Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 4, 2013

A Pause for Introspection

Sundown tonight marks the start of the Jewish New Year that begins with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. The ten days from the start of this holiday until the end of Yom Kippur next week are known in Judaism as the Days of Awe. During this time, Jews are asked to reflect on their deeds in the past year and seek to account for them to their Creator as well as their fellow human beings. This period of introspection should cause all of us to think about what we have done or not done and to contemplate how we can do better. Indeed, as Americans take in the debate over intervention in Syria as well as other divisive questions, it is an apt moment to look at issues facing the nation in a sober and honest manner.

Though I refer to Jewish tradition, the notion of accountability also speaks directly to any democracy based on the concept that the public must judge leaders. While politicians and pundits fill up the 24/7 news cycle with endless debate every day, the real question is whether it is possible to give our political culture the unsparing assessment it requires if we are to preserve our republic and its institutions in a manner befitting the ideals upon which it was founded. That is why appeals to fear as well as mindless defenses of the status quo are the antipathy of the heshbon nefesh—or accounting of the soul that Rosh Hashanah asks us to perform each year.

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Sundown tonight marks the start of the Jewish New Year that begins with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. The ten days from the start of this holiday until the end of Yom Kippur next week are known in Judaism as the Days of Awe. During this time, Jews are asked to reflect on their deeds in the past year and seek to account for them to their Creator as well as their fellow human beings. This period of introspection should cause all of us to think about what we have done or not done and to contemplate how we can do better. Indeed, as Americans take in the debate over intervention in Syria as well as other divisive questions, it is an apt moment to look at issues facing the nation in a sober and honest manner.

Though I refer to Jewish tradition, the notion of accountability also speaks directly to any democracy based on the concept that the public must judge leaders. While politicians and pundits fill up the 24/7 news cycle with endless debate every day, the real question is whether it is possible to give our political culture the unsparing assessment it requires if we are to preserve our republic and its institutions in a manner befitting the ideals upon which it was founded. That is why appeals to fear as well as mindless defenses of the status quo are the antipathy of the heshbon nefesh—or accounting of the soul that Rosh Hashanah asks us to perform each year.

One of the keynotes of our political life in the last year, as well as those that preceded it, is the never-ending attempt of our parties and ideological factions to demonize their political opponents. But the dawn of the New Year represents an opportunity to step back and realize that efforts to brand leaders, parties and movements as being beyond the pale has done much to undermine any hope for a resolution of our national problems. We must seek to restrain the efforts of the government to trespass on our rights without paranoia about legitimate efforts to protect our national security or mindless and partisan cynicism that would paralyze democracy.

Abroad, Americans must also perform an accounting, but should do so honestly without a reflexive desire to appease those who hate or allow the understandable desire to avoid conflict to cause us to abdicate our responsibility to confront problems or threats. Currently, the United States is struggling with the decision over whether to treat the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a “red line” across which no nation may cross. In the coming 12 months, another threat to the world, the specter of a nuclear Iran, will become even greater. It is vital that Americans not let the growing and strident voices of isolationism cause them to shrink from the obligation to halt the ayatollahs’ march to nuclear capability. Nor should we allow those who continue to seek to delegitimize Israel or its supporters to go unanswered.

The passage of the calendar also reminds us at COMMENTARY of the urgency of our four-fold task to speak up in defense of Zionism and Israel; to bear witness against the scourge of anti-Semitism; and to support the United States as well as the best of Western civilization. Our work is, as our editor John Podhoretz wrote back in February 2009, an act of faith in the power of ideas as well as in our own nation, and as we take inventory of our personal lives we also seek to rededicate ourselves to the causes to which our magazine is devoted.

Jewish liturgy tells us that the fate of all humanity is decided during these Days of Awe, but it also says that teshuva (repentance), tefilla (prayer), and tzedaka (acts of justice and charity) may avert the severe decree. In that spirit of reflection and dedication to carrying on our task of informing and educating our readers in the coming year, we at COMMENTARY wish you all a happy, healthy, and peaceful New Year. We’ll be back next week after the holiday.

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Untangling the Pro-Intervention Argument

Many different arguments about attacking Syria are underway among media voices and policymakers. One unfortunate result of the Obama administration’s wavering is that it has served to conflate various strands of the pro-intervention position. What we’re left with is an unintelligible mush that can be hard to defend.  The moment one makes a case regarding interests they are mocked on grounds of ideals. Defending intervention in terms of ideals guarantees an objection regarding precedents, and so on. It is, therefore, useful to untangle the different aspects of the case for action. There are three levels to the pro-intervention argument.

