Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 27, 2014

Where’s the Outrage Over CIA Outing?

The White House had egg on its face today. The news about the accidental outing of the name of the CIA station chief in Kabul, Afghanistan seemed to be just one more instance in a long list of incompetent episodes in a second term that is proving to be as problematic as even President Obama’s sternest critics predicted. But the story of how the name of the station chief—which is, obviously, classified material, and was sent out in an email to thousands of journalists as one of a number of people briefing the president during his Memorial Day weekend trip to Afghanistan—should not be dismissed as merely the latest episode of the real life situation comedy that is Obama’s second-term West Wing staff.

Coming as it did from an administration and a political party that has often sought to successfully criminalize the leaking of such information in the recent past, we have a right to ask where’s the outrage about this colossal error? But more than that, this absurd tale also speaks volumes about the hypocrisy and selective prosecution policies pursued by the same people now telling us to move along because there’s nothing to see.

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The White House had egg on its face today. The news about the accidental outing of the name of the CIA station chief in Kabul, Afghanistan seemed to be just one more instance in a long list of incompetent episodes in a second term that is proving to be as problematic as even President Obama’s sternest critics predicted. But the story of how the name of the station chief—which is, obviously, classified material, and was sent out in an email to thousands of journalists as one of a number of people briefing the president during his Memorial Day weekend trip to Afghanistan—should not be dismissed as merely the latest episode of the real life situation comedy that is Obama’s second-term West Wing staff.

Coming as it did from an administration and a political party that has often sought to successfully criminalize the leaking of such information in the recent past, we have a right to ask where’s the outrage about this colossal error? But more than that, this absurd tale also speaks volumes about the hypocrisy and selective prosecution policies pursued by the same people now telling us to move along because there’s nothing to see.

It should be remembered that it was only a few years ago that the same Democratic Party that currently runs the White House was up in arms because the name of a CIA official was leaked to the press. While initially thought to be an act of political revenge by a Bush administration seeking to get even with officials who opposed their Iraq policies, it turned out that the person who actually gave up the now famous name of Valerie Plame to columnist Robert Novak was Richard Armitage, a State Department official who was just as hostile to the White House as much of the press. But the outrage about Plame’s outing in the liberal mainstream press was universal and white-hot. An angry Washington press corps helped manufacture a crisis that forced President Bush to appoint a special prosecutor to look into an act that was proclaimed to be nothing short of treason. The prosecutor—Patrick Fitzgerald—spent millions of taxpayer dollars largely on trying to pin the leak on Bush political advisor Karl Rove or Vice President Dick Cheney. Even after he learned that it was Armitage who had done the deed and that there was no ill intent or crime to be prosecuted, Fitzgerald didn’t let up and wound up successfully prosecuting Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby for perjury over something he said to a grand jury about the case. Libby was innocent in Plame’s outing as well as of the perjury charge, but that didn’t stop the press from crucifying him. Even today, many Americans still think it was Libby who outed Plame and that in doing so he had endangered her life even though both assertions are false.

Libby’s ruin was the result of partisan politics but once Bush’s Democratic opponents took over in January 2009, they began their own campaign to make leakers pay. In one prominent example, another CIA official, John Kiriakou was sent to prison for leaking the name of another CIA officer who had conducted the waterboarding of al-Qaeda terror suspects.

But when it comes to their own incompetence, this White House isn’t so up in arms about leaks whatever their causes.

Let’s remember that what occurred this past week was far worse than anything that happened to Plame. Plame was, after all, serving in an office in Virginia and, while classified, was no secret. By contrast, the CIA station chief whose name was released is in peril every day in Kabul. He is serving on the front lines of a shooting war and the release of his name in this indiscriminate manner may well have compromised his effectiveness if not his safety.

No matter what the cause of this leak, the person who did it should be punished. If not, those throughout the security establishment who have been harshly treated by an administration that is paranoid about leaks have a right to complain. So does Libby. In the past, high-ranking Democrats such as Clinton administration National Security Advisor Sandy Berger have often gotten a pass or a slap on the wrist for security breaches that were considered serious offenses when committed by Republicans. If the press lets Obama get away with this blunder, it will be just one more example of the refusal of the national press to hold this administration to the same standards that it judges the president’s opponents.

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Europe’s Lurch Right Is Bad for the Jews … and the United States

The huge gains made by far-right nationalist parties in the European Union elections last week have a lot of people on the continent and elsewhere scared. The results threaten to undermine the hard-won European unity that has been achieved since the end of World War Two. The gains made by such parties across the board are the result of a variety of different local dynamics, but the common theme is hostility to immigrants and other religious minorities. Though center-right parties will still predominate in the EU parliament, the election threatens to further exacerbate an atmosphere in Europe in which anger against perceived outsiders morphs from localized violence to a general spirit of isolationism. The fact that many of these parties, such as France’s National Front, have flirted with anti-Semitism while others, such as Greece’s Golden Dawn, have openly embraced it seems to illustrate the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe. That last week ended with a murderous attack on Jews in Belgium also raised the fear level of embattled Jewish communities in Europe.

