Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 2013

Sequester Already Taking Toll on Military

The news media have, by and large, stopped writing about sequestration and Congress has stopped agitating about it. So it stands to reason that it’s not that big of a deal, right? Surely the doomsayers who predicted grave consequences from willy-nilly cutting $1 trillion from the budget over the next decade–including more than $500 billion in defense cuts–have been proven wrong. Not quite. In fact, sequestration is already taking a serious toll on our military readiness–and the impact is only going to get worse over time.

In the Wall Street Journal, retired Air Force general David Deptula warns:

In the Air Force alone, more than 30 squadrons are now grounded, along with aircrews, and maintenance and training personnel. The U.S. military’s foremost air-combat training exercise—Red Flag—has been canceled for the rest of the year. The graduate schools for Air Force, Navy and Marine combat aviators have been canceled. Equipment testing and upgrades to F-22s, F-15s, F-16s and other aircraft have been delayed.

And it’s not just the Air Force that is feeling the hit. In the Washington Post, columnist David Ignatius writes:

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The news media have, by and large, stopped writing about sequestration and Congress has stopped agitating about it. So it stands to reason that it’s not that big of a deal, right? Surely the doomsayers who predicted grave consequences from willy-nilly cutting $1 trillion from the budget over the next decade–including more than $500 billion in defense cuts–have been proven wrong. Not quite. In fact, sequestration is already taking a serious toll on our military readiness–and the impact is only going to get worse over time.

In the Wall Street Journal, retired Air Force general David Deptula warns:

In the Air Force alone, more than 30 squadrons are now grounded, along with aircrews, and maintenance and training personnel. The U.S. military’s foremost air-combat training exercise—Red Flag—has been canceled for the rest of the year. The graduate schools for Air Force, Navy and Marine combat aviators have been canceled. Equipment testing and upgrades to F-22s, F-15s, F-16s and other aircraft have been delayed.

And it’s not just the Air Force that is feeling the hit. In the Washington Post, columnist David Ignatius writes:

The Army is sharply cutting training above the basic squad and platoon level. All but one of the Combat Training Center rotations scheduled for brigades this fiscal year have been canceled. Depot maintenance has been halted for the rest of the fiscal year, meaning that six divisions won’t have the necessary equipment readiness. The Army will cut 37,000 flying hours from its aviation training, creating a shortfall of 500 pilots by the end of the fiscal year….

The Navy reports that by the end of this fiscal year, two-thirds of its non-deployed ships and aviation squadrons won’t meet readiness targets. The Navy has also delayed planned fleet deployments, including the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman to the Persian Gulf and the frigate USS Thach to the South Atlantic. “In the near term, we will not be able to respond in the way the nation has expected and depended on us,” Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, told Congress in February.

All of these developments are highly worrisome for anyone who thinks–as I do–that U.S. military strength is the greatest force for peace in the world. Because sequestration is a relatively recent development it would not be hard to reverse the slide in readiness–now. But as the months and years go by, the lack of training for our fighting men and women will become harder and harder to reverse. We are, on the current trajectory, headed for a reprise of the “hollow” military of the 1970s.

That period of military weakness was an invitation to Communist aggression from Afghanistan to Nicaragua. Communism is no longer a mortal danger to the United States, but Islamism is. We can only wait and worry to see how today’s looming weakness will invite aggression from our current enemies.

It is high time that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior officers spoke out more vocally about the self-inflicted destruction the forces under their command are now experiencing. There have been a few warnings from the brass–for instance the statement quoted above from Admiral Greenert–but, on the whole, they have been all too silent in the face of looming disaster, presumably because they have been muzzled by a White House that is de facto committed to not repealing sequestration unless Republicans agree to massive tax hikes.

The admirals and generals have a legal and moral duty to speak the truth, and to warn us about the degradation of the combat forces they lead. They must make clear to lawmakers and the public that it is not too late to stop this disaster, but time is running out.

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Awarding Olympics to Istanbul Would Discourage Reform

I have written before about the International Olympic Committee’s fast approaching decision about which city to award the 2020 Summer Olympics. There are three finalists: Istanbul, Madrid, and Tokyo. At the core of my initial criticism was that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was framing Turkey’s right to host the Olympics in terms of religion: Turkey would be the first Muslim-majority country to host the games. That would have set a negative precedent in which religious quotas rather than other host qualities become a predominant factor. Regardless, the point should be moot for other reasons: Dubai is the front runner for 2024 and is also majority Muslim, but unlike Turkey, its ruler has not framed the city’s bid in religion.

I also admittedly have been cynical about Erdoğan’s broader motivation: according to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, the prime minister has used his position to amass great wealth. The billions in construction contracts that would accompany an Istanbul Olympics could propel Erdoğan—a man who already has more than a dozen corruption cases against him—into the ranks of the world’s richest man.

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I have written before about the International Olympic Committee’s fast approaching decision about which city to award the 2020 Summer Olympics. There are three finalists: Istanbul, Madrid, and Tokyo. At the core of my initial criticism was that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was framing Turkey’s right to host the Olympics in terms of religion: Turkey would be the first Muslim-majority country to host the games. That would have set a negative precedent in which religious quotas rather than other host qualities become a predominant factor. Regardless, the point should be moot for other reasons: Dubai is the front runner for 2024 and is also majority Muslim, but unlike Turkey, its ruler has not framed the city’s bid in religion.

I also admittedly have been cynical about Erdoğan’s broader motivation: according to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, the prime minister has used his position to amass great wealth. The billions in construction contracts that would accompany an Istanbul Olympics could propel Erdoğan—a man who already has more than a dozen corruption cases against him—into the ranks of the world’s richest man.

When I criticized Istanbul’s case, however, on Erdoğan’s illiberal policies, correspondents pointed out that the International Olympic Committee has never associated the hosting of the Olympics with an endorsement of any particular country’s human rights situation. That’s true historically, as the 1936 Berlin, 1980 Moscow, and 2008 Beijing games demonstrate, and it is also the case with regard to the 2014 Sochi winter games and the Dubai 2024 bid. But in the post-Cold War era, there has also been an undercurrent that the Olympics might improve society or encourage continued liberalization. That certainly was a factor in the Beijing award.

Alas, as the IOC’s September 2013 decision looms about the 2020 Games, they should recognize that, in the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests, confirming the 2020 Olympics on Istanbul could do serious harm to Turkey. Rather than recognize that the protests are largely a reaction to his own autocratic style, Erdoğan has doubled down on both his own intolerance, endorsement of police brutality, and bizarre anti-Semitic conspiracies. No longer, it seems, is the “Interest Rate Lobby,” as Erdoğan now labels his imagined Jewish conspiracy, just targeting Turkey. Rather, it has Brazil in its sites as well. Nor are the Jews the only conspirators with which Erdoğan now obsesses: On August 5, a judiciary whose independence Erdoğan has eroded will render judgment against dozens of former military officers, journalists, and other officials whom Erdoğan has patched together in a convoluted conspiracy that doesn’t pass the most basic of smell tests. To cap it off, rather than investigate the police abuse which helped sparked Turkey’s recent unrest, Erdoğan has endorsed it.

Turkey is in a fragile state: The Gezi protests have exposed long-simmering fissures which will only worsen if Erdoğan can use the 2020 Olympics as his excuse to bulldoze over political opponents and civil society. Nor are the Kurdish peace talks going well. While Turks celebrated a peace process announced with the long-outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) just two days before the International Olympic Committee’s official visit to Istanbul, both Turks and Kurds are beginning to recognize that the agreement was not just for the PKK to lay down its arms, but that the PKK seeks equally momentous decisions on Turkey’s end, including the release of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, and eventual confederation between Turks and Kurds inside Turkey. If the Turks are not prepared to meet such demands, violence could return to Turkey in the run-up to the Olympics. Istanbul, after all, is now the city with the largest Kurdish population in the world.

Someday Istanbul will host the Olympics, and it will do so with a charm and a friendliness that few other cosmopolitan cities can match. That day cannot come during Erdoğan’s tenure, however, for should the International Olympic Committee choose Istanbul when they meet in Buenos Aires on September 7, they will ensure that the 2020 Olympics will be associated with strife, not celebration.

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Sacrificing Security for Mythical Backlash

After the Boston Marathon bombing there were questions as to how the FBI missed the threat from the Tsarnaev brothers despite warnings from the Russian security services about Chechen extremists. But just as alarming were the reports that the elder of the two terrorists had become an advocate of extremism within his mosque, creating scenes that scared and alienated fellow congregants. That story brought to mind the beating the New York City Police Department has taken in the last two years after it was revealed that the cops were devoting resources to monitor suspicious activities at local mosques that might be gathering places for terrorists. But instead of the example of the failure of Boston-area police to pick up on signs that the Tsarnaevs might be dangerous serving to bolster support for NYPD policies, the department finds itself under siege for seeking to do its job.

The New York Times issued another broadside against the NYPD today which expresses support for a lawsuit brought against the police in federal court for surveillance of Muslim sites. Like the attack on the department for its stop and frisk policy, the decision of the Times and other liberals to go all in on efforts to halt scrutiny of places where terror may be advocated approaches the issue with little concern for the safety of New Yorkers or for the Constitution. The NYPD’s actions are not only constitutional but also, as the Boston case illustrated, necessary. Just as important, the lawsuit seems rooted in the notion of a mythical post-9/11 backlash that remains unproven except in the minds of the liberal media and groups that purport to represent Muslims.

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After the Boston Marathon bombing there were questions as to how the FBI missed the threat from the Tsarnaev brothers despite warnings from the Russian security services about Chechen extremists. But just as alarming were the reports that the elder of the two terrorists had become an advocate of extremism within his mosque, creating scenes that scared and alienated fellow congregants. That story brought to mind the beating the New York City Police Department has taken in the last two years after it was revealed that the cops were devoting resources to monitor suspicious activities at local mosques that might be gathering places for terrorists. But instead of the example of the failure of Boston-area police to pick up on signs that the Tsarnaevs might be dangerous serving to bolster support for NYPD policies, the department finds itself under siege for seeking to do its job.

The New York Times issued another broadside against the NYPD today which expresses support for a lawsuit brought against the police in federal court for surveillance of Muslim sites. Like the attack on the department for its stop and frisk policy, the decision of the Times and other liberals to go all in on efforts to halt scrutiny of places where terror may be advocated approaches the issue with little concern for the safety of New Yorkers or for the Constitution. The NYPD’s actions are not only constitutional but also, as the Boston case illustrated, necessary. Just as important, the lawsuit seems rooted in the notion of a mythical post-9/11 backlash that remains unproven except in the minds of the liberal media and groups that purport to represent Muslims.

Contrary to the Times, these measures do not inspire “suspicion and distrust.” Instead, they are quite rational reactions to an unfortunate rash of religion-based terrorism in this country that can be traced directly back to a brand of extremist Islam. Try as they might, critics of the NYPD cannot pretend that a strain of Islamist practitioners has promoted hatred of the West and the United States. All too often, the United States has paid for its indifference to these terror promoters in the blood of its citizens as organized groups and loan wolves threaten mayhem.

