Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 19, 2014

Kidnapping Hasn’t Altered West’s View of Conflict or the Palestinians

Another day went by without any word about the whereabouts of the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped by Hamas terrorists last week. While the lack of any evidence that the three are still alive or a ransom demand is deeply troubling, the Israel Defense Forces have conducted extensive searches throughout the West Bank as well as seeking to exact a severe price from the terrorist group. The IDF has arrested scores of Hamas operatives as well as taken into custody 50 of the terrorists freed in the 2012 swap in which the Jewish state traded over 1,000 prisoners for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.

These sweeps have caused IDF commanders to claim they have inflicted a powerful blow against Hamas’s infrastructure. Re-arresting some of the prisoners traded for Shalit also allows Israel to make a crucial point. Since the object of the abduction of the three boys was to force Israel to release even more terrorists—including some, like those in the Shalit deal, with blood on their hands—this move is an attempt to demonstrate that the kidnapping has backfired. But the boasts from both Israeli politicians and military officials that Hamas is already the loser in this affair may be more intended to boost their citizens’ morale than an objective analysis of the situation. While Hamas may have been dealt a setback that makes it less able to operate in the West Bank, unless the Israelis are prepared to stand their ground on demands for release of the Hamas prisoners, the Islamist group will still be able to claim victory. That’s especially true if the boys aren’t found, if more terrorists walk free as a result of this affair or if, as appears likely, international public opinion begins to swing back to the Palestinians after a week during which the kidnapping engendered more sympathy than usual for the Israelis.

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Another day went by without any word about the whereabouts of the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped by Hamas terrorists last week. While the lack of any evidence that the three are still alive or a ransom demand is deeply troubling, the Israel Defense Forces have conducted extensive searches throughout the West Bank as well as seeking to exact a severe price from the terrorist group. The IDF has arrested scores of Hamas operatives as well as taken into custody 50 of the terrorists freed in the 2012 swap in which the Jewish state traded over 1,000 prisoners for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.

These sweeps have caused IDF commanders to claim they have inflicted a powerful blow against Hamas’s infrastructure. Re-arresting some of the prisoners traded for Shalit also allows Israel to make a crucial point. Since the object of the abduction of the three boys was to force Israel to release even more terrorists—including some, like those in the Shalit deal, with blood on their hands—this move is an attempt to demonstrate that the kidnapping has backfired. But the boasts from both Israeli politicians and military officials that Hamas is already the loser in this affair may be more intended to boost their citizens’ morale than an objective analysis of the situation. While Hamas may have been dealt a setback that makes it less able to operate in the West Bank, unless the Israelis are prepared to stand their ground on demands for release of the Hamas prisoners, the Islamist group will still be able to claim victory. That’s especially true if the boys aren’t found, if more terrorists walk free as a result of this affair or if, as appears likely, international public opinion begins to swing back to the Palestinians after a week during which the kidnapping engendered more sympathy than usual for the Israelis.

As Raphael Aren wrote in the Times of Israel today, the IDF operations have sought to delegitimize the Fatah-Hamas unity government in the eyes of the world by pointing out the involvement of Hamas in terrorism. But as Israel has learned to its sorrow many times in the past, there are severe limits as to how much leeway the world is prepared to grant it when it comes to self-defense. Though the kidnapping has been roundly, if sometimes belatedly condemned by world leaders, none have drawn the appropriate conclusion from the spectacle of a partner in the Palestinian government conducting terrorist operations. Neither the U.S. nor the European Union has halted aid to the PA in spite of the clear indication that rather than being absorbed by the supposedly more moderate Fatah, Hamas has remained steadfast in its support for terrorism. Just as telling are the calls from Washington and European capitals for Israel to show “restraint” in its efforts to strike back at the terrorists or to find the boys.

While the West will tolerate some Israeli efforts aimed at hindering Hamas operations as well as those focused on recovery of the kidnapping victims, it’s clear that none will endorse anything that would go beyond those limited measures. Though the U.S. is preoccupied with the crisis in Iraq, there is little doubt the Obama administration would lash out at Israel if it expelled senior Hamas members from the West Bank to Gaza. Nor would it stand by if the Israelis put the squeeze on PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to make good on his pledges to help find the boys or in any way punished Hamas’s Fatah partners.

While the Israeli government may think the kidnapping—and the broad support for it among the Palestinian people—ought to inform the world’s view of the conflict, neither the Obama administration nor its European allies share that opinion. From their frame of reference, the kidnapping is just an annoyance, albeit a painful one, that Israelis must put up with. Barring a swift resolution to this incident, it is likely pressure will start to build in the international community for the Israelis to stand down and begin releasing the re-arrested Shalit-swap prisoners. Indeed, already voices are being raised claiming that Israel is engaging in “collective punishment” against the Palestinians in its anti-Hamas campaign. While the charge is specious, the willingness to turn the tables on the Israelis and to treat Hamas and its supporters as the victims reflects the prejudicial atmosphere in which the Jewish state must operate.

Contrary to the expectations of some in Israel, the #bringbackourboys hashtag social media campaign hasn’t really caught fire outside of the Jewish community. Nor has the rival #threeshalits hashtag—a phrase that demonstrates the broad support for terrorism among Palestinians—influenced either the U.S. or international public opinion to cause them to question their belief that the Israelis are the real obstacle to peace. By raising the ante with Israel in this manner, Hamas has shown the Palestinians that they are the true standard-bearers in the ongoing conflict with the Jews. Unless the IDF can find the boys and the Netanyahu government sticks to its guns in the months ahead on prisoner releases, Hamas will be able claim victory despite the blows they have absorbed.

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Liberals Are Afraid of Scott Walker

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has made no secret of the fact that he’s thinking about running for president in 2016. But before that happens, he’s got to win a reelection fight in a polarized state where his opponents have been gunning for him since he took office. He’ll also have to navigate a crowded Republican field including several candidates who will have a head start on him, higher national name recognition, and higher numbers in early poll. But there’s something about the Wisconsin governor that drives liberals bonkers.

That’s the only explanation for the New Republic‘s atrocious hit piece on him this week that sought to label him as a racist. The problem with the piece wasn’t just the false premise. As even many of the magazine’s liberal faithful soon realized as they plowed through the 7,000-plus word effort, that the inflammatory headline—”The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker: A journey through the poisonous, racially divided world that produced a Republican star”—there was absolutely nothing there to prove that Walker was a racist. The best takedown of the article comes—as is only fitting—from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, whose Christian Schneider rightly dismisses Alec MacGillis’s work as the kind of a baloney that smacked of a Google-aided tourist rather than knowledge of the state’s politics.

