Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 2013

Obama’s Bizarre Syria Policy

The president just appeared in the Rose Garden to declare that he has the authority to strike Syria in a limited way to punish the regime for its barbaric use of chemical weapons. And he will strike Syria—but has decided to seek Congressional authorization before he strikes Syria.

On the face of it, this is literally nonsensical. If Obama has the authority, he does not need Congressional authorization, and since he is characterizing his need to act in moral terms, a useful punitive strike in the midst of a civil war in which thousands can be killed in a day must as a moral matter be undertaken as soon as possible in order to punish the regime and degrade its ability to kill its own people at will. Instead, he has declared his intention to wait until Congress comes back in session—in eight days—and then debate the matter for a couple of days and then vote. At which time he will act. Unless of course it votes against him. In which case…what? He has said he has the authority to strike; what does he do then?

Some people compare foreign policy to a game of chess. Barack Obama is playing 52 pick-up.

 

The president just appeared in the Rose Garden to declare that he has the authority to strike Syria in a limited way to punish the regime for its barbaric use of chemical weapons. And he will strike Syria—but has decided to seek Congressional authorization before he strikes Syria.

On the face of it, this is literally nonsensical. If Obama has the authority, he does not need Congressional authorization, and since he is characterizing his need to act in moral terms, a useful punitive strike in the midst of a civil war in which thousands can be killed in a day must as a moral matter be undertaken as soon as possible in order to punish the regime and degrade its ability to kill its own people at will. Instead, he has declared his intention to wait until Congress comes back in session—in eight days—and then debate the matter for a couple of days and then vote. At which time he will act. Unless of course it votes against him. In which case…what? He has said he has the authority to strike; what does he do then?

Some people compare foreign policy to a game of chess. Barack Obama is playing 52 pick-up.

 

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Are Too Many People Going to College?

I know that punditocracy is not democracy, but can I vote for abandoning the slogan “too many people are going to college”?

Let’s start with the optics. I am sure I am not the only Jewish man in his mid-forties who grew up in a family and extended family that deeply valued attending college and made sacrifices to do so. This was not because the president told them to, or even just because they thought it was essential to earn a decent living, but because they thought that education was not only a path to material advantages, but also part of a good life. My mother, who as a legal secretary earned a better wage than some college graduates, always regretted not finishing at Brooklyn College, and communicated to me the value of the few books she held on to from her college days. What I am trying to suggest is that “too many people are going to college” is a slogan to break a mother’s heart.

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I know that punditocracy is not democracy, but can I vote for abandoning the slogan “too many people are going to college”?

Let’s start with the optics. I am sure I am not the only Jewish man in his mid-forties who grew up in a family and extended family that deeply valued attending college and made sacrifices to do so. This was not because the president told them to, or even just because they thought it was essential to earn a decent living, but because they thought that education was not only a path to material advantages, but also part of a good life. My mother, who as a legal secretary earned a better wage than some college graduates, always regretted not finishing at Brooklyn College, and communicated to me the value of the few books she held on to from her college days. What I am trying to suggest is that “too many people are going to college” is a slogan to break a mother’s heart.

But it’s also not demonstrable. Richard Vedder has argued that this “too many” is a simple observation about supply and demand. “Thirty percent of the adult population has college degrees . . . . The Department of Labor tells us that only 20% or so of jobs require college degrees.” But the Department of Labor’s figures, as Vedder has conceded before, do not explain why the premium employers pay to degree holders has persisted in the face of such an oversupply.

So he retreats into the position that “supply creates its own demand.” Because employers now are blessed with a large pool of degree-holding applicants, they use college degrees as a screening device even for jobs that do not require one. Regardless of whether they learned anything in college or not, degree holders on average “have higher levels of cognitive skills” and “relatively high levels of motivation and discipline developed before attending college.” Vedder laments that the courts have made it difficult for employers to subject potential employees to other screening tests. Employers fear being slapped with a “disparate impact” lawsuit, so they rely on college degrees.

But as Dylan Matthews has proposed in a recent piece, even if the possession of a college degree were no more than a signal of qualities that predated a student’s entry into college, we would want more of our children to have one. Vedder’s argument proves at most that if we lived in a different world than the one we presently occupy, one in which more employers were listening to Vedder and clamoring to replace the college degree with their own screening tests, then too many people would be going to college.

Matthews also links to evidence that not only average but also so-called “marginal” students “may not gain as much as average students, but . . . still gain substantially in many cases.” In attempting to dismiss Matthews, one critic has huffed that to say “college is always worth it is a gross oversimplification of the question.” It will surprise no one to learn that Matthews doesn’t say that college is always worth it. Indeed, I am not sure anyone has ever said that college is always worth it. But establishing that college is not always worth it is a far cry from establishing that too many people are going to college.

A more powerful argument, which Vedder also makes, is that when even 6-year graduation rates are relatively low, going to college is a risk for many students, and one does poor, underprepared students no favors by encouraging them to take on substantial debt and incur the cost of lost wages in the hope that they will beat the odds and finish. That’s true, and Vedder and his allies do everyone a valuable service by drawing attention to it. Still, there is some evidence (cited here) that low-income students underestimate rather than overestimate the potential returns of a college education. And William Bowen has argued that many students “elect . . . not to borrow modest sums needed to finish degree programs in a timely way.” There is no question that some students who attend college are very unlikely to succeed there, and that they should not be encouraged to borrow to attend, but that does not mean that too many people are attending college or that too many opt to borrow.

To return to the family and extended family in which I grew up, I think they would have listened with interest and concern to the evidence that too many students are unprepared for college. I think they also would have listened with interest and concern to the evidence that some colleges are doing a poor job of educating their students, though they would have found Vedder’s observation that students unable “to go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton or even Hopkins, are more liable to get bartending jobs” a bit snotty. But I think they would have been suspicious of the claim that “too many people are going to college.” They may have thought it referred to people like us.

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About That Special Relationship

Some are fretting about whether the special relationship that has bound the United States and the United Kingdom since World War II has been damaged by the House of Common’s vote against British participation in Syria and Prime Minister’s David Cameron’s decision to accept the Commons’ verdict. The New York Times’ Roger Cohen, who has been writing from the UK for some time now, says in his column today that “Britain’s decision not to stand with the United States, its closest ally, in possible military action to punish the Syrian regime for a deadly chemical weapons attack marks a watershed moment that leaves the ‘special relationship’ in search of meaning and Britain in search of its role in the world.” Cohen’s column, rarely praised by COMMENTARY, is spot on.

Britain’s capitulation to war-weary public opinion is foremost a personal defeat for Cameron—the first prime minister to lose a vote on going to war since 1782—ironically, when Great Britain was at war with the United States. There are mitigating circumstances, of course. Cameron rushed the vote unnecessarily. He lost by only 13 votes, which could not have happened had it not been for an internal Tory Party revolt. Additionally, the public debate was short. Another week and the UN inspectors’ report might have changed things. At this point, no one quite knows the mission and goals of intervention. So Cameron’s decision to heed the call of Parliament and sit this one out may easily be interpreted as a transient problem, suggesting he needs to work on his communication skills, party unity, and overall popularity.

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Some are fretting about whether the special relationship that has bound the United States and the United Kingdom since World War II has been damaged by the House of Common’s vote against British participation in Syria and Prime Minister’s David Cameron’s decision to accept the Commons’ verdict. The New York Times’ Roger Cohen, who has been writing from the UK for some time now, says in his column today that “Britain’s decision not to stand with the United States, its closest ally, in possible military action to punish the Syrian regime for a deadly chemical weapons attack marks a watershed moment that leaves the ‘special relationship’ in search of meaning and Britain in search of its role in the world.” Cohen’s column, rarely praised by COMMENTARY, is spot on.

Britain’s capitulation to war-weary public opinion is foremost a personal defeat for Cameron—the first prime minister to lose a vote on going to war since 1782—ironically, when Great Britain was at war with the United States. There are mitigating circumstances, of course. Cameron rushed the vote unnecessarily. He lost by only 13 votes, which could not have happened had it not been for an internal Tory Party revolt. Additionally, the public debate was short. Another week and the UN inspectors’ report might have changed things. At this point, no one quite knows the mission and goals of intervention. So Cameron’s decision to heed the call of Parliament and sit this one out may easily be interpreted as a transient problem, suggesting he needs to work on his communication skills, party unity, and overall popularity.

But there is a deeper problem that goes beyond Cameron or the vote. Consider that Ed Miliband, the current British Labour Party leader, has repeatedly indicated that he wants any action against Syria to be squarely placed under international law—meaning some sort of UN umbrella. Miliband not only seems unconcerned that yesterday’s humiliation of the prime minister handed a spectacular propaganda victory to Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad; he knows full well that making a Syrian intervention dependent on a non-existent UN path means giving a green light to Assad to continue his butchery.

Miliband, in other words, wants Britain to commit itself to a pointless act of endless diplomacy designed to stall rather than facilitate military action. That is not what allies do. It is all reminiscent of French President Jacques Chirac and his Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s effort to undermine President Bush when he was seeking a second UN resolution to go to war against Saddam Hussein. Should Cameron soon exit the political scene—something he might consider after losing such a fateful policy vote—his successor will move Britain further away from the days when it could be counted on as the bedrock of transatlantic relations. 

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The Me, Myself, and I President

With Barack Obama, it’s always all about him.

Asked at his early August press conference why there has been so little progress in getting the perpetrators of the Benghazi massacre after eleven months, Obama replied, that these things can take time and added by way of example that “I didn’t get Bin Laden in eleven months.” Obama, of course, was in the White House that day, playing cards.  It was Navy Seals who put their lives on the line as they stormed the house in Abbottabad and “got” Bin Laden.  (Can you imagine the mockery the media would have rained down on George W. Bush had he ever used such a construction? Bush, of course, a modest man, would never have said any such thing.)

Now Obama is planning a response to the gas attack by the Syrian government against its own people. Again, it’s all about him. Had Obama last year not indulged his bad habit of speaking when  he should be quiet and announced with little apparent thought that the use of chemical weapons would be a red line that must not be crossed, no one thinks we would now be about to attack Syria.

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With Barack Obama, it’s always all about him.