It should be specified, as Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has often said, that the overwhelming majority of American Muslims are loyal and hardworking citizens. But asking the police to ignore major sources of terror in the name of restoring the country to its September 10, 2001 mindset is a recipe for potential disaster.

Kelly is absolutely right to dismiss criticisms of his anti-terror policies. The critics of the department have failed to prove that the investigations of some mosques have in any way hindered the First Amendment rights to freedom of religion of the congregants. What they have done is made it harder for extremists to hijack religious institutions for criminal purposes.

It is to be hoped that the courts will uphold the NYPD’s decisions, but the cumulative weight of efforts to curb the necessary scrutiny of terror on our home shores may yet overwhelm the efforts of those who have taken the responsibility to prevent such crimes. In this case the sympathies of the courts, as well as those of the American people, should be with those who are seeking to defend America, not those who are trying to stop them from doing their jobs.

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The Right Climate to Torpedo the Economy?

You might think that with a historically weak recovery and, as John Steele Gordon wrote this morning, worries about the Federal Reserve’s actions affecting the stock market, this is a time when President Obama would be focusing like a laser beam on the economy. But you’d be wrong about that. As Ross Douthat noted yesterday in the New York Times, the administration’s second term priorities are at odds with those of the public. Instead of dealing with health care costs and entitlement reform (the issues most Americans consider the highest priorities), the president spent the start of his term hyperventilating about gun control. After switching to immigration reform for a while (something that I think is worth doing but is certainly not as important as cleaning up the mess that ObamaCare is about to create or reforming entitlements), tomorrow he will perform another pivot and unveil a major plan to lessen the effects of climate change in a speech at Georgetown University.

As he said over the weekend in a video released by the White House, it will include far-reaching measures that will introduce new limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants among other unspecified ideas that will largely be put into force by executive order rather than legislation. In one fell swoop, Obama will not only gratify his liberal base by pandering to their obsessions, he will also undertake a vast expansion of executive power in which the executive branch will assume near dictatorial proportions under the rubric of regulation. Whatever one may think about the science behind this plan—and there is very little sign that the president is operating on anything but on the basis of his ideological biases—there is no question that any plan that will hamper power production on this scale will have a deleterious impact on the chances that the country can sustain its economic recovery by raising the costs of energy and killing jobs. That he will do so in a manner that ought to set off alarm bells about the separation of powers and will generate a blizzard of lawsuits that could tie up his plan for years only illustrates the poor judgment being exhibited by the president.

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You might think that with a historically weak recovery and, as John Steele Gordon wrote this morning, worries about the Federal Reserve’s actions affecting the stock market, this is a time when President Obama would be focusing like a laser beam on the economy. But you’d be wrong about that. As Ross Douthat noted yesterday in the New York Times, the administration’s second term priorities are at odds with those of the public. Instead of dealing with health care costs and entitlement reform (the issues most Americans consider the highest priorities), the president spent the start of his term hyperventilating about gun control. After switching to immigration reform for a while (something that I think is worth doing but is certainly not as important as cleaning up the mess that ObamaCare is about to create or reforming entitlements), tomorrow he will perform another pivot and unveil a major plan to lessen the effects of climate change in a speech at Georgetown University.

As he said over the weekend in a video released by the White House, it will include far-reaching measures that will introduce new limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants among other unspecified ideas that will largely be put into force by executive order rather than legislation. In one fell swoop, Obama will not only gratify his liberal base by pandering to their obsessions, he will also undertake a vast expansion of executive power in which the executive branch will assume near dictatorial proportions under the rubric of regulation. Whatever one may think about the science behind this plan—and there is very little sign that the president is operating on anything but on the basis of his ideological biases—there is no question that any plan that will hamper power production on this scale will have a deleterious impact on the chances that the country can sustain its economic recovery by raising the costs of energy and killing jobs. That he will do so in a manner that ought to set off alarm bells about the separation of powers and will generate a blizzard of lawsuits that could tie up his plan for years only illustrates the poor judgment being exhibited by the president.

Obama signaled that he would prioritize his beliefs about the climate in his second inaugural speech, so no one should be surprised by his decision to gamble his dwindling supply of political capital on an issue that is liable to hurt rather than help the economy. The president will, of course, argue that his green plan is good for the economy in the long run and tout his belief that more regulations will help transform the country and create jobs in industries that provide alternatives to the burning of fossil fuels. But the country has already been down this road in the first term as Obama’s stimulus boondoggle provided cash for Solyndra and other “green” corporations that proved to be cash cows for the president’s major contributors but a disaster to the taxpayers that were fleeced to bolster companies that couldn’t stand on their own.

The administration’s defense of this decision to bypass Congress will be to claim that the legislative branch has failed to act. But there is a reason why both Republicans and Democrats have been reluctant to implement the sort of Christmas tree of regulations that will be presented tomorrow: it is likely to hurt an already skittish economy. The high-minded gloss of idealism and gloom and doom predictions about our future that fuel the president’s climate push will be used by liberals to dismiss objections about the impact on the economy of this project. But Obama and his cheerleaders in the liberal media—who have been urging him to usurp power in this manner to further the global warming agenda for years—the danger that adding on new layers of federal regulations to an industry already sinking under the weight of government rules is real.

It should also be noted that given the anger on Capitol Hill and among the electorate about a trio of scandals that center on abuse of government power, the notion that the president would seek to govern on his own in this manner is curious. One would think the administration would be wary of feeding suspicions about extra-constitutional usurpation of power right now. But, like worries about the economy, concerns about the Constitution are always going to run second to ideology in the Obama White House.

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Kerry Doesn’t Set American Foreign Policy

When rumors first started after the 2008 election that President Obama was going to nominate Hillary Clinton to serve as secretary of state, there were concerns in some corners that she would be trouble for the president. She had her own “Washington power base” and was thought to have retained her desire to one day be president and would want to shape her legacy at State accordingly. That turned out not to be the case, as Clinton was a loyal soldier.

And that wasn’t because she agreed with Obama on the administration’s major foreign policy strategies. Though we didn’t quite know it at the time, Clinton actually disagreed with Obama on fairly significant issues. When Clinton left the State Department, we learned that she had pushed for a plan to arm the Syrian rebels last year and increase American intervention in that country’s bloody civil. She was rebuffed by the president. After the November election, she also made a speech that was far more critical of Russia than her boss ever was, and in fact expressed the kind of hostility that Obama was mocking Republicans for:

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When rumors first started after the 2008 election that President Obama was going to nominate Hillary Clinton to serve as secretary of state, there were concerns in some corners that she would be trouble for the president. She had her own “Washington power base” and was thought to have retained her desire to one day be president and would want to shape her legacy at State accordingly. That turned out not to be the case, as Clinton was a loyal soldier.

And that wasn’t because she agreed with Obama on the administration’s major foreign policy strategies. Though we didn’t quite know it at the time, Clinton actually disagreed with Obama on fairly significant issues. When Clinton left the State Department, we learned that she had pushed for a plan to arm the Syrian rebels last year and increase American intervention in that country’s bloody civil. She was rebuffed by the president. After the November election, she also made a speech that was far more critical of Russia than her boss ever was, and in fact expressed the kind of hostility that Obama was mocking Republicans for:

“There is a move to re-Sovietize the region,” Clinton lamented.

“It’s not going to be called that. It’s going to be called customs union, it will be called Eurasian Union and all of that,” she said, referring to Russian-led efforts for greater regional integration. “But let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”

The criticism coupled with the threat to derail the customs union was a marked departure from the previous four years of U.S.-Russia diplomacy. The point is that the foreign policy espoused by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton differed, sometimes dramatically, from her ideal foreign policy. We got the former instead of the latter because secretaries of state are not policymakers. They are unelected (though Senate-confirmed) representatives of the policy standpoints of the elected president. It’s a lesson of which John Kerry and his backers at the New York Times need reminding, if this past weekend’s puff piece on Kerry’s new role at Foggy Bottom is any clue.

As I wrote recently, Kerry’s visit to Moscow last month to nudge Vladimir Putin on Syria was a belly flop. Putin kept him waiting, all but ignored him when they met, and then continued crossing Washington’s wishes in the Middle East. But the New York Times has a slightly different recollection than everyone else who reported on the meeting. It’s not that they dispute what happened; they’re just able to put a heroic gloss on it:

Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Moscow early last month, determined to involve Russia in a new push to try to end the carnage in Syria. After a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, and a private stroll with Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, the two sides announced they would convene a conference in Geneva to bring representatives of the Syrian government together with the opposition, possibly by the end of May.

The idea of a conference was a bold move — and so far, at least, an unsuccessful one.

This is diplomacy, Kerry-style. Call for a conference whose futility is painfully obvious and return home to the paper of record’s ticker tape parade. A bold move, thunders the Times. In the next paragraph we are told that although the “bold move” was a bust, Kerry was “undaunted.” That’s because of Kerry’s desire to differentiate himself from Clinton–whom the Times refers to here as a mere “global celebrity”–and “carve out a legacy as one of the most influential secretaries of state in recent years by taking on some of the world’s most intractable problems.”

But of course Kerry is in no position to decide for himself where he’d like to take American foreign policy, because of what the Times calls “the centralization of foreign policy decision-making in a White House that has famously maintained a tight grip on foreign policy — so much so that before taking the job, Mr. Kerry received an assurance that he would be consulted before major foreign policy decisions were made.”

No one should begrudge Kerry–or any secretary of state–the desire to leave a lasting legacy, especially since he has spent so much time in Washington and would presumably like to be remembered for something other than losing a presidential election. But policy is made in the White House. If Obama wants Kerry to undertake a 2013 version of shuttle diplomacy to engineer peace in the Middle East then that’s what Kerry will do. And even in such a case, Kerry would still be constrained by the parameters of what the White House is willing to offer and what they are not.

Kerry’s record on foreign affairs suggests we should keep our expectations of him modest. But no matter his abilities or ambitions, he, like every chief U.S. diplomat, answers to the president.

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Arizona Gov Declares Border Surge Victory

Most critics of the bipartisan immigration reform bill being debated in the Senate were nonplussed by the latest compromise offered by the gang of eight. The so-called “border surge” proposed by Senators Bob Corker and John Hoeven was panned by many conservative activists, writers and politicians who seemed to be looking for excuses to dismiss the massive commitment to border security as somehow not enough or not a credible plan to deal with the problem of illegal immigration. But one of the main players in the ongoing efforts by conservatives to force the federal government to act to curb illegal immigration has endorsed the measure. Yesterday on Fox News, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer endorsed the gang’s bill and declared it “a victory for Arizona.”

Brewer has been in the cross hairs of liberals like President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder for her state’s attempt to cope with the flood of illegals that federal apathy had created. Indeed, the state bill she signed into law and then defended in the federal courts that sought to allow law enforcement officers to ask about a crime suspect’s immigration status made her public enemy No. 1 for the left. But while some on the right have been falling over themselves to prove to the GOP grass roots that they won’t agree to any reform of our immigration laws that allows a path to citizenship, Brewer made it clear that the bipartisan measures satisfied her well known objections to existing federal policy on illegals. It remains to be seen how much influence Brewer’s decision will have on Congress, but this is a clear blow to the campaign being waged on the right to pressure Republicans to block the immigration bill.

