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Posts For: July 3, 2014

Iraq and the End of Shame

I’m currently in Jordan, where I’ve had the opportunity to meet with a variety of Iraqi Sunnis who have come from al-Anbar to discuss the situation there. It’s rare nowadays to find any consensus on Iraq, but one observation they make coincides with observations I heard over the past year while talking to Iraqi Sunnis in Mosul and Tikrit; Iraqi Shi‘ites in Basra and Baghdad; and Iraqi Kurds in Kirkuk, Erbil, and Sulaymani. That is that one of the major problems Iraq faces is the end of shame.

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I’m currently in Jordan, where I’ve had the opportunity to meet with a variety of Iraqi Sunnis who have come from al-Anbar to discuss the situation there. It’s rare nowadays to find any consensus on Iraq, but one observation they make coincides with observations I heard over the past year while talking to Iraqi Sunnis in Mosul and Tikrit; Iraqi Shi‘ites in Basra and Baghdad; and Iraqi Kurds in Kirkuk, Erbil, and Sulaymani. That is that one of the major problems Iraq faces is the end of shame.

Politicians and generals in Iraq (and elsewhere in the Middle East) always face great temptation. They could steal millions and, indeed, some now steal billions. But before the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and the subsequent 13 years of sanctions, Iraq was among the least corrupt Arab countries. What changed over the last 35 years has not only been the economy, but more fundamentally the culture of shame. Sure, some politicians and officers during the Republic and early Baath years were corrupt, but many resisted the temptation out of fear of how their children would inherit the shame if their parents gained a reputation for corruption or other misdeeds. Simply put, family reputation trumped a desire for immediate gratification.

No longer: I’ve written here about the problem of Middle Eastern rulers’ first sons. Iraqis nickname Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s son Ahmed “Uday” because they allege he acts like Saddam Hussein’s son. Masrour Barzani, the eldest son of Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, acquired a $10 million mansion in suburban Virginia despite his relatively small official salary. While Barzani’s spokesman denied any connection to the property, Masrour had grown so arrogant and shameless that he held his birthday party there for close KDP associates, many of whom subsequently bragged about the event and its location.

The problem goes deeper and cuts across the political class, however. The children of many ministers think nothing of buying fancy sports cars—top-end Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Porsches—to drive around London from their new posh flats, no matter that both Iraqis and European or American neighbors once knew them as poor and impoverished. They do not hesitate to flaunt ill-gotten wealth and care little if everyone knows they or their parents are corrupt. Other former ministers and their aides travel to Jordan, Lebanon, or even suburban Chicago and build palatial mansions after serving little more than a year or two in Iraq. Iraqis often have nothing to show for their tenure, but they do with little concern if their family names have become synonymous with corruption. Whereas a generation or two past would have felt shame for such a reputation, the new Iraqis no longer do.

Those training Arab militaries are familiar with shame going back generations. It became an impediment since it hampered and made dangerous even constructive criticism. But shame was not all bad, because it kept order in society and helped buttress basic integrity. Things have changed. It is easy for diplomats to talk about reconstructing society but when personal integrity lacks, religion or ethnicity becomes a patina and money becomes the real subject of worship, and shame disappears it is almost impossible to rebuild society. The problem is no longer Maliki, Barzani, or Nujaifi—it goes far, far deeper.

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The Complexities of Kurdish Secession

Masud Barzani, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s president, announced yesterday before the region’s rubber-stamp parliament that he would put Kurdish independence to a referendum. If the referendum goes forward—Barzani is coy about the date and seems loathe to forfeit the oil subsidies he received from southern Iraq’s oil fields which are far more lucrative than Kirkuk’s—then the Kurdish public will overwhelmingly accept it. That is their right, and if they decide to become the world’s newest state, congratulations to them. Kurds deserve statehood. (And with it, maybe Google will finally add Kurdish to the languages Google Translate covers.)

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Masud Barzani, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s president, announced yesterday before the region’s rubber-stamp parliament that he would put Kurdish independence to a referendum. If the referendum goes forward—Barzani is coy about the date and seems loathe to forfeit the oil subsidies he received from southern Iraq’s oil fields which are far more lucrative than Kirkuk’s—then the Kurdish public will overwhelmingly accept it. That is their right, and if they decide to become the world’s newest state, congratulations to them. Kurds deserve statehood. (And with it, maybe Google will finally add Kurdish to the languages Google Translate covers.)

