Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 16, 2014

The Obama Presidency Descends Into Farce

According to the Washington Post:

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Thursday that he has seen “raw data” indicating that the Syrian government
has used chlorine gas as a chemical weapon in a “number of ­instances” in recent months.

“There will be consequences” if evidence of new chemical use is confirmed, Kerry said, but “we’re not going to pin ourselves down to a precise date, time, manner of action.”

Speaking after a meeting here of the Syrian opposition’s principal international backers, he also said they had agreed to expand humanitarian, diplomatic and military aid to the rebels.

“I’m not going to discuss what specific weapons or what country may . . . be providing or not providing” the arms, he said. “I will say that out of today’s meeting, every facet of what can be done is going to be ramped up. Every facet.”

We have now reached the farcical stage in the Obama presidency.

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According to the Washington Post:

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Thursday that he has seen “raw data” indicating that the Syrian government
has used chlorine gas as a chemical weapon in a “number of ­instances” in recent months.

“There will be consequences” if evidence of new chemical use is confirmed, Kerry said, but “we’re not going to pin ourselves down to a precise date, time, manner of action.”

Speaking after a meeting here of the Syrian opposition’s principal international backers, he also said they had agreed to expand humanitarian, diplomatic and military aid to the rebels.

“I’m not going to discuss what specific weapons or what country may . . . be providing or not providing” the arms, he said. “I will say that out of today’s meeting, every facet of what can be done is going to be ramped up. Every facet.”

We have now reached the farcical stage in the Obama presidency.

Does Secretary Kerry understand how much of a joke it is for him to threaten “consequences” if evidence of new chemical weapons by the Assad regime turns out to be true? Given the Obama administration’s track record on Syria–with “red lines” drawn and erased, with its refusal to arm opposition groups early on, with agreeing to negotiations that have empowered the Syrian regime–it is better that Mr. Kerry keep his mouth shut than to speak and provoke ridicule.

The president and his secretary of state’s words long ago were emptied of meaning. So please, for your sake and ours, give up on the bluster. It only makes a shameful situation worse. 

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Blaming Israel to Preserve a Theory

Secretary of State John Kerry was in London yesterday trying to sweet talk Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas into talking peace again with Israel. But the main front in the peace process appears to be in Washington where the State Department is still spinning the collapse of Kerry’s initiative and placing the primary fault for the failure of his fool’s errand on Israel. While Kerry fired the initial shots of this campaign himself when he had his “poof” moment at a Senate hearing, at which he claimed Israeli housing construction announcements had ended the negotiations, it was then continued by an in-depth interview given by American officials (widely and credibly attributed to Kerry’s envoy Martin Indyk) to Yediot Aharonoth in which the Netanyahu government was thoroughly trashed and Abbas’s intransigence rationalized. But not satisfied with that, Kerry’s aides are back reinforcing their attacks on Israel this week helping to generate stories in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The point of the press barrage appears not, as with previous assaults on the Israelis, to pressure them to make more concessions to the Palestinians in future talks since, as the Times noted, the president seems to have no interest in sticking his neck out further on behalf of an effort that has no chance to succeed. Rather, the continued talk about settlements being the obstacle to peace seems to have two purposes. One is to defend Kerry’s reputation against accurate criticisms of his decision to waste so much time and effort on a negotiation that was always doomed to fail. The other is that the administration peace processors who largely repeated the same mistakes made by the Clinton administration during the Oslo period with regard to the Palestinians feel compelled to justify their behavior by blaming Israel. The problem with the focus on settlements is not just that it is both inaccurate and out of context but that railing at Israeli building is the only way to preserve belief in a theory about attaining Middle East peace that has failed again.