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Most critics of the bipartisan immigration reform bill being debated in the Senate were nonplussed by the latest compromise offered by the gang of eight. The so-called “border surge” proposed by Senators Bob Corker and John Hoeven was panned by many conservative activists, writers and politicians who seemed to be looking for excuses to dismiss the massive commitment to border security as somehow not enough or not a credible plan to deal with the problem of illegal immigration. But one of the main players in the ongoing efforts by conservatives to force the federal government to act to curb illegal immigration has endorsed the measure. Yesterday on Fox News, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer endorsed the gang’s bill and declared it “a victory for Arizona.”

Brewer has been in the cross hairs of liberals like President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder for her state’s attempt to cope with the flood of illegals that federal apathy had created. Indeed, the state bill she signed into law and then defended in the federal courts that sought to allow law enforcement officers to ask about a crime suspect’s immigration status made her public enemy No. 1 for the left. But while some on the right have been falling over themselves to prove to the GOP grass roots that they won’t agree to any reform of our immigration laws that allows a path to citizenship, Brewer made it clear that the bipartisan measures satisfied her well known objections to existing federal policy on illegals. It remains to be seen how much influence Brewer’s decision will have on Congress, but this is a clear blow to the campaign being waged on the right to pressure Republicans to block the immigration bill.

Though many on the right have complained, with some justification, that the predictions of doom for the GOP if they oppose immigration reform are overstated and an effort to “intimidate” them, the real intimidation is the attempt by conservatives to buffalo House Republicans into thinking they will be defeated in primaries by the minority of the party that opposes any immigration measure, no matter how reasonable or how much it prioritizes border security.

Conservatives have come up with a variety of reasons to oppose the reform bill in the past few days. Some have put forward procedural arguments, claiming the bill is too complicated or too lengthy. That’s a fair point, though its advocates should be honest enough to admit it is more pretext than cause as Republicans never scrupled to support long, complicated bills if they approved of their purpose. But conscious of the fact that the key issue for most Americans on immigration has been border security, their most effective line of argument has been the claim that the Corker-Hoeven Amendment is either a sham or won’t actually do the job its proponents claim it can do. But Brewer, who has been on the front lines of the border battle more than any other Republican politician in recent years, gives the lie to this assertion.

Brewer has said that Congress should look carefully at the bill and try to make it better if possible. But the bottom line for her is that Congress finally seems on the brink of passing a measure that heeds the cries for help that Arizonans have made for years. It’s easy for those who aren’t dealing with the problems incurred by the porous border to be skeptical about doubling the number of border patrol personnel or finishing 700 more miles of fence, among other measures in the bill. But Brewer knows that this will make a tangible difference for a state that has borne the brunt of the federal government’s indifference and incompetence. If Jan Brewer, of all people, considers this bill a victory for those who have been pushing for the United States to assert its sovereignty over the border with Mexico, how can others credibly complain that it does nothing to alleviate the concerns of critics of the status quo?

For years, conservatives have said any plan to address immigration reform must include a serious scheme to bolster border security. The Corker-Hoeven Amendment provides just that. While the eventual fate of the bill is still very much in doubt, Brewer’s endorsement puts its opponents on notice that no one is going to buy their claims that the reason they are trying to torpedo it has anything to do with protecting America’s borders.

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Putin Is Cleaning Obama’s Clock

Barack Obama’s “reset” with Russia is really going well, don’t you think?

Russia is defying America by granting Edward Snowden, who exposed some of the most classified secrets of our government, safe haven as he continues to elude capture. As Reuters reports:

Washington was stung by Russian defiance… The White House said it expected the Russian government to send Snowden back to the United States and lodged ‘strong objections’ to Hong Kong and China for letting him go. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said during a visit to India that it would be “deeply troubling” if Moscow defied the United States over Snowden, and said the fugitive “places himself above the law, having betrayed his country”. But the Russian government ignored the appeal and President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary denied any knowledge of Snowden’s movements. Asked if Snowden had spoken to the Russian authorities, [Dmitry] Peskov said: “Overall, we have no information about him.”

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Barack Obama’s “reset” with Russia is really going well, don’t you think?

Russia is defying America by granting Edward Snowden, who exposed some of the most classified secrets of our government, safe haven as he continues to elude capture. As Reuters reports:

Washington was stung by Russian defiance… The White House said it expected the Russian government to send Snowden back to the United States and lodged ‘strong objections’ to Hong Kong and China for letting him go. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said during a visit to India that it would be “deeply troubling” if Moscow defied the United States over Snowden, and said the fugitive “places himself above the law, having betrayed his country”. But the Russian government ignored the appeal and President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary denied any knowledge of Snowden’s movements. Asked if Snowden had spoken to the Russian authorities, [Dmitry] Peskov said: “Overall, we have no information about him.”

This comes on top of Russia defying America’s wishes in the Syrian civil war, with Russia once again reasserting its presence in the Middle East after having been essentially expelled from there in the 1970s (a product of Henry Kissinger’s masterful diplomacy).

Russia was an early and strong supporter of the Assad regime, while America is a late and weak supporter of the rebel groups. President Obama wants Russia to help us; Putin wants Assad to win. And thanks in good measure to Russia, Assad (and hence Iran) is winning.

The Syrian debacle comes in the aftermath of Obama scrapping in 2009 a missile-defense system the Poles and the Czech Republic had agreed to house despite Russian threats, as a way to pacify Putin. (“The U.S. reversal is likely to please Russia, which had fiercely opposed the plans,” CNN reported at the time.)

Add to that Putin’s support for Iran’s nuclear ambitions and his crackdown at home. (The Washington Post writes that in “an attempt to suppress swelling protests against his rigged reelection and the massively corrupt autocracy he presides over, Mr. Putin has launched what both Russian and Western human rights groups describe as the most intense and pervasive campaign of political repression since the downfall of the Soviet Union.”). Taken all together, you can see that the Obama “reset”–which at the dawn of the Obama administration was described as a “win-win” strategy for both nations–has been a rout for the Russians.

With the Snowden situation, Vladimir Putin seems intent not only defying America but embarrassing her. It turns out that an irresolute amateur like Barack Obama was the best thing that the brutal but determined Putin could have hoped for.

He’s cleaning Obama’s clock.

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Don’t Count on Iran Regime Change

Michael Rubin is on target when he writes today to say that in much of the discussion about the dangerous game Iran has been playing throughout the Middle East, too much focus has been on putting out the fire and not enough on stopping the arsonist. The main problem in dealing with the nuclear issue as well as a host of other conflicts in which the ayatollahs have a finger in the pie is the Islamist regime, not their specific decisions to create havoc. The problems of the United States, the moderate Arab regimes and Israel, will, as he says, never be fully resolved until the malevolent influence of Tehran is ended by replacing the Islamic Republic with a government that neither oppresses its people nor funds terror abroad. But to argue, as he also does, that this should be the sole focus of American policy toward Iran is not a practical plan for dealing with the situation in Syria, let alone the clear and present danger of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

While much can and should, as Michael wrote in COMMENTARY three years ago, be done to promote regime change, counting on such efforts bearing fruit in the limited time left until the Iranians are able to enrich enough weapons-grade uranium to create a bomb strikes me as being as realistic as the blind faith President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry seem to have in diplomacy doing the trick. Moreover, to rule out air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, as Michael also urges, would seem to be giving the regime an ironclad guarantee that no one will interfere with their plans. Whatever the ultimate effect of such strikes on Iran’s nuclear timetable might turn out to be—and others are far more optimistic about their impact than Michael—such an attack may not only be the best method available to stop the Iranians, they may also be the only measure that is remotely feasible for the United States to implement if President Obama is to make good on his pledge to never allow Tehran to get such a weapon.

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Michael Rubin is on target when he writes today to say that in much of the discussion about the dangerous game Iran has been playing throughout the Middle East, too much focus has been on putting out the fire and not enough on stopping the arsonist. The main problem in dealing with the nuclear issue as well as a host of other conflicts in which the ayatollahs have a finger in the pie is the Islamist regime, not their specific decisions to create havoc. The problems of the United States, the moderate Arab regimes and Israel, will, as he says, never be fully resolved until the malevolent influence of Tehran is ended by replacing the Islamic Republic with a government that neither oppresses its people nor funds terror abroad. But to argue, as he also does, that this should be the sole focus of American policy toward Iran is not a practical plan for dealing with the situation in Syria, let alone the clear and present danger of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

While much can and should, as Michael wrote in COMMENTARY three years ago, be done to promote regime change, counting on such efforts bearing fruit in the limited time left until the Iranians are able to enrich enough weapons-grade uranium to create a bomb strikes me as being as realistic as the blind faith President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry seem to have in diplomacy doing the trick. Moreover, to rule out air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, as Michael also urges, would seem to be giving the regime an ironclad guarantee that no one will interfere with their plans. Whatever the ultimate effect of such strikes on Iran’s nuclear timetable might turn out to be—and others are far more optimistic about their impact than Michael—such an attack may not only be the best method available to stop the Iranians, they may also be the only measure that is remotely feasible for the United States to implement if President Obama is to make good on his pledge to never allow Tehran to get such a weapon.

Rubin is right to raise the issue of regime change because one constant element of the P5+1 negotiations between the West and Iran has been the presumption that any deal would obligate the powers to foreswear efforts to overthrow the Islamist regime. While the Iranians show no sign of being wise enough to accept that deal, this is an extremely shortsighted policy. Nevertheless, even if all of Michael’s proposals to “hasten the day” when the world will no longer have to cope with this terrorist theocracy succeed eventually, there is no reason to believe that this would be the magic bullet that would eliminate the regime in time to avert the prospect of its Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei having his finger on the nuclear button.

In 2010, Michael rightly pointed out that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would probably cause most Iranians to rally around the regime even if they didn’t like being ruled by them. But he also said that didn’t rule out the need for an air strike: History offers lessons in what not to do. Iranians may dislike their government, but they dislike foreign invaders even more. Even limited U.S. military action would likely strengthen the regime even if the initial effect would be to cause it to teeter. This does not mean that military action might not be necessary; an Islamic Republic with nuclear weapons is the worst possible scenario. But we should not count on military action providing a deathblow to the regime.

That formulation of the relative importance of these two issues is even more apt today as the Iranians are three years closer to realizing their nuclear ambition and even more confident that their diplomatic prevarications will continue to succeed to fend off the feeble Western attempts to resolve the problem. It is possible that Michael is right that even successful air strikes on Iran’s facilities would not end the threat for all time and might necessitate further attacks in the future. But the assumption that an Iran whose economy is weakened by sanctions would be able to start again so easily may be mistaken. At worst, such strikes would give the West additional time to work on regime change or to tighten sanctions to the point where such an outcome might actually be possible. Without the credible threat of force, no effort at diplomatic engagement will ever resolve this problem. But by the same token, neither would efforts aimed at regime change work on their own.

