Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 13, 2014

Rubio’s Poverty Pitch What the GOP Needs

Marco Rubio’s 2013 was as bad as Chris Christie’s was good. The Florida senator’s annus horribillis began with his goofy water bottle problem as he delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union message. It continued when a month later he appeared equally ridiculous rushing to the floor of the Senate to support Rand Paul’s drone filibuster in order to avoid letting a rival hog all the attention, even though he actually disagreed with the libertarian. But Rubio, who began the year at the top of everyone’s list of Republican presidential hopefuls, didn’t hit bottom until he became the target of widespread conservative animus for his high-minded decision to back a bipartisan immigration reform bill. By the summer, many of his erstwhile fans on the right had buried him as a RINO and talk about his candidacy in 2016 seemed to be on hold. Even the senator began backing away from his own bill.

But if Christie has gone from GOP frontrunner to possible has-been in the wake of his Bridgegate scandal, Rubio has a chance to start over in 2014. Though it’s unlikely that many anti-immigration die-hards will forgive him for speaking common sense about the issue, Rubio’s address at the Capitol last week on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” gave his year a promising beginning. As James Pethokoukis rightly noted at the AEI Ideas blog, his “new anti-poverty plan offers a dramatic, even radical revamp of the American welfare state” that attempts to raise the incomes of the poor without falling into the trap of big government.

It’s not clear whether his fine speech and Christie’s downfall will boost his presidential stock, but Rubio may have done more than advance a personal agenda. By calling on Republicans to address how to help Americans mired in poverty, Rubio may have started an important conversation on the right that could help make the GOP the party of ideas again.

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Marco Rubio’s 2013 was as bad as Chris Christie’s was good. The Florida senator’s annus horribillis began with his goofy water bottle problem as he delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union message. It continued when a month later he appeared equally ridiculous rushing to the floor of the Senate to support Rand Paul’s drone filibuster in order to avoid letting a rival hog all the attention, even though he actually disagreed with the libertarian. But Rubio, who began the year at the top of everyone’s list of Republican presidential hopefuls, didn’t hit bottom until he became the target of widespread conservative animus for his high-minded decision to back a bipartisan immigration reform bill. By the summer, many of his erstwhile fans on the right had buried him as a RINO and talk about his candidacy in 2016 seemed to be on hold. Even the senator began backing away from his own bill.

But if Christie has gone from GOP frontrunner to possible has-been in the wake of his Bridgegate scandal, Rubio has a chance to start over in 2014. Though it’s unlikely that many anti-immigration die-hards will forgive him for speaking common sense about the issue, Rubio’s address at the Capitol last week on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” gave his year a promising beginning. As James Pethokoukis rightly noted at the AEI Ideas blog, his “new anti-poverty plan offers a dramatic, even radical revamp of the American welfare state” that attempts to raise the incomes of the poor without falling into the trap of big government.

It’s not clear whether his fine speech and Christie’s downfall will boost his presidential stock, but Rubio may have done more than advance a personal agenda. By calling on Republicans to address how to help Americans mired in poverty, Rubio may have started an important conversation on the right that could help make the GOP the party of ideas again.

Rubio’s approach is based on two accurate assumptions. One is that Republicans cannot hope to win national elections by playing the role of the mean party that likes the rich and considers the poor to be an incorrigible “47 percent” of takers, to quote Mitt Romney’s unfortunate gaffe. Conservatives must demonstrate that they care about people who aren’t rich or well off lest they be written off as the party of ruthless plutocrats who want to take away benefits from the poor. Though the Tea Party movement has raised important points about the dangers of uncontrolled tax and spend policies, the results of the 2012 election should have reminded Republicans that they must do more than say “no” to Democratic ideas; they must offer voters their own plans for helping the disadvantaged.

But there is more at stake here than merely a rhetorical pivot. As Rubio also makes clear, the GOP must offer an alternative to the failed liberal policies that are associated with the War on Poverty. The senator states what generations of liberals have worked hard to ignore when he says the problem with the big-government liberalism that Johnson helped unleash was not its desire to help the poor. The problem was that rather than freeing the poor from poverty, these policies, albeit unintentionally, created a new permanent underclass trapped in misery with little hope of escape. Dismantling it, or at least stripping the federal government of much of its role in anti-poverty efforts and devolving power to the states, as Rubio advocates, offers the country an opportunity to reform a failed system.

As Pethokoukis notes, the basic principles that form the foundation of this approach are irrefutable: the need to create more of the social mobility that the welfare state discourages; to increase the gap between the income of those who work and those who don’t; and to build a more efficient safety net that isn’t run by a federal bureaucracy from Washington, D.C.

These are the key talking points that every Republican should be discussing, especially as Democrats attempt to change the national political conversation from the ObamaCare disaster to a new one about income inequality. The difference between the two parties is that Rubio is proposing a genuine alternative to the status quo while all Democrats are offering is more of the same failed ideas that have done so much damage to the poor in the last half-century.

In the 1980s, Republicans assumed the mantle of the “thinking party,” as they sought to reform the welfare state under the leadership of Ronald Reagan. It’s time they started thinking again. It’s not clear whether Rubio will run in 2016 but no matter what his plans, if he can help promote this sea change away from knee-jerk opposition to all government action to a new era of GOP reform of government, he will do his party—and the country—an inestimable service.

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Burying Unilateralism Along With its Patron

While Israel may have now buried former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, it is still far from having buried with him the idea with which Sharon ultimately came to be most strongly associated: unilateralism–the notion that if no partner for peace could be found, then Israel should determine its own fate, draw its own borders, and extricate itself from a conflict it has long wanted no part in. It was ultimately to this end that Sharon broke from the Likud, and indeed the settlement movement that he had long been the patron of, and established Kadima, the party that would give him the representation in Israel’s Knesset that he needed to carry out the unilateral disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

Sharon had been lying in a coma since early 2006, and despite the abject failure of unilateral disengagement from both Gaza and Lebanon, Sharon’s ideas have not lain dormant with him. Having been a territorial maximalist for most of his political life, unilateral withdrawal from territory may prove to be Sharon’s most significant parting gift to Israel and the region.

Today there is no shortage of politicians in Israel who still espouse the virtues of this strategy. Most notable among them is former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who in a sense first pioneered unilateralism with his disengagement from southern Lebanon in 2000. He was still voicing partial support for unilateral disengagement from the West Bank in 2012. And the idea remains particularly popular among many in Israel’s defense and security establishment. Avi Dichter and Ami Ayalon, both former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency continue to champion this policy, as does Omer Bar-Lev, former head of the general Staff Reconnaissance Unit and a Labor Party member of Israel’s parliament.  

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While Israel may have now buried former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, it is still far from having buried with him the idea with which Sharon ultimately came to be most strongly associated: unilateralism–the notion that if no partner for peace could be found, then Israel should determine its own fate, draw its own borders, and extricate itself from a conflict it has long wanted no part in. It was ultimately to this end that Sharon broke from the Likud, and indeed the settlement movement that he had long been the patron of, and established Kadima, the party that would give him the representation in Israel’s Knesset that he needed to carry out the unilateral disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

Sharon had been lying in a coma since early 2006, and despite the abject failure of unilateral disengagement from both Gaza and Lebanon, Sharon’s ideas have not lain dormant with him. Having been a territorial maximalist for most of his political life, unilateral withdrawal from territory may prove to be Sharon’s most significant parting gift to Israel and the region.

