Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 5, 2014

Back to the Confines of History

Americans occasionally indulge a certain progressive notion about world affairs: that humanity has become so enlightened and sophisticated as to have outgrown its brutal and tragic nature. The idea that we can transcend our blood-soaked past was behind the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which sought to outlaw war altogether. Eighty-five years and millions of war dead later, it’s also behind Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comment that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a  “19th century act in the 21st century.” Invasions, you see, belong to that buried thing called history. We’re now in something else.

Unfortunately that something else doesn’t look much better. A Russian strongman is gluing together the pieces of a smashed empire, underwriting biblical slaughter in the Middle East, and standing with a nuclear-aspirant, exterminationist regime. Doubtless, Putin took Kerry’s characterization as a supreme compliment, an indication that he’s a great man of history and a belated product of Russia’s Golden Age.

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Americans occasionally indulge a certain progressive notion about world affairs: that humanity has become so enlightened and sophisticated as to have outgrown its brutal and tragic nature. The idea that we can transcend our blood-soaked past was behind the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which sought to outlaw war altogether. Eighty-five years and millions of war dead later, it’s also behind Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comment that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a  “19th century act in the 21st century.” Invasions, you see, belong to that buried thing called history. We’re now in something else.

Unfortunately that something else doesn’t look much better. A Russian strongman is gluing together the pieces of a smashed empire, underwriting biblical slaughter in the Middle East, and standing with a nuclear-aspirant, exterminationist regime. Doubtless, Putin took Kerry’s characterization as a supreme compliment, an indication that he’s a great man of history and a belated product of Russia’s Golden Age.

Pointing out Putin’s aspirations is becoming risky. There’s been much talk lately of conservatives who idolize the Russian leader. But aside from a handful of marginalized eccentrics, the very opposite is the case. It was the last Republican presidential candidate who called Putin’s Russia our “number-one political foe,” and it was the entire Democratic establishment that supported Obama’s five-year-long attempt to be more accommodating to Moscow. Reconciling these facts has been unpleasant for progressives who’ve only just discovered, via gay-rights activism, that Putin is an unapologetic human-rights abuser. One hopes that similar clarity on Iran is soon to follow.

As Americans reacquaint themselves with living inside history and not beyond it, they’ll head in one of two directions:  They’ll either accept the challenge of making the world a safer, freer place, or they’ll decide that recommitting to the fight against brutality is too burdensome after all. I’m betting they take the challenge. For the idealism that led to post-historic fantasy cuts both ways. If we were idealistic enough to think we’ve moved beyond large-scale injustice then we’re also idealistic enough to go out into the world and do something about the bad guys.  That’s why America and her allies are the planet’s first defense against tyranny and oppression.

To be sure, there is much to shake off this time round: We’re hobbled by the civilian-grade PTSD of the war on terror and by the keystroke complacency of Internet utopianism. We are also enervated by self-congratulation, first for having elected Barack Obama president and then for embracing same-sex marriage. But if the growing, non-partisan disgust with Putinism is any indication, we are already well on our way to re-engaging the world on realistic terms.

Barack Obama often reassured us that we’d moved past “a long gone Cold War,” but the world doesn’t wait on his interpretation before shaping itself. And Obama may have finally realized as much. One strong indication of renewed clarity is the Defense Department’s announcement on Wednesday that the United States will expand military cooperation with Baltic countries in light of Putin’s aggression. This doesn’t mean a “new Cold War” is upon us; it’s just an overdue acknowledgment of whose side we’re on in the continuous fight for liberty.

Contrary to most, I think Putin made an excellent point about American exceptionalism in his September 11 New York Times op-ed. He wrote, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.” Quite right. It’s time, once again, for us to be extremely dangerous to men like Vladimir Putin.

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Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Putin Problem

Hillary Clinton wasn’t wrong to point out today the loose similarities between Vladimir Putin’s rationale for aggression in the Ukraine and what Nazi Germany did in the 1930s in using ethnic Germans to justify their campaign to overrun Central and Eastern Europe. But overcompensating for something is usually a sign of weakness. Thus, Clinton’s use of language that is far stronger than even that employed by some of President Obama’s fiercest critics raises questions not only about her distancing herself from the administration she served for four years but about whether her record as secretary of state is as much of a political asset as many of her supporters believe it to be.

Let’s start by acknowledging that Clinton has always come across as a lot more clear-headed about Russia and most foreign policy problems than the president or her successor John Kerry, let alone Vice President Joe Biden. But the idea that she is “Hillary the hawk” is a nickname she has earned only by the comparison to the rest of the cast of characters in the Obama administration. This is, after all, the same Hillary Clinton who earned a spot in the all-time foreign policy bloopers reel with her comic presentation of a mistranslated “reset” button to her Russian counterpart and who dutifully carried out the president’s orders to make nice with Putin whenever possible rather than treating him as a regional bully and clear threat to peace. So as much as she may wish to thump her chest a bit today with regards to Russian misbehavior in order to reinforce the notion that she is not an Obama clone on foreign policy, the conflict in Ukraine is a reminder that she will have to answer for more than Benghazi when running for president in 2016.

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Hillary Clinton wasn’t wrong to point out today the loose similarities between Vladimir Putin’s rationale for aggression in the Ukraine and what Nazi Germany did in the 1930s in using ethnic Germans to justify their campaign to overrun Central and Eastern Europe. But overcompensating for something is usually a sign of weakness. Thus, Clinton’s use of language that is far stronger than even that employed by some of President Obama’s fiercest critics raises questions not only about her distancing herself from the administration she served for four years but about whether her record as secretary of state is as much of a political asset as many of her supporters believe it to be.

