Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 7, 2014

Pennsylvania’s Nasty Democratic Civil War

One of the evergreens of political journalism in the last few years has been the civil war that has raged on the right between the so-called Republican establishment and the Tea Party. There’s a good deal of truth in that meme, as the guerilla warfare that has been waged between some Tea Partiers against establishment candidates has in some cases cost the GOP winnable Senate seats and led to bad blood stemming from tactical arguments about the government shutdown. That strife on the right is real, though at times overblown and perhaps, as last night’s results in North Carolina illustrated, on its way toward being resolved in favor of the Republican mainstream rather than the more extreme elements among the Tea Party/libertarian faction.

But the notion that only one of our two major parties is engaged in ideological conflicts is somewhat deceiving. It is true that maintaining control of the White House gives Democrats a central focus that the opposition party lacks by definition. Moreover, President Obama is wildly popular among Democrats. Even those who are less than thrilled with all his policies are unwilling to criticize him sharply and thus be lumped with Republicans, who are called racists for opposing the president by liberals. And yet as the administration lapses into lame duck status, conflicts among Democrats are starting to reappear. The best evidence for this is in Pennsylvania, where a gubernatorial primary race is showing that Democrats are employing some of the same themes that were key to Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012 against each other.

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One of the evergreens of political journalism in the last few years has been the civil war that has raged on the right between the so-called Republican establishment and the Tea Party. There’s a good deal of truth in that meme, as the guerilla warfare that has been waged between some Tea Partiers against establishment candidates has in some cases cost the GOP winnable Senate seats and led to bad blood stemming from tactical arguments about the government shutdown. That strife on the right is real, though at times overblown and perhaps, as last night’s results in North Carolina illustrated, on its way toward being resolved in favor of the Republican mainstream rather than the more extreme elements among the Tea Party/libertarian faction.

But the notion that only one of our two major parties is engaged in ideological conflicts is somewhat deceiving. It is true that maintaining control of the White House gives Democrats a central focus that the opposition party lacks by definition. Moreover, President Obama is wildly popular among Democrats. Even those who are less than thrilled with all his policies are unwilling to criticize him sharply and thus be lumped with Republicans, who are called racists for opposing the president by liberals. And yet as the administration lapses into lame duck status, conflicts among Democrats are starting to reappear. The best evidence for this is in Pennsylvania, where a gubernatorial primary race is showing that Democrats are employing some of the same themes that were key to Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012 against each other.

The Pennsylvania governor’s race is especially interesting this year because it is one of the few contests around the country where Democrats are heavily favored to topple a Republican incumbent. Governor Tom Corbett is deeply unpopular and trails every one of the leading Democratic contenders. Part of his problem stems from what is perceived as his lackluster pursuit of the perpetrator in the Penn State sex abuse case when he was state attorney general as well as his subsequent willingness to accept a draconian punishment on the iconic football program from the NCAA. But Corbett is also seen as a rigid and ineffective leader in Harrisburg who arouses little enthusiasm among the GOP base.

Corbett’s vulnerability has attracted some well-funded candidates including Rep. Allyson Schwartz, State Treasurer Rob McCord, and a wild card in millionaire businessman Tom Wolf. There are no real differences between the three leading Democrats in the race on the issues, with the only disagreement coming on the issue of just how confiscatory the taxes that would be imposed on companies fracking in Pennsylvania should be with Wolf advocating a huge increase though not as much as Schwartz and McCord.

Many state party leaders saw Schwartz as an obvious choice, but the congresswoman from the Philadelphia suburbs has found herself trailing Wolf badly throughout the race as the businessman flooded the airwaves with television ads extolling his virtues and establishing name recognition. By the end of April three different statewide polls showed Schwartz trailing Wolf by 25-31 percentage points (McCord is a distant third), a stunning result for a woman who gave up what is now a safe congressional seat to try for the governorship.

But with approximately a third of the third electorate still declaring itself undecided, Schwartz still has hope with less than two weeks to go until the May 20 primary. In seeking to take down Wolf, Schwartz is, as the New York Times recently reported, wholeheartedly embracing ObamaCare. That is newsworthy since the president’s signature health-care law is no more popular in Pennsylvania than in the rest of the country. But more than that, she’s also seeking to use some of the war on women rhetoric Democrats typically employ against Republicans as well as rolling out negative ads seeking to trash Wolf in the same way her party slimed Mitt Romney’s reputation in 2012.

In part, this tactic is based on a belief that Democratic primary voters won’t hold her vote for ObamaCare against Schwartz in the way many independent voters would. But her desire to rally Democratic women to her cause by reminding them that she ran a profitable abortion clinic before being elected to the state senate and then Congress also shows that she believes gender politics works as well in primaries as it does in general elections. Even more to the point, her willingness to smear Wolf for being a successful entrepreneur with charges out of the same bogus playbook used to delegitimize Romney’s business career is also a fascinating test case of whether those tactics work as well against liberal millionaires as with conservatives.

It’s too soon to tell whether Schwartz’s all-out assault on the more moderate Wolf will succeed, but either way it will tell us something important about Democratic voters. If Schwartz’s war on women and “evil capitalist” routines don’t dent Wolf’s lead it may signal that the tactics that Democrats are looking to employ nationwide this fall against Republicans won’t even work among their own voters. The nasty Democratic civil war being waged in Pennsylvania not only gives the lie to the idea that only the Republicans are divided. If Democrats do reject Wolf—a candidate who is a prohibitive favorite against Corbett—in favor of Schwartz who has only a small lead on the governor and who will be a tough sell to a state that is not as liberal as she is, it will do more than give the GOP some desperately needed hope. It will prove that Democrats are as capable of kneecapping themselves by nominating ideological hardliners in place of moderates as Republicans.

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The Conservative Case Against Crony Capitalism

In an essay for COMMENTARY last year, Michael Gerson and I, writing on how the GOP can revivify itself and increase its appeal, argued that it had to focus on the economic concerns of working-and middle-class Americans, many of whom now regard the Republican Party as beholden to “millionaires and billionaires” and as wholly out of touch with ordinary Americans. (In a Washington Post/ABC News poll that is otherwise filled with awful news for Democrats, by 52 to 32 percent, Americans trust Democrats over Republicans when it comes to helping the middle class.) 

Gaining a fair hearing on a range of issues, we wrote,

requires changing an image that the GOP is engaged in class warfare on behalf of the upper class. Republicans could begin by becoming visible and persistent critics of corporate welfare: the vast network of subsidies and tax breaks extended by Democratic and Republican administrations alike to wealthy and well-connected corporations. Such benefits undermine free markets and undercut the public’s confidence in American capitalism. They also increase federal spending. The conservative case against this high-level form of the dole is obvious, and so is the appropriate agenda: cutting off the patent cronyism that infects federal policy toward energy, health care, and the automobile and financial-services industries, resulting in a pernicious and corrupting system of interdependency. “Ending corporate welfare as we know it”: For a pro-market party, this should be a rich vein to mine. 

Now comes a miner by the name of Mike Lee, who last week delivered a powerful conservative case against crony capitalism.