Today there is no shortage of politicians in Israel who still espouse the virtues of this strategy. Most notable among them is former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who in a sense first pioneered unilateralism with his disengagement from southern Lebanon in 2000. He was still voicing partial support for unilateral disengagement from the West Bank in 2012. And the idea remains particularly popular among many in Israel’s defense and security establishment. Avi Dichter and Ami Ayalon, both former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency continue to champion this policy, as does Omer Bar-Lev, former head of the general Staff Reconnaissance Unit and a Labor Party member of Israel’s parliament.  

Just this weekend Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was outlining the possibility of withdrawal from much of the West Bank in the not-unlikely event that Israel’s latest round of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority produce no tangible results. In his obituary on Sharon, written for CNN, Oren writes, “A growing number Israelis are asking, ‘What happens if the process fails?’ One solution could be a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank.” Oren suggests how things could be done differently this time, a sign that unilateralists do indeed recognize where the policy has unraveled in the past. Oren explains, “As in the disengagement from Gaza, the United States would endorse this move, but unlike in Gaza, most Israeli settlements would remain within Israel, and Israeli troops would still patrol strategic borders. Of course, the preferable solution is two states for two peoples. But if that proves unattainable, then Israel can still end the occupation of the Palestinians, preserve its security, and perhaps lay new foundations for peace.”

Unilateralism’s great strength is that it refuses to have any delusions about Palestinian intransigence. It refuses to allow Israel to be indefinitely held hostage by the kind of Palestinian rejectionism that has thus far rendered all attempts at a negotiated peace futile. Instead, the unilateralists advocate simply withdrawing to borders of Israel’s choosing. The problem here, however, is that unilateralism is still buying into some of the most fundamental and mistaken premises of the dovish camp in Israel. That is the belief that the conflict is about territory, and that Israel can trade land for peace by giving the Palestinians an agreed upon allotment of territory. Since the Palestinians have so far failed to outline precisely what amount of territory they would require before ending the conflict, negotiations on land for peace have thus far failed to deliver. 

The unilateralists seek to bypass stalled negotiations through simply handing over territory to the Palestinians without the framework of peace talks, thus creating a de facto two-state solution. Yet this is a mistake. The two-state proposal is itself an Israeli creation and the Palestinians have never come close to unanimously acknowledging it as a preferable end goal. Israel can create a two-state scenario without Palestinian cooperation if it wants, but there’s no reason to think this will do anything to pacify them.

Both with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and with Hamas in Gaza, Israeli unilateral withdrawal was viewed by the Islamists as a retreat and a sign of weakness. Israelis had demanded nothing in return for the territory they abandoned, they had simply fled. Proof enough for the extremists that terror pays and that Israel’s resolve will always break eventually. In this way unilateral disengagement has emboldened Israel’s enemies to step up their war on Israel, which is not territorial in nature, but existential.

Unilateralists are, of course, not simply driven by the desire to extricate Israeli forces from the nightmare of having to police a hostile population. They are also galvanized by serious concerns about demographics and Israel’s international standing. Yet, increasingly it looks as if the fears about the Palestinian demographic time bomb have been drastically exaggerated. Besides, the number of Palestinians in the West Bank has little to do with Israel as a Jewish-majority democracy. Palestinians already have their own separate polity in the form of the Palestinian Authority and they elect their own government, or at least they do as and when that government stands by its obligations to allow them to do so.

Nor does unilateralism do anything significant to lift Israel’s international legitimacy. When Israeli civilians have come under rocket fire from both southern Lebanon and Gaza, not only has the international community not been sympathetic to Israel, when Israel is inevitably forced to responded to these attacks, the degree of condemnation of this self-defense against terror has been chilling. Indeed, the international community still maintains that Israel is occupying Gaza on account of the fact that it controls Gaza’s borders, an absurd position given that Egypt also controls a border with Gaza, one it guards just as tightly.

In the event that Israel withdrew from the majority of the West bank and pulled back to its security barrier, not only could it not expect any international recognition for its borders, but experience suggests that it should expect the West Bank to be turned into the same kind of lawless terror launch pad for Iranian proxies that Gaza and southern Lebanon have already now become.

Sharon may be buried, but unilateralism is still alive and well. In the future Israelis may yet come to deeply regret not having buried this ideology with its most renowned practitioner when they had the chance.  

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What Ariel Sharon Knew

The grudging respect that Ariel Sharon garnered from the Western press after the Gaza disengagement was misleading. They still reviled the Israeli military might he represented and the ideas he never let go of. Consequently, Sharon inspired the kind of praise that was both insincere and couched in so many weaselly qualifications as to make it twice as insulting as the condemnations he was used to. At least the condemnations were honest. His newfound, reluctant admirers couldn’t even look him in the eye. And boy, did Arik detest cowards.

If the Newseum in Washington ever puts together an exhibit of such media behavior, they will surely center it on this masterpiece of the genre, from the Economist. It was published after the Gaza withdrawal was underway, but before Sharon was chased from the Likud Party for it. Lamenting that “the chances of a Labour victory are, alas, fairly negligible,” the magazine focused on Benjamin Netanyahu’s intention to vie for the Likud leadership against Sharon, and weighed in on which one was preferable. One imagines the psychological torment the editors withstood in order to choose between Bibi and Arik.

When it came time to hand down its verdict, the Economist offered a pox on both their houses, but slightly less of one on the House of Arik:

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The grudging respect that Ariel Sharon garnered from the Western press after the Gaza disengagement was misleading. They still reviled the Israeli military might he represented and the ideas he never let go of. Consequently, Sharon inspired the kind of praise that was both insincere and couched in so many weaselly qualifications as to make it twice as insulting as the condemnations he was used to. At least the condemnations were honest. His newfound, reluctant admirers couldn’t even look him in the eye. And boy, did Arik detest cowards.

If the Newseum in Washington ever puts together an exhibit of such media behavior, they will surely center it on this masterpiece of the genre, from the Economist. It was published after the Gaza withdrawal was underway, but before Sharon was chased from the Likud Party for it. Lamenting that “the chances of a Labour victory are, alas, fairly negligible,” the magazine focused on Benjamin Netanyahu’s intention to vie for the Likud leadership against Sharon, and weighed in on which one was preferable. One imagines the psychological torment the editors withstood in order to choose between Bibi and Arik.

When it came time to hand down its verdict, the Economist offered a pox on both their houses, but slightly less of one on the House of Arik:

This is not because of some fundamental difference of vision or character between the two men. It is because of where each has chosen to take his stand in this contest.

To unseat the prime minister, Bibi has thrown in his lot with the least flexible elements of Likud—the bitter-enders who cling to the nonsensical idea that Israel can remain a Jewish democracy while ruling over millions of Palestinians. If he wins power with their support, he will find it extremely difficult to change position afterwards. Mr Sharon, in contrast, has just shown most dramatically in Gaza that he has the temerity to challenge and defeat this bunch, even if it means betraying those who previously lionised him. If the first Israeli leader to take such a risk is rewarded with the boot, peace with the Palestinians will remain as elusive as ever.

Those last two sentences are ever so revealing. Asks the Economist: Who is courageous? Answer: He who rises up against the Likud. And look how carefully constructed that last sentence is–so hedged and watered down as to be meaningless. And what happened? Arik was not “rewarded with the boot” by the voters (though he had to disengage from Likud). He won the following election by the sheer force of his own name and personality.

