Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 22, 2013

Will Israel Strike Iran? Iraq is No Precedent

A week after the administration first starting spinning the notion, the idea that the P5+1 talks with Iran made genuine progress toward a nuclear agreement has become conventional wisdom among the chattering classes. Based on little more than atmospherics generated by the Iranian charm offensive, Tehran offered the West nothing new and there is little reason to believe they think they need to give up enriching uranium or shut down their nuclear plants that are bringing them closer to a weapon. If the Obama administration is determined to press ahead toward what will be, at best, an unsatisfactory deal that will, despite the president’s protestations that any accord would be verifiable, lead inevitably to Iranian deceptions and an eventual bomb, then that will leave Israel’s leaders with a terrible dilemma. Their choice would then be between accepting a policy that places their country under an existential threat or breaking with its sole superpower ally and attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities on their own.

To those who claim that Israel can’t or won’t defy the United States, the Council of Foreign Relations’ Uri Sadot answers, think again. In an article published today in Foreign Policy provocatively titled “Rogue State,” Sadot argues that not only is such an outcome thinkable, the precedents already exist for an Israeli decision to fly solo in the face of not only international consensus but American desires.

Given the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been rattling his rhetorical sabers in the direction of Iran for years, it’s hard to argue with Sadot’s conclusion. As late as just a week ago during an address to the Knesset, Netanyahu once again warned the world that Israel isn’t afraid to act alone if its security is endangered. Should Jerusalem ever be convinced that the U.S. was about to sell it down the river, Netanyahu might well decide to strike Iran. But Sadot is wrong when he claims, as he did in his article, that Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak or the 2007 strike on the nuclear facility that Syria was building tells us much about Israel would or could do against Iran. There are simply no comparisons in terms of size or scale to the challenge awaiting the Israel Defense Forces in Iran or the diplomatic obstacles to such a decision by Netanyahu.

Read More

A week after the administration first starting spinning the notion, the idea that the P5+1 talks with Iran made genuine progress toward a nuclear agreement has become conventional wisdom among the chattering classes. Based on little more than atmospherics generated by the Iranian charm offensive, Tehran offered the West nothing new and there is little reason to believe they think they need to give up enriching uranium or shut down their nuclear plants that are bringing them closer to a weapon. If the Obama administration is determined to press ahead toward what will be, at best, an unsatisfactory deal that will, despite the president’s protestations that any accord would be verifiable, lead inevitably to Iranian deceptions and an eventual bomb, then that will leave Israel’s leaders with a terrible dilemma. Their choice would then be between accepting a policy that places their country under an existential threat or breaking with its sole superpower ally and attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities on their own.

To those who claim that Israel can’t or won’t defy the United States, the Council of Foreign Relations’ Uri Sadot answers, think again. In an article published today in Foreign Policy provocatively titled “Rogue State,” Sadot argues that not only is such an outcome thinkable, the precedents already exist for an Israeli decision to fly solo in the face of not only international consensus but American desires.

Given the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been rattling his rhetorical sabers in the direction of Iran for years, it’s hard to argue with Sadot’s conclusion. As late as just a week ago during an address to the Knesset, Netanyahu once again warned the world that Israel isn’t afraid to act alone if its security is endangered. Should Jerusalem ever be convinced that the U.S. was about to sell it down the river, Netanyahu might well decide to strike Iran. But Sadot is wrong when he claims, as he did in his article, that Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak or the 2007 strike on the nuclear facility that Syria was building tells us much about Israel would or could do against Iran. There are simply no comparisons in terms of size or scale to the challenge awaiting the Israel Defense Forces in Iran or the diplomatic obstacles to such a decision by Netanyahu.

In terms of the Israeli mindset about enemy governments possessing such weapons of mass destruction, Sadot is right to assert that there is little difference between the thinking of Menachem Begin in 1981 and that of Netanyahu today. All the psychobabble thrown around about Begin’s experience of the Holocaust and the influence of Netanyahu’s ideologue father Benzion is mere gloss to the fact that these two men, just like Ehud Olmert in 2007, understand that their primary responsibility is to guard the existence of the State of Israel. Given the stated positions of the Iranian leadership as to their desire to eliminate Israel as well as their sponsorship of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, no leader of any sovereign state could afford to take such threats lightly. At the very least, Iranian nuclear capability would destabilize the Middle East (a fact that makes Israel’s Arab neighbors, with the exception of Iranian ally Syria, just as anxious to prevent the ayatollahs from realizing their nuclear ambition).

But the idea that Iraq is a precedent for Iran as far as Israel is concerned is absurd. Iraq had one lone nuclear reactor. It was relatively defenseless and the Iraqis weren’t expecting an attack. The same applies to what happened in Syria in 2007. By contrast, the Iranians have multiple facilities spread throughout their country. Some are in hardened, mountainside bunkers that may be invulnerable to conventional bombs. All are heavily guarded and the Iranians have been on alert for an Israeli strike for years.

It is a matter of some debate as to whether Israel’s vaunted armed forces are even capable of doing significant damage to Iran’s nuclear plants or destroying its stockpile of enriched uranium. Some analysts have always believed that only the United States, with its air bases in the region and aircraft carrier strike groups in the Persian Gulf, could do the job adequately. But even if we assume for the sake of argument that Israel can do it alone and that it could accomplish this task with air strikes alone rather than combining them with commando attacks, what would be required is a sustained campaign of strikes at multiple targets. At best this would strain Israel’s resources. That is especially true when you consider that Israel would also have to be prepared to engage Hezbollah’s terrorist enclave in southern Lebanon since most assume that Iran’s Shiite auxiliaries (who are also fighting for the ayatollahs in Syria) would attack Israel in support of Iran.

What is being discussed here is nothing short of an all-out war, not a surgical strike that could be executed without fear of the cost in terms of casualties or lost planes. While Netanyahu may not shrink from such a decision, his decision will be based on Israel’s current dilemma, not what happened in the past.

As to whether such a decision would endanger Israel’s alliance with the United States, Sadot might well be right that the Jewish state could ride out any turbulence that would result from an Iranian campaign. President Reagan’s affection for Israel overcame the animus toward the Jewish state’s actions expressed by Vice President George H.W. Bush and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. While the Obama administration may not be quite as sympathetic, if anything support for Israel throughout the country and in Congress is far greater today than 32 years ago.

But in 1981, the U.S. was not still conducting a war in the region as the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan. Nor, despite the tilt toward Iraq in its war with Iran, was the U.S. engaged in a diplomatic process with the Saddam Hussein regime as it is now with Tehran. The notion that Israel would attack the Iranians while the Americans are still talking to them strains credulity. Not even Begin would have done such a thing. Nor would Netanyahu deliberately offend President Obama in such a fashion. If Israel ever did attack Iran, it could only happen after the U.S. broke off negotiations with Iran or after Israel could allege that the Islamist regime had violated an agreement it had signed with the West.