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Secretary of State John Kerry was in London yesterday trying to sweet talk Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas into talking peace again with Israel. But the main front in the peace process appears to be in Washington where the State Department is still spinning the collapse of Kerry’s initiative and placing the primary fault for the failure of his fool’s errand on Israel. While Kerry fired the initial shots of this campaign himself when he had his “poof” moment at a Senate hearing, at which he claimed Israeli housing construction announcements had ended the negotiations, it was then continued by an in-depth interview given by American officials (widely and credibly attributed to Kerry’s envoy Martin Indyk) to Yediot Aharonoth in which the Netanyahu government was thoroughly trashed and Abbas’s intransigence rationalized. But not satisfied with that, Kerry’s aides are back reinforcing their attacks on Israel this week helping to generate stories in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The point of the press barrage appears not, as with previous assaults on the Israelis, to pressure them to make more concessions to the Palestinians in future talks since, as the Times noted, the president seems to have no interest in sticking his neck out further on behalf of an effort that has no chance to succeed. Rather, the continued talk about settlements being the obstacle to peace seems to have two purposes. One is to defend Kerry’s reputation against accurate criticisms of his decision to waste so much time and effort on a negotiation that was always doomed to fail. The other is that the administration peace processors who largely repeated the same mistakes made by the Clinton administration during the Oslo period with regard to the Palestinians feel compelled to justify their behavior by blaming Israel. The problem with the focus on settlements is not just that it is both inaccurate and out of context but that railing at Israeli building is the only way to preserve belief in a theory about attaining Middle East peace that has failed again.

It cannot be emphasized enough that most of the discussion about the settlements from administration sources and their cheerleaders in the press is not only wrongheaded but also deliberately misleading. A perfect example of that comes today in David Ignatius’s column in the Post in which he writes:

The issue of Israeli settlements humiliated the Palestinian negotiators and poisoned the talks, according to statements by U.S. negotiators. When Israel announced 700 new settlements in early April, before the April 29 deadline for the talks, “Poof, that was sort of the moment,” Kerry told a Senate panel.

Phrased that way it certainly sounds egregious. But Israel didn’t announce the start of 700 new settlements. It authorized 700 new apartments in Gilo, a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem that no one, not even the Palestinians expects would be given to them in even a prospective peace treaty more to their liking than the Israelis. Israel has built almost no new “settlements,” i.e. brand new towns, villages, or cities in the West Bank since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 and claiming anything different isn’t just wrong, it’s a deliberate attempt to poison the atmosphere against the Jewish state. Later in the day, the Post corrected that line to read “settlement apartments,” but the intent to deceive on the part of Ignatius was clear.

More to the point, both Ignatius and the latest op-ed mislabeled as a news story by Times White House correspondent Mark Landler note their narratives of Israeli perfidy but fail to highlight that it was Netanyahu who agreed to Kerry’s framework for further peace talks and Abbas who turned the U.S. down. It was Abbas who refused to budge an inch during the talks even though Israel’s offers of territorial withdrawal constitute a fourth peace offer including independence that the Palestinians have turned down in the last 15 years. His decision to embrace Hamas in a unity pact rather than make peace with Israel sealed the end of Kerry’s effort, not announcements of new apartments in Jerusalem.

The reason for this obfuscation is not a mystery. Acknowledging the truth about the collapse of the talks would force Kerry and his State Department minions to admit that their theory about how to achieve peace has been wrong all along. It was primarily the Palestinians’ refusal to make the symbolic step of recognizing that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people that would live in peace alongside a nation state of the Palestinian people that sunk the talks. But acknowledging that would mean they understood that the political culture of the Palestinians—in which national identity is inextricably tied to rejection of Israel’s existence—must change before peace is possible. Israel, which has already made large-scale territorial withdrawals in the hope of peace, has already dismantled settlements and would uproot more if real peace were to be had. Moreover, since most of the building that Kerry and company blamed for the lack of peace are located in areas that would be kept by Israel, the obsession with them is as illogical as it is mean-spirited.

Just as the Clinton administration whitewashed Yasir Arafat and the PA in the ’90s, so, too, did the Obama crew whitewash his successor Abbas’s incitement and refusal to end the conflict. The result is that the Palestinians believe there will never be any serious consequences for rejecting peace. Throughout the Kerry initiative, Obama and the secretary praised Abbas while reviling Netanyahu but rather than nudging the Palestinians to make peace, it only encouraged them to refuse it. But if the U.S. is ever to help move the Middle East closer to peace, it will require honesty from the administration about the Palestinians and for it to give up its settlement obsession. Seen from that perspective, it was Kerry and Indyk who did as much to sabotage the process as Abbas, let alone Netanyahu. But instead, Obama, Kerry, and Indyk refuse to admit their faults and continue besmirching Israel to their friends in the press. Sticking to a discredited theory is always easier than facing the truth, especially about your own mistakes.