But there are some who are looking for a silver lining amid this dismal news. When some Jews look at Europe’s far right parties, they see a potential ally against Islamists since the nationalists there are often obsessed with what they see as a threat to their culture and national identity from the large populations of immigrants from Muslim countries. This leads some Americans who are on the right to believe that even though the EU nationalists are clearly hostile to Jews and Israel, they may nevertheless help secure Europe against Islamist influence and thus help preserve the West against those who are trying to overthrow it. While there is a superficial logic to this enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend sort of thinking, it is a grave mistake. European Jews wouldn’t be the only piece of collateral damage in the blowup of Western democracy. The far right’s victory would weaken American influence and create a far more dangerous world for all of us.

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The huge gains made by far-right nationalist parties in the European Union elections last week have a lot of people on the continent and elsewhere scared. The results threaten to undermine the hard-won European unity that has been achieved since the end of World War Two. The gains made by such parties across the board are the result of a variety of different local dynamics, but the common theme is hostility to immigrants and other religious minorities. Though center-right parties will still predominate in the EU parliament, the election threatens to further exacerbate an atmosphere in Europe in which anger against perceived outsiders morphs from localized violence to a general spirit of isolationism. The fact that many of these parties, such as France’s National Front, have flirted with anti-Semitism while others, such as Greece’s Golden Dawn, have openly embraced it seems to illustrate the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe. That last week ended with a murderous attack on Jews in Belgium also raised the fear level of embattled Jewish communities in Europe.

But there are some who are looking for a silver lining amid this dismal news. When some Jews look at Europe’s far right parties, they see a potential ally against Islamists since the nationalists there are often obsessed with what they see as a threat to their culture and national identity from the large populations of immigrants from Muslim countries. This leads some Americans who are on the right to believe that even though the EU nationalists are clearly hostile to Jews and Israel, they may nevertheless help secure Europe against Islamist influence and thus help preserve the West against those who are trying to overthrow it. While there is a superficial logic to this enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend sort of thinking, it is a grave mistake. European Jews wouldn’t be the only piece of collateral damage in the blowup of Western democracy. The far right’s victory would weaken American influence and create a far more dangerous world for all of us.

As much as the lurch right seems to represent a backlash among Europeans against outside influences, let’s put aside any illusion that these parties are really capable of routing Islamist influences. Nothing short of a turn to open fascism can evict Muslim immigrants from Europe. The rising influence of these communities and the anti-Semitism they help fuel stems not only from their numbers but also from the way the Jew-hatred they brought with them dovetails with traditional European anti-Semitism. Hostility to Israel and Jewish interests unites academics and other elites with those on the far right and Muslims. Euro nationalists of various stripes are not likely to be able to achieve their objectives with respect to Muslim immigrants because of the huge numbers involved and the resistance to that project from the traditional parties of the left and the center. But their fomenting of hate against religious minorities is likely to be more successful when it is directed against the far less numerous Jews. Though the far right and Muslims are locked in a never-ending fight, Jews are more vulnerable and easily caught in the crossfire of that conflict.

Just as important is the potential that these parties will splinter Europe in ways that are profoundly damaging to the defense of Western democracy. Small government conservatives in the United States may sympathize with those Europeans who bristle at being ruled by unaccountable EU bureaucrats in Brussels. But as much as the EU seems to be a perfect combination of the perils of big social democratic governments, a Europe that is worried about appeasing anger on the right is one that is likely to opt out of the collective security arrangements that have guaranteed the peace of the world since 1945. The EU is already a weak partner of the United States. But the increasing influence of rightist parties is liable to have a far greater impact on the ability of the U.S. to count on being able to use NATO to resist threats to collective security around the globe and in Europe as the Russian assault on Ukraine has proved.

The rise of the European right won’t do much to undermine the assault on the West from Islamists, but it could undermine any hope that the U.S. will be able to defend Western interests. European anti-Semites are, in fact, natural allies of their Muslim antagonists when it comes to making life difficult for European Jews and isolating Israel. This is an ominous development that should be viewed with horror by precisely those in the West who have rightly worried most about the way Islamists are gaining ground in Europe.

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Will Secret Diplomacy Seal Iran Appeasement?

The latest round of nuclear talks between the West and Iran ended earlier this month without the progress toward an agreement that many had anticipated. Though the United States and its allies seem eager to sign a deal that will put a fig leaf of non-proliferation on an Iranian nuclear program that they are content to leave in place, Tehran has picked up on Washington’s zeal for a deal and is doing what its negotiators have done best for over a decade: stalling. With the international sanctions regime already starting to take on water after last November’s interim agreement that loosened the economic restrictions on Iran, the Islamist regime knows it is in a far stronger position than its Western counterparts.

But rather than reacting to this dismal situation by rethinking his approach, President Obama seems determined to double down on his determination to get a deal. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, the president is revisiting the tactic he used last year to revive the moribund P5+1 talks with Iran. Rather than continuing to work with his European partners, it appears the U.S. will once again leave the multilateral negotiations and conduct bilateral talks. The assumption is that on their own, American diplomats will be able to entice the Iranians to sign on the dotted line with concessions that even the French and the British wouldn’t consider. If true, this illustrates that what the president started last year with the interim deal is a process that has one goal and one goal alone: getting a deal with Iran no matter what the price.