Statehood, however, will be not the end of the story but rather its beginning, both within Kurdistan and in the region.

Within Kurdistan, Kurds will have to address a government which is both disorganized and often acts in its own self-interest rather than that of its supposed constituents. That can be dismissed as an internal matter. Ultimately quality of government is an internal Kurdish matter, though, and one which Kurds will eventually resolve whether it takes months, years, or decades. Despite Kurdistan’s impressive development over the past decade, it still lacks basic financial infrastructure. That has helped ruling party members get rich because it enables them to better hide ghost employees or skim money from those under them who owe their jobs to their patron’s influence. Kurds might also need to standardize their language and alphabet, although that too is an internal issue.

Kurdistan’s formal birth, however, will also have international reverberations. While the West sees Kurdistan moving closer to Turkey, Kurdish leaders cultivate Iran as enthusiastically for balance. Whether the United States can sway the balance or not with bases of its own is an open question, although one which President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will defer given budget constraints and a lack of appreciation of American force projection abroad.

Then there’s water: The Euphrates bypasses Kurdistan, going from Turkey through Syria and into Iraq in al-Anbar. But the Tigris (or its tributaries) cuts across Kurdistan, traverses Turkey and forms part of the Syrian-Turkish border, before it heads into central Iraq. The negotiations over its flow were complex at the best of times, when the water only needed to be divided between three countries. A fourth will only add additional complexity. That’s not Kurdistan’s problem, as they get the water before the rest of Iraq does, but as one Iraqi told me in Jordan, “We Sunnis can make nasty neighbors if you make us mad enough.”

If Kurdish independence eventually spreads beyond Iraq’s current borders, the implications will be greater. Turkey, for example, is a NATO member. It hosts a major airbase in Diyarbakir, which many Kurds see as a future capital. Even if Turkey becomes a federal, biregional state, the implications are the same as Kurds there would seek a division of resources and infrastructure.

None of this is a reason for the United States to oppose Kurdish nationhood. But it should mean planning for the day, week, and months after. None of this planning or more than the most superficial considerations has apparently yet occurred.

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When the Media Cares About Incitement

After several weeks out of the headlines, Israelis and Palestinians are regrettably back at the forefront of Middle East news once again. But during that brief ISIS-led interim the international media didn’t forget its line on Israel, and when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the West Bank reporters quickly became preoccupied with bemoaning Israeli heavy-handedness during the search operation. It was, however, only once confirmation came that the three victims had been murdered that the gloves really came off and a narrative emerged that aggressively condemned all potential Israeli responses, rather than reflecting upon those who kidnap and kill Israelis in the first place, or upon wider Palestinian attitudes that celebrated these acts.

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After several weeks out of the headlines, Israelis and Palestinians are regrettably back at the forefront of Middle East news once again. But during that brief ISIS-led interim the international media didn’t forget its line on Israel, and when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the West Bank reporters quickly became preoccupied with bemoaning Israeli heavy-handedness during the search operation. It was, however, only once confirmation came that the three victims had been murdered that the gloves really came off and a narrative emerged that aggressively condemned all potential Israeli responses, rather than reflecting upon those who kidnap and kill Israelis in the first place, or upon wider Palestinian attitudes that celebrated these acts.

Yesterday the New York Times devoted an entire piece to the apparently small minority of Israelis who have been making anti-Arab postings over social media; we live in strange times when such things constitute news. Only at the very bottom of the page was there any mention of the Tag Meir coexistence rally that Israelis had organized in Jerusalem. And as the British media watchdog CIF Watch noted, the British media gave universal coverage to the perhaps 200 or so Israelis involved in the scuffles with police in Jerusalem following the funerals of the three teenagers, while remaining completely silent about the 1,000 who turned out for the Tag Meir rally the following day. The mood at that gathering was one of total condemnation of the recent killing of an Arab teenager in East Jerusalem, in what has been widely interpreted as a revenge attack. And this sentiment would appear to be far more reflective of the Israeli mainstream. Still, it also seems fair to ask if it is conceivable that a similar rally condemning the killing of the three Israeli teens could ever have been held in Ramallah? Indeed, had the Times cared to look for it, they would have found ample material showing Palestinians celebrating the kidnapping of the Israelis.