He left the most talented Likudniks behind when he formed Kadima. It showed–he was succeeded by Ehud Olmert, who was succeeded in Kadima by Tzipi Livni. Choose Arik over Bibi, the Economist advised, in the name of peace. In other words, the world assured the Israelis, this time is different. This time the disengagement, the withdrawal, will lead to … what exactly? Well the Economist isn’t so bold as to say, because one suspects that deep down the editors, and the highly refined opinion of the international community they represented, knew the truth. And boy, did Arik detest cowards.

The truth was that it would not lead to a change in Palestinian behavior. Israel unilaterally leaving all of Gaza and parts of the West Bank was supposed to be John Cusack holding the boombox blaring In Your Eyes outside the Palestinians’ window. But the Palestinians weren’t interested in Ariel Sharon’s gestures–which Sharon didn’t think of as gestures so much as essential actions that would secure the safety of the state he spent his life defending on the battlefield. And how much less interested must they be in lesser gestures, like settlement freezes or White House invites?

Obituaries and reminiscences of Sharon’s life are not lacking for lessons. But surely one lesson of Sharon’s life is this: the gesture politics that are a mark of the Western left’s decadent narcissism and intellectual boredom are useless in the very conflict they are applied most often. Worse than useless, perhaps–dangerous. John Kerry’s shawarma diplomacy is aimed at getting a piece of paper signed so he can pretend peace is at hand. Sharon never had the luxury of pretending.

And Sharon never needed a piece of paper. He left Gaza without a formal agreement because he understood the difference between peace agreements and peace. The two often have nothing to do with each other. When he felt he needed to do something for Israel’s security–withdrawal, security fence–he did it, because without security there is no peace. (People often think it’s the other way around, but history says otherwise.)

Sharon made mistakes. His judgment was not infallible. What was seemingly infallible was his iron will, for good and for ill. Because Sharon believed in reality. The politicians and journalists hectoring and heckling him from thousands of miles away were living in a fantasy world. They hated him, because he wouldn’t join them there. And he wouldn’t join them there because he believed it was cowardly for a man responsible for the survival of his people to play make-believe when lives were on the line.

And boy, did Arik detest cowards.

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Latest Bridge Pile-on Finishes Christie in ’16

In yesterday’s Washington Post, written at the height of the Bridgegate media feeding frenzy, Chris Cilizza claimed that despite the blows New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had absorbed in the last week, he must still be considered the leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Perhaps so, but only in the sense that a person who has suffered a fatal wound will sometimes continue functioning for a time before the final collapse. The merits of any such ranking published two years before any votes are counted can be debated with impunity. Moreover, eliminating Christie at this point would force Cilizza–or any other pundit who likes to write lists of this kind–to promote potential candidates such as Rand Paul, Scott Walker, or Ted Cruz (who are, respectively, numbers two, three, and four on the list) to the top spot who currently have no business claiming the title of frontrunner.

But even after a day when Christie’s troubles dominated the Sunday morning talk shows and it may have seemed things couldn’t get any worse for the governor, they have. The media pile-on is continuing with the New York Times running a story at the top of its website this afternoon about Christie’s administration playing hardball with Mayor Steven Fulop of Jersey City in a manner reminiscent of the way it did with Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee, the intended victim of the bizarre bridge lane closings scheme. Perhaps even more troubling is the news that the Federal Government intends to conduct an audit of funds allocated to New Jersey in Hurricane Sandy relief. The fact that some of that money was used to pay for ads featuring Christie promoting tourism to the hard-hit Jersey Shore resort towns was criticized by both Democratic and Republican rivals of the governor, but no one had paid much attention to the complaint until this week.

There is nothing new or even scandalous in the fact that Christie’s office canceled meetings between Mayor Fulop and commissioners who might have helped his city. Nor is there any merit to cries of corruption about the “Stronger than the storm” ads starring Christie. But the willingness of Christie’s political and press opponents to keep kicking him without mercy now that he is down is an indication of just how deep a hole Christie is in after Bridgegate. The governor’s political career isn’t over, but the national political capital that he had been accumulating in the last two years has vanished. If he is serious about running for president in 2016—something that we should no longer consider a certainty—he is going to have to start from scratch today.

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In yesterday’s Washington Post, written at the height of the Bridgegate media feeding frenzy, Chris Cilizza claimed that despite the blows New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had absorbed in the last week, he must still be considered the leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Perhaps so, but only in the sense that a person who has suffered a fatal wound will sometimes continue functioning for a time before the final collapse. The merits of any such ranking published two years before any votes are counted can be debated with impunity. Moreover, eliminating Christie at this point would force Cilizza–or any other pundit who likes to write lists of this kind–to promote potential candidates such as Rand Paul, Scott Walker, or Ted Cruz (who are, respectively, numbers two, three, and four on the list) to the top spot who currently have no business claiming the title of frontrunner.

But even after a day when Christie’s troubles dominated the Sunday morning talk shows and it may have seemed things couldn’t get any worse for the governor, they have. The media pile-on is continuing with the New York Times running a story at the top of its website this afternoon about Christie’s administration playing hardball with Mayor Steven Fulop of Jersey City in a manner reminiscent of the way it did with Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee, the intended victim of the bizarre bridge lane closings scheme. Perhaps even more troubling is the news that the Federal Government intends to conduct an audit of funds allocated to New Jersey in Hurricane Sandy relief. The fact that some of that money was used to pay for ads featuring Christie promoting tourism to the hard-hit Jersey Shore resort towns was criticized by both Democratic and Republican rivals of the governor, but no one had paid much attention to the complaint until this week.

There is nothing new or even scandalous in the fact that Christie’s office canceled meetings between Mayor Fulop and commissioners who might have helped his city. Nor is there any merit to cries of corruption about the “Stronger than the storm” ads starring Christie. But the willingness of Christie’s political and press opponents to keep kicking him without mercy now that he is down is an indication of just how deep a hole Christie is in after Bridgegate. The governor’s political career isn’t over, but the national political capital that he had been accumulating in the last two years has vanished. If he is serious about running for president in 2016—something that we should no longer consider a certainty—he is going to have to start from scratch today.

As Cilizza rightly notes, Christie remains “the most naturally talented candidate in Republican politics.” A sympathetic pundit like David Frum is probably not entirely wrong when he scorns those who have quickly written the governor off after Bridgegate and may well be right when he refers to Christie, who is still a relatively young man who may well be in play in 2020 and beyond, as being at the beginning of a career in presidential politics rather than at its end.

But the belief that Bridgegate is but a passing phenomenon that will soon subside as do all media firestorms ignores the fact that the fiasco has robbed the governor of one of his greatest assets. Christie became famous by playing the tough-talking truth teller who spoke up for the little guy and worked across party lines. That conceit was created in no small measure by the governor’s ability to earn cheers for brashly ignoring criticism and telling off foes. Now that his office has proved that the talk of his being a bully is no figure of speech, it won’t be possible for him to play that card again without reminding people of the traffic jams on the bridge or his staff’s scheming revenge on Democrats who won’t do as they’re told.

The investigation begun by the Department of Housing and Urban Development over the use of Hurricane relief is utterly specious. Getting people to return to the shore the summer after the storm was integral to recovery efforts and Christie’s featured role was not only customary (governors of both parties and their families are routinely shown in such ads around the country without sparking investigations) but also probably smart; Christie had become the state’s most recognizable and well-liked personality in the wake of his successful storm relief efforts and his controversial (at least to conservative Republicans) embrace of President Obama. The announcement of the probe is also blatantly political since no one had paid any attention to complaints about the ads from Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone when he carried on about it last summer, though Rand Paul, another Christie foe, repeated the charge in November after he and the governor began jousting over foreign policy.

