Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 9, 2014

The Middle East’s Disappearing Borders

“The last year was a good one for al Qaeda, and for jihadism more broadly,” wrote the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Daveed Gartenstein-Ross earlier this week. He continued: “Al Qaeda affiliates drove Iraq to its highest violence levels since 2007, capped off a year of increasingly sophisticated attacks in the Horn of Africa with a notorious assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and took control of entire cities in northern Syria while attracting large numbers of foreigners to that battlefield.”

The article is among a recent crop of stories that have taken the Obama administration’s triumphant declarations of success against al-Qaeda from the category of “wishful thinking” to “punch line.” Al-Qaeda does not seem to be on the run, and the wider world of jihadism seems to be thriving as well. In the Middle East and North Africa, terrorists are doing the chasing, not the retreating. But in fact there is reason to believe there is more happening here than the normal ebb and flow of terrorism in a region that is no stranger to it. The most damaging story to the Obama administration’s narrative came yesterday from CNN’s Peter Bergen:

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“The last year was a good one for al Qaeda, and for jihadism more broadly,” wrote the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Daveed Gartenstein-Ross earlier this week. He continued: “Al Qaeda affiliates drove Iraq to its highest violence levels since 2007, capped off a year of increasingly sophisticated attacks in the Horn of Africa with a notorious assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and took control of entire cities in northern Syria while attracting large numbers of foreigners to that battlefield.”

The article is among a recent crop of stories that have taken the Obama administration’s triumphant declarations of success against al-Qaeda from the category of “wishful thinking” to “punch line.” Al-Qaeda does not seem to be on the run, and the wider world of jihadism seems to be thriving as well. In the Middle East and North Africa, terrorists are doing the chasing, not the retreating. But in fact there is reason to believe there is more happening here than the normal ebb and flow of terrorism in a region that is no stranger to it. The most damaging story to the Obama administration’s narrative came yesterday from CNN’s Peter Bergen:

From around Aleppo in western Syria to small areas of Falluja in central Iraq, al Qaeda now controls territory that stretches more than 400 miles across the heart of the Middle East, according to English and Arab language news accounts as well as accounts on jihadist websites.

Indeed, al Qaeda appears to control more territory in the Arab world than it has done at any time in its history.

The focus of al Qaeda’s leaders has always been regime change in the Arab world in order to install Taliban-style regimes. Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri acknowledged as much in his 2001 autobiography, “Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet,” when he explained that the most important strategic goal of al Qaeda was to seize control of a state, or part of a state, somewhere in the Muslim world, explaining that, “without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing.”

Now al-Zawahiri is closer to his goal than he has ever been. On Friday al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq seized control of parts of the city of Falluja and parts of the city of Ramadi, both of which are located in Iraq’s restive Anbar Province.

Believe it or not, this is actually worse than it looks. Al-Qaeda may be close to claiming control of key parts of a state, and since that state is Iraq it’s bad enough. But pair the chaos in Iraq with the bloodshed elsewhere in the region, and what’s at stake is the very system of nation-states in the Middle East and North Africa.

That may sound alarmist, and we’re certainly not there yet. But consider the ongoing disaster in Syria, and the Wall Street Journal’s significant story on the reality of Bashar al-Assad’s survival:

In many ways, Syria as it was known before simply doesn’t exist any longer, U.S. officials say. Its place has been taken by a shattered state riven into sectarian enclaves, radicalized by war and positioned to send worrisome ripples out across the Middle East for years to come, say current and former officials.

In fact, U.S. officials think the chances of steering the outcome have shrunk dramatically. The intelligence assessments that once showed Mr. Assad on the verge of defeat now say he could remain in power for the foreseeable future in key parts of the country bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast. The U.S. doesn’t think he will be able to retake the whole country again, U.S. intelligence agencies believe. Areas outside his control are fracturing into warring enclaves along ethnic and sectarian lines, abutting a new al Qaeda-affiliated haven that sweeps from Syria into Iraq.

But of course it gets worse still. An al-Qaeda haven from Syria to Iraq doesn’t include Lebanon, but that state’s devolution began before the Syrian civil war and is only being exacerbated by it. Hezbollah already has its own state carved out in southern Lebanon (in addition to having a degree of control over the broader state’s politics), and Hezbollah seems to be upgrading its firepower, smuggling weapons in from Syria.

