Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 14, 2013

Obama’s Multiplying Foreign Policy Failures

On April 23, 2007, then-Senator and future presidential candidate Barack Obama gave a speech in which he said this:

Until we change our approach in Iraq, it will be increasingly difficult to refocus our efforts on the challenges in the wider region – on the conflict in the Middle East, where Hamas and Hezbollah feel emboldened and Israel’s prospects for a secure peace seem uncertain; on Iran, which has been strengthened by the war in Iraq; and on Afghanistan, where more American forces are needed to battle al Qaeda, track down Osama bin Laden, and stop that country from backsliding toward instability… Now it’s our moment to lead – our generation’s time to tell another great American story. So someday we can tell our children that this was the time when we helped forge peace in the Middle East.

It hasn’t quite turned out that way, has it?

Just yesterday the Obama administration admitted what our allies have long said – that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against opposition forces. At least 80,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, there are almost 1.5 million refugees, and the number of internally displaced persons has rise to more than four million. (Tony Blair discusses Syria in this op-ed.) Moreover, as the Washington Post reports 

As fighters with Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement wage the battles that are helping Syria’s regime survive, their chief sponsor, Iran, is emerging as the biggest victor in the wider regional struggle for influence that the Syrian conflict has become… after the Assad regime’s capture of the small but strategic town of Qusair last week — a battle in which the Iranian-backed Shiite militia played a pivotal role — Iran’s supporters and foes alike are mulling a new reality: that the regional balance of power appears to be tilting in favor of Tehran, with potentially profound implications for a Middle East still grappling with the upheaval wrought by the Arab Spring revolts.

That’s not all.

The Syrian civil war is badly destabilizing our most reliable Arab ally, Jordan. Lebanon is increasingly fragile. In Egypt and across North Africa the Muslim Brotherhood has gained power. Since Mr. Obama withdrew American forces in Iraq, sectarian violence has markedly increased there, with the hard-won gains from the Bush administration’s surge being washed away. The war in Afghanistan is going poorly, while relations with the Karzai regime are quite bad, limiting American leverage in that nation (our much-trumped retreat of forces from Afghanistan have of course limited our leverage as well). Turkey is struggling to contain a political crisis that has threatened the nation’s economy and paralyzed the government. There are no prospects for genuine peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. The Libyan people are weary of two years of militia violence that has kept the country in chaos and stalled reform, with the government weak and unstable. And al Qaeda is ascendant in North Africa.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

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On April 23, 2007, then-Senator and future presidential candidate Barack Obama gave a speech in which he said this:

Until we change our approach in Iraq, it will be increasingly difficult to refocus our efforts on the challenges in the wider region – on the conflict in the Middle East, where Hamas and Hezbollah feel emboldened and Israel’s prospects for a secure peace seem uncertain; on Iran, which has been strengthened by the war in Iraq; and on Afghanistan, where more American forces are needed to battle al Qaeda, track down Osama bin Laden, and stop that country from backsliding toward instability… Now it’s our moment to lead – our generation’s time to tell another great American story. So someday we can tell our children that this was the time when we helped forge peace in the Middle East.

It hasn’t quite turned out that way, has it?

Just yesterday the Obama administration admitted what our allies have long said – that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against opposition forces. At least 80,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, there are almost 1.5 million refugees, and the number of internally displaced persons has rise to more than four million. (Tony Blair discusses Syria in this op-ed.) Moreover, as the Washington Post reports 

As fighters with Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement wage the battles that are helping Syria’s regime survive, their chief sponsor, Iran, is emerging as the biggest victor in the wider regional struggle for influence that the Syrian conflict has become… after the Assad regime’s capture of the small but strategic town of Qusair last week — a battle in which the Iranian-backed Shiite militia played a pivotal role — Iran’s supporters and foes alike are mulling a new reality: that the regional balance of power appears to be tilting in favor of Tehran, with potentially profound implications for a Middle East still grappling with the upheaval wrought by the Arab Spring revolts.

That’s not all.

The Syrian civil war is badly destabilizing our most reliable Arab ally, Jordan. Lebanon is increasingly fragile. In Egypt and across North Africa the Muslim Brotherhood has gained power. Since Mr. Obama withdrew American forces in Iraq, sectarian violence has markedly increased there, with the hard-won gains from the Bush administration’s surge being washed away. The war in Afghanistan is going poorly, while relations with the Karzai regime are quite bad, limiting American leverage in that nation (our much-trumped retreat of forces from Afghanistan have of course limited our leverage as well). Turkey is struggling to contain a political crisis that has threatened the nation’s economy and paralyzed the government. There are no prospects for genuine peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. The Libyan people are weary of two years of militia violence that has kept the country in chaos and stalled reform, with the government weak and unstable. And al Qaeda is ascendant in North Africa.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

My point in running through this parade of horribles isn’t to blame President Obama for every one of them. That would be silly. But it would be just as silly to pretend that Mr. Obama isn’t responsible for much, and in some cases most, of the multiplying failures we’re seeing sweep the world.

This much is clear: The president’s policies have, by almost every objective measure, failed. And they have failed by his own standards, his own promises, and his own words. What he said would happen has not; and the things he complained about have gotten worse. His incompetence in international affairs is staggering; and in some of these circumstances it will take years, in some cases decades, and in some cases generations to undo the damage, if we ever do.

