Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 17, 2014

Biden Still Wrong on Afghanistan

“I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”  –Bob Gates on Joe Biden.

Biden is obviously determined to maintain his perfect batting average, to judge from this Wall Street Journal article, which reports: “Vice President Joe Biden has resumed a push to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops from Afghanistan at year’s end, arguing for a far-smaller presence than many military officers would like to see, said officials briefed on the discussions.”

Apparently Biden, who has previously argued for splitting up both Iraq and Afghanistan into multiple countries, would like to see no more than 2,000 to 3,000 troops left behind–which, as the Journal notes, quoting officials who know what they’re talking about, “would be so limited that a full pullout would make more military sense.” Indeed, it is hard to imagine how this handful of troops, presumably dedicated to terrorist hunting, could function if the country were collapsing around their ears.

Read More

“I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”  –Bob Gates on Joe Biden.

Biden is obviously determined to maintain his perfect batting average, to judge from this Wall Street Journal article, which reports: “Vice President Joe Biden has resumed a push to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops from Afghanistan at year’s end, arguing for a far-smaller presence than many military officers would like to see, said officials briefed on the discussions.”

Apparently Biden, who has previously argued for splitting up both Iraq and Afghanistan into multiple countries, would like to see no more than 2,000 to 3,000 troops left behind–which, as the Journal notes, quoting officials who know what they’re talking about, “would be so limited that a full pullout would make more military sense.” Indeed, it is hard to imagine how this handful of troops, presumably dedicated to terrorist hunting, could function if the country were collapsing around their ears.

Even the “zero option” is apparently back on the table, thanks in no small part to Hamid Karzai’s infuriating and self-defeating unwillingness to sign the very agreement he negotiated to maintain U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But if all goes well with Afghanistan’s election, Karzai won’t be president much longer. The U.S. would be crazy to hold hostage our long-term policy in Afghanistan and the region to his whims–or to Biden’s misguided policy prescriptions.

If the U.S. were to draw down to nothing, or almost nothing, in Afghanistan, the impact would be catastrophic, as described by International Crisis Group analyst Graeme Smith in this New York Times op-ed. He writes, ” an unraveling of the Afghan state can be avoided, but it will require the international community to stay involved.” Afghan forces still need, he notes, “more helicopters, as well as logistics, intelligence and medical support,” not to mention funding.

None of that will be forthcoming unless there is an American and NATO troop contingent robust enough to deliver it.

Read Less

Government Waste … and Squirrels

Imagine that a health insurance company chose a random sample of payments made to its claimants and found that 10.1 percent of them should not have been paid at all, either through error or fraud. What do you suppose would happen?

First, whoever was in charge of accounts payable would be fired on the spot, his office contents on the sidewalk in cardboard boxes before the day was out. Second, a thorough overhaul of procedures would be quickly put into place to make sure the error rate was reduced to as near zero as possible. Third, a federal prosecutor would open an investigation into possible criminal activity. Fourth, a congressional committee would convene hearings and beat up the CEO for charging such high premiums when simply running his company properly would have allowed them to be drastically reduced. 

But when Medicare’s fee-for-services programs ran exactly this error rate, the result was … oh, look, a squirrel!

Read More

Imagine that a health insurance company chose a random sample of payments made to its claimants and found that 10.1 percent of them should not have been paid at all, either through error or fraud. What do you suppose would happen?

First, whoever was in charge of accounts payable would be fired on the spot, his office contents on the sidewalk in cardboard boxes before the day was out. Second, a thorough overhaul of procedures would be quickly put into place to make sure the error rate was reduced to as near zero as possible. Third, a federal prosecutor would open an investigation into possible criminal activity. Fourth, a congressional committee would convene hearings and beat up the CEO for charging such high premiums when simply running his company properly would have allowed them to be drastically reduced. 

But when Medicare’s fee-for-services programs ran exactly this error rate, the result was … oh, look, a squirrel!

As the Fiscal Times reports, the Department of Health and Human Services in fiscal 2013 had exactly that error rate and paid no less than $33.2 billion that it shouldn’t have paid at all. Overall, HHS paid out $55.9 billion improperly. And what did HHS do about this?

Asked what the agency does to recoup improper payments, [Center for Medicare and Medicaid services spokesman Tony] Salters said CMS doesn’t even attempt to recover all of its estimated overpayments. When improper payments are identified in the random sample, he said, agency contractors attempt to recover it, and get “most” of that money back. However, the improper payments identified in the sample represent only a fraction of the total amount paid out incorrectly.

The Office of Management and Budget, an arm of the White House, estimates that in just 13 “high-error programs” in fiscal 2012, the government wrongly paid out a staggering $101.3 billion. That’s 2.86 percent of total federal spending that year, 9.3 percent of the budget deficit, and $16 billion more than the entire sequester for fiscal 2013 ($85.4 billion) that the Washington establishment proclaimed would be the end of the world if it went into force.

Insurance companies run far tighter ships, looking constantly for ways to cut costs and eliminate fraud and error, for the simple reason that it is in their interest to do so. Every penny of the money saved, after all, goes right to the bottom line. Any company with a 10.1 percent error rate would be in bankruptcy court in weeks. But the federal government can’t go bankrupt, so … oh, look, a squirrel! 

Read Less

What Was the Point of Obama’s NSA Speech?

President Obama’s speech on NSA reform had all the hallmarks of his administration—and, not coincidentally, of his hyper-analytical, aloof, and cerebral personality.

The endless, quasi-public policy review? Check. Lengthy consultations with a vast variety of experts? Check. (“I’ve listened to foreign partners, privacy advocates, and industry leaders. My administration has spent countless hours considering how to approach intelligence in this era of diffuse threats and technological revolution.”) The rhetorical genuflections to appear fair to both sides. (“Throughout American history, intelligence has helped secure our country and our freedoms…. [But] even the United States proved not to be immune to the abuse of surveillance.”)

And, finally, the laboriously fashioned compromise designed to satisfy everyone, which will actually please no one, with policy proposals of exquisite if sometimes baffling nuance.

Read More

President Obama’s speech on NSA reform had all the hallmarks of his administration—and, not coincidentally, of his hyper-analytical, aloof, and cerebral personality.

The endless, quasi-public policy review? Check. Lengthy consultations with a vast variety of experts? Check. (“I’ve listened to foreign partners, privacy advocates, and industry leaders. My administration has spent countless hours considering how to approach intelligence in this era of diffuse threats and technological revolution.”) The rhetorical genuflections to appear fair to both sides. (“Throughout American history, intelligence has helped secure our country and our freedoms…. [But] even the United States proved not to be immune to the abuse of surveillance.”)

