Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 25, 2014

U.S. Still Flying Blind on Iran Nukes

On a day when we learned, via quotes from anonymous American officials, that Iran is up to its neck in the fighting in Iraq, confidence in Washington’s ability to stay in command of events in the Middle East is dropping rapidly. But the same administration that has dozed as America’s hard-won achievements in Iraq have evaporated is also hoping that its ignorance about what’s happening inside Iran’s nuclear facilities won’t hinder efforts to broker a deal with Tehran.

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On a day when we learned, via quotes from anonymous American officials, that Iran is up to its neck in the fighting in Iraq, confidence in Washington’s ability to stay in command of events in the Middle East is dropping rapidly. But the same administration that has dozed as America’s hard-won achievements in Iraq have evaporated is also hoping that its ignorance about what’s happening inside Iran’s nuclear facilities won’t hinder efforts to broker a deal with Tehran.

The Obama administration’s slender grasp of the facts about Iran’s extensive network of nuclear facilities is the most important point to be gleaned from a New York Times feature that centers on the largely unspecified role that scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh plays in his country’s effort to build a bomb. Fakhrizadeh is, according to the Times, Iran’s J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who led the Manhattan Project to nuclear success during World War Two. His absence from the negotiations being conducted with the West is much remarked upon because he, rather than some of the Islamist regime’s representatives who are taking part, is the key to Iran’s nuclear program. While that absence is motivated largely by a prudent desire to avoid Israelis who rightly think scientists trying to create genocidal weapons are good candidates for elimination, the speculation about the gap between what the West knows about Iran’s program and what Fakhrizadeh could tell us is the focus of the Times piece.

But the point of the questions that abound about Iran’s mysterious nuclear expert ought to alarm those who believe the United States knows what it’s doing in the Iran talks. The U.S. has a poor track record when it comes to monitoring Tehran’s actions outside its borders, such as international terrorism and its military intervention in Syria and now Iraq. But President Obama is betting what’s left of his reputation on the world stage and the security of America’s allies in the region on the strength of a number of assumptions about what Fakhrizadeh and his associates have achieved that are difficult to back up.

As the Times reports, the interesting point about Fakhrizadeh is that the timeline of what Iran has already created is extremely fuzzy. There is widespread confusion about whether the claim that Iran halted its nuclear program in 2003 is accurate, especially since no one in Washington or anywhere else outside of Iran seems to be sure about when those activities were resumed under different organizations. Yet the administration seems to be assuming that understanding what Iran’s program achieved in the past is irrelevant since they think that they can trust the regime’s promises going forward and believe U.S. intelligence is capable of keeping track of current work.

But the Times lets slip an ominous truth buried deep in the article:

Obama administration officials say they have no illusions that they will get visibility into many of Iran’s most heavily protected sites, even if a deal is reached in the next month. That will leave verification of the accord reliant on the American intelligence community’s ability to track covert nuclear activity, a record that is littered with failures.

In other words, even after the next nuclear deal with Iran is reached, the administration is assuming they still won’t have access to all of Iran’s most critical nuclear sites. Underlying that assumption is a belief that the deal will not require Iran to open up its facilities devoted to military research or its ballistic missile program.

This next deal will leave, as did the interim agreement signed last fall, Iran’s uranium enrichment program in place and allow it to keep a stockpile of nuclear material that could be upgraded to weapons-grade levels. That means any hope of preventing the Iranians from “breaking out” and using the nuclear program left in place by the deal to produce a weapon–regardless of its promises–hinges on the U.S. knowing almost immediately if Tehran breaks its word. But given the American ignorance about what Iran has already done and sketchy intelligence and lack of access for inspections about its current activity, how can the president or anyone else say with any assurance that this next agreement will be worth the paper it is printed on?

Even with full access and inspections of the nuclear sites we know about—as opposed to those that Washington isn’t aware of that most intelligence experts assume exist—the chances of stopping Iran are slim. But to knowingly sign such an agreement with such poor information is a virtual guarantee of failure.

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Jews Who Aid the War on Israel

Both Jonathan Marks and Pete Wehner admirably summarized some of the main issues surrounding last Friday’s vote of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA to divest itself from companies that do business with Israel. But in assessing this distressing development it’s important for the Jewish community to focus on those elements from within its ranks who played a crucial role in this result.

