Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 9, 2013

Will Sense Prevail in the War on the NYPD?

Tomorrow’s Democratic Primary in New York City offers a variety of personalities for voters to choose from but very little diversity when it comes to attitudes toward the efforts of Gotham’s Police Department to ensure the public safety of its citizens. All the Democrats seem to be intent on trashing the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” procedures that have helped reduce crime in the city. But it should also be noted that none seem willing to come to the defense of the cops as they come under attack for their equally successful efforts to combat homegrown terrorism. As I wrote last month, a report (that is the core of a forthcoming book on the subject) by a pair of AP reporters that seems to be largely based on information leaked by the FBI and dissident cops aims to discredit the NYPD’s counter-terrorist program. Though there is no evidence that the police broke the law or did anything unethical or inappropriate in their surveillance of places where Islamists gathered, including mosques, liberals and others determined to forget the lessons of 9/11 seek to shut down these efforts.  That campaign was endorsed again today in a New York Times editorial that was short on evidence of wrongdoing and long on innuendo about Islamophobia.

Over the last several years the Times editorial page has been a consistent campaigner for reinstating a 9/10/2001 mentality about terrorism. But what is particularly troubling this week as we observe the 12th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center is how these destructive attitudes have been allowed to become mainstream political opinion among New York Democrats who ought to know better. While some have speculated on the likelihood that whoever emerges from tomorrow’s primary as the likely nominee and therefore the favorite to be the next mayor will replace the NYPD’s dynamic leader Ray Kelly, the real issue isn’t personnel; it’s policy. If the Times and other left-wing critics get their way on effectively shelving the department’s counter-terrorist unit, the safety of New Yorkers will be put at risk.

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Tomorrow’s Democratic Primary in New York City offers a variety of personalities for voters to choose from but very little diversity when it comes to attitudes toward the efforts of Gotham’s Police Department to ensure the public safety of its citizens. All the Democrats seem to be intent on trashing the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” procedures that have helped reduce crime in the city. But it should also be noted that none seem willing to come to the defense of the cops as they come under attack for their equally successful efforts to combat homegrown terrorism. As I wrote last month, a report (that is the core of a forthcoming book on the subject) by a pair of AP reporters that seems to be largely based on information leaked by the FBI and dissident cops aims to discredit the NYPD’s counter-terrorist program. Though there is no evidence that the police broke the law or did anything unethical or inappropriate in their surveillance of places where Islamists gathered, including mosques, liberals and others determined to forget the lessons of 9/11 seek to shut down these efforts.  That campaign was endorsed again today in a New York Times editorial that was short on evidence of wrongdoing and long on innuendo about Islamophobia.

Over the last several years the Times editorial page has been a consistent campaigner for reinstating a 9/10/2001 mentality about terrorism. But what is particularly troubling this week as we observe the 12th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center is how these destructive attitudes have been allowed to become mainstream political opinion among New York Democrats who ought to know better. While some have speculated on the likelihood that whoever emerges from tomorrow’s primary as the likely nominee and therefore the favorite to be the next mayor will replace the NYPD’s dynamic leader Ray Kelly, the real issue isn’t personnel; it’s policy. If the Times and other left-wing critics get their way on effectively shelving the department’s counter-terrorist unit, the safety of New Yorkers will be put at risk.

Though the Times and the AP duo huff and puff about the law, they know this is a dead end since the NYPD has rigorously followed court rulings about what they may and may not do. But the problem here is more about institutional rivalries and politics than legal concerns. As I’ve noted previously, part of the pushback against the NYPD’s reasonable decision to keep an eye on local Islamists stems from a turf war with the FBI. The Bureau is famously jealous of its prerogatives. It is also deeply committed to a politically correct version of counter-terror surveillance that buys into the false notion that the government should be more worried about offending the sensibilities of some Islamists than in ferreting out radicals who encourage, aid, and abet terror. While the overwhelming majority of American Muslims are hard-working, law-abiding citizens, the myth of a post-9/11 backlash against Arabs and adherents of Islam in this country has led some to treat any effort to monitor the Islamist minority as an act of prejudice against all members of this religious group.

The point of these critiques as well as the nuisance civil-rights lawsuits brought against the NYPD is to create a zone of immunity around all Islamist institutions that would render them off limits to police surveillance. While that might sound like a defense of that community’s First Amendment rights, what it really does is give impunity to radicals who have repeatedly sought to inspire Muslim individuals to commit acts of terror. Should New York’s next mayor put such an anti-anti-terrorism policy in place, the result will not be a strengthened defense of individual rights but a return to the September 10th mentality where cops and federal authorities slept (and failed to cooperate with each other) while Islamists plotted mass murder.

We can only hope that in the weeks left before the November election, somebody on the ballot, no matter which party they represent, speaks up for the NYPD and sanity and against the Times’s effort to rout common sense on counter-terrorism.

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Obama Starts to Walk Back Syria Threats

Never mind. You don’t have read too far between the lines of a series of interviews President Obama has just given to several news networks to understand that what we may be seeing this week is not so much the titanic struggle in Congress about authorizing the use of force against Syria as a slow-motion walk-back of the White House’s intentions to launch air strikes against the Assad regime. It will be impossible for the White House to ask Congress for tough votes in favor of Syrian strikes so long as the president is grasping onto proposals that eliminate the threat of strikes and thus the vote in the Senate is being put off. Which means the arguments we’ve been having about the issue are now unofficially moot. Game, set, and match to Assad, Iran, and Russia and complete defeat for Obama and those who supported the faltering president.

In the interviews the president conveyed not only his trademark ambivalence about the use of force but also a crucial shift in his phrasing about his plans for punishing Syria’s government for using chemical weapons against their own people. By referring to the “threat” of strikes rather than his actual intentions, he made it clear that he wants to slow down the process by which Congress would vote on the proposals that he floated in the last couple of weeks. In part, this reflects the political reality in which the president has failed to rally support—either in the general public or Congress—for a principled stand against Assad’s atrocities. But by grasping on to the foolish proposal put forward by Secretary of State Kerry today to embrace a Russian offer to get Syria to surrender its chemical weapons (authoritatively debunked by our Max Boot), Obama appears to be waving the white flag on the whole controversy. Since this is an idea that has little chance of being effectively implemented, the president is using it as an excuse to weasel his way out of a fight that he wasn’t tough enough to fight or win. If so, it will be a fitting, if disgraceful, end to an episode of almost unprecedented incompetence and cowardice that will put an end to any pretensions Obama might have had about being anything but a lame duck until the end of his term of office.

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Never mind. You don’t have read too far between the lines of a series of interviews President Obama has just given to several news networks to understand that what we may be seeing this week is not so much the titanic struggle in Congress about authorizing the use of force against Syria as a slow-motion walk-back of the White House’s intentions to launch air strikes against the Assad regime. It will be impossible for the White House to ask Congress for tough votes in favor of Syrian strikes so long as the president is grasping onto proposals that eliminate the threat of strikes and thus the vote in the Senate is being put off. Which means the arguments we’ve been having about the issue are now unofficially moot. Game, set, and match to Assad, Iran, and Russia and complete defeat for Obama and those who supported the faltering president.

In the interviews the president conveyed not only his trademark ambivalence about the use of force but also a crucial shift in his phrasing about his plans for punishing Syria’s government for using chemical weapons against their own people. By referring to the “threat” of strikes rather than his actual intentions, he made it clear that he wants to slow down the process by which Congress would vote on the proposals that he floated in the last couple of weeks. In part, this reflects the political reality in which the president has failed to rally support—either in the general public or Congress—for a principled stand against Assad’s atrocities. But by grasping on to the foolish proposal put forward by Secretary of State Kerry today to embrace a Russian offer to get Syria to surrender its chemical weapons (authoritatively debunked by our Max Boot), Obama appears to be waving the white flag on the whole controversy. Since this is an idea that has little chance of being effectively implemented, the president is using it as an excuse to weasel his way out of a fight that he wasn’t tough enough to fight or win. If so, it will be a fitting, if disgraceful, end to an episode of almost unprecedented incompetence and cowardice that will put an end to any pretensions Obama might have had about being anything but a lame duck until the end of his term of office.