Let’s start by acknowledging that Clinton has always come across as a lot more clear-headed about Russia and most foreign policy problems than the president or her successor John Kerry, let alone Vice President Joe Biden. But the idea that she is “Hillary the hawk” is a nickname she has earned only by the comparison to the rest of the cast of characters in the Obama administration. This is, after all, the same Hillary Clinton who earned a spot in the all-time foreign policy bloopers reel with her comic presentation of a mistranslated “reset” button to her Russian counterpart and who dutifully carried out the president’s orders to make nice with Putin whenever possible rather than treating him as a regional bully and clear threat to peace. So as much as she may wish to thump her chest a bit today with regards to Russian misbehavior in order to reinforce the notion that she is not an Obama clone on foreign policy, the conflict in Ukraine is a reminder that she will have to answer for more than Benghazi when running for president in 2016.

Clinton is heading toward 2016 in an even stronger position vis-à-vis her potential rivals for the president than the formidable advantage she possessed in 2008. This time there is no Barack Obama-type challenger waiting in the wings to steal the prize from her. After eight years of our first African-American president, the desire to follow that up with our first female commander-in-chief provides a compelling story line to the election that will be difficult for any Republican, let alone a fellow Democrat, to try to override.

But she will discover that running for president as a U.S. Senator who could talk about every issue but had responsibility for nothing is a lot easier than having to defend a less-than-stellar record as secretary of state. Though she spent her four years at Foggy Bottom as an administration cipher with little will of her own as President Obama imposed his own foreign policy views on the department and then left it praising him, things have since gotten complicated. The debacle over Syria and now Ukraine as well as the unraveling of the American position in Iraq and Afghanistan undermines the notion that she was a successful secretary of state. Merely accumulating frequent-flyer miles — her claim to fame as a public official — is no substitute for success.

But the deterioration of American relations with the dictator that Obama promised that he would treat with more “flexibility” if he were re-elected in 2012 poses a unique problem for Clinton. If pictures are worth a thousand words, a viral video must be valued at an infinite number of printed pages. The film clip of Clinton and the “reset” button will be played over and over again in the next three years and, fairly or not, may paint her as even more of a dupe for the Russians than Obama or Kerry.

Calling Putin a new Hitler seems like a smart way to distance herself from a lame duck president who looks weak. Hence, the always-savvy Clinton machine is already rolling into action seeking to demonstrate that Hillary is as tough as she would like us to think she is. But like so much of her 2008 campaign, the chest beating Clinton will always be seen as lacking in authenticity. The stronger she tries to appear, the weaker her supposedly invincible campaign machine may start to look. 

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An Alternative to the Two-State Solution

Talk of managing, as opposed to solving, the Israel-Palestinian dispute has become increasingly fashionable in these years of a faltering, and at times failed, peace process. For many commentators it had become a case of Israel having to decide not to decide, for now at least. However, with the onset of Secretary of State Kerry’s most recent round of negotiations, we have seen a concerted effort to revive hopes for an imminent resolution of the conflict around a two-state proposal. President Obama’s recent interview in Bloomberg has already drawn much comment. Friends of Israel have expressed fully warranted dismay at the president’s disingenuous attempts to frame Prime Minister Netanyahu as some kind of hardened rejectionist of the peace process as the president willfully ignored the many concessions for peace already sacrificed by Netanyahu. He spoke as if the settlement freezes, prisoner releases and countless hours of negotiating had never happened.

Of course, Netanyahu already embraced the concept of two states as soon as he took office, as outlined in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech. However, Israel’s prime minister has also made quite clear that any genuine peace will have to rest on full Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. This has been responded to with skepticism from much of the international community, particularly on the part of the Europeans. The Zionist left (or at least what remains of it) has also proven pretty cold to this demand, with even moderates from this camp such as Shlomo Avineri appearing unenthusiastic about the Jewish state demand.

However, in this month’s featured essay for Mosaic Yoav Sorek not only proposes an alternative strategy, and indeed attitude, for Israel, but a strategy that places at its core the assertion of the Jewish state and its most fundamental rights. In his essay Israel’s Big Mistake Sorek argues that the path of concession and accommodation pursued by Israel since the early 1990s has been a disastrous one, only weakening it and emboldening the demands of Israel’s enemies. Sorek makes a strong case for the acknowledgement of the fact that since the conflict has not ever been about territory, but rather about ending Israel’s existence, nothing short of a total acceptance of a Jewish state in the Middle East will be able to deliver real peace.

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Talk of managing, as opposed to solving, the Israel-Palestinian dispute has become increasingly fashionable in these years of a faltering, and at times failed, peace process. For many commentators it had become a case of Israel having to decide not to decide, for now at least. However, with the onset of Secretary of State Kerry’s most recent round of negotiations, we have seen a concerted effort to revive hopes for an imminent resolution of the conflict around a two-state proposal. President Obama’s recent interview in Bloomberg has already drawn much comment. Friends of Israel have expressed fully warranted dismay at the president’s disingenuous attempts to frame Prime Minister Netanyahu as some kind of hardened rejectionist of the peace process as the president willfully ignored the many concessions for peace already sacrificed by Netanyahu. He spoke as if the settlement freezes, prisoner releases and countless hours of negotiating had never happened.