At the same time, Avi Issacharoff has noted that the violence spilling into Lebanon from Syria is also spilling into Hezbollah’s territory, threatening to engulf the state in a full-fledged civil war. With refugees, soldiers, and jihadists streaming across borders at will, the borders themselves have begun to fade. The Washington Post’s Liz Sly got the following, chilling quote from Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt:

“From Iran to Lebanon, there are no borders anymore,” said Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s minority Druze community. “Officially, they are still there, but will they be a few years from now? If there is more dislocation, the whole of the Middle East will crumble.”

Sly went on to mention the upcoming centennial of World War I, after which many of these lines in the sand were drawn, as the backdrop to the Syria peace negotiations. But the days of redrawing maps at will are long gone. The more likely outcome is that these borders will mean less and less, as power devolves back to ethnic enclaves instead of centralized authority. The irony for al-Qaeda is that it is closest to its goal of controlling a state just when that goal is danger of becoming irrelevant.

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Never Force Concessions Under Fire

When North Korean agents killed several senior South Korean cabinet ministers in a 1983 bombing in Rangoon, Burma, the United States did not demand that South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan compromise with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. And when, four years later, North Korean agents bombed a Korean Air jetliner, the White House did not suggest Seoul accelerate reunification talks.

When Hamas or Hezbollah launches rockets into Israel, the reaction of most congressmen isn’t to suggest that Israelis deserve to live in bomb shelters, or pre-school children deserve to be hit. Rather, there’s an understanding that countries have a right to defend themselves against terrorism rather than simply appease it. Many U.S. officials would think twice about denying either Israel or South Korea the means to defend themselves against terror threats: that’s why the United States has, in the past, rushed Patriot Missile batteries to both countries and sometimes has even re-deployed carrier strike groups to signal that terrorists would not beat allies.

How unfortunate, then, it is that so many proponents of a strong U.S.-Iraq relationship appear more inclined to blame the Iraqi government for the current violence than the terrorists who have for several years sought to win through violence what they could not at the ballot box. Violence is worsening in Iraq: Visiting Basra last summer, I was within earshot of a couple car bombs, the first time that happened to me since the bad old days of 2004 and 2005. The fruit venders and restaurant patrons in Basra had done nothing to deserve the attack; they were targeted simply because they were Shi’ites. It is just as easy to correlate the growth in terror to the civil war in Syria and the radicalization of the opposition as it is arrest warrants against one, two, or three Iraqi politicians.

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When North Korean agents killed several senior South Korean cabinet ministers in a 1983 bombing in Rangoon, Burma, the United States did not demand that South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan compromise with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. And when, four years later, North Korean agents bombed a Korean Air jetliner, the White House did not suggest Seoul accelerate reunification talks.

When Hamas or Hezbollah launches rockets into Israel, the reaction of most congressmen isn’t to suggest that Israelis deserve to live in bomb shelters, or pre-school children deserve to be hit. Rather, there’s an understanding that countries have a right to defend themselves against terrorism rather than simply appease it. Many U.S. officials would think twice about denying either Israel or South Korea the means to defend themselves against terror threats: that’s why the United States has, in the past, rushed Patriot Missile batteries to both countries and sometimes has even re-deployed carrier strike groups to signal that terrorists would not beat allies.

How unfortunate, then, it is that so many proponents of a strong U.S.-Iraq relationship appear more inclined to blame the Iraqi government for the current violence than the terrorists who have for several years sought to win through violence what they could not at the ballot box. Violence is worsening in Iraq: Visiting Basra last summer, I was within earshot of a couple car bombs, the first time that happened to me since the bad old days of 2004 and 2005. The fruit venders and restaurant patrons in Basra had done nothing to deserve the attack; they were targeted simply because they were Shi’ites. It is just as easy to correlate the growth in terror to the civil war in Syria and the radicalization of the opposition as it is arrest warrants against one, two, or three Iraqi politicians.