Yet even before the anti-Arab disturbances in Jerusalem or the ill-judged Facebook postings by young Israelis responding to news about the murders, parts of the press were already condemning Israel in advance. The unforgiving attitude was particularly palpable at the BBC where, in the same breath that commentators expressed disapproval at the killings, they quickly moved onto speculating about what kind of terrible and disproportionate revenge the Israeli government would inflict on the Palestinians next. The focus was less about the coldblooded murder of three Israeli boys and more concerned with criticising Israel for a wild policy of retaliation that hadn’t even happened yet. Indeed, a paralyzed Israeli cabinet still hasn’t made any firm statement on what the response will be, something which has clearly stoked anger among those sections of the Israeli public already incited by the murders.

When the news about the discovery of the bodies first broke, large numbers began spontaneously gathering at solemn candlelit vigils in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. From what I could see it was pictures of these gatherings, not calls for Arab blood, that were dominating Israeli social media sites. So I was surprised when a BBC correspondent reporting from the field where the bodies had just been found spoke not of the vigils but instead about a small “angry right-wing” protest reportedly taking place nearby.

But that was only the start. Just a few hours later during a BBC newspaper review show Israel was already on trial for the terrible crimes of vengeance that the IDF was allegedly about to perpetrate at any moment. The Guardian’s Owen Jones was dropping mention of “collective punishment” and “illegal occupation” faster than you can say BDS, while the Times of London’s Eleanor Mills was at pains to question the plausibility of the notion that Hamas could possibly have been involved in the killings. And when it was suggested that there needed to be a judicial response, Mills—in her characteristic eloquence—was quick to assert “but that, but that’s never what happens in Israel. You get, you get a kind of, a kind of tribal kind of, kind of setting up against each other, don’t you. And it’s in a place which is already, where tensions are incredibly inflamed because it’s in the occupied territories so it’s already disputed.”

Perhaps the BBC reporting reached its lowest point when Middle East correspondent Yolande Knell, while reporting live from the funeral, took the opportunity to discuss the expansion of “illegal” Israeli settlements, all the while with the ceremony still visible over her shoulder. And throughout her reporting Knell has been repeating the phrase “Hamas and Israel, sworn enemies.” The message in all of this has been a subtle but persistent one. At best it portrays Israelis and Palestinians as harboring equal degrees of animosity toward each other, although the reality of extensive anti-Israeli incitement among Palestinians is generally kept off television screens. But ultimately, Israel is presented as by far the more guilty party. Not only is its population driven by a lust for revenge but its government perpetuates a “cycle of violence” through “disproportionate responses” and, most importantly of all, occupation and settlements.

To be fair to the Times, part of the focus on Israeli social media habits was driven by the fact that Justice Minister Tzipi Livni decided to turn this into an issue of national—and now international—concern. Perhaps she will be successful in these efforts to ensure Israelis only use social media for politically correct purposes from now on. Just so long as no one thinks that the next time Israelis are kidnapped or killed, there won’t still be rejoicing on the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of the other side.

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Obama’s Coalition of the Willing

The Barack Obama policy of bringing the war in Iraq to a “responsible end” can be summed up as follows: He pulled U.S. troops out of a largely pacified Iraq before he sent them back into a warring Iraq, where they will ultimately give a boost to America’s assorted foes. At Business Insider, Armin Rosen writes: “The U.S.’s deployment of attack helicopters to Iraq for possible use against ISIS doesn’t prove that Washington is explicitly assisting Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran in their regional ambitions, which have had such a disruptive effect on the post-Arab Spring Middle East. But that may be the likeliest effect of the U.S. joining the fight in Iraq on the side of Russia, Syria, and Iran.”

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The Barack Obama policy of bringing the war in Iraq to a “responsible end” can be summed up as follows: He pulled U.S. troops out of a largely pacified Iraq before he sent them back into a warring Iraq, where they will ultimately give a boost to America’s assorted foes. At Business Insider, Armin Rosen writes: “The U.S.’s deployment of attack helicopters to Iraq for possible use against ISIS doesn’t prove that Washington is explicitly assisting Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran in their regional ambitions, which have had such a disruptive effect on the post-Arab Spring Middle East. But that may be the likeliest effect of the U.S. joining the fight in Iraq on the side of Russia, Syria, and Iran.”