Of course, Netanyahu already embraced the concept of two states as soon as he took office, as outlined in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech. However, Israel’s prime minister has also made quite clear that any genuine peace will have to rest on full Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. This has been responded to with skepticism from much of the international community, particularly on the part of the Europeans. The Zionist left (or at least what remains of it) has also proven pretty cold to this demand, with even moderates from this camp such as Shlomo Avineri appearing unenthusiastic about the Jewish state demand.

However, in this month’s featured essay for Mosaic Yoav Sorek not only proposes an alternative strategy, and indeed attitude, for Israel, but a strategy that places at its core the assertion of the Jewish state and its most fundamental rights. In his essay Israel’s Big Mistake Sorek argues that the path of concession and accommodation pursued by Israel since the early 1990s has been a disastrous one, only weakening it and emboldening the demands of Israel’s enemies. Sorek makes a strong case for the acknowledgement of the fact that since the conflict has not ever been about territory, but rather about ending Israel’s existence, nothing short of a total acceptance of a Jewish state in the Middle East will be able to deliver real peace.

Israel’s mistake has been to buy into the notion that it can purchase from the Arab world its right to exist by trading territory. It has pursued the land for peace equation on the belief that if it shrinks its territory and weakens itself strategically it can placate it enemies’ hostility. But as Sorek points out, logically the opposite is true. It is only by maintaining its strength, asserting its presence, and demanding to be recognized that Israel can have any chance of eventually compelling its neighbors to accept the reality of its existence, and in doing so fulfill the foundational vision of Zionism.

As far as concluding the long running dispute with the Palestinians is concerned, Sorek proposes that Israel might start by not seeking to appease and legitimize the most hard-line elements among the Palestinians. It was the great mistake of the Rabin government, the author argues, to recognize and elevate the PLO instead of continuing the policy of working to defeat Arafat’s terror organization. Instead, Sorek suggests that Israel should essentially take the initiative and simply assert its rights and authority over the entire territory in its control. Whether or not Israel is to find a way to simply fully integrate the Arab communities living throughout its territories, or whether they will ultimately see their future in reclaiming their former Jordanian citizenship, Sorek makes the claim that none of this will prove as difficult as the 20-year long shambles of attempting to establish a Palestinian state.

Obama makes the dishonest claim that he would like to be presented with some alternative to the two-state proposal. But that request is doubly disingenuous, because not only does the president clearly have no desire for an alternative plan, but he also knows full well that Netanyahu is cooperating in efforts to establish a Palestinian state. Yet, Netanyahu is also pursuing somewhat of a synthesis approach by insisting that territorial compromise by Israel must be matched by real Palestinian acceptance of the Jewish state.

Israel’s prime minister may demand this acceptance, but it is a sign of how doubtful the Israelis are that it will come from the region as a whole that they continue to insist that they hold such strategically significant areas as the Jordan valley. As Sorek observes in his essay, Israelis have given up on the hope of ever being embraced by the wider Arab-Islamic world. TS Eliot once wrote of those dreaming up systems so utopian that no one in them would ever need be good. In this way talk of sophisticated early warning systems in the Jordan valley, symbolic deals on token numbers of refugees, land swaps and more, are all part of misguided efforts to negotiate a final status arrangement so watertight that it won’t matter if the Jewish state is still reviled by Palestinians and the wider region.

As Yoav Sorek argues, nothing short of full acceptance of the Jewish state will bring peace to Israel and end the conflict, pursuing that acceptance is the only viable way to bring about a real and lasting peace.

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Obama’s Afghan Strategy Helps Putin

Vladimir Putin is Machiavelli. He waited until he had a strong hand and he played it. President Obama and his European counterparts might hem and haw, but the worst Putin likely expects from them is being put on double secret probation. Europe has always been mercantile, unwilling to give up short-term profit for the sake of long-term security, hence the constant efforts by countries like Germany and Italy to dilute Iran. Putin, however, also has leverage over Europe because many European countries depend on Russian pipelines for their gas.

Such leverage is bad enough, but Obama has enabled Putin to turn his full house into a royal flush. By imposing a political timeline for withdrawal on Afghanistan, Obama has given Putin sway over the ability of American forces to withdrawal their equipment from Afghanistan. Obama now faces a choice: Risk American equipment transiting Russia, or succumb to Pakistani blackmail which can be just as costly. There will be many reverberations and second order effects because of Obama’s shortsightedness. Emboldening Putin is only the first.

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Vladimir Putin is Machiavelli. He waited until he had a strong hand and he played it. President Obama and his European counterparts might hem and haw, but the worst Putin likely expects from them is being put on double secret probation. Europe has always been mercantile, unwilling to give up short-term profit for the sake of long-term security, hence the constant efforts by countries like Germany and Italy to dilute Iran. Putin, however, also has leverage over Europe because many European countries depend on Russian pipelines for their gas.

Such leverage is bad enough, but Obama has enabled Putin to turn his full house into a royal flush. By imposing a political timeline for withdrawal on Afghanistan, Obama has given Putin sway over the ability of American forces to withdrawal their equipment from Afghanistan. Obama now faces a choice: Risk American equipment transiting Russia, or succumb to Pakistani blackmail which can be just as costly. There will be many reverberations and second order effects because of Obama’s shortsightedness. Emboldening Putin is only the first.

Of course, just as Putin has called Obama’s bluff, it is possible that Obama could call Putin’s. Rather than withdrawing from Afghanistan in the midst of an election when security is most needed, and rather than slash defense to pre-World War II levels against the backdrop of international chaos, Obama could reconsider the investment needed to secure America’s place in the world and, indeed, to secure greater peace in the world. If Obama altered his arbitrary deadline in Afghanistan, he would instantly undercut Putin’s leverage. That would assume, however, that Obama cared about America’s place in the world or the freedom of its allies. That he does not—and that he gratuitously increases the power and position of American adversaries—is becoming hard to deny.