Since the signals of retreat on Syria coming from the White House today seem to put a period on even the most remote hope that the administration can find the will to act on Syria, it’s time for the second-guessing and recriminations about the president’s staggering incompetence to begin with a vengeance.

There’s little doubt that if the president had matched his predictions of Assad’s fall with even minimal action two years ago when the rebellion began in Syria, the results would have been very different. Assad would probably not have survived, let alone go on to largely win the war against the rebels, as he seems to have now done. Islamist radicals would not have gained a foothold in the country and the apparent victory of the regime would not enhance the power and prestige of Assad’s ally Iran. Nor would we have been treated to the spectacle of the president enunciating a “red line” about chemical weapons and then not enforcing it.

But let’s forget about what might have happened two years ago and just concentrate on the last month. Had the president acted expeditiously and struck quickly without punting the ball to Congress (as he need not have done using the authority granted him by the War Powers Act), there would have been no test of American credibility. By demanding the right to use force and then backing away Obama has trashed his credibility and that of the United States.

While the administration will attempt to spin their embrace of the Russian proposal as some kind of victory, the American people know better. What we have just witnessed is one of the most discreditable displays of presidential leadership in our history. Though I think those who have argued against the use of force against Syria were wrong, I cannot fault those who said President Obama was not to be trusted with the power that he sought. By surrendering even before he began to fight, the president has done more to trash his reputation as a leader in the last two weeks than five years of Republican criticism.

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Russia’s Absurd Proposal on Syria’s Weapons

The debate over Syria took a new turn on Monday when Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that Bashar Assad could avoid American airstrikes if he would “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.” Kerry added that Assad “isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”

But that didn’t stop Russia and other nations from jumping on the idea after the Syrian government said it welcomed the idea. Now this seemingly offhand suggestion–which Kerry apparently did not mean to float as a serious proposal–is being seriously debated as an alternative to American military action.

If Assad were serious about turning over his entire chemical weapons stockpile–not to mention destroying all capacity to manufacture more such weapons in the future–this might conceivably be a deal worth taking even at the risk of Assad rebuilding his chemical weapons capacity sometime in the future. But the odds of Assad assenting to such a deal are slight: Why should he when he knows that, worst case, he faces an “unbelievably small” American airstrike, as Kerry himself has said?

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The debate over Syria took a new turn on Monday when Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that Bashar Assad could avoid American airstrikes if he would “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.” Kerry added that Assad “isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”

But that didn’t stop Russia and other nations from jumping on the idea after the Syrian government said it welcomed the idea. Now this seemingly offhand suggestion–which Kerry apparently did not mean to float as a serious proposal–is being seriously debated as an alternative to American military action.

If Assad were serious about turning over his entire chemical weapons stockpile–not to mention destroying all capacity to manufacture more such weapons in the future–this might conceivably be a deal worth taking even at the risk of Assad rebuilding his chemical weapons capacity sometime in the future. But the odds of Assad assenting to such a deal are slight: Why should he when he knows that, worst case, he faces an “unbelievably small” American airstrike, as Kerry himself has said?

Chemical weapons are an important source of power for the Assad regime, not only for the threat they pose to Israel but, more immediately, for the threat they pose to Assad’s rebellious subjects. He is unlikely to give up such an advantage, which is so crucial to his regime’s survival, unless he were convinced that his regime would crumble otherwise. But nothing that President Obama or his aides have said would lead him to come to that conclusion.

Even if Assad claimed to be serious about such a deal–and he has said no such thing yet, in fact he hasn’t even acknowledged that he possesses chemical weapons–it is hard to know how such a deal could be implemented or enforced. It is one thing for inspectors to travel to Libya in 2003 to make sure that Gaddafi was giving up his entire WMD program. Libya then was a peaceful if despotic place. It is quite another thing to do so now in Syria where violence is commonplace–in fact UN inspectors looking for evidence of chemical-weapons use have already been shot at. How on earth could international inspectors possibly roam Syria in the middle of a civil war to confirm that Assad has no more chemical weapons left?

The task is daunting, indeed nearly impossible, in no small part because of our lack of knowledge about the whereabouts of his arsenal. The New York Times reports: “A senior American official who has been briefed extensively on the intelligence noted in recent days that Washington has firm knowledge of only 19 of the 42 suspected chemical weapons sites. Those numbers are constantly changing, because Mr. Assad has been moving the stores, largely for fear some of them could fall into the hands of rebels.”

Even if we knew where all the stockpiles were, removing them and destroying them–presumably a process that would have to occur outside the country–would be an enormous undertaking that could easily involve thousands of foreign workers along with thousands, even tens of thousands, of soldiers to protect them. It is hard to imagine such an undertaking occurring in wartime; few if any nations will risk their troops on the ground in Syria to make the process possible and Syria’s government would be unlikely to grant them permission to do so.

This, then, is not a serious alternative to military action. It is a stalling tactic to allow Assad to retain his chemical-weapons capacity–and other weapons that have killed far more people. It is also a distraction from the real issue, which is not Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpile but the continuing existence of the Assad regime itself.

More than 100,000 people have already died in the Syrian civil war and more will continue to die as long as the Assad regime remains in power. There are admittedly real dangers in what post-Assad Syria will look like, but we already know what Syria under the Assad regime looks like today–it is a disaster, not only from a humanitarian but also from a strategic standpoint, because al-Qaeda is already consolidating control over parts of northern Syria while Iran is able to maintain a client regime in power in Damascus.

The U.S. policy should be not just the removal of the chemical-weapons stockpile but of the Assad regime itself. In fact Obama has said that is his goal–but he is not willing to take the actions necessary to bring it about. In the face of this leadership vacuum, it is hardly surprising that all sorts of odd ideas are being floated.

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Bloomberg’s de Blasio Disaster Foretold

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s comments in an interview published over the weekend “shook up” the race to succeed him, as the Wall Street Journal describes it. Bloomberg took issue with what he thought has been an overly class- and race-based campaign by the current Democratic primary frontrunner, Bill de Blasio. While that may sound like exactly the sort of campaign a modern liberal Democrat would run–especially in New York City, where identity politics predominate–the charge was actually unfair.

What’s more, Bloomberg seemed realize this as he said it, as his explanation for his comments indicates:

Mr. Bloomberg said in the interview published Saturday in New York magazine that he thought Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the front-runner, was running a “class-warfare and racist” campaign because he had persistently highlighted income inequality and his biracial family. Mr. de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, is African-American.

“I mean he’s making an appeal using his family to gain support. I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone watching what he’s been doing. I do not think he himself is racist,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “It’s comparable to me pointing out I’m Jewish in attracting the Jewish vote. You tailor messages to your audiences and address issues you think your audience cares about.”

Not to split hairs, but it’s not quite like Bloomberg pointing out his Jewish background. De Blasio isn’t black; given the degree of controversy over race-related issues both in the city and the country recently, it’s not outrageous at all that de Blasio would feel compelled to demonstrate that he can understand issues facing the African-American community through personal connection.

At any rate, what you sense from Bloomberg is frustration, not outrage. I don’t think Bloomberg cares about ethnic political appeals by de Blasio or anyone else. What most likely bothers him much more is that de Blasio appears to be a disaster waiting to happen. His ideas for the city range from the terrible to the dangerous. De Blasio is leading the “Dinkins Democrats,” as I referred to them here.