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In an essay for COMMENTARY last year, Michael Gerson and I, writing on how the GOP can revivify itself and increase its appeal, argued that it had to focus on the economic concerns of working-and middle-class Americans, many of whom now regard the Republican Party as beholden to “millionaires and billionaires” and as wholly out of touch with ordinary Americans. (In a Washington Post/ABC News poll that is otherwise filled with awful news for Democrats, by 52 to 32 percent, Americans trust Democrats over Republicans when it comes to helping the middle class.) 

Gaining a fair hearing on a range of issues, we wrote,

requires changing an image that the GOP is engaged in class warfare on behalf of the upper class. Republicans could begin by becoming visible and persistent critics of corporate welfare: the vast network of subsidies and tax breaks extended by Democratic and Republican administrations alike to wealthy and well-connected corporations. Such benefits undermine free markets and undercut the public’s confidence in American capitalism. They also increase federal spending. The conservative case against this high-level form of the dole is obvious, and so is the appropriate agenda: cutting off the patent cronyism that infects federal policy toward energy, health care, and the automobile and financial-services industries, resulting in a pernicious and corrupting system of interdependency. “Ending corporate welfare as we know it”: For a pro-market party, this should be a rich vein to mine. 

Now comes a miner by the name of Mike Lee, who last week delivered a powerful conservative case against crony capitalism.

In his speech Senator Lee defines crony capitalism (policies in which government twists public policy to unfairly benefit favored special interests at the expense of everyone else); identifies specific cases of it (federal financial regulations, sugar subsidies, our education system, and the Affordable Care Act, among others); and explains why it is antithetical to true conservatism.

Senator Lee also identifies policies that would combat cronyism, including tax, budget, and regulatory reform, ending special tax treatment for the energy sector, protecting taxpayers from the implicit health-insurer bailouts in the Affordable Care Act, modernizing federal labor laws, doing something about “too big to fail,” and more.

“Americans intuitively understand that crony capitalism is not a form of private enterprise,” according to Lee, “it’s a form of public corruption.” He went on to say, “It seems to me that a principled, positive agenda to remove government-created barriers to upward mobility and middle-class opportunity – to level our economic playing field and put economic elites back to work creating jobs and growth for everyone else – represents everything conservatism should stand for.”

I agree; and I hope more conservatives will rally to this good cause.

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The Next Step in the Campus War on Jews

In recent months, those advocating boycotts of Israel have lost a series of votes on college campuses around the country. Though the political culture of academia swings hard to the left with faculty members often tilting the discussion about the Middle East against Israel, a critical mass of fair minded students still exist at most institutions of higher learning. Part of that stems from the fact that some students—especially Jews—have been to Israel on trips where they learn the other side of the story from the pro-Palestinian propaganda that is often shoved down their throats in classes or at college forums. So rather than merely accept the lies about Israel being an “apartheid” state they can lean on their own experiences and speak about the equal rights that are held by all people in the Jewish state or discuss the complex questions about the West Bank in terms other than that of an “occupation.”

That’s a problem for the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) crowd, but they’ve come up with an effective answer to it: start a campaign seeking to stigmatize those who take trips to Israel sponsored by Jewish organizations. That’s what’s happening at UCLA where an election has promoted a debate over whether it is ethical for candidates for student offices to have been to Israel on a visit sponsored by a Jewish organization. This specious issue was raised in an article published in the student newspaper the Daily Bruin last week by two members of Students for Justice for Palestine, an anti-Zionist group. It was followed by an attempt to get the student government to enact a ban on its members going to the Middle East with pro-Israel groups. That failed but, as the Daily Bruin also reported, a majority of candidates for student government positions have now signed a pledged not to take such trips.

But rather than dismissing this as just another example of business as usual on left-wing dominated college campuses, friends of Israel as well as open discourse should be alarmed about what is happening at UCLA spreading elsewhere.

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In recent months, those advocating boycotts of Israel have lost a series of votes on college campuses around the country. Though the political culture of academia swings hard to the left with faculty members often tilting the discussion about the Middle East against Israel, a critical mass of fair minded students still exist at most institutions of higher learning. Part of that stems from the fact that some students—especially Jews—have been to Israel on trips where they learn the other side of the story from the pro-Palestinian propaganda that is often shoved down their throats in classes or at college forums. So rather than merely accept the lies about Israel being an “apartheid” state they can lean on their own experiences and speak about the equal rights that are held by all people in the Jewish state or discuss the complex questions about the West Bank in terms other than that of an “occupation.”

That’s a problem for the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) crowd, but they’ve come up with an effective answer to it: start a campaign seeking to stigmatize those who take trips to Israel sponsored by Jewish organizations. That’s what’s happening at UCLA where an election has promoted a debate over whether it is ethical for candidates for student offices to have been to Israel on a visit sponsored by a Jewish organization. This specious issue was raised in an article published in the student newspaper the Daily Bruin last week by two members of Students for Justice for Palestine, an anti-Zionist group. It was followed by an attempt to get the student government to enact a ban on its members going to the Middle East with pro-Israel groups. That failed but, as the Daily Bruin also reported, a majority of candidates for student government positions have now signed a pledged not to take such trips.

But rather than dismissing this as just another example of business as usual on left-wing dominated college campuses, friends of Israel as well as open discourse should be alarmed about what is happening at UCLA spreading elsewhere.

The genesis of the effort at UCLA was, of course, the defeat of a pro-BDS motion by UCLA’s student government. But rather than debate the merits of a hate-driven motion whose purpose is to advance efforts to destroy Israel, the BDSers have decided that any vote cast by someone who had actually been to the Jewish state must be tainted by filing complaints with a student judicial board. Since the most potent threat to support for BDS is knowledge of what kind of country Israel is and the challenges it faces, their goal is to treat such trips as “unethical.”

But the point of this effort is not only to boost support for BDS. Shaming those who have been on trips to Israel or take the opportunity to learn more about the Middle East first hand is, above all, a direct attack on Jewish students. Like the incidents where Jewish kids are served with fake eviction notices in their dorm rooms, the BDS campaign is blurring the already indistinct line between their noxious effort to wage economic war on Israel and anti-Semitism.

BDS advocates are, after all, not interested in an open discussion about their ideology, which proposes that the one Jewish state in the world—which is a democracy—should be singled out for discriminatory treatment that is not afforded any other country, including the most egregious human-rights offenders. The last thing they want is for more kids—especially Jewish students who seek to learn more about their faith and people—to be equipped to answer their lies with the truth.

The answer to this campaign should not only be a firm rejection of this bogus ethics issue by students, faculty, and administrators, but redoubled efforts by Jewish groups to get as many young Americans to Israel as possible. The more they know about life in the Jewish state, the less likely it will be that BDS hate groups—including those who parade their bias under a Jewish banner such as the so-called “Jewish Voices for Peace”—will gain support for their vile cause.  

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Livingstone and the Left’s Jewish Problem

London’s former mayor Ken Livingstone has treated the BBC to some more of his infamous thinking on Jews. During an interview he explained that while Jews in Britain had once voted for Labor, as they have become richer they have switched to voting Conservative. On their own these comments might not be thought particularly alarming—although the assertions presented here are questionable—yet they come as part of a whole series of hostile remarks that Livingstone has made about Jews over the years. Such sentiments may be those of a crackpot, but they come from a crackpot who up until just a few years ago was the elected mayor of one of the world’s most significant metropolises. More importantly, however, they represent the tip of the iceberg of more widely held views about Jews that proliferate on the far left, a constituency that Livingstone still represents.