“Rogue state” is a title that is more appropriate to a terrorist-sponsor tyranny like Iran than democratic Israel. But there’s little doubt that Israel would act to protect itself even if that required it to act alone. The Iraq and Syrian strikes are far from the only times in its history that the besieged Jewish state has had to ignore international opinion that is heavily influenced by anti-Semitism and opposition to Israel’s existence. But if it does act against Iran, the decision will be based on the far more complex dilemmas of the present day than anything that has happened in the past.

Read Less

Our Talmudic American Conservatism

One of the top items at the Economist’s website today was its most recent “Lexington” column from the print edition, which offered a modest proposal: discriminate against lawyers in Congress by establishing an upper limit on the number of law degrees in the legislative branch. The Economist is unhappy with the “legalistic” approach Americans take to their system of governance, and seems to draw a parallel between the polling unpopularity of lawyers and that of members of Congress.

I think the Economist misses an important point about why American governance is conducted in this language, and why that’s a good thing. And though the Economist seeks to dismiss the behavior it describes, in raising the issue it does at least present us with a moment to contemplate an aspect of American politics that bears defending, and loudly. When in the course of attacking lawyers (and specifically Ted Cruz–who else?) the magazine wrote:

Read More

One of the top items at the Economist’s website today was its most recent “Lexington” column from the print edition, which offered a modest proposal: discriminate against lawyers in Congress by establishing an upper limit on the number of law degrees in the legislative branch. The Economist is unhappy with the “legalistic” approach Americans take to their system of governance, and seems to draw a parallel between the polling unpopularity of lawyers and that of members of Congress.

I think the Economist misses an important point about why American governance is conducted in this language, and why that’s a good thing. And though the Economist seeks to dismiss the behavior it describes, in raising the issue it does at least present us with a moment to contemplate an aspect of American politics that bears defending, and loudly. When in the course of attacking lawyers (and specifically Ted Cruz–who else?) the magazine wrote:

The imbalance is not new: more than half the men who signed the Declaration of Independence had a legal training. But a legalistic approach to politics is no longer serving America well. Today’s budget wars are deeply political. They reflect unresolved debates that divide the country: over equality and redistribution, risk-taking and safety nets, and the role of government itself. Seen through foreign eyes, the current dysfunction within Congress is at once distinctively American and recognisable as a political crisis within a grand coalition: in essence the Tea Party is walking out on other members of the Republican alliance, whom you might call the Business Party, the National Security Party and the Christian Values Party. But too often, these budget battles are being fought with legal arguments about precedent and legitimacy, advanced by politicians trained in the adversarial, prove-me-wrong traditions of American law.

I sympathize somewhat with the sentiment that the role of emotion, rhetoric, and social solidarity cannot be completely removed from politics. But let me step in here to defend the law (and the lawyers). This country has a special relationship with its founding documents, in which they are treated almost as revelation. It’s no surprise that the historian Pauline Maier titled her book on the development of the Declaration of Independence American Scripture.

Yet it’s not a religious document, only one that is treated with religious reverence. I’m reminded of the scene in the West Wing when the (Democratic) president’s speechwriter is furious to discover that a man whose reputation he had long defended was actually a Cold War turncoat who worked for the Soviets decades before. “This country is an idea,” he says angrily. “And one that’s lit the whole world for two centuries.”

It was Daniel J. Boorstin’s contention that this idea of America stood in place for any real post-independence philosophical and ideological development. I discussed Boorstin’s idea of American “givenness” back in April, and referenced a COMMENTARY essay he wrote on the topic in 1953, which was based on a book he was about to publish called The Genius of American Politics. He explained “givenness” in the essay as “the belief that values in America are in some way or other automatically defined: given by certain facts of geography or history peculiar to us.”

In the book, Boorstin elaborates and explains that this lack of a need for new ideological theorizing is partially responsible for the form that our historical review tends to take: through massive biographies of the Founders, in which we seek to understand our secular American saints rather than write our own ever-changing scripture. Boorstin writes:

Political theory has been little studied in the United States. For example, departments of political science in many of our universities show more interest in almost anything else than in political theory. This, too, can be explained in part by the limitations imposed by the “preformation” point of view. If our nation in the beginning was actually founded on an adequate and sufficiently explicit theory revealed at one time, later theorists can have only the minor task of exegesis, of explaining the sacred texts. Constitutional history can, and in many ways has, become a substitute for political theory.

What this is, in its own peculiarly American way, is an essentially talmudic approach to American law. As we see from Pauline Maier’s characterization of the Declaration of Independence, that document was a kind of dogmatic explication of God-given laws. The Constitution and amendments that followed it served as the oral law to the Declaration’s written law, a practical guide to guard and fulfill inarguable principles.

America’s Jews, then, are well positioned to understand exactly what the Economist complains of. Orthodox Judaism has halakhic guidelines preventing certain actions that would be sanctioned by a plain reading of the Torah so as to guard against transgressing biblical laws. As I discussed in my post yesterday, the amendments to the Constitution were largely to prevent a situation in which tyranny could develop. They are not a “break glass in case of emergency” last resort in the event that tyranny shows up. They err on the side of caution and seek to rule out actions that might seem on the surface to be in accord with America’s founding ideals but which could put the country on a slippery slope.

“This is our kind of conservatism,” Boorstin wrote, by which he meant a temperamentally conservative outlook rather than an ideologically conservative outlook. But the Economist and numerous others–many more today than when Boorstin wrote those words–see this is as so much hypochondria. It is not intended to be neurotic, and when employed by conservatives today it is not intended to be bullying–though when applied by ideological conservatives who are not also temperamental conservatives it can certainly come across that way.

It is simply intended to be faithful to an idea. Because this country is an idea, and it is one that has lit the whole world for two centuries.

Read Less

Is Virginia Turning Blue?

Anyone pondering the nature of the mismatch in the Virginia governor’s race need only have noted who is coming to the aid of the two candidates. Yesterday, Hillary Clinton stumped for Terry McAuliffe. Tomorrow, an even bigger name, husband Bill, will do the same. Who’s riding to the rescue of Republican Ken Cuccinelli? Rick Santorum is mobilizing a conservative “strike force” to aid a GOP candidate facing a deficit in the polls that is starting to look like it might be insurmountable. In other words McAuliffe, who leads by 17 points in the latest Rasmussen poll, may be on the verge of a decisive win that could seal Virginia’s drift from a status as a purple swing state to a blue Democratic state.

