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Posts For: June 12, 2014

Palestinian “Unity” Government So Far Not Applying to Gaza

When Hamas ejected Fatah from Gaza in 2007, the terror group did more than simply carve out a base of influence. Because of Gaza’s geographic isolation from the West Bank, once Hamas was able to solidify control it created a shadow state governed by one-party rule and with its own foreign policy. In authoritarian societies like Hamas-ruled Gaza, government control is such that the unaccountable bureaucracy is staffed with appointees whose livelihood depends on the whim and favor of those above them. So that’s where their loyalties lie.

This situation–Gaza’s isolation and its one-party rule–means that integrating Hamas into the broader Palestinian governance structure in the West Bank is far easier than integrating non-Hamasniks into Gaza. That goes double for Hamas’s rival, Fatah. The two may have signed a unity agreement seeking to forge a common government and hold elections, but how will it go when Palestinian Authority “unity” government figures try to apply that piece of paper to Gaza? The New York Times gives us an idea:

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When Hamas ejected Fatah from Gaza in 2007, the terror group did more than simply carve out a base of influence. Because of Gaza’s geographic isolation from the West Bank, once Hamas was able to solidify control it created a shadow state governed by one-party rule and with its own foreign policy. In authoritarian societies like Hamas-ruled Gaza, government control is such that the unaccountable bureaucracy is staffed with appointees whose livelihood depends on the whim and favor of those above them. So that’s where their loyalties lie.

This situation–Gaza’s isolation and its one-party rule–means that integrating Hamas into the broader Palestinian governance structure in the West Bank is far easier than integrating non-Hamasniks into Gaza. That goes double for Hamas’s rival, Fatah. The two may have signed a unity agreement seeking to forge a common government and hold elections, but how will it go when Palestinian Authority “unity” government figures try to apply that piece of paper to Gaza? The New York Times gives us an idea:

The Palestinian Authority has had a new government for 10 days now, but the prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, acknowledged on Thursday that he still lacked any authority in the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip and that nothing has yet changed on the ground.

Though the new government was approved by both of the rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, Mr. Hamdallah offered no plan for disarming militants, integrating the two sides’ security forces, or even for getting Gaza’s 1.7 million residents to start paying taxes and electricity bills.

How does Mr. Hamdallah plan to rectify this? Your guess is as good as his:

In an hourlong interview, Mr. Hamdallah laid much of the responsibility for reconciling the West Bank and Gaza after seven years of schism on two committees, one of which has yet to be formed. He repeated political platitudes about Palestinian unity, but offered no practical program to deliver it.

Part of that can be explained by the fact that Hamdallah apparently doesn’t approve of the team he was not able to choose:

Mr. Hamdallah, who has been prime minister for a year, said he was dissatisfied with his new cabinet, which was selected through negotiations between the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas, the militant Islamic faction that has ruled Gaza since 2007. If the decision had been left up to him, he said, he would have chosen “very few” of the ministers in the new cabinet.

Asked when he would visit Gaza, Mr. Hamdallah was silent for a long moment and then said, “We haven’t set a time for that.”

Let’s stipulate that we’re not even two weeks into this new government, and that the leadership is temporary anyway until elections can be held, and so no one’s expecting miracles. But Palestinian leaders hoping to break up Hamas’s monopoly in Gaza really should consider actually going there.

Unless it’s all for show, as skeptics of the Hamas-Fatah unity deal have been warning. As the Times notes:

Samah Sabawi, a Palestinian poet and political activist who lives in Australia but has many relatives in Gaza, said the bank crisis showed a “lack of trust on the ground between the two factions.”

“If it’s a normal democracy in a sovereign nation, you can have diverse views with conflicting agendas,” Ms. Sabawi said. “But we’re talking about a people under occupation. Their politics, their policies, are always beholden to whomever is paying their money. It really has been reduced to just theater.”

There can’t be a peace deal without Palestinian unity, but there can’t be Palestinian unity without a peace deal, and around and around we go. Yet the remark about it all being “just theater,” however accurate, also points to the fact that the Obama administration is playing the same game.