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New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s comments in an interview published over the weekend “shook up” the race to succeed him, as the Wall Street Journal describes it. Bloomberg took issue with what he thought has been an overly class- and race-based campaign by the current Democratic primary frontrunner, Bill de Blasio. While that may sound like exactly the sort of campaign a modern liberal Democrat would run–especially in New York City, where identity politics predominate–the charge was actually unfair.

What’s more, Bloomberg seemed realize this as he said it, as his explanation for his comments indicates:

Mr. Bloomberg said in the interview published Saturday in New York magazine that he thought Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the front-runner, was running a “class-warfare and racist” campaign because he had persistently highlighted income inequality and his biracial family. Mr. de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, is African-American.

“I mean he’s making an appeal using his family to gain support. I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone watching what he’s been doing. I do not think he himself is racist,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “It’s comparable to me pointing out I’m Jewish in attracting the Jewish vote. You tailor messages to your audiences and address issues you think your audience cares about.”

Not to split hairs, but it’s not quite like Bloomberg pointing out his Jewish background. De Blasio isn’t black; given the degree of controversy over race-related issues both in the city and the country recently, it’s not outrageous at all that de Blasio would feel compelled to demonstrate that he can understand issues facing the African-American community through personal connection.

At any rate, what you sense from Bloomberg is frustration, not outrage. I don’t think Bloomberg cares about ethnic political appeals by de Blasio or anyone else. What most likely bothers him much more is that de Blasio appears to be a disaster waiting to happen. His ideas for the city range from the terrible to the dangerous. De Blasio is leading the “Dinkins Democrats,” as I referred to them here.

De Blasio attacked rival candidate Christine Quinn for her qualified support for Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, whose leadership of the NYPD has helped keep the city safe and make it a model for the rest of the country. Kelly’s name has even been floated to run the federal Department of Homeland Security, a suggestion supported by Republicans and Democrats. De Blasio’s idea of city governance is to locate what has worked in the past–a focus on safe streets and a pro-business atmosphere that has enabled the city to rake in the tax revenue that keeps services running and the social safety net intact–and promise to shred it.

So, if de Blasio is such an irresponsible choice for mayor–and to be fair, he may not intend to keep his promises (threats?) if he wins the election–why would he win in the first place? The answer is because a meager minority of Democratic primary voters will choose the Democratic nominee tomorrow, and because of the Democrats’ partisan advantage in the city that party’s nominee will become the favorite–though far from guaranteed victor–in the general election.

And de Blasio is poised to take a commanding lead into the primary because of the weakness of the rest of the field. Anthony Weiner has cratered in the polls after new scandals arose and he began speaking in a British accent and taunting elderly voters. (A strange, but perhaps not too unexpected, sentence to write.) That left the election without a traditional candidate from the boroughs, putting Queens in play and giving an advantage to the Brooklyn-based de Blasio.

Bill Thompson is another candidate whose weak poll standing has always hidden his strength in a second-round runoff, which takes place if no candidate gets 40 percent of the vote. And of course there is the once-putative frontrunner, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has been startlingly unable to connect with voters and has run a campaign that suggests she never took her competition too seriously, inexcusably in the case of Thompson.

And that brings us back to Bloomberg. The mayor had tentatively sided with Quinn as his successor, but that was only among the likely candidates. He spent his final term in office undermining any credibility Quinn had by desperately casting about for a different successor. He was even willing to import one; he reportedly asked Hillary Clinton and Ed Rendell to run.

The whole circus left the impression that Bloomberg feared leaving his legacy in Quinn’s hands. But the recent Democratic primary contest suggests he feared a Quinn candidacy, not a Quinn mayoralty. He might have expected Quinn to fumble the handoff, which is exactly what happened. If that’s the case, Bloomberg gets points for prescience.

It’s surely possible Quinn could still win, of course. If there’s a runoff, the calculus changes–though, it should be noted, probably not to Quinn’s benefit, demographically. There is some irony here for Quinn. She ran to the left once she saw her rivals do so. That was probably a mistake, and it could cost her the election. Had she secured her place as the “responsible” Democrat, she could have portrayed de Blasio as the extreme candidate he is–well-meaning but eminently naïve and dangerous if given a job with real citywide responsibility, which he has never had.

Instead, Quinn may have convinced voters that there wasn’t enough daylight between her and de Blasio ideologically to make much of a difference. At that point, the election becomes solely about personality and, yes, identity politics. That’s where Bloomberg’s frustration finally boiled over, because that’s where Quinn is most likely to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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Could a de Blasio Win Give GOP a Boost?

After months of buildup, the citizens of New York City will finally be heading to the polls tomorrow. The buzz surrounding the race for mayor has consistently made national news. Unfortunately for the future of New York, however, that buzz has centered largely on the scandal-plagued candidacy of Democrat Anthony Weiner. While all eyes are on the Democrats facing off tomorrow, with a come-from-behind Bill de Blasio campaign taking center stage, the Republicans in the race, John Catsimatidis and Joe Lhota, have largely escaped the media’s glare. Many view tomorrow’s primary as the conclusion of the race with tomorrow’s winner the automatic general-election victor. Past electoral history, including the relatively recent victories of Republican Rudy Giuliani and independent Mike Bloomberg serve as warnings that in New York City “it ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

While there is very little reliable polling to be had for the Republican primary taking place tomorrow, the limited data available seems to indicate a Lhota victory over the billionaire businessman Catsimatidis. Presuming de Blasio and Lhota win tomorrow, in the general election all is not lost for the Republican contender.

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After months of buildup, the citizens of New York City will finally be heading to the polls tomorrow. The buzz surrounding the race for mayor has consistently made national news. Unfortunately for the future of New York, however, that buzz has centered largely on the scandal-plagued candidacy of Democrat Anthony Weiner. While all eyes are on the Democrats facing off tomorrow, with a come-from-behind Bill de Blasio campaign taking center stage, the Republicans in the race, John Catsimatidis and Joe Lhota, have largely escaped the media’s glare. Many view tomorrow’s primary as the conclusion of the race with tomorrow’s winner the automatic general-election victor. Past electoral history, including the relatively recent victories of Republican Rudy Giuliani and independent Mike Bloomberg serve as warnings that in New York City “it ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

While there is very little reliable polling to be had for the Republican primary taking place tomorrow, the limited data available seems to indicate a Lhota victory over the billionaire businessman Catsimatidis. Presuming de Blasio and Lhota win tomorrow, in the general election all is not lost for the Republican contender.

As recently as the end of July the presumed Bloomberg successor Christine Quinn was leading the polls after Anthony Weiner’s implosion after new details emerged of the sexting scandal that brought down his career in the House. Democratic primary voters have had very little time to get to know each candidate as they somewhat schizophrenically wavered between the half-dozen possible contenders. What might sound appealing to more left-wing primary voters, taxing the rich and an end to the controversial but effective stop-and-frisk program of the NYPD, would likely go over less well with more moderate and pragmatic New Yorkers, especially middle-class voters in the outer boroughs.

These voters will likely not see the allure in targeting the rich, the famed 1 percent they heard about for months from the largely white and privileged youth who took over a public square in Lower Manhattan last year, calling themselves Occupy Wall Street. These voters have watched as the policies of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, including stop-and-frisk, lowered the city’s crime rate considerably over his tenure. Democrat de Blasio has promised to remove this popular and effective police commissioner from office, a move that wouldn’t be taken kindly by those who have benefited from his work. 

It’s too soon for any general-election polling between de Blasio and Lhota, but the Observer’s Politicker blog has already taken note of Lhota’s potential cross-party appeal:

A surprising number of this morning’s attendees said they, too, were planning to cross party lines for Mr. Lhota because they considered this year’s crop of Democratic candidates–especially front-runner Bill de Blasio–too liberal, soft on crime or polarizing.