There are those who are attempting to blame Cuccinelli for this state of affairs and point out the state attorney general has suffered badly from Democratic attacks on his right-to-life positions. But this is unfair. The Cuccinelli-McAuliffe matchup at one point looked to be favorable to the Republicans. Though Democrats have piled on with every imaginable charge, Cuccinelli is actually a well-spoken conservative whose views are by no means out of step with his state. Moreover, McAuliffe remains a deeply flawed candidate whose associations with the worst elements of the Washington D.C. world of lobbyists, inside deals, and corruption should have made him vulnerable to a straight arrow like Cuccinelli (although he was tainted, if only by association, by Governor Bob McDonnell’s ethical lapses). But instead of being sunk by his record, McAuliffe is coasting to victory. The explanation for this can’t be found in an analysis of the two candidates or even their tactical campaign decisions. The swing to the left is the result of demographic changes that should have already alerted us to the fact that Virginia is now moving into the category of a fairly safe Democratic state.

Read More

Anyone pondering the nature of the mismatch in the Virginia governor’s race need only have noted who is coming to the aid of the two candidates. Yesterday, Hillary Clinton stumped for Terry McAuliffe. Tomorrow, an even bigger name, husband Bill, will do the same. Who’s riding to the rescue of Republican Ken Cuccinelli? Rick Santorum is mobilizing a conservative “strike force” to aid a GOP candidate facing a deficit in the polls that is starting to look like it might be insurmountable. In other words McAuliffe, who leads by 17 points in the latest Rasmussen poll, may be on the verge of a decisive win that could seal Virginia’s drift from a status as a purple swing state to a blue Democratic state.

There are those who are attempting to blame Cuccinelli for this state of affairs and point out the state attorney general has suffered badly from Democratic attacks on his right-to-life positions. But this is unfair. The Cuccinelli-McAuliffe matchup at one point looked to be favorable to the Republicans. Though Democrats have piled on with every imaginable charge, Cuccinelli is actually a well-spoken conservative whose views are by no means out of step with his state. Moreover, McAuliffe remains a deeply flawed candidate whose associations with the worst elements of the Washington D.C. world of lobbyists, inside deals, and corruption should have made him vulnerable to a straight arrow like Cuccinelli (although he was tainted, if only by association, by Governor Bob McDonnell’s ethical lapses). But instead of being sunk by his record, McAuliffe is coasting to victory. The explanation for this can’t be found in an analysis of the two candidates or even their tactical campaign decisions. The swing to the left is the result of demographic changes that should have already alerted us to the fact that Virginia is now moving into the category of a fairly safe Democratic state.

Given the fact that only a few years ago, Republicans dominated the state’s politics and had a long streak of winning the state’s electoral votes, this is a startling turnabout that many in the GOP are only just now starting to comprehend. Right up until the returns indicated that Barack Obama had once again taken Virginia in last year’s presidential election, most Republicans simply assumed that Mitt Romney would take it. They though that Obama’s 2008 win was the exception and that McDonnell’s landslide win to take back the governor’s chair for the GOP (after Tim Kaine’s 2005 Democratic victory) was the rule. They were wrong. McDonnell’s victory may have been the last gasp for Virginia Republicans. It isn’t likely that anyone will assume, as many in the GOP did earlier this year, that a Republican victory is inevitable, in 2016 or 2017.

The reasons for this have little to do with Democratic canards about Cuccinelli’s supposed extremism and everything to do with the way the demography of the state has changed in recent years. Whereas in the past, the conservative-leaning southern, western, and rural areas offset the more liberal northern D.C. suburbs, that is no longer the case. Under the current circumstances, it will take an extraordinarily attractive Republican and a problematic Democrat to give the state to the GOP.

If anything, that means instead of Republican bulwark or even a true swing state, the better analogy for Virginia is Pennsylvania, a state with GOP strongholds but which is usually won by Democrats taking advantage of their massive advantage in the urban centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. While Republicans can win statewide races when the political winds are blowing in their direction (as they were in 2010 when even a staunch conservative like Pat Toomey was able to win a Senate seat), it will take a GOP earthquake for them to win it again in a presidential election when the Democrats are able to get a massive minority turnout. The same may hold now for Virginia. Those Republicans who are thinking a more moderate Republican could have done better than Cuccinelli are probably wrong. From now on, pundits should assume Virginia is trending blue until proven otherwise.

Read Less

Obama Disassociates from Reality

About President Obama’s remarks on Monday in the Rose Garden on the matter of the problems plaguing the Affordable Care Act and, specifically, healthcare.gov, it seemed to me that they served a valuable purpose, at least to this extent: They distilled the Obama presidency to some of its core qualities: (a) detachment from reality; (b) misleading in its claims; (c) deeply polarizing and partisan; and (d) filled with lame excuses.

But there was another noteworthy element to what the president said. I have in mind the pitiable quality of his remarks. Speaking about the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Obama kept insisting–over and over and over again–how good the product is, how really and exceptionally good it is, how popular it is, and how things really and truly will work out. 

Methinks he doth trieth too hard. The president spoke about ObamaCare as if it were a work of art, one or two brushstrokes away from being a masterpiece. Which created the impression that the president is living in a make believe world. 

Several additional observations on the president’s remarks:

Read More

About President Obama’s remarks on Monday in the Rose Garden on the matter of the problems plaguing the Affordable Care Act and, specifically, healthcare.gov, it seemed to me that they served a valuable purpose, at least to this extent: They distilled the Obama presidency to some of its core qualities: (a) detachment from reality; (b) misleading in its claims; (c) deeply polarizing and partisan; and (d) filled with lame excuses.

But there was another noteworthy element to what the president said. I have in mind the pitiable quality of his remarks. Speaking about the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Obama kept insisting–over and over and over again–how good the product is, how really and exceptionally good it is, how popular it is, and how things really and truly will work out. 

Methinks he doth trieth too hard. The president spoke about ObamaCare as if it were a work of art, one or two brushstrokes away from being a masterpiece. Which created the impression that the president is living in a make believe world. 

Several additional observations on the president’s remarks:

1. For Mr. Obama to say the rollout of healthcare.gov hasn’t worked as “smoothly as it was supposed to work” is a bit like the captain of the Titanic saying the trip wasn’t going quite as smoothly as planned. For one thing, there are a spate of stories today (like this one) detailing that the administration launched healthcare.gov despite ample and repeated warnings that the system wasn’t ready. As for going forward, the solutions aren’t simple or obvious. There is no General Petraeus who will step forward to lead the “tech surge.”   

The problems plaguing the system are deep, massive and structural in nature. And if they’re not fixed within the next five weeks–and there are increasingly reasons to believe the problems might not be solved by then–it might well force the president to unilaterally delay the individual mandate. After all, you can’t penalize people for not joining a program that is nearly impossible for them to sign up for.

Between now and the end of the year the Obama administration is counting on roughly three million people (out of a total of seven million) to sign up. They probably won’t get that, and they may not get even close to that.