1. What we want out of the Syrian situation. The United States wants Bashar al-Assad out and wants the moderates among the rebels to shape the post-Assad future. This would be good for the Syrian people and bad for the radicals. It would also remove Iran’s biggest ally, put Vladimir Putin back in his place, and give the U.S. some degree of influence in a post-Assad Syria (and, however minimally, in the region).

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Many different arguments about attacking Syria are underway among media voices and policymakers. One unfortunate result of the Obama administration’s wavering is that it has served to conflate various strands of the pro-intervention position. What we’re left with is an unintelligible mush that can be hard to defend.  The moment one makes a case regarding interests they are mocked on grounds of ideals. Defending intervention in terms of ideals guarantees an objection regarding precedents, and so on. It is, therefore, useful to untangle the different aspects of the case for action. There are three levels to the pro-intervention argument.

1. What we want out of the Syrian situation. The United States wants Bashar al-Assad out and wants the moderates among the rebels to shape the post-Assad future. This would be good for the Syrian people and bad for the radicals. It would also remove Iran’s biggest ally, put Vladimir Putin back in his place, and give the U.S. some degree of influence in a post-Assad Syria (and, however minimally, in the region).

If you think not acting is good, look at what inaction has done so far: It’s allowed for more than 100,000 dead; the repeated use of chemical weapons; and the strengthening of Assad, and thus of Iran and Russia as rising powers who oppose an American-led global order. Perhaps worst of all, American inaction has reinforced the idea for thousands of Syrians (and Arabs and Muslims generally) that they should not look to America for help when fighting off tyrants. Even if one is not sentimental about such things, this is hugely problematic because it has driven these thousands into the arms of Islamist radicals they increasingly see as the only hope for support in fights of liberation. If this is the wisdom of restraint, we’ve become wise beyond comprehension.

2. What kind of world we want to live in. The abolition of all dangerous tyrants and oppressive regimes is, of course, a silly dream. But the idea of moving toward a world with fewer and fewer of them is completely possible. In fact, it’s been happening ever since the U.S. took the lead in ensuring global security after WWII. The world is a freer place than it was and this is not only good in the moral sense. It is also good because free countries are less likely to go to war with one another and more likely to trade with one another.

The problem is this doesn’t happen on its own. Peace doesn’t keep itself, as some have put it. Although there are many downsides to America’s policing the world, a) the benefit of a more peaceful order is invaluable and b) the U.S. is the only country that can do it. Without American intervention, imperfect as it is, for humanitarian (and pragmatic) reasons, a power vacuum emerges and the global order spirals out of control. That’s how we got into the current crisis to begin with. Many of the sinister developments mentioned in the first point might have been prevented or curbed if we had spent the last five years continuing to act as the strong and self-assured defender of a (relatively) free and peaceful global order. Staying away creates chaos. This very chaos, if left to grow, will manifest on a larger scale and ultimately cause us great harm—even, perhaps, on our own soil. Rising bad actors like to challenge America to affirm that their rise is real, official, and inevitable.

3. What kind of America we want to be. Many who believe in intervention in Syria want us to take the assertion of our founding documents seriously—particularly the points about all men being free. The United States is unique in world history: it is a country founded on the idea of God-given personal liberty. It hasn’t always honored this idea in managing its foreign affairs, but past infractions only obligate us even more to do the right thing when we can. If we believe that the God-given right to freedom is universal, and if we alone can defend that right around the world, then we must do so. All over Europe, love of country is based on a simple affection for one’s own kind. That type of nativism is the norm in Asia and Africa. Americans are different. We love our country because we love the idea it was founded on and love the perpetuation of that idea. If the United States decides that it’s too risky to defend freedom around the world we will have fundamentally changed the understanding of what our nation is. We will be, as Marco Rubio once put it, just another big country.

These are good reasons for wanting to intervene in Syria. The question is: are they President Obama’s reasons? Despite some fine speeches from John Kerry, it doesn’t seem so. It is widely assumed Obama is looking to make good on his “red line” with minimal sacrifice. But what the administration sees as restrained and measured is, paradoxically, provocative. Obama’s preference for a less ambitious American campaign in Syria is more likely to foment long-term unrest than if he called for decisive action against Assad. But the latter would mean embracing American power as a force for good in an unfriendly world; that’s not likely. The president’s inability to make a strong case for intervention in Syria, however, doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.  

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In Stockholm, Obama Loses Touch with Reality

Most presidents, having presided over the Syrian debacle, would be chastened. But not the Great and Mighty Obama. He’s decided to begin to rewrite history so that he emerges as the hero.  

