Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 17, 2013

Rand Paul’s Israel Problem

Anyone doubting that Rand Paul has become one of the Republican Party’s most influential figures need only look at the way he helped influence the abortive congressional debate about Syria. While the decision of House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor to back a strike on the Assad regime swayed few in their caucus, there was little doubt that the libertarian/isolationist wing of the GOP that Paul has led had made it unlikely that a majority could be found for supporting a resolution authorizing the use of force. But there is a difference between rising influence and a workable coalition that could elect Paul president.

Paul’s problem is that while he may have the support of the party’s growing libertarian wing, those who assume that the party’s conservative majority will fall into place behind the Kentucky senator in 2016 seem to have forgotten that social and Christian conservatives still represent a more powerful voting bloc than the movement Rand inherited from his father Ron. And the gap between the Paul franchise’s views on several issues and those of the religious right is not inconsiderable. Bridging the gap on some social issues may not be a big problem, as Paul is reliably pro-life. But his foreign-policy views—in particular his attitude toward Israel—may be a much greater obstacle. Paul made a concerted effort last winter to woo supporters of Israel that paid off with some initial success. But since then it appears that most of those who initially swooned when Paul showed interest have sobered up and realized his visit to the Jewish state didn’t alter his isolationist views. While the senator continues to insist he is a good friend to Israel, some of his comments in a piece in BuzzFeed published last Friday undermine that claim:

“I think some within the Christian community are such great defenders of the promised land and the chosen people that they think war is always the answer, maybe even preemptive war. And I think it’s hard to square the idea of a preemptive war and, to me, that overeagerness [to go to] war, with Christianity.”

It was possible for Paul to make the case against intervention in Syria without dragging Israel into the argument, let alone the fervent evangelical backing for the Jewish state. But the ease with which he shifted from his distaste for the Syrian conflict to mischaracterizing pro-Israel views in such an extreme fashion is telling. That’s the kind of comment that smacks of Ron Paul’s distaste for Israel and its supporters more than the attempt by his son to take their family franchise mainstream. But if Paul thinks these kind of remarks in which such evangelicals are labeled anti-Christian warmongers will help him allay the doubts of that community about his suitability for the presidency, he’s dreaming.

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Anyone doubting that Rand Paul has become one of the Republican Party’s most influential figures need only look at the way he helped influence the abortive congressional debate about Syria. While the decision of House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor to back a strike on the Assad regime swayed few in their caucus, there was little doubt that the libertarian/isolationist wing of the GOP that Paul has led had made it unlikely that a majority could be found for supporting a resolution authorizing the use of force. But there is a difference between rising influence and a workable coalition that could elect Paul president.

Paul’s problem is that while he may have the support of the party’s growing libertarian wing, those who assume that the party’s conservative majority will fall into place behind the Kentucky senator in 2016 seem to have forgotten that social and Christian conservatives still represent a more powerful voting bloc than the movement Rand inherited from his father Ron. And the gap between the Paul franchise’s views on several issues and those of the religious right is not inconsiderable. Bridging the gap on some social issues may not be a big problem, as Paul is reliably pro-life. But his foreign-policy views—in particular his attitude toward Israel—may be a much greater obstacle. Paul made a concerted effort last winter to woo supporters of Israel that paid off with some initial success. But since then it appears that most of those who initially swooned when Paul showed interest have sobered up and realized his visit to the Jewish state didn’t alter his isolationist views. While the senator continues to insist he is a good friend to Israel, some of his comments in a piece in BuzzFeed published last Friday undermine that claim:

“I think some within the Christian community are such great defenders of the promised land and the chosen people that they think war is always the answer, maybe even preemptive war. And I think it’s hard to square the idea of a preemptive war and, to me, that overeagerness [to go to] war, with Christianity.”

It was possible for Paul to make the case against intervention in Syria without dragging Israel into the argument, let alone the fervent evangelical backing for the Jewish state. But the ease with which he shifted from his distaste for the Syrian conflict to mischaracterizing pro-Israel views in such an extreme fashion is telling. That’s the kind of comment that smacks of Ron Paul’s distaste for Israel and its supporters more than the attempt by his son to take their family franchise mainstream. But if Paul thinks these kind of remarks in which such evangelicals are labeled anti-Christian warmongers will help him allay the doubts of that community about his suitability for the presidency, he’s dreaming.

By talking about pre-emptive war, Paul was already staking out the isolationist position on Iran in which it is clear he will oppose any action to avert the nuclear threat from that Islamist regime. But even if we restrict the discussion to Syria, Paul’s animus for the pro-Israel community is hard to disguise. There was a reasonable case to be made for staying out of the Syrian conflict, but his willingness to smear Christians in this manner is a sign of just how great the gap is between Paul’s positions and those who worry about the implications of his isolationist views on the Jewish state.

War should always be a last resort. But Paul’s ideological opposition to a pro-active American policy aimed at backing our friends and limiting the influence of our enemies is one that undermines U.S. security as well as making life more dangerous for Israel is already considerable. As it turns out, President Obama, whose feckless retreat from half-hearted intervention to a position that, in a strange echo of Ron Paul’s beliefs, abandons the Middle East to Russia and Iran, is giving us a limited preview of what a Paul presidency would be like for the region.

It is one thing, as Paul acknowledged to BuzzFeed, for Republicans to oppose intervention when advocated by President Obama. But it will be quite another thing when the senator is forced to defend these views and his pot shot against Christian friends of Israel in a GOP primary in 2016. Isolationism may have taken root among some Tea Partiers, but it will be a hard sell for Paul to convince Evangelicals that he can be trusted to defend the U.S. against Islamists and to maintain an alliance with Israel that he has never been that enthusiastic about.

Paul’s lukewarm Jewish charm offensive last winter made it clear he understands that it would be impossible for anyone to win the GOP nomination by sticking to his father’s foreign-policy views, which are in many respects indistinguishable from the far left. But flushed with the success of his campaign to expand the isolationist wing of the party on issues like drones, the NSA intercepts, and Syria, Paul has gotten sloppy. That quote about Christians won’t be forgotten when those voters must choose the next Republican presidential candidate. 

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Will the Warming Debate Cool Off?

This past weekend Politico published a feature that asked who would be the Republican that would break the ice and turn the tide in the debate over what to do about global warming. The article not only took the view of those who argue that climate change is an imminent threat to the planet as unassailable. It also took the view that it was not unreasonable for environmental groups to assume that sooner or later some conservative Republican would flip on the issue. That would do for warming what Ohio Senator Rob Portman did for the gay marriage debate: provide a mainstream right-wing figure that would be the symbol of a national sea change that would forever marginalize opponents.