And, finally, the laboriously fashioned compromise designed to satisfy everyone, which will actually please no one, with policy proposals of exquisite if sometimes baffling nuance.

This is a pattern we have previously seen, inter alia, with regard to Middle East policy (think of the Cairo speech), Afghanistan, drones, and Guantanamo Bay. Now with the NSA.

Obama, thankfully, declined an opportunity, as advocated by some of his most fervent supporters (who want to see Edward Snowden canonized rather than crucified), to cripple the NSA’s intelligence collection. Instead he is calling for a series of smaller steps that will merely impede the NSA’s activities a bit—or perhaps a lot. It’s hard to tell from the rather vague plans he outlined which will require considerable congressional action, which may or may not be forthcoming.

The president called “on Congress to authorize the establishment of a panel of advocates from outside government to provide an independent voice in significant cases before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.” He “directed the Attorney General to amend how we use national security letters so that this secrecy will not be indefinite, so that it will terminate within a fixed time unless the government demonstrates a real need for further secrecy.” He took “the unprecedented step of extending certain protections that we have for the American people to people overseas” and mandated that “unless there is a compelling national security purpose we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies.”

Potentially Obama’s most sweeping proposal was also the most amorphous—his plan to alter the collection of telephone metadata. This is the database that NSA has been collecting which lists all phone numbers called and the time and origin of calls and which, with judicial oversight, can be queried for specific information on numbers that may be linked to terrorists.  

“Effective immediately,” Obama said, “we will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of the current three. And I have directed the Attorney General to work with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court so that during this transition period, the database can be queried only after a judicial finding or in the case of a true emergency.”

All of this is an interim step toward some larger restructuring of the metadata program—a plan that, for all of his months of reflection, the president has not actually come up with and that Congress is far from enacting. Attorney General Holder has been directed to fill in the blanks by the end of March with a program whereby the government can still have ready access to metadata without actually holding onto it. In other words, to square a circle.

As with other Obama decisions, the best that can be said for this is that it could have been worse. That said, it is also the case that these restrictions seem pointless. They will hamper efforts to fight a resurgent al-Qaeda without satisfying the demands of ACLU absolutists. Will fundamentalist libertarians who imagine that Big Brother is spying on their Web browsing sleep better at night knowing that the metadata database can only be queried for phone calls two steps removed from terrorists rather than three? It hardly seems likely, yet that cut-off at two steps rather than three could make all the difference in a terrorist investigation.

There will certainly be important loss of intelligence if Obama’s unwise extension of civil liberty protections to foreigners, including foreign leaders, is seriously implemented—something that’s hard to tell amid all the qualifiers and weasel words (“unless there is a compelling national security purpose”). And it is certain that this American restraint will not be reciprocated by foreign intelligence agencies, even those of our allies. President Obama and other senior officials will still have to leave their Blackberrys and iPhones behind when they enter the Situation Room because they know that foreign intelligence agencies will be trying to “collect” on them.

What the point of all this is it’s hard to say, given that Obama himself acknowledged that “the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people. They’re not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls or read your emails. When mistakes are made—which is inevitable in any large and complicated human enterprise—they correct those mistakes.”

If that’s the case—and nothing from Edward Snowden has shown otherwise—what is the point of hindering the NSA’s collection efforts? After all of the intensive work that went into unveiling this policy, its purpose remains as much of a mystery as its impact. All we know for sure is that Obama is tinkering with something that wasn’t broken—and that has in fact worked effectively to protect us from another 9/11.

Read Less

Guns, Hollywood Hypocrisy, and the NRA

More than 13 months after the Newtown massacre, gun control remains at the top of the liberal agenda. But resistance to more restrictions on gun ownership or more intrusive procedures has frustrated this campaign despite the best efforts of President Obama and the mainstream media. Indeed, as I wrote last month, polls now show even greater opposition to tougher gun laws than existed a year ago. Much of the resistance comes from a public smart enough to understand that the laws the president wants to pass wouldn’t have prevented Newtown. Moreover, many Americans simply don’t trust liberals when they say they just want commonsense laws that keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the insane. Though the president and other liberals say they don’t want to take your gun away, the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups have seen their membership rise in the last 13 months because a lot of people think that is exactly what he wants to do. Of course, he also promised that you could keep your doctor too.

More ammunition for those who hold that view was provided this week by one of the president’s leading fundraisers: Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Speaking on the Howard Stern radio show, Weinstein launched into a tirade about his opposition to legal gun ownership and said he was planning to make a movie with actress Meryl Streep about the gun issue that would make the NRA “wish they weren’t alive after I’m done with them.” Weinstein also said, “I don’t think we need guns in this country, and I hate it, and I think the NRA is a disaster area.”

While taking seriously anything said by anyone in the movie business  in a political context is probably a mistake, this snippet at least provides a fair representation of the core beliefs of the president and his major supporters. But more than that, since the glorification of gun mania in pop culture is widely believed to be one of the most significant reasons why our country is home to so many weapons-related crimes, when the producer of some of the most violent movies in our history speaks out against guns, it gives new meaning to the word hypocrisy.

Read More

More than 13 months after the Newtown massacre, gun control remains at the top of the liberal agenda. But resistance to more restrictions on gun ownership or more intrusive procedures has frustrated this campaign despite the best efforts of President Obama and the mainstream media. Indeed, as I wrote last month, polls now show even greater opposition to tougher gun laws than existed a year ago. Much of the resistance comes from a public smart enough to understand that the laws the president wants to pass wouldn’t have prevented Newtown. Moreover, many Americans simply don’t trust liberals when they say they just want commonsense laws that keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the insane. Though the president and other liberals say they don’t want to take your gun away, the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups have seen their membership rise in the last 13 months because a lot of people think that is exactly what he wants to do. Of course, he also promised that you could keep your doctor too.

More ammunition for those who hold that view was provided this week by one of the president’s leading fundraisers: Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Speaking on the Howard Stern radio show, Weinstein launched into a tirade about his opposition to legal gun ownership and said he was planning to make a movie with actress Meryl Streep about the gun issue that would make the NRA “wish they weren’t alive after I’m done with them.” Weinstein also said, “I don’t think we need guns in this country, and I hate it, and I think the NRA is a disaster area.”

