Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 19, 2014

A Free Pass for Iran Terror and Nukes

The 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon is back in the news today due to revelations made in a new book that alleges that one of the Iranian architects of that atrocity is currently living in the United States under the protection of the C.I.A. If true, the tale seems taken straight out of the Homeland television series in which an Iranian operative who was “flipped” by the CIA is one of the heroes of the show. The possibility that the person that is responsible for the deaths of 63 people, including 17 Americans (eight of them CIA officers) is enjoying the good life on the tab of the taxpayers will, no doubt, infuriate the families of the slain and others who will not understand that such defections are merely part of the great game of spying in which the U.S. must often throw morality and ethics out the window in order to combat the Islamist war on the real homeland.

But the main problem with the tradeoff here examined in a New York Times feature published today is not the attempt to balance the needs of U.S. intelligence to find out everything it can about current Iranian activity, including both terrorism and its nuclear-weapons program, against the demands of justice. While defining the moral calculus by which a murderer such as Ali Reza Asgari, the Iranian who committed that act of terrorism, is welcomed to the U.S. in order to thwart its nuclear ambitions is difficult, it is at least a problem in which the government is seeking the lesser of two evils. But the real dilemma here is not the unfortunate necessity to choose between justice and safety. It lies in the fact that while Asgari remains in the U.S. without having to answer for his crime, the same administration that protects him is pursuing a policy that is neither working to make the Iranian state pay for its continued sponsorship of terrorism or stopping its nuclear project.

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The 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon is back in the news today due to revelations made in a new book that alleges that one of the Iranian architects of that atrocity is currently living in the United States under the protection of the C.I.A. If true, the tale seems taken straight out of the Homeland television series in which an Iranian operative who was “flipped” by the CIA is one of the heroes of the show. The possibility that the person that is responsible for the deaths of 63 people, including 17 Americans (eight of them CIA officers) is enjoying the good life on the tab of the taxpayers will, no doubt, infuriate the families of the slain and others who will not understand that such defections are merely part of the great game of spying in which the U.S. must often throw morality and ethics out the window in order to combat the Islamist war on the real homeland.

But the main problem with the tradeoff here examined in a New York Times feature published today is not the attempt to balance the needs of U.S. intelligence to find out everything it can about current Iranian activity, including both terrorism and its nuclear-weapons program, against the demands of justice. While defining the moral calculus by which a murderer such as Ali Reza Asgari, the Iranian who committed that act of terrorism, is welcomed to the U.S. in order to thwart its nuclear ambitions is difficult, it is at least a problem in which the government is seeking the lesser of two evils. But the real dilemma here is not the unfortunate necessity to choose between justice and safety. It lies in the fact that while Asgari remains in the U.S. without having to answer for his crime, the same administration that protects him is pursuing a policy that is neither working to make the Iranian state pay for its continued sponsorship of terrorism or stopping its nuclear project.

The revelations come in a new book by journalist Kai Bird about Robert Ames, the CIA Lebanon Station chief who was killed in the bombing. Kai, a lifelong critic of Israel whose last book was a memoir of his experiences as the child of a U.S. diplomat unsympathetic to the Jewish state’s early struggles for survival, reveals in his new book that Ames developed a strong friendship with the intelligence chief of the PLO during a period when the U.S. rightly branded the Palestinian organization as a terrorist group. But in the course of his research about Ames’s activities in the Middle East, Kai uncovered the fact that in 2007 the Bush administration granted asylum to Asgari in exchange for information about Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. As the Times notes, that information has since been superseded by subsequent revelations about another nuclear plant that is in a hardened mountainside bunker. But if Asgari, who may no longer still be in the United States, did tell his CIA interrogators everything he knew about Iran’s state-sponsored terrorism, the Americans got a treasure trove of vital information about one of the nation’s most dangerous foes in exchange for giving this killer a pass for his crimes.

But though the Bush administration’s approach to stopping Iran was inconsistent and largely resulted in kicking the can down the road for the next administration to handle, they at least never granted Tehran recognition of its “right” to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel as the Obama administration did with its weak interim nuclear deal signed last November. While the latest round of talks with the Iranians did not result in an agreement, there appears to be no doubt that the U.S. is seeking a deal in which Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and its stockpile of uranium (which can be easily reactivated to a dangerous state) will stay in place. The Iranians reportedly laughed at Western attempts to include its ballistic missile production in the negotiations and are also not likely to be asked to stop supporting terror in the agreement.

The point here is not so much whether the U.S. was right to give Asgari a “get-out-of-jail free card because of the Iran nuclear issue,” as a lawyer for the families of the embassy bombing victims asserts. It is, rather, that after giving him such a card, the Obama administration has pursued policies that will give the regime he left the same impunity. While Asgari’s escape from justice is troubling, the real scandal is the pass Obama may be about to give his former bosses.

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Palestinians Unite to Preserve Corruption

The unity agreement that brought together the Fatah and Hamas Palestinian factions is, according to the New York Times, already paying dividends for the Palestinian people. According to the feature on the efforts to implement the accord, newspapers from the West Bank and Jerusalem are now on sale in Gaza and those from the Hamas-ruled enclave are now available on newsstands in the area run by the Palestinian Authority. That’s good news for consumers of the propaganda published by the two main Palestinian factions’ media operations.