While Politico pointed out the differences between the two topics and the stiff resistance on the right to the climateers, the piece was still rooted in a belief that “denial” of global warming would probably soon be consigned to the dustbin of history by undeniable proof. Indeed, the expectation was that some forms of that proof—like a rise in the number of destructive hurricanes or other storms—would inevitably cause some in the GOP to change their minds because of the impacts on their states. But the idea that the likes of Marco Rubio will be forced to change his tune on cap and trade and other measures after much of Florida is underwater may not be as certain as liberals think. As the Wall Street Journal reported the same day the Politico piece appeared, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “fifth assessment report” due out later this month may go a long away toward dampening the alarmism that environmentalists are counting on to sway Congress to adopt their agenda.

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This past weekend Politico published a feature that asked who would be the Republican that would break the ice and turn the tide in the debate over what to do about global warming. The article not only took the view of those who argue that climate change is an imminent threat to the planet as unassailable. It also took the view that it was not unreasonable for environmental groups to assume that sooner or later some conservative Republican would flip on the issue. That would do for warming what Ohio Senator Rob Portman did for the gay marriage debate: provide a mainstream right-wing figure that would be the symbol of a national sea change that would forever marginalize opponents.

While Politico pointed out the differences between the two topics and the stiff resistance on the right to the climateers, the piece was still rooted in a belief that “denial” of global warming would probably soon be consigned to the dustbin of history by undeniable proof. Indeed, the expectation was that some forms of that proof—like a rise in the number of destructive hurricanes or other storms—would inevitably cause some in the GOP to change their minds because of the impacts on their states. But the idea that the likes of Marco Rubio will be forced to change his tune on cap and trade and other measures after much of Florida is underwater may not be as certain as liberals think. As the Wall Street Journal reported the same day the Politico piece appeared, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “fifth assessment report” due out later this month may go a long away toward dampening the alarmism that environmentalists are counting on to sway Congress to adopt their agenda.

Lest one think this is the product of some right-wing Koch-brother funded “denier” group, the IPCC is one of the organs of global warming orthodoxy and shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore. But once it states that the “temperature rise we can expect as a result of man-made emissions of carbon dioxide is lower than the IPCC thought in 2007,” then that will be a powerful argument to put the brakes on the alarmism the warmers are promoting. The data doesn’t debunk the notion that temperatures have risen and, as Byron York wrote in the Washington Examiner yesterday, you can bet that a group that is so deeply invested in the thesis of global warming will find a way to spin their figures as somehow reinforcing the movement’s almost religious belief in their thesis.

But if even the IPCC concedes that warming is not quite the threat they were claiming only a few years ago, it makes it much harder to argue that the amount of warming we are getting presents anything like the threat that we’ve been told to expect. Nor is it clear that the impact of all these changes will be negative.

Exaggeration of the threat from any climate change is business as usual for environmentalists who think they should be allowed to tell what they consider to be white lies in order to jolt the public and politicians into action. If the data from the IPCC and other reports are coming up short of the dire predictions of some of the computer models that have been used to back up climate alarmism, it is no surprise since it is clear that they have been designed to produce such results and interpreted accordingly.

It’s also important to note that one of the most common assumptions thrown about by the warming community—including liberals like President Obama—is that “extreme weather” is the result of climate change. That allows environmentalists to assert that virtually anything that happens out of the ordinary—whether heat waves or cold fronts, droughts or hurricanes—is the product of global warming. But as author and researcher Bjorn Lomborg points out in the Washington Post this assumption is not backed up by the sort of scientific consensus that the warmers assert is behind their alarmist models of future temperatures.

Lomborg is no climate change denier. He thinks warming is real and that it is at least partly the result of human activity. But he notes that the IPCC’s 2011 report on extreme weather provided little comfort for those who would like to blame Hurricane Sandy on climate change. The evidence shows that while some kinds of weather are getting more extreme, other activity, such as drought, is actually less likely. Nor is there any data to back up the idea that hurricanes have become stronger or more frequent. He also says other reports, including one in Nature, point to extreme weather becoming less likely as temperatures go up slightly. Nor is it a given that all of the effects of warming will be bad. This makes sense since, after all, the warming of the globe in the period after the little Ice Age of the Middle Ages in the Northern Hemisphere is widely believed to have helped fuel progress and growth in the period that gave birth to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution.

As York rightly concludes, even if scientists—that group that Obama and liberals keep telling us are virtually unanimous in backing the most extreme alarmist scenarios—will debate the latest inconclusive data, it’s clear that the case for radical anti-warming measures that would impact the economy has gotten less persuasive.

Given the way belief in warming—irrespective of the lack of conclusive proof—has become embedded in popular culture as a sacred doctrine that can only be questioned at the cost of one’s status as an enlightened individual, don’t expect these new chinks in the environmentalist armor to be widely discussed in the mainstream liberal media. But left-wing groups expecting opposition to environmental alarmism to collapse shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for conservatives to abandon positions that just got stronger.

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Where in the World Is Jalal Talabani?

Nine months ago tomorrow, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a devastating stroke. While there were rumors at the time he had died on the spot, he was revived and taken while still in a coma to Germany where, over the course of weeks and months, his family said he was improving steadily. They would not allow him any visitors, but last May, amidst a revival of rumors that he had not improved, they released a photograph which purports to show Talabani convalescing. That photograph was not able to dispel rumors that Talabani is paralyzed, unable to talk, and permanently impaired.

In recent weeks, as elections approach in Iraqi Kurdistan—elections in which Talabani’s political party is not expected to do well—a number of Iraqi politicians have sought to meet Talabani in Germany. After all, if Talabani has improved as much as his wife and sons suggest, then he should be able to meet visitors. Without exception, all visitors have been turned away and no new photographs have been forthcoming. Not surprisingly, then, rumors have again rebounded in Iraq that Talabani has died, and that Kurdish politicians are cynically hiding the fact until after the forthcoming Kurdish elections and perhaps until the next Iraqi elections, next year. After all, it will be much easier to resolve Iraq’s outstanding issues as part of a political grand bargain after new elections rather than under the current stalemate.

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Nine months ago tomorrow, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a devastating stroke. While there were rumors at the time he had died on the spot, he was revived and taken while still in a coma to Germany where, over the course of weeks and months, his family said he was improving steadily. They would not allow him any visitors, but last May, amidst a revival of rumors that he had not improved, they released a photograph which purports to show Talabani convalescing. That photograph was not able to dispel rumors that Talabani is paralyzed, unable to talk, and permanently impaired.