What Barack Obama must know, at least in his quiet, private moments, is that conducting foreign policy turned out to be a lot harder than critiquing someone else’s foreign policy. That words aren’t substitutes for actions. That preening arrogance and empty threats don’t actually shape events on the ground. And that there is a high human cost to ineptitude.

After eight years the damage of the Obama legacy will be extraordinary. But the damage may be most acute in foreign policy, where events are continuing to spin out of control and our commander-in-chief doesn’t have any idea how to stop it.

This is not what America’s “moment to lead” and its “new beginning” was supposed to look like. 

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Belated Action on Syria Won’t Deter Iran

Yesterday’s decision by the Obama administration to arm Syrian rebels ended years of American dithering while more than 90,000 people were slaughtered by the Assad regime. But coming as it did after a month of victories in the field by Assad and his Iranian-backed Hezbollah auxiliaries, the idea that this belated measure will have much of an impact on the fighting seems wildly optimistic. After weeks of indecision about whether the president should make good on his promise to act should Bashar Assad cross the “red line” of using chemical weapons, the announcement seemed aimed more at redeeming Obama’s good name than its impact on the ground. Should the rebel stronghold of Aleppo fall to government attacks in the coming weeks, Obama’s belated move will be seen for what it is: a half-hearted gesture aimed more at silencing critics (such as former President Bill Clinton) than the result of a strategy aimed at protecting U.S. interests or saving lives. As our Max Boot wrote, there is good reason to believe nothing said or done by the U.S. at this point will stop the government offensive.

But the real problem with an administration response that is too little and too late to probably do any good is not so much the disaster that is unfolding in Syria as its impact on the looming U.S. confrontation with Iran. Some may hope the president’s long ratiocination about Syria portends an American willingness to translate the president’s tough rhetoric about stopping Iranian nukes into action. But it’s hard to argue how Tehran could interpret recent events in any manner other than one that will encourage them to think that they needn’t worry about Washington acting in time to stop them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

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Yesterday’s decision by the Obama administration to arm Syrian rebels ended years of American dithering while more than 90,000 people were slaughtered by the Assad regime. But coming as it did after a month of victories in the field by Assad and his Iranian-backed Hezbollah auxiliaries, the idea that this belated measure will have much of an impact on the fighting seems wildly optimistic. After weeks of indecision about whether the president should make good on his promise to act should Bashar Assad cross the “red line” of using chemical weapons, the announcement seemed aimed more at redeeming Obama’s good name than its impact on the ground. Should the rebel stronghold of Aleppo fall to government attacks in the coming weeks, Obama’s belated move will be seen for what it is: a half-hearted gesture aimed more at silencing critics (such as former President Bill Clinton) than the result of a strategy aimed at protecting U.S. interests or saving lives. As our Max Boot wrote, there is good reason to believe nothing said or done by the U.S. at this point will stop the government offensive.

But the real problem with an administration response that is too little and too late to probably do any good is not so much the disaster that is unfolding in Syria as its impact on the looming U.S. confrontation with Iran. Some may hope the president’s long ratiocination about Syria portends an American willingness to translate the president’s tough rhetoric about stopping Iranian nukes into action. But it’s hard to argue how Tehran could interpret recent events in any manner other than one that will encourage them to think that they needn’t worry about Washington acting in time to stop them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Iran is, after all, a key player in the Syrian mess. It was their decision to intervene in the civil war there and to send “volunteers” as well as its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries into the fray that stabilized Bashar Assad’s position when it appeared that he would fall as easily as President Obama predicted he would. While Obama talked about the fighting in Syria for two years before he lifted a finger to try to topple a dictator murdering tens of thousands of his own people, the Iranians jumped in with both feet and turned the tide of battle. While two years ago the announcement of American military aid to the rebels might have put a fork in Assad, it’s not clear the U.S. move will even slow Assad’s advance.

The primary focus of American foreign policy in the Middle East in the last two years has shifted from a futile attempt to convince the Palestinians to make peace to diplomacy aimed at convincing the Iranians to stand down on the nuclear question. But the lessons the Iranians are drawing from Syria will convince them to continue to stall negotiations and continue trying to run out the clock until their bomb becomes a reality.

Bolstered by their seeming victory in Syria and secure in the knowledge that their hegemony over a swath of the Middle East stretching from Tehran to Beirut is not going to be shaken, the ayatollahs see no reason to compromise with the West on the nuclear question. Driven by antagonism toward the West and genocidal fury at Israel, it’s unlikely that anything short of the use of force could deter Iran from going nuclear. But the proxy war that has unfolded in Syria has convinced them Obama is bluffing.

With the Syrian rebels divided between more presentable forces and al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, it’s difficult to argue with Americans who demand to know why aiding such a mixed bag of cutthroats is in the country’s interests. But the president’s belated decision is right because the alternative of letting Iran win in Syria without the West taking action is simply unacceptable. Were the U.S. to act now in such a manner as to deal the Iranians and Hezbollah a staggering blow, it might be argued that doing so would give Tehran reason to worry about what Obama would do about the nuclear question. But this minimalistic signal of U.S. displeasure with Assad will do nothing to scare Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Though some may hope this week is the harbinger of decisive action on Iran, all it will probably accomplish is to make the Iranians a bit more confident that Obama will do nothing to stop them from going nuclear.

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Is “Forced Fatherhood” Actually Forced?