But the liberal campaign to discredit Walker isn’t limited to TNR’s inflammatory trash. As the New York Times reported this afternoon, there was an attempt by some Wisconsin prosecutors to tie Walker’s recall campaign to illegal contributions. But you have to click on the piece that was trumpeted on the paper’s home page to learn that the case was unproven and, in fact, dismissed by a federal judge and that the story is based on a federal suit that sought to reveal the unsubstantiated allegations in the records of this cold case. In fact, you have to read down to the end of the sixth paragraph of the piece to read, in a quote from Walker’s camp, that “two judges have rejected the characterizations [of the Walker campaign’s alleged illegal activity] contained in these documents.” The Times only mentions the pertinent fact that a federal judge halted the investigation as a politicized fishing expedition in the last sentence of the article.

In other words, there may be as little to this “scandal” as there was to previous efforts to nail Walker via Wisconsin’s draconian campaign finance laws or hit pieces like that published in TNR. All of which must cause political observers to wonder why it is that liberals are expending so much effort to knock off Walker. Could it be that they sense he is exactly the sort of candidate that could give Democrats a run for their money in 2016?

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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has made no secret of the fact that he’s thinking about running for president in 2016. But before that happens, he’s got to win a reelection fight in a polarized state where his opponents have been gunning for him since he took office. He’ll also have to navigate a crowded Republican field including several candidates who will have a head start on him, higher national name recognition, and higher numbers in early poll. But there’s something about the Wisconsin governor that drives liberals bonkers.

That’s the only explanation for the New Republic‘s atrocious hit piece on him this week that sought to label him as a racist. The problem with the piece wasn’t just the false premise. As even many of the magazine’s liberal faithful soon realized as they plowed through the 7,000-plus word effort, that the inflammatory headline—”The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker: A journey through the poisonous, racially divided world that produced a Republican star”—there was absolutely nothing there to prove that Walker was a racist. The best takedown of the article comes—as is only fitting—from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, whose Christian Schneider rightly dismisses Alec MacGillis’s work as the kind of a baloney that smacked of a Google-aided tourist rather than knowledge of the state’s politics.

But the liberal campaign to discredit Walker isn’t limited to TNR’s inflammatory trash. As the New York Times reported this afternoon, there was an attempt by some Wisconsin prosecutors to tie Walker’s recall campaign to illegal contributions. But you have to click on the piece that was trumpeted on the paper’s home page to learn that the case was unproven and, in fact, dismissed by a federal judge and that the story is based on a federal suit that sought to reveal the unsubstantiated allegations in the records of this cold case. In fact, you have to read down to the end of the sixth paragraph of the piece to read, in a quote from Walker’s camp, that “two judges have rejected the characterizations [of the Walker campaign’s alleged illegal activity] contained in these documents.” The Times only mentions the pertinent fact that a federal judge halted the investigation as a politicized fishing expedition in the last sentence of the article.

In other words, there may be as little to this “scandal” as there was to previous efforts to nail Walker via Wisconsin’s draconian campaign finance laws or hit pieces like that published in TNR. All of which must cause political observers to wonder why it is that liberals are expending so much effort to knock off Walker. Could it be that they sense he is exactly the sort of candidate that could give Democrats a run for their money in 2016?

To be fair, no Republican governor in the country challenged liberal orthodoxy and Democrat interest groups the way Walker did after he took office in 2011. By seeking to reform the state’s finances and prevent state worker unions from continuing to blackmail the taxpayers, Walker stepped on what has always been the third rail of American politics. Yet he won that political battle despite thuggish efforts by Democrats and unions to intimidate Walker and other Republicans as well as an attempt to shut down the Wisconsin legislature (not surprisingly liberals who were outraged at last year’s federal government shutdown had no problem with what Democrats did in that instance). Not satisfied with that fiasco, the unions and Democrats wasted a year of effort and millions of dollars in precious campaign funds on a futile recall election the following year that only served to solidify his status as a GOP star.

While past efforts failed, the coverage in liberal publications of today’s allegations read as if the left thinks they’ve found gold here. The substance of the story is that a senior official of Walker’s recall defense campaign illegally coordinated with outside groups. The laws that this activity allegedly violates are so complicated that not even several paragraphs of prose and Venn diagrams serve to provide a clear explanation of just why this was so terrible. Some, like TIME’s Michael Scherer, are also claiming that Walker “tacitly admitted” guilt in the case in an email in which he boasted that campaign consultant R.J. Johnson was successfully running 9 recall elections and it will be like 9 congressional markets in every market in the state.” But only a rabid anti-Walker partisan can read that statement as anything but applause for an effort in which the local GOP campaigns in the state’s congressional districts were acting in concert. Not even Wisconsin’s absurd maze of campaign finance laws makes that illegal. Nor does another email that refers to Johnson’s work in coordinating spending from various groups prove that he broke any law. It’s little wonder that courts have halted this politicized charade. Scherer admits the law is unclear and that every judge who has ruled on the case has tossed it out. But his point is that “from a distance” the charges will still look bad and besmirch Walker’s reputation.

Though Walker has maintained a steady lead in polls against a Democratic challenger, he has his hands full in a close race in what remains a rare example of a true swing state. But Democrats seem to sense that, despite his lack of experience on the national stage, Walker is exactly the sort of candidate who could give them trouble. He not only is well liked by the entire spectrum of Republican constituencies including Tea Partiers, business groups, and the so-called establishment. His lack of a Washington resume positions him perfectly against a member of the permanent government in Hillary Clinton. His middle class origins also will enable him to appeal to working and middle class Americans who have, as Rick Santorum has rightly pointed out, felt left out by recent GOP campaigns.

But neither Hillary nor any other Democrat will have to worry further about Walker if scurrilous charges of racism or more stray allegations about law breaking help beat him in 2014. As far as Democrats are concerned, it doesn’t really matter whether these stories are based on substance or innuendo. All that counts is if they can put a dent in Walker’s well-earned image as a hard-working reform-minded governor. But they should be wary of overreaching as they did in the 2012 recall. So far, Walker has proved that the more liberals try to destroy him, the stronger he gets. It also strengthens Walker’s popularity among Republicans, which is the last thing that liberals want, since they hope the GOP nominates a candidate who, unlike Walker, will be easily branded as a right-wing extremist.

It’s hard to say whether this latest charge will stick. But the disproportionate effort the left has invested in destroying Walker illustrates how much they fear him.

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Erasing the “Oops”: Perry Mulls a 2016 Bid

In late May the Hill ran a story titled “Is it Ted Cruz’s Texas now?” Not only had Cruz endorsed a winner in a GOP primary that day, but more importantly, the Hill noted that upstarts and insurgent challengers for state offices who beat establishment favorites or incumbents were following Cruz’s playbook. (One of them even beat the same opponent Cruz defeated in his Senate primary, David Dewhurst.) “In every race, there was a Cruz dynamic,” as GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak told the paper.