Consider what Mr. Obama, in Stockholm earlier today, said in response to a question about Syria:     

First of all, I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use, even when countries are engaged in war. Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty. Congress set a red line when it indicated that in a piece of legislation entitled the Syria Accountability Act that some of the horrendous things happening on the ground there need to be answered for. So, when I said in a press conference that my calculus about what’s happening in Syria would be altered by the use of chemical weapons, which the overwhelming consensus of humanity says is wrong, that wasn’t something I just kind of made up. I didn’t pluck it out of thin air. There’s a reason for it.

The president added this:  

My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line and America and Congress’s credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important. 

So literally everyone else in the world is to blame except the president.

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Most presidents, having presided over the Syrian debacle, would be chastened. But not the Great and Mighty Obama. He’s decided to begin to rewrite history so that he emerges as the hero.  

Consider what Mr. Obama, in Stockholm earlier today, said in response to a question about Syria:     

First of all, I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use, even when countries are engaged in war. Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty. Congress set a red line when it indicated that in a piece of legislation entitled the Syria Accountability Act that some of the horrendous things happening on the ground there need to be answered for. So, when I said in a press conference that my calculus about what’s happening in Syria would be altered by the use of chemical weapons, which the overwhelming consensus of humanity says is wrong, that wasn’t something I just kind of made up. I didn’t pluck it out of thin air. There’s a reason for it.

The president added this:  

My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line and America and Congress’s credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important. 

So literally everyone else in the world is to blame except the president.

Mr. Obama appears to be suffering from a variation of what psychiatrists refer to as dissociation, which is characterized by everything from mild to severe detachment from reality and one’s immediate surroundings. 

In this particular case, the president seems to have dissociative amnesia, apparently having forgotten that a year ago last month he did, in fact, draw a red line. (Note the use of the first-person pronouns by the president–”That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”) The president may have forgotten, too, that he promised that crossing this red line would be a “game changer” (it was not). That Assad had to go (Assad is still in power, stronger than before). That he promised to arm Syrian rebels (he hasn’t). That his “coalition of the willing” may include, if we’re lucky, one other country besides America. And that on the matter of the Use of Force Resolution he was against going to Congress before he was for going to Congress. 

The cause of Mr. Obama’s dissociation appears to be the psychological trauma induced by his multi-year fiasco in Syria. And in order to cope, we are seeing signs of anger, petulance, and hero syndrome and, as is always the case with this president, blame shifting. 

On a slightly more serious note, Mr. Obama’s presidency is being wrecked by reality. He’s being exposed at every turn, and in every crisis, as inept. He can’t handle that truth so he’s trying to distort it. 

There’s something poignant and painful in watching Obama’s presidency collapse and seeing what it’s doing to the man who promised to repair the world and slow the rise of the oceans. 

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In Syria, Partition Is Not the Answer

The Six-Day War in 1967 may have brought Israel victory over its Arab neighbors and shaped the modern Middle East, but it did nothing to stem the Palestinian desire to carry out terrorism against the Jewish state. Factions led by Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian terrorists consolidated on the Jordanian side of the Israel-Jordan boundary and used the area as a launching pad for anti-Israel violence. But as the movements picked up steam, the Palestinian encampments began behaving as a state within a state, brought Israeli retribution, and eventually destabilized Jordan enough for the Jordanian monarchy to force Arafat’s expulsion.

Arafat and his crew went to southern Lebanon, where they played the encore, once again creating a state within a state, destabilizing their sovereign host, and sparking regional armed conflict. Eventually Arafat would lose his base in south Lebanon as well, but there a new terrorist movement would sprout in his place. Hezbollah, fierce and bloodthirsty and determined to kill Jews, followed the script. First, the group developed and consolidated an area of influence. Then it began destabilizing its host state and sparking regional war.

This history, and the very clear pattern that has been established by combining weak states with transnational terrorist movements, should weigh heavily on the debate over what to do about the Syrian civil war. It’s why one scenario–partition–would likely only produce a brief spell of quiet as a prelude to more violence and state collapse. And it’s what should make Tom Friedman’s latest proposal, in which he anticipates a fragmented Syria and calls on the Obama administration to secure whatever part of that postwar state it can, a nonstarter:

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The Six-Day War in 1967 may have brought Israel victory over its Arab neighbors and shaped the modern Middle East, but it did nothing to stem the Palestinian desire to carry out terrorism against the Jewish state. Factions led by Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian terrorists consolidated on the Jordanian side of the Israel-Jordan boundary and used the area as a launching pad for anti-Israel violence. But as the movements picked up steam, the Palestinian encampments began behaving as a state within a state, brought Israeli retribution, and eventually destabilized Jordan enough for the Jordanian monarchy to force Arafat’s expulsion.