Not exactly George W. Bush’s Multi-National Force—Iraq, is it? But Obama certainly has a coalition of the willing. Rosen quotes Michael Doran on our bumbling assist to bad regimes: “If you want to build up a non-jihadi Sunni force that is capable of commanding loyalty from people on the ground then you have to fight Assad and push against Iran, and you push back against ISIS and Iran at the same time. If you’re just fighting ISIS then you’re building an Iranian security system in the region.”

Obama employs dangerous half measures and sells them as prudence. He narrowed the war on terror to a fight against “core al-Qaeda,” and so a potpourri of new jihad groups exploded across the Middle East and Africa. He “led from behind” in Libya, where a weapons flea market sprouted up and Americans got killed. With his new half measures in Iraq, Iranian security will be backed by American military might, which in turn aids Bashar Assad, whose Syria is also partners with a rising Russia. The United States is no longer merely creating a global power vacuum. It’s filling it back up with an alliance of our enemies.

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Mitt Romney or “Mitt Romney”: How Buyer’s Remorse Works

Former Mitt Romney campaign advisor Emil Henry makes an impassioned plea for renominating his old boss in 2016 in Politico Magazine. He knows that such a suggestion will be controversial, so it’s fitting that he–or his editors, more likely–subheadlined the piece “I’m absolutely serious.” The question, though, is whether the lessons of 2012 and the following years would lead the GOP to choose Mitt Romney or “Mitt Romney.” It is a choice between copying the 2012 GOP nominee’s homework vs. renominating the man himself.

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Former Mitt Romney campaign advisor Emil Henry makes an impassioned plea for renominating his old boss in 2016 in Politico Magazine. He knows that such a suggestion will be controversial, so it’s fitting that he–or his editors, more likely–subheadlined the piece “I’m absolutely serious.” The question, though, is whether the lessons of 2012 and the following years would lead the GOP to choose Mitt Romney or “Mitt Romney.” It is a choice between copying the 2012 GOP nominee’s homework vs. renominating the man himself.

Henry begins by spelling out the challenge of losing a presidential election and then not only winning the nomination again but winning the general election as well. (The model is Nixon.) Henry breaks down the case for Romney into three categories:

  • Romney is re-emerging as the de facto leader of the Republican Party.
  • There is no natural 2016 GOP nominee and the field is highly fractured.
  • All failed nominees other than Romney were career politicians.

Does Romney qualify as someone who isn’t a “career politician”? I can see both sides of this debate. The other two claims seem to me arguments against Romney, if anything. His “re-emergence” as the de facto leader of the party is really his re-emergence as a respected figure of the establishment–an establishment which so happens to be locked in a rather nasty public battle with the party’s conservative grassroots.

In that context, a Romney nomination is unthinkable. Romney was really the last of the “next in liners” with regard to the party’s nominating process. His loss was the end of turn taking and the beginning of the party’s turn to its next generation.

And that brings us to the second point. The field is “highly fractured” not out of weakness but strength. The field of possible 2016 candidates is far more dynamic and in line with the party’s emerging identity than the 2012 field. Romney was preferable even to many conservatives over Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum. It’s doubtful the same would be said for Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Pence, or Bobby Jindal.

There are times when an elder statesman is the appropriate candidate. There’s a much stronger case for a Romney candidacy without the Romney, however. The case for Romney is really about buyer’s remorse–it would be the GOP telling the electorate “we told you so.” But as Henry himself intimates, the electorate doesn’t actually need to be told that. The buyer’s remorse is real, and it’s because they realize now that voting for the birth-control-and-Big-Bird candidate was a fairly irresponsible thing to do.

Barack Obama tends to run extremely shallow campaigns. Manufactured war on women controversies and episodes of messianic self-love are usually all you get. But the electorate seems to have assumed that the ideas would come later–that, at some point, Obama would think seriously about the issues of the day, end the perpetual campaign, and start governing. What they got instead was grade-school name calling. On foreign policy, his dithering and disastrous “leading from behind” led to chaos and disintegrating borders. The response of the international community to this was predictable. No one takes Obama seriously, and his diplomatic endeavors have mostly been laughed out of the room.

What they reasonably hoped was that this would stop after Obama’s reelection, when he had no more elections ahead of him. They have learned the hard way the president had no such intentions. Thus their buyer’s remorse is pretty strong, but also much less relevant to 2016. Just because they wish someone else had won in 2012 doesn’t mean they would prefer Romney to someone who isn’t Obama in a future election. Buyer’s remorse doesn’t really work that way.