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Neo-Con Derangement Syndrome and Putin

These are hard times for liberal foreign policy analysts and pundits. The collapse of American credibility abroad in the last year after President Obama’s Syria debacle has now been compounded by the spectacle in the Ukraine as Vladimir Putin confidently dares the West to do something about his theft of Crimea from the Ukraine while knowing full well that they have neither the inclination or the ability to make him pay for aggression. Liberals don’t want to look honestly at the weakness and indecision that routinely paralyzes this administration. Nor can they, as perhaps some liberals might have in the past when Russian aggressors flew the flag of socialism and anti-imperialism, start rationalizing Putin’s actions as defensible. So what do they do? Attack neo-conservatives, of course.

In today’s Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky attempts the near impossible by seeking to turn the facts on their head by claiming those conservatives who rightly warned about the need to pay closer attention to are actually admirers of the Russian authoritarian. Yes, I’m not kidding. The conceit of this piece is so preposterous that it is almost a waste of time to refute it since it claims that those who were and are right about Putin are his secret admirers if not doppelgangers. Coming from the same crowd that mocked Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney for talking about the geostrategic threat from Putin’s Russia, this is what psychologists call deflection. Like all behaviors aimed at blaming others for your own mistakes, it is as false as it is weak. But it tells us a lot about the mindset on the left as they view a dangerous world that can’t be tamed by the magic of Barack Obama’s personality or Hillary Clinton’s comic “reset” button. Having profited from attacks on neoconservatives who were blamed for America’s difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, now that these conflicts are off the front burner and the U.S. must deal with other challenges, all liberals have left is a strange form of neo-con derangement syndrome.

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These are hard times for liberal foreign policy analysts and pundits. The collapse of American credibility abroad in the last year after President Obama’s Syria debacle has now been compounded by the spectacle in the Ukraine as Vladimir Putin confidently dares the West to do something about his theft of Crimea from the Ukraine while knowing full well that they have neither the inclination or the ability to make him pay for aggression. Liberals don’t want to look honestly at the weakness and indecision that routinely paralyzes this administration. Nor can they, as perhaps some liberals might have in the past when Russian aggressors flew the flag of socialism and anti-imperialism, start rationalizing Putin’s actions as defensible. So what do they do? Attack neo-conservatives, of course.

In today’s Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky attempts the near impossible by seeking to turn the facts on their head by claiming those conservatives who rightly warned about the need to pay closer attention to are actually admirers of the Russian authoritarian. Yes, I’m not kidding. The conceit of this piece is so preposterous that it is almost a waste of time to refute it since it claims that those who were and are right about Putin are his secret admirers if not doppelgangers. Coming from the same crowd that mocked Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney for talking about the geostrategic threat from Putin’s Russia, this is what psychologists call deflection. Like all behaviors aimed at blaming others for your own mistakes, it is as false as it is weak. But it tells us a lot about the mindset on the left as they view a dangerous world that can’t be tamed by the magic of Barack Obama’s personality or Hillary Clinton’s comic “reset” button. Having profited from attacks on neoconservatives who were blamed for America’s difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, now that these conflicts are off the front burner and the U.S. must deal with other challenges, all liberals have left is a strange form of neo-con derangement syndrome.

When conservatives contrast Obama’s weakness with Putin’s decisive action, they are not expressing admiration for the Russian dictator. What they are pointing out is that when faced with a ruthless opponent, the president’s Hamlet routine isn’t merely unimpressive; it’s a standing invitation to the bad guys to do their worst. And that is exactly what has happened in the Middle East as Iran has helped Bashar Assad hang on in Syria with a crucial assist from Russia despite President Obama’s occasional comments about him having to go and warnings that he will face retribution if he crosses a “red line” and uses chemical weapons on his own people. The foolish and probably futile pursuit of engagement, if not détente, with Iran over its nuclear program is illustrating the same principle. That’s also true of the prelude to what happened in the Ukraine as Putin decided that the U.S. is a paper tiger whose warnings can be flouted with impunity.

What conservatives want is a president who isn’t foolhardy but who is taken seriously when he issues warnings. Tomasky and liberals know Obama isn’t such a leader and they are uncomfortable about the growing evidence that life in an era where the U.S. thinks it is just another Western nation rather than the leader of the free world is a lot more dangerous than it needs to be.

Contrary to Tomasky, neoconservatives aren’t hyping the crisis in Ukraine to regain relevance. The liberal problem is that Obama’s failures are a reminder that his simplistic view of the world and obsessive belief in multilateral diplomacy is no substitute for American strength.

It’s true there’s no knowing what a President McCain or Romney would have done about Putin and no guarantee that they would have succeeded in thwarting his efforts to reassemble the old Tsarist/Soviet empire. But we do know they were thinking carefully about the potential for trouble with Moscow. That is obviously more than one can say about Obama when he dismissed Romney’s comments about Russia with a crack about the 1980’s.

What America needs isn’t another Putin but a tough president who believes in spreading freedom but is pragmatic enough to know when and how to stand up to dictators. While one can fault George W. Bush for his mistakes in Iraq and question whether McCain or Romney or any other conservative would have done better in this crisis, the one thing we do know is that Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry made egregious mistakes in their handling of Russia and that the people of Ukraine are paying the price for those blunders. Along with Putin, they are the ones who should be held accountable for their failures. Whatever blame necons get for Iraq, this is one debacle that is owned lock, stock and barrel by the Democrats and their liberal cheerleaders.