Arafat and his crew went to southern Lebanon, where they played the encore, once again creating a state within a state, destabilizing their sovereign host, and sparking regional armed conflict. Eventually Arafat would lose his base in south Lebanon as well, but there a new terrorist movement would sprout in his place. Hezbollah, fierce and bloodthirsty and determined to kill Jews, followed the script. First, the group developed and consolidated an area of influence. Then it began destabilizing its host state and sparking regional war.

This history, and the very clear pattern that has been established by combining weak states with transnational terrorist movements, should weigh heavily on the debate over what to do about the Syrian civil war. It’s why one scenario–partition–would likely only produce a brief spell of quiet as a prelude to more violence and state collapse. And it’s what should make Tom Friedman’s latest proposal, in which he anticipates a fragmented Syria and calls on the Obama administration to secure whatever part of that postwar state it can, a nonstarter:

Thus, the most likely option for Syria is some kind of de facto partition, with the pro-Assad, predominantly Alawite Syrians controlling one region and the Sunni and Kurdish Syrians controlling the rest. But the Sunnis are themselves divided between the pro-Western, secular Free Syrian Army, which we’d like to see win, and the pro-Islamist and pro-Al Qaeda jihadist groups, like the Nusra Front, which we’d like to see lose.

That’s why I think the best response to the use of poison gas by President Bashar al-Assad is not a cruise missile attack on Assad’s forces, but an increase in the training and arming of the Free Syrian Army — including the antitank and antiaircraft weapons it’s long sought. This has three virtues: 1) Better arming responsible rebels units, and they do exist, can really hurt the Assad regime in a sustained way — that is the whole point of deterrence — without exposing America to global opprobrium for bombing Syria; 2) Better arming the rebels actually enables them to protect themselves more effectively from this regime; 3) Better arming the rebels might increase the influence on the ground of the more moderate opposition groups over the jihadist ones — and eventually may put more pressure on Assad, or his allies, to negotiate a political solution.

Friedman’s suggested course of action is unworkable more than it is unlikely. As I wrote in May, Bashar al-Assad’s forces are on pace to lose only parts of the country. Assad has enlisted the help of Hezbollah, and as a result will gain more control over land in Lebanon and be better able to entrench his loyalist power base. If the war ends in a stalemate, I wrote, the divided country would probably be a menacing presence from day one:

Such a division would collapse whatever nominal independence Lebanon has because the Assad regime, buoyed by its military alliance with Hezbollah, would control areas that border on Lebanon. It would give Syria renewed control over Lebanese territory and expand Hezbollah’s reach as well. That might be a fair trade for Assad, but it wouldn’t be for Western interests. If Assad loses territory in Syria’s north or east, those areas may become Islamist operating bases near American allies–Iraq and to some extent Jordan to the east and southeast, Turkey to the north. The latter is a NATO ally with a predilection for funding some Islamic terror groups while fighting others.

Again, the watchword here is destabilization. Jordan thought it could host Palestinian militants while still ruling over them. It was wrong. The Palestinians even briefly declared themselves independent of the monarchy before their expulsion. Lebanon had the same experience with the Palestinians and with Hezbollah. If al-Qaeda prospers in some part of Syria, it will probably follow the same pattern, first by securing a state within a state and then expanding, destabilizing the entire country.

That’s why Friedman’s advice to accept partition would be a long-term mistake. Unless the U.S. installs a puppet regime it is willing to go to war for in the moderate rebel section of the postwar partitioned Syria, those moderate rebels won’t fare much better against the al-Qaeda affiliates just because the West fabricated a “border.” The impulse to want to bring an end to the bloodshed is understandable, but pretend sovereignty and pretend peace won’t make that happen.

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Al-Qaeda’s Willing Idiots in the Media

In the last week as the debate over intervention in Syria continued, some on the right have taken to referring to the prospect as President Obama’s war for al-Qaeda. Senator Ted Cruz went further, claiming that the president was transforming the U.S. Armed Forces into al-Qaeda’s Air Force. This is utterly irresponsible, not only because it panders to conspiracy theories but also because it distorts the discussion about the opposition to the Assad regime in an effort to sweep away concerns about giving the butcher of Damascus impunity to commit further atrocities. But those eager to focus on those who are actually aiding al-Qaeda—as opposed to merely smearing their political opponents—have a better target for their ire than the president. Today’s Washington Post contains an article based on leaks of classified information by Edward Snowden that can best be described as a field guide for terrorists seeking to combat U.S. drones.