Asked at his early August press conference why there has been so little progress in getting the perpetrators of the Benghazi massacre after eleven months, Obama replied, that these things can take time and added by way of example that “I didn’t get Bin Laden in eleven months.” Obama, of course, was in the White House that day, playing cards.  It was Navy Seals who put their lives on the line as they stormed the house in Abbottabad and “got” Bin Laden.  (Can you imagine the mockery the media would have rained down on George W. Bush had he ever used such a construction? Bush, of course, a modest man, would never have said any such thing.)

Now Obama is planning a response to the gas attack by the Syrian government against its own people. Again, it’s all about him. Had Obama last year not indulged his bad habit of speaking when  he should be quiet and announced with little apparent thought that the use of chemical weapons would be a red line that must not be crossed, no one thinks we would now be about to attack Syria.

But, having casually made the red line remark, he is stuck with it and his credibility (or what little is left of it in international affairs) is clearly on the line. If he let’s Bashar al-Assad get away with his chemical attack unscathed, no one will believe a word Obama says in the future.

But his base fears and loathes American power,  so, as Jonathan noted on Wednesday, the Obama administration has been leaking like a sieve to reassure supporters that any attack will be minimal. The fact that he is, inescapably, also reassuring the Assad regime (and even instructing it how to further minimize damage)  is, evidently, neither here nor there. His relations with his base are what’s important. 

Today, The Hill is reporting the latest leak, one that completely gives away the game, quoting a “U.S. official” that “the White House is seeking a strike on Syria ‘just muscular enough not to get mocked.’”  Whether the strike does any good (or does ill, for that matter) doesn’t matter. The risk that Obama might be mocked is all that counts.

History will not treat this man kindly.

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Obama Has the Authority to Act on Syria

The British Parliament’s refusal to support action in Syria, even in principle, means that if President Obama does decide to act, he will be, in some sense, acting even more “unilaterally” than President Bush did in Iraq. Bush, after all, had the support of our second-oldest and closest ally—that would be the United Kingdom. He had numerous UN resolutions he could point to which Saddam Hussein had violated, even if, then as now, the UN has not been willing to authorize the use of military force to uphold international law. And he had overwhelming support in both houses of Congress for resolutions authorizing him to use military force.

Obama has none of those things. As a result many Republicans are lambasting him for supposedly unlawful use of force by an imperial chief executive. Not so. Obama’s use of force in Syria may be unwise—we will have to see about that—but it is certainly not unlawful. As the law professor John Yoo notes, the Founders gave Congress the power to “declare” war but gave the commander-in-chief the power to “engage” in war. The distinction may seem arcane but it means that presidents have ample executive authority to conduct hostilities, at least on a limited basis, without immediate authorization from Congress.

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The British Parliament’s refusal to support action in Syria, even in principle, means that if President Obama does decide to act, he will be, in some sense, acting even more “unilaterally” than President Bush did in Iraq. Bush, after all, had the support of our second-oldest and closest ally—that would be the United Kingdom. He had numerous UN resolutions he could point to which Saddam Hussein had violated, even if, then as now, the UN has not been willing to authorize the use of military force to uphold international law. And he had overwhelming support in both houses of Congress for resolutions authorizing him to use military force.

Obama has none of those things. As a result many Republicans are lambasting him for supposedly unlawful use of force by an imperial chief executive. Not so. Obama’s use of force in Syria may be unwise—we will have to see about that—but it is certainly not unlawful. As the law professor John Yoo notes, the Founders gave Congress the power to “declare” war but gave the commander-in-chief the power to “engage” in war. The distinction may seem arcane but it means that presidents have ample executive authority to conduct hostilities, at least on a limited basis, without immediate authorization from Congress.

This is not a new development. As I argued in my book The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (which is coming out in a revised edition in 2014), presidents have been employing military force on their own authority ever since the early days of the Republic to fight Barbary pirates, Indian tribes, and other perceived menaces. More recently this power has been utilized by numerous presidents of both parties, whether it was Ford rescuing the USS Mayaguez crew in 1975, Carter trying to free the hostages in Iran in 1980, Reagan sending a peacekeeping mission to Lebanon in 1983 and bombing Libya in 1986), Bush the elder sending military forces to Somalia in 1992, Clinton bombing al-Qaeda camps in 1998, or Obama bombing Libya in 2011.

As a practical matter there is no necessity for the president to get a formal authorization from Congress to use force on a limited basis. (Obviously it’s a different matter if a major war is in the offing.) Getting such authorization is still a good idea, however, if it’s practical to do so, not least because it will help inoculate the president to some limited extent if things go wrong. (I stress limited extent—most members of Congress quickly forgot they had ever ratified the invasion of Iraq.) It is a matter of prudential calculation, then, whether President Obama should seek Congress’s blessing before the use of force in Syria, which turns on whether such blessing is likely to be forthcoming.

I would hope that it is, because there is an important international norm against the use of weapons of mass destruction which needs to be upheld. I hope most Republicans can see that even if Labour and Tory “Little Englanders” (the British version of isolationists) did not.

Instead of trying to block the president, Republicans would be well advised to push him to make the looming military action in Syria more wide-ranging and strategically significant than news accounts currently depict. Obama vows to send a “shot across the bow” of the Assad regime with cruise missiles. He would be better advised to use air power in cooperation with ground action by vetted rebel forces to cripple and ultimately bring down Assad’s regime, making impossible further atrocities such as the use of chemical weapons last week.

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Trying to Help Real Jews Within the Constraints of a Real State

My initial reaction to the latest move in the ongoing conflict over the Western Wall resembled Jonathan’s: I thought the new platform erected at the Robinson’s Arch section of the Wall was an asinine decision which, however well-intentioned, would only upset large swathes of American Jewry. But my view changed after reading this Jerusalem Post column by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who serves as executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.

What Schonfeld explained is that Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett was trying–with some success, in her view–to address the real needs of real-life Conservative and Reform Israelis. And what she understood is something too many American Jews fail to understand: that Israel is a real-world country with real-world constraints, not a fantasyland where ideal solutions can be magically implemented overnight. Thus in trying to bridge the gap between these citizens’ real needs and the country’s real constraints, modest steps that can be implemented quickly are often better than doing nothing, even if they don’t provide an ideal solution.

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My initial reaction to the latest move in the ongoing conflict over the Western Wall resembled Jonathan’s: I thought the new platform erected at the Robinson’s Arch section of the Wall was an asinine decision which, however well-intentioned, would only upset large swathes of American Jewry. But my view changed after reading this Jerusalem Post column by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who serves as executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.

What Schonfeld explained is that Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett was trying–with some success, in her view–to address the real needs of real-life Conservative and Reform Israelis. And what she understood is something too many American Jews fail to understand: that Israel is a real-world country with real-world constraints, not a fantasyland where ideal solutions can be magically implemented overnight. Thus in trying to bridge the gap between these citizens’ real needs and the country’s real constraints, modest steps that can be implemented quickly are often better than doing nothing, even if they don’t provide an ideal solution.

Schonfeld was quite clear that the new platform wouldn’t satisfy her if that were the government’s final offer. But as an interim solution–which is how Bennett explicitly defined it–she deemed it a major step forward. Though the Sharansky plan, which involves developing the Robinson’s Arch site more fully into a coequal extension of the existing Western Wall Plaza, might be preferable, she recognizes that such a major project would take years to complete (if it happens at all). Meanwhile, there are real Israeli Jews with real needs that have to be taken care of–and Bennett was trying to address those needs within the limits of what could be done right now, in time for next week’s Rosh Hashanah holiday.

As Schonfeld explained, Masorti Jews (the Israeli branch of the Conservative movement) have been quietly holding egalitarian prayer services at Robinson’s Arch for 12 years. But until now, they had no permanent place of worship there, so holding services meant “carrying prayer books, tables and Torah scrolls in and out of the site on their backs without cover from rain or sun.” Now, they will at least have a permanent site with its own ark, Torah scrolls and prayer books, one that can accommodate a sizable number of people. As she put it, “With the government’s construction of this platform, 450 egalitarian worshippers will now be able to pray comfortably at one time in several minyanim.” That’s a real improvement for the real Masorti Jews living in Israel, and consequently, Schonfeld welcomed it, even though she still hopes for additional progress in the future.

As religious services minister, that’s exactly what Bennett is supposed to do: address the real religious needs of real Israelis as best he can within the constraints of what can realistically be done quickly at one of the world’s holiest and most sensitive sites. Perhaps he could have done a better job explaining himself to Americans. But if American Jews find a genuine effort to help real live Masorti Jews objectionable, it may be because, as I’ve written before, too many of them still have trouble accepting a flesh-and-blood state with all its inherent constraints and flaws, rather than the utopia of their dreams, which no real state could ever be.

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Syria and Israel Lobby Conspiracy Theories

Israelis were lining up for gas masks and dusting out their air raid shelters today as the prospect of U.S. attacks on Syrian targets this week provoked threats of retaliation against the Jewish state. That Israelis as well as their neighbors seem to take the idea that they should be attacked because Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians as nothing out of the ordinary. This is par for the course in the Middle East where Israelis have always served as the all-purpose scapegoats for everything that happens. But though Americans may not be quite as jaded to this sort of thing, some in our nation’s capital also seem to subscribe in some ways to the Arab world’s conspiratorial view of Israel. That was evident in a Politico story published last night that pondered why it was that the so-called “Israel lobby” was “silent on Syria.”

The assumption behind the story and the headline seems to be that anything that happens in the Middle East or any foreign policy initiative undertaken by the United States has to be in some way the result of machinations by supporters of Israel even if the conflict in question is one on which they have no rooting interest. That Jerusalem doesn’t have a favorite in a fight between a genocidal maniac dictator and an opposition that is heavily infiltrated by people related to Al Qaeda is a given. But the fact that backers of Israel are as divided about what the U.S. should do about Assad’s atrocities as the rest of the country is seen as somehow anomalous. But, like the Iraq War, which was, contrary to the anti-Semitic conspiracy mongers, not fought at Israel’s behest, there seems to be no stopping those who subscribe to the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that claims the Jewish state and the wall-to-wall bipartisan coalition that supports it somehow manipulates U.S. foreign policy against the best interests of the nation. However, in this case the slow march of the Obama administration to act on Syria gives the lie to the idea that Israel is the tail that wags the dog in Washington.

