Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 24, 2014

The Return of West Bank Terror?

While in recent years it has generally been true that Israel’s primary terror threat comes from the territories it fully evacuated–Gaza, southern Lebanon, and the Sinai–there have been growing concerns about the resurgence of militant Islamist groups operating in the West Bank. For the most part, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority keeps down the Islamist groups in the parts of the West Bank it controls, less as a favor to Israel than as a means of preventing itself from being ousted as in Gaza. Yet, while there is certainly no indication that we are on the cusp of a third intifada, the threat from terror cells in the West Bank is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

Most recently, Israelis have been reminded of the ongoing security threat coming from parts of the West Bank by the spate of terror incidents that have targeted Route 443, which skims the West Bank and serves as one of only two highways linking Israel’s commercial center in Tel Aviv with its political capital in Jerusalem. In the past two months Route 443 has witnessed a sharp rise in attacks on vehicles traveling that road, some 20 of which saw the use of Molotov cocktails. The situation on the road has become so precarious that Israel’s security personnel have declared the highway off-limits to Israel’s government officials, and today it was announced that the Shin Bet has uncovered a 15-man Hamas terror cell plotting to carry out roadside bombings along Route 443.

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While in recent years it has generally been true that Israel’s primary terror threat comes from the territories it fully evacuated–Gaza, southern Lebanon, and the Sinai–there have been growing concerns about the resurgence of militant Islamist groups operating in the West Bank. For the most part, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority keeps down the Islamist groups in the parts of the West Bank it controls, less as a favor to Israel than as a means of preventing itself from being ousted as in Gaza. Yet, while there is certainly no indication that we are on the cusp of a third intifada, the threat from terror cells in the West Bank is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

Most recently, Israelis have been reminded of the ongoing security threat coming from parts of the West Bank by the spate of terror incidents that have targeted Route 443, which skims the West Bank and serves as one of only two highways linking Israel’s commercial center in Tel Aviv with its political capital in Jerusalem. In the past two months Route 443 has witnessed a sharp rise in attacks on vehicles traveling that road, some 20 of which saw the use of Molotov cocktails. The situation on the road has become so precarious that Israel’s security personnel have declared the highway off-limits to Israel’s government officials, and today it was announced that the Shin Bet has uncovered a 15-man Hamas terror cell plotting to carry out roadside bombings along Route 443.

The Shin Bet has also raised concerns in recent weeks about efforts by Hamas to strengthen its links in the Arab sectors of Jerusalem, in addition to revealing a separate Jerusalem-based al-Qaeda cell working on bomb plots to target the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. Hamas maintains strongholds throughout several West Bank cities, and while these are officially under the authority of Fatah, it has been suggested that without the IDF presence running throughout the rest of the West Bank Fatah’s grip on the Palestinian Authority would not likely last for long. The West Bank’s largest city, Hebron, is commonly thought to be predominately loyal to Hamas, while to the north Nablus has witnessed sizable Hamas rallies in recent years. Indeed, last October the IDF was compelled to carry out an incursion into Nablus to intercept a number of Hamas operatives based in that city. Similarly, last month the IDF was also forced to carry out a raid on Islamic Jihad bases in Jenin where the group remains strong.

It would appear that some of these militant groups are growing in confidence, as demonstrated by an increasing willingness to openly reveal their presence within the West Bank’s PA-controlled areas. In late January an armed member of Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigade was sited at a memorial event in Jenin, alongside members of Islamic Jihad and, most notably of all, the individual in question was also seen sharing a stage with members of Fatah’s military wing, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. More recently, over the weekend, Abu Dis on the outskirts of Jerusalem, hosted large militaristic celebrations to mark the anniversary of the founding of the terror group the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, in the kind of display that had not generally been tolerated in PA-controlled areas in recent years. It should then also be noted that the DFLP is a constituent member of the same PLO that Abbas’s Fatah is part of.

Naturally, this kind of apparent militant upsurge, at such a sensitive time for the U.S.-led peace negotiations, provokes a series of pressing questions. Following the Camp David negotiations in 2000, when Arafat found himself backed into a negotiating corner, he made his escape route, in part, by triggering the Palestinian terror war that became the second intifada. As much as Mahmoud Abbas looks less and less pleased to be part of the negotiating process, it is doubtful that he would resort to directly initiating terror as an exit strategy. Though it should be noted that both during this round of negotiations and all the more so during the brief round of negotiations in 2010, there was a measurable upsurge in terror against Israelis.

Given the way these public displays by terror groups and their affiliates appear to now be tolerated in PA-controlled areas, it is certainly plausible that even if the PA isn’t actively instigating such activities, it may have made a decision to somewhat loosen its measures against such groups. Alternatively, this could simply be an indication of the growing weakness of the Palestinian Authority under Abbas. All of which must be taken into consideration when it comes to the current negotiations. From the start of the resumption of peace talks there have been ongoing concerns that were talks to collapse under particularly unhappy circumstances, this could trigger a new wave of Palestinian terror attacks. Equally, were the talks to lead to Israel making further territorial concessions in the West Bank, this would also be deeply concerning in light of a resurgence of Islamist groups in these areas.