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Both Jonathan Marks and Pete Wehner admirably summarized some of the main issues surrounding last Friday’s vote of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA to divest itself from companies that do business with Israel. But in assessing this distressing development it’s important for the Jewish community to focus on those elements from within its ranks who played a crucial role in this result.

As both Jonathan and Pete wrote, in voting for what is, in effect, a declaration of economic war on the Jewish state, the largest Presbyterian denomination has not only allied itself with haters like David Duke. In acting in this manner it has also alerted its shrinking membership to the fact that radicals tainted by anti-Semitism have hijacked its leadership.

Presbyterians claimed that their vote was one signifying criticism of Israel’s policies rather than an attack on the Jewish people. But as I wrote earlier this year, the Presbyterians’ publication of a new book Zionism Unsettled that criticized Jewish faith and attacked Israel’s existence, as well as much of the rhetoric surrounding the vote, made it clear that this move was motivated by intolerance and hate. In acting in this manner, the PCUSA has shown that dialogue with such groups or even cooperation on unrelated issues isn’t just pointless. To carry on business as usual with a group that has declared war on the Jewish state and the Jewish people in this manner would be to tolerate that which is intolerable.

But how then should Jewish communities regard those Jews—specifically the group calling itself Jewish Voices for Peace—who actively aided and abetted this effort?

The answer is clear. They deserve to be cut off from the organized Jewish world and treated like the pariahs they have chosen to be.

The role of JVP in the Presbyterian vote was amply illustrated in this sympathetic piece published last weekend in the New York Times. This anti-Zionist group served as the perfect foil for the radical Israel haters inside the PCUSA. Instead of being forced to own up to the fundamentally anti-Semitic spirit of the BDS—boycott, divest, sanction—movement targeting Israel, the Presbyterians were able to produce left-wing Jews who shared their views as cover for this campaign of hate that masquerades as “socially responsible” investing.

JVP assists those groups, like the Presbyterians who think it is moral to single out the one Jewish and democratic state in the world for discrimination while ignoring genuine human-rights violations going on elsewhere. But even while assisting anti-Zionist campaigns that are thinly veiled anti-Semitism, the organization claims to represent Jewish values.

As Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former leader of the Reform movement aptly stated this week in Haaretz, JVP cloaks their own extremist principles in ambiguous language in order to try and represent themselves as just one more liberal Jewish group. Indeed, its position is even more radical than the final resolutions passed by the Presbyterians since it wholeheartedly backs BDS on all of Israel, not just a few American companies and neither supports a two-state solution nor the Jewish state’s right to exist.

By assisting the BDS movement in this manner, JVP gains press attention from papers like the New York Times and faux respectability from left-wing Christians who embrace it as a “partner” that somehow represents Jews. But the point about the farce that played out at the Presbyterian GA in Detroit is, as Yoffie rightly points out, that this group represents very few Jews and takes positions that are anathema to the entire spectrum of the organized Jewish world.

Just as Presbyterians should know they are making a crucial mistake in embracing JVP, so, too, do Jewish communities and Hillel groups on campuses err in allowing this group to join community relations councils or to be represented in campus councils.

While there are strong disagreements between mainstream Jewish groups and left-wing groups like J Street who often play a destructive role in many communities and undermine support for Israel, there is a clear difference between those that are critical of Israel, like J Street, and those that are at war with it and Zionism, as is the case with Jewish Voices for Peace. One may be tolerated, albeit reluctantly, within the community because of its support for Zionism; the other puts itself on the other side of a line that should never be crossed.

Jewish Voices for Peace has every right to do or say as they like even if their policies are deceptive and aimed at aiding those attacking Jews. But they should never be allowed to do so under the banner of the Jewish community. Like ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists or Jews for Jesus, JVP is an unfortunate yet noxious fact of life that cannot be denied but must also never be treated as a legitimate partner in any Jewish community or on any college campus.

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Suing the President

Speaker of the House John Boehner has announced that he will ask the House to sue the president. “My view is the president has not faithfully executed the laws,” he said. “What we have seen clearly over the last five years is an effort to erode the power of the Legislative Branch.”

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Speaker of the House John Boehner has announced that he will ask the House to sue the president. “My view is the president has not faithfully executed the laws,” he said. “What we have seen clearly over the last five years is an effort to erode the power of the Legislative Branch.”

What Boehner is referring to is such presidential actions as unilaterally rewriting large sections of the Affordable Care Act, and ordering the Immigration service to not enforce the portions of immigration law that would have been repealed had Congress passed the “Dream Act,” which it did not. All presidents, other than, perhaps, James Madison, sought to extend their powers, but President Obama has been far more aggressive than most.