In recent weeks, as elections approach in Iraqi Kurdistan—elections in which Talabani’s political party is not expected to do well—a number of Iraqi politicians have sought to meet Talabani in Germany. After all, if Talabani has improved as much as his wife and sons suggest, then he should be able to meet visitors. Without exception, all visitors have been turned away and no new photographs have been forthcoming. Not surprisingly, then, rumors have again rebounded in Iraq that Talabani has died, and that Kurdish politicians are cynically hiding the fact until after the forthcoming Kurdish elections and perhaps until the next Iraqi elections, next year. After all, it will be much easier to resolve Iraq’s outstanding issues as part of a political grand bargain after new elections rather than under the current stalemate.

There is something very, very wrong with a situation in which a president is quite literally kept on ice, but normal isn’t normal in the Middle East. It should not, however, pass without comment in the U.S. press. Talabani was once a favorite source for U.S. journalists, and he is head of state. That he has effectively disappeared for nine months and journalists simply take his immediate family’s testimony as fact is a fundamental betrayal of basic journalism. From a policy perspective, it is also unfortunate since it suggests that a single person is more important than a constitutional system.

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Gun Control and the Left’s Search for Psychic Satisfaction

A CNN report on the awful massacre that occurred at the Washington Navy Yard yesterday was extremely telling. According to the story:

[Federal law enforcement] sources, who have detailed knowledge of the investigation, cautioned that initial information that an AR-15 was used in the shootings may have been incorrect. It is believed that Alexis had rented an AR-15, but returned it before Monday morning’s shootings. Authorities are still investigating precisely how many weapons Alexis had access to and when.

Regardless, the massacre pushed the AR-15 back into the gun-control debate. The weapon has been used in several other rampages that shocked the nation [emphasis added].

Now why is this particular story revealing? Because it focuses almost entirely on the AR-15–which was originally thought to be a weapon used in the massacre. But the FBI is now telling CNN that, in fact, an AR-15 was not used. Which is why the use of the adverb “regardless” is so delicious.

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A CNN report on the awful massacre that occurred at the Washington Navy Yard yesterday was extremely telling. According to the story:

[Federal law enforcement] sources, who have detailed knowledge of the investigation, cautioned that initial information that an AR-15 was used in the shootings may have been incorrect. It is believed that Alexis had rented an AR-15, but returned it before Monday morning’s shootings. Authorities are still investigating precisely how many weapons Alexis had access to and when.

Regardless, the massacre pushed the AR-15 back into the gun-control debate. The weapon has been used in several other rampages that shocked the nation [emphasis added].

Now why is this particular story revealing? Because it focuses almost entirely on the AR-15–which was originally thought to be a weapon used in the massacre. But the FBI is now telling CNN that, in fact, an AR-15 was not used. Which is why the use of the adverb “regardless” is so delicious.

The massacre pushed the AR-15 back into the gun control debate–regardless of the fact that the AR-15 had nothing to do with the shooting. No matter. It could have been used. And clearly for many liberals, they wish it had been used. The fact that it wasn’t, while inconvenient, certainly isn’t enough to derail the left’s ideological agenda. 

Now it may well be that gun-control laws simply don’t work. (For the record, I’m open to gun-control measures, if they prove to be efficacious rather than merely symbolic.) That’s certainly the case when it comes to the assault-weapons ban Congress enacted in 1994–and several studies (which I have written about here) have found that that the evidence is insufficient to determine whether firearms laws are effective.

Regardless (there’s that word again), liberals want to pretend gun-control laws are effective. Because here’s what you need to understand. For some on the left, this debate isn’t about what works; it’s about moral preening. It’s about an issue that fits into their ideological template. It’s about speaking out on an issue that creates for them psychic satisfaction and existential meaning (see CNN’s Piers Morgan’s obsession with gun control for more). This necessarily involves epistemological closure. But that’s apparently a small price for them to pay.

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Veteran Intelligence Pros for Syria’s Assad

Earlier this month, a group of former intelligence analysts and operatives who call themselves the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) issued a statement regarding Syria. It began:

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed …

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Earlier this month, a group of former intelligence analysts and operatives who call themselves the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) issued a statement regarding Syria. It began:

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed …

Their statement continues to push the bizarre conspiracy theory that Israel had a part in the chemical attacks. Let’s put aside how poorly this theory reflects on the men and women of the U.S. intelligence community, who count these conspiracy-mongers among their distinguished alumni, and instead focus on the “our former co-workers are telling us” portion. There are two possibilities here: One, intelligence analysts are readily violating their oaths to protect and secure the information with which they work by gossiping with colleagues; or, two, the VIPS are simply lying about their access in order to look more relevant to the media.

Either way, VIPS’s actions are worth considering. A quick Lexis search shows that their most recent letter was picked up by the New York Times, the International Business Times-Germany, the Toronto Star, Iran’s Fars News Agency, and a number of blogs. If the intelligence veterans involved in VIPS are bluffing about their access, then that should be the first issue journalists address when reporting on the letter.

Let’s assume that the journalists did determine that men—many of whom have been out of the intelligence community for years—still gossip openly with colleagues on the inside, colleagues who must now be fairly senior in a bureaucracy that rewards seniority more than ability. Their chatter raises more problems. W. Patrick Lang, one of the signatories, once served as a registered foreign agent for a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician; in effect, he was a lobbyist for the Syrian regime. That members of the intelligence community would leak to such a figure should raise concerns. Lang also once confessed that his intelligence colleagues leaked information to influence the outcome of the 2004 U.S. presidential election. “Of course they were leaking,” the American Prospect reported Pat Lang as saying in the November 2005 issue. “They told me about it at the time. They thought it was funny. They’d say things like, ‘This last thing that came out, surely people will pay attention to that. They won’t re-elect this man.’”

VIPS are pushing policy and in a quite dishonest way. Rather than simply report on the VIPS statements, the New York Times would do better to consider the implications of the group’s actions. So, too, should the internal affairs and security wings of the various intelligence communities whose alumni now are members of VIPS. For VIPS condones and represents not only a problem with leaking among the intelligence community, but also a malicious and politically driven kind of leaking that, as the Fars News Agency demonstrates, already provides comfort and propaganda to the enemy.