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The latest round of nuclear talks between the West and Iran ended earlier this month without the progress toward an agreement that many had anticipated. Though the United States and its allies seem eager to sign a deal that will put a fig leaf of non-proliferation on an Iranian nuclear program that they are content to leave in place, Tehran has picked up on Washington’s zeal for a deal and is doing what its negotiators have done best for over a decade: stalling. With the international sanctions regime already starting to take on water after last November’s interim agreement that loosened the economic restrictions on Iran, the Islamist regime knows it is in a far stronger position than its Western counterparts.

But rather than reacting to this dismal situation by rethinking his approach, President Obama seems determined to double down on his determination to get a deal. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, the president is revisiting the tactic he used last year to revive the moribund P5+1 talks with Iran. Rather than continuing to work with his European partners, it appears the U.S. will once again leave the multilateral negotiations and conduct bilateral talks. The assumption is that on their own, American diplomats will be able to entice the Iranians to sign on the dotted line with concessions that even the French and the British wouldn’t consider. If true, this illustrates that what the president started last year with the interim deal is a process that has one goal and one goal alone: getting a deal with Iran no matter what the price.

The Iranians’ strong negotiating position stems directly from the interim agreement that was brought about as the result of secret U.S.-Iran talks. It is difficult to imagine an international community that was reluctantly dragged into enacting sanctions in the first place, raising the pressure on Iran if no deal is reached. Nor does anyone seriously imagine President Obama ordering the use of force if the talks continue to be stalemated. As a result, there is very little reason for the ayatollahs to think they have much to worry about in the talks.

Having already won the West’s acceptance of its “right” to enrich uranium, ending the Iranian nuclear program, as President Obama pledged during his reelection campaign, is off the table. The Iranians are now only negotiating about how long it would take them to “break out” from a deal and race to a bomb. At this point the only objective of the Western negotiators appears to be to lengthen that period from a few weeks to a few months, but even this victory has not lessened Iran’s determination to drag out the talks even further.

That is why the possibility of more secret talks is such a dangerous development. Though the current multilateral negotiations have created a negotiating track that has given the Iranians much of what they wanted in the talks, the open nature of these monthly talk fests make it difficult for the Americans to sweeten the pot even further for the Iranians. Since Tehran has already openly mocked requests to include their ballistic weapons program in the talks and continue to make it hard for the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor their facilities, including their military research sites, transparency would appear to favor at least the pretense that the purpose of the negotiations is to actually stop the Iranians from getting a bomb. But secret talks offer the possibility that Obama can go even further than his partners, who have at times balked at the open desire of Washington for an end to the confrontation with Iran at almost any price.

Iran went into this process hoping that it could achieve by Western consent what it appeared it was well on its way to achieving in spite of the push for sanctions: American approval for a nuclear program that could easily be converted to military use. If, as the Journal reported today, Iran’s weapons research scientists are still hard at work at getting closer to a bomb, the margin of error for the U.S. in this process is very small. Having conceded that Iran could amass enough nuclear fuel for a bomb, it will be harder still to craft a deal that could prevent it from taking that next inevitable state to a weapon.

The Obama administration proved last fall that it could sell even a weak deal with Iran to the American public and brand skeptics as potential warmongers. It may be thinking that it can do the same with an even flimsier agreement negotiated in similar secrecy this year. If so, Obama may think he may have gotten himself off the hook for his many promises to stop the Iranians from getting a weapon. But such drives for appeasement that contain within them the seeds of future conflict rarely end well for the appeasers.

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White House Can’t Regain a Deterrence It Never Had

The stories previewing President Obama’s upcoming foreign-policy address at West Point leaves the impression that the president might somehow just verbalize a word cloud of catchphrases instead of an actual speech. The New York Times story over the weekend, for example, explains that the president will seek to “chart a middle course between isolationism and military intervention.” It quotes national-security aide Ben Rhodes as saying the speech, at tomorrow’s commencement ceremony, is “a case for interventionism but not overreach.”

“People are seeing the trees, but we’re not necessarily laying out the forest,” Rhodes also said. The Times tells us Obama will seek to “offer more than competent crisis management”; engage in “long-shot diplomacy”; make the claim he “showed firm leadership” in uniting the world in scowling at Vladimir Putin; portray the U.S. as “the ultimate guarantor of an international order”; and, of course, he won’t forget good old “coalition-building.” Perhaps taking a cue from the first lady’s Do You Really Need That Second Donut campaign (or whatever it’s called), the president will serve the graduates a guilt-free, low-calorie word salad.

The one policy change alluded to in the speech seems to be a case for doing slightly more than nothing in Syria. But the danger in a speech of clichés and platitudes is that it runs the risk of implying the terms are interchangeable. And there’s one term the administration is contemplating, according to a companion piece the Times ran with its speech preview, that doesn’t possess that sort of portability:

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The stories previewing President Obama’s upcoming foreign-policy address at West Point leaves the impression that the president might somehow just verbalize a word cloud of catchphrases instead of an actual speech. The New York Times story over the weekend, for example, explains that the president will seek to “chart a middle course between isolationism and military intervention.” It quotes national-security aide Ben Rhodes as saying the speech, at tomorrow’s commencement ceremony, is “a case for interventionism but not overreach.”