But it is difficult to rein in a president through legal action, as no one, including individual members of Congress, has standing to sue to get the courts to require the president to faithfully execute the laws as Congress passed them. As far as I know, neither Congress nor either of its houses has ever sued the president as a body. But that is what Boehner is now proposing. It will be interesting to see how far it gets as the courts have always been notably reluctant to decide a “political question.”

But as George Will writes, “Congress cannot reverse egregious executive aggressions such as Obama’s without robust judicial assistance.” Without it, Congress’s only weapon to protect its constitutional powers is the thermonuclear one of impeachment. He writes,

David Rivkin, a Washington lawyer, and Elizabeth Price Foley of Florida International University have studied the case law and believe that standing can be obtained conditional on four things:

That a majority of one congressional chamber explicitly authorizes a lawsuit. That the lawsuit concern the president’s “benevolent” suspension of an unambiguous provision of law that, by pleasing a private faction, precludes the appearance of a private plaintiff. That Congress cannot administer political self-help by remedying the presidential action by simply repealing the law. And that the injury amounts to nullification of Congress’s power.

But Lyle Denniston of the National Constitution Center has his doubts the courts will get involved:

The courts can be jealous guardians of their notion of what the Constitution allows, or does not allow, in terms of judicial review. The resistance to resolving political disputes is quite deeply set.  One might suggest that it would take an inter-branch controversy of monumental proportions to cause them to give up that reluctance. Is the feud over President Obama’s use of his White House powers of that dimension? That may well be debatable.

This should be interesting.

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Report Shows Veterans Affairs in Crisis

When Paul Krugman says a government health-care scandal is being blown out of proportion by conservatives, you can be sure the opposite is true. Such was the case when Krugman told his readers to be suspicious of cancer patients suffering under ObamaCare, and it is the case with the scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs, as a new report makes clear.

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When Paul Krugman says a government health-care scandal is being blown out of proportion by conservatives, you can be sure the opposite is true. Such was the case when Krugman told his readers to be suspicious of cancer patients suffering under ObamaCare, and it is the case with the scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs, as a new report makes clear.

To be fair, Krugman does not dismiss the VA entirely: “It’s a real scandal; some heads have already rolled, but there’s surely more to clean up,” he writes. But he understands the philosophical stakes here. Liberals (like Krugman) have used the VA as an example of the success of what he calls “an island of socialized medicine, a miniature version of Britain’s National Health Service, in a privatized sea.” If the VA were really in much, much worse shape, the island of socialized medicine would be best avoided. And now, thanks to a yearlong congressional investigation spearheaded by Tom Coburn, we know that the VA is indeed in much, much worse shape.

The key for leftist proponents of centralized health-care bureaucracy is to somehow disentangle the scandals from the policy. There’s no denying the corruption of the VA system; the PR strategy, then, is to claim that one is not the cause of the other. For the VA, this means showing that veterans are still getting good, even superior care from the VA system so there’s a scandal but no crisis. Unfortunately for the Obama administration’s dedicated spinners, that just isn’t the case.

Politico summarizes the key findings:

Delinquent doctors and nurses and lagging medical treatment at the Department of Veterans Affairs may have caused the deaths of more than 1,000 veterans and cost the U.S. $845 million in medical malpractice suits, Sen. Tom Coburn charged in a report released on Tuesday.

The deaths, which occurred over a 10-year period, resulted from VA officials prescribing unneeded and unmonitored painkillers to veterans, delayed treatment that caused cancer to go undetected and veterans waiting at times for months for procedures, the report found.

“More than 1,000 veterans needlessly died under the VA’s watch, and the Department in turn paid these veterans’ families $200 million in wrongful death settlements — the median payment per victim was $150,000,” the report states.

The investigation into ongoing issues at the VA also found that a doctor was able to perform “unnecessary pelvic and breast exams” on female patients, that minority employees faced racial discrimination and that illegal drugs were prevalent in VA facilities.

The report “shows the problems at the VA are worse than anyone imagined. The scope of the VA’s incompetence — and Congress’ indifferent oversight — is breathtaking and disturbing,” said Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican and physician who once worked in the VA system.