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Rouhani’s Ruses: Syria and Nukes

Washington and the West remain infatuated with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The supposed moderate is set to make his debut on the international stage later this month at the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York where the comparison to his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will work to his advantage. All the hopes of those who wish to avoid a confrontation with the Islamist regime rest on the notion that Rouhani’s election in a faux democratic presidential vote represents a chance for real change in Iran. Though Iranians might hope genuine change might bring a less repressive theocracy—a proposition that it is difficult to imagine would hold much allure for a fundamentalist follower of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini such as Rouhani—for the West it means an Iran that will abandon its nuclear ambitions and cease sponsoring terrorism or intervening in the affairs of other nations in the region. And it is to those hopes that Rouhani is doing his best to pander.

On the nuclear front, there are reports claiming that Rouhani is prepared to allow Western inspectors into Iran’s key Fordow nuclear plant and even remove the centrifuges that are refining more uranium that adds to the ayatollah’s stockpile. Such concessions in exchange for a lifting of Western sanctions are said to reflect Rouhani’s desire for rapprochement in order to save his country’s economy. As for Syria, as the New York Times reports today, Rouhani told Revolutionary Guard commanders yesterday that Iran will support whomever Syria wants as their leader even if it is not Bashar Assad. But as even that article is forced to acknowledge, Rouhani’s statement is directly contradicted by the facts on the ground in Syria as Iranian forces have become a key element of the Assad regime’s murderous and successful war against rebels. As Michael Rubin noted earlier today, the surfacing of a video showing Iranians taking part in the fighting gives the lie to Rouhani’s statement.

The Times attempted to argue that the contradiction between Rouhani’s moderation and the policies of the regime he represents is a question of dueling interests or alternative tracks that show cracks in the regime’s solid front. But a more sensible reading of these contrasts shows that Rouhani’s feelers to the West are merely talk intended to fool the gullible, as it has successfully done repeatedly in the last decade.

After Ahmadinejad’s unrepentant anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, Rouhani’s apparent desire to make nice is a welcome change for those who view confrontation with Iran as a greater evil than the threat from their nuclear program and sponsorship of terrorism. But talk is cheap.

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Washington and the West remain infatuated with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The supposed moderate is set to make his debut on the international stage later this month at the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York where the comparison to his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will work to his advantage. All the hopes of those who wish to avoid a confrontation with the Islamist regime rest on the notion that Rouhani’s election in a faux democratic presidential vote represents a chance for real change in Iran. Though Iranians might hope genuine change might bring a less repressive theocracy—a proposition that it is difficult to imagine would hold much allure for a fundamentalist follower of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini such as Rouhani—for the West it means an Iran that will abandon its nuclear ambitions and cease sponsoring terrorism or intervening in the affairs of other nations in the region. And it is to those hopes that Rouhani is doing his best to pander.

On the nuclear front, there are reports claiming that Rouhani is prepared to allow Western inspectors into Iran’s key Fordow nuclear plant and even remove the centrifuges that are refining more uranium that adds to the ayatollah’s stockpile. Such concessions in exchange for a lifting of Western sanctions are said to reflect Rouhani’s desire for rapprochement in order to save his country’s economy. As for Syria, as the New York Times reports today, Rouhani told Revolutionary Guard commanders yesterday that Iran will support whomever Syria wants as their leader even if it is not Bashar Assad. But as even that article is forced to acknowledge, Rouhani’s statement is directly contradicted by the facts on the ground in Syria as Iranian forces have become a key element of the Assad regime’s murderous and successful war against rebels. As Michael Rubin noted earlier today, the surfacing of a video showing Iranians taking part in the fighting gives the lie to Rouhani’s statement.

The Times attempted to argue that the contradiction between Rouhani’s moderation and the policies of the regime he represents is a question of dueling interests or alternative tracks that show cracks in the regime’s solid front. But a more sensible reading of these contrasts shows that Rouhani’s feelers to the West are merely talk intended to fool the gullible, as it has successfully done repeatedly in the last decade.

After Ahmadinejad’s unrepentant anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, Rouhani’s apparent desire to make nice is a welcome change for those who view confrontation with Iran as a greater evil than the threat from their nuclear program and sponsorship of terrorism. But talk is cheap.

The Iranian intervention in Syria implicated them in the atrocities committed by the government they are propping up. Any investigation into war crimes committed in the Syrian civil war, as more than 100,000 were slaughtered in the last two years, will inevitably involve Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard and their Hezbollah auxiliaries. For Rouhani to speak of Iran accepting the verdict of the Syrian people after they have assisted the dictator’s murderous repression is more than hypocritical. It is merely a rhetorical gloss on a criminal policy.

The same kind of skeptical analysis should be applied to the reports of Rouhani’s promises to shut down the centrifuges that are currently spinning Iran toward a nuclear weapon.

The West has, after all, already gone down the garden path with Rouhani on this front when he served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator only to realize later that his moderate promises and willingness to make deals were merely a ruse intended to buy the regime more time. Any nuclear arrangement that leaves in place Iran’s ability to refine uranium—the current position of the administration’s Russian partner on the issue—as well as their efforts to create a plutonium track to a weapon does nothing to avert the threat. While shutting down Fordow would be a productive step, after nuclear inspectors have been kept out of Iran for so long the possibility for deception is great. So is the likelihood that the entire discussion is merely one more attempt to string out negotiations until it is too late to stop Iran.

In his less guarded moments, Rouhani continues to remind us that he is an ardent supporter of the Islamist regime that is really run by Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Any faith placed in his moderation speaks more to Western hopes than Iranian reality. While we should expect that Rouhani’s New York appearance will continue to boost his stock among those already inclined to appease Tehran, there is very little reason to believe his dual track is anything other than a deception.

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Three Reasons Why This Isn’t Another Gun-Control Moment

Yesterday’s mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard by a lone gunman shocked the nation. Investigators are beginning to try to piece together the answers as to why accused shooter Aaron Alexis murdered 12 people in cold blood as well as how a person that apparently had a history of run-ins with the law and mental-health problems could have gotten a job with a subcontractor for the Navy. This latest instance of gun violence also raises questions about why these incidents are becoming something we’ve come to see as regular occurrences (this is the third in the last year). Indeed, who couldn’t but sympathize with Dr. Janis Orlowski, the head of the trauma center that treated the victims, when she pleaded for an end to these atrocities:

“There’s something evil in our society that we as Americans have to work to try and eradicate,” she said, adding that “I would like you to put my trauma center out of business. I really would. I would like to not be an expert on gunshots.” She added: “Let’s get rid of this. This is not America.” 