2. The difficulties the administration faces go beyond just the number of people who sign up. It also depends on who they are. To be more precise: for the online federal health-care exchange to succeed, it needs healthy people, not just sick ones, to enroll in order to make the system work.

Here’s the problem: people with pre-existing conditions have a tremendous incentive to spend day and night signing up on the exchanges. That is, I take it, what happened with Janice Baker, who introduced the president at yesterday’s event. In Ms. Baker’s own words, it took her a “number of frustrating attempts before I could apply for and select my plan.” She had a pre-existing health condition. On the flip side, healthy–and particularly young and healthy–people might try a couple of times and quit trying to enroll. If that happens, of course, premiums and deductibles will skyrocket, which will further accelerate this problematic cycle. This is known in the insurance industry as a “death spiral.” And that may be what awaits the ACA.

3. The administration has made a great deal about 476,000 people starting the process of enrollment. Except they haven’t. What administration officials are referring to is the number of people who have started an account, which isn’t the same as the number of people who have enrolled. In fact, the number of people who have enrolled is undoubtedly a fraction of the 476,000 figure. The most transparent administration in history knows the number but refuses to tell us. Why? Because they’re embarrassed at how low the figure is. 

4. Mr. Obama, who at this point in his presidency has developed certain stale and unhealthy rhetorical habits, mocked Republicans and said it’s time for them to “stop rooting for [ObamaCare’s] failures.” But the problem the president faces isn’t Republicans rooting for its failures; it’s that the program is collapsing on its own. The GOP  had nothing to do with its development. The president desperately wishes he could share the blame for what has gone wrong. Except that every Republican in Congress opposed the Affordable Care Act. This is Barack Obama’s signature achievement; he and his party are joined at the hip to it. They are as inseparable as salt and water in the ocean.   

5. Yesterday President Obama was trying to win a news cycle. Yet in the process he is–with each false claim, with each soon-to-be-revised reassurance, and with each discredited defense–burning up his credibility. The walls of reality are closing in on the president.

The failures of the rollout of the federal health-care exchange is just the latest in a long train of mistakes in this deeply unpopular program. If the individual mandate is delayed, it will obviously be a huge embarrassment for the president. Moreover, if the problems with ObamaCare continue and mount, it becomes a huge political liability for the Democratic Party. Remember: Health care was a very significant issue in the 2010 mid-term elections, which saw historic gains by the GOP. In 2014, ObamaCare could be an even bigger issue, since abstract concerns in 2010 will be replaced by concrete anger and outrage in 2014. 

6. There’s a reason reporters who cover the White House say that top aides and even the president are deeply unsettled. It’s not just that what he considers his legacy achievement looks to be imploding before our eyes, which would be bad enough. There’s something else going on as well.

The Affordable Care Act or close approximations of it is something liberals have worked toward for generations. It has been, for the left, a kind of talisman; to have had it codified in law ranks as one of the great liberal achievements in American history. Or so the left thought. They probably should have been more careful in what they asked for. As Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker put it, “The ACA is the most important liberal project in decades. If it fails, it is a complete disaster for liberalism.”

Correct. And if you go to the scorecard, you’ll see that the ACA is failing. That the great and mighty Obama seems powerless to stop it. And that ObamaCare may become an ever more complete disaster for liberalism than it is now. Which is saying something. 

Read Less

Dump Sebelius to Save ObamaCare?

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has finally offered to testify before Congress next week. If she does, the grilling by the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the ObamaCare rollout will not be pretty. It’s far from clear that Sebelius will be able to supply satisfactory answers to questions about why this major expansion of government power was unveiled with an inadequate website and a system designed to crash. As Politico notes, we don’t even know if Sebelius, let alone President Obama, knows what’s wrong with it, how or when it can be fixed, how much it will cost, or why there was no backup plan prepared. As I noted last week, there are good political reasons for thinking the president is not inclined to fire Sebelius. But whether he likes it or not, she looks to be the only figure in the administration who can be called to account for the failure. And as more information starts to dribble out to answer these questions, a dynamic in which she is set up to be the sacrifice to the Washington volcano may be inevitable.

The president’s combative stance in his White House speech yesterday on the subject shows that although he professes to be angry about the situation, he’s still more inclined to vent his spleen at opponents of his signature health-care plan than at those screwing up its implementation. His position remains that the problems are mere “glitches” rather than systemic or connected to the inherent challenge of placing a portion of American health care in the hands of federal bureaucrats. This is a president who has always been reluctant to fire subordinates, no matter how incompetent they may be. Nor has he ever shown much interest in holding himself accountable for their mistakes. Thus the decision to focus on selling the wonders of ObamaCare rather than to investigate its flaws is very much in character. But once the scene shifts from the Rose Garden to a congressional hearing room, the president may find that he will rapidly lose control of this story. That will mean the White House will go back into the same scandal damage control mode that was employed with varying success when applied to the administration’s Benghazi, IRS, and spying scandals earlier this year. Unless his tech surge achieves a miraculous recovery of the faltering system, that may mean the end of Sebelius or a delay in the bill’s individual mandate, or both.

Read More

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has finally offered to testify before Congress next week. If she does, the grilling by the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the ObamaCare rollout will not be pretty. It’s far from clear that Sebelius will be able to supply satisfactory answers to questions about why this major expansion of government power was unveiled with an inadequate website and a system designed to crash. As Politico notes, we don’t even know if Sebelius, let alone President Obama, knows what’s wrong with it, how or when it can be fixed, how much it will cost, or why there was no backup plan prepared. As I noted last week, there are good political reasons for thinking the president is not inclined to fire Sebelius. But whether he likes it or not, she looks to be the only figure in the administration who can be called to account for the failure. And as more information starts to dribble out to answer these questions, a dynamic in which she is set up to be the sacrifice to the Washington volcano may be inevitable.

The president’s combative stance in his White House speech yesterday on the subject shows that although he professes to be angry about the situation, he’s still more inclined to vent his spleen at opponents of his signature health-care plan than at those screwing up its implementation. His position remains that the problems are mere “glitches” rather than systemic or connected to the inherent challenge of placing a portion of American health care in the hands of federal bureaucrats. This is a president who has always been reluctant to fire subordinates, no matter how incompetent they may be. Nor has he ever shown much interest in holding himself accountable for their mistakes. Thus the decision to focus on selling the wonders of ObamaCare rather than to investigate its flaws is very much in character. But once the scene shifts from the Rose Garden to a congressional hearing room, the president may find that he will rapidly lose control of this story. That will mean the White House will go back into the same scandal damage control mode that was employed with varying success when applied to the administration’s Benghazi, IRS, and spying scandals earlier this year. Unless his tech surge achieves a miraculous recovery of the faltering system, that may mean the end of Sebelius or a delay in the bill’s individual mandate, or both.