While taking seriously anything said by anyone in the movie business  in a political context is probably a mistake, this snippet at least provides a fair representation of the core beliefs of the president and his major supporters. But more than that, since the glorification of gun mania in pop culture is widely believed to be one of the most significant reasons why our country is home to so many weapons-related crimes, when the producer of some of the most violent movies in our history speaks out against guns, it gives new meaning to the word hypocrisy.

As the Washington Examiner points out, Weinstein has done as much, if not more, than anyone to coarsen American popular culture and to fill screens with blazing guns shredding the bodies of victims. Whatever you think about the NRA, the man who brought us such movies as Django Unchained, Inglorious Bastards, Pulp Fiction, and such classics of the cinema as Rambo 4, Grindhouse, Sin City, and the immortal Piranha 3DD is in no position to pose as a critic of America’s gun culture.

But the problem here goes far deeper than the predictable hypocrisy of wealthy Hollywood liberals. Anyone who tries to sell a skeptical public on the notion that liberals don’t want to abrogate their Second Amendment rights must deal with the fact that Americans know very well that people like Weinstein and his political hero Obama want to do exactly that, in spite of the president’s disclaimers. It might be possible to pass more sensible background-checks laws if so many voters didn’t believe, as does the NRA, that they would just be the thin edge of the wedge assaulting the Second Amendment.

It’s also worth noting that one of the things Weinstein was discussing on the Stern show was a project he was working on about a film depicting Jews resisting the Nazis during the Holocaust. When the libertarian-minded Stern asked Weinstein whether it was inconsistent to make a movie about people using guns, the movie mogul replied that such conduct was justified in the context of the Nazis’ genocidal plans. He’s right about that. But while fears that liberals are planning to take away private guns in order to facilitate a totalitarian state are absurd, Weinstein and others who share his prejudices should understand the purpose of the Second Amendment was to preserve the ability of the American people to defend themselves against a tyrannical government. While that may seem far-fetched today in an era when individuals with rifles or pistols pose little threat to modern states, the principle is unchanged.

Weinstein’s threats that he will undermine the NRA with his new film aren’t likely to worry the group. Left-coast liberals have every right to use their money to advance causes and candidates they support. But so do the five million members of the NRA, as well as other Americans who, while not gun owners themselves, support its positions. As we have seen in the last year, grass roots support for the rights of gun owners has repeatedly trumped big-money campaigns funded by people such as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others who agree with Weinstein. As long as the political left and its Hollywood ATM machines keep showing their contempt for the Constitution, the NRA has little to fear from Harvey Weinstein or Meryl Streep. 

Read Less

Has Turkey Become Pakistan on the Med?

Is Turkey a state sponsor of terrorism? Admittedly, that is a provocative question. Long ago, the White House and State Department corrupted the list of state sponsors of terrorism by allowing subjective diplomatic considerations rather than objective facts to determine who was on the list. The George W. Bush administration, for example, knocked North Korea off the list not because it had ceased supporting terrorism—according to the Congressional Research Service, it was in neck-deep with both the Tamil Tigers and Hezbollah—but rather because Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wanted to entice North Korea to a deal which might benefit Bush’s legacy. Likewise, both Bush and Obama have kept Pakistan off the state sponsor of terrorism list despite that country’s support for the Taliban and protection of senior terrorists up to and including Osama bin Laden.

Recent events in Turkey certainly put Turkey in the same category as Pakistan. Indeed, increasingly, it seems that Turkey has become Pakistan on the Med. Early on Tuesday morning, anti-terrorism police raided six different locations around Turkey in order to disrupt al-Qaeda operations, including depots of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) at Kilis, near the Syrian border. The raids led to the detention of approximately 25 people, some of whom have faced trial for al-Qaeda support, and others who have been active recruiting volunteers to fight with al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front inside Syria.

A normal government would celebrate the eradication of al-Qaeda support cells on its territory. Not so, Turkey: By the afternoon, the Turkish government had relieved the officers who had carried out the raids, putting them on mandatory leave. Likewise, when police stopped two buses in Gaziantep apparently headed toward Syria and found ammunition and anti-aircraft weaponry, the result was not prosecution of those on the buses but retaliation against the police officers who had carried out the raid.

Read More

Is Turkey a state sponsor of terrorism? Admittedly, that is a provocative question. Long ago, the White House and State Department corrupted the list of state sponsors of terrorism by allowing subjective diplomatic considerations rather than objective facts to determine who was on the list. The George W. Bush administration, for example, knocked North Korea off the list not because it had ceased supporting terrorism—according to the Congressional Research Service, it was in neck-deep with both the Tamil Tigers and Hezbollah—but rather because Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wanted to entice North Korea to a deal which might benefit Bush’s legacy. Likewise, both Bush and Obama have kept Pakistan off the state sponsor of terrorism list despite that country’s support for the Taliban and protection of senior terrorists up to and including Osama bin Laden.

Recent events in Turkey certainly put Turkey in the same category as Pakistan. Indeed, increasingly, it seems that Turkey has become Pakistan on the Med. Early on Tuesday morning, anti-terrorism police raided six different locations around Turkey in order to disrupt al-Qaeda operations, including depots of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) at Kilis, near the Syrian border. The raids led to the detention of approximately 25 people, some of whom have faced trial for al-Qaeda support, and others who have been active recruiting volunteers to fight with al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front inside Syria.

A normal government would celebrate the eradication of al-Qaeda support cells on its territory. Not so, Turkey: By the afternoon, the Turkish government had relieved the officers who had carried out the raids, putting them on mandatory leave. Likewise, when police stopped two buses in Gaziantep apparently headed toward Syria and found ammunition and anti-aircraft weaponry, the result was not prosecution of those on the buses but retaliation against the police officers who had carried out the raid.

There have been reports in the Western press about how police stopped a truck apparently carrying weapons destined for the Nusra Front and other radical factions in Syria. The back story is interesting: after a local prosecutor ordered a search, the governor of Adana ordered police to stop their search and explained that the prime minister wanted the police search warrant canceled and the shipment to go through to Syria.

When the Turkish government is knowingly allowing its territory to be used to support al-Qaeda-linked factions in Syria and when, indeed, it seems to be directly supplying such factions with arms, money, and material, then it has become a sponsor of terrorism as directly as Iran is with regard to Hezbollah, and Pakistan should be considered with regard to the Taliban.