All these loopholes and facades, such as the idea that no one in the new government is explicitly a member of Hamas, are not fooling Washington. They are, instead, adhering to precisely what Washington wants from them at the moment. American law says we can’t fund a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, but the Obama administration wants to support Palestinian unity which necessarily has to include Hamas–regardless of what their party registration cards say.

As long as there’s a technicality on which the administration can legally continue its policy of engagement, it will do so. No one’s fooling anyone, because they don’t have to.

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Iraq, Another Grim Point for Romney

At the Washington Post, David Ignatius recalls a 2012 debate exchange between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, during which the two covered al-Qaeda and Iraq:

Romney tried to shake Obama’s optimistic narrative about al-Qaeda. “It’s really not on the run. It’s certainly not hiding. This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 20 countries, and it presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism.”

[…]

Obama scored points later in that debate when he dismissed Romney’s concerns about Iraq. “What I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.” The transcript records Romney sputtering back: “I’m sorry, you actually — there was a — .”

Obama had the better of that exchange, certainly for a war-weary United States that a few weeks later gave him a new mandate. But looking back, which picture was closer to the truth? Probably Romney’s.

Probably? Al-Qaeda has gone from terrorist organization to conquering army and it’s still not entirely safe to say President Obama kind of blew it on that whole anti-terrorism thing.

But the grudging acknowledgement is something. Reality has the ability to trump spin. Obama was elected in large part to pull out of Iraq “responsibly.” But few watching ISIS plow through the country are thinking that he’s handled things well.

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At the Washington Post, David Ignatius recalls a 2012 debate exchange between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, during which the two covered al-Qaeda and Iraq:

Romney tried to shake Obama’s optimistic narrative about al-Qaeda. “It’s really not on the run. It’s certainly not hiding. This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 20 countries, and it presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism.”

[…]

Obama scored points later in that debate when he dismissed Romney’s concerns about Iraq. “What I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.” The transcript records Romney sputtering back: “I’m sorry, you actually — there was a — .”

Obama had the better of that exchange, certainly for a war-weary United States that a few weeks later gave him a new mandate. But looking back, which picture was closer to the truth? Probably Romney’s.

Probably? Al-Qaeda has gone from terrorist organization to conquering army and it’s still not entirely safe to say President Obama kind of blew it on that whole anti-terrorism thing.

But the grudging acknowledgement is something. Reality has the ability to trump spin. Obama was elected in large part to pull out of Iraq “responsibly.” But few watching ISIS plow through the country are thinking that he’s handled things well.

The crumbling of Iraq, of course, isn’t the first event to vindicate a maligned Romney debating point. Back when he pronounced Russia “without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe,” Obama derided Romney as a Cold Warrior 20 years past his sell-by date. The president, for his part, was busy touting his “reset” with the Kremlin. But the American public soon took up the fight against Vladimir Putin’s human-rights abuses—and then Russia invaded Crimea. Thus came headlines explaining “Why Obama Got Russia Wrong (and Romney Got It Right).”

That’s not all he got right. While the Obama administration plays Let’s Fake a Deal with Tehran, it’s worth recalling another Romney line of foreign-affairs analysis: “Of course the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. If Obama gets that wrong, belated acknowledgment of his error won’t quite cut it.

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Return of the War That Never Went Away

The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

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The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

The swift capture of Mosul by militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has underscored how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have converged into one widening regional insurgency with fighters coursing back and forth through the porous border between the two countries. But it has also called attention to the limits the White House has imposed on the use of American power in an increasingly violent and volatile region.

There is an obvious argument to be made for intervening in Iraq but not Syria: our previous involvement there. But that argument faded greatly after Obama decided the war was over and our combat mission ended. Now we’re back basically on the outside looking in. At this point, can Obama clearly make a case for additional strikes in Iraq that would still logically avoid implicitly making the case for the same in Syria? Sentimental value won’t count for much.

Obama has put great effort into differentiating conflicts so as to avoid a game of intervention dominoes, for instance by agreeing to decapitate the Gaddafi regime but not the house of Assad. He rejected the idea of humanitarian intervention in Syria as well, arguing that that the U.S. did not have a responsibility to protect but did have an obligation to curtail the use of chemical weapons. Seeking to build a case for possibly stepping up its aid to the Syrian rebels, Obama was shifting to “emphasize Syria’s growing status as a haven for terrorist groups, some of which are linked to Al Qaeda.” By that standard, Iraq beckons as well.

