Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 30, 2014

Obama Hopelessly Out of His Depth

Over the course of the last couple of weeks, including today, I’ve heard Barack Obama talk about what we owe our veterans–about how what’s happening to them in the VA scandal is intolerable, how reforms to the system are urgently needed, how the problems need to be fixed, and how we need to do right by our veterans across the board.

It’s a scathing criticism of the status quo, really, a harsh indictment of those in power and a powerful theme for a candidate to run on.

What I find rather odd, however, is that this critique is being offered by a man who is serving his second term as president. It’s being offered, in fact, by a man who was identifying these VA problems long before he first ran for president. Yet they’ve worsened on his watch. And he wants us to know he’s mighty outraged about it.

Which zeroes in on one of the problems of the Obama presidency. Mr. Obama appears to like the perks of office. (His golf game has certainly improved.) He clearly loves the prestige of being president. And he likes to talk a lot about what should be done about things like the mistreatment of our veterans in VA hospitals, income inequality, rising poverty, higher health-care premiums and deductibles, chronic unemployment, and the exploding debt. Mr. Obama can often be heard lamenting the polarized state of our politics, hyper-partisanship, and the failure of both sides to work together. He is eager to make known his unhappiness with the aggressive acts of Russia, the brutality we’re seeing in Syria, the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons, and much more.

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Over the course of the last couple of weeks, including today, I’ve heard Barack Obama talk about what we owe our veterans–about how what’s happening to them in the VA scandal is intolerable, how reforms to the system are urgently needed, how the problems need to be fixed, and how we need to do right by our veterans across the board.

It’s a scathing criticism of the status quo, really, a harsh indictment of those in power and a powerful theme for a candidate to run on.

What I find rather odd, however, is that this critique is being offered by a man who is serving his second term as president. It’s being offered, in fact, by a man who was identifying these VA problems long before he first ran for president. Yet they’ve worsened on his watch. And he wants us to know he’s mighty outraged about it.

Which zeroes in on one of the problems of the Obama presidency. Mr. Obama appears to like the perks of office. (His golf game has certainly improved.) He clearly loves the prestige of being president. And he likes to talk a lot about what should be done about things like the mistreatment of our veterans in VA hospitals, income inequality, rising poverty, higher health-care premiums and deductibles, chronic unemployment, and the exploding debt. Mr. Obama can often be heard lamenting the polarized state of our politics, hyper-partisanship, and the failure of both sides to work together. He is eager to make known his unhappiness with the aggressive acts of Russia, the brutality we’re seeing in Syria, the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons, and much more.

But when it comes to actual, measurable achievements–when it comes to effectively dealing with our problems rather than simply talking about them–Mr. Obama is hopelessly out of his depth.  

In saying this I’m not asking anyone to measure the president against some imaginary and impossible standard of perfection. I’m simply asking people to judge him by his own words, his own promises, his own commitments. It’s not simply that Mr. Obama hasn’t achieved what he said he would; it’s that so many things have, by any reasonable and empirical standard, gotten worse, and often a good deal worse, since Obama took office. Mr. Obama has fallen short on virtually every front and on virtually every issue. He is simply awful when it comes to governing.

He would, however, be a fine addition to the Meet the Press roundtable.

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The Pandering Hypocrisy of the Supposed Truth-Tellers

Glenn Greenwald certainly knows his audience. The writer at the center of the reporting on NSA defector Edward Snowden’s pilfered American security files gave an interview this week to Al-Akhbar, a Beirut-based paper whose pro-Bashar Assad extremism was too much even for Max Blumenthal. But Greenwald has a story to tell and a book to sell–it just happens to be a slightly different story depending on his audience.

