Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 11, 2013

The Gun Control Moment Passes

It seems a lot longer ago than just eight months. Back on January 16 of this year, President Obama sounded what was intended to be the keynote of his second term by saying that he intended to introduce a raft of legislative proposals intended to tighten controls of gun ownership. With the memory of the slaughter of little children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School by a mad lone gunman fresh in the minds of the new Congress, some believed he would succeed in not only getting gun-control bills passed but also in routing the National Rifle Association in such a manner as to break their hold on Washington power forever. With new anti-gun groups led by billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords spending big bucks to promote the issue, the NRA’s days were supposed to be numbered. But in the intervening months, the groundswell of passion on behalf of background-checks laws and other measures turned out to be nothing more than a figment of the imagination of the liberal mainstream media that relentlessly backed Obama’s play on guns.

Any lingering doubt that the gun-control moment has passed was removed last night when two Democratic state senators in Colorado were removed from office by a recall vote because of their support for new gun legislation. Despite benefiting from the infusion of more than $3 million in outside contributions from anti-gun groups, including $300,000 from Bloomberg, the pair—State Senate President John Morse and Angela Giron—was beaten by Republicans in the recall vote. What’s more, though the two Democrats were the focus of fierce opposition by the NRA, as I noted when I first wrote about these races back in July, the Democrats had a clear financial advantage in the race. The guns-rights lobby’s only advantage was in being able to mobilize a grass-roots movement.

Liberals are attempting to spin their defeat as the result of local politics and resentment about the interference of New York’s champion of nanny-state regulations in Colorado. But they’re fooling no one. Like the battle to get the U.S. Senate to pass even a watered-down version of a background checks proposal, the recall vote was a test of will between the NRA and the anti-gun movement and the former won hands down. Though terrible events like Newtown shock the nation and polls show majorities back some regulatory measures, the notion that support for Second Amendment rights has waned is simply untrue.

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It seems a lot longer ago than just eight months. Back on January 16 of this year, President Obama sounded what was intended to be the keynote of his second term by saying that he intended to introduce a raft of legislative proposals intended to tighten controls of gun ownership. With the memory of the slaughter of little children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School by a mad lone gunman fresh in the minds of the new Congress, some believed he would succeed in not only getting gun-control bills passed but also in routing the National Rifle Association in such a manner as to break their hold on Washington power forever. With new anti-gun groups led by billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords spending big bucks to promote the issue, the NRA’s days were supposed to be numbered. But in the intervening months, the groundswell of passion on behalf of background-checks laws and other measures turned out to be nothing more than a figment of the imagination of the liberal mainstream media that relentlessly backed Obama’s play on guns.

Any lingering doubt that the gun-control moment has passed was removed last night when two Democratic state senators in Colorado were removed from office by a recall vote because of their support for new gun legislation. Despite benefiting from the infusion of more than $3 million in outside contributions from anti-gun groups, including $300,000 from Bloomberg, the pair—State Senate President John Morse and Angela Giron—was beaten by Republicans in the recall vote. What’s more, though the two Democrats were the focus of fierce opposition by the NRA, as I noted when I first wrote about these races back in July, the Democrats had a clear financial advantage in the race. The guns-rights lobby’s only advantage was in being able to mobilize a grass-roots movement.

Liberals are attempting to spin their defeat as the result of local politics and resentment about the interference of New York’s champion of nanny-state regulations in Colorado. But they’re fooling no one. Like the battle to get the U.S. Senate to pass even a watered-down version of a background checks proposal, the recall vote was a test of will between the NRA and the anti-gun movement and the former won hands down. Though terrible events like Newtown shock the nation and polls show majorities back some regulatory measures, the notion that support for Second Amendment rights has waned is simply untrue.

While the power shift in the Colorado legislature isn’t enough to force a repeal of the bills Morse helped force down the legislature’s throat last winter, the symbolic value of the defeat suffered by anti-gun groups will resonate throughout the country.

That’s something liberals, especially those in the media who embraced this issue wholeheartedly last winter, are finding it hard to accept. Though the president has since moved onto other disasters—a spring of scandals and the Syria debacle—his failure on gun legislation represents a fundamental misreading of America’s political culture on the part of most liberals. They assumed that grief over Newtown had changed public opinion about guns. That perception was reinforced by the NRA’s initial ham-handed response to the incident and the newly reelected president’s decision to ruthlessly exploit Sandy Hook and the families of the victims in order to pressure Congress to give him what he wanted.

But no matter how often he waved the bloody shirt of Newtown in order to shame members of the House and Senate into passing laws that would have done nothing to avert that massacre, there was no real appetite in either chamber for his proposals.