But while some will interpret this statement as a call for more gun control, it’s not likely the Navy Yard murders will lead to a new legislative push on the issue. Last December’s mass shooting of first graders at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut may have been the impetus for what promised at the time to be the signature issue of President Obama’s second term. But nine months later, the administration may have learned that there are limited returns from exploiting such tragedies. Here are three reasons why this won’t be the start of another gun-control moment.

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Yesterday’s mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard by a lone gunman shocked the nation. Investigators are beginning to try to piece together the answers as to why accused shooter Aaron Alexis murdered 12 people in cold blood as well as how a person that apparently had a history of run-ins with the law and mental-health problems could have gotten a job with a subcontractor for the Navy. This latest instance of gun violence also raises questions about why these incidents are becoming something we’ve come to see as regular occurrences (this is the third in the last year). Indeed, who couldn’t but sympathize with Dr. Janis Orlowski, the head of the trauma center that treated the victims, when she pleaded for an end to these atrocities:

“There’s something evil in our society that we as Americans have to work to try and eradicate,” she said, adding that “I would like you to put my trauma center out of business. I really would. I would like to not be an expert on gunshots.” She added: “Let’s get rid of this. This is not America.” 

But while some will interpret this statement as a call for more gun control, it’s not likely the Navy Yard murders will lead to a new legislative push on the issue. Last December’s mass shooting of first graders at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut may have been the impetus for what promised at the time to be the signature issue of President Obama’s second term. But nine months later, the administration may have learned that there are limited returns from exploiting such tragedies. Here are three reasons why this won’t be the start of another gun-control moment.

First is that the frequency of these incidents (even if they are a tiny fraction of all gun deaths) makes it harder to exploit the emotion they evoke for political purposes. The post-Newtown gun furor was partly the function of shock over the senseless deaths of small children and the grief of the parents and relatives. The Washington victims deserve the same sympathy as other victims, but the opening for mindless emotionalism in which all rational arguments about the virtues and defects about potential legislation are ignored isn’t as great here.

Mass shootings such as these deserve our attention, but their use as launching pads for politicized campaigns is a matter of diminishing returns. Having asked us to put aside reasoned debate about gun rights in the name of grief over Newtown, it’s difficult for even as skilled a speechmaker as President Obama to endlessly play the same game.

Second, the political class and even the media that relentlessly promoted the memory of Newtown as an unanswerable argument for restrictions on gun ownership understand that it didn’t work. While a majority of Americans favor minimal measures such as background checks, the resistance to such proposals stems from the fact that, disclaimers notwithstanding, it isn’t hard to imagine that these ideas are merely the first step toward more restrictive measures that few outside of the left support. Not even a full-court press on the part of the administration and the media was able to convince Congress to budge on guns last winter and spring. Though the National Rifle Association took a beating last December for an inept response to Newtown, the gang tackle of the liberal establishment on the group only helped it. The NRA’s membership went up, as did contributions in the wake of attacks on it after Newtown.

The recall elections in Colorado will also play a large role in dampening the enthusiasm of liberals for another tilt with the NRA. Despite an advantage in fundraising thanks to outside forces like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s anti-gun group, two Colorado state senators were thrown out of office in special elections held this month over their votes for new gun laws. While national Democrats have tried to obfuscate the results with transparently false charges about voter suppression, the facts on the ground told a different story. Pro-gun groups showed they could mobilize their members and sympathizers and turn them out to vote. When push came to shove, rather than being the paper tiger the press made them out to be or merely the plaything of gun manufacturers, the NRA proved again they were something that no liberal group can claim to be: a grass roots movement with enormous popular support.

Third and perhaps most important is the gap between post-Newtown rhetoric and the reality of gun laws. It’s one thing to ask people to be outraged about these incidents. They are awful and we should be upset about them. But it’s quite another to connect them to proposed laws that almost certainly wouldn’t prevent their recurrence. The American people can be manipulated but they are not stupid. Despite the emotional speeches in which victim families were used as presidential props, it quickly became apparent that nothing proposed by President Obama would have prevented the Sandy Hook killings. The same will be true if some liberals attempt to repeat the trick after Washington. The focus on guns rather than mental health—the one factor that is common to all of these incidents—just doesn’t make sense to most Americans.

Efforts to ban guns or otherwise restrict or annul Second Amendment rights will continue. So will more reasoned attempts to deal with the mental-health aspect of a tragedy that is consistently underplayed. But the ability of President Obama to exploit mass killings was shown after Newtown to be a factor with a limited shelf life. Having failed after that heart-rending incident, it’s not likely he’ll squander what little political capital he has left on a rerun of that gambit.

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Video Shows Iranian Advisors in Syria

Al-Arabiya has posted a video which purports to show Iranian military advisors alongside Syrian regime forces inside Syria:

Believed to be uploaded by a group of Syrian opposition fighters, the rebels say the tapes belonged to an Iranian cameraman who died in the fighting. “The uploaded footage also shows that they [the Iranians] and the rest of the fighters are stationed at a building that looks like a school with notices posted on the walls both in Arabic and in Persian – indicating that the number of Iranians might be well more than the few that we see in the footage,” the BBC reported. At one point during the video, the camera falls to the ground and the view goes black as bullets can be heard in the background. This may have been the moment of the filmmaker’s death. Last June, Iran was to reportedly send 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad in the fight against opposition forces, according to the The Independent.

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Al-Arabiya has posted a video which purports to show Iranian military advisors alongside Syrian regime forces inside Syria:

Believed to be uploaded by a group of Syrian opposition fighters, the rebels say the tapes belonged to an Iranian cameraman who died in the fighting. “The uploaded footage also shows that they [the Iranians] and the rest of the fighters are stationed at a building that looks like a school with notices posted on the walls both in Arabic and in Persian – indicating that the number of Iranians might be well more than the few that we see in the footage,” the BBC reported. At one point during the video, the camera falls to the ground and the view goes black as bullets can be heard in the background. This may have been the moment of the filmmaker’s death. Last June, Iran was to reportedly send 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad in the fight against opposition forces, according to the The Independent.

That the Syrian regime is bad doesn’t make the alternative—two and a half years into the conflict—any better. If you put lipstick on the al-Qaeda, you’d get the Free Syrian Army. But it is useful to remember how involved the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is inside of Syria. Not only does it make the chance for Obama administration diplomacy between zero and nil, but it should also put to rest the myth out there that Iran has not acted aggressively toward any of its neighbors in the last two hundred years, as some pundits claim.