“People are seeing the trees, but we’re not necessarily laying out the forest,” Rhodes also said. The Times tells us Obama will seek to “offer more than competent crisis management”; engage in “long-shot diplomacy”; make the claim he “showed firm leadership” in uniting the world in scowling at Vladimir Putin; portray the U.S. as “the ultimate guarantor of an international order”; and, of course, he won’t forget good old “coalition-building.” Perhaps taking a cue from the first lady’s Do You Really Need That Second Donut campaign (or whatever it’s called), the president will serve the graduates a guilt-free, low-calorie word salad.

The one policy change alluded to in the speech seems to be a case for doing slightly more than nothing in Syria. But the danger in a speech of clichés and platitudes is that it runs the risk of implying the terms are interchangeable. And there’s one term the administration is contemplating, according to a companion piece the Times ran with its speech preview, that doesn’t possess that sort of portability:

Deterrence, of course, is all about the perception of power. It hinges on convincing adversaries that, with force, guile or economic isolation, you can make them think twice about acting against American interests. And if there is a common element to the complaints being voiced these days about Mr. Obama, it is that he is on the verge of losing the momentum he gained in the first term when his “light footprint” strategy — the substitution of high technology and laser-focused action for brute force — created its own, subtle deterrent effect.

Whatever one’s view of the morality of using drones, the strikes in Pakistan during Mr. Obama’s first term — nearly a sixfold increase over the Bush years — wiped out Al Qaeda’s central command. Then there were the cyberstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the first use of a digital weapon that, with a few keyboard strokes, blew up roughly 1,000 centrifuges and delayed the Iranian program by upward of a year. And of course there was the Navy SEAL mission to kill Osama bin Laden three years ago; the primary mission was to settle scores with the most wanted terrorist on the planet, but the secondary effect was to amplify the message that if you attacked the United States, sooner or later you would be hunted down.

One of the problems with this story is the task of proving a negative. So the Times absurdly asserts that the Obama strategy “created its own, subtle deterrent effect” without offering anything to back it up. It’s fair enough to respond that the public doesn’t generally know what’s been deterred, but for an administration accused of weakness that begins to sound like the embarrassing “saved or created” formulation it used with regard to jobs (which the media also parroted, much to its own discredit). It sounds even more farfetched when you remember the paragraphs immediately preceding that declaration:

[French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius] went on to argue that in failing to enforce red lines with Syria, by backing away from a military strike that he threatened if the country used chemical weapons, Mr. Obama made an error that he is paying for to this day.

A few days later a top Southeast Asian official looked up from his lunch and asked, “If you were running China today, would you be convinced there is anything that America would take the risk of casualties to protect?” Certainly not some uninhabited islands off Japan, he added, referring to one of the several disputed territories China is aggressively claiming as its own.

In other words, the Obama administration’s “deterrent effect” is not so much “subtle” as nonexistent. And if the administration wants to build a true deterrent effect, Syria is the wrong place to look. Had the president hit Bashar al-Assad’s regime directly after it used chemical weapons, it might have established some deterrent to other dictators contemplating the use of chemical weapons. (Though it raises the question of whether we ought to spend our time building deterrence against the method by which dictators kill rather than the killing itself.)

But the president balked. Giving more assistance to the rebels, after they have lost so much momentum and after the administration has suggested its desire to see a stalemate instead of a victory by either side, is unlikely to make much of a difference and it’s certainly not going to establish deterrence. Just who and what behavior would such token gestures deter?

The president, according to the Times, wants to build the case for more intervention in Syria on the grounds that it’s no longer just a humanitarian crisis but one that poses a threat to Western security. That’s true–and it’s about time. But the declaration that he doesn’t want to intervene in humanitarian catastrophes and that he’ll intervene, ever so mildly, in other conflicts years after they begin means he’s not threatening to deter either kind.

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A More Modest and Effective Approach to Governing

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, a Contentions alumna, did a three-part interview with Yuval Levin, Ramesh Ponnuru, and me on a new publication, Room To Grow, and our thoughts on a conservative reform agenda for the 21st century. (The links can be found herehere, and here.)

Yuval, Ramesh, and I discuss how the right looks (and should look) at government, how to apply conservative principles to the challenges facing this generation, why reconceiving the role of government (and not just cutting spending) is urgent, how humility and moderation can co-exist with a fairly bold set of policy proposals, and how to think about immigration, marriage, and federalism.

Among the arguments I put forward is this one:

there’s a tendency among some on the right to simply disparage government rather than to put forward ideas to improve (and responsibly re-limit) it; to speak only about its size and to ignore its purposes; to talk about abstract theories at the expense of practical solutions to problems facing middle-class Americans. We’re offering a conservative alternative to the failures of liberalism and doing so in a way that’s both principled and potentially popular, that’s consistent with our tradition and relevant to the challenges of our times.

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The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, a Contentions alumna, did a three-part interview with Yuval Levin, Ramesh Ponnuru, and me on a new publication, Room To Grow, and our thoughts on a conservative reform agenda for the 21st century. (The links can be found herehere, and here.)

Yuval, Ramesh, and I discuss how the right looks (and should look) at government, how to apply conservative principles to the challenges facing this generation, why reconceiving the role of government (and not just cutting spending) is urgent, how humility and moderation can co-exist with a fairly bold set of policy proposals, and how to think about immigration, marriage, and federalism.