As a side note, several years ago I testified in the first full House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing dedicated to Turkey’s changing foreign policy. During the course of the hearing, Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia democratic and co-chair of the Congressional Turkey Caucus, took umbrage toward all the witnesses, and made it clear that he did not see criticism of Turkey’s foreign-policy direction to be legitimate. He was wrong, but he was not alone. How unfortunate it is that rather than use its influence to keep Turkey from going so far off the rails, the men and women of the Congressional Turkey Caucus used their position to obfuscate and defend Turkey, even at the expense of American national security. It is tragic that they could have prevented real damage but, for the sake of some cocktails at the Turkish ambassador’s residence and some junkets to Istanbul, they chose not to do so. It should never be too late, however, for those who truly care about Turkey to demand real accountability for its actions, before it moves further down the path of Pakistan and terror sponsorship.

Read Less

Gates Defends the Troops from Harry Reid

The lack of outrage directed at Harry Reid’s procedural shenanigans has always been more than simply an indication of the hypocrisy of the mainstream media and zealous good-government types. Even liberals now understand that Ted Kennedy’s behavior during Robert Bork’s confirmation hearings not only forever wrecked the confirmation process but also degraded the judiciary. But it was not obvious at the time that the Senate and the courts would never recover from Kennedy’s debacle.

The same cannot be said for Reid, whose destruction of Senate institutions has been both gradual and obvious, yet goes unremarked upon by those who attack Republicans trying to assert the diminishing rights of the minority. Every so often, however, we get a glimpse of the contempt with which America’s public servants view Reid’s constant assault on them and their work. The low esteem Reid has for trusted institutions is requited, and Bob Gates’s memoir has once again brought this to light.

Gates harshly criticized one of Reid’s lowest moments in office (among many contenders): when, as the U.S. deployed the “surge” troops to stabilize Iraq, Reid publicly denigrated the troops, their prospects for success, and their mission more generally by preemptively judging their mission to be a failure. Gates, the former defense secretary, understandably took umbrage:

Read More

The lack of outrage directed at Harry Reid’s procedural shenanigans has always been more than simply an indication of the hypocrisy of the mainstream media and zealous good-government types. Even liberals now understand that Ted Kennedy’s behavior during Robert Bork’s confirmation hearings not only forever wrecked the confirmation process but also degraded the judiciary. But it was not obvious at the time that the Senate and the courts would never recover from Kennedy’s debacle.

The same cannot be said for Reid, whose destruction of Senate institutions has been both gradual and obvious, yet goes unremarked upon by those who attack Republicans trying to assert the diminishing rights of the minority. Every so often, however, we get a glimpse of the contempt with which America’s public servants view Reid’s constant assault on them and their work. The low esteem Reid has for trusted institutions is requited, and Bob Gates’s memoir has once again brought this to light.

Gates harshly criticized one of Reid’s lowest moments in office (among many contenders): when, as the U.S. deployed the “surge” troops to stabilize Iraq, Reid publicly denigrated the troops, their prospects for success, and their mission more generally by preemptively judging their mission to be a failure. Gates, the former defense secretary, understandably took umbrage:

But, Gates continued, “When you have somebody like the Senate Majority Leader come out in the middle of the surge and say ‘this war is lost,’ I thought that was one of the most disgraceful things I’ve heard a politician say.”

“That sends a riveting message to kids who are putting their lives on the line every day that they’re doing it for nothing,” Gates noted, “and that was absolutely not the case.”

Indeed, it was certainly a disgraceful thing for Reid to say. It called to mind a time when Democrats in Congress openly slandered the troops in an effort to pander to their restive left-wing base. As a congressional leader of his party, Reid had a responsibility to try and rein in his party’s anti-military extremism. Instead, he joined in.

But it isn’t just the troops Reid disdains; he feels that way toward their civilian leadership as well. He shot back at Gates: “I’m surprised he would in effect denigrate everybody he came in contact with in an effort to make a buck,” Reid said yesterday.

Gates’s response was pitch-perfect:

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired back at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday night, quipping that “it’s common practice on the Hill to vote on bills you haven’t read, and it’s perfectly clear Sen. Reid has not read the book.”

Reid faulted Gates’s book in an interview with The Associated Press earlier in the day, charging Gates had denigrated him, Vice President Joe Biden and others “just to make a buck.” But Gates said he plans to donate most of what he makes to charities that work with wounded troops, and encouraged Reid and others to actually read his new memoir.

That doesn’t mean that Reid was wrong, however.

 “He will find I that do denigrate him, but I think he will find that, in fact, I have a lot of positive things to say about virtually everybody I wrote about,” Gates said. “As with myself, in the book, I’ve tried to critically appraise others. I call attention to mistakes I believe I made as secretary, things I could’ve done better, and I think I have positive things to say about virtually everybody else.”

In other words, Gates could find redeeming qualities in everyone he criticized–except Reid, apparently. Gates also defended himself against the accusation that he was being disloyal in releasing the book while President Obama was still in office:

“One of the charges is, that I’m hypocritical, that I’m speaking out about things now that I was quiet about when I was in office,” Gates said. “The reality is, if you talk with anybody in the administration, you’ll find I was as open in expressing my concerns directly, face to face, with the president, the White House chief of staff and other senior members of the administration about virtually every one of the issues I raised in the book. What I didn’t do was be disloyal to the president by taking those concerns public — or leaking.”

There’s plenty of room in there for honest disagreement–though, as I’ve written before, I don’t think the timing was particularly problematic and other suggested dates for release might have been more so. But it’s difficult not to sympathize with Gates’s defense of the troops and their mission in the face of Reid’s ignorant insults. The human element to the troops and their command is often forgotten or downplayed, especially since we have an all-volunteer army instead of a draft. Politicians are commonly told that the enemy can hear their statements. So can our troops, as Gates reminds us.

Read Less

U.S. Should Support Egypt’s New Constitution

Egyptians have gone to the polls over recent days in order to cast their vote in a referendum with regard to a new constitution. According to the Voice of America:

​The vote comes six months after Egypt’s military toppled the country’s first democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi in July after large protests against him and his government. Initial reports show the new charter winning overwhelming approval of those who voted. Final vote counts from around the country scrolled across the screens of Egyptian satellite channels throughout the day, showing “yes” votes in most districts of between 90 and 98 percent. Many analysts say the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to boycott the referendum may explain the lack of a significant “no” vote.

Even though the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted the vote, turnout appears to be high. According to Egypt’s presidential spokesman:

Early indications point to the fact that Egyptians made history this week with a high level of participation in the vote on the draft Constitution. This is a wonderful day for Egypt, Egyptians and for democracy, despite the extraordinary circumstances. This vote represents a resounding rejection of terrorism and a clear endorsement of the roadmap to democracy, as well as economic development and stability.”