If there’s one thing that liberals seem uncomfortable with above all else, it’s the importance of personal responsibility. With many issues that divide the right and the left, most come down to conservatives’ understanding that a need exists for individuals to be accountable for their own actions. As conservatives, we believe it is important to plan and provide for our own health care, retirement and finances, and families. Liberals, however, believe that this responsibility rests also with the government and fellow citizens, hence their promotion of ObamaCare, Social Security, welfare, food stamps, and public housing in place of private and charitable solutions to genuine poverty.

In yesterday’s New York Times we witnessed a jaw-dropping example of this phenomenon as Laurie Shrage, a professor of “gender studies” argues that just because a man impregnates a woman doesn’t mean he should be legally considered his child’s father. Shrage contends that only when a man chooses to take on that mantle should he be legally and socially required to take on the responsibilities of fatherhood, especially as it pertains to financial obligations like child support.  Read More

If there’s one thing that liberals seem uncomfortable with above all else, it’s the importance of personal responsibility. With many issues that divide the right and the left, most come down to conservatives’ understanding that a need exists for individuals to be accountable for their own actions. As conservatives, we believe it is important to plan and provide for our own health care, retirement and finances, and families. Liberals, however, believe that this responsibility rests also with the government and fellow citizens, hence their promotion of ObamaCare, Social Security, welfare, food stamps, and public housing in place of private and charitable solutions to genuine poverty.

In yesterday’s New York Times we witnessed a jaw-dropping example of this phenomenon as Laurie Shrage, a professor of “gender studies” argues that just because a man impregnates a woman doesn’t mean he should be legally considered his child’s father. Shrage contends that only when a man chooses to take on that mantle should he be legally and socially required to take on the responsibilities of fatherhood, especially as it pertains to financial obligations like child support. 

It should go without saying, but it appears it’s necessary to address: there is no such thing as forced fatherhood. Biologically, men are in a unique position to choose, far more than woman are, when and where sexual intercourse takes place. If a male partner is uninterested in becoming a parent, the choice is simple: don’t engage in sexual intercourse. Despite this simple and indisputable scientific fact, Shrage seems determined to set back feminism back 30 years, leaving women as the sole responsible parties for the children that they brought into the world with an act that biologically takes two to perform.

There is an undeniable and tragic correlation between poverty and households headed by single mothers. It’s a commentary on just how far liberalism has fallen when a woman takes to the pages of the Times to advocate a position that does nothing but set back her fellow women, families and America’s poor. If fractured American families have any hope of reversing this heartbreaking trend, women of all political stripes need to send the message to men that fatherhood is a virtue, a blessing, and that it is a choice that is made before their partner gets pregnant, not after. For the sake of our society, it’s time for men to take more responsibility, not less, for their reproductive choices. 

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GOP Should Listen to Santorum

Rick Santorum has had a hard time getting in the discussion about 2016. The deep bench of Republican contenders for the next presidential election has moved the unofficial runner up in the 2012 GOP contest to the party’s back burner. Most of the media seems to think that with Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan in the conversation, why bother listening to the guy who won 11 primaries and caucuses while giving Mitt Romney a run for his money a year ago? Santorum, who managed to overcome the same media indifference and skepticism throughout the winter and spring of 2012, is probably not going to do as well next time around. But he still has an important message for a party that has spent the last several months debating why Barack Obama beat them. Speaking yesterday at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, Santorum returned to a favorite theme during the last campaign: don’t ignore the working class.

Most Republicans have already accepted the truth of the two conclusions that both conservative activists and mainstream establishment types agree are the primary lessons of 2012: a. don’t use abortion and rape in the same sentence (call it the “Todd Akin rule”); and b. parties that oppose the excesses of the liberal welfare state shouldn’t nominate millionaire Wall Street executives (the “Mitt Romney rule”). While some on the right are still having trouble with the Akin rule, fortunately for the GOP, all of their likely 2016 contenders are officeholders, not hedge fund operators. But Santorum’s message goes farther than mere biography and points out why the convention theme that delighted most Republicans fell flat with the rest of the country.

Amid all the back and forth about what went wrong in 2012, no other Republican has criticized the Tampa Convention’s emphasis on a critique of President Obama’s infamous “You didn’t build that” comment. But Santorum understands that as much as the GOP’s paean to capitalism and individual initiative was correct and highly satisfying for conservatives, it also reinforced the Democratic attempt to smear Republicans as tools of the rich and inimitable to the interests of the middle class and workers.

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Rick Santorum has had a hard time getting in the discussion about 2016. The deep bench of Republican contenders for the next presidential election has moved the unofficial runner up in the 2012 GOP contest to the party’s back burner. Most of the media seems to think that with Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan in the conversation, why bother listening to the guy who won 11 primaries and caucuses while giving Mitt Romney a run for his money a year ago? Santorum, who managed to overcome the same media indifference and skepticism throughout the winter and spring of 2012, is probably not going to do as well next time around. But he still has an important message for a party that has spent the last several months debating why Barack Obama beat them. Speaking yesterday at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, Santorum returned to a favorite theme during the last campaign: don’t ignore the working class.

Most Republicans have already accepted the truth of the two conclusions that both conservative activists and mainstream establishment types agree are the primary lessons of 2012: a. don’t use abortion and rape in the same sentence (call it the “Todd Akin rule”); and b. parties that oppose the excesses of the liberal welfare state shouldn’t nominate millionaire Wall Street executives (the “Mitt Romney rule”). While some on the right are still having trouble with the Akin rule, fortunately for the GOP, all of their likely 2016 contenders are officeholders, not hedge fund operators. But Santorum’s message goes farther than mere biography and points out why the convention theme that delighted most Republicans fell flat with the rest of the country.