Meanwhile, the Times is far more interested in the brewing controversy over what to do about the murders committed by the two factions against each other. A Palestinian commission is trying to get the families of the members of Fatah slaughtered by Hamas in its 2007 coup to accept monetary compensation rather than press their case and insist that the murderers be given the death penalty. The same is true of those families of Hamas members killed by Fatah. The pressure for the families to accept “social reconciliation” is yielding mixed results as many residents of both the West Bank and Gaza weaned on a culture of violence directed mainly against Israelis and Jews are focused on revenge and not much interested in the concept of forgiveness, even when applied to fellow Palestinians.

This dynamic will play a large role in whether this scheme will work in the long run. But of far greater interest to the rest of the world are two other questions that will impact both the chances of peace with Israel and the willingness of the international community to subsidize the PA: integration of the “security” forces employed by Fatah and Hamas and how to pay for all of the Palestinians in both factions that are being supported via no-work and no-show government jobs.

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The unity agreement that brought together the Fatah and Hamas Palestinian factions is, according to the New York Times, already paying dividends for the Palestinian people. According to the feature on the efforts to implement the accord, newspapers from the West Bank and Jerusalem are now on sale in Gaza and those from the Hamas-ruled enclave are now available on newsstands in the area run by the Palestinian Authority. That’s good news for consumers of the propaganda published by the two main Palestinian factions’ media operations.

Meanwhile, the Times is far more interested in the brewing controversy over what to do about the murders committed by the two factions against each other. A Palestinian commission is trying to get the families of the members of Fatah slaughtered by Hamas in its 2007 coup to accept monetary compensation rather than press their case and insist that the murderers be given the death penalty. The same is true of those families of Hamas members killed by Fatah. The pressure for the families to accept “social reconciliation” is yielding mixed results as many residents of both the West Bank and Gaza weaned on a culture of violence directed mainly against Israelis and Jews are focused on revenge and not much interested in the concept of forgiveness, even when applied to fellow Palestinians.

This dynamic will play a large role in whether this scheme will work in the long run. But of far greater interest to the rest of the world are two other questions that will impact both the chances of peace with Israel and the willingness of the international community to subsidize the PA: integration of the “security” forces employed by Fatah and Hamas and how to pay for all of the Palestinians in both factions that are being supported via no-work and no-show government jobs.

While reform of the PA’s spending policies is key to any hope of building an economy for the Palestinians, the more immediate question is what to do about the glut of government workers in Gaza. For the last seven years 70,000 Fatah employees have been collecting their paychecks without having to show up for work in Gaza since the Hamas coup. Meanwhile, 40,000 Hamas supporters are also getting government paychecks for doing or not doing the same jobs. Since the economy of both the West Bank and Gaza is largely fueled by the paychecks that come from this patronage scheme, turning off the spigot for either of these groups would create a crisis that could lead to violence.

The fact that Hamas made do with only 40,000 government employees where Fatah had 70,000 is not so much a tribute to the efficiency of the Islamists as it is one to the vast scale of the patronage system that was put in place by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’s predecessor Yasir Arafat. Suffice it to say that Hamas is no more likely to get a good day’s work from many of its 40,000 workers than Fatah was from most of its 70,000. But unless the PA can find a way to keep all 110,000 on the government payroll, there will be major trouble in the Strip, of which the suffering of the families of these “workers” will be just the tip of the iceberg.

But as much as this problem makes the struggles of American state governments with an expensive municipal bureaucracy look like child’s play, it must be recognized that such corrupt practices are the foundation of the Palestinian economy. Government corruption and regulations aimed at filling the pockets of PA leaders make normal economic development virtually impossible. The attempt of former PA prime minister Salam Fayyad to implement reform was a flop because both Palestinian parties opposed it. The only thing keeping the West Bank fiscally afloat is the money donated by the EU and the U.S. in order to pay an even larger number of PA patronage employees, few of whom are asked to lift a finger in exchange for the money.

Thus, while many Palestinian sympathizers have been lauding the unity agreement, it must be recognized that as much as it is an effort to allow the two factions to join forces to thwart peace, it also will help stop any movement toward reform and economic development. The point here is that the price of this unity is not only a situation where an unreconstructed Hamas that will not renounce violence or its war on Israel will ensure that peace never happens. It also means that the same international community that has been bilked for billions that wound up in the pockets of PA leaders and their families will now be expected to perform the same service for Hamas’s large payroll.

Unfortunately, rather than calling out the Palestinians for this trick, the European Union has announced it will continue aid to the PA. Just as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu predicted, unity will mean that Hamas and its terrorist cadres will operate behind a façade of PA bureaucrats while not only fomenting violence but also getting paid by the West for it.

This development should signal U.S. lawmakers that it is high time for them to push to enforce the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006 that mandates a cutoff of U.S. aid to the Palestinians if Hamas is brought into the PA fold. Any further delays in doing so due to the Obama administration’s futile efforts to revive a peace process that was already dead the day Fatah and Hamas joined hands will only lead to American taxpayers paying a portion of the tab for all those no-show and no-work Palestinian jobholders.