Wrongful death, systemic racism, sexual abuse, corruption–according to the report, the VA isn’t a model of care with some bad apples. And the allegations about how the VA handled–or didn’t handle–the infractions are disturbing:

A male doctor in Kansas was forced to register as a sex offender after five female patients accused him of performing inappropriate breast and pelvic exams, while a social worker in Oregon was placed on administrative leave after her affair with a veteran under her care was discovered. In both instances, the VA officials continued to receive pay while on leave.

A doctor’s pattern of sexual abuse got him on the sex-offender registry but still collected a salary? Could that be right? According to the investigation, it is; here’s the relevant paragraph from Coburn’s report:

While a Kansas VA official stated sexual abuse allegations are taken seriously by the Department, the doctor continued to collect a salary for nearly two years, although he was not permitted to see patients. He was placed on paid administrative leave in 2011, arrested by Topeka police in May 2012, suspended without pay in July 2012, and finally fired in May 2013. Coincidentally, this doctor’s “employment at Colmery-O’Neil overlapped briefly with that of another physician “who was hired within two years of acquittal on Florida charges he sexually abused multiple patients by performing breast and pelvis examinations unrelated to their medical needs. Prosecutors there said 16 patients filed complaints against” him, “but the doctor was welcome at Colmery-O’Neal in 2011 and 2012 before taking a job in Texas.”

As I wrote yesterday, and as this report confirms, the issue isn’t money: the VA wastes it. The real issue is that government health care lacks accountability and has certain constraints, and that even working with a more limited scope of care, as the VA does, it cannot reconcile the care it is supposed to provide with the reality of central planning.

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Want Two States? Not the Palestinians

For more than 20 years since the Oslo process began, those urging Israel to make more and more concessions to the Palestinians have based their views on the belief that both peoples supported a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict. But a new poll of Palestinian public opinion shows that an overwhelming majority opposes any goal other than eliminating the State of Israel.

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For more than 20 years since the Oslo process began, those urging Israel to make more and more concessions to the Palestinians have based their views on the belief that both peoples supported a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict. But a new poll of Palestinian public opinion shows that an overwhelming majority opposes any goal other than eliminating the State of Israel.

The poll, conducted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, showed some interesting and, in part, contradictory results. Only 27.3 percent of Palestinians support a two-state solution. By contrast, more than two-thirds see the restoration of all of historic Palestine to Arab control as the only legitimate national goal for their people. Interestingly, of those who back the elimination of Israel, only one out of seven and 10.1 percent overall think it ought to be replaced by a single democratic state in which Jews and Arabs would have equal rights. What the other 60.3 percent who say that “reclaiming” all land from the river to the sea for the Arabs would do with the six million Jews who live there is left unclear.

Just as interesting is the answer to the question as to what Palestinians should do if a two-state solution were somehow to be achieved by their leadership. Only 31.6 percent say that should mean the end of the conflict while 64 percent believe that even after that the struggle against Israel “should continue until all of historic Palestine is liberated.” Asked the same question in a slightly different way, 65.2 percent of the Palestinians think that if their leadership were to negotiate a two-state deal, “that would be part of a ‘program of stages’ to liberate all of historic Palestine later.”

However, just because the Palestinians don’t want to make peace with Israel or live beside it in a separate, independent state doesn’t mean that most of them want to fight it, at least not right now. More than 60 percent think that Hamas should maintain a cease-fire with Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. Although Gaza is home to the Islamist terror movement, not surprisingly more Gazans (70 percent) support the cease-fire than West Bankers (55 percent).

As to whether Hamas should abide by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s statement that it should recognize Israel and abide by past peace agreements (something that his own Fatah hasn’t done), opinion is divided. Overall, a bare majority—50.7 percent—agrees with that position. But there is a clear split between the West Bank and Gaza. Gazans, who clearly want an end to the violence, support the demand by a margin of 57.3 to 37.6 percent. But on the West Bank, where Abbas’s supposedly more moderate Fatah Party dominates, Palestinians are split down the middle with 46.8 percent opposing forcing Hamas to stand down while 45.7 percent support the idea.

Other questions show that while Palestinians are leery of another terrorist war of attrition against Israel, they want “popular resistance” against the Jewish state to continue. While that phrase might be interpreted as support for non-violent means of protest, in the Palestinian lexicon it appears to represent something different. In this context, popular resistance means mass protests conducted by violent means with rock throwing and firebombs rather than peaceful sit-ins or demonstrations.