Amid all the back and forth about what went wrong in 2012, no other Republican has criticized the Tampa Convention’s emphasis on a critique of President Obama’s infamous “You didn’t build that” comment. But Santorum understands that as much as the GOP’s paean to capitalism and individual initiative was correct and highly satisfying for conservatives, it also reinforced the Democratic attempt to smear Republicans as tools of the rich and inimitable to the interests of the middle class and workers.

As Politico notes:

“One after another, they talked about the business they had built. But not a single—not a single —factory worker went out there,” Santorum told a few hundred conservative activists at an “after-hours session” of the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington. “Not a single janitor, waitress or person who worked in that company! We didn’t care about them. You know what? They built that company too! And we should have had them on that stage.”

When all you do is talk to people who are owners, talk to folks who are ‘Type As’ who want to succeed economically, we’re talking to a very small group of people,” he said. “No wonder they don’t think we care about them. No wonder they don’t think we understand them. Folks, if we’re going to win, you just need to think about who you talk to in your life.”

Trying to carve out a role as a leading populist in the 2016 field, Santorum insisted that Republicans must “talk to the folks who are worried about the next paycheck,” not the CEOs.

While Politico and most other observers see this as mainly an attempt to pile on Romney, Santorum actually has a broader point. In their haste to push back against the big government liberalism of Obama and his party, Republicans have sometimes seemed to forget that conservatives only succeed when they can appeal to rank-and-file Americans who are as suspicious of Wall Street as they are of the Internal Revenue Service and the rest of the governmental leviathan. A party that rightly venerates Ronald Reagan often forgets that even though his time as a spokesman for General Electric was pivotal in his political development, he ran against the elites, not as their spear-carrier.

The Tea Party movement protests helped win the 2010 midterms for Republicans because they were an expression of grass roots discontent about spending and taxing. But running for president requires more than just opposition to liberal plans. Candidates not only need to say what they are for but how their plans will affect the lives of working people. Much of the middle and working class embrace values of hard work and patriotism that might incline them to vote for Republicans so long as they feel GOP candidates care about their wellbeing.

There were a lot of reasons why Republicans failed in 2012. Perhaps even a perfect GOP candidate and campaign would not have been enough to persuade Americans to make the first African-American a one-term president. But the Republican failure to prevent the Democrats from seizing the mantle of the middle and working classes ensured their defeat.

The centrality of social conservatism in Santorum’s political personality will probably always make it impossible for him to win the Republican nomination, let alone actually be elected president. With a whole new class of attractive and dynamic GOP candidates set to run in 2016, it’s hard to imagine how he will be able to duplicate his unlikely surge in the last go round. But instead of ignoring him, Republicans should be listening to Santorum’s critique of their party. If they don’t, all of the non-millionaires lining up to be the nominee won’t get any closer to the Oval Office than Romney did.

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Chris Christie: The Pop Culture Candidate?

The election of 2016 is still a long way off, but that hasn’t stopped pundits and prognosticators (like us) from endlessly debating who may be running in our next presidential election. While Democrats have few reasonable contenders outside of Hillary Clinton, Republicans have had the opposite problem–there’s at least a dozen possible names currently floating around. From congressmen like Paul Ryan to Senators like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul to popular governors like Scott Walker and Chris Christie, the Republican bench is deep and varied. A great deal of vitriol has been written about the latter recently by conservatives, highlighting just how far out of favor the once beloved New Jersey governor has fallen in the eyes of grassroots activists and journalists. That hasn’t caused Christie to shy away from the spotlight, and it may have even been his plan all along to end up in conservatives’ doghouse all along.

There’s a number of contenders vying for the hearts and minds of the conservative grassroots: Rand Paul, who became a darling after his filibuster; Scott Walker, who has publicly, and successfully, taken on public sector unions in his state; and the current darling, I would argue, Ted Cruz, whose “Cruz to Victory” fundraising campaign soared to the top of Twitter’s “trending topics” at the height of its popularity. It’s not easy to make a fundraiser a trending topic, but the enthusiasm of his supporters made the push seem more like a pep rally than a request for donations.

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The election of 2016 is still a long way off, but that hasn’t stopped pundits and prognosticators (like us) from endlessly debating who may be running in our next presidential election. While Democrats have few reasonable contenders outside of Hillary Clinton, Republicans have had the opposite problem–there’s at least a dozen possible names currently floating around. From congressmen like Paul Ryan to Senators like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul to popular governors like Scott Walker and Chris Christie, the Republican bench is deep and varied. A great deal of vitriol has been written about the latter recently by conservatives, highlighting just how far out of favor the once beloved New Jersey governor has fallen in the eyes of grassroots activists and journalists. That hasn’t caused Christie to shy away from the spotlight, and it may have even been his plan all along to end up in conservatives’ doghouse all along.

There’s a number of contenders vying for the hearts and minds of the conservative grassroots: Rand Paul, who became a darling after his filibuster; Scott Walker, who has publicly, and successfully, taken on public sector unions in his state; and the current darling, I would argue, Ted Cruz, whose “Cruz to Victory” fundraising campaign soared to the top of Twitter’s “trending topics” at the height of its popularity. It’s not easy to make a fundraiser a trending topic, but the enthusiasm of his supporters made the push seem more like a pep rally than a request for donations.