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The Logic of Castro’s Nomination: It’s More Than Identity Politics

The expected nomination of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro to lead the Obama administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development–a Cabinet-level post–has earned much attention from both sides of the aisle. Almost none of the commentary, however, has had to do with Castro’s qualifications for HUD. Most of it has had to do with the fact that the Democrats have been eyeing Castro as a possible vice-presidential candidate in 2016.

Democrats don’t seem to want to nominate a sitting mayor for vice president–too big a leap perhaps. This is especially true for Castro, because, as Allahpundit notes, the San Antonio mayor’s office is “a figurehead role,” without much responsibility or even a regular salary. In fact, San Antonio’s city manager reportedly receives a salary of $355,000, while Mayor Castro gets a $3,000 stipend plus $20 for every council meeting he attends. The San Antonio mayoralty is essentially the city government version of a department store greeter, except with fewer hours and less pay.

In addition to Allahpundit’s piece, Ben Domenech’s treatment of the issue in this morning’s Transom is worth reading. But I think there’s a point being missed here. Everyone is mentioning the fact that Castro is an ideal vice-presidential candidate because of his youth and his Hispanic heritage, as well as his connections to a red state. That is true. But he’s a perfect candidate for the Democrats for another reason. Allahpundit touches on it as a strike against him:

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The expected nomination of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro to lead the Obama administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development–a Cabinet-level post–has earned much attention from both sides of the aisle. Almost none of the commentary, however, has had to do with Castro’s qualifications for HUD. Most of it has had to do with the fact that the Democrats have been eyeing Castro as a possible vice-presidential candidate in 2016.

Democrats don’t seem to want to nominate a sitting mayor for vice president–too big a leap perhaps. This is especially true for Castro, because, as Allahpundit notes, the San Antonio mayor’s office is “a figurehead role,” without much responsibility or even a regular salary. In fact, San Antonio’s city manager reportedly receives a salary of $355,000, while Mayor Castro gets a $3,000 stipend plus $20 for every council meeting he attends. The San Antonio mayoralty is essentially the city government version of a department store greeter, except with fewer hours and less pay.

In addition to Allahpundit’s piece, Ben Domenech’s treatment of the issue in this morning’s Transom is worth reading. But I think there’s a point being missed here. Everyone is mentioning the fact that Castro is an ideal vice-presidential candidate because of his youth and his Hispanic heritage, as well as his connections to a red state. That is true. But he’s a perfect candidate for the Democrats for another reason. Allahpundit touches on it as a strike against him:

Essentially he’s a Latino Obama, except with much less experience. If he ends up as VP in 2016, he’d be the youngest veep since Dan Quayle (who had spent eight years in the Senate by the time he was sworn in) and indisputably the one with the thinnest resume, which means, if Hillary’s health goes south, the free world could conceivably be led circa 2018 by a guy whose main qualification was a two-year sinecure atop America’s housing bureau. But look at it this way. If they’re going to have a pure identity-politics candidate at the top of the ticket, why shouldn’t they also have one at the bottom?

Emphasis is in the original, but I think it’s worth emphasizing as well. Allahpundit says this as a kind of warning: if you thought Obama was unprepared for office, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Politico notes that Hillary Clinton was asked last week about the possibility of adding Castro to the ticket and that Castro has been asked before to join the Cabinet, so the Democrats have been looking for a way to elevate Castro for some time.

When you consider what Castro’s current day job entails, the question obviously arises: since no one the Republicans have ever nominated for the vice presidency comes close to being this inexperienced or unqualified–Sarah Palin was a governor, after all–does this make Democrats world-class hypocrites? Yes for the obvious reasons, but in the Democrats’ defense, they don’t see it that way, and there’s a logical process that leads them there.

To understand why this is, you have to remember how the Democratic Party, as a vehicle for American left-liberalism, approaches the task of governing. Yet again today the president’s press secretary said the White House learned about the Veterans Affairs scandal through the media–that is, those in the White House have no idea what’s going on in their own administration. This is a popular excuse for the president, because what he’s looking for is not responsibility but plausible deniability. Liberalism in a government this size is a recipe for disaster; Obama knows it will fail on his watch at a great many of its tasks. His desire is to somehow avoid blame for the array of inevitable failures of his administration.

The best description of the Obama presidency in recent memory is Kevin Williamson’s August essay for National Review, which paints Obama, accurately, as “the nominal leader for permanent bureaucracy.” The health-care law that Congress passed as ObamaCare, cruel and garbled as it is, resembles only in certain ways the ObamaCare the president is implementing. That’s because Congress passed the outlines of a law Obama then placed into the hands of his bureaucrats, such as the Independent Payment Advisory Board.

Democrats in Congress have tried, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to limit political speech in ways that would benefit liberal organizations and candidates at the expense of conservative ones. But they have often been stymied by the political process, because their ideas are unconstitutional. Enter the IRS, which targeted conservative groups, at the encouragement of high-ranking Democrats in the Congress and the White House, during the two election cycles before they were discovered after Obama’s reelection.

Democrats didn’t like the effect of the democratic process on their attempts to extensively regulate the private sector. So they created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an unaccountable bureaucracy to which the president made an unconstitutional appointment.