While the NRA took its lumps in the months after Newtown, the group actually experienced a surge in membership and support that more than compensated for the drubbing they got in the mainstream press. Though liberals, including the president, falsely asserted that NRA support was merely the function of donations from gun manufacturers, it remained something that the anti-gun groups were not: a genuine grass-roots organization that could generate intense activity from its members when they were called upon.

That’s why the Colorado votes were so important. They showed that even when outgunned by outside money, gun-rights advocates have an ace in the hole that Bloomberg can’t match: passionate supporters on the ground who can turn out and vote.

I doubt we’ve heard the last of Obama and his liberal supporters on this issue. They will return to it, as they always do, anytime a crime that can generate unthinking outrage about guns is committed. But media hype is never a match for a public determined not be stripped of their constitutional rights. The anti-gun tide that was supposed to sweep away the NRA has instead swept away two Democrats. Don’t bet that they will be the last to lose their seats because they believed Obama when he said the NRA was whipped.

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Putin Shows Obama Who’s the Boss

In case you were among those gullible souls who have bought the administration’s claims that its acceptance of Russia’s offer of a plan to take charge of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile was a reflection of American strength, the Putin regime isn’t interested in letting you hold onto your illusions for long. Rather than allow President Obama a decent interval after his retreat from a call to arms on the threat of Syrian atrocities in order to save face, Moscow seems intent on immediately showing the White House who’s the boss. That became apparent with the announcement that Vladimir Putin has decided to supply Iran with advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles and to build an additional nuclear reactor at the Bushehr plant. Moreover, during a debate in the Russian parliament on the sales held today, Putin ally Alexander Pushkov, the chief of the body’s foreign-affairs committee, said that if Washington dares to back away from the deal offered by Moscow on Syria to President Obama, the Kremlin will consider expanding arm sales to Assad-ally Iran and to make it more difficult to supply U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

These moves remove the thin veil of bluster that was enabling the president to justify his backing away from a strike on Syria. Far from the Russian diplomatic gambit being the result of American toughness, its acceptance by the president is seen in Moscow as more than just an obvious sign of weakness. It is being interpreted as having handed Putin carte blanche in the Middle East and allowing Russia to grant impunity to Iran as the West was supposedly gearing up to pressure it to surrender its nuclear ambition.

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In case you were among those gullible souls who have bought the administration’s claims that its acceptance of Russia’s offer of a plan to take charge of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile was a reflection of American strength, the Putin regime isn’t interested in letting you hold onto your illusions for long. Rather than allow President Obama a decent interval after his retreat from a call to arms on the threat of Syrian atrocities in order to save face, Moscow seems intent on immediately showing the White House who’s the boss. That became apparent with the announcement that Vladimir Putin has decided to supply Iran with advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles and to build an additional nuclear reactor at the Bushehr plant. Moreover, during a debate in the Russian parliament on the sales held today, Putin ally Alexander Pushkov, the chief of the body’s foreign-affairs committee, said that if Washington dares to back away from the deal offered by Moscow on Syria to President Obama, the Kremlin will consider expanding arm sales to Assad-ally Iran and to make it more difficult to supply U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

These moves remove the thin veil of bluster that was enabling the president to justify his backing away from a strike on Syria. Far from the Russian diplomatic gambit being the result of American toughness, its acceptance by the president is seen in Moscow as more than just an obvious sign of weakness. It is being interpreted as having handed Putin carte blanche in the Middle East and allowing Russia to grant impunity to Iran as the West was supposedly gearing up to pressure it to surrender its nuclear ambition.

The Russians don’t have much to worry about when it comes to the administration’s willingness to go down the garden path with them on Syria’s chemical weapons. President Obama lacked the will to strike Syria on his own and the small chance that Congress might authorize the use of force evaporated when he put off indefinitely the notion of the “incredibly small” attack (in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry) on the Assad regime by accepting the Russian lifeline. Though they are talking tough now, the chances that Washington will abandon the faux-diplomatic solution offered by Russia no matter how fraudulent it might be are minimal.

But rather than, as some have hoped, the president’s reticence on Syria being a prelude to aggressive action on the even more dangerous Iranian threat, Russia’s assertiveness shows that their joint interest with Tehran in protecting Bashar Assad means they will use the Syria issue to restrain the U.S. on Iran.

It’s not just that the missiles Russia is selling Iran will complicate any future attack on nuclear targets by either the U.S. or Israel. Their victory in Syria is feeding Putin’s ambition to reconstitute not only the old Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East but a rough balance of power that would serve to deter the West from muscling the ayatollahs. Though Washington has always spoken of Russia having just as much to lose from a nuclear Iran as America, by getting into bed with Putin on Syria, Obama is about to discover that Moscow’s main interest in the region is to weaken U.S. influence more than eliminating a nuclear threat.