The love and attention of die-hard Tea Partiers is difficult to attain, and often turns from gold to water at any real or perceived misstep. The career trajectory of Mitt Romney is an example of this phenomenon: in the 2008 primaries against John McCain, Romney was cheered as the conservative alternative, garnering a surprisingly enthusiastic (at least in retrospect) reception at CPAC that year. Just four years later in 2012, Romney was viewed as the “establishment” candidate; when Paul Ryan came on board, many in the conservative grassroots found themselves eager to throw their support behind the ticket for the first time. Fast forward to today, Paul Ryan himself is the latest conservative to find himself in the grassroots’ doghouse, with Heritage Action, a leader in the conservative movement, taking aim at the congressman for his support of immigration reform. 

With these colleagues in mind, it seems as though Chris Christie has decided to take a markedly different road on his quest for the 2016 Republican nomination. If he can’t maintain the support and enthusiasm of conservatives (which it seems he’s totally given up on), Christie may have formulated a strategy to form moderate and low-information voters as his base. As a moderate Republican governing a state as deep blue as New Jersey, it’s an interesting path, and it is perhaps the only way to maintain both his seat as governor and his boost chances as a presidential contender.

Many of our readers are likely not avid consumers of popular culture; I admit my own pop culture knowledge and familiarity is lacking to say the least. I’ve observed an interesting phenomenon taking place over the last several months, since Christie shot to mainstream national fame with his response to Hurricane Sandy and his numerous photo-ops with President Obama at the time and since. Many friends and family who have no interest whatsoever in politics have sent me stories they come upon on Chris Christie they find in their daily Internet trawls, often humorous and always on sites I wouldn’t normally visit myself (TMZ, People magazine and other celebrity news homepages). Trying to forge a common ground, they often say “Hey, this is related to your job and kind of funny, this Christie guy is a piece of work!” Since the Hurricane Sandy photo-op I’ve heard much less about Christie from conservatives who once eagerly sent around his YouTube videos shouting down hecklers at town hall events, and I’ve been hearing quite a bit more about him from folks who were the sort that had to be reminded that November 6 was Election Day last year.

The Sandy move may have angered conservatives, but it seems to have cemented Christie in the minds of moderate, low-information voters as an affable and relatable guy who cares more about people and policy than politics. Christie has turned that opening into a chance to introduce himself to Americans as the mainstream Republican who isn’t quite as scary and conservative as some of the other guys who may be on the ballot. From sit down interviews with People magazine about romancing his wife to ones chronicling his struggle with weight loss, Christie and his staff seem to understand better than most Republicans how to speak to women voters, and where best to reach them.

Christie is also targeting young voters on topics and sites that interest them, like with his boardwalk confrontation with Snooki, a reality star, making the heavily trafficked celebrity gossip site TMZ. Not to leave out the mainstream male demographic, Christie appeared on the late-night show Jimmy Fallon this week, “slow-jamming” the news with the host. The “slow-jam” was at times funny, at times uncomfortable, and eminently viral (you can watch it here on the New York Post‘s website). Christie withstood a few jabs about his weight and basically made a press conference speech about why he chose to hold a special election for the Senate seat that the late Frank Lautenberg recently left open. It’s incredible just how far Fallon let Christie take his own self-promotion, and Fallon even serenaded the governor with the famous Jersey ballad “Born to Run,” referencing Fallon’s desire for Christie to make a go in 2016. The whole appearance, from start-to-finish, felt more like a campaign ad than a segment on late-night television. 

Chris Christie may be the first Republican who has manipulated the mainstream media as well as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama once did. The former pioneered the strategy, famously appearing on MTV and divulging his preference for briefs on a segment of Rock the Vote during his bid for reelection and playing the saxophone while he was still candidate Bill in 1992. Barack Obama has been a mainstay on late-night television during both campaigns and as president, not to mention in the pages of People magazine, often appearing there more frequently than individuals who have publicists that do nothing but work to get their images into those glossy pages.

As sad as it may be for the future of American political discourse, it seems that Christie’s attempts to ingrain himself in the pop culture world will likely get him farther than candidates who are planning on spending their energies in the next few years bolstering their records, lists of accomplishments and endorsements. If Rand Paul or Marco Rubio want to find themselves brainstorming their cabinet appointees in 2016, they should be spending more time romancing late-night hosts and a little less time filibustering and crafting legislation. Such a strategy may not make for an informed or enlightened electorate, but it seems to be the best way to find oneself in the West Wing.

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The Iran Election Optimists

Give Secretary of State John Kerry some credit. His blind faith in the magic of his diplomatic prowess has led him to embark on a futile effort to revive the Middle East peace process and to an equally foolish attempt to get Russia’s Putin regime to play ball with the United States on Syria. Such endeavors are more or less the moral equivalent of belief in the Tooth Fairy, but at least Kerry doesn’t think the Iranian presidential election going on today will have any impact on his equally fruitless efforts to craft a diplomatic solution to the standoff on Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. Last month Kerry rightly dismissed the notion that a new president chosen by the sham vote would have the slightest effect on the nuclear question since all power there rests in the hands of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But for those determined to ignore the truth about Iran’s intransigence as well as its phony election, that sort of a position is much too sensible. Hence the New York Times editorial today that said, “the election is important because it gives Iran and the United States a fresh diplomatic opportunity to avoid a dangerous confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program.”