This is not the first time that Livingstone has made known his views about the voting habits of Britain’s allegedly wealthy Jews. During the 2012 mayoral election Livingstone reportedly told supporters that he didn’t expect Jews to vote for him because, by his account, they are rich. If some parts of Britain’s Jewish community have become more affluent, it is certainly far from being a universal reality. And unlike in America where it might be true to suggest that the Jewish community has typically leaned more heavily toward the Democrats, in Britain it would appear that the community is far more evenly split between left and right. Although with comments like these, Livingstone ensured that the Jewish vote swung in favor of his Conservative rival Boris Johnson in that election at least. Still, even then a number of figures in the community came out and reiterated their unfathomable endorsement of Livingstone.

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London’s former mayor Ken Livingstone has treated the BBC to some more of his infamous thinking on Jews. During an interview he explained that while Jews in Britain had once voted for Labor, as they have become richer they have switched to voting Conservative. On their own these comments might not be thought particularly alarming—although the assertions presented here are questionable—yet they come as part of a whole series of hostile remarks that Livingstone has made about Jews over the years. Such sentiments may be those of a crackpot, but they come from a crackpot who up until just a few years ago was the elected mayor of one of the world’s most significant metropolises. More importantly, however, they represent the tip of the iceberg of more widely held views about Jews that proliferate on the far left, a constituency that Livingstone still represents.

This is not the first time that Livingstone has made known his views about the voting habits of Britain’s allegedly wealthy Jews. During the 2012 mayoral election Livingstone reportedly told supporters that he didn’t expect Jews to vote for him because, by his account, they are rich. If some parts of Britain’s Jewish community have become more affluent, it is certainly far from being a universal reality. And unlike in America where it might be true to suggest that the Jewish community has typically leaned more heavily toward the Democrats, in Britain it would appear that the community is far more evenly split between left and right. Although with comments like these, Livingstone ensured that the Jewish vote swung in favor of his Conservative rival Boris Johnson in that election at least. Still, even then a number of figures in the community came out and reiterated their unfathomable endorsement of Livingstone.

Over the years Ken Livingstone has provided an unending and rambling feed of comments all deemed offensive to Jews in one way or another. His memoir, ironically titled You Can’t Say That, takes an inexplicable detour from recounting Livingstone’s own career path and somehow finds cause to speak about Jews, Zionism, and Israel on numerous occasions. It goes without saying that Livingstone’s views on Zionism are far from favorable, and in the past he has condemned Jewish support for Israel. Despite all of this, it would be easy, but mistaken, to become hung up on Livingstone’s dubious record. His voice simply speaks for a wider sentiment that permeates much of the left.

Livingstone’s claim that Jews won’t vote Labor because they are rich, much like his previous allegations of Jewish betrayal on account of their support for Israel under Begin, is part of a wider left-wing angst that bemoans the Jews being on the wrong side of the barricades. Which side of the political spectrum Jews actually choose to identify with is irrelevant; the left has increasingly come to imagine the Jews as their adversaries. That said, perhaps this sentiment has always been there–even in the 1840s left Hegelians like Bruno Bauer were chastising the Jews for requesting emancipation while not sufficiently helping to emancipate mankind from a system that they themselves were in part guilty of constructing.    

As Britain’s Education Secretary Michael Gove once observed, when the Jews were weak, impoverished, and persecuted the left saw them as natural allies. Yet if Jews have had the audacity to become successful and assertive then the left now views them as having broken ranks. But perhaps the more important division today is not one of class or affluence, but rather one of race and geopolitics. If, as many have suggested, the left’s disappointment with the docile workers of the West has instead led it to seek a global proletariat in the peoples of the Third World, then this is certainly a dividing line that the Jews fall on the wrong side of. The struggle against Zionist colonialism, which is closely followed by the equally ridiculous notion that there is such a thing as American imperialism, serves as the very revolutionary battleground that the left seeks so as to justify its own worldview.

The stream of comments about Jews that come forth from Livingstone are surely the utterances of someone who just can’t help himself. For people like Livingstone, try as they might, there’s just no hiding their worldview. Just as many of those who talked about the wealth and power of the so-called 1 percent eventually couldn’t avoid referencing Jews, so the far left in general cannot get away from what it really believes about Jews and Zionism.   

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When American Interests Become Impossible to Ignore

The debate over whether and how to intervene in foreign conflicts tends to center on American interests, with special emphasis on threats to the U.S. This is especially true in civil wars and internal conflicts in countries with which we do not have any expressly delineated obligations. After all, even those opposed to NATO’s expansion might hesitate to suggest we renege on a mutual defense treaty.

This would seem to prejudice policy against humanitarian intervention, but in reality noninterventionists have settled on a kind of “boots on the ground” commitment as the red line. That’s why, as Jonathan wrote earlier, we don’t hear many voices protesting efforts to help recover the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram the way we do when the subject turns to Syria. But in a globalized world it’s no simple thing to argue that we have no interests–or even threats–at stake in the Syrian civil war, as a couple of stories this week make clear.

From the outset the noninterventionists’ arguments suffered from two weaknesses. The first was inconsistency, holding both that American interests are best served by the two sides in the war weakening each other in a bloody status quo but also that we don’t have interests at stake. The second was an unwillingness or inability to look past the present moment or anticipate the consequences of inaction for American interests. On Friday the Washington Post reported that American security officials were now grappling with the same threat that worried European officials months ago:

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The debate over whether and how to intervene in foreign conflicts tends to center on American interests, with special emphasis on threats to the U.S. This is especially true in civil wars and internal conflicts in countries with which we do not have any expressly delineated obligations. After all, even those opposed to NATO’s expansion might hesitate to suggest we renege on a mutual defense treaty.

This would seem to prejudice policy against humanitarian intervention, but in reality noninterventionists have settled on a kind of “boots on the ground” commitment as the red line. That’s why, as Jonathan wrote earlier, we don’t hear many voices protesting efforts to help recover the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram the way we do when the subject turns to Syria. But in a globalized world it’s no simple thing to argue that we have no interests–or even threats–at stake in the Syrian civil war, as a couple of stories this week make clear.

From the outset the noninterventionists’ arguments suffered from two weaknesses. The first was inconsistency, holding both that American interests are best served by the two sides in the war weakening each other in a bloody status quo but also that we don’t have interests at stake. The second was an unwillingness or inability to look past the present moment or anticipate the consequences of inaction for American interests. On Friday the Washington Post reported that American security officials were now grappling with the same threat that worried European officials months ago:

FBI Director James B. Comey said Friday that the problem of Americans traveling to Syria to fight in the civil war there has worsened in recent months and remains a major concern to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials.

In a wide-ranging interview with reporters at FBI headquarters, Comey said the FBI is worried that the Americans who have joined extremist groups allied with al-Qaeda in Syria will return to the United States to carry out terrorist attacks.