When President Obama said last night that Syria’s use of chemical weapons constituted a threat to the security of the West, he was right. But he failed to understand that Russia’s offer that allowed him to weasel out of his pledge to punish Assad might present even more of a danger to U.S. interests than anything Syria might do. The last few weeks have exposed President Obama as a weak leader. What follows from that weakness will increase the power of Vladimir Putin and his unsavory Middle East allies.  

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Bloomberg’s Exit and the Future of Education Reform

There are a number of obstacles to being able to draw generalizations about New York City voters from the results of the mayoral primary elections. Such obstacles include the factional nature of city elections, the prominent role of identity politics in a multicultural city, and the challenges of polling such elections.

There is also the low voter turnout for primaries, as summed up succinctly by Daily News Opinion Editor Josh Greenman, responding to assumptions that the Democratic primary was a referendum on Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “Last night was huge rebuke of Bloomberg? No. Just 20% of Democrats voted, and 48% of them told exit pollsters they approve of job he’s done,” Greenman tweeted.

So Bill de Blasio’s victory last night may not have meant much about New York voters overall, but that’s not how opponents of choice in education see it. Politico reports:

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There are a number of obstacles to being able to draw generalizations about New York City voters from the results of the mayoral primary elections. Such obstacles include the factional nature of city elections, the prominent role of identity politics in a multicultural city, and the challenges of polling such elections.

There is also the low voter turnout for primaries, as summed up succinctly by Daily News Opinion Editor Josh Greenman, responding to assumptions that the Democratic primary was a referendum on Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “Last night was huge rebuke of Bloomberg? No. Just 20% of Democrats voted, and 48% of them told exit pollsters they approve of job he’s done,” Greenman tweeted.

So Bill de Blasio’s victory last night may not have meant much about New York voters overall, but that’s not how opponents of choice in education see it. Politico reports:

De Blasio’s education platform boiled down, in effect, to a pledge to dismantle the policies that Mayor Michael Bloomberg enacted over the past decade in the nation’s largest school district.

Those policies, emphasizing the need to inject more free-market competition into public education and weaken the power of teachers unions, are not unique to New York City; they’re the backbone of a national education reform movement that has won broad bipartisan support. Yet the reform movement has also triggered a backlash from parents and teachers who see it as a threat to their schools, their jobs and the traditional concept of public education as a public trust.

For those activists, de Blasio’s victory – coming on top of a handful of other recent wins for their side – is a sign the tide might slowly be turning.

The article cites the successful anti-reform movement galvanized to oust Adrian Fenty in Washington D.C., though there have been victories for the school choice movement since then, and certainly victories in reining in union power. Those victories owe something to the financial crisis and increasing government debt, a fiscal backdrop that turned the hoary liberal clichés of “fair share” and inequality against Democratic interest groups like public unions, whose job security and generous health and retirement benefits are financed by increasingly struggling taxpayers.

Put simply, the public unions’ math never added up, and they could not win the argument that they had a right to bankrupt their states because of benefits they won from favored politicians. That’s why reform-minded governors had an easier time getting union members to contribute more to their own benefits than in measures designed to curtail unions’ political organization and clout. The unions are betting that without a fiscal sword of Damocles hanging over their heads the public will lose interest in this fight, and they can turn the momentum away from dismantling a major source of their funding: the failing government monopoly on childhood education.

If the unions are able to decouple financial concerns from those related to political organization, proponents of education reform will need to be able to win an argument over the latter to stop the tide from turning. How to openly attempt to disempower public unions without appearing to be motivated solely by the lure of partisan advantage? True independents on the issue are likely to be swayed to whichever side they believe is representing the best interests of the students.

It’s easy to argue that teachers’ protected salaries and high benefits can hurt the students by forcing cuts in other areas, such as books, computers, tutoring, or sports programs, that fall on the backs of the students. But there hasn’t been much of an attempt to argue the political power of the unions per se harms the education of the students. Some, however, are beginning to do just that. The Heartland Institute draws attention to a new study from the University of Chicago’s Johnathan Lott and the University of Florida’s Lawrence W. Kenny that finds that “students in states with strong teachers unions have lower proficiency rates than students in states with weak state-wide teacher unions.”