The president insists that ObamaCare is working and it is just the “long checkout line” via the website that is problematic. But once Sebelius is put on the hot seat, that narrative may no longer be viable. Incompetence isn’t illegal, but it is a damning indictment of an administration whose main purpose is to expand the reach of the federal government. As with the raft of scandals that plagued the president earlier in the year (and from which the mainstream media eager to please the White House has happily moved on), if the best defense that can be put forward for misbehavior or failure is incompetence, that undermines the basic rationale of the Democrats’ efforts to entrust a big chunk of the national economy to government.

While the president was short on answers to the questions the country is asking about the problem, Sebelius won’t be able to get away with the same arrogant stance once she’s hauled in front of the various congressional committees that will want a share of the publicity. Democrats are talking as if all it will take is a few geeks pressing some buttons and the problems will be fixed. But it’s likely that the solution will be a lot more complicated and lot more time-consuming than they hope. As the weeks drag on without tangible improvements, the president may come to the conclusion that the only way to buy some more time for the program that is so close to his heart is to throw Sebelius under the bus. Though Republicans would be certain to turn the process of confirming a replacement into a nightmare, it might turn out to be a better option than stonewalling the issue. This president may believe the only acceptable scapegoats are Republicans, but Sebelius’s resignation may be on his desk long before he waves the white flag on implementing the individual mandate.

But Sebelius’s danger doesn’t scare the president nearly as much as the prospect that computer technology—his ace in the hole in two presidential campaigns—will be the undoing of his most cherished accomplishment. Make no mistake, if the tech surge doesn’t provide almost immediate relief as the January deadline looms closer, the president knows he will also have no choice but to push back the enforcement of the individual mandate. How ironic would it be if a bad computer system were to force the president to do what he vowed never to concede to Republicans? We’re still a long way from that point. But if it does happen, don’t bet on Sebelius still being around in office to see it.

Read Less

Obama’s Plea for Irrelevance

President Obama’s political instincts are generally compared unfavorably to those of the previous Democratic president, the glad-handing triangulator Bill Clinton. But there is one mistake of Clinton’s that Obama is almost sure not to replicate. The lowest moment of Clinton’s first term was his plea that “the president is still relevant here,” an indication that at the moment he was a bystander to political events and wanted desperately to change that perception in the media.

The reason Obama is unlikely to make that mistake, however, is that he refuses to countenance the idea that he is relevant at all. Whether it’s the IRS scandal, Benghazi, the targeting of journalists, or other controversies, the president has portrayed himself as always the last one to know. And now, as Politico points out, he is reacting to the abysmal rollout of the ObamaCare exchanges the same way:

Read More

President Obama’s political instincts are generally compared unfavorably to those of the previous Democratic president, the glad-handing triangulator Bill Clinton. But there is one mistake of Clinton’s that Obama is almost sure not to replicate. The lowest moment of Clinton’s first term was his plea that “the president is still relevant here,” an indication that at the moment he was a bystander to political events and wanted desperately to change that perception in the media.

The reason Obama is unlikely to make that mistake, however, is that he refuses to countenance the idea that he is relevant at all. Whether it’s the IRS scandal, Benghazi, the targeting of journalists, or other controversies, the president has portrayed himself as always the last one to know. And now, as Politico points out, he is reacting to the abysmal rollout of the ObamaCare exchanges the same way:

His “nobody’s madder than me” Monday echoed the kinds of statements he’s repeatedly made about problems over the last few months — “Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it” (the IRS scandal), “It’s not as if I don’t have a personal interest” (the NSA scandal), “This is not a world we should accept” (Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons). He puts himself forward as a man frustrated with what’s happened on his watch, promising change, insisting that nothing of the sort could ever happen again.

There’s a level of semantic distance there, though, that often gets interpreted as an inherent refusal to take responsibility. Obama is, after all, the president. He has more than a little say in what happens within his own administration.

This time, however, Politico wonders how the president could hope to sell this excuse to a public that should know better:

And on this issue, at least, there’s no question the president has been very involved. Leading up to the launch of the website and the rest of the Obamacare rollout, the president was receiving regular briefings, even dropping in to occasional meetings that weren’t on his schedule. Part of the president’s frustration appears to stem directly from that involvement — the question of why wasn’t he given more accurate or expansive information, or a full sense of the problems once they started to appear.

“He’s had a level of skin in this game that’s been under-reported,” said one former senior administration official. “This isn’t a problem that crept up on him. He has been very, very, very focused on it for a long time. He understood the importance of it, and he has made time for it.”

Yes, this is the president’s signature “achievement” (if it ever gets off the ground). His name is on it. As yesterday’s embarrassing press conference/infomercial showed, he will continue to sell it until he’s blue in the face.

But all this amounts to a sense that the president should have known about the kinks in the program. That’s unflattering enough, as it suggests Obama was confused by his own legislation. But as the Washington Post reports today, it was worse than that: the administration did know what was wrong with the ObamaCare web portal. It turns out the system crashed during a weak test–and the White House took the site live anyway.

The question is: why? The administration understood the stakes, and so did the president. What made officials release a broken version of Obama’s signature policy that the public already disliked?

The Post suggests it was a combination of stubbornness and pride:

Some key testing of the system did not take place until the week before launch, according to this person. As late as Sept. 26, there had been no tests to determine whether a consumer could complete the process from beginning to end: create an account, determine eligibility for federal subsidies and sign up for a health insurance plan, according to two sources familiar with the project.

People working on the project knew that Oct. 1 was set in stone as a launch date. “We named it the tyranny of the October 1 date,” said a person close to the project.

They set a date and were unwilling to take the embarrassing step of admitting it wasn’t ready by then. One developer, the AP reports, “was nearly brought to tears over the stress of finishing on time.”

Both the Post and AP reports are worth reading in full for the whole story, but they paint a picture of a government program in complete disarray. And it is fitting that this is the accomplishment that bears Obama’s name, since its disastrous rollout embodies the president’s flaws as a chief executive. He may not be experienced, voters were told in 2008, but he has a presidential temperament, a compromising spirit, a gift for management and efficiency, and a preference for adaptability and ideological flexibility over dogma. The brief history of his most prized accomplishment proves otherwise.

Read Less

What’s Good for Cruz May Be Bad for GOP

The national media appears to be shocked at the hero’s welcome Senator Ted Cruz got when he returned home to Texas this past weekend. They are equally mystified at the applause the Tea Party favorite gets when he hits the road to speak in places like Iowa, a crucial state for those with presidential ambitions, where he will headline a GOP event this Friday. Though the government shutdown he helped engineer has crashed Republican Party poll numbers, Cruz appears to be living a charmed life lately as his attempt to blame the failure of his idea on less dogmatic Republicans is playing very well among the members of his Tea Party base. Where someone else might take this moment to engage in some introspection about what went wrong, Cruz has stayed on the offensive, and that’s exactly what his fans want. Which means that although chances of Republican success in 2014 seem to have diminished, Cruz’s stock is going up. And that is something that ought to scare not only mainstream Republicans who remain appalled at his ability to maneuver the GOP into a destructive shutdown but also fellow conservatives who are thinking about running for president.