One question that will get attention is the one the poll asked Palestinians about whom they believe should be leading them. While only 29.8 percent supported the current leader Mahmoud Abbas (who is currently in the tenth year of the four-year term that he was elected to in 2005), Hamas leaders did far worse with none breaking into double digits. But while the pollsters billed this section as having proved that Hamas “is not gaining ground” that may be slightly misleading. Hamas has no single dynamic leader, so comparing the ones they do have doesn’t tell us that much about whether the majority of Palestinians who, if the poll is to be believed, clearly share the Islamist group’s goals, actually want it to exercise power.

The irony here is that despite clinging to these intransigent beliefs, Palestinians not only wish to avoid open conflict with Israel; they want to work there. Over 80 percent want Israel to offer more job opportunities to Palestinians from the territories with a majority saying they would personally consider taking a job inside the same Jewish state most of them want to eliminate.

It isn’t hard to draw the obvious conclusion from this study. While a two-state solution would enable the Palestinians to achieve independence at the cost of being forced to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state next door, Israelis seem to desire such an outcome more than the Arabs. Even if the Palestinian leadership were to find the courage to sign a peace deal, their people would not be satisfied with accepting such a compromise. Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the Palestinians have either turned down or walked away from opportunities to achieve statehood and peace four times in the last 15 years.

While Israel’s critics blame this failure on settlements or Israel’s leadership, the poll makes it clear that these are diversions from the real obstacle to peace: the Palestinian belief that any outcome other than the destruction of the Jewish state would amount to a historic betrayal. From its beginnings in the first half of the 20th century, Palestinian national identity has always been inextricably linked to the war against Zionism. This poll shows that despite the fact that they have little appetite for open war with the Jews, this is as true today as it was in 1947 when the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab and Muslim worlds rejected out of hand the United Nations partition resolution that would have created a Palestinian Arab state.

This poll tells us that Palestinians are torn between pragmatic desires for an end to violence and job opportunities inside Israel (an option that was eliminated by the second intifada’s wave of suicide bombings and other terror attacks) and a belief that nothing short of Israel’s elimination is the only proper national goal for their people. Until they resolve these conflicting trends in favor of a stance that would embrace real peace rather than a temporary cease-fire, all future attempts to negotiate a solution to the conflict will be futile. This is not what those who have made a career out of blaming Israel for every problem in the Middle East, if not the world, want to hear. But if they want to know what’s really going on, they should listen to the Palestinians. If they do, they will understand that there is nothing Israel can do to end this conflict so long as Palestinians are committed to their destruction.

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First Quarter GDP Is Down 2.9 Percent

The Commerce Department announced this morning that American GDP in the first quarter of 2014 declined a stunning 2.9 percent. That’s the first decline in GDP since the first quarter of 2011 and the biggest decline since the first quarter of 2009, while the economy was still in the throes of the Great Recession.

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The Commerce Department announced this morning that American GDP in the first quarter of 2014 declined a stunning 2.9 percent. That’s the first decline in GDP since the first quarter of 2011 and the biggest decline since the first quarter of 2009, while the economy was still in the throes of the Great Recession.

When the Commerce Department first announced first quarter GDP, in April, it measured it at being up .1 percent. In May it revised the figure to down 1 percent, and now it’s down 2.9 percent. Early GDP figures are often substantially revised, but this beat the estimate of economists surveyed by the Wall Street Journal, which was a 2 percent decline.

To be sure, the awful winter much of the country suffered had caused shoppers to stay home and many construction projects to be halted. But manufacturers drew down inventory and exports were down by a substantial 8.9 percent as other economies, especially in Europe, remain subpar.

The economy is expected to rebound in the second quarter, which ends on Monday, and no one is expecting a further decline in GDP. (Two consecutive quarters of declining GDP is the standard definition of a recession, by the way.) But even if the second quarter lives up to expectations of 3.6 percent growth, the growth for the first half of 2014 will be well below the 2 percent average since the economy began to expand in June 2009. American GDP growth over the long term has been a little over 3 percent.

So the American economy in the Obama recovery continues to sputter and wheeze.

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Will GOP Regret Torching Miss. Tea Party?

The conventional wisdom about Senator Thad Cochran’s victory in the Mississippi Republican primary runoff yesterday assures the GOP of retaining the seat in November. But the bitterness engendered by the establishment candidate’s using large numbers of liberal Democrat voters to win a narrow triumph may do just the opposite.