From the conclusion:

Strong unions should have a greater impact on student proficiency rates in math and reading than weak unions. The small literature on union strength has used district-level variables – the size of the district and the restrictiveness of the district contract – as measures of union strength. But state-wide teachers’ unions are often successful in influencing state regulations on education by being the major contributors to candidates for the state legislature. The state-wide teachers’ unions that contribute more are expected to exercise more influence and thus be stronger unions. We may be the first to use the state-wide teachers’ union financial resources as a measure of union strength and find that students in states in which the teachers’ union has high dues and high spending have lower test scores than students in states with low dues and spending. Union strength matters and indeed matters more than any other variable in our regressions.

Beyond the moral and financial cases for school choice and broader education reform lies the most important issue: the effect of public policy on the actual education received by the students. If liberal politicians like de Blasio are going to try to push the momentum back in favor of their union allies, reformers should be able to argue persuasively that it will come at the expense of the students.

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More Than Memorials Needed on 9/11

The 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was commemorated with solemn ceremonies throughout the nation with special focus on those in New York and Washington. Names of the victims were read aloud. Tears were shed. Speeches were made. Eventually all the permanent memorials, including the long-delayed one at Ground Zero in New York, will be finished which will enable us to go on with these ceremonies that will continue to pull at the heart strings of those who attend them. But as appropriate as all this may be, it must be acknowledged that not only is not enough, but that it is also at times too much of the wrong thing.

To say this is not to downplay the importance of such memorials which pay proper homage to the victims of the attacks and to those who bravely and tirelessly sought to aid the victims, recover the bodies, and heal the damage done by al-Qaeda’s assault on America. But after 12 years it is clear that too much of our focus is on the emotions the memory of that terrible day evokes and not enough on the hard conclusions that still need to be drawn from what was but one chapter, albeit the most painful, in the war being waged on the United States by Islamist terrorists. The willingness of all too many Americans, including many of those in law enforcement and government, to increasingly adopt a September 10th mentality about vigilance about terrorism makes a mockery of these memorials. So, too, does the fact the al-Qaeda-connected terrorists who killed four Americans in Benghazi on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 are still walking around free.

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The 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was commemorated with solemn ceremonies throughout the nation with special focus on those in New York and Washington. Names of the victims were read aloud. Tears were shed. Speeches were made. Eventually all the permanent memorials, including the long-delayed one at Ground Zero in New York, will be finished which will enable us to go on with these ceremonies that will continue to pull at the heart strings of those who attend them. But as appropriate as all this may be, it must be acknowledged that not only is not enough, but that it is also at times too much of the wrong thing.

To say this is not to downplay the importance of such memorials which pay proper homage to the victims of the attacks and to those who bravely and tirelessly sought to aid the victims, recover the bodies, and heal the damage done by al-Qaeda’s assault on America. But after 12 years it is clear that too much of our focus is on the emotions the memory of that terrible day evokes and not enough on the hard conclusions that still need to be drawn from what was but one chapter, albeit the most painful, in the war being waged on the United States by Islamist terrorists. The willingness of all too many Americans, including many of those in law enforcement and government, to increasingly adopt a September 10th mentality about vigilance about terrorism makes a mockery of these memorials. So, too, does the fact the al-Qaeda-connected terrorists who killed four Americans in Benghazi on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 are still walking around free.

The nature of the debate earlier this year over the activities of the National Security Agency in monitoring and intercepting messages going to and from foreign addresses and emails potentially related to sources of terror demonstrated just how far we’ve come in 12 years. While concern over possible invasions of privacy is not unreasonable, the level of cynicism about government was only made possible by a sense on the part of many on both the left and the right that the war with al-Qaeda is as much in our past as the one on Nazism or Japanese imperialism. This mentality is the result not only of America’s successes in preventing a repeat of 9/11 but a desire to forget about the threat that Islamist ideology poses to the West and to our collective security. The same problem applies to the attempts by many in the press and other liberal critics of pro-active counter-terrorism policy to hamstring the efforts of the New York Police Department from conducting surveillance of Islamists and their gathering places.

While all pay lip service to the 9/11 tragedy, a belief that any focus on those who inspire and commit such atrocities, whether from abroad or homegrown, is an offense to Islam has replaced the zeal to protect the nation that was universally shared in the months and years after the attack. Partly inspired by the myth of an anti-Muslim backlash after 9/11 that remains entrenched in the minds of much of the media, what we have now is a powerful anti-anti-terror mentality that interprets any attention to radical Islam as an act of prejudice.

It should also be admitted that war-weariness after the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq has also led to a new birth of isolationism in our political culture. This dangerous mindset now acts as a drag on any effort to assert American power or influence abroad. Though rooted in an understandable and traditional suspicion of federal power (especially now that this power is in the hands of a president with little respect for constitutional rights), it has the potential to do great damage to America’s ability to defend its interests and its security abroad.