The piece, which is based on a “top-secret report” on the subject titled “Threats to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” details vulnerabilities of drones and discusses the concerted efforts, including the creation of cells of engineers, to “shoot down, jam and remotely hijack” U.S. aircraft. This is fascinating stuff, but though the Post claims many details about drone capabilities are already in the public domain and that it held back some of the material Snowden has illegally leaked, it nevertheless constitutes a major breach of security. Though Snowden and his friends at the Post and elsewhere may think they are bolstering liberty with these disclosures, that is a delusion. As with much of what Snowden and his journalist collaborators have published since he fled the country with a computer full of secrets about the war on al-Qaeda, it is hard to know how much these revelations help the terrorists. Whatever the exact extent of damage to America’s counter-terrorist campaign, there’s little doubt it is a favor to al-Qaeda and hurts the United States. Publishing these kind of operational details about drones does nothing to advance the debate about whether the government should use them against terrorists. But it does raise serious questions about the motives of publications that have come to believe that exposing any details—even those that are directly related to shooting down U.S. aircraft—is fair game for the press.

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In the last week as the debate over intervention in Syria continued, some on the right have taken to referring to the prospect as President Obama’s war for al-Qaeda. Senator Ted Cruz went further, claiming that the president was transforming the U.S. Armed Forces into al-Qaeda’s Air Force. This is utterly irresponsible, not only because it panders to conspiracy theories but also because it distorts the discussion about the opposition to the Assad regime in an effort to sweep away concerns about giving the butcher of Damascus impunity to commit further atrocities. But those eager to focus on those who are actually aiding al-Qaeda—as opposed to merely smearing their political opponents—have a better target for their ire than the president. Today’s Washington Post contains an article based on leaks of classified information by Edward Snowden that can best be described as a field guide for terrorists seeking to combat U.S. drones.

The piece, which is based on a “top-secret report” on the subject titled “Threats to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” details vulnerabilities of drones and discusses the concerted efforts, including the creation of cells of engineers, to “shoot down, jam and remotely hijack” U.S. aircraft. This is fascinating stuff, but though the Post claims many details about drone capabilities are already in the public domain and that it held back some of the material Snowden has illegally leaked, it nevertheless constitutes a major breach of security. Though Snowden and his friends at the Post and elsewhere may think they are bolstering liberty with these disclosures, that is a delusion. As with much of what Snowden and his journalist collaborators have published since he fled the country with a computer full of secrets about the war on al-Qaeda, it is hard to know how much these revelations help the terrorists. Whatever the exact extent of damage to America’s counter-terrorist campaign, there’s little doubt it is a favor to al-Qaeda and hurts the United States. Publishing these kind of operational details about drones does nothing to advance the debate about whether the government should use them against terrorists. But it does raise serious questions about the motives of publications that have come to believe that exposing any details—even those that are directly related to shooting down U.S. aircraft—is fair game for the press.

It is the duty of the free press in our republic to hold the government accountable and to expose its doings to the light whenever possible. But there is a difference between press freedom and stripping the nation of its ability to defend itself. Whatever you may think about the Obama administration’s use of drones, they are part of an active American campaign to attack terrorists who are at war with the United States. Publishing material that directly relates to the ability of terrorists to block this campaign crosses the line that should exist between covering the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus and actively seeking to cripple their operations.

We live in an era in which groups like WikiLeaks and figures such as Snowden have taken upon themselves the job of waging war on the entire concept of American security. Their frame of reference is one that denies any need for secrecy even when it concerns the safety of active-service personnel or attacks against terrorist targets. You don’t need to support the idea of war in Syria or even approve of President Obama’s policies to understand this is a point of view that is incompatible with the nation’s ability to defend itself.

That major newspapers have in recent years adopted a stance toward the publication of classified material that is in many respects indistinguishable from that of WikiLeaks is shocking. Reports on drone vulnerabilities are, after all, not the moral equivalent of the Pentagon Papers—the landmark case about publication of classified reports—which was a historical document outlining American misadventures in Vietnam and labeled as classified only to spare the government embarrassment.

The Post story on drones is just the latest example of a trend in which it and other major publication such as the New York Times have taken it upon themselves to be the arbiter of what the public may know about security stories. While no one should treat everything labeled as “secret” by the Pentagon or the CIA as sacrosanct, you don’t need a security clearance to understand that a public discussion of how to shoot down or jam a drone aimed at al-Qaeda has little to do with democracy and everything to do with undermining the government’s ability to defend the American people.