Just as important is the fact that we can’t approach the Iranian problem as if it were a theoretical problem rather than one that takes place in an actual political context. Like it or not, Barack Obama is the president and will be in office for the next three years, not a figure like George W. Bush who would be more open to talk about regime change. Though he ought to be working toward that end, it is highly unlikely an Obama administration will ever do what is needed to facilitate a change in power in Tehran. Though it is far from certain that the day will ever dawn when the president will admit diplomacy has failed and take the necessary military action to forestall an Iranian bomb, there is a better chance that will happen than a scenario in which the U.S. actively pushes to overthrow the Islamists. At this point arguing against military strikes even as a last resort amounts to a unilateral pledge of non-interference against Iran, not a way to facilitate the end of Islamist tyranny.

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Obama’s Diplomatic Humiliation

Forget “Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?” The hottest real-time game in the world is: Where in the world is Edward Snowden? The rogue NSA techie—who, in the judgment of the NSA’s head, Gen. Keith Alexander, “has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies”—has fled Hong Kong and wound up in Moscow. He was rumored to be heading to Ecuador via Havana but he didn’t make the Aeroflot flight he was expected to take, leaving a pack of journalists who bought tickets to photograph an empty seat. So presumably Snowden remains in Russia at least for the time being, with rumors swirling that Ecuador or possibly Venezuela remain his destination of choice.

No matter what he’s up to, he’s making the United States government look foolish. Hong Kong’s decision—which, in effect, means Beijing’s decision—to let him leave even though he is wanted on felony charges in the United States and had his passport suspended suggests that notwithstanding the positive atmospherics from the recent summit meeting between President Obama and President Xi Jinping, there remain sharp limits on how far the Communist regime is willing to go to accommodate American concerns. Indeed, Beijing seems to be positively reveling in Snowden’s unfortunate revelations about the NSA’s penetration of Chinese computer networks, which serves to deflect attention from the much more massive intrusions into computer networks both foreign and domestic that Beijing routinely undertakes. Vladimir Putin, for his part, doesn’t seem to have heard of any “reset” in relations with the U.S. He, too, appears happy to grant Snowden sanctuary, at least for a short while, as a way of giving Uncle Sam the middle finger.

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Forget “Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?” The hottest real-time game in the world is: Where in the world is Edward Snowden? The rogue NSA techie—who, in the judgment of the NSA’s head, Gen. Keith Alexander, “has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies”—has fled Hong Kong and wound up in Moscow. He was rumored to be heading to Ecuador via Havana but he didn’t make the Aeroflot flight he was expected to take, leaving a pack of journalists who bought tickets to photograph an empty seat. So presumably Snowden remains in Russia at least for the time being, with rumors swirling that Ecuador or possibly Venezuela remain his destination of choice.

No matter what he’s up to, he’s making the United States government look foolish. Hong Kong’s decision—which, in effect, means Beijing’s decision—to let him leave even though he is wanted on felony charges in the United States and had his passport suspended suggests that notwithstanding the positive atmospherics from the recent summit meeting between President Obama and President Xi Jinping, there remain sharp limits on how far the Communist regime is willing to go to accommodate American concerns. Indeed, Beijing seems to be positively reveling in Snowden’s unfortunate revelations about the NSA’s penetration of Chinese computer networks, which serves to deflect attention from the much more massive intrusions into computer networks both foreign and domestic that Beijing routinely undertakes. Vladimir Putin, for his part, doesn’t seem to have heard of any “reset” in relations with the U.S. He, too, appears happy to grant Snowden sanctuary, at least for a short while, as a way of giving Uncle Sam the middle finger.

Then we come to Ecuador, whose president, Rafael Correa, appears to be bidding for leadership of the anti-American bloc in Latin America—a position left open by Fidel Castro’s enfeeblement and Hugo Chavez’s death. He has already granted refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy to WikiLeaks founder and accused rapist Julian Assange. Now he may very well try to grant sanctuary to Snowden too. He is entitled to do that, but Washington should make clear to him that if he does so he will suffer the consequences—including a loss of trade privileges that could threaten the $10.7 billion worth of goods that nation exports to the U.S. every year.

This is all, it must be said, a colossal embarrassment for President Obama. He looks, to unsympathetic eyes at least, to be a budding tyrant (witness all of the absurd and overheated comparisons between the NSA’s measured and carefully controlled activities and those of authoritarian states such as China and Iran which spy on their own people to suppress dissent)—and a notably ineffectual one at that who can’t even snare one Pepsi-swilling, pizza-gobbling computer geek.

It may well be that case that a Republican president—John McCain or Mitt Romney—would have had no more success in apprehending Snowden, but the equanimity with which other states rebuff our appeals for his apprehension makes clear that the U.S. is suffering a significant loss of respect. Quite simply, the U.S. is no more universally loved than it was prior to Obama’s ascension—and now we are less respected too. As anyone who consults Machiavelli will know, this is not a recipe for a prince’s success.

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From Fugitive to Hostage for Snowden?

Such is the interest in Edward Snowden’s travel plans that a plane taking off without him on board is newsworthy. But the news that a Moscow-to-Cuba plane left Sheremetyevo Airport without Snowden is receiving prominent placement–and three reporter bylines, as well as seven contributing bylines for background on the story–on the New York Times’s website.

That may seem like overkill, but in fact it’s appropriate. And it may signal that the diplomatic angle of this case is about to escalate. Over the weekend, Snowden left Hong Kong with Cuba or Ecuador as his expected destination but with a stopover in Moscow first. Though he was seemingly there only to catch his connecting flight, that would have been a strange development, considering that Vladimir Putin has more to gain from virtually any scenario other than one in which Snowden just passes through Russia on his continuing search for asylum.

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Such is the interest in Edward Snowden’s travel plans that a plane taking off without him on board is newsworthy. But the news that a Moscow-to-Cuba plane left Sheremetyevo Airport without Snowden is receiving prominent placement–and three reporter bylines, as well as seven contributing bylines for background on the story–on the New York Times’s website.

That may seem like overkill, but in fact it’s appropriate. And it may signal that the diplomatic angle of this case is about to escalate. Over the weekend, Snowden left Hong Kong with Cuba or Ecuador as his expected destination but with a stopover in Moscow first. Though he was seemingly there only to catch his connecting flight, that would have been a strange development, considering that Vladimir Putin has more to gain from virtually any scenario other than one in which Snowden just passes through Russia on his continuing search for asylum.

The Obama administration has asked Russia to send Snowden back to the U.S. for prosecution. That means Putin can win points from the Obama administration and its allies in the West by complying and cooperating. Or he can play to domestic anti-Americanism–as China did by refusing to extradite Snowden–and let the fugitive leaker continue on his journey. But each of those two options can be “supersized,” so to speak, by detaining Snowden first.

Earlier reports from the Times shed light on the timing of Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong:

Two Western intelligence experts, who worked for major government spy agencies, said they believed that the Chinese government had managed to drain the contents of the four laptops that Mr. Snowden said he brought to Hong Kong, and that he said were with him during his stay at a Hong Kong hotel.

If that were the case, they said, China would no longer need or want to have Mr. Snowden remain in Hong Kong.

Chinese authorities seemed anxious to get rid of Snowden since they didn’t want to hand him over to the U.S. and didn’t want to be the center of public pressure over it. But they obviously wanted to know everything Snowden knew, and since no thinking person would ever take Snowden’s word for anything, they could not just ask him. There was likely no need to ask anyway, and the Times report suggests that was indeed the case.

So China chose Option No. 2: play to domestic anti-Americanism and let Snowden go. But the Chinese leadership made sure to maximize its benefits by getting access to all of Snowden’s information first. Letting Snowden leave was almost certainly a strategic error on China’s part, since they could have won credit for returning Snowden to the U.S. while still obtaining all the U.S. government secrets Snowden carried with him and ensured that no one else would gain access to Snowden.

Russia and China may act in concert at the UN Security Council, but they are rivals. Letting Snowden go to Russia enabled the Russian security services to try their hand at wringing secrets out of Snowden, and perturbed the U.S. For the same reasons, it would have been strategically foolhardy for Russia to simply ignore Snowden. And today’s Times report very credibly hints that Putin never truly considered this option:

It was unclear how Mr. Snowden spent his time at the airport or precisely where. The departure of the flight to Havana from Moscow came after an all-night vigil by journalists who were posted outside a hotel in the transit zone of the airport where Mr. Snowden was apparently staying. But on Monday morning, hotel staff said that no one named Snowden was staying there.

Russian news services had reported that Mr. Snowden would take the flight to Cuba, prompting a late rush for tickets from the horde of journalists gathered at the airport. But others dismissed it as a ruse to put the news media and others off Mr. Snowden’s trail.

One of the reasons Snowden’s decision to flee to Hong Kong was so detrimental to the U.S. was because, as Max Boot pointed out presciently and immediately, he would be almost certainly unable to hide the information he held on electronic devices from the Chinese government, even if he wanted to withhold the state secrets. It’s unclear whether Russian hacking abilities match those of the Chinese government, but what the Putin regime may lack in technological proficiency it can certainly make up in persuasive questioning from the FSB.

Snowden’s detour through Russia, then, is likely to yield an intelligence windfall for Putin regardless of what he decides to do with Snowden once Snowden goes from being a useful idiot to a useless idiot. Thus it never made much sense for Putin to stand aside. Today’s reports align much more with common sense. Now, if Putin does get the intel he’s looking for from Snowden, what he does next will depend on whether he cares more about domestic opinion or America’s. Putin can do what China did and appeal to nationalist sentiment by refusing to extradite Snowden to the U.S. Or he can one-up China by gaining Snowden’s intelligence and then winning Western plaudits by cooperating.

Russian public opinion has not recently been at the forefront of Putin’s mind, but then again neither has Obama’s. Of course, he could hand Snowden over to American authorities only in return for some additional concession, outplaying both the U.S. and China. It would be ironic, certainly, for Snowden to flee the U.S. in the name of openness and transparency only to become a hostage of the Russian security services.

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Gaza Illustrates Palestinian Statehood

Secretary of State John Kerry is about to head to the Middle East again to restart the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. His goal remains a deal to create an independent Palestinian state and thereby end the conflict for all time. But as much as Israelis crave peace, along with the rest of the world they are getting another good look today at what happens in an independent Palestinian state and the result is far from pretty. That’s the only rational way to process what happened earlier today as the Islamic Jihad group fired half a dozen rockets at southern Israel from Gaza. Israel responded with air strikes on the terrorists and the upshot was that for the first time in six months the fragile cease-fire between the Hamas rulers of the strip and Israel seemed in danger. But as the Times of Israel pointed out, the rockets were not so much aimed at Israelis (though if some Jews had been killed that would have been considered a welcome bonus by the shooters) as they were at Hamas.