To be clear, the present situation in the West Bank is far more secure and stable than in those territories Israel has withdrawn from. But given the partial control of the PA over the West Bank the situation remains mixed and the current trend does not appear to be in a promising direction.  

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Too British for the New York Times

Yesterday the New York Times’s David Carr scooped the story that Piers Morgan will be dropped from CNN’s 9 p.m. time slot. Morgan seemed–at least as far as his discussion with Carr went–to be taking the news in stride. “It’s been a painful period and lately we have taken a bath in the ratings,” he told Carr, adding that he’ll stay at CNN and has been in discussions with the network over a better use of his time.

No one seems to be surprised, least of all Morgan. But his departure is something that he, CNN, and Carr appear to be getting all wrong. So while CNN may think it’s learning important lessons from its Piers Morgan experiment, it may be learning the wrong ones. Both Carr and Morgan made much of the latter’s accent. He’s not from here, you know. But if anyone thinks Morgan’s ratings suffered because he’s British, they certainly haven’t been paying attention. Here’s Carr:

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Yesterday the New York Times’s David Carr scooped the story that Piers Morgan will be dropped from CNN’s 9 p.m. time slot. Morgan seemed–at least as far as his discussion with Carr went–to be taking the news in stride. “It’s been a painful period and lately we have taken a bath in the ratings,” he told Carr, adding that he’ll stay at CNN and has been in discussions with the network over a better use of his time.

No one seems to be surprised, least of all Morgan. But his departure is something that he, CNN, and Carr appear to be getting all wrong. So while CNN may think it’s learning important lessons from its Piers Morgan experiment, it may be learning the wrong ones. Both Carr and Morgan made much of the latter’s accent. He’s not from here, you know. But if anyone thinks Morgan’s ratings suffered because he’s British, they certainly haven’t been paying attention. Here’s Carr:

It’s been an unhappy collision between a British television personality who refuses to assimilate — the only football he cares about is round and his lectures on guns were rife with contempt — and a CNN audience that is intrinsically provincial. After all, the people who tune into a cable news network are, by their nature, deeply interested in America.

CNN’s president, Jeffrey Zucker, has other problems, but none bigger than Mr. Morgan and his plum 9 p.m. time slot. Mr. Morgan said last week that he and Mr. Zucker had been talking about the show’s failure to connect and had decided to pull the plug, probably in March.

Crossing an ocean for a replacement for Larry King, who had ratings problems of his own near the end, was probably not a great idea to begin with. For a cable news station like CNN, major stories are like oxygen. When something important or scary happens in America, many of us have an immediate reflex to turn on CNN. When I find Mr. Morgan telling me what it all means, I have a similar reflex to dismiss what he is saying. It is difficult for him to speak credibly on significant American events because, after all, he just got here.

It would be astronomically bad advice for CNN to absorb this nativist lesson. In reality, the problem with Piers Morgan was twofold: first, he opined on complicated issues without the slightest–and I mean the slightest–understanding of them, and second, he mostly called his guests names when they endeavored to explain those subjects to him.

There is probably no better or more concise example of the former than the following tweet, sent out by Morgan after one of the stars of Duck Dynasty said something he didn’t like:

Just as the 2nd Amendment shouldn’t protect assault rifle devotees, so the 1st Amendment shouldn’t protect vile bigots. #PhilRobertson

There isn’t anything in that sentence that makes a modicum of sense. Obviously, the First Amendment “protects” people who disagree on the issue of same-sex marriage with overheated talk-show hosts. The First Amendment protects even speech that is unpopular in Manhattan television studios (go figure!). Also, because Morgan was upset by a musing on the Christian understanding of sin, he was suggesting, as United Liberty’s Jason Pye pointed out, that perhaps the Bible isn’t protected by the First Amendment. Ponder that thought for a moment, and you start to understand why Morgan had trouble keeping his audience.

But the first part of Morgan’s statement is also typical of his style. I’m not sure exactly what constitutes an “assault rifle devotee,” and I suspect neither does Morgan. As National Review’s Charles Cooke (who also has a British accent, defying Carr’s stereotype) has pointed out:

We can argue all day about the silly “assault weapon” term, but “assault rifle” actually has a meaning. An “assault rifle” means that the rifle can be switched between safe (off, in layman’s terms), semi-automatic, and automatic fire. Weapons such as these are heavily regulated under federal law, have never been used by a civilian to murder anybody, and are strictly illegal in California. The definition of “assault rifle” is not controversial.

The terms one uses in such debates are important, especially where the law is concerned. Morgan never seemed interested in such details, because he never seemed interested in the subjects at all. He was given plenty of time to engage seriously in the issues at hand. He didn’t want to. He wanted to yell at people. That’s his right–and it’s CNN’s right to pay him to do so. The experiment failed because he refused to recognize the rights of others and the act got old, fast. Just as it would have without an accent.

