me and is, if true, absolutely unacceptable:

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John Kiriakou, the former CIA agent and convicted leaker, has made mistakes. Last October, he pleaded guilty to violating the Intelligence Identities Protection act of 1982 after he confirmed a CIA officer’s identity to a reporter. What John did was wrong and a crime for which he is now doing the time, even if prosecutors allegedly withheld evidence that the reporter to whom John leaked had received more information of a more sensitive nature from a currently-serving CIA officer but that the CIA had declined to prosecute in that case, reinforcing the notion that John’s prosecution was rooted more in politics than justice. I do roll my eyes at John’s rhetoric about “illegal torture,” as John, I suspect, is simply catering to the mythologies of his leftist supporters, as the right has pretty much abandoned him.

Full disclosure: John and I have been casual friends for almost two decades, dating back to a time when he worked and I interned at the U.S. embassy in Bahrain. We may disagree politically, but neither of us bases friendships on politics. We kept in touch both before and after his arrest. Through mutual friends, I have followed his day-to-day travails in prison and so was aware of some of what was in his letter, but this part shocked me and is, if true, absolutely unacceptable:

I was ushered into the office of SIS, the Special Investigative Service. This is the prison version of every police department’s detective bureau… The CO [Corrections Officer] showed me a picture of an Arab. “Do you know this guy,” he asked me. I responded that I had met him a day earlier, but our conversation was limited to “nice to meet you.” Well, the CO said, this was the uncle of the Times Square bomber, and after we had met, he called a number in Pakistan, reported the meeting, and was told to kill me…. The CO said they were looking to ship him out, so I should stay away from him. But the more I thought about it, the more this made no sense. Why would the uncle of the Times Square bomber be in a low-security prison? He should be in a maximum. So I asked my Muslim friends to check him out. It turns out that he’s an Iraqi Kurd from Buffalo, NY. He was the imam of a mosque there, which also happened to be the mosque where the “Lackawana 7″ worshipped… The FBI pressured him to testify against his parishioners. He refused and got five years for obstruction of justice….  In the meantime, SIS told him that I had made a call to Washington after we met, and that I had been instructed to kill him! We both laughed at the ham-handedness by which SIS tried to get us to attack each other.

John has made mistakes, but the fact that he has been on the front lines of the war on terror, both before and after 9/11, is without doubt. It is also true that John had previously assisted the FBI on a counter-espionage investigation in which an Asian country was targeting congressional staffers. While John cooperated with the FBI; then-Senator John Kerry’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff director refused to do so. Whatever one thinks of John and his mistakes, it is reprehensible if true and also racist to seek to trick a former CIA officer and a Muslim to target each other. The war on terror isn’t a parlor game, nor is it the job of any corrections officer to have someone target a man who has spent his career fighting terrorists or, indeed, anyone. Left, right, or center, this is unacceptable. Let us hope there will be an investigation and that the corrections officer in question, if found guilty, finds himself on the other side of the bars.

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Turkish Protests Expose Obama’s Hypocrisy

One of the keynotes of President Obama’s foreign policy throughout his first term has been an attempt to pay lip service to the Arab Spring protests against authoritarian regimes throughout the Muslim world. Those sentiments were not matched with strategies that were designed to enhance the efforts of those who were advocating more freedom or even to ward off the unintended consequences of the unrest, such as the rise of Islamist parties like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Yet in spite of those failures the president has never stopped trying to pose as a friend of Arab liberty even if he did nothing to help that cause. But the recent demonstrations in Turkey have exposed Obama’s policies in a way that perhaps no other development has done.

By continuing to support the Turkish ruling party, as it now becomes the subject of anger from its citizens, the administration is showing its true colors. If Obama is not prepared to criticize his friend who heads up the government in Ankara the way he has done other regimes that came under fire, then it shows that the talk about democracy was just so much hot air and that when push comes to shove, the president would rather befriend an Islamist ruler than embrace the pleas of the Turkish people for change.