Among the arguments I put forward is this one:

there’s a tendency among some on the right to simply disparage government rather than to put forward ideas to improve (and responsibly re-limit) it; to speak only about its size and to ignore its purposes; to talk about abstract theories at the expense of practical solutions to problems facing middle-class Americans. We’re offering a conservative alternative to the failures of liberalism and doing so in a way that’s both principled and potentially popular, that’s consistent with our tradition and relevant to the challenges of our times.

And, on federalism, this: 

When I worked for Bill Bennett when he was Secretary of Education, we put out a series of booklets on What Works in American education. As a general matter that is, I think, a very good way to approach governing, with emphasis on experience, on empirical evidence, on real-world successes. And we can certainly learn a great deal from the states. The argument for federalism, then, is practical, not just theoretical, and we should do more to publicize what works in the states. I’d only add one other thought: federalism is consistent with conservatism in that it assumes a certain degree of modesty and humility. We don’t pretend politicians in Washington, D.C. know all the answers, that one size fits all, and programs that work in some states might work less well in other states. After the arrogance of the Obama years — when the president and those in his administration have acted as if they are all-knowing, all-seeing, all-wise – there is something refreshing about a more modest approach to governing.

The whole interview will, I think, interest COMMENTARY readers.

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Drama Brewing in Colombia

Imagine if Teddy Roosevelt had not run himself against his protege William Howard Taft in 1912 but had sponsored another candidate who went on to beat both Taft and Woodrow Wilson. Or alternatively imagine a presidential election in which John McCain and Mitt Romney are battling it out not in the primaries but in the general election. 

No analogy is exact but that gives you a bit of the flavor of the Colombian presidential election. The first place finisher, with 29.25 percent, was former Finance Minister Oscar Ivan Zuluaga. In second place was the incumbent president, Juan Manual Santos, with 25.69 percent. Since neither man got more than 50 percent (three other candidates split the rest of the vote), they will have a second-round runoff on June 15.

The numbers do not reveal the extraordinary drama behind the campaign, which was characterized by charges of cheating and skullduggery from both campaigns. Zuluaga came from almost nowhere to run ahead of an incumbent who was widely viewed as a shoo-in for reelection not long ago. This turn of events was due almost entirely to the intervention of former President Alvaro Uribe, who left office in 2010. Santos was his former defense minister and designated successor but, like TR turning on Taft, Uribe grew disenchanted with his protege, in no small part, one suspects, because Uribe misses the limelight. 

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Imagine if Teddy Roosevelt had not run himself against his protege William Howard Taft in 1912 but had sponsored another candidate who went on to beat both Taft and Woodrow Wilson. Or alternatively imagine a presidential election in which John McCain and Mitt Romney are battling it out not in the primaries but in the general election. 

No analogy is exact but that gives you a bit of the flavor of the Colombian presidential election. The first place finisher, with 29.25 percent, was former Finance Minister Oscar Ivan Zuluaga. In second place was the incumbent president, Juan Manual Santos, with 25.69 percent. Since neither man got more than 50 percent (three other candidates split the rest of the vote), they will have a second-round runoff on June 15.

The numbers do not reveal the extraordinary drama behind the campaign, which was characterized by charges of cheating and skullduggery from both campaigns. Zuluaga came from almost nowhere to run ahead of an incumbent who was widely viewed as a shoo-in for reelection not long ago. This turn of events was due almost entirely to the intervention of former President Alvaro Uribe, who left office in 2010. Santos was his former defense minister and designated successor but, like TR turning on Taft, Uribe grew disenchanted with his protege, in no small part, one suspects, because Uribe misses the limelight. 

The ostensible cause of their break were the peace talks that Santos has launched to get FARC, the long-running rebel group which has been battling the state since the mid-1960s, to finally lay down its arms. Uribe views the negotiations, which have been going on in Havana, as a sell-out to the rebels and Zuluaga has echoed his view. Santos, on the other hand, believes that the talks, which have already made progress, have the potential to bring peace.

To an outsider, it is not always easy to tell why Uribe is so worked up over talks being pursued by his former partner in the battle against FARC. The fact that peace is now possible is due in large measure to the policies that Uribe implemented while in office. But if Zuluaga wins it is likely that the peace talks will end, although Zuluaga has left himself an opening to continue negotiations if FARC shows its sincerity by stopping its armed struggle.

Whatever happens, Colombia is likely to remain Washington’s closest ally in Latin America. Indeed, while other countries in the region are seeing the emergence of anti-Yanqui leaders inspired by the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Colombia is seeing a run-off between two conservative, hawkish, pro-American candidates. That’s good news.

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Obama’s Split-the-Difference Foreign Policy

Ever since Osama bin Laden’s demise in 2011, President Obama’s foreign policy has been moving in a dovish direction which, to the rest of the world, has looked a lot like an American retreat from its global responsibilities. Even onetime Obama supporters have been criticizing him for showing weakness, not strength, when it comes to dealing with Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, and a host of other challenges. The criticism clearly got to Obama, as demonstrated by his widely panned comments about how he was hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy.