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Obama Consciously Engineering America’s Decline

In remarks today, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said U.S. global military dominance can “no longer be taken for granted.” He said this even as he was in the process of announcing that the Obama administration plans to shrink the United States Army to its smallest force since before the World War II buildup. (For context, the Army will go from a post-September 11 peak of 570,000 to between 440,000 and 450,000, the smallest Army since 1940.)

Max Boot does an excellent job laying out the problems with this proposal here and here. I’d simply add that the fact that American military dominance can no longer be taken for granted is not problematic for someone of Barack Obama’s worldview. In fact, he views the weakening of American power as a downright positive thing, as a contributor to peace and stability, and a means through which America will be more respected and loved in the world. 

Mr. Obama is wrong on every count. But in a sense it’s not at all surprising that the president would hold these views, given the academic and intellectual milieu he comes from. Liberals like Mr. Obama don’t view America as particularly exceptional. They think “leading from behind” is just what America ought to do and where America ought to be. Mr. Obama, then, isn’t any different than your run-of-the-mill man of the left.

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In remarks today, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said U.S. global military dominance can “no longer be taken for granted.” He said this even as he was in the process of announcing that the Obama administration plans to shrink the United States Army to its smallest force since before the World War II buildup. (For context, the Army will go from a post-September 11 peak of 570,000 to between 440,000 and 450,000, the smallest Army since 1940.)

Max Boot does an excellent job laying out the problems with this proposal here and here. I’d simply add that the fact that American military dominance can no longer be taken for granted is not problematic for someone of Barack Obama’s worldview. In fact, he views the weakening of American power as a downright positive thing, as a contributor to peace and stability, and a means through which America will be more respected and loved in the world. 

Mr. Obama is wrong on every count. But in a sense it’s not at all surprising that the president would hold these views, given the academic and intellectual milieu he comes from. Liberals like Mr. Obama don’t view America as particularly exceptional. They think “leading from behind” is just what America ought to do and where America ought to be. Mr. Obama, then, isn’t any different than your run-of-the-mill man of the left.

What is different is that Barack Obama isn’t on the faculty of Columbia; he’s commander in chief of the United States. Which means that his misguided views are downright pernicious. And for all the damage the president is doing on the domestic side–and I would not want to underestimate it for a moment–it may be the harm he’s inflicting on America in foreign policy and national security is deeper, broader, and more durable. 

More than any president in my lifetime, Barack Obama has damaged virtually everything he’s touched. When it comes to American interests, he’s a one-man wrecking ball. 

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Defense Budget Incoherence

My previous item on the defense budget focused on the Draconian cuts being inflicted on the army. But the army is hardly alone in feeling the pain. To a greater or lesser degree, all of the services are enduring cuts that will impair their ability to carry out their assigned missions–and the pain will get even worse if the sequester is not permanently repealed.

Today Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined the tough choices he is making in the new budget. In addition to cutting the army’s end-strength from 520,000 active-duty personnel today to fewer than 450,000 (a level not seen since 1940), he is proposing to:

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My previous item on the defense budget focused on the Draconian cuts being inflicted on the army. But the army is hardly alone in feeling the pain. To a greater or lesser degree, all of the services are enduring cuts that will impair their ability to carry out their assigned missions–and the pain will get even worse if the sequester is not permanently repealed.

Today Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined the tough choices he is making in the new budget. In addition to cutting the army’s end-strength from 520,000 active-duty personnel today to fewer than 450,000 (a level not seen since 1940), he is proposing to:

* Eliminate the A-10 Warthog, the best ground-support aircraft in the Air Force’s inventory, and one whose capabilities will be sorely missed by hard-pressed ground troops under fire.

* Take half of the Navy’s cruiser fleet–11 cruisers–out of service.

* Tenuously maintain a commitment to maintaining 11 aircraft carriers while noting that the funds to retrofit the USS George Washington may not be forthcoming in future years, so the likelihood is that the Navy will shrink to 10 carriers–even though current operating requirements call for 15.

* Cut the Marine Corps from 190,000 to 182,000 Marines.

Keep in mind, that’s a best-case scenario. Hagel also outlined what would happen if sequestration remains in effect after 2015–spelling out for the first time the dire consequences of even greater cuts. What are those consequences?

* “The Air Force would have to retire 80 more aircraft, including the entire KC-10 tanker fleet and the Global Hawk Block 40 fleet, as well as slow down purchases of the Joint Strike Fighter – resulting in 24 fewer F-35s purchased through Fiscal Year 2019 – and sustain ten fewer Predator and Reaper 24-hour combat air patrols. The Air Force would also have to take deep cuts to flying hours, which would prevent a return to adequate readiness levels.”

* “The active-duty Army would have to draw down to an end strength of 420,000 soldiers.”

* “Six additional ships would have to be laid up, and we would have to slow the rate at which we buy destroyers. The net result of sequestration-level cuts would be ten fewer large surface combatant ships in the Navy’s operational inventory by 2023. Under sequestration spending levels, the Navy would also halt procurement of the carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter for two years.”

* “The Marines would have to shrink further to 175,000.”

In short, bad as the current budget is, it could get a whole lot worse.