If he’s talking to PBS, for example, the story is about the American security establishment’s need to return to the policies that “kept us safe with the Cold War. They could certainly keep us safe now,” as well as the necessity of keeping the Internet free to allow its users to flourish and to express themselves without fear or suffocating suspicion. But a pro-Assad publication would necessarily be a bit less concerned about American security, and it certainly wouldn’t much care for the free flow of information and personal expression. So Greenwald calibrates his pitch accordingly:

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Glenn Greenwald certainly knows his audience. The writer at the center of the reporting on NSA defector Edward Snowden’s pilfered American security files gave an interview this week to Al-Akhbar, a Beirut-based paper whose pro-Bashar Assad extremism was too much even for Max Blumenthal. But Greenwald has a story to tell and a book to sell–it just happens to be a slightly different story depending on his audience.

If he’s talking to PBS, for example, the story is about the American security establishment’s need to return to the policies that “kept us safe with the Cold War. They could certainly keep us safe now,” as well as the necessity of keeping the Internet free to allow its users to flourish and to express themselves without fear or suffocating suspicion. But a pro-Assad publication would necessarily be a bit less concerned about American security, and it certainly wouldn’t much care for the free flow of information and personal expression. So Greenwald calibrates his pitch accordingly:

AA – Is there actual movement on the ground now as a result of the publication of these documents, or is it just lip-service?

GG – There is a lot of movement, just in terms of public attitude. I think the most significant polling data I’ve seen is that every year since 9/11, Pew has asked Americans ‘do you find more threatening: the idea of foreign terrorism, or the government’s threats to your civil liberties?’, and every single year since 9/11 an overwhelming number of Americans have said ‘I fear terrorism more than I do the threat of the government infringing on my rights’, until 2013 when that completely reversed, obviously due to the Snowden disclosures. And you see politicians running in the Senate from both parties against the NSA, you see efforts to introduce bills to limit the NSA’s spying abilities, but the reality is that most of the changes are not going to come from the US government itself.

There will be symbolic gestures designed to pretend they’re doing it, but I think the limitations on the US ability to spy is going to come from a combination of other countries around the world standing together to introduce international regimes or build an infrastructure so the US doesn’t control the physical regime of the internet.

Introducing “international regimes” to control infrastructure in place of the United States or building a system with the U.S. on the outside looking into the control room are two options that would end up rolling back Internet freedom. Perhaps Greenwald thinks this is a fair tradeoff–that it’s worth sacrificing relatively unfettered Internet freedom for the sake of weakening America’s national-security apparatus. But Greenwald knows far too much about this issue to be unaware that that’s precisely what he’s suggesting.

And a publication with a history of supporting the tyrant shedding the most innocent blood in attempting to turn back the tide of the Arab Spring–and who continues to gas his opponents–is a perfect receptacle for this trash. Greenwald isn’t a truth-teller; he’s a panderer who assesses the level of hostility to American national defense in each interlocutor of his and provides them with the ammo to make their case.

Not that this is an earth-shattering revelation. The Greenwald-Snowden collaboration has been a boon to ruthless autocrats and tinpot dictators and the violence and propaganda they promote. But the piece in Al-Akhbar demonstrates the plain fact that those suffering under authoritarian regimes who would use the Internet to attempt to organize dissent have no friend in the Greenwald-Snowden tandem. They are undermined by them.

Greenwald also knew the paper would be a good place to offer some of his obtuse paranoia about another democracy that really gets under his skin:

Glenn Greenwald – We did a pretty big story that unsurprisingly didn’t get as much attention as it deserved in the American media back in September [2013] in the Guardian on how the NSA turns over massive amounts of communications to the Israelis without bothering to minimize it, and there was a Memorandum of Understanding between the Israeli surveillance agency and the NSA that we published, detailing how close the relationship was, and also part of that story there were also documents saying that although the US gives huge amounts of aid to the Israelis the Israelis are actually one of the most aggressive eavesdroppers on the US government and America generally, and that they try to make the relationship completely one-sided on behalf of Israel, so there is that that we published.

AA – Why wasn’t it made a big deal in the US?

GG – Because anything that reflects poorly on Israel is systematically ignored by most of America’s media…

The United States apparently is both an all-powerful global hegemon and bullied repeatedly by a nation the size of New Jersey. Greenwald doesn’t know which theory to believe, so he believes them both.