“All of us with a memory of the ’80s and ’90s saw the line drawn from Afghanistan in the ’80s and ’90s to Sept. 11,” Comey said. “We see Syria as that, but an order of magnitude worse in a couple of respects. Far more people going there. Far easier to travel to and back from. So, there’s going to be a diaspora out of Syria at some point and we are determined not to let lines be drawn from Syria today to a future 9/11.”

Comey declined to give a precise figure for Americans believed to be involved in the Syrian struggle but said the numbers are “getting worse.”

Passport-holding American jihadists are certainly a threat. Now, in fairness to noninterventionists, you can still identify this as a threat and believe that it’s not one we can or should prevent through intervention. But the idea that the civil war in Syria doesn’t have global implications and isn’t creating a burgeoning threat to U.S. interests or security is not a plausible argument.

It’s also not so easy to take each conflict in a vacuum. Some realists and liberal interventionists were hailing the modest intervention in Libya to decapitate the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. But “leading from behind” left behind an anarchic nightmare that resulted in a deadly attack on the American mission, the flow of arms to Mali, and now jihadists to Syria. Eli Lake reports that Libya has become a “Scumbag Woodstock” according to intelligence officials: “The country has attracted that star-studded roster of notorious terrorists and fanatics seeking to wage war on the West.”

Lake writes that officials don’t consider the situation in Libya to be as much of a terrorist threat as Syria, “But Libya is nonetheless intricately involved in funneling fighters into Syria, and its lawless regions provide an ideal haven for al Qaeda affiliates and fellow travelers.” Those who believe this was inevitable are underestimating American capabilities, but that is still miles ahead of the “it’s none of our business” chorus, who look positively ridiculous at this point.

Aside from security threats, there’s the not-inconsiderable matter of global health. As Bloomberg reports, the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere are enabling polio to make a comeback, and spread:

The spread of polio to countries previously considered free of the crippling disease is a global health emergency, the World Health Organization said, as the virus once driven to the brink of extinction mounts a comeback. …

The disease’s spread, if unchecked, “could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious, vaccine-preventable diseases,” Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s assistant director general for polio, emergencies and country collaboration, told reporters in Geneva today. “The consequences of further international spread are particularly acute today given the large number of polio-free but conflict-torn and fragile states which have severely compromised routine immunization services.”

To their credit, humanitarian interventionists argued from the outset that the West had an obligation to stop the slaughter. And as is now clear for all to see, those who argued we had an interest in stopping the slaughter were right too.

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Boko Haram and the Isolationists

When the Obama administration announced yesterday that it is prepared to assist the Nigerian government in efforts to recover the girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist group, the announcement was greeted with general satisfaction. Far from criticizing the president for sticking his nose into the business of other countries, voices on both the left and the right agreed with the decision to provide Nigeria with a team of experts, including military and law enforcement officers, along with hostage negotiators and psychologists. Indeed, there were not a few prepared to send in the U.S. Marines or fly over drones or do whatever it takes to save the girls or to bring their captors to justice.

I concur with those sentiments. Though the obstacles to a successful foreign intervention in Nigeria may have more to do with the dysfunction of the government in Abuja than in Western reluctance to get involved in an African battle, the case for intervention in Nigeria is easy to make. The defense of human rights has always been an important element in U.S. foreign-policy objectives and the notion of the West standing by and doing nothing while young girls are enslaved and sold with impunity in this manner is intolerable. But while we all join in expressing outrage about Boko Haram’s crimes, it’s fair to ask why Americans or their leaders aren’t similarly exercised about the atrocities being committed against children in Syria. The casualties in the fighting in Syria between the Assad regime and its opponents have reportedly taken the lives of up to 150,000 people, of which at least 11,000 are believed to be children. And yet both the administration and isolationists on both the left and the right tell us it’s none of our business. Does anyone else see this as a demonstration of our lack of honesty or at least consistency in our approach to foreign policy?

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When the Obama administration announced yesterday that it is prepared to assist the Nigerian government in efforts to recover the girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist group, the announcement was greeted with general satisfaction. Far from criticizing the president for sticking his nose into the business of other countries, voices on both the left and the right agreed with the decision to provide Nigeria with a team of experts, including military and law enforcement officers, along with hostage negotiators and psychologists. Indeed, there were not a few prepared to send in the U.S. Marines or fly over drones or do whatever it takes to save the girls or to bring their captors to justice.

I concur with those sentiments. Though the obstacles to a successful foreign intervention in Nigeria may have more to do with the dysfunction of the government in Abuja than in Western reluctance to get involved in an African battle, the case for intervention in Nigeria is easy to make. The defense of human rights has always been an important element in U.S. foreign-policy objectives and the notion of the West standing by and doing nothing while young girls are enslaved and sold with impunity in this manner is intolerable. But while we all join in expressing outrage about Boko Haram’s crimes, it’s fair to ask why Americans or their leaders aren’t similarly exercised about the atrocities being committed against children in Syria. The casualties in the fighting in Syria between the Assad regime and its opponents have reportedly taken the lives of up to 150,000 people, of which at least 11,000 are believed to be children. And yet both the administration and isolationists on both the left and the right tell us it’s none of our business. Does anyone else see this as a demonstration of our lack of honesty or at least consistency in our approach to foreign policy?

The story of the abducted girls of Nigeria seized our attention because of the enormity of this crime, the brazen nature of the criminals who openly brag of their “right” to kidnap and abuse girls, and, as our Michael Rubin aptly pointed out yesterday, the religious motivation behind their crime. It is also a neatly contained sort of tale that allows television news to do what it does best: pull on our heartstrings with a human-interest story. After all, Americans weren’t particularly bothered by Boko Haram’s reign of terror in part of Nigeria that had taken the lives of thousands of people, including children before this week. But since this lurid crime is more easily understood than Boko Haram’s previous depredations or the complexities of the Syrian civil war, everyone, including those who are generally opposed to any sort of U.S. involvement in foreign squabbles, is prepared to use the full power of the Pentagon to save these children.

This tells us a lot about how easily manipulated we are by images but it also ought to make us think twice of the implications of a rising tide of isolationist spirit that has influenced American decision making in recent years. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have drained the public of its appetite for foreign adventures, especially in the Middle East.

But let’s say that we accept, even though we shouldn’t, President Obama’s cowardly excuses that he is doing the best he can and that after prevaricating for so long on Syria, there’s nothing that can be done now. Let’s pose another not entirely hypothetical question: What will be the American public’s attitude if, in the coming years after the last American troops have left Afghanistan, the Taliban sweeps to victory and returns to power in Kabul in an orgy not just of murder but of rape in which women and girls are once again the particular objects of their hostility? If Afghan girls are once again being imprisoned in their homes or sold into slavery, will the same people who are today calling out the Marines on behalf of the Nigerian kidnapping victims be crying out for America not to stand by in silence? Don’t bet on it.

Perhaps it is too much to ask people to be consistent. But the isolationists who want no part of the global war being waged on the West by Islamist terrorists need to remember that the consequences of our indifference to their crimes are serious. The U.S. may not be able to solve every problem in the world or be its policeman. Yet neither can we pretend that the horrors perpetrated by these Islamists have nothing to do with us. Anyone expressing outrage about Nigeria should remember that the U.S. has made a conscious decision to ignore crimes just as bad in Syria and have set in motion a train of events that may lead to even worse in Afghanistan.