It takes a special kind of tunnel vision to imagine that an election in which no one who opposes the policies of the Islamist regime is allowed to run and in which the candidates are competing for an office that does not have the power to change Iran’s foreign or nuclear policy is any kind of opportunity for the United States. But the willingness of the Times to hang its editorial hat on the election is instructive. The rationale for their argument is not so much a belief that Hassan Rowhani, the so-called “moderate” in the Iranian race, will really be able to influence Khamenei’s decisions as it is to nudge President Obama to offer Tehran more concessions in order to make the entire subject go away. The word “containment” does not appear in the editorial nor is it a policy that the administration says it is considering. But far from actually offering an option for the United States to “diplomatically rein in an Iranian nuclear program that could quickly produce a weapon,” a post-election initiative to make nice with the ayatollahs seems to aim at just such an accommodation. What the Times really seems to be doing is to try and smooth the way for an American decision to live with a nuclear Iran.

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Give Secretary of State John Kerry some credit. His blind faith in the magic of his diplomatic prowess has led him to embark on a futile effort to revive the Middle East peace process and to an equally foolish attempt to get Russia’s Putin regime to play ball with the United States on Syria. Such endeavors are more or less the moral equivalent of belief in the Tooth Fairy, but at least Kerry doesn’t think the Iranian presidential election going on today will have any impact on his equally fruitless efforts to craft a diplomatic solution to the standoff on Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. Last month Kerry rightly dismissed the notion that a new president chosen by the sham vote would have the slightest effect on the nuclear question since all power there rests in the hands of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But for those determined to ignore the truth about Iran’s intransigence as well as its phony election, that sort of a position is much too sensible. Hence the New York Times editorial today that said, “the election is important because it gives Iran and the United States a fresh diplomatic opportunity to avoid a dangerous confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program.”

It takes a special kind of tunnel vision to imagine that an election in which no one who opposes the policies of the Islamist regime is allowed to run and in which the candidates are competing for an office that does not have the power to change Iran’s foreign or nuclear policy is any kind of opportunity for the United States. But the willingness of the Times to hang its editorial hat on the election is instructive. The rationale for their argument is not so much a belief that Hassan Rowhani, the so-called “moderate” in the Iranian race, will really be able to influence Khamenei’s decisions as it is to nudge President Obama to offer Tehran more concessions in order to make the entire subject go away. The word “containment” does not appear in the editorial nor is it a policy that the administration says it is considering. But far from actually offering an option for the United States to “diplomatically rein in an Iranian nuclear program that could quickly produce a weapon,” a post-election initiative to make nice with the ayatollahs seems to aim at just such an accommodation. What the Times really seems to be doing is to try and smooth the way for an American decision to live with a nuclear Iran.

The point here is not so much an argument about the Iranian electoral system. Even the Times concedes the voting doesn’t mean the Iranian people have any kind of a voice in their government. Nor is there any reason to think the election of the “moderate” will influence the country’s nuclear decision making. Anyone who has followed the country’s politics since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 knows that such moderates only put a slightly more presentable face on a totalitarian regime that is inveterately hostile to the West and has genocidal impulses toward Israel.

The only possible way the election can be construed as an “opportunity” is not in terms of actually persuading Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. Rather, it seems to be a chance for the president to do what the Times editorial board has often hinted is its real goal in the Iranian tangle: getting the president to begin walking back five years of promises never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.

After more than a decade of Western diplomacy aimed at bribing or cajoling the Iranians to halt their nuclear program, there is no reason to believe further efforts—even those involving major concessions by the West—will succeed. Khamenei believes Obama is bluffing and, as with critics of his phony election, the supreme leader thinks he has the ability to tell everyone to go “to hell,” including Obama and Kerry.

President Obama knows, just like his cheerleaders at the Grey Lady, that time is running out to stop Iran, as the newspaper’s editorial language about nukes being “quickly produced” indicated. But the president’s faith in diplomacy has reinforced the Iranian belief that they have nothing to worry about from the West. More diplomacy of the kind the Times recommends is exactly what Khamenei and whichever of his stooges is elected president wants. Rather than using the election as a springboard for more doomed attempts at outreach to Tehran, President Obama should respond to the new president with the sort of credible warning about the consequences of further prevarication on Iran’s part that no one in the regime has ever really heard.

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Snowden and the Transparency Trap

Following up on its publication of the NSA surveillance program, the Guardian introduced the world to its source, Edward Snowden, painting an expectedly sympathetic portrait of him as a public-minded “whistleblower” on June 9. The previous weekend, the Guardian introduced readers to the former girlfriend of Aaron Swartz, the open-Internet hacker and activist who committed suicide in January. Swartz was a “fierce proponent of the open access movement — which promotes free and easy access to the world’s knowledge online.”

The day after the Guardian introduced us to Snowden, it introduced us to his (former) girlfriend, Lindsay Mills. Combing through her public blog, the reporter told us that it contained “some hints in the blog that Mills shared Snowden’s passion for civil liberties issues. In one of the most intriguing updates, in October last year, Mills posted a picture of a woman – presumably her – wearing the V for Vendetta mask, symbolic of the Anonymous movement,” referring to the hacking collective.

One of these things is not like the others.

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Following up on its publication of the NSA surveillance program, the Guardian introduced the world to its source, Edward Snowden, painting an expectedly sympathetic portrait of him as a public-minded “whistleblower” on June 9. The previous weekend, the Guardian introduced readers to the former girlfriend of Aaron Swartz, the open-Internet hacker and activist who committed suicide in January. Swartz was a “fierce proponent of the open access movement — which promotes free and easy access to the world’s knowledge online.”