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Hugo Chavez, One Year On

 Today marks the first anniversary of Hugo Chavez’s death, and the world’s tyrants are mourning appropriately. The Russian President Vladimir Putin took a short break from invading Ukraine to send a message of sympathy to Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor. “A year has passed since the demise of the extraordinary Venezuelan leader and great friend of mine, Hugo Chavez,” Putin wrote. “Through joint efforts, we can continue to put the comandante‘s ideas into practice.”

 As I noted in a COMMENTARY post on this day last year, Chavez’s death was announced on the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s passing. “It took 37 years for the USSR to finally dissolve following Stalin’s death,” I said. “One shudders at the thought that chavismo will last as long.” In the intervening months, we have witnessed Maduro come to power through a fraudulent election, the emergence of a siege economy with its attendant price controls and currency devaluations and, finally, the eruption of a student-led protest movement that seeks to point the chavistas to la Salida – the Exit. Surely, time is running out when it comes to putting “the comandante‘s ideas into practice.”

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 Today marks the first anniversary of Hugo Chavez’s death, and the world’s tyrants are mourning appropriately. The Russian President Vladimir Putin took a short break from invading Ukraine to send a message of sympathy to Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor. “A year has passed since the demise of the extraordinary Venezuelan leader and great friend of mine, Hugo Chavez,” Putin wrote. “Through joint efforts, we can continue to put the comandante‘s ideas into practice.”

 As I noted in a COMMENTARY post on this day last year, Chavez’s death was announced on the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s passing. “It took 37 years for the USSR to finally dissolve following Stalin’s death,” I said. “One shudders at the thought that chavismo will last as long.” In the intervening months, we have witnessed Maduro come to power through a fraudulent election, the emergence of a siege economy with its attendant price controls and currency devaluations and, finally, the eruption of a student-led protest movement that seeks to point the chavistas to la Salida – the Exit. Surely, time is running out when it comes to putting “the comandante‘s ideas into practice.”

Except that, in periods of acute crisis, authoritarian regimes are far better equipped to retain power than the democratic counterparts. Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq outlasted more than a decade of punishing sanctions. Ditto for the mullahs in Iran and for Robert Mugabe, another “great friend” of Chavez, who has just embarked on his seventh term as president of Zimbabwe.

These regimes stay in power chiefly because of their willingness to deploy brute force against their own populations, along with their readiness to enrich themselves and their cronies through systematic corruption and lucrative criminal activities (narcotics trafficking is a favored pursuit of the chavista Generals.) Crisis, when it descends, is explained to their subjects as deliberate sabotage on the part of an external predator, most often the United States. Hence Maduro’s constant refrain that the Venezuelan protests are the work of a few “fascists” acting under instructions from Washington.

It also helps to have a celebratory or commemorative occasion close at hand. Last week, Maduro attempted to take the wind out of the protests by announcing that the annual Carnival holiday had come early. Today, a slew of foreign leaders, including Cuban President Raul Castro, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s unrepentant Sandinista leader, Daniel Ortega, have arrived in Caracas to add an extra layer of gravitas to the official Chavez commemorations.

 What is now happening, as the respected Venezuelan writer Ibsen Martinez argues in a piece for the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, is a shift from the “Washington consensus” to the “Havana consensus.” The Washington consensus refers to American-backed economic and democratic reforms that are denounced by opponents as “neoliberalism.” Contrastingly, the Havana consensus–so-called because of last month’s meeting of Latin American nations in the Cuban capital where absolute national sovereignty was affirmed as the continent’s guiding principle–essentially enables leaders like Maduro to fix elections and imprison dissidents at will.

 “Today, there’s no point shouting ‘Don’t leave us on our own!’ Martinez says. “The Venezuelan people can expect nothing of the regions leaders, everything depends on us.” He is right. No outside agency–not the UN, not the Organization of American States, and certainly not the United States government–is going to take charge of a rescue operation for Venezuela.

 Yet, despite outside indifference and Maduro’s best efforts to marginalize the opposition, the protests continue. Barricades erected by opposition activists have been reported all over Caracas and further demonstrations are planned in San Cristobal, the opposition stronghold in the west of the country. None of this, of course, portends the imminent death of chavismo, one year after Chavez’s end. But the anger on the streets of the country should remind Maduro that the growing numbers of Venezuelans opposed to his rule aren’t idly waiting for a foreign cavalry to arrive.  

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Senate Auguries Get Worse for the Dems

Charlie Cook, a greatly respected election analyst, has some very bad news for Democrats.

No matter how you look at it, the House seems out of reach. Today, Republicans appear a bit more likely to gain than to lose seats; it would take a cataclysmic event for Democrats to score the net gain of the 17 seats they need to take the majority.

What’s changed is that Democrats’ chances of holding onto their majority in the Senate are looking increasingly tenuous. There are now at least 10, and potentially as many as 13, Democratic-held seats in jeopardy. By contrast, only two GOP seats are in any meaningful danger, and that number hasn’t changed in six months.

Larry Sabato, equally respected, is not much more upbeat:

The battle for control of the U.S. Senate is where the action is this year in American politics. Right now all signs point to a near standoff in the U.S. House elections. Barring a major change in the political environment in the next few months, the 114th House is expected to closely resemble the 113th House with a slightly larger or slightly smaller Republican majority. In contrast, party control of the next Senate is definitely up for grabs this year.