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Kevin Durant, Class Act

You may not be an NBA fan. No matter. You really do need to watch this portion of Kevin Durant’s speech upon receiving this year’s MVP Award.

Mr. Durant, a forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder and the NBA’s scoring leader this year, is known as one of the wonderful human beings in professional sports. Soft spoken and gentle in manner, humble, a person who is generous with his time for charities, he is by all accounts a deeply impressive person. When he was (ludicrously) criticized for his play in the first round by the Oklahoman newspaper with the headline “Mr. Unreliable,” he refused to lash out. He simply said he needed to raise the level of his game–which, amazingly, he did. (The Thunder went on to win the series against Memphis, with Durant playing superb in game seven.) 

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You may not be an NBA fan. No matter. You really do need to watch this portion of Kevin Durant’s speech upon receiving this year’s MVP Award.

Mr. Durant, a forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder and the NBA’s scoring leader this year, is known as one of the wonderful human beings in professional sports. Soft spoken and gentle in manner, humble, a person who is generous with his time for charities, he is by all accounts a deeply impressive person. When he was (ludicrously) criticized for his play in the first round by the Oklahoman newspaper with the headline “Mr. Unreliable,” he refused to lash out. He simply said he needed to raise the level of his game–which, amazingly, he did. (The Thunder went on to win the series against Memphis, with Durant playing superb in game seven.) 

In his speech, Durant–after having praised his coaches and teammates–pays tribute to his friends, his family, and especially his mother. It’s quite touching. He’s led a challenging life. Yet rather than allowing it to harden or alienate him, Durant seems to have grown in grace and dignity. But see for yourself.

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Did North Carolina Finish the Tea Party?

This morning on MSNBC’s politics show The Daily Rundown, host Chuck Todd described the North Carolina U.S. Senate election as his “desert island” race for 2014. In doing so, Todd was speaking for many political junkies who view it as a bellwether contest that will tell us more about what the midterm elections mean than any other this year. Which is why Thom Tillis’s victory in the Republican primary yesterday is very good news for his party. Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, defeated Greg Brannon, a libertarian physician and Tea Party favorite who was the beneficiary of a last-minute campaign stop by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. But by getting more than 45 percent of the vote in a three-way race, Tillis avoided being dragged into a runoff with Brannon that would have helped Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.

Brannon’s flirtation with 9/11 truthers and other positions would have made him another Todd Akin, the Missouri GOP Senatorial candidate whose gaffes reelected Claire McCaskill and hurt Republicans around the country in 2012. That’s why Hagan spent campaign funds on ads seeking to portray Tillis as insufficiently conservative in the hopes that a Tea Party surge might provide her with an easy opponent. But this primary should scare Democrats not so much because Tillis, who is in a dead heat with Hagan in the polls, is a certain winner, but because it could be a harbinger of a national trend in which liberals can’t count on right-wing activists being able to sabotage the conservative cause. The North Carolina results leave us asking not just whether, as the liberal press keeps insisting, the Tea Party is dead but if Republicans have learned their lesson from 2010 and 2012 when Tea Party outliers like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell helped snatch defeat from the jaws of victory for the party. North Carolina may be a bellwether of GOP sanity but with Senate primaries in several states yet to come, the answer to that query has yet to be answered.

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This morning on MSNBC’s politics show The Daily Rundown, host Chuck Todd described the North Carolina U.S. Senate election as his “desert island” race for 2014. In doing so, Todd was speaking for many political junkies who view it as a bellwether contest that will tell us more about what the midterm elections mean than any other this year. Which is why Thom Tillis’s victory in the Republican primary yesterday is very good news for his party. Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, defeated Greg Brannon, a libertarian physician and Tea Party favorite who was the beneficiary of a last-minute campaign stop by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. But by getting more than 45 percent of the vote in a three-way race, Tillis avoided being dragged into a runoff with Brannon that would have helped Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.

Brannon’s flirtation with 9/11 truthers and other positions would have made him another Todd Akin, the Missouri GOP Senatorial candidate whose gaffes reelected Claire McCaskill and hurt Republicans around the country in 2012. That’s why Hagan spent campaign funds on ads seeking to portray Tillis as insufficiently conservative in the hopes that a Tea Party surge might provide her with an easy opponent. But this primary should scare Democrats not so much because Tillis, who is in a dead heat with Hagan in the polls, is a certain winner, but because it could be a harbinger of a national trend in which liberals can’t count on right-wing activists being able to sabotage the conservative cause. The North Carolina results leave us asking not just whether, as the liberal press keeps insisting, the Tea Party is dead but if Republicans have learned their lesson from 2010 and 2012 when Tea Party outliers like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell helped snatch defeat from the jaws of victory for the party. North Carolina may be a bellwether of GOP sanity but with Senate primaries in several states yet to come, the answer to that query has yet to be answered.

The first conclusion to be drawn from North Carolina is an obvious one, but still needs to be restated. Good candidates beat bad candidates while indifferent ones are always vulnerable to upset. In 2010 and 2012 those mainstream Republican candidates that got beaten by Tea Party challengers were either lackluster campaigners like Delaware’s Mike Castle or arrogant out-of-touch incumbents like Indiana’s Richard Lugar. Tea Party candidates also win when they are simply better than their opponents, as was the case with Ted Cruz in Texas. Tillis may not be the North Carolina GOP’s savior, but the veteran state house politician was not going to be outworked by the likes of Brannon, even if he had Rand Paul on his side. 

The second is that the obits about the Tea Party are premature. What many journalists fail to remember is that what happened in 2010 was a sea change in the Republican Party that caused virtually everyone in the party to join with more conservative or libertarian elements to oppose the stimulus boondoggle and ObamaCare. The differences between the so-called establishment that rejoiced at Tillis’s victory and the Tea Party, which is supposedly mourning it, are for the most part tactical rather than ideological. The candidates that mainstream national GOP fundraisers like Karl Rove are backing in primaries are all conservatives, not moderates. What unites them is that they are savvy enough to be able to appeal to independents and conservative Democrats rather than only preaching to the right-wing choir. And where Republicans produce a candidate like Tillis who agrees with the Tea Party on most issues but also is smart enough not to say things that will hurt him in November, they can win primaries as well as have a shot in a general election.

The point is, the Tea Party’s influence is not so much in its ability to generate candidates whose sole purpose is to knock off established Republicans but in influencing the party to remain true to its principles on taxing and spending. After all, few Republicans disagreed about the need to stop ObamaCare prior to last fall’s government shutdown; the disagreement was over whether it was a wise tactic.

Nevertheless, primaries in Georgia, Iowa, and Kentucky will give Republicans other chances to decide whether their goal is ideological purity or a conservative majority in the Senate in January. If mainstream candidates win in these states we will be told the Tea Party is dead. That will be wrong. What will have died if North Carolina is a bellwether is a strain of politics that is bent on tearing the GOP apart. What will survive is a conservative message that has been largely shaped by the Tea Party that has a good chance of sweeping the country this fall, as it did in 2010.

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Where Is America’s Anti-Corruption Strategy?