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Israelis were lining up for gas masks and dusting out their air raid shelters today as the prospect of U.S. attacks on Syrian targets this week provoked threats of retaliation against the Jewish state. That Israelis as well as their neighbors seem to take the idea that they should be attacked because Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians as nothing out of the ordinary. This is par for the course in the Middle East where Israelis have always served as the all-purpose scapegoats for everything that happens. But though Americans may not be quite as jaded to this sort of thing, some in our nation’s capital also seem to subscribe in some ways to the Arab world’s conspiratorial view of Israel. That was evident in a Politico story published last night that pondered why it was that the so-called “Israel lobby” was “silent on Syria.”

The assumption behind the story and the headline seems to be that anything that happens in the Middle East or any foreign policy initiative undertaken by the United States has to be in some way the result of machinations by supporters of Israel even if the conflict in question is one on which they have no rooting interest. That Jerusalem doesn’t have a favorite in a fight between a genocidal maniac dictator and an opposition that is heavily infiltrated by people related to Al Qaeda is a given. But the fact that backers of Israel are as divided about what the U.S. should do about Assad’s atrocities as the rest of the country is seen as somehow anomalous. But, like the Iraq War, which was, contrary to the anti-Semitic conspiracy mongers, not fought at Israel’s behest, there seems to be no stopping those who subscribe to the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that claims the Jewish state and the wall-to-wall bipartisan coalition that supports it somehow manipulates U.S. foreign policy against the best interests of the nation. However, in this case the slow march of the Obama administration to act on Syria gives the lie to the idea that Israel is the tail that wags the dog in Washington.

Apparently for the editors of Politico, the lack of a concerted effort on the part of pro-Israel groups either in favor of or against intervention in Syria is like the dog that doesn’t bark in Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. If you start thinking in Walt-Mearsheimer terms in which everything revolves around Israel, then the absence of pro-Israel groups in a debate must seem suspicious or at least odd. But there’s nothing unusual about neutrality on Syria, especially since the Jewish state has good reason to distrust both sides in the civil war and will probably suffer if the U.S. attacks.

It may be a shock to some to think that Israel’s friends don’t have a vested interest in every issue on the table. Groups like AIPAC do speak out on topics like aid to Egypt (which is directly related to maintenance of the peace treaty with Israel) or strengthening ties to moderate Arab nations like Jordan. But Israel doesn’t directly figure in calculations about Syria or most questions between the U.S. and Arab and Muslim nations.

If anything, events of the last few years in which Arab Spring protests and rebellions have debunked the long-cherished view of Israel’s critics that holds that the conflict with the Palestinians is the central issue around which all conflicts revolve in the Middle East. That’s a concept that those heavily influenced by the Walt-Mearsheimer canard have a tough time wrapping their brains around. But those willing to subscribe to conspiracy theories in which Israel provides the explanation for every mystery and misery on the planet now find themselves searching for an Israel angle about Syria. But other than the fact that Israel will be blamed for the outcome no matter what happens, there is none. Conspiracy theorists and their journalistic enablers need to move on.

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The FBI and the War on the NYPD and Counter-Terrorism

This morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly denounced as fiction allegations in an Associated Press article published today that the NYPD “labeled entire mosques as terrorist organizations” in order to spy on imams and members without any prior proof of wrongdoing. Kelly said the piece’s purpose was to “hype a book” that the authors of the article have written. He went on to insist that the federal judiciary has specifically authorized the activities of the NYPD’s counter-terrorism unit. Moreover, Kelly hinted that the agenda the AP reporters and their book is furthering is not so much one of innocent Muslims or the ACLU but that of the Federal Bureau of Investigation that is still angry that the NYPD had been allowed to poach on their territory and work on counter-terrorism rather than ordinary police work.

Indeed, even a quick reading of today’s AP piece, which is more or less a summary of many previous articles on the subject, indicates that although many of the official sources remain unidentified, the FBI’s fingerprints are all over what must be viewed as a hatchet job on the NYPD. But though this sort of federal-local rivalry is the stuff of numerous Law and Order episodes, the stakes in this dispute are bigger than even the egos of the personalities involved. At the heart of the tussle is the plain fact that after the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD felt that they could no longer play by the old rules of engagement that had led to the murder of thousands of New Yorkers at the hands of Islamist terrorists. Instead, they got to work investigating not only al-Qaeda imports but also the very real threat of homegrown Islamist terror.

The NYPD has come under a steady barrage of criticism for using its resources to seek out potential terror suspects in exactly the places where they are known to congregate: religious institutions led by people who encourage support for extreme Islamist views. While the FBI has chosen to avoid flack by treating Islamists with kid gloves, the NYPD did their job. The AP’s hit pieces should be viewed in the context of a long campaign by many in the liberal mainstream media to falsely assert that there has been a post-9/11 backlash of discrimination against American Muslims. But more than that, it is also part of an effort to demonize counter-terrorism work at a time when paranoia about government spying fed by the controversy over the National Security Agency is running high. But while many in Congress and the media are feeding the spirit of complacency about terror, Kelly has rightly tried to remind us that efforts such as those of the NYPD are all that stands between the nation and new atrocities.

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This morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly denounced as fiction allegations in an Associated Press article published today that the NYPD “labeled entire mosques as terrorist organizations” in order to spy on imams and members without any prior proof of wrongdoing. Kelly said the piece’s purpose was to “hype a book” that the authors of the article have written. He went on to insist that the federal judiciary has specifically authorized the activities of the NYPD’s counter-terrorism unit. Moreover, Kelly hinted that the agenda the AP reporters and their book is furthering is not so much one of innocent Muslims or the ACLU but that of the Federal Bureau of Investigation that is still angry that the NYPD had been allowed to poach on their territory and work on counter-terrorism rather than ordinary police work.

Indeed, even a quick reading of today’s AP piece, which is more or less a summary of many previous articles on the subject, indicates that although many of the official sources remain unidentified, the FBI’s fingerprints are all over what must be viewed as a hatchet job on the NYPD. But though this sort of federal-local rivalry is the stuff of numerous Law and Order episodes, the stakes in this dispute are bigger than even the egos of the personalities involved. At the heart of the tussle is the plain fact that after the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD felt that they could no longer play by the old rules of engagement that had led to the murder of thousands of New Yorkers at the hands of Islamist terrorists. Instead, they got to work investigating not only al-Qaeda imports but also the very real threat of homegrown Islamist terror.

The NYPD has come under a steady barrage of criticism for using its resources to seek out potential terror suspects in exactly the places where they are known to congregate: religious institutions led by people who encourage support for extreme Islamist views. While the FBI has chosen to avoid flack by treating Islamists with kid gloves, the NYPD did their job. The AP’s hit pieces should be viewed in the context of a long campaign by many in the liberal mainstream media to falsely assert that there has been a post-9/11 backlash of discrimination against American Muslims. But more than that, it is also part of an effort to demonize counter-terrorism work at a time when paranoia about government spying fed by the controversy over the National Security Agency is running high. But while many in Congress and the media are feeding the spirit of complacency about terror, Kelly has rightly tried to remind us that efforts such as those of the NYPD are all that stands between the nation and new atrocities.

As Kelly said:

“We have an agreement that has been authorized by a federal judge,” Kelly answered. “We follow that stipulation to the letter, and it authorizes us to do a whole series of things. Certainly investigations are part of it. We follow leads wherever they take us. We’re not intimidated as to where that lead takes us.”

Yet that is exactly what the NYPD and the anti-anti-terror lobby led by those who claim to speak for American Muslims and civil liberties extremists want.

The point of the AP piece is to portray the police investigations as a threat to the freedom of religion and the First Amendment protections that would theoretically protect sermons or other activities at mosques from any scrutiny. But the idea that the Constitution allows people to preach violence or to create places where potential terrorists are inspired or given guidance with impunity is absurd. If some religious institutions have come under such scrutiny it is because the NYPD has had a reasonable suspicion that such activities have taken place there. To treat any such investigations as inherently prejudicial not only ignores the duty of the police to follow criminals to their source but also ignores the reality that radical Islamists have found a foothold on our shores.

While I have little doubt that the actions of Kelly and the NYPD will be upheld in the courts against suits brought by critics of their policies, what their opponents are shooting for is just as important as a legal victory: the delegitimization of counter-terrorism work that is willing to address the problem of domestic Islamist terror. That is the agenda pursued by some Arab and Muslim groups that have even counseled their members not to cooperate with the authorities when they investigate terror cases.

But it is even more troubling to see that the FBI is willing to help this cause via leaks and prejudicial anonymous quotes whose purpose is to pursue their rivalry with the NYPD. It should be remembered that such turf wars was one of the principle causes of the failure of the FBI and other authorities in the 9/11 case. To see the FBI revert to this sort of lamentable behavior now in order to settle scores with the NYPD is nothing less than a tragedy.

The NYPD deserves the applause and the gratitude of the city as well as the people of the country as a whole for their sterling work that has served to ferret out potential and actual terror plots. Kelly is resolute in his determination that on his watch, those trusted with defending the safety of New Yorkers will not revert to the sort of September 10th mentality that has characterized many of those who wish to pretend there is no such thing as Islamist terror. We can only hope that the next mayor of New York will empower him and his successors to keep up the good fight to keep the city and the nation safe.

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The Shutdown Threat and 2016

One argument I’ve been making about the prospective class of 2016 GOP presidential candidates is that the divide between the governors and the senators redounds to the benefit of the governors. Coverage of the congressional battles fought since the Republicans took back control of the House of Representatives has focused mostly on the here and now: divided government and partisan bickering grinds Congress, and thus President Obama’s agenda, to a halt.

Both sides will argue whether it is in the best interests of the republic for the Democrats to be impeded, and will surely argue as well over the legality and constitutionality of Obama’s response, which is to simply vest the legislative powers of Congress in the White House for the time being. But what often goes unmentioned is the fact that the Republicans’ lack of power and the conservative grassroots’ antipathy toward major legislation means the rising stars of the Senate have thin resumes.

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One argument I’ve been making about the prospective class of 2016 GOP presidential candidates is that the divide between the governors and the senators redounds to the benefit of the governors. Coverage of the congressional battles fought since the Republicans took back control of the House of Representatives has focused mostly on the here and now: divided government and partisan bickering grinds Congress, and thus President Obama’s agenda, to a halt.