Past generations of journalists understood that loyalty to their country sometimes had to supersede their innate desire to get scoops. If they don’t understand the difference between a free press and being the willing idiots of al-Qaeda, it’s time for the Post, the Times, and other papers to rethink their approach to these issues and to step back from their cooperation with Snowden.

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Send the Right Signal to WMD Proliferators

It is hard to exaggerate the Obama administration’s degree of confusion over Syria. On the one hand, the president has said that Bashar Assad should go and vowed to enforce his famous “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. On the other hand, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the administration still has not supplied arms to the rebels, as it vowed to do all the way back in June. Why not? According to the Journal: “The Obama administration doesn’t want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate.”

Granted, there is a risk of what will come after Assad–but that risk has only grown because of the administration’s vacillation over the past two years. Lack of American support for the moderate opposition factions has allowed jihadists to grow stronger, even if they are still not, as widely believed (and as claimed by Assad), the dominant force in the rebel coalition. The administration’s argument is circular and self-fulfilling: We won’t back the moderate rebels, so the extremists grow stronger, providing further arguments against providing any help to any rebel faction.

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It is hard to exaggerate the Obama administration’s degree of confusion over Syria. On the one hand, the president has said that Bashar Assad should go and vowed to enforce his famous “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. On the other hand, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the administration still has not supplied arms to the rebels, as it vowed to do all the way back in June. Why not? According to the Journal: “The Obama administration doesn’t want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate.”

Granted, there is a risk of what will come after Assad–but that risk has only grown because of the administration’s vacillation over the past two years. Lack of American support for the moderate opposition factions has allowed jihadists to grow stronger, even if they are still not, as widely believed (and as claimed by Assad), the dominant force in the rebel coalition. The administration’s argument is circular and self-fulfilling: We won’t back the moderate rebels, so the extremists grow stronger, providing further arguments against providing any help to any rebel faction.

Admittedly, it would have been much better to start arming and building up the moderate opposition two years ago. But we have no choice but to try now, otherwise the victor is either going to be the Iran-Hezbollah-Assad axis or al-Qaeda and its ilk. Neither one speaks for the majority of Syrians and there is still an opportunity–albeit an opportunity much smaller today than two years ago–to buttress the more moderate factions of the Free Syrian Army. But in order to do that the Obama administration will have to provide heavier weapons to vetted rebel factions, especially anti-tank missiles that can stop Assad’s armored vehicles.

The rebels also require anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down Assad’s aircraft. The administration is on more solid ground in refusing to grant this weapons request because of the danger that portable anti-aircraft systems such as the Stinger could fall into the wrong hands and wind up being used against civil aviation. As I have been arguing for a while, instead of providing anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels, the U.S. and its allies should simply use their air and naval forces to ground Assad’s aircraft. That could be achieved from stand-off range by cratering runways and blowing up aircraft on the ground. It would be achieved even more surely by imposing a no-fly zone backed up by airstrikes; Assad’s anemic air defenses, weakened by defections and two years of fighting, would be no match for an American-led air assault.

Unfortunately there is little indication that, even if granted the power to act by Congress, Obama will take any of these steps. More likely are a few days of cruise missile strikes expressly designed not to topple the Assad regime–and not even to eliminate its chemical weapons arsenal because of the threat that air strikes could simply disperse dangerous chemicals into the air. Of course Assad, because he reads the news too, knows all this. The New York Times quotes a former friend of his: “This is what Bashar Assad has told the top elite: that it will be a cosmetic attack. They believe it deeply.”

It is critically important to upset Assad’s expectations–to ensure that an American attack, if there is one, is not simply cosmetic. Congress cannot force Obama to act decisively, but with a lopsided vote for a strong resolution which gives the president full freedom of action, it can at least create the conditions for decisive action should administration hawks, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, prevail in their internal deliberations.

The alternative–of not granting the administration authorization to act–is too dangerous to contemplate: It would be a green light to WMD proliferators from North Korea to Iran who will now know that the U.S. will do nothing to stop them. Thus, congressional skeptics have no choice but to hold their noses and vote “aye,” all the while hoping that the administration’s use of force will be less anemic than widely advertised.

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Obama Learns the Value of Allies

Although President Obama’s first-term habit of serially offending U.S. allies appeared to be a procession of gaffes and errors, there actually was a strategy behind it. Picking fights with the Israeli prime minister; delaying and reconsidering free-trade agreements with South Korea and Colombia; shelving missile-defense plans in the Czech Republic and Poland to curry favor with Russia, and announcing it on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland; pointedly ignoring India; and of course the absurd series of insults so dignifiedly absorbed by Britain were all part of a plan.