Boko Haram’s kidnapping schoolgirls and its threats to sell them like chattel horrifies the international community, highlights the dangers of certain strains of Islamist thought, and has led to a decision to utilize American assets to help locate the hostages. There may be much more to the story than simply the headlines, however. It’s no secret that Nigeria is one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Indeed, some reports place the embezzlement by Nigerian leaders at $400 billion since 1960.

A report in the Italian daily Il Foglio yesterday highlighted the rumors that Boko Haram couldn’t have conducted its operation without the complicity of corrupt officials. The Open Source Center provided a translation:

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Boko Haram’s kidnapping schoolgirls and its threats to sell them like chattel horrifies the international community, highlights the dangers of certain strains of Islamist thought, and has led to a decision to utilize American assets to help locate the hostages. There may be much more to the story than simply the headlines, however. It’s no secret that Nigeria is one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Indeed, some reports place the embezzlement by Nigerian leaders at $400 billion since 1960.

A report in the Italian daily Il Foglio yesterday highlighted the rumors that Boko Haram couldn’t have conducted its operation without the complicity of corrupt officials. The Open Source Center provided a translation:

Some sources, that Il Foglio has spoken with, referred to the possible involvement of members of the police and the intelligence services in transforming the high school students into human shields, to prevent the intervention of the military. The second reason that makes international intervention necessary is the high level of corruption in the country, from which it is alleged that the jihadist groups, led by Abubakar Shekau, also profit. These groups allegedly benefit from consolidated collusion among certain political and government circles. On Sunday came news alleging that the former Governor of the Nigerian Central Bank, Lamido Sanusi, had his passport withdrawn on direct orders from the President, Goodluck Jonathan, and that he has been prevented from leaving the country to go to France. Sanusi was suspended in February from his post as Governor of the central bank, after accusing the national oil company of having fraudulently siphoned off more than 14 billion euros from public funds. Some of these funds allegedly later ended up, according to our talking-partners, in the hands of important political and government figures, as well as — and this is even more deplorable — in the hands of Boko Haram, in order to guarantee the security of oil installations. Obviously Lamido Sanusi was allegedly stopped, before his departure for France, by none other than the men from the “Secret Service for the Security of the State.” In other words, the security service that is most compromised with the Boko Haram jihadists.

Just because a European paper says it doesn’t make it true, nor does it diminish the ideological and theological component to Boko Haram. But it is important to recognize that corruption likely enables such groups to thrive, be it Boko Haram in northern Nigeria or Osama Bin Laden monitoring al-Qaeda from Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Back in 2005, I wrote a piece for Lebanon’s Daily Star calling corruption the real bane of the Middle East. I shouldn’t have limited that to the Middle East, however. While terrorism victimizes hundreds and perhaps thousands of people, corruption impacts hundreds of millions. It threatens to unravel all that has been done in Afghanistan, and it continues to undercut Iraq’s growth and development. While the State Department often talks about the need for foreign aid, it does far less to explain how that aid will be shielded from the impact of corruption or, indeed, whether flooding a country with money and resources might actually make that corruption worse. The World Bank, for its part, is no better: rather than address growing corruption, it simply ignores it or covers it up.

Corruption did not cause Boko Haram nor create al-Qaeda, nor does it alone explain the Taliban. Nevertheless, the failure of the West to create a comprehensive strategy to root out corruption enables the phenomenon to spread like a cancer, depressing societal immunity, and enabling groups like Boko Haram and al-Qaeda a broader ability to act. Rather than throw millions of dollars at problems as they occur, perhaps it is time for Secretary of State John Kerry to outline what America is doing to weed out corruption among its aid recipients, and the metrics if any that the State Department is using to judge its success.

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Fallout from Kerry’s Debacle Continues

The violence initiated by Yasser Arafat after his rejection of the Clinton-brokered peace deal was a worst-case scenario not only for those whose lives were now in danger in the Middle East but for Western negotiators and supporters of the peace process. It presented them with the nightmarish lesson that there is risk in negotiating; the failure of talks could mean years of war.

But this year’s failed talks pushed by Secretary of State John Kerry are demonstrating another way peace talks aren’t necessarily risk-free: the deterioration of relations between the PA and Israel. As the talks collapsed, Mahmoud Abbas went ahead with a unity deal with Hamas, which immediately raised questions about Israeli support and the sharing of intel with the previously Hamas-less government. And today Haaretz sheds light on the nasty business of the blame game, with a letter apparently written by Israel’s national security advisor to Western governments:

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The violence initiated by Yasser Arafat after his rejection of the Clinton-brokered peace deal was a worst-case scenario not only for those whose lives were now in danger in the Middle East but for Western negotiators and supporters of the peace process. It presented them with the nightmarish lesson that there is risk in negotiating; the failure of talks could mean years of war.

But this year’s failed talks pushed by Secretary of State John Kerry are demonstrating another way peace talks aren’t necessarily risk-free: the deterioration of relations between the PA and Israel. As the talks collapsed, Mahmoud Abbas went ahead with a unity deal with Hamas, which immediately raised questions about Israeli support and the sharing of intel with the previously Hamas-less government. And today Haaretz sheds light on the nasty business of the blame game, with a letter apparently written by Israel’s national security advisor to Western governments:

Attached to the letter, a copy of which has been obtained by Haaretz, is a 65-page document that chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat submitted to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on March 9, three weeks before Israel was to release the final batch of Palestinian prisoners. In it, Erekat proposed a strategy for the PA during the final month of negotiations and after April 29, when the talks were originally scheduled to end before their premature collapse.

Erekat recommended applying to join various international conventions, informing the U.S. and Europe that the Palestinians wouldn’t extend the talks beyond April 29, demanding that Israel nevertheless release the final batch of prisoners, intensifying efforts to reconcile with Hamas to thwart what he termed an Israeli effort to sever the West Bank from Gaza politically, and various other diplomatic and public relations moves.

Over the past month, the PA has implemented most of Erekat’s recommendations. This, Cohen wrote in his letter, shows that even while the Palestinians were talking with Washington about the possibility of extending the peace talks, they were actually planning to blow them up, and had been planning to do so even before Abbas met with U.S. President Barack Obama on March 17. …

The document also shows that the Palestinians planned in advance to take unilateral steps in defiance of the commitment they made when the talks were launched in July 2013, he wrote.

The Israeli leadership’s decision to share that information was apparently made in response to the Palestinians’ attempt to blame Israel for the stalled negotiations. Leaking the letter to the press is also a good way to push back on the craven and self-discrediting efforts by Martin Indyk’s team to blame Israel in order to settle old scores. The blame game is, of course, far better than an intifada, which was Arafat’s answer to an offer of peace and mutual coexistence. But that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant.

It’s worth pointing out that the letter isn’t necessarily the smoking gun it appears to be; the Palestinians will no doubt claim that it was a fall-back list of options in case talks fell apart, which they always do. But that’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the talks usually end with the Palestinians walking away.

Yet that’s really a side issue here. The larger implications of this have to do with the fact that Kerry’s obsessive and badly mismanaged drive for a deal that was not in the offing has consequences for just about everyone but Kerry. He and Indyk can turn their attention elsewhere as they hit the Israelis with a sneering parting shot, but their gamble has left the Israelis and Palestinians worse off and scrambling to pick up the pieces.