Cruz may be reviled by the rest of the Senate Republican caucus, despised by the national media and even has been subjected to criticism by conservative pundits who rightly flayed him for a performance that did not achieve its stated aims and hurt his party. But it would be a mistake to confuse the bad reviews he has gotten for his role in the shutdown with an accurate reading of his influence or his chances in 2016. A few months ago, he was just an obnoxious freshman whose refusal to play by the Senate rules had given him a following on the right. Today, it must be acknowledged that the shutdown has made him a genuine power in the Republican Party who could well be heading into 2016 with a considerable edge over other conservatives.

Read More

The national media appears to be shocked at the hero’s welcome Senator Ted Cruz got when he returned home to Texas this past weekend. They are equally mystified at the applause the Tea Party favorite gets when he hits the road to speak in places like Iowa, a crucial state for those with presidential ambitions, where he will headline a GOP event this Friday. Though the government shutdown he helped engineer has crashed Republican Party poll numbers, Cruz appears to be living a charmed life lately as his attempt to blame the failure of his idea on less dogmatic Republicans is playing very well among the members of his Tea Party base. Where someone else might take this moment to engage in some introspection about what went wrong, Cruz has stayed on the offensive, and that’s exactly what his fans want. Which means that although chances of Republican success in 2014 seem to have diminished, Cruz’s stock is going up. And that is something that ought to scare not only mainstream Republicans who remain appalled at his ability to maneuver the GOP into a destructive shutdown but also fellow conservatives who are thinking about running for president.

Cruz may be reviled by the rest of the Senate Republican caucus, despised by the national media and even has been subjected to criticism by conservative pundits who rightly flayed him for a performance that did not achieve its stated aims and hurt his party. But it would be a mistake to confuse the bad reviews he has gotten for his role in the shutdown with an accurate reading of his influence or his chances in 2016. A few months ago, he was just an obnoxious freshman whose refusal to play by the Senate rules had given him a following on the right. Today, it must be acknowledged that the shutdown has made him a genuine power in the Republican Party who could well be heading into 2016 with a considerable edge over other conservatives.

The disconnect between the way Cruz’s antics have played with the Tea Party and the perception of his conduct among the rest of the electorate, not to mention the Republican leaders, shouldn’t surprise anyone. Cruz was sent to the Senate by Texans to shake up the Senate and to oppose the increase in debt and the growth in federal power that ObamaCare symbolizes. Throughout his 10 months in office, he has consistently played to the crowd outside of Washington that isn’t interested in how laws get passed or the way politicians get things done in the Capitol. When Cruz tells the GOP base that President Obama and the Democrats would have cracked and given in on ObamaCare if only more Republicans had backed him, they believe it even if it flies in the face of common sense.

But while party leaders vow they won’t get pressured by Cruz and his friends in the House Tea Party caucus into another shutdown fiasco (as Senator Mitch McConnell keeps saying, the second kick of the mule to your head has no educational value), sticking to his rhetorical guns only makes the Texan more popular among those on the right who want no accommodation or compromise with Democrats even if it means a shutdown or a debt default.

The national polling numbers for Republicans as well as those in the generic congressional vote are getting to the point where the shutdown may have made some heretofore-safe GOP House seats competitive and some competitive races safe for the Democrats. The Republicans’ chances of taking back the Senate next year must also be deemed as having moved from even to a long shot. A year is a long time in politics. The ObamaCare rollout disaster and the president’s tin-eared refusal to adequately explain this problem may start the process of reversing the effects of the shutdown and make 2014 a good year for Republicans after all. But it is also possible that the idea that the GOP is run by a pack of extremists led by Cruz that is relentlessly pushed by the liberal mainstream media will take hold in the public imagination to the point where it can’t be reversed. Cruz’s increased notoriety may help depress the value of the GOP brand nationally to the point where the party may be in bigger trouble than anyone thinks.

But even if this worst-case scenario plays out for Republicans, don’t expect this to diminish Cruz’s hold on many conservatives. Indeed, by standing out in this manner and being willing to fight no matter how hopeless the struggle, he may have already become a conservative folk hero and leapfrogged over others who were hoping to run in 2016.

Cruz is a particular threat to Senator Rand Paul. Paul appeared to have expanded the libertarian base he inherited from his father into a faction that was big enough to fuel an effective challenge for the 2016 Republican nomination. But right now, Cruz’s anti-ObamaCare suicide charge appears to have supplanted Paul in the hearts of grassroots conservatives whose enmity for Obama and big government is boundless. Nor should other potential candidates like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal or 2012 runner-up Rick Santorum assume that Cruz couldn’t threaten their support among religious conservatives.

To note Cruz’s popularity on the right is not to assume that he is the inevitable 2012 GOP nominee. More mainstream candidates with better chances in a general election like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or even Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker may be able to either win without competing for right-wing voters or transcend Cruz’s appeal.

But no one should underestimate Cruz at this point. Right now it looks like Cruz’s popularity on the right seems to have an inverse relationship to his party’s falling stock. If this trend continues, the GOP looks to be in big trouble next year and in 2016 even as Cruz becomes a credible threat to win his party’s presidential nomination. You don’t have to be a deep thinker about Washington politics or even much of a cynic to realize that perhaps this was the point of much of what we’ve just gone through.

Read Less

The Morality of Drone Warfare

I am all for careful targeting in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations. Not only is it the humane thing to do, but being accurate and precise in the application of firepower can avert civilian casualties that will only create fresh grievances and breed new insurgents. That said, there is a limit on how precise any act of war can be. Human rights organizations, which are up in arms about U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, have unrealistic expectations that cannot be fulfilled absent a stoppage of the entire drone program–which would allow terrorists to kill ever more people and commit ever more human-rights violations.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have new reports out denouncing drone strikes for causing collateral damage, and the New York Times has weighed in with a lengthy article of its own on the supposedly awful impact of drone strikes on Miram Shah, a Pakistani frontier town that is the headquarters of the Haqqani Network, one of the most dangerous terrorist networks in the world. The Times rather melodramatically informs us:

Read More

I am all for careful targeting in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations. Not only is it the humane thing to do, but being accurate and precise in the application of firepower can avert civilian casualties that will only create fresh grievances and breed new insurgents. That said, there is a limit on how precise any act of war can be. Human rights organizations, which are up in arms about U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, have unrealistic expectations that cannot be fulfilled absent a stoppage of the entire drone program–which would allow terrorists to kill ever more people and commit ever more human-rights violations.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have new reports out denouncing drone strikes for causing collateral damage, and the New York Times has weighed in with a lengthy article of its own on the supposedly awful impact of drone strikes on Miram Shah, a Pakistani frontier town that is the headquarters of the Haqqani Network, one of the most dangerous terrorist networks in the world. The Times rather melodramatically informs us:

It has become a fearful and paranoid town, dealt at least 13 drone strikes since 2008, with an additional 25 in adjoining districts — more than any other urban settlement in the world…

While the strike rate has dropped drastically in recent months, the constant presence of circling drones — and accompanying tension over when, or whom, they will strike — is a crushing psychological burden for many residents.