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What Washington Can Do for Kiev

In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine (yes that’s what it is–an invasion), I, in common with other commentators, have emphasized the need for stronger economic sanctions on Russia as well as the permanent positioning of U.S. troops in frontline NATO states to send a strong message that cross-border aggression does not pay.

But there is also a need to do more to help the nascent pro-Western state in Kiev to stand up to Russian bullying. Part of the help it needs is economic, and it is receiving some of what it needs from the European Union, IMF, and U.S. But, as Ukraine’s defense minister Andriy Parubiy reminds us in the Wall Street Journal, the Ukrainian armed forces also are desperate for American assistance.

“We have submitted,” he writes, “a complete list of what is needed to the U.S.—assistance in the form of antiaircraft and antitank weaponry, as well as bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles.” Ukraine also desperately needs more training for its ill-prepared forces, which have been mismanaged for years.

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In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine (yes that’s what it is–an invasion), I, in common with other commentators, have emphasized the need for stronger economic sanctions on Russia as well as the permanent positioning of U.S. troops in frontline NATO states to send a strong message that cross-border aggression does not pay.

But there is also a need to do more to help the nascent pro-Western state in Kiev to stand up to Russian bullying. Part of the help it needs is economic, and it is receiving some of what it needs from the European Union, IMF, and U.S. But, as Ukraine’s defense minister Andriy Parubiy reminds us in the Wall Street Journal, the Ukrainian armed forces also are desperate for American assistance.

“We have submitted,” he writes, “a complete list of what is needed to the U.S.—assistance in the form of antiaircraft and antitank weaponry, as well as bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles.” Ukraine also desperately needs more training for its ill-prepared forces, which have been mismanaged for years.

So far all that has been forthcoming from Washington is some Meals, Ready to Eat. Apparently the Obama administration thinks that it would be too “provocative” to provide Ukraine with arms to defend itself. While there is a risk of Russian action to preempt weapons deliveries, in the long-run the provision of more potent weaponry to Ukraine–in particular antitank and antiaircraft missiles–would actually make war less, not more, likely.

Vladimir Putin is already visibly hesitating as he contemplates the challenge of occupying eastern Ukraine, an area where most people don’t want to be part of Russia and whose geography makes it hard to split it off from the rest of the country–it is not an archipelago like Crimea. How much more would he hesitate if he knew that Ukraine’s defenders, who already have a history of guerrilla warfare against Soviet troops in the 1950s, would be armed with the kind of sophisticated weapons that the Afghan mujahideen used against the Red Army in the 1980s.

That is the logic of deterrence–of peace through strength. Too bad the U.S. and its Western allies seem bent on a policy of appeasement when it comes to Russian aggression.

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Absentee President Is Bad for Veterans’ Health … And the Country’s

What’s the difference between the growing scandal about the mistreatment of patients at Veterans Administration hospitals and previous Obama administration problems at the IRS, the Justice Department (“Fast and Furious” and spying on the press), and the State Department (Benghazi)? The answer is that rather than members of Congress and the press dividing along partisan lines in their discussions of the outrages at the VA, there is a bipartisan consensus that the business-as-usual atmosphere at the agency that has allowed abuses to go on for years despite public warnings of trouble must end. Democrats and Republicans competed with each other to express anger at Secretary Eric Shinseki at his failure to either detect or halt the abuse of veterans needing medical care. That’s a positive development since the focus of our public officials on the affairs of government should always be on correcting misbehavior whether or not someone’s political ox is being gored.