Part of the reasons for the Democrats’ peril is the fact that President Obama is increasingly unpopular, that the economy is mediocre at best, and ObamaCare is deeply disliked. That’s bad enough. But also, midterm elections in a president’s sixth year are almost always bad news for the party of the president. Only in 1998 did the president’s party gain seats in the House in a sixth-year midterm.  But the Democrats did not gain any Senate seats that year.

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Charlie Cook, a greatly respected election analyst, has some very bad news for Democrats.

No matter how you look at it, the House seems out of reach. Today, Republicans appear a bit more likely to gain than to lose seats; it would take a cataclysmic event for Democrats to score the net gain of the 17 seats they need to take the majority.

What’s changed is that Democrats’ chances of holding onto their majority in the Senate are looking increasingly tenuous. There are now at least 10, and potentially as many as 13, Democratic-held seats in jeopardy. By contrast, only two GOP seats are in any meaningful danger, and that number hasn’t changed in six months.

Larry Sabato, equally respected, is not much more upbeat:

The battle for control of the U.S. Senate is where the action is this year in American politics. Right now all signs point to a near standoff in the U.S. House elections. Barring a major change in the political environment in the next few months, the 114th House is expected to closely resemble the 113th House with a slightly larger or slightly smaller Republican majority. In contrast, party control of the next Senate is definitely up for grabs this year.

Part of the reasons for the Democrats’ peril is the fact that President Obama is increasingly unpopular, that the economy is mediocre at best, and ObamaCare is deeply disliked. That’s bad enough. But also, midterm elections in a president’s sixth year are almost always bad news for the party of the president. Only in 1998 did the president’s party gain seats in the House in a sixth-year midterm.  But the Democrats did not gain any Senate seats that year.

Also, the Democrats did very well in the 2008 Senate elections, when Barack Obama had significant coattails. The Democrats won 20 of the 35 seats up for grabs that year. And whenever a party does exceptionally well in the Senate in one election, it tends to do very badly six years later. Partly that is because weak candidates who were carried on the wave usually lose as the electorate reverts to normal. In 1938, six years after FDR’s triumph in 1932, the Democrats lost 7 Senate seats. In 1986, six years after Reagan’s landslide, when the Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time in 26 years, the Republicans lost 5 seats (and control of the Senate).

It is, of course, way too early for the Republicans to be opening the champagne. Some dramatic event might change the electoral map. The Republicans, as they are all too often wont to do, might nominate unelectable candidates and throw away what now look like certain pickups, as they did in Indiana and Missouri in 2012.

But right now, the auguries are grim for the Democrats in the Senate.

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Speaking out Against Injustice

Last month I wrote a piece urging Christians to speak out against the rising persecution of gays overseas, including (but not limited to) harsh new laws that were recently passed in Nigeria.

I was glad, then, that Russell Moore, President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Andrew Walker, Director of Policy Studies for the ERLC, wrote an article for Canon & Culture in which, while reasserting the orthodox Christian belief that sexuality is to be expressed within the one-flesh union of the marriage of a man to a woman, they also wrote that they believe “laws criminalizing homosexual activity to be unjust and an affront to the image of God embedded in all persons.”

Governments that “single out persons for harassment and fear of their lives represent, in our view, a State that has overstepped its bounds drastically and unjustly. And in our view, repressive regimes that target homosexuals fall into this category.” Messrs. Moore and Walker go on to say that as Baptist Christians, “our own history has shown us what injustice can happen when a state applies the Old Testament Mosaic code … to the civil state.” And they insist the church “should stand faithful both to a biblical vision of sexuality and at the same time decry laws—whether in Africa or the Middle East or Russia—that would mistreat homosexual persons.”

Some Christians, I suppose, might have a viscerally negative reaction to what Moore and Walker are saying, though it’s hard to imagine how one could justify such a thing. To do so would be a disfigurement of the Christian faith. The more likely reaction is to ignore the issue, to let others worry about it, to assume that speaking out against the persecution of gays overseas is an implicit embrace of the gay rights agenda.

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Last month I wrote a piece urging Christians to speak out against the rising persecution of gays overseas, including (but not limited to) harsh new laws that were recently passed in Nigeria.

I was glad, then, that Russell Moore, President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Andrew Walker, Director of Policy Studies for the ERLC, wrote an article for Canon & Culture in which, while reasserting the orthodox Christian belief that sexuality is to be expressed within the one-flesh union of the marriage of a man to a woman, they also wrote that they believe “laws criminalizing homosexual activity to be unjust and an affront to the image of God embedded in all persons.”

Governments that “single out persons for harassment and fear of their lives represent, in our view, a State that has overstepped its bounds drastically and unjustly. And in our view, repressive regimes that target homosexuals fall into this category.” Messrs. Moore and Walker go on to say that as Baptist Christians, “our own history has shown us what injustice can happen when a state applies the Old Testament Mosaic code … to the civil state.” And they insist the church “should stand faithful both to a biblical vision of sexuality and at the same time decry laws—whether in Africa or the Middle East or Russia—that would mistreat homosexual persons.”

Some Christians, I suppose, might have a viscerally negative reaction to what Moore and Walker are saying, though it’s hard to imagine how one could justify such a thing. To do so would be a disfigurement of the Christian faith. The more likely reaction is to ignore the issue, to let others worry about it, to assume that speaking out against the persecution of gays overseas is an implicit embrace of the gay rights agenda.