“Cruz’s influence is also shaping state races that will influence Texas politics for years to come,” the Hill added. This is something to keep in mind as outgoing Texas Governor Rick Perry mulls another bid for the presidency. On the one hand, since he’s leaving office in Texas he won’t really have anything to lose by running again. On the other, his leaving office is emblematic of the changing of the guard in Texas. Dewhurst was, after all, Perry’s lieutenant governor when Cruz beat him for the Senate nomination.

Cruz’s influence in Texas politics will only increase in the near future. That would be of tremendous benefit if Cruz runs for president in 2016 and is able to secure the GOP nomination. Having a strong home base in an important state like Texas would provide decent press and go a long way toward establishing a ground game. But it would also help Cruz in the primaries if another Texan runs against him. And if he does have another Texas opponent, it’s likely to be Perry.

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In late May the Hill ran a story titled “Is it Ted Cruz’s Texas now?” Not only had Cruz endorsed a winner in a GOP primary that day, but more importantly, the Hill noted that upstarts and insurgent challengers for state offices who beat establishment favorites or incumbents were following Cruz’s playbook. (One of them even beat the same opponent Cruz defeated in his Senate primary, David Dewhurst.) “In every race, there was a Cruz dynamic,” as GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak told the paper.

“Cruz’s influence is also shaping state races that will influence Texas politics for years to come,” the Hill added. This is something to keep in mind as outgoing Texas Governor Rick Perry mulls another bid for the presidency. On the one hand, since he’s leaving office in Texas he won’t really have anything to lose by running again. On the other, his leaving office is emblematic of the changing of the guard in Texas. Dewhurst was, after all, Perry’s lieutenant governor when Cruz beat him for the Senate nomination.

Cruz’s influence in Texas politics will only increase in the near future. That would be of tremendous benefit if Cruz runs for president in 2016 and is able to secure the GOP nomination. Having a strong home base in an important state like Texas would provide decent press and go a long way toward establishing a ground game. But it would also help Cruz in the primaries if another Texan runs against him. And if he does have another Texas opponent, it’s likely to be Perry.

New York Times Magazine’s Mark Leibovich recently spent some time with Perry for a profile in this weekend’s issue. Much of the article is centered on 2016, because Perry refuses to shut the door on the possibility. But the main obstacle the article concentrates on is the infamous “Oops” moment during a primary debate:

Perry’s next campaign, if he pursues one, would be as much about the willingness of the electorate to grant second chances as anything he himself would bring. Republican voters have been generous to second-timers in the past, Perry pointed out to me. Mitt Romney, Bob Dole, George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, among others, all ran for president and lost before securing their party’s nomination. “Americans don’t spend all their time looking backward,” Perry said. They do, however, spend a lot of time watching television and assorted other screens, which is where the oops fiasco will live in viral perpetuity if he runs again. Even if everyone over 35 has had that sort of blanking moment, Perry’s timing was awful. “Ron Paul walked up and said: ‘I’ve done that before. But I’ve never done it in front of four million people,’ ” Perry told me.

Perry has been self-deprecating about the episode from the outset. “I’m glad I had my boots on tonight, because I sure stepped in it out there,” he said in the post-debate spin room that night. He read an oops-themed Top 10 list on Letterman the next night. At a dinner speech in Washington after the campaign ended, Perry summarized his experience thus: “Here’s the hardest part for me: the weakest Republican field in history — and they kicked my butt.” Even so, Perry is a figure of substantial ego and pride, and it clearly bothers him to be trapped in such a humiliating “Groundhog Day.”

There is a great deal of logic here. Perry has been governor for a decade and a half, and in that time Texas has thrived economically and his administration has been at the forefront of various policy reform fights, from education to criminal justice, and has demonstrated the difference between smart regulations and suffocating red tape. Perry’s career in government is a success story. And yet, the “oops” moment took place amid his first, disastrous national campaign and so that is what he risks, unfairly, being remembered for.

That’s unjust, but it’s also politics. At the same time, saying Perry doesn’t have anything to lose isn’t quite accurate. If he and Cruz both run, it would be similar to the possibility of both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio running: the mood in the GOP is that it’s the next generation’s turn, and splitting the vote with a popular conservative in an important state would look like sour grapes. That’s especially true if the candidate doesn’t have a good shot at winning the nomination.

And for Perry, that appears to be the case. Timing is everything, and the last nomination battle was the perfect time for Perry. He’s under no obligation to simply ride off into the sunset without a fight, but it’s doubtful he’d really want to play spoiler to his home state’s next political star. If Cruz doesn’t run, there’s more of an argument that Perry has at least earned a chance to leave the scene on his own terms. It might not change his odds much, but it would probably be his last shot at a second chance.

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A Step Forward for Iraq

President Obama’s announcement that he is sending some 300 Special Operations personnel to Iraq is a small but important step in the right direction. The president is at least willing to acknowledge that the U.S. has a real stake in the future of Iraq and that we have to use military power to protect our interests. That’s a step forward from his previous stance, which seemed to be that the only interest we have is in “ending the war” (i.e., ending our involvement in the war). But this latest proposal is a long way from the kind of plan that would actually be necessary to roll back recent advances both by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and by the Iranian Quds Force which has been amping up its presence in Iraq in response to ISIS’s gains.

There was, for a start, no mention of air strikes and no mention of raids by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which has become so effective at targeting terrorist networks in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Both will be necessary to do serious damage to Sunni and Shiite extremists–America’s enemies–who are operating en masse in both Syria and Iraq.

Sending in 300 military personnel to work with the Iraqi Security Forces will enhance American awareness of Iraqi military operations and could potentially help honest officers to resist sectarian orders from Nouri al-Maliki’s henchmen. But there is a danger in embedding U.S. forces only with the Iraqi military when it has become so heavily politicized by Shiite operatives. It is vital that the U.S. not be seen as taking a side in this sectarian conflict and that we not become an enabler of Maliki’s sectarian agenda.

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President Obama’s announcement that he is sending some 300 Special Operations personnel to Iraq is a small but important step in the right direction. The president is at least willing to acknowledge that the U.S. has a real stake in the future of Iraq and that we have to use military power to protect our interests. That’s a step forward from his previous stance, which seemed to be that the only interest we have is in “ending the war” (i.e., ending our involvement in the war). But this latest proposal is a long way from the kind of plan that would actually be necessary to roll back recent advances both by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and by the Iranian Quds Force which has been amping up its presence in Iraq in response to ISIS’s gains.

There was, for a start, no mention of air strikes and no mention of raids by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which has become so effective at targeting terrorist networks in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Both will be necessary to do serious damage to Sunni and Shiite extremists–America’s enemies–who are operating en masse in both Syria and Iraq.