Susan B., 61, who lives in the West Village and declined to give her last name, said she’d grown “increasingly uncomfortable” with city Democrats over attempts to rein in the controversial stop-and-frisk police tactic and attempts to halt surveillance of Muslim communities.

According to unnamed sources speaking with the New York Posteven independent and relatively liberal current Mayor Michael Bloomberg may also be leaning toward supporting the Republican Lhota if de Blasio is tomorrow’s Democratic victor. While his endorsement may not carry much weight with voters, it serves as an interesting window into the thought processes of New Yorkers who, while overwhelmingly liberal, also don’t want to see a return to the days of former New York Mayor David Dinkins. Though any Republican optimism in deep blue New York may seem delusional, this match-up might make the next two months a bit more interesting than if a more moderate Democrat were nominated.

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Recalling the Last U.S. Strike on Syrians

As the Obama administration continues its foreign-policy schizophrenia, it’s useful to remember that any Obama strike on Syria will not be the first time U.S. forces have engaged Syrians. Just a few months shy of 30 years ago, Syrian anti-aircraft batteries in Lebanon fired on American reconnaissance planes supporting the U.S. and international peacekeeping force in Lebanon. In response, President Ronald Reagan ordered the Syrian positions hit. From a December 5, 1983 New York Times report:

Syria’s Minister of Defense said today that the American airman captured by Syrian troops after they shot down his aircraft on Sunday would not be returned until “the war” was over and American troops left Lebanon. He confirmed a report that the other American flier in the Navy attack bomber had died, and said the body was to be turned over to the United States Embassy in Damascus today… The American marines remained on alert in their compound at Beirut International Airport, although there was no resumption of the shelling that killed eight of them and wounded two on Sunday. The shelling occurred hours after an American air strike on Syrian targets east of the Lebanese capital in which two United States planes were shot down. (The Soviet Union “resolutely condemned” the American air raids against Syrian positions in Lebanon, terming them “a serious threat to peace in the Middle East, and not only in that region….”)

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As the Obama administration continues its foreign-policy schizophrenia, it’s useful to remember that any Obama strike on Syria will not be the first time U.S. forces have engaged Syrians. Just a few months shy of 30 years ago, Syrian anti-aircraft batteries in Lebanon fired on American reconnaissance planes supporting the U.S. and international peacekeeping force in Lebanon. In response, President Ronald Reagan ordered the Syrian positions hit. From a December 5, 1983 New York Times report:

Syria’s Minister of Defense said today that the American airman captured by Syrian troops after they shot down his aircraft on Sunday would not be returned until “the war” was over and American troops left Lebanon. He confirmed a report that the other American flier in the Navy attack bomber had died, and said the body was to be turned over to the United States Embassy in Damascus today… The American marines remained on alert in their compound at Beirut International Airport, although there was no resumption of the shelling that killed eight of them and wounded two on Sunday. The shelling occurred hours after an American air strike on Syrian targets east of the Lebanese capital in which two United States planes were shot down. (The Soviet Union “resolutely condemned” the American air raids against Syrian positions in Lebanon, terming them “a serious threat to peace in the Middle East, and not only in that region….”)

While I am on record favoring a limited strike against chemical weapons targets on both sides of the conflict, the opposition really isn’t better than the regime at this point and has certainly not become more moderate. Still, as much as history informs, let us hope that amongst all his flip-flopping, President Obama both remembers the danger of complications manned aircraft could pose if downed for whatever reason over Syrian territory. While Syria might not be able to down a U.S. aircraft unassisted, Obama should not put anything past Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has had enough time over the past several weeks to insert “advisers” wherever he might need. Here too, history informs. Putin’s mentality remains firmly in his KGB past and the Soviet heyday. Moscow’s condemnation now really is no different than it was in 1983. The only difference is in the character of the American presidency.

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Leftist Roots Trump Obama for J Street

The irony is delicious. In the fall of 2008, the leaders of the J Street lobby boldly asserted their group’s coming preeminence as the leading voice in Washington about Israel over the more established AIPAC. The reason for that confidence was J Street’s close ties to the incoming Obama administration. Pointing to the huge majority of Jewish votes won by the Democrat in the 2008 election, J Street not only claimed that its views were more representative of American Jewry but that it would serve as a necessary pro-Obama counterweight to what they falsely claimed was an AIPAC that favored Republicans. But fast forward to September 2013 and the reality of the alignment of these two groups is vastly different from what J Street propagandists were saying a few years ago. Not only is J Street a shadow of the liberal behemoth that some expected would lead the discussion about the Middle East, disconnected from public opinion in Israel and bereft of influence on Capitol Hill or in the White House. It is also at odds with the man they once served as his main Jewish cheerleaders.

While AIPAC has reacted to the president’s puzzling decision to pass off responsibility to Congress for a strike on Syria by mobilizing its resources to back him up on the issue, J Street is standing on the sidelines of a vote that will have huge implications for the future of U.S. influence in the Middle East. In doing so, J Street is not only burning what’s left of its bridges to an administration that they’ve been out of step with for the past two years. It’s also showing that their leftist roots as the Jewish rump of the MoveOn.org movement trumps their loyalty to the president or to the cause of human rights.

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The irony is delicious. In the fall of 2008, the leaders of the J Street lobby boldly asserted their group’s coming preeminence as the leading voice in Washington about Israel over the more established AIPAC. The reason for that confidence was J Street’s close ties to the incoming Obama administration. Pointing to the huge majority of Jewish votes won by the Democrat in the 2008 election, J Street not only claimed that its views were more representative of American Jewry but that it would serve as a necessary pro-Obama counterweight to what they falsely claimed was an AIPAC that favored Republicans. But fast forward to September 2013 and the reality of the alignment of these two groups is vastly different from what J Street propagandists were saying a few years ago. Not only is J Street a shadow of the liberal behemoth that some expected would lead the discussion about the Middle East, disconnected from public opinion in Israel and bereft of influence on Capitol Hill or in the White House. It is also at odds with the man they once served as his main Jewish cheerleaders.

While AIPAC has reacted to the president’s puzzling decision to pass off responsibility to Congress for a strike on Syria by mobilizing its resources to back him up on the issue, J Street is standing on the sidelines of a vote that will have huge implications for the future of U.S. influence in the Middle East. In doing so, J Street is not only burning what’s left of its bridges to an administration that they’ve been out of step with for the past two years. It’s also showing that their leftist roots as the Jewish rump of the MoveOn.org movement trumps their loyalty to the president or to the cause of human rights.

That J Street should be aligning itself with the isolationists on both the left and the right against the administration shouldn’t be any surprise. Despite their boasts about representing the mainstream of Jewish opinion in this country, it has always been a creature of the isolationist left. Though opposition to Syria intervention is widely unpopular, J Street might have been expected to rally to President Obama’s side in what is probably the most crucial moment of his second term. If Congress fails to grant him authority to attack Syria his credibility is shot at home and abroad and we might as well hang a sign around his neck saying “lame duck.”

But the MoveOn.org crowd from which J Street sprung does not share the president’s apparent ambivalence about the use of U.S. power even when used against a Syrian dictator who has used chemical weapons against his own people. They are always against it. While J Street belatedly condemned Syria’s use of chemical weapons their outrage over this crime wasn’t enough to convince the leaders of the group to back up the president whose stands on Israel once enthralled them.

I deplore J Street’s belief that the U.S should use its status as Israel’s only ally to pressure it to make concessions to a Palestinian Authority that has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. But do they think America’s capacity to use its influence in the Middle East will be enhanced by the evisceration of Obama’s ability to lead on foreign affairs by Congress? It is that reason that the pro-Israel community in this country which largely disagrees with J Street’s calls for pressure on Israel has weighed in on the president’s behalf. AIPAC was loath to involve itself in the squabble in Syria because it rightly felt that Israel favored neither side in the Syrian civil war. But a United States that is no longer capable of stepping up to punish those who use weapons of mass destruction in this manner is also an America that has been effectively rendered irrelevant in the Middle East. No matter what you think about the fighting in Syria or about the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, that should be a big problem for those who purport to speak for pro-Israel opinion in this country.