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The conventional wisdom about Senator Thad Cochran’s victory in the Mississippi Republican primary runoff yesterday assures the GOP of retaining the seat in November. But the bitterness engendered by the establishment candidate’s using large numbers of liberal Democrat voters to win a narrow triumph may do just the opposite.

Some in the party establishment feared a win for Tea Party insurgent Chris McDaniel would have sent the media rummaging through the archive of his radio shows finding absurd statements that would have alienated moderate voters and allowed a relatively conservative Democrat to make a race of it. But with the six-term incumbent safely nominated, the assumption is that the November election will be more or less a formality that will allow Republicans to concentrate on other states where they have a chance to pick up seats.

Cochran’s ability to turn out black Democrats in huge numbers to offset his unpopularity among members of his own party in an open primary state could also be interpreted as a triumph for GOP outreach. For a party that desperately needs more minority support, some may argue that Cochran’s tactic of paying black political organizers to persuade hard-core Democrats to vote in a Republican primary is a sign that African-Americans can be enticed to support a GOP candidate under some circumstances.

While that is a rather dubious assumption, the bottom line about the Mississippi primary is that the Tea Party got out-organized, out-spent and outflanked by an incumbent. Cochran was able to use support from the party establishment, business, and local constituencies who were influenced by the senator’s ability to manipulate the federal budget. That bought him a win in a primary that should have been dominated by the highly motivated conservative activists who wanted to retire him.

But the general satisfaction among establishment Republicans today needs to be tempered by the knowledge that what Cochran did in Mississippi may hurt the party in ways they may not quite understand.

The first problem is that by winning a GOP primary on the strength of black Democrat support, Cochran may have pushed his party opponents over the edge to the point where they may actively consider a suicidal effort to sabotage his chances in November. For all the talk of a McDaniel win giving the Democrats a small, if unlikely, chance of winning the seat, by denying him the nomination in a manner that left his supporters feeling more cheated than beaten, the party leadership may have actually increased their problems rather than eliminating them. A write-in campaign for McDaniel in the general election has no chance of winning him the seat. But, if he was able to mobilize the same Tea Party activists who brought him to the brink of a victory in the first round of voting, he could do serious damage to Cochran.

Why might Tea Partiers act in such a self-destructive manner?

Simply put, the worst problem for Republicans is not the prospect of nominating outlier candidates who will lose winnable seats in the general election. That has happened and it has cost the party dearly to be saddled with the likes of Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Todd Akin. But an even greater peril is the possibility that Tea Party activists will stop fighting to take control of the GOP and abandon it altogether as being merely a slightly different version of the same Democrat tax and spending machine they are pledged to defeat. Whatever promises Cochran made or didn’t make to persuade black power brokers to back him yesterday, his win exemplifies everything that Tea Partiers despise about members of the permanent governing class in both parties.

The short-term problems that a McDaniel revenge campaign might have this year might be mitigated by the fact that it is simply impossible for any Republican candidate—whether it was Cochran or McDaniel—to lose in this deep-red state. But as much as Republicans are right to worry about their party losing touch with the concerns of independents and minorities whose votes have tipped the last two presidential elections to Barack Obama, a GOP that loses its most motivated and hard-working voters is doomed.

A party establishment that doesn’t just outwork the Tea Party but also seeks to negate the will of the majority of Republican voters is one that is in danger of alienating the base. Whether or not Chris McDaniel seeks to play the spoiler in November, that’s the kind of thing that loses general elections as easily as extreme candidates.

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Sacrificing the Kurds to Save a Narrative

Should the Kurds of Iraq forgo their aspirations for independence so the Obama administration can save face through the end of the president’s term? Though he didn’t word it quite that way, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kurdish leaders in Erbil yesterday to pitch that scenario.

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Should the Kurds of Iraq forgo their aspirations for independence so the Obama administration can save face through the end of the president’s term? Though he didn’t word it quite that way, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kurdish leaders in Erbil yesterday to pitch that scenario.

As Iraq continues to come apart, the Kurds are presented with an opportunity to realize genuine self-rule. That would mean Iraq would truly dissolve on Obama’s watch. The administration doesn’t want to deal with those optics, hence Kerry’s attempt to talk the Kurds into self-sacrifice:

In advance of Kerry’s arrival from Amman, Jordan, Barzani signaled yesterday that the “time is here” for the Kurds, a minority of 6.5 million, to decide on independence instead of what’s now a semi-autonomous state within Iraq. As fighting rages between extremists and Iraqi forces, the Kurds are in a position to be deal makers in political talks for a new government. …

A decision to go forward with independence would affect not only the future of about 17 percent of Iraq’s population of 33 million, but also whether the nation of Iraq dissolves into a loose federation or disappears. Either outcome would be a tectonic shift in regional politics with implications for neighbors Turkey, Iran and Syria, which also have Kurdish minorities.