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One of the keynotes of President Obama’s foreign policy throughout his first term has been an attempt to pay lip service to the Arab Spring protests against authoritarian regimes throughout the Muslim world. Those sentiments were not matched with strategies that were designed to enhance the efforts of those who were advocating more freedom or even to ward off the unintended consequences of the unrest, such as the rise of Islamist parties like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Yet in spite of those failures the president has never stopped trying to pose as a friend of Arab liberty even if he did nothing to help that cause. But the recent demonstrations in Turkey have exposed Obama’s policies in a way that perhaps no other development has done.

By continuing to support the Turkish ruling party, as it now becomes the subject of anger from its citizens, the administration is showing its true colors. If Obama is not prepared to criticize his friend who heads up the government in Ankara the way he has done other regimes that came under fire, then it shows that the talk about democracy was just so much hot air and that when push comes to shove, the president would rather befriend an Islamist ruler than embrace the pleas of the Turkish people for change.

Let’s specify that America’s attitude toward Turkey is complicated. First of all, it is a NATO ally and a nominal democracy. The United States also needs Turkey to be a responsible actor in a region where even more hostile powers, such as Iran and Russia, are creating havoc. It is also true that Turkey is key to efforts to oust the Bashar Assad regime in Syria and in any hope of preventing Iran and its Hezbollah allies from consolidating its axis of power there.

But some of the same things—at least insofar as regional stability is concerned—could have been said about the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt. But in that case the president lost no time in throwing a longtime American ally under the bus. I am not one of those who blame the president for Mubarak’s fall. The longtime dictator could not have been saved even with energetic American support and there was a good argument to be made that what the U.S. needed to do was to get out in front of the problem and support Egyptian moderates and to encourage the army to do a deal with them to bring about a peaceful transition to a new government. But instead of doing that, the U.S. encouraged the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and used its economic leverage to prevent the army from stopping the Islamists from taking power.

But in Turkey, the Islamists are already in power and have spent, as our Michael Rubin has documented many times, the last several years transforming an imperfect democracy into an authoritarian state. Yet it is the person who has been the architect of that depressing move away from freedom, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who seems to be President Obama’s favorite foreign leader. Erdoğan was recently in the U.S. for meetings in Washington and got his customary warm welcome from his pal in the Oval Office. The U.S. has worked hard to get the Turks to back away from open conflict with Israel. But even though an Israeli apology solved the flotilla controversy, the Turks continue to be ardent supporters of Hamas and therefore part of the problem rather than the solution.

Yet with the Turkish people beginning to push back against the seemingly inexorable drive of Erdoğan’s AKP to Islamicize what was once a thoroughly secular country, surely what is required from the president of the United States is more than a hug for his friend in Ankara. An American government that did not hesitate to embrace the Tunisian and Egyptian protests yet which stayed silent when demonstrators took to the streets in Istanbul—just as it did when Tehran was the scene of massive protests against another Islamist regime in 2009—has opened itself up to charges of hypocrisy as well as incompetence.

Americans cannot be guardians of the freedom of all other nations, but surely the U.S. government must be a friend to the cause of liberty if it is to keep faith with the values that have sustained our nation. No one should have any illusions as to the AKP relinquishing power simply because the Turkish people have taken to the streets. But if this episode passes without an expression of American support for those seeking reform in Turkey, then it will confirm that the Obama administration’s version of realpolitik has more to do with the president’s level of comfort with Islamist regimes than it does with American strategic interests.

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AKP Official: Annihilate Atheists

I’ve been traveling quite a bit and so this initially escaped my attention, but it does shed some light on why the Turks in Taksim Square are increasingly worried about intolerance and the increasingly open religious agenda of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, best known by its Turkish acronym, AKP.

Mahmut Macit, an AKP official in Ankara, raised hackles last week when he tweeted: “My blood boils when spineless psychopaths pretending to be atheists swear at my religion. These people, who have been raped, should be annihilated.” He continued to declare, “Insulting Islam could not be considered freedom of expression.”

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I’ve been traveling quite a bit and so this initially escaped my attention, but it does shed some light on why the Turks in Taksim Square are increasingly worried about intolerance and the increasingly open religious agenda of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, best known by its Turkish acronym, AKP.

Mahmut Macit, an AKP official in Ankara, raised hackles last week when he tweeted: “My blood boils when spineless psychopaths pretending to be atheists swear at my religion. These people, who have been raped, should be annihilated.” He continued to declare, “Insulting Islam could not be considered freedom of expression.”