The fact that there is some risk in negotiations doesn’t mean such negotiations should never take place: it would be courting disaster if a negotiated solution were permanently taken off the table. But neither should peace talks be seen as all upside, the way Western diplomats have tended to believe. Nor should they always focus on grand final-status deals just because an arrogant secretary of state like Kerry wants his Nobel. Kerry and Indyk may be used to others cleaning up their messes for them, but it’s clear both Israel and the Palestinians are getting tired of it.

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Irving Kristol Revisited

All those who have admired and been influenced by the work of Irving Kristol will be delighted to learn that the Foundation for Constitutional Government has created a valuable new resource; irvingkristol.org. The launch of the website comes as part of a series of similar sites that the FCG has established to celebrate the vast contribution made by such figures as James Q. Wilson, Harvey Mansfield, and Walter Berns. As well as providing a biographical overview, the Kristol website includes such useful resources as a full bibliography of Kristol’s writings organized by subject, a catalogue of commentary on Kristol’s thought, and an extensive multimedia archive, made all the more rare and fascinating given the way Kristol for the most part shunned the limelight.

Irving Kristol was arguably one of the most important political thinkers of the second half of the twentieth century. Portrayed as the godfather of neoconservatism, Kristol, along with such figures as former COMMENTARY editor Norman Podhoretz, was responsible for reshaping America’s political landscape irreversibly. The role that Kristol’s thought—and his journal the Public Interest–played in the Reagan Revolution was surely a key component in turning America’s fortunes around after the fraught years of the 1970s and the Carter presidency.

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All those who have admired and been influenced by the work of Irving Kristol will be delighted to learn that the Foundation for Constitutional Government has created a valuable new resource; irvingkristol.org. The launch of the website comes as part of a series of similar sites that the FCG has established to celebrate the vast contribution made by such figures as James Q. Wilson, Harvey Mansfield, and Walter Berns. As well as providing a biographical overview, the Kristol website includes such useful resources as a full bibliography of Kristol’s writings organized by subject, a catalogue of commentary on Kristol’s thought, and an extensive multimedia archive, made all the more rare and fascinating given the way Kristol for the most part shunned the limelight.

Irving Kristol was arguably one of the most important political thinkers of the second half of the twentieth century. Portrayed as the godfather of neoconservatism, Kristol, along with such figures as former COMMENTARY editor Norman Podhoretz, was responsible for reshaping America’s political landscape irreversibly. The role that Kristol’s thought—and his journal the Public Interest–played in the Reagan Revolution was surely a key component in turning America’s fortunes around after the fraught years of the 1970s and the Carter presidency.

Today neoconservatism is heavily associated with foreign-policy matters. Yet, a rediscovery of Irving Kristol’s writings might serve as a reminder of just how much first-generation neoconservatives were concerned with social and domestic issues. It may ultimately be that it is in this arena that neoconservatism can continue to play a decisive role in American politics. In the wake of the welfare dependency deepened by the Obama administration, and with a Republican Party that risks fracture between libertarians an social conservatives, Kristol’s thinking may yet offer a way forward for many trying to grapple with contemporary issues. Of course, none of this is to detract from the important role that neoconservatism has played and continues to play in offering a vital dose of moral clarity to America’s foreign-policy debate.

The launch of irvingkristol.org may prove timely. A young generation of conservatives is confronted with perplexing questions about fierce divisions opening up within parts of American society and painful conflicts raging in their own camp. Reading Kristol now may shed some light on what is going wrong in our political thinking and what is to be done about it. 

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Why Doesn’t Samantha Power Resign?

Samantha Power made her name as a reporter on genocide. After working as a freelance reporter in Bosnia, she penned her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell, that castigated the American response to genocide in places like Rwanda. Clinton administration officials were too willing to turn a blind eye. Few were willing to undercut career trajectories or put ambition aside to address the issue. Most simply continued with their climb up the Washington ladder, hoping that the problem would go away. Alas, it never does.

Fast-forward a couple decades: Power created and chaired the Atrocity Prevention Board, a body that, alas, seems to be more symbolic than real; it certainly has no success to its name. The administration to which Power has dedicated herself these past five years has sat aloof as a small civil conflict in Syria accelerated and transformed into one of this century’s cruelest conflicts. Power seemed to imply as much when she gave pointed remarks during a ceremony at the U.S. Holocaust Museum on April 30. “And to those who would argue that a Head of State or government has to choose only between doing nothing and sending in the military,” she declared, “I maintain that is a constructed and false choice, an accompaniment only to disengagement and passivity.”

How sad it is that Power has apparently come to personify all she once condemned: She is happy to posture and to preach, but wholly unable or unwilling to sacrifice her ambition. She sees herself as a future secretary of state and so doesn’t want to make waves, or at least big waves. But if ethnic cleansing reaches genocidal levels in Syria, that’s just the price that will have to be paid.

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Samantha Power made her name as a reporter on genocide. After working as a freelance reporter in Bosnia, she penned her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell, that castigated the American response to genocide in places like Rwanda. Clinton administration officials were too willing to turn a blind eye. Few were willing to undercut career trajectories or put ambition aside to address the issue. Most simply continued with their climb up the Washington ladder, hoping that the problem would go away. Alas, it never does.

Fast-forward a couple decades: Power created and chaired the Atrocity Prevention Board, a body that, alas, seems to be more symbolic than real; it certainly has no success to its name. The administration to which Power has dedicated herself these past five years has sat aloof as a small civil conflict in Syria accelerated and transformed into one of this century’s cruelest conflicts. Power seemed to imply as much when she gave pointed remarks during a ceremony at the U.S. Holocaust Museum on April 30. “And to those who would argue that a Head of State or government has to choose only between doing nothing and sending in the military,” she declared, “I maintain that is a constructed and false choice, an accompaniment only to disengagement and passivity.”

How sad it is that Power has apparently come to personify all she once condemned: She is happy to posture and to preach, but wholly unable or unwilling to sacrifice her ambition. She sees herself as a future secretary of state and so doesn’t want to make waves, or at least big waves. But if ethnic cleansing reaches genocidal levels in Syria, that’s just the price that will have to be paid.

What Power doesn’t recognize, if she truly cares about principle and hasn’t cynically exploited it all along, is that if she were to resign she might not only bring the spotlight to problem about which she professes such concern, but might also force her commander in chief’s hand in a way that she hasn’t been able to do in any Cabinet meeting. Indeed, it might actually augment her cache among the progressive left and, frankly, among the right as well. I wouldn’t hold my breath, however. Rather than a model for principle, Power seems to personify why the American response to genocide has always been so weak.  

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Biden’s Engagement Flip-Flop

I had started writing my recent book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, before Barack Obama won the presidency and chose Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his running mate. No matter: The book isn’t a partisan polemic. Bungling diplomacy toward international rogues has been a bipartisan problem. Still, as senator, Biden spoke often about diplomacy and rogues and so he provided a rich, documentary record of his views on the topic.