Now the administration is trying to project an air of hawkishness with a couple of policy announcements timed to the president’s big foreign-policy address at West Point on Wednesday. First and most significant is a leak that the administration will keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year, thus giving the NATO commander, General Joe Dunford, close to the forces he requested–and that Vice President Biden and other administration doves had strenuously opposed. Assuming, that is, what whoever is elected president of Afghanistan (most likely Abdullah Abdullah) will sign the Bilateral Security Accord already negotiated with Washington. There is also news out that the administration will step up training of anti-government rebels in Syria.

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Ever since Osama bin Laden’s demise in 2011, President Obama’s foreign policy has been moving in a dovish direction which, to the rest of the world, has looked a lot like an American retreat from its global responsibilities. Even onetime Obama supporters have been criticizing him for showing weakness, not strength, when it comes to dealing with Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, and a host of other challenges. The criticism clearly got to Obama, as demonstrated by his widely panned comments about how he was hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy.

Now the administration is trying to project an air of hawkishness with a couple of policy announcements timed to the president’s big foreign-policy address at West Point on Wednesday. First and most significant is a leak that the administration will keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year, thus giving the NATO commander, General Joe Dunford, close to the forces he requested–and that Vice President Biden and other administration doves had strenuously opposed. Assuming, that is, what whoever is elected president of Afghanistan (most likely Abdullah Abdullah) will sign the Bilateral Security Accord already negotiated with Washington. There is also news out that the administration will step up training of anti-government rebels in Syria.

At first blush this is a welcome signal of strength from the White House. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with prior administration decisions, the details of the president’s policies can often undermine their stated purpose. So it is again with Afghanistan where, the Washington Post tells us, “The 9,800 troops will be based around Afghanistan until the end of 2015, after which they will be reduced by roughly half and consolidated in Kabul and at the Bagram airfield north of the capital. At the end of 2016, most of those remaining troops will be withdrawn and the U.S. military presence will be confined to a defense group at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.”

Keeping around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan post 2014 makes sense (although it would be even better to keep more troops to provide a greater margin of safety). Announcing in advance that we will reduce their numbers to 5,000 within a year and remove them altogether within two years–no matter the conditions on the ground–makes no sense.

Has the administration learned no lesson from the Afghan surge whose effectiveness was vitiated by the 18-month timeline imposed on the troops’ deployment, thus encouraging the Taliban to wait us out? Obama is making the same mistake again. What he should be doing is announcing that we will keep U.S. advisers in Afghanistan in unspecified numbers as long as the government of Afghanistan requests their presence and as long as the U.S. government judges that they are needed to prevent the Taliban, Haqqanis, al-Qaeda, and other terrorists from making major inroads. Such an announcement will drain the Taliban of hope and fill hard-pressed Afghan security forces with newfound confidence.

In contrast, Obama’s announcement is so half-hearted that the Taliban will still have good cause to think that they can wait us out. Kudos to Obama for not sending only 5,000 troops next year, as some earlier leaks had indicated might be the case. But while maintaining 10,000 troops is much better, imposing a timeline on them is a serious mistake–one that cannot be explained by references to objective conditions in Afghanistan and which makes sense only as a split-the-difference compromise between administration hawks and doves. The president should have learned by now that splitting the difference in foreign policy and especially in matters of troop deployments doesn’t work.

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The Casualties of Obama’s War on Coal

This week President Obama is expected to announce new regulations on carbon emissions that will have a potentially devastating impact on America’s more than 600 coal-fired power plants. The move was made possible by Supreme Court decisions that ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency had the right to regulate such emissions, giving the president virtual carte blanche to remake this sector of our economy without requiring congressional consent. As the New York Times reports today, this decision is being closely watched abroad as governments look to see whether the U.S. is setting a good example for other nations, such as China, whose economies are driven by coal and which do far more polluting of the atmosphere than America does.

Yet the Chinese aren’t the only ones following this issue. The president has already signaled that addressing climate change was one of the priorities of his second term as well as making it clear that he was eager to move ahead and govern by executive order rather than via the normal constitutional process that involves the legislative branch. As such, the White House rightly anticipates that this broadside aimed at the coal industry will be intensely popular with Obama’s core constituencies on the left as well as the liberal mainstream media. But while leading Democratic donors such as Tom Steyer will be cheering a measure that fits his ideological agenda, not everybody in the Democratic Party is going to be happy with what amounts to a new Obama war on coal. In particular, the Democrats’ brightest hope for stealing a Republican-controlled Senate seat this fall—Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes—may wind up paying a fearful price for Obama’s decision.

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This week President Obama is expected to announce new regulations on carbon emissions that will have a potentially devastating impact on America’s more than 600 coal-fired power plants. The move was made possible by Supreme Court decisions that ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency had the right to regulate such emissions, giving the president virtual carte blanche to remake this sector of our economy without requiring congressional consent. As the New York Times reports today, this decision is being closely watched abroad as governments look to see whether the U.S. is setting a good example for other nations, such as China, whose economies are driven by coal and which do far more polluting of the atmosphere than America does.