I don’t blame Hagel, who is doing the best with the bad hand he has been dealt. I do blame President Obama and the bipartisan leadership of Congress who have refused to make hard choices on entitlement programs–the real cause of our fiscal woes–and instead are taking the “easy” way out, by gutting our defense capabilities.

Does any of this matter? You bet it does.

I hear many doves suggesting that we don’t face major threats to our security today and can afford to cut defense spending even more. We’ve heard that before–and history, as I have noted, has always shown the folly of such Panglossian thinking.

In fact the world is a more chaotic place than ever and we face the need to respond to a multiplicity of threats, from pirates and terrorists and narco-traffickers to rogue states like Iran and North Korea to potential great power rivals such as China and Russia to failed states such as Yemen and Syria. And not only do we have to be able to project power in traditional ways, but we also have to be able to protect new domains such as outer space and cyberspace.

Certainly the operating tempo for the U.S. military remains as high as ever. There is no decrease in the number of missions the men and women in uniform must carry out–or the number of contingencies they must prepare for. All that’s being cut are the resources they need to get the job done. Only in Washington does this looming imbalance between ends and means add up to a coherent strategic vision.

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Do Turks Want Democracy?

While some statesmen believe it is sophisticated to downplay the imperatives of freedom and liberty, across the globe ordinary people are proving them wrong. Ukrainians refused to accede to now former president Viktor Yanukovych’s efforts to reorient Ukraine to the east. They stood up for their freedoms, and fought back when attacked. Ultimately, they triumphed—at least for now—as the parliament answered popular demands and impeached the president.

Egyptians, too, were unwilling to suffer President Hosni Mubarak’s continued corruption and increasing disdain for the ordinary public, nor were they willing to tolerate President Mohamed Morsi’s evisceration of his promises and increasing disdain for the democratic principles which he had espoused during the presidential campaigns. They returned en masse to Tahrir Square to demand Morsi compromise, and when he refused, he was ousted.

In Venezuela, as well, the people are saying no more to a government that has taken potentially one of the wealthiest nations in South America and transformed it into an impoverished backwater. While many Venezuelans may have become enamored by the rhetoric of democracy and social justice that came from the likes of late president Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, their behavior makes clear any commitment to democracy is simply a façade in a quest for power.

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While some statesmen believe it is sophisticated to downplay the imperatives of freedom and liberty, across the globe ordinary people are proving them wrong. Ukrainians refused to accede to now former president Viktor Yanukovych’s efforts to reorient Ukraine to the east. They stood up for their freedoms, and fought back when attacked. Ultimately, they triumphed—at least for now—as the parliament answered popular demands and impeached the president.

Egyptians, too, were unwilling to suffer President Hosni Mubarak’s continued corruption and increasing disdain for the ordinary public, nor were they willing to tolerate President Mohamed Morsi’s evisceration of his promises and increasing disdain for the democratic principles which he had espoused during the presidential campaigns. They returned en masse to Tahrir Square to demand Morsi compromise, and when he refused, he was ousted.

In Venezuela, as well, the people are saying no more to a government that has taken potentially one of the wealthiest nations in South America and transformed it into an impoverished backwater. While many Venezuelans may have become enamored by the rhetoric of democracy and social justice that came from the likes of late president Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, their behavior makes clear any commitment to democracy is simply a façade in a quest for power.

In Turkey, too, an increasingly autocratic leader poses a challenge. While mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan quipped that democracy was like a street car, “you ride it as far as you need and then you get off.” He has proven himself a man of his word, as he has moved to consolidate power, eviscerate the judiciary, crush free speech, curb the media, and imprison political opponents. While Turks rose up to protest Erdoğan’s decision to pave over one of central Istanbul’s few remaining green areas, protestors have not persisted to the degree their colleagues have in other countries.

Too many enlightened and educated Turks have preferred to keep silent, privately expressing dismay, but publicly keeping quiet. Many Turkish analysts in Washington D.C., whether out of fear for family members back home or perhaps in a cynical attempt to maintain access to a regime that punishes criticism, self-censor or, even worse, bestow false praise on Ankara’s new tyrants. A week’s protest was not enough to bring democracy to Egypt, Ukraine, or Venezuela, but rather a sustained movement, even in the face of tear gas and police violence.

Too often in the years following Atatürk’s secularist revolution, be it under İsmet İnönü, Adnan Menderes, or Erdoğan, Turkish liberals and progressives have allowed charismatic leaders to erode the foundations of democracy and set Turkey down a dictatorial path. Once again, Turkey has fallen over the precipice into dictatorship. If Turkish liberals are content to sit on their hands instead of defend their freedoms in every city and town square, perhaps it is time to conclude that despite their professions of embracing a European outlook, Turkish liberals simply don’t want democracy enough. Ukrainians are proving daily that it is they, and not Turkey, who deserve Europe.

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Why the President Don’t Get No Respect

“For the first time,” Gallup tells us today, “more Americans think President Barack Obama is not respected by other world leaders than believe he is.” The news is a bit worse for the president than it looks, as Gallup notes that “Americans’ opinions have shifted dramatically in the past year, after being relatively stable from 2010 to 2013.” While such perceptions often track closely with presidential approval numbers, Gallup explains, President Obama’s numbers have not followed that pattern: “a majority of Americans still thought world leaders respected Obama in 2010 and 2011, when his job approval was similar to what it is now.”