But even though nothing will come of this investigation, the decision of the Obama administration to join the attack on Christie shows how vulnerable he has become. As unfair as this aspect of the pile-on may be, it will drag on for months and, like the bridge business, will be thrown in Christie’s face every time he surfaces. It won’t drive him from office as liberals would like (unless, that is, some evidence surfaces that proves he was in on the bridge lane closings) but it will make it impossible to do the normal business of politics that is essential to preparing a presidential candidacy.

What’s more, Christie’s woes will make it easier for other contenders such as Jeb Bush, who seek the same centrist and moderate conservative backing that he seemed to have in his pocket, to emerge. The momentum Christie had after a landslide reelection has dissipated and the enthusiasm of GOP donors for a man who can no longer claim to be a rising star and media idol is also likely in question.

I’ll concede that a Christie presidential candidacy is not impossible in 2016. But if it does happen, it will have to take a completely different trajectory and be based on a recovery of public affection by the governor that seems high unlikely now. So while I’m not sure who belongs at the top of the list of Republicans kept by Cilizza and other pundits, the one thing I do know is that it shouldn’t be Christie.

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Why the Secrecy?

The White House is not releasing the text of the Joint Plan of Action’s implementation agreement about Iran’s nuclear deal. Worse, it is shifting responsibility for this unprecedented secrecy on the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Secret diplomatic treaties are a throwback to a previous era of diplomacy–and are frankly ridiculous, since in an era where leaks happen in real time, keeping a document secret seems like a sure recipe for embarrassment.

It is also an own goal for the administration, given that it will only enhance legitimate suspicions that none of Iran’s concessions are irreversible and that the West volunteered to reduce its own leverage in exchange for vague promises.

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The White House is not releasing the text of the Joint Plan of Action’s implementation agreement about Iran’s nuclear deal. Worse, it is shifting responsibility for this unprecedented secrecy on the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Secret diplomatic treaties are a throwback to a previous era of diplomacy–and are frankly ridiculous, since in an era where leaks happen in real time, keeping a document secret seems like a sure recipe for embarrassment.

It is also an own goal for the administration, given that it will only enhance legitimate suspicions that none of Iran’s concessions are irreversible and that the West volunteered to reduce its own leverage in exchange for vague promises.

Regardless, one thing comes to mind: where are Edward Snowden and Julian Assange when one needs them most?

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The Loss of Momentum

In politics, war, sports, and other realms momentum counts for a lot. If you maintain the momentum, you can give the appearance that your victory is inevitable. This disheartens your adversaries, emboldens your side, and leads waverers to root for your cause. If, however, you lose momentum the entire process is reversed and you are put on the defensive, with numerous negative consequences.

Well, guess what? The West has just lost momentum in the battle to keep Iran from going nuclear. The Obama administration claims that the deal which takes effect next week is only temporary and phased in–that in return for a partial slowdown in its nuclear program (which, according to the New York Times, will add as little as “several weeks to the time Iran would need to acquire enough enriched uranium for a bomb”) Iran will get “only” $6 billion to $7 billion worth of sanctions relief.

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In politics, war, sports, and other realms momentum counts for a lot. If you maintain the momentum, you can give the appearance that your victory is inevitable. This disheartens your adversaries, emboldens your side, and leads waverers to root for your cause. If, however, you lose momentum the entire process is reversed and you are put on the defensive, with numerous negative consequences.

Well, guess what? The West has just lost momentum in the battle to keep Iran from going nuclear. The Obama administration claims that the deal which takes effect next week is only temporary and phased in–that in return for a partial slowdown in its nuclear program (which, according to the New York Times, will add as little as “several weeks to the time Iran would need to acquire enough enriched uranium for a bomb”) Iran will get “only” $6 billion to $7 billion worth of sanctions relief.

But Iran has won something far more valuable than that limited sanctions relief, which is valuable enough as it is to a cash-strapped regime. It has stopped the momentum of the West’s sanctions and is beginning to reverse it. After having worked so hard to impose crippling economic sanctions on the Iranian regime, the U.S. is now backing off, even going so far as to implicitly recognize Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium–i.e., its “right” to maintain breakout capacity to build a bomb within a few weeks or months.

This is sending a signal to the entire world that we are no longer serious about containing Iran. Instead, we are going to accommodate it. Given that reality, the hordes of waverers and finger-to-the-wind countries which have been very reluctant to give up their business dealings with Iran are now likely to open up the spigots and let trade flow.

An initial sign of this comes from Dubai. The United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, has long had an equivocal relationship with Iran. Like other Sunni states in the region, it has been terrified of the rise of Iranian power but, as a small state located across a narrow waterway from the Persian powerhouse, it has also sought to accommodate the Iranians as much as possible. Dubai, which lives on trade, has been especially active in providing a market where Iran can buy and sell what it needs.

Thus it is hardly surprising but nevertheless significant to read the ruler of Dubai quoted as follows:

Asked whether he thought it was time to lift the sanctions, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is also the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, told British broadcaster the BBC:

“I think so and give Iran a space… Iran is our neighbor and we don’t want any problem, he said, adding that “everybody will benefit”.

This is indicative of a broader reaction that is sure to set in almost immediately. Countries which had been brought reluctantly to support sanctions on Iran are going to ease off. This is especially true of states in the Middle East whose rulers are wily survivors. They can read which way the wind is blowing, and they now recognize that the Iranians have what George H.W. Bush once referred to as “big mo” and the U.S. doesn’t. They will act accordingly.

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John Kerry and Israel’s Security Priorities

In recent days a series of disturbing reports have emerged regarding the acquisition by Hezbollah of powerful long-range and radar-guided missiles via Syria. Given that the source of these reports, first revealed by the Wall Street Journal January 2, come from U.S. military intelligence officials it would seem prudent to take them seriously. If accurate, this brings Hezbollah’s military capabilities into a new league with the potential to significantly shift the calculus of risk for Israel and its population. That these events come amidst a delay in the deployment of Iron Dome air defense systems along Israel’s northern border, on account of budgetary difficulties, only adds to any assessment of just how troubling Israel’s security situation is regarding the Iranian proxies in Lebanon.

Yet, with Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians now in full swing, it seems that many of Israel’s far more critical security concerns risk being crowded out. The great irony here being that Kerry is expending huge amounts of energy, and indeed Israel’s time, on a peace process that cannot possibly hope to bring Israel peace or security in the places where it arguably needs them most.

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In recent days a series of disturbing reports have emerged regarding the acquisition by Hezbollah of powerful long-range and radar-guided missiles via Syria. Given that the source of these reports, first revealed by the Wall Street Journal January 2, come from U.S. military intelligence officials it would seem prudent to take them seriously. If accurate, this brings Hezbollah’s military capabilities into a new league with the potential to significantly shift the calculus of risk for Israel and its population. That these events come amidst a delay in the deployment of Iron Dome air defense systems along Israel’s northern border, on account of budgetary difficulties, only adds to any assessment of just how troubling Israel’s security situation is regarding the Iranian proxies in Lebanon.

Yet, with Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians now in full swing, it seems that many of Israel’s far more critical security concerns risk being crowded out. The great irony here being that Kerry is expending huge amounts of energy, and indeed Israel’s time, on a peace process that cannot possibly hope to bring Israel peace or security in the places where it arguably needs them most.