Those who understand the legacy of 9/11 and drew the proper conclusions from the mistakes that led to it do not advocate permanent war or the end of individual liberty in the name of security. But what they do know is that the war that 9/11 was but one battle of isn’t over. While Osama bin Laden is dead (as President Obama never tires of reminding us), al-Qaeda is alive. That was proved again in Benghazi as it was in the growth and newfound strength of Islamist movements throughout the Middle East in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring.

While 9/11 memorials are fine, what we really need is a government that understands the threats from both terror groups and states (such as Iran) that remain a threat to the peace of the world. Like winning the equally frustrating and long Cold War, beating them requires more patience and endurance than democracies are likely to have. But beat them we must, and that means Americans must reject the siren song of isolationism while also not being fooled into thinking a 9/11 memorial is an excuse for an anti-terror strategy.

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In Venezuela, Obama Is Still An Imperialist

If the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was your sole source of news, you might be forgiven for thinking that the Obama Administration is engaged in a reckless campaign to unseat each of America’s adversaries around the world. At a time when everyone else is pondering the historic reversal of American power that the Syrian debacle represents, in Maduro’s fevered imagination the Obama administration remains, as he put it last May, “the grand chief of devils.”

The penchant of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, for conspiracy theories was legendary. Having received his political education from Norberto Ceresole, a Holocaust denier who drew liberally from both Marxism and fascism, Chavez was quick to point out Jewish plots lurking around every corner. Yet, by Maduro’s current standards, even Chavez was comparatively restrained.

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If the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was your sole source of news, you might be forgiven for thinking that the Obama Administration is engaged in a reckless campaign to unseat each of America’s adversaries around the world. At a time when everyone else is pondering the historic reversal of American power that the Syrian debacle represents, in Maduro’s fevered imagination the Obama administration remains, as he put it last May, “the grand chief of devils.”

The penchant of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, for conspiracy theories was legendary. Having received his political education from Norberto Ceresole, a Holocaust denier who drew liberally from both Marxism and fascism, Chavez was quick to point out Jewish plots lurking around every corner. Yet, by Maduro’s current standards, even Chavez was comparatively restrained.

Almost as soon as Chavez handpicked Maduro as his successor, the conspiracy accusations began mounting thick and fast. When Chavez died from cancer in a Cuban hospital in March this year, Maduro claimed that he had been poisoned by the CIA. Then, as a presidential election campaign unfolded, Maduro accused the CIA of trying to kill his rival, Henrique Capriles, in order to stage the conditions for a military coup.

Now, as Ezequiel Minaya and William Neuman report in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times respectively, virtually every obstacle Venezuela faces is explained away as an American plot. A lack of basic goods, like cooking oil or toilet paper? According to Maduro, that’s because of a motley coalition of unscrupulous storeowners, and power-hungry opposition politicians have engineered these shortages in concert with the CIA. The power outage that last week left more than 70 percent of Venezuela without electricity? That would be the CIA again, this time willfully attempting to destroy Venezuela’s infrastructure. The 2012 explosion at the Amuay oil refinery that killed more than 41 people? Needless to say, Maduro has ignored the numerous reports that placed the blame for the disaster on government mismanagement and corruption, citing “sabotage” instead.

There is more: in a television address last weekend, Maduro asserted that the United States is preparing for the “total collapse” of Venezuela this coming October via a secret plan named–with appropriate subtlety–”Total Collapse.” And after Venezuela’s security forces uncovered an alleged Colombian plot to assassinate the president, a straight-faced Maduro unveiled yet another plot, this time “to eliminate me simultaneously with the attack on Syria.”  

Plenty of madness, to be sure, but what of Maduro’s method? Opinion polls conducted in Venezuela over the last few months demonstrate that Maduro sorely lacks Chavez’s ability to win the trust of Venezuelans in even the most trying of circumstances. The country remains where it was during the election last April; heavily polarized, with Maduro’s personal disapproval ratings regularly approaching, or even exceeding, 50 percent of the electorate.

It is the April election, and specifically the opposition’s charge that Maduro’s wafer-thin victory was rigged, that continues to weigh heavily on the minds of Venezuelans. Significantly, rather than countering the opposition’s accusations with evidence that the poll was honest, Maduro’s strategy is to repeat his claims of CIA interference with sufficient frequency for people to believe him.

Capriles and the opposition, however, will not go away. On Monday, Jose Ramon Medina, an aide to Capriles, filed a request with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR,) a subsidiary body of the Organization of American States, to declare the April election void. The following day, Maduro announced that he was carrying out one of Chavez’s last wishes by withdrawing from the IACHR system, which he lambasted as “a tool to protect U.S. geopolitical interests” and “harass progressive governments.”