If your goal is to work within the confines of the system of checks and balances to influence the democratic process and produce transparent legislation and accountable lawmaking, you would want men and women of experience and proven capability. But the Democrats would intend for a Clinton/Castro team to be the public face of the bureaucracy, so they genuinely don’t expect Castro’s lack of experience and Clinton’s lack of accomplishment to get in the way. If there’s anything important that they really need to know, they’ll be sure to read the papers.

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The Crimea-Kuwait Parallel

Another day, another (so far unfulfilled) promise by Vladimir Putin to move his troops back from the border of Ukraine. Meanwhile his proxies continue to try to exert influence in eastern Ukraine as Crimea becomes a fully fledged part of the Russian empire. 

In assessing the motives for Russian action, a lot of the explanation has rightly focused on Putin’s need to stoke nationalist sentiment to bolster his own popularity and on his need to destabilize the emerging pro-Western government in Kiev lest it take Ukraine too far into the Western camp. But a good Marxist–which Putin once was–would never overlook an economic motive for imperialist aggression. 

The New York Times notes that, in addition to all the other benefits that Russia accrues from Crimea, it is potentially an oil and gas bonanza. By seizing Crimea, Russia has also vastly expanded its maritime rights in the Black Sea, opening up access to energy deposits across 36,000 square miles of water worth potentially a trillion dollars. Meanwhile the loss of Crimea denies Ukraine pretty much all claim to those same rights. Russia has even taken control of the Crimean arm of Ukraine’s national oil company, which was already exploring for oil in the area. 

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Another day, another (so far unfulfilled) promise by Vladimir Putin to move his troops back from the border of Ukraine. Meanwhile his proxies continue to try to exert influence in eastern Ukraine as Crimea becomes a fully fledged part of the Russian empire. 

In assessing the motives for Russian action, a lot of the explanation has rightly focused on Putin’s need to stoke nationalist sentiment to bolster his own popularity and on his need to destabilize the emerging pro-Western government in Kiev lest it take Ukraine too far into the Western camp. But a good Marxist–which Putin once was–would never overlook an economic motive for imperialist aggression. 

The New York Times notes that, in addition to all the other benefits that Russia accrues from Crimea, it is potentially an oil and gas bonanza. By seizing Crimea, Russia has also vastly expanded its maritime rights in the Black Sea, opening up access to energy deposits across 36,000 square miles of water worth potentially a trillion dollars. Meanwhile the loss of Crimea denies Ukraine pretty much all claim to those same rights. Russia has even taken control of the Crimean arm of Ukraine’s national oil company, which was already exploring for oil in the area. 

In short there are some uncomfortable echoes here with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 which, if allowed to stand, would have vastly bolstered Saddam Hussein’s oil reserves. It was not allowed to stand, but the annexation of Crimea already looks like a fait accompli.

This makes it all the more imperative to impose stronger sanctions on Russia to make it more difficult to deploy the technology and resources it needs to exploit its ill-gotten gains.

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Mrs. Inevitable and the Bored Democrats

Are Democrats bored by the prospect of not having a presidential nomination contest in 2016? That’s the upshot of a statement made by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick yesterday on CNN’s State of the Nation program in which he wondered if the “inevitability factor” would hurt Hillary Clinton’s prospects:

She’s an enormously capable candidate and leader. But I do worry about the inevitability because I think it’s off-putting to the average voter and I think that was an element of her campaign the last time. As an enthusiastic Democrat, I just hope that the people around her pay attention to that this time.

The need to learn the lessons of her disastrous failure to make good on similar predictions of inevitability before 2008 must haunt the Clinton camp. While Hillary doesn’t need Deval Patrick to remind her of this, the truth is, she is hoping that this time the boredom factor will work in her favor. Clinton and her backers haven’t had to do much to discourage other potential Democratic contenders from entering the race and most appear to have taken the hint, including potential troublemakers like California Governor Jerry Brown and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. The Clintons have to think that the unexpected emergence of Barack Obama in 2007 is a once-in-a-lifetime fluke that cannot possibly be repeated this time around and it’s difficult to argue the contrary case. The only other obvious Democratic possibilities for 2016 are Vice President Joe Biden, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and perhaps an outlier like Vermont Socialist Bernie Sanders or Montana’s Brian Schweitzer.

Neither Biden nor O’Malley—who is being openly mocked for asking Hillary’s permission before starting preparations for a candidacy—appear to scare the Clintons, and Sanders has no chance of being anything more than a gadfly left-wing alternative. Unless something completely unexpected happens, there is no reason to believe the 2016 Democratic race will be anything but a coronation. But the assumption that this will be an advantage in the general election may not be so smart.

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Are Democrats bored by the prospect of not having a presidential nomination contest in 2016? That’s the upshot of a statement made by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick yesterday on CNN’s State of the Nation program in which he wondered if the “inevitability factor” would hurt Hillary Clinton’s prospects:

She’s an enormously capable candidate and leader. But I do worry about the inevitability because I think it’s off-putting to the average voter and I think that was an element of her campaign the last time. As an enthusiastic Democrat, I just hope that the people around her pay attention to that this time.