That strikes me as wrong on many levels. And while I am very wary of saying precisely what Jesus would do and say in the 21st century, we do know what he did say and do in the first century. Jesus was drawn to those in the shadows of society – the outcast, the despised, those who were powerless, wounded, reviled, and the object of scorn. And Jesus himself was a dispenser of grace, the healer of broken lives, an agent of reconciliation.

I understand that is not all Jesus was. Nor do I have any interest in pitting moral rectitude against love and welcome or turning faith into a crude instrument to advance a political agenda. And there are countless things that can lay claim on our moral attention – from aiding homeless shelters and crisis pregnancy centers to those rescuing orphans and restoring them to families and communities, from preventing religious persecution overseas to aiding those suffering from AIDS and malaria in Africa. There are worthy organizations like Best Friends, a school based character education program for girls that begins in the sixth grade and continues until high school; and the International Justice Mission (IJM), a human rights agency that brings rescue to victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression. And there are of course countless acts of decency and kindness that occur every day that are unpublicized and help those who are suffering and need encouragement.

Few of us do this as much as we should; our energies and interests are directed elsewhere, inward rather than outward, most often toward increasing our own comfort and wealth and station in life. My point is that if we were able to free ourselves from preconceptions that sometimes distort our vision; if we were to see things not through the prism of ideology but rather through the prism of mercy and compassion; if we would begin to love as we have been loved, we would find ourselves moved to act against all sorts of suffering and injustices we now overlook. When I’ve come across such individuals in my own life — they tend to be rare — they have shown me what lives touched by grace can be like.   

We shouldn’t kid ourselves; taking concrete steps to redress injustice is far better than simply speaking out about it. But speaking out about it is better than not, which is why what Messrs. Moore and Walker have done is commendable.

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Iran’s Gaza Arms Shipment and Obama’s Middle East Diplomacy

The news that Israel has intercepted an Iranian shipment of arms headed for Gaza has been overshadowed, along with just about every other foreign policy story, by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. But this is more than just a routine terror bulletin that will be noted, filed and then forgotten. The decision by Iran to ship missiles from Syria to the Hamas-run strip raises serious questions about a number of Obama administration assumptions about both Iran and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

If, as now appears to be the case, Iran is back in the business of arming Hamas, then that does more than undermine the administration’s narrative about President Hassan Rouhani’s government being more moderate than his predecessors. It demonstrates that Iran is, as it always has been, up to its neck in the business of arming and funding international terrorism. That should make President Obama think twice about his belief that the regime can be trusted to abide by any nuclear accord. Just as important is the very real possibility that the captured arms were part of a rapprochement between Iran and its former close ally Hamas. If Iran is now seeking to strengthen the Islamist terrorist group’s ability to wage war on Israel, that could mean it is using the Gaza enclave as leverage against the possibility of an Israeli or Western attack on its nuclear facilities. But it is also possible that the attempt to create a Gaza arms buildup is aimed at reminding the Palestinian Authority that Hamas and other Islamist forces retain a veto over any peace deal with Israel. The seized arms are a signal to the U.S. and Israel not only of the essentially violent character of Iran but of its ability to create havoc throughout the region to serve its own interests.

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The news that Israel has intercepted an Iranian shipment of arms headed for Gaza has been overshadowed, along with just about every other foreign policy story, by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. But this is more than just a routine terror bulletin that will be noted, filed and then forgotten. The decision by Iran to ship missiles from Syria to the Hamas-run strip raises serious questions about a number of Obama administration assumptions about both Iran and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

If, as now appears to be the case, Iran is back in the business of arming Hamas, then that does more than undermine the administration’s narrative about President Hassan Rouhani’s government being more moderate than his predecessors. It demonstrates that Iran is, as it always has been, up to its neck in the business of arming and funding international terrorism. That should make President Obama think twice about his belief that the regime can be trusted to abide by any nuclear accord. Just as important is the very real possibility that the captured arms were part of a rapprochement between Iran and its former close ally Hamas. If Iran is now seeking to strengthen the Islamist terrorist group’s ability to wage war on Israel, that could mean it is using the Gaza enclave as leverage against the possibility of an Israeli or Western attack on its nuclear facilities. But it is also possible that the attempt to create a Gaza arms buildup is aimed at reminding the Palestinian Authority that Hamas and other Islamist forces retain a veto over any peace deal with Israel. The seized arms are a signal to the U.S. and Israel not only of the essentially violent character of Iran but of its ability to create havoc throughout the region to serve its own interests.

Since 2011 Hamas and Iran have been at odds, as they have backed different sides in the Syrian civil war. In addition to pouring arms, money and some of its own forces into Damascus, Iran has deployed its Hezbollah terrorist proxies to back up the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. But Hamas sided with Islamist rebels and broke with Tehran over the dispute. But prior to that Hamas looked to Iran as its principal supplier of arms and cash during the second intifada fighting with Israel. Though Hamas is Sunni and Iran is Shi’ite, the two bonded over their mutual hatred for Israel and Jews.

Proof of the sophisticated nature of the arms pipeline between Tehran and Gaza came in 2002 when the Israeli Navy seized the Karine A, a ship that was loaded with Iranian missiles and various other types of military hardware intended for use by Hamas. Iran’s intentions were clear. They were prepared to back any force willing to fight Israel and to kill Jews in any manner possible.