Many in Washington—among Obama administration officials, academic cheerleaders for the Muslim Brotherhood, and many traditional neoconservatives—are understandably quite hesitant to support Egypt’s transitional government going forward, and may be even more hesitant should Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi run for president. Whatever rhetorical hoops the Obama administration jumps through, the fact of the matter is that the Egyptian military staged a coup and overthrew Egypt’s first elected president.

Read More

Egyptians have gone to the polls over recent days in order to cast their vote in a referendum with regard to a new constitution. According to the Voice of America:

​The vote comes six months after Egypt’s military toppled the country’s first democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi in July after large protests against him and his government. Initial reports show the new charter winning overwhelming approval of those who voted. Final vote counts from around the country scrolled across the screens of Egyptian satellite channels throughout the day, showing “yes” votes in most districts of between 90 and 98 percent. Many analysts say the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to boycott the referendum may explain the lack of a significant “no” vote.

Even though the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted the vote, turnout appears to be high. According to Egypt’s presidential spokesman:

Early indications point to the fact that Egyptians made history this week with a high level of participation in the vote on the draft Constitution. This is a wonderful day for Egypt, Egyptians and for democracy, despite the extraordinary circumstances. This vote represents a resounding rejection of terrorism and a clear endorsement of the roadmap to democracy, as well as economic development and stability.”

Many in Washington—among Obama administration officials, academic cheerleaders for the Muslim Brotherhood, and many traditional neoconservatives—are understandably quite hesitant to support Egypt’s transitional government going forward, and may be even more hesitant should Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi run for president. Whatever rhetorical hoops the Obama administration jumps through, the fact of the matter is that the Egyptian military staged a coup and overthrew Egypt’s first elected president.

That said, President Mohamed Morsi had ceased to be a democrat pretty much the second he took office. He had dispensed with any notion of a broad-based constitution, and moved to undermine separation of powers. A year ago November, be sought to effectively seize dictatorial powers for himself, placing the presidency above the judicial decisions (much like Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is doing now). It is important to recognize that the choice confronting advocates of democracy moving forward isn’t between democracy and el-Sisi, but rather between two imperfect scenarios.

The question then becomes, which provides a better path toward democracy? The Muslim Brotherhood does not. It uses democracy as a means to an end, but that end is not democratic. And while many American academics and journalists cringe at the Egyptian designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, one look at the group’s ideology, its cell structure, and its past and present actions suggest that the designation may very well be warranted. Just because a terrorist group has survived eight decades does not somehow launder its ideology or tactics.

The new constitution may not be perfect, but it is a real step forward over the constitution the Muslim Brotherhood sought to impose on the Egyptian public. Here is a fact sheet produced by the Egyptian Embassy in Washington on the document.

The danger with Sisi is that he will seek to replicate the worst tendencies of the Mubarak era. The Egyptian public, however, have shown that they have little tolerance with leaders who believe themselves above the people and not accountable to them. That was a lesson Hosni Mubarak learned the hard way, and it was a lesson that Morsi learned to his detriment.

The best path forward, therefore, is to support the interim process and new constitution and maintain the expectation that any new president, Sisi or otherwise, will respect a system of checks and balances, and continue to enable an open press and free and fair elections in order to remain accountable to the people as Egypt undertakes the economic reforms which are both overdue and necessary.

To undercut the new president at this point in time is nihilistic: It will not bring democracy; at best it would result in the empowerment of hardcore Islamist radicals, increase Russian influence, and could ultimately result in state failure.

Read Less

Europe’s Unhinged Assault on Israel

If diplomacy is war by other means, the Europeans have been taking to the diplomatic warpath amidst an increasingly strident attitude toward Israel and its policies on Jewish communities over the 1949 armistice lines. The European position on Israel’s settlements has often been tagged as hypocritical and replete with double standards, but in recent days the European reaction to announcements of new homes for Jews living over the green line, including in eastern parts of Jerusalem, has been so disproportionate as to appear almost unhinged.  

On Thursday, Israeli diplomats in London, Paris, Rome, and Madrid were all hauled in by government officials to be subjected to protest and rebuke at the news that the Israeli government had issued housing permits for 600 new homes in Jerusalem and 800 in the settlement blocks, which under just about any conceivable re-drawing of the borders would remain part of Israel.

It is a rather strange turn of history to find that even in the 21st century European governments are still trying to tell Jews where they can and cannot live. Strange, that in a manner that almost smacks of old-style colonialism, Europeans are still trying to determine the borders of other peoples in other parts of the world.

Read More

If diplomacy is war by other means, the Europeans have been taking to the diplomatic warpath amidst an increasingly strident attitude toward Israel and its policies on Jewish communities over the 1949 armistice lines. The European position on Israel’s settlements has often been tagged as hypocritical and replete with double standards, but in recent days the European reaction to announcements of new homes for Jews living over the green line, including in eastern parts of Jerusalem, has been so disproportionate as to appear almost unhinged.  

On Thursday, Israeli diplomats in London, Paris, Rome, and Madrid were all hauled in by government officials to be subjected to protest and rebuke at the news that the Israeli government had issued housing permits for 600 new homes in Jerusalem and 800 in the settlement blocks, which under just about any conceivable re-drawing of the borders would remain part of Israel.

It is a rather strange turn of history to find that even in the 21st century European governments are still trying to tell Jews where they can and cannot live. Strange, that in a manner that almost smacks of old-style colonialism, Europeans are still trying to determine the borders of other peoples in other parts of the world.

These moves by European diplomats sit alongside the European Union’s latest policy of issuing funding restrictions on Jewish businesses and organizations operating over the green line. So far this boycott policy is being held off while negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are underway. Yet, the message from Brussels has been clear, should talks fail, such policies will be brought to bear against Israel, signifying that even if the Palestinians walk away from a deal, Europeans will blame the Jewish state.

Indeed, the level of hypocrisy from European diplomats over the recent settlement announcement is breathtaking. For one thing, Israel is under no obligation to freeze building in the territories while negotiations take place. Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas demanded a series of concessions before deigning to join peace talks, but rather than put life on hold for Israelis living in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Israel instead opted to release a number of Palestinian terrorists. Now it seems the Europeans are demanding both the release of terrorists and a freeze on Jews living in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The real double standard, however, concerns European silence in the face of countless Palestinian breaches of the terms set down for the negotiation process. As I’ve written about here previously, the Palestinians have recently made moves to pursue membership in UN bodies, in direct contravention of their obligations under the negotiation framework. And as Jonathan Tobin has also noted in these pages, far from educating their population for peace as the Oslo agreements require them to, the Palestinian Authority continues mass incitement against Jews and Israel.