But there is one thing about the VA scandal that is similar to past administration problems. Despite Shinseki’s poor performance in his office—he’s been head of the VA since the president took office, meaning that he’s presided over years of patient problems—up until the scandal completely blew up there was no sign of any displeasure about him from the White House. And even once it became clear that he had utterly failed to deal with these problems and had seemed to have little idea of how to even spin this disaster—as yesterday’s Senate hearings made clear—his job appeared to be safe.

As with everything else that is bad that goes on in Washington in the age of Obama, the VA scandal appears to be something that the president just reads about in the newspapers. Like the illegal discrimination against conservative groups at the IRS and the Justice Department’s spying practices and, most memorably, the mismanagement and incompetence at the Department of Health and Human Services during the ObamaCare rollout, the president’s management style is absentee and often downright uninterested in performance. Rather than react to criticism of his administration by cleaning house when necessary, his instinct—even on issues like the VA where partisanship is not a factor—is to hunker down and stonewall. While the focus on Obama’s efforts to expand the reach of government power and to downgrade our alliances with friends rightly gets most of the attention from critics, the VA scandal and the slow and incoherent response from the White House demonstrates that the president’s inability to govern effectively is potentially as dangerous as his misconceptions about the purpose of government or American power.

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What’s the difference between the growing scandal about the mistreatment of patients at Veterans Administration hospitals and previous Obama administration problems at the IRS, the Justice Department (“Fast and Furious” and spying on the press), and the State Department (Benghazi)? The answer is that rather than members of Congress and the press dividing along partisan lines in their discussions of the outrages at the VA, there is a bipartisan consensus that the business-as-usual atmosphere at the agency that has allowed abuses to go on for years despite public warnings of trouble must end. Democrats and Republicans competed with each other to express anger at Secretary Eric Shinseki at his failure to either detect or halt the abuse of veterans needing medical care. That’s a positive development since the focus of our public officials on the affairs of government should always be on correcting misbehavior whether or not someone’s political ox is being gored.

But there is one thing about the VA scandal that is similar to past administration problems. Despite Shinseki’s poor performance in his office—he’s been head of the VA since the president took office, meaning that he’s presided over years of patient problems—up until the scandal completely blew up there was no sign of any displeasure about him from the White House. And even once it became clear that he had utterly failed to deal with these problems and had seemed to have little idea of how to even spin this disaster—as yesterday’s Senate hearings made clear—his job appeared to be safe.

As with everything else that is bad that goes on in Washington in the age of Obama, the VA scandal appears to be something that the president just reads about in the newspapers. Like the illegal discrimination against conservative groups at the IRS and the Justice Department’s spying practices and, most memorably, the mismanagement and incompetence at the Department of Health and Human Services during the ObamaCare rollout, the president’s management style is absentee and often downright uninterested in performance. Rather than react to criticism of his administration by cleaning house when necessary, his instinct—even on issues like the VA where partisanship is not a factor—is to hunker down and stonewall. While the focus on Obama’s efforts to expand the reach of government power and to downgrade our alliances with friends rightly gets most of the attention from critics, the VA scandal and the slow and incoherent response from the White House demonstrates that the president’s inability to govern effectively is potentially as dangerous as his misconceptions about the purpose of government or American power.

Judging by the statements of both Shinseki and White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough yesterday, this administration seems still to be in a state of denial about the potential implications of the problems of the VA. Splitting hairs on the question of whether the veterans who were kept waiting endlessly for medical services died as a result of the delays or some other reason isn’t the best way to demonstrate concern or a sense of urgency about the problem. Shinseki came across at his Senate hearing as a middle manager with a flatline personality unable to muster much emotion even when he was claiming to be “mad as hell” about the scandal. Both he and McDonough—who was strongly pressed on the issue by CNN’s Jake Tapper—were in denial about the fact that they had ignored complaints and warnings on these abuses for years until it blew up in their faces.

But the point here isn’t so much about the outrageous behavior at the VA which—like the IRS scandal—can’t be blamed on a rogue regional office but is part of a culture of corruption that appears to be systemic. Just as the administration’s reflex action on the IRS, Benghazi, Fast and Furious, and any other contentious issue you can think of, the administration’s instinct here is to obfuscate and cover up. The standard practice is to hide the truth no matter what the cause of concern. And even when the public is informed of the problem, the administration goes into its normal damage-control routine that centers on minimizing the damage to them rather than to the public.