As I discussed in a recent post about the roots of the current crisis, Iraqi politics are far more complicated than sectarian narrative or the all-Shi’ites-are-Iranian-puppets narrative would allow. The last thing that the United States should do is accept that the grievances of some Sunnis justify any terrorism whatsoever. If the population of al-Anbar does not like the current government and if they feel they have been systematically discriminated against, then they have two good recourses:

  • First, Anbaris can document and publicize widely very specific instances of abuse and then seek diplomatic pressure to force those changes. Granted, if countries like Saudi Arabia normalized relations with Iraq, the people of Anbar might be able to seek to encourage their diplomatic leverage. So long as Saudis (and Qataris and many Jordanians) deny the legitimacy of the Iraqi government and remain unwilling to engage with Baghdad in the manner they once did under Saddam Hussein, then it is understandable that the Iraqi government will have reason to doubt their good will.
  • Second, Anbaris can focus on the forthcoming elections in Iraq in order to maximize turnout and their leverage in the post-election coalition building. If they dislike Prime Minister Maliki, they might reach out more to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Ammar al-Hakim, and they might also further their relationship with Masud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, the remains of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and Noshirwan Mustafa’s Gorran Movement. That would, of course, mean dropping the notion expressed by some more extreme voices that the best course for Iraq would be to return to a pre-2003 system which blessed minority, strongman rule.

Hagiography regarding the surge also undercuts effective U.S. efforts to quell the violence. The surge was an important military and psychological strategy—it convinced allies and adversaries alike that the United States was committed to victory (at least until we announced our withdrawal)—but in an Iraqi context, it was politically short-sighted. Certainly, some Sunni tribesmen and political leaders put down their arms so long as the money flowed and they received outsized privileges. They did not change their ideology or convert to American or democratic values; they just made a short-term calculation that their own survival meant accepting American and Iraqi government terms.

The problem with those switching sides is they seldom do so only once. This was a lesson that Gen. David Petraeus should have learned when he commanded the 101st Airborne in Mosul: he achieved quiet so long as he empowered and subsidized Islamists and Baathists, no matter that as soon as the money dried up, his appointees flipped back to the insurgency.

Bribing groups and factions is seldom a long-term solution and, indeed, hampers peace by creating incentives not to compromise or accept the new reality of post-Saddam Iraq absent special privileges. Yes, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should crackdown on corruption, sectarianism, and incitement which blight some of his allies. He should also reach out to all Iraqis regardless of ethnicity and sect. That said, he and his Shi’ite competitors have reached out to Sunni Arabs, Christians, and Kurds as they recognize that they will need to build a coalition after the next elections if they want to hold onto power.

But Maliki should never ignore terrorism or take a softer approach because its perpetrators might be Sunni. If Tariq al-Hashemi was guilty of murder, then he should face the consequences regardless of which mosque he attends. It would be counter-productive to accept any system in which the best way to avoid accountability for violence is to engage in further terrorism. That is a lesson the United States should have learned when U.S. forces had Shi’ite firebrand cleric and death squad leader Muqtada al-Sadr in their sites but chose to let him walk for fear of what his supporters might do if he were captured or killed. That decision enabled Muqtada al-Sadr and his gang to murder hundreds more.

Anbari politicians also need to dispense with the sectarian populism and religious incitement in which they too often engage. All Iraqis need to stop playing double games with militias and abuses. Al-Qaeda did not seize Ramadi and Fallujah because of a spontaneous reaction to the raid on the protest camp; they seized those cities because they planned to for a long time, infiltrated them, and stockpiled arms.

No ally should have to live with al-Qaeda or be denied the means to eliminate them. Rather than hold Iraqis hostage by denying the Iraqi government the means to respond effectively, the United States should instead provide whatever assistance is necessary coupled with real attention to guaranteeing Iraq’s next elections are free, fair, and will enjoy maximum participation.

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Take Claims of Diplomatic Progress with a Grain of Salt

The White House is denying that talks over the technicalities of the Iranian nuclear deal have broken down, never mind that diplomats have so far been unable to resolve differences regarding Iran’s nuclear centrifuge research and so the preliminary deal announced late last year has yet to take effect. “The P5+1 and Iran made progress in our discussions regarding the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action over the past several weeks,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan assured the Washington Free Beacon when it asked about the state of negotiations, given that negotiators had gone home absent an agreement.

Talk of progress might be reassuring, but it is important for outside observers to take them with a grain of salt. While conducting research for my forthcoming book about the history of diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I went through decades of State Department and National Security Council briefings regarding high-stakes diplomacy with North Korea, Iran, and the Palestinian Authority. With the benefit of time, I was also able to compare the statements of the diplomatic briefers with their declassified notes and intelligence regarding what actually had occurred. Seldom did claims of progress actually correlate to progress. Nor had the State Department developed metrics before beginning talks to chart their progress. Rather, the State Department often claims progress not to describe the results of negotiations, but instead to protect the institutional interest of continuing talks and a process in which politicians have invested.