Speaking from Jerusalem about the progress of negotiations last week, Kerry told reporters: “These are complicated issues that involve the survival and the future of peoples. And this is a conflict that has gone on for too long.” Few could disagree with that, least of all Israelis, who have long lived with the disorienting awareness of just how precarious the survival of their nation really is. Yet Kerry went on to say more. Of the focus of the negotiations he added, “Now is not the time to get trapped in the sort of up and down of the day-to-day challenges … We don’t have the luxury of dwelling on the obstacles that we all know could distract us from our goal. What we need to do is lift our sights and look ahead and keep in mind the vision of what can come, and if we can move forward.”

Touching as visions of the future may well be and true as it is that both sides should seek to avoid becoming bogged down in a petty exchange of accusations, we must also wonder about precisely what it is that Israel should and shouldn’t allow itself to be “distracted” by right now. For if Kerry is as committed to the survival of peoples and the ending of conflicts as his above statements would suggest, then there are serious questions that Israelis need to be asking about where the Obama administration has been trying to direct their attention in recent years. What really counts as a luxury and a distraction?

Given that Kerry has undertaken no less than ten visits to Israel since assuming his office less than a year ago, it can hardly be in doubt just how much of a priority overseeing a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is for him. The only trouble is that getting an agreement signed between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas and bringing about peace almost certainly isn’t the same thing. Israel cannot truly make a deal based on land for peace with Abbas, because even if Abbas genuinely wished to do so, neither peace nor security are things that he is able to give Israelis. This is not simply the case because Mahmoud Abbas is almost nine years into his four-year-long presidential term and represents few of the people he claims to speak for or have authority over. Rather, negotiations with Abbas can’t possibly hope to bring Israel peace and security because the Palestinians in the West Bank are not remotely close to being Israel’s primary security concern.

The greatest threat to Israel’s security and continued survival is not even the other group of Palestinians in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, who almost certainly would not hold by any agreement Kerry might be able to somehow conjure up. The single greatest threat to Israel comes from the Islamic regime in Iran and its proxies. Most ominously of all it comes from the Iranian nuclear program. Something which the Obama administration has so far completely failed to bring under control, perhaps unsurprising given how preoccupied Secretary Kerry has been with the matter of trying to get Mahmoud Abbas to agree to accept a state from Israel in exchange for little more than his simple recognition of the Jewish state in return.  

From what has been leaked from the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority so far, it would seem that there has been a great deal of focus on whether or not Israel would maintain a security force in the Jordan Valley. This security matter is clearly of great importance, but right now it pales in comparison to the mounting threat from Iran’s primary proxy Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. And if Abbas can do next to nothing to assure Israel’s security from Hamas rockets in Gaza, how much less can he do about the critical danger to Israel coming from north of its border?

In addition to having stockpiles of an estimated 100,000 rockets and a growing ground force of Iranian-trained troops, it now appears that Hezbollah is acquiring new devastating weaponry via Syria. In recent days there have been statements from U.S. intelligence officials expressing their belief that Russian-made Yakhon anti-ship cruise missiles are now being brought into Lebanon. Despite attempts by the Israeli Air Force to strike weapons stores in Syria in an effort to prevent their transfer to Hezbollah, U.S. officials believe components of advanced radar-guided missiles have already entered southern Lebanon. Although primarily designed for use against ships, these missiles have a range that reach almost the full length of Israel’s territory and are equipped with armor-piecing highly explosive warheads. Additionally, some of the weaponry Hezbollah has been acquiring from Syria would give it the capabilities to attack Israeli planes and stave off the kind of air strikes used to stop the stream of rockets fired into Israeli civilian areas during Hezbollah’s 2006 war against Israel. 

Concurrent with this has come news that Israel’s military will have to delay the deployment of its defensive Iron Dome batteries in the north of the country due to budget cuts. The air defense batteries which were supposed to be positioned to protect Israel’s north reportedly cannot be placed for the moment due to a shortage of manpower related to recent budgetary cuts from Israel’s Ministry of Defense, something which representatives of the military have warned will have serious consequences. As it is, these air defense systems place a huge financial strain on Israel’s ability to defend itself, with each Tamir interception rocket fired costing Israel $50,000. In a war of attrition by Iranian proxies this means of defense could quickly become unsustainable. As one senior military representative stated, “In recent years the enemy has understood that the cheapest and most effective way to harm Israel is by missiles, and therefore the defense establishment is forced to equip itself with the appropriate defense systems, which have a monumental cost.”

These matters are then Israel’s real and primary concern, or at least they should be. Yet, at the moment Israel risks being distracted by the relentless circus of Kerry’s sideshow diplomacy. When it comes to ending conflicts, securing peace and securing the survival of peoples, the most pressing matters do not center on the Palestinians but Iran and its proxy armies. Yet, the Obama administration’s softly-softly approach on Iran, currently materializing in the form of its efforts to ease sanctions on the mullahs, mean that the really serious threats to Israel are now becoming critical. Kerry is quite right when he counsels from Jerusalem on Israel not being able to afford the luxury of dwelling on distractions. Right now, however, Kerry’s shoot-for-the-stars negotiations with Abbas are serving as the most dangerous distraction of all. 

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Inspections? Kerry’s False Iran Promises

When Secretary of State John Kerry defended the deal he signed with Iran on November 24, he was particularly exasperated with the arguments that asserted that Iran would cheat on its promises to “hit the pause button” on its nuclear program. He said the deal was not only a vital first step in the administration’s efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon but that any fears about Tehran deceiving the West were absurd. Kerry promised its facilities would be subjected to rigorous inspections that exceeded anything that had hitherto been imposed on the country. After nearly two months of further wrangling, that interim accord was finalized yesterday and Iran is now to enjoy substantial sanctions relief during a six-month negotiating period that will give it plenty of opportunities to continue its stalling tactics. But amid the orgy of self-congratulation from the administration on its successful effort to avoid taking tougher action against the nuclear threat, we are also learning more about the inspections Kerry bragged about, and these details give the lie to his assurances.

As the New York Times reports, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is tasked with carrying out the inspections, is glad that the deal will expand its ability to monitor some of Iran’s facilities. But, like the deal itself, the inspections regime turns out to be nothing more than what one nuclear inspector described to the Times as “an appetizer.” While the inspectors will be able to look in on the centrifuges that continue to enrich uranium–a “right” tacitly acknowledged by the West in the deal–it says nothing about the regime’s military research that is necessary for it to complete a bomb. Without such inspections, the notion that the West has any real idea about how close the Iranians are to a bomb is a joke. Far from making it harder for them to achieve their nuclear ambition, the interim accord is, like previous negotiations, enabling the Iranians to go on pursuing it.

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When Secretary of State John Kerry defended the deal he signed with Iran on November 24, he was particularly exasperated with the arguments that asserted that Iran would cheat on its promises to “hit the pause button” on its nuclear program. He said the deal was not only a vital first step in the administration’s efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon but that any fears about Tehran deceiving the West were absurd. Kerry promised its facilities would be subjected to rigorous inspections that exceeded anything that had hitherto been imposed on the country. After nearly two months of further wrangling, that interim accord was finalized yesterday and Iran is now to enjoy substantial sanctions relief during a six-month negotiating period that will give it plenty of opportunities to continue its stalling tactics. But amid the orgy of self-congratulation from the administration on its successful effort to avoid taking tougher action against the nuclear threat, we are also learning more about the inspections Kerry bragged about, and these details give the lie to his assurances.