Moreover, President Obama’s instinct even on non-partisan problems is to resist making changes in his administration. It is almost as if he thinks it is beneath his dignity to respond to public outrage and that damaged Cabinet officials must keep their jobs in spite of justified calls for their removal rather than because of them.

We can expect that Shinseki will eventually be carefully removed once the furor over the VA dies down much in the same manner of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. But by then the damage will have been done, both to ill veterans and to the public’s confidence in their government. Having an absentee president more interested in demonstrating his contempt for critics and establishing that he can’t be pressured is bad for the health of our former soldiers as well as for the republic they bled to defend.

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Lacking Achievements, Hillary Invents One

Last month, in writing about the challenge Hillary Clinton will face in running for president after presiding over foreign-policy disasters at the State Department, I gave her too much credit. With regard to Iran, I said she’d probably act as though she had been “skeptical of Iranian ‘reform,’” since she didn’t negotiate the naïve deal with the Islamic Republic; John Kerry did.

I suppose I had momentarily forgotten she’s a Clinton. This week she reminded us. She won’t merely pretend to have been privately wary of the Iranians. She will just make stuff up and rewrite history, counting on the media’s investment in her election and fear of crossing her to cover for her distortions. Like the daring woman who dodged a phantom shower of gunfire in Bosnia, Hillary is back casting herself as the heroic defender of freedom she has never been. Josh Rogin reports on Clinton’s speech to the American Jewish Committee this week:

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Last month, in writing about the challenge Hillary Clinton will face in running for president after presiding over foreign-policy disasters at the State Department, I gave her too much credit. With regard to Iran, I said she’d probably act as though she had been “skeptical of Iranian ‘reform,’” since she didn’t negotiate the naïve deal with the Islamic Republic; John Kerry did.

I suppose I had momentarily forgotten she’s a Clinton. This week she reminded us. She won’t merely pretend to have been privately wary of the Iranians. She will just make stuff up and rewrite history, counting on the media’s investment in her election and fear of crossing her to cover for her distortions. Like the daring woman who dodged a phantom shower of gunfire in Bosnia, Hillary is back casting herself as the heroic defender of freedom she has never been. Josh Rogin reports on Clinton’s speech to the American Jewish Committee this week:

Hillary Clinton is now claiming to be the architect of crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy. But during her tenure as Secretary of State, her department repeatedly opposed or tried to water down an array of measures that were pushed into law by Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

Rogin offers a corrective:

What Clinton didn’t mention was that top officials from her own State Department—in conjunction with the rest of the Obama administration—often worked hard against many of the measures she’s now championing. Some bills Foggy Bottom slowed down; others, the State Department lobbied to be made less strict; still others were opposed outright by Clinton’s deputies, only to be overruled by large majorities in the House and the Senate. …

The most egregious example of the administration’s effort to slow down the sanctions drive came in late 2011, when Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez openly chastised top administration officials for opposing an amendment to sanction the Central Bank of Iran that he had co-authored with Sen. Mark Kirk. Leading administration officials including Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman publicly expressed “strong opposition” (PDF) to the amendment, arguing that it would anger allies by opening them up for punishment if they did not significantly reduce their imports of Iranian oil.

Clinton’s top deputies fought the amendment at every step of the legislative process. Clinton’s #2 at the State Department, Bill Burns, even joined an emergency meeting with top senators to urge them to drop the amendment. They refused. The amendment later passed the Senate 100-0. Menendez said at the time that the administration had negotiated on the amendment in bad faith.

The record is quite clear: Hillary Clinton was a powerful obstacle to effective Iran sanctions. It is a tribute to the hard work and determination of those like Kirk and Menendez to be able to get any sanctions through Clinton and Obama’s dedicated obstruction of efforts to use sanctions to stop or slow Iran’s march to a nuclear weapon.