Nevertheless, it should be conceded that J Street’s opposition to Obama on Syria wouldn’t decrease its influence in Washington. That’s because it has none. Though it has been cheering wildly for Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to restart peace talks, it’s been out of touch with the administration’s attitude toward Israel since the beginning of 2012 when the president began a Jewish “charm offensive” in order to help his reelection. J Street loved it when Obama was picking fights with Israel during his first three years in office, but even then it was clear the White House understood just how insignificant a player the group was. That it must now look to AIPAC for help on Syria again demonstrates not only the mainstream lobby’s importance but also how foolish J Street’s attacks on it have been.

When push comes to shove, it appears J Street’s core beliefs about the illegitimacy of American power will always trump its claim to want to bolster Israel or even Obama. If few have noticed that they’ve abandoned the president, it’s largely because their hard-core ideological approach to issues always rendered it a marginal force even in Democratic councils, let alone the public square they once thought to dominate.

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Why I’m Against a Military Strike On Syria

One of the strongest arguments for voting “yes” on authorizing strikes against Syria is that a “no” vote will do significant damage to the credibility of the United States.

“It is to President Obama’s great discredit that he has staked his credibility on a vote whose outcome he failed to game out in advance,” Ross Douthat of the New York Times has written. “But if he loses that vote, the national interest as well as his political interests will take a tangible hit: for the next three years, American foreign policy will be in the hands of a president whose promises will ring consistently hollow, and whose ability to make good on his strategic commitments will be very much in doubt.”

That’s a very reasonable case. But it’s one that’s worth examining with some care.

It’s quite true, and I believe quite regrettable, that American credibility will suffer if the president is denied the authority he seeks. But it’s not clear to me that if Mr. Obama gets the authority to strike Syria, American credibility will be that much greater. 

I say that for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that the strike the president intends to deliver is not meant to alter the balance of power in Syria. The president himself has described what he intends to do as a “shot across the bow”–a revealing locution, since a “shot across the bow” means a harmless strike. Mr. Obama has signaled, in as many ways as he can, that a strike in Syria is meant to be de minimis. And Secretary of State John Kerry, in London earlier today, put it this way: “We will be able to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war. That is exactly what we are talking about doing – unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” [emphasis added].

Is it possible that the president unleashes his inner John McCain and decides to alter the course of the Syrian civil war? I suppose so, but let’s just say it’s highly unlikely. Let’s assume, then, that the president does what he’s said he would do. How much credibility would that have?

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One of the strongest arguments for voting “yes” on authorizing strikes against Syria is that a “no” vote will do significant damage to the credibility of the United States.

“It is to President Obama’s great discredit that he has staked his credibility on a vote whose outcome he failed to game out in advance,” Ross Douthat of the New York Times has written. “But if he loses that vote, the national interest as well as his political interests will take a tangible hit: for the next three years, American foreign policy will be in the hands of a president whose promises will ring consistently hollow, and whose ability to make good on his strategic commitments will be very much in doubt.”

That’s a very reasonable case. But it’s one that’s worth examining with some care.

It’s quite true, and I believe quite regrettable, that American credibility will suffer if the president is denied the authority he seeks. But it’s not clear to me that if Mr. Obama gets the authority to strike Syria, American credibility will be that much greater. 

I say that for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that the strike the president intends to deliver is not meant to alter the balance of power in Syria. The president himself has described what he intends to do as a “shot across the bow”–a revealing locution, since a “shot across the bow” means a harmless strike. Mr. Obama has signaled, in as many ways as he can, that a strike in Syria is meant to be de minimis. And Secretary of State John Kerry, in London earlier today, put it this way: “We will be able to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war. That is exactly what we are talking about doing – unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” [emphasis added].

Is it possible that the president unleashes his inner John McCain and decides to alter the course of the Syrian civil war? I suppose so, but let’s just say it’s highly unlikely. Let’s assume, then, that the president does what he’s said he would do. How much credibility would that have?

Abdel Jabbar Akaidi, the Free Syrian Army’s chief for Aleppo province, has said, “a light strike would be worse than doing nothing. If it’s not the death blow, this game helps the regime even more. The Syrian people will only suffer more death and devastation when the regime retaliates.” Senator McCain has said the same thing.

So the option isn’t between no strike at all and a massive strike that delivers a crushing blow to the Assad regime. The choice is between no strike and, if the president and his secretary of state are to be believed, an “unbelievably small,” inconsequential one. Are we then supposed to believe the latter would salvage America’s credibility? That the Iranian regime–which has not been slowed by anyone or anything to date–will be dissuaded from pursuing nuclear weapons after a strike against Syria that was only undertaken because the president had boxed himself into a corner and from which Bashar al-Assad will emerge undamaged and still in power? That is simply implausible, especially given Mr. Obama’s larger record of irresolution and incompetence.

No president in my lifetime has been more ambivalent about the use of American power; and if Mr. Obama does strike Syria, Peggy Noonan poses the right question: “If we bomb Syria, will the world say, ‘Oh, how credible America is!’ or will they say, ‘They just bombed people because they think they have to prove they’re credible’?” The restoration of American credibility will probably have to await a new American president (think of Reagan following Carter).

And what will Mr. Obama’s strike succeed in doing? It will involve us in a brutal and immensely complicated civil war that would test the skills of even the greatest statesmen. Dexter Filkins, one of the finest war reporters in America, has said the civil war in Syria is “a more violent and unpredictable conflict than any I’ve ever seen.” The rebels, he says, are scattered and divided. Al Nusra Front, a sister organization of al-Qaeda, has “emerged as the strongest group among many.” Ambassador Ryan Crocker, one of America’s finest diplomats, has written that the opposition to Assad “lacks cohesion and organization” and agrees that the most radical elements have demonstrated the greatest discipline. “The hard truth is that the fires in Syria will blaze for some time to come,” according to Crocker. “Like a major forest fire, the most we can hope to do is contain it.”

There are other, serious interpretations of the circumstances on the ground. But even advocates of a military strike against Syria would concede, I think, that the conditions for a political settlement simply are not in place. And what exactly has President Obama achieved to warrant confidence that he can navigate these violent waters and positively influence events in Syria? His mastery of events in Egypt? Iraq? Iran? Libya? Afghanistan? His reset with Russia? His skillful handling of our allies like Great Britain? The Czech Republic and Poland? Israel? Please cite for me the example we can look to that will inspire confidence that the president is up to the challenges posed by Syria. If such an example exists, it has eluded me. 

Which brings me to my final point. As a person who favors American engagement in the world–who has supported American interventions over the years, who believed we should support the relatively moderate Syrian rebels some time ago and who supported President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan–my concern is that for America to become militarily involved in Syria at this stage may well end up doing grave damage to the cause of internationalism. It could do more, in fact, to help the quasi-isolationist movement in the GOP than anything else–including denying Mr. Obama the authority he seeks. 

For the United States to go to war with around a quarter of the nation supporting intervention–even before the bombing has started–is a very dicey and unsettling proposition. If we get militarily involved in Syria and things go badly–which I think is likely, given both the intrinsic nature of the conflict and the ineptness of our commander-in-chief–it will strengthen, not weaken, the Rand Paul wing of the GOP.

To put it another way: Those who favor an active role by America in the world–hawks who have spent their lives rightly resisting the “America Come Home” siren call–need to be wise in their counsel. Because if the next military engagement isn’t well thought out, well executed, and doesn’t lead to a relatively swift and decent outcome, the blowback could be intense. Syria could do to America what George McGovern never could.