Any coherent strategy should include not only diplomacy, economic coercion, and military pressure, but also an informational component. This, alas, is too often lacking in American grand strategy which too often conflates information operations with propaganda. But such videos and evidence of Iranian malfeasance should be disseminated widely, including back into Iran where the ordinary populace may not fully recognize just how in-deep their government remains inside Syria.

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Why Forfeit Leverage on Iran?

If there’s one thing that hampers American policy, it is our general lack of strategy. As the National Security Council has transitioned into yet another bureaucracy, it has forfeited its main function to enforce policy discipline and shape interagency strategy. Too often, we forfeit leverage which, at any rate, too many in the State Department consider a dirty word.

Iran’s latest economic reports suggest that the United States should have much more leverage on Iran than many in the White House and State Department recognize. On Sunday, the Statistics Center of Iran released economic growth figures which confirm that the Iranian economy shrank 5.4 percent last year. Meanwhile, the Iranian Student News Agency has reported that liquidity has increased 670 percent during the administration of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Meanwhile, the Statistics Center has also reported that the July-August 2013 inflation rate in rural areas was 42.6 percent, with the 12-month inflation rate at 41.4 percent. Both imports and exports are down according to the Iranian Customs Administration.

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If there’s one thing that hampers American policy, it is our general lack of strategy. As the National Security Council has transitioned into yet another bureaucracy, it has forfeited its main function to enforce policy discipline and shape interagency strategy. Too often, we forfeit leverage which, at any rate, too many in the State Department consider a dirty word.

Iran’s latest economic reports suggest that the United States should have much more leverage on Iran than many in the White House and State Department recognize. On Sunday, the Statistics Center of Iran released economic growth figures which confirm that the Iranian economy shrank 5.4 percent last year. Meanwhile, the Iranian Student News Agency has reported that liquidity has increased 670 percent during the administration of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Meanwhile, the Statistics Center has also reported that the July-August 2013 inflation rate in rural areas was 42.6 percent, with the 12-month inflation rate at 41.4 percent. Both imports and exports are down according to the Iranian Customs Administration.

The Iranian economy is more than ever dependent upon oil exports. According to Majlis Research Center head Ahmad Tavakoli, per capita reliance on oil revenue under Ahmadinejad was $890. In contrast, the figure was $364 under Khatami, $384 under Rafsanjani, and $608 during the Iran-Iraq War. Subsidies payments are leading to a $40.4 billion deficit.

It would be wrong to blame sanctions for such a dire economic picture: Most of Iran’s economic woes stem from the incompetence of the Islamic Republic. However, it would be even more counterproductive to throw the Iranian regime a lifeline. If the Iranian economy is as bad as Iranian technocrats say it is, then now is the time for more pressure, not less.

Only twice in the Islamic Republic’s history has its leadership reversed course on core policies. The first was about what it would take to release the American hostages. It was not Carter-era persistent diplomacy which forced Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to change his mind, but rather Saddam Hussein: Iraq’s invasion had raised the cost of Iran’s isolation considerably. The second time was with regard to what it would take to end the Iran-Iraq War. After continuing the war six years after first considering an end in 1982, Khomeini finally accepted a ceasefire, likening it to drinking a chalice of poison.

The Iranian government has now filled its own cup; perhaps it’s time with even more robust sanctions to force the regime to take a sip.

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Israel Likes Its U.S. Presidents Strong

The Wall Street Journal ran a symposium over the weekend about world reactions to Obama’s Syria turnaround. I wrote the contribution on Israel. Many aspects of the “turnaround,” especially the enhanced role of Russia in the Middle East, impact Israel. But I focused instead on Obama’s earlier “turnaround”: his decision to seek authorization for military action from Congress. Excerpt:

What Israelis found alarming was the way Mr. Obama shifted the burden of decision. Every one of Mr. Obama’s Syrian maneuvers was viewed as a dry run for his conduct in a likely future crisis over Iran’s nuclear drive. That’s where the stakes are highest for Israel, and that’s where Israelis sometimes question Obama’s resolve.

Israelis always imagined they would go to Mr. Obama with a crucial piece of highly sensitive intelligence on Iranian progress, and he would make good on his promise to block Iran with a swift presidential decision. So Mr. Obama’s punt to Congress over what John Kerry called an “unbelievably small” strike left Israelis rubbing their eyes. If this is now standard operating procedure in Washington, can Israel afford to wait if action against Iran becomes urgent?

Israel’s standing in Congress and U.S. public opinion is high, but the Syrian episode has shown how dead-set both are against U.S. military action in the Middle East. Israel won’t have videos of dying children to sway opinion, and it won’t be able to share its intelligence outside the Oval Office. Bottom line: The chance that Israel may need to act first against Iran has gone up.

Why was Obama’s recourse to Congress so alarming? Israel has long favored strong presidential prerogatives. That’s because the crises that have faced Israel rarely ever leave it the time to work the many halls of Congress. Israel discovered the dangers of presidential weakness in May 1967, when Israel went to President Lyndon Johnson to keep a commitment—a “red line” set by a previous administration—and Johnson balked. He insisted he would have to secure congressional support first. That show of presidential paralysis left Israel’s top diplomat shaken, and set the stage for Israel’s decision to launch a preemptive war.

2013 isn’t 1967. But Israel long ago concluded that the only thing as worrisome as a diffident America is a diffident American president—and that a president’s decision to resort to Congress, far from being a constitutional imperative, is a sign of trouble at the top.

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The Wall Street Journal ran a symposium over the weekend about world reactions to Obama’s Syria turnaround. I wrote the contribution on Israel. Many aspects of the “turnaround,” especially the enhanced role of Russia in the Middle East, impact Israel. But I focused instead on Obama’s earlier “turnaround”: his decision to seek authorization for military action from Congress. Excerpt:

What Israelis found alarming was the way Mr. Obama shifted the burden of decision. Every one of Mr. Obama’s Syrian maneuvers was viewed as a dry run for his conduct in a likely future crisis over Iran’s nuclear drive. That’s where the stakes are highest for Israel, and that’s where Israelis sometimes question Obama’s resolve.

Israelis always imagined they would go to Mr. Obama with a crucial piece of highly sensitive intelligence on Iranian progress, and he would make good on his promise to block Iran with a swift presidential decision. So Mr. Obama’s punt to Congress over what John Kerry called an “unbelievably small” strike left Israelis rubbing their eyes. If this is now standard operating procedure in Washington, can Israel afford to wait if action against Iran becomes urgent?