The whole incident is a preview of what 2016 will be like if Hillary does decide to accept her party’s coronation as its new cult leader. The Clinton campaign would indeed be a fairytale ending to a storybook career–just not in the way those terms are traditionally understood. The campaign narrative will be, at best, historical fiction–though closer to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter than the West Wing, in terms of its relationship to the real world.

As Rogin reported, and as ABC News picked up on last night, Kirk is pushing back:

“I worked for months to round-up the votes [in the UN Security Council],” Clinton said. “In the end we were successful… And then building on the framework established by the Security Council, with the help of Congress, the Obama administration imposed some of the most stringent, crippling sanctions on top of the international ones.”

Those sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table earlier this year.

“Secretary Clinton’s comments are a blatant revision of history,” said Kirk, who with Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., co-sponsored several sanctions bills in recent years. “The fact is the Obama administration has opposed sanctions against Iran led by Senator Menendez and me every step of the way.”

It’s significant that Kirk is speaking up, because he is neither a conservative firebrand (he is the moderate Republican holding President Obama’s former Senate seat) nor a serial self-promoter, unlike so many of his colleagues. He is also not contemplating running against Clinton for the presidency in 2016.

He is speaking out, quite simply, because Clinton is selling a self-aggrandizing fantasy to the public in hopes of deceiving her way into the White House. In the process, she is demeaning those really responsible for the sanctions. But the silver lining is that her attempt to rewrite history indicates her awareness of just how out of step she is with the American public.

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Ben Carson and God’s Calling

The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes, an outstanding political reporter over the decades, writes this in a story about Ben Carson:

“Over the years, there have been many attempts to get me to throw my hat in the political arena,” Carson writes in his new book, One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future.  “I have been offered support from around the country and tremendous financial resources if I decide to run for national office. But I have not felt the call to run.”

Carson writes that he suspects many others interested in high office would be better candidates.  But in his book he has a caveat: “If I felt called by God to officially enter the world of politics, I would certainly not hesitate to do so.”

Interviewed this week, Carson said he’s “starting to feel it.  Because every place I go, it’s unbelievable.”  One lady “really touched me the other night … She just kept clinging to my hand and said, ‘You have to run. You have to run.’  And so many people tell me that, and so I think I’m starting to hear something.”

Dr. Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon, is by all accounts an admirable person and a man of faith. (He was the subject of the movie Gifted Hands.) I have my doubts that he should run for president and I’m certain he won’t be nominated to be president, but for the purposes of this post I want to focus on his theology.

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The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes, an outstanding political reporter over the decades, writes this in a story about Ben Carson:

“Over the years, there have been many attempts to get me to throw my hat in the political arena,” Carson writes in his new book, One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future.  “I have been offered support from around the country and tremendous financial resources if I decide to run for national office. But I have not felt the call to run.”

Carson writes that he suspects many others interested in high office would be better candidates.  But in his book he has a caveat: “If I felt called by God to officially enter the world of politics, I would certainly not hesitate to do so.”

Interviewed this week, Carson said he’s “starting to feel it.  Because every place I go, it’s unbelievable.”  One lady “really touched me the other night … She just kept clinging to my hand and said, ‘You have to run. You have to run.’  And so many people tell me that, and so I think I’m starting to hear something.”

Dr. Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon, is by all accounts an admirable person and a man of faith. (He was the subject of the movie Gifted Hands.) I have my doubts that he should run for president and I’m certain he won’t be nominated to be president, but for the purposes of this post I want to focus on his theology.

My own view is that to discern the call of God on matters like this requires extraordinary discernment. What makes this even more complicated is that there is a constant temptation among people of faith to take worldly ambitions and place upon them the imprimatur of God; to turn selfish (though not necessarily bad) desires and give to them the patina of holiness and selfless obedience. That at least has been true for me.

Politicians in particular are susceptible to a variation of this, often speaking as if their quest for power is done solely for altruistic reasons. They have a comfortable life they thoroughly enjoy, this narrative goes, but they just happen to be the one person in a nation of 315 million who can right the listing ship of state. Like most of what we do, however, running for public office usually involves a mix of factors, some more admirable than others. Running for president involves both personal sacrifices and personal aggrandizement. The distortion comes by focusing only on the former and never the latter; by pretending it’s always about us (or the will of God) and never about them.