Sales of sleeping tablets, antidepressants and medicine to treat anxiety have soared, said Hajji Gulab Jan Dawar, a pharmacist in the town bazaar. Women were particularly troubled, he said, but men also experienced problems. “We sell them this,” he said, producing a packet of pills that purported to treat erectile dysfunction under the brand name Rocket.

I wonder what 1940s residents of Dresden or Tokyo would have made of the Pakistanis’ laments? German and Japanese civilians had much bigger worries than erectile dysfunction. Their cities were flattened by American bombers. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed–and that’s even before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaski. A single raid, the March 9-10 firebombing of Tokyo, produced many, many times more fatalities (around 90,000 people died) than all of America’s drone strikes in Pakistan combined over the last decade-plus. There is simply no comparison, given that Amnesty International is complaining “that at least 19 civilians in the surrounding area of North Waziristan had been killed in just two of the drone attacks since January 2012.”

That is not an argument for going back to the crude carpet bombing of World War II days. Drone strikes are a better instrument for the War on Terror. But it is crazy to attack drone strikes for their supposed immorality when they are the most precise and therefore the most humane type of warfare ever waged.

One suspects that the critics would love for the United States to discontinue its strikes entirely. Then what?

The Times article makes clear that the Pakistani army is doing little to police Miram Shah: Although a large Pakistani military base is located in the northern part of town, “the soldiers are largely confined to their base, leaving residents to fend for themselves.” The drone strikes, while not a magic bullet, are thus the only effective method to prevent the Haqqanis and their murderous ilk from entirely dominating the frontier region of Pakistan, which they use as a base for exporting terrorism to Afghanistan. Are Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International seriously arguing that it is moral to let these fundamentalist killers oppress and kill people in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, unopposed? Perhaps not, but that is the implication of their blinkered reports.

Read Less

Krauthammer On Things That Matter

Things That Matter is a collection of Charles Krauthammer’s extraordinary writings over the last 30 years. For those of us who have admired Krauthammer from the moment we first read him–and for a younger generation, from the moment they first watched him on Fox News–this volume has obvious appeal. It’s a marvelous, and at times quite moving, collection.

But I want to draw attention to the book’s introduction, which is new and autobiographical. Krauthammer writes about his upbringing and journey from medicine to politics, including a fascinating account of his intellectual evolution. What people might also find interesting is that his book was originally going to be a collection of his writings about everything but politics–on things “beautiful, mysterious, profound or just odd.” I’ll let Dr. Krauthammer takes it from there:

But in the end I couldn’t. For a simple reason, the same reason I left psychiatry for journalism. While science, medicine, art, poetry, architecture, chess, space, sports, number theory and all things hard and beautiful promise purity, elegance and sometimes even transcendence, they are fundamentally subordinate. In the end, they must bow to the sovereignty of politics.

Politics, the crooked timber of our communal lives, dominates everything because, in the end, everything – high and low and, most especially, high – lives or dies by politics. You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away. This is not ancient history. This is Germany 1933… Politics is the moat, the walls, beyond which lie the barbarians. Fail to keep them at bay, and everything burns.

In reflecting on the place of politics in the hierarchy of human disciplines, and building on the observations of John Adams, Krauthammer writes, “the glories yielded by such a successful politics lie outside itself. Its deepest purpose is to create the conditions for the cultivation of the finer things, beginning with philosophy and science, and ascending to the ever more delicate and refined arts.” He adds this: “the lesson of our history is that the task of merely maintaining strong and sturdy the structures of a constitutional order is unending, the continuing and ceaseless work of every generation.”

Read More

Things That Matter is a collection of Charles Krauthammer’s extraordinary writings over the last 30 years. For those of us who have admired Krauthammer from the moment we first read him–and for a younger generation, from the moment they first watched him on Fox News–this volume has obvious appeal. It’s a marvelous, and at times quite moving, collection.

But I want to draw attention to the book’s introduction, which is new and autobiographical. Krauthammer writes about his upbringing and journey from medicine to politics, including a fascinating account of his intellectual evolution. What people might also find interesting is that his book was originally going to be a collection of his writings about everything but politics–on things “beautiful, mysterious, profound or just odd.” I’ll let Dr. Krauthammer takes it from there:

But in the end I couldn’t. For a simple reason, the same reason I left psychiatry for journalism. While science, medicine, art, poetry, architecture, chess, space, sports, number theory and all things hard and beautiful promise purity, elegance and sometimes even transcendence, they are fundamentally subordinate. In the end, they must bow to the sovereignty of politics.

Politics, the crooked timber of our communal lives, dominates everything because, in the end, everything – high and low and, most especially, high – lives or dies by politics. You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away. This is not ancient history. This is Germany 1933… Politics is the moat, the walls, beyond which lie the barbarians. Fail to keep them at bay, and everything burns.

In reflecting on the place of politics in the hierarchy of human disciplines, and building on the observations of John Adams, Krauthammer writes, “the glories yielded by such a successful politics lie outside itself. Its deepest purpose is to create the conditions for the cultivation of the finer things, beginning with philosophy and science, and ascending to the ever more delicate and refined arts.” He adds this: “the lesson of our history is that the task of merely maintaining strong and sturdy the structures of a constitutional order is unending, the continuing and ceaseless work of every generation.”

If, as the saying goes, every anthropologist loves his tribe, then I suppose that everyone who has devoted his or her life to public affairs (as I have) loves politics. Now it would be silly to pretend that politics doesn’t include some darker sides; that it doesn’t draw to it people who are narcissistic, who thirst for power for its own sake, and who choose their self-interest over the general interest. And much of politics, depending on the level at which one is involved, can involve mundane and fairly prosaic matters. All true. (And all qualities attendant less to politics per se than to our fallen human nature.)

But there is also this. We should care about politics because political acts can have profound human consequences. It makes a very great difference whether people live in freedom or servitude; whether government promotes a culture of life or a culture of death; whether the state is a guardian or an enemy of human dignity. The end of government, James Madison wrote, is justice.