Perhaps Obama could at least make the argument that Syria and Iraq can be taken together as one conflict and thus not a harbinger of broader military action in the region. But the Times report shows why that would be a tall order:

The Obama administration has carried out drone strikes against militants in Yemen and Pakistan, where it fears terrorists have been hatching plans to attack the United States. But despite the fact that Sunni militants have been making steady advances and may be carving out new havens from which they could carry out attacks against the West, administration spokesmen have insisted that the United States is not actively considering using warplanes or armed drones to strike them.

Right. And suddenly it becomes clear: We’re fighting a (gasp!) global war on terror.

The compartmentalization of conflicts by Obama and others was a necessary element for them to oppose the Bush administration’s war on terror because it was the only way to conceptually remove the common thread that held together Bush’s strategy. But that relied on the belief that the international state system was intact and robust enough to deal with international terrorism. It was a nice idea, but it proved naïve and dangerous.

Obama learned this when he sent forces into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden. He learned it again when he had to send drones after Yemen-based terrorists. He learned and relearned it throughout the Arab Spring, as dictatorships fell and transnational terror networks like the Muslim Brotherhood rose. He learned it when weapons from the Libyan civil war fueled a military coup in Mali. He learned it when his administration practically begged the Russian government to accept American counterterrorism help to safeguard the Olympics in Sochi.

And now he’s looking at a stateless mass of terrorism stretching across the Middle East but specifically melding the Syria and Iraq conflicts. He’s looking at a global terror war and trying to figure out increasingly creative ways not to say so. Obama wanted this war to be a different war, and to be over. But he forgot that the enemy always gets a vote. And we still have a lot of enemies.

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The Conditional Support Obama Should Offer Iraq

As a conspiratorial Shiite who spent long years of exile in Iran, Nouri al-Maliki has long been suspicious of the United States and overconfident about the capabilities of his own security forces. He had to be brought around to support the U.S. troop surge in 2007 because even then, even as the state was collapsing around him, he had exaggerated ideas about the ability of the Iraqi military to handle matters on his own. Four years later, in 2011, he drove such a hard bargain over renewing the U.S. Status of Forces Agreement that President Obama walked away and left Iraq bereft of all U.S. troops. Maliki didn’t seem to mind in the slightest, at least not in public.

So you know that things have come to a pretty dire pass when he is actually requesting American airpower be employed against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. That request was first made, apparently, last month and no doubt will be even more urgently renewed now that ISIS fighters have taken Mosul, Tikrit, and Baiji and are on the march, like the wildling army in Game of Thrones, toward the seat of power in Baghdad.

The request was, naturally, rebuffed by the Obama administration–an example of the president doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. The real reason, one suspects, why Obama won’t order airstrikes is that he is determined not to let facts interfere with his cherished narrative that the “tide of war is receding” and that the U.S. is “rebalancing” away from the Middle East. That’s a political posture, not a serious strategy. But even strategic considerations argue against employing U.S. airpower to help the Maliki regime as presently constituted.

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As a conspiratorial Shiite who spent long years of exile in Iran, Nouri al-Maliki has long been suspicious of the United States and overconfident about the capabilities of his own security forces. He had to be brought around to support the U.S. troop surge in 2007 because even then, even as the state was collapsing around him, he had exaggerated ideas about the ability of the Iraqi military to handle matters on his own. Four years later, in 2011, he drove such a hard bargain over renewing the U.S. Status of Forces Agreement that President Obama walked away and left Iraq bereft of all U.S. troops. Maliki didn’t seem to mind in the slightest, at least not in public.

So you know that things have come to a pretty dire pass when he is actually requesting American airpower be employed against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. That request was first made, apparently, last month and no doubt will be even more urgently renewed now that ISIS fighters have taken Mosul, Tikrit, and Baiji and are on the march, like the wildling army in Game of Thrones, toward the seat of power in Baghdad.