Yet the Chinese aren’t the only ones following this issue. The president has already signaled that addressing climate change was one of the priorities of his second term as well as making it clear that he was eager to move ahead and govern by executive order rather than via the normal constitutional process that involves the legislative branch. As such, the White House rightly anticipates that this broadside aimed at the coal industry will be intensely popular with Obama’s core constituencies on the left as well as the liberal mainstream media. But while leading Democratic donors such as Tom Steyer will be cheering a measure that fits his ideological agenda, not everybody in the Democratic Party is going to be happy with what amounts to a new Obama war on coal. In particular, the Democrats’ brightest hope for stealing a Republican-controlled Senate seat this fall—Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes—may wind up paying a fearful price for Obama’s decision.

As the Times notes, the conundrum of America’s extremist environmentalist lobby lies in the fact that the U.S. is actually doing relatively little of the carbon damage that they believe is fueling global warming. The vast majority of the increase in emissions comes from developing economies around the globe, especially in places like China. While resistance to the sort of tough restrictions on carbon that environmentalists lust for is strong in nations that produce fossil-based fuels, the Chinese believe that the West should pay the steep economic price involved in such schemes while they and other developing nations are allowed to burn all the coal they want. By making his ruling, Obama won’t just be harming the U.S. economy. By setting a good example, Washington thinks their going first will somehow persuade the Chinese to follow suit.

This is highly unlikely. Though it pays lip service to global warming theories, China’s top priority is building their economy. Meanwhile, nations such as Russia are not shy about stating their unwillingness to stop burning coal. But by taking what he believes is the high road with respect to the environment, the president will be fulfilling not only the promises made to his domestic liberal constituencies but also behaving in a manner that is consistent with his belief in multilateral foreign policy.

But back at home this high-minded environmentalism may not play as well as he thinks. Many Americans fear that Obama will damage their economy while doing nothing to alter the warming equation that is being decided elsewhere. Though the media has followed the White House playbook in emphasizing any report that hypes the threat from global warming while downplaying any development that undermines this thesis, the public has demonstrated repeatedly that this issue is not a priority, especially when compared to their concerns about the economy and jobs. And this is exactly what the president’s orders will affect most grievously.

Among the biggest losers will be regions where the coal industry is a mainstay of the economy. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the best example of such a state is Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell remains the country’s most endangered Republican in an election cycle that should otherwise be quite favorable to the GOP. McConnell has been working hard to tie Grimes to Obama, a charge that she has steadfastly rejected. But the president’s regulatory war on coal will be a body blow to Grimes’s attempt to argue that it will be her and not Obama who will be on the ballot this November. Grimes smartly opposes the administration’s environmentalist stands with respect to coal, but the new orders will escalate the struggle to a point where it could play a crucial role in the midterms. Grimes has sought to make McConnell the main issue in the contest, something that is not to the advantage of the dour minority leader and longtime incumbent. But if the key issue is defense of Kentucky’s coal industry against the White House, it will be difficult for the Democrat to assert that she will be in a better position to resist this assault than the man who may be the majority leader of the upper body next January. In a contest to see who can be most hostile to Obama, the GOP has the edge over even the most independent Democrat.

The war on coal is exactly the ticket to fire up the president’s coastal elite base as well as very much what the international community wants. But it could be the death knell for Grimes’s Senate hopes. If that race makes the difference in deciding control of the Senate, it could be that global warming will be the issue that pushes Obama from a weak-second term incumbent to dead-in-the-water lame duck.

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Race, Reparations, and the Idea of America

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover essay making the case for reparations has something for everyone to like and to dislike, because a wise and serious depiction of the subject–which Coates provides–scrambles ideological predispositions. Conservatives will be hesitant toward this essay because they are generally accused of racial animus at the drop of a hat. But conservatives should give the essay a chance, not only because of the parts they will agree with but because of the parts of the essay that challenge them.

Conservatives who decry the corrosive power of welfare-state institutions to insinuate poisonous effects into the fibers of family and community are often right, but they tend to forget how much more poisonous, yet less visible, are the generational effects of slavery and Jim Crow. A good explanation of this comes from the political scientists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in their bestseller Why Nations Fail. In a chapter on the “vicious circle” of extractive institutions, they write that the South’s economic doldrums caused by its reliance on slavery should have been shaken off after abolition. Instead:

A continuation of extractive institutions, this time of the Jim Crow kind rather than of slavery, emerged in the South. … These persisted for almost another century, until yet another major upheaval, the civil rights movement. In the meantime, blacks continued to be excluded from power and repressed. Plantation-type agriculture based on low-wage, poorly educated labor persisted, and southern incomes fell further relative to the U.S. average. The vicious circle of extractive institutions was stronger than many had expected at the time.

Political and economic institutions must be reformed and rerouted, not just declared over, if they are to be undone. Slavery was obviously a system that needed to be undone, and it was–but the broader economic framework of exploitation and aristocratic elitism in the South was not. Conservatives are right to want a political system that doesn’t play favorites at all. But they’re wrong to think that such a system is all that’s needed to erase the stain of Jim Crow.

However, in the course of arguing for reparations (and its attendant “national reckoning”) Coates makes an extremely important point about black poverty:

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Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover essay making the case for reparations has something for everyone to like and to dislike, because a wise and serious depiction of the subject–which Coates provides–scrambles ideological predispositions. Conservatives will be hesitant toward this essay because they are generally accused of racial animus at the drop of a hat. But conservatives should give the essay a chance, not only because of the parts they will agree with but because of the parts of the essay that challenge them.