While no one would pretend that the IACHR is capable of restraining Maduro’s worst instincts, Venezuela’s departure is yet another sign that the post-Chavez regime is sliding into a more traditional form of dictatorship. By removing this layer of international oversight, Maduro is ensuring that he has to answer only to those bodies, like the Venezuelan National Assembly and National Electoral Council, that already uncritically accept his authority.

Already, Capriles has pointed out that the abrupt withdrawal from the IACHR is very probably illegal, since Venezuela’s constitution makes explicit mention of the international bodies and human-rights treaties the country is party to. But that is unlikely to bother Maduro, who can garner a good deal of comfort from the fact that while he sees conspiracies everywhere, he is, for the moment at least, not going to become the victim of one.

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Can Diplomacy Be a Prelude to Force?

The spin being put forward by President Obama’s apologists in the wake of his extraordinary retreat from his position calling for a strike on Syria is that his strength made diplomacy possible. That this is patently false is not a secret. The president displayed weakness by not going ahead and ordering an attack on his own authority against the Assad regime following its use of chemical weapons to murder a thousand people last month. That weakness was compounded by the president’s failure to rally support for a congressional resolution authorizing force. His embrace of a Russian plan to take possession of Syria’s horde of illegal weapons was forced upon him by the knowledge that the odds were heavily against gaining passage for such a resolution. But that didn’t stop the president and his supporters from claiming that the Russian gambit was the result of his tough talk.

But even if we ignore that absurd assertion, the president also said that he has asked the U.S. military to “maintain their current posture to keep the press on Assad, and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.” That also sounds tough. But is it credible? For those who think that diplomacy could possibly be a prelude to the use of force against Syria, there are two main obstacles: the president’s incapacity to convince Americans to back such a plan and his almost religious belief in diplomacy that will prevent him from facing the truth about the Russian ruse.

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The spin being put forward by President Obama’s apologists in the wake of his extraordinary retreat from his position calling for a strike on Syria is that his strength made diplomacy possible. That this is patently false is not a secret. The president displayed weakness by not going ahead and ordering an attack on his own authority against the Assad regime following its use of chemical weapons to murder a thousand people last month. That weakness was compounded by the president’s failure to rally support for a congressional resolution authorizing force. His embrace of a Russian plan to take possession of Syria’s horde of illegal weapons was forced upon him by the knowledge that the odds were heavily against gaining passage for such a resolution. But that didn’t stop the president and his supporters from claiming that the Russian gambit was the result of his tough talk.

But even if we ignore that absurd assertion, the president also said that he has asked the U.S. military to “maintain their current posture to keep the press on Assad, and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.” That also sounds tough. But is it credible? For those who think that diplomacy could possibly be a prelude to the use of force against Syria, there are two main obstacles: the president’s incapacity to convince Americans to back such a plan and his almost religious belief in diplomacy that will prevent him from facing the truth about the Russian ruse.

The assumption is that though the president felt unable to order an attack on Syria prior to now, a collapse of the Russian initiative would enable him to convince a reluctant Congress and an American public that overwhelmingly opposed his plans to change their minds. However, the odds of that happening are virtually nonexistent. Though the president belatedly made a strong case for action in the opening section of his speech last night, what followed was an acknowledgement that most Americans, rightly or wrongly, wanted no part of an intervention in Syria. Nothing that happens in the coming days or weeks can change that because the problem was not that Americans had to be convinced that Assad’s regime was a criminal enterprise. Rather it is because they have been led to believe—by no less a figure than President Obama himself—that the use of force to intervene abroad to punish or topple tyrants was a neoconservative heresy that should never again be attempted.

The upsurge in isolationism is not so much, as some have asserted, a reaction to Obama’s policies, but the product of them as he abandoned the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More specifically, now that the momentum toward Western intervention in Syria has been halted by the president’s turnabout, it is almost impossible to imagine that anything Russia or Syria will do can reignite the president’s already faltering impetus toward action. The longer the delay in responding to the Syrian atrocities that the president described so graphically last night, the less compelling any call to respond or punish Assad will be. Since the president’s obvious ambivalence and distaste for being a war leader has largely vindicated the cynicism of his critics on both the left and the right, there is no going back to the moment when an attack on Syria would be possible.

Secondly, the lure of diplomacy for Obama and his team is such that there is no possible scenario that would be interpreted by them as a casus belli for an attack.