The need to learn the lessons of her disastrous failure to make good on similar predictions of inevitability before 2008 must haunt the Clinton camp. While Hillary doesn’t need Deval Patrick to remind her of this, the truth is, she is hoping that this time the boredom factor will work in her favor. Clinton and her backers haven’t had to do much to discourage other potential Democratic contenders from entering the race and most appear to have taken the hint, including potential troublemakers like California Governor Jerry Brown and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. The Clintons have to think that the unexpected emergence of Barack Obama in 2007 is a once-in-a-lifetime fluke that cannot possibly be repeated this time around and it’s difficult to argue the contrary case. The only other obvious Democratic possibilities for 2016 are Vice President Joe Biden, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and perhaps an outlier like Vermont Socialist Bernie Sanders or Montana’s Brian Schweitzer.

Neither Biden nor O’Malley—who is being openly mocked for asking Hillary’s permission before starting preparations for a candidacy—appear to scare the Clintons, and Sanders has no chance of being anything more than a gadfly left-wing alternative. Unless something completely unexpected happens, there is no reason to believe the 2016 Democratic race will be anything but a coronation. But the assumption that this will be an advantage in the general election may not be so smart.

Clinton is hoping that Democrats will enjoy the relative quiet of a non-competitive nomination race to prepare for whoever it is that the Republicans wind up nominating that year. That’s the edge President Obama enjoyed in 2012 as the GOP contenders tore each other apart in a seemingly never-ending series of debates and a bitter primary season leaving Mitt Romney somewhat compromised by the process politically as well as financially.

But what Clinton needs to remember is that while she will be burdened with the disadvantages of incumbency in terms of being tied to Obama’s record and voter dissatisfaction with the president’s policies and the direction of the country, she will not be doing so with the trappings of the commander in chief as the man who beat her in 2008 did two years ago. Clinton will have a compelling, indeed, an unanswerable argument for her election as the first woman major party candidate for the office. But she will also have to deal with the burden of being a relic of the last two Democratic presidents. That’s no real problem for most Democratic primary voters who can’t wait to anoint her as their standard bearer. But the lack of a genuine debate about Clinton’s qualifications in which she can make her case not only in terms of her resume but also as a candidate who can take a punch as well as dish one out won’t help prepare her for the fall campaign.

That’s why the ideal scenario for Clinton is for some not terribly formidable Democrat to oppose her in the primaries without actually mussing up her hair. Seen from that perspective, the best possible scenario would be for Clinton to face off against O’Malley. He wants very much to be president but may see a run as the best way to prove himself in the competition for the vice presidential nod or a major Cabinet post and thus can be relied upon to drop out after a brief fight and then endorse Clinton.

Sanders would give her a much harder time and could not be counted upon to avoid hitting her hard on embarrassing issues such as her lack of achievements as secretary of state. He would also push her farther to the left than is prudent, much in the same way that Romney’s opponents pushed him to the right.

But the real problem with being Mrs. Inevitable in 2016 is that Clinton has yet to prove herself capable of winning a tough election. Should the GOP put up a candidate who will not lead them down a right-wing rabbit hole, Clinton will need to do more than to wave the flag of feminism. The boredom among the Democratic political class as well as among many rank and file voters may ensure that she will not face a stiff primary challenge, but it won’t help gin up enthusiasm for candidacy in the way Obama’s triumph over her did for his presidential hopes. That’s especially true since her success-free tenure as secretary of state has not so much burnished her resume as provided her opponents with more ammunition. While any presidential contender would like to have her problems, the notion that she can merely drift along until it is time to turn on the engine and start running a general election campaign is a mistake she will need to avoid.

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When the Right Turns on America

Speaking to the National Rifle Association’s recent annual conference, NRA executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre, in describing America, said, “Almost everywhere you look, something has gone wrong. You feel it in your heart, you know it in your gut. Something has gone wrong. The core values we believe in, the things we care about most, are changing. Eroding. Our right to speak. Our right to gather. Our right to privacy. The freedom to work, and practice our religion, and raise and protect our families the way we see fit.”

He went on to say this:

There are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and carjackers and knockout gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all. I ask you. Do you trust this government to protect you? We are on our own.

Mr. LaPierre is not the only one who describes America in dystopian terms these days. Earlier this year Dr. Ben Carson, a Tea Party favorite who is considering a run for the presidency in 2016, said America is “very much like Nazi Germany.” Michele Bachmann, a 2012 GOP presidential candidate, has said the Affordable Care Act is evidence of a “police state.” This kind of language–America is bordering on or has basically become a tyranny–is common currency within some quarters of conservatism.

Now it is one thing to believe, as I do, that in some important respects America is in decline and that President Obama is in part responsible for that decline. I agree, too, that there are some alarming problems and trends facing the United States just now, which many conservatives are attempting to address in a responsible fashion.  

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Speaking to the National Rifle Association’s recent annual conference, NRA executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre, in describing America, said, “Almost everywhere you look, something has gone wrong. You feel it in your heart, you know it in your gut. Something has gone wrong. The core values we believe in, the things we care about most, are changing. Eroding. Our right to speak. Our right to gather. Our right to privacy. The freedom to work, and practice our religion, and raise and protect our families the way we see fit.”

He went on to say this:

There are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and carjackers and knockout gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all. I ask you. Do you trust this government to protect you? We are on our own.