Both sides will argue whether it is in the best interests of the republic for the Democrats to be impeded, and will surely argue as well over the legality and constitutionality of Obama’s response, which is to simply vest the legislative powers of Congress in the White House for the time being. But what often goes unmentioned is the fact that the Republicans’ lack of power and the conservative grassroots’ antipathy toward major legislation means the rising stars of the Senate have thin resumes.

To correct this, conservative senators like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio have been like tired baseball players in extra innings swinging for the fences on every pitch, tantalized by the knowledge they are one well-timed swat from getting the win. Rubio did this by working with Democrats to get comprehensive immigration reform passed in the Senate, though it has languished in the House. Paul singlehandedly elevated his profile with the 13-hour talking filibuster over drones. And all three of them are now engaged in a high-stakes gamble by threatening to shut down the government unless Congress votes to de-fund ObamaCare.

The ploy is unlikely to be successful, but today the Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan argues that the three Republicans only stand to win by losing:

Why? Because Rubio, Cruz and Paul get to champion a plan that looks attractive to many conservatives in theory but could be politically disastrous in practice.

The trio of senators and possible 2016 presidential candidates is supportingpitch circulated by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that calls on lawmakers to not support any continuing resolution or appropriations bills that devote even a cent to funding President Obama’s health-care law. The plan has gained very little traction in the GOP Conference, despite a series of campaign-style events in August designed to build support for it.

Still, it’s getting the job done for the principals involved. Politically, at least.

I’m not sure I fully agree with the premise; my sense is that whatever the trio will gain politically will accrue to them whether or not the government gets shut down in the end, because that support is coming primarily from the base, which appreciates the attempt whatever the result. But it’s worth recalling that while the GOP governors don’t want the shutdown–because they worry about the effect on their own state economies–they also don’t need it, politically.

If Cruz, Paul, and Rubio end up running for president, and not much changes between now and then, they are going to be running on ideas–sometimes powerful ideas, powerfully expressed. But they might be going up against governors like Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Bobby Jindal, who can all boast of having taken on the unions and instituted much-needed reform.

In Christie’s case, he did this in a blue state, proving conservative policy can have mainstream appeal. In Jindal’s case, as I wrote this week, he is taking on the Obama administration’s Justice Department over school vouchers. And in Walker’s case, when the unions, media, and the rest of the American left went ballistic over his reforms, he outmaneuvered and defeated them at every turn.

The governors have another advantage: they don’t have to take difficult, inconvenient, or symbolic congressional votes. And that includes on de-funding ObamaCare. It’s true that the governors have counseled against shutting down the government over ObamaCare, but that’s different from actually voting the other way or standing against the grassroots tide represented by Ted Cruz. Sullivan’s logic, that since the shutdown won’t happen anyway its supporters need not worry about the consequences, rings true for the governors as well. If the shutdown fails, the governors can’t be blamed for it by the grassroots. If by chance it goes through, the governors won’t be responsible for the consequences.

That is not to say the senators should be blamed for swinging for the fences (though the various strategies are not all equal). They have to play the hand they were dealt, and that means accepting the confines of being leading lights in a party out of power. But there’s no question it puts the governors, at least for now, at an advantage.

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1963 to 2013: Obama Was Judged By the Content of His Character

Today’s anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech will feature an address by President Obama. As such, we should have some sympathy for the president. Being asked to give a speech commemorating one of the most famous speeches in American history is an unenviable task. Like someone going to Gettysburg to honor Lincoln’s address, no matter what you say, you’re bound to come up short in comparison to the original. But no matter how pedestrian our current great orator’s words sound when placed in juxtaposition to King’s words, the president’s presence on the podium will have greater significance than anything he says. There is, after all, no more powerful argument about how different the America of 2013 is from that of 1963 than the fact that the president of the United States today is an African-American.

There is no small irony in this since the president, his supporters and, indeed, most of what is left of what we still call the civil-rights movement have spent the last several months attempting to argue that whatever progress has been made, racism is still endemic in American society. Though the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial was a confusing case involving a Hispanic man claiming self-defense, liberals seeking to recapture the ancient struggle for civil rights inflated it into a rerun of the Emmitt Till murder. Commonsense voter ID laws supported by most African-Americans have been branded by no less a figure than the attorney general of the United States (also now a black man) into a new version of the despicable Jim Crow laws that motivated the 1963 march. But the reality of the Obama presidency gives the lie to these false charges. Though contemporary America is neither perfect nor free of individual racists, Obama is the realization of King’s dream.

If there is one thing that we know about our country today it is that in November 2008 and November 2012, it judged a black man by the content of his character and not the color of his skin.

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Today’s anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech will feature an address by President Obama. As such, we should have some sympathy for the president. Being asked to give a speech commemorating one of the most famous speeches in American history is an unenviable task. Like someone going to Gettysburg to honor Lincoln’s address, no matter what you say, you’re bound to come up short in comparison to the original. But no matter how pedestrian our current great orator’s words sound when placed in juxtaposition to King’s words, the president’s presence on the podium will have greater significance than anything he says. There is, after all, no more powerful argument about how different the America of 2013 is from that of 1963 than the fact that the president of the United States today is an African-American.

There is no small irony in this since the president, his supporters and, indeed, most of what is left of what we still call the civil-rights movement have spent the last several months attempting to argue that whatever progress has been made, racism is still endemic in American society. Though the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial was a confusing case involving a Hispanic man claiming self-defense, liberals seeking to recapture the ancient struggle for civil rights inflated it into a rerun of the Emmitt Till murder. Commonsense voter ID laws supported by most African-Americans have been branded by no less a figure than the attorney general of the United States (also now a black man) into a new version of the despicable Jim Crow laws that motivated the 1963 march. But the reality of the Obama presidency gives the lie to these false charges. Though contemporary America is neither perfect nor free of individual racists, Obama is the realization of King’s dream.

If there is one thing that we know about our country today it is that in November 2008 and November 2012, it judged a black man by the content of his character and not the color of his skin.

We may not have arrived at a completely color-blind utopia yet, but Obama’s election and his reelection demonstrated that Jim Crow is dead once and for all. Whites may have been prepared to tolerate blacks in the 1960s or even to give them equality. But in the last five years they have twice shown that they were willing to vote for one for president.

An intellectually bankrupt left and civil-rights groups that long ago lost their way may cling to the idea that little or nothing has changed. Their struggle should have been transformed into one that sought to address the breakdown of the black family and other social pathologies (fed in no small part by the growth of a well-intentioned welfare state in the wake of the passage of historic civil-rights laws) long ago. But instead they cling to the notion that white racism is the problem. In doing so they have perpetuated division rather than seeking to erase it.

One of the main reasons Obama was elected and then reelected in spite of a first term filled with failure was that his presence in the White House corrected a great historic injustice and made Americans feel good about themselves. This may be frustrating for Obama’s critics, but it is altogether understandable. It should also cause those speaking today at the Lincoln Memorial to ponder just how different America is today from the one where King dreamed such a thing might be possible. Instead of decrying America’s failings today, the president and others who speak should be celebrating just how much we have achieved. Barack Obama is the embodiment of American progress. Let us hope he spends today and the rest of his time in the White House fulfilling his promises to try and bring us together rather than working, as he has done, to keeping old, dead, and hurtful fights alive.

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Arabs Give Obama the Bush Treatment

There may be some Americans who still cling to the image of Barack Obama as a magical figure with the power to transform his country’s image. That was the Obama we were told five years ago the world would embrace because his election would signal a return to America’s status as the defender of all that was good after eight years of George W. Bush’s evil cowboy act that had caused everyone to distrust us. But if there is anything to be learned from the prelude to whatever it is that the administration will do about Syrian chemical attacks, it is that the myth of Obama’s ability to make the U.S. loved in the Third World is officially dead.

As it turns out, Arabs and Muslims are today reviling Barack Obama’s America for proposing military action that is aimed at protecting Arabs and Muslims from atrocities in Syria. That is more or less the same thing that happened when George W. Bush sought to overthrow the Taliban oppressors of Afghanistan and Iraq’s madman tyrant Saddam Hussein. Whatever it is that the U.S. winds up doing in Syria will not have the imprimatur of the United Nations, and it will be opposed by the Arab League even though that august body has been vocal in its criticism of the Assad regime and supportive of efforts to effect regime change in Damascus. But the use of U.S. force to punish an Arab government for using chemical weapons against its own people is still a bridge too far for them. As the U.S. prepares to attack Syria, it will do so without a U.N. endorsement or even encouragement from those Arab governments that hate Assad. What exactly is the difference between this and Bush’s “coalition of the willing” that the American left (including Obama himself) mocked so much? Not much.

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There may be some Americans who still cling to the image of Barack Obama as a magical figure with the power to transform his country’s image. That was the Obama we were told five years ago the world would embrace because his election would signal a return to America’s status as the defender of all that was good after eight years of George W. Bush’s evil cowboy act that had caused everyone to distrust us. But if there is anything to be learned from the prelude to whatever it is that the administration will do about Syrian chemical attacks, it is that the myth of Obama’s ability to make the U.S. loved in the Third World is officially dead.

As it turns out, Arabs and Muslims are today reviling Barack Obama’s America for proposing military action that is aimed at protecting Arabs and Muslims from atrocities in Syria. That is more or less the same thing that happened when George W. Bush sought to overthrow the Taliban oppressors of Afghanistan and Iraq’s madman tyrant Saddam Hussein. Whatever it is that the U.S. winds up doing in Syria will not have the imprimatur of the United Nations, and it will be opposed by the Arab League even though that august body has been vocal in its criticism of the Assad regime and supportive of efforts to effect regime change in Damascus. But the use of U.S. force to punish an Arab government for using chemical weapons against its own people is still a bridge too far for them. As the U.S. prepares to attack Syria, it will do so without a U.N. endorsement or even encouragement from those Arab governments that hate Assad. What exactly is the difference between this and Bush’s “coalition of the willing” that the American left (including Obama himself) mocked so much? Not much.

While the Arab League is not the most consequential institution in the world, its opposition to Obama’s plans is telling. As the New York Times notes:

The vast majority of Arabs are emotionally opposed to any Western military action in the region no matter how humanitarian the cause, and no Arab nation or leader has publicly endorsed such a step, even in countries like the Persian Gulf monarchies whose diplomats for months have privately urged the West to step in. In the region, only Turkey has pledged to support intervention.