In saying all this, I recognize that I’m out of step with many people whose judgment I respect and with whom I have stood shoulder-to-shoulder over many years. Nor do I think the decision on the authorization of force is an obvious one. There are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides and potential downsides to each course of action. On top of that, we’re talking about predicting how a series of events will unfold in a Middle Eastern nation riven by war, sectarian divisions, and hatreds that reach back generations, which ought to elicit from us a touch of humility rather than certitude.

All we can do, all we can ever do, is to bring our best judgment to bear on the situation we face. The issue hinges on whether one believes a pointless and ill-considered strike by this president against the Syrian regime does more or less damage than a congressional “no” vote that would make America even more of a non-entity in international affairs. 

I will confess that I’m not fully comfortable with my position. But I’m more comfortable with it than the alternative. 

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Mexico’s Immigration Hypocrisy

Late last month, a train derailed in southern Mexico killing at least five passengers. The train is part of a line that often serves to bring Central American migrants north into Mexico. While the United States has trouble defending—or simply chooses not to defend—its southern border against illegal immigrants, it is not the only country into which illegal immigrants flow. The irony is, however, that while the Mexican government has long chided the United States for supposed illiberalism toward illegal migrants, the Mexican government itself imposes a no-nonsense crackdown on those illegally in Mexico.

Central American complaints about treatment in Mexico have a long history. Beginning in 1974, the Mexican penalty for illegal entry into Mexico was up to two years in prison, and Mexican authorities did not hesitate to impose it. Repeat offenders could be slapped with a ten-year prison sentence. While Mexico’s 2011 Migration Law issued some basic protections, the Mexican government’s attitude toward its own illegal migrant population remains draconian compared to that of the United States.

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Late last month, a train derailed in southern Mexico killing at least five passengers. The train is part of a line that often serves to bring Central American migrants north into Mexico. While the United States has trouble defending—or simply chooses not to defend—its southern border against illegal immigrants, it is not the only country into which illegal immigrants flow. The irony is, however, that while the Mexican government has long chided the United States for supposed illiberalism toward illegal migrants, the Mexican government itself imposes a no-nonsense crackdown on those illegally in Mexico.

Central American complaints about treatment in Mexico have a long history. Beginning in 1974, the Mexican penalty for illegal entry into Mexico was up to two years in prison, and Mexican authorities did not hesitate to impose it. Repeat offenders could be slapped with a ten-year prison sentence. While Mexico’s 2011 Migration Law issued some basic protections, the Mexican government’s attitude toward its own illegal migrant population remains draconian compared to that of the United States.

It’s all well and good to talk about immigration reform: I’m all for expanding legal immigration for those who add positively to the American economy—there’s no reason why we can’t seek strategic advantage from immigration and take advantage of other countries’ brain drains—though it seems nonsensical to accommodate illegal immigration, and cases like this seem truly bizarre. It is even more bizarre to take counsel to liberalize immigration policies from a country which believes its own national interest is to do the opposite.

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Assad’s Threats Are a Godsend to Obama

If Bashar Assad thought issuing threats against America in his interview with Charlie Rose on CBS was his chance to convince Congress to reject President Obama’s plan to attack the Syrian regime, he has made a terrible miscalculation. There is no shortage of skeptics about the administration’s plan for an “unbelievably small” strike on Syria. But the notion that Assad can intimidate the United States into leaving him alone to use chemical weapons on his own people is risible.

That’s not just because Assad’s warnings that the U.S. “should expect everything” from both the Syrian government and its allies in response to an American strike is a largely empty threat. It’s that he might have been better off letting a chronically incompetent Obama remain the face of the argument about Syrian intervention rather than injecting his own criminal personality into the debate in Congress and the American public square. Indeed, the only way to change the momentum in the fight to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force in favor of the administration might be if the argument switches from one pitting Obama against his critics to another that matches the Syrian dictator against the president. While one miscalculated interview by Assad might not be enough to turn the tide in a political battle in which both the right and the left seem unprepared to back the president—albeit for slightly different reasons—it is a break for a White House that appears to be running into a stone wall when it comes to appealing for congressional approval.

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If Bashar Assad thought issuing threats against America in his interview with Charlie Rose on CBS was his chance to convince Congress to reject President Obama’s plan to attack the Syrian regime, he has made a terrible miscalculation. There is no shortage of skeptics about the administration’s plan for an “unbelievably small” strike on Syria. But the notion that Assad can intimidate the United States into leaving him alone to use chemical weapons on his own people is risible.

That’s not just because Assad’s warnings that the U.S. “should expect everything” from both the Syrian government and its allies in response to an American strike is a largely empty threat. It’s that he might have been better off letting a chronically incompetent Obama remain the face of the argument about Syrian intervention rather than injecting his own criminal personality into the debate in Congress and the American public square. Indeed, the only way to change the momentum in the fight to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force in favor of the administration might be if the argument switches from one pitting Obama against his critics to another that matches the Syrian dictator against the president. While one miscalculated interview by Assad might not be enough to turn the tide in a political battle in which both the right and the left seem unprepared to back the president—albeit for slightly different reasons—it is a break for a White House that appears to be running into a stone wall when it comes to appealing for congressional approval.

As for worries about Assad’s threats, it is probably unwise to completely discount the willingness of a man who has already gassed innocent civilians to commit mayhem. But the fact that the Syrian regime’s atrocities have been focused on civilians—including women and children—who are unable to defend themselves should tell us a lot about Assad’s capabilities when it comes to retaliating against the United States. After all, as we know, Israel has repeatedly struck at Syria’s missile arsenal and other weapon convoys in the last year without generating any kind of military response from Assad’s regime or his Iranian and Hezbollah allies. It also should be remembered that the Israelis took out Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007 without a blow from Assad in return. The reason for the Syrian timidity in the face of repeated Israeli attacks to prevent the regime from gaining nuclear capability or transferring dangerous weapons to Hezbollah was obvious. Assad knew his already beleaguered forces didn’t stand a chance if pitted against the Israel Defense Forces. When that factor is weighed against Assad’s current bluster, does anyone seriously believe Syria’s military or its terrorist auxiliaries would be any more eager for a match-up against the far more formidable forces of the United States?

But the point here is that Assad would have been far better keeping quiet right now rather than giving the administration more talking points as it attempts to convince Congress that American credibility is on the line in the vote on Syria. If either the Senate or the House turns down a resolution on force against Assad, the dictator will not just be given a proverbial free get-out-of-jail Monopoly game card. He will also be able to boast to his people that the Americans quailed in the face of his threats of violence.

So long as the debate in Congress is about the war-weariness of the American people and their lack of interest in what happens in Syria no matter how beastly Assad might be, Obama loses. But if the argument can be refocused, as it should be, on the spectacle of a murderous dictator allied with Iran and Hezbollah given impunity to commit mass atrocities, then the president stands a chance.

The congressional vote will be probably far more influenced by polls showing overwhelming opposition by the American people to involvement in Syria as well as by Obama’s personal appeals than anything Assad can say. But by opening his mouth and making idiotic threats and transparent lies about his regime’s culpability, Assad has given the president a small opening which he might use to convince wavering members of Congress.

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Germany Shows EU Lack of Iran Resolve

Turkey may be the West’s biggest leak on Iran sanctions, but as has unfortunately been a frequent theme of mine here at COMMENTARY, Germany is the greatest example of Europe’s cravenness and lack of resolve toward Iran’s nuclear program. Alas, it seems, despite Obama’s lofty rhetoric and his promise to rework diplomacy, the trend continues. According to Germany’s “Stop the Bomb” campaign:

The Institute of Religious Studies in Potsdam and the URD in Qom declared the beginning of cooperation in 2011. In September, a delegation of the University of Potsdam and the Goethe University Frankfurt / Main will travel to Iran… The cooperation is backed by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which signed a Memorandum of Understanding last year, in order to strengthen academic relationships with Iran. The fact that Kamran Daneshjoo, the Iranian Minister of Science, Research, and Technology at the time, was on the European Union sanctions list because of his alleged involvement in Iranian nuclear warhead design and work, was ignored.