That sounds confusing, but it actually makes perfect sense. Hamas and Islamic Jihad share a commitment to violence against Israel and imposing Islamist law on Palestinians. But the two have different patrons. Islamic Jihad is now backed by Iran, which used to supply Hamas with weapons, while Hamas now is tight with Turkey, which is opposing the Iranians in Syria. But with Hamas worried about starting another round of fighting with Israel just at the time when it wants to keep pressure up on its real rival—Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank—support for Islamic Jihad is apparently starting to grow. That has led to a crackdown of sorts by Hamas on Islamic Jihad. Hence, the rockets fly as the Palestinians maneuver against each other by shooting at Jews.

While the fight between two factions of extremist terrorists may not seem particularly relevant to Americans, Washington should be paying close attention to this battle since it is a preview of what may happen in the even more strategic West Bank in the unlikely event that Kerry gets his way and Israel is forced to abandon not just settlements but the military presence that keeps a lid on terrorism. With all the talk about the need to create a Palestinian state for the sake of justice or even to assure that Israel remains a Jewish state, Gaza provides a daily clinic on the consequences of more Israeli territorial withdrawals.

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Secretary of State John Kerry is about to head to the Middle East again to restart the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. His goal remains a deal to create an independent Palestinian state and thereby end the conflict for all time. But as much as Israelis crave peace, along with the rest of the world they are getting another good look today at what happens in an independent Palestinian state and the result is far from pretty. That’s the only rational way to process what happened earlier today as the Islamic Jihad group fired half a dozen rockets at southern Israel from Gaza. Israel responded with air strikes on the terrorists and the upshot was that for the first time in six months the fragile cease-fire between the Hamas rulers of the strip and Israel seemed in danger. But as the Times of Israel pointed out, the rockets were not so much aimed at Israelis (though if some Jews had been killed that would have been considered a welcome bonus by the shooters) as they were at Hamas.

That sounds confusing, but it actually makes perfect sense. Hamas and Islamic Jihad share a commitment to violence against Israel and imposing Islamist law on Palestinians. But the two have different patrons. Islamic Jihad is now backed by Iran, which used to supply Hamas with weapons, while Hamas now is tight with Turkey, which is opposing the Iranians in Syria. But with Hamas worried about starting another round of fighting with Israel just at the time when it wants to keep pressure up on its real rival—Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank—support for Islamic Jihad is apparently starting to grow. That has led to a crackdown of sorts by Hamas on Islamic Jihad. Hence, the rockets fly as the Palestinians maneuver against each other by shooting at Jews.

While the fight between two factions of extremist terrorists may not seem particularly relevant to Americans, Washington should be paying close attention to this battle since it is a preview of what may happen in the even more strategic West Bank in the unlikely event that Kerry gets his way and Israel is forced to abandon not just settlements but the military presence that keeps a lid on terrorism. With all the talk about the need to create a Palestinian state for the sake of justice or even to assure that Israel remains a Jewish state, Gaza provides a daily clinic on the consequences of more Israeli territorial withdrawals.

Hard as it is for some people to remember, when Israel withdrew every last soldier or settler from Gaza in 2005, it was not assumed that the strip would become a terrorist base. Rather, there was hope that it would provide a chance for the Palestinians to show that they truly could govern themselves. But from the first day after the withdrawal—when mobs burned abandoned synagogues and tore down the greenhouses that had been purchased from their owners to give to the Palestinians to use—what has happened in Gaza is a walking, talking illustration of what the world could expect if the independent Palestinian state that we are endlessly told is the only solution to the conflict ever actually comes to pass.

Of course, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, Gaza is for all intents and purposes already an independent Palestinian state in all but name. Though some claim that the fact that it doesn’t have complete control over its borders means it is still “occupied,” that is nonsense. It is true that both Israel and Egypt have sought to isolate the Hamas regime, but the Islamist group exercises effective sovereignty over the area. Moreover, if that is the measure of independence, do advocates of complete Palestinian independence over the West Bank expect Israel to accept a militarized West Bank or one that is free to allow the entry of foreign weapon supplies or even armed forces? If so, then the danger that such a state would pose to Israel is even greater than some have thought.

The point here is not so much to dismiss all the arguments that have been assembled on behalf of the creation of a Palestinian state by both Americans and Israelis out of hand. Most Israelis would like to be separated from the Palestinians of the West Bank. Indeed, after the terrorism of the second intifada, most want nothing to do with them and reject the idea that there can be any ultimate solution to the conflict that does not involve two states that would allow the two peoples to exercise their right of self-determination alongside each other. So long as violent groups dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state dominate the political culture of the Palestinians, the prospect of the West Bank becoming another Gaza makes the high-flown rhetoric about the two-state solution look naive at best.

The main obstacle to peace remains the inability of Fatah to do what Hamas and Islamic Jihad will not consider: recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and to renounce the so-called right of return that would swamp Israel with the descendants of the 1948 Arab refugees. If they were ever able to do that and to convincingly promise that this ended the conflict rather than just pausing it, they’d find Israel ready to deal. After all, Israel has already offered the Palestinians a state three times only to find each one rejected. But so long as Palestinian independence is synonymous with terror groups and their infighting, Kerry will find few serious observers heeding his calls. Anyone who wants to know why Israelis are skeptical about a Palestinian state in the West Bank need only look at Gaza.

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The Fed Hints

One major part of the job of the Federal Reserve is to keep the economy on an even keel, not booming too much nor going into recession. (The other major parts are to protect the banking system, and to prevent inflation.) So when the Great Recession hit in 2008, the Fed dropped the Fed Funds rate to near zero, which has the effect of lowering interest rates generally, hopefully stimulating the economy. It also began flooding the street with money through open-market operations, buying federal bonds, thus increasing the cash balances of banks, giving them more money to lend.

That’s the easy part of keeping the economy on an even keel. The tricky bit is when and how abruptly to reverse course. The balance sheet of the Fed has grown enormously in the last few years and at some point the money it has created has to be withdrawn from the economy, again by open-market operations, this time selling federal bonds. If that weren’t done, it’s possible a 1970s inflation could break out. But there is always strong political pressure to keep money cheap.

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One major part of the job of the Federal Reserve is to keep the economy on an even keel, not booming too much nor going into recession. (The other major parts are to protect the banking system, and to prevent inflation.) So when the Great Recession hit in 2008, the Fed dropped the Fed Funds rate to near zero, which has the effect of lowering interest rates generally, hopefully stimulating the economy. It also began flooding the street with money through open-market operations, buying federal bonds, thus increasing the cash balances of banks, giving them more money to lend.

That’s the easy part of keeping the economy on an even keel. The tricky bit is when and how abruptly to reverse course. The balance sheet of the Fed has grown enormously in the last few years and at some point the money it has created has to be withdrawn from the economy, again by open-market operations, this time selling federal bonds. If that weren’t done, it’s possible a 1970s inflation could break out. But there is always strong political pressure to keep money cheap.

The economy has clearly been improving, with corporate profits up and housing prices now rising. Since most families’ net worth is concentrated in their homes, a rising housing market makes people feel richer. And that makes them more likely to go out and buy, pumping up the economy. To be sure, unemployment is stubbornly high, but it’s a lagging indicator, tending to recover more slowly than other economic indicators.

So Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, has begun to hint that the Fed’s quantitative easing is drawing to a close. It’s been buying $85 billion worth of federal bonds a month. The markets have been reacting badly to Bernanke’s Delphic pronouncements. The Dow was above 15,300 last Tuesday. Right now it’s below 14,700, a drop of four percent. With the prospect of interest rates rising, bonds have been declining as well.

But these are short-term flutters in the stock market. It is corporate profits that determine the movement of equities. As long as corporate profits are strong and growing, the market will not swoon. Rising interest rates, however, will cause bond prices to decline in proportion.

The Fed has an unenviable job right now. If it acts too slowly, inflation could set in. If it acts too quickly, the economy could be tipped back into recession. And those with a dog in the fight—which is practically every interest group in the country—will be pushing hard to get its way.

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If Iran Is the Problem, Why Focus on Syria?

A major reason why so many American strategists believe it is imperative to aid the Syrian rebels is because Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fall would significantly roll back Iranian influence. Syria has been Iran’s only consistent ally since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the Syrian-Iranian axis has enabled the two terror sponsors to expand their global reach. Riding high since its 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah would soon find out how truly weak its position is should its lifeline through Syria disappear. Had it not been for the interference of Bashar al-Assad and his late father Hafez, Lebanon might have thrived and Beirut might have maintained its position as “the Paris of the Middle East,” rather than simply been the tenuous oasis it is today with the Sword of Damocles always hovering just overhead.

Iran hovers above other policy debates as well: It was always the elephant in the room during discussions of Iraq, and it remains the predominant concern in western Afghanistan, even if concern regarding its influence is overshadowed by that of Pakistan in Kabul. Dating back to the Karine-A and before, Iran had become a chief impediment to Palestinian compromise with Israel. Iranian involvement in Sudan poses an increasing threat to U.S. strategic interests.

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A major reason why so many American strategists believe it is imperative to aid the Syrian rebels is because Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fall would significantly roll back Iranian influence. Syria has been Iran’s only consistent ally since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the Syrian-Iranian axis has enabled the two terror sponsors to expand their global reach. Riding high since its 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah would soon find out how truly weak its position is should its lifeline through Syria disappear. Had it not been for the interference of Bashar al-Assad and his late father Hafez, Lebanon might have thrived and Beirut might have maintained its position as “the Paris of the Middle East,” rather than simply been the tenuous oasis it is today with the Sword of Damocles always hovering just overhead.

Iran hovers above other policy debates as well: It was always the elephant in the room during discussions of Iraq, and it remains the predominant concern in western Afghanistan, even if concern regarding its influence is overshadowed by that of Pakistan in Kabul. Dating back to the Karine-A and before, Iran had become a chief impediment to Palestinian compromise with Israel. Iranian involvement in Sudan poses an increasing threat to U.S. strategic interests.

Alas, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now in Syria, American strategists advocate extinguishing the fire rather than addressing the arsonist. Certainly, it is an American strategic interest not to allow Iran to prevail in Syria, although it is doubtful whether the opposition as it is now composed would pose any less of a threat to U.S. interests. Those to whom the Syrian quagmire is predominantly a human rights concern may also counsel intervention, but certainly it is also true that the Iranian leadership cares little if its “export of revolution” kills tens of thousands not only in Syria, but also in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Gaza, or elsewhere.

Simply put, the chief impediment to peace and stability in the Middle East is Iran, and it’s long past time the United States begins to realize that there will be no breakthrough on any issue of concern to U.S. national security until the Islamic Republic no longer exists. It should be the policy of the United States to hasten that day.

Now, make no mistake: seeking regime change does not mean bombing Iran let alone any action which would put any foreign troops in that country. Not only would the U.S. economy not stand it, but military intervention would strengthen the Iranian regime. The best thing that ever happened to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution was Saddam Hussein’s invasion, because the Iraqi aggression enabled Khomeini to rally the Iranian people around the flag just when it appeared that the revolution would collapse upon Khomeini’s cruelty and the emptiness of his ideology.