It wasn’t a good plan, but it was a plan nonetheless. Obama wanted to broaden the tent of American allies. To do this, the president decided to reach out to Russia, Turkey, Iran, Venezuela, etc., and do so at the expense of tending to the existing alliances. What happened was utterly predictable: those outside the tent never considered entering, and those inside started wandering out. The fallacy underlying this strategy was the president’s assumption that allies were allies and would remain so, and thus didn’t need nurturing. He was wrong, of course, as even a cursory review of modern history would have informed him.

It’s true that in most cases countries need the U.S. more than the U.S. needs them–individually, at least. But when combined, the story begins to shift. We need our allies, and that’s why presidents devote so much time to cultivating them. And when we need to call on our allies, it’s usually in a pinch–as the president is finding out now. Obama has called for quite limited military action against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. But he’s learning that he cannot “lead from behind” if there’s no one else standing with him.

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Although President Obama’s first-term habit of serially offending U.S. allies appeared to be a procession of gaffes and errors, there actually was a strategy behind it. Picking fights with the Israeli prime minister; delaying and reconsidering free-trade agreements with South Korea and Colombia; shelving missile-defense plans in the Czech Republic and Poland to curry favor with Russia, and announcing it on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland; pointedly ignoring India; and of course the absurd series of insults so dignifiedly absorbed by Britain were all part of a plan.

It wasn’t a good plan, but it was a plan nonetheless. Obama wanted to broaden the tent of American allies. To do this, the president decided to reach out to Russia, Turkey, Iran, Venezuela, etc., and do so at the expense of tending to the existing alliances. What happened was utterly predictable: those outside the tent never considered entering, and those inside started wandering out. The fallacy underlying this strategy was the president’s assumption that allies were allies and would remain so, and thus didn’t need nurturing. He was wrong, of course, as even a cursory review of modern history would have informed him.

It’s true that in most cases countries need the U.S. more than the U.S. needs them–individually, at least. But when combined, the story begins to shift. We need our allies, and that’s why presidents devote so much time to cultivating them. And when we need to call on our allies, it’s usually in a pinch–as the president is finding out now. Obama has called for quite limited military action against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. But he’s learning that he cannot “lead from behind” if there’s no one else standing with him.

That’s not to say that Obama’s inept diplomacy is solely to blame for his inability to patch together a “coalition of the willing,” the way his predecessor was able to. War-weariness, economic belt-tightening, the vagueness of the proposed Syria mission, and the presence of Islamist extremists among Assad’s opposition all play a role. But the British parliament’s defeat of an authorization proposal may now be echoed by France–a country that has begun backing slowly away from its initial support of President Obama, as the Associated Press reports:

The French parliament will debate Wednesday whether the nation should launch strikes against Syria, though France’s president says he will wait for a decision from the U.S. Congress on possible military action against Bashar Assad’s regime.

As the Obama administration worked to build support ahead of the Congress vote, the U.S. and Israel conducted a joint missile test Tuesday in the eastern Mediterranean in an apparent signal of military readiness. In the operation, a missile was fired from the sea toward the Israeli coast to test the tracking by the country’s missile defense system.

The French parliament will debate the Syria issue Wednesday, but no vote is scheduled. France’s constitution doesn’t require such a vote for military intervention unless its lasts longer than four months, though some French lawmakers have urged President Francois Hollande to call one anyway.

That last part is key. There’s really no reason for Hollande to go to parliament, which suggests he may be looking for a way out. But also crucial in that report is the part about Israel. Yesterday, AIPAC publicly joined the effort to build support in Congress for Obama’s Syria plans. The group released a statement saying, in part:

AIPAC urges Congress to grant the President the authority he has requested to protect America’s national security interests and dissuade the Syrian regime’s further use of unconventional weapons. The civilized world cannot tolerate the use of these barbaric weapons, particularly against an innocent civilian population including hundreds of children. 

Simply put, barbarism on a mass scale must not be given a free pass.

Though it was expected that the president would ask AIPAC for help behind the scenes, the public nature of this effort underscores just how shaky is congressional support (and public support, for the two are related) for intervention in Syria. The president has also received vocal support from Israel’s president, Shimon Peres. All this serves as a reminder that it’s good to have allies on the front lines of the chaos in the Middle East into which the U.S. is seeking to intervene.