It would be difficult to locate one specific foreign-policy failure that would cause such a drop in ratings precisely because there are so many to choose from. It’s both the quality and the quantity of Obama’s foreign-policy miscues at fault here. To list them actually seems almost cruel. (But necessary.) It’s obvious why events in Syria, Ukraine, Russia, China, Egypt, and similar states would give the impression Obama isn’t respected abroad. But more interesting is the fact that while Obama stands by watching the flames of conflict spread and his “red lines” get tap danced across, the administration is also furiously conducting negotiations on major conflicts like Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Are respondents in the poll who think the world doesn’t respect Obama ignoring the high-level diplomacy being conducted by Secretary of State John Kerry? Or is it possible that the way those negotiations are taking shape only reinforces the narrative of a disrespected president? Consider: the Iranians got a very favorable deal and have since regularly and loudly mocked the idea that the agreement with the West requires any real sacrifice toward their nuclear-weapons program while the country has been reopened for business by the easing of sanctions.

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“For the first time,” Gallup tells us today, “more Americans think President Barack Obama is not respected by other world leaders than believe he is.” The news is a bit worse for the president than it looks, as Gallup notes that “Americans’ opinions have shifted dramatically in the past year, after being relatively stable from 2010 to 2013.” While such perceptions often track closely with presidential approval numbers, Gallup explains, President Obama’s numbers have not followed that pattern: “a majority of Americans still thought world leaders respected Obama in 2010 and 2011, when his job approval was similar to what it is now.”

It would be difficult to locate one specific foreign-policy failure that would cause such a drop in ratings precisely because there are so many to choose from. It’s both the quality and the quantity of Obama’s foreign-policy miscues at fault here. To list them actually seems almost cruel. (But necessary.) It’s obvious why events in Syria, Ukraine, Russia, China, Egypt, and similar states would give the impression Obama isn’t respected abroad. But more interesting is the fact that while Obama stands by watching the flames of conflict spread and his “red lines” get tap danced across, the administration is also furiously conducting negotiations on major conflicts like Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Are respondents in the poll who think the world doesn’t respect Obama ignoring the high-level diplomacy being conducted by Secretary of State John Kerry? Or is it possible that the way those negotiations are taking shape only reinforces the narrative of a disrespected president? Consider: the Iranians got a very favorable deal and have since regularly and loudly mocked the idea that the agreement with the West requires any real sacrifice toward their nuclear-weapons program while the country has been reopened for business by the easing of sanctions.

And neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians seem all that patient with Kerry’s diplomacy there, which they consider a vanity project. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon caused quite a stir by dismissing Kerry as a blundering obsessive with a messiah complex. While certainly impolitic, over time it appeared to be not so much a gaffe as a calculated, if indecorous, risk. Last month I quoted Shmuel Rosner’s explanation, which has plenty of logic: Yaalon “was a messenger that had to be sacrificed in order to send a clear message of dissent to the American mediator, a message that no polite disagreement behind closed doors can convey.”

It was, then, almost something of an intervention. This is the single most recognizable aspect of Kerry-as-diplomat: a man who will talk to everyone but listen to no one. The insult from Yaalon stung because it was true. It certainly didn’t help matters much when Susan Rice tweeted out her defense of Kerry that pleaded with others to stop making fun of Kerry and let him eat lunch at their table.

The episode was reminiscent of when Obama, anticipating criticism of letting Vice President Joe Biden handle important tasks, playfully warned “Nobody messes with Joe!” It was laughable, Rob Long commented at the time, “Because everybody messes with Joe.” He summed up the general attitude toward Biden’s oversight authority: “Biden couldn’t oversee a ham sandwich.”

Obama-era diplomacy ostensibly designed to increase respect for America abroad is having precisely the opposite effect. In fairness, however, there is much overlap between the world-on-fire conflicts and the administration’s negotiations. Syria is the prime example: a desire for a negotiated solution caused the administration to preempt its own military action in order to talk about getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons. The Assad regime is, unsurprisingly, ignoring its responsibilities under the deal and letting the deadlines evaporate. While this is a case of America trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict, it’s clear that the Obama administration’s interlocutors think the president is a bit of a joke. A procession of empty threats will usually have that effect.

And the violence in Ukraine ended–or at least was greatly reduced–by a negotiating process that excluded the United States. The message is clear: productive diplomacy is conducted without the Obama administration. So it’s important to note that the impression of Obama as weak or not worth respecting abroad is not–as perhaps members of the administration might like to believe–a result of a lack of the use of force. It’s not solely about projecting strength; it’s also about projecting competence and trustworthiness. That the Obama White House doesn’t project any of the three helps explain his poll numbers abroad.