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The White House is denying that talks over the technicalities of the Iranian nuclear deal have broken down, never mind that diplomats have so far been unable to resolve differences regarding Iran’s nuclear centrifuge research and so the preliminary deal announced late last year has yet to take effect. “The P5+1 and Iran made progress in our discussions regarding the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action over the past several weeks,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan assured the Washington Free Beacon when it asked about the state of negotiations, given that negotiators had gone home absent an agreement.

Talk of progress might be reassuring, but it is important for outside observers to take them with a grain of salt. While conducting research for my forthcoming book about the history of diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I went through decades of State Department and National Security Council briefings regarding high-stakes diplomacy with North Korea, Iran, and the Palestinian Authority. With the benefit of time, I was also able to compare the statements of the diplomatic briefers with their declassified notes and intelligence regarding what actually had occurred. Seldom did claims of progress actually correlate to progress. Nor had the State Department developed metrics before beginning talks to chart their progress. Rather, the State Department often claims progress not to describe the results of negotiations, but instead to protect the institutional interest of continuing talks and a process in which politicians have invested.

Diplomacy might yet yield results but, in the meantime, rather than accept claims of progress, it would behoove congressmen and journalists to ask the State Department in advance of any talks what their definition for progress is absent any final agreement. If they do so, they may find that, in diplo-speak, the line between progress and failure does not exist.

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Poverty, Social Mobility, and the Party of Lincoln

Yesterday Senator Marco Rubio delivered a major speech on poverty and social mobility. It’s impressive for several reasons.

While not ignoring the issue of income inequality, he made what I think is the correct and important point: Lack of social mobility, not income inequality, is what we should focus on. And the speech was intellectually impressive in part because it was intellectually honest. Senator Rubio explained with some sophistication the reasons for what he calls “opportunity inequality”–including long-term economic, social, cultural, and educational causes. This speech was not politically partisan or shallow; it admitted the causes of poverty and decreasing social mobility are complex. (Many European countries now have as much social mobility as, and more opportunity than, the United States; and today a child’s future depends on parental income more in America than it does in Canada and Europe.) Senator Rubio’s address deepened the public’s understanding of these issues, and that’s all to the good.

On the policy side of things, Senator Rubio’s proposals on the Flex Fund (which would consolidate many anti-poverty programs that in turn would be distributed to the states to enact their own anti-poverty agenda) and transforming the Earned Income Tax Credit into a real wage subsidy are promising steps, with more, I gather, to follow.

What Mr. Rubio unveiled yesterday merits support on federalism and subsidiary grounds, in terms of how we should think about the working poor versus those who are unable to work, because it incentivizes work and creates incentives to avoid unemployment programs, and because it makes upward mobility more, not less, likely. (For a more detailed and illuminating discussion of the merits of Rubio’s proposals, see here and here.)

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Yesterday Senator Marco Rubio delivered a major speech on poverty and social mobility. It’s impressive for several reasons.

While not ignoring the issue of income inequality, he made what I think is the correct and important point: Lack of social mobility, not income inequality, is what we should focus on. And the speech was intellectually impressive in part because it was intellectually honest. Senator Rubio explained with some sophistication the reasons for what he calls “opportunity inequality”–including long-term economic, social, cultural, and educational causes. This speech was not politically partisan or shallow; it admitted the causes of poverty and decreasing social mobility are complex. (Many European countries now have as much social mobility as, and more opportunity than, the United States; and today a child’s future depends on parental income more in America than it does in Canada and Europe.) Senator Rubio’s address deepened the public’s understanding of these issues, and that’s all to the good.

On the policy side of things, Senator Rubio’s proposals on the Flex Fund (which would consolidate many anti-poverty programs that in turn would be distributed to the states to enact their own anti-poverty agenda) and transforming the Earned Income Tax Credit into a real wage subsidy are promising steps, with more, I gather, to follow.

What Mr. Rubio unveiled yesterday merits support on federalism and subsidiary grounds, in terms of how we should think about the working poor versus those who are unable to work, because it incentivizes work and creates incentives to avoid unemployment programs, and because it makes upward mobility more, not less, likely. (For a more detailed and illuminating discussion of the merits of Rubio’s proposals, see here and here.)