Nor should we forget, although it seems the Europeans already have, that in recent days a stream of rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israeli civilian areas. Yet, we can rest assured that if and when the Israeli military is forced to mount a ground incursion into Gaza, the streets of European capitals will fill with protesters, the airwaves will become deafening with furious condemnation of Israeli “aggression,” and European governments will call for Israel to show restraint.  

To their credit, the Israelis have not taken this latest diplomatic assault lying down. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has responded boldly stating, “When did the EU call in the Palestinian ambassadors to complain about the incitement that calls for Israel’s destruction? I think it is time to stop this hypocrisy. I think it is time to inject some balance and fairness to this discussion. Because I think this imbalance and this bias against Israel doesn’t advance peace.” And quite rightly the Israeli prime minister went on to say, “I think it pushed peace further away because it tells the Palestinians, ‘Basically you can do anything you want, say anything you want and you won’t be held accountable.’”

Israel’s foreign minister has gone further still and has requested meetings between Israeli officials and the ambassadors of the same European countries that summoned their Israeli ambassadors in for rebuke. No doubt the mood will be tense, the conversation somewhat uncomfortable, but something has to make the Europeans rethink their increasingly unhinged attitude toward Israel and those of its citizens who happen to live over the 1949 armistice lines.  

Read Less

Hillary and the “Preventable Tragedy”

In today’s New York Times, the paper’s editorial column addresses the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the Benghazi terror attack and draws some strong conclusions about what happened and why. The piece soberly digests the findings and rightly concludes that even when one takes into account the difficult circumstances in Libya on September 11, 2012, there is no escaping the fact that the State Department was at fault:

In the last analysis, however, it is the State Department that must bear most of the blame for failing to provide adequate security and not preventing the preventable. This leaves the department on the same hook that an investigation by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Adm. Mike Mullen, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it on last year when it faulted the department’s “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies.”

For once, the Times editorial page is right on target with its analysis. Though the department’s leadership has consistently attempted to divert public attention from its blunders, as the paper accurately concludes, subsequent reforms in its procedures have come “tragically very late in the game.” But there is one element missing from this analysis. Indeed, one could say there are two vital and inescapable words that are nowhere to be found in it: Hillary and Clinton.

Read More

In today’s New York Times, the paper’s editorial column addresses the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the Benghazi terror attack and draws some strong conclusions about what happened and why. The piece soberly digests the findings and rightly concludes that even when one takes into account the difficult circumstances in Libya on September 11, 2012, there is no escaping the fact that the State Department was at fault:

In the last analysis, however, it is the State Department that must bear most of the blame for failing to provide adequate security and not preventing the preventable. This leaves the department on the same hook that an investigation by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Adm. Mike Mullen, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it on last year when it faulted the department’s “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies.”

For once, the Times editorial page is right on target with its analysis. Though the department’s leadership has consistently attempted to divert public attention from its blunders, as the paper accurately concludes, subsequent reforms in its procedures have come “tragically very late in the game.” But there is one element missing from this analysis. Indeed, one could say there are two vital and inescapable words that are nowhere to be found in it: Hillary and Clinton.

As Senator John McCain noted this week on the floor of the Senate when discussing the paper’s coverage of the aftermath of the Benghazi attack and the scandal attaching to subsequent attempts by the administration to mislead the public about it, the Times has been “an ever-reliable surrogate for the administration” on all things Benghazi. But never, even when publishing a badly reported piece falsely claiming that there was no al-Qaeda involvement in the attack, has the paper displayed its partisan bias in so brazen a manner as in this editorial.

Contrary to conspiracy theorists, Mrs. Clinton did not intend the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the American post in Benghazi, when she chose not to involve herself in the discussions about security in Libya. There is almost certainly no “smoking gun” memo to be found in which she expresses indifference to the possibility of a terror attack or another in which she orders people to lie about the event after it had occurred, even though that is exactly what happened when talking points were distributed that falsely characterized the terror attack as a case of movie criticism run amok. But if, as the Times correctly notes, the fault for not “preventing the preventable” must lie with the State Department, how is it possible to condemn the agency without even mentioning that responsibility for that failure must be laid at the feet of the person running the place?

The reason for the decision not to prioritize security in Libya is not exactly a mystery. Mrs. Clinton did not ask questions about the topic or see to it, as was her responsibility, that our missions were not being left unprotected simply because the topic was not of any great interest to her. Since the president was running for reelection in part on the strength of a belief that al-Qaeda was no longer a threat after the death of Osama bin Laden, any attention devoted to counter-terror activities or security in a country that was thought to be securely in the hands of friends of the United States was bad politics. That also explains the almost reflexive instinct on the part of Clinton and others in the diplomatic and security apparatus to deny what happened was an act of terror even after it was obvious to all those in the know.

Though these were the aspects of the job that Mrs. Clinton relished, running a vast enterprise like the U.S. Department of State is about more than making speeches and racking up frequent flyer miles on the way to photo opportunities. It also means taking responsibility for an enormous government agency and holding all those who administer its various departments accountable. And, as Benghazi proved, it was on that more prosaic but ultimately vital task, that her leadership proved inadequate.

Given that Mrs. Clinton appears on track to be asking the country to put her in charge of a far larger enterprise than merely the State Department—the entire federal government—if she is elected president in 2016, it is not unfair to ask whether her record on Benghazi ought to influence the decision of the voters. But that is one question that the New York Times dare not ask even as it takes the agency she ran to task for failures and misconduct that happened on her watch.

Though there is really no comparison to the most notorious public scandal of the last week—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Bridgegate—it should be noted that the Times has run three editorials in the last eight days on that topic. The Times has rightly taken Christie to task not just for the egregious traffic jam that his aides manufactured but also for creating an atmosphere in which such misconduct could happen. It has also correctly noted that whether or not he knew in advance about the scheme, since it happened on his watch as governor, he bears responsibility for what happened. Yet even though four more people died in Benghazi than perished (other than metaphorically from frustration and boredom) in the traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge, the Times saw fit never to mention Clinton in the editorial about what happened on her watch at the State Department.

As the flagship of elite liberal opinion in this country, it is to be expected that the Times would support Clinton’s candidacy even long before she declares her intentions about 2016. But for it to publish a scathing editorial about the conduct of the State Department during the period of her stewardship without even alluding to the fact that she was the one who presided over the disaster illustrates the paper’s utter lack of intellectual integrity.