This, of course, comes against the backdrop of a tweet by Ahmet Kavas, Turkey’s ambassador to Chad (and a product of one of Turkey’s religious high schools) who declared, “al-Qaeda is not a terrorist organization.” On February 6, 2012, Erdoğan unleashed a furor when he declared, “We want to raise religious generations,” and, indeed, he has also counseled Turkish women about how many children to have and when. A number of earlier statements by Erdoğan from his tenure as Istanbul mayor should have raised eyebrows, for seldom do intolerant men suddenly find tolerance overnight.

All of this, of course, is open source and readily available. Turks may be religious, but many of them—including some in Taksim Square—consider Islam to be a personal choice, not something to be imposed by the government. When Erdoğan, Macit, Erdoğan bagman Egemen Bağış, and other aides counsel restricting free speech to avoid insult to religion, they are in practice seeking to muzzle criticism not of religion, but of their own politicized interpretation of it.

How disappointing it must have been for the Turkish liberals who today stand watch in Taksim that just last month, President Obama stood side-by-side Erdoğan, joking once again about how he solicited Erdoğan’s advice about how to raise teenage daughters, while keeping the erosion of their own human rights off the table.

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Shades of “Chicken Kiev” in Syria?

I’m with the Wall Street Journal editorial page (and numerous conspiracy theorists throughout the Middle East): I’m starting to suspect that President Obama secretly wants Bashar Assad to hold onto power. How else to explain Obama’s continuing unwillingness to do much of anything to help the rebel forces even as they are being pushed back–possibly to the brink of defeat–by an offensive massively assisted by Iran and Hezbollah?

Assad long ago crossed with impunity Obama’s “red line” of using chemical weapons; Obama’s threats about what he would do if such weapons were employed now seem like more of a laugh line than a red line. Now Assad appears to be close to subduing the rebellion in a significant part of the country. And what does Obama do? He is convening a meeting in Geneva where Assad and the Iranians will get a seat alongside the Syrian opposition. The odds of Assad voluntarily removing himself from power through such an arrangement–which is what Obama has repeatedly called for–are about as the great as the odds of him converting to Judaism. It is hard to see what purpose such a meeting serves except to provide yet another excuse for American inaction.

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I’m with the Wall Street Journal editorial page (and numerous conspiracy theorists throughout the Middle East): I’m starting to suspect that President Obama secretly wants Bashar Assad to hold onto power. How else to explain Obama’s continuing unwillingness to do much of anything to help the rebel forces even as they are being pushed back–possibly to the brink of defeat–by an offensive massively assisted by Iran and Hezbollah?

Assad long ago crossed with impunity Obama’s “red line” of using chemical weapons; Obama’s threats about what he would do if such weapons were employed now seem like more of a laugh line than a red line. Now Assad appears to be close to subduing the rebellion in a significant part of the country. And what does Obama do? He is convening a meeting in Geneva where Assad and the Iranians will get a seat alongside the Syrian opposition. The odds of Assad voluntarily removing himself from power through such an arrangement–which is what Obama has repeatedly called for–are about as the great as the odds of him converting to Judaism. It is hard to see what purpose such a meeting serves except to provide yet another excuse for American inaction.

Is Obama just being ultra-cautious–or does he actually think that an Assad victory is in our ultimate interest? It’s not such a far-fetched argument, since some Realpolitikers have convinced themselves that the rebels are so infiltrated by Islamist extremists that a continuation of Assad’s secular rule is a better bet. This is not a calculation I would make–I would be more alarmed about allowing the Khameini-Assad-Nasrallah axis to consolidate power, which would increase the threat to Israel, dispel any hopes of freeing Lebanon from Hezbollah’s grip, and cause moderate states such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia to view the U.S. as an unreliable ally and Iran as the “strong horse” in the Middle East. But it is precisely the kind of calculation that a cold-blooded and aloof president who has often in the past expressed his admiration for the “realist” foreign policy of George H.W. Bush may make.