As for politics: This kind of effort can only help the Republican Party, which has been too disengaged and morally indifferent to the problems facing the poor for too long. It has not offered a compelling agenda that addresses the economic and structural problems that face (especially) those living in the shadows of society. Whether or not to support or oppose Senator Rubio’s proposals should hinge on the substantive merits. But of course you can’t take the politics out of politics, and so as a purely political matter, focusing on the plight of the poor would certainly make middle-class voters, and especially middle-class women, more amenable to the GOP.

I’ve written before that social mobility is the central moral promise of American economic life; the hallmark of our system is the potential for advancement and greater prosperity rooted in merit and hard work rather than in the circumstances of one’s birth. This was the key insight of Lincoln, who noted that “the progress by which the poor, honest, industrious and resolute man raises himself, that he may work on his own account and hire somebody else … is the great principle for which this government was really formed.”

It’s time that the Party of Lincoln more fully embrace the philosophy of Lincoln. That is, I think, what Marco Rubio (and congressional Republicans, like Representatives Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan and Senator Mike Lee) are doing. More Republicans should follow their lead. 

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Europe Should Say No to Turkey for Good

Not only does Turkey dream about being a member of the European Union, but the future of Europe depends on it. At least that is the narrative put forward by both American officials and many European diplomats for quite some time. In 2009, for example, President Obama said that European Union membership would “firmly anchor” Turkey in Europe.

Whether out of conviction or a desire for access, some U.S.-based Turkey analysts also push the line, and suggest that EU membership will further Turkey’s reform and bolster Europe’s economy.

Such sentiments may be politically correct, but they are nonsense. Rather than become more democratic or truly reform, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has transformed Turkey into a banana republic. In recent days, he has not only fired police chiefs across the country to ensure that his own personal cronies take their place, but has moved to punish Zekeriya Öz, the prosecutor once embraced for targeting Turkey’s generals, but who now is a pariah for questioning those in the prime minister’s inner circle. On Tuesday, Öz released a statement detailing the threats he received. “Soon after the first wave of warrants,” he wrote, “I was called to a meeting by two people from the high judiciary. We met in a hotel in Bursa. They told me that Erdoğan was very angry with me. They asked me to write an apology letter to Erdoğan and stop the investigations. Otherwise I would have to suffer the consequences ….” Despite the constant threats he now receives, Erdoğan has stripped him of security. He is, effectively, a dead man walking.

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Not only does Turkey dream about being a member of the European Union, but the future of Europe depends on it. At least that is the narrative put forward by both American officials and many European diplomats for quite some time. In 2009, for example, President Obama said that European Union membership would “firmly anchor” Turkey in Europe.

Whether out of conviction or a desire for access, some U.S.-based Turkey analysts also push the line, and suggest that EU membership will further Turkey’s reform and bolster Europe’s economy.

Such sentiments may be politically correct, but they are nonsense. Rather than become more democratic or truly reform, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has transformed Turkey into a banana republic. In recent days, he has not only fired police chiefs across the country to ensure that his own personal cronies take their place, but has moved to punish Zekeriya Öz, the prosecutor once embraced for targeting Turkey’s generals, but who now is a pariah for questioning those in the prime minister’s inner circle. On Tuesday, Öz released a statement detailing the threats he received. “Soon after the first wave of warrants,” he wrote, “I was called to a meeting by two people from the high judiciary. We met in a hotel in Bursa. They told me that Erdoğan was very angry with me. They asked me to write an apology letter to Erdoğan and stop the investigations. Otherwise I would have to suffer the consequences ….” Despite the constant threats he now receives, Erdoğan has stripped him of security. He is, effectively, a dead man walking.

At its root, the reason for the corruption scandal targeting Erdoğan’s inner circle was the prime minister’s targeting of a network of lucrative test-prep centers run by adherent of Fethullah Gülen. That many Western-leaning Turks, diplomats, and journalists now place their hopes in Gülen, a shadowy religious cult leader whose about-face has been motivated not by democratic enlightenment but personal spite and greed, reinforces the notion that not only is Turkey not ready for Europe, but it never will be. Within Turkey, demography favors the conservative, Islamist-leaning followers of Erdoğan. Both Erdoğan and Gülen’s recent behavior show that real democratic culture has not accompanied the much-heralded reforms implemented by Erdoğan.