Sending in 300 military personnel to work with the Iraqi Security Forces will enhance American awareness of Iraqi military operations and could potentially help honest officers to resist sectarian orders from Nouri al-Maliki’s henchmen. But there is a danger in embedding U.S. forces only with the Iraqi military when it has become so heavily politicized by Shiite operatives. It is vital that the U.S. not be seen as taking a side in this sectarian conflict and that we not become an enabler of Maliki’s sectarian agenda.

For this reason it is imperative that U.S. personnel work closely not only with the Iraqi military but also with the Kurdish peshmerga and whatever anti-ISIS forces can be cobbled together among the Sunnis–call it the Son of the Sons of Iraq (as the Anbar Awakening militia was known). Moreover, it is imperative that the U.S. not forget about the “S”–Syria”–in ISIS. We need to hit ISIS on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, which will require doing much more to train and equip the Free Syrian Army and possibly support their operations with air power.

But doing all this–partnering with Sunnis and Kurds and the Free Syrian Army as well as the Iraqi Security Forces; launching air strikes and Special Operations raids–will require a commitment much larger than 300 troops. I don’t have an order of battle worked out, but I’m guessing we are talking about a minimum of a few thousand troops–in other words at least the number that Obama was prepared to leave behind after 2011 if a Status of Forces Agreement had been worked out. Doing that, of course, would require the president to admit he was wrong to pull the U.S. troops out in the first place, but absent such an implicit admission it is hard to see how Iraq can be stabilized.

I don’t mean to slight the political element, which will ultimately be the most important. I have repeatedly argued and still believe that one of our primary objectives has to be Maliki’s removal and replacement with a more inclusive leader. I am happy to see the administration signaling that it agrees. But on the issue of tactics and timing I am becoming convinced that it is counterproductive to premise greater U.S. military action on political progress in Baghdad. We need to pursue both lines of operation, political and military, simultaneously. In fact the greater commitment we make militarily to Iraq’s future, the more say we will have in the formation of the next government.

This, by the way, is a task that Obama needs to stop delegating to Joe Biden and others. He needs to make the same realization that George W. Bush made, which is that the future of U.S. interests in the region–and of his presidency–are dependent on a successful outcome in Iraq and therefore it behooves the commander in chief to get more personally involved in all matters pertaining to Iraq. The president, whoever he is, brings more gravitas to the negotiating table than a vice president or an ambassador. Alas there is still no sense that Obama is giving Iraq–and Syria–the kind of focus and attention and resources that these countries deserve in their hour of crisis.

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Abdullah Jumps the Gun on Vote Fraud

The legend of the 1960 election is that Democratic bosses robbed Richard Nixon of critical votes in Texas and Illinois, giving those states to John F. Kennedy and thus ensuring his election. Nixon then refused to challenge the validity of the outcome–what was then the closest presidential election in U.S. history–because to do so would harm the national interest. Whether it happened exactly like that or not (and there is good cause for doubt as David Greenberg points out) the principle that Nixon claimed to be espousing was a good one: putting the nation’s interests above one’s own political ambitions.

That is a lesson that Abdullah Abdullah should keep in mind in Afghanistan. Abdullah was the front-runner in the first round of presidential voting, but even before all the ballots in the second round have been counted he is claiming fraud. This is an understandable but shortsighted reaction to early leaks which suggested that Abdullah was running a million votes behind Ashraf Ghani who had finished second in the initial round of balloting. Instead of waiting for a final vote count Abdullah has launched a preemptive strike. As the New York Times notes:

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The legend of the 1960 election is that Democratic bosses robbed Richard Nixon of critical votes in Texas and Illinois, giving those states to John F. Kennedy and thus ensuring his election. Nixon then refused to challenge the validity of the outcome–what was then the closest presidential election in U.S. history–because to do so would harm the national interest. Whether it happened exactly like that or not (and there is good cause for doubt as David Greenberg points out) the principle that Nixon claimed to be espousing was a good one: putting the nation’s interests above one’s own political ambitions.

That is a lesson that Abdullah Abdullah should keep in mind in Afghanistan. Abdullah was the front-runner in the first round of presidential voting, but even before all the ballots in the second round have been counted he is claiming fraud. This is an understandable but shortsighted reaction to early leaks which suggested that Abdullah was running a million votes behind Ashraf Ghani who had finished second in the initial round of balloting. Instead of waiting for a final vote count Abdullah has launched a preemptive strike. As the New York Times notes:

Rejecting the process laid out under Afghan electoral law, he called on the election commission to halt all vote-counting and immediately investigate any inflated ballot totals — steps that are designed to come after partial vote results are announced in the next few weeks. Mr. Abdullah also withdrew his election observers from the vote-counting and suspended his cooperation with the Independent Election Commission, which his campaign accuses of bias.

There has, in fact, been no evidence of widespread vote fraud yet presented. Perhaps fraud did occur on a large scale. If that’s the case Afghanistan has procedures for dealing with such a contingency–and the addition of international observers can help to ensure transparency.

But what Abdullah is doing is not constructive. He is unfairly throwing into doubt the legitimacy of the election and, should he lose, undermining the ability of Ghani to govern. That is not in Afghanistan’s interests–and ultimately not in Abdullah’s interests either if he wants to be seen as an elder statesman rather than a grasping politician.

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What Kind of Iraq Did Obama Inherit?

A very intense debate has broken out about who, from the American side of things, is responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq: President Obama or his immediate predecessor. That argument is less important than salvaging the current situation, which is ominous, but it’s not unimportant. The historical record matters.

A fair-minded reading of the facts, I think, shows that when Mr. Obama was sworn in, the Iraq war had more or less been won. Things were fragile to be sure. But the errors that were made during the occupation of Iraq following the fall of Saddam, which were extremely costly, were corrected in 2007. That was when President Bush made what is in my estimation his most impressive decision. In the face of enormous political opposition, with the nation weary of the war, Mr. Bush implemented a new counterinsurgency strategy, dubbed the “surge” and led by the estimable General David Petraeus. It resulted in startling gains.

By the time the surge ended in 2008, violence in Iraq had dropped to the lowest level since the first year of the war. Sectarian killings had dropped by 95 percent. By 2009, U.S. combat deaths were extremely rare. (In December of that year there were no American combat deaths in Iraq.) Iraq was on the mend. Even Barack Obama, who opposed the surge every step of the way, conceded in September 2008 that it had succeeded in reducing violence “beyond our wildest dreams.”

As importantly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself Shia, was leading efforts against Shia extremists (including routing Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in April 2008). Political progress was being made, with Sunnis willing to join the national government. In addition, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been dealt a devastating defeat, in good part because of the “Anbar Awakening.” This was significant because Iraq is where al-Qaeda decided to make its stand; its defeat there was therefore quite damaging to it.