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The Myth of Israel’s Refusal to Make “Tough Decisions” for Peace

On the eve of the German government’s arrival in Israel, Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has called on Israel to make the “difficult but necessary decisions” for the peace process to succeed. There is of course nothing particularly remarkable or unprecedented about Germany’s foreign minister having made these statements. Such phrases just so easily roll off of the tongues of statesmen trying to find something constructive sounding to say about a process that has proven to be anything but. However, these unthinking assertions are problematic, because they display an utter refusal to take account of the reality of the peace process as it actually exists.

Such vague talk of “difficult decisions” is easy, but precisely what tough decisions is it that Israel could make that these diplomats can honestly say would make an iota of difference to the current Palestinian attitude? This talk simply neglects to account for the present, and indeed longstanding, attitude of the Palestinian leadership. Last week Palestinian Authority head Abbas told Kerry formerly that he rejects Kerry’s current peace framework, while also having said that if no framework is agreed upon by the end of April, then the Palestinian side will exit negotiations. It should further be recalled that the only reason that the Palestinians are even at the negotiating table is because of the Obama administration’s bribery. In return for Abbas going through the motions of peace talks the U.S. government released large amounts of funding to the PA, held up on account of the Palestinians’ unilateral activities at the UN, while Israel was pressured into releasing several rounds of convicted terrorists for the pleasure of the Palestinians’ company at the negotiating table.

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On the eve of the German government’s arrival in Israel, Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has called on Israel to make the “difficult but necessary decisions” for the peace process to succeed. There is of course nothing particularly remarkable or unprecedented about Germany’s foreign minister having made these statements. Such phrases just so easily roll off of the tongues of statesmen trying to find something constructive sounding to say about a process that has proven to be anything but. However, these unthinking assertions are problematic, because they display an utter refusal to take account of the reality of the peace process as it actually exists.

Such vague talk of “difficult decisions” is easy, but precisely what tough decisions is it that Israel could make that these diplomats can honestly say would make an iota of difference to the current Palestinian attitude? This talk simply neglects to account for the present, and indeed longstanding, attitude of the Palestinian leadership. Last week Palestinian Authority head Abbas told Kerry formerly that he rejects Kerry’s current peace framework, while also having said that if no framework is agreed upon by the end of April, then the Palestinian side will exit negotiations. It should further be recalled that the only reason that the Palestinians are even at the negotiating table is because of the Obama administration’s bribery. In return for Abbas going through the motions of peace talks the U.S. government released large amounts of funding to the PA, held up on account of the Palestinians’ unilateral activities at the UN, while Israel was pressured into releasing several rounds of convicted terrorists for the pleasure of the Palestinians’ company at the negotiating table.

Then there is the matter of Abbas’s ever-changing and fluid list of demands, red lines, and negotiating positions, with the goal posts continuously on the move. Yet, as much as it is possible to pin down precisely what the Palestinian position is, it appears to be completely at odds with what any reasonable person would expect a final agreement to look like. The Palestinians have refused to even consider recognizing the Jewish state, demanded the release of all Palestinian prisoners in a final deal, and Abbas has additionally said he will not give up the claims of the descendants of Palestinian refugees to move to the Jewish state rather than the Palestinian one. And such positions also have to be considered alongside the PA’s continuous use of its media network and school system to stir up incitement against Jews and the very existence of Israel. 

There is also Abbas’s rediscovered aversion to mutually agreed-upon land swaps. In previous talks it appeared to be accepted that Israel would annex the major Israeli population centers in the West Bank, but that the Palestinians would be fully compensated with an equal amount of Israeli territory in return. Now, in response to Kerry’s framework, noises have once again resumed from the Palestinian Authority suggesting that it would only be willing to accept land swaps on a far more limited basis than previously understood. In this way the PA is now blocking what had appeared to be one of the primary avenues for overcoming a major impasse within negotiations.    

The relentless calls for Israel to take difficult decisions for peace not only neglect to account for the attitude of the Palestinian side but also of the extensive concessions already offered by the Israelis. Both under Ehud Barak during the Camp David talks in 2000 and certainly under Ehud Olmert in 2008, Israel’s offers for peace went just about as far as possible without Israel either ceasing to exist as a Jewish state or rendering its remaining territory indefensible. Similarly, the current Israeli negotiating position does not appear to be measurably different from that of Barak or Olmert’s. Certainly, if Prime Minister Netanyahu’s negotiating stance was falling significantly short of previous offers then his dovish chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, who served in the Olmert government and remains a political rival to Netanyahu, would doubtless call him out on this. Israel is once again offering as much as it can without ceasing to survive as Israel. But then this is the crux of the matter. It really looks as if it may just be the case that no offer that leaves the Jewish state in existence will be acceptable to Palestinians.

As ever, Israelis still have no shortage of difficult decisions to make. Yet with no serious partner for peace and with unilateral withdrawal in Gaza and Lebanon having proved strategically disastrous, Israel’s most pressing decisions do not currently concern the Palestinians. Foremost among Israel’s concerns right now must be the unparalleled threat of the Iranian nuclear program.