This is important not so much because it illustrates the hypocrisy of the Arab League and the opinion of the so-called Arab street but because it demonstrates the utter lack of success of President Obama’s efforts to appease them during the course of his administration. Not his Cairo speech which sought to validate Muslim myths of victimization at the hands of the West, nor his fights with Israel, his efforts to work with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or his withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan have convinced anyone there that Obama’s America is any less of an inherent enemy to the Arabs than Bush’s America.

Just as Muslims claimed that American wars fought to save Muslim lives in Somalia, Kuwait, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq were really expressions of American imperialism, now Obama’s war in Syria is treated the same way. If the injustice of this charge rankles the president, he should remember that Bush had just as much if not more reason to complain of unfair treatment abroad and at home from critics like his successor.

Of course, despite the fears of the president’s American critics, these Arab opponents of America have a point. Though, as Elliott Abrams writes in the September issue of COMMENTARY, the president has sought to portray himself as a “citizen of the world” rather than an American exceptionalist in the manner of his predecessors, the world understands that this is an artificial construct that is doomed to fail.

What we are about to witness in Syria is not only what appears to be a symbolic expression of American temper that will do nothing to change the situation on the ground and possibly strengthen a dictator and his dangerous allies if they are seen as surviving or defeating an American attack. It is also a demonstration of the bankruptcy of Obama’s foreign-policy approach. Though he will never admit it, Syria is the final proof that the magical Obama many Americans thought they elected was a figment of their imagination.

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The Case for a Presidential Address on Syria

Politico’s Glenn Thrush caused a minor stir this morning when he tweeted, regarding Syria: “Is POTUS going to address the nation directly before embarking on military action in Syria? Many of his aides think it’s a passé tactic.” He followed up a few minutes later: “Not saying Obama won’t address nation. But will he do it a) BEFORE acting and b) from Oval? Obama hates direct-to-camera – prefers audience”.

It’s possible the president strongly disagrees with the unnamed advisors here; it would be quite ironic for the president whose career was propelled by speechmaking to dismiss the power of his own words. Yet Obama has been relatively quiet on this issue recently and he is even hesitant to go to Congress to get authorization for entering the Syrian civil war. But the president’s concerns here are justified; it’s just that he’s chosen the wrong way to respond.

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Politico’s Glenn Thrush caused a minor stir this morning when he tweeted, regarding Syria: “Is POTUS going to address the nation directly before embarking on military action in Syria? Many of his aides think it’s a passé tactic.” He followed up a few minutes later: “Not saying Obama won’t address nation. But will he do it a) BEFORE acting and b) from Oval? Obama hates direct-to-camera – prefers audience”.

It’s possible the president strongly disagrees with the unnamed advisors here; it would be quite ironic for the president whose career was propelled by speechmaking to dismiss the power of his own words. Yet Obama has been relatively quiet on this issue recently and he is even hesitant to go to Congress to get authorization for entering the Syrian civil war. But the president’s concerns here are justified; it’s just that he’s chosen the wrong way to respond.

The president no doubt has seen the polling. The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll found that: “About 60 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should not intervene in Syria’s civil war, while just 9 percent thought President Barack Obama should act.” A coalition of the willing starts at home, and nine percent is not encouraging. But there’s a silver lining. As the AP reported in a roundup of Syria polling, “The Pew Research Center has tracked public attention to news about the conflict in Syria since May 2011, and has consistently found most Americans are tuned out. Each time they’ve asked, a majority said they were not following closely.”

The question is whether there is anything Obama can do to change their minds. The answer is yes–he’s already done it, to an extent. As the Washington Post reported in December, Obama had been personally opposed to intervening in the Syria civil war but in August 2012 set Syrian chemical weapons use as his “red line.” Wouldn’t you know it, four months later a poll found a majority of Americans opposed intervention in Syria–unless the regime used chemical weapons. Then all bets were off, and suddenly support for military action in Syria went from 17 percent to 63 percent.

Perhaps the American public had coincidentally formed their own opinion of what constitutes a red line in Syria independent of the president. But that’s unlikely. What seems to have happened is that Americans weren’t following the conflict closely but set their conditions for involvement precisely as the president had. The point here is not only that the crossing of the red line is likely to change at least a few minds. It’s that the public has shown both that it is not paying close attention to Syria and that it broadly trusts Obama’s judgment on American action. The opportunity, then, for Obama to build support for action the administration seems intent on taking is staring the president in the face.

Whether or not the president thinks Reddit AMAs and Twitter town halls are the way to reach young Americans, on matters of war and peace a serious address in a serious setting is the way to get Americans’ attention, and it will almost surely get results. As I wrote last year, when discussing the efficacy of presidential rhetoric it’s important to make a distinction between foreign and domestic policy. I noted that Obama has experienced this as well. Like past presidents, he has had difficulty selling the public on major domestic reforms, but also like his predecessors, he has had much more success selling the public on the deployment of American military forces. The president is the commander in chief, and the public treats him that way. Obama, after all, won a nine-percent jump in public support for the war in Afghanistan after his announcement of a troop surge there.

Additionally, while it’s true that the country is war weary and that there are those in Congress just itching to vote against more foreign intervention, Obama is underestimating the support he would have. He should go to Congress for approval; he’d get it. That will at least somewhat insulate him from charges of warmongering or recklessness, and certainly of partisanship or double standards. And he should address the American people, make the case for his desired course of action, and ask for their support. If past is prologue, he’ll get that too.

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What Will the Syria Strikes Accomplish?

Yesterday I wrote about President Obama’s three options on Syria–light bombing designed to “send a message,” medium bombing combined with Special Operations raids to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, and heavy, sustained bombing in combination with ground action by rebel forces to topple Bashar Assad. All of the news coverage since yesterday morning makes clear that–unless the administration is engaging in strategic deception on a gigantic scale–only the lightest of light options is likely to be implemented.

News accounts suggest that the likeliest scenario is a few days of strikes employing cruise missiles fired from warships in the Mediterranean safely out of the range of Syrian retaliation. Their target list would not include the actual depots where chemical weapons are stored but “would instead be aimed at military units that have carried out chemical attacks, the headquarters overseeing the effort and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks.”

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Yesterday I wrote about President Obama’s three options on Syria–light bombing designed to “send a message,” medium bombing combined with Special Operations raids to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, and heavy, sustained bombing in combination with ground action by rebel forces to topple Bashar Assad. All of the news coverage since yesterday morning makes clear that–unless the administration is engaging in strategic deception on a gigantic scale–only the lightest of light options is likely to be implemented.

News accounts suggest that the likeliest scenario is a few days of strikes employing cruise missiles fired from warships in the Mediterranean safely out of the range of Syrian retaliation. Their target list would not include the actual depots where chemical weapons are stored but “would instead be aimed at military units that have carried out chemical attacks, the headquarters overseeing the effort and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks.”

The amount of damage that will be done, if only Tomahawk cruise missiles are used, will be strictly limited since they carry relatively small warheads of 260-370 pounds, compared with 500-pound, 1,000-pound, 2,000-pound, and even 15,000-pound bombs (the BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter”) that can be carried by aircraft. The use of airdropped munitions can make it possible to penetrate bunkers and incinerate chemical weapons stockpiles without risking the dispersion of the deadly weapons. And even if aircraft were to be employed, they would have to bomb for considerable periods to achieve any strategic effects–witness the 78 days of bombing of Kosovo in 1999 or the even longer bombing of Libya in 2011.

A few days of attacks with cruise missiles is a pinprick strike reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s attacks on al-Qaeda and Iraq in 1998. What did those strikes achieve? Precisely nothing beyond blowing up a poor pharmaceutical plant in Sudan wrongly suspected of manufacturing, ironically, chemical weapons. Actually, worse than nothing: those strikes, which Osama bin Laden survived easily, convinced him that the U.S. was a “weak horse” that could be defied with impunity.

Similar strikes would likely have a similar effect in Syria: It would convince Bashar Assad, and a lot of other people in the region, that he successfully defied the superpower. It could have, in other words, the effect of enhancing Assad’s aura of power–precisely the opposite of what Obama intends.

The U.S. goal in Syria, as enunciated by no less than the president himself, is to topple Assad and to end the suffering created by the Syrian civil war. That will not be achieved with cruise missiles. It will require months of bombing, combined with the arming, training, and coordination of rebel forces. Even a lesser goal of destroying Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles–a reasonable objective given the strategic threat posed by WMD–would require weeks of bombing combined with commando raids. A few days of cruise missile strikes, by contrast, will only make the U.S. appear to be a weak, posturing giant.

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Why Is Obama Leaking Syria Plans?

After years of inaction on atrocities in Syria, President Obama is finally prepared to act. The reason for this decision is clear: having said that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that the Assad regime could not cross, the evidence that he has done so has convinced the president that his already diminished credibility would be destroyed if he did nothing. But the leaks coming from figures inside the administration detailing what this reaction will entail raise more questions about the president’s policies than anything else. First among them is why what the New York Times describes as “a wide range of officials” have been empowered to lay out the plan, time, and extent of the attacks on the Syrian army.

As the Wall Street Journal notes in an editorial today, the leaks make the administration’s pursuit of Edward Snowden seem hypocritical, since the giving away of operational military plans strikes one as being every bit as dangerous, if not more so, than his giveaway of secrets about the National Security Agency’s counter-terror operations. But there is more to the leaks than mere hypocrisy. The signals emanating from the White House and the Pentagon constitute more than clear warnings to Damascus about what will happen. They are an attempt to spin the impending strikes to a skeptical American public that polls say wants no part of any involvement in the Syrian civil war no matter what horrors the participants have employed. If this were a novel, we might speculate the information coming from Washington is part of a plan of deception covering a more ambitious plan, but this isn’t a novel and no one in this administration appears to be that clever. Instead, what we are faced with is a military action whose purpose is to have as little effect on the war in Syria and the future of the Assad regime as possible. If true, it is hard to argue with those who will ask why the president is putting U.S. forces in jeopardy to accomplish so little.

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After years of inaction on atrocities in Syria, President Obama is finally prepared to act. The reason for this decision is clear: having said that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that the Assad regime could not cross, the evidence that he has done so has convinced the president that his already diminished credibility would be destroyed if he did nothing. But the leaks coming from figures inside the administration detailing what this reaction will entail raise more questions about the president’s policies than anything else. First among them is why what the New York Times describes as “a wide range of officials” have been empowered to lay out the plan, time, and extent of the attacks on the Syrian army.