If you want to understand how good things were in Iraq post-surge, consider what Vice President Joe Biden told Larry King on February 11, 2010:

I am very optimistic about Iraq. I think it’s going to be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government. I’ve been there 17 times now. I go about every two months, three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It’s impressed me. I’ve been impressed, how they have been deciding to use the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.

So by the admission of the top figures in the Obama administration, they were quite pleased and very optimistic about the situation in Iraq. And no wonder: Iraq was a functioning (if fragile) democracy and an American ally (if a difficult one) in the Middle East. At least it was until President Obama failed in 2011 to get a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement, which set into motion a series of events that have led to where we are.

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A very intense debate has broken out about who, from the American side of things, is responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq: President Obama or his immediate predecessor. That argument is less important than salvaging the current situation, which is ominous, but it’s not unimportant. The historical record matters.

A fair-minded reading of the facts, I think, shows that when Mr. Obama was sworn in, the Iraq war had more or less been won. Things were fragile to be sure. But the errors that were made during the occupation of Iraq following the fall of Saddam, which were extremely costly, were corrected in 2007. That was when President Bush made what is in my estimation his most impressive decision. In the face of enormous political opposition, with the nation weary of the war, Mr. Bush implemented a new counterinsurgency strategy, dubbed the “surge” and led by the estimable General David Petraeus. It resulted in startling gains.

By the time the surge ended in 2008, violence in Iraq had dropped to the lowest level since the first year of the war. Sectarian killings had dropped by 95 percent. By 2009, U.S. combat deaths were extremely rare. (In December of that year there were no American combat deaths in Iraq.) Iraq was on the mend. Even Barack Obama, who opposed the surge every step of the way, conceded in September 2008 that it had succeeded in reducing violence “beyond our wildest dreams.”

As importantly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself Shia, was leading efforts against Shia extremists (including routing Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in April 2008). Political progress was being made, with Sunnis willing to join the national government. In addition, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been dealt a devastating defeat, in good part because of the “Anbar Awakening.” This was significant because Iraq is where al-Qaeda decided to make its stand; its defeat there was therefore quite damaging to it.

If you want to understand how good things were in Iraq post-surge, consider what Vice President Joe Biden told Larry King on February 11, 2010:

I am very optimistic about Iraq. I think it’s going to be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government. I’ve been there 17 times now. I go about every two months, three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It’s impressed me. I’ve been impressed, how they have been deciding to use the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.

So by the admission of the top figures in the Obama administration, they were quite pleased and very optimistic about the situation in Iraq. And no wonder: Iraq was a functioning (if fragile) democracy and an American ally (if a difficult one) in the Middle East. At least it was until President Obama failed in 2011 to get a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement, which set into motion a series of events that have led to where we are.

Defenders of Mr. Obama are now insisting that the president is fault-free when it comes to the SOFA failure. But this is an effort at revisionism. On the matter of the SOFA, this story by the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins makes it clear that (a) the Maliki government (which is certainly problematic) wanted to maintain a U.S. presence in Iraq; (b) it would have made a significant difference in keeping Iraq pacified; and (c) the Obama administration was not serious about re-negotiating a SOFA agreement. In the words of Mr. Filkins:

President Obama, too, was ambivalent about retaining even a small force in Iraq. For several months, American officials told me, they were unable to answer basic questions in meetings with Iraqis—like how many troops they wanted to leave behind—because the Administration had not decided. “We got no guidance from the White House,” [James Jeffrey, the Amerian Ambassador to Iraq at the time] told me. “We didn’t know where the President was. Maliki kept saying, ‘I don’t know what I have to sell.’ ” At one meeting, Maliki said that he was willing to sign an executive agreement granting the soldiers permission to stay, if he didn’t have to persuade the parliament to accept immunity. The Obama Administration quickly rejected the idea. “The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible,” Sami al-Askari, the Iraqi member of parliament, said.

And then there’s this:

Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national-security adviser, told me that Obama believes a full withdrawal was the right decision. “There is a risk of overstating the difference that American troops could make in the internal politics of Iraq,” he said. “Having troops there did not allow us to dictate sectarian alliances. Iraqis are going to respond to their own political imperatives.” But U.S. diplomats and commanders argue that they played a crucial role, acting as interlocutors among the factions—and curtailing Maliki’s sectarian tendencies. [emphasis added]

To sum up, then: post-surge, Iraq was making significant progress on virtually every front. The Obama administration said as much. The president was not engaged or eager to sign a new SOFA. A full withdrawal was the right decision. His own top advisers admitted as much. The president had long argued he wanted all American troops out of Iraq during his presidency, and he got his wish. He met his goal.

The problem is that in getting what he wanted, Mr. Obama may well have opened the gates of hell in the Middle East.

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Hamas-Fatah Unity: When Policymakers Don’t Look Ahead

Competing with Hamas or other extremists for the allegiance of the “Arab street” often means an anti-Semitic and baldly violent race to the bottom. So it was a welcome surprise when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned in strong terms the kidnapping of three Israeli teens last week. Speaking in Arabic in Saudi Arabia, according to the Times of Israel, Abbas said: “Those who perpetrated this act want to destroy us [the Palestinians]. … The three young men are human beings just like us and must be returned to their families.”

Today the paper notes the predictable response from Hamas:

His stance quickly drew fire from Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, who blasted Abbas for “basing his statements solely on the Israeli narrative, without presenting any true information.”

Hamas MP Mushir al-Masri joined Abu Zuhri’s criticism, accusing Abbas of preferring the three Israeli youths to thousands of Palestinian prisoners languishing in Israeli jails.

Abbas surely knew he’d be labeled a collaborator and a traitor for his comments, so it’s all the more encouraging he made them anyway. And he also struck a nerve: when Abbas said the kidnappers “want to destroy” the Palestinians, he’s right up to a point. What Hamas terrorists and their supporters want to destroy are the prospects for peace and the two-state solution, and thus an independent Palestine. Since “resistance” is Hamas’s raison d’être, anything or anyone who gets in their way constitutes an existential threat to them.

Those who want to see the emergence of some sort of relatively moderate Palestinian governance are naturally cheered by this exchange, then. But this is even more of a vindication for those who opposed bringing Hamas into the government in the first place.

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Competing with Hamas or other extremists for the allegiance of the “Arab street” often means an anti-Semitic and baldly violent race to the bottom. So it was a welcome surprise when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned in strong terms the kidnapping of three Israeli teens last week. Speaking in Arabic in Saudi Arabia, according to the Times of Israel, Abbas said: “Those who perpetrated this act want to destroy us [the Palestinians]. … The three young men are human beings just like us and must be returned to their families.”

Today the paper notes the predictable response from Hamas:

His stance quickly drew fire from Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, who blasted Abbas for “basing his statements solely on the Israeli narrative, without presenting any true information.”

Hamas MP Mushir al-Masri joined Abu Zuhri’s criticism, accusing Abbas of preferring the three Israeli youths to thousands of Palestinian prisoners languishing in Israeli jails.