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Turkey may be the West’s biggest leak on Iran sanctions, but as has unfortunately been a frequent theme of mine here at COMMENTARY, Germany is the greatest example of Europe’s cravenness and lack of resolve toward Iran’s nuclear program. Alas, it seems, despite Obama’s lofty rhetoric and his promise to rework diplomacy, the trend continues. According to Germany’s “Stop the Bomb” campaign:

The Institute of Religious Studies in Potsdam and the URD in Qom declared the beginning of cooperation in 2011. In September, a delegation of the University of Potsdam and the Goethe University Frankfurt / Main will travel to Iran… The cooperation is backed by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which signed a Memorandum of Understanding last year, in order to strengthen academic relationships with Iran. The fact that Kamran Daneshjoo, the Iranian Minister of Science, Research, and Technology at the time, was on the European Union sanctions list because of his alleged involvement in Iranian nuclear warhead design and work, was ignored.

There’s a myth out there that people-to-people dialogue is always positive. Perhaps that’s true if you’re a fan of the Dennis Rodman school of diplomacy, but it is unsupported by evidence. Rogue regimes seldom serve up ordinary people to such dialogues, but rather transform well-meaning foreign activists and academics into useful idiots. The University of Potsdam and DAAD’s willingness to work not with free Iranians, but rather respectively with a clerical propaganda center and a sanctioned official shows just how empty German resolve can be.

European Union countries—especially Germany—may talk a good game when it comes to diplomacy but, time and time again, they show that their diplomacy is pro forma and their rhetoric empty. German officials and businessmen worship at the altar of the status quo divorced completely from the human rights idealism and security responsibility for which they claim to stand. Let us hope that the United States never ceases to lead, because the European Union’s largest country is simply not up to the task.

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The Politics of the Dueling Syria Resolutions

“Of all the unexpected turns in the Syria debate,” Politico intones this morning, “one stands out most: The GOP, the party of a muscular national defense, has gone the way of the dove.” Every word of that lead sentence is debatable: doubt about an unpopular war should not be unexpected, for example, and some hawks are skeptical about the Syria strikes because they are not considered robust enough–a strange basis on which to label them doves.

Additionally, some conservatives are put off by the president’s suggestion that he may act without congressional approval anyway, giving skeptics a free “no” vote while at the same time casting doubt on the president’s willingness to adhere to what these members of Congress see as the constitutionally appropriate line of action, making them even less inclined to green-light a Syria strike. Nonetheless, even if the characterization of the GOP as having “gone the way of the dove” is a bit exaggerated, it’s true that some right-of-center politicians are leaning on dovish rhetoric and tactics to derail the president’s proposed military action in Syria.

One of those politicians is California Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, who along with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin is preparing a congressional resolution as an alternative to the one supported by President Obama. The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker reported over the weekend:

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“Of all the unexpected turns in the Syria debate,” Politico intones this morning, “one stands out most: The GOP, the party of a muscular national defense, has gone the way of the dove.” Every word of that lead sentence is debatable: doubt about an unpopular war should not be unexpected, for example, and some hawks are skeptical about the Syria strikes because they are not considered robust enough–a strange basis on which to label them doves.

Additionally, some conservatives are put off by the president’s suggestion that he may act without congressional approval anyway, giving skeptics a free “no” vote while at the same time casting doubt on the president’s willingness to adhere to what these members of Congress see as the constitutionally appropriate line of action, making them even less inclined to green-light a Syria strike. Nonetheless, even if the characterization of the GOP as having “gone the way of the dove” is a bit exaggerated, it’s true that some right-of-center politicians are leaning on dovish rhetoric and tactics to derail the president’s proposed military action in Syria.

One of those politicians is California Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, who along with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin is preparing a congressional resolution as an alternative to the one supported by President Obama. The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker reported over the weekend:

Rather than grant Obama authority to launch a military strike against Syria — as other proposed resolutions would do — the Manchin-Nunes resolution would direct the administration to redouble its diplomatic efforts to convince Syria to forgo future use of weapons of mass destruction. Is also would require the White House to submit to lawmakers within 45 days a long-term strategy for dealing with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad….

The Manchin-Nunes resolution is an attempt to satisfy Republicans and anti-war Democrats who oppose Obama’s war resolution but are uncomfortable allowing Syria to get away with using weapons of mass destruction with impunity. Manchin and Nunes have been working on similar resolutions separately, but started hammering out the final alternative proposal over the last few days.

This is one of two alternative resolutions Manchin is shopping around. The joint proposal he is developing with Nunes is based in part on a separate alternative he authored with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., which would give Syria 45 days to sign an international chemical weapons ban.

The administration has been trying the diplomatic tack for two and a half years, in which time the Syrian civil war has gone from bad to worse, with more than 100,000 casualties and of course the recent chemical-weapons atrocity. Where would this new round of diplomacy take place? The UN Security Council has been ineffective on this because of Russia’s veto. Diplomatic summits have been proposed, but keep falling apart because Assad and the Russians/Iranians keep improving their prospects while the rebels fragment, weaken, and radicalize more as time goes by.

Why would Bashar al-Assad even sign a chemical-weapons ban other than because he has no intention of abiding by it? Diplomacy has gone virtually nowhere, and this particular resolution would not seem to carry the threat of force after the 45-day delay. It would seem, in fact, to mirror the kind of diplomatic tire-spinning Republicans have been so critical of with regard to Iran, only without the credible threat of force behind it and after the murderous regime has already proven willing to use the weapons in question.

But the Manchin-Nunes resolution should be watched not only to see how much GOP support it gets but also because it offers the president a way out of the corner into which he’s painted himself. When President Obama said he didn’t actually need congressional approval for limited strikes, he was almost certainly hedging his bets. He was about to take unpopular military action, and wanted Congress and the opposition party on the hook for it too.

He also knew he might lose the authorization vote, at least in the GOP-led House. (Manchin’s resolution will test whether the authorization would be in trouble in the Democratic-controlled Senate too.) He wanted to make the public aware that he might not do as Congress instructed him, as a way of managing expectations and devaluing congressional input on the issue. Yet even Democratic commentators on the Sunday political talk shows suggested the president can’t go it alone on Syria.

The message inherent in the Manchin-Nunes resolution is that this is a military action with no real support among the public or in either party’s congressional delegations (though it should be noted that Republican hawks in the Senate are trying to build support for it), and over which it is certainly not worth provoking a major battle between the legislative and executive branches. The Manchin-Nunes resolution (and similar efforts) may be intended to enable the president to save face without striking Syria. Whether Obama sees it that way or as an affront to his authority that undermines his belated outreach to Congress will reveal just how invested is the president in his own call to arms.

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Obama’s Syria Blunder

With his solitary, last-minute decision to ask Congress for authorization in advance for any military strikes on Syria–taken against the advice of his senior advisors–President Obama has set himself up for the biggest failure of his presidency, one that could haunt the United States for years to come.

Perhaps Obama figured that he would get easy approval from Congress–although why he thought the House, which has been growing increasingly isolationist, would go along with the strikes is a mystery. And indeed the publicly available evidence of House members’ voting intentions shows scant support for the Syria strikes. So far 118 House members have come out publicly against the strikes; only 25 have come out in favor of them. The Washington Post reports that another 119 are “leaning” against the resolution.

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With his solitary, last-minute decision to ask Congress for authorization in advance for any military strikes on Syria–taken against the advice of his senior advisors–President Obama has set himself up for the biggest failure of his presidency, one that could haunt the United States for years to come.