In her weekly video address German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that she would be pressing Netanyahu on the peace process. One wonders what she will find to press him on; that he give up on the demand for defensible borders? Give up on the demand not to be ended as a Jewish state by a flood of Palestinians claiming refugee status? Give up on the demand that the Palestinians recognize the Jewish state as part of concluding their conflict? There’s nothing left for Israel to concede on. The game is up for Western leaders who only wish to talk of Israel’s “difficult decisions for peace.”

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Scott Walker’s Political Courage

As Jonathan very correctly observes, Scott Walker’s public-sector union reforms, which he got enacted over extraordinary opposition, scare unions, Democrats, and possible GOP opponents alike should he decide to run for the Republican nomination in 2016. Unions face a massive loss of funds (and therefore political power) if his reforms spread to other states. The Democratic Party faces a loss of those union funds, which go overwhelmingly to that party. And the contenders for the presidency in both parties face the fact that Scott Walker, who comes across in both private and public as a nice, low-key, everyone’s-favorite-uncle sort of guy—a veritable unObama when it comes to self-regard and ego—has proved himself a political mensch of the first order. That could be a very potent combination in 2016.

Scott Walker felt he had to fight the public-service unions, instead of kicking the problem down the road as most politicians are wont to do. That he did so, and succeeded, it seems to me, adds to his political potency in an era when a considerable majority of the people think the political establishment has been avoiding taking on the tough but necessary political jobs—tax reform, legal reform, entitlement reforms, etc.—for purely self-interested reasons, endangering long-term prosperity in the process. The right track/wrong track polling stands at a dismal 30 percent/62 percent and hasn’t been in positive territory for a very long time.

Governor Walker took on reform of public-sector unions not because the crisis would come in his governorship, but because he knew it would otherwise come.

The basic problem here is that the public sector should never have been allowed to unionize on the Wagner Act model that governs private-sector unions, for the private sector and the public sector are two very different economic beasts. FDR—hardly anti-union—adamantly opposed public-sector unionization. The reasons are three.

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As Jonathan very correctly observes, Scott Walker’s public-sector union reforms, which he got enacted over extraordinary opposition, scare unions, Democrats, and possible GOP opponents alike should he decide to run for the Republican nomination in 2016. Unions face a massive loss of funds (and therefore political power) if his reforms spread to other states. The Democratic Party faces a loss of those union funds, which go overwhelmingly to that party. And the contenders for the presidency in both parties face the fact that Scott Walker, who comes across in both private and public as a nice, low-key, everyone’s-favorite-uncle sort of guy—a veritable unObama when it comes to self-regard and ego—has proved himself a political mensch of the first order. That could be a very potent combination in 2016.

Scott Walker felt he had to fight the public-service unions, instead of kicking the problem down the road as most politicians are wont to do. That he did so, and succeeded, it seems to me, adds to his political potency in an era when a considerable majority of the people think the political establishment has been avoiding taking on the tough but necessary political jobs—tax reform, legal reform, entitlement reforms, etc.—for purely self-interested reasons, endangering long-term prosperity in the process. The right track/wrong track polling stands at a dismal 30 percent/62 percent and hasn’t been in positive territory for a very long time.

Governor Walker took on reform of public-sector unions not because the crisis would come in his governorship, but because he knew it would otherwise come.

The basic problem here is that the public sector should never have been allowed to unionize on the Wagner Act model that governs private-sector unions, for the private sector and the public sector are two very different economic beasts. FDR—hardly anti-union—adamantly opposed public-sector unionization. The reasons are three.

1) When a profit-seeking corporation sits down to negotiate with its unions, the two sides are basically negotiating over how to divide the profits that capital and labor, working together, create. Both sides know that if they push too hard it can kill the goose that lays the golden eggs of profit. If capital drives too hard a bargain, it will have a sullen labor force and will lose the best workers to the competition. If labor drives too hard a bargain, management will have to raise prices and business will be lost to the competition. They often get the balance wrong, but market signals will tell them that and be a factor in the next negotiation.

But in the public sector, there is no competition, and therefore no market signals. And they are not creating wealth, they are spending other people’s money (i.e. the taxpayers’). As Milton Friedman explained, no one spends other people’s money as carefully as they spend their own. Management here has effectively no skin in the game, so why fight hard to keep down labor costs? It’s better to ensure labor peace.

2) But even worse, while in the private sector neither side has any say in who sits across the table, in the public sector the unions can powerfully influence whom they negotiate with. They use union dues to contribute to campaigns to get union-friendly politicians elected. Those politicians then give the unions a better deal, providing the unions with more money, which is recycled into campaigns and a vicious circle is established.

3) Politicians are always short-sighted. They care about tomorrow’s headline and next year’s election, not a future when they will no longer be in office. In a public-sector labor negotiation, both sides of the table are populated by politicians (union leaders are elected after all, and, like all politicians, need to bring home the bacon). So the long-term consequences of any deal are ignored. After all, they’ll be someone else’s problem. By loading most of the increased costs into future entitlements instead of current wages, they also escape current scrutiny by the press.