The request was, naturally, rebuffed by the Obama administration–an example of the president doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. The real reason, one suspects, why Obama won’t order airstrikes is that he is determined not to let facts interfere with his cherished narrative that the “tide of war is receding” and that the U.S. is “rebalancing” away from the Middle East. That’s a political posture, not a serious strategy. But even strategic considerations argue against employing U.S. airpower to help the Maliki regime as presently constituted.

Maliki himself is largely to blame for the resurgence of ISIS because he has so alienated Sunnis that many have been driven to support the terrorists as their defenders. Maliki has also undermined the effectiveness of the Iraqi Security Forces by politicizing them. Under those circumstances, American airstrikes would do nothing to change the conditions which have given rise to ISIS and would instead foster a narrative that the U.S. is supporting Shiite sectarianism in the civil war raging across the Middle East. Same goes for rushing Apache helicopters, F-16 fighters, and Hellfire missiles to Iraq so they can be employed by Iraq’s own military. Such advanced assets can be invaluable as part of a larger counterinsurgency strategy but they cannot substitute for the lack of such a strategy.

Obama should tell Maliki (and he should get on the telephone to deliver the message personally) that greater U.S. military aid will only be forthcoming if Maliki makes dramatic moves to mollify the Sunnis, depoliticize the Iraqi security forces, and limit his own almost-unlimited authority. Better still, the U.S. would be even more willing to support Iraq if Maliki were to step down as prime minister–admittedly a condition that would be hard to get Maliki to agree to but one that the U.S. could press with other political factions which are already suspicious of the prime minister.

Absent substantial political reform in Iraq, greater U.S. military aid at this juncture would be counterproductive. But the very dire nature of the situation today makes it at least marginally more likely that the government may actually make political reforms needed to ensure the state’s survival. If that were to happen, the U.S. should offer to provide not just airpower but intelligence analysts, military advisers, Special Operations Forces, and other assets to enable the Iraqi Security Forces to strike back effectively against ISIS.

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Obama’s International Legacy: Fait Accompli

President Obama entered office promising to renew America’s respect for multilateralism and the international system. He will leave the White House as the man whose legacy has been instead ushering in the “Age of Fait Accompli.” Russia now occupies Crimea and effectively dominates eastern Ukraine. Last night, Peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—the political party of Jalal Talabani’s family—occupied Kirkuk, a city over which diplomats long wrung their hands given its volatile ethnic and sectarian mix. (Fortunately for Kirkuk, its governor Najmaldin Karim, while a PUK member, has distinguished himself as a leader for all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity, and not as a narrow ethnic or sectarian chauvinist as so many of his Kurdish and Iraqi Arab counterparts.) China, meanwhile, is on the warpath, seeking to create facts on the seas and ground in disputed maritime areas from Japan to the Philippines.

Obama sees international threats through the lens of grievance, not ideology. Often he seems to assume it is the presence of United States forces or its power projection that is the source of such grievance. He does not understand that the real threat is the maximalist, aggressive, and nihilistic ideology of America’s opponents and that for decades, United States power has been the proverbial finger in the dyke, holding off the deluge. Isolationism doesn’t bring security; it brings chaos.

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President Obama entered office promising to renew America’s respect for multilateralism and the international system. He will leave the White House as the man whose legacy has been instead ushering in the “Age of Fait Accompli.” Russia now occupies Crimea and effectively dominates eastern Ukraine. Last night, Peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—the political party of Jalal Talabani’s family—occupied Kirkuk, a city over which diplomats long wrung their hands given its volatile ethnic and sectarian mix. (Fortunately for Kirkuk, its governor Najmaldin Karim, while a PUK member, has distinguished himself as a leader for all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity, and not as a narrow ethnic or sectarian chauvinist as so many of his Kurdish and Iraqi Arab counterparts.) China, meanwhile, is on the warpath, seeking to create facts on the seas and ground in disputed maritime areas from Japan to the Philippines.

Obama sees international threats through the lens of grievance, not ideology. Often he seems to assume it is the presence of United States forces or its power projection that is the source of such grievance. He does not understand that the real threat is the maximalist, aggressive, and nihilistic ideology of America’s opponents and that for decades, United States power has been the proverbial finger in the dyke, holding off the deluge. Isolationism doesn’t bring security; it brings chaos.