Abbas surely knew he’d be labeled a collaborator and a traitor for his comments, so it’s all the more encouraging he made them anyway. And he also struck a nerve: when Abbas said the kidnappers “want to destroy” the Palestinians, he’s right up to a point. What Hamas terrorists and their supporters want to destroy are the prospects for peace and the two-state solution, and thus an independent Palestine. Since “resistance” is Hamas’s raison d’être, anything or anyone who gets in their way constitutes an existential threat to them.

Those who want to see the emergence of some sort of relatively moderate Palestinian governance are naturally cheered by this exchange, then. But this is even more of a vindication for those who opposed bringing Hamas into the government in the first place.

The “unity” government between Fatah and Hamas has only one wild card: Fatah. Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel; the terror group’s every action and statement is based in Hamas’s genocidal campaign. Fatah is less predictable. It is also animated by a desire to promulgate a wild-eyed anti-Semitism and the denial of human rights, but Abbas has always been less convinced that campaigns of indiscriminate murder are helpful to the cause.

So Fatah answered Hamas’s taunts:

“[Hamas’s] cheap accusations concerning the prisoners are nothing but words,” read a statement on Fatah’s official website. “Everyone knows that president [Abbas] has placed our heroic prisoners at the top of his agenda … his insistence on freeing the fourth batch of veteran prisoners halted the negotiations. We did not agree to what Hamas has agreed to, namely the deportation of prisoners abroad, far from their families.”

The Cairo reconciliation agreement signed between Fatah and Hamas in May 2011 explicitly called for “peaceful and political resistance,” the statement continued; the kidnapping, it implied, constituted a breach of that accord.

What Fatah is experiencing now is an internecine version of what Hamas does to any impending Israeli-Palestinian deal. When the two sides appear to be making progress, Hamas reignites its terror campaign against Israel, undermining the Palestinian Authority’s public standing and forcing a response from Israel. Israeli self-defense brings international condemnation from the self-obsessed opportunists who invest their reputations in the peace process, and it forces security questions to the fore.

That, in turn, exposes the PA’s bad faith. Were Abbas and his crew willing to ensure Israel’s security, the process could continue. But they are not willing (in some cases, able) to do so. Their bluff called, the Palestinians walk away from negotiations. The process collapses, with the PA looking ever weaker, ignorant European diplomats buffoonishly railing against Israel in the public sphere, and the Americans, if led by a Democratic presidential administration, going back to trying to destabilize Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

Now it is a Fatah-Hamas deal on the table, but the Hamasniks’ response is the same: violence against innocents. Can Abbas walk away from the unity government? It’s not so easy, though I suppose it isn’t quite too late. This is part of the reason the Obama administration’s decision to support Hamas’s participation in the government was so foolish.

The “cooperation” the West is lauding between Israel and the PA is necessary because of the decision to let Hamas into the henhouse. Abbas cannot defeat them on his own, so the IDF remains his only real hope of staying in power. How will that play with the Palestinian street? And if this does cause the collapse of the unity deal, then we’re back where we started except it took the kidnapping of three Jews to get us there. Those supporting this deal do not seem to have looked very far ahead. Their response to the current crisis shows that hasn’t changed.

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The Redskins and the Role of Government

Yesterday’s ruling by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board on a suit challenging the right of the Washington Redskins football team to protect their trademark is being hailed as a turning point in the battle to force the team and its stubborn owner to give up the fight to keep the controversial name. An appeal of the 2-1 vote will probably take years to adjudicate and even if it is eventually upheld, the decision doesn’t force the National Football League team to stop using its name. Nor would it prevent the team from going to court to protect its rights or to sue counterfeiters since it could do so under common law rights that are not affected by the ruling. But the decision does create more pressure on Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to back down from his vow to retreat in the face of protests from Native Americans and prominent politicians (up to and including the president of the United States) who want him to switch to a moniker that is not generally understood to be a slur.

This controversy has become more a war of wills than a debate about the merit of Snyder’s claim that the term “redskins” is actually one that honors Native Americans rather than disparaging them. The main reason for that is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to argue that Snyder is right about the positive nature of the word “redskins.” Unlike other Indian-related names like “Braves” or “Chiefs” that are used by other professional sports teams, “Redskins” is not a word that one would naturally associate with honor, bravery, courage, or ferocity in battle. Snyder’s defense is pure baloney. Though for those who have no historical memory it is just the name of the Washington football team, redskins is an antiquated term of abuse that references the skin color of Native Americans. As such, it is the sort of label that is rightly consigned to the dustbin of history as Americans have discarded the routine racism that was once commonplace in our popular culture. Like President Obama, I, too, were I rich enough to be a team owner, would not want one with such a name.

The arguments about this have largely centered on whether Snyder has a leg to stand on when he denies Redskins is a slur. But the question of whether the resources of the federal government ought to be employed to aid those seeking to force Snyder to give it up is an entirely different one from that of whether the team’s critics are right about its unsavory nature. Thus, rather than stand his ground on the farcical notion that the name is neutral or a positive statement about Native Americans, Snyder’s best defense may be one that focuses on whether the government has any right to meddle with his business.

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Yesterday’s ruling by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board on a suit challenging the right of the Washington Redskins football team to protect their trademark is being hailed as a turning point in the battle to force the team and its stubborn owner to give up the fight to keep the controversial name. An appeal of the 2-1 vote will probably take years to adjudicate and even if it is eventually upheld, the decision doesn’t force the National Football League team to stop using its name. Nor would it prevent the team from going to court to protect its rights or to sue counterfeiters since it could do so under common law rights that are not affected by the ruling. But the decision does create more pressure on Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to back down from his vow to retreat in the face of protests from Native Americans and prominent politicians (up to and including the president of the United States) who want him to switch to a moniker that is not generally understood to be a slur.

This controversy has become more a war of wills than a debate about the merit of Snyder’s claim that the term “redskins” is actually one that honors Native Americans rather than disparaging them. The main reason for that is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to argue that Snyder is right about the positive nature of the word “redskins.” Unlike other Indian-related names like “Braves” or “Chiefs” that are used by other professional sports teams, “Redskins” is not a word that one would naturally associate with honor, bravery, courage, or ferocity in battle. Snyder’s defense is pure baloney. Though for those who have no historical memory it is just the name of the Washington football team, redskins is an antiquated term of abuse that references the skin color of Native Americans. As such, it is the sort of label that is rightly consigned to the dustbin of history as Americans have discarded the routine racism that was once commonplace in our popular culture. Like President Obama, I, too, were I rich enough to be a team owner, would not want one with such a name.