As the Wall Street Journal notes in an editorial today, the leaks make the administration’s pursuit of Edward Snowden seem hypocritical, since the giving away of operational military plans strikes one as being every bit as dangerous, if not more so, than his giveaway of secrets about the National Security Agency’s counter-terror operations. But there is more to the leaks than mere hypocrisy. The signals emanating from the White House and the Pentagon constitute more than clear warnings to Damascus about what will happen. They are an attempt to spin the impending strikes to a skeptical American public that polls say wants no part of any involvement in the Syrian civil war no matter what horrors the participants have employed. If this were a novel, we might speculate the information coming from Washington is part of a plan of deception covering a more ambitious plan, but this isn’t a novel and no one in this administration appears to be that clever. Instead, what we are faced with is a military action whose purpose is to have as little effect on the war in Syria and the future of the Assad regime as possible. If true, it is hard to argue with those who will ask why the president is putting U.S. forces in jeopardy to accomplish so little.

It bears repeating that if the point of any such strikes is to hold Assad accountable, then a limited number of missile strikes on Syrian army targets that will neither topple the dictator (a goal that has been repeatedly endorsed and predicted by President Obama) or cripple his ability to go on committing atrocities doesn’t exactly fit the bill. If the strikes are what we are being led to expect, then what we are in store for is a noisy and dramatic version of a diplomatic note expressing American indignation.

As I noted yesterday, if the president doesn’t finish what he starts this week in Syria, it’s not clear there will be any real gains from the use of so many expensive military weapons. No matter how carefully this legion of Washington leakers spins the attacks, wars have a way of spinning out of the control of their planners. Should the U.S. strikes lead to missile attacks on Israel by Hezbollah, as that terrorist group’s Iranian masters warn, then the situation will turn out to be more complicated than the president thinks.

Just as dangerous is the likelihood that if Assad is still standing once the dust settles from a few days of limited U.S. attacks, America’s credibility will be in even worse shape than it is now. If a few weeks from now, the regime is not only still in place but still winning its war with Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah help, the president’s limited Syrian war will be seen as an empty gesture. Such an outcome would be a metaphor for a failed policy that will have serious implications for efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program. Seen in that light, rather than worrying so much about reassuring Americans that he doesn’t intend to do much in Syria, the president should be concerned about the implications of an episode that will be viewed as a metaphor for foreign-policy disaster.

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Special Preview: Fifty Years After the March

This article is a special preview of the September issue of COMMENTARY. You can subscribe here.

On August 28, 1963, a quarter million Americans staged the most important demonstration in our nation’s history. They marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial in what is now remembered primarily as the setting for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But it was much more than that. The speech was epochal precisely because the event culminated the civil-rights “revolution” that put an end to the dark era of racial segregation and open discrimination.

Growing up in an activist household, I was, although just shy of 16, already a seasoned protester, having for example first seen Washington when my parents took me to the 1958 Youth March for Integrated Schools, a prequel to the 1963 march. Thanks to being in the right place at the right time, I now found myself in the role of coordinator of two old yellow school buses bringing marchers from Harlem to Washington. As we prepared for the nighttime drive to the capital, the sense of anticipation in the air along 125th Street was not limited to those who would make the journey. In a late-night drugstore, I assembled the contents of a first-aid kit for each bus, and when I told the clerks it was for the march, they cheered and refused to accept payment.

Continue reading this article…

This article is a special preview of the September issue of COMMENTARY. You can subscribe here.

On August 28, 1963, a quarter million Americans staged the most important demonstration in our nation’s history. They marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial in what is now remembered primarily as the setting for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But it was much more than that. The speech was epochal precisely because the event culminated the civil-rights “revolution” that put an end to the dark era of racial segregation and open discrimination.

Growing up in an activist household, I was, although just shy of 16, already a seasoned protester, having for example first seen Washington when my parents took me to the 1958 Youth March for Integrated Schools, a prequel to the 1963 march. Thanks to being in the right place at the right time, I now found myself in the role of coordinator of two old yellow school buses bringing marchers from Harlem to Washington. As we prepared for the nighttime drive to the capital, the sense of anticipation in the air along 125th Street was not limited to those who would make the journey. In a late-night drugstore, I assembled the contents of a first-aid kit for each bus, and when I told the clerks it was for the march, they cheered and refused to accept payment.

Continue reading this article…

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The Wall Between Israel and the Diaspora

Perhaps there are some in Israel’s government that thought they were being clever this past weekend when Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett announced what he hailed as an interim solution for the conflict at Jerusalem’s Western Wall over the right of non-Orthodox women to hold prayer services at the site. Earlier this year Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky proposed a far-reaching compromise that would vastly expand the plaza in order to provide a third and theoretically equal space at the Kotel for non-Orthodox services. That would reinforce the idea that the place is a national shrine for all Jews and not, as it has been in practice since it was liberated in 1967, an open-air Orthodox synagogue whose norms reflect the sensibilities of the Haredi world in which a group like the Women of the Wall protest group is seen as provocateurs rather than merely practicing another variant of Judaism. But it is highly unlikely that Sharansky’s ambitious plan will be realized anytime soon, if ever. Which means that those wishing to have egalitarian services will have to be satisfied with Bennett’s idea in which they will be shunted to a temporary platform that doesn’t even touch the Wall away from the main Plaza at the Robinson’s Arch archeological site.

Bennett says his plan is intended as a goodwill gesture toward the non-Orthodox (who make up approximately 90 percent of American Jewry, though an infinitesimal percentage of Israelis) on the eve of the High Holidays next week. Perhaps he’s sincere about that, but this latest chapter in the long-running battle over prayer at the Kotel illustrates once again that the Wall is more than a metaphor when it comes to Diaspora-Israel relations. Many, if not most Israelis, see the Women of the Wall in the way our Evelyn Gordon does in her September 2013 COMMENTARY article on the subject: as part of a splinter group that is attempting to make a left-wing political point undermining Israel’s image rather than seeking redress for a genuine grievance. Non-Orthodox Jews see the issue as one that highlights Israel’s lack of Jewish religious pluralism. Neither seems to understand the other side, let alone listen to each other. That’s why, contrary to Bennett’s expectations, and coming as it does on the eve of the one time of the year when the bulk of the non-Orthodox will be gathered in synagogues, what he has done will only deepen the long-simmering resentment among Reform and Conservative Jews about the non-recognition of their rabbis as well as the way the Women of the Wall are routinely treated. At a moment when the Netanyahu government needs to rally the support of these Jews on the peace process with the Palestinians and the looming conflict with Iran, this was an unforced error.

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Perhaps there are some in Israel’s government that thought they were being clever this past weekend when Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett announced what he hailed as an interim solution for the conflict at Jerusalem’s Western Wall over the right of non-Orthodox women to hold prayer services at the site. Earlier this year Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky proposed a far-reaching compromise that would vastly expand the plaza in order to provide a third and theoretically equal space at the Kotel for non-Orthodox services. That would reinforce the idea that the place is a national shrine for all Jews and not, as it has been in practice since it was liberated in 1967, an open-air Orthodox synagogue whose norms reflect the sensibilities of the Haredi world in which a group like the Women of the Wall protest group is seen as provocateurs rather than merely practicing another variant of Judaism. But it is highly unlikely that Sharansky’s ambitious plan will be realized anytime soon, if ever. Which means that those wishing to have egalitarian services will have to be satisfied with Bennett’s idea in which they will be shunted to a temporary platform that doesn’t even touch the Wall away from the main Plaza at the Robinson’s Arch archeological site.

Bennett says his plan is intended as a goodwill gesture toward the non-Orthodox (who make up approximately 90 percent of American Jewry, though an infinitesimal percentage of Israelis) on the eve of the High Holidays next week. Perhaps he’s sincere about that, but this latest chapter in the long-running battle over prayer at the Kotel illustrates once again that the Wall is more than a metaphor when it comes to Diaspora-Israel relations. Many, if not most Israelis, see the Women of the Wall in the way our Evelyn Gordon does in her September 2013 COMMENTARY article on the subject: as part of a splinter group that is attempting to make a left-wing political point undermining Israel’s image rather than seeking redress for a genuine grievance. Non-Orthodox Jews see the issue as one that highlights Israel’s lack of Jewish religious pluralism. Neither seems to understand the other side, let alone listen to each other. That’s why, contrary to Bennett’s expectations, and coming as it does on the eve of the one time of the year when the bulk of the non-Orthodox will be gathered in synagogues, what he has done will only deepen the long-simmering resentment among Reform and Conservative Jews about the non-recognition of their rabbis as well as the way the Women of the Wall are routinely treated. At a moment when the Netanyahu government needs to rally the support of these Jews on the peace process with the Palestinians and the looming conflict with Iran, this was an unforced error.

It cannot be emphasized enough that most American Jews who are angry about this situation haven’t the slightest idea why most Israelis are so indifferent to their complaints about pluralism. It bears repeating that in a country in which there is no formal division between religion and state and rabbis are paid by the government, the question of who is a rabbi is a political issue. As such, so long as supporters of the various religious parties (of which Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi represents the views of the modern Orthodox and is least hostile to the sensibilities of most American Jews) are a major force in Israeli politics and hold the balance of power in their hands while those affiliated with non-Orthodox denominations are a fraction of a percent (it used to be said that they were outnumbered by Scientologists), the influence of the latter will be minimal. The majority of Israeli Jews have plenty of complaints about the Orthodox rabbinate and their monopoly on life cycle events, but what they want is civil marriage and divorce. Securing equal rights for the Conservative and Reform movements—which are both seen as foreign implants—is rather low on their priority list.

But Israelis are just as obtuse about the hard feelings of American Jews about pluralism and Women of the Wall. It may strike them as unreasonable for Americans to demand equality for movements that are marginal in Israeli society or to give the Women of the Wall the right to pray in the manner of Conservative and Reform Jews in the women’s section at the Kotel with Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, and singing out loud. But if they are serious about strengthening ties with the Diaspora, especially with the non-Orthodox, then they must treat these complaints seriously. Conservative and Reform Jews believe their denomination is no less valid and deserving of equal treatment under the law in the State of Israel as the Orthodox. When the Jerusalem police ignore the rulings of Israeli courts mandating the right of the Women of the Wall to pray as they like at the Kotel (while sometimes arresting or roughing up the women) or allow mobs orchestrated by the Haredim to keep them away from it at the time of their monthly services, they take it as a personal affront rather than viewing the incidents as the work of marginal troublemakers.