Conservatives who decry the corrosive power of welfare-state institutions to insinuate poisonous effects into the fibers of family and community are often right, but they tend to forget how much more poisonous, yet less visible, are the generational effects of slavery and Jim Crow. A good explanation of this comes from the political scientists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in their bestseller Why Nations Fail. In a chapter on the “vicious circle” of extractive institutions, they write that the South’s economic doldrums caused by its reliance on slavery should have been shaken off after abolition. Instead:

A continuation of extractive institutions, this time of the Jim Crow kind rather than of slavery, emerged in the South. … These persisted for almost another century, until yet another major upheaval, the civil rights movement. In the meantime, blacks continued to be excluded from power and repressed. Plantation-type agriculture based on low-wage, poorly educated labor persisted, and southern incomes fell further relative to the U.S. average. The vicious circle of extractive institutions was stronger than many had expected at the time.

Political and economic institutions must be reformed and rerouted, not just declared over, if they are to be undone. Slavery was obviously a system that needed to be undone, and it was–but the broader economic framework of exploitation and aristocratic elitism in the South was not. Conservatives are right to want a political system that doesn’t play favorites at all. But they’re wrong to think that such a system is all that’s needed to erase the stain of Jim Crow.

However, in the course of arguing for reparations (and its attendant “national reckoning”) Coates makes an extremely important point about black poverty:

Liberals today mostly view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality. They ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success—and the elevation of that punishment, in the mid-20th century, to federal policy. President Lyndon Johnson may have noted in his historic civil-rights speech at Howard University in 1965 that “Negro poverty is not white poverty.” But his advisers and their successors were, and still are, loath to craft any policy that recognizes the difference.

It may not be intended as such, but this is, in reality, a stern rebuke to the leftist tendency to hijack the black struggle and tether African Americans to their preferred policy aims. The left does this with regard to women and other minorities as well–the old joke about the New York Times reporting the apocalypse: World Ends, Women and Minorities Hardest Hit. But the struggle of African Americans was and is different; the left’s insistence that the issue of the day–climate change, inequality, environmental regulations–can or should be reduced to a “black issue” is precisely the act of ignoring African Americans’ history in the service of white liberals’ power.

Coates’s essay also highlights the tendency of well-intentioned liberal initiatives that end up exacerbating black economic dislocation and discrimination instead of alleviating it. For example, Coates discusses residential segregation, redlining, block busting, federally blessed “restrictive covenants,” and other methods of housing discrimination whose effects are still felt especially in or near major cities. This made them particularly vulnerable to predatory lending and the housing bubble. Here’s Coates:

Plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient. The banks of America understood this. In 2005, Wells Fargo promoted a series of Wealth Building Strategies seminars. Dubbing itself “the nation’s leading originator of home loans to ethnic minority customers,” the bank enrolled black public figures in an ostensible effort to educate blacks on building “generational wealth.” But the “wealth building” seminars were a front for wealth theft. In 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness. This was not magic or coincidence or misfortune. It was racism reifying itself.

The government’s involvement in efforts to sell mortgages to uncreditworthy black potential homeowners in such areas was supposed to be the antidote to redlining, a major historical correction. But in many cases lenders were pressured by the government to ignore the creditworthiness of minority applicants, and the result is something like: Housing Bubble Ends, Minorities Hardest Hit.

Aside from a cautionary tale about government intervention in the marketplace, this geographic isolation would also seem to argue for ways not only to help improve minority neighborhoods but also to get kids from those neighborhoods into better schools. The current government monopoly on such education, supported by the unions and Democrats at the highest levels including President Obama, guarantees the promulgation of an effective segregation and the breathing of life into a particularly insidious legacy of the Jim Crow era that the Great Migration could have, but did not, undo.

And that brings us back to the issue of reparations (to close the “wealth gap,” as Coates says) and the reason Coates wants to have this “national reckoning.” He writes:

A nation outlives its generations…. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.

Should the slaveholding of the Founders be as relevant as their political ideas in understanding the founding philosophical underpinnings of our nation’s identity? Coates seems to think so; later he writes that “white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it,” adding: “And so we must imagine a new country.”

Which opinions of the Founders must we carry as an addendum to the Constitution? Slavery was a violation of our founding principles. But the case for abolition was not just a moral one; it was also an economic one. This is what Acemoglu and Robinson show, and it’s what the historian David Brion Davis notes in his latest book, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation. He writes of Connecticut abolitionist Leonard Bacon’s argument that slavery was a long-term strain on the American economy:

Even apart from the desire for racial homogeneity, most American commentators shared this republican conviction that slavery subverted the nation’s prospects for balanced economic growth and prosperity, at least in the longer term.

Bacon wasn’t claiming that the institution of slavery didn’t provide economic benefits to those who practiced it, of course. But he, like many of his age, understood slavery as a betrayal of the American system, not just a moral failing. It was a bug, not a feature.

So yes, a tremendous amount of wealth was built up in America from the subjugation and plunder of black slaves. But to argue that the American identity and the country’s conception of self is not separate at all from its history, to argue that the idea of America is inseparable from the idea of racism and oppression, requires its own selective reading of America’s past and produces a false rendering of the American project.

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