As the New York Times reports, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is tasked with carrying out the inspections, is glad that the deal will expand its ability to monitor some of Iran’s facilities. But, like the deal itself, the inspections regime turns out to be nothing more than what one nuclear inspector described to the Times as “an appetizer.” While the inspectors will be able to look in on the centrifuges that continue to enrich uranium–a “right” tacitly acknowledged by the West in the deal–it says nothing about the regime’s military research that is necessary for it to complete a bomb. Without such inspections, the notion that the West has any real idea about how close the Iranians are to a bomb is a joke. Far from making it harder for them to achieve their nuclear ambition, the interim accord is, like previous negotiations, enabling the Iranians to go on pursuing it.

The Geneva deal does allow the IAEA to make daily visits to Iran’s enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, an increase over what had previously been allowed. That will permit the West to see if the regime is exceeding the level of enrichment it has been permitted. But even if Iran keeps its word and doesn’t enrich above a level of five percent, all that will achieve is a delay in the period needed for a “breakout” that would get them a bomb. The low-level enriched uranium they are now producing as well as the stockpile they have already acquired can always be converted to weapons-grade material.

But Kerry and other Western leaders already know this. What they and the IAEA don’t know is how far the Iranian bomb research has progressed, and they can only learn this by the kind of inspections that the interim deal won’t provide. As the Times reports:

The agreement between Iran and the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia – meant to buy time for talks on a final settlement of the decade-old nuclear dispute – only vaguely refers to the IAEA’s investigation.

It does not, for example, say anything about the U.N. agency’s repeated requests to visit the Parchin military base.

The IAEA suspects that Iran has carried out explosives tests relevant for nuclear bomb development at the facility southeast of Tehran, possibly a decade ago. Iran denies this and has so far refused to open it up for the inspectors.

The watchdog also wants to see other locations, interview officials and study relevant documents for its inquiry into what it calls the “possible military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear program, known under the acronym PMD.

In other words, Kerry and the rest of the P5+1 group about to resume their diplomatic dance with the Iranians have done nothing to effectively curb research on a bomb even as their enrichment deal does just as little to stop Tehran from stockpiling more nuclear fuel.

The sanctions relief the Iranians are getting during the six-month interim period that, thanks to the delay, actually became an eight-month respite are by no means trivial. While much of the coverage of this aspect of the deal spoke only of the release of frozen assets by the West in the amount of a few billion dollars, the U.S. is also relaxing its efforts to curb Iran’s sale of oil to its remaining customers, a lucrative trade that continues to keep the despotic regime fiscally solvent. The European Union also is suspending some of its sanctions on oil and other exports. While the bulk of the sanctions remain in place, now that the restrictions are starting to unravel there is little likelihood that they can be re-imposed in an atmosphere in which the administration seems bent on pursuing détente with Iran rather than pressure.

Kerry will get the time he wanted to negotiate another nuclear deal with Iran, and thanks to the president’s veto threats and the machinations of Majority Leader Harry Reid that Seth wrote about here earlier, there seems little chance that Congress will be able to heighten the pressure with new sanctions that would not go into effect until after diplomacy fails. But given the lack of inspections on Parchin as well as the Iranians’ track record in pulling the rug over the eyes of credulous Westerners like Kerry, that failure is only a matter of time.

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Obama’s Divide-and-Conquer Strategy on Iran Sanctions

The icy relationship between the Obama administration and Israel’s government has created a familiar pattern of events: President Obama says or does something insulting to Israel, Republicans pounce on it and criticize the president, and Democrats respond by accusing Republicans of politicizing Israel for partisan gain. The accusation has proved bothersome to Republicans, but they seem to have grasped the underlying point: it means they’ve struck a nerve. If the accusation can’t be refuted, Democrats will try to rule the accusation itself out of bounds.

But the recent tussle over Iran sanctions has revealed not only that leading Democrats are in denial about this, but that their accusations of Republicans politicizing Israel are actually rather desperate examples of projection. As Jonathan noted on Friday, the White House is, as usual, opposed to the latest Iran sanctions. Some Jewish groups are supportive of the sanctions, which have now reportedly achieved veto-proof congressional majorities. Obama’s defenders at the National Jewish Democratic Council, led by Rabbi Jack Moline, then did something remarkable: they accused other, more respected Jewish groups of bullying Congress into submission. That is: the Democrats opposed bipartisan Iran sanctions supported by pro-Israel groups, and sent out liberal Jewish groups to smear other American Jewish groups for partisan political gain.

The administration’s strategy to divide and conquer domestic Jewish groups is, JTA had explained, to get those Jewish groups to “back a Democratic president while not expressly opposing intensified sanctions.” In other words, they may actually agree on the merits with the Jewish groups whose reputations they’re attempting to drag through the mud. But they are acting in service to President Obama, and so must treat their fellow Jewish groups as enemies to be destroyed so the president can shield the Iranian government from them.

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The icy relationship between the Obama administration and Israel’s government has created a familiar pattern of events: President Obama says or does something insulting to Israel, Republicans pounce on it and criticize the president, and Democrats respond by accusing Republicans of politicizing Israel for partisan gain. The accusation has proved bothersome to Republicans, but they seem to have grasped the underlying point: it means they’ve struck a nerve. If the accusation can’t be refuted, Democrats will try to rule the accusation itself out of bounds.

But the recent tussle over Iran sanctions has revealed not only that leading Democrats are in denial about this, but that their accusations of Republicans politicizing Israel are actually rather desperate examples of projection. As Jonathan noted on Friday, the White House is, as usual, opposed to the latest Iran sanctions. Some Jewish groups are supportive of the sanctions, which have now reportedly achieved veto-proof congressional majorities. Obama’s defenders at the National Jewish Democratic Council, led by Rabbi Jack Moline, then did something remarkable: they accused other, more respected Jewish groups of bullying Congress into submission. That is: the Democrats opposed bipartisan Iran sanctions supported by pro-Israel groups, and sent out liberal Jewish groups to smear other American Jewish groups for partisan political gain.

The administration’s strategy to divide and conquer domestic Jewish groups is, JTA had explained, to get those Jewish groups to “back a Democratic president while not expressly opposing intensified sanctions.” In other words, they may actually agree on the merits with the Jewish groups whose reputations they’re attempting to drag through the mud. But they are acting in service to President Obama, and so must treat their fellow Jewish groups as enemies to be destroyed so the president can shield the Iranian government from them.

All of this is quite shameful, but it might not matter: now that the White House is aware that the people’s representatives would overwhelmingly support the sanctions, their will must be thwarted before democracy has a chance to work its magic. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), a close White House ally, has no plans to soon bring the bill to the floor for a vote, people familiar with the process said. But, given the legislation’s strong bipartisan support, it was unclear how long Mr. Reid can buck pressure to hold a vote, making the Obama administration’s lobbying of individual senators even more critical. The lawmakers said they have a veto-proof number of 67 supporters in the Senate.

To be sure, the divisive strategy of enlisting Jewish groups to attack other Jewish groups is not new for this administration. In 2009, the New York Times Magazine profiled J Street. In the article, Jeremy Ben-Ami described his organization’s role as “the president’s blocking back”–a football metaphor referring to a blocker who helps the running back progress upfield. Tablet’s Marc Tracy explained what this meant:

The implication of the metaphor is that J Street sees itself, rather humbly (I mean that as a compliment), as merely one cog in a much larger process, which can’t do the job by itself but can help the job get done. And, of course, the glory goes not to him but to the runner—to Obama.