This is an administration that is in love with the United Nations and the notion of multilateralism. Though the prospect of genuine cooperation on chemical weapons from Assad is a fantasy, the White House and the State Department are so besotted with the lifeline that Russian President Putin has offered them that nothing short of a complete repudiation of the scheme by Syria and its enablers would be enough to spike it. No matter how transparent the fraud, President Obama will stick with it as long as he possibly can. This would repeat a pattern that has been clear throughout the last five years as the administration continues to fall for Iranian diplomatic overtures and to pretend that the Palestinians are actually interested in peace with Israel.

If there was a chance for the United States to act to curb Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons or to prevent more slaughter in Syria, the moment has passed and will not recur. Though their positions are wrongheaded, don’t blame this on the isolationists in Congress or even on Syria’s allies in Russia and Iran who have every right to be crowing today. The fault lies entirely with an indecisive president who seems to have an allergy to leadership. Remember that as the body count continues to rise in Syria and Iran gets closer to nuclear capability. 

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Obama’s Stirring Case Against Obama

Last night, President Obama addressed the American people to make the case for war–in general. He was speaking to build support for military action against Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, but he undermined that case by also highlighting the lack of urgency of such action, implying that the American people should support and Congress should approve action that would be either irresponsible or unnecessary at this point.

But he made a powerful case for the wars America has fought over his own objections. And he ruthlessly demolished whatever was left of Senator Obama’s breezy moralist posturing that began disintegrating when it collided with reality and the responsibilities of statecraft four years ago. And though he tried studiously to avoid it, after four years as president, Obama was unable to make the case against Bush-era intervention without implicitly but unmistakably indicting his own. It may have been overshadowed by the “pinprick” comment, but the full context of that remark is revealing. Obama said:

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Last night, President Obama addressed the American people to make the case for war–in general. He was speaking to build support for military action against Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, but he undermined that case by also highlighting the lack of urgency of such action, implying that the American people should support and Congress should approve action that would be either irresponsible or unnecessary at this point.

But he made a powerful case for the wars America has fought over his own objections. And he ruthlessly demolished whatever was left of Senator Obama’s breezy moralist posturing that began disintegrating when it collided with reality and the responsibilities of statecraft four years ago. And though he tried studiously to avoid it, after four years as president, Obama was unable to make the case against Bush-era intervention without implicitly but unmistakably indicting his own. It may have been overshadowed by the “pinprick” comment, but the full context of that remark is revealing. Obama said:

Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.

Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver. I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make Assad or any other dictator think twice before using chemical weapons.

If we learned from Iraq that removing a dictator with force makes us responsible for all that comes next, then surely Obama believes the U.S. takes at least some responsibility for the violence in the wake of the removal of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. And lest the president or his supporters downplay the American role, here is how Obama himself sees the situation, as he expressed in a debate with Mitt Romney last year:

But you know, going back to Libya, because this is an example of — of how we make choices, you know, when we went into Libya and we were able to immediately stop the massacre there because of the unique circumstances and the coalition that we had helped to organize, we also had to make sure that Moammar Gadhafi didn’t stay there. And to the governor’s credit, you supported us going into Libya and the coalition that we organized. But when it came time to making sure that Gadhafi did not stay in power, that he was captured, Governor, your suggestion was that this was mission creep, that this was mission muddle.

Imagine if we had pulled out at that point. That — Moammar Gadhafi had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden. And so we were going to make sure that we finished the job. That’s part of the reason why the Libyans stand with us. But we did so in a careful, thoughtful way, making certain that we knew who we were dealing with, that those forces of moderation on the ground were ones that we could work with. And we have to take the same kind of steady, thoughtful leadership when it comes to Syria. That’s exactly what we’re doing.

Unambiguous: our involvement in Libya was to remove Gaddafi from power and shepherd the political transition. And shame on anyone, goes the president’s forceful argument, who would even suggest otherwise. Well, today is of course the anniversary not only of the September 11, 2001 attacks but also those carried out on our diplomatic mission in Benghazi last year.

And the situation there has not improved. As the Washington Post reported last week:

Even minor disputes escalate into frequent gun violence on the streets. Kidnappings and armed robberies are increasing, and government officials and others have been assassinated with guns and bombs. Militants and arms smugglers easily cross poorly protected borders shared with Niger and Chad….

“It’s impossible,” said Mahmoud Ibrahim Sherif, the Tripoli police chief, who blamed the government for failing to properly fund and equip his officers….

In the face of spiking numbers of kidnappings and armed robberies, he said, his officers rarely attempt to arrest anyone because “they have more guns than we do.” He said arrest attempts stopped after several incidents in which his cops were attacked with ­rocket-propelled grenades.