No matter who comes out in Turkey’s political struggle, it is time once and for all to put to rest the idea that Turkey will ever join Europe, nor should it. Enabling Turkish membership into the European Union would at this point be little different in effect than allowing Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, or Libyan accession. Policy must be based on reality, not wishful thinking. Erdoğan should go down in history as the man that ruined Turkey’s decade-long dream.

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“Outsiders” and Political Rebellion

If you’ve been following “Bridgegate,” the scandal currently engulfing Chris Christie, you are well aware, as every single story has explained, that this threatens Christie’s image in two ways. The first is that it reinforces a media narrative about him, which means it’s the kind of scandal that sticks: he’s a bully. The second is that it undermines his populist appeal and his anti-corruption bona fides. (Though his apologetic press conference today will probably win back points on that score.)

Both explanations are true, which is why they’ve proliferated as if they’ve been sent from the wires. And yet, accurate as they are, these explanations don’t seem to quite get to the bottom of it. The question at the heart of this is: Why does the public like Chris Christie enough to make a Republican governor of New Jersey an early favorite for 2016? Yes, they like his honesty, his bluntness, his humor, and his relatable persona. But I think there’s a missing ingredient to his popularity.

Christie was the consummate outsider as a candidate for governor, but how he translated that into office really enabled him to own the moniker. The vast bureaucracy of the federal government, and bipartisan frustration with the status quo in Washington, presents true “outsider” politicians with an opportunity. It was an opportunity that catapulted Barack Obama to the presidency, but which turned out to be a cruel joke played on the voters: Obama, as Kevin Williamson has so cogently pointed out, is “the front man for the permanent bureaucracy, the smiley-face mask hiding the pitiless yawning maw of total politics.”

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If you’ve been following “Bridgegate,” the scandal currently engulfing Chris Christie, you are well aware, as every single story has explained, that this threatens Christie’s image in two ways. The first is that it reinforces a media narrative about him, which means it’s the kind of scandal that sticks: he’s a bully. The second is that it undermines his populist appeal and his anti-corruption bona fides. (Though his apologetic press conference today will probably win back points on that score.)

Both explanations are true, which is why they’ve proliferated as if they’ve been sent from the wires. And yet, accurate as they are, these explanations don’t seem to quite get to the bottom of it. The question at the heart of this is: Why does the public like Chris Christie enough to make a Republican governor of New Jersey an early favorite for 2016? Yes, they like his honesty, his bluntness, his humor, and his relatable persona. But I think there’s a missing ingredient to his popularity.

Christie was the consummate outsider as a candidate for governor, but how he translated that into office really enabled him to own the moniker. The vast bureaucracy of the federal government, and bipartisan frustration with the status quo in Washington, presents true “outsider” politicians with an opportunity. It was an opportunity that catapulted Barack Obama to the presidency, but which turned out to be a cruel joke played on the voters: Obama, as Kevin Williamson has so cogently pointed out, is “the front man for the permanent bureaucracy, the smiley-face mask hiding the pitiless yawning maw of total politics.”

As a candidate, Obama truly was an outsider: though a senator, he had only just arrived in that august body, using his community-organizer credibility to promise a government of the people, a tree directed by its roots. As president, however, Obama has been exactly the opposite of an outsider. He has become one with the bureaucracy, not only not a leader but barely even a manager.

Looking back at the some of the moments when Western democracy truly asserted itself and proved its unmatched value to the politics of the world, it’s impossible not to repeatedly bump into the outsider presidents, people who rebelled against the bureaucracy that expected to capture them–a government of insiders who shuddered at the thought their new leader.

As David McCullough chronicles in his biography of Harry Truman, when FDR died and Truman took over, “People were fearful about the future of the country.” The head of the TVA said “The country and the world don’t deserve to be left this way.” Top generals disapproved too. Truman was such an outsider that FDR kept him out of the loop–unconscionably, considering his health. The president of the United States took the helm during World War II and had to be briefed on virtually everything that was going on in the White House.

And yet that very distance was liberating to Truman, even if he wanted to govern as he thought FDR would have–in part because, thanks to being kept in the dark, he didn’t actually know how FDR was governing most of the time. From challenging the labor unions to pushing back against Soviet encroachment, Truman successfully (if imperfectly) navigated the obstacles of the emerging postwar world. Eisenhower is often celebrated for his “realism,” but that’s because he largely maintained the American position of strength he inherited from Truman.