Such support would surely come regardless of which Israeli political party is in power, but perhaps Obama is finally coming to appreciate Benjamin Netanyahu’s relationship with Congress and almost comical pro-American disposition. (Netanyahu’s love of America is the subject of rather humorous parody.) In any event, allies should not be taken for granted. It’s an inconvenient moment for Obama to learn this lesson, but that only makes it less likely to be forgotten this time.

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Europe Prefers Shunning Israel to Helping Palestinians

After a Forbes article on Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in high-tech industries drew horrified responses from the Palestinian companies featured, Jonathan correctly cited this as yet more evidence that Israeli-Palestinian peace is currently unattainable: When Palestinians fear being viewed as collaborators for working with Israelis to build the Palestinians’ own economy, and when the very idea that such cooperation could advance peace is considered treasonable, peace clearly isn’t in the offing. But Palestinian businessmen at least have an excuse for this reaction: They genuinely fear their own anti-normalization thugs. What’s harder to explain is why Europe also opposes cooperation with Israel even when it would clearly benefit the Palestinians.

Haaretz recently reported two salient examples: The Dutch government is pressuring a Dutch company to withdraw from a sewage treatment project run by Jerusalem’s municipal water corporation, and Germany’s state-owned development bank KfW is seeking to bar Jewish settlements from burying their trash at a new landfill it’s planning in the West Bank. In both cases, the primary victims will be Palestinians–but in both, European governments have decided that eschewing cooperation with Israel is more important than helping Palestinians.

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After a Forbes article on Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in high-tech industries drew horrified responses from the Palestinian companies featured, Jonathan correctly cited this as yet more evidence that Israeli-Palestinian peace is currently unattainable: When Palestinians fear being viewed as collaborators for working with Israelis to build the Palestinians’ own economy, and when the very idea that such cooperation could advance peace is considered treasonable, peace clearly isn’t in the offing. But Palestinian businessmen at least have an excuse for this reaction: They genuinely fear their own anti-normalization thugs. What’s harder to explain is why Europe also opposes cooperation with Israel even when it would clearly benefit the Palestinians.

Haaretz recently reported two salient examples: The Dutch government is pressuring a Dutch company to withdraw from a sewage treatment project run by Jerusalem’s municipal water corporation, and Germany’s state-owned development bank KfW is seeking to bar Jewish settlements from burying their trash at a new landfill it’s planning in the West Bank. In both cases, the primary victims will be Palestinians–but in both, European governments have decided that eschewing cooperation with Israel is more important than helping Palestinians.

The Dutch company, Royal Haskoning DHV, won a contract to build a sewage treatment plant in the West Bank to reduce pollution in the Kidron stream. As Haaretz explains, the Kidron “runs from the Mount of Olives and the village of Silwan in eastern Jerusalem toward Ma’ale Adumim and the Dead Sea.” Silwan is a large Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem while Ma’ale Adumim is a Jewish settlement, so the project would help both Jews and Arabs. But Palestinians would benefit more: Not only does Silwan have a larger population than Ma’ale Adumim, but the Kidron runs entirely through land that, in Europe’s view, should belong to a future Palestinian state.

Royal Haskoning’s withdrawal from the project would at best significantly delay it, and might even result in it being canceled altogether. Meanwhile, Palestinians would continue to suffer from a polluted waterway nearby, and the future Palestinian state would suffer additional environmental damage. But in the Dutch government’s view, increased Palestinian suffering is preferable to any cooperation with Israel in “occupied territory.”

KfW’s project is a landfill to replace the one that used to serve both the Palestinian town of El Bireh and nearby Jewish settlements. The old landfill was recently closed because it had become a severe environmental hazard, so the new one is needed urgently. But KfW has demanded that it only serve Palestinians, not the settlements.

This has three possible consequences. First, Israel might build a second landfill for the settlements, thereby rendering additional land in the future Palestinian state environmentally unfit for any other use. Second, the settlements might be left without an authorized landfill, forcing them to resort to pirate dumps, which would significantly increase the environmental harm to both Palestinians living in the area and the future Palestinian state. Third, Israel could reject KfW’s proposal on the reasonable grounds that a landfill serving only some of the area’s residents is economically and environmentally inefficient and seek a new developer. That would significantly delay the landfill’s construction and increase the already enormous suffering of El Bireh residents, who are drowning in garbage. 

All three options would primarily hurt the Palestinians. But the German government, too, evidently views increased Palestinian suffering as preferable to cooperating with Israel in “occupied territory.”

Europeans don’t have the excuse of being vulnerable to threats by Palestinian anti-normalization thugs; this is pure spite. And when that’s the example set by “enlightened,” “peace-seeking” Europe, is it any wonder that Palestinians see nothing objectionable about doing the same?

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