Perhaps Obama figured that he would get easy approval from Congress–although why he thought the House, which has been growing increasingly isolationist, would go along with the strikes is a mystery. And indeed the publicly available evidence of House members’ voting intentions shows scant support for the Syria strikes. So far 118 House members have come out publicly against the strikes; only 25 have come out in favor of them. The Washington Post reports that another 119 are “leaning” against the resolution.

There is still time to change minds and to twist arms. Perhaps the president’s speech on Tuesday will mark a turnaround on the Hill. But the trend seems to be running against the White House with public-opinion polls indicating growing popular opposition that has been expressed in a deluge of calls, emails, letters, and oral comments to members of Congress. The Senate is still likely to approve action, but the odds are growing that the House won’t. And if the House doesn’t go along it will, as a practical political matter, be virtually impossible for Obama to order strikes anyway.

The result if the U.S. does nothing: Bashar Assad will get away with the most significant use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in 1988. This, in turn, will send a signal to weapons proliferators such as North Korea and Iran that the U.S. lacks the will to stop them. Any hopes of a negotiated stop to the Iranian nuclear program–admittedly slim to begin with–will disappear altogether. Israel will be left standing alone against the Iranians and their Hezbollah proxies. The opposition in Syria will suffer a substantial blow and Assad may well be emboldened to employ sarin gas again.

Beyond the Middle East, a failure to back up the president’s threats regarding the “red line” will be read–correctly, I fear–as proof that America is retreating from its global responsibilities, a development which will dismay allies from Taiwan to Poland, gladden rivals such as China and Russia, and cause American influence to plummet.

On the home front, meanwhile, Obama will be seen as a lame-duck president with the defeat shadowing his entire second term.

All this because Obama chose to do something he repeatedly stressed he didn’t need to do–ask Congress for approval for airstrikes of the kind that previous presidents from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton routinely launched without asking for Congress’s approval in advance. Indeed the War Powers Act gives the president 90 days to seek congressional approval; it doesn’t require approval in advance. As a practical matter presidents only ask for such approval when they are contemplating the use of ground forces for a major campaign–e.g., in the Gulf War of 1991 or the Iraq War of 2003.

It would take a psychologist to unravel what the president was thinking in making this monumental blunder. I am still not convinced by those who claim he is consciously trying to diminish American power, because if the U.S. is less powerful so is our president. But even if he has no such conscious design, Obama’s actions are definitely leading in the direction of a diminished superpower–one that will be increasingly derided, not respected, on the world stage.

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Who Is Ban Ki-moon to Opine on Legality?

Against the backdrop of last week’s G-20 Summit, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his representative for Syria suggested that any U.S. or allied military action on Syria would be illegal. According to the United Nations’ own press report:

He appealed that any decision that is made is done so within the framework of the UN Charter. The use of force is lawful only when in exercise of self-defense in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and/or when the Security Council approves such action, said Mr. Ban. He appealed for renewed efforts by regional and international actors to convene the Geneva conference – with participation from senior United States, Russian and UN officials – “as soon as possible.”

That may or may not be true, but the fact that so many diplomats and journalists give so much credence to what the secretary-general says shows ignorance of the original intent of the United Nations and reflects the mission creep which blights the organization. Article 97 of the UN Charter declares that:

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Against the backdrop of last week’s G-20 Summit, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his representative for Syria suggested that any U.S. or allied military action on Syria would be illegal. According to the United Nations’ own press report:

He appealed that any decision that is made is done so within the framework of the UN Charter. The use of force is lawful only when in exercise of self-defense in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and/or when the Security Council approves such action, said Mr. Ban. He appealed for renewed efforts by regional and international actors to convene the Geneva conference – with participation from senior United States, Russian and UN officials – “as soon as possible.”

That may or may not be true, but the fact that so many diplomats and journalists give so much credence to what the secretary-general says shows ignorance of the original intent of the United Nations and reflects the mission creep which blights the organization. Article 97 of the UN Charter declares that:

The Secretariat shall comprise a Secretary-General and such staff as the Organization may require. The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. He shall be the chief administrative officer of the Organization.

In other words, his job is first and foremost as a manager. It is not his role to determine what international law is or is not. Alas, the current secretary-general, like Kofi Annan before him and Boutros-Boutros Ghali before him, has shirked his administrative duties while seeking to maximize travel. They have allowed corruption and bloat to run rampant through the organization while they engage in soapbox diplomacy for which they have no charge.

True, Article 99 suggests that “The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security,” but he is not entrusted as the arbiter of international law. To allow Ban to, in his official capacity, make such declarations is to transform the UN from a discussion forum meant to promote peace to instead a dictatorial entity. That the time and money Ban spends on his jaunts around the globe wastes resources and contrasts so much with the UN’s notoriously slow and inefficient bureaucracy only underlines the secretary-general’s malpractice.

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Who Cares if Assad Gave the Order?

The Obama administration appears convinced that the Syrian regime rather than the opposition conducted the chemical-weapons strike on East Ghouta. The basis for the administration’s conclusion appears to be intercepted communication, method of delivery, and the behavior of the Syrian government after the fact.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, however, denies the attack, and German intelligence suggests the president himself did not order the attacks. If that is true does it exculpate Assad and should it immunize him from retaliation?

The answer to that is: absolutely not. Too often, rogue regimes seek to maintain plausible deniability. They seek to strike their targets, and then throw up enough smoke in order to avoid accountability.

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The Obama administration appears convinced that the Syrian regime rather than the opposition conducted the chemical-weapons strike on East Ghouta. The basis for the administration’s conclusion appears to be intercepted communication, method of delivery, and the behavior of the Syrian government after the fact.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, however, denies the attack, and German intelligence suggests the president himself did not order the attacks. If that is true does it exculpate Assad and should it immunize him from retaliation?

The answer to that is: absolutely not. Too often, rogue regimes seek to maintain plausible deniability. They seek to strike their targets, and then throw up enough smoke in order to avoid accountability.

Take Iran, for example. In 1982, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini moved the Office of Liberation Movements—the predecessor to the Qods Force—from Tehran and into the home of Grand Ayatollah Husayn Ali Montazeri. If the group operated from a private house, then the Iranian government could shrug its collective shoulders every time it sponsored a terrorist attack and claim that the government itself had no responsibility.

In 1989, the West debated Iranian culpability for the murders in downtown Vienna of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, a dissident Iranian Kurd, and his entire delegation. The Austrian police let the hit squad go, and the perpetrators later received promotions in Tehran and within the Qods Force for a job well done.

Senior Iranian officials also plotted the 1992 Mykonos Café assassinations in Berlin and the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires the same year. Two years later, it was the AMIA bombing, and two years later Khobar Towers. In each case, the Iranians sought to maintain plausible deniability. The same holds true for whether or not the Iranian leadership gave Hezbollah a direct order in 2006 to launch its war with Israel. Never mind that Hezbollah terrorists are trained by–and in some cases in–Iran, utilize Iranian weaponry, and—as I saw at the Hezbollah museum in Mlitta, Lebanon—have photographs of Ayatollahs Khomeini and his successor Ali Khamenei in their bunkers.

For too long, American policymakers have looked for reasons to exculpate dictators rather than hold them to account. It is behavior Iran and its allies know well, and from which they seek full advantage. How ironic it is that the same U.S. government which would hold parents responsible for unsecured guns or for providing alcohol to a minor who subsequently gets into an accident would bend over backwards to avoid punishing a dictator who acquires chemical weapons which have only a single purpose. When a regime uses chemical weapons, there should be no mitigating factors. Let’s put the carefully constructed myth of Assad as a Western educated eye doctor or reformer to bed. He is one thing only: a murderer. It is time to hold Assad personally accountable.

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