Mr. LaPierre is not the only one who describes America in dystopian terms these days. Earlier this year Dr. Ben Carson, a Tea Party favorite who is considering a run for the presidency in 2016, said America is “very much like Nazi Germany.” Michele Bachmann, a 2012 GOP presidential candidate, has said the Affordable Care Act is evidence of a “police state.” This kind of language–America is bordering on or has basically become a tyranny–is common currency within some quarters of conservatism.

Now it is one thing to believe, as I do, that in some important respects America is in decline and that President Obama is in part responsible for that decline. I agree, too, that there are some alarming problems and trends facing the United States just now, which many conservatives are attempting to address in a responsible fashion.  

But it is quite another thing to describe America as the New Left did in the late 1960s, when America itself was spelled with a “k” (“Amerika”) in an effort to identify it with Nazi Germany. Among the young and left-wing academics there was talk about the need for revolution. The United States was viewed as fundamentally corrupt. Once upon a time conservatives fought against this. Today, however, some on the right are turning on America. They employ language you would associate with Noam Chomsky.

Now to be sure, the reasons the left and right are unhappy with America are quite different. But the indictment is still searing and often reckless. It describes an unrecognizable country. Whatever problems America has, we are light years away from Nazi Germany; and to argue that the United States is on the edge of tyranny can only come from those who don’t understand what life in a tyranny is really and truly and hellishly like.

This kind of rhetoric, which can only incite and never persuade, is alienating to everyone who is not part of the Apocalypse Now crowd. It is also, in deep ways, profoundly unconservative, in good part because it is overwrought and detached from reality. It is also evidence of a backward-looking conservatism that sees how America has changed and laments it rather than a forward-looking conservatism that sees the great promise and opportunities that still exist in America and seeks to take advantage of them.

“Am I embarrassed to speak for a less than perfect democracy?” the late, great United States Senator (and United Nations Ambassador) Daniel Patrick Moynihan once asked. “Not one bit. Find me a better one. Do I suppose there are societies which are free of sin? No, I don’t. Do I think ours is, on balance, incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes, I do.”

That is still the case, even today, even in Barack Obama’s America. Conservatives should continue to oppose his agenda with all their might. But they will do serious and lasting damage to themselves and their cause if in the process they are seen as turning on their country. And I worry that in some quarters, from some voices, that is precisely what is happening.

Amor Patriae is still a virtue in America, and conservatives should both claim it and cherish the deeper meaning of it.

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Battleground Poll Points to GOP Victory

National polls can tell us a lot about the national mood, but if you want to get a grip on who will win the midterm elections, the only way to do it is to focus in on those who vote in contested House districts and states where Senate seats are up for grabs. That’s what Politico did with its latest poll published today and the results are likely to dampen some of the mild signs of optimism that Democrats have been exhibiting in recent weeks. According to the poll, likely voters say they favor Republicans over Democrats by a 41-34 percent margin. While each race will be won or lost by individual candidates rather than a generic party brand, this is another reminder that President Obama’s efforts to claim that he has conclusively won the debate on ObamaCare and other top issues will not help his party at the polls this November.

The results echo other polls of the entire country in which Americans overwhelmingly believe that the nation is headed in the wrong direction. With 60 percent of those in battleground areas believing that the debate on ObamaCare is not over and almost half calling for its outright repeal, the notion that a focus on health care will backfire on Republicans this year seems unfounded. Just as significantly, the list of top voter concerns should give cold comfort to Democratic strategists and liberal media outlets that have highlighted such issues as immigration or climate change. On a list of issues voters identified as their top priority, the economy ranks first with 26 percent while jobs and health care are the only others to register in double digits at 12 percent. Immigration and the environment get only three percent and two percent respectively. With the president’s job approval rating under water (59-40 percent negative) and voter enthusiasm also low in these areas, any hope of a surge in turnout that would benefit Democrats also seems unlikely.

But perhaps the biggest problem for Democrats is that, at least in those areas of the country where the minority of Americans will decide the 2014 elections, the liberal campaign to demonize congressional Republicans appears to have failed.

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National polls can tell us a lot about the national mood, but if you want to get a grip on who will win the midterm elections, the only way to do it is to focus in on those who vote in contested House districts and states where Senate seats are up for grabs. That’s what Politico did with its latest poll published today and the results are likely to dampen some of the mild signs of optimism that Democrats have been exhibiting in recent weeks. According to the poll, likely voters say they favor Republicans over Democrats by a 41-34 percent margin. While each race will be won or lost by individual candidates rather than a generic party brand, this is another reminder that President Obama’s efforts to claim that he has conclusively won the debate on ObamaCare and other top issues will not help his party at the polls this November.

The results echo other polls of the entire country in which Americans overwhelmingly believe that the nation is headed in the wrong direction. With 60 percent of those in battleground areas believing that the debate on ObamaCare is not over and almost half calling for its outright repeal, the notion that a focus on health care will backfire on Republicans this year seems unfounded. Just as significantly, the list of top voter concerns should give cold comfort to Democratic strategists and liberal media outlets that have highlighted such issues as immigration or climate change. On a list of issues voters identified as their top priority, the economy ranks first with 26 percent while jobs and health care are the only others to register in double digits at 12 percent. Immigration and the environment get only three percent and two percent respectively. With the president’s job approval rating under water (59-40 percent negative) and voter enthusiasm also low in these areas, any hope of a surge in turnout that would benefit Democrats also seems unlikely.