But they do have an understanding of the consequences of the president’s world view, and it happens not to be too different from the presumptive 2016 Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. She was, after all, the president’s secretary of state, who managed the Russian “reset,” ignored some allies while haranguing others, and presided over the light-footprint model of state intervention that resulted in the death of an American ambassador in Libya.

It turned out that Romney was right about a whole lot, both on domestic policy and especially foreign policy. Perhaps that’s the road map future candidates will follow: not to mimic all of Romney’s policy prescriptions, but to concentrate on where and why he was right and how polling shows these areas to be weaknesses for the current ruling Democrats. That doesn’t mean they’d need to run Mitt Romney in order to make those arguments, but does explain why we’re having this conversation to begin with.

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The Obama Presidency Unravels

The Obama presidency has unraveled. The man who liberal political commentators once said was the rhetorical match of Lincoln is now considered by one-third of Americans to be the worst president since World War II, according to a new Quinnipiac University National Poll. (The span covers 69 years of American history and 12 presidencies.) The same poll found that 45 percent of Americans say the nation would be better off if Mitt Romney had won the 2012 presidential election, while only 38 percent say the country would be worse off.

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The Obama presidency has unraveled. The man who liberal political commentators once said was the rhetorical match of Lincoln is now considered by one-third of Americans to be the worst president since World War II, according to a new Quinnipiac University National Poll. (The span covers 69 years of American history and 12 presidencies.) The same poll found that 45 percent of Americans say the nation would be better off if Mitt Romney had won the 2012 presidential election, while only 38 percent say the country would be worse off.

Another poll–this one from the Gallup organization–finds that in his sixth year of office, the level of confidence in Mr. Obama’s presidency is 29 percent. That’s lower than at a comparable point for any of his predecessors.

But the president’s problem isn’t polling data; it’s objective conditions. While recent job reports have been somewhat encouraging, the deeper trends of the economy remain quite troubling. In the first quarter of this year, for example, the economy contracted by nearly 3 percent (the largest contraction in a non-recession in more than 40 years). Illegal immigrants are surging across the border, with more than 52,000 unaccompanied children detained since October.

The Supreme Court just handed the president a series of battering setbacks. “This has been an awful ten days,” the liberal but independent-minded law professor Jonathan Turley said. “[The Obama administration was] previously found to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment and privacy. Then they were found to be in violation of the separation of powers. And now they have been found to be in violation of the First Amendment and the religion clauses. I mean, you just don’t want to get out of bed after a week like that.”

This all came after IRS Commissioner John Koskinen not only failed to contain the damage from the growing IRS scandal; he made things worse. Even prominent Democrats conceded Mr. Koskinen’s hearings on Capitol Hill were disastrous. An overwhelming majority of Americans (76 percent) believe the IRS deliberately destroyed emails; nearly as many (74 percent) want Congress to continue to investigate the scandal. The IRS scandal shouldn’t be confused with the scandal plaguing the VA, which I’ve written about elsewhere. And the president’s signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is, and is widely considered to be, a failure.

Let’s now shift our focus to events overseas.

The president whose foreign-policy doctrine is “we don’t do stupid s***” looks to have done plenty of it. America is now essentially a bystander while the richest and arguably most dangerous terrorist organization in the world is establishing control over large parts of Iraq and Syria. Iraq itself is breaking apart, thanks in good measure to Mr. Obama’s complete withdrawal of American troops in 2011. Syria is being consumed by a devastating civil war. (Mr. Obama, having previously mocked those who several years ago wanted to support opposition forces in Syria, is now doing just that, though by now the aid may be too little too late.) Jordan, having absorbed some 600,000 refugees from Syria, fears destabilization. The Egyptian government is conducting a brutal crackdown. Iran and Russia are extending their influence in the region. The Obama administration’s second-term effort to produce a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians (within nine months!) was folly from the start. The situation is actually getting worse, with violent clashes escalating. Our allies in the Middle East are not only unnerved; they have given up confidence that the president is at all reliable.

But let’s not stop there. The situation in Afghanistan is worsening. Libya, rapidly deteriorating, is becoming a terrorist haven. In Asia, according to the New York Times, “China and its growing military are mounting a serious challenge to the regional dominance of the United States and its allies.” Violence is resurging in Ukraine, with Vladimir Putin warning earlier this week that he reserves the right to use force to defend Russian-speaking citizens there, an argument he used before he annexed Crimea. (The Obama administration has refused Ukraine’s request for military aid and intelligence to defend itself. We have, however, supplied the Ukrainian armed forces with ready-to-eat meals, in case they get hungry battling the Russian military.)