No matter where you come down on the justice of this dispute, there’s no doubt that what Bennett has done is a blunder as far as Israel-Diaspora relations are concerned, though it must be conceded that he has probably helped himself with religious Israeli voters, which is his main interest. Instead of throwing them a bone, as Bennett says he intended to do with this proposal, his idea that will shunt Conservative and Reform Jews out of sight of the main plaza will be viewed as tangible proof of the Israeli government’s disdain for the non-Orthodox. It would have been far better for the government to do nothing while they pondered how to implement Sharansky’s idea than to give Conservative and Reform rabbis an opening to blast the government in High Holiday services. Given that their own interests are at stake with the necessity to mobilize American Jewry against pressure on Jerusalem on the peace process and the nuclear threat from Iran, it shouldn’t have been too much to ask Israel’s Cabinet to avoid giving such offense in the week before Rosh Hashanah.

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Can Christie Be Christie and Win in 2016?

Yesterday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie bolstered his regular-guy image by performing as a guest host on New York’s WFAN Sports Radio morning show. For those not conversant with the world of New York or sports radio, the FAN is the most influential and widely listened-to sports station in the nation’s biggest market, and that kind of free platform is the sort of thing all the money in the world can’t buy a politician looking to burnish his brand. This wasn’t his first appearance on “Boomer & Carton,” and once again Christie demonstrated that he’s not only an experienced showman but is someone who can speak credibly about sports (he sometimes calls in to sound off on the subject under the moniker of “Chris from Mendham”). During the course of four hours of non-stop palaver while subbing for vacationing former football star Boomer Esiason, Christie was his typical blunt and opinionated self, defending favorites like New York Jets Coach Rex Ryan and expressing disdain for the New York Yankees (he’s a Mets fan).

That’s all well and good, and he’s as entitled to his opinion on such burning topics as whether Jets fans are too hard on quarterback Mark Sanchez as anyone else. Moreover, his behavior on the show, like the YouTube videos of his encounters with the citizens of New Jersey on political topics, employed the same in-your-face style that endeared him to conservatives nationwide who loved watching him dress down liberals, union bosses, teachers, and anyone else who contradicted him (or at least they did until he hugged President Obama after Hurricane Sandy last fall). But with the growing likelihood that Christie will run for president after his almost certain reelection as governor this fall, the reaction to yesterday’s show makes me wonder whether Christie can go on being Christie once the long slog to 2016 really begins for him. While the Garden State and his fans think there’s nothing wrong with the governor routinely calling people “idiots” now, will that sort of off-hand nastiness be accepted from a presidential candidate?

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Yesterday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie bolstered his regular-guy image by performing as a guest host on New York’s WFAN Sports Radio morning show. For those not conversant with the world of New York or sports radio, the FAN is the most influential and widely listened-to sports station in the nation’s biggest market, and that kind of free platform is the sort of thing all the money in the world can’t buy a politician looking to burnish his brand. This wasn’t his first appearance on “Boomer & Carton,” and once again Christie demonstrated that he’s not only an experienced showman but is someone who can speak credibly about sports (he sometimes calls in to sound off on the subject under the moniker of “Chris from Mendham”). During the course of four hours of non-stop palaver while subbing for vacationing former football star Boomer Esiason, Christie was his typical blunt and opinionated self, defending favorites like New York Jets Coach Rex Ryan and expressing disdain for the New York Yankees (he’s a Mets fan).

That’s all well and good, and he’s as entitled to his opinion on such burning topics as whether Jets fans are too hard on quarterback Mark Sanchez as anyone else. Moreover, his behavior on the show, like the YouTube videos of his encounters with the citizens of New Jersey on political topics, employed the same in-your-face style that endeared him to conservatives nationwide who loved watching him dress down liberals, union bosses, teachers, and anyone else who contradicted him (or at least they did until he hugged President Obama after Hurricane Sandy last fall). But with the growing likelihood that Christie will run for president after his almost certain reelection as governor this fall, the reaction to yesterday’s show makes me wonder whether Christie can go on being Christie once the long slog to 2016 really begins for him. While the Garden State and his fans think there’s nothing wrong with the governor routinely calling people “idiots” now, will that sort of off-hand nastiness be accepted from a presidential candidate?

The question is brought to mind by the reaction to one of Christie’s “idiot” riffs by New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica who objected to the governor characterizing the News’s Jets beat reporter Manish Mehta as “a complete idiot” as well as being “self-consumed” and “underpaid” for pressing Jets coach Ryan about some inexplicable blunders during a game this past weekend. Lupica, in the worst tradition of tabloid journalism, attempted to hype the comment into a full-blown feud between Christie and the paper in a column today that included a boxing style “tale of the tape,” contrasting the average sized and largely unknown reporter with the supersized famous Republican. The piece is itself best described as fairly idiotic, all the more so since Lupica, who sometimes does double duty for the News supplying liberal opinion columns for its news section, makes no secret of the fact that he has a political axe to grind against Christie.

But as foolish as all this might be, it does point out two flaws in Christie’s armor that might not play as well on the national stage as it does in the New York-metro area. In blasting the scribe, Christie was, after all, behaving the same way he often does on the stump: like a thin-skinned bully who shows little respect to not just opponents, but ordinary people who have the temerity to confront him or who displease him in some way. It may be all in fun when sports-talking on the FAN, but does anyone really think this sort of incident won’t be blown out of proportion if it happened in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or any other primary or caucus state?

Christie’s answer may be to say that the country will have to take him as he is. And there could be more value for him in not changing than in modifying his behavior to please voters outside of his home area who might regard it as insufferable. Indeed, it could well be that a toned-down Christie wouldn’t play as well as the real McCoy. But those who expect that he can go on calling people “idiots” all the way to the White House (a group that probably includes the governor) need to understand that the rules for national presidential politics are not the same as the ones by which we judge governors in Northeast states.

One of Christie’s biggest assets is his authenticity, and the contrast between him and the last GOP presidential candidate on that score couldn’t be greater. But once you start running for president, your statements get scrutinized in ways they’ve never been before. If he really wants to be president, he may discover that all the bluster in the world won’t be enough to undo the damage an ill-considered and insensitive remark causes.

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Will the Pottery Barn Rule Save Assad?

The same vague aloofness that has served Barack Obama well at various points in his political career does not make Jay Carney’s job any easier. The White House press secretary must field questions from the media to explain the president’s position on a host of issues almost daily. When the administration’s policy is hazy, secretive, or to be determined, as is often the case, Carney stammers through his press briefing with a defeated, resigned series of non-answers.

Such is the case with the apparently imminent military attack on Bashar al-Assad’s side in the Syrian civil war. After the West could no longer ignore the use of chemical weapons, the administration sent Secretary of State John Kerry out yesterday to make a statement that danced around the subject of a military response. He then took no questions and left. But the message came through clearly enough that it is now taken for granted that action will be taken.

Carney naturally took questions on the subject today, and when pressed for specifics, he gave an answer that became the focus of several news agencies’ write-ups of the briefing: “It is not our policy to respond to this transgression with regime change.” The goal of the (presumed) strikes will not be to take out Bashar al-Assad.

The follow-up question, which elicited no further explanation, was: Why not? To elaborate: it is the opinion of the government of the United States that Assad should no longer be in control of the country, and the U.S. may now strike at Assad’s regime–but doesn’t want to depose him. That may sound incongruous, but the strange truth is that the president most likely does not want to take out Assad–and it’s not because Obama doesn’t actually want Assad out.

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The same vague aloofness that has served Barack Obama well at various points in his political career does not make Jay Carney’s job any easier. The White House press secretary must field questions from the media to explain the president’s position on a host of issues almost daily. When the administration’s policy is hazy, secretive, or to be determined, as is often the case, Carney stammers through his press briefing with a defeated, resigned series of non-answers.

Such is the case with the apparently imminent military attack on Bashar al-Assad’s side in the Syrian civil war. After the West could no longer ignore the use of chemical weapons, the administration sent Secretary of State John Kerry out yesterday to make a statement that danced around the subject of a military response. He then took no questions and left. But the message came through clearly enough that it is now taken for granted that action will be taken.

Carney naturally took questions on the subject today, and when pressed for specifics, he gave an answer that became the focus of several news agencies’ write-ups of the briefing: “It is not our policy to respond to this transgression with regime change.” The goal of the (presumed) strikes will not be to take out Bashar al-Assad.

The follow-up question, which elicited no further explanation, was: Why not? To elaborate: it is the opinion of the government of the United States that Assad should no longer be in control of the country, and the U.S. may now strike at Assad’s regime–but doesn’t want to depose him. That may sound incongruous, but the strange truth is that the president most likely does not want to take out Assad–and it’s not because Obama doesn’t actually want Assad out.

The answer to that question has a lot to do with an interesting debate among commentators on the left about the lessons and legacy of the Iraq war. Matt Yglesias argued that a humanitarian intervention should be done through explicitly humanitarian (that is, non-military) means. Jonathan Chait responded that the left would do well to stop assuming every military intervention is Iraq all over again–what about the first Gulf war or the Balkans?

Yglesias questions the idea that the Libyan intervention succeeded, and Chait disagrees. But it’s Chait’s description of Libyan success that helps explain why President Obama may not want to be responsible for ending Assad’s rule directly. Here’s Chait:

The argument for intervening in Libya was not that doing so would turn the country into a peaceful, Westernized democracy moving rapidly up the OECD rankings. It was that it would prevent an immediate, enormous massacre of civilians. Libya remains an ugly place; it would have been so regardless of whether NATO intervened. But the narrow, humanitarian goal that drove the U.S. to act was unambiguously accomplished without the larger dangers of mission creep that foes warned against. It’s telling that, rather than arguing that the overall costs exceeded the benefits, opponents are resorting to listing any bad things that have happened since.

Chait isn’t arguing that the “bad things that have happened since” didn’t actually happen or aren’t really bad. He’s saying the mission had nothing to do with preventing the descent into violent anarchy and the destabilizing spread of Islamist violence that followed the intervention. Gaddafi’s dead. Mission accomplished.