It’s impossible for me to speak dispositively on this subject when it comes to Dr. Carson. But as a general matter, I would caution against confusing the words of enraptured supporters as Vox Dei, of taking ego strokes and making them synonymous with the call of God. Certainly for those of the Christian faith like Dr. Carson, a much more common (and good deal less comfortable) theme is dying to self, the least among us being the greatest, and taking up your cross. The wisest people I know would tend to warn that the adoration of the crowd is a temptation one needs to guard against. Sic transit gloria mundi.

I’m familiar with the parable of the talents and I’m certainly open to the prospect that God can take our gifts and interests and use them for good. My point is that we moderns tend to be somewhat less alert to the dangers of self-deception and (wittingly or not) using faith as a way to disguise our vanity.

The human heart is divided against itself; as a result, most of us are far too quick to ascribe to our less-than-saintly ambitions the full favor of God.

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Time to Give Iran the Human-Rights Test

I’m not necessarily opposed to diplomacy with rogue regimes, but the idea that “it never hurts to talk,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Undersecretary Nicholas Burns, and Bush-era Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage have said is simply false. In my book, I chronicle the costs of engaging rogue regimes so at least policymakers can enter into negotiations with eyes wide open rather than simply assume their outreach is cost-free.

Whether in Clinton and Bush’s outreach to North Korea, Obama’s diplomacy with the Taliban, Reagan’s engagement with Saddam’s Iraq, or today with regard to Iran, diplomats often dispense with human rights in order to suffer no impediment in their drive to deal-making. The current flourish of nuclear deal-making, after all, had its roots in the Critical Dialogue initiated by German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel in 1993. The “critical” portion of that dialogue, European diplomats explained, was because Europe would tie tough discussion of human rights with nuclear talks and trade. Of course, it was just a matter of months before the Europeans dispensed with the critical aspect of their dialogue and nearly tripled trade. Iran took that hard currency windfall and invested it in their nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Obama is different. Or at least he says he is. Both he and John Kerry have colored their careers with flowery rhetoric about human rights. The question is whether they consider such lip service to human rights and religious freedom merely props in their now-fulfilled quest for power.  

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I’m not necessarily opposed to diplomacy with rogue regimes, but the idea that “it never hurts to talk,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Undersecretary Nicholas Burns, and Bush-era Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage have said is simply false. In my book, I chronicle the costs of engaging rogue regimes so at least policymakers can enter into negotiations with eyes wide open rather than simply assume their outreach is cost-free.

Whether in Clinton and Bush’s outreach to North Korea, Obama’s diplomacy with the Taliban, Reagan’s engagement with Saddam’s Iraq, or today with regard to Iran, diplomats often dispense with human rights in order to suffer no impediment in their drive to deal-making. The current flourish of nuclear deal-making, after all, had its roots in the Critical Dialogue initiated by German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel in 1993. The “critical” portion of that dialogue, European diplomats explained, was because Europe would tie tough discussion of human rights with nuclear talks and trade. Of course, it was just a matter of months before the Europeans dispensed with the critical aspect of their dialogue and nearly tripled trade. Iran took that hard currency windfall and invested it in their nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Obama is different. Or at least he says he is. Both he and John Kerry have colored their careers with flowery rhetoric about human rights. The question is whether they consider such lip service to human rights and religious freedom merely props in their now-fulfilled quest for power.  