Israel’s standing in Congress and U.S. public opinion is high, but the Syrian episode has shown how dead-set both are against U.S. military action in the Middle East. Israel won’t have videos of dying children to sway opinion, and it won’t be able to share its intelligence outside the Oval Office. Bottom line: The chance that Israel may need to act first against Iran has gone up.

Why was Obama’s recourse to Congress so alarming? Israel has long favored strong presidential prerogatives. That’s because the crises that have faced Israel rarely ever leave it the time to work the many halls of Congress. Israel discovered the dangers of presidential weakness in May 1967, when Israel went to President Lyndon Johnson to keep a commitment—a “red line” set by a previous administration—and Johnson balked. He insisted he would have to secure congressional support first. That show of presidential paralysis left Israel’s top diplomat shaken, and set the stage for Israel’s decision to launch a preemptive war.

2013 isn’t 1967. But Israel long ago concluded that the only thing as worrisome as a diffident America is a diffident American president—and that a president’s decision to resort to Congress, far from being a constitutional imperative, is a sign of trouble at the top.

“Not worth five cents”

What did Israel want from Lyndon Johnson in May 1967? On May 22, in the midst of rising tensions across the region, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdul Nasser announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israel-bound ships headed for the port of Eilat, effectively blockading it. More than a decade before that, in 1956, Israel had broken a similar Egyptian blockade by invading and occupying the Sinai. Israel withdrew in 1957, partly in return for an American assurance that the United States would be “prepared to exercise the right of free and innocent passage [through the Straits] and to join with others to secure general recognition of this right.” In 1967, when Nasser reimposed Egypt’s blockade, Israel asked the United States to make good on that 1957 commitment, by leading an international flotilla through the Straits to Eilat. Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban flew to Washington and met with Johnson in the Yellow Oval Room on May 26 to make Israel’s case.

Johnson astonished Eban by pleading that he didn’t have sufficient authority to act. The U.S. memorandum of conversation summarized it this way:

President Johnson said he is of no value to Israel if he does not have the support of his Congress, the Cabinet and the people. Going ahead without this support would not be helpful to Israel…

We did not know what our Congress would do. We are fully aware of what three past Presidents have said but this is not worth five cents if the people and the Congress did not support the President…

If he were to take a precipitous decision tonight he could not be effective in helping Israel… The President knew his Congress after 30 years of experience. He said that he would try to get Congressional support; that is what he has been doing over the past days, having called a number of Congressmen. It is going reasonably well…

The President said again the Constitutional processes are basic to actions on matters involving war and peace. We are trying to bring Congress along. He said: “What I can do, I do.”

Abba Eban later gave a more devastating version of the “five-cent” quote: “What a president says and thinks is not worth five cents unless he has the people and Congress behind him. Without the Congress I’m just a six-feet-four Texan. With the Congress I’m president of the United States in the fullest sense.” According to the Israeli record of the meeting, Johnson also acknowledged that he hadn’t made his own progress on the Hill: “I can tell you at this moment I do not have one vote and one dollar for taking action before thrashing this matter out in the UN in a reasonable time.” And Johnson ultimately put the onus on Israel to get Congress on board: “Unless you people move your anatomies up on the Hill and start getting some votes, I will not be able to carry out” American commitments.

Johnson must have understood the impression he was leaving upon Eban. In the Israeli record, there are two remarkable quotes: “I’m not a feeble mouse or a coward and we’re going to try.” And: “How to take Congress with me, I’ve got my own views. I’m not an enemy or a coward. I’m going to plan and pursue vigorously every lead I can.” That Johnson twice had to insist that he wasn’t a coward suggested that he realized just how feckless he must have seemed.

In his two memoirs, Eban recalled his astonishment at this apparent abdication:

I remember being almost stunned by the frequency with which [Johnson] used the rhetoric of impotence. This ostensibly strong leader had become a paralyzed president. The Vietnam trauma had stripped him of his executive powers….

I’ve often ask myself if there was ever a president who spoke in such defeatist terms about his own competence to act…. When it came to a possibility of military action—with a risk as trivial, in relation to U.S. power, as the dispatch of an intimidatory naval force to an international waterway—he had to throw up his hands in defeat…. On a purely logistical level, this would have been one of the least hazardous operations in American history—the inhibitions derived entirely from the domestic political context. The senators consulted by Johnson were hesitant and timorous. They thought that the possibility of Soviet intervention, however unlikely, could not be totally ignored.

The revulsion of Americans from the use of their own armed forces had virtually destroyed his presidential function. I was astonished that he was not too proud to avoid these self-deprecatory statements in the presence of so many of his senior associates. I thought that I could see [Defense] Secretary McNamara and [chairman of the Joint Chiefs] General Wheeler wilt with embarrassment every time that he said how little power of action he had.

The tactical objective, the cancellation of the Eilat blockade, was limited in scope and entirely feasible. It was everything that the Vietnam war was not. Lyndon Johnson’s perceptions were sharp enough to grasp all these implications. What he lacked was “only” the authority to put them to work. Less than three years after the greatest electoral triumph in American presidential history he was like Samson shorn of his previous strength…. With every passing day the obstacles became greater and the will for action diminished. He inhabited the White House, but the presidency was effectively out of his hands.

After the meeting, Johnson wrote a letter to Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol, reemphasizing the primacy of the Congress: “As you will understand and as I explained to Mr. Eban, it would be unwise as well as most unproductive for me to act without the full consultation and backing of Congress. We are now in the process of urgently consulting the leaders of our Congress and counseling with its membership.” This was actually an improvement on the draft that had been prepared for him, and which included this sentence: “As you will understand, I cannot act at all without full backing of Congress.” (Emphasis added.) That accurately reflected the essence of the message conveyed to Eban, but Johnson was not prepared to admit his total emasculation in writing. There is a debate among historians as to whether Johnson did or didn’t signal a green light to Israel to act on its own. It finally did on June 5.

“Too big for business as usual”

In light of this history, it’s not hard to see why Israel would view any handoff by a president to the Congress in the midst of a direct challenge to a presidential commitment as a sign of weakness and an indication that Israel had better start planning to act on its own. It’s not that Israel lacks friends on the Hill. But in crises where time is short and intelligence is ambivalent—and such are the crises Israel takes to the White House—Israel needs presidents who are decisive.

In seeking congressional authorization for military action in Syria, President Obama did not negate his own authority: “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.” But “in the absence of any direct or imminent threat to our security,” and “because the issues are too big for business as usual,” he went to the Congress, so that “the country” and “our democracy” would be stronger, and U.S. action would be “more effective.”