The Cold War that began in earnest on Truman’s watch ended in earnest on the watch of another political rebel, Ronald Reagan. He worried diplomatists in Washington by exhorting Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” He had worried hardliners earlier with his off-script diplomacy at the Reykjavik summit; Nixon said “no summit since Yalta has threatened Western interests so much as the two days at Reykjavik.”

He worried hawks with his drive to eliminate nuclear weapons. He worried doves with his drive for missile defense. Over and over again, he was right. But he had to navigate the established centers of authority on both right and left to get there, and he did so expertly. He remained enough of an outsider to do so.

And across the pond, Reagan’s ally was arguably more of a rebel against the establishment. Think of all the layers of resistance Margaret Thatcher had to break through to get to the prime minister’s office, and all the internal barriers she had to overcome once there–though of course the British premiership is structured differently than the American presidency, so the parallels are limited. (In some cases, though, that disparity makes Thatcher’s accomplishments even more impressive.)

Chris Christie’s time in office has given the impression that he would remain an outsider in Washington. Getting a Democratic state legislature in a heavily Democratic state to vote against the interests of the most powerful Democratic constituency was an example of an outsider undeterred by the entrenched power structure. When members of such an administration appear to use the authority of the state to take petty revenge on political opponents at the expense of the public, the impression is that the power structure has finally co-opted its would-be conqueror. To regain his footing, Christie will likely attempt to convince the public that he can still be trusted to tame the bureaucracy, and not be captured by it.

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Our Contemptible Commander in Chief

The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward wrote a front-page story that includes excerpts from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s new book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War.

According to Woodward, Gates “unleashes harsh judgments about President Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the Afghanistan war… It is rare for a former Cabinet member, let alone a defense secretary occupying a central position in the chain of command, to publish such an antagonistic portrait of a sitting president.”

But one begins to understand what underlies Secretary Gates’s judgment after learning about his thoughts during a meeting he attended. “As I sat there,” Gates writes, “I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Bear in mind that Mr. Obama was interested in getting out even as he gave the order to deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. It was evident to some people at the time, and evident to everyone now, that President Obama had little interest in winning the war in Afghanistan. His aim was to check the box on the way to ending our involvement there.

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The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward wrote a front-page story that includes excerpts from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s new book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War.

According to Woodward, Gates “unleashes harsh judgments about President Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the Afghanistan war… It is rare for a former Cabinet member, let alone a defense secretary occupying a central position in the chain of command, to publish such an antagonistic portrait of a sitting president.”

But one begins to understand what underlies Secretary Gates’s judgment after learning about his thoughts during a meeting he attended. “As I sat there,” Gates writes, “I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Bear in mind that Mr. Obama was interested in getting out even as he gave the order to deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. It was evident to some people at the time, and evident to everyone now, that President Obama had little interest in winning the war in Afghanistan. His aim was to check the box on the way to ending our involvement there.

Secretary Gates also writes about an exchange between Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

Hillary told the president that her opposition to the [2007] surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. . . . The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.

These are an extraordinary series of revelations. The commander in chief (a) sent troops to fight and die in a war (Afghanistan) he wasn’t committed to and in whose strategy he had no confidence in; and (b) as a senator opposed for partisan reasons a counterinsurgency strategy that turned a war we were losing (Iraq) into one we were winning.

Losing a war is among the worst things that can happen to a nation. Yet we have as president a man who was willing to have America lose in Iraq in order to advance his own political ambitions. And a man, by the way, who constantly chastises Republicans for putting politics above country while portraying himself as the one true patriot.

Having served in the White House for seven years and spanning two wars, I had first-hand exposure to the devotion Mr. Obama’s predecessor had for our troops and how fiercely dedicated he was to having America prevail in these conflicts. Partisan politics not only didn’t drive President Bush’s decisions; they didn’t even enter into them. That is as it should be. For Mr. Obama, on the other hand–at least based on the account by the widely respected Bob Gates–partisan politics was an overwhelming factor in guiding Obama’s major war decisions.

Barack Obama acted in a way that was selfish, cynical, and contemptible. He sent young men and women to die for a war he was utterly ambivalent about and which he had no interest in winning. (Recall that Mr. Obama decided to withdraw the surge troops in Afghanistan in the middle of the fighting season rather than what the military recommended. That decision made no sense from a military standpoint, but it did happen to occur shortly before the 2012 presidential election.) As a senator he did everything he could to ensure that we would lose the Iraq war.

What Secretary Gates has revealed is a moral stain on the president that will never be removed.

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