The day after the Guardian introduced us to Snowden, it introduced us to his (former) girlfriend, Lindsay Mills. Combing through her public blog, the reporter told us that it contained “some hints in the blog that Mills shared Snowden’s passion for civil liberties issues. In one of the most intriguing updates, in October last year, Mills posted a picture of a woman – presumably her – wearing the V for Vendetta mask, symbolic of the Anonymous movement,” referring to the hacking collective.

One of these things is not like the others.

But which one stands apart depends much on how you interpret the actions and intentions of Snowden. The Guardian itself makes no distinctions among all these personalities, ludicrously associating a “passion for civil liberties issues” with cyber anarchists. It’s easy to tell the difference between Anonymous and Aaron Swartz, a gifted young activist who wanted to free up academic articles to the public. With whom, then, would we associate Snowden? The distinctions the Guardian refuses to draw cannot be so easily avoided by politicians, less even by American politicians, and still less by those with designs on the White House.

This makes Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s take on Snowden of great political interest–all the more so because of Paul’s libertarianism and the legacy of his father’s following, which attracted those who took their suspicion of big government to its aggressive, conspiracy-theory extremes. Paul is leading the charge against the NSA surveillance and its broader implications for the security state, even rallying a class-action suit against the NSA by telecom customers.

Yet the challenge for Paul is how he answers the following question: What is Edward Snowden? Some call him a traitor, others a hero, and to everyone else he’s somewhere in between. And so Paul must decide whether he can lead a movement without embracing–or even while condemning–its latest mascot. Apparently not. RealClearPolitics has the video of Paul’s remarks to CNN on Wednesday:

SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY): I do know that committing civil disobedience is a — is a big step forward and history has treated people in various fashions. Some people who commit civil disobedience have been treated heroes, some have not…. how will history treat the person who was trying to defend the Fourth Amendment?

I think that’s still open to be said. I think there do need to be rules, that being said, about people not revealing secrets. And I think the divulging of all kinds of secrets that endanger lives is wrong. But in this case, I think he was divulging a program that I think clearly, there are constitutional questions about and for which the director of Intelligence frankly lied to the U.S. Senate and said, we’re not collecting any data on any Americans, when, in fact, they’re doing a billion pieces of data every day.

Paul obviously does not go so far as to put Snowden on the pedestal that so many have. But a practitioner of “civil disobedience” and defender of the Fourth Amendment are among the more positive labels Snowden has been tagged with by American political leaders. And even if you don’t believe Snowden was a traitor to his country, neither can it be plausibly argued that Snowden–who subsequently revealed American intelligence operations against China while hiding out in Hong Kong–was merely acting in the name of transparency or civil libertarian instincts, as Max Boot explained the same afternoon that Paul was interviewed on CNN. The latest incident sparked concerns that Snowden would actually defect to China, as ABC reported yesterday:

In an interview Wednesday with Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, Snowden said his country “had been hacking into computers in Hong Kong and [in China] for years.”

Those remarks alarmed intelligence officials, who considered those statements as much of a betrayal as his alleged leaking of highly classified files on the NSA’s vast surveillance program to two newspapers last week, the senior official said.

Intelligence officials may consider it “as much of a betrayal” as the earlier leaks, but in seeking to understand Snowden and his motivations they are worlds apart. It has been argued that the vast nature of the data collection means its exposure does not present America’s enemies with specific enough information to enable them to bypass the NSA security apparatus. If you believe that, then it’s easy to also believe that Snowden is a defender of the Constitution and an advocate of government transparency.

But he is not. He is handing over American security secrets to help China–an authoritarian country ruled by a secretive elite that condemns its critics to gulags or worse. And now he is believed to be contemplating defecting to that country. A crusader on behalf of reining in government power and expanding individual rights and freedoms does not aid China.

As the case develops, attitudes toward Snowden are bound to change, because it is becoming increasingly clear that he is not the noble statesman of his ego-driven imagination. And as those opinions change, Paul’s will hopefully change with them. And if there is a lesson here for Paul, it is that the current generation of transparency “hacktivists” are not constitutionalists or patriots. To this WikiLeaks generation, liberal democracy is not the goal. Aspiring American presidents shouldn’t be fooled into thinking it is.

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The Virtue of Gratitude

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin was awarded on Wednesday night the Bradley Prize for 2013. (The other worthy recipients were Paul Clement, Mitch Daniels, and Roger Ailes.)

Yuval’s remarks are beautifully crafted, insightful and even moving. One really should read them in their entirety, for what they say about gratitude.

Yuval points out that conservatives tend to demonstrate thankfulness for “what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.” It is because conservatives understand, or should understand, the fallen nature of man and the imperfection of life on this earth that we tend to appreciate incremental improvements instead of expecting perfection. We also understand that there will be missteps and setbacks along the way. This way of looking at the world also prevents, or should prevent, conservatives from being in a near-constant state of anger and agitation.

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My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin was awarded on Wednesday night the Bradley Prize for 2013. (The other worthy recipients were Paul Clement, Mitch Daniels, and Roger Ailes.)

Yuval’s remarks are beautifully crafted, insightful and even moving. One really should read them in their entirety, for what they say about gratitude.