As we near the 25th anniversary if the Tiananmen Square massacre, China is beginning its predictable, preliminary crackdown on dissidents and all who might want to mark that occasion. The events of June 4, 1989 were truly horrific. What is quite interesting, however, is how critical and outspoken Biden was about the George H.W. Bush administration renewing ties with China just a couple years later. Speaking on the Senate floor, Biden declared, “What President Bush and Secretary Baker have been seeking to engage is the world’s last major Communist regime; it is a regime marked by brutality at home and irresponsibility abroad; and it is a regime the United States should now cease to court and must no longer appease.” I find little to argue with Biden, at least his 1991 incarnation.

As I documented in my book, Biden also complained that diplomacy involving Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic left too many in the former Yugoslavia off the hook, and that he would have rather have seen a continuation if not a ratcheting up of more coercive pressure on them rather than turning to diplomacy when the Clinton administration did.

How strange it is then, or at least inconsistent, that Biden has been full-throated in his desire to engage the Islamic Republic of Iran. His national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, participated in the secret talks in Oman that opened that door. Even before the nuclear deal is finalized, Iran has already pocketed several billion dollars in sanctions relief and new economic investment. As the nuclear deal takes shape, it is becoming increasingly apparent that everything it commits Iran to is reversible, and readily so. In the meantime, it legitimizes and, indeed, rewards a regime whose human-rights record is as atrocious as China’s, and whose young students, women, and whose political and religious dissidents suffer the humiliation of Tiananmen Square on an almost daily basis. Indeed, none other than Amnesty International has noted the increase in public executions since the supposed moderate, Hassan Rouhani, took office.

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I had started writing my recent book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, before Barack Obama won the presidency and chose Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his running mate. No matter: The book isn’t a partisan polemic. Bungling diplomacy toward international rogues has been a bipartisan problem. Still, as senator, Biden spoke often about diplomacy and rogues and so he provided a rich, documentary record of his views on the topic.

As we near the 25th anniversary if the Tiananmen Square massacre, China is beginning its predictable, preliminary crackdown on dissidents and all who might want to mark that occasion. The events of June 4, 1989 were truly horrific. What is quite interesting, however, is how critical and outspoken Biden was about the George H.W. Bush administration renewing ties with China just a couple years later. Speaking on the Senate floor, Biden declared, “What President Bush and Secretary Baker have been seeking to engage is the world’s last major Communist regime; it is a regime marked by brutality at home and irresponsibility abroad; and it is a regime the United States should now cease to court and must no longer appease.” I find little to argue with Biden, at least his 1991 incarnation.

As I documented in my book, Biden also complained that diplomacy involving Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic left too many in the former Yugoslavia off the hook, and that he would have rather have seen a continuation if not a ratcheting up of more coercive pressure on them rather than turning to diplomacy when the Clinton administration did.

How strange it is then, or at least inconsistent, that Biden has been full-throated in his desire to engage the Islamic Republic of Iran. His national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, participated in the secret talks in Oman that opened that door. Even before the nuclear deal is finalized, Iran has already pocketed several billion dollars in sanctions relief and new economic investment. As the nuclear deal takes shape, it is becoming increasingly apparent that everything it commits Iran to is reversible, and readily so. In the meantime, it legitimizes and, indeed, rewards a regime whose human-rights record is as atrocious as China’s, and whose young students, women, and whose political and religious dissidents suffer the humiliation of Tiananmen Square on an almost daily basis. Indeed, none other than Amnesty International has noted the increase in public executions since the supposed moderate, Hassan Rouhani, took office.

That is not to say that there is not a reason for engagement here and now—although let us hope that Obama’s desire to have a foreign-policy breakthrough whatever its cost isn’t what is driving this. But, at the very least, Biden—if he is the statesman the thinks he is and if he aspires to the highest office—should provide an explanation as to his sharp about-face on issues of human rights, dictatorship, and diplomacy. Alas, the lack of consistency Biden displays is not unique. He is in good political company. It’s hard not to conclude that Biden personifies just how arbitrary American strategy about when and how to engage is.

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Putin’s NATO Justification

To justify the unjustifiable–Russia’s aggression against Ukraine–Vladimir Putin has concocted a narrative of resentment built upon the myth that the U.S. supposedly humiliated Russia after the end of the Cold War. This ignores the obvious reality, which is that no one ever treated Russia the way Germany was treated after World War I. Far from demanding reparations or territorial concessions or imposing limits on Russia’s ability to defend itself, the West poured in billions in aid–money which was largely wasted because of the corruption of Putin and his ilk. 

True, the Russian Empire shrank considerably after 1991 but this was not because of a diktat imposed by Washington. It was because most of the subservient republics under Moscow’s thumb–from Ukraine to Uzbekistan–chose to go their own way. Washington couldn’t have stopped them if it had tried, and George H.W. Bush did try to discourage Ukrainian independence with his famous “Chicken Kiev” speech.

The one action that the West did take after the Soviet Union’s collapse that Putin can label as provocative was the expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe. This was opposed by some at the time as a needless aggravation of Russia. That argument is now being heard anew not only from Putin but from those in the West eager to rationalize his aggression. 

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To justify the unjustifiable–Russia’s aggression against Ukraine–Vladimir Putin has concocted a narrative of resentment built upon the myth that the U.S. supposedly humiliated Russia after the end of the Cold War. This ignores the obvious reality, which is that no one ever treated Russia the way Germany was treated after World War I. Far from demanding reparations or territorial concessions or imposing limits on Russia’s ability to defend itself, the West poured in billions in aid–money which was largely wasted because of the corruption of Putin and his ilk. 

True, the Russian Empire shrank considerably after 1991 but this was not because of a diktat imposed by Washington. It was because most of the subservient republics under Moscow’s thumb–from Ukraine to Uzbekistan–chose to go their own way. Washington couldn’t have stopped them if it had tried, and George H.W. Bush did try to discourage Ukrainian independence with his famous “Chicken Kiev” speech.

The one action that the West did take after the Soviet Union’s collapse that Putin can label as provocative was the expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe. This was opposed by some at the time as a needless aggravation of Russia. That argument is now being heard anew not only from Putin but from those in the West eager to rationalize his aggression. 

But it is disingenuous to suggest that Putin’s desire to reassemble the Russian empire is fueled by fear of NATO, a purely defensive alliance. Only someone who has been binge-watching RT (formerly Russia Today)–the Kremlin’s propaganda organ–could possibly imagine that, absent NATO’s expansion, Putin would be behaving in a more neighborly fashion toward Georgia, Ukraine, or other neighboring states that he still considers to be Russian satrapies. 

NATO expansion may be an excuse for Russian aggression but it is not its cause. Actually, NATO expansion has been a great force for peace and stability, helping to lock in the democratic gains in Eastern Europe and to impose limitations on Russian bullying. 

Far from backing away from NATO, the U.S. and its allies should double down. Ukraine and Georgia may not be ready for membership, but Sweden and Finland could easily be absorbed into the alliance as Swedish commentator Jan Joel Andersson argues in Foreign Affairs. “From a military standpoint, Sweden and Finland would add technologically sophisticated and well-equipped armed forces to the alliance,” he argues, and “it would bring the NATO border ever closer to Russia, demonstrating that military aggression in Europe carries major geopolitical consequences.” 

Such a bold step makes eminent sense to counter Russian aggression and to signal that the West will not accept Putin’s attempts to blame NATO for his own misconduct.

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