May 14 marked the sixth anniversary of the imprisonment of seven Baha’i leaders in Iran. Their plight is an issue I covered often in the years before I started writing for COMMENTARY. To mark the anniversary, Bahá’ís of the United States and a host of other religious organizations including the American Jewish Committee, the American Islamic Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Baptist World Alliance have sent a letter to Kerry which reads in part:

May 14 will mark the sixth anniversary of the imprisonment of the seven members of the former ad hoc leadership group of the Bahá’ís of Iran… As governments and human rights organizations have attested, their imprisonment is for no other reason than their membership in the Bahá’í Faith and their service to the Bahá’í community… They were convicted on a number of charges, including espionage, propaganda activities against the Islamic order, acting against the security of the country, and corruption on earth – all of which they categorically denied… Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, over 200 Bahá’ís have been killed, the majority by execution, and thousands have been imprisoned. Bahá’ís are denied government jobs and business licenses, and are excluded from university. Their marriages are not recognized, their cemeteries are desecrated, and their holy places have been destroyed…

Mr. Secretary, the gross mistreatment of the Yaran [imprisoned Bahá’í leadership] and the severe and systematic state-sponsored persecution of the Bahá’ís is emblematic of a deteriorating human rights situation in Iran. In addition to Bahá’ís, other religious minorities, including Christians, Sufis, and Sunnis face persecution; ethnic minorities are repressed; journalists are jailed; lawyers and other human rights defenders are targeted; and executions are on the rise. We are deeply concerned about religious freedom and human rights in Iran. We ask you to call for the release of the Yaran and all prisoners of conscience in Iran, and to speak out for the fundamental rights of all citizens of Iran.

Demanding the release of the Baha’i leaders is the perfect opportunity for Kerry to determine Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s sincerity and his ability to deliver, especially because both Obama and Kerry imagine Rouhani as some sort of Iranian Deng Xiaoping. But if Rouhani isn’t able to release seven Baha’i, then how can they be so sure he will be able to stand up to the supreme leader, the Principalist faction, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to deliver on a nuclear deal, even if Rouhani were sincere? It’s time for a test of Iranian intentions, and if that test results in freedom and liberty for prisoners of faith and conscience, all the better.

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Iran’s War on America

According to BBC Monitoring, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s (IRGC) provincial website for the western province of Hamadan bragged about how involved the Revolutionary Guard has become in Syria. Mohammad Eskandari, the IRGC commander in Malayer, said the IRGC had trained and prepared 42 brigades and 138 battalions to fight in Syria. “Militarily speaking, they are absolutely ready to fight the enemy,” he declared, adding, “Today’s war in Syria is, in fact, our war with the United States that takes place in Syrian territory.”

The military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program—those very same aspects about which Iranian negotiators refuse to give a full accounting—are the purview of the IRGC. And the IRGC has made clear that they are unwilling to accept or abide by anything to which Iranian nuclear negotiators agree with their American counterparts.

So, basically, one Iranian official claims victory over the United States in Syria. And a senior IRGC commander readily acknowledges his view that Iran is at war with the United States. That the IRGC represents the ideological guardians of the supreme leader’s vision makes the statement even more worrying. And President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s response is to ignore it.

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According to BBC Monitoring, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s (IRGC) provincial website for the western province of Hamadan bragged about how involved the Revolutionary Guard has become in Syria. Mohammad Eskandari, the IRGC commander in Malayer, said the IRGC had trained and prepared 42 brigades and 138 battalions to fight in Syria. “Militarily speaking, they are absolutely ready to fight the enemy,” he declared, adding, “Today’s war in Syria is, in fact, our war with the United States that takes place in Syrian territory.”

The military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program—those very same aspects about which Iranian negotiators refuse to give a full accounting—are the purview of the IRGC. And the IRGC has made clear that they are unwilling to accept or abide by anything to which Iranian nuclear negotiators agree with their American counterparts.

So, basically, one Iranian official claims victory over the United States in Syria. And a senior IRGC commander readily acknowledges his view that Iran is at war with the United States. That the IRGC represents the ideological guardians of the supreme leader’s vision makes the statement even more worrying. And President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s response is to ignore it.

Back in 1998, al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden declared war on the United States, but the Clinton administration couldn’t be bothered to take it seriously. There followed attacks in the United States embassies in East Africa, an attack on the USS Cole offshore Aden, Yemen, and finally the 9/11 attacks.

How strange it is after that experience that the response of the Obama administration to a declaration of war against the United States is to offer an ever-increasing series of concessions and incentives to the country whose trusted military elite have made that declaration.

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