But perhaps the biggest problem for Democrats is that, at least in those areas of the country where the minority of Americans will decide the 2014 elections, the liberal campaign to demonize congressional Republicans appears to have failed.

One of the interesting sidelights of this poll can be gleaned from the low approval ratings both parties’ congressional caucuses received. In the poll, Republicans are slightly more unpopular with a 69-31 percent negative/positive rating to the Democrats 64-35 result. That’s a troubling gap, but nowhere the margin that Democrats had hoped for heading into 2014. Democrats have been working under the assumption that the stands that House Republicans have taken in the last year would sink them with the voters. Their refusal to enact immigration reform, climate change legislation, or to raise the minimum wage is assumed to be a liability. But even more than that, the president and his party thought last fall’s government shutdown would put the GOP under water for the foreseeable future. This result, while still showing the voters’ disapproval, indicates that the subsequent debate over ObamaCare has overshadowed if not completely erased any substantive advantage held by the Democrats.

It is possible to interpret the poll numbers as a sign that opinion is shifting on the health-care law with a slight majority favoring its retention, albeit with a significant number believing it should be altered. But the assumption that this shows that Americans are gradually accepting the law—and that it will cease to work for the GOP in 2016—doesn’t take into account the fact that much of the pain and dislocation that it will cause hasn’t yet been felt. With a lot of the unpopular mandates delayed until 2015, the potential for a negative impact on the economy as well as a surge of anger by those who have been inconvenienced by it is being underestimated. If ObamaCare can’t establish itself as a clear favorite of most Americans before this happens, it isn’t likely to happen after the mandates go into effect.

If the Politico poll shows, in the words of the site’s article about the survey, that ObamaCare is a “political anchor” for the Democrats in 2014, anyone who assumes that it will help them in 2016 is making a leap of faith that is unjustified by the data. 

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Should Rand Paul Embrace or Downplay the Libertarian Label?

About a year ago, Rand Paul made what may qualify as the prospective presidential candidate’s most defensive comment on his political ideology. “I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” Paul said according the Washington Post. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.”

The comment was made in the context of Paul’s efforts to court evangelicals, but revealed a challenge posed by the “libertarian” label. Much of what is said about libertarians in the media is absurdly unfair. Like any political movement, there is a diverse range of opinion about what constitutes libertarianism and how libertarians might approach policy. (I don’t remember recently reading an editorial in Reason magazine, for example, advocating everyone “run around with no clothes on and smoke pot.”)

There is a fascinating debate among libertarians, for example, about abortion and whether the government should enforce the granting of individual rights to a person from the beginning of his life, or whether a person is granted those rights sometime after life begins. Instead of being asked about that, Paul gets told (according to the Post account) by voters that they like much of what he has to say but they hesitate to vote for him because they “don’t like legalizing heroin.”

But he consciously avoids ditching the label altogether. Just a few weeks ago, he offered a slightly different formulation: he’s “libertarian-ish.” His libertarian leanings, if that’s the right word, are not only genuine but also have their own political advantages. The same day CNN ran Paul’s “libertarian-ish” comment, the New York Times ran a prominent story headlined “Rand Paul and Wealthy Libertarians Connect as He Weighs Running.” It opened with a well-chosen anecdote:

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About a year ago, Rand Paul made what may qualify as the prospective presidential candidate’s most defensive comment on his political ideology. “I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” Paul said according the Washington Post. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.”

The comment was made in the context of Paul’s efforts to court evangelicals, but revealed a challenge posed by the “libertarian” label. Much of what is said about libertarians in the media is absurdly unfair. Like any political movement, there is a diverse range of opinion about what constitutes libertarianism and how libertarians might approach policy. (I don’t remember recently reading an editorial in Reason magazine, for example, advocating everyone “run around with no clothes on and smoke pot.”)

There is a fascinating debate among libertarians, for example, about abortion and whether the government should enforce the granting of individual rights to a person from the beginning of his life, or whether a person is granted those rights sometime after life begins. Instead of being asked about that, Paul gets told (according to the Post account) by voters that they like much of what he has to say but they hesitate to vote for him because they “don’t like legalizing heroin.”

But he consciously avoids ditching the label altogether. Just a few weeks ago, he offered a slightly different formulation: he’s “libertarian-ish.” His libertarian leanings, if that’s the right word, are not only genuine but also have their own political advantages. The same day CNN ran Paul’s “libertarian-ish” comment, the New York Times ran a prominent story headlined “Rand Paul and Wealthy Libertarians Connect as He Weighs Running.” It opened with a well-chosen anecdote:

Frayda Levin, a New Jersey libertarian activist and former small-business owner, is a woman of many passions: promoting liberty, ending marijuana prohibition and opposing her state’s recent minimum-wage increase. But Ms. Levin has added another cause as well. At gala benefits for free-market research institutes and at fund-raisers for antitax groups, she has urged like-minded donors to help send Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, to the White House.

“I consider that one of my main goals,” said Ms. Levin, who has met with Mr. Paul several times and in February introduced him at a private conference in Florida hosted by the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group. “I tell people he’s the Republican of the future. He’s got both the intellectual heft and the emotional understanding.”