The U.S. has said it wants Iraq to maintain its territorial integrity and seek a peaceful outcome through a new government that respects the interests of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. The Obama administration would strongly oppose Kurdish independence now as “another nail in the coffin of the Baghdad government,” said Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow in Washington at the Century Foundation and a former U.S. diplomat.

This is typical of the Obama administration. It pulls American influence back from an area of interest, which leaves a vacuum the administration then expects allies in the region–those left behind by Obama–to step into in order to mitigate the damage. Obama also takes allies for granted, acting as though they’ll never really be needed and then when they are, the president expects them to fall in line. And most of all, it trades away the freedom of others so Obama can uphold the illusion of stability.

It’s also characteristic of Obama in one more way: having almost no grasp of history–especially of the Middle East–he can’t learn from it, and instead gets policies flat wrong. He would do well to read Matti Friedman’s incisive piece in Mosaic this week. Friedman kicked off the discussion earlier in the month with an essay on Israel’s Mizrachim, a category broadly comprising Jews from Arab lands. Mosaic then, as per its custom, published a couple of learned responses. Friedman has followed up with a response of his own.

He begins by discussing how the advance of ISIS and similar fanatical groups throughout the Middle East is having a brutal effect on ethnic and religious minorities. They are virtually unprotected, and as such have no real influence on the events around them. “One of the biggest stories in the region in the past century—the disappearance of the old cosmopolitan mosaic that always found a way to exist under Islam but no longer can—has now picked up speed to an extent that would have been hard to imagine even two or three years ago,” Friedman writes. “Soon these communities will all be gone, and one of the great cultural losses of our times will be complete.”

He then explains that the story of the Jews–and specifically Middle Eastern Jews–holds a lesson for the region’s other minorities:

When one looks at the recently exiled Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, Christians, and others, the Jews displaced by Muslims from their ancestral homes beginning in the mid-20th century begin to look more and more like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. This is a role that Jews have often played in different parts of the world.

Are you an ethnic or religious minority that wishes to survive in the Middle East? You had better have a piece of land in which you are the majority, and the power to defend it. This is the lesson of the Kurds, as has been vividly brought home this past month, and it is the lesson of Israel.

And of course if you want that piece of land to call your own and the power to defend it, you’ll need some powerful allies. When the British Mandate expired and Israel declared its independence, the realist fans of stability around Harry Truman wanted idealism, fairness, and moral courage sidelined to avoid disrupting the status quo. Truman would have none of it, and recognized Israel immediately. Now the Kurds face a similar–though certainly not identical–situation.

It’s also possible the Kurdish elite aren’t as enthusiastic about independence as they appear–that such talk is intended to boost the concessions they can wring from the U.S. for staying in Iraq. But they have probably learned the historical lesson Friedman writes about and the fact that they might never have a better chance to strike out on their own. If that’s the case, Kerry is asking quite a lot of them in seeking to save a narrative at the expense of Kurdish national aspirations.

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Obama’s Cognitive Inflexibility

Writing in the American Interest, the scholar Walter Russell Mead–who voted for Barack Obama in 2008–offered a withering assessment of the Obama foreign policy, saying

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Writing in the American Interest, the scholar Walter Russell Mead–who voted for Barack Obama in 2008–offered a withering assessment of the Obama foreign policy, saying

few in the mainstream press seem interested in tracing the full and ugly course of the six years of continual failure that dog the footsteps of the hapless Obama team in a region the White House claimed to understand. Nothing important has gone right for the small and tightly knit team that runs American Middle East policy. … Rarely has an administration so trumpeted its superior wisdom and strategic smarts; rarely has any American administration experienced so much ignominious failure, or had its ignorance and miscalculation so brutally exposed.

Professor Mead adds this:

Now, from the ruins of the Obama Administration’s Middle East strategy, the most powerful and dangerous group of religious fanatics in modern history has emerged in the heart of the Middle East. The rise of ISIS is a strategic defeat of the first magnitude for the United States and its allies (as well as countries like Russia and even China). It is a perfect storm of bad policy intersecting with troubled times to create the gravest threat to U.S. and world stability since the end of the Cold War.