Views differ as to whether the precedent just set will bind Obama (or his successors) in the future. But Israel understandably has no desire to become the test case, if it should conclude that immediate action is needed to stop Iran from crossing Israel’s own “red lines.” Iran’s progress might not pose an imminent threat to U.S. security, and a U.S. use of force would definitely be “too big for business as usual.” So if those are now the criteria for taking decisions out of the Oval Office, Israel has reason to be concerned.

And they may well be the criteria. In 2007, then-Senator Obama was asked in an interview specifically about whether the president could bomb suspected nuclear sites in Iran without a congressional authorization. His answer:

Military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.

As for the specific question about bombing suspected nuclear sites, I recently introduced S.J. Res. [Senate Joint Resolution] 23, which states in part that “any offensive military action taken by the United States against Iran must be explicitly authorized by Congress.”

That resolution went nowhere, but it establishes a strong presumption that Obama would insist on securing Congressional authorization for the future use of force against Iran. Depending on the timing, that could put Israel in an impossible situation similar to that it faced in May 1967. Perhaps that’s why one of Israel’s most ardent supporters, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, has proposed that Obama ask Congress now to authorize the use of force against Iran. Senator Lindsey Graham has proposed just that, without waiting for Obama: “I’m not asking the president to come to us; we’re putting it on the table, because if we don’t do this soon, this mess in Syria is going to lead to a conflict between Israel and Iran.”

Whether such an authorization-in-advance is feasible is an open question. In the meantime, there’s always the very real prospect that history could do something rare: repeat itself. In 1967, Israel faced a choice between an urgent need to act and waiting for a reluctant Congress to stiffen the spine of a weakened president. Israel acted, and the consequences reverberate to this day. Faced with a similar choice in the future, it is quite likely Israel would do the same.

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Partisanship Is All Obama Has Left

What was President Obama thinking when he chose to give a harshly partisan speech yesterday afternoon in Washington while part of the city was still shut down as police sought to ascertain the whereabouts of the lone gunman who had earlier killed 12 people at the capital’s Navy Yard? Though he paid lip service to the tragedy, he quickly switched back to his prepared remarks in which he used the fifth anniversary of the start of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown to bash his Republican opponents. The confrontational tone of the speech would have been problematic on any day, especially for the man who likes to claim he’s the only adult in the room and is ready to compromise with his opponents. But in choosing to stick to his script rather than to understand that this wasn’t the moment to lash out, the president demonstrated more than just bad timing or an inability think on his feet.

In a second term that has been largely characterized by scandals, fiascos, and gridlock, yesterday was another low point. As he settles into what will be an unusually long lame-duck period, Obama is forcing even many of those who voted for him to understand just how dysfunctional this White House has become. After the spectacle of indecision and retreat that was his Syria policy in the last month, and a year in which he proved again that he hasn’t the leadership skills to broker a deal with anyone but his sycophants, all Obama has left for us is anger at his political foes and a reflexive need to blame them for all of the country’s woes and his own failures.

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What was President Obama thinking when he chose to give a harshly partisan speech yesterday afternoon in Washington while part of the city was still shut down as police sought to ascertain the whereabouts of the lone gunman who had earlier killed 12 people at the capital’s Navy Yard? Though he paid lip service to the tragedy, he quickly switched back to his prepared remarks in which he used the fifth anniversary of the start of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown to bash his Republican opponents. The confrontational tone of the speech would have been problematic on any day, especially for the man who likes to claim he’s the only adult in the room and is ready to compromise with his opponents. But in choosing to stick to his script rather than to understand that this wasn’t the moment to lash out, the president demonstrated more than just bad timing or an inability think on his feet.

In a second term that has been largely characterized by scandals, fiascos, and gridlock, yesterday was another low point. As he settles into what will be an unusually long lame-duck period, Obama is forcing even many of those who voted for him to understand just how dysfunctional this White House has become. After the spectacle of indecision and retreat that was his Syria policy in the last month, and a year in which he proved again that he hasn’t the leadership skills to broker a deal with anyone but his sycophants, all Obama has left for us is anger at his political foes and a reflexive need to blame them for all of the country’s woes and his own failures.

As bad as things seem, the president should still be counting his blessings. Though even much of the liberal mainstream media has awoken to the impotence of this president, most of their main organs are still determined to minimize his shortcomings. Imagine if it was George W. Bush who had given an all-out attack on Democrats while a disaster unfolded in the vicinity, as Obama did yesterday. Compare yesterday to W’s decision not to bolt immediately from the elementary school classroom where he was reading to children when he learned of the 9/11 attacks. Bush was endlessly mocked for lingering until he had finished reading to the kids before assuming command. But Obama’s determination to ignore the circumstances of the moment and stick to his obsessive kicking of the GOP was far worse. Had Bush behaved as Obama did the anger, opprobrium, and invective thrown in his direction from the nation’s leading editorial pages and the talking heads on every network but Fox would have been the story for days. But since this is the president that liberals are still straining to rationalize if not defend, most pundits simply ignored it.

But, as with Syria, we can’t blame this on difficult circumstances, incompetent staff, or second-term blues in the West Wing. The problem in this administration is the man at the top of the pyramid. Though blessed with a still largely adulatory press, a formidable political machine, great rhetorical skills, and a historic status as our first African-American president that serves as a lifetime political get-out-of-jail free card, Barack Obama can only dictate, not persuade. When confronted with the fact that many Americans disagree with his ideological agenda, his only response is the same today as it was the day he arrived in the White House: to demonize his opponents and to attempt to beat them into submission.

All second terms are difficult, but this one is going to be worse than most because at its heart this presidency runs on vitriol rather than vision. If we are to believe spokesman Jay Carney, it never occurred to anyone to postpone the anti-Republican rant. But most of all it never crossed Obama’s mind that there was anything more important than venting his anger at Republicans and taking yet another opportunity to pass the buck onto the opposition for his own failures. If partisanship is all the president has to offer, it is because after repeatedly demonstrating his incompetence and with nothing to fall back upon but the same stale liberal patent nostrums, partisanship is all he has left in his bag of tricks.

Generous critics will put down yesterday’s speech as a moment of tone deafness. A media that is always willing to give this president the benefit of the doubt that they never extended to his predecessor will quickly move on. But the image of the president raging at his opponents should linger as an apt symbol of this presidency. Barack Obama is still the most powerful person in the world, but he is trapped by his own shortcomings into a posture in which all he can do is stumble from one crisis to another while blaming it all on others. How sad for the country. How pathetic for a man who was once thought to be a symbol of hope.

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