Read Less

Turkey: Between Deep State and Dictatorship

Turkey, at the beginning of 2014, looks remarkably different than Turkey just a year ago. Certainly, the luster has worn off Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who, just a year ago, looked on course to pass a new constitution which would enable him to lead Turkey as president for another decade, at least. Western supporters and many Turkish liberals described Fethullah Gülen as an enlightened force for religious tolerance and a man committed to reform and democracy.

Today, Turkey is moving toward one-man rule. How ironic it is that as so many Arab regimes swept out strong-man dictatorships, Erdoğan seeks to have Turkey become one. Perhaps Fethullah Gülen pushed him to it: Gülen’s minions permeate the security force and, once Erdoğan threatened Gülen’s revenue stream by seeking to close down his lucrative exam prep school enterprise, the police launched corruption probes against Erdoğan’s supporters, including his own son.

How ironic it is that while Western academics and liberals once railed against the deep state in Turkey, a reference to the shadowy networks of generals and intelligence officials who seemed to pull the levers behind the curtains, the past month’s events show that Gülen himself leads the deep state.

Read More

Turkey, at the beginning of 2014, looks remarkably different than Turkey just a year ago. Certainly, the luster has worn off Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who, just a year ago, looked on course to pass a new constitution which would enable him to lead Turkey as president for another decade, at least. Western supporters and many Turkish liberals described Fethullah Gülen as an enlightened force for religious tolerance and a man committed to reform and democracy.

Today, Turkey is moving toward one-man rule. How ironic it is that as so many Arab regimes swept out strong-man dictatorships, Erdoğan seeks to have Turkey become one. Perhaps Fethullah Gülen pushed him to it: Gülen’s minions permeate the security force and, once Erdoğan threatened Gülen’s revenue stream by seeking to close down his lucrative exam prep school enterprise, the police launched corruption probes against Erdoğan’s supporters, including his own son.

How ironic it is that while Western academics and liberals once railed against the deep state in Turkey, a reference to the shadowy networks of generals and intelligence officials who seemed to pull the levers behind the curtains, the past month’s events show that Gülen himself leads the deep state.

I spent the past week in Paris and Brussels meeting with Turkish parliamentarians. We were initially going to meet in Istanbul and Ankara, but they all believed they would be more free to speak candidly outside of Turkey, given how Gülen’s followers in the security forces now monitor the phone calls, tap the offices, and monitor the conversations in restaurants of parliamentarians, journalists, and foreigners. One parliamentarian made a good point: as critical as Turks are about Erdoğan, at least the prime minister was elected and, in theory, can be ousted in an election. No one, in contrast, ever elected Gülen, although the shadowy cult leader aspires to wield as much power as the prime minister.

The real danger now, however, has been Erdoğan’s reaction to the scandal. Whereas he once depicted himself and his party as anti-corruption crusaders, he now seeks to protect the corrupt and punish those questioning such corruption. In the last couple weeks, he has reassigned or displaced more than 2,500 police officers, and effectively frozen the corruption cases against his son, associates, and his friends. The Justice and Development Party (AKP)-controlled legislature passed an urgent bill to place the judiciary under executive control, enabling the minister of justice to appoint and remove both prosecutors and judges. The constitutional court will likely overturn that law, but the way Turkish law works, should the court strike down the law, it will have no retroactive effect: Any judge or prosecutor removed or reassigned in the past few weeks will remain in their new positions and will not win their old jobs back.

Now the AKP-dominated legislature is considering another bill that will allow the government to shut down any website immediately. Should that bill pass, the power of Internet censorship will shift from the courts to the government.

Turks say they will take to the streets on Saturday. If that demonstration moves forward, the reaction of the government will be perhaps the best indicator of what Turkey has become.

Perhaps it is time for some reflection in the White House and State Department, not to mention several think tanks and universities, about how it was that they got Erdoğan and Gülen so wrong. Too many American universities have taken money from Gülen-related institutions to organize conferences or publish books attesting to Gülen’s moderation and wisdom. Many think tanks—including some of those normally skeptical of Islamist movements—consciously moderated their assessments of the AKP in order to preserve access to the State Department. If think-tanks are to retain their value, however, intellectual integrity should trump the willingness to be yes-men. Most importantly, it’s time Congress or others lead an independent assessment of the past decade of State Department reporting to determine who got the AKP right, who got it wrong and, most importantly, why assessments about Erdoğan, his character, and the AKP were so inaccurate.

Read Less

Martin Indyk vs. Moshe Ya’alon

Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya’alon violated the first rule of diplomacy–always compliment the emperor on his wardrobe, and limit your comments to concerns about his well-intentioned but possibly counterproductive wardrobe policy. But as Seth Mandel noted, Ya’alon is not alone in his concerns, and the private expression of them has had no effect on the Obama administration–other than to lead it to attack Ya’alon. Israeli columnist Ron Ben-Yishai writes that Ya’alon’s comments were a long time coming:  

Ya’alon is mainly against the security aspect [of the framework agreement], and [Kerry and his team] are presenting him as the chief party pooper in briefings they are giving politicians and former senior Israeli military officials. Kerry’s personal emissary, former Ambassador Martin Indyk, has not been shy about his opinion on Ya’alon either, and this has all reached the 14th floor at the Defense Ministry building. Ya’alon didn’t like the defamation and the brawl broke out after bubbling for quite a long time in utmost discretion.

In 2009, Martin Indyk wrote that Israel’s insistence that the Palestinians “allow Israel the means to defend itself” sounded “like a new precondition”–a “well-practiced Netanyahu negotiating tactic.” In 2010, Indyk took to the New York Times op-ed page to castigate Israel for approving Jewish housing in a longstanding Jewish area of the capital of the Jewish state. He considered it a “strategic setback” that required reversal as “the litmus test of Netanyahu’s commitment to the common cause of curbing Iran’s nuclear enthusiasm.” In the same op-ed, he concluded that “nothing could better help Obama to isolate Iran than for Netanyahu to offer to cede the Golan” to Syria. Later, Indyk urged Israel to jump out a window for peace.