In any event, the purpose of this interview seems to be Greenwald’s declarations that more documents are coming on American cooperation with governments in the Middle East. Anyone who thought the project of leaking the NSA’s data collection was really going to be about curbing domestic surveillance in the name of constitutional oversight is no doubt feeling pretty silly these days.

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Exposing the Human Shield Industry

Last week, I discussed the need for widespread use of cameras in the Israel Defense Forces. But having footage of the IDF’s interactions with Palestinians wouldn’t be useful only to refute false claims of brutality. A no less important use would be to expose the Palestinians’ human shield industry to the world.

Here’s one example of how this industry works: On the night of September 30, 2013, IDF troops opened fire at two Palestinians who were trying to sabotage the Israel-Gaza border fence, killing one and wounding the other. Both men later proved to be unarmed, so that’s naturally how the story was reported: Israel kills two unarmed Palestinians.

Four days later, I happened to be visiting friends whose soldier son was home on leave. It turned out his unit was involved in this incident, and he was furious over what the media reports left out: Standing just a few hundred meters behind the two men, he said, was a group of armed Palestinians waiting to see whether the attempt to break through the fence succeeded. In other words, the soldiers had every reason to believe the men sabotaging the fence were part of a much larger infiltration attempt, even though they couldn’t be sure those two were themselves armed (it was night, they were moving, and they were partially obscured by the fence). Thus the soldiers did what responsible soldiers do when facing an attempted terrorist infiltration: They used lethal force to stop it.

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Last week, I discussed the need for widespread use of cameras in the Israel Defense Forces. But having footage of the IDF’s interactions with Palestinians wouldn’t be useful only to refute false claims of brutality. A no less important use would be to expose the Palestinians’ human shield industry to the world.

Here’s one example of how this industry works: On the night of September 30, 2013, IDF troops opened fire at two Palestinians who were trying to sabotage the Israel-Gaza border fence, killing one and wounding the other. Both men later proved to be unarmed, so that’s naturally how the story was reported: Israel kills two unarmed Palestinians.

Four days later, I happened to be visiting friends whose soldier son was home on leave. It turned out his unit was involved in this incident, and he was furious over what the media reports left out: Standing just a few hundred meters behind the two men, he said, was a group of armed Palestinians waiting to see whether the attempt to break through the fence succeeded. In other words, the soldiers had every reason to believe the men sabotaging the fence were part of a much larger infiltration attempt, even though they couldn’t be sure those two were themselves armed (it was night, they were moving, and they were partially obscured by the fence). Thus the soldiers did what responsible soldiers do when facing an attempted terrorist infiltration: They used lethal force to stop it.

I don’t know whether the two unarmed Palestinians were volunteers or unwilling conscripts. But either way, it’s easy to see why this methodology is a win-win for the terrorists. If the unarmed men succeed in breaking through the fence without being detected, the terrorists will know they can follow safely. But if the IDF does detect the unarmed men and tries to stop them, the Palestinians get a propaganda victory: Look, Israel shot unarmed men for no good reason! And without photographic evidence, there’s no way for the IDF to fight such propaganda: Outside of Israel, who’s going to believe the unsupported word of a random Israeli soldier?

This is standard operating practice for Palestinian terrorist groups–and, incidentally, for Hezbollah as well. In both the Second Lebanon War of 2006 and the war with Hamas in Gaza in 2009, for instance, a significant portion of the Lebanese and Palestinian civilian casualties resulted from the fact that Hezbollah and Hamas routinely fired rockets at Israel from the heart of civilian areas, thereby ensuring that when Israel returned fire, there would be civilian casualties as well. Israel pointed this out at the time, but absent convincing footage to back up its claims, what most of the world believed was the Hezbollah/Hamas propaganda: that Israel wantonly massacres civilians.

This narrative has been devastating to Israel’s international image, and fighting it is essential. Yet the only way to fight it is for Israel to provide clear photographic proof of the use of human shields–not just in response to Palestinian or Lebanese allegations, but on an ongoing basis. And the sooner, the better.

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