So yes, politics and governing is fraught with temptations and dangers. There are plenty of people who bring dishonor to the enterprise. But at the risk of sounding out of touch with our times, there is something ennobling about politics, at least when done properly. We cannot neglect the importance of our laws or the political philosophies in which we root our laws because we cannot neglect their influence on our lives. Such are the duties of citizenship in a free society.

That is, I think, what Charles Krauthammer is saying; and why what he is saying matters so very much.

Read Less

The Jobs Report

Thanks to the government shutdown, the jobs report, due out October 4, only came out today. Next month’s will be late as well, coming out on November 8 instead of November 1.

The economy added 148,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate fell by a tick, to 7.2 percent. These numbers will, of course, be touted as good news by the administration, but it’s basically more of the same: slow job grow and an unemployment rate more affected by people dropping out of the work force than by growth. In the last year of “recovery” the unemployment rate has fallen only from 7.8 percent to 7.2 percent, while the participation rate (the percentage of adults in the workforce) declined from 63.6 to 63.2.

Read More

Thanks to the government shutdown, the jobs report, due out October 4, only came out today. Next month’s will be late as well, coming out on November 8 instead of November 1.

The economy added 148,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate fell by a tick, to 7.2 percent. These numbers will, of course, be touted as good news by the administration, but it’s basically more of the same: slow job grow and an unemployment rate more affected by people dropping out of the work force than by growth. In the last year of “recovery” the unemployment rate has fallen only from 7.8 percent to 7.2 percent, while the participation rate (the percentage of adults in the workforce) declined from 63.6 to 63.2.

The number of jobs created in September was below expectations (economists were expecting about 185,000 jobs created) and way below the average for the last year (193,000). And the unemployment rate for teenagers (21.4 percent) and blacks (12.9) remain dismal. The unemployment rate for those 18-29, many of them just entering the workforce, is 15.9 percent, a tremendous headwind for somebody with a necessarily short résumé.

The broader measure of unemployment, which includes discouraged workers and those working part time who want full-time jobs, is 13.6 percent.

Altogether, the numbers are depressing if not indicative of a depression.

Read Less

Saudis, Turks Send Obama a Message

President Obama has been trying to reorient American policy in the Middle East. He is pulling back and either striking or looking to strike deals with longstanding American enemies such as Syria and Iran. He is also looking ever more hesitant and uncertain, a problem exemplified by his indecision over whether or not to bomb Syria. Such actions may not have much impact on domestic public opinion, which is focused on the economy and the budget crisis, but it has a large impact on our allies, who are increasingly concerned about the drift of American policy.

Saudi Arabia is making its concerns manifest. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief [Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud] told European diplomats this weekend that he plans to scale back cooperating with the U.S. to arm and train Syrian rebels in protest of Washington’s policy in the region.” This comes only days after the Saudis decided not to accept a coveted seat on the UN Security Council, which the U.S. had lobbied for.

Read More

President Obama has been trying to reorient American policy in the Middle East. He is pulling back and either striking or looking to strike deals with longstanding American enemies such as Syria and Iran. He is also looking ever more hesitant and uncertain, a problem exemplified by his indecision over whether or not to bomb Syria. Such actions may not have much impact on domestic public opinion, which is focused on the economy and the budget crisis, but it has a large impact on our allies, who are increasingly concerned about the drift of American policy.

Saudi Arabia is making its concerns manifest. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief [Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud] told European diplomats this weekend that he plans to scale back cooperating with the U.S. to arm and train Syrian rebels in protest of Washington’s policy in the region.” This comes only days after the Saudis decided not to accept a coveted seat on the UN Security Council, which the U.S. had lobbied for.

What explains the Saudi actions? According to the Journal, the issue is “Riyadh’s frustration with the Obama administration and its regional policies, including the decision not to bomb Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons in August.” The newspaper quotes Bandar telling diplomats: “This was a message for the U.S., not the U.N.”

This comes not long after the news that Turkey’s intelligence service, long a partner for the CIA, had burned a network of Iranians spying for Israel on Iran’s nuclear program. That action would not have been taken if the Turks seriously feared American retribution from President Erdogan’s friend, President Obama.

The fact that the Turks and Saudis are acting as they are suggests that they hold U.S. foreign policy in growing contempt and have less regard than in the past for America’s influence in the region. That is part of the damage that the Obama administration has wrought–damage that will take years to undo, assuming a more tough-minded leader is elected in 2016.

Read Less

Reparations for Europe’s Slave Trade?

There is no doubt that slavery was a great evil. But that does not mean that 14 Caribbean nations should succeed in their attempt to win reparations from Britain, France and the Netherlands, their former colonial masters, in a case that is being brought by enterprising British lawyers before the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

For a start there is the issue of what lawyers call standing: Most of these nations did not even exist when slavery was abolished, a process that began with the British Parliament passing the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. No doubt many Caribbean citizens are descendants of former slaves, but quite a few also have ancestors who were European; conjugal relations between masters and slaves were hardly unknown. Should the large number of mixed-race West Indians receive reparations with one hand and pay them out with the other?

Read More

There is no doubt that slavery was a great evil. But that does not mean that 14 Caribbean nations should succeed in their attempt to win reparations from Britain, France and the Netherlands, their former colonial masters, in a case that is being brought by enterprising British lawyers before the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

For a start there is the issue of what lawyers call standing: Most of these nations did not even exist when slavery was abolished, a process that began with the British Parliament passing the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. No doubt many Caribbean citizens are descendants of former slaves, but quite a few also have ancestors who were European; conjugal relations between masters and slaves were hardly unknown. Should the large number of mixed-race West Indians receive reparations with one hand and pay them out with the other?

The problems with this legal action hardly end there. Reparations are generally accorded when nations take actions which are illegal and unethical under prevailing standards of international law. This, for example, is why it is appropriate for Germany to pay reparations to victims of the Holocaust or for Japan to pay reparations to former comfort women. But slavery was hardly against international law when it flourished in the Caribbean in the 18th century. In fact, slavery had been widely accepted since antiquity and practiced not only by Europeans but by Africans, Arabs, Asians, and many other cultures. It still exists in many places today.

Slavery only came to be accepted as a moral abomination—and eventually banned—thanks to the efforts of Western abolitionists such as William Wilberforce. The international slave trade was repressed through the action of the Royal Navy, with a small assist from the U.S. Navy. The moral opprobrium that clings to countries such as Britain which benefitted from the slave trade must be weighed against the moral approbation they earned by campaigning against slavery. Also on the plus side for the colonial powers is the fact that they invested in considerable physical infrastructure—roads, ports, railroads—that continue to benefit Caribbean nations to this day.

How one balances all of this out is impossible to say, and it is not a job for a court to address. We should learn from the past, but it is a stretch to try to benefit from misdeeds that occurred hundreds of years ago by and against people who are long dead.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.