The arguments about this have largely centered on whether Snyder has a leg to stand on when he denies Redskins is a slur. But the question of whether the resources of the federal government ought to be employed to aid those seeking to force Snyder to give it up is an entirely different one from that of whether the team’s critics are right about its unsavory nature. Thus, rather than stand his ground on the farcical notion that the name is neutral or a positive statement about Native Americans, Snyder’s best defense may be one that focuses on whether the government has any right to meddle with his business.

The legal grounds on which yesterday’s ruling was made centers on a provision of the Lanham Act which governs trademark protection that allows third parties who believe a copyrighted name is scandalous to the general public or disparaging to particular groups. Those Native Americans who joined in the challenge alleged that Redskins does exactly that and a majority of the board agreed with them. It is likely that most Americans, outside of Redskins fans who wish to preserve the 75-year-old name of their team, probably concur.

Even if their appeal fails the team could still defend its trademark against those who sell bootleg or counterfeit merchandise. But, as many observers have noted, the Redskins are marketing partners with all but one other NFL team (the Dallas Cowboys have their own separate deal); the ruling may generate pressure on Snyder to sell from his fellow owners and the NFL itself. Given that the president and most Democratic members of the U.S. Senate are now on record demanding a change, it’s not clear that even the obdurate Snyder has the intestinal fortitude to stick to his vow never to budge on it.

But while it is easy to argue that it would be appropriate for Snyder to bend to public opinion, the involvement in the government in this debate is a very different matter. Although Redskins critics seem to have the law on their side about the trademark, it is worth asking whether a strict enforcement of that standard about scandalous or disparaging names is possible or desirable. Though the language of the law appears to be clear, is anyone really comfortable with a situation in which an appointed panel sitting in Washington has the right to censor trademarked names in this manner? If “Redskins” doesn’t meet the panel’s smell test, surely many other trademarks which have their roots in the American past could also be challenged. Just as Snyder’s team is put in the dock in the court of public opinion, why wouldn’t the manufacturers of Aunt Jemima products also be put there since surely their Gone With the Wind-style logo, redolent of slavery and the most shameful chapters of American history, could be deemed offensive.

Snyder’s sentiments resonate with the fans of his team specifically because he is seeking to preserve not just his brand but also the memories of the team’s supporters. Though sports teams take on the character of the city or region in which they play and are treated as if they are public property, they are nothing of the kind. An NFL franchise is, in that sense, no different from any other business. If the fans of the most popular sport—at least in terms of television ratings and merchandise sales—are not troubled by the team name, it is difficult to see why the government ought to intervene. If, however, the culture changes to the point where even an NFL team must bow to public opinion, then that is something that the market will demonstrate. If Americans feared to wear a Redskins jersey lest they be branded as racists, then surely Snyder would have to give up.

Though I sympathize with those who would like the team name to change, forcing this issue via judicial action or legislation would involve the government in something that is none of their affair. It is the market that should dictate this decision, not our political elites. Americans need their government to protect their liberty, to provide for the common defense and to do those things that cannot otherwise be done for the general welfare of society. But it does not need a government to decide on the name of a football team.

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The Media McCarthyites

The op-ed in the Wall Street Journal from former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter, former State Department official Liz Cheney, has set off a fire storm of criticism on the left about why they should be allowed to comment, or why their views should be considered. Here, for example, is Brian Beutler, senior editor of the New Republic, commenting on that journal’s website. At the Washington Post’s “Plum Line,” here is Paul Waldman. Jimmy Carter speechwriter James Fallows, not with a touch of irony given the Carter administration’s foreign-policy track record, writes, “a number of prominent officials who had set the stage for today’s disaster in Iraq deserved respect for their silence.” And, of course, the New York Times chimes in. James Wolcott at Vanity Fair advises tuning out anyone with the last name “Cheney, Wolfowitz, Feith, Boot, or, how apt, Slaughter.” The irony, of course, is that the names he puts forward often do not agree on policy prescriptions.

How sad, silly, and reflective of the naked partisanship that has done more than anything else to undercut Iraq. I read more bloggers on the left than I do on the right, even if I disagree with them. The argument always matters more than the person who makes them. The arbitrariness of it can also be infuriating. Why single out Wolfowitz, Bremer, and Cheney, but not Crocker, Khalilzad, Armitage, Rice, Powell, and Wilkerson? All supported the conflict in Iraq. Some subsequently walked away but the nature of government is that when decisions are made, even if you disagree with them, you move on to get the best possible outcome. Zalmay Khalilzad, Ryan Crocker, and Stephen Hadley favored a longer occupation because they thought U.S. political leverage would be greater in the formation of a new Iraqi government with boots on the ground; Wolfowitz and Cheney opposed that. But once the decision was made, it was important to achieve the best that could be achieved.

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The op-ed in the Wall Street Journal from former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter, former State Department official Liz Cheney, has set off a fire storm of criticism on the left about why they should be allowed to comment, or why their views should be considered. Here, for example, is Brian Beutler, senior editor of the New Republic, commenting on that journal’s website. At the Washington Post’s “Plum Line,” here is Paul Waldman. Jimmy Carter speechwriter James Fallows, not with a touch of irony given the Carter administration’s foreign-policy track record, writes, “a number of prominent officials who had set the stage for today’s disaster in Iraq deserved respect for their silence.” And, of course, the New York Times chimes in. James Wolcott at Vanity Fair advises tuning out anyone with the last name “Cheney, Wolfowitz, Feith, Boot, or, how apt, Slaughter.” The irony, of course, is that the names he puts forward often do not agree on policy prescriptions.

How sad, silly, and reflective of the naked partisanship that has done more than anything else to undercut Iraq. I read more bloggers on the left than I do on the right, even if I disagree with them. The argument always matters more than the person who makes them. The arbitrariness of it can also be infuriating. Why single out Wolfowitz, Bremer, and Cheney, but not Crocker, Khalilzad, Armitage, Rice, Powell, and Wilkerson? All supported the conflict in Iraq. Some subsequently walked away but the nature of government is that when decisions are made, even if you disagree with them, you move on to get the best possible outcome. Zalmay Khalilzad, Ryan Crocker, and Stephen Hadley favored a longer occupation because they thought U.S. political leverage would be greater in the formation of a new Iraqi government with boots on the ground; Wolfowitz and Cheney opposed that. But once the decision was made, it was important to achieve the best that could be achieved.

And while some who are counseling shutting Bush administration folks out of the debate might say they are free to speak—and so the charge of McCarthyism doesn’t apply—but simply that they should not be listened to, perhaps some reflection is needed about the merits of having a closed mind.

There’s a more nuanced argument put out there by Peter Beinart which essentially boils down to: “Let them speak, but only after they confess.” It really is the Spanish Inquisition philosophy of punditry: “I am so obviously right that anyone who disagrees with my interpretation should first confess or face punishment.” Left unsaid is that there are still debates about de-Baathification and the dissolution (and immediate rebuilding) of the Iraqi army. After all, the conscripts had deserted: Would the Beinarts and Beutlers of the world suggest bringing them back at gunpoint? Keeping the top brass with blood on their hands? (The actual problem had more to do with disorganized pension payments.)