Yuval points out that conservatives tend to demonstrate thankfulness for “what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.” It is because conservatives understand, or should understand, the fallen nature of man and the imperfection of life on this earth that we tend to appreciate incremental improvements instead of expecting perfection. We also understand that there will be missteps and setbacks along the way. This way of looking at the world also prevents, or should prevent, conservatives from being in a near-constant state of anger and agitation.

But gratitude is also a human virtue, among the most attractive and winsome one can find in an individual. It can have something to do with circumstances, of course. There are times when grief and sadness overwhelm gratitude, at least for a season. But as a general matter, over the course of a lifetime, gratitude has a good deal more to do with an attitude of mind and an orientation of the heart than with outside conditions. It includes the ability to be content in the moment, even in moments of some challenge and hardship, rather than always striving, always feeling as if we are getting less than we deserve, never content with what we have.

The Scottish author John Buchan wrote, “I was brought up in times when one was not ashamed to be happy, and I have never learned the art of discontent.” He added, “It seems to me that those who loudly proclaim their disenchantment with life have never been really enchanted by it. Their complaints about the low levels they dwell in ring hollow, for they have not known the uplands.” To be in the company of people who are genuinely enchanted with life is among the greatest gifts life affords. 

Gratitude is also a theological virtue, one animating both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. (The eucharist, the most important sacrament in the Christian church, comes from the Greek word eucharistia, meaning “thanksgiving.”) The Jewish and Christian reasons for gratitude have to do with the goodness of God, an appreciation for His intervention in human affairs and the beauty of His creation, and confidence that there is purpose even in the midst of hardships. And for some of us there is also belief in a place “afar from the sphere of our sorrows,” one that is our true home and marks the beginning of a new story after this story.

The Bradley Foundation has done a great service by rewarding relatively early in his career an individual who is already having a tremendous influence on conservatism and American politics. Yuval Levin’s speech about the power and implications of a grateful heart demonstrates why he is worthy of the award he received, and why there’s so much to look forward to in the years ahead.

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A Teachable Moment for American Jews?

As Jonathan Tobin noted yesterday, the Palestinian Authority has voiced vehement opposition to Natan Sharansky’s plan to build an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall. But I think it’s too soon to call this an “impassable obstacle,” as he does; there’s an important step that needs to be taken first: a thorough survey of American Jews asking whether, in light of this opposition, they favor proceeding with the plan. By this, I don’t just mean a telephone poll of 500 or 1,000 random Jews; ideally, I’d like every Reform or Conservative congregation in America to discuss this question with its membership–for two reasons.

One is that the new egalitarian section seems to matter more to American Jews than to Israelis, since Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements are so much smaller (about 7 percent of all Israeli Jews). Therefore, it’s only fair to get their input before making any decision. The more important reason, however, is that this could provide a genuine teachable moment in the kind of trade-offs Israelis face every day in dealing with the Palestinians, to which liberal American Jews–i.e. the majority of the American Jewish community–have lately grown increasingly unsympathetic.

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As Jonathan Tobin noted yesterday, the Palestinian Authority has voiced vehement opposition to Natan Sharansky’s plan to build an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall. But I think it’s too soon to call this an “impassable obstacle,” as he does; there’s an important step that needs to be taken first: a thorough survey of American Jews asking whether, in light of this opposition, they favor proceeding with the plan. By this, I don’t just mean a telephone poll of 500 or 1,000 random Jews; ideally, I’d like every Reform or Conservative congregation in America to discuss this question with its membership–for two reasons.

One is that the new egalitarian section seems to matter more to American Jews than to Israelis, since Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements are so much smaller (about 7 percent of all Israeli Jews). Therefore, it’s only fair to get their input before making any decision. The more important reason, however, is that this could provide a genuine teachable moment in the kind of trade-offs Israelis face every day in dealing with the Palestinians, to which liberal American Jews–i.e. the majority of the American Jewish community–have lately grown increasingly unsympathetic.

Most liberal American Jews have two main demands of Israel: They want it to recognize the non-Orthodox denominations, and they want it to make peace with the Palestinians, right now. The latter demand isn’t confined to fringe anti-Israel activists; it’s routinely voiced by long-time Israel supporters like Rabbi Eric Yoffie or Leon Wieseltier. So I’d like all these Jews to seriously consider this question: When these two primary demands conflict, what do you do–capitulate to the PA in the interests of “peace” and give up on being able to pray at the Western Wall in your own fashion, or insist on your rights at the Wall at the cost of further antagonizing the Palestinians, for whom modifications of the Western Wall Plaza are no less objectionable than new outposts in the heart of the West Bank?

Dilemmas no less wrenching confront Israel every day in dealing with the Palestinians, but because they don’t affect American Jews directly, the latter are often too quick to accuse Israel of being intransigent over a trivial point it should just concede in the name of peace. They deplore Israel’s refusal to agree to a border roughly along the 1967 lines, not understanding the enormous security risks this creates; they deplore Israel’s refusal to release murderers to woo the Palestinians to the negotiating table, not understanding the major role freed prisoners have repeatedly played in fomenting new terrorism; they deplore Israel’s reluctance to redivide Jerusalem, not understanding how unlikely it is that the city would remain open afterward, or how devastating a repartition would therefore be.

American Jews won’t understand the details of these issues any better after confronting their own Palestinian dilemma over the Western Wall. But just maybe, they’ll understand that dealing with the Palestinians isn’t quite so simple as they seem to think it is. And if so, the Palestinians will have done a great service to Israel’s relationship with American Jewry.

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