Bush, recall, was the president who gave the infamous Chicken Kiev speech urging the Soviet Union to stay together in 1991 just at the moment when it was dissolving. The dissolution of the Evil Empire turned out to be in America’s interest–imagine how much more of a threat Putin would pose today if he controlled not only Russia but Ukraine (site of the Chicken Kiev speech), Central Asia, and other parts of the erstwhile Russian Empire. But the USSR’s breakup induced deep concern among stability-above-all realists–as did the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany. In a similar vein, Obama today appears petrified at change in Syria even though the existing regime is about as anti-American as it can possibly be.

At the very least if Obama really has decided that all of his previous rhetoric about toppling Assad no longer applies, he deserves to level with the American public about his change of heart instead of hiding behind the fiction that we support the anti-Assad forces in Syria.

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Which Iraq Model Is Obama Replicating in Syria?

If Obama is pursuing the Iraq model, it is certainly not one of active intervention in the manner of George W. Bush in 2003. That direct military intervention is off the table is, of course, a good thing. The United States has no direct interests in Syria. Stymieing Iranian influence and cutting off Hezbollah is a noble goal, of course, but there are much more direct ways of doing so without involving U.S. forces in the Syrian quagmire.

There are two other Iraq models, however. The first is the no-fly zone, a precedent which the U.S. and its allies imposed over northern Iraq in 1991. It was under the protection of the no-fly zone that the Iraqi Kurds were successfully able to build their own alternative to Saddam Hussein. After more than two years of preventable slaughter, the Obama administration has finally begun to consider imposing a no-fly zone in Syria. “Considering” in governance parlance, of course, is one of two ways the White House countenances doing nothing while pretending to do something (the other is attending conferences). Had Obama blessed a no-fly zone two years ago, it might have decided the outcome in Syria before the Syrian opposition radicalized to the degree that it poses as much of a threat to U.S. interests as Assad himself.

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If Obama is pursuing the Iraq model, it is certainly not one of active intervention in the manner of George W. Bush in 2003. That direct military intervention is off the table is, of course, a good thing. The United States has no direct interests in Syria. Stymieing Iranian influence and cutting off Hezbollah is a noble goal, of course, but there are much more direct ways of doing so without involving U.S. forces in the Syrian quagmire.

There are two other Iraq models, however. The first is the no-fly zone, a precedent which the U.S. and its allies imposed over northern Iraq in 1991. It was under the protection of the no-fly zone that the Iraqi Kurds were successfully able to build their own alternative to Saddam Hussein. After more than two years of preventable slaughter, the Obama administration has finally begun to consider imposing a no-fly zone in Syria. “Considering” in governance parlance, of course, is one of two ways the White House countenances doing nothing while pretending to do something (the other is attending conferences). Had Obama blessed a no-fly zone two years ago, it might have decided the outcome in Syria before the Syrian opposition radicalized to the degree that it poses as much of a threat to U.S. interests as Assad himself.

Alas, Obama appears intent on another Iraq model, also dating from 1991. As Operation Desert Storm concluded, President George H.W. Bush made a campaign stop to visit workers at a Raytheon plant in Massachusetts, but his real audience was the Iraqi people. “Compliance with the resolutions will instantly stop the bloodshed,” Bush declared, before adding, “And there’s another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside and then comply with the United Nations resolutions and rejoin the family of peace-loving nations.”

What followed is perhaps one of America’s most shameful episodes in the Middle East: The Iraqi people rose up in 14 out of Iraq’s 18 governorates but, rather than support them, Bush stood aside, a move which realists applauded as “sophistication.” It was not. By allowing Saddam to re-consolidate control, Bush set the stage for a far bloodier scenario twelve years later. By turning his back on the Iraqi Shi’ite opposition—and make no mistake, the Iraqi Shi’ites are not naturally pro-Iranian—he allowed the Islamic Republic to fill the void and train refugees into what would become the core of the Shi’ite militias which have consistently undermined U.S. interests. Bush gave every Iraqi reason never again to trust the United States or the American people.

That Obama upholds the elder Bush’s callousness in Syria as a model suggests that he has not the grasp of history he believes he does, and that historians will look back at Obama’s studied indifference as a watershed moment from which a far bloodier episode entangling America will arise.

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