Nor is bombing wise: I have always opposed military strikes on Iran for a simple reason: Military strikes might delay the ayatollahs’ ambition for two or three years but, unless the United States has a policy to take advantage of that delay, Washington would essentially be using our men and women in uniform to kick the can down the road because Washington was unable to formulate a policy. That would not only have tremendous cost in terms of blood and treasure—both American and Iranian—but it would also be a misuse of the American military. At present, when people talk about military strikes on Iran “as a last resort,” they are essentially talking about bombing Iran every two or three years, and that is not acceptable.

While the State Department no longer considers the Mujahedin al-Khalq Organization (MKO) a terrorist organization, that group is at best a creepy cult and, regardless, is no less noxious to ordinary Iranians who may dislike the Islamic Republic, but hate the MKO even more. Thinly-disguised bribes to American officials does not legitimacy make.

Nevertheless, there are many other strategies that could promote direct citizen empowerment in Iran, make life difficult for the regime, and move to hasten its downfall. Some of them I addressed in COMMENTARY back in 2010, and other technologies I was only introduced to later. Outreach to dissidents, open discussion of Iran’s corruption and human rights situation on the part of U.S.-sponsored Persian language broadcasting, and support for independent labor and civil society groups should also be on the table. After all, if the Iranian regime is so confident in its election participation numbers, why not allow independent groups to compile their own statistics? Surely the Iranian government does not fear truth?

While some lobbyists look at the election of Hassan Rowhani as a sign that Washington should seek reconciliation with Tehran, they are wrong. Not only is Rowhani not the moderate some suggest him to be, but also no one should learn the wrong lesson from the crowds which celebrated his victory: Had anyone more liberal than Rowhani been allowed to run—especially someone who did not pay fealty to the Supreme Leader—that person would have won in a landslide.

Alas, since the 1989 inauguration of George H.W. Bush, the policy of the United States has been at best incoherent and at worst a quarter century replication of the elder Bush’s “Chicken Kiev” approach to international relations. Neither Obama nor Kerry are strategic thinkers, but perhaps there is space among their successors in both the Democratic and Republican parties for some serious discussion about how the region might be different if the Islamic Republic did not exist, and then what the United States might do to achieve that goal.

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Memo to Fox’s Bolling: America Isn’t Iran

In an interview with former Governor Sarah Palin, Fox’s Eric Bolling–in speaking in part about the National Security Agency surveillance program–said, “It feels to me like we’re either in Iran or Communist China.”

He’s serious.

Mr. Bolling may want to take some time to read this State Department report on Iran. It points out that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocratic republic. Its surveillance and monitoring of citizens’ online activities belongs in an entirely different category than what is being done in America. (As Max Boot points out, the NSA’s surveillance programs “are hardly rogue operations. Both programs were initiated by President George W. Bush and continued by President Barack Obama with the full knowledge and support of Congress and continuing oversight from the federal judiciary.”) And on Iran there’s also this (courtesy of the State Department report):

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In an interview with former Governor Sarah Palin, Fox’s Eric Bolling–in speaking in part about the National Security Agency surveillance program–said, “It feels to me like we’re either in Iran or Communist China.”

He’s serious.

Mr. Bolling may want to take some time to read this State Department report on Iran. It points out that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocratic republic. Its surveillance and monitoring of citizens’ online activities belongs in an entirely different category than what is being done in America. (As Max Boot points out, the NSA’s surveillance programs “are hardly rogue operations. Both programs were initiated by President George W. Bush and continued by President Barack Obama with the full knowledge and support of Congress and continuing oversight from the federal judiciary.”) And on Iran there’s also this (courtesy of the State Department report):

The most egregious human rights problems were the government’s severe limitations on citizens’ right to peacefully change their government through free and fair elections; restrictions on civil liberties, including the freedoms of assembly, speech, and press; and the government’s disregard for the physical integrity of persons whom it arbitrarily and unlawfully killed, tortured, and imprisoned. Other reported human rights problems included: disappearances; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including judicially sanctioned amputation and flogging; politically motivated violence and repression, such as beatings and rape; harsh and life-threatening conditions in detention and prison facilities, with instances of deaths in custody; arbitrary arrest and lengthy pretrial detention, sometimes incommunicado; continued impunity of security forces; denial of fair public trials, sometimes resulting in executions without due process; political prisoners and detainees; the lack of an independent judiciary; … arbitrary interference with privacy, home, and correspondence; severe restrictions on freedoms of speech (including via the Internet) and press; harassment of journalists; censorship and media content restrictions; severe restrictions on academic freedom; severe restrictions on the freedoms of assembly, association, and religion; … legal and societal discrimination and violence against women, children, ethnic and religious minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons based on perceived sexual orientation and gender identity; incitement to anti-Semitism and trafficking in persons; and severe restrictions on the exercise of labor rights. 

Call me an old-fashioned conservative, but when those on the right begin to put the United States in the same category as Iran and Communist China, it’s problematic. This is a variation of the kind of thing one heard in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the Weather Underground, the Chicago Seven, and Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dorn (though thankfully without the calls for an “armed struggle”).

I agree on the need for vigilance when it comes to potential abuses in the NSA program. And I know, too, that there are serious people who object to what the NSA is doing. But the kind of unreasonable and uncontrolled rhetoric we’re hearing from some on the right is quite stunning. America, even under Barack Obama, is not Iran or Communist China; and the last people in the world who should have to be informed of that fact are conservatives. 

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AJCongress Must Revoke Erdoğan’s Award

On January 26, 2004, the American Jewish Congress presented Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with its “Profiles of Courage” award for promoting peace between cultures. In a press release, the AJC reported:

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday told the American Jewish Congress that Turkey will stand firm to eradicate terrorism worldwide, offers security to its Jewish citizens, and will work to achieve peace in the Middle East.

Nothing could be farther from reality. Erdoğan has become Hamas’s leading cheerleader, a promoter of terrorism, and a force for instability in the region. It should have been clear at the time, however, that Erdoğan was insincere. After all, Erdoğan already had a history of embracing rabid anti-Semitism and harboring conspiracy theories during his tenure as Istanbul’s mayor.

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On January 26, 2004, the American Jewish Congress presented Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with its “Profiles of Courage” award for promoting peace between cultures. In a press release, the AJC reported:

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday told the American Jewish Congress that Turkey will stand firm to eradicate terrorism worldwide, offers security to its Jewish citizens, and will work to achieve peace in the Middle East.

Nothing could be farther from reality. Erdoğan has become Hamas’s leading cheerleader, a promoter of terrorism, and a force for instability in the region. It should have been clear at the time, however, that Erdoğan was insincere. After all, Erdoğan already had a history of embracing rabid anti-Semitism and harboring conspiracy theories during his tenure as Istanbul’s mayor.

The fact that Erdoğan filters everything through a religious lens became clear to me in 2005. After I had published an article about Erdoğan’s shady finances, a Turkish Jewish businessman in Istanbul contacted a Turkish Jew in Washington to tell me that Erdoğan was upset. I responded that if Erdoğan was upset, he might contact the Turkish embassy and have them, in turn, contact me care of the American Enterprise Institute. That Erdoğan thought that the proper way to do business was through religious channels, and that he saw American Jews as Jewish first and not as “real Americans,” quickly became clear in subsequent conversations. Alas, Erdoğan is not alone among Turkish officials and senior diplomats who, even if not sincere in their religious bias, certainly understand that the way to get ahead during Erdoğan’s tenure is at best to be silent and at worst try to outdo each other in their theories about world Jewry, dual loyalty, and the like.

Some in American Jewish organizations may take solace in the fact that Turkey was not historically anti-Semitic. Indeed, the basis of the Turks’ historical warm attitude toward Jews had to do with the fact that during the Ottoman Empire, Jews did not rebel the way so many others did. A little known fact about World War I was that so many Turkish Jews fought at Gallipoli, as the bulk of the Ottoman army was fighting the Russians on the eastern front when the ANZAC offensive began. Incitement takes its toll, however. President Barack Obama may toast Erdoğan, and the 135 members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus may run interference for Turkey’s worst excesses, but a decade of constant media incitement by Erdoğan’s state-controlled television and Erdoğan-endorsed film companies has, effectively, wiped out centuries of tolerance that Turkey has exhibited toward Jews, if not Armenians, Kurds, and others.

In recent weeks, Erdoğan has doubled down on bigotry. This culminated last week when the newspaper he uses as his proxy accused yours truly and the American Enterprise Institute of fabricating an elaborate plot culminating in the Istanbul protests. Never mind that the story is false. To Erdoğan and his followers, the Jews are like the Borg from Star Trek, all interconnected and occasionally ensnaring non-Jews like Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld and Ambassador John Bolton in our nefarious plots.

Now, it’s perhaps a bit too much to expect that the White House would ever condemn such nonsense outright, even if anti-Semitism is often the canary in the coal mine warning of far greater problems. Nor should anyone ever expect the State Department to stand on the side of moral clarity, as Ambassador Francis Ricciardone’s statement made clear to all those Turks on the receiving end of police abuse and, alas, the new generation of Turks.

Perhaps the lesson for the American Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations should be this: Base awards on lifetime achievement, not only wishful thinking. The risk of bestowing legitimacy on platforms that run contrary to the AJCongress’ mission is otherwise too great. The AJCongress’ award to Erdoğan not only did not stop Erdoğan’s anti-Semitism, but rather it for too long provided cover for it. Perhaps the organization can now mitigate the damage it has caused—and also deflate Erdoğan’s buffoonery—by publicly revoking its award.

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Kirkuk and Mosul: A Tale of Two Cities

For the past few days, I have been calling Kirkuk, Iraq, home. Kirkuk, of course, is the city that, prior to Iraq’s liberation, policymakers and journalists worried about most. The reason is simple: In a country that does not reward diversity, Kirkuk has a mixed population of Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen; and Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Christians. Above ground, various groups jockeyed over land and property. Below ground, they fought over vast reserves of oil. Not surprisingly, both the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government based in Erbil continue dispute the final status of the city.

While I have been a frequent visitor to Kirkuk over the past decade, I have not been to the city in three years. What has transpired over that time—and specifically during the tenure of current governor Najmaldin Karim—is amazing. What’s changed since my last visit? No longer is electricity available only six hours a day: At present, Kirkukis enjoy 20-22 hours, and that during the summer season of peak demand. The ring roads are paved, as are many secondary streets. Fancy street lights add a touch of class to the city. Dusty, trash-strewn road islands are now planted with a variety of trees. Curbs are painted, as are many buildings. New stores have opened, and residents enjoy parks and amusement parks. Hospitals are getting better, and many schools have gotten a facelift. Importantly, all local residents appear to benefit equally; there has been no ethnic or sectarian chauvinism on the part of the current government. That is not merely the finding of diplomats, but is also the firm conclusion of the city’s diverse taxi drivers—perhaps the most honest purveyors of local opinion. Kirkuk shows what can be done when government works for the people rather than for itself.