The president has varying degrees of complicity in what has gone wrong in the world. In some cases he bears considerable responsibility; in other cases not. But it was Mr. Obama, not his critics, who pledged to “remake the world” and to “heal the planet”; who promised to usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world that would “help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East.” It’s certainly reasonable to hold the president accountable to the standards he set and to the promises he made. As Obama himself said in the 2008 campaign, “words mean something.”

All of this presents a rather fascinating psychological case study. In the face of challenges and failure, some of us get better and some of us get worse. In this instance, the president’s worst tendencies are being amplified.

Among other things, Mr. Obama is becoming increasingly petty and petulant. In recent days he’s complained that Republicans “don’t do anything except block me. And call me names.” He’s taken to deriding the Speaker of the House by saying, “So sue me.” Instead of self-reflection, then, we are getting self-pity.

The president also appears to be growing more insular and isolated, exasperated that his greatness isn’t fully recognized by the rest of us. He’s increasingly disappointed that this nation and the world don’t conform to his wishes and ways. Frustrated by our constitutional system of checks and balances, Mr. Obama, the good progressive that he is, has decided he’ll simply ignore them. He wants what he wants.

The unraveling of his presidency is something Mr. Obama is having a great deal of difficulty processing. We have as president a man who is dogmatic, arrogant, vexed, increasingly embittered and feeling under siege.

This won’t end well.

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Time to Eliminate Visa Waivers?

I’ve written here before about some of the far-flung ramifications of the civil war in Syria spinning out of control. For example, Poles last month speculated that terrorists and militants holding European passports returning from Syria could strike soft targets across the Schengen Zone, those countries in Europe who have dismantled their customs and border checks effectively meaning entrance to one is entrance to them all. The result of that, of course, would be the end of the Schengen agreement and the return of passport checks at national borders.

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I’ve written here before about some of the far-flung ramifications of the civil war in Syria spinning out of control. For example, Poles last month speculated that terrorists and militants holding European passports returning from Syria could strike soft targets across the Schengen Zone, those countries in Europe who have dismantled their customs and border checks effectively meaning entrance to one is entrance to them all. The result of that, of course, would be the end of the Schengen agreement and the return of passport checks at national borders.

Alas, the threat of European citizen terrorists will not be limited to Europe. Today, security has been ramped up for international flights heading to the United States because of credible threats of new terrorism using explosives not readily detectable by current screening technologies. The Syrian conflict is exacerbating the problem: Recently, a British citizen who has joined the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham has posted a video bragging about the explosives training he has received in Syria and boasted that he would soon bring that know-how home.

Airlines are doing the usual ramping up of screenings and interviewing passengers, and press reports also suggest that American officials will fly to European airports to supervise screening of passengers and baggage.

If the threat is increasingly not only the potential for harder-to-detect explosives, but also the passport holders who might carry them, perhaps it’s time to bite the bullet and eliminate visa waivers. That would result in reciprocal action by mainly European countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.

That does not mean that all embassies need to be flooded with applicants, but rather that the United States can begin applying more of an Australian model in which everyone must apply for a visa electronically so that their names and information can be passed through applicable databases. True, the State Department and Department of Homeland Security have the Electronic System of Travel Authorization, but that is simply a preliminary system to confirm visa waiver applicability. While it reserves the right to deny anyone entrance at the U.S. border, if anyone has malicious intent when boarding an airplane, waiting until they land is too late to offset a “man-made disaster.”

The visa system isn’t sacrosanct. There is much that is wrong with it and almost everyone, inside or out, sees the need for reform. That may be too much a job to do for a secretary of state who believes effectiveness is measured in frequent flyer miles and, like former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, ignore their executive responsibility to manage and reform the bureaucracies over which they preside. Rather than uphold the blanket right for countries with shifting demographics and a growing radicalism problem to have their citizens have the right to visa waivers, perhaps it’s time for increased preliminary screenings. It’s not too much of a hurdle for non-American travelers to apply directly online for a visa (so long as the interface isn’t designed by the good folks who brought us healthcare.gov) and potentially be informed of the need for a follow-up interview. It’s also not too much of a hurdle for Americans to then deal with applying for visas ahead of time should those countries insist on reciprocity.