The breakup of that alliance demonstrated Hamas’ belief that they no longer needed Iran’s assistance. But things have changed since the start of the Arab Spring when the Islamist group thought it could count on support from Egypt and Turkey to make up for the money and arms it got from Iran. The ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo and its replacement by a military regime that seems determined to shut down the smuggling tunnels into Gaza has placed Hamas under tremendous financial pressure. It has also been disappointed by Turkey whose Islamist government talked big about backing Hamas but now seems too preoccupied with its own domestic troubles to do much to prop up Gaza. That leaves Iran, which seems to have prevailed in Syria and is ready and willing to step back into its old role as Hamas’ funder and arms supplier as well as being the chief instigator of mayhem along Israel’s southern border.

Iran’s re-entry into the Israel-Palestinian conflict is just one more reason why Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative is bound to fail. He and President Obama continue to act as if Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas not only is ready to make peace but has the ability to withstand pressure from Hamas and the rejectionists in his own Fatah to make a deal stick. This is clearly untrue. But now that Hamas has Iran in its corner again, Abbas must understand that any hopes that his rivals in Gaza will collapse are mere pipe dreams. Iran’s backing for Hamas not only makes Kerry’s peace talks look like a fool’s errand, their money and munitions may also be a down payment on the launch of a third intifada.

The standard refrain of Israel-bashers is that more violence will be the fault of the Jewish state’s alleged intransigence. But the real reason for another intifada may have more to do with Iran’s geo-strategic ambitions than West Bank settlements. With Syria and Lebanon still firmly in Tehran’s grasp, adding Hamas to the list of its allies gives the ayatollahs one more weapon to wield in its quest for regional hegemony. Stopping the already remote chances of peace between Israel and the Palestinians is one of their goals. But Iran also sees this as a chance to further complicate Western efforts to exert pressure on their nuclear program.

President Obama may believe he is embarked on a diplomatic quest with Iran that will result in a new détente that will lessen the chances of conflict and allow the United States to ease out of a strategic role in which it stands beside both Israel and moderate Arab states. But Iran has very different goals. The seizure of the arms shipment is a wake-up call for Washington. But it is an open question as to whether President Obama and Secretary Kerry are too besotted with their hopes for détente with Iran to listen to reason.

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Obama Wasn’t Alone Misreading Putin

Blame for the Ukraine mess lies with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But, the failure to recognize Putin’s true character has infected American officials under both the Bush and Obama administrations. President George W. Bush gazed into Putin’s eyes and assured the Russian leader had a soul. Hillary Clinton had her reset. But, it was with the inauguration of President Barack Obama that so many senior diplomats and journalists engaged in an orgy of endorsement of Obama’s policy of blind engagement. “We will be no worse off if we try diplomacy and fail,” former undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in a May 2009 hearing to justify Obama’s initiatives, for example. Within the State Department, diplomats cheered the end of Bush, and Obama’s new approach. Scholars concurred. Charles Kupchan, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar, likewise endorsed Obama’s approach in a March/April 2010 Foreign Affairs article. “Barack Obama owned Bush-Cheney in one day and got more concessions from Iran in 7½ hours than the former administration got in 8 years of saber-rattling,” wrote Juan Cole, a leftist blogger and professor at University of Michigan.

It’s important to recognize that Obama did not lead the echo chamber. He reflected it. He embraced policies widely supported by the academics and diplomats never mind that those policies completely misunderstand the realities of international relations. The culture that has led Obama to fail completely in his assessment of Vladimir Putin isn’t going to end in 2016, when Obama exits the White House. It persists throughout the Foreign Service and, indeed, continues to be drilled into every new class of diplomats who join the State Department.

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Blame for the Ukraine mess lies with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But, the failure to recognize Putin’s true character has infected American officials under both the Bush and Obama administrations. President George W. Bush gazed into Putin’s eyes and assured the Russian leader had a soul. Hillary Clinton had her reset. But, it was with the inauguration of President Barack Obama that so many senior diplomats and journalists engaged in an orgy of endorsement of Obama’s policy of blind engagement. “We will be no worse off if we try diplomacy and fail,” former undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in a May 2009 hearing to justify Obama’s initiatives, for example. Within the State Department, diplomats cheered the end of Bush, and Obama’s new approach. Scholars concurred. Charles Kupchan, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar, likewise endorsed Obama’s approach in a March/April 2010 Foreign Affairs article. “Barack Obama owned Bush-Cheney in one day and got more concessions from Iran in 7½ hours than the former administration got in 8 years of saber-rattling,” wrote Juan Cole, a leftist blogger and professor at University of Michigan.

It’s important to recognize that Obama did not lead the echo chamber. He reflected it. He embraced policies widely supported by the academics and diplomats never mind that those policies completely misunderstand the realities of international relations. The culture that has led Obama to fail completely in his assessment of Vladimir Putin isn’t going to end in 2016, when Obama exits the White House. It persists throughout the Foreign Service and, indeed, continues to be drilled into every new class of diplomats who join the State Department.

One of the revelations learned while writing my new book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, a study of a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that the U.S. military spends more time in the classroom identifying and discussing mistakes than they often do in the field so that they can become better soldiers, sailors, and pilots. The State Department, however, has never convened a lessons learned exercise to determine why its approach on any episode has failed. If John Kerry is truly serious about being a diplomatic leader, he could do nothing better than convene a deep review of the “Reset” with Russia, its origins, the metrics by which the State Department planned to judge it, if they even bothered with metrics, and where they might have caught Putin’s insincerity. It’s not shameful to examine mistakes; it is crucial.

Alas, absent such a measure, expect the United States to get played far more in the coming years by enemies like Putin not because of the current occupant of the Oval Office, but rather because the philosophy he represents is taken as unquestioned wisdom among America’s professional diplomats.

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