The result over fifty years (ironically, it was Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson who signed the first bill to allow the first public-service unions, in 1959) is a public sector that is paid more in wages than their private-sector counterparts and enjoys benefits that private sector workers can only dream of, such as free health benefits and generous defined-benefit retirement plans for which public-sector workers pay nothing. If public-sector workers in Wisconsin are now taking home less than they did before reform, that is largely because they are now contributing to their health and retirement plans, just like their private-sector counterparts have to do.

So it’s not simply “anti-unionism,” as unions and Democrats contend, it’s redressing a grossly unfair situation that should never have been allowed to develop in the first place and that was quickly spiraling out of control. How many Detroits can this country take? Three smaller cities in California have also declared bankruptcy because of unsupportable obligations to public-sector workers. Many more across the country are on the brink.

So someone had to be St. George and slay this dragon despite the personal political risks in taking on so formidable an opponent. Scott Walker had the necessary courage. That will stand him in very good stead in the next few years.

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The Defense Budget vs. History

Traditionally, military planners have operated under a worst-case scenario: i.e., what do we need to have in place to respond if nothing goes as planned? The Obama administration and Congress appear to be operating under a best-case scenario: i.e., what is the minimum force we can field on the assumption that nothing will go terribly wrong?

Thus the new defense budget, being unveiled today, which cuts the army’s active-duty force size to the smallest level since before World War II–just 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers. That’s down from a wartime high of 570,000, although even that figure was painfully inadequate to allow the U.S. to respond to two unforeseen wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As critics of the Bush administration–including Senator Barack Obama–were once fond of pointing out, Bush never sent enough troops to stabilize Iraq until 2007 and that commitment was only made possible by keeping a ludicrously small force in Afghanistan, once known as the “necessary” war. The failure to send more troops early on allowed the Taliban to rebound from near-defeat in 2001 and allowed various insurgent groups to sprout all over Iraq.

So if 570,000 troops were not enough to handle such relatively weak foes as al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban, how on earth would 440,000 troops be able to handle more robust contingencies–unlikely but not impossible–such as simultaneous wars with Iran and North Korea and a stabilization mission in, say, Yemen? The answer is that they couldn’t.

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Traditionally, military planners have operated under a worst-case scenario: i.e., what do we need to have in place to respond if nothing goes as planned? The Obama administration and Congress appear to be operating under a best-case scenario: i.e., what is the minimum force we can field on the assumption that nothing will go terribly wrong?

Thus the new defense budget, being unveiled today, which cuts the army’s active-duty force size to the smallest level since before World War II–just 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers. That’s down from a wartime high of 570,000, although even that figure was painfully inadequate to allow the U.S. to respond to two unforeseen wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As critics of the Bush administration–including Senator Barack Obama–were once fond of pointing out, Bush never sent enough troops to stabilize Iraq until 2007 and that commitment was only made possible by keeping a ludicrously small force in Afghanistan, once known as the “necessary” war. The failure to send more troops early on allowed the Taliban to rebound from near-defeat in 2001 and allowed various insurgent groups to sprout all over Iraq.

So if 570,000 troops were not enough to handle such relatively weak foes as al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban, how on earth would 440,000 troops be able to handle more robust contingencies–unlikely but not impossible–such as simultaneous wars with Iran and North Korea and a stabilization mission in, say, Yemen? The answer is that they couldn’t.

Actually the situation is even worse than the news would have you believe. Because the army’s plan to cut down to 440,000 to 450,000 is premised on the assumption that Congress will continue to provide relief from half a trillion dollars in sequestration cuts. But the budget deal reached by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray only provides sequestration relief in 2014 and 2015; unless Congress is willing to turn off sequestration in future years, the army will have to go even lower in end-strength.

Moreover, the defense budget includes modest cuts in personnel spending–spending on pay, pensions, and health care–which are long overdue but which are likely to be blocked by Congress, as was the case with a recent attempt to cut cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees by a measly one percent. Unless Congress goes along with cuts to personnel costs, which now constitute half of the defense budget, other parts of the budget–including, no doubt, the army’s end-strength–will have to endure further scaling back.

That is a responsible decline in military strength only if you assume that we will never fight another major land war, or engage in simultaneous stabilization and counterinsurgency operations. And that, in turn, is a tenable assumption only if you assume that the laws of history have been repealed and a new era is dawning in which the U.S. will be able to protect all of its vital interests through drone strikes and commando raids. We all hope that’s the case but, as the saying has it, hope isn’t a strategy. Except, it seems, in Washington defense circles today.

If history teaches anything, it is that the era of land wars is not over and that we will pay a heavy price in the future for our unpreparedness–as we have paid in blood at the beginning of every major war in American history. Our failure to learn from history is stunning and (from a historian’s standpoint) disheartening but not, alas, terribly surprising: Throughout history, supposedly enlightened elites have been able to convince themselves that the era of conflict is over and a new age is dawning. The fact that they have always been wrong before does not, somehow, lead them to question those assumptions in the present day, because this is such a convenient belief to have.

Today, for both Republicans and Democrats, the president and Congress, these hope-based assumptions about defense spending allow them to put off the truly difficult decisions about cutting entitlement spending. But at what cost? If history is any guide, the cost of unpreparedness will be steep and will be borne by future generations of American troops.

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