Indeed, J Street saw itself as an organization dedicated not to advancing ideas but the agenda–and the “glory”–of the Democratic president. J Street also engaged in attacking the reputations of friends of Israel on Obama’s behalf. So did the NJDC’s former director, Ira Forman, who Obama hired to lead his Jewish outreach. Forman’s NJDC got itself in hot water during the 2004 presidential election by producing a shockingly anti-Christian ad against the Bush-Cheney ticket, which also played on Jewish neoconservative stereotypes. The anti-Christian bigotry was a recurring theme during Forman’s time at NJDC before Obama rewarded him with a reelection post.

Here’s a refresher on that ad, from JTA:

Rove is seen delivering orders to the faithful from a pulpit marked with a crucifix. All the Republicans are clad in red cassocks except for President Bush, who is wearing boxer shorts and a T-shirt and reading “My Pet Goat.”

Two Jewish Republicans, Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and top neo-conservative Richard Perle, tell Bubbie, “Hey we’re one of you” and break into what resembles a hora.

“I’m so ashamed,” Bubbie replies in a strong Yiddish accent, before pounding them with the handbag.

Ken Goldstein, an academic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who monitors the Jewish vote, said the ad shocked him.

“This ad is disgusting — and you will never ever see me say that about a campaign,” Goldstein said. Especially offensive, he said, is Cheney’s decapitated head rolling into a bucket marked “Miami-Dade votes” and pleading, “I want a deferment.”

Forman was proud of his work, explaining that the ad was aimed at the “under-30 crowd.” The youth of America are particularly receptive to smoldering religious hatred, Forman seemed to think, adding: “This is a communication that works for them.”

That behavior is apparently what Obama wanted in his Jewish outreach director, and with Moline’s contribution we can see why. You can’t get much more politicized than turning the American Jewish community against itself in order to sink an Iran-sanctions bill on behalf of the president. Though I suppose we can expect the White House to try and top that too, if the opportunity arises.

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Ringing a Fire Bell in the Night

This week’s issue of the Weekly Standard is devoted to foreign policy and national security–and specifically to explaining how dangerous the situation in the Middle East is and the fundamental misconceptions and multiplying overseas failures of President Obama.

The contributors include COMMENTARY’s own Max Boot, Frederick W. Kagan, Steve Hayes, Jessica Lewis, Thomas Joscelyn, Thomas Donnelly, and Mary Habeck. Among the points the various authors make are these:

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This week’s issue of the Weekly Standard is devoted to foreign policy and national security–and specifically to explaining how dangerous the situation in the Middle East is and the fundamental misconceptions and multiplying overseas failures of President Obama.

The contributors include COMMENTARY’s own Max Boot, Frederick W. Kagan, Steve Hayes, Jessica Lewis, Thomas Joscelyn, Thomas Donnelly, and Mary Habeck. Among the points the various authors make are these:

(a) President Obama is presiding over a substantial decline in defense spending that “has led to a readiness crisis that recalls the hollow army days of the 1970s.” (Boot)

(b) We are trying to convince ourselves that al-Qaeda franchises in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and West Africa are not really a threat to us. “We may indeed convince ourselves, but that will not change the reality that they are a serious threat…. The tide of war – of this war, of al Qaeda’s war against us – is not receding, it is advancing.” (Kagan)

(c) When President Obama boasted repeatedly in the 2012 presidential campaign that “al Qaeda is on the path to defeat,” he was “defining al Qaeda down. But redefining al Qaeda is quite different from killing it.” (Hayes)

(d) We are seeing the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). “AQI is fighting in Iraq and Syria under its new banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Solutions to Iraq’s current crisis cannot be found uniquely in Iraq. The United States needs to take action to degrade al Qaeda affiliates in Syria while also acting to degrade [Bashar] Assad’s capabilities.” (Lewis)

(e) “Al Qaeda’s policy of aggressive geographic expansion has been largely successful of late… The war in Syria has been a boon for al Qaeda… If anything, Obama now defines al Qaeda more narrowly than ever before, even as al Qaeda’s many branches have become more virulent.” (Joscelyn)

(f) “The entire region – states and nonstate actors, ethnic and sectarian groups, militants of all stripes, and the ordinary people on the street – is engaged in a two-fold contest for power: over who will control the future of the region and who will control the future of Islam. We can pretend that the context does not affect us, but if the enemy wins, he has promised to bring the war home to us again. We may have lost interest in the Middle East, but the Middle East has not lost interest in us.” (Donnelly and Habeck)

I’ve quoted these authors at length because what they say not only seems right to me but urgent as well. The American people are “war weary,” to use a common phrase these days. Our commander in chief is diffident and irresolute. He does not understand the nature of the struggle. Our enemies, on the other hand, do. They are malevolent, determined, on the rise.  They once again view America as “the weak horse.”

These are dangerous days, and it’s important that at least some among us ring a fire bell in the night.

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Will Christie Learn From His Searing Political Experience?

The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, in writing about “Bridgegate”–the stunningly inappropriate, petty, and stupid political retribution by top aides of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie against the mayor and citizens of Fort Lee–provides a reasonable and balanced assessment of Christie’s press conference last week.

“If everything the governor said stacks up, he’ll wind up diminished but the story will fade,” according to Noonan. “If it doesn’t—if there are new revelations or questions that cast him in a dark light—he’ll be finished as a national figure.” But there’s no question that “his uphill fight for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 just got uphiller.”

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The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, in writing about “Bridgegate”–the stunningly inappropriate, petty, and stupid political retribution by top aides of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie against the mayor and citizens of Fort Lee–provides a reasonable and balanced assessment of Christie’s press conference last week.

“If everything the governor said stacks up, he’ll wind up diminished but the story will fade,” according to Noonan. “If it doesn’t—if there are new revelations or questions that cast him in a dark light—he’ll be finished as a national figure.” But there’s no question that “his uphill fight for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 just got uphiller.”

Ms. Noonan then shifts her focus to staffers and operatives in politics:

Christie operatives are not the only ones in politics who talk this way. And they all do it not because they’re really tough but because they think that’s how people like them—rock-‘em sock-‘em operatives—would talk. They don’t have the brains, heart or judgment of people who’ve lived a life because they haven’t all lived a life. They’re 30 or 40 and came of age in a media-saturated country. They saw it all on TV. They saw it on a screen.

They sometimes forget they’re not in a TV show about callous operatives who never get caught. They’re in life, where actually you can get caught.

Advice for politicians: Know who they are, and help them mature. If you don’t, they’ll do goofy things, bad things, and they’ll not only hurt us. They’ll hurt you.

Those are words Governor Christie should contemplate. The New Jersey governor is obviously a man with impressive political skills. He won a huge reelection victory in a blue state and has some notable achievements to his name. But it is legitimate to wonder, given how close Christie was to the aides that executed the retaliation, if what happened was symptomatic of a mindset, a pattern of behavior, an organizing political principle. I have no idea. But Governor Christie and those who are closest to him do.

Unless there’s evidence directly tying Mr. Christie to what occurred on the George Washington Bridge for four days in September, he’ll certainly survive. The media obsession with this story will eventually fade. The deeper question is whether the New Jersey governor uses this experience to engage in honest self-reflection.

The character of an administration, its ethos, is determined by the behavior of those in authority. Something was obviously amiss in Christie World. Does Governor Christie have the wisdom and capacity not simply to fire people who have committed wrongs but to change how he operates? Will he surround himself with people who don’t roll their eyes at concepts like the public trust and political integrity? Who, if they had heard about this effort to exact political retribution, would not only have objected to it but dismissed on the spot those who concocted it? Will he build something good out of this searing experience? 