Read More

Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya’alon violated the first rule of diplomacy–always compliment the emperor on his wardrobe, and limit your comments to concerns about his well-intentioned but possibly counterproductive wardrobe policy. But as Seth Mandel noted, Ya’alon is not alone in his concerns, and the private expression of them has had no effect on the Obama administration–other than to lead it to attack Ya’alon. Israeli columnist Ron Ben-Yishai writes that Ya’alon’s comments were a long time coming:  

Ya’alon is mainly against the security aspect [of the framework agreement], and [Kerry and his team] are presenting him as the chief party pooper in briefings they are giving politicians and former senior Israeli military officials. Kerry’s personal emissary, former Ambassador Martin Indyk, has not been shy about his opinion on Ya’alon either, and this has all reached the 14th floor at the Defense Ministry building. Ya’alon didn’t like the defamation and the brawl broke out after bubbling for quite a long time in utmost discretion.

In 2009, Martin Indyk wrote that Israel’s insistence that the Palestinians “allow Israel the means to defend itself” sounded “like a new precondition”–a “well-practiced Netanyahu negotiating tactic.” In 2010, Indyk took to the New York Times op-ed page to castigate Israel for approving Jewish housing in a longstanding Jewish area of the capital of the Jewish state. He considered it a “strategic setback” that required reversal as “the litmus test of Netanyahu’s commitment to the common cause of curbing Iran’s nuclear enthusiasm.” In the same op-ed, he concluded that “nothing could better help Obama to isolate Iran than for Netanyahu to offer to cede the Golan” to Syria. Later, Indyk urged Israel to jump out a window for peace.

Indyk’s self-defenestration suggestion was contained in another 2010 New York Times op-ed, entitled “For Once, Hope in the Middle East,” where Indyk also wrote that:

Security arrangements were all but settled in 2000 at Camp David before the talks collapsed. The increased threat of rocket attacks since then, among other developments, require the two sides to agree on stricter border controls and a robust third-party force in the Jordan Valley.

In other words, he belatedly conceded that the “all but settled” security arrangements of 2000 would not have been effective against the “increased threat of rocket attacks” and the “other developments” that occurred thereafter, and he agreed that something more was necessary. So he revised his position to endorse a “robust” international force in the Jordan Valley.

The word “robust” is the adjective diplomats use to make unimpressive nouns sound convincing. It is the word Condoleezza Rice repeatedly used to describe the international force in Lebanon, which had no effect on Hezbollah’s rearming other than to serve as a human shield for it. In 1967, the “robust” international force in the Sinai was withdrawn days before the Six-Day War, which helped lead to it. The reasons why Israel cannot rely on international forces for its security are shown succinctly (and persuasively) in this short video.

Ron Ben-Yishai’s article also noted that “Ya’alon, and many in Israel” are skeptical about what is behind Kerry’s current intensive campaign, because:

Ya’alon and quite a few Israeli government ministers believe that the conditions for such an agreement have actually not matured at the moment. The turmoil in the Arab world, the growing tsunami of al-Qaeda activists on our border and the refugees filling Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, are all causing Abbas to be concerned and avoid reaching an agreement with Israel, which might even cost him his life.

Indyk’s effort is part of a co-ordinated campaign to sideline Israel’s defense minister, by a peace processor whose past policy prescriptions for Israel’s security have been consistently wrong, but who–one must hasten to add–is a very snappy dresser.

Read Less

re: Why the Secrecy on the Iran Deal?

Earlier this week, Emanuele Ottolenghi asked “Why the Secrecy” about the Iran deal, a reference to the Obama administration keeping the implementation agreement of the Joint Plan of Action out of the public eye. Ottolenghi is absolutely correct that the desire to keep the agreement secret “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.”

There are many more specific reasons why the State Department leaders want to keep the agreement secret, and a lot of them have to do with learning the wrong lessons from the past. Among other episodes, my new book Dancing with the Devil, a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, explores Bill Clinton-era diplomacy in depth.

The Clinton administration, of course, considered the 1994 Agreed Framework a great success. After the deal had been signed, Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland noted the difficulty of trusting North Korea, and demanded that Clinton’s team answer three questions:

  Read More

Earlier this week, Emanuele Ottolenghi asked “Why the Secrecy” about the Iran deal, a reference to the Obama administration keeping the implementation agreement of the Joint Plan of Action out of the public eye. Ottolenghi is absolutely correct that the desire to keep the agreement secret “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.”

There are many more specific reasons why the State Department leaders want to keep the agreement secret, and a lot of them have to do with learning the wrong lessons from the past. Among other episodes, my new book Dancing with the Devil, a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, explores Bill Clinton-era diplomacy in depth.

The Clinton administration, of course, considered the 1994 Agreed Framework a great success. After the deal had been signed, Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland noted the difficulty of trusting North Korea, and demanded that Clinton’s team answer three questions:

 (1)   Do they really believe that North Korea has ceased being a backlash state and should therefore be trusted?

(2)   Why did Kim Jong-il do the deal now?

(3)   Won’t it serve as an incentive for other backlashers to pursue nuclear-weapons programs, to get bought off by the United States if for no other reason?

Clinton refused to answer such questions but, by 1997, there was little doubt that the Agreed Framework had failed. The State Department would not accept such findings, though, even when they came from the intelligence community. To do so would invalidate Clinton’s approach. Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman (and an avid supporter of Obama’s diplomacy with Iran) declared, “We are absolutely confident … that the agreed framework, put in place two and a half years ago is in place, it’s working. We are absolutely clear that North Korea’s nuclear program has been frozen and will remain frozen.”

When they looked at the facts, the General Accounting Office (GAO) concluded otherwise. In 1999, it reported that it could no longer verify how North Korea distributed or used its food aid. North Korea would allow international monitors to visit only 10 percent of institutions receiving food aid, and regularly blocked inspectors. The State Department refused to accept the GAO findings, though, because to accept them would be to admit North Korean cheating and to undermine the premise of the diplomatic process in which they had already invested too much. Likewise, when the GAO reported that monitoring of heavy fuel oil had gone awry, the State Department informed Congress that they trusted that the regime’s use of the heavy fuel oil was consistent with the Agreed Framework. Like today, Congress was dubious, but the State Department effectively covered up North Korean noncompliance and insisted that the deal was “a concrete success.”

A theme of my book is that the State Department never conducts lessons-learned episodes to determine why certain high-profile diplomatic engagements have failed in order to better execute diplomacy in the future. Perhaps that’s unfair, however. It seems that the State Department has considered what went wrong 15 years ago but, rather than conclude that the original agreement or rogue behavior was the problem, they have determined that too much transparency forces them to answer uncomfortable questions and can empower Congress to demand accountability. That, more than rogue regime cheating, seems to be the State Department’s greatest concern. Simply put, a secret agreement is necessary, in diplomats’ eyes, in order to ensure that cheating, violations, and insincerity don’t sidetrack the continuation of the diplomatic process.

Read Less