A libertarian’s declaration that Paul is the “Republican of the future” is not just good for Paul, but arguably has benefits for the GOP as well. After all, popular libertarian candidates who want to run for president tend to leave the GOP and run on their own ticket. This is, electorally speaking, frustrating for Republicans and counterproductive for libertarians. As staunch libertarian Randy Barnett wrote in 2012, “The Libertarian Party’s effort will, if effective, attract more libertarian voters away from the candidate who is marginally less hostile to liberty, and help hand the election to the candidate who is more hostile to liberty.”

But a libertarian(ish) Republican, if effective, does the opposite: he can galvanize support for libertarian policy objectives without splintering the conservative coalition that remains the only hope of standing athwart the statist project yelling stop. But there’s a catch, and here’s where libertarians get justifiably put off by the right: the Republican Party wants someone like Paul to be just popular enough. It’s up to libertarians to convince the party that he should be the GOP’s standard bearer, and it’s not an easy sell.

Which raises the question: is it easier to make that sell if Paul embraces his libertarianism or downplays it? That will be one question the 2016 nomination race seeks to answer. It’s easy to see both sides of it. It’s possible that the GOP just isn’t ready to go full libertarian at the presidential level, and therefore downplaying his libertarian label in favor of a more conservative-Republican tag might settle some nerves. Yet it’s also possible that by avoiding the term “libertarian” Paul is implicitly reinforcing the idea that libertarianism is an idea whose time has yet to arrive, thus justifying the suspicions of the establishment.

But it’s also important to note that whatever Paul chooses to call himself, he has been branded a libertarian and that is how he will be viewed relative to the other candidates. That is, Paul has essentially emerged as the candidate for libertarians, whether or not he calls himself the libertarian candidate.

It is for that reason that the much-feared “establishment” is only a real threat to Paul in the primary if there is no consensus establishment candidate. The conservative grassroots will not, at least in significant numbers, choose Jeb Bush or Chris Christie over Rand Paul. Many non-libertarian conservatives would prefer Paul over a genuinely moderate candidate. So rather than an anyone-but-Paul movement coalescing against him, he would probably benefit from the reverse.

But what if Bush doesn’t run? Well then Paul has a problem, because the “establishment” will support someone, and there are many palatable candidates on offer. The governors, especially Scott Walker and Mike Pence, would probably easily compete with Paul for non-libertarian voters and get establishment backing. Marco Rubio is another candidate who would appeal to establishment figures but also many conservatives–though his support for comprehensive immigration reform presumably makes him less of a threat to Paul’s base of support.

In such a case, Paul’s best hope is to compete for the “constitutional conservative” label, not differentiate himself from it. He has less to lose if he’s up against a 2016 version of Mitt Romney. So is Paul a libertarian? The best guess right now is: It depends.

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FBI Confronts Reality of War on Terror

Michael Schmidt of the New York Times has a fascinating article on the new FBI director, James Comey, who came into office expecting to downsize the agency’s focus on terrorism. After all, hasn’t President Obama himself repeatedly said that al-Qaeda is “decimated” and on the “path to defeat”? Not so fast.

With access to top-secret intelligence, Comey has learned that al-Qaeda’s affiliates and fellow travelers–in such countries as Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Nigeria–are more threatening than ever, not just to local citizens (such as the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram) but to American interests and even the American homeland. He tells the Times: “I didn’t have anywhere near the appreciation I got after I came into this job just how virulent those affiliates had become. There are both many more than I appreciated, and they are stronger than I appreciated.”

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Michael Schmidt of the New York Times has a fascinating article on the new FBI director, James Comey, who came into office expecting to downsize the agency’s focus on terrorism. After all, hasn’t President Obama himself repeatedly said that al-Qaeda is “decimated” and on the “path to defeat”? Not so fast.

With access to top-secret intelligence, Comey has learned that al-Qaeda’s affiliates and fellow travelers–in such countries as Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Nigeria–are more threatening than ever, not just to local citizens (such as the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram) but to American interests and even the American homeland. He tells the Times: “I didn’t have anywhere near the appreciation I got after I came into this job just how virulent those affiliates had become. There are both many more than I appreciated, and they are stronger than I appreciated.”

Thus Comey has elected to continue making counter-terrorism the bureau’s primary responsibility. That sounds like a wise choice and it is also a brave one because it undermines the president’s attempts to make all wars–including the one on terrorism–go away. Even the very term “Global War on Terror” has been banished from the administration’s lexicon.

Reality, alas, is not cooperating. The “tide of war” is actually cresting, not receding, and in some measure (although not entirely) because Obama has chosen to pull back from the Middle East. His attempt to follow a less interventionist (though, to be sure, not isolationist) path is not reducing anti-American antagonism. It is instead giving al-Qaeda and its affiliates–not to mention the Iranian Quds Force and its affiliates–more room to operate.

It would be nice if the president, who is presumably reading the same intelligence as Comey (and even getting access to information that the FBI director doesn’t see), had a similar awakening and reversed the drastic drawdown in U.S. defense spending which puts at risk our military readiness. That, alas, seems unlikely to happen because the president is so locked into his own narrative that he is ending wars, not starting them.

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