With United States power in retreat and with populists and dictators across the globe concluding that they can act with impunity, never has the danger been so real, not only in the current crisis spots but in Taiwan, the Falkland Islands, the Baltics, and other lands aggressors and dictators crave. All that matters in the new world order is brute strength and the will to use it. The most intractable diplomatic problems will no longer be solved by diplomacy, but rather by unilateralism. Of course, some critics might say unilateralism is simply what America engaged in for decades. That’s more propaganda than reality but, even if so, moral equivalency is a disease. America believed it acted for good; China and Russia clearly do not–their motivations are purely cynical.

One of the most surprising things I encountered when researching my recent study on the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups was that, while the military spends more time in the classroom or the training ground going over its mistakes in order to learn from them, the State Department has never really conducted a full lessons-learned review with the diplomats who actually drive policy. Albert Einstein quipped that insanity was doing the same action repeatedly but expecting different results each time. Unfortunately, that seems to apply to the State Department, not only in the current administration but in the last ten or so.

It would be wrong to blame all chaos on Obama. He may have ceded the ground, but ultimately it is the dictators who are to blame. Nevertheless, perhaps it is time for President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and other top administration officials to sit back and consider the state of the world and what the United States might have done differently at key inflection points in order to prevent the current situation. Only then can the United States learn from its mistakes and seek to salvage what is left.

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Presidential Longevity and Social Security

Today is George H.W. Bush’s 90th birthday. That is certainly an event worth celebrating, and may he enjoy many more. But it is also illustrative of a remarkable increase in longevity enjoyed by recent presidents (and the rest of us).

Before there were presidents there were English sovereigns. Not one of them lived to see his or her 70th birthday until George II, who died in 1760, aged 76. To be sure a few of them, such as Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI, were assisted early into that good night for political reasons.

Of the first six presidents, four of them (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and John Quincy Adams), remarkably, lived to be over 80 and John Adams lived to be 90 and 8 months, a presidential longevity record that would last into the 21st century, until Ronald Reagan surpassed him in 2001. But from John Quincy Adams to Herbert Hoover, more than a century later, no president made it to 80. Hoover lived to be 90 and two months. Harry Truman, who died at the age of 88, was the only other president to live to 80 until Richard Nixon.

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Today is George H.W. Bush’s 90th birthday. That is certainly an event worth celebrating, and may he enjoy many more. But it is also illustrative of a remarkable increase in longevity enjoyed by recent presidents (and the rest of us).

Before there were presidents there were English sovereigns. Not one of them lived to see his or her 70th birthday until George II, who died in 1760, aged 76. To be sure a few of them, such as Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI, were assisted early into that good night for political reasons.

Of the first six presidents, four of them (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and John Quincy Adams), remarkably, lived to be over 80 and John Adams lived to be 90 and 8 months, a presidential longevity record that would last into the 21st century, until Ronald Reagan surpassed him in 2001. But from John Quincy Adams to Herbert Hoover, more than a century later, no president made it to 80. Hoover lived to be 90 and two months. Harry Truman, who died at the age of 88, was the only other president to live to 80 until Richard Nixon.

But starting with Nixon, every president has either lived to the age of 80 or is still alive. Reagan and Ford each lived to be 93, and Ford holds the longevity record at the moment, dying at the age of 93 and five months. On October 1 this year, Jimmy Carter will also turn 90.

Living to 100 used to be exceedingly rare, but not anymore. Among the famous who have reached 100 in recent decades are Irving Berlin, the Queen Mother, Rose Kennedy, Brooke Astor, Bob Hope, and George Burns. I have a friend who is in robust good health at the age of 84. Her mother, in equally robust health except for being a bit deaf, is 109.

All this, while unreservedly good news for all of us, has profound policy implications regarding entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. The latter program was instituted in 1935 and set the age for receiving benefits at 65. The reason 65 was chosen is that that was the life expectancy in the 1930s. Today, in the United States, it is 79.8 for women and 77.4 for men and rising quickly. That is no small part of the reason both programs are headed inexorably toward insolvency unless Congress acknowledges mathematical and medical reality.

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