But it’s not nearly so easy for a president to make that case. It can be simultaneously true that the narrowly defined mission in Libya succeeded and that what followed was disastrous. The reason it elicits comparisons to Iraq is because of Colin Powell’s famous “Pottery Barn rule” regarding foreign intervention: “You break it, you own it.”

Western military action in Libya decapitated the Gaddafi regime, raising the specter of the Pottery Barn rule. It’s true that the administration made no promises to stay and nation-build there. But President Obama learned with the fatal attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi that he could not so easily walk away from Libya by simply saying that he held up his end of the bargain.

The Pottery Barn rule is why Iraq looms over the various humanitarian disasters created by the Arab Spring, tempting American intervention. And the “bad things that have happened since” Gaddafi’s toppling are why Libya is being raised as a cautionary tale for intervention in Syria. If Obama’s directed action takes out Assad, and that leaves a chaotic vacuum that results in more death, destruction, and the suffering of innocents, it won’t be so simple to respond to the ensuing outcry with a protestation that all he promised to do was send a message.

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Syrian War Crimes and Selective Moral Outrage

On his program last night, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, in speaking on the subject of strikes against Syria, said, “It’s got to be done quickly. Bang, boom. And then let the chips fall where they may. But no more dead kids breathing poison gas.” It appears the White House is considering the same strategy.

I happen to disagree with Mr. O’Reilly for reasons laid out by Max Boot and Eliot Cohen. Among the worst things to do in this situation would be a limited bombing of short duration which doesn’t alter the situation on the ground. It would be a transparently token gesture, done to balm our conscience (at least we did something) but achieving nothing useful or lasting. Indeed, the kind of strike O’Reilly has in mind–“bang, boom”–would probably elevate Bashar al-Assad’s reputation in much of the world (acting unbowed in the aftermath of an American military campaign) and make America appear weaker than we now do (if such a thing is even possible at this stage).

But I also want to pose some moral questions surrounding the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. Secretary Kerry refers to the use of chemical weapons as a “moral obscenity” that “defies any code of morality” and that has “shocked the conscience of the world.”

I share the horror that others do when it comes to the use of chemical weapons. But what I find somewhat puzzling is the bright, bold moral demarcation that is being made between the use of chemical weapons, which killed several hundred Syrians (including women and children), and a 30-month-old civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives (many of them women and children). 

How is it, from a moral standpoint, that the use of chemical weapons that kills several hundred people is a far greater “moral obscenity” than prosecuting a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people? Why didn’t the civil war “shock the conscience of the world,” since the body count is so much greater?

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On his program last night, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, in speaking on the subject of strikes against Syria, said, “It’s got to be done quickly. Bang, boom. And then let the chips fall where they may. But no more dead kids breathing poison gas.” It appears the White House is considering the same strategy.

I happen to disagree with Mr. O’Reilly for reasons laid out by Max Boot and Eliot Cohen. Among the worst things to do in this situation would be a limited bombing of short duration which doesn’t alter the situation on the ground. It would be a transparently token gesture, done to balm our conscience (at least we did something) but achieving nothing useful or lasting. Indeed, the kind of strike O’Reilly has in mind–“bang, boom”–would probably elevate Bashar al-Assad’s reputation in much of the world (acting unbowed in the aftermath of an American military campaign) and make America appear weaker than we now do (if such a thing is even possible at this stage).

But I also want to pose some moral questions surrounding the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. Secretary Kerry refers to the use of chemical weapons as a “moral obscenity” that “defies any code of morality” and that has “shocked the conscience of the world.”

I share the horror that others do when it comes to the use of chemical weapons. But what I find somewhat puzzling is the bright, bold moral demarcation that is being made between the use of chemical weapons, which killed several hundred Syrians (including women and children), and a 30-month-old civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives (many of them women and children). 

How is it, from a moral standpoint, that the use of chemical weapons that kills several hundred people is a far greater “moral obscenity” than prosecuting a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people? Why didn’t the civil war “shock the conscience of the world,” since the body count is so much greater?

The scale of death, then, matters. But so does something else. The Assad regime has long been guilty of war crimes. From the start of the conflict it targeted schools and hospitals. In cities like Houla, forces loyal to Assad went on systematic killing sprees, including targeting women and children. A U.N. representative reported that the victims in Houla included 49 children who were younger than 10. “The Syrian dictator is trying to restore a balance of fear, perhaps the most powerful weapon in the hands of tyrants throughout history,” according to this CNN report. “Killing children is supposed to intimidate the opposition.”

“It’s very hard for me to describe what I saw, the images were incredibly disturbing,” a Houla resident who hid in his home during a massacre told the Associated Press. “Women, children without heads, their brains or stomachs spilling out.”

So we’re dealing with a regime that routinely committed war crimes–indeed, that inflicted mass atrocities as a matter of policy. But these kinds of actions mostly escaped the attention of the world (as well as the attention of the president).

I’m not, by the way, using this argument as a pretext to get more involved in the Syrian conflict. It’s simply to argue that while I understand the abhorrence of using WMDs, the moral outrage we’re hearing over the atrocities in Syria strikes me as somewhat affected. Why now? The humanitarian slaughter was gruesome long before chemical weapons were used, and chemical weapons are no more a gruesome way to die than the other barbarous actions sanctioned by Assad. And if another 100,000 Syrians perished at the hands of the Assad regime, but without the use of chemical weapons, one suspects that not much would be said and the moral outrage meter would, for the most part, hardly register.

I understand that all of us are selective in focusing on the atrocities that most trouble our consciences. None of us are equipped to absorb the pain of this world. And I don’t blame Mr. O’Reilly or anyone else for feeling rage at what Bashar al-Assad has done in using chemical weapons. But my basic point still stands, I think. Why have Assad’s latest atrocities provoked such outrage and his previous ones such silence? Should we be more troubled by what happened last week–or by the war crimes that routinely occurred in all the weeks that came before? 

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Are You Sure There’s No Voter Fraud?

As I wrote earlier this month, the decision of Attorney General Eric Holder to sue to stop Texas’s voter ID law has little to do with an attempt to prevent actual discrimination. The outcry from the administration on the voter ID issue as well as the manufactured outrage about the Supreme Court’s decision upholding but modifying the Voting Rights Act is predicated on the false idea that these measures are a new version of discriminatory Jim Crow laws. Given the night-and-day difference between the world of Jim Crow that drew Americans to the 1963 March on Washington and the America of 2013, this is an obvious effort to both revive flagging interest in civil-rights organizations and to brand President Obama’s critics as racists. But opponents of voter ID do have one seemingly rational argument: the problem that voter ID laws seek to solve—preserving the integrity of the vote—is imaginary. To that end, they have told us ad nauseum that voter fraud does not exist in the United States.

The assumption that voter fraud is nonexistent requires us to not only ignore most of American political history; it also obligates us to forget everything we know about human nature. Given that photo ID is now required for virtually every sort of transaction or service, most Americans rightly see it as a commonsense measure. But discussions about shady elections don’t require us to explore the distant past. Examples abound in our own day that place the desire to tighten up new rules that more or less allow anyone to show up on Election Day without proof of their identity or having previously registered, or to vote early or get an absentee ballot in a different context than Holder’s specious arguments about Jim Crow. One such comes from the bankrupt city of Detroit, where the August 6 primary is still unresolved due to the fact that more than 20,000 write-in votes are currently in dispute and may or may not be counted depending on the decisions of the courts. Fraud has not yet been proved and may not be directly related to false identity, but this latest instance of electoral hijinks illustrates what happens when results are called into question by shady practices.

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As I wrote earlier this month, the decision of Attorney General Eric Holder to sue to stop Texas’s voter ID law has little to do with an attempt to prevent actual discrimination. The outcry from the administration on the voter ID issue as well as the manufactured outrage about the Supreme Court’s decision upholding but modifying the Voting Rights Act is predicated on the false idea that these measures are a new version of discriminatory Jim Crow laws. Given the night-and-day difference between the world of Jim Crow that drew Americans to the 1963 March on Washington and the America of 2013, this is an obvious effort to both revive flagging interest in civil-rights organizations and to brand President Obama’s critics as racists. But opponents of voter ID do have one seemingly rational argument: the problem that voter ID laws seek to solve—preserving the integrity of the vote—is imaginary. To that end, they have told us ad nauseum that voter fraud does not exist in the United States.

The assumption that voter fraud is nonexistent requires us to not only ignore most of American political history; it also obligates us to forget everything we know about human nature. Given that photo ID is now required for virtually every sort of transaction or service, most Americans rightly see it as a commonsense measure. But discussions about shady elections don’t require us to explore the distant past. Examples abound in our own day that place the desire to tighten up new rules that more or less allow anyone to show up on Election Day without proof of their identity or having previously registered, or to vote early or get an absentee ballot in a different context than Holder’s specious arguments about Jim Crow. One such comes from the bankrupt city of Detroit, where the August 6 primary is still unresolved due to the fact that more than 20,000 write-in votes are currently in dispute and may or may not be counted depending on the decisions of the courts. Fraud has not yet been proved and may not be directly related to false identity, but this latest instance of electoral hijinks illustrates what happens when results are called into question by shady practices.

The struggle to be the top official in an insolvent city whose government has been taken over the state is not the most compelling political fight of the year. But regardless of the office’s value, those who voted deserve to have their ballots counted. Indeed, though few if any Americans are denied the right to vote today the way many were prevented from going to the polls under Jim Crow, a crooked election is, in effect, one that denies the franchise to everyone.

Regardless of whether those who showed up to cast write-ins did so legally or of the political motivations of those who threw those ballots out due to technicalities, the nationwide drive to police elections is based in fact, not prejudice. In an era when safeguards against fraud have been thrown out willy-nilly in order to make it easier to vote via early voting, liberal granting of absentee ballots, and same-day registration, it has become almost impossible to guarantee the integrity of the results. To think that politicians and parties do not try to take advantage of this situation is hopelessly naïve. Reforming this situation requires states to make sure that those who vote are who they say they are and that regulations that prevent safeguards from being put in place are re-written to ensure the integrity of the process.

No matter who gets the dubious honor of running Detroit, voters there have a right to know their votes are counted and not being cancelled out by fraud of any kind. The same is true in Texas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and every other state that has attempted to deal with this mess. Instead of crying racism, those entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that voting rights are protected should be seeking to uphold the obligation of the state to stop cheating. 

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