Geoff Dyer at the Financial Times wrote rather cynically that the Bush team was using the Iraqi crisis only to defend their records. That’s a fair point to make, but there’s a less cynical spin: Many in the Bush team—at least those who have remained engaged in Iraq—know Iraqis and remain deeply committed to the country. It wasn’t simply a Washington career-ladder thing, but something more. Now I’ll be cynical: I believe President Obama made a naked political calculation: He would withdraw from Iraq. If it collapsed, he’d blame Bush and if it somehow stayed together, he’d brag about his own wisdom. The problem with that is that it treats Iraqis as pawns. The decisions Obama makes or doesn’t make are relevant.

Long story short: The howls of outrage about Vice President Cheney voicing his opinion reflect just how poisonous the Washington debate has become, and how negative it is to policymaking when personalities count more than ideas.

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Why Hasn’t Kurdistan Declared Independence?

The only group to benefit from the combined Sunni tribal, Baathist, and Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) uprising against the Iraqi central government has been the Iraqi Kurds. Peshmerga belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan have taken Kirkuk, while peshmerga answering to the Kurdistan Democratic Party have, according to some interlocutors, taken control of the half of Mosul populated by Kurds (Mosul is bisected by a river; Kurds tend to live on one side, Arabs on the other).

Many analysts, for example, Peter Galbraith, have spoken in recent days about Kurds finally achieving their dream of independence. And, certainly, independence is a dream the majority of Kurds hold dear, having been denied a state suggested in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres and subsequently denied them by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

It was the policy of the United States throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom to insist on Iraqi unity, all the while recognizing a strong Kurdish autonomy under the guise of federalism. Kurdistan acted as a de facto independent state: It controlled its own borders, flew its own flag, spoke its own language, had its own parliament, maintained its own intelligence and security forces, etc.

The Kurds, however, still held out for Kirkuk. In a 2001 interview with Middle East Quarterly, Jalal Talabani, then simply the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and now the president of Iraq, referred to Kirkuk as “the Jerusalem of Kurdistan.” With the uprising against the central government, Iraqi forces evacuated Kirkuk and the Kurds now possess it, as well as other territories they claimed and Kirkuk’s oil. Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, meanwhile, has broken down his traditional animosity toward Turkey and embraced his neighbor to the north in a new partnership revolving around oil and other business dealings. Iraqi Kurdistan now exports oil through Turkey. Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Talabani’s son Qubad earlier this week traveled to Tehran, not only to discuss Iraq’s current unrest, but also expand their partnership with Kurdistan’s neighbor to the east so that all eggs aren’t in the Turkish basket.

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The only group to benefit from the combined Sunni tribal, Baathist, and Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) uprising against the Iraqi central government has been the Iraqi Kurds. Peshmerga belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan have taken Kirkuk, while peshmerga answering to the Kurdistan Democratic Party have, according to some interlocutors, taken control of the half of Mosul populated by Kurds (Mosul is bisected by a river; Kurds tend to live on one side, Arabs on the other).

Many analysts, for example, Peter Galbraith, have spoken in recent days about Kurds finally achieving their dream of independence. And, certainly, independence is a dream the majority of Kurds hold dear, having been denied a state suggested in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres and subsequently denied them by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

It was the policy of the United States throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom to insist on Iraqi unity, all the while recognizing a strong Kurdish autonomy under the guise of federalism. Kurdistan acted as a de facto independent state: It controlled its own borders, flew its own flag, spoke its own language, had its own parliament, maintained its own intelligence and security forces, etc.

The Kurds, however, still held out for Kirkuk. In a 2001 interview with Middle East Quarterly, Jalal Talabani, then simply the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and now the president of Iraq, referred to Kirkuk as “the Jerusalem of Kurdistan.” With the uprising against the central government, Iraqi forces evacuated Kirkuk and the Kurds now possess it, as well as other territories they claimed and Kirkuk’s oil. Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, meanwhile, has broken down his traditional animosity toward Turkey and embraced his neighbor to the north in a new partnership revolving around oil and other business dealings. Iraqi Kurdistan now exports oil through Turkey. Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Talabani’s son Qubad earlier this week traveled to Tehran, not only to discuss Iraq’s current unrest, but also expand their partnership with Kurdistan’s neighbor to the east so that all eggs aren’t in the Turkish basket.

Indeed, it does seem to be the Kurdish moment, not only in Iraqi Kurdistan but elsewhere. An autonomous entity has emerged in Syrian Kurdistan. Indeed, today, “Rojava” is the only peaceful, functioning region in Syria. The Turkish government has initiated peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey. Having recognized PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan effectively as the representative of Turkish Kurds, it will be extremely difficult for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stop a process that ultimately will result in Öcalan’s release from prison and a federal solution for wide swaths of southeastern Turkey.

The question then becomes why, with all the stars aligned in Kurdistan’s favor, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani hasn’t declared independence? He has always embraced robust Kurdish nationalist rhetoric, and there is nothing stopping him. Should he declare independence, there is little the Iraqi central government could or would do to stop him, and Turks seem to have come to terms with the idea of a Kurdish state as well, so long as it falls outside the borders of Turkey. Nor are there political impediments to Barzani: he is a Middle Eastern strongman in the traditional sense. He controls the parliament, the treasury, and his son runs the intelligence forces. His second and constitutionally last term as president ended several months ago, and yet he still retains his position. In short, if he wanted independence, he could declare it today.

I have long said as an analyst rather than as an advocate that Barzani was not sincere about Kurdish nationalism. Maybe I’m wrong, but increasingly it seems I wasn’t. After all, in 1996, Barzani invited Saddam Hussein’s hated Republican Guard into Erbil, effectively risking Kurdish autonomy for the sake of ensuring bullets in the necks of his Kurdish political opponents. (Today, more than 3,000 Kurds remain “disappeared” from the 1994-1997 Kurdish civil war; neither Barzani nor Talabani have come clean with regard to their fate.) Barzani also seems to prioritize money over nationalism: Kurdistan not only exports its own oil, but received a portion of Iraq’s oil. While Kirkuk is often in the headlines, decades of exploitation and questionable management by Saddam Hussein’s government have left its fields in decline. The bulk—perhaps 70 percent or more—of Iraq’s oil comes from Iraq’s southern oil fields. If Kurdistan separates, Kurdistan loses its subsidies and Barzani no longer is able to maintain the lifestyle for him and his sons to which they have become accustomed.

In every almost meeting with American officials, Kurdish civil society leaders have made the argument for independence. Rather than assume it is the United States holding them back, perhaps it’s time to recognize its their own leaders.

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