It’s certainly, it should be noted, in worse shape than Iraq, and might have made for a better example of the argument the president was trying to make. But the Iraq example is relevant for another reason. In justifying military action against Syria, President Obama asked, “What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?”

That wasn’t the only time the president seemed to make the case that military action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was taken later than it should have been. Earlier in the speech, Obama said this:

As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them. Over time our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians.

If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel.

And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.

This is not a world we should accept.

Of course, military action can be taken any number of ways following any number of strategies. But Obama wasn’t just against the way the war in Iraq was prosecuted. This was the war he called a “dumb war.” In that famous 2002 speech, Obama said that he has “no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power.” However, Obama then added:

I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

How vigorously Obama now apparently disagrees with that assessment.

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Israel Is Not a Single-Issue Country

One of the most pernicious and lasting effects of the Oslo Accords, whose 20th anniversary will be marked this Friday, was to warp the prism through which most non-Israelis view Israel: From a country with the same broad spectrum of concerns as all other countries, it became, in the world’s eyes, a single-issue country, where nothing but the “peace process” could possibly matter. This attitude is epitomized by a 1998 conversation between President Bill Clinton and his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, whose transcript was published in Haaretz two weeks ago. Though the main topic was an impending military operation in Iraq, Clinton also briefed Mubarak on the peace process:

I think the Israeli public is coming along [in regard to the Oslo process]. The problem is, when they have elections there, Israeli society is becoming more complicated, and a lot of people get elected to the Knesset for reasons that don’t have much to do with the peace process. Then we have trouble getting a solid majority to do the right thing.”

One can practically hear the outrage in his voice: How dare those Israelis elect legislators who care about the same issues American voters do–jobs, cost of living, education, crime, etc.–rather than exclusively about the peace process? The fact that Israelis actually have to live in their country–and therefore must care about those issues, which are vital to any country’s well-being–appears to have escaped him entirely.

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One of the most pernicious and lasting effects of the Oslo Accords, whose 20th anniversary will be marked this Friday, was to warp the prism through which most non-Israelis view Israel: From a country with the same broad spectrum of concerns as all other countries, it became, in the world’s eyes, a single-issue country, where nothing but the “peace process” could possibly matter. This attitude is epitomized by a 1998 conversation between President Bill Clinton and his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, whose transcript was published in Haaretz two weeks ago. Though the main topic was an impending military operation in Iraq, Clinton also briefed Mubarak on the peace process:

I think the Israeli public is coming along [in regard to the Oslo process]. The problem is, when they have elections there, Israeli society is becoming more complicated, and a lot of people get elected to the Knesset for reasons that don’t have much to do with the peace process. Then we have trouble getting a solid majority to do the right thing.”

One can practically hear the outrage in his voice: How dare those Israelis elect legislators who care about the same issues American voters do–jobs, cost of living, education, crime, etc.–rather than exclusively about the peace process? The fact that Israelis actually have to live in their country–and therefore must care about those issues, which are vital to any country’s well-being–appears to have escaped him entirely.

Having presided over Oslo’s signing, Clinton was perhaps uniquely invested in the Oslo process. Yet his attitude is far from unique. After Israel’s new government took office in March, for instance, a Hungarian journalist called me with a burning question: How could Yair Lapid’s center-left Yesh Atid party possibly sit in the same government as Naftali Bennett’s right-of-center Bayit Yehudi? I explained that despite their differences on the peace process, Lapid and Bennett have similar views on many domestic issues, and since the peace process had at that point been frozen for four years and showed no signs of thawing, the election was mainly about Israel’s many serious domestic problems. To which he replied, “But how can they sit together when they disagree about the peace process?” After several iterations of this, we both gave up in despair.

A comedy writer could probably make a good sketch of the scene, but there’s nothing funny about it. The failure to grasp that Israelis have concerns other than the peace process is a major reason why so many diplomats and pundits consistently misread Israel. Even worse, this attitude has undermined pro-Israel sentiment worldwide by reducing Israel from a complicated, multifaceted country to a one-dimensional caricature. For who can have sympathy or affection for a caricature?

The truth is that Israel can live without peace if necessary; it’s done so successfully for 65 years now. But it can’t live without a functioning economy, decent schools, adequate health care and all the other things that distinguish successful states from failed ones. And Israelis, because they live here, never have the luxury of forgetting that for long.

Non-Israelis, in contrast, won’t suffer if Israel has failing schools or high unemployment, so it’s easy to overlook these issues. But nobody who cares about Israel should do so. For by treating Israel as a single-issue country, they are helping to reduce it to a caricature that’s all too easy to hate.

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