Once again, the ramifications and reverberations of President Obama’s indecisiveness three years ago regarding the crisis in Syria grow. But given the impact of the president’s decisions—or lack thereof—countering the growing terror threat by Syrian-trained European passport holders is worth the price.

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The Jobs Report

The employment picture brightened somewhat in June, with 288,000 new jobs (up from a revised 224,000 in May) and a decline in the unemployment rate to 6.1 percent from 6.3. That’s the lowest unemployment rate since August 2008, on the eve of the financial crisis. We have now had job growth above 200,000 for the last five months, the first time that has happened since the very prosperous years of the late 1990s. The number of long-term unemployed (over 27 weeks) declined by 293,000. Unemployment among African-Americans fell from 11.5 percent to 10.7.

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The employment picture brightened somewhat in June, with 288,000 new jobs (up from a revised 224,000 in May) and a decline in the unemployment rate to 6.1 percent from 6.3. That’s the lowest unemployment rate since August 2008, on the eve of the financial crisis. We have now had job growth above 200,000 for the last five months, the first time that has happened since the very prosperous years of the late 1990s. The number of long-term unemployed (over 27 weeks) declined by 293,000. Unemployment among African-Americans fell from 11.5 percent to 10.7.

But the picture was not all bright. The number of involuntary part-time workers increased by 275,000. Teenage unemployment increased to 21 percent. Among black teenagers it was a horrendous 33.4 percent, up from 31.1 percent in May. One in three black teenagers in the labor force are unemployed. The participation rate stayed steady at 62.8 percent for the third month in a row. But that is down from a year ago, when it was 64 percent and way down from before the recession. So much of the drop in unemployment came from people dropping out of the labor force, not finding jobs.

And many of the new jobs were at the low end of the pay scale. While retail jobs increased by 40,000 and leisure and hospitality 39,000, higher-paying jobs in manufacturing (16,000) and construction (6,000) were far fewer.

So while the news is good, it is not unalloyed good. We’ll know we are finally in a full-fledged recovery when the participation rate begins to climb steadily as discouraged workers see more opportunity and begin looking for jobs. That might send the unemployment rate up at first, but that, paradoxically, would actually be good news.

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Religious Freedom Should Be Foreign-Policy Priority

Reports from Western China suggest that the Chinese government has demanded the local Muslim population cease fasting during Ramadan. While the New York Times’s Tom Friedman and other columnists may sing the Chinese dictatorship’s praises, little marks tyranny as much as repression of religious freedom. China takes it to a new level when they demand people eat who otherwise have refrained from eating during the day. Government overreach is pretty clear when it seeks to dictate when to eat and when not to.

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Reports from Western China suggest that the Chinese government has demanded the local Muslim population cease fasting during Ramadan. While the New York Times’s Tom Friedman and other columnists may sing the Chinese dictatorship’s praises, little marks tyranny as much as repression of religious freedom. China takes it to a new level when they demand people eat who otherwise have refrained from eating during the day. Government overreach is pretty clear when it seeks to dictate when to eat and when not to.

Too often diplomats whitewash adversaries in order to make diplomacy easier. Easier diplomacy, however, isn’t necessarily more effective, especially if it does not reflect reality. It never makes sense to gear U.S. policy to what diplomats wish an adversary would be rather than what it actually is. Realism shouldn’t mean blind diplomacy with enemies; it should instead require dealing with reality.

While religious freedom may not seem a paramount U.S. national-security interest at first glance, it is perhaps the greatest window into the character and sincerity of any regime. The purpose of diplomacy is to change behavior. Governments can easily promise concessions on nuclear weapons, other conventional weaponry, ballistic missile programs, or terrorism. Often they lie, knowing American diplomats would rather cover for their lies than risk talks collapsing. A close study of diplomacy with rogues and adversaries suggest that respect for religious freedom can be correlated directly to those states’ and groups’ willingness to adhere to their other negotiated agreements.

Religious freedom, however, is easy to monitor. It may not substitute for other issues of more immediate national-security concern, but it is a barometer of sincerity and a metric for more substantive change among the states which most often threaten international order. Perhaps if religious freedom and individual liberty are to remain part of the American brand, no U.S. administration or American diplomat should be shy about standing up for either.

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