During his press conference last week, Governor Christie said the right things. My guess is he means them. But he’s on notice. One (political) near death experience ought to be enough. 

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School Punishment According to Race, not Behavior

Sometimes the mind just boggles. The Department of Justice has issued a letter informing schools about federal laws against racial discrimination. Consider this paragraph:

Schools also violate Federal law when they evenhandedly implement facially neutral policies and practices that, although not adopted with the intent to discriminate, nonetheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race. Examples of policies that can raise disparate impact concerns include policies that impose mandatory suspension, expulsion, or citation (e.g., ticketing or other fines or summonses) upon any student who commits a specified offense — such as being tardy to class, being in possession of a cellular phone, being found insubordinate, acting out, or not wearing the proper school uniform.

In other words, punishment for bad behavior must be meted out according to racial quotas. If the school is one-third black, one-third white, and one-third Asian, then each racial group must receive one-third of the punishments. If two-thirds of the infractions are committed by one racial group, then so what? That’s discrimination and discrimination violates federal law.

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Sometimes the mind just boggles. The Department of Justice has issued a letter informing schools about federal laws against racial discrimination. Consider this paragraph:

Schools also violate Federal law when they evenhandedly implement facially neutral policies and practices that, although not adopted with the intent to discriminate, nonetheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race. Examples of policies that can raise disparate impact concerns include policies that impose mandatory suspension, expulsion, or citation (e.g., ticketing or other fines or summonses) upon any student who commits a specified offense — such as being tardy to class, being in possession of a cellular phone, being found insubordinate, acting out, or not wearing the proper school uniform.

In other words, punishment for bad behavior must be meted out according to racial quotas. If the school is one-third black, one-third white, and one-third Asian, then each racial group must receive one-third of the punishments. If two-thirds of the infractions are committed by one racial group, then so what? That’s discrimination and discrimination violates federal law.

It is highly unlikely that each group is going to misbehave equally, for exactly the same reason that it is highly unlikely that the boys named John, the boys named David, and the boys named Robert will misbehave equally: the world doesn’t work that way. If actually enforced, this edict would require schools to do one of two things. Either they will have to let some miscreant students in one racial group go unpunished, because that group has reached its quota of punishments, or will have to hand out punishments to innocent students in other racial groups to keep the punishments racially balanced. The first alternative almost guarantees disruption and a poor learning environment, the second is simply grotesque. Should the schools bring back the Roman practice of decimation, and use lots to pick the innocent students to be expelled?

Where does such nonsense (in the literal as well as figurative meaning of that word) come from? It comes from the left’s obsession both with race and with groups. There are no individuals on the left. It is not little Johnny Jones who brings a frog to school and puts it in a girl’s desk, it is just a white boy who does so.

How dehumanizing can you get?

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Repeating the Iraq Mistake in Syria

No, this is not a post about the wisdom of using military force in either Iraq or Syria. Long before the decision to go to invade Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, the United States was confronted with a decision about how to approach Kurdish autonomy.

Almost immediately after the George H.W. Bush administration decided to release Iraqi Republican Guards and other POWs captured during Operation Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to attack both Shi’ite Iraqis in southern Iraq and the Kurds in northern Iraq. At the urging of Turkey, which did not want millions of Kurdish refugees flowing into its territory, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom created a no-fly zone which provided the space necessary for Iraqi Kurds to create their own administration.

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No, this is not a post about the wisdom of using military force in either Iraq or Syria. Long before the decision to go to invade Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, the United States was confronted with a decision about how to approach Kurdish autonomy.

Almost immediately after the George H.W. Bush administration decided to release Iraqi Republican Guards and other POWs captured during Operation Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to attack both Shi’ite Iraqis in southern Iraq and the Kurds in northern Iraq. At the urging of Turkey, which did not want millions of Kurdish refugees flowing into its territory, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom created a no-fly zone which provided the space necessary for Iraqi Kurds to create their own administration.

I first visited the Iraqi Kurdish safe haven nine years later, spending about nine months there, writing in the New Republic at the time a few dispatches. Iraqi Kurdistan was stable and safe from the violence plaguing the rest of Iraq. Nevertheless, it remained a pariah, suffering not only under international sanctions because it was part of Iraq, but also under Saddam Hussein’s own blockade. While some U.S. diplomats privately encouraged me to go, the more officious ones–for example, a consular officer in Ankara–warned me that she would consider what I was doing illegal because I was using a U.S. passport to travel to what was technically Iraq; I went anyway.

Fast-forward almost 23 years since Iraqi Kurds established their de facto autonomy. Today, as Secretary of State John Kerry visits France to try to coddle and cajole various factions to come to the Geneva II conference later this month, one group is decidedly not invited to attend: The Democratic Union Party (PYD) which controls Rojava, a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian and de facto autonomous zone in northeastern Syria. As I’ve noted here before, in Rojava, children go to school, the shops are open, and men and women go about their business. Christians worship freely, as do Muslims. Not everything is well in Rojava: The Nusra Front and more radical elements of the Syrian opposition have attacked the secular zone repeatedly, but Rojava’s own militia has successfully beat the al-Qaeda affiliates back.

U.S. diplomats say they blacklist the Syrian Kurds for a number of reasons:

  • They accuse the Syrian Kurds of not cooperating with the opposition.
  • They accuse the PYD’s leader Salih Muslim of cooperating with Bashar al-Assad’s militias.
  • They accuse Rojava of marginalizing other Kurdish groups.
  • And the State Department is wary of offending Turkey’s sensibilities by recognizing another Kurdish entity on Turkey’s borders.

None of these are good reasons and, indeed, in many cases, they are simply wrong.

The Syrian Kurds do cooperate with the opposition, although they also have warned the United States repeatedly about the growing radicalization of the opposition. This is a message that the State Department has not wanted to hear, and so they have effectively punished the messenger. They also demand that the opposition recognize their own right to autonomy, a demand Iraq’s Kurds long made.

Salih Muslim strongly denies cooperating with Bashar al-Assad’s militia, although he acknowledges talking to all groups. That is effectively what John Kerry has blessed by pushing for Geneva II. Given how the Syrian Kurds have suffered under Baathist rule, PYD officials take special umbrage at the notion that they favor Assad.

The Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq does not like Rojava because it does not like competition. Masud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, has never been able to shed his tribal mindset. Many Syrian Kurds do not like the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq because its tribal policies are unattractive to the Syrian Kurdish mindset. In addition, many Syrian Kurds—indeed, the vast majority it seems—favor political groups closer to Turkey’s Kurds. Barzani has the State Department’s ear, however, and seems intent on having the United States take sides in what is effectively an internal Kurdish political dispute.

Turkey, of course, hates Rojava because it opposes Kurdish autonomy and because Rojava maintains close relations with the Kurdistan Workers Party which for years waged an insurgency against Turkey. That insurgency is over, however, and Turkey itself has entered peace talks with the former insurgents. How ironic it is that the State Department bends over backwards for Turkey, a state which has supported al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, pursued policies that compromise NATO systems to China, and has helped Iran avoid sanctions.

The last thing the United States should do is undercut the only stable, secular, democratic, and functioning section of Syria. But that is exactly what President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seem intent on doing. Rather than treat Rojava like a pariah, it’s time the United States treats it like a model.

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