And this:

So here, alas, is where we now stand six years into the Age of Obama: The President isn’t making America safer at home, he doesn’t have the jihadis on the run, he has no idea how to bring prosperity, democracy, or religious moderation to the Middle East, he can’t pivot away from the region, and he doesn’t know what to do next… he must certainly ask himself some tough questions about why so many of his most cherished ideas keep leading him and his country into such ugly places.

You would think so, except that this president appears incapable of serious self-reflection and holding up his most cherished ideas to scrutiny. Mr. Obama’s mind is too inflexible, his ideology too gripping, and his vanity too overwhelming to rethink his assumptions and approach.

This comes despite the president’s self-conceit. “I’m not a particularly ideological person,” Obama is quoted as saying in a recent profile in the New Yorker. Elsewhere he assures us he’s “not a purist” and “I’m pretty pragmatic.” He added, “I do think one of my strengths is temperament. I am comfortable with complexity.”

That’s actually not true. What Mr. Obama is missing is what neuroscientists call cognitive flexibility. What the president suffers from, on the other hand, is rigidity, difficulty in adapting to changing environments and circumstances. He can do it now and then, but it’s usually late, slow, and insufficient. And when everyone else sees his policies in collapse, Mr. Obama seems unable to fully process things, to see reality for what it is. He reverts to his mental habits, which include blaming the outside world for his failures. That may be soothing to him, but it is tiresome to the rest of us.

Meanwhile, the world burns.

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Iraq and the Immunity Dodge

President Obama has repeatedly claimed it wasn’t his fault that U.S. troops had to leave Iraq at the end of 2011; it was the fault of Iraqi leaders for not being able or willing to pass a law through parliament granting American personnel immunity from prosecution under Iraqi laws. Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official who worked on Iraq issues for Obama, recently claimed, “Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, told U.S. negotiators that he was willing to sign an executive memorandum of understanding that included these legal protections. But for any agreement to be binding under the Iraqi constitution, it had to be approved by the Iraqi parliament.”

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President Obama has repeatedly claimed it wasn’t his fault that U.S. troops had to leave Iraq at the end of 2011; it was the fault of Iraqi leaders for not being able or willing to pass a law through parliament granting American personnel immunity from prosecution under Iraqi laws. Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official who worked on Iraq issues for Obama, recently claimed, “Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, told U.S. negotiators that he was willing to sign an executive memorandum of understanding that included these legal protections. But for any agreement to be binding under the Iraqi constitution, it had to be approved by the Iraqi parliament.”

Not really. It turns out that such a parliamentary act isn’t actually required for US troops to deploy to Iraq. In fact in most places where U.S. troops operate they do so under agreements signed with the local government but not necessarily enacted by the local parliament. And that now includes Iraq too where Obama has decided to deploy 300 Special Operations troops to help stem the advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

What about the supposed need for those troops to have immunity from prosecution? Apparently the White House has gotten the assurances it needs from an exchange of diplomatic notes with Iraq’s Foreign Ministry.

Why, one wonders, was it so necessary to get parliamentary immunity in 2011 but not now? The answer is pretty obvious: Obama really wants to send some troops to Iraq now but he really didn’t want to keep any troops in Iraq back then. Thus in 2011 Obama acceded to the concerns of administration lawyers who claimed parliamentary immunity was a must. He could just as easily have overridden those concerns as he has just done. As is so often the case, interpretations of the law, especially international law, can be twisted to justify whatever actions the executive wants to take.

Legal immunity, in the end, isn’t all that important anyway when it comes to Iraq. It never was. It’s more of an issue in countries like Germany or the Philippines where GIs are free to go off base and risk getting into legal trouble for assault, rape, and other offenses. In Iraq troops have always been confined to base except for military missions. And what protection from harm they have enjoyed has come not from legal documents but from the promise of swift and decisive military action against anyone who would seek to harm them.

By acting now to send U.S. troops back to Iraq, at least in limited numbers, without a formal Status of Forces Agreement in place, Obama is showing how that issue was all along a smokescreen. The real issue has always been Obama’s aversion to any involvement in Iraq. With ISIS solidifying its control over northern and western Iraq by the day, it is imperative that Obama overcome his hesitations before an Islamist caliphate–a terrorist state stretching across Syria and Iraq–becomes so entrenched that it is impossible to dislodge.

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