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For the past few days, I have been calling Kirkuk, Iraq, home. Kirkuk, of course, is the city that, prior to Iraq’s liberation, policymakers and journalists worried about most. The reason is simple: In a country that does not reward diversity, Kirkuk has a mixed population of Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen; and Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Christians. Above ground, various groups jockeyed over land and property. Below ground, they fought over vast reserves of oil. Not surprisingly, both the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government based in Erbil continue dispute the final status of the city.

While I have been a frequent visitor to Kirkuk over the past decade, I have not been to the city in three years. What has transpired over that time—and specifically during the tenure of current governor Najmaldin Karim—is amazing. What’s changed since my last visit? No longer is electricity available only six hours a day: At present, Kirkukis enjoy 20-22 hours, and that during the summer season of peak demand. The ring roads are paved, as are many secondary streets. Fancy street lights add a touch of class to the city. Dusty, trash-strewn road islands are now planted with a variety of trees. Curbs are painted, as are many buildings. New stores have opened, and residents enjoy parks and amusement parks. Hospitals are getting better, and many schools have gotten a facelift. Importantly, all local residents appear to benefit equally; there has been no ethnic or sectarian chauvinism on the part of the current government. That is not merely the finding of diplomats, but is also the firm conclusion of the city’s diverse taxi drivers—perhaps the most honest purveyors of local opinion. Kirkuk shows what can be done when government works for the people rather than for itself.

Just one hundred miles away from Kirkuk lies Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. I was in Mosul a few years ago, but I was strongly advised not to visit this trip: The city has become too dangerous. It remains a hotbed both of Baathist insurgency and al-Qaeda. Recent visitors—both Kurdish and Arab—say that it is in a deplorable state. The problem is not lack of resources, but rather poor management. While Kirkuk spent 96 percent of the money allocated to it by the central government, Mosul spent only four percent because its government simply cannot get the job done (the government funds provinces with sequential payments; when funds at hand are spent, governors can apply for their province’s next installment). While roads are paved in Kirkuk, Mosul still deals with open sewage and crumbling infrastructure. As the temperature regularly climbs above 100 degrees across Iraq, Kirkukis enjoy ice cream and air conditioning. The Moslawis swelter.

How to explain the difference? Certainly, Najmaldin is more competent than his predecessors and remains squeaky clean, a rarity in a nation where corruption has since the 1980s been the norm. There is another explanation which Iraqis offer, however, that will not be popular among Americans: David Petraeus.

Iraqis assess Petraeus’s legacy far differently than do many Americans. While commander of the 101st Airborne, Petraeus was effectively king of Mosul. He pursued three main policies during his tenure:

  • First, he sought to increase trade with Syria on the theory that such trade would benefit Mosul’s economy. While commander, he famously bragged to a visiting American delegation about how much he had augmented cross-border trade, even as that trade facilitated an influx of Syrians and others who did not consider Iraqi security an objective to promote.
  • Second, he sought to counter de-Baathification by appointing senior Baathists to both government and security positions.
  • Lastly, he sought to appease some of the more radical Islamists, often through creative use of some of the funds at his disposal.

For a time, Petraeus’s strategy appeared to work: So long as the money flowed, there was quiet. But as soon as such funds dried up, all hell broke loose. It was a myth held too highly among some in the army that only Baathists had the capacity to manage; the fact of the matter is that many Baathists retained their municipal positions not because of competence but because of politics. Scores of perfectly competent Iraqis, meanwhile, did not compromise themselves morally in order to work under Saddam’s regime. Some of these men took jobs in Kirkuk. Alas, many of the men to whom Petraeus reached out remain entrenched in Mosul, enjoying the perks of titles but not having the capacity to manage. Several are actively engaged in terrorism. The misery to which they condemn Mosul keeps grievance alive. Blaming Baghdad is not an option: In both Mosul and Kirkuk, Baghdad’s influence is more theoretical than real. Both cities have de facto autonomy by distance to implement the programs they desire. In neither city is the ruling Da’wa Party strong, and yet one succeeds where the other fails.

While Petraeus rehabilitated Baathists and Islamists, Kirkuk—the city which was by all accounts supposed to be Iraq’s flashpoint—purged Baathists and refused to pay off extremists. Today, the difference between short-term appeasement and more principled governance is on full display in the juxtaposition between the two cities. Petraeus may be a patriot and a well-regarded military tactician, but when it came to civilian affairs and, indeed, those living with his signature counterinsurgency policies, his reputation may be less well-deserved.

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Iraq’s Problem Is Economic, not Security

Many Americans shy away from Iraq because of security concerns, and certainly last month’s bloodshed has shaken confidence both inside and outside Iraq. Through all the violence—war, insurgency, and terrorism—Iraqis have been resilient, a trait which probably surprises only those who formed their political opinion about Iraq without ever talking to Iraqis. The security problems must be overcome—and Prime Minister Maliki is probably correct to fight them head-on rather than to appease those who would seek to win through violence what they cannot at the ballot box. Rather than allow any politician to walk away from terror support out of fear of sparking sectarian tension, the Iraqi government should instead enforce its standard universally and let no one off the hook. More systemic problems loom, however.

The decision to liberate Iraq was certainly wise, although the decision to occupy the country (as I stated before I entered government in this interview with the American Enterprise) was not. That said, once the decision to occupy was taken, it becomes essential to achieve the best possible outcome rather than refighting policy battles lost. Still, for all the years of occupation, the hundreds of billions of dollars in continued security and grandiose aid and development schemes, the United States really could count only two additional successes: First was modernizing Iraq’s old currency and second was reviving Iraq’s oil trade.

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Many Americans shy away from Iraq because of security concerns, and certainly last month’s bloodshed has shaken confidence both inside and outside Iraq. Through all the violence—war, insurgency, and terrorism—Iraqis have been resilient, a trait which probably surprises only those who formed their political opinion about Iraq without ever talking to Iraqis. The security problems must be overcome—and Prime Minister Maliki is probably correct to fight them head-on rather than to appease those who would seek to win through violence what they cannot at the ballot box. Rather than allow any politician to walk away from terror support out of fear of sparking sectarian tension, the Iraqi government should instead enforce its standard universally and let no one off the hook. More systemic problems loom, however.

The decision to liberate Iraq was certainly wise, although the decision to occupy the country (as I stated before I entered government in this interview with the American Enterprise) was not. That said, once the decision to occupy was taken, it becomes essential to achieve the best possible outcome rather than refighting policy battles lost. Still, for all the years of occupation, the hundreds of billions of dollars in continued security and grandiose aid and development schemes, the United States really could count only two additional successes: First was modernizing Iraq’s old currency and second was reviving Iraq’s oil trade.

It is that oil trade which now threatens Iraq’s long-term health. Iraqi government officials privately acknowledge that every ministry could function with one-tenth of the staff. Most young Iraqi college graduates, however, aspire to a safe government post rather than take a chance in the private sector. Entrepreneurship is still frowned upon in many families. The result is that the majority of Iraq’s oil income goes to salaries, but not to basic infrastructure. Many Iraqis are content enough and willing to overlook Iraq’s problems so long as they have a nice house, a car, satellite television, a cell phone, a generator to make up the short-fall in electricity, and basic financial security.

The Iraqi government—unlike its Iranian counterpart—has been able to make payroll, and will continue to do so as long as oil prices remain high. Inside the Middle East rulers might hope that $100 oil is the new normal but if history is any guide, what goes up also comes down. If the price of oil ever drops precipitously—as it did, for example, in the late 1990s—then Iraq may pay the price for its failure to reform its economy and better encourage both domestic entrepreneurship and direct foreign investment.

Nor should those who regularly sing Iraqi Kurdistan’s praises believe that the Kurdish region will be immune from such consequences. The flash and the affluence upon which visitors to Kurdistan regularly remark are the hallmarks of a bubble, not a healthy economy. Real estate has boomed, but many of the apartment buildings and office buildings remain empty. Politicians, if asked, will acknowledge that Kurdish investors will pour money into real estate because there are few other outlets for their cash. Local banks are not trusted, and business still depends on political connections. Beyond oil, there has not been any significant industrial development. Rather than manufacture goods themselves, Kurds in the north and Arabs in the south continue to pour money into imports of Iranian and Turkish consumer goods.

Once again, however, a stable Iraq may be in U.S. interests, but the desire of both Democrats and Republicans to divorce themselves from Iraq is strategically shortsighted and deliberately undercuts a relationship which is America’s for the asking.

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Help Iraq Resist Iranian Influence

When Khalaf Abdul Samad, until last week the governor of Basra, announced that he would inaugurate a new bridge spanning the Shatt al-Arab on June 4, the Iranian government was worried. On June 4, the Iranians planned to mark the 24th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary leader. Iranian government representatives reportedly warned Abdul Samad to move the celebration, since June 4 should be a solemn day. Abdul Samad responded by ordering an even larger fireworks display, one that could be seen from across the Iranian border. The symbolism was clear: When the Iranian regime wanted people to mourn, Iraqis Shi’ites chose to celebrate. Abdul Samad, by the way, belongs to the same political party as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

On a weekend when I had no meetings planned, I took a ride down to Fao, site of a key Iran-Iraq War battle, and near where Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait converge on the Persian Gulf. Fao’s main industry is fishing, and the fishermen are well acquainted with Iran, literally a stone’s throw away across the narrow channel. Mention Iran and the fishermen go apoplectic: Not only will Iranian patrol boats intercept fisherman who cross the invisible border under the Shatt al-Arabs, but often the Iranian patrols will target fisherman on the Iraqi side of the border. The Iranian modus operandi? Shoot first, ask questions later. Most fishermen know colleagues or family members killed by the Iranians.

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When Khalaf Abdul Samad, until last week the governor of Basra, announced that he would inaugurate a new bridge spanning the Shatt al-Arab on June 4, the Iranian government was worried. On June 4, the Iranians planned to mark the 24th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary leader. Iranian government representatives reportedly warned Abdul Samad to move the celebration, since June 4 should be a solemn day. Abdul Samad responded by ordering an even larger fireworks display, one that could be seen from across the Iranian border. The symbolism was clear: When the Iranian regime wanted people to mourn, Iraqis Shi’ites chose to celebrate. Abdul Samad, by the way, belongs to the same political party as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

On a weekend when I had no meetings planned, I took a ride down to Fao, site of a key Iran-Iraq War battle, and near where Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait converge on the Persian Gulf. Fao’s main industry is fishing, and the fishermen are well acquainted with Iran, literally a stone’s throw away across the narrow channel. Mention Iran and the fishermen go apoplectic: Not only will Iranian patrol boats intercept fisherman who cross the invisible border under the Shatt al-Arabs, but often the Iranian patrols will target fisherman on the Iraqi side of the border. The Iranian modus operandi? Shoot first, ask questions later. Most fishermen know colleagues or family members killed by the Iranians.

Trucks ply the roads in and around Basra as they head to the Iranian border. Curiously, during almost a week in Basra, I saw no Iranian-tagged vehicles. That stood in sharp contrast to Iraqi Kurdistan—recently lauded in this piece by Fouad Ajami—where it sometimes seems as if every third truck has Iranian license plates and, indeed, the Kurdistan Regional Government makes tens of millions of dollars smuggling material, including sanctioned fuel, to and from Iran. Indeed, it is easier for Iraqis to transit the Iran-Iraq border in Iraqi Kurdistan than it is in southern Iraq, where the Iranian government remains hypersensitive to the religious independence of the Iraqi Shi’ites. Add into the mix that the legacy of the Iran-Iraq War remains fresh in Basra, and the notion that Iraqis willingly welcome Iranian dominance is laughable.

That said, the Iranians do try: Basra—like Kirkuk—is booming. A new Iranian hotel is slowly rising up alongside the corniche. Iran dominates the consumer goods market: An informal survey of some local supermarkets indicates most food stuff is Iranian, maybe a third is Turkish, the bottled water and some soft drinks are Iraqi, and the Louisiana Hot Sauce is America’s only contribution. The Iranians pressure the Iraqi government to award Iran larger projects but the Iraqi government has resisted: Iranian prices are simply too high, and its workmanship poor. American and European businesses would be very welcome, but are more often absent when the bidding begins. The Iranians—and some of their Iraqi political allies—like to keep it that way by throwing extra-legal obstacles in the face of American businessmen flying into Basra, but such obstacles can be overcome. Iranians do provide Basra with supplemental electricity (an irony, since Tehran justifies its nuclear program in a lack of domestic energy generation) but because its consistency remains poor, the locals blame Iran for frequent outages.

Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric who often appears to take his marching orders from Iran, remains unpopular, but that does not stop his followers from plastering his image in every town center and on billboards aside traffic circles. Basrawis seem to mock Sadr. That said, his followers—while a minority—do leverage their status, joining with Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq recently to unseat Basra’s popular, Iraqi nationalist governor.

So what does this mean for the future? Iran will certainly continue to try to impose its will on Iraq. Iranian political influence is heavy. Across the board, Iraqis acknowledge that the recent summit in Erbil held between Prime Minister Maliki and Kurdish regional leader Masud Barzani was held at the behest not of the American ambassador, but rather Qods Force leader Qasim Suleimani, whom Iraqis only half jokingly refer to as Iran’s real president. Still, Iraqis will continue to resist Iran’s unwanted influence. The fact that the United States—despite promises of a continuing relationship—remains so unwilling to engage in Iraq, however, could unfortunately become the deciding factor in the battle for influence.

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Arming Syrian Rebels Is Strategic Suicide

There is growing frustration among many on the right—many of my colleagues both here on the pages of COMMENTARY and at the American Enterprise Institute included—about President Barack Obama’s incoherent policy and strategy with regard to Syria.

Certainly, the frustration is warranted. Over the past two years, tens of thousands of Syrians have been killed, and almost as many have “disappeared.” It’s a safe bet that those who have gone missing are not going to reemerge. Violence has forced additional hundreds of thousands of Syrians into refugee camps in neighboring countries. Wrong is the realist who claims that this may be an emotional, human rights concern but is not relevant to U.S. national security: When refugees flood into a country, competition for space and resources sends prices up and can further erode popular support for U.S. allies like King Abdullah II in Jordan.

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There is growing frustration among many on the right—many of my colleagues both here on the pages of COMMENTARY and at the American Enterprise Institute included—about President Barack Obama’s incoherent policy and strategy with regard to Syria.

Certainly, the frustration is warranted. Over the past two years, tens of thousands of Syrians have been killed, and almost as many have “disappeared.” It’s a safe bet that those who have gone missing are not going to reemerge. Violence has forced additional hundreds of thousands of Syrians into refugee camps in neighboring countries. Wrong is the realist who claims that this may be an emotional, human rights concern but is not relevant to U.S. national security: When refugees flood into a country, competition for space and resources sends prices up and can further erode popular support for U.S. allies like King Abdullah II in Jordan.

Obama seems to be blind to the strategic implications of Bashar al-Assad’s downfall. The Syrian regime is a long-time terror sponsor responsible for the deaths of dozens of Americans. Wrong are those who say Bashar al-Assad and his father brought quiet to the border with Israel: The Syria-Israel border was quiet, but only because the Assads used Lebanon as their proxy battleground. Syria also provides the crucial link between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon. The fall of the Syrian regime would roll back Iranian influence away from the strategically important Eastern Mediterranean.

That said, arming the Syrian rebels is wrong and would gravely undercut U.S. national security. I travel to Iraq a couple times each year—without the sponsorship, let alone knowledge, of the State Department or Pentagon—and have been in Iraq for the past two weeks or so. I began my trip in Basra and worked my way north through Baghdad to Kirkuk as well as areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Syria was a topic of frequent conversation, both among ordinary Iraqis and government officials. The evolution of Iraqi attitudes toward Syria has been interesting. In 2007, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki regularly condemned the Syrian regime for its role facilitating the infiltration of suicide bombers into Iraq. However, when I visited Iraq last October, many Iraqi Shi’ites warned against any support for the Syrian opposition, claiming they were more radical than the Americans realized. Such complaints from Iraqi Shi’ites might be easy to dismiss. After all, sectarianism overshadows the Middle East. Assad’s Alawis represent an offshoot of Shi’ism while the majority of the Syrian opposition is Sunni.

This trip, however, has been a wake-up call: Not only Iraqi Shi’ites, but also Iraqi Christians, Iraqi Kurds, and even many Iraqi Sunnis oppose American provision of arms to the Syrian rebels on the grounds that the Syrian rebels are either more radical than the Americans realize, or that nothing will prevent the so-called moderates whom the United States arms from selling or losing the weaponry to the radicals. There is a real sense of urgency, here, as Iraqis believe they will be the first victims of Sunni radicalism in neighboring Syria. Indeed, while here in Iraq, I have been within earshot of two car bombings, and Iraq has moved past its deadliest month in years. Regardless of ethnicity and sectarian preference, a consensus is emerging in Iraq about the character of the Syrian opposition. With all due respect to congressmen and some advocates for arming the Syrian rebels, those in the region are better able to vet Syrian rebels than U.S. officials 6,000 miles away. As tempting as it may be to think otherwise, and just as it remains with the Mujahedin al-Khalq and the Islamic Republic, the enemy of one’s enemy is not always one’s friend.

Does this mean we should abandon hopes for regime change in Syria? Absolutely not. The United States does maintain strategic interests in Syria: Eliminating WMD stores; preventing smuggling of weaponry to Hezbollah; preventing al-Qaeda groups from utilizing the Syrian vacuum to plan attacks against the West; and preventing both Assad and his opponents from destabilizing neighboring states. An Assad victory would embolden both Tehran and Moscow and ensure the spread of conflict to areas far more important to the United States. Perhaps the safest way to support Assad’s removal, however, is not to give weaponry to the Syrian rebels—a move that would make the “Fast and Furious” scandal seem positively benevolent—but rather to use American air power to prevent any aspect of the conflict perpetrated by either side which could undercut American security.

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Benghazi’s Legacy in Iraq

The September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens was a preventable tragedy. The blame for Stevens’s death lies with the terrorists that murdered him, although they would not have gotten the chance had it not been for negligence if not incompetence at very senior ranks of the State Department. That the Obama administration responded with obfuscation rather than serious introspection merely compounded the tragedy.

The State Department, for its part, still smarting from the loss of four of its own, has also learned the wrong lessons. About a month ago, I penned a short piece for the American Enterprise Institute arguing that too much security can be a bad thing. It is easy to guarantee the safety of diplomats but, if such a guarantee requires locking diplomats away from the societies in which they are supposed to serve and comes at the expense of the ability of diplomats to do their jobs, then the broader goals of American diplomacy will be missed.

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The September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens was a preventable tragedy. The blame for Stevens’s death lies with the terrorists that murdered him, although they would not have gotten the chance had it not been for negligence if not incompetence at very senior ranks of the State Department. That the Obama administration responded with obfuscation rather than serious introspection merely compounded the tragedy.

The State Department, for its part, still smarting from the loss of four of its own, has also learned the wrong lessons. About a month ago, I penned a short piece for the American Enterprise Institute arguing that too much security can be a bad thing. It is easy to guarantee the safety of diplomats but, if such a guarantee requires locking diplomats away from the societies in which they are supposed to serve and comes at the expense of the ability of diplomats to do their jobs, then the broader goals of American diplomacy will be missed.

Nowhere is this clearer now than in Iraq. The Basra corniche is a lively place at night. Cars cruise, locals play backgammon, restaurants are packed, and businessmen talk in luxury hotels. Thursday nights are shopping nights in the Al Jazair neighborhood, where men and women look for bargains in indoor markets, hit the new supermarkets, or take a break for some shawarma with their sons and daughters in one of the bustling fast food restaurants. Alas, it is a city life the diplomats stationed at the U.S. consulate will never experience, because the consulate is located out by Basra International Airport, about 15 miles from the center of town. While the consul-general does go to formal receptions and events, few Basrawis ever see the Americans outside the consulate walls. To their credit, American diplomats have expressed frustration to their Iraqi friends over the situation.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, a $750 million behemoth alongside the Tigris River, may house more than a thousand diplomats and other government diplomats, and even more contractors, but few ever see Baghdad. Iraqi officials say most officials who leave the embassy compound go either to the airport, to parliament, or one of perhaps a half dozen other Iraqi government offices all within walking distance (though the American diplomats are not allowed to walk outside). Outside the International Zone, Iraqis say they have seen Iranians, Turks, Russians, and Chinese but few have ever met an American diplomat. Nevertheless, each of the American government employees housed and working in the embassy gets hardship and danger pay that might add 70 percent to their annual salary, even if they never meet an Iraqi.

Perhaps nothing shows the Benghazi meltdown more than the U.S. consulate in Kirkuk. Kirkuk, for economic, political, and cultural reasons, may be the most important city outside Baghdad and perhaps Najaf. Yet after the attack on the Benghazi consulate, the State Department moved its Kirkuk consulate to Erbil, an hours’ drive away, where the United States already has a consulate. Now I’ve been staying in Kirkuk city for the past several days and, as I’ve indicated in other posts, it’s regaining its former glory. While the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) often brags about its heightened security, Kirkuk is not located in areas controlled by the KRG and so security does remain a problem, albeit a manageable one: Top officials live in compounds sealed off by blast walls and checkpoints, but get out and about by switching cars and license plates frequently, and taking other basic precautions.

If the purpose of an American diplomat is simply to pass messages, then the State Department can reduce its budget considerably if they would rely on Skype or build a couple secure video teleconference facilities. I say that with tongue in cheek, of course, because the purpose of American diplomats is more: State Department employees might talk about one project or another, but when push comes to shove, American embassies should be about influence, showing the flag, and gaining an increased understanding of societies that is not possible simply by sitting at a desk, meeting with officials, or hunkering down behind blast walls. Alas, it seems that in the wake of Benghazi, both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her successor John Kerry have responded by raising the white flag. How sad it is that rather than recognize and repair the faults in management and intelligence that led to Benghazi, the State Department prefers simply to hide its head in the sand, its diplomats behind sandbags.

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